Friday, November 29, 2013

Sean Carroll's argument for atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

The video of Sean Carroll's Oxford-Cambridge lecture titled "God is not a good theory" is almost one hour long.  I recommend taking the time to watch the entire video.  However, for the benefit of people without an hour to spare I will summarize his argument for you.  

He starts with a definition of theory as an idea about the universe that may be true or false.  For almost all believers, god qualifies as a theory.  However, god is not a precisely specified theory, and this is one of the substantial problems with the theory of god.

Concepts of god can be placed into at least three categories:  Passive, Active, and Emergent.  A passive god, as conceived by arm chair philosophers, is justified as fulfilling some requirement for making logical sense of our universe, such as the first cause, the unmoved mover, and a necessary being.  This a passive conception because this god is not intervening to change any physical laws.  An active conception of god is that of a creator and ruler who cares about human life, communicates to humans about proper human conduct, performs miracles, grounds morality, organizes an after life.  The active god has an empirically observable presence and is justified accordingly.  An emergent conception defines god as synonymous with love, the universe, the laws of nature, feelings of awe/transcendence.  An emergent god is justified as serving a rhetorical function.  

Sean Carroll dismisses the emergent conception of god as unworthy of further discussion because we can have the same conversations about the same topics without making any references to a rhetorical god. An emergent god therefore is superfluous.

The passive conception of god has a huge problem. It is based on a-priori metaphysics.  It is rooted in rationalism rather than empiricism, it fails to give priority to observation.  Such arm chair reasoning has never taught us anything factually true about the world.  What it reveals, at its best, are consequences of axioms, and this can be useful, particularly in mathematics and logic.  But it doesn't tell us which axioms are possibly true.  Such a-priori reasoning cannot get us to the facts about what is actually true in our particular universe.

Sean Carroll then proceeds to argue that even if we take the arguments for a passive god more seriously than is merited by this major flaw in the underlying epistemology, they still do not succeed.  God as a necessary being, first cause, and similar concepts are refuted by the fact that we can easily conceive of many possible, self-consistent, self-contained, coherent, eternal universes in the forms of various mathematical constructs with no god, no first cause, etc.  Furthermore, at least one of these possible universes is plausibly our universe as it appears to represent a framework that correctly models our universe.

A counter-argument is that while it is possible to conceive of universes without god, those universe are infeasible because they lack a sufficient cause or explanation, they provide no answer to the "why" question.  A legitimate universe explanation must answer the question why there is a universe and why it is this particular universe, therefore a god is required.  Sean Carroll disagrees.  You may prefer that there be an explanation for why this universe exists instead of another, or for why this universe exists instead of no universe, but our universe could just be.  We associate causes with events because we experience our universe that way.  Cause identification is linked to the overall context, so examining the same event from different perspectives will often result in our reaching different conclusions about the cause.  The context in which the universe appears is different from the context of our daily experiences.  So analogizing from the contexts of our experiences within the universe to the context of the universe as a whole is a weak analogy. 

Sean Carroll states that he does not think that everything within the universe can be associated with a reason or a cause.  Here is a short discussion of "Purpose and the Universe" that includes a video of Sean Carroll discussing the topic in more depth at an American Humanists Association meeting.  He says "The universe itself doesn’t have a purpose, nor is there one inherent in the fundamental laws of physics. But teleology (movement toward a goal) can plausibly be a useful concept when we invent the best description of higher-level phenomena, and at the human level there are purposes we can create for ourselves."

The primary point here is that all such a-priori rationalist metaphysical claims ultimately boil down to contingent empirical claims.  Why must there be a sufficient reason for the universe?  We are obligated to adopt a skeptical stance to such "must be", "necessary", types of assertions.  It can then be argued that sufficient reason is needed because everything else has sufficient reason. But that is an empirical claim. Therefore, we must examine the god hypothesis like we examine all other hypothesis and look for the simplest coherent theory that explains the largest amount of data.

So does god give us a good theory on conventional scientific grounds?  For a variety of reasons, the answer is no.  Conservation of energy means there is no need for a first mover, chemistry means there is no need for a giver of life, natural selection means there is no need for a designer of the many different species of life.  Neuroscience suggests that there is no need for a provider of consciousness and cosmology suggests there is no need for a creator.  While these latter questions remain unsolved problems, there are multiple viable hypothesis and these questions appear to be resolvable using the same types of empirical methods that have successfully resolved the other questions without a god being needed.

