Archive for the ‘Secular Humanism’ Category

Catholicism: Why the Sheep are Scattering

August 11, 2013
Avenging Angel

Avenging Angel

by Doughlas Remy

Without fear, shame and the concept of hell, the church would pretty much be out of business. Or at least out of the business they’re presently in.   –Dean Hansen

I think Dean Hansen has it exactly right: “Without fear, shame, and the concept of Hell, the [Catholic] Church would pretty much be out of business.”

Conservative Catholics writers and bloggers routinely use the threat of eternal damnation as their ultimate trump card when they feel cornered by demands for change. The threat is usually covert, thinly veiled by references to “judgment,” “pleasing God,” “consequences of sin,” and “being lost.” The avowed purpose of these allusions is to encourage sinners to secure their salvation while there is still time. Their real and obvious purpose, however, is to stoke feelings of existential Angst about death, guilt, and the Final Reckoning. Once believers are “primed” with such thoughts, the institutional Church is positioned to influence their behavior.

However, these fear dynamics are no longer as effective as they were when the Church’s authority on matters of faith and morals went virtually unquestioned. Western Catholics are now, by and large, well-educated and cosmopolitan. They live in pluralistic societies where monotheisms co-mingle more or less comfortably precisely because the hard edges of absolutist faith have been progressively worn down by commerce, communications, and a worldview increasingly informed by science and reason.

The threat of damnation has lost its sting. We are now all Universalists: the idea of an exclusionary heaven loses its appeal once we see people of other faiths—or of no faith—as “like us,” no better and no worse. None of us seriously believes that the Dalai Lama is an evil man deserving of eternal punishment, or that only a select few (i.e., those who espouse our own particular views) will enter that “strait” gate into Paradise. These archaic ideas have been seen for what they are: naive, tribalistic, solipsistic, and profoundly divisive. Their power to leverage Catholics’ behavior and unify the Church has waned. The old sheep dog has lost its teeth, and the sheep are scattering.

Conservative Catholics—those who have held fast to the modalities of fear and shame—sometimes express their bewilderment about the pace of change in the actual beliefs and practices of Catholic laity, a laity that, in the U.S. and several predominantly Catholic countries, has supported same-sex marriage and access to contraception despite the fulminations of the bishops. What they seem not to understand is that the majority of Catholics in these countries have become “father-deaf,” so to speak. They simply ignore what they are instructed to do, without any fear of consequences. They have looked behind the curtain and seen who the wizard really is.

A Philosopher of Science Explains the Importance of Scientific Consensus

August 3, 2013
Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci

by Doughlas Remy

I’ve been blogging on conservative Catholic websites for about as long as those sites have existed. Why I chose Catholic ones and not, say, Evangelical ones, has more to do with my early (i.e., post-graduate) literary interests than my religious background (Southern Baptist). I read Catholic authors because my specialty was French and Italian literature. Then a French literary critic, René Girard, captured my attention in the 70s, and for the next thirty years, I was reading and re-reading his books. From his reading of great European literature—especially the works of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Proust, he had developed and beautifully articulated a theory of mimetic desire, a theory that seemed to have vast implications for all the human sciences. I was enthralled, and I still am. But then something almost inexplicable happened: René Girard had a conversion experience and became folded back into Catholicism. I still do not understand his conversion, even in the light of his own writings, but his re-induction into the faith of his ancestors now had me wondering anew about the power of faith and about the anthropological role of Christianity in the evolution of human morality. Looking for conversation about this issue, I discovered Gil Bailie’s site (The Cornerstone Forum), and then other conservative Catholic sites. Though I was never Catholic myself, I became fascinated by the Church’s millennial struggles with the secularizing forces of Western civilization. I understood that Catholicism—quintessentially emblematic of the sacred in Western history for the last 2000 years—is now in steep decline. The laity is going its own way, ignoring Church teachings about homosexuality, contraception, and a host of other issues. Conservative Catholics know this and resist the trend by discounting every idea that does not either emanate from the Church or receive its stamp of approval. In many cases, as I have discovered, this resistance amounts to nothing less than a repudiation of the scientific understanding of the world that has been accumulating since the Renaissance. 

