The Raving Theist

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2006 November

Unlucky Charms

November 30, 2006 | 18 Comments

An art student who blogs as the Portland Atheist has summoned the ACLU to clean up this mess, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go with it:

Bob Averill, a student at the Art Institute of Portland, claims he was expelled for being an atheist after he challenged a young woman’s belief in “energy layers and astral beings.”

“I jokingly asked her if she believed in leprechauns. It turns out, she does. They live on another energy layer,” Averill told the Portland Mercury. “In the interest of bringing my own view to the discussion, I began to ask her how she knew these things. Again I know all too well that people can be sensitive about their spiritual beliefs, so I was pretty much walking on glass as I did so.”

The woman explained her energy layer theory by asserting that “there are many universes co-existing like bubbles of foam in a “multiverse”, each with their own sets of laws and constants.” Eventually she complained to the teacher, and Averill was soon expelled.

The Institute, a private, for-profit school, claims that the confrontation was merely the last in a series of “aggressive, demeaning, and threatening” incidents involving Averill. But even crediting Averill’s assertion that he was respectful, I’m wondering precisely what kind of legal claim he has under the school’s non-discrimination policy or whatever state and/or federal laws apply to private educational institutions. Although atheism is a “religion” for First Amendment purposes — it takes a position on the divinity — it’s not clear whether religion is involved in this case.

Averill was denying leprechauns, not God. His atheism might be part of a more general rejection of all supernatural beings (or of a broader rejection of what he considers false or unsubstantiated or unscientific propositions), but he was not acting in a specifically atheistic capacity in questioning the woman’s leprechaunist beliefs. Averill might also dispute the existence of life on other planets, of multiverses, of whether any dinosaurs still exist, or the weight-reducing power of Exercise in a Bottle, but he couldn’t claim religious/atheistic discrimination unless he was expelled for skepticism related to God-belief. Possibly he could argue that the woman practiced a non-theistic leprechaun-centered faith, but the facts as reported don’t support that thesis.

Averill also claims that the school’s deans objected to his “discussing religion in school” and responded to his claim of atheist discrimination by stating that the godless were “not a protected class of people.” These allegations are probably insufficient as well. The administrators may have thought they were adjudicating a religious dispute, but if they were mistaken about the subject matter it is irrelevant that they discriminated in favor of one side or the other. While unlawful discrimination is sometimes found in situations where the defendant acted out of mistaken perception that the plaintiff was a member of a protected religious, ethnic or other class, that’s not what happened here. The deans didn’t penalize Averill because they erroneously thought he rejected god. They penalized him for attacking leprechauns, which they erroneously interpreted as anti-religious. It would be no different than if the school had punished him for disputing his fellow student’s views on stamp collecting. That the school for some reason thought that philately was a religion wouldn’t make it liable for discrimination.

Perhaps the ACLU (if it takes the case) will contend that non-theistic belief in any supernatural being is so closely elated to religion or “spirituality” that Averill’s conduct should be considered atheistic. I think considerations of public relations might discourage this approach. The organization advocates neutrality towards religion. The equation of leprechaun-belief with god-belief is a classic atheistic argument. Averill himself attempted to use leprechauns as a battering ram until he recognized his particular opponent’s immunity to it. While the ACLU might support a sincere leprechaunist’s efforts make the argument, to advance it as the group’s own position might be viewed as an attempt to annihilate religion rather than encourage its diversity.

What’s left is some kind of free speech argument. Absent some special statute extending such protections to private university students, Averill will be out of luck. Whatever lip service such a college may give to academic freedom, it’s as free to muzzle students as a blog — whether religious, atheist, or indifferent — is to ban commenters.

Voices of Theism — Drusilla of Heirs in Hope

November 15, 2006 | 124 Comments

The Raving Atheist welcomes frequent TRA commenter, devout Catholic and transplanted Brazilian Drusilla as TRA’s fourth Voice of Theism. Drusilla will also be sharing her thoughts at her new blog, Heirs in Hope.

I ask that my readers exercise tolerance when responding. Before commenting, please read the definition of “tolerance” set forth in Dawn Eden’s New York Daily News column regarding this site. Compliance will be strictly enforced.

Everybody’s Favorite Victim

“God was unjust to Job. His faithfulness and piety deserved better treatment,” proclaimed the professor of a course I was taking in literary depictions of justice. I was shocked and totally disagreed but at seventeen I had no words to help me express my dissent only the absolute conviction that God is never unjust and that the professor was missing something of vital importance. Of course most people would agree with my professor. Job suffered terribly. God gives Satan permission to harm Job and even admits that Satan “moved [God] against him, to destroy him without cause.” So it should all be very simple. On this occasion, God must be unjust.

