Friday, December 28, 2007

Faith, Religion and Atheists

Two articles last week had me thinking how easy it’s been for prominent blowhard atheists of late to control the terms of the debate. The first was in the Chicago Tribune, “Of books, faith and cathedrals: The mystery at the heart of religion is individual belief.” Notice how the author compares religious faith to that of the atheist:

Without question, the New Atheism sells. Even with what seems to me to be a smug, hip, self-congratulatory tone, these books do quite well. Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" is a best seller . . . . And unlike Hitchens and his fellow nonbelievers, I'm willing -- to employ the phrase of the great singer and songwriter Iris DeMent -- to let the mystery be.

Mystery. That's really the point, isn't it? The mystery at the heart of religious faith isn't about syllogisms or axioms. It's not about logic. It's not about what I think about your beliefs; it's about what you believe. Faith baffles. It's supposed to. It's as puzzling and inscrutable as the emotion one feels when strolling through a Swiss cathedral on a cold afternoon in mid-December, holding a book, minding one's footsteps on the chipped and craggy stone floor but dreaming, all the while, of sky.
Faith is in effect a synonym for religion, while the atheists get the logic, the syllogisms and axioms. Are you kidding me? As if Hitchens doesn’t have faith! We can say it is not religious faith, but it is faith nonetheless. In fact the leap of faith it takes to be an atheist is incomprehensible, because they have to believe that everything came from nothing. I would say that is impossible, but then that would be a self-evident truth that requires no proof, or yes, an axiom.

It is not religious faith that baffles, or puzzles, and it is certainly not inscrutable (i.e. incapable of being investigated, analyzed, or scrutinized; impenetrable). What is incapable of being investigated or proved is the philosophical pre-commitment of the atheist that nothing is responsible for everything. That truly baffles. There is much mystery in religion, and Christianity in particular, but it is not incoherent or illogical. People embrace it for many reasons, but not because it makes no sense. To allow the atheists to traipse around proudly wearing the unchallenged assumption that they are the logical ones with no need of faith is absurd. It is also not accurate or true.

The other article was a wonderful piece wishing Mr. Hitchens a Merry Christmas while making fun of the blowhard atheists. But it also gives them a pass on the faith issue. Here it is:

But for those of us who don’t need a God Helmet, who intuit a Presence all on our own, what Hitchens writes doesn’t matter. Here is a man who admits he has no faith, nor capacity for it, but presumes to write volumes on the topic.
Why do we allow the atheists to determine that faith is a synonym for religion? That’s what in effect is happening here. So we let these little blowhards think that we, the religious folk, we’re the ones who need the faith, we weak minded souls looking for a crutch before a threatening and uncertain universe. In fact, not only do atheists have faith, they have a gargantuan capacity for faith bigger than a black hole. How else could one believe (there’s the word, friends, they must believe, i.e. have faith) that, I say again, everything came from nothing? The only capacity they have bigger than faith is the capacity for self-delusion. It is we, the faithful, yes the religious, who inhabit the rhetorical high ground. Let us stop ceding it to the leapers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas from the Moon

(This was our blog's message in 2005 and 2006. Another year has passed, but do the important things ever change?

Remembering the important things, as these men did, seems longer ago and even farther away with each passing year, and to some, even more silly. But Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all those here gathered anyway, and may we smile today, give thanks, and be inspired in the coming year to perpetuate their silliness...)




It was on Christmas Eve 1968 that the astronauts of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, became the first of mankind to see an earthrise from the orbit of the moon, and looking back on us, they spoke these words:


Anders: "We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And, for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you...

"In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness."

Lovell: "And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Borman: "And God said, Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas: and God saw that it was good."

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."


