Sunday, March 31, 2019

The unanswered mystery for why there is something

By Mathew Goldstein

The article Bad Theology, Bad Atheism is a recent effort by Nicholas Frankovich, the deputy managing editor of National Review to defend theism. For him, God is the answer to “the mystery that there is anything at all rather than nothing.” From this starting point he argues for Apophatic theology “which is the idea that the best we can do is specify what is not true of God.“

He acknowledges that the case against “the God of faith” is usually clear. He then dismisses that focus as reflecting “the decline of sound popular theology.” But when in the past was popular theology more sound than it is today? Knowledge about how the universe operates has increased. Popular theology may be slow to keep pace. But Mr. Frankovich offers no evidence that it has recently declined. The persistently poor quality of popular theology is a problem for advocates of theism that they tend to downplay and avoid confronting.

He complains that atheists are missing the point because, unlike theologians, they are not grappling with “the God of the philosophers”. Yet Mr. Frankovich tells us of “the inescapable truth that God and evil are simultaneously real.” So who is guilty of leaping to conclusions here? Theology is often poor quality philosophy because it tends to avoid anchoring its conclusions about how the universe operates in a best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Theists who compare street theology with academic theology as if the latter is so much more compelling are mistaken, the latter is pervasively substantially flawed and anything but compelling.

The notion of absolute nothing is a generalization from our experience of less versus more. We should be careful about reaching conclusions regarding how the universe operates intuitively by generalizing that way. We experience slow versus fast, small versus large, but there is no such thing as absolute fastness, absolute smallness, or absolute largeness. Absolute nothingness is not a concept that has been demonstrated to be real by physics and therefore it is a concept that merits skepticism, like absolute somethingness.

In the world of our everyday experience there is an arrow of time which enables us to safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” However, the arrow of time reflects a property of our universe originating with the Big Bang. The universe considered as all of reality (including the possibility of a multiverse) may not operate by the rule of cause and effect. When discussing the universe as a whole, the question “Why did this happen?” is at best premature. If there is an answer then we will have to wait for it, we are incapable of guessing the correct answer. The more meaningful question is “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” The answer to that question in the context of the universe existing is yes. The demand for something more right now — a reason why the universe exists at all — is misdirected.

Some theists like to assert that God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. However, nothing a-priori exists necessarily and a god in particular plausibly does not exist. There is no known need for a god to explain how the universe operates. There is only one approach for reliably determining what exists that has a track record of success: Best fit with the overall available empirical evidence. Positing more than is empirically evidenced to exist is much more likely to get us to fiction than non-fiction. Philosophy alone cannot identify what exists. With or without a god, there are features of reality that have no explanation beyond “that’s just the way it is.” That is, after all, what Apophetic theology itself resorts to asserting.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Catholic university teaches humanist ethics

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Innes Mitchell has taught at Saint Edward’s University in Texas for twenty years. The university describes itself this way: “St. Edward’s expresses its Catholic identity by communicating the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God.” The Catholic Church is not what I would call a font of intellectualism. It promotes and endorses beliefs that are not grounded in best fit with the available evidence, such as the claim that everyone is descended from a single “Adam and Eve” pair. The story of Jesus is rooted in that first couple tainting humanity with a sin, so that claim is difficult for Christianity (in general, across denominations) to discard. Quoting Pius XII’s “Humani Generis” 1950 encyclical: “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that … Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which … the documents of the teaching authority of the church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam.”

It is most likely that the evolution of humanity was complicated and messy, it was a many generation, many century, many locations, gradual process. Trying to fit that into an Adam and Eve scenario sounds more like sophistry than reason. Some Catholics in particular cite Thomas Aquinas for his philosophical, sometimes non—literalist approach, but they conveniently overlook that he believed in a literal seven day = 168 hours creation, a literal Adam, and a literal Eve. Christianity is big and diverse, and at St. Edward University we find a positive example of a deeper commitment to the students and society from within a Catholic institution.

Professor Mitchell teaches a course Perspectives of Atheism. This is not a course where students are introduced to arguments for why we should be atheists. Instead, A.C. Greyling’s book “Meditations from the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age” is assigned to the students. Given the tendency for too many religions to negatively promote fear of atheism (for example, the Vatican equates atheism with Hell) instead of positively promoting understanding, it is noteworthy that every now and then some institutions with religious affiliations are better than that. We should not underestimate how significant and positive it is that we sometimes have a willingness like this to reach across differences of belief. To be flexible this way can also be good for religiously affiliated institutions that want to attract and retain religion skeptical and non-believing current and future customers.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The historical monument defense

By Mathew Goldstein

It appears that Justice Breyer may want to avoid a decision that the Bladensburg Cross violates the EC. Maybe he thinks that voters will retaliate and vote Republican in future elections. At the same time it appears that he does not want government favoring Christianity over other religions. This could explain why he argued as follows: “What about saying past is past ... but no more?” On the one hand “we’re not going to have people trying to tear down historical monuments,” but on the hand “we are a different country now” that is more pluralistic. The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act established the World War I Centennial Commission, which was given the authority to build a memorial in Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., so it’s not as if absent this particular memorial there would be no WWI memorial in this area. Nor would the expense of maintaining this old memorial likely be much different from the expense of replacing it given it’s decrepit condition.

