Monday, August 31, 2009

On Alpha

Nicky Gumbel interview transcript | Adam Rutherford | Comment is free |

We've got something that works in practice, and we're trying to work out how we can make it work in theory. So, why is it? I think there are a number of things about it. I think it's a low key, relaxed, unthreatening, non-confrontational way for people to explore pretty big questions. I think a lot of people do have questions about life, 'What's the purpose of my life?', 'What's the meaning of my life?', 'Why am I here?' … It's hard to find a place where you can discuss those issues. You can't go down to the pub and say, 'What do you think the meaning of life is?' It's hard at a football match to discuss those kinds of issues. But actually, most people have those questions, somewhere in the back of their minds. And if you can find a place where you can discuss it with a group of people who, like you, are outside of the Church, and it's a non-threatening, relaxed environment, quite a lot of people want to do that.

Alpha looks awfully like the Nondenominational Evalgelical-Lite packaged for an upscale clientele that's become the industry standard in the US: "low key, relaxed, unthreatening, non-confrontational way for people to explore pretty big questions." Think Rick Warren, Obama's paradigmatic representative of the People of Faith special interest group. We speak in tongues, but not in a scary, crazy way--and we don't handle snakes. We don't approve of homosexual activity but we love everybody regardless of sexual orientation.

There's clearly a market for this style of religiousity, which churches recognize. Alpha was promoted in my area as a church-growth tool. The market hasn't been saturated yet because evangelical-lite churches are growing in the US, though not as fast as the fastest growing "religious group": the unchurched.

I still wonder how big a market there is for this kind of religion overall--when the mega-churches will max out. What we've seen in the US has been (1) realignment, (2) consolidation and (3) "hollowing out." (1) Traditional denominational divisions came to be perceived as unimportant as (2) affinity groups--liberal, conservative, evangelical, charismatic, etc. consolidated across denominational lines. Religious Right organizations drew conservatives from various denominations, consolidated and, for a time, exercised political muscle; charismatics in traditionally pentecostal churches aligned with charismatics in the Catholic Church and other denominations; "non-denominational" churches grew.

Then (3) the "hollowing out": liberals dropped out to join the unchurched, gutting traditional "mainline" denominations, including the Episcopal Church. Others were drawn into more conservative evangelical outfits, including non-denominational churches and evangelical para-church organizations. As the evangelical movement grew it became more polished, more culturally mainstream and more "unthreatening and non-confrontational" picking up some of the folkways and cultural preoccupations of the upper middle class. See those good-looking, 20-somethings in the picture? Clearly not gun-totin' snake-handling rednecks from the boonies. I'm sure they re-cycle their trash.

So now you have the hollowing out, the bimodal distribution on the religious continuum: the unchurched in one growing bump; evangelicals at the other end in a growing bump (though not growing as fast as the unchurched); and traditionally liberal mainline denominations in the sinking valley between between the bumps dying out.

This hardly suggests that "God is back." It suggest realignment and consolidation: the total number of religious believers is going down and those who are left are consolidating in the evangelical-lite orbit. So you see growth in Alpha, Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, etc. In the end, leaving aside ethnic religious groups and peripheral cults, we'll have just two options: pure secularism and evangelical-lite Christianity which will become our culture-religion--if it hasn't done so already. Very depressing.

It's depressing to me not only, or primarily, because the total number of religious believers is going down but because with that consolidation the religious options are disappearing. I have no interest in the evangelical style--whether lite or heavy. What a miserable bore. But I've finally had to admit to myself that, at least in our current cultural context, this is the kind of religion most people enjoy--this slick, boring, platitudinous crap. I just can't fathom why. Admittedly, de gustibus: I can't fathom why people watch soap operas or sports. What I find most puzzling is that this kind of religiousity is billed as "experiential" because that's exactly what I find it not to be. I've been to revivals and even went to a couple of pentecostal services where people were speaking in tongues and to me it was just incredibly boring--not in the least experiential for me. Now high mass in Latin at St. Marks when I went to Venice, with choirs in separate balconies singing in stereo under 42,000 square feet of mosaics: that was experiential.

