Middle East protests

As protests escalate in countries in the middle east resulting in various degrees of repression by their authoritarian governments, a lot of nonsense is being spouted by commentators here. Juan Cole tries to set things straight by listing top the top five myths about the protests.

Meanwhile in Libya, Gadhafi seems to have gone completely berserk in his attempts to forcibly quell the protests in his country and Cole provides some insights into that situation.

Meanwhile Yemen’s leader seems to be also digging in his heels and it looks likely that he will increase his use of violence to repress protests.

Why atheism is winning-5: The battle for hearts and minds

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury says he opposes new atheists for our ‘less tolerant attitude towards religion’, what I think is driving his concern is the fear that the new atheist message is reaching the ordinary flock. After all, atheists are currently in the minority. We have no power over anyone except the power of persuasion. If we are as intolerant or arrogant or rude as our critics claim, we are only hurting ourselves by such alienating behaviors and religious institutions should be pleased. Their concern about the new atheist message only makes sense if they are worried that our message is getting through to large numbers of people. The news report about the Archbishop’s call says that “The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.” (My italics)

It is the fear that knowledge about religion’s shaky foundations are percolating amongst ordinary people that I think lies behind the other diversionary tactic, the repeated condescending criticism that new atheists argue at a low-level of sophistication by attacking the historical and scientific claims of religions. We are told that we should be engaging in high-level arguments of theology and philosophy.

This is a seductive appeal that has persuaded even some atheists who have theological and philosophical backgrounds, which is not surprising since it involves their disciplines and elevates the importance of their expertise. For example, John Shook of the Center for Inquiry, an atheist, critiques those whom he claims attack religion without knowing much of modern theology, saying “Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology.”

I for one proudly plead guilty to the charge. I have said that theology is a useless discipline and believe that new atheists are perfectly right is pushing it to the sidelines as peripheral. If there is no evidence that god exists, discussing the nature of god is as pointless as discussing what color a unicorn is or whether it is mean or mild-tempered.

These appeals are meant to draw new atheists back into the academic and intellectual world of theological ideas that are far removed from the actual world of religion as practiced by most people. Following their advice would continue to leave religion largely untouched because most religious believers do not care for such discussions and will simply ignore them, however absorbing or compelling those arguments might seem to the participants in them. However, tell the ordinary believer that Moses or Jesus or Mohammed never lived, and they sit up and take notice.

New atheists should not take the bait and get distracted by appeals to return to the rarefied world of theology. Debating theologians may be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to engage in from time to time (because theologians are often clever people and matching wits with them can be fun in small doses) but we should understand that theological discussions are irrelevant to the major goal of combating religion. What sophisticated theologians engage in are exercises in which they can find some vague sense of spirituality to believe in because they know that the evidence and science are against there being a tangible god. So they concoct abstract theories of god such as ‘apophatic theology’ and metaphors for god such as ‘ground of all being’ and (my personal favorite) a ‘plenitude of actuality’.

You will never convince a theologian that there is no god because they have essentially given up on god already by defining it out of any real existence. The entire work of modern theologians consists of finding ways to believe in a non-god. Their god, such as it is, is a slacker, dead, inert, passive, absent. There is simply no there there. It is a waste of time to look for any signs for him. To paraphrase Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch, it has ceased to be. It is demised. It is a stiff. It is an ex-god.

Even the pope probably realizes that his god is dead and in trying to explain his unresponsiveness is reduced to saying that god ‘surprises’ us. By that he means that when people pray to god, their answer may not be what they expect, which is a way of saying that whatever happens is god’s answer to the prayer. How one distinguishes that from god not being there at all, he does not say. This is the excuse religion has always used to gull believers who are disappointed by their prayers not being answered by a god who supposedly loves them dearly and cares for them.

Theologians provide nothing of value to ordinary religious believers except the cold comfort that some smart people also believe in some form of god. But the god the theologians believe in is not one that the average person in the church or mosque or synagogue would recognize, and if they were more aware of what theologians actually believe, ordinary religious people and even people like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would consider them as much atheists as us. Rather than fighting with these theologians, new atheists should encourage these theologians to spread their concept of god more widely to religious believers because such a non-god would alienate most religious believers and undermine their beliefs.

Most ordinary believers want an activist god whom they can pray to in the hope that he will intervene and supersede the laws of science in their favor, just like he supposedly did in the good old days of the Bible. To say that god did not really do the things in the Bible, that those stories are fictional and that god is a ‘plenitude of actuality’ would be a real turn-off.

Next: The death of religious philosophy

Scientists create Artificial Stupidity

The success of IBM’s computer Watson in beating two former Jeopardy champions has resulted in more dire warnings that computers will one day take over the world. However, the search for true Artificial Intelligence is not easy, with the joke amongst people working in the field is that we are always ten years away from creating it.

But because trying to create AI is so hard, scientists have looked elsewhere for breakthroughs and have made some.

