An argument for the kindness of the ungodly

Should the godless be a little more generous in dealing with believers? Here’s an argument that advocates a little more charity; that we ought to recognize that belief in the supernatural is a nearly universal human condition, that it’s a useful coping mechanism for dealing with the unknown, and that it’s a mistaken belief, not a moral failing.

I’m not entirely convinced. You can substitute the word “ignorance” for “supernatural belief/spirituality/religion” and it fits the whole argument just as well. Yet I don’t feel any desire to make excuses for ignorance, and I certainly don’t have sympathies for the promoters of ignorance.

Don’t hate me for this…

I’ve turned on the requirement to login and register with TypeKey in order to make a comment. Can’t stand it? Things not working? Leave a comment (if you can) or mail me (if you can’t).

This is a trial, we’ll see if it works. I’m willing to turn it off again if it causes more grief than it solves.


Ooops. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the TypeKey page. It’s simply a centralized site where you register once, get a password, and then you can use that password to make comments on various sites, including this one. It doesn’t cost anything, it’s fairly easy to do.


Another hint: some people are having problems that seem to be traceable to their browser’s cache. Try reloading pages or clearing the browser cache so that it will display the version with the new TypeKey requirements.

Aaaargh, more commenting problems

I owe many people some apologies: this site has been quietly eating your comments. There are filters set up to catch and discard spam comments, and they work very well. I’m getting thousand or so junk comments a week that are not making it through to be displayed.

Unfortunately, about a 5% of the junked comments are false positives. I’ve gone through and tried to restore the ones I could find, but that represents a far too substantial loss of blameless comments.

I’ve set up the comments section now to optionally allow TypeKey registration. I’m hoping that the software is smart enough to realize that if you’ve gone through TypeKey, you are not spamming, and that that will improve the accuracy of spam detection—so use it, if you don’t mind TypeKey. I might go further still and require TypeKey at some point; I suspect most people would rather jump through a few more hoops and have better reliability, than type something up and have the mysterious and ineffable spam filter decide to quietly shuffle your words off to the holding pen before erasing them a few days later.

Let me know any objections or suggestions you might have.

This is not news

The Mirecki case is over.

The trail has gone cold in the investigation of a roadside beating reported late last year by a Kansas University professor.

Douglas County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lt. Kari Wempe said Thursday that detectives had finished their paperwork related to religious studies professor Paul Mirecki’s report that he was beaten by two unknown men on Dec. 5, 2005, on a roadside south of Lawrence.

The office has not identified any suspects and, unless any new leads come in, the investigation is finished.

At the time, Mirecki was under fire for comments he had posted online critical of organized religion.

It was simply absurd to think that good Christians might have resorted to physical violence, after all.

Look, Ma, I’m a “secular whackjob”!

I think The Raw Story is supposed to be a progressive political web site…which, unfortunately, means I now have to be greatly embarrassed by my fellow travelers along the great liberal path. Melinda Barton has written a bizarre and poorly supported screed against atheism, or as she’d prefer to call it, secular whackjobbery, as opposed to her preferred position, which I will call theistic wank-offery.

She starts by making up a novel definition, always a bad sign. To Barton, the term “secular” refers to “those who disbelieve all religious and spiritual claims, not to those who merely support a separation of church and state.” That’s an interesting position for a progressive to take, since there are a great many liberal religious people who believe that a secular government is the best government, yet because they hold private beliefs about God, she gets to sweep them completely off the table in any consideration of the promotion of secularism. Sweet. It also means she gets to accuse those few remaining godless promoters of a non-religous government “whackjobs” and extremists. Not all the atheists, she is quick to note—just the evil ones who hold the outrageous claims she then lists. Strangely enough, when she lists these claims, she isn’t able to provide any evidence that anyone actually holds any of these positions.

You know, I’m a fairly extremist atheist myself, and I just find her assertions daffy.

Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.

Well, yes, I believe religion is false; that’s no more a damning trait than the fact that Melinda Barton believes religion is true. But this claim that atheism is proven is bizarre; who says such things? She tries to quote a writer for the Atheist Foundation of Australia who defines atheism as “the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural”…tell me, where is the claim of provability there? She goes on to argue that both the presence and absence of a deity are matters of belief, setting up a false equivalence in which she tries to argue that both are therefore matters of faith. What nonsense; the absence of faith is not faith, any more than the absence of a sandwich is also a kind of tasty snack between two slices of bread.

Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.

Now we get into some real craziness. This basic claim of metaphysical naturalism, which is a reasonable interpretation of the absence of evidence, is called a blatant logical fallacy and scientifically inaccurate by Ms Barton.

