In defense of Irratheism

In which the inestimable John Derbyshire and I engage in a frank exchange of views following his assertion that the Tibetan Buddhists are atheists. And, of course, I have Derb’s permission to post these emails:

Not so fast, my friend: “And although the original teachings of the Buddha do not mention a creator or other deities, Tibetan Buddhism embraces a vast pantheon of divinities. These supramundane beings derive from the intersection of many sources and influences, both native and external.”

Sorry, but I don’t think these entities rise to the level of gods. They are more in the East Asian tradition of (in Chinese) “shen” and “gui” — i.e. benevolent and malign spirits. “Angels” and “demons”are really the way we express these notions in Indo-European languages. (Although R.H. Mathews’ very dependable “Chinese-English Dictionary” (1931) defines “shen” as: “A spirit; a god. Spiritual, inscrutable, divine, supernatural. The soul.” But even that illustrated the point that there isn’t a good one-one match of concepts here.)

Sure. But in the Christian… shall we say, “mythology”… fallen angels ARE pagan gods. Recall how Jehovah stands in the “assembly of the gods”, and you surely know that neither Jehovah nor Jesus Christ are considered “the god of this age” by Christians. It appears you’re subscribing here to an atheistically irrelevant Christian division between God and god. This looks rather like a Fighting Withdrawal, in which you’re abandoning nine-tenths of your atheist/scientific creed in a mistaken attempt to protect a very narrow definition of atheism, as well as every claim to objective scientific superiority that atheism ever had. I understand the train of thought, of course, but I think you’ll find that you’re fatally boxing yourself in here in an attempt to preserve a Christian-Atheist dialectic.

I don’t see that. An atheist, in my understanding (and Messrs Merriam and Webster’s), is a person who denies that there is a God. You can deny that there is a God and yet believe in a whole ontinuum of supernatural critters, from everyday (-night?) ghosts up to the angels. You seem to be using “atheist” to mean “a person who denies the supernatural.” That would be a “naturalist,” or colloquially a “materialist.”

An atheist denies God. He does not necessarily deny leprechauns.

As to the “scientific superiority of atheism,” I have no idea what it means, and would therefore not claim it, not ever have.

Very well, I cheerfully retract the scientific superiority bit, since upon reflection, I don’t recall you ever making any such general claim and I’ve read most of your work over the last 10 years. However, yours seems to be a very Christian atheism, as the “a-theos” is a Greek concept which refers to the very sort of non-God pagan gods in which the Tibetans believe.

Well, duh it’s a Christian atheism. I was raised a Christian, know my Bible better than most Christians I meet, can instantly find my page in the prayer book, and can sing around 100 hymns from memory. (Which is 99 more than the average American Christian.) What OTHER kind of atheist would I be?

(Old Irish joke: an Ulsterman being interrogated by terrorist gunmen pleads: “I’m an atheist!” They snarl back: “All right — but are ye a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”)

The modern atheism we all discuss is a denial of the Abrahamic (Jewish/Christian/Moslem) mono-deity. That’s the common usage. It need not involve a denial of the supernatural. As I said, if you tell me you are an atheist, but believe in ghosts, or leprechauns, or spirit messages via an ouija board, I see no contradiction. I’d extend that to the Tibetan gods, though I’ll agree this is nit-pickable.

The primitive types of religion — animism and shamanism — are, to my way of thinking, just beneath modern theism-atheism discussions, having really no intellectual content. The world (animists and shamanists tell us) is populated by invisible spirits — benign (the “shen”) and malign (the “gui”). To dignify this as “theism,” or its negation as “atheism,” is like making mumblety-peg an Olympic sport; or like calling Intelligent Design a scientific theory. I’ll allow that Lamaism is a step above that, having intellectual Buddhism pasted on to the aboriginal Tibetan religion (a shamanist/animist concoction called “Bon,” if memory serves). Since intellectual Buddhism is atheist, though, in the broader sense — no God, no gods — my refusal to dignify the primitive beliefs as theism is unaffected.