I've been reading Robert Taft Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It. This is what I was always after in religion: over-the-top, all-the-stops-pulled-out high church and unabashed mysticism--splashy, flashy liturgy and metaphysical thrills, church as acid trip. I thought that this was what everybody wanted--but that the moralizing, killjoy clergy who threw away the old Prayer Book didn't want us have it because it was too tasty and yummy: no banana splits with whipped cream, nuts and a cherry on top; eat your broccoli--it's good for you. No Elizabethan English or fancy stuff: shake your neighbor's hand and smile; follow the words on the screen and make nice noises about "justice, freedom and peace." The Church is People. We do community-building and goody-goody projects, rummage sales, youth groups and Activities.

The shocker for me, when I actually got involved in the church (as opposed to going to church, blurring out the people and fantasizing Byzantium, Hellenistic mystery religions and Mediterranean Folk Catholicism) was that people actually liked the hand-shaking and rummage sales, and all the dull, platitudinous, moralistic crap. And didn't seem to want the over-the-top mystical/liturgical acid trip. I still can't fathom how anyone could not want that.

The hardest thing for me now, having left the Church over 10 years ago, is accepting that they just don't, that the Church does not have anything for me because it can't--because my taste, my interests and my spin on religion is anomalous. This is really the death of a dream. I still can't believe it: how could anyone in their right mind, anyone who isn't completely dead of soul, prefer those sanitized mannequins in the picture having a pleasant chat about the Meaning of Life to the outdoor-indoor liturgical extravaganzas Taft describes, the processions, the public grand opera, the crowds in the streets milling about, jostling, fighting, flirting and stampeding to the altar for communion?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oh Jesus, I've Seen the Light!!!

Years ago I read about an experiment in which people blind from birth were taught to draw objects with which they were familiar by touch in perspective. After some training, one after the other, they would suddenly "see," understand how visual perspective worked and, I think, become able to visualize objects. And they were thrilled.

And do I ever get it! I've been slogging through a heavy math book all summer at an average rate of 4 hours per page. (I'm not very good at math and I never got beyond 2 years in high school). I diligently worked through every example and every proof--mercifully the proofs are short and the logic I know.

I opened that book today and looked at a couple of the theorems I worked through yesterday to prepare to push on to the next section. And today I saw what they meant, could draw the pictures, could see how they showed what all the set theoretical symbol-pushing was about. I saw, in particular, how the closure of A is the intersection of all closed sets containing it. It's embarrassing because it's so blindingly obvious and I'd missed it because I was so nervous about the whole thing, because I was continually paging back to re-read definitions. And because it takes me a while: I'm one of the mathematically blind. Then I saw the theorem that the closure of A in a subspace Y of X is the intersection of the closure of A in X and Y, again after I'd worked through the proof, paging back to definitions and other theorems, still not feeling I'd got it even though it was a short proof. It's incredible, though embarrassing that I didn't see it before.

This is so good that I don't think I want to push further today--in a way not press my luck. I just want to hold onto this and record it so that I can come back to it. It seems so trivial when put into words, like some platitudinous description of a religious experience--the sound of one hand clapping after years of diligent meditation. And so obvious. But this is the kind of thing that knocks your socks off and makes life worthwhile. I'll probably become embarrassed about this post and zap it in a few hours, but right now I just want to shout!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dividing the Question

Science and religion need a truce | Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum | Comment is free |

[A]ccommodationists – still dominate the hallowed institutions of American science. Personally, these scientists may be atheists, agnostics or believers. Whatever their views on the relationship between science and religion, politically, spiritually and practically they see no need to fight over it.

It is controversial whether religious belief is compatible with good science and, in particular, with commitment to Darwin's theory of evolution.

It is also controversial how best to promote scientific literacy and support good science. Given that fundamentalist Christianity undermines scientific literacy in virtue of its rejection of evolution we could argue the way to promote scientific literacy is to discredit fundamentalist Christianity and, just to be on the safe side, take down non-fundamentalist Christianity and religion generally as well since "moderate" religious believers who, even if they don't reject evolution outright, will claim God "guides" evolution--which is a rejection of the core insight of the theory. On the other hand, given that many people are religious believers and of those only a minority are intransigent fundamentalists the best way to sell good science might be to persuade people that evolution is not (uncontroversially) incompatible with religious belief.

So there are two independent questions, which are invariably muddled, in discussions of "accomodationism":

(1) Is the theory of evolution compatible with religious belief?

(2) What is the best way to sell the theory of evolution (to promote scientific literacy, and to support good science)?

