Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

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Useful Spiritual Teachings from Frank Zappa

August 26, 2017

Some readers, perhaps, have not heard of the great Frank Zappa. I have referenced him once already here, to contrast his teachings with some flaccid spiritual pabulum from Neale Donald Walsch. Zappa’s first musical creation, some time in the early 1960s, was a rock opera called I was a Teenage Maltshop, which was unfortunately never recorded. His first recorded performance led to him being arrested by the FBI. In 1963 he played the bicycle, after a useful lesson on how to play bicycle, on a popular TV show, to the bewilderment of the host. (If you watch the clip, the young Zappa seems far more relaxed and sensible than the hyperactive host.) He had only been playing bicycle for two weeks beforehand.

Zappa died, far too young, in 1992. In my opinion he was the only person who, had he lived, would have been capable of beating Trump in the 2016 US election.

He was one of the greatest percussionists of the modern age never to be recorded playing percussion, and certainly the greatest drummer ever to become one of the greatest guitarists ever to have started out as a drummer. He also opposed a movement to ban or censor “filth” in pop music, and would have taught today’s leftist free speech opponents a thing or two about giving idiots freedom of speech in order to show them up as idiots.

And here is a song that sums up at least half of the Dhammapada, and none of the Bible, and says everything that anyone who has access to other sources of good advice would ever need to hear.

It’s even clearer than Neale Donald Walsch’s

“You are an Individuation of Deity, a singularization of The Singularity, an aspect of Divinity. You are the Localized Expression of the Universal Presence… You are God… You are in the Realm of the Physical — what has also been called the Realm of the Relative…which is where Experiencing occurs.”

Or Deepak Chopra’s
“You are a holographic expression of the entire universe that is manifesting as a continuum of probability amplitudes for space/time events.”

.

It’s called You Are What You Is.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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A.N. Wilson’s Stupid Creationist History of Charles Darwin

August 6, 2017

Well known writer of serious biographies, A.N. Wilson, claims to have spent spent 5 years studying Darwin’s life. His summary of his resulting book suggests that he has taken 5 years to make the same unbelievably stupid and ignorant mistakes that the average Creationist needs only 5 minutes to make.

Unfortunately, the imminent devastating reviews by biologists will probably be overshadowed by breathless and triumphal accolades from clueless left wing academics, right wing religious fanatics, and left wing hack journalists.

I haven’t read his book, but here’s my take on his own atrocious summary of it in the UK’s Evening Standard. I’m no biologist, but neither is Wilson. I haven’t spent 5 years studying Darwin’s work, but have read a couple of his books, a string of popular and some fairly specialized books on evolution, and Janet Browne’s wonderful two volume biography of Darwin.

The headline:

A.N. Wilson: It’s time Charles Darwin was exposed for the fraud he was

Ah, finally — after 160 years, someone is going to break the silence and criticize Darwin. No one ever thought of doing that before.

And the subheading:

Two of his theories about evolution are wrong — and one resulting ‘science’ inspired the Nazis

And he’s already off and running:

…I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago…

Wilson carries on venting like this — like some kind of nutter — for another two long paragraphs. I will ignore them, beyond noting that equating Darwin with Lenin and Stalin is both ridiculous, and a sure sign that biology is about to be treated as an ideology and not a science — and therefore to be countered by rhetoric and not facts.

Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are.

Bingo. Stupid Bingo. And of course he is completely and utterly and stupidly and embarrassingly wrong. The field of evolutionary biology is demonstrably a science. It makes testable predictions whose accuracy can be determined to a degree of certainty. As a science, unlike rhetoric or creationism, it progresses, according to an objective standard. Rather than link to a stack of text books, I will link to one page from a stack of text books, John Endler’s classic study of natural- and sexual selection in the wild. (See Footnote 1.)

It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged.

Here he is right. Only about 99% of biologists accept it. Of those who don’t, none have come up with any better explanation. Those who have claimed to have done, (like Stephen Meyer in his Signature in the Cell) have produced no new discoveries and contributed nothing beyond the assertion that their idea must be valid.

Intelligent Design Creationists have correctly identified exactly the kind of evidence that would be devastating to evolutionary biology if it were ever to be found. This is the idea of irreducible complexity — a characteristic that must have appeared fully developed, as any earlier stages would not have been viable.

No such case has ever been found, and dozens of purported cases have been shown to be erroneous. (See Footnote 2)

But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel?

