Jul 31, 2013

New Atheism didn't beget the 'nones'

New Atheists can take credit for the recent increase in religiously unaffiliated people, the so-called "nones," according to Daniel Dennett. The movement of best-selling books and their readers took a country where religious identity was de rigueur and made is possible to announce one didn't have any such religious identity.

In a recent five minute debate with Guardian editor Andrew Brown, arguing for New Atheism's accomplishments, Dennett says:
It was important to turn the tide and I think we've done that. I'm really very proud to say that the New Atheism has changed the face of America, as far expression of religious belief or disbelief .... What we gave [the religiously unaffiliated] was permission to declare their lack of interest in religion, which was something people were rather afraid to do before we wrote our books. 
There are several obvious problems with this claim.

Jul 30, 2013

Reza Aslan's outrage

Among scholars of religion, there's no consensus on the relevance of scholar's personal religious beliefs and practices to their scholarship.

Some scholars are quite open. They mention their religious identity in the classroom, affiliate themselves in their books, explain their interests in terms of their religious identities, and even on occasion write from the position of a believer. Others are open but private. They're willing to talk about themselves and their beliefs, but keep it separate from their scholarship. This is where I'm at: I sometimes talk with students or colleagues about my own faith and religious history, but it's not something I talk about in class or in my writing, mostly because it seems like it would cause more confusion than clarity. Others, still, are entirely private, and simply refuse to answer any personal questions.

When scholars are open about their religious identities, though, it is entirely fair to ask them about their religious identities.

This seems to me to be commonsensical, but perhaps it isn't.

There's a big loud kerfuffle right now about a recent FOX news interview with Reza Aslan, author of a popular book about the historical Jesus. The interviewer, Lauren Green, started the interview with the question, "you're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

Aslan was outraged at the question and went on the offensive. The clip went viralPeople got pretty excited ("Reza Aslan is superhuman"; "Hats off to Reza Alsan"), and expressed their outrage at the question.

It's bullshit.

There was nothing wrong with the question.


Jul 29, 2013

Atheists' spiritual experiences

Philosophy professor Dan Fincke on the errors atheists make when they imagine they have no bodies:
When confronted with claims about immaterial spiritual souls or spiritual lives or practices, the first mistake is to imply that people’s experiences that they call 'spiritual' are not 'real.' 'Spiritual' experiences are real events that happen in the real world. Superstitious reifications are just hastily (and with all sorts of cultural and religious encouragement) naively misinterpreting them as somehow evidence for something otherworldly or something which puts them in touch with otherworldly things. It is useless and sounds woefully psychologically ignorant to question whether they refer to something real when they talk about spiritual experiences. We do much better to engage them about what their real experience really indicates.  
The parallel superstition among some atheists is a tendency to conceive of people as minds that respond to reason alone and that can only reason well if they are not being influenced bodily.
Finke concludes that atheists -- and he counts himself in that number -- should evaluate "emotional mechanisms" based on end results, rather than rejecting such mechanisms and practices altogether.

There's nothing inherently wrong, for Fincke, with atheists singing songs. Not singing songs, on the other hand, is often evidence of a philosophy deeply uncomfortable with human embodiment.

Even in secular Australia, some don't accept scientific consensus

Australia is pretty thoroughly secularized. Nearly a quarter of Australians say they are not religiously affiliated, about 70 percent say religion isn't important in their lives, and less than 10 percent are regular in church attendance, a number that's declining. More than 80 percent of Australians said the world would be better of without religion, according to one study, and another report found that half of those born between 1976 and 1990 have no belief in God.

Australia is irreligious, and has secularized pretty much exactly as one would expect if one held to the secularization thesis.

A new study on scientific literacy shows that some Australians struggle with the ideas of evolution, though. This shows it's not true that the United States is the only industrialized country where creationist ideas persist. It also raises questions about the relationship between religiousness and science education.

As Adam Laats writes, "Significant percentages of Aussies, for whatever reason, do not agree with fundamental tenets of mainstream science. Sorry, Bill Nye, but creationism is not 'unique' to the United States."

Jul 22, 2013

'Conjuring' belief in demons

Forty years after The Exorcist made $441 million and lodged itself in the American imagination, the latest cast-out-demons based-on-a-true-story film hit theaters this weekend. The writers and director are hoping the $20 million production called The Conjuring makes some money -- and gets some viewers seriously considering demonic realities. 

"People should never be ignorant of demonic forces and think it can't happen to them," said Chad Hayes, one of the screenwriters. 

