In this recent critique, without saying so directly, Nick Kristof of the New York Times points to an un-elaborated element of this religion v science ‘debate;’ namely, that there is a chasm floating between what happens in the realm of atheist pillory and Catholic proclamation and how most people practice and interact with religion–but also science.

I recently proposed to a friend of mine who insisted that there was ‘a lot of overlap’ in the spheres of religion and science to visit Sunday services for a year and then tell me how many homilies discussed quasars, or DNA; how often the Periodic Table came up, or the Twin Paradox, or the RSA encryption algorithm. How often science texts philosophized about meaning and prescribed a format for just behavior.

For the second year, I’d have my friend visit high school and college science classes, and report back on how many discussed the role of faith in grieving, or the importance of not judging others, or charity, social justice, issues of divinity, gratitude, worship.
I wagered my life savings that, excepting perhaps evolution in some corners of the American South, I’d emerge with the same balance in my account.
The problem with this “debate,” as with so many carried out by self-styled, intellectual experts on everything, is that their expertise consists of nothing more than applying the shape of their experience to the world. This was the stuff of colonialism once. I believe it still is. A world where the real diversity of experience and practice matters little in the face of pure thought and worm-blind progress. This is what makes it easy for people like Hitchens or Dawkins to reduce institutions and people to ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ enlightened or backwards.To my friends among their fans, I ask: Is it really less ridiculous than when George W Bush did the same with nations?

These grand and sweeping conclusions, as is the case so often with those of the privileged, rarely consider how the phenomena under the microscope are experienced except where it fits with their experience and plans.
Thus, I am grateful that Kristof, in the midst of calculating reasonable grievances, took the time to go out and experience religious folk in the way they interact and practice with the masses, as the masses, rather than taking the path of least resistance: embracing the superior self-satisfaction of these Oxford armchair generals fighting a battle which is too simple to accommodate society beyond their rare and nearsighted provinces.

Greetings!

This week I have been preoccupied with a rather useless FB debate (is there any other kind?), so apologies to the two people who read my boring blog.

In lieu of a well-edited entry, I thus offer the contents of the debate, since it relates. For a moment, I wondered whether it was ethical to post the content publicly, without the consent of my opponent. But I figure if said  opponent ‘O’ was comfortable with the audience of my 300 friends whom he does not know, comfort should be the same with the five strangers who look at this.

It began when a Christian friend of my opponent (O)  added me. O responded thusly:

O: OMG, christian networking….and it’s all my fault :D

Me: Why do you presume I am a Christian? It is entirely possible to think, as a secularist, that Dawkins has narcissistic personality disorder and makes embarrassingly weak arguments which appeal only to people who share his faith,and ignorance, and lack of curiousity. Much like fundamentalists in every religion. :)

O: antiantichristian = christian, no? :P

Me: Certainly not, your super human, Dawkinsian logic should tell you that one does not necessitate the other. :)
For instance, I am also anti anti Islam; anti anti children; anti anti alcohol.
But this does not necessitate that I am a drunken, five-year-old Muslim.
O: Well, I’m not anti-christian either, just anti-institutionalized-religion-in-the-public-domain….and I personally happen to not believe in a deity.
Me: Yes, and I am sure, as is the case with me, your position on this matter comes from a careful study of civil society and institutional theories as they apply to social stability and the development of political systems in modern history. Because, being super rational, you would not assume your instincts were inherently valid, or merely informed by the fact that you believe there is no God and maybe read an article by a biologist who thinks religion is “evil”– By the way, is that like Satan “evil” or like Axis of Evil “evil”?
But seriously, I believe we should be able to organize and choose representatives in any way that does not infringe on the individual rights constitutionally guaranteed to us. And I do not believe it should be up to you or me or Dawkins to decide, based on our personal views, unsupported by any peer-reviewed, sustained research, who gets representation in the Habermasian public sphere, because I am not insane enough to presume that my beliefs are “right” for everyone else, or for society. That’s the stuff of authoritarianism. For better or worse, I agree that democracy and its attendant freedom to organize and lobby is the least bad of systems. That said, I’d still make a great dictator, if your country should ever have a vacancy…

O: Would you care to enlighten the undereducated rest of us about the conclusion of your “careful study of civil society and institutional theories as they apply to social stability and the development of political systems in modern history”?
I’m curious. A stable society is impossible without religious institutions trying to influence policy making maybe?
Btw, I would like to think that my years of scientific training have given me some ability to tell a good, sound (scientific) argument from the attempt of giving half-assed arguments the appearance of scientific merit.

