Saturday, December 18, 2010

The GOP Rhetorical Shocks

We have all just lived through another round of political rhetoric that says "free markets = free people" and tax cuts will hamper the governments ability to interfere with our lives.

I recommend all those interested in this issue read Naomi Wolf's fine work "The Shock Doctrine" and give context to the philosophical desire of post-Reagan republicans to erase the Keynesian policies of FDR and institute a pure free market based on the economic theories of Milton Friedman.

There is a specific aim within this philosophy which is to have financial power gravitate to a specific class so as to mitigate the social variability that occurs when free people elect leaders who advocate for political systems that sometimes oppose capital markets (e.g. see Pinochet and the Chilean Coup).

This is not some high school rift where the GOP are simply playground bullies looking to beat up the poorer classes nor is it a virtuous strategy to "trickle down" wealth.

It is a considered policy position with a philosophy that says capital markets will be more stable and advantageous to a small investing class of people IF government is made impotent.

It is true of economics and a case can be made for this with economic theory but our political philosophy is not consonant with it.

We are a country that grew out of the virtues set forth by the enlightenment. Enlightenment principles protect the individual against unquestioned, superstitious authority (then, it was Divine Command religion, today it is the presumed benevolent hand of Free Markets) and the only goal and aim of Republicans wanting an "American Dream" is plutocracy, not democracy.

Democracy is messy and does not help pro-forma estimates.

Who are you going to trust to make your decisions for you, a mindless institution known as the corporation (which has already been given civil rights protection by The Supreme Court) or the self-determination of your vote? That's what it comes down to.

If one sides with the GOP then you side with the superstition that there is an external agency which will grant you all the freedom your comfort desires (e.g. "We get another $1000, yipee") but if you oppose their corporatist agenda then you live the promise our self-determined constitution offers, a free mind to think of what you wish to be.

I'm so sick and tired of the GOP rhetoric that asserts prosperity will be distributed to all if we seek de-regulation for corporations and increased barriers to working people's ownership of their labor. It hasn't worked. We've become less stable, less equitable and less intelligent over the last 30 years.

The middle class was a creation of FDR's progressive policies. The only consequence of Free Market principles is a ruling class and an oppressed class.

And before you slip into ad hominem and consider my perspective that of some Marxist hippie, I am an MBA who is a Vice President of a corporation.

I will be quite comfortable and provided for within a plutocracy but the idea of democratic freedom will become obsolete.

That is what we are living in and I'm sick of the rhetoric.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas is Pagan Fun

My friend Pat Foltz asked me recently how I am navigating Christmas now that I am a full-fledged apostate and my wife still enjoys belief.

We are doing well. We haven't put up or decorated our tree because Jackie and Griffin will be heading down to Richmond, VA this weekend to assist Jackie's mom who is receiving treatment for cancer and needs help to remind her to rest. I will be following on the 23rd so the effort to decorate seemed lost on us.

The heart of Pat's question however is not concerned with secular obligations but rather religious significance.

I don't know how to answer because even when I was a believer I never took Christmas as serious Christianity. It didn't feel like the rest of what being a Roman Catholic Christian felt like. The distraction of gifts, Rankin-Bass specials and school-breaks drained the occasion of the guilt thrust upon us at weekly Mass and monthly Penance.

I don't know when it was when I decided that the manger story wasn't true but I think it must have been when I was about 13 because it was that time I started to think about what I might be when I grew up.

Being "grown up" was when people were out of college and were around thirty years old so I thought it strange that when Jesus was about that age the Kings that came to honor him at his birth wouldn't get ticked off at Pontius Pilate and come back to keep the savior from being crucified. Why shouldn't they come sweeping down from the hills like Han Solo at the end of Star Wars and rescue Jesus unless the "Away in the Manger" story was not really real.

I mean they gave him gold right so why wouldn't they step in and tell Pilate to back off.

When I was about 13 I also started thinking about sex, a lot, and the idea of Mary being a virgin seemed stupid. It seemed like a bad punishment that not only did she have to give birth but she would never be able to have sex afterward because she gave birth and we as good Catholics should find this mutilation somehow good.

I also knew that when I grew up I wanted to be a comic book writer and when I considered the baby Jesus story it seemed more like one of the comic book origin stories I knew rather than anything we might have learned in history class.

Christmas has never been as serious or real as it's seasonal counterpart, the Easter story, and the rational narrative forced by Good Friday's Stations of the Cross. Noel is a gauzy holiday that allows for fantasy and desire.

I think the religiosity of this time never seems to have lost the essence of the pagan holiday Saturnalia it appropriated and that tradition's aim to force lawlessness as celebration. Saturnalia was the winter break the pagans practiced with unashamed gluttony and when the early Christians were making their pitch to get converts they enticed the masses by telling them they could keep this holiday due to the fact the savior was born at the same time (you can almost here Sarah Palin interrupting an orgy with her patented "dontcha know" as punctuation to this fabrication).

I think the spirits of Saturnalia still live in Christmas and why the holy day distances itself from the either/or tribalism associated with Christianity's central themes of sin, death and Hell. No matter how much Bill O'Reilly jeers at the war against Christmas what he doesn't get is that the season's essence is pagan, not Christian, and any overt focus on Christianity diminishes the holiday's purpose. And its why I think I still enjoy going to church during this time and singing all of the religious songs ("Do you Hear what I Hear" is fun because of the echo effect in it and "The Little Drummer Boy" has a cool melody against a rhythmic friction).

