Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hoary Old Chestnuts II

“All ‘scriptural’ pseudo-scholarship is a strenuous attempt to make things come out right and to square a circle,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in his introduction to another essay in The Portable Atheist, Martin Gardner’s “The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming.”

In light of the recent release by the National Academy of Sciences of its “final” word on creationism and “intelligent design,” Science, Evolution and Creationism, I thought it apropos to add some notes of my own that I made in the course of composing my January 3 commentary. This is not an exercise in beating a dead horse, as I denied wishing to do in “Hoary Old Chestnuts,” but rather a brief anatomical examination of some of the corpse that is religion – or, as Hitchens might put it, the shedding of some light on why a circle cannot be squared.

For the longest time, when the news media reports on the latest clash over the teaching of evolution and creationism or “intelligent design,” the reportage, especially in TV news, is usually accompanied by pictures or footage of various animals and natural phenomena, that is, by strictly benign images of things God purportedly “created” or “designed.” These as a rule include zebras, polar bears, tigers, and other photogenic wildlife, together with vistas of the Rockies, of rivers, forests, and the like. Never in my experience have I seen in such coverage pictures of things like flies, locusts, mosquitoes, plague bacilli, rats, boll weevils, hornworms, and other destructive life forms, or the devastation caused by earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and forest fires. Nor have I ever seen God credited with a pack of lions feasting on a downed wildebeest, or a polar bear ripping apart a seal, or a jaguar pouncing on a deer.

Nor have I ever seen God associated with living human skeletons, whether they are in Nazi death camps or in present day, famine-reduced Africa, nor the faces of emaciated children covered with flies or the deformed bodies of the inmates of state-run institutions in Eastern Europe.

All this is God’s doing – or so the priests and mystics claim.

If all these images were employed in TV reportage – particularly images of plague bacilli, rats, locusts, mosquitoes and any other parasite that can destroy but play no other role in their destructiveness or in the preservation of anything but their own parasitical existence – the question might be asked: Why did God create them? An advocate of “intelligent” design or creationism cannot credibly defend their existence, except to assert they are all part of God’s “plan.” And what is that “plan”? The advocate can only answer one of two ways: that they are a punishment for man’s disobedience or the like, or that the “plan” is inscrutable and beyond human comprehension. We do not even have the assurance that God will reveal the purpose of his “plan” when he stages his “Second Coming.”

But either answer sends the argument beyond reason and beyond debate into the spinning wheels of circular argumentation. Reason and debate, however, are not the favorite means of communication of the mystics, but rather preaching and appeals to emotion and an insistence on belief in defiance of human epistemology and a way to sanctimoniously “flip off” metaphysics.

All those non-benign things and more presumably adhere to God’s “plan,” and are products of his “creativity” and “intelligent” designing. One might be tempted to ask: What’s so “intelligent” about disease-carrying flies and mosquitoes? When man creates a new software program or vaccine, does he also concoct viruses or bacilli that would cripple the program or compromise the vaccine? No. But, God does, which is why I would characterize him as a psychopathic fruitcake.

Intelligence, however, is not a synonym for rationality. A villain can exercise intelligence. The key distinction between the terms is whether the intelligence is rational and pro-life, or irrational and anti-life. God, Allah, and all the other monotheistic supreme beings are in the same ward as Hannibal Lector.

When the theological notions of God’s plan, his omniscience, and the notion of man’s predestination encounter the concept of free will or volition, a multiple vehicle collision occurs from which only the concept of volition emerges unscathed.

If one possesses genuine volition, not only in regards to moral issues, but to everyday thinking and action, it would conflict with a supernatural “plan.” However, if every one of those attributes is claimed to be God’s “plan,” then it cannot be free will or volition that one possesses.

If God is omniscient, it presupposes that he knows in advance everything one will think and do. Again, this cannot be free will.

The same logic applies to the notion of predestination. If one is predestined from birth in all one’s thoughts and actions, then the concept of free will is superfluous. If one’s life, actions and end are predetermined by God, then the concept of free will is meaningless and a sham. Further, on the premise of predestination, if one commits a sin or a crime, why would God hold one accountable, if the sin or crime were predetermined? And if one performed a good action, or had no immoral thoughts, how could one be given credit for it by God, and rewarded? The notion of predestination obviates the concepts of reward and punishment.

The concept of free will or volition cannot be reconciled with any divine power or attribute. Nor can reality “square” with the idea of a supreme being. Moreover, it is fruitless to claim that God created man and the universe, and then retired from the scene as an impartial observer. On that premise, what would have been the point of creating anything?

The National Academy of Sciences report, however, asserts that science and religion – that is, reality and faith, or facts and wishful thinking – are not necessarily natural antagonists. It claims that “attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.” The presumably stellar panel that produced the NAS book, which concedes a place for the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public schools, has reduced itself to the intellectual level of Rodney King. It effectively pleads, “Can’t science and religion just get along?”

No. One must destroy the other. Reason, the foundation of science, must dislodge faith, whose foundation is the unreal, from its role as a moral or “spiritual” guide.

The same book, reports the Times, “also denounces the arguments for a form of creationism called intelligent design, calling them devoid of evidence, ‘disproven’ or ‘simply false.’” “Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world,” states the book.

One step forward, two steps back. That is a retreat borne of compromise. It is also an instance of what Ayn Rand called the “soul/body dichotomy.” The panel members could not conceive of a metaphysics that did not admit the “disproven” and the “false,” nor of a limitless, reason-governed epistemology that rejects the unprovable and the fanciful and maintains a recognition of and loyalty to reality.

