In which I take a stab at returning to the blog

It has been a long time since I added anything to the blog other than links to videos we have watched at our monthly meeting. I’m not entirely sure why I found it less appealing. Perhaps it was feeling overwhelmed with the ability of people like Jerry Coyne to produce a mammoth volume of well written and interesting posts on a daily basis while I struggled to do any kind of post more than once a week. Guess I should approach it more the way I do learning to play the guitar. I’ll never be all that great, it’s just fun to be able to do it at all.

So what is happening now? Well, next week I will meet with a guy named Jerry Nagel who is involved in a project with the Blandin Foundation in which some people (I don’t know who), will receive training (I don’t know what) to be influential in leading groups to achieve a broader understanding of their world views and how those views act as a lens through which they perceive the world…or something. It was suggested that he meet with me as a “leader” of a group with a “world view” and as someone who had entered into a discussion with others holding different world views, i.e. the CPC group now known as World Views Uniting.

My initial response after agreeing to meet was to take a look at the website for his consulting business which is WorldViewIntelligence.com. It seemed the best place to gain an understanding of whether this was mostly woo or something more substantive. It looked like woo through much of what I read. Lots of stuff about world views driving us hither and thither via an unconscious channel. While I suppose you can demonstrate an unconscious channel in various situations, I’ve never been overly fond of the idea that we are walking around clueless to our real thoughts, emotions, brain events, etc. I’ve known plenty of clueless people, but I’m not sure they were clueless because they were unconscious. I think they were clueless because they lacked an interest in developing and nurturing a self-examined life. I for one don’t really think I stumbled into a secular/humanist perspective and remain unaware of how it colors my view of the world. I spend the better part of my life examining and evaluating that perspective.

So what will I discuss with Nagel? I’m actually supposing that he will take responsibility for aiming the conversation in one way or another, but have been making guesses as is my style. So here are some thoughts.

GRAF as a group does represent a world view of sorts, but what we share is mostly discomfort with the idea of a g*d and after that things get a bit messy. A fair number of us value a scientific view of the nature of reality and how to learn more about it, but that isn’t a dominant feature of the thinking process of everyone in the group. We also have a pretty strong skeptical orientation and avoid buying into other ideologies without evidence or reason and logic, but there again, we have different levels of skepticism in the group. The list of differences that exist within our group and between members is substantial after you get through the shared stuff.

So what I think is that I will have less to say about our world view and more about how the larger community is clueless about us, assigns qualities to us that aren’t accurate and often views us a threatening presence. I am reminded of that almost daily as I read the scary stories being presented by the religious announcing that the coming election may be the last one if they don’t shove a g*dly candidate down our throats (an image they seem overly fond of for some reason). Cruz will save the world by finally bringing the theocracy into being. Or maybe it will be Rubio or even Jeb!. Trump won’t save us at all even though he now claims to be as g*dly as anyone else. They don’t seem to realize he is a religious pretender. He certainly isn’t one of us. Just a sociopath who says whatever he thinks might make the con work. The “take our country back” meme is prominent in this political season, but I wonder if it reflects a dim awareness that religion is losing on a lot of fronts.

With these thoughts in mind, I returned to the World Views Intelligence website and then did a short search for videos to get a bit less of the woo and more of an explanation of what they are up to. It seems to come down to helping people overcome their prejudices, the use of stereotypes and other sorts of clouded thinking. Could such problems exist in this community?

If that works to include us along with all the other loathed, hated, despised and feared minority groups, maybe that is a good thing. I suspect that as we have found in our conversations with the CPC group, it may be a revelation of sorts to him to discover that atheists actually exist in rural America and can be the object of unconscious or conscious fear. He may also be surprised that there are enough of us to raise a stink with the help of the FFRF in a tiny town like Grand Rapids. Might be fun shaking his World View. More to come after next week….

Public vs. Private

Recently, Ben Carson, one of the Republican clown candidates for President of the United States, got in a bit of trouble for indicating that he did not believe a Muslim could be acceptable as president, or that Islam accords with the U.S. Constitution.

Islam certainly has lots of problems, and, while there are without question far too many Muslim extremists, I think I could handle a Keith Ellison or someone similar as president.  But why not just say this: in their capacity as private citizen, anyone should be able to engage in any religious practice whatsoever as long as it does not violate anyone else’s rights.  But in their capacity as government actor, elected or appointed officials are bound by the parameters of the Constitution.  They cannot use their power in the public sphere to impose there religious views on others or to inhibit lawful practice of religion or non-religion.  It really is not that complicated.  Yet, this principle is not understood by the likes of Kim Davis and her supporters, nor does Ben Carson understand the distinction.

