How Not to Fight the War on Christmas

Lately, there have been some encouraging signs that believers of conscience are more willing to stand up to the religious right than they once were. But this effort, though well-intentioned, is not the right way to do it.

It's time for a ceasefire in the Christmas culture wars.

...We invite Messrs. O'Reilly, Gibson and Donohue to join us in a new campaign of civility and conscience that restores our focus on the common good during this holy season.

This letter, signed by a number of liberal clergy, calls on the religious right's most prominent bloviators to stop using Christmas as an excuse to bash nonbelievers and assert their supremacy, and instead join in an effort to promote social justice.

There's nothing wrong with the sentiment. What I object to is the limp, conciliatory tone which, rather than calling out these loudmouthed bigots for their misdeeds, essentially just asks them politely to stop and implies that all will be forgiven if they do. This is the same weak, tepid attitude of conflict-avoidance and appeasement that allowed religious moderates to be shunted into the background in the first place by the marching culture warriors of the Christian right.

If we're ever to defeat the religious right, it's not enough to issue meek proclamations asking them to please be nicer. It should be more than obvious that stirring up anger and hate against the designated enemy is these people's stock in trade. It's been an enormously successful and profitable strategy for them, and as long as it continues to work, there's no reason for them to abandon it. No, if we're going to win, we have to take the fight to them; we must show that we can neither be pushed around nor intimidated into silence, and that we will not concede control over the public square.

In this respect, this brilliant gambit by the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia is just the kind of thing we need more of. When the Chester County courthouse erected a nativity scene on the lawn, thus creating a limited public forum for similar messages, the FSGP seized the opportunity to erect a "tree of knowledge" decorated with laminated copies of books by Richard Dawkins, Thomas Paine, Christopher Hitchens, and other outspoken freethinkers past and present. (It also has copies of the Bible and the Qur'an, under the theory - which I agree with - that nonbelievers should read those books.) I'm proud to say that I've met Margaret Downey, the passionate and dedicated president of the FSGP and soon to be president of the larger Atheist Alliance International.

Predictably, this monument to freethought has been vandalized several times by arrogant religious bigots who appear to be under the delusion that they have sole ownership of America. One woman at the scene, quoted in the linked article, warns that "God will take his hand off America" and "we will suffer violence and sickness and death" if atheists are given equal rights. In my opinion, it says all we need to know about these people's mindsets that they fantasize a god who punishes disapproved speech with indiscriminate terror and destruction.

Reactions like this are to be expected when atheists finally step up to assert our long-denied place in the public discourse. But vandalism and harassment will not stop us, and as much as militant believers would like to exert control over society and its speech, they'll soon learn that they have no choice but to live with us. The more we speak out, the more the religious right will learn that it can't have everything its own way. They can only seem powerful and respectable when they go unchallenged. A determined opposition, pointing out their untruths and fallacies at every turn, will do more to diminish their power than any number of wishy-washy statements from theologians.

December 24, 2007, 10:30 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink61 comments

Season of Division: The Episcopal Church Splits Up

There's at least one Christian denomination that won't be singing "peace on earth" this holiday season. A diocese of the Episcopal Church has seceded and plans to align with a South American branch of the Anglican Church, the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. (For readers unfamiliar with the tedious details of church hierarchy, the Anglican Church is the global denomination; the Episcopal Church is the American branch of that church. The Episcopal Church, until this announcement, had 110 dioceses in America.)

The schismatic diocese is the Diocese of San Joaquin, comprising 47 parishes and 8,800 members situated in California. At their annual convention last Sunday, the diocese's 110 delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession. They're not the first Episcopals to do so - last year, two large, wealthy parishes in Virginia split away, along with a multitude of smaller congregations (see my last December's post "True Colors"). But this marks the first time an entire diocese has chosen to break away from the American convocation of the church. And this decision may open the floodgates, with as many as half a dozen other dioceses poised to follow suit. Depending on whether the Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams denounces this unprecedented incursion of one branch of the church into another's territory, there may eventually be a full-scale civil war between liberal and conservative factions of Anglicanism.

The issue driving all this, no surprise, is the Anglican church's doctrine toward gays. The ordaining of openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003 set off a firestorm of controversy over whether the church should permit gays to be clergy and bless homosexual couples, or whether, like many Christian denominations, they should consider homosexuality a sin to be "cured". A lesser, though still divisive, issue was the treatment of women; the current head of the American convocation is a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, which rankled conservatives. (The Diocese of San Joaquin is one of three dioceses that still refuses to ordain women, which nicely sums up their bigoted medieval theology.) Over the last few months the debate had become deadlocked, as theological disputes tend to do, and this secession was the predictable result.

I don't know much about the Province of the Southern Cone or whether they hold views as repugnant as those of Peter Akinola, the Nigerian archbishop under whose authority several breakaway American parishes have placed themselves. Akinola publicly supports the imprisonment of gay couples and the criminalization of gay-friendly clubs and political organizations. The South American church undoubtedly holds less liberal views than the Episcopal leadership, but it remains to be seen whether they support positions as evil as Akinola's.

This affair further goes to show the futility of theology as a means of forming beliefs. Since theological positions are not based on evidence, when two sides disagree, there's no way to settle the question. The inevitable result, as we've seen here, is for one side to break the deadlock through schism or force. With the American convocation now planning a massive, costly wave of litigation over who owns the church property in the breakaway dioceses, it seems clear that this debate will drag on for years and ultimately produce nothing but misery and resentment on all sides. Those apologists who say that religion works more good in the world than atheism should be reminded of this fact: for all the charitable work religion has done, how much time, effort and money has it expended on pointless battles like this? How many resources has religious discord wasted, resources that could more usefully have been spent on issues of importance to real people?

December 12, 2007, 8:43 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink10 comments

Instruction Manual or Chronicle?

A few days ago, I had an epiphany that I think sheds considerable light on the difference between liberal and fundamentalist believers. This principle seems to me to be underappreciated, and if it was more widely understood, I think it might head off some of the misunderstandings which I've seen atheists commit. Here it is:

Fundamentalist believers view their sacred text as an instruction manual; liberal believers view it as a chronicle of events.