Chad and his twin brother and co-writer Carey Hayes have been adamant about the connection between their faith and this horror film, a connection which has pretty seamlessly blended with some of the studios' promotional efforts. The film's distributor, New Line Cinema, has subcontracted with Grace Hill Media for a specific faith-market campaign. The company arranged advance screenings for faith groups, including groups of priests, and has made the writer-brothers and the real-life exorcists available to the religious press.

Jul 18, 2013

Jul 16, 2013

Homeschoolers take asylum claims to the Supreme Court

A German homeschooling family seeking asylum in the United States will take its case to the Supreme Court, the Home School Legal Defense Assocation announced Monday.

A lower court ruled against Uwe and Hannalore Romeike in May. Their appeal for a re-hearing has now also been denied, leaving the Supreme Court as the family's last option in the US legal system. The federal court said there weren't grounds to re-hear the case, as the issues that the homeschooler's lawyers raised in the appeal had already been dealt with.

The lawyers defending the family disagree. They announced they will take the case to the Supreme Court because "we firmly believe that this family deserves the freedom that this country was founded on."

The Romeike's have become something of cause célèbre on the right. The case is seen as a defense of freedom and of parents' rights to educate their children. Legally, however, as the judge pointed out in the ruling rejecting the Romeike's claims, the case doesn't hinge on whether or not homeschooling is a right or a privilege. The legal question is whether or not homeschoolers in countries where homeschooling is illegal qualify for asylum in the United States, whether or not they should be considered a "particular social group" as defined by asylum law.

The Home School Legal Defense Association asked the Romeike's to come to the United States explicitly to challenge the law. The aim was to get homeschooling recognized as a grounds for asylum, and to put pressure on German courts and lawmakers, possibly embarrassing them, possibly stirring up some public sympathy for homeschoolers and getting the laws changed.

The First Amendment legal battle in Texas politics

The politics of the legal battles over the public religious displays and the vagaries of what it means for a government to respect an establishment of religion are playing out in Texas, now, in the governors' race that's just getting started.

Gregg Abbott, Texas' attorney general, announced on Sunday he is running for governor. If he wins, he'll succeed Rick Perry and George W. Bush, likely becoming a Republican Party leader and someone talked about, at least, as a possible presidential candidate. Political observers expect him to win: He has $20 million in his campaign war chest, the blessing of the Republican party establishment, and a reputation for being a fighter.

As attorney general, Abbott has sued the Barack Obama administration 27 times. He has said that's his job, suing Obama.

But perhaps the most important example of his fighting is one Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment question of a Ten Commandment monument. It's evidence that some Texans take quite seriously, evidence which may well be parlayed into lots of votes.

Jul 15, 2013

Even Christian conservatives are critiquing capitalism

There's been a resurgence of critiques of capitalism since the financial crisis of 2008.

Or, to phrase it as a Guardian headline writer did, "Karl Marx is going mainstream." Last Summer, the British paper reported:
Sales of Das Kapital, Marx's masterpiece of political economy, have soared ever since 2008, as have those of The Communist Manifesto and the Grundrisse (or, to give it its English title, Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy). Their sales rose as British workers bailed out the banks to keep the degraded system going and the snouts of the rich firmly in their troughs while the rest of us struggle in debt, job insecurity or worse.
The resurrected interest isn't just British, either. It's here in Germany and can even be found in the US, where "socialist" is a popular political slur. The slur, though, isn't quite as much of a slur as it once was.  During the last midterm election cycle, a Pew poll found that the 29 percent of Americans said they had positive feelings about the word "socialism." That number was much higher when only younger Americans were considered. Nearly half of those under 30 respond positively to the idea of socialism, the poll found.

Bhaskar Sunkara -- who is one of those younger Americans, and is also the editor of one of the newest leading left-of-liberal journals, Jacobin -- thinks this new interest can be attributed to the financial crisis, the time that's passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union ("The cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway," he writes), and with capitalism's failure to deliver the promised future.

The resurgent critiques of capitalism aren't just coming from the left, though, either.

There's also an apparent new willingness to raise questions about capitalism from the right. Even in quarters where there's little tolerance for Marx's thinking, little sympathy for socialism, one can find what appears to be a new openness to critical questions about capitalism. The resurgent, post-2008 critique of capitalism goes beyond the Marx revival.

Jul 14, 2013

'He beat out a cadence with his fist'

A Detroit News Tribune illustration of Billy Sunday's preaching, published Oct. 29, 1916. Sunday preached in Detroit from September to November, that year, in part advocating for prohibition, which was on the ballot. 

