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Hitchens Debates Creationist

Christopher Hitchens debates Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a creationist:

The Rabbi comes off as scientifically illiterate. He seems to misunderstand the theory of evolution that he claims to have studied so much, though he admits to not being a good scientist. He makes much of the renown of the people he has debated. He’s clearly out of his depth in this debate, so I can only imagine how those other debates went.


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Dark Night of the Soul

We have been provided an example of how the faithful deal with cognitive dissonance. The author of the post has hit on spiritual hard times after becoming accustomed to frequent experiences of a spiritual appearance. She hasn’t felt an experience which she would interpret as the Holy Spirit in a year. The last time she had such an experience (if I understand the sequence of her story correctly), she interpreted the experience as God telling her that her sister would be healed of leukemia. Her sister died shortly thereafter.

Now she has begun to doubt God. She prays for his reassurance and receives silence in return. She believed God loved her, yet he leaves her alone in her time of need. The longer she goes without receiving reassurance, the more she doubts. Surely, she reasons, God wouldn’t want her to lose her faith. So why doesn’t he help her?

It fascinates and pains me to read the tortured rationalizations offered to comfort this woman. It’s hard to avoid seeing a parallel to Mother Theresa who went decades without feeling a connection to God. Some of the rationalizations offered to the woman are also paralleled by those offered to Mother Theresa. I used many of these rationalizations to maintain my own faith.

  • Just hold on. God will answer you, someday.
  • God is testing you.
  • Don’t question your earlier spiritual experiences.
  • Believe me. I know that God loves you.
  • Perhaps you misinterpreted God’s message. Perhaps it was a spiritual healing rather than a physical one. Perhaps this healing will take place after death.
  • Satan is trying to deceive you.
  • People grow the most when they have no evidence to base their beliefs on yet continue to believe.
  • We shouldn’t expect God to always communicate with us. He gives us just enough to get us through.
  • Silence means that God trusts in your judgment.
  • Even Jesus felt alone on the cross. [Not according to the scriptural account he didn't. He was quoting Psalm 22 when he said "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He was teaching a lesson through the message of that Psalm, not expressing personal bereavement.]
  • You’ve probably withdrawn from God in some way, perhaps by sinning or not doing all that you can.
  • You’re probably feeling the Spirit, just not recognizing it.
  • Don’t question God. We don’t understand his way of doing things or his purposes.

This may be just what this woman needs to get beyond her doubts, but is it honest? Couldn’t the same methods be used to maintain a person’s belief in any false thing? Using this scheme, there is no way to find your way out of a false belief. If you feel good about it, that means it’s true. If you feel bad about it, take your pick from the above reasons why it’s still true.

All of those rationalizations serve to avoid the obvious, if painful, conclusion: the loving God she believed in was a product of her imagination. That’s not a comforting thought, and I’m not about to go for the exposed jugular like that. I doubt I have the tact necessary to put it gently. But it is the one answer that makes real sense out of what she is experiencing.

How desperately we cling to our comforts against the dark night!

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O, Come All Ye (Un)Faithful

I pass a group of magazine stands on my walk to the office every morning, the kind that dispenses free classified ads and similar local publications. One magazine usually captures my attention with covers of slinky sirens or similar eye-catching material. Until this morning, that never translated into me actually picking up a copy. This week’s cover story changed that: O, Come All Ye (Un)Faithful by Greg Beato with the caption “Atheists have been on a roll lately but the God squad still has better stuff”. Ever the consummate journalist, I decided to pick up a copy for the benefit of my loyal readers.

Thumbing through to find the article, I found the magazine to be exactly what I had always expected: pages and pages of augmented women pimping for night clubs, interspersed with one-page articles. The article (once I found it through the forest of silicone) surprised me with its content. It wasn’t one of the same stereotyped critiques that I’ve read too many times. Its basic premise is that while atheism makes the most sense, it has yet to catch up to Christianity on what people really want: kitsch.

No doubt the thought of atheist lip balm and atheist jelly beans is hard to reconcile for many freethinkers—one of the virtues of atheism is that not every aspect of one’s life has to be yoked to some clingy deity who feels totally left out if you don’t include Him in everything you do. Plus, there’s simply the logical disconnect: What do jelly beans have to do with atheism? Why not stick with books, rational arguments, reason?

If proponents of atheism want to make it more popular, Mr. Beato says they should follow the example of Christian entrepreneurs:

At last year’s International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, Georgia, hundreds of vendors displayed a rich, vast Eden of Christian pop-culture products that were just as slickly produced, just as fashionable and entertaining as anything secular pop culture has to offer. Atheists, meanwhile, are still in the pop-culture Dark Ages—their T-shirts aren’t as visually appealing, their tchotchkes aren’t as diverse, their rock bands are not spreading their 110-decibel message of rational humanism. It’s time to evolve past the Darwin Fish and fill up the stockings of nonbelievers with atheist junk that is just as gloriously profane as the junk blessed by Jesus.