Me: I’d be delighted to enlighten you. How many hours do you have?
First of all, your undereducated comment might be sarcastic, but if I were to claim my opinion on a physics theory–as articulated by a political scientist who hated physics–was just as valid as yours after years of study and two honors degree, you would probably have the same reaction. It is pure arrogance to think other academic disciplines are easier to grasp than your own.

So, to the point, civil society theorists from Norton to Putnam to Habermas tend to agree that a healthy civil society is requisite to a healthy democracy. The influence of religion in this context and that of political progress is both plural and complicated. For instance, if you take the (now moderate) Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: they provide the best-organized and most powerful opposition to the authoritarian government available. Their popularity, most scholars agree, is due to the fact that they provide medical assistance and sustenance to the poorest, who are neglected by this government. In Jordan, it is said to have been participation in the government which moderated the same, formerly radical organization. Thus, that religious fundamentalists are somehow immune to, and can only seek to dominate, the political process does not bear out in all cases.

Liberation theology, similarly, has been key to organizing disenfranchised laborers to agitate for their rights in places like Haiti and Brazil. This trend of religion as an organizing force for social justice movements among otherwise disempowered people has numerous examples throughout history, from priest-led uprisings in 18th century Lebanon to the civil rights movement in America.
If we turn our attention to institutional theory, or even a text as popular and generally accessible as Sam Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (pre Clash of Civ’s craziness), one sees that the formation and maintenance of successful, representative governments does not happen easily or overnight. If you believe, as many scholars do, that societies require stricter organizing principles before they become the freewheeling democratic utopias we enjoy today (ahem), then we indeed owe a civilizational debt to organized religion. History tends to home in on war and strife, but that is not the stuff of which most of history is actually composed. As far as who gets to influence policy making, you seem to make a false assumption here: First, that religion is one coherent voice. Religion is actually a diversity of voices with diametrically opposed positions on things like death penalty or gay marriage. But in any event, my question would be, what gives you the right to say who should be able to participate in the public sphere? In the so-called “marketplace of ideas” sanity and moderation occur BECAUSE many ideas are represented. Philosophies which concern themselves with the sacredness of life and the morality of say manipulating embryos to create, for instance, genetically enhanced children add an important element to these debates. And to have a say, they require organization and visibility. As a citizen, it is my job to decide whether the more esoteric concerns are relevant to me when I vote. What you are suggesting, when you suggest certain groups of individuals should be banned from the debate, is censorship. Furthermore, it stinks of condescension when you claim to know better than the public what they should hear. And it is profoundly arrogant if you actually believe it should be up to you because this happens to be what you think.
Also, there is nothing scientific about Dawkins’ position on religion. He uses words like “evil” and describes religion inaccurately, as a monolith. He cites as evidence the behavior of people he’s met (ad hominem). He makes claims which are as incendiary as they are untrue. He makes unfavorable comparisons between religion and utopias that exist in his mind rather than other, existent systems. Etc. The fact that you notice none of this is forgivable. It’s not your field. But the fact that you can’t accept that there is more to the story than a caveman like: “Religion stupid. Religion bad. Crusaaades” is just the sort of willful obstinacy evident in the religious fundamentalists you oppose.
I am happy to offer you a reading list from scholars whose work is researched, footnoted and peer-reviewed if you ever want more than the one-dimensional position of a zealot.

And it went on from there to another post which began this way:

(Me)…appreciates that someone is irritated by the lack of subject knowledge on display in Dawkins’ work:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching
“Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of
almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede
that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view
which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false.”

Since when did ‘reason’ entail drawing grandiose conclusions about things we’ve sought not at all to understand? Scary.

O: Christians using arguments involving improbability and empirical falsehoods is kind of amusing…

Me: First, the author never claimed to be a Christian, presumptuous, and makes statements indicating otherwise. Second, imagining that people with religious beliefs cannot identify empirical falsehoods seems either arrogant or stupid. Would you include LeMaitre or Newton, for instance?

Third, Mr Dawkins himself makes claims for which there is no evidence and against which there is ample, factual evidence.

Here is one example of a claim he and Hitchens both have made, Dawkins more recently, which is clearly false:
http://www.antiantichristian.com/?p=5
This is actually worse than claims like virgin birth, which while more than likely a symbolic fantasy, is at least not demonstrably a lie meant to impugn something the author personally hates. It seems that religious people aren’t the only ones who want to believe things which cannot be proven…

O: God: “He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”
At least now we know the gender of God…other than that this blabbering is completely useless….

