Losing your Religion, and Why that is Bad

March 26, 2010

I have to admit I have a somewhat obsessive interest in those who early in their life rejected only to re-discover it again later on after period of skepticism, atheism, or agnosticism. Part of this might be because it reflects my own life story, partly it might be because I find that such people seem to have made much more of an intentional and well thought out choice than those who merely inherited their Christian faith, or passively accept it as true. Often such people have keener understanding of what our civilization is losing as it becomes more secular, and have much stronger voices in opposing this decay.

I recently posted a bit from Peter Hitchens, the brother of Christopher Hitchens, wherein he describes his journey from atheism to belief in Christ. Another such person whose life has gone through this transformative process is Roger Scruton, writer and visiting professor at the philosophy faculty at Oxford. In the last chapter of his books of essays, Gentle Regrets, Scruton writes eloquently about what is lost as secularism comes to dominate a life and a society:

For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.

For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgement in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects who relate to each other reciprocally. … To the person with religious belief — whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not — those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent. Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoning that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the “human form divine,” as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgement. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.

If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ. The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss — a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.

As with many good thinkers and writers, Roger Scruton says much here that many only suspect or guess at, but can’t put into words. The loss of faith is the loss of knowledge, the loss of confidence in certain critical human characteristics, the loss of pillars of our civilization – and that is an incomparably great loss.

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Obamacare Logic applied to Jobs

March 26, 2010

As I have thought more about our recently passed Healthcare legislation, and wondered about the justification for passing it, I considered whether the logic with which it was constructed could also be applied to other critical needs our country has, like job creation.

After all, up to 15 million people are without jobs, and the lack of a job creates numerous problems in a person’s life like potential bankruptcy, loss of a home, food, status, wealth, and of course health care. So a job is obviously as critical a need as health insurance, perhaps more so, though I am not sure our President would agree based on recent actions.

Nonetheless, if we accept the importance of a job to the average American citizen, then it becomes imperative the government act to provide jobs, as it is now well established the government exists primarily to provide for our personal needs. Given that, the question becomes, “How should the government do this?” and to that end our current health care plan is instructive. Below are a series of solutions based on what we have learned from the HealthCare debate.

  1. We must first start with the understanding that almost all business owners who employ people do so to selfishly make ‘profits’. Profits are those monies which could be going toward creating more jobs, but instead are going directly to enrich the business owners. This practice must stop, and the government must mandate that all funds beyond those needed to insure the basic operation of a business must go toward job creation.
  2. Many people are denied jobs because of pre-existing conditions, like lack of skills or ambition; this creates an ever growing pool of unemployed persons. With the passage of this legislation, employers will no longer be able take away or deny a job simply because an employee can’t or won’t do the work.
  3. The government understands that many business owners fail to provide jobs or keep employees because the costs are just too high. Therefore if an employer cannot provide an actual job, they need only pay the government $2000 for every employee they should be hiring, to pay for jobs the government must create.
  4. Because jobs are hard for many people to find, we are requiring states to set up ‘job exchanges’ where groups of employers can be brought together so potential employees can choose which job they want.
  5. Because it is often young people who suffer joblessness, they will not be required to find a job until they are 26, and their parent’s employers will pay for their living expenses until that time.
     
  6. For those who fall between the cracks, and cannot find a job otherwise, the government will create a fun and exciting job for those persons to do.

There ya go – Obama solutions applied to the intractable problem of high unemployment. Look for it in the next legislative year.


Little known Provisions in the New Obamacare Bill – 1

March 25, 2010

In addition to requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance, the Democrat’s bill also requires all Americans to purchase and attend Pilates classes.

 Tough on the pocket book, but great for the gluts and abs.


True Skepticism

March 23, 2010

For nearly half my life I considered myself to be what is commonly referred to as a skeptic. Specifically, I was a left-wing agnostic, nearly Marxist in my politics, a materialist in my metaphysics.

I was skeptical of any sort of religious belief, or even the ability to know with any degree of certainty what might exist beyond the bounds of the material world.

The second half of my life has been spent as a believer – a Christian who believes in the veracity of Scripture, one’s ability to have assurance about one’s eternal destiny, to be confident in God’s love, power, and good intentions.