Christian theology is of course immoral. The idea that we are born sick and need to take responsibility for a human sacrifice to be cured is incoherent. But Christmas exempts itself from these themes. It tells us that we should celebrate our lives amidst the death of the deep winter (especially those of us who dwell in the American Mid-west) and that it is more than okay to indulge our appetites and wants.

Christmas as a profound anti-Christian tradition can be evidenced by the fact the New England Puritans rejected Christmas and refused to celebrate it because the day was a threat to the biblical traditions they embraced. They saw no scriptural justification for it and defined it as idolatry. I think they were correct. Christmas isn't about Christianity and it's why I find the holiday joyful.

This year we get to introduce Griffin to Christmas while we celebrate his Mom Mom's gradual recovery from cancer and these things seem consonant with the feeling of life I've always equated with the holiday.

So, this Christmas I will sing in full-throat the joy of the season while possibly being defined a hypocrite by my more pure Christian friends. The pagan in me however will be in harmony with the pre-Christian seasonal belief that life matters because of the living and it can't be enhanced by dwelling on death.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Gratitude of Apostasy: A Testimony

I never intended this blog to become another atheist report from the culture war front. And I never intended to piss anyone off. It has become a first-person report on belief and I've hurt the sensibilities of old friends and colleagues. I'm not disappointed with these consequences. I find them invigorating and I've taught myself that popularity is less sustainable than being skeptical when truth claims are asserted.

And I hoped to start writing as a way of showing my ability to think with expectation that future employers might consider me a good idea guy.

What has happened is that I've lost my faith and I think most employers would read this and be afraid that talking to me would resemble a journalistic interview with Bob Dylan from "Don't Look Back".

My original intention was to write as a way of reporting on my confusion. My hope was that if I expose my inner life on the 'net I would wrestle with it myself and become more conscious. I've discovered that much of my confusion has been driven by my willingness to compartmentalize my mind as a way of keeping popular truth commitments a "live option".

The most shocking thing I discovered is the evidence for my default arguments were thin yet my instinct would default to them. Inviting evidence has humbled me and made me change my mind.

I started writing as a professing Christian and free-market capitalist but challenging my preconceptions has led me to obtain with comfort a Christian Atheist theology in the Altzizer/Price tradition and Democratic Socialism in the European tradition.

Owning up to these ideas frightens me because I can hear the shouts of friends and family (and my instinctive former self) but the evidence I've examined thus far makes them more reasonable. I might change my mind again if new evidence is presented. What I experience with believers in god or free-markets however are not evidence based arguments but appeals to outrage or emotion. And I don't like those choices. They are manipulative and bullying.

I have been told I seem fickle, crazy or mean.

Many friends who wish to assert intimacy announce to me that, "I don't read your blog because it angers me," and I'm amazed that they don't comprehend the consequence of that statement. If you don't like what I write here then you don't like my honest ideas and if that is the case then it might be more honest to admit that we have little in common. While we might be friendly with one another we don't have the mutual respect to assert intimacy with anything other than nostalgia and good-will.

I find, now that popularity is not my ambition, basing my free time in nostalgia and good-will is unsatisfying.

The good news is that humans have evolved to be social animals where ideas are sustenance and many psychological ecosystems exist to feed the mind.

While old friends wrestle with their own ideas and battle with their own confusion relative to my desire to be expressive and have announced their disappointment with me or have drifted away, I've found new friendships.

Some smart men and women have read my comments here or on sites like Common Sense Atheism and Debunking Christianity and have introduced themselves.

They've shown kindness and empathy. It feels good just like kindness and empathy felt good when I would "go along to get along" in my MBA or Mega-church but now the good feeling is founded on a commitment to reason, not popularity.

Yesterday one of these folks extended his hand in friendship and since we live in the same metropolitan area we are hoping to meet up.

I'd like to share here what I wrote to him. It is not meant as argument but rather exposition in the tradition of Christian testimony. It seems honest and a necessary piece of information to provide context with my direct criticisms of religion and the American exceptional philosophy bound by Capitalism.

So as a Thanksgiving post I provide my apostate testimony as an act of gratitude that I've come to like myself by knowing my mind.


I was raised Roman Catholic but left the faith in my early twenties and started seeking a more satisfying spirituality. I experienced a bit of Buddhism, 12-step-recovery (both for my drinking and the abuse I suffered at the hands of my parents' drinking) finally drifting into the Mega-church movement in 2003. I was taken by the contemporary nature of the Willow Creek style service and loved the people. I also began using my creativity within the church, leading drama ministry and teaching acting techniques to lay-people so we could put on dramatic pieces as augmentation to the Gospel message.

I never investigated the truth claims made in Church and instead used Christianity as a more universal form of "self-help". I didn't care if the historical assertions, ontological arguments or biblical criticism were sound and true, my loneliness was lifted and people were nice so, I started to tip-toe towards an Evangelical apologetic disposition.

I met my wife on-line and our shared Christianity motivated our courtship. She's beautiful, smart, kind and courageous so, I thought this was more miraculous evidence that I was "saved" (because I am not all that handsome and can be kind of a jerk).

Once married, we attended her church, an Evangelical Free denomination that practices expository preaching.

I had never surrendered to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy until then and had never read the bible in context with a narrative exegesis.