For years the project’s development was overshadowed by the more ambitious quest for Artificial Intelligence, but scientists working in Seattle accepted that A.S. was a more realisable ambition within their own lifetime. Yesterday they finally unveiled the domestic computerised robot ‘Kevin’ who is so stupid that every day its owner will experience a wonderful life-affirming sense of their own human superiority. ‘You tell it to open the door and it pulls the door into its own face.’ explained proud project leader Carl Kinear. ‘You ask it the capital of Argentina and it shrugs and says ‘Madrid?’

For decades psychologists have reported computer-users feeling a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy as their machines asked them technical questions they didn’t quite understand. To ensure that digital technology actually improves the quality of life, scientists finally realised that the key was to make robots even dumber than humans are.

(via Machines Like Us)

Why atheism is winning-4: The new and decisive shift by the new atheists

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous posts, I said that it is the firm knowledge that almost everything in religious texts like the Bible and the Koran are fiction that will destroy religion. But right now that knowledge largely exists amongst a small group of theologians and philosophers of religion and does not percolate out to influence ordinary religious believers who do not read their works. The clergy who deal on a daily basis with ordinary believers have some awareness of this knowledge but also realize that to disseminate it to their flock would cause an uproar and destroy their careers and so they keep it to themselves or discreetly share it with a very few of their colleagues and parishioners. As a result of this, beliefs that religious texts are mostly true have remained largely unscathed.

It is the new atheists who have upset the status quo. The new atheists are well aware of the power of this knowledge in undermining religion and have been using it in their attacks on religion, repeatedly pointing out that there is no evidence to supports its strong claims and that the religious texts are largely fictional and contradicted by science.

Doubts about the plausibility of god are not new. Many philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks argued persuasively that the idea of god made no sense and created all manner of logical contradictions. What those philosophers did not have were the insights provided by modern science. The rapid advancement of science that began with physics in the 16th century and joined in the late nineteenth century by dramatic advances in biology and geology resulted in deepening our understanding that the world works perfectly well without the need for divine intervention at any stage. The archeological findings in the late twentieth century that have shed light on human history have been combined with these other scientific findings to discredit the factual claims of religion.

The decisive new development is that we now know that not only is god unnecessary as an explanatory concept for anything, but that the Bible itself is false in almost all its historical details and that its main characters are fictional. What is new about the new atheism is that it is the new atheists who are taking this knowledge out of academia and intellectual circles and broadcasting it to ordinary people, to the believers in the churches and mosques and temples, using popular books, newspaper articles, radio, TV, films, the internet, in short any and all forms of accessible media.

I think that the new atheists are on the right track in thinking that the best way of fighting religious extremism is by attacking it at its foundations, the literal truth of religious texts, and taking that message directly to the general public. But it is undoubtedly true that this will result in moderate religion suffering irreparable collateral damage because they too depend, even if to a lesser extent, on believing in the truth of those texts. Even if I were sympathetic to the accommodationist idea of preserving moderate religion, I frankly do not see any way out of this.

As long as doubts about the existence of god and the truth of the Bible stayed within elite circles, it did not cause serious damage. I think that it is clear that the leadership of mainstream religions is well aware of the danger that this knowledge presents if it became widely known. This is why there has been such a strong reaction to the new atheists amongst the religious hierarchy. They cannot, of course, argue that the new atheists are wrong on the facts because they realize we are right. They want to avoid at all costs a debate on the historical truth of the religious texts because that would only give more publicity the fact that is false. Instead they attempt diversionary tactics.

One such tactic is to attack the ‘tone’ taken by new atheists and argue that we are not ‘tolerant’. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one could label as a religious moderate, has called upon his clergy to fight back against the new atheist message.

Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.

A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as “a social problem” and says the next five years are set to be a period of “exceptional challenge”.

Pope Ratzinger has also decided to come out swinging against what he calls “atheist extremism”, an undefined quantity. What would he consider non-extreme atheism, I wonder? His top aide Cardinal Walter Kasper also stoked fears about the danger of the atheist message taking hold amongst the general population.

I am actually heartened by the responses of Williams and Ratzinger. It shows that the new atheists are having a major impact on the minds of ordinary believers.

Next: The battle for hearts and minds.

Curveball confesses to lying about Iraq

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Iraqi defector known as ‘Curveball’ was the source of much of the false information that was used to argue that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. There were doubts from the beginning about Curveball’s veracity and plenty of reasons to doubt him but these were brushed aside in the drive to gin up support for the invasion. Curveball himself says that his German interrogators knew he was lying as early as 2000.
[Read more…]

Why means testing of Social Security benefits is a bad idea

One of the ideas being floated around is to ‘means test’ Social Security benefits. i.e., to base benefits on income and wealth. Kevin Drum explains why this is already being done at some level by the way benefits are calculated and why it would be a pointless exercise to pursue any further.

Paul Krugman also makes an important point about keeping our language on benefits clear. Using the umbrella term ‘entitlements’ in budget debates is meaningless because the economics of Social Security is quite different from Medicaid and Medicare.


I have never understood how modern societies permit male circumcision while they rightly condemns the female variants. It seems like as long as some practice is old and stamped with the word ‘approved by religious authorities’, it is exempt from the usual protections we give children.

I am glad to see that the creator of Jesus and Mo shares my concern.