This difference is important in shaping the religious groups' respective worldviews. In the eyes of the fundamentalists, the Bible (or Qur'an or Book of Mormon or whatever other text) is God's word, dictated with infallible perfection to the minds of his followers. It's meant to be the deity's instruction manual, telling human beings everything we need to know about how to live. Therefore, every verse in it - whether explicitly directed at future readers or not - contains some lesson, some moral, whether implicit or explicit, that we should try to figure out and then apply to our own lives.

For liberal believers, by contrast, the Bible is not a direct pipeline to God, but a chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs. God did not speak directly to his followers and tell them what to write down - or, at best, he only did so rarely. Instead, God's followers tried to discern his will in the flow of events and infer what messages he meant to convey. Sometimes they guessed correctly, and therefore these books can provide valuable glimpses of insight into God's character and desires; but other times they guessed incorrectly or let popular prejudices color their writing, and therefore these books, for all their beauty and complexity, inherit all the fallibility that human beings are prey to. To this group, scripture is a way to learn about human nature at least as much as it is a way to learn about God's nature.

It's the former group that atheists most often criticize, and with good reason. A person who reads about, for example, Joshua's war of extermination against the Canaanites, and concludes that modern-day Christians have a similar mandate from God to subdue all nonbelievers, will likely pose a serious threat to the life and liberty of the rest of us. By reading the violent verses of scripture (and there are many such verses) as instructions to go and do likewise, believers become dangerously militant and dogmatic. Atheists are absolutely right to point out the evil and cruel nature of such a moral system and condemn the readings that inspire it. Granted, the fundamentalists are an easier target, but they're also far more likely to be the ones trying to force their beliefs on others.

On the other hand, the liberal view is not subject to criticism in the same way, and we weaken our own case if we treat it as though it was. Pointing out how evil it would be to obey these violent verses is a meaningless criticism, because liberal believers do not believe these verses should be obeyed. They consider them just as flawed as we do.

However, that doesn't mean the liberal position can't be criticized. We just have to go about it in a different way, bearing in mind that the direct attack effective against literalists is not going to be effective.

First: Unless they believe that God spoke to one people exclusively - and most liberal believers don't - then they should acknowledge that their own view of scripture as a chronicle implies that other cultures will also have had contact with God, and other religious texts will reflect the same interpretive process. Why, then, would a believer define themselves exclusively in the symbols and language of one particular religion? Why call yourself a Christian if just as much genuine understanding of God can be found in the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita as in the Bible? Why not rely equally on those texts in your weekly services? (Indeed, doesn't any book, whether written in a religious context or not, convey something of humanity's understanding of God?) Of course, most believers, whatever their views, rely mostly or exclusively on one text, which makes little sense given their own assumptions.

Second: What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard. In most cases this process is guided by the believer's own moral intuitions and by the moral progress society has subsequently made. Now that we know slavery, racism and sexism to be evils, modern liberal theists disregard the parts of their text that teach these things. Other verses which have better stood the test of time are assumed to be true lessons from God.

However, once you've come this far, what do you need scripture for at all? Clearly, once a theist has reached this point, their own conscience is a superior and perfectly sufficient guide. And note that this approach works equally well if we assume that scripture has no divine revelation, but is wholly the product of fallible, conflicting humans. A reader can still employ their own conscience to decide which parts are good to follow and which should be rejected. Why, then, continue using the text which they have already admitted to be flawed? Why not discard it entirely and instead use reason to determine what ethical behavior consists of? At the very least, why not edit it, as Thomas Jefferson did, to keep only the good parts and get rid of the rest?

The final useful line of argument is one that works equally well against believers of all stripes. Namely, by what evidence do those believers conclude that their particular text reflects the will of God, in whole or in part? What makes them so certain that the text reflects any divine influence at all, rather than simply being the product of men, some of whom were benevolent and kind and some of whom were vindictive and cruel? Liberal believers acknowledge that the authors of scripture were wrong about many things. How do they know that those authors weren't also wrong about the existence of God?

December 7, 2007, 8:22 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink31 comments

Making Excuses for the Bible

Via Elliptica, I came across a post titled Imprecations, exegesis, and hermeneutics on the blog Higgaion, written by a liberal Christian theologian. The post blasts Wiley Drake and his call for "imprecatory prayers", and argues that Drake has seriously misunderstood the verses he quotes in support of his beliefs.

Leaving that issue aside for now, Higgaion goes on to make a larger point about whether we should always imitate the behavior described in the Bible. He asserts that even if the God of the Bible commands acts of violence or hate, that is not necessarily a warrant for Christians to do likewise.

Suppose that the genocidal commands in the book of Joshua, the rules for "holy war" in Deuteronomy, and even the texts of Psalm 109 and 137 perfectly represent commands given to the Israelites by God, or at least models offered by God for the Israelites or Judeans to follow. Would that then mean that... the only truly "faithful" response is to endorse and imitate such violent and hateful language?

I argue that it does not.

...There is a deep and powerful stream of resistance—even to divine initiatives—within scripture, and in many cases such resistance is precisely where faithfulness dwells.

Higgaion offers several scriptural examples of this, but I think most of them don't support the point he's trying to make.

Consider Job. He argued that God was treating him unfairly, that he could win against God in an impartial lawsuit … and at the end of the book, God agreed with Job, over against Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar who sought to justify God against Job!

This interpretation puts a convenient spin on the truth. Yes, it's true that in the Book of Job, God agrees that he treated Job unjustly (2:3: "thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause"). But when he finally shows up, it's not to apologize for this wrong. Instead, when God appears to Job, he belligerently declares that he is the creator of heaven and earth and can do whatever he wants because he's the strongest, so there! God isn't satisfied until Job abases himself and confesses that he should have acknowledged God's sovereign right to destroy Job's life and slaughter his family for no reason at all.

Consider Abraham, who objected to God's plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

Again, it's true that Abraham bargains with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if even ten righteous people lived there. It's also true that God then goes on to obliterate the cities anyway. Shouldn't an omniscient deity have known in advance that he was just playing with Abraham's hopes for mercy? And what about the incident on Mount Moriah, where Abraham meekly obeyed God's command to murder his son?

Consider Habakkuk, who argued against God's use of the Chaldeans as an instrument to punish Judah.

I'm not sure what verses in the Book of Habakkuk this is referring to, but again, as with Abraham, the Bible says that God ultimately does send the Babylonians to destroy Judah and carry its people off into slavery - regardless of the prophet's protests. And in the end, Habbakuk praises God regardless (3:18).