Me: First, condition of possibility ‘blabbering’ comes from Kant, among others. He sort of talks about it in his Critique of Pure Reason. Second, use of words such as “Useless’ “Irrational” is funny–Research in neuroscience indicates that rationality is an illusion. Our thought processes are governed largely by emotional impulses, and without them, the resultant ‘rational’ mind becomes so flooded with contradictory information that it cannot make choices.

In the case of Dawkins, the abundance of information on the intellectual and institutional products of religion has been reduced to a sort of caveman-esque: Religion Baaaaad.

The irony of Dawkins is, his investigation of the ‘enemy’ religion is not rational, nor factually correct, nor even historically balanced. It’s just invective.
The fact that you have to pick an invocation of gender out of an essay indicates you are grasping at proverbial straws to find flaw in the counterargument. Why not, instead, offer us more weak analogies, ala AC Grayling? I don’t care if you hate religious belief, just don’t turn your distaste into some faux-superior ideology and expect the rest of us to nod along while you fantasize that you are one of these creatures of superior rationality, casting judgment on the thoughts and rights of others. Kind of like a god.

There you have it. My dick-ish side in all its public shame. Rather than editing anything for my blog, this is what I was doing this week. Shame on me. My New Year’s resolution was not to get into anymore dumb debates; clearly, I have failed at this.

First, a disclaimer: I am not here to defend the institutional hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I am not really here to defend any institution at all, for that matter. Mostly, I just dislike irrationality, arrogance, hysterical prejudice, and misinformation. Also, I think these things extra-scary when they march around in a cape with “science” written across the back…

In this Washington Post editorial, Dawkins has really outdone himself. The shrill hysteria is set to full-blast, while the concomitant name calling performs at about an eighth grade level. But, more importantly, the revered scientist makes several accusations better-suited to Fox News than a thinker’s forum.

Let us begin with this poor wretch of an unsubstantiated claim:

“[The Pope is] a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa

Do you know what is nearly as grotesque as hiding child sexual abuse? Spreading misinformation about the AIDs crisis in Africa in order to score points in your editorial. One wonders if the Holocaust was unavailable that day. Since I have already detailed some of the reasons for which this claim stands deceitfully independent of any rational or factual observation, I will merely say that it demonstrates a profound indifference to said crisis to empower misconceptions concerning its causes. Mr Dawkins, Mr Hitchens and others who make this connection, while no more responsible for AIDs deaths in Africa than Pope Benedict, are clearly helping to stifle its resolution.

Now, again, while I personally believe that the Church is in dire need of reflection and reform, and while I think the men responsible for the abuse and the cover-up should be subject to every instrument in the arsenal of secular law, to move from the topic of scandal to a description of the Church as: ”the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution” seems something less than rational, impartial or even ‘good’–in terms of wording. In his tone it is only evident that there needn’t have been any scandal at all. This bile was not born in the darkness of these deeds; this bile is opportunism at its worse. And it is a disservice to the discussion to allow those blinded by personal bias to the nuance of terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ particularly when applied to institutions which include hundreds of millions of individuals–the vast majority of them not ‘truth hating’ misogynistic child rapists–to have a say in a reputable forum.

But, perhaps more importantly, these accusations are also irrational. In truth, research indicates that priests do not sexually abuse children at a higher rate than do men in general. The Catholic Church is far from alone in the world of institutions which try to hide their crimes. Institutional theory suggests that it is the nature of all institutions, regardless of their founding impetus, to evolve an imperative for self-preservation. Furthermore, and unfortunately, some studies indicate that children are more likely to be sexually harassed or abused in a secular, public school environment than in a Catholic school. That these facts matter not at all to the scientist as he lashes out with labels clearly indicates that it is not his rage over child sexual abuse which motivates him, but rather his personal distaste for the church. Far from a practical analysis of the problem and its potential solutions, his work here is nothing more than empty name calling. That he acts as if the scandal justifies the pre-existing condition of his hatred, or that his indignation is limited and righteous, is intellectual dishonesty. Dawkins’ bile is not the product of reason; it does not require a scandal, whether or not he is shamelessly willing to cash in on one .

What’s more, his invective furthers the causes of neither truth nor reform. Not in terms of AIDs in Africa, nor in terms of institutional reformation of the Catholic Church, nor in terms of moving forward. He seeks instead to create more generalized suspicion, hate, and mistrust of the terrible ‘other.’ Far from being progressive, Dawkins empowers a tribalistic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality which bears little resemblance to contemporary life in any place where people are not desperate to kill one another.

