Your Daily Epistemology

I came across this passage in Sam Harris’ extended takedown of Obama’s appointee to head NIH Frances Collins’ attempt to reconcile science and Christian faith.

Elsewhere [Frances Collins] says that of “all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational” (Ibid, p. 231). I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus. I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified. Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus? And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief is Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?

I sometimes worry that the cause of secularism gets too caught up in the wrong debate. That is, Harris is right that the evidence supporting the existence of the God of Abraham as described in the Judeo-Christian faith is woefully lacking, but it doesn’t follow from this necessarily that god doesn’t exist at all. Indeed, all that can be logically inferred from Harris’ Zeus example is that it’s possible to form consensus that the evidence adducing the existence of a deity is insufficient. As such, it doesn’t particularly make sense to be waging the battle for secular values in these terms.

Rather, the point as far as secularism is concerned is that for all practical purposes, the evidence supporting the existence of the God of Abraham is so woefully lacking that arguments purporting to be based in reason but which nevertheless rely on assumptions of faith are groundless. To use Harris’ Zeus example, it doesn’t particularly matter whether or not Zeus exists, it matters that a belief in Zeus and the value of observable evidence are practically irreconciliable. Accordingly, Zeus’ perceived will has no place in arguments on which evidence is weighed by its observable or provable merit.

Anyway, to bring this back to public policy, the main issue is that if we decide that observation is a sufficiently good way to tackle public policy issues — and I believe it is — then superstition should be left out of the equation. Politicians who make arguments for public policies based in faith should have the intellectual honesty to at least admit they don’t find observed reality very convincing.


Prayer and Partisanship

Via Kevin Drum, a chart examining religiosity and partisanship from the General Social Survey.

Contrary to the beliefs of a lot of liberals I know, it’s interesting to note that strong partisanship is associated evenly with prayer on both sides of the aisle. The facile answer might be that people who pray a lot place a relatively larger emphasis on the importance of ideology, and are thus drawn to the more ideologically driven wings of political parties, but I’m not so sure that’s it (though I’m sure it plays a role). Rather, I think strong party partisanship and deep religious conviction both require a comfort level with accepting the complete rectitude posited by ideological schema. Similarly, it’s probably a common trait among independents and less religious types to reject the notion that the world is interpretable through through neatly delineated dogma.


So yesterday I posted, exasperated that Ben Smith at Politico would post noting that Obama did not attend church this past Sunday. Apparently, John Judis at TNR and Media Matters picked up on the post as well, with somewhat less restrained commentary. Ben Smith responds:

If nothing else, the tone of the responses reflect how defensive the left still is on faith. The Media Matters post was four times longer than my item, and I don’t really think that a single story and a blog item constitute “such a big deal.”

But on the substance, there was nothing in my blog item or our story to suggest we, or anyone, consider skipping church an “offense against God.” And unlike Judis, Obama doesn’t seem to consider his faith private: He talked about it all the time on the campaign trail, wrote about it in searing detail, and campaigned on it before Rick Warren’s megachurch in a forum broadcast live on CNN. Meanwhile, hs campaign hinged for a moment this spring on whether or not he’d been at Trinity for specific sermons. So it doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable to note his habits of observance.

Look, I think Ben Smith has a point — both Judis’ item and the Media Matters’ post both of knee-jerk defensive impulses, but Smith basically misses the point: What difference does it make whether or not Obama regularly attended church? Why is this even being reported in the first place? Just because something is available to be reported doesn’t mean it it’s not an unproductive waste of space.

And to engage the argument on its merits — as Media Matters points out — neither Jonathan Martin’s original story nor Ben Smith’s blog item bother to mention that George W. Bush wasn’t a frequent church goer himself. Now, this shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of “fairness” (i.e., that George Bush got a free pass from the media on this), but rather that devoid of such details the reader is left with the impression that Obama’s churchgoing habits are unusual. Now, there would be nothing wrong with this if the issue pertained to some banal topic like working out, but religion is a highly volatile topic, especially for liberals, who are not uncommonly attacked from the right wing media as secular fascists. Thus, in terms of the public discourse surrounding Democrats and their faith, the uncontextualized assertion that Obama isn’t a frequent churchgoer does seem to be relatively negative, and my guess is that Ben Smith knows it. After all, this sentence oozes with passive-aggressivism:

The Media Matters post was four times longer than my item, and I don’t really think that a single story and a blog item constitute “such a big deal.”

To use a sports analogy, Ben Smith’s post was tantamount to an article reporting that C.C. Sabathia had just left Fourth Meal at Taco Bell. This, of course, is reported fact, but it sounds a whole lot different if you mention that the rest of his team also just left Fourth Meal.

Preacher Man

As news comes that the Catholic Church has cut off funding for ACORN, they might want to consider cutting of their ties to Christianity as well, or some permutation thereof:

The pastor of a mega-church says he will challenge married congregants during his sermon Sunday to have sex for seven straight days — and he plans to practice what he preaches.