The fundamental presentation made me start questioning if the the book was inspired or if it was just myth.

The inanity of the scripture and the inability to confront these oddities by the small group we attended frightened me that I had duped myself into believing that a good feeling equaled a verifiable truth.

I also went through a job crisis around this time and suffered a depressive break which landed me in the hospital and diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder/depressive disorder leading to medication.

As I started dealing with my mood disorder I started seeing the placebo effect religion had in helping me navigate it earlier.

I also saw how this was a choice to modulate my biology and therefore I questioned the spiritual presuppositions I took away from the experiences I had.

I was concerned that Christianity was no different than other cultural artifacts that can engender feeling but were not evidence of anything other than our ability to think about a material world (e.g. theater, music, sports).

This concern coincided with behavior I faced that left me confused.

I had a former bible-study leader assert to me after election day 2008 she knew Barack Obama was a Muslim terrorist because "Jesus, told her in her morning quiet time."

I had another leader from a church I once attended and the father of a good friend of mine send me a word document via email exposing Barack Obama as the anti-Christ with detailed descriptions how President Obama has broken each of the Ten Commandments.

I engaged in an intense conversation with an Elder from our E-Free Church and his wife regarding the Intelligent Design conspiracy (they both are ID supporters) and was encouraged to investigate the literature on ID and the arguments of William Lane Craig.

I did both.

I discovered that the Discovery Institute is a theocratic organization whose aim is not science but politics and I was disgusted by the self-serving nature Judeo-Christian belief could engender.

My bias towards religion as delusion was deepened when I read Craig's debates and found his culture insular and his scholarship arrogant.

His debate with Bart Ehrman led me to investigate Dr. Ehrman's writing which led me to Debunking Christianity, Common Sense Atheism, Robert Price, The New Atheists and now a desire for critical thought and honest discourse.

I empathize with what sounds like loneliness in your journey. I've felt it too. It has made me angry and my anger has been complicated by the frustration that who I thought were my friends may have only earned that title due to a shallow definition of friendship I embraced as a way of elevating the endorphins Christian worship produced.

Peace to you and thanks for reaching out. I don't feel so alone.

Be good to yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Agora: Skeptical Inquiry murdered by Religious Certainty

I watched Agora last night per the recommendation of Lukeprog at Common Sense Atheism and John Loftus at Debunking Christianity and loved it. It was cool that the film-maker showed Hypatia's failed attempts at a theory of celestial movement against the certainty of the religious. Her scholarship led to personal accountability and private inquiry while the religious assertions and need for power led to her murder. And yes Christian, this is a true story and was the way Christianity spread; by violence and anti-intellectual authority. There is no humility in the holy's assertions but their piety is a pretense to it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The steady honesty of Atheists

My blog roll features blogs I read on a daily basis. One of them, Why Evolution is True is written by University of Chicago Professor Jerry Coyne. His honesty in laying out the debate between faith and atheism relative to science and evidence has helped inform my atheism. A noted Christian who happens to be a scientist (Karl Giberson) has devoted most his time criticizing Dr. Coyne at BioLogos (the alternative to the Discovery Institute established to ameliorate the tension between Francis Collins' scientific and Evangelical Christian sides) and The Huffington Post.

Dr. Coyne does not shy away from the criticisms and I love his intelligence and spunk. His latest blog response to Dr. Giberson's work and what seems like the continued practice of accent fallacies is quite good.

The money quote from Dr. Coyne,
"But to many atheists, the middle ground is not a “reasonable” position. It enables superstition, thereby denigrating or watering down true science (example: the fine-tuning and humans-are-inevitable arguments, and the NCSE’s refusal to admit that evolution is “unguided”). And accommodationism provides tacit approval and support for all the bad stuff that’s done in the name of faith"

Why I am not a Republican: Stupidity

80% of Republicans view Sarah Palin as a viable Presidential candidate. This despite her inability to finish her term as Governor, ignorance on how the Fed works or the nature of economic data, or a personal sense of any Supreme Court decision.

I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal but when a majority of a party has momentum in this direction I need to step aside and let them speed past. I fear they are heading towards a cliff. I hope they don't take the rest of our country with them.

A child molester I knew is dead

The Detroit Free Press has a story today on the Detroit Archdiocese's difficult in dealing with clerics convicted of sex abuse. The featured priest used as illustration of clerical alienation is a man I knew, Fr. Ron Williams.

Fr. Ron was an attending priest at my grade-school and was Chaplain of my High School. He also enabled the alcoholic drinking of me and my friends in our teens by throwing beer bashes in the rectory where he served and he sexually accosted a good friend of mine.

His crime against my friend was the trigger point for his demise.

My friend brought charges against Fr. Ron when the priest was going to be instituted as Chaplain of the Michigan State Police. My friend having been raised as an orphan by his Detroit Police Officer aunt and uncle chose to lean on his legal sense of right and wrong and protect future victims from a man who had a badge and was a sexual criminal. He wanted to protect potential future victims who might fall prey to Fr. Ron's authority. He did something the Roman Catholic Church still can't bring themselves to do. He admitted the truth and pursued legal protection to preserve a safer society for his fellow human beings.