Although most of Higgaion's examples of "resisting" God don't show what he claims, I think he does make one telling point.

In fact, if one believes that God exercises sovereign control over the cosmos, then every act of "intercessory" prayer is in fact an objection, mild or strong, to something that God has set in motion.

It's undeniably true that intercessory prayer amounts to asking God to change his mind, something which makes no sense in standard Judeo-Christian theology of an "omnimax" deity. (This has been noted before.) But then again, religion is hardly based on a rational, logical view of the world and our relationship to it. One of its primary purposes is to provide comfort and a sense of control to human beings living in a random and unpredictable universe. Illogical as the notion is, intercessory prayer exists because it serves this purpose, of giving believers a sense that they've done something to influence the course of events.

That said, I do think Higgaion's post makes an important point, though not exactly the one he thinks.

When the psalmists ask God to curse their enemies, we may rightly and faithfully say, "No." When Ezra tries to break up marriages because of the ethnicities (or merely citizenship) of the husband and wife, we may rightly and faithfully say, "No." And were we to think that God had said to us, "Go kill all your neighbors and live in their houses," we might rightly and faithfully say, "No."

I agree absolutely with this. These deeds and many more which are recorded in the Bible are evil, and would remain evil even if they were the word of God. Even if God himself was commanding us to do these terrible things, the only morally acceptable response would be to refuse. (To Higgaion's list, I would add the idea that people's sins require forgiveness through the shedding of someone else's blood.) But this does not mean that a god who issued such commands would be a good being worthy of our worship. How could it? Instead, the conclusion Higgaion is groping toward is the very one that atheists have been saying for some time: the god described in the Bible is a profoundly evil being. If such a being existed, it would not deserve to be worshipped or obeyed by any person. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that this cosmic tyrant does not exist, and that the Bible is merely the creation of fallible, primitive humans.

Higgaion is obviously an intelligent, ethical person, and I wish he wouldn't spend so much time defending a book that doesn't deserve defending. More puzzling to me than the fundamentalists are the liberal and moderate believers who admit the numerous flaws of the Bible, and then go on believing and using it. Why bother? If the Bible is so flawed, then why do we need the Bible? Why not just set it aside and use our own conscience and reason to figure out what's right? The amount of effort and time that has been spent through history on making excuses for the Bible, a book that should have long since been relegated to the status of historical curiosity, could have been far better spent on useful and productive endeavors. We know the book is manifestly imperfect: why not take the next step and admit we don't need it to live our lives?

November 23, 2007, 10:31 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments

Francis Collins on Atheism

The Point of Inquiry podcast recently aired a very interesting interview between D.J. Grothe and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project and a devout evangelical Christian. In the interview, Collins discusses the intersection of science and religious faith, whether belief in God is a scientific hypothesis, and the attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists.

Dr. Collins is a superlative scientist, and his published work is beyond reproach. Sequencing the human genome is undoubtedly among the greatest scientific achievements of all time, rivaling the original discovery of DNA itself for importance. Not only was this a tremendous leap forward in our own self-understanding, it also promises immense practical benefits that may save countless lives, including the keys to fighting hereditary disease and the prospect of medicine custom-tailored to each individual's genetic makeup.

So, Francis Collins is an intelligent, accomplished scientist: about this there can be no doubt. This makes it all the more surprising that his arguments for the existence of God were so outright terrible. Without exception, his case was shallow, poorly thought out, and in many places plainly fallacious or flatly contradicted by evidence. His arguments against atheism indulged in many typical apologist fallacies, including the blatant use of straw men that bear little or no similarity to the actual positions of real atheists.

I recommend listening to the whole podcast, but to get a sense of what I mean, here are some highlights:

8:45: "[Atheism] assumed that the atheist knows so much as to be able to exclude, within their own band of knowledge, the possibility of something outside of nature, namely God. That seemed to be a pretty arrogant position, a position of some hubris, for anybody to take and certainly not one that you could defend on rational grounds."

Almost right out of the gate, Collins resorts to the time-worn "you'd have to search the whole universe to know there's no god" apologetic. This comment demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of atheism, as well as a fallacious attempt to shift the burden of proof onto disbelievers. Anyone who makes a positive claim has the obligation to support that claim with evidence. If no evidence is provided, then the rest of us are fully justified in disbelieving it, and this holds especially true where evidence is missing when it should be present. We do not need to search the cosmos for proof positive of God's nonexistence; we can merely observe that no one has yet provided evidence remotely compelling enough to support such an extraordinary possibility.

11:08: "A purely naturalistic worldview is impoverished in certain important ways. It basically says some questions are just out of order, like 'What's the meaning of life?' and 'Why are we here?' and 'Is there a god?' If you're going to insist upon a 'fundamentalist' brand of atheism, which is the brand that I think we hear from people like Dawkins and Harris, then basically you are saying those are not questions that are worth asking."

This is a grossly ignorant mischaracterization of atheism. No atheist I've ever known or heard of has ever said that questions about the meaning of life are "out of order". On the contrary, we discuss them routinely and repeatedly emphasize that humanism can give answers to these questions that are at least as satisfying as any answer offered by religion. (Grothe did rightly chide Collins for this obvious falsehood.) Most especially, we do not believe that the question "Is there a god?" is "not worth asking". It should be too obvious to bear saying that the reason we are atheists is precisely because we have asked this question and consider it answered in the negative.

13:30: "I began to read what some of the great minds of the last many centuries have contemplated... some of those thoughts caught me up short, because they raised issues I'd never really seriously considered. Most prominently amongst those thinkers was the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis... He outlines those [reasons] in a little book called Mere Christianity, which I would challenge any atheist to look at seriously and see whether those arguments in that book can be easily refuted. I don't think they can."

I have read and reviewed Mere Christianity, and yes, it can be easily refuted. It is a shallow and ill-considered bit of apologetic fluff. Lewis' main argument is that all human cultures have had essentially the same moral code, which could only be the case if God had installed it in us. He breezily ignores the fact that all cultures throughout history have not had the same moral code, but differed in many drastic ways about the nature of moral behavior. If Collins takes his cue from Lewis, this would go a long way toward explaining his similarly vacuous theology.

18:20: "Why do the atheists insist that we should get over religion and try to be good to each other? Who cares about being good? If they're right, we should all shrug off the whole idea and be just as darn selfish as we possibly can."

