Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle

Ben CarsonBen Carson has apprently just won a GOP straw poll in Indiana, getting a whopping 67% of the votes (see Christian Post - Ben Carson Wins Polk County, Iowa GOP Presidential Straw Poll by a Landslide; Says ISIS Must be Dealt With). His next closest rival, Ted Cruz, only received 7%, with Rick Perry in third with 4%, followed by a scattering of of several other potential candidates. I know it's awfully early to start taking these types of polls too seriously, and I suppose it's somewhat good news that Cruz and Perry weren't in the lead, but Carson isn't a whole lot better.

I've mentioned Carson on this blog once before in the entry, Local University Invites Creationist to Give Commencement Address (with the local university being Midwestern State University, an otherwise respectable institution). I made note of some extremely ignorant statements Carson had made about evolution, as well as his well-known bigoted remarks against homosexuals.

With Carson's recent straw poll win making headlines, I decided to Google his name just to see what else he was up to, and came across an article he'd written about the recent Navy Bible kerfuffle, Atheists forgetting the meaning of freedom: Nonbelievers seek to impose their values by banning Bibles. For anyone unfamiliar with this issue, the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, has a pretty good article, After Atheists Blow the Whistle, U.S. Navy Says Bibles Must Be Removed from Base Hotel Rooms. Basically, hotels run by the Navy had Bibles in the night stands, which may seem fairly standard given that practically every hotel room in the U.S. has a Gideon's Bible, but the Navy is a government institution, and per the Establishment Clause, isn't supposed to endorse religion. The Freedom From Religion Foundation got on the case, and the Navy originally agreed to remove the Bibles, but seems to have backtracked for the time being (as detailed in verse by the Digital Cuttlefish, Armageddon Gets Results; Navy Puts Bibles Back In Hotel Rooms).

Now, while it would be nice to see the Navy keep Bibles out of hotel rooms, out of all the issues in the country today, this one's a pretty low priority. But you can guess that certain right wing Christians were outraged when the Navy first removed the Bibles, which brings us back to Carson's article. I'll start off with the quote that ties in most closely to politics, and the fact that Carson just might be a potential presidential candidate.

We must also go back and read the Constitution, including the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion. It says nothing about freedom from religion and, in fact, if you go back and look at the context and the lives of those involved in the crafting of our founding documents, it is quite apparent that they strongly believed in allowing their faith to guide their lives.

Yes Dr. Carson, we are guaranteed the freedom of not having religion imposed by the government. To quote the Constitution since you brought it up, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." That has been repeatedly interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that government cannot endorse religion. And putting the holy book of one particular religion in a government run facility is endorsing that religion.

I don't doubt that many of the Founding Fathers were Christians and deists who were strongly motivated by their faith in how they lived their lives. But that's separate from how they framed the government. It's very telling that there is no mention of God in the Constitution (other than the convention of the date - year of our Lord). Even more explicitly, there's the Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously approved by the Senate in 1797, which contained the phrase, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." The majority of the founders wanted a secular government, keeping religion and government separate so that neither would interfere in the other (more info - Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone).


This next passage is the worst one from the article, and what motivated me to write this entry.

This last sentence may seem out of place if you don't realize that atheism is actually a religion. Like traditional religions, atheism requires strong conviction. In the case of atheists, it's the belief that there is no God and that all things can be proven by science. It is extremely hypocritical of the foundation to request the removal of Bibles from hotel rooms on the basis of their contention that the presence of Bibles indicates that the government is choosing one religion over another. If they really thought about it, they would realize that removal of religious materials imposes their religion on everyone else.

That is just plain idiotic. If lack of religious materials imposes atheism, then I'm surrounded by atheist propaganda, from the weather report on the 10 o'clock news, to the donut shop on the corner, to the stop light on my way home. If they don't hang a crucifix at the intersection, they're shoving atheism down our throats!

If the FFRF were demanding copies of Why I Am Not a Christian, The God Delusion, or God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, then Carson could claim that they were imposing their beliefs on everyone else. But as it is, they're simply asking for religious neutrality.

He also seems to paint with a pretty broad brush in saying atheists believe "all things can be proven by science". Heck, I'm rather scientific minded myself, but even I wouldn't go that far. 'Science as the most reliable method of answering questions with objective answers?' Sure (see my article, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge). But it's not magic that will answer any and all questions ever posed. And there are plenty of atheists who aren't necessarily of a scientific bent (see for example, Massimo Pigliucci's article, On the scope of skeptical inquiry).


The FFRF even offered what seemed to me a good compromise, making Bibles available to the guests that wanted them, along with other religious materials for other guests. Carson didn't seem to like that idea.

