Monday, July 21, 2008

Consensus about god. Really?

While the god delusion is certainly declining in the United States there is still a large percentage of people who tell pollsters that they believe in a God.

But one interesting thing about such surveys is that they generally go out of the way to avoid defining the term “god”. One result is a wide assumption that most people mean the same thing. The fundamentalist who worships Jesus will tend to assume that most other believers who attest to a god are also talking about the same deity.

Many people actually hold to a pantheistic view of god -- that god is everything that is. Others see a god as a prime mover, a force that got the universe running and then retired -- a basically deistic view as many of America’s founding fathers believed.

Even among those who claim to worship the same being there is widespread antagonism toward one another as worshipping the wrong god. A born again Christian is more likely to think that a Catholic is a heathen worshipping false idols than not. And both the fundie and the Catholic will be likely to look askance as the Mormons. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t like anybody but themselves and even then they aren’t so sure.

The Jews have Jehovah but no Jesus. Jesus-only Pentecostals have Jesus but no Jehovah. Unitarians have no trinity of gods. Most Christians don’t cling to Allah at all. Then we have Buddhists, Hindus, and hundreds of other sects.

If you were to define them precisely you’d find that the word “god” covers hundreds of different definitions. When the same word can mean hundreds of things then it is easy to get consensus. But the consensus is not real.

Once this phony consensus is assumed we then see the believers, mainly politicized Christians, claiming that consensus now justifies state involvement in some issue that they want regulated. The phony consensus is now used as the excuse to use government force against others.

The logic goes along the lines that their God wants a certain policy: stop gays from marrying, ban abortion, ban genetic engineering, etc. Next they point to the consensus in a god and argue that since most Americans believing “in God” that means that the “godly policies” they are pushing should be implemented immediately. Not only do they want it, but God wants it and so do the American people. In the end they are only speaking for themselves. The rest is a diversion.

One of the convenient things about having an imaginary friend in the sky who controls everything is that he whispers into your ears what you want to hear. You then promote the policies you wanted all along but claim to be representing this imaginary friend. That is pretty sad actually. When they pretend that everyone else’s pretend friend is actually their pretend friend as well, and then conclude that means that all the other deluded people want the same policies, we are getting into pure crazy.

“God’s will” has justified an unfathomable amount of lunacy. And far too often that lunacy has taken a vicious form where the intention of the believer is to literally harm others. Sometimes the harm is merely in denying others the same rights they have. Sometimes it is in using the force o law to penalize people for not believing what they believe. Other times it is to hurt people as punishment for their disbelief. The imaginary friend may be an illusion, perhaps a delusion, but that doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t end up harming lots of innocent people.

I have no problem when a person’s religious delusions cause them to harm themselves -- such as believers in faith healing refusing medical care. They are free to indulge their beliefs and suffer the consequences. But when they wish to impose harm on others because of their imaginary sky-buddy then it is a different matter altogether.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Debating deity: D'Sousza v. Hitchens.

I recently sat in on bits of a debate between the lunatic Right-wing Dinesh D’Sousa and Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. D’Sousa, you may remember, was the Christianist who wanted an alliance with “moderate” Muslims to install a moralistic government that would bash gays, cover up women, ban porn and generally impose the fundamentalist version of Sharia law on the country.

D’Sousa’s argument was that such moralistic campaigns by the state would end the fanatical Islamist movement. He seems to think that the whole terrorist campaign is the result of Muslims being offended by homosexuals and Western “immorality”.

Prior commitments kept me relatively busy during the debate but I could hear bits and pieces. So I will report on what I heard and about something interesting that happened afterwards.

It was my unfortunate experience to mainly hear the D’Sousa arguments. All I can say is that he is a smarmy debater who falsifies facts and uses bad logic to try to make his case for a deity.

D’Sousa finds it necessary to defend religion because some religious folks are engaged in nefarious, vicious actions, from flying planes into buildings to bombing abortion clinics or shooting staff who work there. These folk act based on the religious beliefs they hold. It is my contention that all actions come out of positive beliefs not out of negative beliefs.