“We’re going to give it a try,” said the Rev. Ed Young, who has four children with his wife of 26 years.

Young, 47, said he believes society promotes promiscuity and he wants to reclaim sex for married couples. Sex should be a nurturing, spiritual act that strengthens marriages, he said.

“God says sex should be between a married man and a woman,” Young said. “I think it’s one of the greatest things you can do for your kids because so goes the marriage, so goes the family.”

If there was any doubt that mega churches are basically marketing driven cash cows, this should pretty much clear it up. Since when are pastors in the business of leaking their sermons to the Associated Press? Second, as a general philosophy, do you really think that the best way to fix high divorce rates is to encourage the notion that you should get married so you can have sex? And on a more serious note, who wants to picture their religious leaders getting all Biblical with it?

The Rationality of Irrationality

Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat both gleefully point to results of a Gallup survey which appear to demonstrate that atheists are in fact, more irrational than the strongly religious. The relevant quote:

The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won’t create a new group of intelligent, skeptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition. And that’s not a conclusion to take on faith — it’s what the empirical data tell us…

…The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

I mean, doesn’t this really depend more on what we consider superstitious? For example, most atheists would argue that transubstantiation is a profoundly superstitious act, but practicing Catholics wouldn’t describe it in such terms. Simply put, most religious people adopt a worldview that deems what atheists consider “superstitious” to in fact, be “rational”, or at least something considerably less than “irrational.”If the survey considered this belief to be “superstitious”, then the number of those of faith who hold superstitious views would be closer to 100%. 

What’s more, thinking that at some point, science might prove the existence of Bigfoot isn’t irrational. The fact is — that much like God — the evidence overwhelmingly points to Bigfoot’s nonexistence, but at the same time, it doesn’t with 100% certainty rule out that somewhere, Bigfoot might be traipsing about the wilderness. Thus, the most rational position to espouse is that Bigfoot might exist. In this light, I don’t see any cognitive dissonance between perceived rationality (“those who never worship”, in the terms of the study) and admitting the possibility of Sasquatchian existence. But this is all beside the point.

The point of surveys like this, or at least the aim of those who employ their findings, is to justify the irrationality of the religious by pointing out the obvious (as per the logic outlined above) irrationality of atheists. But ultimately, who cares? Two wrongs don’t make a right.

It would be far more productive for “those of faith”, to instead of stating the obvious and irrelevant, explain why wars should be fought or laws should be enacted based on a personal belief in the overwhelmingly implausible.

Enforcing Double Standards

The McCain campaign has been engaging in much huffing and puffing about the alleged sexism being levied against Sarah Palin. Even the noted feminist Rudy Giuliani wondered if some questions asked of Sarah Palin would be asked of a man. So in this context of double standards, Andrew Sullivan gleefully notes that Sarah Palin’s pastor recently delivered an incendiary anti-American sermon of Jeremiah Wright proportions. As Sullivan quips, “petard, prepare to be hoist.”

As much as I’d like to think this will be damaging to the McCain/Palin ticket in the same way Jeremiah Wright hurt Barack Obama, I’m hardly as sanguine about its prospects as Sullivan. In the first, the Reverend Wright ordeal was used to cast Obama as un-American. This attack hardly works against the markedly less black Sarah Palin, even if she is a closeted secessionist. Secondly, as far as I know, there’s no YouTube. And probably most important, Democrats don’t usually — HRC notwithstanding — pursue these types of arguments, especially when they believe the election to be about issues.

Missionary Position

So I meant to comment on this confiscated bible story yesterday, but I was tired, and Amy offered me perfect entree today. Here’s the basic story:

An American Christian group that was stopped at the airport when it tried to bring in more than 300 Bibles won’t leave the customs zone until it gets the books back, its leader said today.

And it gets interesting here:

The officially atheist Communist Party only allows Bibles to be printed under its own supervision for use in state-sanctioned churches and some hotels. [Pat] Klein [leader of the missionary group Vision Beyond Borders] said he asked authorities to show him the law in English against bringing in Bibles, only to be brought a vaguely worded postal regulation prohibiting material harmful to China.

I get the sense that Amy and I are in basic agreement on the issue, but seriously Pat, what the hell were you thinking? You were told specifically by the Chinese government, the world leader in capital punishment and notable proponent of forcible cultural coercion, not to bring something in, and you did it anyway? First of all, are you out of your mind? Secondly, what did you expect was going to happen?

This isn’t some moral stand here, it’s just stupid. Though we all may have our disagreements with China’s repressive policies towards religion, it’s perfectly within their right to reject foreign proselytizing. It’s pretty tough to raise a fury of worldwide indignation when you knew exactly what what was going to happen. Besides, there’s no such thing as civil disobedience when you have no rights to forfeit in the first place. Forgive my lack of sympathy, but this is really dumb.