If this is all the progress ’scientific’ thought has to offer, I am afraid they’ve been beaten to the punch–by a few millenia…

Unlike Dawkins, I will not be so presumptuous as to speak to the good or evil nature of one man, much less a collection of millions. I must have missed the day in biology class when the stones on which these truths were writ large were unearthed.

What he had yearned to embrace was not the flesh but a downy spirit, a spark, the impalpable angel that inhabits the flesh.  ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939

Ask yourself this question: Why is it problematic when a literalist Christian dismisses Darwinian evolution because of so-called Biblical ‘evidence,’ but it is not problematic when a neuroscientist talks about an experiment involving the disruption of brain function obviating the need for a “soul”? In considering this, be sure to assume both parties have the same degree of knowledge about the subject of their claims.

A recent segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” covered the findings of an experiment in which neuroscientists succeeded in temporarily disrupting brain functioning using magnetic currents on the part of the brain most active when making determinations about the intent of others. In other words, in the impaired brain, someone who accidentally killed five people was judged guiltier than someone who murdered just one. This reasoning, according to the researchers, is normal in small children.

In my naivety, I had excitedly thought that by ‘changing a person’s moral judgment’ they meant something more complex than hitting a certain part of the brain with a magnetic ice pick. I imagined change to be something useful or odd, along the lines of making a Bible beating conservative feel positive about gay marriage, or a limousine liberal question the sanctity of abortion. Nope. “Changed” turned out to be a bit of an overstatement; “reduced” might have been more accurate, if less alluring. After all, if they were to bash someone in the knee with a tire iron, this could similarly be described as ‘changing’ their ability to walk, but that would not be the most accurate gerund available.

I suppose this is nevertheless interesting, nailing down which part of the brain lights up when we are considering the behavior of others, and which lights up when we are recalling the Sigourney Weaver underwear scene in “Alien.” However, given that we’ve known about the disruptive effects of head trauma and partial lobotomies, I fail to see how this finding goes much beyond drawing a map over certain types of processing. After all, anyone who has been at a disco for last call knows that you don’t need special magnets to impede advanced brain function. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have banned alcohol for how it affected the impulse control of imbibers (and because Allah commanded it, of course.) In other words, we have been awake to our ability to screw with brain functioning probably since the invention of beer, and likelier since the invention of big rocks that fall on your head without killing you. That there is a physical mechanism through which thought runs, and that you can screw around with it, is not exactly headline inducing.

So, understanding this, the segment’s producers must have been wondering what they might add to make this package interesting to anyone not into neuroscience. I’ve got just the thing! Can we find someone to way overreach the import of these findings so they play into that sexy ‘religion versus science’ dichotomy? Well, look no further: “Green (a neuroscientist from “Harvard University”) says if something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it will be hard to argue that we have or need a soul.”

Wow. From brain damage to no soul. If only this claim made any sense. But why should we expect that the good scientist be well-informed about his claims? He is, after all, a scientist. And they know stuff. About science. Just ‘know’ it. Like, inherently. Maybe not about solar systems or why psychoactive drugs actually work , but other stuff, like how to induce brain damage and then record what happens.

But seriously, where this claim is concerned, there are two gynormous problems:

  1. Could you be more vague? What is this obviated “soul” supposed to be? The truth is, that depends entirely upon whom you ask. Ancient philosophers and followers of some Eastern religions believe that the soul is a human’s animating force, connected to a sort of greater pantheistic animating force, with which with the soul will eventually reunite. Spinoza supposed that “soul is the idea of body.” He believed both body and thought were attributes of one, infinite substance. Somewhat similarly, in ancient, Biblical terms the soul is ‘nephesh’ the breath of life in all creatures. In some instances it is also the part of a person which survives death and is subject to judgment. Avicenna, Descartes and Kant all identified the soul as a sort of otherself which exists as a consciousness of consciousness, beyond the mechanics of the body. Maybe a sort of Platonic us. The evidence given was that consciousness can be conceptualized as existing separate from material awareness, though not separate from itself. A sort of mind-bendy suggestion that, while one can be conscious independent of physical stimulus, one cannot be conscious of one’s consciousness. Some branches of early Judaism and Christianity did not believe in either a soul, and/or an inherent immortality connected to souls. It’s hard to see how an experiment with magnets causing temporary damage to one’s ability to make moral judgments would interfere with the soul in any of these incarnations.
  2. But let’s be more generous and assume Green meant some cartoony version of soul as ghost person floating around inside the body. I don’t know which religion thinks of the soul in precisely this way, but let’s assume Green thinks this is the modern mega-church conception. Who knows, maybe it is. Even so, in every Christian conception of soul with which I am familiar, individuals with developmental impairments; children; the lobotomized; and event the comatose, retain their souls. Presumably then, the soul is not tied specifically to an advanced ability to make moral judgments; nor to a normal, adult level of mechanical awareness, nor even to an intact brain. How then would giving someone a virtual bop over the head which rendered them unable to think at normal levels lead one to conclude that there was no need for a soul—whatever that is supposed to be?