Now this is just stupid.”Especially in Britain”? One of the central figures, Ernst Mayr, was a German who worked mostly in New Guinea, where evolution seemed to work just as effectively as at Oxford. And what on earth is Wilson talking about when he claims that the neo-Darwinian synthesis rejected Mendel? It was a “synthesis”, (note the definition), both of Darwinian ideas and population genetics (based on Medelian genetics).

Genetics had advanced greatly since the rediscovery of Mendel’s work around 1900, and it was found that genetic mutation (unknown to Mendel) was the cause of the heritable variability that Darwin had correctly intuited from masses of evidence. I have no idea why Wilson thinks the modern synthesis — the link of Darwinian natural selection with population genetics — is not based on genetics.

Ah, here we get it:

There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion.

This is not stupid. It is flaming idiocy of the kind that does not deserve to published. Shame on Wilson’s pig ignorant editor, proof reader, publisher, and all of his friends, his family and children above the age of twelve, for not rescuing this stupid man from making a stupid idiot of himself in public.

Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.

You fucking stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid idiot, A.N. Wilson.

You flaming fucking idiot.

Go to the library and take out a biology text book right now, A. Stupid. N. Stupid. Wilson, and open it up. Now flip through the pages until you find Mendel and a bunch of fucking goddam motherfucking peas on a grid. Why do you think they are there?

Correct. They are there because that is normal, accepted biology, and Richard Dawkins did not order people to stop talking about Mendel. He likes Mendel. They all like Mendel, and they couldn’t care less if he was a monk or a Mormon or a freaking Martian.

It is you, Mr Wilson who is obsessed with personalities, not scientists. It’s only creationists like you who obsess about Darwin. “Darwinism” only looks like an ideology if you don’t know what it is, where it came from, or how it works. It only looks like an ideology if you have managed to remain pig ignorant of scientific progress.

Wilson continues:

The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work. His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations.

Wrong. There were speculations that used the term, but all lacked Darwin’s unique combination of natural selection acting on inherited variation.

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution…

What? Where is your evidence for this stupid assertion?

And even if there was evidence (which there isn’t), so what if he did want to be that? Lots of great scientists were assholes, but it doesn’t mean their science can’t be built upon for further progress.

And all the evidence points to Darwin being a remarkably compassionate man. He was famously prepared to cede priority to Wallace for his life’s work. He opposed slavery. (There’s an entire book about that!) In his private dealings, he was probably one of the most decent scientists in history.

Wilson continues–

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story. He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him.

He happily studied, was deeply influenced by, and referenced them all. He carefully catalogued items from thousands of correspondents. He even acknowledged Aristotle as a predecessor, even though he was quite mistaken to have done so.

He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.

As noted earlier, the two ideas that distinguish Darwin from his predecessors were (a) that inherited variation within a population is (b) acted upon by natural selection.

I assume Wilson is referring to these.

One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

Sigh. Gould’s work was (like the work of every other evolutionary biologist), a confirmation of the central tenets of Darwin’s work. Given that Wilson thinks evolutionary biology is not a science, I have no idea why he suddenly thinks it *is* a science when Gould does it.

Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples. Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.

Even at this late point in Wilson’s atrocious summary of his obviously atrocious book, this is stunning. He thinks Gould’s ideas are not part of Darwinian evolutionary theory. This is just flat wrong. It’s like saying Newton wasn’t a mathematician because he invented calculus. Furthermore, the term “missing link” only means something to creationists. Depending on one’s frame of reference, every single species that ever existed, and did not go extinct, is a transitional species.

And all this has absolutely nothing to do with Darwin’s ideas in history. So why is Wilson babbling about this? He doesn’t say it, but the person who Gould was squabbling with over this ultimately minor quibble in biology, was Richard The Beast 666 Dawkins. So of course Wilson picks a side in an argument he doesn’t understand, and doesn’t even know is utterly irrelevant to his own baseless claims.

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless

Wrong. He noticed that nature is at times horrible and at times sweet and cutesy.

Look at his extraordinary and still relevant book, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Darwin argues, for example, that animals, including humans, signal submission/non-threatening behavior by exaggerating the opposite of what a species’ aggressive stance would be. He studied all kinds of behaviors, from the aggressive to the peaceful and subtle, in relation to how they may have evolved.

that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall.