Fr. Ron's first reaction was to call me at college and plead his case saying that he was a double victim to society's standards because he was both black and homosexual. He wanted me to denounce my friend's testimony. I didn't do that but, I didn't stand by my friend either. I chastised my friend for his action and tried to defend Fr. Ron as a person. I realize in hind-sight that I was not seeking a moral argument. I was defending the Catholic Church because it was how I was raised. I was raised to defend the institution. What my friend chose to do was moral and good and what I chose to do in seeking to shame him for his betrayal of the power I knew was wrong.

This story helps shape my belief that all religions are false and that they provide inferior ethics. My personal choice was to accommodate the authority of religion rather than the truth of action and I deepened the wounds my abused friend had suffered. I can no longer do this and it is one of the reasons why I am so outspoken against the pragmatic arguments for religion people make in denouncing crimes that religion enjoys while defending their personal enjoyment of practicing and defending the religion.

The cliche I most often hear when I assert my belief that religion is an institution that enables evil is that, "I shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water." I understand the position because I once held it and applied it to a young man who had to suffer the pain of alienation from a priest who abused his father-figure status. I feel shame when I remember my choice and recognize it as a defense of authority because I believed that authority would keep me safe regardless of the unjustifiable position that authority had proven as evidenced by the victim I was admonishing.

Fr. Ron is dead and his death has further illustrations to the crimes committed by church authority (his abandonment by the Archdiocese, the Vatican's unwillingness to involve civil law for their own self-protection keeping Fr. Ron from the mental health-care he needed) but my shame is still alive and I hope it never leaves me because I never want to ignore the pain of an individual for the sake of securing religion's authority.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The word God is the product of human weakness

As an addendum to my appreciation of the need for numinous feeling (e.g. "god"). I found this letter from Einstein illuminating. So many religious, especially Christians, want to ground their belief in truth citing Einstein's intelligence and his use of the word "god" in certain writing as evidence their belief is a product of critical thought. Not so, the money quote for me:

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish . . . I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things."

Join me in proclaiming your Holy Evidentialist nature

I've really pissed people off with my willingness to "come out of the closet" as an atheist. I've confirmed this week the loss of a couple of friends due to what seems their Roman Catholic commitment and the discomfort my outspoken disbelief brings. One friend said that my criticisms of the current Pope's collusion to child rape seems like I am shouting in his face that his mother is a whore. I don't understand the accusation and an atheist I respect said, "Well if his mother is a whore, it isn't your fault." (I think it's reasonable to make that moral assignation with the Catholic institution based on the evidence we have).

It is a tough realization to see friendships driven by nostalgia rather than shared values but that isn't the most startling thing I've discovered in my new atheism. The most startling thing is the willingness of the religious to shape their belief with a subjectivism that seems to put them in very close proximity to atheism.

The most common response to the assertion that I am an atheist is that others could never be because they just have to believe.

When I say that my perspective is driven by a lack of real evidence to the character the religious claim in god, the response is that a person doesn't need evidence because they "feel" god is real.

I can respect the psychological draw to the numinous but doubt that these devoted "feelers" deny the power of evidence in the rest of their lives. In fact, the evidence of my worth to them in my actions keeps me as a respected and moral person despite the doctrinal commitments their faith demands to see me guilty of eternal sin or, at least, as Matthew 10:14 says, covered in the dust from their feet.

But that isn't the case. Most believers still like and respect me (except for the aforementioned Catholic friends who see my honesty about my disbelief as a source of persecution).

It seems that the rule of evidence the Enlightnement gave us as a gift IS a respected value of god believers but isn't applied with my level of incredulity or skepticism. And that little application seems the only difference between their religiosity and my atheism.

So, I would like to call a truce and invite all subjective believers who want to believe in their feelings of god yet still respect my moral ground (in opposition of their religion's doctrinal commitments) to join my church of St. Evidence of the Numinous where we can all be Holy Evidentialists. I allow you to believe your god is real because you "feel" the need to believe that belief and as long as your need to "feel" this belief doesn't lead you to conclude that those who don't share your "feeling" will be tortured for eternity or are enemies of the imagined person you believe to be true or claim your "feeling" should apply to everyone then, you can join me in proclaiming your Holy Evidentialist nature.

For everyone else, your mother is a whore.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Human Faces of God (A Review)

American's Biblical literalism has a shocking burliness. Gallup reported in 2007 that 1/3 of Americans believed that the bible is literally true. The strength of this hermeneutic increases when the 47% of people believing the bible is "Inspired by the Word of God" is factored. The unquestioned authority among Americans of the bible becomes 78% believing that the book is a literal document or has its authorship in an invisible deity.

This is an unsettling statistic since archeology, the critical-historical method, Radiocarbon dating, The Burgess Shale, and philosophy of religion offer reasonable defeaters to this claim and provide evidence to consider the minority position the bible is, "Ancient fables, histories and legends recorded by man".

We see consequences of biblical literalism in obvious public positions against the idea that legal protections should be afforded by all people both in history's record (with slavery) and today's headlines (opposition to gay marriage) and in more subtle positions where Christian Zionists oppose a two-state solution because the eschaton of Revelation demands a hegemonic Israel prior to King Jesus's Millennial reign.

Biblical literalists will graft themselves to their tradition as the only viable morality because the bible confirms that their literal belief in the bible is true. This of course is circular reasoning and illogical but, the biblical literalist will rest in appeals to authority found in their community. The most onerous of these community pillars is the tradition of biblical inerrancy articulated in the Chicago Statement formulated in 1978 by Evangelicals frightened that their moral authority would be displaced by liberal interpretations of scripture being considered in the face of scientific evidence and progressive political policies (e.g. The Feminist Movement).