Again, Collins drags out the old fallacies. This time it's, "If there is no god, then there's no morality and we should all go on killing sprees." Again, as opposed to his uninformed criticisms, atheists have given great thought and in-depth discussion to this topic, and many nonbelievers have proposed secular foundations for morality.

24:00: "Science essentially has to remain silent on the real, fundamental question of 'Is there a god?' There may be clues from nature that are more consistent with God's existence than not, but it's not really a scientific question."

We can clearly see here how Collins wants to have it both ways. He wants to claim that science offers evidence supporting the existence of God, but whenever there's evidence presented against the evidence of God, he draws back and declares that this is not a scientific question. Which is it, Dr. Collins? Either this is not a scientific question, in which case science can offer no evidence either way and belief in God is purely a matter of faith; or it is a scientific question, in which case it can be answered in the negative as well as in the positive. (I myself believe that the existence of God as conceived of by most religions is most certainly a testable claim, and one that has been tested and found wanting.)

26:45: "By applying the scientific method to religious claims, you're committing, I think, a logical fallacy." [Collins recounts a parable about a scientist who sweeps the ocean with a three-inch-mesh net and goes on to conclude, based on what he found in the net, that nothing lives in the ocean which is smaller than three inches.]

As an analogy for God, this is utterly inappropriate. With this or any other scientific study, one can always point out the limitations of the original study and propose a new one that rules out those sources of error. What Collins is proposing is something completely different: an entity whose existence can never be detected by any empirical investigation.

A better analogy to Collins' view would be if the ocean survey was done, and the scientist's critics accuse him of incompleteness because, they say, there are fish that live in the ocean that are intangible. No matter how fine a net you use, they can pass immaterially through it, so the scientist failed to catch any of them and incorrectly left them out of his catalogue of ocean life. Such a claim would, of course, beg the question of how the claimant could know that these fish exist in the first place.

Collins makes one more final, telling comment that I can't let pass. He says that when he was young and an atheist, he assumed that faith was "something that people arrived at by childhood indoctrination or maybe some emotional experience". He then says that he finally investigated for himself and found that, to his amazement, there was a "compelling and rational case to be made for God" that overwhelmed his skepticism.

Or so he says in this interview. How did he describe his own conversion on a different occasion?

...I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

Collins' own conversion came about for the exact reason he himself assumed earlier in life: as the result of an emotional experience owing nothing to reason. (P.Z. Myers sarcastically asks, "If the waterfall had two parts, would he have converted to Zoroastrianism?") He assumed that people become believers for irrational reasons and then went on to prove it.

It's amusing how Collins, in describing his own conversion, tries to employ two stock apologist narratives which contradict each other. First he says that he was an atheist when he was younger, and I see no reason to doubt that, but he also says that he had never really thought about or investigated the topic until prior to his conversion. This second admission greatly weakens the first, for if it's true that he had never considered an intellectual defense of atheism, why should atheists who have studied the topic be impressed by his testimony? (When D.J. Grothe, to his credit, presses Collins on the obvious point that his lack of intellectual background in atheism made him "ripe for being plucked up" by proselytizers, he laughs and admits, "Perhaps so.")

The interview mentions that atheism is far more common in the scientific community than religious belief, and if Francis Collins is any sort of representative example, it's not hard to see why. He isn't a creationist, nor does he fall prey to the other forms of scriptural literalism that make most forms of fundamentalism laughable and demonstrably untrue. He's also a highly qualified scientist who should understand how to argue rationally and know how to recognize a fallacy. If anyone could present a respectable case for theism, I would expect that it would be him. But instead, all we get are the same tired old falsehoods about atheism, emotion substituting for evidence, and easily refuted apologetics. There really is nothing more to it than that.

September 14, 2007, 6:43 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink82 comments

On Literal Interpretation

"I've written before about one variety of mirror-opposites of these illiteralist believers... those who I call 'sectarian atheists.' These are usually folks who start out like Marshall Hall, fully indoctrinated in the all-or-nothing illiteralism of American fundamentalism. They start out believing, like Hall, that the Earth must be fixed or else the Bible is false and there is no God and life is meaningless despair. And then they catch a glimpse of the moons of Jupiter or of an eclipse or of a middle-school science textbook and they realize that the Earth moves. At this point they declare themselves 'atheists,' yet for all their supposed rejection of their previous beliefs, they continue to share Hall's way of looking at the world. Theirs is an extremely sectarian, parochial atheism -- the God in which they no longer believe is a very particular kind of God."

The influence still wielded in our society by religious fundamentalists is undeniable. From science to reproductive rights to freedom of speech, there is scarcely an area in which their presence is not felt. And yet, when we atheists train our fire on them, we are often accused of being too parochial in our outlook, too literal in our interpretation. There are far subtler and more sophisticated interpretations of scripture, we are told, which are not vulnerable to the criticisms that unseat the clumsy literalism of the fundamentalists. These beliefs, we are further told, are the ones we must engage with if we ever want to have a truly justified atheism, and that to do anything else is to flail at strawmen.

The theologians who hold this view usually claim that large parts of the Bible, or whatever other text, should not be read literally and were never meant to be read literally. Instead, they should be interpreted as allegory meant to convey a spiritual message. The argument usually asserts that after everything else - the six-day creation, the global flood, the exodus from Egypt, the united monarchy, Heaven and Hell, sometimes even the miracles of Jesus - is recognized as the metaphor and symbolism it was meant to be, there remains an irreducible core of verses that should be interpreted literally. Usually, these verses are the ones that convey the message of God's existence, his providence, and his love for all of humanity.

Certainly, these theologians are on the right track. The miracle stories in the Bible lack credibility: they are contradicted by evidence, and completely fail to cohere with the lawful, rational view of the world we have spent the last several centuries painstakingly developing. No intelligent person should believe that these fantastical fairy tales took place exactly as written. Literal belief in these stories has been and continues to be a tremendous impediment to human progress, and regarding them as mere metaphor is a large step forward. In this respect, I fully agree with the believers who say that these stories should be treated as myths.

However, though the theologians are pointed in the right direction, I think they have not gone far enough. Their progressive mythologization of the Bible is a good idea, but it stops at an arbitrary point for no good reason. Why don't they go further and admit that the concept of "God" is itself just a metaphor for the way ancient cultures viewed the world? If they were to do this, they'd finally have a theology that is rational and in accord with the evidence, and one with which an atheist could agree without qualm.