She claims it is a logical fallacy because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That’s an extravagant misuse of the aphorism, I’m afraid. Absence of evidence is a legitimate argument for the absence of a phenomenon. If I claim there is a unicorn living in my backyard, but repeated attempts to observe and record it, or to find indirect evidence such as footprints or unicorn scat all fail, it is perfectly reasonable to provisionally suggest that the claim is false, and to insist that any further consideration of the idea will require positive evidence from the claimant.

As for her claim that metaphysical naturalism is scientifically inaccurate…her defense consists of abusing quantum physics. I’m thinking there ought to be an exam and some kind of licensing requirement before people are allowed to use The Argument From Quantum Physics in public.

Outrageous claim number 3: All religion is oppressive.

I’m more sympathetic to this one. I think it’s true that most religion is oppressive, and I agree with The International Manifesto for Atheistic Humanism that she quotes:

Religion is oppressive. The act of subjugating human will to “divine will” is oppressive. The practice of obeying clergy, of letting them make our decisions for us, is oppressive and irresponsible.

The onus is on Ms Barton to show that this is false and only believable by whackjobs. She fails. She cites examples of commendable behavior by religious individuals, which I don’t disagree with at all—people are quite capable of transcending the limitations of their dogma. As we’ve come to expect, she has to ignore the actual words of her atheist targets to make her case. She doesn’t even try to address the issue of surrendering autonomy to an authority based on “faith” as oppressive.

Outrageous claim number 4: The eradication of religion in favor of secularism will bring about utopia.

Again, a straw man, and she has got to know it. She reaches for the usual extremist examples with which atheists are typically beaten, the anarchists and communists, and says that they believe “the total eradication of religion is an essential but not sufficient step in the creation of an atheist utopia.” The statement of her religious claim and her recitation of an example follow one after another; are we to believe that she doesn’t understand what the phrase “but not sufficient” means? Possibly. She’s not exactly dazzling us with her clarity of thought here.

Outrageous claim number 5: All religious people want to force you or convince you or coerce you to believe as they do.

Just a rhetorical tip to Ms Barton: it’s a bad idea to end a list of arguments for your position with the weakest, lamest, most pathetic claim you can think of, and also to immediately admit that it’s unsupportable. You know, like this:

I tried to find an “official” source for this hasty generalization with no luck, but chose to include it here based on personal experience.

Jebus. Never mind. Do we even need to try to rebut this kind of nonsense?

Fresh off that flabby reasoning, her conclusions stoops even lower. Why should we oppose these “secular whackjobs” on the left? Pogroms, baby, we’re all about persecuting you for what you do in your home and church. Step into my classroom or onto the sidewalk wearing a crucifix, and I might just rip it off and stomp on it. (Do I have to add, “not really”? Probably. The fevered imaginations of the Melinda Bartons of the world no doubt see sarcasm as a personal slight.)

While most who believe in the separation of church and state hold that only government support of religion in the public sphere should be forbidden, the secular extremist may take it one step further to forbid the private display of religious symbols in public places.

I hereby promise that if you want to wear a yamulke in public, or want to dab ashes on your forehead on some incomprehensible holy day, I won’t sic the cops on you. OK? There’s a difference between accusing all people with certain religious beliefs of conspiring to lock you up in prison, and insisting that government should be entirely secular, granting no preference to one religious belief or another. When you target the latter under the pretext of protecting us from the former, you’re promoting theocracy.

Just for the slow and witless who have difficulty figuring out the obvious, Ms Barton, theocracy is not a progressive value.

(Crossposted to The American Street)

God grants tenure

Some clown at one of the ID blogs is making an incredibly stupid argument. She is claiming that my statement that I would not vote to give tenure to someone incompetent enough to support Intelligent Design creationism as a science is a violation of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991 because, as Judge Jones has ruled, ID is founded on a specific religious view. She seems to think that demanding some standards in the review process is equivalent to excluding all religious people…which has some interesting implications. She must assume that the level of idiocy we see in the creationist crowd is implicit in all religious beliefs, and that religious people are incapable of teaching or research without babbling nonsense. She has an even more jaundiced view of the religious than I do!

Her claim, if valid, would mean that we could teach any ol’ belief we wanted in the classroom, and as long as we said it was part of our religion (or was so ludicrously absurd that the only possible justification for it is that it was a religious belief), then the instructor could not be criticized. Astronomy professors could say the Earth was suspended on the back of a turtle, geology professors could literally argue that rocks are the bones of Gaia, chemists could teach their traditional model of the four (and only four!) elements. The foolproof method of gaining tenure would be to come to class every day and read aloud from the bible…and when the tenure review committee justly voted to boot your butt out the door, sue them for violating your civil rights.

The IDists are definitely desperate when this kind of nutjob dreck is how they decide to defend their ideas. I shouldn’t even bother addressing it, it’s so pathetic…so I’ll leave you to read one defender’s view.