The opening paragraph of its preface exposes the attachment to authority and controlling obsession with obedience Evangelicals seem to need for emotional and psychological balance,
"The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God's written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority."
Thom Stark's excellent book "The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong" takes a deliberate step towards the bold assertions inerrancy makes and debunks the exegesis as less than the moral authority it presumes.

Stark provides insight how when one reads the bible as a psychological history of ancient people looking to make meaning of the ineffable it is easy to empathize with things like the Israelites desire to post-rationalize their hostility towards outsiders in God's demands for the Canaanite genocide but, when one takes the bible as the flawless systematic blueprint for humanity then one must either mutilate the text to afford genocide or practice moral relativism to explain it away.

Thom (he and I have exchanged emails so I am going to risk the familiar here) is an honest man who draws from respected sources to show that the harmonization the inerrancy movement wants is not the reality of the text and it leads to a psychological immaturity that defers moral agency to an imagined authority.

He shows by using the bible and the Chicago Statement how that the bible is not a systematic meta-narrative pointing to a singular moral conclusion but an argument around morality that demands we examine ourselves if we are to conceive moral evolution. He exposes the fallacy of biblical inerrancy by showing how the Chicago Statement defends itself with special pleading and tautologies that affirm an authority before the fact until after the fact what is revealed does not comport with modern ethics (e.g. slavery, and the aforementioned genocide). He reveals how the bible itself exposes the myth of monotheism and indicates that Yahweh was a warrior god amongst a pantheon who receives his Israel inheritance from a superior being and then defends it in bloody battle against his brethren deities. Thom illustrates how my favorite books, the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes, auger a disbelief in an after-life or supernatural agency that will save and instead show a god who conspires with Satan in the former to test our stamina or an absent god in the latter which demands we see reality for the opportunity to love those closest to us without precondition or dogma. He exposes the Jesus movement for their inaccurate understanding of the Eschaton (the end times) as an imminent reality and traces this misunderstanding to Jesus himself as a failed apocalyptic prophet. Yes, Thom says (as far as we know by the Synoptic Gospels) that Jesus was wrong (gasp)!

I loved this book. It builds my personal appreciation for the bible as a source of cultural understanding without playing to the fear-based need for certainty Evangelicals practice in their selfish worship of it. I find Thom's work to be kindred to the efforts of Robert M. Price and his Bible Geek Podcast, Robert Wright's "Evolution of God" and humble skeptical inquiry from blogs and podcasts like "Reasonable Doubts" or "Common Sense Atheism".
The real shocker is that Thom is a practicing and professing Christian with what seems like an abiding faith commitment (despite fundamentalists attempts to indict him with the crime of Marcionism). He details how his scholarship altered his view of religion in the final chapter of the book and while I have trouble with some of his analogies I think that I could trust to have a functional relationship with him as I maintain the peace and justice commitments Christianity gave me while respecting reason, skeptical inquiry, humanism and atheism. His exegesis is not the fundamentalism of many of my former church-mates and public leaders like Al Mohler that can only increase ethnocentrism and denialism but neither is it the post-modernism of emergent churches that seek to rescue Jesus from his historical milieu with an appeal to neurotic emotionalism.

Thom is an honest scholar who practices a disciplined approach to a biblical hermeneutic that does not ignore the horrors it can invite but also does not deny the inspiration it can bring. My hope is that his honesty will help change the Gallup statistics so that believers' beliefs hone to a more humble scholarship that will seek real solutions to the realities we face.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Narcissism of Believers

Wikipedia defines Narcissism as, "the personality trait of egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness. Applied to a social group, it is sometimes used to denote elitism or an indifference to the plight of others."

I have found this trait more and more evident within religious believers as I progress in my Christian deconversion.

Theists want their personal beliefs endorsed because they "feel" them to be true and when these heart-felt superstitions are challenged for the consequentialist immorality they invite (see William Lane Craig's defense of genocide), the theist demands counter-conclusions to trump theirs. They want to hold a rationalization "pissing contest" rather than enage in a conversation rooted in deliberative thinking and falsifiable evidence.

They seem to be saying that they have conclusions for the questions and if you don't then they win.

It seems they do this so they can feel safe within their belief and to insulate themselves within their social group's mores as a defense against dissent.

Michael Egnor (a fellow of the Discovery Institute - the PR organization that tries to deny biological evolution for the sake of Judeo/Christian creationism and theocracy - see their aims articulated in "The Wedge Strategy") offers excellent evidence of this obsessive psychological quirk towards certainty when he creates a "strawman" argument against "New Atheism" at the Discovery Institute Web-site.

Egnor writes,

"But what about arguments for New Atheism? Casual perusal of New Atheist discourse reveals recurring themes. The New Atheism Cliff Notes: 1) There are no gods 2) Theists are IDiots 3) Catholic priests molest children. Surely there's more to New Atheism. Some old atheism (Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, Russell, Quine) was pretty profound. New Atheism should be even better. Reason, Modern Science, Brights, etc . . . I want to learn more about what New Atheists really believe. So I'm asking Moran a few questions, although other atheists (Myers, Coyne, Novella, Shallit, etc) are invited to reply on their blogs, and I will answer."

His questions,

  1. Why is there anything?
  2. What caused the Universe?
  3. Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
  4. Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
  5. Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
  6. Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself?
  7. How can mental states be about something? Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)?
  8. Why is there evil?