We atheists are not, as the above quote implies, wedded to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nor is that the only religious view we oppose. I freely admit, we do spend most of our time attacking that literal view and demonstrating its fallacy, because that is the kind of view that poses the greatest threat to moral and intellectual progress. But we disbelieve equally in all religious views, regardless of their degree of literalism, as I wrote last year in "Setting the Record Straight". Our response to liberal believers, who want us to take a certain set of scriptural verses literally, is the same as our response to fundamentalists, who want us to take a somewhat larger set of verses literally. If you want to go there and no further, what is your evidence? What are the facts that give us reason to believe that what you say is true?

August 19, 2007, 12:53 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink37 comments

An Answer That Begs the Question

I don't want to spend all my time picking on the Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith, but a recent posting there contained such a devastatingly revealing omission that I couldn't resist the chance to comment on it.

The posting in question was written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and a minister of the United Church of Christ. I bear no grudges against the UCC - any denomination that could have given us Barry Lynn is all right in my book - but an irrational theology is an irrational theology, regardless of the ethics or character of the person who believes in it.

Thistlethwaite's post is about the problem of evil, a perennial problem for theists of all stripes. As I have previously remarked, no less an apologist than William Lane Craig has called it atheism's "killer argument". If anything, I think religious liberals and moderates have a less satisfactory answer to this than the fundamentalists. As odious as fundamentalist theology is, it at least offers a clear explanation for evil and suffering: an angry, judgmental god who expresses his wrath by lashing out against human beings. Liberal theology does not seem to have a clear answer for this problem even within the context of its own assumptions, and tends to answer the problem of evil with platitudes about how God wants us to help each other that avoid the question entirely. Thistlethwaite does not do this, but her response is possibly even more telling.

Her post is titled "Fortunately There's Atheism in the Bible", and to give her credit, she does not shy away from the problem. On the contrary, she states it plainly, in vivid terms that effectively show its seriousness:

An unvarnished look at the 20th century could make an atheist out of anybody: the trenches in France, the ovens of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda, Columbia, Angola, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on and on...

It may be that the horrors of the 20th century and the violent beginning of the 21st account for at least some of the current interest in atheism. How can any God worth the name countenance these acts and do nothing to stop them?

The question is admirably posed. Now comes her answer - or more precisely, her lack of an answer. Here is how she finishes the post:

Faith that cannot doubt, and doubt completely, has not plumbed the depths of faith - that is what the Book of Job teaches me and it is what a dialogue with atheism teaches me. I would dishonor the deaths of millions of innocents if I did not dare to look radical evil in the eye and ask, "Why?"

Take note: this is her conclusion. That is how the piece ends. She poses the question and then lets it drop with a resounding thud, without even making an attempt at giving an answer. In the face of the world's evil, it seems, she has no answer to give.

To forestall the otherwise inevitable reply, I stress that I am not expecting a theist to know everything or to have an answer to every question they might be asked. But there is a vast difference between a question that simply remains to be answered and a gap that undermines a crucial point in a belief system. This is the latter and not the former. The problem of evil is not a minor matter of only academic interest, but a contradiction that bears directly on the heart of belief in God. As long as such a gaping logical hole exists, it would be unreasonable to believe without some answer, but none is given here. When it comes to evil, this seems to be at least one case where religion falls silent.

* * *

On a related note, I hereby nominate Ronald Spooner of Port Arthur, Texas for the first annual Not Getting The Point Award, for this comment recently published in his local paper:

Most of the killing going on in the world today is being done — or caused to be done — by people who believe in a supreme being. Can you imagine what would be capable of if they did not believe?

Mr. Spooner's letter is a classic example of missing the obvious. Honestly viewing the violence and devastation occurring around the world in the name of religion, yet driven by an assumption that religion can only make people better and not worse, he concludes that theism is the only thing holding people back from even worse atrocities. (How much worse does he have in mind?) The notion that religion might actually be playing a causative role in these tragedies never even seems to occur to him. This is a little like a man throwing water on a grease fire, and consoling himself as the flames spread with the knowledge that things would be even worse if he hadn't tried to extinguish it.

I have an answer for you, Mr. Spooner: Yes, I can imagine what people would be capable of if they did not believe in God. They would be capable of building a peaceful world of reason where our mutual differences are set aside in the name of our common humanity. Religion is not the only cause of our ills, but as long as it divides us, and as long as people think their dogmas are more important than other people's freedom and happiness, the killing you refer to will never end. Atheism is not the solution to all our problems, but it is definitely the solution to one of the bigger ones. Put aside your prejudices and view it with open eyes, and you may realize that for yourself.

January 2, 2007, 10:48 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink41 comments

Book Review: The End of Faith/Letter to a Christian Nation

The End of Faith

Summary: An incendiary polemic against unjustified belief. Many strong points, strongly made - but what on earth is that endorsement of psychic powers doing in there?

With the 2004 publication of his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris has probably become one of the best-known and most influential atheists in public discourse today. In this review, I will briefly summarize this book and then offer some remarks.

Chapter 1, "Reason in Exile," talks about the pervasiveness of faith in our world and the way in which it has been considered above criticism, which Harris shows to be a suicidally irrational decision. A great number of terrible wars, atrocities and dictatorial societies have come about because of faith - not in spite of faith, but because of it - and our peril is now worse than it has ever been, as adherents to a medieval, death-welcoming theology do now possess or may soon possess planet-destroying weapons. There is plenty of blame to go around for this situation, and Harris distributes it fairly: not just the fundamentalists on all sides who consider obedience to dogma more important than life, but also the religious liberals and moderates who, while not participating in religious atrocities, nevertheless make them possible by insisting that people's faith is a private choice that should not be criticized. (This is a novel and important argument for atheists to make, and I believe credit goes to Harris for first proposing it.) He argues to the contrary that faith must end if humanity is to survive.

The second chapter concerns what a belief is, how beliefs are formed, and how they should be justified. Harris' background in neuroscience shows as he discusses the biological basis of belief, then defines faith and shows how it differs from mere belief in specifically being an unjustified belief about the world. He discusses why faith appeals to people, but also how it is dangerous and maladaptive in insulating incorrect beliefs from investigation and encouraging people to make decisions on a bad basis, such as the claims of a religious authority.