Justice Sotomayer, to her credit, pointed out that there are few government sponsored large crosses across the nation. “We don’t have a long tradition of that. It’s sectarian.” she said. But the current Supreme Court majority was nominated by Republican presidents. And the Republican party has been ambivalent at best, antagonistic at worst, towards non-establishment of religion for as long as anyone alive today has lived. Non-establishment of religion entails refraining from citing Jesus or a God in the laws and government documents. For people who live and breath Jesus, or a God, non-establishment of their religion can easily be misperceived as being threatening or destructive.

Existing precedent favors a ruling against the Bladensburg Cross. Although the Supreme Court has allowed unequivocally sectarian Ten Commandment displays, with some assistance from Justice Breyer’s search for excuses to allow sectarian displays while denying that the concessions further weaken the already diminished EC, it has been less accommodating of crosses. This distinction between the Ten Commandments and crosses makes little sense, they are both sectarian. Allowing government sponsored Ten Commandment displays is a mistake. Mistake by mistake, the unpopular EC is being eroded by the Supreme Court.

At the same time it is necessary to consider the overall context of the displays as Justice Breyer advocates. So, for example, the frieze on the Supreme Court building that depicts multiple “historical” figures from different times, places, and religions, is about the history of the development of laws and therefore the depictions of Hammurabi, Moses, Muhammad, etc. is not an establishment of religion. There is no Babylonian or Jewish or Islamic religious iconography or any depictions of past law makers from different times and places accompanying the Bladensburg Cross. There was no proper reason for the Supreme Court to take this case.

Maybe we will get a positive ruling in this case. I hope so. The introduction of the EC was one of the big advances in human government. China has an establishment of atheism which is consistent with its authoritarianism. Non-establishment of religion is a democratic limitation on government power. It is tragic to witness the EC being attacked and weakened in its country of origin. This is a symptom of the reality that the future of democratic government has not been secured.

Yet there has been some recent progress in reducing establishments of religion in some European countries. It is encouraging to witness people pursuing this lawsuit and advocating for the EC. Our world can be a better place and the EC has a role in making it so.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Bladensburg Cross case by the American Humanist Association

The American Humanist Association argued a case in front of the Supreme Court on Feb. 26 about the Bladensburg Cross.  
A demonstration was  held in front of the Supreme Court building. Watch the video of the speakers here, and WASH president Samantha McGuire speaks at 24:00.  The case was based on the idea that the war memorial that is a cross doesn't represent non-Christian soldiers.  The cross is large and imposing, it is located on land owned by the State of Maryland, and it doesn't have any obvious or easily seen reference to a war, but rather it just looks like a big cross.

I'd like to add another argument that is actually a defense of Christians.  The cross is a symbol of the Christian religion, recognized by both Christians and non-Christians.  The argument that a cross can be a secular or historical monument, rather than a symbol of a religion, is a ridiculous, absurd statement.  I don't understand why Christians will sit by silently and allow this argument to be made into legal precedents.  It is an outrageous insult to Christianity to claim that their symbol is nothing more than a secular marker.

Naturally, non-Christians like Jews, Muslims, and Humanists have more to object to in this memorial than Christians do.  It simply doesn't represent non-Christian veterans as a war memorial.  Memorials to veterans who sacrificed to fight a war for the country are close to the most honored public art, as a tribute to their patriotism and personal sacrifice for the good of the country.  But the United States is based on the idea of cooperation between people of all national backgrounds and faiths, and memorials shouldn't be based on a symbol of only one religion.

The principal is greater than just one memorial.  The principal is whether the use of a religious symbol can be justified as a secular or historical marker that is independent of the religion.  Why are Christians silently sitting by when the symbol of their religion is being stolen from them and debased?  Sometimes politicians want use religion to indicate their personal piety, while at the same time they argue that legally the religious symbol is not really religious.  It is hypocritical by politicians who are not doing their job of defending the Constitution, and it is an outrageous way of coopting the religious symbol.  For example, Justice Scalia said in Supreme Court oral arguments, 
“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead,” he said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.” 
I would respond that his is the outrageous conclusion.  Justice Sotomayor said in the oral arguments to the Bladensburg Cross case
"There is a brief here that says that, to deeply religious Christians, secularizing the cross is blasphemy. Christ died on the cross. He was resurrected from his grave. So those people don't view secularizing the cross as something -- it's not just Jewish people or Hindu people who might be offended.  It could be Christians as well."
The Christian cross is simply not a secular symbol that can be separated from its religious significance.  Any politician or Supreme Court justice who argues that it is should be ashamed of themselves.  If atheists must be the ones to stand up and make this defense of the Christian cross for the benefit of Christians, then bring it on!