First off, Eignor's unwillingness to enable comments at his blog post indicates he does not want to know what "New Atheists" believe. Rather it indicates a desire to preach to his choir with a false definition of "New Atheism" and declare victory a priori based on his social groups preferred superstition that "goddidit".

Secondly he is dishonest. He does not disclose that he is a Roman Catholic in his post nor does he offer his position on atheism relative to this bias. Instead he exposes the equivocation theists embrace by illustrating that multiple (and competing) religious world-views have wrestled his questions with their unique theologies. He aligns himself with religious views he would deem either atheist or heretical (and atheist arguments -- further equivocating by asserting atheism has a metaphysical ground, it doesn't). He does this to intimate consensus for his strawman. He states,

"I'm not expecting a treatise on each. Theists don't have all the answers. I don't expect New Atheists to have them either. But each metaphysical tradition -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, animist, old atheist, heck, even Scientologist and Raelian -- has addressed at least some of these questions, for better or worse."
I find his challenge and the series of questions evidence of how theists are unable to consider worldviews other than their own.

I have read the "New Atheists" with appreciation. I have enjoyed the work of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, Opehlia Benson, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

I find no ideas where the "New Atheists" are offering a “New Atheism” with a catechism or set of conclusive answers.

Egnor’s premise for asking these questions rests on the belief that the "New Atheists" are offering a definitive belief system. He is equivocating on the “New” qualifier. The “New” in “New Atheist" refers to the strategy of social engagement today's atheists employ. It refers to the willigness to embrace the taboo that one must give automatic deference to religion and ignore consequentialist arguments against it. That is the only thing "New" and if one reads Thomas Paine one would have to argue that this "Newness" is not "New". The "New Atheism" should only be seen as a tactic to thaw the cognitive biases left over from the Cold War where covert military strategy sought Christian iconography to rally public sentiment against a dangerous "other" (e.g. "In God We Trust" on our money and "Under God" in our pledge). If one didn't assert theism then one was a godless communist.

The only "doctrine" inherent in "New Atheism" is a desire to observe a secular society and evidentialist arguments (see PZ Myers frontal assaults on Chris Mooney's accomodationist atheism or the recent debate between Coyne and Myers on what would constitute as evidence for a deity).

Critical thinking is not conclusion and that’s where Egnor gets everything wrong.

Claiming an allegiance to the "New Atheists" does not preclude an organizing doctrine to a certain world-view nor an obsessive need towards conclusion.

That type of divine command grounded in pre-suppositional dogma is the epistemology of theists, not atheists.

I am sensitive to the "New Atheists" and might even consider myself one because I am sick of having to give religion a pass but am more interested in the “Christian Atheism” of Robert Price than Sam Harris’s neuroscience. My preference comes from my interest in literature and mythology over experimetnal science. Therefore my answers to the questions would not stem from a “New Atheist” belief system (because there isn't one) but rather simple atheism which only asserts the disbelief in god(s).

This is why Egnor’s challenge serves as a strawman because it attempts to challenge an epistymology (New Atheism Metaphysics) that doesn't exist. He has his preferred superstitious answers to these questions which revolve around his version of god and/or the discredited notion of Intelligent Design (AKA "God of the Gaps"). He doesn't want dialogue but rather he wants to assert his superstitions as superior due to their well-rationalized conclusions.

He admits in his challenge that any religious answer to this is nothing more than psychological preference by offering the diversity of theological method used to answer each.

None of these questions has a conclusive answer and the “New Atheist” position would not be a definitive answer but rather a suspension of superstition as “the answer”. "New Atheists" ask that we apply critical thinking to continue the human conversation regarding ethics rather than deferring to dogmatism and sacred texts to assume authority. Egnor projects his bias onto his opponent and only succeeds in staring at his own reflection as evidence that the world is as how he sees it.

For the record, here are my answers to his questions (I'd love to read yours because, unlike Egnor I am interested in critical thought and have thus enabled comments):

  1. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.
  2. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.
  3. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.
  4. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.
  5. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.
  6. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.
  7. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.
  8. I don’t know. Let’s use the scientific method and critical thinking to continue to try to figure it out and let’s leave religious presuppositions out of policy decisions so we don’t create legal inequality between belivers and non-believers.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Fourth Trimester and Beyond

Griffin Patrick O'Connor is exiting the "Fourth Trimester". I was made aware of this term by Griff's namesake and maternal grandmother Virginia (Griffith) Brenner. Mom Mom Brenner is a child development professional and she helped me contextualize Griffin's dynamic changes.

The little man had spent the first 40 weeks of his life in a darkened cramped space gaining nutrients from his mom so finding balance outside the womb hasn't been easy. He's learned how to digest, burp, and grow muscle (through "tummy time" see photo). His emergence ex-gestate demands patience and awareness. I think breaking experience into a paradoxical phrase like "fourth trimester" appropriate to the human condition.

I like to consider that I am no longer on the verge of my 42nd birthday but instead am approaching my "168th trimester". It's more accurate somehow because it demands a shorter time-horizon where forecasting can be modified when life gets in the way. I don't have to make a fallacious five year plan but only need to get through the next 3 months.