The topic that drew me into discussions on conservative Catholic sites  was almost invariably homosexuality—because I am gay, because it was a “hot” topic on the blogs, and because I could see that conservative Catholic opinion was flagrantly out of touch with scientific understanding about homosexuality.  And the homosexuality issue took on added significance because it was, and is, one of Catholicism’s current “flash-points” with secularism.

But other “hot” topics on these blogs, such as contraception and climate change, were too compelling to ignore, and so I diversified, but always with a view to offering secular perspectives and encouraging more empirical approaches to issues.

I cannot even count the number of times I’ve cited consensus scientific opinions about these issues, only to be told that these opinions don’t count. Never mind that  98 percent of climate scientists believe that climate change is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because a certain university professor somewhere has published a peer-reviewed study claiming that the whole anthropogenic climate change theory is a conspiracy and a hoax! These denialist bloggers say they are only giving equal time to both sides of the question, but in fact they are ignoring consensus opinion on the matter while looking for confirmation of their biases. (Otherwise, they would give unequal time to the two sides of the question, at a ratio of 98 to 2.)

And never mind that all the major medical and social welfare associations in this country, as well as the World Health Organization, have unequivocally stated that homosexuality is not a disorder. The Church says that it is “intrinsically disordered,” and that’s that. Again, consensus opinion doesn’t matter, and if a veneer of scientific respectability is needed for the Church’s archaic stance on the issue, then any one of several socially conservative think tanks can be depended on to provide one.

With these frustrations roiling in the background, I came across a passage from Massimo Pigliucci’s “Answers for Aristotle” (2012), one of the best and most accessible guides I have found to understanding the roles of science and philosophy in modern life. Pigliucci, a philosopher of science at CUNY-Lehman College, has this to say:

Answers for AristotleScientific knowledge is both objective and subjective, because it results from a particular perspective (the human one) interacting with how the world really is. The result is that our scientific theories will always be tentative and to some extent wrong,… but will also capture to a smaller or greater extent some important aspect of how the world actually is. Science provides us with a perspective on the world, not with a God’s-eye view of things. It gives us an irreducibly human, and therefore to some extent subjective—yet certainly not arbitrary—view of the universe.

Now, why should any of this be of concern to the intelligent person interested in improving her or his well-being through the use of reason? Because a better understanding of how science actually works puts us in the position of the sophisticated skeptic, who is neither a person who rejects science as a matter of anti-intellectual attitude nor a person who accepts the pronouncements of scientists at face value, as if they were modern oracles whose opinions should never be questioned. Too often public debates about the sort of science that affects us all (climate change, vaccines and autism, and so on) are framed in terms of alleged conspiracies on the part of the scientific community on one side and of expert opinion beyond the reach of most people on the other side. Scientists are just like any other technical practitioners and in very fundamental ways are no different from car mechanics or brain surgeons. If your problem is that your car isn’t running properly, you go to a mechanic. If there is something wrong with your brain, you go to the neurosurgeon. If you want to find out about evolution, climate change, or the safety of vaccines, your best bet is to ask the relevant community of scientists.

Just as with car mechanics and brain surgeons, however, you will not necessarily find unanimity of opinion in this community, and sometimes you may want to seek a second or even a third opinion. Some of the practitioners will not be entirely honest (though this is pretty rare across the three categories I am considering), and you may need to inquire into their motives. Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. Keeping in mind, of course, that they might, just might, be entirely wrong.

Post-mortem sur “l’affaire du voile” (mais est-elle vraiment morte?)

December 15, 2012

par Doughlas Remy

Voile tricolore

Voile tricolore

En France, “l’affaire du voile” (aka “la bataille du voile”) durait 15 années et révélait de profondes lignes de faille dans la société française. L’affaire a commencé en 1989 avec l’explusion de trois filles musulmanes du collège Gabriel-Havez de Creil dans l’Oise pour avoir persévéré à porter le voile en classe,(1) et elle a conclu avec la loi Stasi de mars 2004 sur les signes religieux dans les écoles publiques.(2) Cette loi interdit le port de tout signe religieux ostensible mais permet le port de symboles ou de tenues discrets. On ne peut pas dire avec certitude que le dernier chapitre de cette histoire ait été écrit, mais il paraît que tous les arguments ont été articulés et que le consensus soutenant la loi est, pour le moment, stable.