Wrong again, you ignoramus. You spent 5 years on this and didn’t come across any of Darwin’s work on the role of social cooperation in evolution? In fact There’s a wonderful book on how altruism can evolve: let me direct you to The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Darwin did indeed say he approved of the term as an alternative to “natural selection”, but as wikipedia notes, he used it to mean “better designed for an immediate, local environment”. — In other words, not objectively fitter”, as the stupid and ignorant Wilson is about to proclaim.

And just how “ruthless” and aggressive does Wilson think the barnacles and vegetable molds upon which Darwin based his studies were?

He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things.

Evidence for these assertions about Darwin’s character and motives? Competent biographers avoid speculating about such things. Wilson should know that. I don’t need to speculate that Darwin wasn’t like that. I can simply point to his trenchant opposition to slavery.

He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

Darwin used the terminology of his day, both when opposing slavery for “savages” and when speculating that “savages” would become “civilized” if they were raised in a society such as Darwin’s own.

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

No, Mr Wilson, we don’t “all know”. And especially you don’t know. There was a thing called Social Darwinism, and it’s a fairly complex topic. But despite containing the name “Darwin”, social Darwinism was no more Darwinian than it was social.

As noted earlier, Darwin measured “fitness” purely in the context of specific local habitat, not according to some invented ideal standard as the Nazis did.

Secondly, Social Darwinism is the polar opposite of Darwinian evolution. Eugenics tried to use artificial selection (the kind of selective breeding that farmers use), not the kind of natural selection that occurs in nature. This should be obvious to someone who has spent 5 years studying Darwin’s ideas.

Furthermore, eugenics is in fact based on Wilson’s beloved Mendelian genetics — which Wilson claims the evil Nazi evolutionary biologists have rejected.

Same old targets — Darwin (check). Dawkins (check). Nazis (check). Really, why can’t miserable deranged hacks like Wilson come up with a few new targets for their ignorant bile?

In case you still want to buy it, I should say that Wilson’s book is unironically titled Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. It costs £25.

Footnotes:

1 Briefly, Endler found colorful fish in one pond in a forest, and dull colored ones in another. He found they were same species, and postulated that there was a predator in the dull colored ones’ pond, meaning less noticeable fish are more likely to survive; and that predators were absent from the other pond, meaning that color meant a reproductive advantage, being more noticeable to mates. He took specimens and switched them in the lab — put colored fish in a pond where the predator had some access, and the dull fish in a predator free pond. After numerous generations, the dull population had become colorful, and the colorful one dull. This illustrates the action of genetic mutation leading to variation; which is then acted upon by natural selection (here, predation and sexual selection)

2 For example, in the Dover case (involving the argument that Creationism is a science and should be taught in schools), the extraordinarily complex cascade of chemical reactions involved in blood clotting was asserted as a case of irreducible complexity. In testimony, biologist Ken Miller describes of how each step of the cascade can be found in isolation in nature. So while we don’t know the exact process by which it evolved in humans or other mammals, we do know that the steps are not irreducibly complex.

More to be added — see comments section, where I have posted some reviews by proper biologists.

Posted by Yakaru

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From a Theologian in 1909: Stop Deceiving Children About Science

March 18, 2016

I recently found an old book in a second-hand bookshop here in Berlin, entitled Darwin: His Meaning for Our Worldview and Values. It’s a small collection of essays by scientists and academics, and was published in 1909 — 50 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and 49 years after it appeared in translation in Germany. The essay that struck me most was written by a theologian called Friedrich Naumann. (Biographical details at the end of this post.)

Warenhaus A. Weiss, Schöneberg, 1907. Das Haus steht noch und ist ein lohnendes Objekt um die Verschandelung von Bauwerken zu studieren.

Schöneberg, Berlin, 1907 (source)

Naumann begins by noting that although religious people don’t usually accept evolution, they do concede that Darwin was a decent fellow who was sincerely seeking the truth. This is already a stark contrast to today where the religious frequently hold Darwin more or less to have been inspired by the devil, and evolution to be “lies straight from the pit of hell”.

Naumann then makes an interesting and rarely made point: that Darwin’s ideas were in fact no more “anti-Christian” than a great many other ideas which had already been proposed for quite some time, albeit without any complaint about them from the church. Religious leaders, he says, failed to discuss these new ideas and discoveries amongst themselves, and withheld them from parishioners.