Some atheists argue that there should be a library or cachet of religious material at the check-in desk of a hotel from which any guest could order a Bible, Torah or Koran for their reading pleasure. No favoritism would be shown through such a system, and those who reject the idea of God would not have to be offended. This is like saying there shouldn't be certain brands of bottled water in hotel rooms because there may be guests who prefer a different type of water or who are offended by bottled water and think that everybody should be drinking tap water. The logical answer to such absurdity would, of course, be that the offended individual could bring his own water or simply ignore the brand of water that he does not care for.

Except that choosing bottled water isn't a Constitutional issue like the Establishment Clause. Really, this type of complaint by Carson just drives home how much this issue is about privelege, and not freedom of religion. The FFRF offered a solution that still made Bibles available to Christians. Not only would a Christian have the right to 'bring his own water' in the form of a Bible, but the front desk would even have extra Bibles on hand for the Christian who forgot their own personal copy. If that's an unacceptable compromise, then you're really arguing for special treatment, not just freedom.


Here's a quote I couldn't resist turning around on Carson.

As a nation, we must avoid the paralysis of hypersensitivity, which will allow us to get nothing done because virtually everything offends someone. We need to distribute "big boy" pants widely to help the whiners learn to focus their energy in a productive way.

I agree with the sentences, but not what Carson meant by them. Some books were taken out of hotel rooms. No one is stopping you from taking in your own Bible to read. Put on your 'big boy pants' and get over it.


This final quote came from near the start of the article, but considering how the situation has turned out, I figure it goes better here at the end of this entry.

The surprise is not the hypocritical stance of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but rather the fact that an established bulwark of American strength and patriotism caved to a self-serving group of religious fanatics.

I wish I could say I was surprised "that an established bulwark of American strength and patriotism caved to a self-serving group of religious fanatics", but that's the special treatment Christians seem to get in this country.


I wasn't impressed by Carson last year when MSU invited him to give the commencement address, and this recent article has only hurt his reputation in my eyes. If this is the best hope for a Republican presidential candidate for 2016, I sure hope the Democrats come up with somebody electable. (Maybe I'll just vote for Kodos.)

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Updated 2014-09-10: Added link to my Confidence in Scientific Knowledge essay.

Updated 2014-11-17: Added note about the Treaty of Tripoli.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Et Tu, NPR?

Two Bronze DoorsOkay - not NPR exactly, but KERA, the local public radio station. On my car ride in to work a couple days ago, I heard a story on KERA that should have been interesting, about a couple of art curators who work out of their rented house, turning it into a neighborhood art gallery / gathering place for artists. The opening of the article, Two Bronze Doors Creates A Home For Artists (And Maybe a Ghost?), describes the atmosphere pretty well:

Local band Dome Dwellers play to a small crowd in the living room of Two Bronze Doors under dim Christmas lights, surrounded by abstract paintings and sculptures.

It sounds like a cool place, and a story I'd be interested in hearing. But the story that should have been about the art and the people was marred by a diversion into the paranormal. Early on, there was a bit of discussion about the psychic who used to live in the house and who Foisset and Vaughan (the curators) had visited - brief enough as to not be too distracting, but an ominous sign of things to come (yes, I'm being melodramatic). Starting at 1 minute, 45 seconds, the story veered off in a direction I would have never expected from a respected news source.

And the house also might be haunted.

What followed was around 1 minute, 15 seconds worth of discussion about the supposed haunting of the house, in a piece that was only 3 minutes, 25 seconds long in total - over a third of the story! They even mentioned EVP for crying out loud. Why KERA? Why?

Paranormal complaints aside, the gallery does look interesting. Here are their website and Facebook links if you want to learn more.

Image Source: Two Bronze Doors Website (I have no idea who's performing)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kevin Sorbo Follow-Up

Kevin SorboI just posted an entry about Kevin Sorbo, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo. Referring to atheists, Sorbo wondered "how do you get so angry at something you don't believe in?" My entry was a response to that and some other of his comments, trying to explain what most atheists actually believe.

As is normal for me since I do this mostly on lunch breaks, it took me a little while to get that entry written. Well, in the time between when I read the article that prompted my entry and when I actually posted the entry, Sorbo himself has given another example of why atheists can sometimes become irritated. As described on The Raw Story, Sorbo was being interviewed on a radio talk show with some host named Rick Wiles (recording of relevant portion available at Right Wing Watch). After wondering why atheists get so angry, Wiles gave his opinion.

The truth is they know he exists and they hate him. That's what it's all about.

Sorbo agreed, and went on to add this.