As I noted once before atheism is a negation of a belief not a positive statement of belief. The atheist says he has no reason to believe in a god, he denies a belief but the atheist qua atheist asserts no belief. Individual atheists do, of course, assert positive beliefs but they do not do so as atheists but in entirely different intellectual categories. For instance, the atheist may be a conservative, socialist, libertarian, fascist, etc. It would be his positive beliefs that inspire action not his negative ones. As I put it previously “you can not get positive principles out o a negative concept. Not believing in a god doesn’t tell you how to live, what to value, what sort of society to yearn for, etc. By itself it gives no directions, values or beliefs. How could it? It is the lack of a belief”

The Islamists or Christianists who act in evil ways do so precisely because of their faith. A positive belief (in the sense of one that is asserted as factual and no in the sense of being beneficial) causes the individual to take positive action (in the sense of acting as opposing to not acting). The lack of a belief inspires no particular action. When an atheist acts in a particular way it is because of other positive beliefs he may hold not because he is an atheist.

This is important because D’Sousa was making the point that since religious folk are burdened by the vile actions of other religious folks then atheism must be blamed for the actions of all atheists. He entirely neglects the fact that the religious act because they are religious while the atheist can not act merely because he is an atheist. It is not atheism that causes the atheism to act but other beliefs he may hold.

D’Sousa wanted to blame atheists for the atrocities of Pol Pot and other Marxist dictators. Ostensibly atheistic these regimes didn’t kill because they were atheistic but killed because they were Communistic and were creating the utopia for which they yearned. It was their positive beliefs that lead to positive action not their non-beliefs.

D’Sousa seems incapable of understanding the difference. Or perhaps he does and is simply dishonest. In his case I suspect the later is often the case.

Two remarks I heard him make were so clearly false that I can not fathom any reason for making them except dishonesty. It was, again, related to the example of dictatorial regimes.

One was that D’Sousa kept referring to the Nazi regime of Hitler as atheistic. That is just absurd. One German attending the debate told me he was baffled by the remark as Germany, under Hitler, was highly religious. Hitler himself was a member of the Catholic Church and never renounced his faith, nor did his church ever find him worthy of excommunication. Hitler died a Catholic in good standing.

The second dishonest remark was D’Sousa’s claim that Cambodia, under Pol Pot, was the quintessential example of a “secular” society. He seemed to be saying that these evil regimes were the best examples of secular government.

Again the German attendee was confused. He remarked to me that he couldn’t think of a single German that he knew who actually attended church. He always thought of today’s Germany as an example of secularism. And he is correct. This is also true o virtually every successful, Western nation around. The United States is pretty much alone when it comes to religiosity among the Western, modern nations.

And, I should point out, that among the Western nations the religious US is pretty much alone in its tendency to execute people with a regularity that is frightening -- with the most religious backwater states, such as Texas, taking pride in how many people they can kill in any one year. The US is again pretty much alone in an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy that is responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. To the degree that other Western nations have been involved it has been under duress from the United States and in a very limited capacity.

The reality is that most the West today is secular and relatively peaceful. D’Sousa must know this. I sincerely doubt he is that ignorant and thus conclude his comments about secular societies being dictatorial is based on dishonesty and not ignorance.

After the debate Christopher Hitchens remarked to me that he was surprised that “so many libertarians” had sided with the religious side of the debate in a post-debate poll that was done.

Actually Mr. Hitchens was in error. He assumed the audience to be predominantly libertarian. In reality it was predominantly conservative with libertarians making up no more than 20% of the audience.

I was not present for the poll so I asked him what the breakdown was. He said it looked to be about a 50/50 split. He was disappointed at that but I was pleased. Yes, if the audience was predominantly libertarian I’d be unhappy -- libertarians tends to be more intelligent and less likely to be theistists. But when I realized that a predominantly conservative audience had split 50/50 on the god question I took that as an encouraging sign.

This audience, for the most part, should have been D’Sousa’s core group of supporters. That he could only muster half the audience in support of his position is just another sign that the United States is finally joining the West in the post-Christian era.

Photo: From a different debate. D'Sousa is on the far left and Hitchens on the right.

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