Our monthly meeting for January 24, 2017 – Religion evolves?

This is the first post about the content of our monthly meeting in quite some time. Meetings in the recent past have focused on live presentations and discussions which were difficult to present in written format, but the most recent meeting featured discussion about the video embedded below.

The topic was the differences between christian churches representing different denominations and displaying very different views of what is important. Many churches cling to a very fundamentalist orientation while others have more flexible and “modern” versions of the dogma, rituals and atmosphere. Yet most of them are seeing a continued decline in membership as the number of people claiming no particular religious affiliation continues to grow. The “nones” as they are typically described don’t necessarily lose all their faith, they just don’t find church involvement to be particularly important.

In this environment, many churches are seeking answers as to how they should change or evolve to make themselves relevant for the future. This has often led them toward increasingly liberal positions on issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, etc. This evolution has been slow and sometimes painful as membership can decline further when members find the liberal positions less to their liking.

At our meeting we watched a video made in 2013 in which the pastor of a church in Toronto, Ontario Canada responds to question about here decision to define herself as an atheist and the difficulties reconciling this with the members of her church. While many left, others have stayed and the church has continued to explore its new role as a welcome place for those who have not faith or have a very limited faith.

The West Hill United Church of Canada has now begun exploring joining the Oasis program which connects other churches or groups embracing a secular humanist view and seeking to redefine Sunday morning services as serving a primarily humanistic purpose. We shall see if this evolution helps to preserve their existence or if they are just another step on the extinction of religion.

Facts vs. Faith — Which Will Win?

I came across this quote in a column written by Charles Blow for the New York Times, but he was quoting Joe Keohane of the Boston Globe, so that is the original provenance:

“Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

Blow was writing about Donald Trump supporters.  But if this is true with respect to “ploitical partisans,” why would it be any different when it comes to dogmatic religious believers?

This is disappointing, because it suggests that our favored tools, logic and reason, will not avail against belief.  In other words — excuse the awful pun — faith trumps facts.

Of course, we can hope that even if this is true in the short term, in the long run, ideas based on reason will permeate the public consciousness, and for pragamatic reasons (such as the efficacy of medical science — all but the most deluded believers go to doctors rather than faith healers because they are more likely to find effecive treatment with the latter than with the impotent and ineffective layer on of hands), change will come in the future as it has in the past.

Still, it is depressing to think that our best arguments and the most effective presentation of evidence may be likely to fall on deaf ears.

Make plans to see “Spotlight”

I didn’t watch the Oscars this year and I haven’t watched them much for several years. But this year a picture I wanted to see won the Oscar for best picture. I hadn’t seen it because it never played in Grand Rapids during its initial release. Now, all of a sudden after the Oscar win, it shows up in town. So Carolyn and I made a very rare middle of the week trip to see it on Tuesday night. I was concerned that it would be gone before the weekend and didn’t want to miss our chance. It was well worth taking the time. I’m still puzzled as to why it was so delayed in coming to Grand Rapids. I suspect the Catholic church is very unhappy with it, but I don’t know that they would have raised a stink in town that the theater operator would care about.

The movie documents in a dramatic format the pursuit by the Boston Globe newspaper of a story about the abuse of children by pedophile priests in the Boston area. This occurred in the early 2000’s and involved an investigative reporting team name Spotlight. A team of four journalists who are asked to take on the story by a new editor who has just taken over the news operation. He is responding to some information he noticed in the paper about a single case of abuse that seems to point to a larger problem and wonders why the paper didn’t pursue the story further. The answer is that no one thought it would amount to anything – just a single bad apple priest. The editor challenges them to find out if that is true.

Eventually the team realizes that the problem is massive involving more than 80 priests in the Boston area, hundreds of victims and a community wide effort to suppress the story involving not just the Catholic Church, but government attorneys, the police, a host of public figures and, most disturbing, Cardinal Law and others in the upper reaches of the church hierarchy. Also embarrassing, the Spotlight team realizes that some of them also contributed to suppressing the story when they were in other positions at the paper. They had followed everyone else in deciding it was a limited problem and the church shouldn’t be subjected to further embarrassment for the “good of the community”.