I first read the book of Job when I was five and was chiefly struck by the image of a dirty old man, clothed in rags, smelly, probably drunk (I’d already read about Noah), perched atop a pile of ashes scraping giant boils. A gruesome image. Over the next ten or twelve years, I read Job again, two or three times, and while the gruesome image remained, by nine, I realized his “friends” were blaming him and wondered fearfully if they were right. By fourteen I was impressed but puzzled by God’s response — he never answers Job’s demands and accusations. Then there was the course when I was a sophomore in college which signaled the start of another eight years of pondering Job, of trying to understand God’s justice. On perhaps the twelfth reading I noticed for the first time a phrase I’d missed in the past. Sitting on his ashes after a seven day silent watch, Job curses his very existence in frustration and rage ending, “. . the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me.” But what had Job feared? He had had everything? I went back to the beginning and paid very close attention. As I walked alongside Job in my imagination, I saw him making continual sacrifices just in case. His was the behaviour of a frightened man, of appeasement — Job seeks to avoid God. In his speeches, Job expresses his feelings about God in language that is at first reminiscent of Psalm 8 but quickly moves to a place of terror and darkness: “What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him, dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment? How long wilt thou not look away from me . . . thou watcher of men?”

For Job, God is cruel and exacting, lying in wait for him to err, lying in wait to punish him with His terrible glance. This had not been discussed in that course on justice. In fact, no one — not my foster-father (a Southern-Baptist minister), not the priests and nuns who had catechized me, and not even my old Testament professor — ever mentioned how Job feels about God. They focused on Job’s sufferings but failed to look at his actual relationship with God, a relationship in which he seeks to remain safely in one corner and to keep God safely in another. They did not see that Job’s sufferings begin long before Satan “move[s] [God] . . . to destroy him without cause.” To worship God in an attempt to keep him far away is to suffer horribly.

And it’s not that Job has done anything wrong.”There is none like him on the earth.” He is “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” In the midst of his fear, Job has done something very right. We would reward him. God does. He takes Job from an existence of anxious watching and waiting and sets his path through true suffering.

Before Satan is allowed to touch him, Job’s sufferings are of his own devising, they are the product of his convictions about God. But true suffering, increasing suffering, and in particular, suffering through his friends’ “consoling” speeches, causes a gradual change in Job who at first speaks in platitudes about God, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Eventually though, he begins to speak to God: demanding that God look away, insisting he is right even though God prove him wrong, proclaiming his conviction that he has an Redeemer, an advocate, someone who will take his part and that no matter what, he himself will see God face to face. And finally, the man who intensely desired God to stop looking at him recalls the time before he lost everything: “Oh, that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me” and demands: “let the Almighty answer me!” Suffering has stripped Job down to his intense need for God to respond, to hear God’s voice.

And God speaks saying, This is what I have done, Job, where were you? Without answering any of the demands and accusations on Job’s list, God answers everything. His presence, his voice, his attention, his self revelation — God himself is Job’s answer. I imagine the anxious man filled with awe and wonder, laughing at himself and capering for joy as he says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” He must have flung the dust and ashes on which he had sat in the air for joy: how could he have known that God was really like this, that God would really answer him?

We are often like Job. We look on suffering as if it is the worse thing that can happen to us but fail to see that sometimes there is nothing else that will break down the stony walls we erect around our hearts, the adamant convictions that separate us from God. He made us to fit into and participate in the love that has always flowed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we are such terribly wounded people that we run from him as though he really is a hateful, cruel enemy. Yet we always run with hunger in our hearts, wanting him to see us, starving to know that he is watching. We will always be young children longing to call out, “Watch me! Watch me!” as we pedal our tricycles around the yard for the twentieth time in half an hour. God knows the hunger in our hearts whether or not we declare it. He sees us, not from high up in heaven, not from a far corner, not even through the kitchen window as he finishes the washing up, but right here, right now — we always have God’s undivided attention.

And sometimes that hurts — horribly. But the alternative is to have our way. And our way is filled with precise tallies of what we have lost and what we are owed, with minute detail of exactly how God is supposed to be. How tragic it would be if He gave in to us. Thank goodness God is not as we want him to be. Even when it means excruciating suffering, he knows how to give us the ability to relinquish our ash heaps and give up the bittersweet agony of being victims of his wrath; God always has far more for us than we can include on our lists. He has freedom and victory for each one of us — which is another thing that is so often missed, the end of the story, the victory.

Something radical happens to Job. He is given restoration and then some. His family and friends return: his community is restored. When Job prays for the three friends who came to “console” him he becomes the instrument of their restorations; sacrificing just in case another sinned becomes prayer for the real transgressions of his friends, prayer that acomplishes the mission God has given him. Job even becomes frivolous: at a time when daughters inherited only if there were no sons, Job shares his wealth among his sons and his beautiful daughters. Where once he was frightened and constrained, he is free to act outside the social boundaries, free to delight in the gifts God has given him.

Ultimately, we don’t understand God’s justice. It is not at all like ours. It doesn’t give us what we deserve. His justice gives extravagance, an abundance. And to call God unjust because he leads us through suffering is always to miss something vital. Often it is to miss that God has chosen to be not only a “watcher of men” but a participant in our lives so that real suffering will lead us to real joy.