(1) is a philosophical question and, like all philosophical questions, is disputed. It is, in any case, the business of philosophers of science.

(2) is a strategic political question and, like all questions of this nature, asks for cost, benefit, risk assessment. It is an empirical question which strategy will be most effective in selling the public on evolution and promoting scientific literacy: the New Atheist strategy or the Accommodationist strategy. This question is the business of social scientists, pollsters and science teachers in the trenches.

How are the two questions related? Well, if you answer yes to (1), if you believe that the theory of evolution (and good science generally) is compatible with religious belief then you should clearly be an Accommodationist. If however you answer no to (1) it is an open question whether you should adopt the Accommodationist strategy or not, and the answer will depend on empirical considerations concerning the costs, benefits and risks of Accommodationism.

Suppose you answer no to (1): you believe that religious belief is incompatible with good science and with the theory of evolution in particular. Adopting the Accommodationist strategy does not commit you to lying about your answer to question (1) or to promoting the idea that religious belief and science are compatible. You are committed at most to noting, if asked, that (1) is a disputed question. All you have to do is tell the unvarnished truth: "Some people, like me, believe that science and religion are incompatible. Others, including some scientists and philosophers of science, believe that science and religion are compatible. Like all philosophical claims it's controversial: there are smart, reflective, informed people on both sides."

Moreover, unless you are asked, you don't have to speak to this question at all. If you want to write a book defending and popularizing evolution, write about evolution. You may have a variety of views about other related issues. You may believe that the National Science Foundation should get more funding or that scientists should be allowed to teach in public high schools without special teaching credentials or that all the sciences are reducible to physics in accordance with the Unity of Sciences program or that they are not reducible to physics or that science and religion are incompatible. That's fine, but you can editorialize elsewhere. The most effective way to teach people about evolution and get them interested is to write about evolution in the clearest and most lively way you can and avoid distracting readers by promoting other agendas.

This is not dishonest. It is not fudging or going into the closet on atheism or even simply being "nice." It is a matter of keeping on topic. Given the bully pulpit it's always tempting to expound your views on everything from the state of the economy to the virtues of your new iPhone. But there is no reason why you should.

I sometimes wonder what the priorities of some "New Atheists" are. Is the aim really to defend good science by attacking bad religion? Or do they in fact view the defense of evolution as a golden opportunity to promote atheism?

I don't have objection to the promotion of atheism in the media, on the sides of busses or anywhere in the public square. Atheists complain that they've been silenced while religious believers have carte blanche to preach to the multitudes. If that's true it is indeed unfair and I think it would be just fine if atheists shouted as loudly and got just as much media exposure as religious believers. Of course once the novelty has worn off most of us won't pay any more attention to atheist busses than we do to the billboards that pop up every Christmas announcing that Jesus is the reason for the Season. Ho-ho-ho...hum.

What I find objectionable is the use of science education as a vehicle for promoting atheism. It would be equally objectionable if Christians used music education to promote religious belief or if ideologues with axes to grind used courses in the social sciences to promote their political agendas, whether left, right or center.

It's disgraceful that over 40% of Americans don't buy the theory of evolution, which is not in any way seriously controversial but is an established fact. It is shocking that even more are convinced of the efficacy of quack medicines, believe reports of psychic phenomena and extra terrestrial visitations, spend their money on pseudo-scientific self-help books and bogus therapies, and give credence to all manner of fashionable nonsense. Scientific literacy and beyond that plain respect for rationality is important.

Now maybe new atheists will argue that in the long run the most effective way to promote scientific literacy and critical thinking is to discredit religious belief. If so, I'd like to see arguments backed by empirical evidence from history and the social sciences. I haven't seen any compelling arguments yet and from what I have seen it seems more likely that attempts to attach an anti-religious agenda to science undermines attempts to promote scientific literacy. In general, ceteris paribus, the most effective way to defend a thesis is by showing that it is cheap--that it is not burdened with many entailments or further commitments and does not have hidden costs. I can't think of any better way to sell evolution than to make the case that it is cheap--that it does not entail the rejection of religious belief.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Verificationism & The God of the Philosophers

How did you lose, or find, your faith? | The question | Comment is free |

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra and Arithmetic...[which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought ... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing...If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I've been reading through the articles and comments at the Guardian CIF Belief section addressing the question of the week: "How did you lose, or find, your faith?