Sean Carroll then identifies the Fine Tuning argument as the best empirical argument for God.  He identifies several weaknesses to this argument.  One is that we do not know what other possible universes would support life because we do not know enough about what different forms of life are possible and under what other conditions those different possible forms of life would be viable.  Life may be possible in many other forms and as a result the phenomena of life may be much more generic and common to many different universes than the Fine Tuning argument assumes.  What is needed for life is a very hard question to answer and we are not even close to knowing what percentage of possible universes would support some form of life.  Another weakness of the Fine Tuning argument is that modern physics predicts a multiverse, and in a multiverse where the parameters vary we would expect to find ourselves in a region of the multiverse where the parameters appear to be finely tuned to support our existence.  

Lastly, the question of the probability that god exists given the data is addressed.  If we did not know anything about the actual universe, but we have this theory that there is a god who created the universe and who cares about us human beings, what would we expect the universe to be like?  We know what the universe looks like so it can be tempting to say that god would make the universe exactly as we see it.  But that is a biased approach.  To tackle this question properly, we must try to start with a blank slate.  And here we encounter a problem with the very low entropy of our universe during the Big Bang.  It was about 10 to the -10 to the 120 smaller than its current value.  Such extremely low entropy is incompatible with the existence of life, so if god created the universe to support life then we would predict our universe would have started with much higher entropy.  This would have resulted in a universe with one galaxy instead of our universe with billions of galaxies that are unnecessary for life on earth.

There are other similar empirical arguments against the god hypothesis.  The problem of evil, the problem of random suffering, and the problem of lack of clear divine instructions.  No god ever told us that matter is made of atoms, the universe is billions of years old, people of different races, genders, etc. should be treated equally, and the like.  Trying to salvage god by assigning to god the traits of elusiveness and vagueness is counter-productive since those are traits that evidence a weakness in the god hypothesis.  We cannot have it both ways and say that god is evidenced by fine tuning but no other evidence can count against god.  That is a double standard.  God is much more ontologically problematic than a multiverse.  God is an entirely different metaphysical category from everything else, ill-defined, unnecessary, whimsical, and frustratingly reclusive.  We do better explaining the universe without the god hypothesis. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanks Again Natural World (and friends)

by Gary Berg-Cross

Thanksgiving is here again which is another chance to reflection on the idea of giving thanks.   We do it far and wide as families, but in diverse ways. Some will do a very human thing of reflecting on the list of good things like health and the things that count. There's the sure understanding that a good life is more than material things for sure, but there's some type of gravy on it.  

Others may think of similar enjoyments and emollients from suffering, but will address it and the Thanksgiving celebration as a religious event.  They may bow heads while holding hands and talk about blessings granted by some ghostly, transcendent power. It’s all a matter of the locus of attribution.  I personally prefer a more naturalistic orientation.  Something like the post-mythic view  of an Robert Ingersoll than a religious Procrustean bed of “Thank you Lord for a good harvest.”. Ingersoll’s Thanksgivings grow out of a naturalistic understanding of our world and universe. As he said part of that thanks is the perpetual joy of free thought:

“The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the world–not even infinite space.

I was free–free to think, to express my thoughts–free to live my own ideal–free to live for myself and those I loved–free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings–free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope–free to judge and determine for myself–free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past–free from popes and priests, free from all the “called” and “set apart”–free from sanctified mistakes and “holy” lies–free from the winged monsters of the night–free from devils, ghosts and gods.

For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought–no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings–no claims for my limbs–no lashes for my back–no fires for my flesh–no following another’s steps–no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers, who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain–for the freedom of labor and thought–to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains–to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs–to those by fire consumed–to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons 
of men . And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they have held, and hold it high, that light may conquer darkness still.
                                A Thanksgiving Sermon by Robert Ingersoll

Ingersoll’s contemporary Mark Twain added a bit of his deconstructive humor to the American Thanksgiving story:
“Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for – annually, not oftener – if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.” 
Mark Twain

I’m planning on exposing my grandsons to that one as a knowledge inoculation.

If you want a more recent version here is a version I adapted from a John Stewart throw-away line.