There seems to be a tendency to accelerate our personal experience along a Cartesian plane up and to the right but time often doesn't cooperate with our imagined development. We craft stories and biases that bring ignorance to life's randomness. It doesn't matter that I have a 165 trimester jump on Griffin because what I predict to happen this next year probably won't. One only need to look at the roller-coaster sine wave generated by recent financial expectations to realize that any consideration of hopeful prophesy is bullshit.

This is known as the "Anosognosic's Dilemma". Something is wrong but we don't know what it is. It is the unknown unknown. Errol Morris did a good series on the concept in the NYT this summer. I recommend it. We all labor under the failure to recognize our own functional defects. One only need to watch early-round footage of "American Idol" or witness my son shake his fist at his morning farts to know that the surprises of being human are often rude and painful.

Six weeks ago Mom Mom Brenner was told she had a mass growing in her uterus and blood work indicated a high cancer probability. We all hoped for the best but surgery showed us that we didn't know what we didn't know. There were two growths. One the size of a grapefruit and one the size of a baseball. Both malignant. All this happening in a clean living woman who could stare down Jacob Marley and get him to give up his chains with indefatigable optimism.

The biopsy turned our hope for a "Stage 1" diagnosis upwards to "Stage 3C" and deflation.

Mom Mom started chemo-therapy two weeks ago with her hope intact and a willingness to issue faith as a hedge against microscopic fast growing cellular activity. That seems wise but her sickness does not inspire me towards anything but humility and gratitude bound by stoicism.

I recently re-read Thornton Wilder's "Our Town". I did so because my memory of it is reduced to the 1980's Pepperidge Farm commercials, bucolic and sentimental but earlier this year I listened to a talk given by the playwright Arthur Kopit where he referenced the play as an existential wonder of failed American optimism. I never saw it before but the third act reversal is the "Anosognosic's Dilemma" dramatized. Emily post-mortem returns to the living only to realize that trivialities too often upset meaning and she asks the Stage Manager, "Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every , every minute?" And the omniscient stage manager says, "No."

I have no wisdom in relation to my mother-in-law's cancer or my son's growing independence.

I stare at both and surrender any hope to make meaning of either. I'm trying instead to be simple and recognize that my anticipated future will be changed by the next moment and the next and what I think true of myself in perpetuity will need to modify itself to my encroaching trimesters.

I don't know what my necessary adaptations will be but am comfortable knowing that what I consider strengths probably aren't and the surprise of living the human condition will reveal more, (or less, who knows).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Parenthood Surprise: The Desire for Courage

Yesterday a friend asked me,
"What has been the most surprising thing about parenthood so far?" and I responded, "how confident I am being a Dad."

The latest gift my son has given me is the desire to be courageous. I am not inclined towards courage. I struggle with anxiety and depression. Melancholy is my friend and self-doubt my counsel. But Griffin has inspired a call to action where who I am in my values is no longer debatable. The thought that goes with this feeling is simple. I want my son to have a more hopeful outlook than the one I have labored under and I never want him to feel shame for his ideas. I want him to choose desires that expand the possibility of himself and others. I realize that my part in this is to act as if I have a hopeful outlook and no shame for my ideas. Griffin's possibilities inspire me towards the courage of my convictions.

I started this blog to see if I could write and if my writing might provide connection with others. It has. It has also led me to complete a full-length play (my first in 11 years) which has gone on to have a staged reading at The Performance Network and has led me to renew the craft of playwriting through Chicago Dramatists Theatre. I've become friends with smart and talented folks who have reviewed my writing and have given honest feedback. There's nothing better than asking for insight and having someone plant their feet and tell their truth. I love the courage.

My writing this year has also allowed me the pleasure of enjoying cowardice. I've enjoyed relating to an unscrupulous double-dealer who acts as if solipsism is wisdom and assertion fact.

Let's call this man "Force of Nature" (FON). FON is the artistic director of a rural Michigan theatre founded by a B-movie actor and his nickname here serves to help you imagine his tendency towards self-promoting tautology. Lets call the actor "Fart Joke" (the dramatic centerpiece to his most successful and famous play).

I've been fired three times by FON and "Fart Joke" due to my inability to have the courage of my convictions so, when I decided to write plays again, I thought it a good idea to return to where I failed and make amends for my failings.

I pitched a full-length play idea to FON last June.

FON was enthusiastic. He has a tendency towards manic co-dependence as a platform for his unfounded assertions (e.g. "Fart Joke's" fart jokes for FON offer a "window into the human heart") so I didn't put too much stock in his promise, "give us 100 pages and we will give you a reading, and consider yourself one of us!" I did use it as writing motivation and a call to show up with more maturity but, when I saw what I was writing and, how it didn't hue to the color of situation comedy FON enjoys, I didn't hold out much hope that he would want it.

I did expect some sort of definitive response when I delivered the script but for some odd reason upon script-delivery FON acted like a 13 year old boy who retreats from a first kiss because he doesn't understand the meaning of his boner. I didn't get it. He didn't return emails. He promised a reading in the new year but didn't follow up. He failed to show when a meeting was set to discuss my script where my wife and I drove up from Chicago to see "Fart Joke's" latest play. My wife, pregnant with Griffin, advised me to kick the dust from my feet and leave FON behind. I thought she had a point but wasn't certain if definitive action needed to be taken.

In the meantime I kept to my desires to write, continued with this blog, and sought out the company of people who enjoy telling the truth.

This week I needed to be definite in my response to FON.