Easy Pickins

November 14, 2006 | 38 Comments

Martin Colthran of Vere Loqui reviews Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. One of his main criticisms is that Dawkins picks only on the easy targets:

He admits Lewis into his book briefly (and, as we said, dismissively), but where is J. Gresham Machan, Cornelius Van Til, and John Warwick Montgomery, or, more contemporaneously, Alvin Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, and Francis Beckwith? They are glaringly absent. Instead, Dawkins prefers to take on the likes of Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Jesse Helms, and Fred Phelps, the fundamentalist minister of Westboro Baptist Church who pickets funerals with signs saying that “fags” are “going to Hell”. These names constitute a sort of religious bum-of-the-month club that allows Dawkins to avoid fighting the real contenders.

How convenient.

Theists, of course, often do the same thing, taking potshots at Hitler and Stalin rather than confronting Michael Martin or George Smith. I think the problem for both sides is that more scholarly, thorough, and intellectually honest the book, the less likely it is to be read.

I’m Rubber, You’re Glue

November 11, 2006 | 37 Comments

“Fundamentalism is fundamentalism,” says Matt Buchanan, whether it’s the fundamentalism of the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris or the fundamentalism of the Religious Right. Noting that “[u]nquestioned faith in reason is still faith,” Buchanan concludes:

Here’s the problem. When atheists are as intolerant as the religious conservatives they’re waging war against, they’re just as bad. To attack religion for seriously restricting free thought in light of New Atheism’s own staggering fanaticism goes beyond hypocritical.

But aren’t religious liberals and agnostic liberals — and Buchanan must be one of those two, mustn’t he? — just as intolerant of the view of theist/atheist fundamentalists? And isn’t their faith in their reasons for condemning the fundamentalists still faith?

Join the Fun

November 8, 2006 | 9 Comments

[UPDATE: The thread with Sam Harris responding to questions about Letter to a Christian Nation and related subjects is available here.

Many thanks to Eva and Professor Chaos for their expert moderation of the discussion.].

There’s now (7:14pm est) a large crowd hanging out in The Raving Atheists Forums (www.ravingatheist.com) chat room — including myself.– on the occasion of Sam Harris answering questions on a thread in the Open Mic/General Chat section of the Forums. Feel free to join us, and/or to post a question for Sam in the “Questions for Sam Harris” thread. The moderators will pose the questions to Sam roughly in the order received.

It’s Getting Better All the Time

November 6, 2006 | 48 Comments

The guiding force behind biological improvement is mindless natural selection, says Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. But how about humanity’s moral evolution? Dawkins is convinced that ethical progress is inevitable and headed in a “consistent direction.” “[O]ver the longer timescale, the progressive trend is unmistakeable and it will continue,” he says — most likely towards a “post-speciesist condition.”

As to what “impels” this unilateral course, Dawkins offers two suggestions. First, “the driving role of individual leaders who, ahead of their time, stand up and persuade the rest of us to move on with them.” Second, he cites “improved education.” But ultimately, he’s not sure:

It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way. For my purposes it is enough that, as a matter of observed fact, it does move, and it is not driven by religion — and certainly not by scripture. It is probably not a single force like gravity, but a complex interplay of disparate forces like the one that propels Moore’s Law, describing the exponential increase in computer power. Whatever its cause, the manifest phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.

Whatever the arguments for making moral decisions in the absence of God, that the idea that morality itself must trend in a particular direction presents a different question. People can focus upon specific problems, but what Dawkins seems to be suggesting is that there’s some force outside of the human deliberative process that creates better and better individual leaders and educators..

Election Results

November 4, 2006 | 10 Comments

Answers to last week’s election question:

Senate: D47 R52 I1

House: D219 R215 I1

Margin of Error: 0%

Richard Dawkins on South Park

November 3, 2006 | 19 Comments

The whole episode, on YouTube [caution: graphic cartoon violence, sex and obscenity].

Here Dawkins converts Miss Garrison:

Richard Dawkins: You have so much spunk, so much life . . . if only you were an atheist!
Miss Garrison: Well, well, you know, I . . . I’m open to stuff.
RD: Why has someone so outspoken as you given themselves over to the whole God thing?
MG: Oh, oh I’m not totally into the whole God thing . . . I . . . I just think you can’t disprove God.
RD: Well, what if I told you there was a Flying Spaghetti Monster? Would you believe it simply because it can’t be disproven?
MG: You’re right! It’s so simple! God is a Spaghetti Monster! Oh, thank you, geez . . . my eyes are open! [Standing up in middle of room]: Hey, everyone . . . I’m an atheist!
RD: Really?! Oh, that’s wonderful!
MG: No, I totally get it now! Evolution explains everything! There’s no great mystery to life, just evolution! And God’s a Spaghetti Monster! Thank you, Richard!
RD: You’re so welcome!

Dawkins expresses second thoughts about aggressive atheism after Garrison disciplines a student for expressing belief, but quickly comes around after fantasizing about a godless utopia. That, however, is later depicted as a bloody war (in the year 2546) between the Unified Atheist League, the United Atheist Alliance and the Allied Atheist Allegiance – apparently over which group is true heir to Dawkins’ legacy. It’s hard to tell where the South Park creators stand on religion vs atheism, as both are harshly mocked, but I assume they’re trying to make some mushy agnostic point about fundamentalism vs moderation.

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