Perhaps we should consider celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned Western Civ way. On a pretext you invited neighborhood natives to your house for a one day feast. Too bad it might be tainted with germs they are not immune from.  Each year in between you take more and more of their things and occupy their land.  When they protest you claim the right of self-defense, stand your ground with guns and sendin the cavalry for good measure.  Pretty soon the neighborhood is safe for trickle downers and it is only the good people you need to invite over

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Searching for the Real Hannah Arendt -Her Life & Thoughts, a movie version

by Gary Berg-Cross

During a recent trip to Europe a friend recommended German director Margarethe von Trotta's new film Hannah Arendt. It’s a look at a portion of the life of philosopher & historical-political theorist Hannah Arendt. A secularized, agnostic, German Jew & refugee from Nazism Arendt settled in New York to lecture and write. In the 50s she wrote on "The Origins of Totalitarianism."  In the 60s she covered the war crimes trial of the Nazi transport chief Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker.  Trotta’s new movie, with Arendt as the protagonist flashed through DC theatres before I had a chance to see it, but the DVD was released recently and is available from Netflix.

The movie is interesting on several dimensions.  It tries to deal with an intellectual life, personal and world history as well as related controversy. As a film it is challenging to see the portrayal of thinking, skeptical musing along with reluctant understanding covered within a biopic frame. Along the movie we see long trains of thoughts punctuated by rather pointed arguments.

Coming out of a Hegelian tradition layered under Martin Heidegger’s Existentialism and her own efforts to reconcile reasoned and cultural understanding, there is much to infer going on below the surface of facial expressions.  This is alluded to sometimes in flashbacks and group debates, but the film’s main device is to show things through Arendt penchant for questioning the conventional wisdom of the times. In particular it is what she sees and tries to understand at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. .She worries that there is a show trial aspects using as a frame crimes against a people, the Jews, rather than a crime against humanity which she sees as the relevant concept. Slowly she develops a counter narrative to the trial’s frame.

At the trial Eichmann adopts a "Nuremberg-style defense" which argues that he was only following orders from a maximum leader. He didn’t know any more than that people were being moved.  He was disinterested and thus could not possibly be charged with war crimes. The man that Arendt sees thinking (in contrast to seeing her thinking about what he is saying)  in some robotic way (shown in black and while clips from the actual trial) is not that a raving, power-centric sociopath with special goals. Instead she sees a hollowed out person who speaks like a bureaucrat. He is more of a clown or an amoral careerist playing by rules with a system and uninterested in asking questions. Honestly this portion of the film had me thinking of plausible deniability mixed in with George W. Bush and friends and the run up to and execution of the Iraq War.

To Hannah Eichmann is a nobody who seems frightfully conformist & normal. This is the result, she speculates, as part of a de-humanizing and anti-intellectual aspect of modern life with dire consequences.  As a person who sees special virtues in reasoning she is horrified and fears future atrocities if civic humanism and ciritical thinking is not restored and emphasized.  The horrendous consequences passively following orders without reason leads to a situation that she calls "the banality of evil."   

Much of the latter part of the film concerns the backlash to her 5 part series in the New Yorker and the subsequent book on that banality.  Along the way we get to know more about her values and how she frames her life.  We see the consequences of various criticisms such as defending Eichmann by trying to understand him, disrespecting the Jewish victims and not defending her tribe, the Jews.  The film nicely shows and implies points on both sides of the argument, her strengths as a critical thinker and her weaknesses in not always applying that same critical thinking – perhaps due to the brittleness of being too abstractly philosophical. You can imagine the type of criticism she took for her critique of what she called a “cooperative” European Jewish leadership that often worked with the Nazis.  To them (and many of us looking back) there was some hope of saving as many Jews as possible by accommodation. To Arendt, it was an enabling capitulation reached by an absence of perspective and a central value for civic humanism in their reasoning.

A strong point of criticism was her apparent lack of self-identification with nations, cultures, or faiths. These are not the primary foundations for Arendt as shown in this portion of a letter not shown in the film, but implied in her stances:

“this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I’m Jewish myself….. We would both agree that patriotism is impossible without constant opposition and critique. In this entire affair I can confess to you one thing: the injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by others.”

Critical thinking covered in portions of her letters are used as dialog in the film with a central one being an exchange with Zionist Gershom Scholem. The film has a dear friend, stand-in character for Scholem, named Kurt Blumenfeld.  Their debates are used to show the destruction of some of Arendt’s great friendship due to political-philosophical differences. In a letter to Arendt the real Scholem wrote (in 1963) that “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel, or Love for the Jewish people.’ In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find no trace of this.
Arendt response to Scholem is covered as movie dialog and seemed to me a central point of her character as shown in the movie:

“How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: first, I have never in my life “loved” some nation or collective — not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or anything of that kind.  Indeed I love ‘only’ my friends and am quite incapable of any other kind of love.”