Losers are running about 100 to 1 over finders and their comments are both surprising and illuminating. In almost every case the losers complain that religious belief either fails to deliver the practical benefits they were lead to expect or that it commits believers to implausible factual claims and moral principles.

I never expected religion to provide any practical benefits, so I have never been disappointed. And, like most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live.

As a religious believer my boogie is verificationism. The verificationist asks: if the existence of God makes no empirical difference, if religious claims aren't verified in experience and can't be falsified, then what, if anything, do they mean? Back in Logical Positivist days when verificationism was an article of faith, John Wisdom put this question to religious believers in his Parable of the Gardener:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they, set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds...But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced...At last the Sceptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?."*

Religious believers, Wisdom suggests, face a dilemma: if their religious views commit them to empirical claims about the organization of the cosmos or the origins of species, the history of the Middle East, the occurrence of miracles or the efficacy of petitionary prayer, then they are false; if their religious convictions have no empirical import then they are literally meaningless. What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?

If Wisdom is right, then the question of whether there is reason to believe that such a God exists cannot even arise. Religious claims are not even false: they are literally meaningless, so the question is unintelligible.

Logical Positivism is out of favor in the philosophical world these days and in any case it seems clear that religious claims are meaningful. Theists, like myself, claim that there is a conscious being, who is omnipotent and omniscient, who is not a part of the natural world and not to be identified with the cosmos in toto, but is incorporeal and transcendent. There may not be any compelling reason to believe that such a being exists, but the question of whether such a being exists is intelligible--or at least as intelligible as the question of whether humans other than ourselves or other animals are conscious.

In the case of humans and other animals overt behavior is evidence for consciousness, though we can be fooled. Paralyzed humans, locked into virtually inanimate bodies, may be conscious and the complex behavior of some animals, which suggests intelligence, is mechanical and hardwired in. It is controversial whether whether it is possible that there be "philosophical zombies," individuals who are exact physical duplicates of ourselves down to the structure and activity of their brains, but are not conscious. The Folk, whose intuitions have not been corrupted, generally believe that philosophical zombies are possible and that there is a difference between conscious beings and duplicates who are not conscious, even if that is a difference which others could not even in principle detect.

If they're right then there is a difference on the grand scale between zombie worlds and worlds which are like them materially but include an immaterial, transcendent, conscious being. It is a further question whether ours is a zombie world or a theistic world and whether there is any reason to believe that it is one way rather than the other. But the question is intelligible.

Still, even if it is not meaningless to claim that there exists a God who makes no difference to the way in which the natural world works one may ask: what is the point of believing in such a God? Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.

I can only speak for myself, though my answer is hardly original. God is an object of contemplation. It is remarkably hard to discover by introspection what one really thinks about these matters because they are so overlain by conventional pieties. I suppose what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world--not because the world is bad but because it isn't good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

That's what's in it for me.

It's hard for me to understand why most people aren't after this. For any good thing, who doesn't want more? Still, religion isn't everybody's cup of tea and I don't see why it should be. If there's one thing that I do not believe it's that God cares whether we believe in him or not.

*Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1944-5, reprinted as Chap. X of Antony Flew, ed., Essays in Logic and Language, First Series (Blackwell, 1951), and in Wisdom's own Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Blackwell, 1953).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Not the National Health

Thousands Line Up for Promise of Free Health Care -

Ana Maria Garcia, who works for Orange County, has health insurance that covers her husband and 3 ½-year-old daughter, but her dental deductibles are too high for them all to get care, she said...“Regardless if you are employed or not,” Ms. Garcia said, “everything in California is expensive, and so I can empathize with everyone here. Looking at this crowd, I think this is what people fear health care is going to be with reform. But to me it also shows the need."

Ms. Garcia nailed it. This is what Americans fear about "socialized medicine" and "socialized" anything else: a radical leveling down that will leave them much worse off.

The roots go deep into our national psyche. We believe that every normal person can and should take care of himself and his family, working hard, buying goods and services in the free market and for larger projects--barn-raisings and quilting bees--collaborating with neighbors on a voluntary basis. After all, if everyone did this, everyone would be ok and there would be no need for government and taxes--except of course to pay for cops, prisons and the military to protect us from Outsiders within and without: foreign powers intent on taking away our freedom, terrorists, and the criminal underclass. The government patrols the periphery and does not intrude; inside, we take care of ourselves.