And contrariwise, the modern style of atheism need not involve a denial of the supernatural. The grandaddy of modern atheism, Bertrand Russell, had a strong mystical streak, as a perusal of his autobiography will easily confirm. (Sam Harris shows the same tendencies.) We are very small and ignorant, the universe is very big and strange, and any reflective person keeps an open mind as to what is out there in the darkness beyond our little campfire’s glow.

That it is all explained in texts written by Bronze Age goatherds living in caves, though, seems pretty improbable to your modern atheist. That the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Chief Rabbi, or the Akond of Swat, have anything true to tell me about the world or my place in it, I am unpersuaded. That they have fundamental disagreements with each other about the “unassailable truths” of which they claim custody, doesn’t help a bit. If I go to study astronomy, biology, or chemistry in Athens, Benares, or Cairo, I shall learn the same things in the three different places. Students of theology in those places will learn three utterly different things. Truth, it seems to me, ought to be indivisible, not dependent on accidents of geography.

I think your response is most common-sensical, if not necessarily one I’d wish to defend from an abstract intellectual perspective. Which is fine, as you point out, you’re not claiming otherwise and certainly I wouldn’t attempt to claim that my Christian beliefs are either purely rational or derived from reason. Reason has its place, but it is demonstrably a poor foundation for ordering a society of mostly irrational beings, be they evolved ex nihilo or created Imago Dei.

There are some interesting points here. I shall delve into them later when I have more time. The important thing to grasp is that living one’s life by beliefs that are irrational by abstract intellectual standards is not indefensible nor indicative of a sub-par intellect. Quite to the contrary, doing so is entirely normal human behavior, regardless of what those beliefs happen to be.

The Maladroit Biologist

Read the Mad Biologist’s rabid and amusing defense of his “moral and emotional case for evolution”, which, as one of his readers correctly notes, isn’t even a “moral argument on behalf of evolution”, much less one for “the utility of evolutionary biology”, but rather an incompetent case for teaching evolution. First, note that this post is what he seriously describes as going “berserk”. Second, it’s ironic that he accuses me of minimal reading comprehension skills in the same post that he wrongly claims I have made him “part of Dawkins’ atheist argument”. I merely noted that his very poor reasoning “is most remniscent of Richard Dawkins’s howlingly ludicrous conclusion of his ‘unrebuttable’ central argument of The God Delusion.” It’s not my fault when others advance demonstrably flawed arguments, it’s remarkable how instead of admitting the obvious flaws I have pointed out and improving their arguments, they prefer to accuse me of stupidity, fling a few metaphorical feces, and dig the hole deeper with their futile defenses.

Clearly atheists have no monopoly on logical incompetence. And speaking of incompetence, let’s consider the Mad Biologist’s own six-point description of what he means by moral. (Note for the Mad Biologist: noting the fact that both you and Richard Dawkins have presented arguments that have six points to them should not be read as a statement indicating that the two of you are making the same argument.)

1. Creationists argue that evolutionary biology will lead to all sorts of immorality, and that it should not be taught in schools (or taught in such a watered down manner that it will effectively not be taught at all). This means fewer people will be able to become evolutionary biologists, as well as a general public that is more ignorant of biology.

This is not the primary basis of most Creationists’ objections to evolutionary biology. The primary basis is that first, it is not true, and second, that it is not science. But even if we ignore those two factors, it is obvious that by the moral standard of both Christian and Islamic Creationists, there is no shortage of empirical evidence that the Creationists have a pretty good case regarding immorality. Pick whatever metric you like, it’s easily verified. And on the other hand, there is no inherent moral virtue in a greater number of evolutionary biologists or a general public less ignorant of biology, and there’s no inherent connection between the state of the general public’s knowledge and advances in a particular field od science. More importantly, the idea that biology can be effectively taught in school system that fails to graduate a substantial portion of its students and cannot teach a large percentage of them to read, do math, or think logically is absurd.