Une grande partie de l’intérêt suscité par cette affaire est due aux alliances insolites qu’elle a créées. Les factions politiques, sociales, et religieuses se sont recomposées de sorte à brouiller les limites entre les idéologies et à granulariser l’opinion.(3) Des catholiques se sont alignés avec des musulmans pour soutenir les libertés de l’individu et de la conscience. Des féministes se trouvaient du côté des communautaires contre les mouvances anti-racistes, libérales et libertaires. Certains communautaires favorisaient le voile comme expression culturelle intégrante, tandis que d’autres l’opposaient comme expression de la désunion. Les Français se sont interrogés encore une fois sur la portée et l’application de la laïcité, principe affirmé en France depuis 1905.

Nous identifierons les deux positions fondamentales du débat—l’une soutenant le porte du voile dans les écoles et l’autre l’opposant. Nous examinerons leurs composants, leurs valeurs, et leurs arguments, avant de proposer que la solution adoptée par l’Assemblée Nationale en 2004 a été la meilleure possible.

On pourrait soutenir que, historiquement, l’Eglise catholique française et la droite politique ont eu tendance toutes les deux à résister à la laïcité et à l’assimilation des peuples non-chrétiens et même des non-catholiques. Bien entendu, la force et la visibilité de cette tendence ont varié selon les circonstances et l’esprit du temps, mais les racines culturelles du tribalisme sont profondes et tenaces. La droite politique et religieuse vise toujours à sauvegarder la pureté de la race et de la foi.(4)

Donc, l’intégration des peuples étrangers pose un dilemme pour la droite, en ce qu’elle peut mener à un affaiblissement de l’église et à une dilution de la “race.” Bien que l’église semble avoir enfin accepté que la France est bel et bien une république, elle n’a pas encore tout à fait accepté le caractère pluraliste et multiculturel de l’état. Avant 1945, on avait été bien content de faire rassembler les juifs dans des ghettos et des camps et de leur faire porter des emblèmes qui les identifiaient et les mettaient à part. On avait découragé et même prohibé les mariages mixtes pour que les “différences” soient préservées. En Allemagne, ce souci de la différentiation était devenu obsessif, pathologique et destructeur.

Dans la France de nos jours, ces tendences vers la pureté de race et de foi, bien qu’affaiblies, s’exercent souvent contre les musulmans. Censément, ceux-ci ménacent l’intégrité de la culture française et européenne. On n’a qu’à se rappeler Charles Martel et la bataille de Tours où les Sarrasins ont été repoussés par les Francs. Les Sarrasins sont enfin à nos portes, se dit-on maintenant, et il faut reprendre la lutte. Sous cette optique, la religion et les coutumes des musulmans sont à jamais incompatibles avec celles de la souche française et du christianisme. Puisqu’on ne peut pas expulser les musulmans en masse, on mettra en valeur les structures de la séparation.

Mais le climat politique avait beaucoup changé depuis la guerre, et de tels sentiments ne s’exprimaient plus avec autant d’insouciance qu’autrefois. Il fallait trouver des moyens et du langage pour éviter toute accusation de racisme ou d’islamophobie. On a fini par adopter, tout en l’infléchissant, le langage du multiculturalisme, de la tolérance, et des libertés individuelles.(5) Bien que ces valeurs n’avaient jamais été particulièrement favorisées ni par l’église ni par la droite, elles pouvaient servir à capturer les hauteurs morales. Ceux qui s’opposaient à l’assimilation espéraient paraître plus de gauche que la gauche. L’issue de leur stratégie était une coalition entre l’église catholique, les organisations islamistes telles que La Voix de l’Islam, des libéraux et des libertaires, et des associations de défense des droits de l’homme (surtout Amnesty International et SOS-Racisme).