I raise this point not to argue for one version of soul over another. In the great race of philosophized souls for dominance, there probably can be more than one. Nor do I wish to claim any personal knowledge about whether or not souls exist in the first place. I have tried to check, but always end up hung up on the size of my nose. Rather, I wish to demonstrate that it is not only religious zealots who make bizarre claims concerning matters about which they appear to think little and know less. One can dismiss the proposition of a soul outright, as many do. One can take it merely as a philosophical, aesthetic or moral jumping off point for other constructs, and people have done this very fruitfully; however, what reason dictates one should not do is accept the proposition without understanding it and then reject the proposition based on findings largely unrelated to it.

This absurd straddling of intellectual genres—using the means of one to take aim at another—might be more clearly absurd if we thought about it in terms of two others: Would we look to an art history expert for insights into the linguistic structure of Tagalog? Would we accept as valid interpretations of Kant’s work as delivered by a computer science major…who wasn’t interested in Kant?

If that sort of leap, and the impulse that drives it, does not invite skepticism from the listener, the only explanation can be a similar bias on the listener’s part. Indeed, most of the great fans of people who make such claims share their personal point of view, as well as their disinterested lack of subject expertise. But real skepticism shouldn’t play disciplinary favorites.

This claim is made by a number of prominent atheist and fundamentalists alike, but is it supported by logic or research?

Let us ignore that it is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of Muslims who commit terrorist acts; let us turn away from the circumstances which co-mingle with religious ideology to motivate individuals to violence; let us overlook the fact that violence has been carried out beneath the banner of just about every political and religious ideology at some point–let us set all of this counter evidence aside and go straight to the source:

From an NPR report on Jihadists:

Christine Fair is a professor at Georgetown University [and a senior fellow on counter terrorism at Westpoint] who’s an expert in these kinds of religious movements. She says ‘jihad chic’ is not so unusual: “We have ethnographies where they actually ask militants ‘what drew you to this movement?’ The top three answers were: motorcycles, guns, and access to women. You had to go down pretty far on the list to get to the religious motivation.

The view that Islam is the sole or even the main attraction for many militants is either naive or manipulative. In the latter case, promoters of these sorts of ideas once again share more in common with extremists than with those in search of solutions.

The Claim: Opposition to birth control by the Catholic Church is responsible for AIDs deaths in Africa.

This argument was made by Christopher Hitchens and intended to persuade the audience of the show “Intelligence Squared” that the Catholic Church is not a force for good in the world. The assertion was directed at a Nigerian bishop, when Hitchens’ accused him of bearing personal responsibility for the spread of HIV/AIDs in Nigeria.
I don’t know if Hitchens is deliberately dishonest, or just does zero research before vomiting information, but the reasons this claim is irrational and illogical are legion. Let me begin, though, with my personal speculation as to how Hitchens’ might have arrived at his conclusion:

Brrring Brrring…Hello, Pat Robertson speaking.
CH: Hello Pat, it’s Christopher Hitchens calling…
PR: Hey Hitchy, great to hear from you! I loved your smear job on Mother Theresa. What can I do for you?
CH: And I as well, much admired your claim that gay pride parades cause crop failure. Listen, I’ve got this debate tomorrow with a Nigerian Catholic bishop. I’m supposed to prove Catholicism is bad. He seems like a pretty nice fellow, and I’ve already beaten the Mother Theresa horse into the ground. You got anything for me?
PR: Hmm, Nigerian, well, people think Africa, they think AIDs…at least our people. Why don’t you say his Papist worshiping of the Pope causes the AIDs? That oughtta do it.
CH: I like the way you think; however, maybe I should rein it in a little. I don’t have my own television channel after all…. And these people want something “intelligent.” I’ve got it! I’ll say his Catholic birth control policy caused AIDs in Nigeria.
PR: Wait, isn’t Nigeria usually run by Muhammadans? Are there even any Catlickers there?
CH: Oh yes, Muslims galore! Half the population, Pat. In reality, Catholics represent only about thirteen percent of Nigerians. What’s ever better is that the Catholic Church was barely operational in Nigeria from the 1970s until 1999… Islamic military government and all. In reality, they missed the onset of the AIDs crisis altogether!
PR: Now that’s rich!
CH: Plus, Nigeria isn’t even one of the worst-afflicted countries. Their AIDs rate is 5%. Their neighbors to the south are looking at 20-40%. But Pat, we both know no one is going to know that. I mean, it’s Nigeria for God’s sake. My people want to believe the Pope is evil. I tell them he causes AIDs. No one’s going to risk their faith in that by fact checking.
PR: I know what you mean. My people are the same. Except, well…except with regard to your people.
(Both laughing.)