I know these guys must believe in something, otherwise they wouldn't get so angry about it and they don't like the fact that there is a higher power out there that is judging how they live their life.

You know how to make someone angry? Call them a liar and imply that they have no sense of morality.

Anyway, there's not much more to add. I already explained in my previous entry why atheists get bothered by religion, so I'm not going to rehash that here. Sorbo and Wiles just provided another example that I hadn't listed before.

Image Source: Christian Post

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo

Kevin SorboI forget exactly how I found it (probably following a link in some comment section on another blog/website), but I recently read an article on the Christian Post about an interview with Kevin Sorbo, Actor Kevin Sorbo Not Too Fond of Atheists; Says They're Always 'So Angry'. He was talking about his recent role in the film, God's Not Dead, which was panned even by Creation.com.

I don't have anything against Kevin Sorbo in particular, but he expressed a couple views that seem fairly representative of a certain segment of the population, so it makes for a good springboard for a response. For example, here's one of his complaints about atheists.

I'm a Christian myself and had to play an atheist. I see the anger of these (atheist) guys on TV and it's like 'wow, how do you get so angry at something you don't believe in?

First of all, I'd like to know which atheists on TV are so angry? Taking a loose definition of atheism as lack of belief in gods (i.e. including people who might call themselves agnostics or 'nones'), here's a short list of 12 celebrity atheists - Brad Pitt, Kari Byron, Hugh Laurie, Julianne Moore, Kathy Griffin, Daniel Radcliffe, Angelina Jolie, Richard Branson, Jodi Foster, George Clooney, Natalie Portman, and Ricky Gervais. If you've ever seen Byron on Mythbusters, or seen an inteview with Branson, I don't think you'd call them angry. Even the atheist I've heard referred to as 'shrill' the most, Richard Dawkins, hardly seems like a ball of rage when you watch him on TV.

Second, the irritation that atheists do express is not at gods, but at religion, and particularly at instances where religion causes harm, people try to push religion where it doesn't belong, or where religion is given special privelege - all things that definitely do exist. I've already written an entry that touches on this, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, where I listed plenty of examples with links, some horrific like fire bombings or children being persecuted for being witches, others not horrific but still troubling like schools teaching creationism or churches spending large sums of money campaigning against marriage equality. If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion.

It can also get a bit personal. As I've pointed out numerous times before, atheists are among the most mistrusted groups in the U.S. Here's an article from Scientific American that discusses several polls and studies with links to the sources, In Atheists We Distrust. Only around half of Americans would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be an atheist, a similar number would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and 40% of Americans think that atheists don't agree with their view of American society, making atheists more distrusted than any other minority asked about (not that it's a good thing that any of the other minorities are distrusted). So yeah, we can get a bit irritated sometimes.

Here's the other quote from the interview that caught my attention.

"It's funny how they can get nativity scenes pulled down because they say it offends them but they're offended by something they don't believe in. What offends 90 percent of the country is that they take down nativity scenes but apparently the majority doesn't have a voice in the country anymore so what are you going to do?

Sorbo does realize that the only nativity scenes that defenders of the First Amendment want to see pulled down are those on government property, right? Anyone that wants to put up a nativity scene on private property is free to do so, whether it's a business or a residence. They can make it as prominent as they want. And most interpretations I've seen of the First Amendment don't even outlaw nativity scenes, just the privileging of one religion over another. So as long as a government office/location/branch allows displays from other religions, they're allowed to put up their nativity displays.

My own favorite example of this and of how petty Christians can be involves the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport a few years ago. There's an article about the incident from ABC News, Airport Christmas Trees Gone After Rabbi's Request. The 'request' referred to in the headline was not removal of the trees, but rather the addition of menorahs. As Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky himself said in an interview, "Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people, the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season." But airport officials, rather than add a little diversity to their mid-winter holiday decorations, decided to just pull down all the Christmas trees. So if Sorbo wonders why people get upset by government endorsed religious displays, this is a perfect example. Had the airport truly wanted to represent the community, they would have put up displays from various religions practiced by community members. Their refusal to put up symbols from other religions shows that they were really just trying to privilege Christianity.

To point out another problem with Sorbo's statement, he seems to be assuming that everybody against government displays of religion is also an atheist. That's simply not the case at all. They're people who take the First Amendment seriously - atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, etc. The wall of separation runs both ways - not only preventing any "law respecting an establishment of religion", but also any law "prohibiting the free exercise thereof". It protects religious freedom by keeping government out of it.