The moral philosopher Alonzo Fyfe describes his philosophy "Desire Utilitarianism" as a morality of identifying desire-thwarting desires as immoral. When one's desires exist to manipulate another's desires as a means to securing selfish desire than immoral actions ensue. It is both subjective and objective. Subjective from the frame of personal perspective and objective in the frame of consequence.

Fyfe says that we can shape moral desires through reward and diminish immoral ones with ridicule. Therefore it is moral to both encourage and shame. I considered Fyfe when facing FON this week and decided the time was right for shame.

FON uses his position to expand desires towards the amelioration of self-centered fear grounded in his concern that he might be mediocre. He thwarts desire through dishonest promise and does so to manipulate affection.

I learned this when I was approached by people this past year who built "Fart Joke's" theatre yet were alienated by FON when they sought independent opportunities and formed their own companies. FON saw this as a threat and dismissed them as associate artists, embodying a George Bush unilateralism requiring a "with us or against us" stance.

I also saw it when my play was selected for a reading with a rival theatre in Michigan (The Performance Network) whereupon FON referred to that competing professional outfit as a "community theatre".

I finally saw it when to win a mild disagreement he offered his first criticisms of the play he had asked for, promised a reading of, and held in his hands for over a year by telling me in 13-year-old-bully fashion that I am a "pseudo-intellectual" and my play is "bullshit".

FON didn't realize that I had taken Jackie's advice months ago and his tactic towards desire manipulation failed. He kept at it without any realization of his impotence. I decided for the sake of good it was necessary to shame him. I enjoyed it.

He looked to cry mercy with an appeal to self-pity once I wouldn't surrender to his bullying. I let him know there's nothing in his behavior that offers resolution. He holds immoral desires that position him as evil. His morality is that of the Capo who saves his ass by thwarting the desires of his tribe.

I had no expectations for production nor the reading that was promised but, I did expect an honest response to my efforts that would respect my desire to speak truth through drama. FON could have said that he didn't like the play and it didn't work by keeping the appointment we set and, telling me to my face, that what his theatre needs is not what I delivered. I would have respected that; it would have given me an understanding of reality and an opportunity to examine my desires' utility. He didn't. He retreated.

That retreat is an ethic I once indulged but now see as shameful.

I hope Griffin never finds hope in such shameful desires.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Swaddling, Dry Baby Puke, and Self-care

"More than freedom to explore newborns need security. They need tight boundaries, like they enjoyed in the uterus, to keep from flailing and getting upset." (Dr. Karp "The Happiest Baby")
This morning I experienced the most intense teeth cleaning I have ever experienced and I did so sleep deprived wearing dry baby puke on my shoulder. The dental hygienist who scraped me clean was a smart African American lady. The kind of medical professional who seems to be a combination of Jackie-Joyner-Kersey and Maya Angelou. An Olympic-level technician with the spirit of a wise Earth mother.

I apologized for showing up late to the office and said that we have a new-born at home which has made my mornings a little rough and she responded by pointing out the baby puke.
"I figured you were a new Dad. The baby puke is in the right spot. Up high on the shoulder. Been there, it's all good."
And then she broke out some sort of hydro-sonic scraper mechanism and blasted away at my plaque.
Self-care doesn't come easy to me so I appreciated my earth-mother's humor while she applied her surgical efficiency.
"Boy this music the doctor plays is something. You got some 'Dusties' that I don't know what to do with. (Barry White comes on) But then you got this and I can go, 'okay'. Now I am going to use a tool that squirts cold water while it drills away at your plaque. It cleans better. It will get loud by your back teeth because of your ear canal. And you'll get a hint of mouth-wash. I always use a little mouth-wash in my cleaning. And don't worry about the baby puke. You got yourself a Father's Day story now."
Tomorrow will be my first Father's Day as a Father. I always thought this Hallmark Holiday would be one I enjoyed second person removed as a son or admiring uncle but life changes and I now am a Dad. I couldn't be happier.

A surprise to me in the parenting process is the appearance of instinct when my boy has irrational needs. I find myself making up songs while changing his diaper and holding him close when gas attacks. I don't mind his temper or his biology and pride myself on my swaddling technique.

Swaddling is a necessary comfort for an infant whose concept of the world has gone from closed-loop-placenta-driven to infinite-spaces and adaptation. It affords a baby the illusion of self-care they enjoyed while swimming in amniotic warmth while coming to grips with the wide world they now inhabit.

When my cleaning was done, the dentist came into the office and apologized for making me wait. He had a dental emergency that morning, someone had broken a tooth, and therefore put me in the capable and thorough hands of his number 2. They took one last look at my teeth and commended me for a boring set of choppers.
"Boring is good. You don't want to experience 'interesting dental work'."
My earth-mother-technician slipped me a bag with some floss, tooth-paste and a new tooth-brush and reassured me that the baby puke was a badge of honor. The dentist agreed and told me my nights would get easier. They both suggested however that I embrace these days driven by instinct because soon my son will be grown. They both had teenage children who, "seemed like 4-years-old two months ago."

I left feeling good that I enjoy such kind folks.

We had a storm here in Chicago last night. One of those Wizard of Oz Midwestern gales that make you glad you don't live in a tent or make a living as a tight-rope walker. Walking home I watched a boy about 4-years-old race ahead of his mom picking up broken limbs from the storm-tossed trees.

I looked forward to swaddling my son and singing him songs and sharing the instincts of self-care.