The film nicely exposes Arendt’s relations with a network of friends who largely abandon her with exceptions like Mary McCarthy, who is deliciously portrayed.  A paradox glimpsed is her unchanging devotion to mentor Martin Heidegger, who was Rector at Freiburg in the 34 where he instituted the Hitler salute, and collaborated in the persecution of Jewish students and faculty-members including his own mentor. Interestingly the
argument is that he saved some Jews by such accommodations – which seems to be of a type of what Jewish leaders were trying.  Arendt accepts this for her mentor, but not other leaders. At Freiburg Heidegger in 1934 told the student body that “the Führer and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law.” It is an unexplored paradox that Arendt had the temerity to wave away as a minor weakness. After the war in a birthday address broadcast on West German radio Arendt explains Heidegger’s Nazism as an “escapade,” a mistake, which happened only because the thinker naïvely “succumbed to the temptation . . . to ‘intervene’ in the world of human affairs.”  What conclusion does she take from Heidegger’s behavior?  Well she seems to say “the thinking ‘I’ is entirely different from the self of consciousness.” And so Heidegger’s thought cannot be contaminated by the actions of the mere man.

Whew!!  Now there is a separation that raised moral issues of responsibility. Where did critical thinking go when a friend, lover,and great man was involved?  Some blind spots remain almost irresistibly seductive for intellectuals of all magnitudes. And that is perhaps part of the movie’s message, but made quietly in contrast to the big dialogic arguments.

On the plus side, if you can get over her blindness for great thinkers, we see in the movie some of her important insights in lectures to admiring students at the New School.  Part of it is a warning about the danger that comes from some meta-belief, some idea that humans can "know" in some permanent or absolute way what is an ultimate "good" or is “right.” She fears ideologies that define some fixed course of future human history rather than thinking through it pragmatically in context – an approach that she might share with John Dewey. This belief in a God or Grand Leader view she associated with religious fanatics and violent revolutionaries who accept using a necessary evil in the pursuit of desirable ends. Her counter to this was an evolutionary type of change she called revolution. This idea of "revolution" she reserved for identifying fundamental changes in human ways of thinking and relating which she associates with modernity.  It is interesting to know that she speculated that this revolution had a secular form, whereby we humans are slowly freeing ourselves from long-established fears, often though violence and power from cultural-national-religious myths.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

James A. Michener

by Edd Doerr

James Michener (1907-1997) was one of our finest and most prolific writers. His last book, This Noble Land: My Vision for America (Fawcett, 1996) is a fine summary of his thought on many of the issues that still confront us and a good antidote for much of the nonsense being spewed today by Fox News, the Tea Partyers and the Religious Right. Each chapter ends with a set of recommendations. For example: "The current [written in 1996!] move to demonize liberals, calling into question  their validity in American life and even their patriotism,  is a dangerous leap in the wrong direction. It goes against the grain of American life and should be stopped." And: "The teaching of creationism to the exclusion of science should not be allowed."

And his book's penultimate suggestion: "Do not permit a school voucher plan that diverts tax money to private schools."

I never met Michener face to face, but we did work together back around 1970 when he was a prominent member of the Pennsylvania constitutional convention. This occurred shortly after New York had had a con-con that tried to remove the state constitution's language barring tax aid to church schools (Article XI, Section 3), a move that caused the state's voters to defeat the proposed constitutional revision 72% to 28% in a 1967 referendum. Michener evidently read my 1968 book on the matter, The Conspiracy That Failed (published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and contacted me.

Michener wanted to strengthen the church-state separation language already there (Article I, Section 3, and Article III, Sections 15 and 29). But as this turned out not to be feasible, we hit on the strategy of leaving the language alone but giving it a fresh "legislative history" that reinforced its Jeffersonian-Madisonian meaning. So count James Michener as one of our strong defenders of religious liberty.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK on Church and State

by Edd Doerr

On this  50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy we all have a variety of thoughts on the truncated career of this young President. One thing that is not brought up enough is his strong position on one of today's most vexing issues, religious liberty. Unforgettable is JFK's remarks to the Texas ministers during the 1960 campaign: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute ... where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference." My friend and strong church-state separationist writer Paul Blanshard met with Kennedy shortly after he took office and discussed the matter. He left with no doubt that Kennedy was sincere.

