Thursday, September 30, 2010

Evidence to support the term "bright"?

A phone survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life was released on Tuesday. Among its findings:
  • Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.
  • Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.
These findings were reported in The New York Times (September 28), in the article, "Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans," by Laurie Goodstein, who led off with the statement that "Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion."

I had somehow missed the news, even though the survey had apparently been very widely reported.
    My friend Ken alerted me by email:
The article contains a memorable observation from the president of American Atheists: “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
    Some of the stats in it are jaw-droppers. For example: "53% of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation."
    [Given the religious views that predominate in the Western world and the fact that I've met a great many ignorant Christians,] I must conclude that no one is more ignorant about religion than a Christian.
As qualified, Ken's conclusion doesn't seem to be a non sequitur (in the original, logical way that Aristotle and I use the term). Christians, among the groups identified by the study, might indeed be the most ignorant about religion. [Note that as Goodstein's article points out, "There were not enough Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu respondents to say how those groups ranked."]
    The alleged superiority of atheists' (and agnostics') knowledge of religion might have been involved in philosopher Daniel C. Dennett's suggesting the term "bright" for atheists1, even though he claims that he didn't intend it that way, any more than "gay" for homosexuals is meant to imply that homosexuals are less morose than other people.
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  1. "In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon he admits to being 'a bright,' and defends the term." –Wikipedia

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sacrifice is for the little people

"Anger is sweeping America," wrote Paul Krugman in "The Angry Rich" on September 19 in The New York Times. "I'm talking about the rich," he said.
The rage of the rich has been building ever since Mr. Obama took office.
    ...For one thing, craziness has gone mainstream. It’s one thing when a billionaire rants at a dinner event. It’s another when Forbes magazine runs a cover story alleging that the president of the United States is deliberately trying to bring America down as part of his Kenyan, “anticolonialist” agenda, that “the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” When it comes to defending the interests of the rich, it seems, the normal rules of civilized (and rational) discourse no longer apply.
    ...And among the undeniably rich, a belligerent sense of entitlement has taken hold: it’s their money, and they have the right to keep it.
    ...The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.
    ...You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. [emphasis mine] It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.
    ...And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices.
    ...But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people.
Please pay Mr. Krugman and The New York Times for my long excerpt by taking the link to his article and reading it in its entirety. It provides more examples of attempted manipulation by the rich, as if they didn't practically run everything already anyway.
    And read the letters to The Times in response to the article. For example, Steven Berkowitz wrote the next day:
G. K. Chesterton identified a source deeper than the sense of entitlement to explain the anger of the rich at paying taxes: “The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”
Simply let money [continue to] govern?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We know that dolphins are really smart

In her article in the Science section of today's New York Times ("Studying the Big-Brained Dolphin"), Claudia Dreyfus interviews psychologist Diana Reiss.
Q. We know that dolphins are highly trainable. But how smart are they, really?
    A. Let me tell you a story. One of the first dolphins I ever worked with was Circe. I’d bring her a fish when I wanted her to do certain things. If she didn’t do them, I did a “time-out” where I turned my back and walked away. Well, there was a certain type of fish that Circe loathed because it had a spiny tail. So I accommodated her by cutting the spines off of the tail. One day, I forgot to do that. Circe spit it out, swam to the other side of the pool and placed herself into a vertical position that mimicked my time-out. I wanted to test this. I gave her untrimmed fish on four different days. Whenever I gave her fish with spiny tails, she gave me a time-out. What that suggested was that she saw time out as a correction and used it back on me. Well, that’s how we learn to communicate.
The article reports that Dr. Reiss advised the producers of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove, which I reviewed on June 16, recommending it as:
must-see for its exposure of the atrocity of Japan's annual deliberate slaughter of thousands of dolphins.
Dreyfus asks Reiss:
Q. How did you get involved with [The Cove]?
    A. I had learned about this fishing village in Japan, Taiji, where dolphins are herded into a small inlet and brutally slaughtered. These animals were being eviscerated and just left there to slowly die, flailing about in the sun. Well, these are the same type of dolphins I work with. I know how sensitive they are, how much pain they can feel, how a mere scratch bothers them.
    Few scientists were speaking out about this. So I got biologists and aquarium professionals together and we started Act for Dolphins. We went to the Japanese Embassy in D. C. to bring them scientific information about the animals. Their attitude basically was, “anything we do in our waters is our business.” I also began working with Louie Psihoyos, the film director, and that was the beginning of making the The Cove. It’s been shown in Japan, but that hasn’t stopped the dolphin drive.