“In 1984 and again in 1999,” reported the Los Angeles Times on January 4 in an article, “Evolution Book Sees No Science-Religion Gap,” “the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most eminent scientific organization, produced books on the evidence supporting the theory of evolution and arguing against the introduction of creationism or other religious alternatives in public school science classes.” The 2008 report makes a fatal concession to religion, doubtless from political pressure from religious groups and perhaps also from a fear of “offending” those groups and consequently risking the Academy being embroiled a controversy it is reluctant to ignite, or more crucially, lacks the confidence it could argue and win.

But any concession by science to faith and mysticism means, ultimately, an abandonment of truth and reality. Faith and mysticism acquire the attribute of being “real,” while the truths discovered by science are shunted to the realm of subjectivism, allowing, for example, million year old fossils to be offered by religionists as proof of God’s “handiwork,” and not of evolution.

In her January 6 review of Lee Harris’s The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment in The New York Times, Ayaan Hirsi Ali applauds the book but has this reservation:

“Harris…fails to address the enemies of reason within the West: religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt against reason.”

Romanticism or the Romantic movement was a cultural phenomenon spanning the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th. The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia aptly describes it as a movement which “emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental….Among its attitudes…was a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect….”

“Moral and cultural relativism (and their popular manifestation, multiculturalism),” observes Ali, “are the hallmarks of the Romantics. To argue that reason is the mother of the current mess the West is in is to miss the major impact this movement has had, first in the West and perhaps even more profoundly outside the West, particularly in Muslim lands.”

She could just as well be speaking about Christianity and its votaries when she remarks,

“Thus, it is not reason that accommodates and encourages the persistent segregation and tribalism of immigrant Muslim populations in the West. It is Romanticism. Multiculturalism and its moral relativism promote an idealization of tribal life and have shown themselves to be impervious to empirical criticism.”

Western leaders – and I am thinking of intellectual leaders as well as political ones – writes Ali, “must allow reason to prevail over sentiment.”

And that is not what the National Academy of Sciences has done. Although Science, Evolution and Creationism faults creationism – and by implication any species of mysticism, anti-reality, or anti-reason – within the same document it claims that science and religion can work together as partners.

Speaking of political leaders not allowing reason to prevail over sentiment, not many readers may be aware of Congressional House Resolution No. 888, referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on December 18, 2007, whose full title is: Affirming the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation’s founding and subsequent history and expressing support for designation of the first week in May as “American Religious History Week” for the appreciation of and education on America’s history of religious faith. I will shred this presumptuous and wholly erroneous nonsense in a future commentary. Thanks to Mel McGuire, who was responding to “Hoary Old Chestnuts,” for bringing this perilous proposal to our attention.

In The Portable Atheist, one will read of numerous attempts by Christian and Islamic scholars and religious authorities to square their pet circles. It is thanks to the efficacy of reason that they have been found out.

Ibn Warraq’s “The Koran” discusses not only the invention of the Koran and the development of Islam, but also the invention of Christianity, as well, for the two are intimately linked to each other and to Judaism. One thing that might be noted is that the fabricators of Christianity and Islam were dishonest. As Warraq demonstrates in his essay, they invented biographical accounts of the lives of Christ and Mohammed in order to patch over holes in their separate dogmas. These in turn over time became unverifiable myths rife with miracles, and the myths in turn were seized upon by believers who wished them to be true.

In the course of his exhaustive but excellent essay, Warraq makes a number of interesting observations.

“Despite the fact that there were approximately sixty historians active during the first century of the Roman world, there is remarkably little corroboration of the Christian story of Jesus outside the Christian traditions. What there is, is very inconclusive and unhelpful – Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, the Younger Pliny.”

“The letters of [St.] Paul were written before Mark’s Gospel, and yet rather surprisingly they do not mention many of the details of Jesus’s life that we find in the Gospels; no allusions to Jesus’s parents, or to the Virgin Birth, or to Jesus’s place of birth; there is no mention of John the Baptist, Judas, nor to Peter’s denial of his master. As G.A. Wells points out, ‘they never refer to his trial before a Roman official [Pontius Pilate] nor to Jerusalem as the place of his execution. They mention none of the miracles he is supposed to have worked….’”

Warraq comments,

“Just as we find that the early Christians fabricated details of the life of Jesus in order to answer doctrinal points, so we find that Arab storytellers invented biographical material about Muhammad in order to explain difficult passages in the Koran.” Later, he writes, “Where Christianity arose from a fusion of Judaic and Greco-Roman ideas, Islam arose from Talmudic Judaic, Syriac Christian, and indirectly, Greco-Roman ideas.”

One will not hear that stated in any Sunday morning sermon or any Friday evening exhortation in a mosque.

I do not wish to make a career of arguing against God, religionists, creationism, and other supernatural fantasies. But, aside from The Portable Atheist and all the similar works cited in it, other books have been written that might be of interest to anyone fascinated by the subject. Dr. John A. Henderson alerted Rule of Reason to books he has written on God and religion and how they have had a deleterious effect on just about everyone, including politicians: A Deity for the New Millennium, Fear, Faith, Fact, Fancy, and the co-authored Judging God. His website is: Mr. McGuire, cited above, also recommended Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus, the first title of a projected trilogy on religion, excerpts of which can be read at I have not read these latter books, and so cannot endorse them, but if Dr. Henderson and Mr. McGuire were encouraged by my last commentary on the subject of religion, I cannot imagine there would be any serious objection to recommending them.

And that is as much as I plan to discuss religion for a long while.


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Ed Cline