What has surprised me recently is the realization that in my early years I was hardly a skeptic at all – I am in fact much more skeptical now then I was as a youthful agnostic, less likely to than I was then to accept certain claims without reasonable warrant. What follows is a list of that which I have become skeptical of:

  1. I am skeptical that science can provide answers to all our questions about how we came to be, how we should live, and what we should do or not do in the future. Science has a limited and powerful application as a tool for learning in limited ways how nature operates, but beyond that it is extremely limited in terms of gaining knowledge and wisdom.
  2. I am skeptical of material explanations of the origin of the universe, life, and basic human characteristics. I now find it absurd to think universe can appear unbidden, falling into just the right order so that all that is necessary for our existence just happens to align itself from the basic constants that undergird its operation down to the precise molecular make-up of the planet on which we exist. I am skeptical that the machinery and information systems which operate in even the ‘simplest’ cells could arise without guidance, a notion that is contrary to all our experiences, and believe the only reason for accepting this as true is an intransigent adherence to a faith in materialisms ability to provide explanations in the future.
  3. I am skeptical of the notion that the human mind, which is presumed by atheists to be able to produce great delusions like religious sentiment, spiritual inclinations, notions of absolute morality, and inherent meaning and purpose, as well as ideas of being endowed with certain rights, is also simultaneously reliable enough for us to observe and confidently comprehend how the universe actually works. The mind is either reliable or it is not; it cannot logically be both at the same time.
  4. I am skeptical of the notion that the purpose of government is to take care of my basic needs – that apart from the guiding hand of the state, I cannot have health, wealth, an education, or get along with my fellow man. I am skeptical that the government can continue to amass power and wealth, and remain beneficent in its use of it.
  5. I am skeptical of the notion that humans are inherently good, and that if the state provided everyone with the right amount of money, or education, or opportunity, then all our societal ills would significantly diminish.
  6. I am skeptical that the Bible, the product of some two thousand years of consistent writing, the result of the authorship of people from every walk of life imaginable, and the foundational document of some of the most enduring and important human institutions, as well as the being fundamental to the existence of some of the freest and most prosperous nations on earth, as well as a revolutionary tool for those who would expand human happiness and goodness, is merely a collection of fables and myths.
  7. I am skeptical of the notion that Jesus, a figure unprecedented in history whose teachings and wisdom have never bettered by anyone since, who inspired followers not only to teach what he taught them but to live in an wholly unique and admirable way, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives for others is merely an ordinary human like a million others before or after.

These are just a few of the things I have become skeptical of in more recent times. There are many more I could list. Taken together I realize that anti-religious skeptics aren’t all that skeptical at all, but accept as tenets of faith claims that I think the vast majority of humanity has rightly found to be absurd.


Human ancestors were great walkers

March 20, 2010

One thing that one finds if one reads enough science articles and interviews with evolutionists, is they are constantly ‘surprised’ at what they actually find in the fossil and genetic record of life on earth. Why they are constantly surprised, if their theory is as well established as they claim, is almost never discussed. One recent surprise has to do with the well known ‘Laetoli footprints’. The footprints themselves aren’t new, having been found some 30 years ago. The prints were apparently laid down in fresh volcanic ash, and are claimed to be some 3.6 million years old. 

Because they are dated to this time, it has long been presumed they were produced by Australopithecus afarensis, a species thought to be both bipedal, and ancestral to human beings. Because A. afarensis was thought to be one of our earliest ancestors, historically near to the last common ancestor between the great apes and humans (some 4-6 million year ago) it was presumed that this hominid was still somewhat, if not significantly arboreal (tree dwelling) in their habits. And the skeletons of A. aferensis fit this understanding – their fingers, toes, and shoulder blades all indicate they were comfortable in trees, similar to other great apes.

  

Image of normal human gait, 'Chimpanzee gait', and Laetoli footprint.

With that understanding in mind, researchers developed a test to see how advanced the gait of the creature that produced the Laetoli footprints was – did it have a crouched ape-like gait, or an easy upright stride as modern humans do? To find out they devised a rather straight-forward test:


To resolve this, Raichlen and his colleagues devised the first biomechanical experiment explicitly designed to address this question. The team built a sand trackway in Raichlen’s motion capture lab at the UA and filmed human subjects walking across the sand. The subjects walked both with normal, erect human gaits and then with crouched, chimpanzee-like gaits. Three-dimensional models of the footprints were collected by biological anthropologist Adam Gordon using equipment brought from his Primate Evolutionary Morphology Laboratory at the University at Albany.
 
The results of this test are where the ‘surprise’ comes in:
 
“Based on previous analyses of the skeletons of Australopithecus afarensis, we expected that the Laetoli footprints would resemble those of someone walking with a bent knee, bent hip gait typical of chimpanzees, and not the striding gait normally used by modern humans,” Raichlen said. “But to our surprise, the Laetoli footprints fall completely within the range of normal human footprints.”
 
Now when a prediction is made, or a certain outcome is expected based on a hypothesis, science generally requires that an outcome that differs from what is expected should cause us to modify the hypothesis. In this case the idea that what produced the footprints was a semi-arboreal, primitive hominid should change when we discover that the footprints were produced instead by something that created, “a remarkably even depth at the toe and heel, just like those of modern humans.” Perhaps what produced these footprints was not a primitive, ape-like hominid, but in fact something very similar to ‘modern humans’?
 
Of course this is too obvious for these researchers:
  “What is fascinating about this study is that it suggests that, at a time when our ancestors had an anatomy well-suited to spending a significant amount of time in the trees, they had already developed a highly efficient, modern human-like mode of bipedalism,” said Adam Gordon.
 