Q. How do some of your fellow scientists feel about your activism?
    A. It used to be that you weren’t supposed to do both. But when I went to a marine-mammal conference a couple of years ago, I brought a petition against the dolphin roundup in Japan. Three hundred scientists instantly signed.
    My feeling is if we can’t stop 34 fishermen from treating these animals so miserably, then what hope is there for fixing anything in this world?
Even if the Japanese businessmen are stopped, there's so much else our hearts cry "stop" to, including acts by our own businessmen.
    But maybe it's like the starfish that the beachcomber threw back into the ocean. A passer-by said, "What difference does it make? There are so many starfish you can't save from dying in the sun."
    The beachcomber replied, "It makes a lot of difference to that one."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

No book burnin' today, but...

Pastor Jones won't be burning any books today. According to The New York Times, he said this morning, "We feel that God is telling us to stop."
    But my final sentence yesterday did set one reader to musing:
Ah, yes, book burning—it has such a distinguished pedigree in western history. I'm sure you've seen old footage showing the Nazi party doing this in Germany—on their way to taking over the country. And, then, of course we have had book burnings in America.
    And in that most Catholic of countries, Portugal, the sure way to quell dissent during hard times in the 17th century was to incite the mobs in Lisbon to look for Protestants or Jews and burn them on a stake for having brought God's anger (evidenced by the hard times) on the country. I guess we can congratulate ourselves that we're only burning books (printed heresies, rather than the heretic).
It provoked a thought in me too, the fantasy that religionists of all stripes come to realize that their only hope for reconciliation is to start from scratch on common ground. After thoughtful deliberation, to avoid the whole unseemly mess of burning each others' books, they strike an unexpected bargain.
    On a mutually agreed and appointed day, they will all burn every last copy of their own holy book. In one quick, concerted action, they will sweep away all official barriers to amity and concord.
    They expect that a good measure of peace on earth will have arrived at last.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Before Darwin, and after

Christopher Hitchens's interesting collection of "essential readings for the non-believer" (published in 2007 under the catchy title, The Portable Atheist) includes an essay by George Eliot (1819-1880) ridiculing the evangelistic career of the Reverend John Cumming (1807-1881)—originally published in 1855, in the Westminster Review.
    It is tonic to realize how energetic the criticism of religion was even before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.  Readings in Hitchens's collection include essays by Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) (from his Theologico-Political Treatise), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) ("Of Religion," from his Leviathan), David Hume (1711-1776) ("Of Miracles," from his Natural History of Religion), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) (from his treatise, The Necessity of Atheism). Reading Shelley's poetry hadn't prepared me for his biting, self-assured prose (written at age about nineteen).
    And these critics included at least one brave woman; "George Eliot" was Mary Anne Evans's pen name:
Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and a great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety?
    ...Minds fettered by this doctrine no longer inquire concerning a proposition whether it is attested by sufficient evidence, but whether it accords with Scripture; they do not search for facts as such, but for facts that will bear out their doctrine. It is easy to see that this mental habit blunts not only the perception of truth, but the sense of truthfulness, and that the man whose faith drives him into fallacies treads close upon the precipice of falsehood...So long as a belief in propositions is regarded as indispensable to salvation, the pursuit of truth as such is not possible.
While finding that text from George Eliot on the web (since I no longer have the library's copy of Hitchens's book), I came upon this interesting bit on ethical arguments against religion in Victorian Britain:
As David J. DeLaura and a number of other historians of Victorian intellectual life have pointed out, many Victorian atheists and agnostics abandoned Christianity for a particularly Victorian reason: They found it immoral!
The loss of religious faith in such representative early Victorian aginostics as F. W. Newman (John Henry Newman's brother), J. A. Froude (brother of Newman's close friend, Hurrell Froude), and George Eliot was not due, in the first place, to the usually suggested reasons—the rise of evolutionary theory in geology and biology and the Higher Criticism of the Bible. Indeed, in each life the dominant factor was a growing repugnance toward the ethical implications of what each had been taught to believe as essential Christianity—especially the set of interrelated doctrines: Original Sin, Reprobation, Baptismal Regeneration, Vicarious Atonement, Eternal Punishment. [p. 13 of DeLaura's Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969]
    George MacDonald, for example, left his Congregationalist pulpit because he could not accept that God would damn for all eternity babies who had not been baptised before their death, and similar repugnance proved the straw that broke the camel's back for Ruskin. In St. Paul and Protestantism, Arnold "contemptuously rejects the 'monstrous' vision of a capricious God who deals in election and predestination and cruelly emphasizes the crass commercial quality of the Puritan catchwords, 'covenant,' 'ransom,' 'redeem,' 'purchase,' 'bargain.'"
Rev. Cumming seems not to have abandoned Christianity, but rather championed it, or at least some of its parts that weren't Roman Catholic.
    Cherry picking is alive and well. In Gainesville, Florida, evangelical pastor Terry Jones is all for religion and God and holy books, just not Islam and Allah and the Koran, copies of which he might yet decide to burn tomorrow.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Political magical thinking