It is too bad that right wing supposed defenders of the Constitution do not take the time to actually study it, and to understand the distinction between public and private.

Vyckie Garrison – Quiverfull – Our monthly meeting on July 28, 2015

Vyckie Garrison has been steadily making a name for herself by launching a website and making presentations at national secular conferences on the topic of the “Quiverfull Movement”. The website is named “No Longer Quivering” and is a support service for mostly women who have managed to “escape” from the movement.

For those who don’t recognize the phrase, Quiverfull is the name given to a non-denominational group of people that seek to live a completely “biblical” life as in the Christian bible. In practice this means that they establish their families as complete patriarchies where the husband holds all the power and the wife is expected to produce as many children as possible. The most famous family in this group are the Duggers who managed to get a reality TV show contract and have been making tons of money by exploiting their family relationships and children as they extoll the Quiverfull lifestyle. They currently have 19 children. Most recently however, they have lost their show because it was discovered that one of their older children had been abusing more than one of his younger sisters and another girl from a different family. Now I may see this as a reflection of the reality of the bible given the stories about characters like Noah, but Christian types see it as a nasty embarrassment.

At this meeting we watched two different videos. In the first “The Patriarch’s Wife”, Vyckie describes her life as a quivering wife and how her marriage represented a classical abusive relationship in which her husband was acting as an abuser by simply following the patriarchal dictates of Jesus.

In the second video titled “Fertile Ground”, Vyckie goes over the basic theology of the Quiverfull movement to show how it is built on the interpretation of the bible present in many fundamentalist sects within the Christian community. The church itself lays the foundation for giving yourself up to a vision of life which was literally life threatening to Vyckie herself and destructive of the lives of many of the women caught in the cult.

All in all, a disturbing picture of what a blind commitment to religious dogma can do to families and an encouraging story of how Vyckie is seeking to help others, like herself, who wish to escape.

King of the (Prehistoric) Seas–Mosasaur

I’ve been dragging my heels with these prehistoric creature posts, but with “Jurassic World” just around the corner, I decided to get off my buns and post about one of my all time favorites: mosasaurs.

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Shamu’s got NOTHING on this sh*t!

Mosasaurs ruled the oceans of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era of Earth’s history, biting sharks in half while T-Rex was doing the same with anatosaurs.  A close relative of modern-day monitor lizards and snakes (more on this in a minute) mosasaurs were the dominant marine predators for the last 20 million years of the Dinosaur Age, an age where the seas included plesiosaurs and Ginsu sharks–25 foot long ancestors of the great white and named for the Ginsu knife.  Evolving from small lizards that lived in swamps and lakes to avoid dinosaurs, and later made the transition to oceans, mosasaurs ruled their environment with a number of different weapons, not least of which was their size, which ranged from roughly the size of a Labrador, to the 60 foot long Mosasaurus.

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You can always count on Suicidal Size-Comparison Alan to make things real

But what did such titanic beasts even feed on?  Luckily for mosasaurs, everything during this time was just too big.  Sea birds as tall as a man, carnivorous fish the size of motor boats, sea turtle that dwarfed life-rafts, and of course the sharks and plesiosaurs I mentioned earlier, mosasaurs had their pick of what to eat.  Mosasaurs tracked their prey with two keen weapons, the first of which were pressure sensors in their snouts.  Like modern day crocodiles and Cretaceous Era Spinosaurus (the star of Jurassic Park III) mosasaurs had pockets of nervous tissue in their snouts that allowed them to detect the pressure waves made by all swimming creatures.  Their second weapon was a forked tongue that, like those of their modern snake and monitor lizard cousins, could be used to track scents, even underwater.

We can make the assumption that mosasaurs had these forked tongues by looking at their modern relatives, and we certainly know who those are.  By looking at the skeletons of mosasaurs, as well as soft tissue imprints–which show small, triangular scales like those of snakes–we can see the similarities they possess to snakes and monitors.  Not just that, but the lower jaw of a mosasaur was double-hinged, just like those of modern snakes, which mean that they could move their bottom jaws forward-and-back as well as up-and-down.  You’d think that meat hook teeth and Satan’s own mandibles would be enough, but mosasaurs also possessed a second set of teeth in the upper jaw which would hold prey, as well as shred it to pieces, as it used its double-hinged snappers to drag up to four feet of flesh down its gullet at a time.  Pay attention to the inside of the mosasaur’s jaws in the Jurassic World trailer and you’ll see those devilish teeth yourself.