It makes an odd kind of sense to me. But perhaps atheists are catching up after all.

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A Not So Eloquent Atheist Kerfluffle

I’ve been mulling over Sam Harris’ talk at the Atheist Alliance International Convention (video: part 1 and part 2). I avoided commenting on it while the debate crested in the atheist community because I wanted to think it over.

Up to that point, I’d begun to think Sam Harris a bit overzealous. This talk changed my opinion. The response from the leaders of the atheist community seemed largely to misunderstand what I thought Harris had said. I took away from his talk that by labeling ourselves as Atheist (or Bright, Humanist, etc.) we become incapable of seeing nuance in complex situations and finding common cause with our religious brothers and sisters.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.…

Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at moments like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment—with peaks and valleys and local attractors—and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.

I’m still considering dropping the atheist label and speaking out against ideas that I disagree with as nothing but myself.

Recently, I experienced the business end of the blunt instrument of atheism that Harris had observed. The Eloquent Atheist recently ran a four part memoir of growing up in a small Idaho town. Included in this memoir are some assertions about Mormon beliefs and history, many of which were in error. The inaccuracies disappointed me because I naïvely expected better from fellow atheists. I submitted the following comment.

Warning: A lot of petty back-and-forth follows, but if a blog isn’t good for getting pettiness out of my system once in a while, then I don’t know why I bother. :) Please skip to the end if you have better things to do.

As a former Mormon, I found your perspective as an outsider interesting, but as a former Mormon, I noticed that the historical and doctrinal information presented was riddled with inaccuracies. I’m as critical as the next guy of Mormon history and doctrine, but it’s a better education tool when it is presented as it really is. Otherwise, Mormons can justifiably charge that their critics are ignorant of the truth. Please fact check your memories and impressions before presenting a seemingly authoritative essay.

I admit that was quite blunt and confrontational. I had just finished reading Nonviolent Communication, so I knew a better way to dialog, but I was lazy and went the more familiar violent approach.

Somehow, I was mistaken for a Mormon apologist and challenged to provide proof of God and to produce the Golden Plates. Color me nonplussed. I then submitted the following comment (which has been removed from their website):

I regret that my comment didn’t make my position more clear. I’m not arguing that Mormonism is verifiable, but that the history and doctrine presented here are inaccurate. A believing Mormon (which I am not) could legitimately object to the inaccuracies of this series which aims to be an exposé. Allow me to give two examples from part 3:

they are white cotton underwear, somewhat similar to long johns, except that they are in two pieces, a “blouse” and pantaloons, which both men and women wear continually, after baptism, for the remainder of their lives.

This can be falsified by reading the Wikipedia article on temple garments. There seems to be some confusion in part 3 over whether the garment is worn after the receiving the ordinance of the Endowment in a temple or after receiving baptism which is received outside the temple. The garment is only worn after the Endowment.

Needless to say, only Mormons can enter any of three levels of Mormon Heaven.

This is an inaccurate and unfair statement of Mormon belief. Mormons are exclusive, but not quite that exclusive. The Celestial Kingdom is reserved for baptized Mormons, but the other two degrees of glory are open to all depending on their virute. In fact, vanishingly few people (no more than a dozen some have speculated) end up in Hell in Mormon eschatology. Even murderers end up in the lowest degree of heaven.

I worry that with inaccurate portrayals like these cropping up on the internet, believing Mormons will stop listening to the critics who do know what they’re talking about. I want them to hear the truth, but they might start to form the opinion that all critics are ignorant of the facts. I hope that all critics will inform themselves before taking up the pen.

Again, I confess to being in attack mode, and it had the ungratifying result of gaining me a place of dishonor: they took the trouble to devote an entire post to denouncing my theism, my Mormonism, caricaturing my statements, and refusing to allow any further comments until I could produce proof of God.

Mr. Blake, however, insists upon arguing about a few points of religious “history” and Mormon “philosophy” ad infinitum, apparently not understanding that we should not and do not care about the small points until the broad issues have been settled. As an example of a broad point I submit the following for Mr. Blake’s consideration: “There is no god.”

Yet Mr. Blake insists that we concern ourselves with the material out of which the magical Mormon royal undergarments are made. Now, Mr. Blake has sufficient unmitigated gall to tell me that I do not understand his point.

Well… that’s what I’m saying, yes. He misunderstood on a very fundamental level and then proceeded to argue against my nonexistent belief in God. I imagined him with his fingers in his ears saying “La La La La. I can’t hear you. There is no God. La La La La.”

Seeking to clear up this persistent misunderstanding (and being quite frustrated and disappointed at this point), I submitted the following comment which was never allowed to be seen on their website:

I am afraid that I haven’t made my position known clearly. Please let me be clear on this point: God is not great and Joseph Smith was not his prophet. No, perhaps I’m trying to be too clever. Let me try again to be direct: I believe that there is no God. If you read my comments again, carefully, you’ll see that I made that clear from the beginning. So requests for me to justify Mormonism or theism are equally misplaced.