So, Hitchens’ claim lacks support with respect to Nigeria. But could the Catholic Church be responsible for HIV/AIDs elsewhere?
The answer, in short, is no. Let’s look at some of the reasons this is the conclusion which rational thinking would generate:

1. Basic logic: If we suppose that the teachings of the Church play a persuasive role in determining people’s sexual choices, then it stands to reason that its profound opposition to pre-marital sex and adultery, both believed to be far greater sins, would impact sexual behavior as much or more than the choice to wear a condom or not. In other words, we are being asked to imagine that a man is thinking about the what the Church wants when he decides not to put on a rubber, but not when he’s committing ‘fornication’ or ‘adultery.’ It’s illogical. If church teachings were such a persuasive agent, we’d see an effect in more than one, relatively secondary, part of behavior.

2. If Catholic teachings contribute to the AIDs crisis in Africa, it stands to reason that there would be many Catholics in the worst-afflicted country, no? That, my friends, would be Botswana. What is the Catholic population of Botswana? 5%. What’s even better: Four times as many Botswanans, like Hitchens himself, espouse no religion.

3. What about majority Catholic countries then? According to Hitchens’ logic, if Catholic birth control teachings contribute to HIV/AIDs, and unprotected sex in general, then countries with a whole bunch of Catholics and Church influence must have serious HIV problems, or at least a lot of babies.
Let’s think–What’s a country with a lot of Catholics? Why, Italy! The Vatican is there too, so they are probably extra-Catholic.

True, 87% of Italy’s population, or approximately 52 million people, self-identify as Catholic. I wonder what their HIV/AIDs rate is? Let’s see…why, it’s .4% of the population. The same as France’s (20% atheist), and less than Switzerland’s (.6%). In Switzerland, fully half the population is made up of people who self identify as atheist, agnostic, or ‘spiritual but not religious.’

But wait, it gets better, guess where the lowest birth rate in the world is? That’s right, it’s big, old Catholic Italy. And if you think that this is because Italians don’t have sex, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you. According to one international poll, Italians are considered the sexiest people in the world. Conversely, where would one imagine, according to Hitchensian claims, that the highest teen pregnancy rates occur? Surely somewhere full of birth control-reviling Catholics! Wrong again, it’s the UK, a measly 9% Catholic. (I can’t speak to their sexiness ranking.)

4. OK, fine, Italy is full of Catholics AND the Pope, but the people clearly use A LOT of birth control…but it’s a developed country. So maybe the official stance only affects poorer Catholics?
Good point, me. What about HIV/AIDs in less developed, Catholic countries?

Let’s start with Mexico: 89% Catholic, .3% infection rate (half of Switzerland); Argentina: 80% Catholic, .5% infection rate; Philippines: 80% Catholic, less than .1% infection rate. Do I need to continue here? Basically, if Catholic birth control opposition is causing HIV/AIDs, it is not doing so in countries where Catholics actually live.

5. Well, surely Hitchens wouldn’t just make this up. Development experts must think this is an important variable?

Again, the answer is no to the latter (and apparently ‘yes’ to the former.) Important variables in the HIV/AIDs crisis, according to experts–both indigenous observers and those working with NGOs and international development agencies–include, in no particular order: poverty; lack of education; prevalence of rape and prostitution (the ‘virgin rape’ myth most famously); patriarchy/lack of female education and empowerment; political instability and violence. Even the impact of European colonialism is brought to bear. You’d hit closer to the mark blaming Britain than Catholicism, apparently.