Of course the poor will always be with us, and there will always be people who can't or won't take care of themselves. For those people there is private charity and, if necessarily, state run services which are public charities. We aren't heartless, after all. We don't want people dying in the streets or going without the basic necessities for minimal survival. But charity is only for the truly desperate and should only deliver the most basic services--only what is necessary to prevent death or great suffering.

As taxpayers we are stakeholders in the public charity system. We want to make sure that it screens charity cases so that only the truly desperate get benefits and doesn't use our hard-earned money to provide them with anything beyond the bare necessities. They don't deserve any more and we can't afford any more. If we have to pay any more in taxes then we will be forced to become charity cases ourselves, relying on public schools, public clinics and public transportation--government charities that provide bare-bones services for the underclass.

Socialism is a system which, in the interests of achieving equality, levels down, taxing citizens into destitution and forcing them to depend on the government for public charity. Comes the Revolution, impoverished by taxation, brainwashed by state propaganda and deprived of our firearms, we won't be able to fight back. We'll be enslaved by the government and forced to depend on it's largess for the kind of bare-bones services it now provides for the poor. Instead of making appointments and seeing doctors in offices we'll be queuing up for hours, or days, to get treated in sports stadiums like Ms. Garcia. Instead of driving to work, we'll packed into public transportation with smelly bums, spending hours on the bus for commutes that take 15 minutes by car. And our children will go to government run schools, like the ones we now maintain for the underclass, where drugs and violence are rife and kids are lucky if they manage to achieve basic literacy.

That is what, I believe, Americans on the right think and they deserve to be taken seriously. They aren't stupid, irrational or bigoted. They look around and see a two-tier system where the market provides decent services for the middle class--insurance and private health care, private schools and the like--and the government provides bare-bones services for those who can't afford to pay. So they infer, reasonably but mistakenly, that if the government "takes over" health care or other services they now buy in the market, that they will getting the inferior products that it now provides for the poor. The very phrase, "welfare state," conjures up for them a vision of everyone "on welfare," living in ghetto poverty. They, quite reasonably, don't want that for themselves.

How do you persuade them that this is just mistaken? You could point to other affluent countries that maintain welfare states which provide decent public services, including health care. But they won't believe it. Most don't realize that Western European countries are welfare states. They were brought up to see the world divided between the Communist Bloc and the "Free World": they think of Capitalism as the opposite of Communism and imagine that European countries maintain the same faux-laissez faire system as the US. Those who know that European countries provide much more by way of public services and social safety nets than the US are convinced that European welfare states are unsustainable and, in any case, that such systems wouldn't work in the US because, unlike Europe, we have a large, unproductive, criminal underclass.

How do you respond to this? They've got most of the facts right. What they've got wrong are the counterfactuals. Public services are lousy but that's not because government by its nature is inefficient or incapable of delivering anything better. It's precisely because they operate as public charities, providing bare-bones services for the poor. Middle class people don't use them and so won't support them, so that's all they can be.

As for this NYTimes article, describing how hordes of the uninsured and underinsured queued up for hours and slept in their cars waiting to see doctors and dentists volunteering their services in a sports stadium, I suspect many would have quite a different take from me, or from Ms. Garcia who sees this affair as showing a need. Most Americans will see it as a solution not a problem. They will see this arrangement as the way things should be: regular people with insurance making appointments to see private doctors and dentists in regular offices; those who can't afford it going to sports stadiums and charity clinics where doctors and dentists provide pro bono services.

If there's a "need," they think, what's needed is generousity: we need more doctors, dentists and other professionals volunteering, more churches providing social services, more charities. If everyone were generous we wouldn't need government (except for foreign and domestic defense): we would take care of ourselves and our families by our own efforts, and for the Other there would be charity clinics, soup kitchens and food pantries generously funded by us and staffed by volunteers.

Progressives need to address this. But first they need to get it, and that doesn't seem to be happening. The current system is lousy. It's not only humiliating to the recipients of these charities--it's unnecessarily risky for everyone and grossly inefficient. Private charity, individuals giving handouts to beggars ad hoc, evolved into organized charity which was both more humane and more efficient. Organized charity evolved into insurance schemes and ultimately into the welfare state, a public insurance scheme that was much more humane and efficient and made everyone better off.