The criticism that I offered came not from a Mormon apologist, but from a former Mormon/current atheist asking for more accuracy in the criticism of Mormonism. If you want to check my godless credentials, please feel welcome visit my personal blog, or take my word for it.

I realize that those posts were mostly in the spirit of memoir. That part was fine and interesting. The posts often however stepped beyond that role into exposition of what Mormons purportedly believe in an authoritative voice along the lines of “Mormons believe thus and such”. Mormons believe lots of crazy stuff, so there’s no shortage of silly things to highlight. This makes it not only irresponsible and unfair to publish falsehoods, but kind of lazy. And memoir doesn’t cover a multitude of sins, as James Frey discovered.

I regret that my comments have provoked such vehemently defensive posts, ad hominem attacks, caricaturization of my position, and censorship.

I don’t expect The Eloquent Atheist to be a debate club; that would run counter to its apparent purpose. I’m only asking for better editorial oversight. If I want to direct my Mormon friends to this site to show them how passionate and alive atheists can be (which I hoped to be able to do), I don’t want them to find half-hearted exposés in the guise of memoir.

Let me give you more of a flavor of the kind of misinformation that I object to. Here are the first passages of part 2 titled The History of the LDS Church:

Let’s begin with a capsule history of the Church. The founder, Joseph Smith, was born on a farm in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century. [Joseph Smith was born in Vermont.] That area later became known as The Burned-Over District, a nickname alluding to the many fire-and-brimstone preachers who roamed the area delivering jeremiads to the local residents in tent shows and so-called camp meetings, urging them to repent their sinful ways lest they burn eternally in Hell. In a time of great religious fervor, now called the Second Great Awakening, Smith allegedly searched for a system of religious belief that he could justify in his own mind as legitimate, and investigated a number of the Protestant denominations that existed in the region-Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and so on. None satisfied him as being The True Religion. [According to Smith's most widely known account (the 1838 account of the First Vision), he didn't go to the grove of trees to pray having made up his mind than no extant religion was God's true religion. He claims that he prayed to know which religion was true.] Then according to his account, in 1830, [The first vision is purported to have occurred in 1820.] while walking in a grove of trees on the Hill Cumorah, [The grove of trees reported to have been the site of the First Vision was not on the Hill Cumorah.] near the town of Elmira, [Both the grove and the Hill Cumorah are near Palmyra, New York which is over 50 miles north of Elmira.] he had a vision, in which an angel named Moroni (pronounced “mo-rōn-eye”) allegedly appeared, [While the purported vision of Moroni allegedly happened in 1830, an angel named Moroni plays no part in any account of the First Vision that I'm aware of. Perhaps I'm ignorant of one?] informed Smith that he came as a direct emissary from God, confirmed Smith’s opinion that none of the extant denominations or sects was The True Religion, [As noted above, Joseph claimed to have learned the falsehood of all religions in the First Vision rather than having a foregone conclusion.] and pronounced that Jehovah Himself had selected him (Smith) to found a church that would deliver the True Word of God to those who elected to follow him.

Smith later reputedly reported that he, like Moses, protested that he was unworthy of such a lofty and arduous task, but the angel insisted that he was to be the Prophet and that it was futile to deny the commands of the Almighty. Smith eventually acquiesced to his destiny, and Moroni instructed him where in the Sacred Gove to dig, [Another confusion of the First Vision and the vision of Moroni and also of the Hill Cumorah where Smith claimed to have unearthed the plates, and the Sacred Grove where he claimed to have seen God.] in order to recover the Golden Plates, on which Moroni’s father, Mormon, also an angel, had written, [Moroni is also the nominal author of significant portions of the Book of Mormon. Mormon didn't appear to Joseph as an angel, nor did he purportedly write the plates as an angel.] in an ancient and sacred tongue, the history of two of the Lost Tribes of Israel.…

It got much better after that, but this sloppiness was enough to appall me. Can someone give the man a Wikipedia search?

Once it was mistakenly determined that I was a theist, they didn’t care to read what I said, not carefully at least. Once they presumably realized their mistake, they seemed to cover their tracks by deleting the comments that made their mistake obvious. They weren’t open to nuanced discussion. I had expected better than censorship, dishonesty, and intellectual laziness from my supposedly enlightened fellow atheists.

Is this how some atheists treat theists? Alas, I think Sam Harris was right that labels like “atheist” are useless and probably harmful if they can cause people to turn off their critical thinking and circle the wagons like that.

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Foreskin’s Lament

Shalom Auslander, author of Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, was interviewed on Fresh Air. It continues to amaze me how similar the two communities are: Mormon and Orthodox Jew. He discusses what it was like growing up in an Orthodox community, how it exacerbated his family’s troubles, and why he can’t get God out of his mind but wishes he could. The title of the book comes from his dilemma of whether or not to circumcise his son and how it ruined his joy at being a new father.

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