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“Well, hello there killer-shark-lizard!”

I mentioned soft tissue deposits, which, as you may be aware, rarely fossilize.  Well, remains in Harrana, Jordan (which was underwater at the time) were so well preserved that scientists were able to study the softer, squishier bits that don’t often survive millions of years of being buried in the dirt.  This is how they know what the mosasaurs’ scales were like, how they know that the organs were arranged much like those of modern whales, and how they know that mosasaur had a tail like a shark’s.  This design being in modern sharks and fish is no accident, it optimizes how much water is displaced with each stroke from the tail, allowing more efficiency for a swimming creature.  While things are more ambiguous for the smaller species, larger specimens like the Mosasaurus itself were unlikely to pursue prey long distances.  Like modern great whites, they likely patrolled populous waters until they found a good spot before laying in wait for something to swim too close, tagging their chosen prey with a great burst of power.

With the depletion in fish stalks that occurred after the KT Event–otherwise known as the meteor-based bitch slap that rebooted life on planet Earth–larger predators simply couldn’t continue; they simply couldn’t survive on the smaller fish left behind.  The implications that it took an event of cosmic proportions to send these beasts into extinction speaks volumes of their rule.  Even had dinosaurs died out and left the mosasaurs alive, the world would be much different; there would be no whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals or sea lions or walruses for one thing.  They wouldn’t be able to compete, mammals simply couldn’t take to the seas, which raises more implications about man’s place in a world like this.  Even if we evolved at all, we wouldn’t be able to conquer the globe like we have today.  Fishing would be too dangerous an enterprise with 60-foot sea beasts patrolling the best places, early man would not have been able to travel as far afield across the oceans in rafts and small boats.  Much of our current success is a result of our ability to harness the resources of the oceans, the domain of the mosasaurs.

Steven Pinker – Our monthly meeting on April 28, 2015

Steven PInker’s well regarded book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is considered an excellent read, but at 800 pages, clearly not a quick one. Fortunately for us, Steven is not only an excellent writer, but also an excellent speaker. In the video below he quickly gives us an overview of the massive book, hitting all the high spots and providing an easy to follow description of where his research led him and where things may continue to head. Here is his presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in March in Minneapolis.

Pinker describes this as the most peaceful age in human history and provides a broad array of evidence in support of this claim. He ends with a description of the primary factors behind the dramatic decline in violence across the planet. In short, they include: empathy, self-control, the “moral sense,” and reason. Note the absence of religion. While religion is discussed in some detail in his book, getting to key points and arguments, Pinker clearly feels that he has no need for the “god hypothesis”.

Faith – Our monthly meeting on February 24, 2015

Matt Dillahunty is an increasingly well known atheist from Austin, Texas and the principal host of the weekly TV show, “The Atheist Experience”. He has recently announced that he is going to be working full-time on making presentations on atheism and engaging in debates as requested. In short, Matt is going “pro”.

Matt has been doing presentations and debates for a long time, but in the past it was mostly on a volunteer basis and he wasn’t asking for compensation or honoraria, etc. Now he has found that groups are willing to help fund his participation and he can make a living at it. His skill and popularity from the TV show has made him a bit of a celebrity.

In addition to his public appearances as an individual, Matt is also 1/3 of the “Unholy Trinity Tour” with AronRa and Seth Andrews who have also become “pros”. Matt has also begun producing short videos in which he articulates his ideas on various aspects of apologetics and other issues that are frequent sources of discussion and argument on the TV show. At this meeting we watched his presentation on the topic of “faith”. He does an excellent job of explaining how the concept of faith as a source of knowledge, understanding or confidence is without merit on every level. In the long run, the use of the word has become meaningless and ultimately an admission of ignorance or incoherence. So, not a great idea. Watch below for Matt at his best.

I suspect that at some point our discussions with the CPC group will bring us up against the notion of faith as a basis for holding on to a religious belief. I know that it is an idea at the core for at least some of the religious people participating. I don’t think I will push to have the group confront the notion of faith and I hope other GRAF members will be cautious too. We didn’t enter into the conversation in order to disabuse them of their beliefs. The goal was to have them become more supportive of us by virtue of discovering or confirming that religion and faith are not prerequisites for living a good and moral life. I think we have gotten a good portion of that accomplished. What remains to be seen is where that can take us in broadening the size of the religious community who “tolerate” or even support our right to non-belief. We need to find out how far we can go in getting the community to become “friendly” to those who have set aside any religious faith. We need to have being openly atheist considered of little or no significance outside of conversations about their religion and our lack of it.