2. As I described during my talk, and repeatedly discuss on my blog, including in the post that got Vox’s panties in a bunch, genomic based medicine (human and infectious disease), not to mention other areas of applied biology, relies on evolutionary theory, tools, and methods. All those articles about ‘decoding the book of life’ don’t happen without evolutionary biology.

Quite possibly true to some extent, although I suspect there’s more than a bit of post-facto darwining being exhibited here. Genomic-based medicine also relies heavily on computer software technology and I don’t think too many people would be impressed with an identical case for the moral imperative of increasing the number of software designers. Moreover, without evolutionary biology, we would also sacrifice our ability to develop biological weapons targeted to specific genetic types and our ability to allow insurance companies to deny medical coverage to genetically unfortunate individuals.

3. Developing vaccines, discovering new antibiotics, and finding new therapeutic treatments, which we do in genomics by using evolutionary biology, are moral actions.

Really? Usually the defenders of science insist that such actions are no more intrinsicly moral or immoral than developing nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and new means of torture. On what basis is the development of a new therapeutic treatment any more moral or immoral than the development of a new weaponized Ebola virus?

4. Denying the use (and existence) of these powerful tools, as well as the potential training of future scientists will impede our ability to cure disease.

And it will also impede our ability to develop new and more efficient means of killing other people. Both statements are undeniable.

5. Reducing our ability to combat infectious disease is immoral.

On what basis is reducing our ability to combat infectious disease immoral? If we accept the moral standard of the overpopulation crowd, this reduction would be considered moral while combatting natural infectious disease to reduce the population is immoral. It depends upon the moral standard. Certainly by the Christian moral standard the statement is correct, but we are sadly uninformed as to which moral standard this car crash of an argument is appealing.

6. Therefore, opposing evolution, as creationists do, because it is theologically inconvenient is wrong, and supporting evolution is a good thing–a moral thing (and ethical too).

The mere appearance of a “therefore” at the end does not a logically sound conclusion make. His assertion notwithstanding, the Mad Biologist never actually gets around to describing what he means by moral and his argument is built upon a verifiably false foundation with several intervening points taking only the positive aspects into account while ignoring the negative aspects. Whether one chooses to regard it as a definition of morality or a logical case for the teaching of evolution, it fails badly. Like Richard Dawkins, the Mad Biologist only manages to demonstrate a) the logical incompetence of biologists, and, b) why biologists really would be wise to stick to biology and stop embarrassing themselves in public.

I understand that this argument, such as it is, is intended to be a rhetorical device, not science. My point is that it’s a demonstrably bad one, and, as I predicted, it makes for very funny blogfodder indeed. Now, if only we could get these science fetishists to attempt poetry as well as rhetoric in defense of their object of veneration, I think my joy would be complete.

Beware la bella donna

The English press has fallen head over heels for the woman it has acclaimed “the next Diana”. While the new one is certainly loads more attractive than the original, I can’t help but think of what happened the last time France had an Italian queen:

From a female point of view, there is no doubt that the woman is a menace, a lethal combination of beauty and ruthlessness. But you have to admire her. First, for changing the course of French history by not settling for the role of acquiescent mistress and a nice apartment in a fashionable arrondissement, but getting the ring on her finger and a seat at the top table. And, secondly, for being true to herself. For Bruni, despite having lived much of her life in France, is the truest representation of Italian womanhood I have seen since Lucrezia Borgia.

This week’s performance was a brilliant lesson in the correct application of bella figura. In Italy, no matter how much of a minx you may be behind closed doors, as a woman you never let it show in public. You do not lose face and you don’t let your man down.

Yes, the face is lovely, and la bella figura is cut flawlessly. But forget Lucrezia. Reflect rather upon Catherine de’ Medici.