Unfortunately, Kennedy was unable to get his federal aid to education plan through Congress because of opposition by Southern segregationists. But his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was able to do so in 1965 because of the 1964 Goldwater debacle. Curiously, Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) contained some federal aid for religious private schools, though Leo Pfeffer, the leading separation expert, said that LBJ had the votes to pass education aid confined to public schools.

Nixon tried to vouchers and did get an experimental plan through for the Alum Rock district in California, but the effort was a complete flop and vanished into the void. Jimmy Carter  held firm to JFK's position, but Reagan and the two Bushes had no problem with diverting public funds to faith-based private schools. Obama agrees with Kennedy on this and would like to end the voucher plan in DC.

But this is 2013 and the battles are heating up. Since 1982 Americans for Religious Liberty (ARL) has been working with  other organizations to halt and roll back the diversion of public funds to faith-based and other private schools and we cannot predict the outcome of this war to defend the wall of separation between church and state built by Jefferson and Madison. Readers of this comment can help fight this crucial battle by supporting ARL. Check our web site --

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Language and History

by Edd Doerr

Putting on a shirt the other day I noticed on the label that it was "Made in Germany" from something called "Baumwolle", literally "tree wool", cotton in English. Why? Well, doubtless because German was a well established language before the first cotton was imported to Germany centuries ago. The word was invented because of cotton's resemblance to wool. Just as we in the US adopted the word "dashboard" for the instrument panel (British) in a car. A dashboard was a sort of mud guard on horse drawn wagons. I never use the archaic word.

So where did we get "cotton"? From the French, "coton", which entered English after the Normans conquered England in 1066. Where did the French get "coton"? From the Spanish "algodon" (accent on the final syllable). And where did the Spanish get "algodon"? From the Arabs who conquered Spain in the 8th century, who introduced the stuff to Europe and called it in Arabic "al qutn". Cotton started out as a tropical or subtropical plant unknown in Europe before the Arab invasion of Spain.

In fact, the Arabs introduced a great many words and things to  Europe through Spain, mainly stuff that the Spaniards did not have words for,  such as new foods and things like pillows and carpets. As the Arabs came from dry climes they knew a lot about water management. So most of the Spanish words for water management come from Arabic. Spanish evolved from Latin, so just about the only Arabic derived words in Spanish are the names of places or of things introduced by the Arabs. "Admiral", by the way, is Arabic; "almirante" in Spanish.

Although Spain became thoroughly Catholic, one of the most common expressions in Spanish is "ojala" (accent on the last syllable and pronounced oh-hah-LAH), or "God willing", from the Arabic for "Allah willing". I wonder how many Spanish speakers know that.

Monday, November 18, 2013

D.C. School Vouchers Lack Oversight

by Edd Doerr

On Nov 16 the Wash Post reported that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the D.C. school voucher program,  "the only federally funded program that gives tax dollars to poor children to attend private schools, has so many faulty internal systems and missing policies that it can't manage the program." Uncle Sam has poured $152 million of taxpayers money into the program so that about 5000 kids can attend private schools in D.C. As the Post reported a year ago, the 52 private schools approved for the voucher program "are subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate academic experiences", that hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam [sic!] school based in a converted Deanwood residence and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist." The GAO cited one, the Recta Porta International Christian Day School, as consisting of 100% voucher students. Most of the private schools using the tax-funded vouchers are religion based.

Here is the comment I posted in the Post on line  ---

"Some reminders are in order --- 1.The voucher plan was imposed on DC by Bush and a GOP Congress over the objections of elected DC officials; 2. DC voters rejected a tax-code voucher plan at the polls in 1981 by 89% to 11%; 3. In 27 statewide referendum elections from coast to coast between 1966 and 2012 vouchers or their variants were voted down by an average popular margin of two to one (See for details); 4. The 2013 Gallup education poll found that 70% of Americans oppose vouchers; 5. By forcing all taxpayers to support the diversion of public funds to religious private schools, the religious freedom of all taxpayers is violated; 6. It is past time for the DC voucher plan to be phased out. This latest scandal should nail that down."