Incidentally, care to wager a guess as to what the greatest factor is in predicting a drop in birth rate in developing nations? No, it’s not access to condoms or even abortions. It’s female education. Check the UN, Arab Human Development Report’s past findings on Iran, for an amazing example. Now, guess what Catholic Relief Services claims as one of its main goals in Africa: That’s right, the education of girls. So not only is Catholic birth control policy demonstrably irrelevant to the crisis, the work done by Catholic organizations helps with the aspect considered most relevant to solving it. And Catholics teach evolution. So, don’t even start with that.
What’s truly shameful about this ridiculous claim is that it has apparently wound its way into the popular imagination. It was invoked just a few days ago by the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, not known for his extremism. Kristof, apparently, is not afraid to engage in unwarranted Catholic bashing. I feel obliged to ask: Would we feel as comfortable blaming other religions or ideologies for tragic death and destruction with not a lick of proof (and abundant proof to the contrary)? Could there be any more plain a case of hostility and blind prejudice?
Just for fun, and in conclusion, I would like to point out that Islam does not forbid birth control, and yet Saudi Arabia, the Muslim-est of all countries, has among the highest birth rates in the world. I’d also like to wonder aloud if Hitchens has ever met a man who, not otherwise compelled, was eager to put on a condom. Perhaps next time he should argue that men are a force for evil in the world. Or would that make him some sort of weird fanatic?


The claim: By growing up in and around religious culture, atheists have a better understanding of Christianity than do Christians of atheism.

What do we make of this assertion by British philosophy professor and ardent atheist, AC Grayling?

Let us begin by setting aside Graylings’ and Dawkins’ later argument that atheism is not fundamentalist due to lack of holy books, dogmas, and precepts set in stone—all of which would indicate that there’s not much of substance for Christians to understand—and look instead at the other facts which undermine this fantasy:

1. In the secular countries from which our atheist attack dogs hail, study of religious histories are not required subjects at the pre-Kindergarten, elementary, junior high, high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels of public and most private school; ergo, religion/Christianity is neither being taught nor “understood” in a formal setting. Even in Catholic school, religion classes are limited to Catholic theology and doctrine, a point to which I’ll return.

2. In order to bolster the claimant, let us take America as our case study for the supposition that people come to understand religion from “society.” We’ll do so where the US is one of the last, Western, secular societies with a populace that undertakes to practice religion on a regular basis in significant percentages(though still less than 50%). Now, let us assume that Grayling is not suggesting that secular society teaches religion via a nebulous super-brain which beams knowledge down in fact beams. The question then becomes: who is teaching all of these atheists their understanding of Christianity? He claims they’ve learned it from religious practice within their families, ie, they must have learned it in church. There are three problems with this:

  • First,  as has been demonstrated, the majority of people, even in America, do not attend church on a regular basis. Moreover, even if they did, church attendance, in most cases, involves approximately one hour of worship a week. By this logic, most young people are about thirty times more expert on television and seven times more expert on mathematics than they are on Christianity. It’s a wonder that the television networks and NASA aren’t snatching them up. In reality, neither objective study nor understanding, of Christianity is the likely outcome of even weekly church attendance. One might as well argue that because he or she has hair, and grooms it ritually, he or she ‘understands’ why it grows, of what it is composed, what purpose it serves, how it has been styled and worn throughout history, etc. Unfortunately for the lazy of the world, understanding does not naturally follow mere contact. Understanding is an endeavor–one to which the professor does not seem to have committed himself, given the clumsy grandiosity of his terminology. To the contrary, this individual experience, without a broader context in which to place it, probably results in more prejudice surrounding hair–or religion–than “understanding” of it.
  • Second, for the minority who do attend church regularly, there remains the problem that worship, specifically, is not aimed at teaching people a broad understanding of Christianity–not structurally, nor historically, nor sociologically, nor theologically, nor at all past interpretation of the text. Rather, worship is aimed at…errm…well, worshiping mostly. At best this means teaching a very contextually variable interpretation of texts. So the supposition that you “learn” about “Christianity” writ large, can only be true if, by ‘Christianity,’ you mean the details of a specific sect’s worship ceremony. If only that were all there were to it.
  • Lastly, and hearkening back to the last point, which Christianity does he suppose one learns so deeply about by occasional church attendance in childhood? After all, Catholic churches do not endeavor to teach their followers about Lutheranism (perhaps to prevent defection); Mennonites don’t know much about mega-churches; one won’t catch conservative southern Baptists shivering on the South Mall in DC, protesting the war alongside progressive-minded Unitarians and Quakers; and, among Lutherans, the ELCA says it’s ok to be gay and a bishop, for which the Missouri Synod has left them at the altar.

Point being, there is not a monolithic Christianity to be taught or “understood.” Grayling’s claim, thus, sheds light neither on ‘the truth’ nor even on some objective ‘reality,’ but only on the (likely willful) limits of his understanding of the subject of religion.