He continues:

Through the writings of Darwin and Haeckel, what was until then the preserve of scientists erupted into public awareness. For many, “Darwinism” came as a completely unexpected “anti-religious” revelation… Those of us who experienced the years 1860 to 1890 in the company of pious Christians, remember how powerful the waves were. Even today the waters have not been stilled.

From his tone, I suspect Naumann would be quite surprised if he knew that the shock waves would still be felt in many countries more than 100 years later.

Next, he makes an important and I think undeniable point — undeniable even from a Christian perspective:

Darwinism would have come as less of a shock to the pious if they had already been speaking more openly with each other about scientific discoveries and the implications for religion. This rarely happened. Although some religious thinkers like Schleiermacher familiarized themselves with current scientific learning and “adjusted” their Christianity accordingly, those who preached in the church or taught in the schools deliberately and timidly avoided presenting these new ideas and discussing their implications.

Deliberately and timidly avoided teaching such ideas in the churches and schools. Exactly.

There follows another noteworthy passage.

Look, we’ve long known that the Bible does not place the sun at the center of the solar system; that it presents heaven as being located above the earth… Similarly, the Creation and the Great Flood were known even before Darwin to have been derived from earlier oriental myths, and cannot be taken as historical events. Had the faithful already been clearly and unreservedly informed of these facts, then Darwinism would not have arrived like a hailstorm on the field of religion.

A hailstorm on the field of religion. And how telling it is that even science teachers today avoid teaching evolution for fear of upsetting the faithful (or losing their job). It is even customary for academics to place trigger warnings and apologies prior to any mention of human origins. 

Yet in 1909 it was already clear that such pussyfooting ultimately serves no one. Those who reject science, merely find that they have to push back harder and harder in their denial as science progresses — and become proportionately stupider and stupider. Naumann would have been stunned to discover that climate change is rejected by political leaders in the US because they and the voters believe that God promised Noah that there would be no more floods. I can understand why people are shocked by the idea that we are a species of ape, but…. getting upset about Noah’s Ark being a myth????

Our theologian continues, to make a rather rhetorical argument that Jesus would have embraced Darwinism, because he was the quintessential reformer. I am in no position to comment on that (and neither was he of course, but it’s his religion not mine, so I will let it pass). The Bible, he points out is itself a historical record of reform and changes in religious thought. And he makes another excellent point when he says that by failing to teach the facts of science:

we allow people to develop false hopes. This sets them up for disappointment and confusion if they ever discover the truth.

These days, theologians are reluctant to write as boldly as this. Even the most science-friendly theologians keep one hand cautiously on the hand brake whilst discussing anything to do with science. But Naumann clearly believes that if God created the earth and its creatures, then the study of nature is a path to God. Modern theologians are far more nervous about that “if” being in there.

Religions of course, always face a dilemma, not only with science but with facts in general. Even St Augustine noticed it’s hard to proselytize when some doctrines are clearly false or hilariously stupid. He saw no option but to “interpret” the craziest parts of the Bible allegorically. But once that decision has been taken, it’s hard to stop reality swamping in and ruining dogmas that useful or even essential to the whole faith. Once Noah’s Ark is accepted as a myth (as Naumann conceded in 1909, and as Ken Ham doesn’t concede in 2016), then why not also concede that the “Virgin” Mary was a mistranslation that even the early Christians were informed about by the Jews? Don’t expect a coherent answer from any theologian. There’s too much riding on it. Naumann himself could have, or maybe should have known about this, but he says nothing about it. Is it too close to the bone? Did he know it and simply blend it out? 

I see no way to rescue believers from this collision of their faith with reality. But I also see no alternative to Naumann’s positive attitude to science.

——–

For the record, Friedrich Naumann (1860 – 1919) was a somewhat recognized theologian, priest, and author, who was involved in politics, (for the most part on the progressive side). A foundation named in honor of Naumann is connected to the mainstream but distinctly right-wing Freie Democratische Partei (FDP) in Germany. This Foundation, ironically, promotes climate-change denial. Unfortunately, he advocated a mild form of eugenics — a position that was opposed on ethical grounds by other writers in that book. Naumann was, however an outspoken activist for women’s rights, and other worthy causes. 

Posted by Yakaru

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Children’s Conception of God

February 20, 2016

I’ve often wondered what children think when they first start hearing about “god”. 