It is good. God bless us, every one.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Darwin Goes Fishing

The above title was the one I gave to the following article that was rejected back in '04 or so by a magazine whose editor's eye amazes me in retrospect. Some months later, I took all of this and wrapped it into a slightly longer, much quoted and celebrated, article at Jewish World Review entitled Dare To Win. That ran on Jan. 26, 2005. In recently organizing my archives, I came upon this original version and was pleased to see how well this stood up in hindsight. See if you agree:

It was announced recently that the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the school district in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that has incorporated into its curriculum the idea that the evolution of the natural world is believed by some to be so complex as to have required intelligent design. Bring ‘em on, I say, this may be a blessing in disguise. There might be a chance to turn things around and gain some ground.

Although the theist view always wins vastly more adherents in the countryside than does its counterpart, the normative intellectual or academic view for over a century has favored Darwinism. The fireworks of the Scopes Trial, with Clarence Darrow besting William Jennings Bryan in feisty public exchanges, heralded the conquest of the classroom by the forces of evolution. This is what we like to call the origin of the specious notion that the question of creation has been debated and settled for all time.

Yet the courtroom has never been a venue suited to the rigors of scientific colloquy; it lends itself to the moods and tides of rhetoric. Mastery of the rip-roaring riposte serves one better here than the measured tones of the academy and the laboratory.

That very climate can be turned to favor any underdog, even when Bryan and Darrow have their roles reversed. When I lived in Cincinnati, the old-timers described to me how Rabbi Eliezer Silver, confidante of President Taft and many Republican politicians, won the right to build a Jewish ritual bath despite being sued by the Zoning Commission. Former Senator Taft, son of the President, was his defense counsel, and Silver took the stand on behalf of his cause.

The plaintiff’s attorney must have had visions of Darrow and Bryan dancing in his head when he stood up to cross-examine. He used a similar approach, asking if the rabbi believed that all the events described in the Bible were literal, such as the splitting of the Reed Sea and manna raining from the sky. He acknowledged that he did.

“And do you mean to tell this court and the learned gallery that you believe the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, that an ass could actually speak?”

“Sure I do. I’m seeing it with my own eyes.”

The courtroom exploded in laughter and the case was essentially won by a single well-timed witticism.

This Harrisburg case needs to be joined and fought with slogans and sound bites, both inside and outside the courthouse. Especially potent will be one key phrase, one key image, namely that this is the “Scopes Trial in reverse”. The public can be, must be, made to see this battle as the mirror image of the Scopes Trial. It is not a tussle between science and religion so much as it is a power grab by one view of science over another. This needs to be pounded over and over. It is a bullet point that needs to be reloaded into the chambers again and again.

*

Most importantly, one prime insight can frame this battle in terms that are amenable to the position espoused by the school district and have the added advantage of being true. It will not only have a decisive impact in the courtroom, it has the capacity to transform the popular debate as well. This simple idea, if promoted relentlessly and sold, is a nuclear bomb that will ramify in the culture for generations.

Namely, that there are essentially two separate theories advanced by Darwin. The first is that the process of the world attaining its current form was characterized by evolutionary transitions in its phasing, which built themselves into permanence by providing in each instance a fitter form or functionality. The second is the idea that this could have happened by itself without a conscious design.

In the past, this distinction was obliterated by the fact that most of the religionistic resistance to Darwin overreached by challenging elements of the evolutionary science as well. This led to their being diverted from the fundamental epistemological division between these two components of Darwin’s larger presentation. It is urgent that this wedge be driven into his work, driven now and driven hard. We are not debating evolution. We are challenging the separate theory that evolution could have happened without someone turning on the switch.

This approach would be devastating in the courtroom. If an attorney won early on from the judge the right to refer to Darwin One and Darwin Two as a shorthand for the two theories, the plaintiff’s case would be literally decimated. As pedestrian as this linguistic affectation may seem, it literally divides and conquers the opposition.

Once the battleground has thus been narrowed, the absurdity of the ACLU’s position is highlighted. In what way is it more scientific to say that evolution could happen by itself? Why is it unscientific to maintain that much information had to be encoded, in individual cells and in the stuff of matter itself, to facilitate evolutionary tendencies? The truth is that Darwin Two is an intellectual choice engineered not by logic but by a distaste for the idea of being beholden to a Creator.