“The fossil record indicates that our ancestors did not make a full-time commitment to leaving the trees and walking on the ground until well over a million years after these (Laetoli) prints were made. The fact that partially tree-dwelling animals, like Lucy, had such a remarkably modern gait is a testament to the importance of energetic efficiency in moving around on two legs,” Gordon said.”
 
Or, if one wanted to actually go where the evidence is leading, simply consider the idea that there was something much more like a modern human walking around at the time the footprints were made?  

The 9th Circuit Does Something Right

March 20, 2010

This is slightly old news (in internet news time) but the result of the Michael ‘I hate my country’s history’ Newdow’s lawsuit is in.

The 9th Circuit Federal Appeals court (which had previously ruled in Newdow’s favor, only to be overruled by the Supreme Court on technical grounds) in a 2-1 ruling, ruled that words ‘under God’ do not violate the 1st amendment. Most people with half a brain already knew of course that this phraseology didn’t in fact ‘establish’ a church of any sort, but it often takes a Federal Court ruling to explain this to a militant atheist.

In a separate 3-0 ruling, the court further delegitimized Mr. Newdow’s purpose in life, and ruled against his suit to remove ‘In God We Trust’ from American coins and currency.

The rulings themselves are of no surprise, and completely consistent with the American view of religion in American life, going back to the origin of the country. That the 9th circuit finally figured this out is the big news here.


Peter Hitchens and the Hope for Civility

March 14, 2010

Anyone who is familiar with the icons of the new atheist movement is fairly familiar Chistopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. Less known in the US yet fairly well known in the UK is his younger brother Peter Hitchens. While Chistopher is an atheist protagonist, Peter is a conservative Christian, and a somewhat staunch and capable defender of the faith.

In a recent post titled How I found God and peace with my atheist brother on his blog, published in Britain’s MailOnline, he writes about his own conversion to Christianity from left-wing atheism, and how he came to make peace with his passionately atheistic brother. As someone who was previously a leftist and agnostic, I could relate to how the events in his life transpired.

Of particular interest are two things – the first is his argument for the necessity of a morality grounded in an external objective source:

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers’ assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

On this misunderstanding is based my brother Christopher’s supposed conundrum about whether there is any good deed that could be done only by a religious person, and not done by a Godless one. Like all such questions, this contains another question: what is good, and who is to decide what is good?

Left to himself, Man can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities; the deportation, slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn.

I have heard people who believe themselves to be good, defend all these things, and convince themselves as well as others. Quite often the same people will condemn similar actions committed by different countries, often with great vigour.

For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a non-human source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself.

Its most powerful expression is summed up in the words ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

This is something I have found frequently. I have had many atheists tell me (as if I would be surprised) that atheists are as capable as Christians of doing good. No Christian familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan would ever of course doubt this – what is almost always lost on the atheist is the fact that they are assuming a particular standard of good; and unless there is an objective standard of good, who is to say anyone is capable of doing it? Or not doing it, for that matter.

The second thought is one that struck me more personally because I have had numerous (more than I can count or remember, actually) conversations with atheists over the years as a Christian. Usually face to face these are quite pleasant, online, often less so. I am often somewhat cynical about the ability of atheists to be civil as a result; nonetheless I was hopeful reading about a reconciliation of sorts Peter had with his brother Christopher, after years of vitriol:

Something far more important than a debate had happened a few days before, when Christopher and I had met in his Washington DC apartment. If he despised and loathed me for my Christian beliefs, he wasn’t showing it.

We were more than civil, treating each other as equals, and as brothers with a common childhood, even recalling bicycle rides we used to take together on summer days unimaginably long ago, which I did not even realise he still remembered.

To my astonishment, Christopher cooked supper, a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it. He had even given up smoking.

I am not hoping for a late conversion because he has won the battle against cigarettes. He has bricked himself up high in his atheist tower, with slits instead of windows from which to shoot arrows at the faithful, and would find it rather hard to climb down out of it.

I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault, and that religion does not poison everything.

Beyond that, I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry.

My brother and I agree on this: that independence of mind is immensely precious, and that we should try to tell the truth in clear English even if we are disliked for doing so. Oddly enough this leads us, in many things, to be far closer than most people think we are on some questions; closer, sometimes, than we would particularly wish to be.

The same paradox sometimes also makes us arrive at different conclusions from very similar arguments, which is easier than it might appear. This will not make us close friends at this stage. We are two utterly different men approaching the ends of two intensely separate lives.

Let us not be sentimental here, nor rashly over-optimistic. But I was astonished, on that spring evening by the Grand River, to find that the longest quarrel of my life seemed unexpectedly to be over, so many years and so many thousands of miles after it had started, in our quiet homes and our first beginnings in an England now impossibly remote from us.

It may actually be true, as I have long hoped that it would be, in the words of T. S. Eliot, that ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.

That is an encouraging bit there – to know that civility is a possibility despite significant differences.