Non-physical entities like elves and gnomes are fairly easy for small children to conceptualize, but what about god? — A formless, all seeing, all-knowing invisible creature that is everywhere and nowhere; and is also somehow three beings in one. Despite being boundless and infinite, it is also a “he”, so clearly it must have genitals and go to the toilet. Whatever the case, it inspires adults to talk in serious, hushed tones and use incomprehensible but significant-sounding rhetoric.

In my case, I’d heard of this character by the time I was four, but I didn’t have any clear notion of who or what it could be. In the “book corner” at my Kindergarten, there was a slim hardcover that didn’t have any pictures. I asked the teacher what it was about, and she said in an odd tone, “It’s a book about God.” I turned the book over, and saw on the back cover a photo of a pleasant looking oldish lady with glasses. I can still remember her face. I asked the teacher, “Is that God?” and she became flustered and said “No, no, no, no…” But it was too late. The neurons had fused, and despite the words of the teacher, my little brain had imprinted the image of this sweet old dear, as God. Having had this initial image immediately invalidated, I have never been able to replace it with anything more intelligible.

Then I went to primary school. Due to a rather traditional old head master, the weekly school assembly was started by singing the national anthem. At that time in Australia (1972) the national anthem was a dreary old dirge entitled “God Save the Queen“. I’d seen a picture of the Queen, and she looked rather like that other lady who I had briefly thought to be God, so something resonated.

But the words were distinctly odd: “Send her victorious”, it droned. What exactly is this “victorious” that we are supposed to send her, I wondered. I never received any meaningful answer. But we were also supposed to send her some “happy” and some “glorious” as well. Okay, but how do you send those those things? And why is she going to “rain all over us”?

But the biggest and most fascinating mystery was the very title of the song. I had understood it as “God Saved the Queen”.

What? When did he do that? And how? ….So she was in some kind of trouble, like tied up or in a net or something, and God came and saved her? What did he look like? Who saw it happen? My teacher explained that I had got the song wrong: “We are asking God to save the Queen.” — So the Queen is still in trouble? “No no, it means if the Queen ever gets into trouble, then… oh, never mind…”

And this God character showed up in other places too. Once a week we had scripture classes with a tubby old fellow with glasses and not much hair. His name was “Canon Veril”, which the older kids in the school — who took him rather less seriously than we mystified first-graders did — turned into “Cannon Barrel”. He taught us to close our eyes when we prayed, and not to start crying or hide under the desk when he talked about the Holy Ghost. 

He also taught us The Lord’s Prayer. Its first line mystified us even more with its arcane language:

Our Father, who aren’t in heaven…

Well if he’s not in heaven, where is he? Did he have to go off and rescue the Queen again?

Hallo, what be Thy name?

So no one even knows who he is, even though they keep asking him every day?

In second grade we were told the story of Jesus being stuck in a cave and lying there for a few days and then getting up again or something. It was all quite weird. We had to draw a scene from the story on the cards that Cannon Barrel handed out. I drew Jesus’ body in the tomb, and then for some reason decided to draw a combine harvester in there as well, driving over him. The Canon didn’t like this at all, and as a punishment, snootily refused to collect the drawing like he did all the others. He was a strange person. Both authoritarian and oddly impotent. Not a nasty man, but given to regular bouts of choleric but strangely passive anger.

One little girl, who was very smart because she had glasses, was made to sit in the corridor and do other work of some kind, because her parents didn’t want her to go to scripture classes. Sitting alone in the corridor was usually a punishment, so we were confused about why she was sitting there if she wasn’t in trouble. But she sat there alone for an hour once a week for the whole six years. (As the top student in 6th grade, she was awarded what is known in Australia and the UK as the “Dux of the School” award — another term that had mystified us first-graders when we first heard it, and left us disappointed when no ducks came waddling out to collect their award.)

Posted by Yakaru

Coming soon: a post on religious instruction in schools 

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There is No “Western Paradigm”

October 4, 2015

The argument that there is an inherently exploitive “Western” way of perceiving the world, reflects justifiable concerns about neo-colonialist oppression and bigotry. But while it is perfectly valid to criticize lazy or demeaning assumptions about other cultures, the term “Western paradigm” can also be used in a similarly lazy manner, to discredit a particular line of inquiry.

There are other problems with the use of such terminology, too. Often, characteristics that are labeled “Western” are in fact universal. Racism, greed, and colonialism are not exclusively Western; nor, on the positive side, are curiosity and reason. 