I should have added that vouchers are just one of the parts of the ultraconservative  movement to undermine public schools, sabotage teacher organizations, fragment our school population along religious, ideological and other lines, and shrink the public sector of our country so that it can be "drowned in a bathtub".

Edd Doerr (

Friday, November 15, 2013

Questions for Christians

a review by Edd Doerr

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian, by Guy P. Harrison. Prometheus Books, 2013, 352 pp, $18.

It is neither impertinent nor rude to raise questions. Journalist, world traveler and former teacher of history and science Guy Harrison does that very well indeed. This charming, eminently enjoyable book is a respectful compilation of questions about every aspect of traditional Christian belief. He makes the valid points that key religious beliefs simply do not stand up to critical or skeptical inquiry but are ingrained by tradition, culture and education, and praises the skeptical outlook for everyone with regard not only to religion but to advertizing, politics and everything else. His conclusion (on page 323) is worth quoting in toto --

"Many atheists and skeptics make the mistake of imagining that the future is not big enough for Christianity. But the future certainly can accommodate Christianity, at least it can if Christianity continues to evolve. No one should overlook the many Christians today who adhere to a Christianity that presents no problems for the world and does no harm to humans. I know many people who call themselves Christians, who apparently believe in Jesus, who probably pray, and who presumably hope they will go to heaven one day. But for all intents and purposes, that is the extent of it. They have no malice toward other kinds of believers or nonbelievers. They not only accept social and scientific progress, they want more of it. And they believe there is a future for humankind worth dreaming of and working toward. They see a better world on the horizon, not doomsday. I certainly have no problem sharing the planet with these Christians."

Harrison would probably join me in liking Christians like the eminent German Catholic theologian Hans Kung (I can't manage to get the umlaut over the "u"). Here is what Kung has to say in his great 1991 book  Global Responsibiity: In Search of a New World Ethic --

"Even believers would have to concede that a moral life is possible without religion. To what extent? 1. Biographically and psychologically there are sufficient reasons why enlightened contemporaries want to renounce religion which had deteriorated into obscurantism, superstition, stultification and 'opium' of the people. 2. Empirically it is indisputable that non-religious people in fact have a basic ethical orientation and lead a moral life even without religion, indeed that in history there have often been religious non-believers who pioneered a new sense of human worth and did more for adulthood, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and other human rights than their religious allies. 3. Anthropologically,  it cannot be denied that many non-religious people in principle  have also developed and possess goals and priorities, values and norms, ideals and models, criteria for truth and falsehood. 4. Philosophically, there is no denying that men and women as rational beings have a real human autonomy which allows them to have a basic trust in reality even without a belief in God, and leads them to perceive their responsibility in the world: a responsibility for themselves and the  world.

"So it is beyond dispute that many secular people nowadays are pioneering a morality which takes its bearings from the human dignity of all men and women, and according to present understanding this human dignity includes reason and responsibility, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and the other human rights which have become established over the course of a long history -- often enough
laboriously over against the established religions." He goes on to state that religious people and humanists must work together to build a better world for all, despite the opposition of suppressive "fanatical believers".

Harrison, Kung and I seem to be on the same page.

Messianic Conversion Battles

by Gary Berg-Cross

The Messianic community is in a bit of an uproar.  The spark was George W Bush’s talk at a fundraiser today for Messianic Jews sponsored by Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) – headquarters of the apocalyptic cult Jews for Jesus”. The MJBI faith-driven, evangelical goal is “to bring Jewish people into a personal relationship of faith” with Jesus.  There’s the rub. The Jewish community does not believe that Jesus represents the true word of God. They have received that word and Yahweh’s speeches were done a while ago.  To the born-again Christian community this is an error correctable by simply getting Jews to recognize that Jesus really is the promised Messiah. Now of course Muslims believe that even Jesus was not the last word on this subject and well Mormons have introduced yet a more recent rendezvous with God and an updated Book.