And it's just laughable that Sorbo thinks "the majority doesn't have a voice in the country anymore". Speaking as a former Christian turned atheist, I never even realized just how ubiquitous Christianity was in culture while I was still a Christian, but it really jumps out at you when you no longer practice the religion - cashiers telling me to have a blessed day, PTA meetings starting off with prayers, Christmas decorations going up everywhere (besides government property) the day after Thanksgiving, someone standing at the head of the room to say grace at just about any public banquet, etc. Perhaps Sorbo's referring to a voice in the government. I'll just quote myself on this, something that I wrote back in 2008 in an entry on the War on Christmas, "Christians make up around 80% of the U.S. population. As far as representation in government, in the 109th Congress, there were 11 senators who didn't identify themselves as Christians (12 if you count Unitarians), and only 30 representatives in the House (32 if you count Unitarians). In other words, over 90% of the elected officials in the federal legislative branch are Christians." Continuing with that quote, but moving on to the highest office in the land, "You have to go back all the way to Taft to find a president who said, 'I do not believe in the divinity of Christ' (though he was still a Unitarian Christian), or all the way back to Lincoln to find a deist president, and it seems absurd to imagine a non-Christian being elected to that office anytime soon." And can you even imagine a presidential candidate who didn't end every speech by saying, "And God bless America"? So, as I finished up that passage, "Christians make up a very large segment of the population, and are actually over-represented in government. They are not an oppressed minority."


And as one last comment, this time actually a bit more personal directly at Sorbo, what type of actor can he be, to take on a role and try to perform it, when he admits flat out that he can't fathom the mindset of the character? Aren't actors supposed to have some understanding of the motivation of their characters? (Though to be honest, from what I've heard of this movie, I doubt anyone could have performed the role of the professor as written with an actual understanding of what most atheists believe.)


Like I said, I wrote this not because I have anything personal against Sorbo, but because these views seem to be fairly common, and so far off from the reality of what most atheists believe and how they act. Perhaps if enough people voice their objections to misconceptions like this, people will eventually start to realize their mistakes.

Image Source: Christian Post

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Eben Alexander Follow-Up

Eben AlexanderNot too long ago, I wrote an article titled Eben Alexander Misrepresenting Carl Sagan, where I described how Alexander had completely misrepresented one of Sagan's positions from his book, The Demon Haunted World. Like I wrote then, it's not just the fact that he made a mistake that was troubling, but that he did it with such supreme confidence, even citing the page number.

I just happened to notice that on Alexander's personal blog, in the comments to his post, Post Debate Reflections: The Sound of One Hand Clapping, somebody called him out for this misrepresentation. Here was Alexander's chance to admit his mistake and apologize, but instead he responded with this comment of his own.

Just an honest attempt to remember something I had recently read - I was actually surprised I remembered the page number perfectly. I remembered recently reading the quote and being quite astonished that Carl Sagan, in his opinion, stated that the evidence for reincarnation, based on young children remembering details of a previous life, deserves serious study. That is striking. Sorry I used the word "overwhelming," but if you stop to think about exactly what Carl Sagan said, it should impress you significantly (why split hairs over "overwhelming" vs "deserves serious study"?). Novella said "I've read that book a hundred times" (really? 100?), and "That is just not true." He told me backstage that he had read that book several times and that he did not remember that quote at all, yet the next day he posted on his blog that I was correct, that the statement was on page 302 as I had remembered (minus the word "overwhelming"). The evidence is more powerful now than that of which Sagan was aware - read Jim Tucker's 2013 book "Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who remember Past Lives." Extraordinary evidence supporting this reality -- to simply deny it outright is to be willfully ignorant.

This is no longer an oral debate relying solely on memory. Alexander can go look at Sagan's quote. He no longer has any excuse for misrepresenting Sagan, but he still does. If you don't feel like reading my old entry, here is just one portion of the Sagan passage that I quoted to remind you of his position.

I pick these claims not because I think they're likely to be valid (I don't), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support.

It's not splitting hairs or just dropping the word 'overwhelming'. Sagan didn't think the evidence was at all strong for 'past life memories in children', but just barely worth further study on the off chance that it might be true. It was the general scientific mindset of always being open to new evidence.

Further, Alexander misrepresented what Novella wrote in the entry Alexander was referring to, After the Afterlife Debate. Whereas Alexander thinks, "yet the next day he posted on his blog that I was correct, that the statement was on page 302 as I had remembered (minus the word 'overwhelming').", Novella himself wrote of Alexander's interpretation of the quote, "That's pretty thin gruel on which Alexander is hanging his hat." Novella was calling out Alexander for misrepresenting Sagan, not admitting that Alexander was largely right.

At first, I thought Alexander's problem was a simple mistake coupled with over-confidence, which was bad enough. But now after reading this, it seems like the real problem might be integrity.

Archives

Selling Out