Mais il faut se garder de dériver trop dans le cynisme ou les théories du complot. Sans doute, les manipulations stratégiques étaient réciproques, et il n’y a rien de suspect dans l’effort de gagner traction dans la sphère politique. Ceux qui s’opposait au port du voile faisaient de même. Il faut avouer que l’église catholique française se croyait marginalisée par une culture de laïcité qui aurait visé à l’exclure.(6) Elle se plaignait de la “perte” de libertés religieuses, ce qui impliquait une perte de libertés individuelles. Étant donné que le mot “liberté” a un statut presque sacré en France, l’Église croyait avoir trouvé une plainte légitime et puissante. Ajoutons-y l’accusation de “l’intolérance,” et voilà un ensemble de revendications à engranger le soutien de la gauche, des anti-racistes, de certains laïcs, et même de certaines féministes.

Selon Eva Joly, candidat dans l’élection presidentielle de 2012, “l’écrasante majorité des musulmans vit sa foi en accord avec les principes de laïcité. … Ils ne sont pas fâchés avec la laïcité.”(7) Toutefois, 90% des musulmans interrogés dans un sondage par le CSA en 2004 ont affirmé leur respect pour les principes républicains, y compris l’égalité des hommes et des femmes.(8) En revanche, 50 à 65% ont voulu garder l’option de porter le voile. Évidemment, le débat a brouillé les limites entre les islamistes et les musulmans modérés. Ceux qui voulaient garder la tradition du voile–surtout les musulmans de tendence islamiste–se trouvaient en terrain d’entente avec l’église catholique dans la mesure où chacun s’opposait à l’assimilation.

Une fois que cette position s’était encadrée comme une défense de la tolérance et de la liberté individuelle et religieuse, plusieurs associations libérales ont dû la soutenir. C’est ainsi que Amnesty International, L’Humanité (journal de gauche), et une branche de l’SOS-Racisme se sont alliés avec l’Église, les islamistes, et la droite. Amnesty International a déclaré que l’interdiction de dissimuler son visage “viole les droits à la liberté d’expression et de religion des femmes.”(9) L’Humanité a dénoncé la “volonté de mettre l’Islam au ghetto,”(10) et a parlé d’un relent de racisme et d’une démission éducative. Il a ajouté, “une sanction ne peut être infligée à des élèves en vertu de leur foi.” Malek Boutih, vice-président de SOS-Racisme, trouvait “scandaleux que l’on puisse au nom de la laïcité intervenir ainsi dans la vie privée des gens, malmener les convictions personnelles.”(11) SOS-Racisme était soutenu par MRAP (Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples).(12)

Certains laïcs–les soi-disant “laïcs tolérants”–se sont aussi déclarés “pour” le voile, bien qu’ils aient favorisé l’intégration des musulmans. Ils estimaient que le port du voile ne ménaçait pas la laïcité ou les valeurs républicains. Ils croyaient en plus que l’interdiction pourrait entraver le progrès des musulmans vers l’intégration.(13)

De l’autre côté du débat se trouvaient les laïcs “doctrinaires;” beaucoup de féministes; Alain Goldmann, Grand Rabbin de Paris; Lionel Jospin, ministre de l’éducation; et le SNES (Syndicat national des enseignements de second degré).(14)

Le principal du collège où la première expulsion a été faite a annoncé que le port du voile était incompatible avec le bon fonctionnement d’un établissement scolaire. Il a écrit, “Notre objectif est de limiter l’extériorisation excessive de toute appartenance religieuse ou culturelle. … [Il faut] respecter le caractère laïc de l’établissement.”(15)

Cette opinion a été soutenue par le SNES : “[Une] pratique souple et tolérante de la laïcité exclut cependant de transformer les établissements scolaires en lieux d’affrontement entre croyants de différentes confessions ou avec les non-croyants.” (16)

Lionel Jospin, ministre de l’éducation, a écrit,  “Il faut respecter la laïcité de l’école qui doit être une école de tolérance, où l’on n’affiche pas, de façon spectaculaire ou ostentatoire, les signes de son appartenance religieuse. … L’école est faite pour accueillir les enfants et pas pour les exclure.”(17)

Ces trois affirmations suggèrent que l’accord entre le gouvernement, les syndicats d’enseignants, et les laïcs doctrinaires était robuste. Toutes trois s’appuyent sur l’importance de respecter la laïcité, concept qui inclut l’universalité, le communautarisme, la fraternité, l’égalité, et même l’uniformité culturelle. Le voile, étant vu comme une marque d’infériorité et de soumission féminine, ainsi que d’un refus de l’exogamie et de l’assimilation, serait donc anti-égalitaire et anti-communautaire.