A description of one of his Detroit sermons, from historian Larry D. Engelmann:
He appeared on the platform high above the sea of clean shining faces like a wispy cross between a businessman and an angel. Attired in a light gray suit and white shoes, a white negligee shirt of the finest linen and a white silk tie to match, Sunday feinted, walked and ran, crouched and jumped, from one end of the stage to the other, sweating from his gyrations until he was wet as a rag held under a pump. 
By his actions he kept the audience transfixed, hanging upon his every word and movement. He jumped on a chair; down on the floor again. He beat out a cadence with his fist upon the platform in order to emphasize a series of points; on top of the pulpit, he tore off his coat and collar and threw them to the stage .... 
Wild-eyed at the climax of his address, like an addict going cold turkey, Sunday told his God to help old Detroit. Throw your arms around her. Go into her barber shops, Lord, into the hotels, factories, and saloons. Help the man in the street, the floater, and drunkard. The devil has him almost out. He's on the ropes and groggy, Lord. One more stiff uppercut will finish him. Help him, Lord, to square his shoulders, raise his dukes and cry, Yes, Lord, I'll come when Bill gives the call.
The texts of some of Sunday's sermons can be read at biblebelievers.com. There is also video of his preaching from a period later in his life. The energy and style are still there, though.

The statewide ban on sale of alcohol passed in 1916. It was the first in nation. In 1933, Michigan also became the first state to ratify the twenty-first amendment to the Constitution, which overturned federal prohibition.

Jul 13, 2013

Jul 9, 2013

American Ramadan

Mis-measuring American irreligion

Americans, polls report, are convinced that America is fast losing religion.

Earlier this year, Gallup found that 77 percent of Americans agree with the statement, "religion is losing its influence on American life." Some thought that was good, others bad, but most agreed it was happening.

Part of that belief, at least, is due to the Pew studies and subsequent headlines that have trumped the recent, rapid rise of the religiously unaffiliated, the "nones," in the United States. This has been one of the big stories in religion in America in the last few years.

Those reports are problematic in how they simplify the "nones," which is something I've looked at.  What it means when someone says they're not religious should be interrogated more fully that it usually is. But the studies do show a change. The question is what the change means, not whether or not there is something shifting in American religiosity.

Or maybe not. Maybe the studies aren't to be trusted.

The methodology of the studies that have reported on a rapid rise in American "nones" has recently been called into question. Perhaps, it has been suggested, American religiousness isn't changing, it is just being mis-measured.

Jul 8, 2013

The triumph of Darwin's Doubt

One might think that getting a negative review of a recently released science book in a high-profile magazine would be a bad thing for that book. In the case of Darwin's Doubt, though, it's not. Getting trashed in the New Yorker is actually something of a triumph.

Gareth Cook writes in the New Yorker that this book, the latest big splash for Intelligent Design, has an "inspired-by-true events feel," and is a "masterwork of pseudoscience." For author Stephen C. Meyer, for the Discovery Institute where he works, and for advocates of Intelligent Design and criticisms of evolution more generally, this is a good thing.

The negative review is a positive sign.

As David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, wrote:
What's important is the way the logjam against intelligent discussion of intelligent design in the mainstream media is finally unjamming .... Real scientists and thoughtful, open-minded laymen are paying attention right now to a genuine and fascinating disputation about biological origins. The endorsements from scientists in relevant fields that Darwin's Doubt has already received is itself confirmation of that. I've said already that I don't know how the debate will be resolved, if it ever will. But make no mistake: the debate is happening.
Debate has long been the immediate goal of the Intelligent Design movement. The goal has been to legitimate the possibility of the Intelligent Design position by generating controversy. Meyer's book, which looks at the "Cambrian explosion," a relatively rapid diversification of organisms in the fossil record, where new and more complex forms of life appeared, will be seen as achieving that goal precisely to the extent that there's public pushback, take-downs and criticism.

Controversy -- such as claims the book is "holed beneath the waterline on the key issues of Cambrian paleontology, phylogenetics, and the information argument" -- are opportunities for Intelligent Design advocates. They're opportunities for rebuttal, but more, they serve as evidence that there's a controversy. And if there's a controversy, then there are sides to that controversy, and the rules of fairness dictate that both sides should be taken seriously. The case can be made for "teaching the controversy," which doesn't resolve it or end it in the way Intelligent Design proponents might want, but does give them a public hearing.

Meyer has long been a proponent of teach-the-controversy. This book isn't a break from that modus operandi

Jul 4, 2013

The face of one man who fought in the American Revolution

Jonathan Smith was 93 when a chemically treated copper plate was exposed to light, recording his image for posterity. He gave the image to his granddaughter along with a personal note in 1854, the year before his death.

That image is now one of the very few existing daguerreotypes of Revolutionary War veterans.