Conversations with the CPC – 4 and 5

As the title conveys, I’ve gotten behind on my reporting about our discussions with folks at the Community Presbyterian Church (CPC). Our 4th meeting took place in January and the 10th in February. Our 6th meeting is scheduled for March 10th. The content of meetings 4 and 5 was rather similar, but the participants were a little different so I will cover both with this post.

in January, we decided to discuss a list of values that could be agreed upon by both secular humanists and progressive religionists. The list had been created by Herb Silverman representing the secular perspective and the editor of the paper in Charleston, South Carolina where they both live.

While we could find some changes in the wording that we might prefer, there was reasonable consensus that most of the list reflected ideas we found as  a positive expression of our core perspective. We even found that many of us arrived at the same position by similar processes of examining the world and applying reason to ideas we found to express a positive, affirmative and humanistic orientation toward our fellow humans. Religion did not need to be a driving force in that process to get to the same place.

Having found, yet again, that we could avoid disagreement, we decided to expand the group to include a more diverse representation of religion and additional secular views from more GRAF members. That became the 5th meeting on February 10th. A storm on that night left us with a smaller group than planned, but we had two people from the Baha’i group in Grand Rapids and someone with a Jewish background, but not actively practicing that faith. The new assistant pastor at CPC was included as well. Some CPC members who had missed many of the earlier meetings, rejoined the group and were reintroduced along with the new members.

The expansion brought in some different perspectives, but not a lot of differences of opinion about the list of humanistic values. One of the Baha’is brought in comments that had been posted by someone claiming to be familiar with attitudes in east Texas. The vitriol and intolerance expressed in those comments either by the author or his neighbors, was enough to lead us to wonder if there was any hope for connecting with similar people sharing similar anti-humanistic values locally. One CPC member shared an experience trying to talk with a group of women from the local NRA gun group. Their close minded attitude regarding guns left him feeling that it was hopeless and did not bode well at all for trying to get more inclusive in our conversation with people similarly closed in their perceptions relating to belief and non-belief.

For our next meeting they accepted my suggestion that we read and discuss David Brooks article published on February 3rd in the NY Times on “Building Better Secularists“. This article was intended as a response to the rapidly growing number of younger people who decline to report any religious affiliation. Brooks feels there is a risk for our broader society is these “nones” do not find ways to replace what they have lost in giving up on religion. I presented this as an issue on which we might find grounds for at last finding disagreement without necessarily discovering that we could no longer feel comfortable in our conversation together. Several prominent atheists have already taken Brooks to task for his ideas and others have been more accepting of his view. Plenty of room for differences among all the CPC participants.

Subsequently in conversation with some of the GRAF participants, there was concern that maybe we were avoiding all the huge obstacles between us or that we were talking to people who really didn’t believe the faith claims either. Maybe they just enjoyed being part of the church. So they might all be atheists but for the name. It may be that we are in fact discovering the “dirty little secret” that interfaith dialogues are successful only to the degree that they avoid faith altogether. Faithiests like Chris Stedman may just be fooling themselve by never bringing up the giant elephant in the corner. They imagine good feelings, but ignore what all the pleasantness hides. I don’t think that will be true of our group in the long run. I’m very certain that some of them will vigorously defend their religious beliefs and notions of faith if pressed. And finding those points that can’t be resolved may be the ultimate test of whether the conversation can be held together or not.

With that in mind I’ve decided to supplement the Brooks article with a piece by Gregory Paul that describes the failing status of churches in much of the world including the U.S., wHich underlies the rise in secular numbers. They aren’t just not religious, they’ve actively left the churches. Why and what does it suggest for the future of the church and religion? An article I recently saw regarding attendance at Catholic Churches suggests that no more than 15% of supposed Catholics attend mass on any Sunday. That can’t be good for the church. It also noted that most of that 15% consisted of the elderly.

A second article by Paul and Phil Zuckerman, summarizes the research that shows secular countries like Denmark and Sweden, have much healthier societies than the U.S. We know that various political and social events led to the development of these more robust safety nets and support in these countries, but why did that also result in a drastic decline in religiosity? What does it say about the role religion plays? What will progressive religionists say about their religions? Is it really just a salve for untreated social harm and not a real help at all?