It’s neither Western, nor inherently oppressive, to ask straight forward questions about matters of fact. Yet, as we shall see below, such questioning is often dismissed as part of the Western paradigm that tries to subjugate everything to the standard of reason.

The historian Tom Holland made a documentary film a few years ago. in which he asked whether or not the early accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and the development of Islam are really true.

Holland, of course, was aware that the questions he was asking (as well as the evidence he found) were likely to upset some people. He was not merely concerned for his own safety, but also aware that he occupied a privileged position of some academic power, far removed from the people whose history and traditions he was studying. Of course he also comes from a culture that has often exploited and oppressed many predominantly Muslim countries.  

At one point in the film, Holland asked a professor of Islamic Studies if he thought that this line of inquiry was “complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism”. The professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr responded:

No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say, “When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see”, and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, then I think it’s a very honest effort…

This is an intelligent and reasonable answer — an invitation for Holland to do his research and present his results. It is a stark contrast to those who screamed abuse and Holland and made death threats. But Nasr also makes some highly questionable assumptions.

He continues:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn’t….. It is from the West that this kind of history came up: that reason is the ultimate decider and judge of the truth…

But “this kind of history” — checking stated facts against available evidence — did not arise “in the West”. It arises pretty much all by itself from human nature. To ascribe it purely to “the West” does a disservice to everyone who has ever asked the simple question, “Is that really true?”

In the 9th Century in Persia, the celebrated physician Al-Razi considered the scriptures of his own culture and started a discussion for which he clearly was not celebrated. He noted that the various prophets contradicted each other and therefore cannot possibly all be right; nor can revelation — varying so wildly between the divine authorities — be trusted as reliable.

Al-Razi:

Prophets are impostors, at best misled by demonic shades of restless and envious spirits. But ordinary folk are fully capable of thinking for themselves and in no need of guidance from another….

How can anyone think philosophically while committed to these old fairy tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance and dogmatism?

Reason, he argued, unlike revelation, is available to all.

Persian_Scholar_pavilion_in_Viena_UN_(Rhazes)Muhammad Zakariyā Rāzī (Al-Razi/Rhazes)

Al-Razi’s genius and importance as a physician no doubt protected him from serious persecution. (His heretical writings, however, were destroyed and are known only from quotations by those who argued against him.) Obviously, anyone daring to speak like that in Iran today would be in grave danger. 

Moreover, if someone speaks like that today in the West, they will probably be accused of letting their imperialist Western paradigm get the better of them. Or, that label’s big brother would be applied and they’d be called an Islamophobe. And, of course, the accusers would remain baffled by the issues raised, and meekly capitulate before their own ignorance for a few centuries more.

Naturally, bigots find it easy enough to doubt the religions of others too — but never their own. (One You-tube user who uploaded a copy of Holland’s documentary used the name martyr4Jesus!)

If there is a peculiarly “Western paradigm”, it would involve the use of the term paradigm.

This idea of a paradigm is quintessentially Western. Of course, the complete package includes the notion of a paradigm shift — which for some reason is only ever predicted to be awaiting those who supposedly hold a “Western” or “materialistic” paradigm. I can’t imagine Professor Nasr predicting that the Amazonian natives will have a revelation and drop their supposed “sense of the sacred” in favor of a materialistic paradigm.

Similarly, the “sense of the sacred” is a vague notion whose only clearly defined quality is a fence that divides it from the “materialistic West”.  The whole of Western scholarship is deemed to be an inherently exploitive paradigm that ethnocentrically distorts and demeans its subject matter, simply to avoid the uncomfortable truth that some stories are myths rather than factual history.

One non-Western academic who took issue with this over-simplification is Ibn Warraq. His book Defending the West identified three aspects of Western culture that are overlooked by those who see Western scholarship as inherently colonialist.

Here is Warraq’s list:

1. Universalism, i.e. recognition that the rights granted to oneself must be granted equally to others.
2. Curiosity and learning for learning’s
sake. (Edward Said had claimed that all knowledge of the Orient was acquired merely to enable colonialist exploitation. Warraq refuted this by pointing to the vast German scholarship of the 19th Century that was carried out in countries where Germany had no colonial interests.)
3. Self criticism.
(I would place the awareness of various paradigms in this category!)

To sum up, it is certainly easier to practice free inquiry in the West. But this should make us want to try to spread this freedom to non-Western countries, not do the opposite: to hinder and devalue it with pejorative labels and lazy judgments. It is ironic, and potentially disastrous, that the only truly Western idea that might ever spread to the Orient is that reason is not a universal quality, but part of an exploitive Western paradigm.