If Grayling’s atheists are in a good position to critique and dismiss Christianity based on the understanding derived from their personal, childhood encounters with a sect, then I am in a good position to do the same for anything I’ve encountered regularly and disliked. We all necessarily boast a host of mini-expertises, by this logic. Someone call the universities and tell them to shut it down! Everything we need to know, we learned in grade school, apparently.
Unfortunately, the shortcomings of a Sunday school education became apparent when the atheist team cynically dismissed as useless the teachings of Christianity because, they claimed, these originated with a ‘desert nomad.’ I will put aside the degree to which this smacked of old school British Orientalism and say first that I’m glad to know that they can recognize the relevance of history and context when it suits them to do so; however, historically and geographically, of course, this description is basically inaccurate. Bethlehem and Galilee are not in the desert. They were and are towns located somewhat near a desert, sure, but modern Israelis, particularly those in the tourist industry, will be happy to back me up on the fact that they were and are green spaces with arable land. Additionally, Jesus Christ and his family were not “nomads.” Only a profound illiteracy vis a vis Biblical history could produce such an inaccurate characterization, especially given that the transition between nomadic and settled living in human history is considered, well, kind of a big deal. Perhaps not to a philosopher or a biologist.
For the sake of disclosure, I should admit that I bring a personal perspective to this particular discussion, as I fall somewhat into the category of people upon whom the claim is based. I was raised more religiously than most. I went to Catholic school and Catholic Church throughout my youth. I was processed through all the requisite rituals: baptism, confession, communion and confirmation. I attended mass twice a week, belonged to Catholic youth groups, did volunteer work, went on missionary trips. For heaven’s sake, I was an altar server! Then, at the age of sixteen, when I could no longer be compelled to do any of this, I quit, became deeply agnostic (and mostly indifferent) and finally got to enjoy the delicacy of Sunday mornings slept in.
By my mid-twenties, what I could meaningfully recall about the history, the structure, and the teachings of the Church was far less voluminous than what I could tell you about punk music or the life and times of HP Lovecraft. Had I been called upon to critique religion, most of what I could have come up with were objections to sexual mores incompatible with the libertine values of my age. I was culturally Catholic, but certainly no expert on Catholic history or the niceties of theology . Going further afield, what I knew about non-Catholic sects and religions was literally nothing beyond the exotic sounding titles they were given. The point again being, to suggest that having experienced a certain culture or tradition in childhood marks one as an expert in adulthood is unfounded. Would we so lightly claim that all African Americans are of one experience, mind and expertise on African American history and culure? Ask yourself: Where else would we be so arrogant as to assume that some hours spent in grade school equaled general expertise or even understanding?
And I think here we get to what bothers me the most: Trained as a social scientist, it is apparent to me that religions are one of the key historical phenomena in the development of human civilizations. For both better and worse, they have acted (alternately) as primordial civil society and impetus and organizing principle or legitimizer for governing structures; as the underpinnings for political philosophies and legal codes, both ancient and advanced, and as rallying points for the opposition to what these institutions wrought. Their adherents have fought and died to break down ancient, hierarchical organizing principles; to aid the disenfranchised; to spread access to education (founding many of the greatest universities on the planet, alongside schools for the rural poor), and yes, also to generate some of the more draconian moral codes and their concomitant persecutions. In short, whether or not an actual God lives a divine relationship with humanity through religion, the relationship between our monotheistic conceptions of God and our behavior remains very real…and no less complicated, or fascinating.
Thus it is that, listening to Grayling and Dawkins suggest that all of this is naught more than belief in fairies—or else an outmoded and reactionary ‘delusion’ holding back humanity–gives me rather the same feeling that I had when George W Bush and his Neocon cabal (including, oddly enough, Christopher Hitchens) suggested that ‘Iraqis’ (again, no differentiation) would greet the American invasion with candy and flowers and race to embrace democracy, rather than chaos. Because, presumably, democracy is self-evidently and always good and authoritarianism is clearly and always bad. (Where echoed the lessons of Huntington, one wonders.) I cannot live in that world of chimerical absolutes. In the world I know, the vast majority of humans are impoverished and illiterate. In this same world, three out of four charity dollars and a lot of peace of mind and positive motivation are religiously inspired. It has been said that if God did not exist, we would have invented Him, perhaps because we should have.
In conclusion, it is not religion which I find deluded and naïve; it is the utopist vision of a world full of happy humans sans organizing principles and unifying structures and narratives. It is the reductionist fantasy of religion as nothing more than a few old men telling us not to screw around because there is a scary man in the sky, rather than the recognition of it as a historically dynamic, demonstrably evolving and diverse social ecosystem—one which we seek to destroy at the same risk and peril as when we take torches to the rainforests. This is the religion, the meaning of God, of Christianity which I fear Grayling and Dawkins, in spite of perhaps having once gone into a church, fail to ‘understand.’

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