Chapter 3 concerns the Inquisition and the Holocaust, two of the most infamous eras of the Western world. Harris goes into gruesome detail regarding the torture techniques and other evils that were invented during these periods, and how both arose directly from religious belief. The Holocaust, for example, had its roots in centuries of medieval Christian anti-Semitism, including accusing Jews of ludicrous crimes such as "host-nailing", supposedly stealing consecrated communion wafers and driving nails through them to crucify Jesus again, and the "blood libel" that Jews kidnapped Christian children and drained their blood for use in religious ceremonies. The latter accusation is still made regularly in the Muslim world.

Chapter 4, "The Problem with Islam", could fairly be called the centerpiece of the book. Harris argues forcefully that Islam is an intrinsically violent and despotic religion, and that Muslims will become more radical and dangerous to the precise degree in which they believe in it and take its claims seriously. He asserts that the West is "at war with Islam", whose scriptures plainly teach the desirability of martyrdom and the moral imperative for Islam to conquer the world. He cites a disturbing study that found that a majority or plurality of Muslims in numerous countries regard suicide terrorism that specifically targets civilians as justifiable, whereas America and other Western nations, though they have committed many outrages upon people in other countries, do not specifically intend to harm or kill the innocent and punish those who do, whereas most Muslim countries celebrate such an outcome.

Chapter 5, "West of Eden", shows that the influence of Christianity in the modern world is not benign either. In particular, Harris points to the worldview of the Christian religious right which hopes fervently for Armageddon - in other words, the destruction of the world - and not just welcomes but actively encourages such an outcome. He discusses Christianity-inspired laws that criminalize and harshly punish harmless private behavior because that behavior produces pleasure of a sort that Christianity has always considered sinful to experience. Finally, he discusses stem-cell research and how irrational religious opposition to it is prolonging the suffering of millions.

Chapter 6 concerns the nature and basis of morality. Harris' views are very much in line with my own. Contrary to the stereotype of atheist as moral relativist, he asserts as I do that there are objectively correct and objectively incorrect moral values, and that these can be discovered by investigation of the world and our relationship to each other. Some readers may dispute two of his more controversial points, the immorality of pacifism and the moral equivalence of torture and wartime collateral damage, but his arguments are serious and deserve serious consideration.

The final chapter discusses "experiments in consciousness". This is the part of the book many atheist readers may find the strangest. There is no doubt that Harris is an atheist, but he is strongly influenced by thinking from Eastern traditions (as he says himself). He recommends meditation as a way to develop one's consciousness and become awakened to the artificiality of the sense of self and the falsehood that there is a distinction between the perceiver and the object perceived. Although Harris does not make any supernatural claims for the efficacy of meditation, his endorsement of mysticism (he uses the word himself) left me wary, despite his insistence that what he means by this is a rational project of improving mindfulness through concentration.

Harris' flirtations with mysticism will be one of the two most likely points of major contention in this book. The other is his often incendiary tone, especially when it comes to Islam. Harris takes no prisoners when it comes to the irrationality of faith. This is not necessarily a bad thing: there are many pithy phrases scattered through the book that made me laugh (I liked it when he calls religious beliefs "uncontaminated by evidence" and "a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance"). There are also some genuinely insightful passages, such as when he observed that religious moderation has sprung from better understanding of the world and not better understanding of the texts that inspired that belief, summing it up with the phrase: "The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside." He also makes the insightful point that an unfalsifiable belief is not actually a belief about the world at all, since it is unrelated to any real or hypothetical way the world might possibly be.

Regarding Islam, I do not think Harris is on a "lunatic right-wing anti-Islamic jihad", as he has been accused of (source). His criticisms of Islam are harsh, but then again, the acts being committed around the world in the name of Islam are truly and unconscionably evil, and he is absolutely right to call attention to that and to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. He is similarly right to point out that many other oppressed and disenfranchised groups have not given rise to persistent terrorism, and that many Islamic terrorists (including the 9/11 hijackers) were actually comfortable and well-educated. Their actions indisputably came from their beliefs, not from their economic circumstances.

That said, I do think several of his arguments overplay the situation. For example, he presents the hypothetical case of a suicide bomber on a crowded bus and claims that it is "trivially easy" to guess that person's religion - and then goes in (in an endnote) to admit that the Hindu Tamil Tigers have actually carried out more suicide bombings than any other group! Although he takes pains to address this fact, the truth remains that it seriously undercuts the entire point of his example, and he would have been better off modifying the argument or eliminating it entirely.

I also do not think that the conflict between Islam and the West is as absolute or as inexorable as Harris portrays it. Christianity, after all, has many of the same teachings about waging war on nonbelievers and the paradise promised to faithful martyrs, and yet whatever harms it does cause, it has not given rise to terrorism the way Islam has. The reason for this is that the Christian world passed through a period of Enlightenment that established memes of reason, democracy and human rights to counter excessive dogmatism. Clearly, what we need is to provoke a similar renaissance in the Muslim world. Granted, this may be a more difficult task considering the self-protecting memes that have seemingly gained a firm foothold among Islam, but I think for the most part it has not even been tried yet. We cannot gauge the possibility of such a project until we have made a sustained effort.

There is one other suggestion I must make, which is that this book could have stood some more editing. My copy has about 230 pages of text and about 130 pages of endnotes, containing not just citations, but long, discursive arguments on matters tangentially related to the main text. This digressive material is better in the endnotes than in the body, but it was still annoying to have to keep flipping back and forth, and I think it would have been even better to eliminate much of it entirely, as most of it does not substantially add to the strength of the argument.

I do have another, more serious objection. Although Harris' mysticism strikes me as odd, he takes pains to state that by using this word he means the development of a calm and mindful state through practice, nothing supernatural. That is fine with me. However, I must register a complaint about this sentence from chapter 1:

"There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science."

The citation is to books by Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, two notorious pseudoscientists, and even approvingly cites some books that claim to prove the reality of reincarnation! This is a distressing foray into unreason in an otherwise good book. I still recommend The End of Faith, but I hope Harris will take his own advice on the primacy of reason and come to his senses in this matter, and I would advise readers to take him with just a pinch of salt in the meantime.

Letter to a Christian Nation

Summary: Now that's how you do it. A compact, concise distillation of the atheist position that loses none of its rhetorical force or persuasive value.