You may have heard talk of the possibility that the Democrats might lose control of one or both houses of Congress—as though the Democrats were in control now. An article in this morning's Durham Herald-Sun says:
Decatur embraced Obama in 2008. Voter turnout surged, and he carried some precincts by 85 percent or even 95 percent. Yet now, as in struggling cities across the country, some independents and conservative Democrats—particularly white men who supported Obama before—say they no longer believe Obama and the Democratic Congress can help them.
    Religion isn't the only magical thinking that people indulge in. They also indulge massively in political magical thinking. They believe that if something isn't going right, the thing to do is to vote out the party currently holding office. The magic they count on is that the party they vote for next time is the one that will fix things and save us.
    If the major religions of the world were bitheistic, believers would start praying to the other god after a few prayers to the first as usual failed to secure any results. Amazingly, with monotheism, they just keep praying to the One anyway.
    But of course the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the People to believe any damn fool thing they please.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The wonder of having nothing to post

In a way, it's great not having felt as though I had anything to post lately, and not feeling as though I had to have something. And yet, apparently, I did feel, finally, as though I had to post something, if only this. Sort of a "Moristotle lives!" statement?
    Does he live better for having had nothing to post lately? Maybe.
    But maybe not. At least not better enough to let it go unmentioned.
    I suspect that he lives worse. At least in having to forgo the satisfaction of having posted a statement or observation or rumination or quotation that, at the moment of publication anyway, felt apt, right, important—somehow necessary.

I did discover something recently that deserves notice. Something unexpected about a man whose life almost exactly overlapped that of my mother (1908-2005): Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000), a philosopher associated with Harvard University for 70 years, starting with his freshman year in Harvard College. As I wrote to a friend with whom I'd been discussing science and religion:
Did you solve Dennett's "Quinian crossword puzzle" [a puzzle with two or more solutions] on p. 389 of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (at the end of Appendix D)? I'm not quite to p. 100 yet, but I was starting to read one of the appendices and discovered the puzzle. I heard Quine lecture at Yale around 1962 or 63. And Dennett's reference to him in this book is not the first of his references to Quine. There were several in one (or both) of the other two of his books I've read. The subject of Appendix D has an entry in Wikipedia, as of course does Quine: "A recent poll conducted among philosophers named Quine one of the five most important philosophers of the past two centuries." [This was the unexpected find; I'd never heard Quine mentioned in such a context, and I wonder which philosophers were polled. Apparently the poll might have been administered simply to followers of Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog: News and views about philosophy, the academic profession, academic freedom, intellectual culture...and a bit of poetry.]
    I haven't solved the puzzle yet, if a solution to it isn't self-contradictory, but I'd often mused on the possibility of devising a crossword puzzle (or a cryptoquote) that had more than one solution.
    My friend replied:
I thought about it a little, but didn't seriously try to solve it. Crosswords aren't my strong suit. It might be fun to see the answers, just to get the flavor of "Quinianity."
    I read Quine's Elementary Logic around 1963 or 64, thereby getting about half of all my formal (as opposed to popular) education in mathematical logic. I learned that he was more than a mathematician only by reading Dennett's books.
I told him that when (and if) I came up with two solutions that seem to work, I'd share them with him (and perhaps with you2). Otherwise, I no longer care for crossword puzzles, finding them grating and annoying rather than diverting. For diversion, Sudoku is still it for me right now, even eclipsing puzzling over religion.
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  1. Or maybe you could share yours with me?  Here's the puzzle from the end of Appendix D of Dennett's book:

    |1  |2  |3  |4  |
    |
    2  |   |   |   |
    |
    3  |   |   |   |
    |
    4  |   |   |   |
    Across: 1. Dirty stuff; 2. A great human need; 3. To make smooth ; 4. Movie actor
    Down: 1. Vehicle dependent on H2O; 2. We usually want this; 3. Just above; 4. U.S. state (abbrev.)