This story is compelling and the dramatization of it is straight forward and feels completely honest. No one comes off as a unblemished hero, but the willingness of the Spotlight team to follow the story to its end regardless is admirable. Almost all of them are portrayed as lapsed Catholics, but we are left to wonder if this story put the nail in the coffin of their faith for good. I also wondered how badly the church in Boston was hurt by this story. The level of disgust and disappointment with the church seems intense at the end of the film. It would be nice if some details on the impact for the church were easily available. Maybe they are, I just haven’t looked hard enough I suppose.

In the end, Cardinal Law is pulled out of Boston and hidden away in the Vatican where he remains. As I recall, the whole scandal fueled the flames of investigation all over the world and we now know that the Catholic Church has been complicit in thousands of abuse cases with hundreds of abusive priests and nuns. It is now suspected that the retired Pope Benedict was up to his ears in the cover up of the problem and resigned to avoid further problems for himself. I’m not sure that the current Pope, Francis, isn’t also guilty at some level. The Vatican is clearly a criminal organization at this point.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is intense and compelling. I don’t know how long it will be in town. Go see it if you can.

Brian Dalton – Our monthly meeting for February 23, 2016

Brian Dalton has been a person of interest from the beginning of our group. First as Mr.Deity and then as the Ray Comfort spoof The Way of the Mister. Now he has created a third “channel” called The God Distraction.This is a series of talks about his serious dissatisfaction with the notion of g*d. The general theme is “I don’t care if God exists and neither should you.”. I don’t know how many presentations he will create on this topic, but there are now 3 episodes. We skipped the first, introduction segment which is short and moved on to the second one called Arguments. In this episode he critiques the whole idea of debating g*d’s existence using nothing but arguments (aplogetics). What he considers essential at the start is some evidence. If there is no evidence, who cares what the arguments are or how strong they are. If you can’t establish the existence of this entity via evidence, you are wasting your time with arguments unless you just like arguing for arguing’s sake.

For the sake of being complete, I’ve embedded both the introductory talk and the first “chapter” regarding arguments.

This stuff is a bit more serious than Dalton’s earlier stuff although if you watch carefully, you will catch phrases and images that reflect his quick wit. Post your thoughts and comments below.

Presumptions

I was watching a show the other night called “Monster Quest,” wherein an impersonal team conducts searches for various cryptozoological creatures such as Champ, the yeti, or the Mongolian death worm.  This particular episode focused on the Ropen.

The Ropen is supposedly a large, leathery flying predator native to Papua New Guinea which sets itself apart from other creatures through a twenty-foot wingspan and bioluminescence.  Supposedly it greatly resembles a glow-in-the-dark pterosaur.

Part of the expedition was a representative of “Genesis Park,” a creationist organization that seeks to prove dragon-like creatures of mythology as proof that humans and dinosaurs lived alongside one another, a la The Flintstones.  In order to help push the asinine notion theory that pterosaurs still live in Papua New Guinea, something that was mentioned when someone pointed out that there’s no evidence that pterosaurs were bioluminescent, this particular man claimed that fossils don’t tell us the whole story and so we can’t possibly know that.

That claim is highly presumptuous.  It’s true, fossils simply can’t tell us everything, however, given what they can tell us–how the skeletons were put together, diet (teeth), muscle size and arrangement (imprints on the bones)–we simply can’t make wild guesses just because the fossils don’t specifically say “no.”  As I pointed out at Florio’s, I can claim that the fossil T.rex “Sue” was a devout Shinto, there’s nothing specific in her fossils that says otherwise, but I don’t get to complain when people point and laugh at me.

In case you’re curious, the Ropen is most likely a combination of folklore, hysteria, and misidentified hornbills, which are massive birds that have been compared to pterosaurs before.

An Inappropriate Act

As many of you know, my mother passed away a few days ago.  Let me first thank all of you who have expressed sympathy — it means a lot.

We have also been receiving sympathy cards from various friends, relatives, and acquaintances, all of which, again, have been welcome and much appreciated.

But in the stack of cards in the mailbox today was a letter that was not so welcome.  We received, unsolicited of course, a form letter from a local Jehovah’s Witness activist who stated that she wished to “comfort”: us with scripture.  I have no idea who this prosyletizing busybody is, but she was sloppy in her editing, and one portion of the letter still included the names of the previous recipients rather than being switched to our names.