Zippered WomanBeaucoup de féministes ont insisté que le voile était un instrument de l’oppression et de la contrainte exercée sur les femmes musulmanes. Selon cet argument, même celles qui, censément, le portaient à libre volonté avaient interiorisé l’autorité des patriarches. Une fonction de l’éducation serait de les “libérer de la tutelle de leur peur,” de leur offrir “un lieu de révolte, de libération et d’espérance.”(18)

Pour conclure, il n’y avait rien de radical dans la solution adoptée par l’Assemblée Nationale. La loi Stasi s’applique uniquement aux codes vestimentaires dans les établissements scolaires publics. Les espaces publics et privés où les filles musulmanes peuvent exprimer leur identité culturelle sont toujours vastes. Le jugement d’Alain Goldmann, Grand Rabbin de Paris, à cet égard est propice: “Si un enfant juif veut vivre pleinement son identité dans le respect de la cacheroute et des fêtes, ses parents doivent l’inscrire dans une école juive.”(19)

De surcroît, la loi Stasi n’interdit que des signes religieux “ostensibles.” Les élèves peuvent toujours porter des symboles discrets de leur foi, tels que des petites croix, les étoiles de David, ou autres médailles religieuses.

Enfin, la loi Stasi est tout à fait égalitaire. Loin de discriminer contre les musulmans ou de les répérer, elle s’applique à tout élève de n’importe quelle confession dans les écoles publiques. À la fois souple et tolérante, elle crée et protège un espace où les différences sont moins susceptibles de provoquer des affrontements ou de faire obstacle au processus éducatif. L’instinct des instituteurs était sûr.


The Cornerstone Forum Silences Critics

October 11, 2012

Just beneath the calm surface of Gil Bailie’s Facebook page for The Cornerstone Forum (TCF), the waters are roiling. Bailie, a paleo-conservative Catholic whose life and career have become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the magisterium, uses TCF as a Gatling gun against all those perceived “enemies” of Catholicism gathered outside the walls: homosexuals, pro-choicers, secularists, and especially the more moderate Catholic voices, the voices of protest and reform. But he is attempting to insulate himself—on Facebook of all places—from any return fire. Bailie has built a fortress that also functions, as one visitor put it, as an echo-chamber and a hall of mirrors—a make-believe world where those who are faithful to the Church can go on pretending that the institution is eternal and that its teachings are unassailable.

Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum

Except that it’s not and they’re not. The make-believe world is under attack, most significantly and vocally by Catholics themselves. And Bailie is armed and ready for its defense. Those who disagree with the views expressed on TCF are enemies who must be wiped out, not through negotiation or reasoned argumentation but by making them simply … disappear, like the “desaparecidos” of Chile and Brazil under authoritarian regimes, or those fractious Politburo members whose images were erased from official photos. Bailie regularly purges the site of troublesome visitors. This year’s casualty count is now at around eight. These were all, with one or two exceptions, intelligent reform-minded Catholics. Others were of unknown or no faith affiliation but respectful and thoughtful in their comments. All had carefully crafted their objections to the tone and content of TCF and deserved to be heard, if only by each other.

The latest of the “desaparecidos” is S. Darrick Northington, in whose honor I am posting the conversation that occurred today regarding the HHS mandate:


Can’t Find a Purpose Without Religion? Try This One.