Written as a reply to the flood of religious feedback he received after publishing The End of Faith, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is a point-by-point response to his critics. As the title suggests, it is addressed primarily to American Christians (the book is written in the second person), and presents the reasons why Harris and many other atheists consider religious beliefs not just false but dangerous, and why atheism is a moral imperative in the face of the religious chaos and hatred that is dividing our world. Topics covered include the immorality of verses in the Bible, the harm caused by imposition of fundamentalist beliefs, the failure of religion to cause good social effects, and how religious moderates are unwittingly providing fertile ground for violence by promoting the idea that faith is a respectable method of decision-making that should not be criticized.

This is well-traveled ground, and Harris does not add anything that a knowledgeable atheist will not be aware of. However, there are millions of religious people to whom this material will be brand-new. And Harris' presentation is just right: concise, eloquent, forceful, passionate, citing evidence where appropriate without cluttering the flow of the text, omitting extraneous detail without diminishing the force of his arguments in the slightest. His criticisms are strong but fair, and I think less inflammatory than they are in The End of Faith. The mysticism that sullied the former text is also not present here, and his argument is thoroughly grounded in reason and in real-world concerns.

One of the most notable aspects of Letter to a Christian Nation is its brevity. It is almost more of a pamphlet than a book. My copy is about ninety pages of large type in a small book, and could easily be read in an hour. This is not a criticism, however. On the contrary, I think it is an excellent idea, because this book is short enough that a religious person might realistically read the whole thing if it was given to them. Many of my reviews have praised the excellent argumentation put forth by atheist authors while lamenting that the religious people who most need to hear it will probably never read it, but with this book I think there is a plausible chance that that will actually happen. I have said that there are very few books I would wholeheartedly recommend as a believer's introduction to atheism, but this book is one of the rare few that I think is suitable for that important purpose, and that should be viewed as high praise indeed.

October 25, 2006, 6:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink18 comments

Better than the Bible

Time magazine recently ran an article titled "10 Questions for Katharine Jefferts Schori", an interview with the presiding bishop-elect of the American Episcopal Church. The article contains several questions about issues of social justice and compassion, and though I do not agree with Schori's theology, I have no disagreement with the ethical philosophy she advocates. Some notable quotes:

What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church? Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.

What is your view on intelligent design? I firmly believe that evolution ought to be taught in the schools as the best witness of what modern science has taught us. To try to read the Bible literalistically about such issues disinvites us from using the best of recent scholarship.

Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven? We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.

These are laudable sentiments, and I wish more Christians felt the same way. Christianity would be a far more positive and beneficial religion than it currently is, if that were the case, and I am glad that there are believers out there who turn their lives to positive goals and resist the hate of the religious right. However, Schori's moral beliefs, as praiseworthy as they are, owe very little to the religious tradition of which she is a member. Her beliefs are good not because they are in accord with the Bible, but precisely because they recognize the fallibility and inferiority of the Bible, and because she has the courage to disregard scripture where it says things that conscience plainly shows to be wrong.

For example, take her belief that there may be paths to salvation other than belief in Jesus. Again, this is surely a belief praiseworthy for its compassion and tolerance; the opposite belief is an evil creed that makes one's chance for salvation heavily dependent on the time and place of one's birth, and that has inspired wars and inquisitions beyond counting throughout history as sects clashed over which one had the true path to God. However, this cruel exclusivism is undeniably taught by the Bible. In John 14:6, for example, Jesus states, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Exodus 22:20 threatens death on anyone who worships any god other than Yahweh. Only by ignoring these teachings can Schori state her beliefs as she does - and she is right to ignore them, but in that case, why look to the Bible as a moral authority at all? I doubt she believes the Bible is inerrant, but in that case, what does she need the Bible for when human conscience and reason are themselves perfectly sufficient guides?

I wrote in "God Is Love" about this sort of salad bar theology, where believers pick and choose which verses from scripture they follow and ignore others. More importantly, their morality is always suffused with a generous portion of originally humanist ideas. As an educated person, Schori must be aware that the ideals of social justice she upholds hardly got their start in Christianity. In fact, most of the moral progress humanity has made came about not because of the Bible, but apart from it, and in some cases in spite of it. The idea of democracy, to name one basic example, did not in any sense come from the Bible, whose preferred model of government is monarchy and kingship. It came from the ancient Greeks, and secondarily from Enlightenment thinkers who recognized the injustice and the cruelties of divine-right rule. Democracy is surely one of humanity's most important inventions, and yet the Bible has not a word to say about it.

The ideas of women's rights and equality did not come from the Bible, and are in fact strongly condemned and rejected by the Bible, as well as by many famous historical Christians. The early suffragists faced vehement and bitter opposition from believers, who correctly observed that scripture indisputably speaks of women as inferior and subservient to men. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, "In the early days of woman-suffrage agitation, I saw that the greatest obstacle we had to overcome was the Bible. It was hurled at us on every side.")

And then there is slavery. Although the movement to abolish slavery had many Christian participants, the Bible itself clearly approves of slavery, establishing an elaborate set of rules for the buying and selling of human beings and even how hard an owner is allowed to beat them. It contains not a word indicating that this practice was abolished or that it was ever meant to end. Similarly, the authors of the New Testament repeatedly exhort slaves to be faithful and obedient, and in one parable Jesus favorably compares God to a slaveholder who whips his slaves.

Today, we see this same pattern echoed in the struggle over gay civil rights, whose opponents point out that the Bible never speaks of homosexuals except when it is calling for them to be put to death or condemning them to eternal damnation. (It is worth noting that even within Schori's own church, such sentiments as hers are not universal; though she appears to support the ordination of gay clergy, many other Episcopal leaders have made bigoted condemnations of homosexuality, and the dispute now threatens to tear apart the church.) As with many other civil-rights struggles in the past, the majority of people standing in the way of equality and liberty are religious conservatives whose fundamentalist beliefs cause them to view others as less than human.

Although the Bible contains many verses calling for basic kindness and charity, it is silent on, and often actively opposed to, the philosophical principles of justice and equality needed to build a truly good society and not just a society that contains a few good people. Believers who nevertheless support these principles are better than the Bible. They are more just than the Old Testament. Their morality is superior to the teachings of Jesus. They are better people than God.