Can there be anything more inappropriate?  Does this woman read the obituaries each week and send out her nonsense (there were some Watchtower Society tracts in the envelope as well), hoping to win converts from among the grieving?  Perhaps this person is well intentioned, but I certainly question her judgment.  I don’t for one minute profess to speak for all the bereaved, but I consider it incredibly poor taste to try to push religion on a total stranger at such a time.

The “prayer vigil” – dealing with state/church issues locally

As most of you probably know, the Sheriff’s department in Itasca County sent a letter out ostensibly from the department’s chaplain (who knew they had a chaplain?). The letter was on official letterhead and gave the clear impression that the “vigil” was sponsored by the Sheriff. The “prayer vigil” was to be held on November 21st at the courthouse and was scheduled to last 24 hrs. The praying was to “benefit” the law enforcement, fire department and medical first responders in the community. What benefits were to be received was a bit vague.

Since sponsorship by the Sheriff would constitute a state/church violation of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, I contacted FFRF and provided them with a copy of the letter. They wrote to the Sheriff and other county officials advising them of the problem and requesting that the vigil be cancelled and the chaplain position be abandoned.

Nathan Bergstedt who was still with the newspaper did some interviews including the County Administrator in plans for publishing an article on the situation. He also interviewed me as a representative of GRAF. While there was plenty of time for the paper to publish the article about this prior to the 21st, the article never appeared, until this Wednesday, the 2nd of December.

The article was a bit late and out of date since the vigil either did not occur or was moved to some undisclosed location. Several GRAF members drove past the courthouse on the morning of the 21st and saw no evidence of any vigil although the street was partially blocked off and various equipment that might have been used was setup on the sidewalk and street. There were no signs indicating what happened with the planned vigil.

So, chalk one up for the county abiding by the requirements of the first amendment. Give the Herald Review a D- for waiting so long to publish “news” and neglecting to find out what happened. The community was left to wonder if the vigil was held, whether the county had responded to the FFRF letter and requests, etc.

Matt Dillahunty – Our monthly meeting for October 27, 2015

Matt Dillahunty continues as one of the regular hosts of The Atheist Experience TV show from Austin, Texas. However, he has also launched a new carrier as a “professional” within the secular community. He engages regularly in debates, makes presentations at many conferences and is producing a series of videos called Atheist Debates. In these videos he takes on one of the many arguments made by theists in defense of their faith. His goal is to systematically identify the weak spots in the arguments and show how they all fail. His comments are drawn from his long experience debunking faith on the TV show and the growing number of live debates in which he participates. Matt has become an increasingly effective and popular speaker.

The video we saw at this month’s meeting was recorded at the Gateway to Reason conference held in St. Louis, Missouri this past summer. It is based on one of his talks for the Atheist Debates series, but the video for that talk had audio problems so he decided to use this presentation instead. The issue he addresses in this one is the frequent use of personal experience as a defense of faith by believers. Briefly, claiming evidence for god and belief based upon some personal experience, known directly only to you, but similar to experiences others describe who share your beliefs. The fact that your private experience doesn’t constitute evidence that can be verified, tested, repeated, etc. makes it relatively useless as a defense of faith. But that doesn’t reduce its popularity. Here is Matt’s thoughtful and detailed discussion of reliance on personal experience as evidence for belief.

Poped Out?

I will agree that the current pope is better than many of his predecessors.  But the new media are treating him like he is Christ himself (whom of course does not exist).  Does the pope’s visit really merit the wall-to-wall coverage he is getting from CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere?  Do professional journalists really need to get starry-eyed and sometimes even teary-eyed over the visit of the pontiff?  And yes, it is true the Francis has shifted focus to social justice, do we really need to laud him for that?  Shouldn’t the Church have been focused on these issues long ago?  And the pope remains very conservative on women’s issues.

In short, though he is a step up from some of his predecessors, by maintaining the authority of the institutional Church, the pope remains an enemy of free inquiry and unfettered rational thought.

At any rate, I am feeling a bit “poped out.”  I am sick of hearing ad nauseum about every trivial detail of the pope’s visit to the US east coast.

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.