January 19, 2012

From Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Natures,” pp. 695-96:

“Though our escape from destructive contests is not a cosmic purpose, it is a human purpose. Defenders of religion have long claimed that in the absence of divine edicts, morality can never be grounded outside ourselves. People can pursue only selfish interests, perhaps tweaked by taste or fashion, and are sentenced to live lives of relativism and nihilism. We can now appreciate why this line of argument is mistaken. Discovering earthly ways in which human beings can flourish, including stratagems to overcome the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression, should be purpose enough for anyone. It is a goal that is nobler than joining a celestial choir, melting into a cosmic spirit, or being reincarnated into a higher life-form, because the goal can be justified to any fellow thinker rather than being inculcated to arbitrary factions by charisma, tradition, or force. And … it is a goal on which progress can be made—progress that is halting and incomplete, but unmistakable nonetheless.”

British Rabbi Explains Why We Still Need Religion

January 9, 2012

From “The Limits of Secularism,” by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks:

(HT to Andrew Sullivan)

Think about it: every function that was once performed by religion can now be done by something else. In other words, if you want to explain the world, you don’t need Genesis; you have science. If you want to control the world, you don’t need prayer; you have technology. If you want to prosper, you don’t necessarily seek God’s blessing; you have the global economy. You want to control power, you no longer need prophets; you have liberal democracy and elections.

If you’re ill, you don’t need a priest; you can go to a doctor. If you feel guilty, you don’t have to confess; you can go to a psychotherapist instead. If you’re depressed, you don’t need faith; you can take a pill.  If you still need salvation, you can go to today’s cathedrals, the shopping centres of Britain — or as one American writer calls them, weapons of mass consumption. Religion seems superfluous, redundant, de trop. Why then does it survive?

My answer is simple. Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? We will always ask those three questions because homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal, and religion has always been our greatest heritage of meaning. You can take science, technology, the liberal democratic state and the market economy as four institutions that characterise modernity, but none of these four will give you an answer to those questions that humans ask.

After ticking off the ways in which religion is no longer the sole supplier of goods that humans value—knowledge, control, prosperity,  health, and salvation—the Rabbi claims to have found three that secular culture cannot supply: identity, purpose, and moral direction.

Typical nihilist

This is simply incorrect. Does the Rabbi imagine that a secular humanist cannot know who she is, why she is here, and how to live her life? The answers she discovers through her lived experience and her secular education may not be as readily available or as facile as those that religious institutions offer, but they are nonetheless valid.

And more than just “valid.” The answers she discovers may also be more truthful and more conducive to human flourishing. What is the good of believing that one is a child of God and that one’s purpose is to serve Him if, indeed, there is no God? What is the good of obeying God’s laws if, in fact, God’s laws are unjust?

I won’t dispute that the goal of serving a fictive god can give one’s life meaning and purpose. But I do question whether such purposes are always healthy for human beings to have. More important, I question whether God’s laws should provide a moral compass for 21st-century human beings.

Typical Secular Humanist

There are “other” purposes, “other” meanings, and “other” moral priorities that might serve us better than those offered by religion. And they are humanistic ones.

Where do we find them? In literature, in film, in poetry and music, in philosophy, psychology, and the hard sciences. We may also find them in religion, but religion is not their only source.

So, here’s my own quick-and-dirty answer to the Rabbi’s three questions. (I am breaking his second question into two parts, in order to address the two meanings of “purpose,” i.e., proximate and ultimate).

Who am I? I am a human being.

Why am I here? (proximate) Because I was born out of the Earth’s biosphere.

Why am I here? (ultimate) To fulfill my full potential as a human being: to love, to create, to struggle, and to understand.

How shall I live? In harmony with other human beings and with the environment that sustains us all.

I don’t see nihilism in any of that, nor any cause for despair.

What if Jesus Had Been Aborted? (Continued)

December 28, 2011

The pious folks at the Manhattan Declaration organization are, by their own account, focused on three issues—abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom. Their inspirational message for this holiday season is that the world would be a much worse place if Jesus had been aborted. There would be no towering cathedrals, no great requiems or cantatas, no Sistine Chapel. The New World might not have been discovered, and there certainly would not have been a Declaration of Independence or a United States as we know it. The list gets even sillier toward the end. No Veteran’s Day? No wine? My hunch is that someone at MD ought to lay off the wine.