Believers such as Schori might tell me that I am taking the Bible too literally; that it is not, as the fundamentalists believe it is, the unalloyed word of God, and that some of its verses are meant to be interpreted only metaphorically, or even cast aside as the product of fallible humans from a different culture and time, and that individual conscience must always play a part in determining what is right. I agree with this as far as it goes, but I would actually urge such believers to take the next logical step. Specifically, I would ask them: Why do you follow a book that you yourself acknowledge to be flawed? Why not just cast the entire Bible aside and instead draw your morality from a source you do not have to apologize for? And given your agreement that certain parts of scripture are not meant to convey literal truth but are only metaphors, why not take the next step and say that the concept of God is itself just a metaphor for how certain groups of ancient people saw the world?

Although I fault the religious right's morality, I acknowledge their consistency. With the religious left, it is the other way around: I applaud their far superior morality, but call attention to their selectivity. We should neither defend these religious texts as factual nor make excuses for them. Instead, I would encourage both groups to come to the side that has it all, both factual consistency and reason-based morality: the side of atheism.

August 8, 2006, 6:12 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink36 comments

Where Credit is Due

This blog frequently criticizes the religious right, that group of cultural conservatives and fundamentalists who use Christianity to justify their bigoted, theocratic and anti-humanist views. But this group is so often in the news pushing its agenda, it is sometimes easy to forget that they do not speak for all believers in America. There is a religious left that advocates social justice, equality under the law, and civil rights for all people.

Although these views are praiseworthy, one might say that the religious left deserves criticism for its mere absence. And there is merit to this charge. The religious right could never have gained as much power as it did if progressive and liberal believers had not failed to speak out and challenge them over the past few decades, allowing the fundamentalists to speak for all theists by default and set the tone and the agenda of the national discourse. Thankfully, there are at last signs that a counterrevolution of true religious progressives is taking shape, and one of the denominations leading this effort is the United Church of Christ. The difficulties they have so far faced in getting their message out illustrate how thoroughly the religious right has poisoned the atmosphere of American politics.

In late 2004, the UCC produced a commercial showing a bouncer standing at a church's door turning would-be parishioners away, followed by text reading, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." As reported by Media Matters, two of America's three major broadcast networks, CBS and NBC, both refused to sell airtime to the UCC to air this commercial on the grounds that it was "too controversial". CBS' explanation for its refusal was especially appalling:

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations," reads an explanation from CBS, "and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks."

Apparently, CBS executives consider it their obligation to be censors acting on behalf of the President, preemptively silencing any view they fear he might disagree with. (How far this network has fallen since the days of Edward R. Murrow!) To judge by this decision, the message that a church does not discriminate is too controversial to convey to the public; the logical inference to be drawn from this is that church policies discriminating against gays, minorities and the disabled are not controversial. Neither CBS nor NBC has ever apologized for this outrage.

And now, it seems, this pattern has repeated. The UCC has produced a new commercial, again conveying a message of inclusion through humor. The commercial, titled "Ejector Pew", shows a church where parishioners press a button to activate spring-loaded ejector seats that send undesirables flying, again followed by the message, "God doesn't reject people. Neither do we." This time, the ad was rejected by all three broadcast networks, as well as Fox and many other cable television channels. Some networks, such as ABC, explained that their guidelines prohibit commercials containing religious themes - this despite the fact that ABC has previously run religiously themed commercials produced by James Dobson's ultra-right-wing group Focus on the Family. Others, such as NBC, simply appealed to policies that prohibit commercials addressing "controversial issues". (Has NBC ever run ads produced by political candidates?)

The abject and craven cowardice shown by these networks is a sad commentary on the influence of the religious right in our society. It seems that their message of bigotry and exclusion has become so pervasive in the media that it has taken on a kind of inertia, becoming the default perception which progressive viewpoints must struggle to overcome merely to make themselves heard. (The rejection of the UCC ad is also a textbook example of why the continued consolidation of American media under the aegis of a few large corporations is a bad thing - granting just a few individuals the terrifying power to shut out a viewpoint which they disapprove of from virtually all corners of society. But that is a topic for another post.)

Happily, the UCC has not taken this defeat lying down, forming campaigns such as Accessible Airwaves to pressure the networks to air their ads. The UCC's Ron Buford laid the hypocrisy bare:

"This is 'sorry, cable trouble' all over again," said Buford, who is African American, harkening back to the 1950s when some television stations refused to run network news that positively portrayed the Civil Rights Movement.

The point cannot be made too strongly that the broadcast networks are not merely private organizations which may deny airtime to anyone at whim. They are using a public resource, a section of the spectrum licensed for their use by the government. As such, they have a Constitutional obligation to treat differing viewpoints in an even-handed manner. (The Supreme Court upheld this argument in the 1969 case Red Lion Broadcasting v. F.C.C.) By denying a platform to the UCC, the networks are not just showing a political bias in favor of the right wing - a case could be made that they are violating the First Amendment.

Policies prohibiting "controversial issue" advertising in general, even if consistently applied, do not solve this problem, and may even make it worse. This is because such a policy would simply have the effect of silencing both sides of an issue, rather than just one. "Equal protection of the laws is not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities," as the Supreme Court held in the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer. In my opinion, whenever there is a controversial issue, any responsible media organization has the duty to allow the public to be exposed to all sides so that they can make an informed choice. It is a betrayal of the public trust for a media group to attempt to keep the public ignorant of any information that might actually have an effect on their thinking. Such enforced blandness of information may increase the profits of corporate titans by ensuring that no viewer is offended enough by anything they see to turn off their television, but it is morally reprehensible in that it contributes to creating an ignorant, apathetic public, a state of affairs that is poisonous to any democracy.

For all these reasons, I wish the UCC all success in their campaign to gain access to the airwaves, and to promote a healthy, progressive religious view in general as an alternative to the toxic politics of the right. I intend to do whatever I can to help them, and I encourage my readers to do so as well, via a feedback form on the Accessible Airwaves website. A commitment to free speech demands no less.

This is not to say I consider the religious left's beliefs to be any more valid or better supported by evidence than those of the religious right. On the contrary, as an atheist I reject all supernatural beliefs alike. Nevertheless, for the time being we are on the same side, and it serves little purpose to critique them. If and when the religious right is defeated, then we can go at it hammer and tongs and see whose beliefs are better grounded in evidence. In the meantime, we should support attempts by the religious left to regain their voice in our society's discourse. Though we may not agree with them in all areas, they are our natural allies against a far worse system of beliefs.

April 14, 2006, 11:02 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink5 comments

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