Disparaging, assimilating and replacing other & older religions is often a core principle of religious faith. It is implied in commandments to put down other gods and shun practices.  It seems reasonable to believe that UR-born Abraham lived in an environment filled with
remnants of Sumerian mythology and religious practices.
The moon God Sin and his daughter Inanna were the patron deities of Ur and the names given to Abram’s family members seem to reflect homage to this Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon.  Some speculate that this is the reason God changes the names of Abram and Sarai after they enter into covenant with Him (YHWH). Sumerian myths had been integrated & blended into nearby Akkadian culture& the original Akkadian belief systems (which have been unfortunately mostly been lost to history).  It’s an understandable story of older (Sumerian) deities developing Akkadian counterparts.  Abraham claimed new contact with HIM/God and began a prophet’s job of converting people to his belief.  The ancient Hebrews continued in this line of faith selling and converting into modern times if you believe the argument made by Shlomo Sand in THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE :

As summarized in Wikipedia, Professor Sand:

“began his work by looking for research studies about forcible exile of Jews from the area now bordered by modern Israel, and its surrounding regions. He was astonished that he could find no such literature, he says, given that the expulsion of Jews from the region is viewed as a constitutive event in Jewish history. The conclusion he came to from his subsequent investigation is that the expulsion simply didn't happen, that no one exiled the Jewish people from the region, and that the Diaspora is essentially a modern invention. He accounts for the appearance of millions of Jews around the Mediterranean and elsewhere as something that came about primarily through the religious conversion of local people, saying that Judaism, contrary to popular opinion, was very much a "converting religion" in former times. He holds that mass conversions were first brought about by the Hasmoneans under the influence of Hellenism, and continued until Christianity rose to dominance in the fourth century CE” 

...Judaism used to be a proselytizing religion like Christianity or Islam, and that
consequently many of today’s Jewish Israelis are descendants of converts, without an ancestral link to Eretz-Israel. Inversely, many of the Palestinians may just be the descendants of the large Jewish community who remained to toil the land, even after the destruction of the Temple and the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in the first and second centuries, respectively — and who gradually converted to Islam in the centuries after the Arab conquest.
(NYT Interview with Sand)

In more recent times there has been somewhat of a gentleman’s agreement, a respect of both views (but not others) between Jews and Christians not to poach too hard on tempting  conversion territory.  Well converting other religions is OK and well Mormons may not abide by this silent truce since they have gotten the true word more recently.  Who to poach on can make for some awkward confrontations. Indeed Humanists and Secularists are perhaps the enemy since they can see all religious groups as fair game for poaching.  Of course tactics for free thinkers may be as simple as starting a rational conversation and not beating the evangelical drum.

But for Born Againers it isn’t so simple.  Religious beliefs have consequences. Those who do not accept Jesus as Savior are going to lose their soul and wind up in hell! (yes the Sumerians had a place like that as well as an Eden). We have to save them like we saved the Native Americans. These unfortunate souls include a long list - non-Messianic Jews (which is the vast majority of Jews), Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, deists, atheists,
Nones, Secular Humanists etc.  It’s fair game to go after all who reject the idea that Jesus was the son of god and died to save humans from sin. Jews seem an easy target to some since they are only 1 prophet removed from the Truth to the groups like MJBI and to G. W. Bush.  Converting Jews is completely in line with his end of days religious beliefs - think about the Rapture and the apocalypse in order to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of faith among the born-again Christian community. 

However with the truce broken more than isolated religion seems at stake here to non-Messianic Jews.  Converting the people of a strong faith, well chosen is offensive disrespectful.  The conversion of the Jews, and their restoration to Jerusalem, was apparently vigorously pursued by English evangelicals in Victorian times to fulfill Biblical prophecies.  Unpleasant biblical eschatology is a driving force behind the rabidly pro-Israel stance of the American Christian Right. The irony for Jews is that they love Israel from a biblical perspective, but sees Jews as going to hell unless saved. For a scholar like Shlomo Sands there is a tricky conversion story already in the Jew-Israel topic. He sees the claim that the large majority of current Jews are the ethnic offspring of the biblical Jews as a convenient Zionist myth.  
Even without motivating prophecy stories and mythic basis for religion and ethnic identity it is perhaps true that all efforts at conversion are also about what we identify with and whether it evolves and survives.  Rob Eshman expressed the Jewish survival concern this way in the Jewish Journal:
 "Bush … is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews. It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews."

Yes, no more Sumerian religion or identity.  It's the same imperial mentality that's ravaged the holy land for ages driven by faith rather than an evolution of provable ideas or the tolerant but relativistic idea that everybody’s philosophical religious beliefs are their own, and by definition in modern times nobody’s philosophical religious beliefs are better than anyone else’s. Sure, we may be able to improve on naive relativism and imperial absolutism. That a longer conversation, but tolerance is good for everything but intolerance. Unfortunately we have lots on intolerance in these messianic battles.