But okay, now that they’ve started their ridicu-list, let’s keep it going.

If Jesus had been aborted, …

  • Approximately one million Jews and Muslims would not have been murdered by the Crusaders on their way to retake Jerusalem from the Muslim Turks (1095-1208, ME). (All figures from R. J. Rummel: Statistics of Democide.)
  • The Cathars of Languedoc, numbering about 200,000, would not have been exterminated by the Papacy in collusion with the King of France. (13th century).
  • Approximately 350,000 conversos would not have been tortured and killed in the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Martin Luther would never have written On the Jews and Their Lies, a rabid anti-Semitic tract that even the Nazis might have found shocking.
  • The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), in which approximately 30,000 Huguenots were slaughtered by French Catholics, would not have occurred.
  • Giordano Bruno (philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician) would not have been burned at the stake  for heresy. (1600).
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) would not have been threatened with torture and placed under house arrest for teaching heliocentrism.
  • The European Wars of Religion (1520-1648) would not have occurred. In only one of these—the Thirty Years’ War—5.75 million people died in the area now called Germany.
  • Witchcraft trials would not have occurred in Europe and the American colonies. Between 1480 and 1750, approximately 50,000 people were accused of witchcraft and executed.
  • Ireland and the Balkans would never have been torn by sectarian strife.
  • Slavery might have ended much earlier. (In the U.S., Southerners quoted the Bible—including the New Testament—for support of the slave trade.)
  • The Holocaust (Shoah) would not have occurred. (See photos.)
  • Women might have won full civil rights much earlier.
  • Rampant sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests would not have occurred.
  • Millions of Catholics throughout the world would not have died from AIDS and other STDs as a result of the Vatican’s long-standing ban on condom-use (finally reversed in November, 2010).
  • There would be millions fewer AIDS orphans in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries.
  • Untold millions of women would not have died from abortions performed under primitive and unsanitary conditions.
  • More family planning in African and Latin-American countries might have been possible, resulting in lower population growth and overall improvement of women’s lives.
  • Pat Robertson could have had a car dealership, and Jerry Falwell could have been a carnival barker.
  • Ted Haggard would not have become one of our era’s most confused men.
  • Jim Jones, founder of Peoples Temple, would have been unable to include Jesus Christ among those he claimed to reincarnate. (Others were  Akhenaten, Buddha, and Vladimir Lenin.)
  • Millions of gay children would not have been bullied, told that God “hated their sin,” disinherited, and dis-fellowshipped by their churches.
  • There would be far more marriages because gay men and lesbians would have been able to marry the ones they love.
  • There would be far fewer divorces because gay men and lesbians would not be pressured to marry opposite-sex partners.
  • 45% of the U.S. population would not believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old.
  • Darwinian evolution would have been introduced into the public schools curricula shortly after publication of The Origin of Species.
  • A brawl between clergymen of different Christian faiths would not have occurred after this year’s Christmas celebrations at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
  • There would be no Second Coming, no Rapture, no Millennial Reign (of Christ), no Armageddon.
  • Hal Lindsey could write science fiction or cheap romances.
  • In Pampanga, Philippines, there would be no Lent ceremony in which the faithful flagellate themselves until they are covered with blood.

I have to stop somewhere, so I’ll leave it to our readers to suggest other ways in which our world would be different … if only Jesus had been aborted.

Good Without God

December 24, 2011

From "The Book of Genesis Illustrated," by R. Crumb, 2009

I wrote in an earlier post that our moral values pre-date not only religion but human speciation.  This may come as a surprise to those whose religious indoctrination has equated atheism with nihilism, but it is nevertheless a fact solidly grounded in evidence from the animal world and, indeed, from human history.

The idea that everything is permitted in a world without god is mythical. Mothers don’t take care of their babies because God instructed them to, and there is no inherent difference between atheist mothering and Christian, Jewish, or Muslim mothering. If we abstain from murder, theft, or adultery, it is not because the Ten Commandments were drilled into us as children; Christians think nothing of making graven images or forgetting the Sabbath (Saturday). Children raised without religious instruction are no more prone to violent crime than others.