Posted by Yakaru

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How Aspects of “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

August 11, 2015

Religious leaders are routinely invited to participate in the running of the state, and to enter public discourse on matters about which they haven’t a clue. Their ideas are often totally absurd and transparently self-interested, yet it is widely considered impolite to remark on the worthlessness of their contributions.

Curiously, it is not just religious types who enforce this blanket of politeness. It is often non-believers (especially those inhabiting the “liberal left“) who are quick to tell critics of religion to shut up. “Religion”, they feel, must not be treated as a single category. We must distinguish, they say, between religious “moderates” (who can be indulged as harmless or as potential allies), and extremists (about whom it is frequently asserted are not even religious at all).

Society gains little or nothing from this meek politeness. But worse,  extremists — whether “truly religious” or not — use this welcoming and non-judgmental climate, as a context for gaining access to the hearts and minds of the young.

Below, I outline numerous elements of “moderate” religion that are routinely indulged by democratic societies. These elements themselves may be more or less harmless, but refusing to contest their obvious (if at times trivial) flaws, we are effectively abandoning our first line of defense against extremists.

Problematic Aspects of “Moderate” Religion

Divisiveness

While religion does build communities, it also inevitably creates outsiders and heretics. Due to the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and practices, there is no way to engage rationally with others about doctrinal matters. Agreeing to disagree is the only peaceful option. But there can be no resolution. The differences will remain, ticking away like a time bomb for generations. They can at any time be invoked as a means to divide people for political ends. (Mussolini cited the monophysite heresy of the Abyssinians, dating back to the 5th Century, as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1936!)

Ownership and Personal Identity

Religious people identify deeply with their religion or sect. This is no doubt partly a consequence of human nature, but it also involves a calculated strategy on the part of religions to effectively own people. A child is declared to “belong” to some strain of belief, before they can even speak or run away.

To illustrate the extent of this “moderate” presumptuousness, allow me to share that the Church Tax Office in Germany (where I live) is currently checking the records of the Catholic Church in Australia (where I was born) to see if I was baptized. Were they to find my name I would be legally forced to pay an 8% tax on my income for the last 15 years. 

Despite having failed to realize that Nazism is unethical, the Church in Germany is still taken seriously enough to be granted legal access to people’s earnings — on the grounds that they know the mind of God and represent His financial interests.

St Bernhard Hitler Gruß St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo)

Special Status for the Priesthood

In a healthy society, any special status a person might be granted is attached to the special role that person plays, not to the person themselves. A police officer is only allowed to boss people around under strictly defined circumstances when on duty. Otherwise they have no special rights. Priests, however, claim that they are themselves special — that they belong to an elite class with divinely ordained privileges. 

Obviously, when religious fanatics start recruiting, or when crooks have seized government, this special status immediately gives them swift access to people’s private lives and instinctive submissive impulses. The hierarchical nature of this power structure conditions people, whether they are religious or not, to accept political and religious overlords as a fact of life. (Christopher Hitchens makes this point cogently in the latter chapters of God is Not Great.)

Reward and Punishment

Closely related to this is the fact that priests promise their subjects that god will reward temporal obedience with eternal life in paradise. Priestly authority is built squarely on this foundation — and they don’t have to lift a finger to reward anyone. 

They also invented hell of course, (the most repellent and immoral idea ever formulated). But while they entrust God with rewarding people, they have always happily accepted the burden of punishing sinners themselves. For some reason they don’t want to leave sinners in peace and trust God to deal with them later.

False Ideals and Denial of Human Nature

By creating impossible ideals, religions set people up for guilt, failure, and fear of punishment. It is also psychologically unhealthy to believe that some people (saints, prophets and priests) are holy and have no shadow.

priestly2

This pernicious nonsense is damaging even at its most moderate, yet it is routinely tolerated. In the hands of religious fanatics with power, it becomes perhaps the most invidious tool of oppression and misery. With barely a stricture needing to be altered, it can form an ostensibly credible basis for arbitrary persecution.

The Surrender of Reason

To steal a few lines from Christopher Hitchens, religion — moderate or extreme — involves deciding that the deepest questions about the nature of reality and of our personal existence are to be decided without recourse to rational inquiry. There is of course a long religious tradition debating the role of reason in relation to revelation, but reason has always come out second best.