Smith was 14 when he first joined the revolution in 1776. It was for a two-month stretch with a Massachusetts militia. He joined another regiment in May of that year, and was enlisted, on and off, in the irregular manner of the time, until 1779. Early in the war, he helped seize a supply ship on its way to Boston loaded with pork and butter. Towards the end, he was at the Battle of Rhode Island when the Americans were attacked while retreating from their failed siege of Newport.

The year after the war he joined the Baptist church, and spent 19 years as a self-taught lay preacher,  before getting ordained in 1899 and taking a pulpit in Rhode Island.

By the time he sat for his daguerreotype, the old reverend was a thrice-married industrialist, who was a lauded local symbol of the revolutionary generation, propped up and paraded out for political speeches. He was often misidentified as a military chaplain.

Smith's story and image, as well as eight other images of aging veterans of the Revolution can be found in Joseph M. Bauman's e-book, Don't Tread on Me: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries. Buaman is a former reporter and a collector of antique photographs. He spent three decades tracking down, documenting and verifying these few existing daguerreotypes of Revolutionary War veterans.

'So pray to God for a lil' more spring'

It just got warm out, its this shit I've been warned about.
I hope that it storm in the morning; I hope that it's pouring out.
I hate crowded beaches; I hate the sound of fireworks.
And I ponder what's worse between knowing it's over and dying first.
'Cause everybody dies in the summer.
Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it's spring.
I heard everybody's dying in the summer, so pray to God for a lil' more spring.

I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too.
If you was there, then we just knew you'd care, too.

-- Chance The Rapper

Jul 3, 2013

Secular Jesus

A statue of Jesus at a ski resort is not religious, according to a federal court ruling. Or at least not religious enough to matter.

"Big Mountain Jesus," as the statue is called, has become secularized, and over the years has lost the potency it might have once had to seem like a religious message to any passersby.

In the ruling, Judge Dana L. Christensen, an Obama administration appointee, wrote that the statue is "unquestionably a religious symbol" but is not really very religious, lacking any significant symbolic power. Because, "for most who happen to encounter Big Mountain Jesus, it neither offends nor inspires."

The symbol is secular because it's impotent.

Jul 2, 2013

Atheists make peace with public monuments

There was some reticence.

Among the atheists who organized to erect an atheist monument at a Florida courthouse, there was some ambivalence about the idea of having a monument. It was a compromise. They had wanted a 10 Commandments monument removed from the courthouse grounds, and had argued against such displays on government property in principle. Such a monument, they said, signaled the exclusion of some citizens. Such a monument meant an implicit government endorsement of religion.

They settled for denying the 10 Commandments its exclusive position in Starke, Florida.

David Silverman with America's first atheist monument.
Credit: American Atheists
According to the Associated Press, "It's a case of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Maybe that's a win for pluralism, and equal access, but it's also at least a little bit of a de facto endorsement of the idea of monuments on government land. It would seem to be accepting the idea that a monument in can exist on public property, at least in certain contexts without signaling government endorsement or making some feel like second-class citizens.

The internal conflict can be seen in the public statements about the monument made by the American Atheists. The man who designed the monument expressed this reticence. Ken Loukinen, a regional director of the American Atheists, said "We'd rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the 10 Commandments, we will have our own."

The president of the American Atheists made similar statements. David Silverman told Time Magazine "We don't want to establish this monument; we feel we need to establish it."

The American Atheists have apparently made peace with that position, though, because Silverman announced on Saturday at the monuments' unveiling that there's now a plan to build 50 more monuments on government property in the United States. Silverman said an anonymous donor has provided funds for more atheist monuments, and the group is working to make that happen.

He told reporters he would also support other groups' legal rights to put up their own monuments.

Atheist blogger Hemat Mehta writes that this strategic, though not ideal. He says,
In an ideal world, atheist monuments like this one wouldn’t have to be here. It’s not like American Atheists was pushing to have it installed. It was only when the Courthouse granted special access to a Christian group that AA knew they couldn’t let them get away with it. Same with the rest of the nation.  
If the Christians take down their monuments, the atheists will, too.  
But until then, might as well make Christians feel *really* uncomfortable about the fact that their actions are paving the way for pro-atheist monuments to go up across the country.
There were a few protestors at the unveiling who perhaps could be taken as evidence of more general discomfort with the idea. Some flew Confederate battle flags and had signs with slogans about Yankees. Another, creationist Eric Hovind, reportedly jumped up on the monument and thanked those gathered for giving him a platform from which to preach Jesus. The private group that put up the 10 Commandment monuments has said several times publicly that they're not concerned by this development. They also weren't present at the Atheists' ceremony on Saturday.

Whether there are others who "feel *really* uncomfortable" with the monument and the idea of other such monuments remains to be seen.

The American Atheists, though, seem to have overcome their own discomfort with idea of public monuments, so long as they can have theirs too.