I know that some in the group will be a bit more uncomfortable with this direction since it challenges them to consider the idea that improving our country’s  care and support for its citizens would further hasten the loss of those who feel obligated to believe. Atheists can claim it’s not our fault that your faith could be irrelevant and people are figuring that out. We could keep quiet and it would likely happen anyway. The very humanistic values you agreed you supported and shared with us are the ones that may ultimately lead to the extinction of faith if we put them into action. Somewhat ironic I suppose.

 

 

Thomas Paine on Christianity

This blog has been sort of “dead” of late, so I was trying to think of something to post in the interest of keeping it going.

Over at Smilodon’s Retreat on the Skeptic Ink, network, there is a post on Thomas Paine and his views on religion.  The author of the post has apparently been in discussions with Christians regarding the so-called “Founding Fathers” and their religious views, and, not surprisingly, many religionists claimed that leading members of the Revolutionary Generation were Christians.  The Smilodon author checked for himself, and was particularly intrigued with what Thomas Paine had to say about Christianity.  He included a link to some of Paine’s writings, and I thought it might be useful to add a Paine quote to this blog.  So here it is:

“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, [190] there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.”

Street Epistemology

UPDATE: Here is a link to see the large number of conversations that Anthony has had with various believers. Many are with street preachers, but others are just with random people he meets outside the University of Texas, San Antonio buildings and people visiting the Alamo site in San Antonio.

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Some of you may recall Peter Boghossian’s book “A Manual for Creating Atheists” in which he advocated for engaging in “street epistemology” with believers. Briefly, Boghossian described these as encounters with believers in which he would engage them in a conversation about their beliefs and structure these somewhat like a Socratic dialog. He would ask them to explain the nature and strength of their beliefs and ask questions that would lead them to reconsider their beliefs and the way in which they defended them or sought to justify them. In the book, Boghossian provided a few examples of conversations in which he had engaged and talked a bit about various techniques that he considered crucial to having a successful dialog. In particular, he made it clear that he avoided getting into a debate or an attack on the person he was talking to and would merely strive to get them thinking more clearly about their beliefs. Shortly after the book was published, Boghossian announced that he was going to begin posting video examples of these conversations as a means of providing a tutorial for those interested in pursuing this idea. So far, that hasn’t happened and I suspect it might never happen. We’d be left with the short and incomplete examples in the book and have to figure it out on our own. My own interest was in merely having a more productive way to talk with a believer rather than attempting to argue with them, but examples would still be helpful.

Now, someone who read Boghossian’s book has done the tutorial work for him. Anthony Magnabosco has recorded several conversations he has had with believers in San Antonio, Texas, mostly on the campus of the university located there. The videos include all of the conversation, but some also include his analysis of what he was doing, what mistakes he made and what reactions he was able to observe in those with whom he was conversing. There are currently 4 of these conversations available online at the following URL: http://tinyurl.com/sebdplaylist/. It is best to view them in order I think. The first and the fourth are probably the best, but to get the full picture, you should look at all of them.

In addition to these 4 tutorials, Magnabosco has several other conversations which follow the same pattern, but lack the “breakdown” in which he provides commentary and explanation of what he is doing. A couple are with street preachers who are trying to engage in conversations so that they can proselytize for their faith to people willing to talk to them. Magnabosco gets them to become the object of the conversation rather than him.

Even if you are not planning on doing any street epistemology yourself, watching these videos gives you a very good introduction into how you can explore someone’s faith and open small gaps in their commitment to their beliefs by careful questioning. An interesting note is that he almost always asks them to rank the strength of their belief on a scale from 0 (no belief) to 100 (absolutely certain about their belief). All of them give their belief a rank of 100 suggesting that they feel their belief is unassailable, but in responding to questions about how they can support this assessment, they all discover there are problems. A couple begin to rethink things while others either reaffirm that they can’t be wrong or get uncomfortable and seek to end the conversation.

Magnabosco is generally very good in these conversations, but acknowledges that he is still learning and often makes what he considers to be mistakes. On the whole, his approach seems less confrontational than Boghossian’s and reminds me a lot of the “client centered” dialogs advocated by a clinical psychologist of many years ago named Carl Rogers. I had to learn this technique at one time, but hadn’t had any real need to use it for many years. I suppose I could build up my skills in it again since it isn’t particularly difficult to learn. In fact, you could learn much of it from watching these videos. The technique here is not being used as a therapy of course, it is just a way to keep a conversation going on a topic that might ordinarily become more difficult to discuss.