If we get our morality from God, then why does our moral sense so often override Biblical teachings, and why do we feel revulsion at the behavior of Yahweh in the Old Testament? How dare we? Do we think our moral sense is superior to God’s?

Louise M. Antony, in a recent New York Times opinion piece (“Good Minus God”), describes two theological theories about the nature of the good. The first, known as “Divine Command Theory” (DCT), claims that what is morally good is constituted by what God commands. In this view, things take on moral value because God prefers them; they have no inherent worth. For example, murder would have no moral valence were it not for God’s commandment not to murder.

The second theory, “Divine Independence Theory” (DIT), says that the goodness of an action is independent of God, and that God prefers such actions because they are already good. In this view, there is a moral order that supersedes God. The theory does not account for its origins, however.

The obvious problem with DCT is that anything that we consider immoral, such as enslavement, rape, and genocide, could be declared moral by God. And in fact, the Old Testament god did command his people to commit these atrocities. We now recognize such behavior as abhorrent and tyrannical, and our moral compass (superior to God’s) points us toward a stance of disobedience. Are we then to “challenge” God, as Job did, only to be slapped back into line? (“Where were you,” God said to Job, “when I created the heavens and earth?”)

DIT is no less problematic, partly because it doesn’t tell us where our moral sense comes from, but also because it demotes God into a being whose moral judgment may at times be seriously flawed—as when he orders enslavement, rape, and genocide.

Antony concludes that “the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs. … You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding him.”

Is There Too Much Morality in the World? (Continued)

December 23, 2011

Steven Pinker, author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature"

A reader asks:

How does one argue successfully that morality pre-dates religion? It seems difficult to prove that religion hasn’t always been wedded to the moral impulse through the codifying of social behavior in some way.

It’s not at all hard to show that morality pre-dates religion and even human speciation. Not all of our morality goes back that far, of course, but most of the relational models that govern our interactions can also be found in other species. An anthropologist named Alan Fiske (cited by Pinker in his book) identified four models, three of which pre-date homo sapiens sapiens.

First there’s Communal Sharing, which is thought to be facilitated by the release of certain hormones such as oxytocin, the “trust hormone,” particularly in females during and after childbirth. Many species exhibit strong bonding behavior, share resources freely, and synchronize their movements and in some cases their feeding. In humans, the communal sharing mode manifests in a variety of ways: commensal meals, rituals of bonding, singing in unison, synchronized dancing, and the co-mingling of bodily fluids.

Then there’s Authority Ranking, which Pinker characterizes as “a linear hierarchy defined by dominance, status, age, gender, size, strength, wealth, or precedence.” And he adds, “Presumably it evolved from primate dominance hierarchies, and it may be implemented, in part, by testosterone-sensitive circuits in the brain.”

Third is Equality Matching, which involves tit-for-tat reciprocity and is the basis of our sense of fairness. Pinker writes: “Few animals engage in clear-cut reciprocity, though chimpanzees have a rudimentary sense of fairness, at least when it comes to themselves being shortchanged.” But he adds, “the neural bases of equality matching embrace the parts of the brain that register intentions, cheating, conflict, perspective-taking, and calculation.” These are all behaviors that other animals engage in to greater or lesser degrees, especially the primates.

Only the fourth model, Market Pricing, is unique to our species.

If the first three of these moral models pre-date homo sapiens sapiens, then religion must have inherited them. And so there you have an anthropological answer to the question that theists and atheists have recently been debating: “Can one be good without God?”

Yes. The answer is, unequivocally, yes.

Religion may have been a vehicle for moral models, but these models were on the scene long before religion was there. And if religion were to evaporate, they would still be there to guide and regulate our behavior.

An Atheist’s Sermon

December 21, 2011

Jeremy Beahan

Jeremy Beahan, host of the Reasonable Doubts radio show and podcast, delivers an outstanding sermon about secular humanism at All Souls Unitarian Church in Grand Rapids, MI.

To listen, click here and scroll down to “An Atheist’s Sermon.”