How can the young be expected to see through the ravings of a religious extremist, when they have never seriously encountered the idea that God does not exist in the first place? As Al Razi pointed out in the Tenth Century, the revelations of the prophets are contradictory, irrational and divisive; but reason is equally accessible to all. (Had he said that today in Iran, he would certainly be persecuted. In the West he would no doubt be called intolerant by the left, or an Islamophobe!)

Closing Thoughts

Religious freedom is a civil and human right. In a secular society people must be free to practice their religion and identify themselves as a member of any peaceful religious group without fear of persecution or discrimination. Strangely, (or maybe not so strangely) many religious people don’t like this idea at all. Ensuring the religious freedom of others necessarily involves curtailing one’s own proselytizing ambitions. This potential loss of power is, no doubt, what religious leaders find so threatening. Public criticism of religion doesn’t “upset the moderates” as much as liberals claim, as open debate should hold no danger for sincere and sensible believers. It does however, undermine the status and influence of a privileged and useless elite.

Let us stop meekly and politely pretending that the elements listed above are useful or necessary for a productive or creative life. They are the accumulated mistakes of history, kept alive for oppressive and parasitic purposes. We need to see them for what they are, and to allow the young access to an antidote for their poisons.

Posted by Yakaru

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Are Anti-Popes Real?

April 5, 2015

I’ve always been rather dismayed at the idea of the Catholic Pope. I don’t know how Catholics can take it seriously. God speaks directly to the pope, and only to the pope… except when he dies, in which case God suddenly starts speaking to a committee, telling them who the next pope should be. No one can possibly take such a stupid idea seriously. Yet people, even non-Catholics, treat the Pope as if he’s somehow special, regardless of how much of a degenerate weasel he shows himself to be.

Yet not only are there popes, but also antipopes too! Out of chaos, antipopes are born. Here is an example where two antipopes were created at pretty much the same time.

In the 14th Century, the Church was in turmoil and popery was so unpopular in Italy that the seat of the pope had been moved to France. The French and Roman factions of the College of Cardinals (the committee that elects the pope) couldn’t agree on anything. Upon the death of Pope Gregory XI, the committee was too busy squabbling to hear God’s orders clearly. Each faction wound up electing a pope of their own.

So there were two popes, Pope Urban VI (elected by the Roman cardinals), and Pope Clement VII (elected by the French). This state of affairs continued for about 40 years until a French theologian hit upon the theory of conciliarism. This holds that yet another committee can be formed which is higher than the popes and the College of Cardinals. So God, it turns out, is also prepared to speak directly to this alternative council, if everyone else has been fooling about too much.

Bertrand Russell takes up the story:

At last in 1409 a council was summoned and met in Pisa. It failed, however, in a ridiculous manner. It declared both popes deposed for heresy and schism, and elected a third, who promptly died; but his cardinals elected as his successor an ex-pirate named Baldassare Cossa, who took the name John XXIII. Thus the net result was that there were three popes instead of two, the conciliar pope being a notorious ruffian.

It is exactly for problems like this that the church invented the concept of the antipope. This is a pope who dresses like a pope, acts like a pope, and is believed by many during his lifetime to be a pope, but who in fact isn’t a pope at all, because someone else is and it’s theologically impossible for two popes to exist at once.

Thus, at some later point, poor Clement VII and John XXIII were declared not really to have been popes after all, but rather, antipopes.

Things really start to get complicated when you get down to the subantipopery level. Here we hit some of the higher functions of advanced theology. A pope is allowed to appoint cardinals, but if it is later discovered that this pope was in fact an antipope, then all the cardinals he appointed suddenly — through a spooky “action-at-a-distance” — simultaneously turn into pseudocardinals. And of course, if such a cardinal has appointed cardinal nephews (a cardinal related to the pope), these instantaneously become quasicardinal nephews.

The last of the antipopes was Antipope Felix V, who fulfilled the role from 1439 to 1449.

Thanks to the advent of quantum physics, however, we now know that two popes can indeed appear to exist simultaneously. This has been spectacularly proven in our own time by the “retired” ex-pope Ratzinger and Pope Ingracious XV or what ever his name is.

Footnote: A commenter, “John”, has clarified/corrected the statement in the first paragraph about God talking to the committee. The correction is most welcome, though I would suggest that the clarifications underscore rather than refute the point I was attempting to make!

Posted by Yakaru