The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2007 May

Hoax?

May 29, 2007 | 2 Comments

The January 2007 atheist-bashing letter to the editor by “Alice Shannon” was a hoax, according to TRA commenter Crosius. The paper in which it appeared, the Kenai Peninsula Clarion, printed a mea culpa stating that Ms. Shannon had admitted it was a “complete joke.”

But was it? The Clarion also disclosed that “we received a letter from a person telling us the same letter was found in a blog from a woman from South Carolina, and he sent us the Web address.” While the Clarion doesn’t provide the blog name or the link, I assume they’re referring to this. It’s not a blog, but a letter to the editor from one Gloria “Wendy” Ray of Aiken, South Carolina which appeared in the Augusta Chronicle on October 22, 2001. Ms. Ray was responding to this article earlier that month about atheists, including Chicago-area nurse Gail Pepin, who were mourning the then-recent 9/11 attacks but felt excluded because the nation was unifying “under God.” Given how high emotions were running at the time, there’s no reason to believe that Ms. Ray wasn’t being perfectly serious. According to a contemporaneous post at Positive Atheism Forum the Chronicle editors also received a lot of flak from atheists but nobody questioned the writer’s sincerity.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that Shannon saw the Ray letter when it resurfaced on this quote site in mid-January and decided to submit it under her own name a few days later. Does that qualify as a “hoax”? It might if it were submitted under a celebrity’s name, but no one cares who “Alice Shannon” is and the name appears to be a pseudonym anyway. As it stands every word of the letter itself was sincerely meant by the person who actually composed it — all that has changed is the time of its publication and the newspaper in which it appeared.

Returning the Favor

May 24, 2007 | 19 Comments

Let’s face it, without the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Western civilization.”

Atheist phillantrhopist Robert W. Wilson, upon announcing a record-breaking $22.5 million gift to the Archdiocese of New York to fund for scholarship program for needy inner-city students attending Roman Catholic schools..

Have It Your Way

May 23, 2007 | 9 Comments

Alice Shannon’s letter to Alaska’s Peninsula Clarion, circulating around the internet for several months, suggests a possible way to counter the influx of immigrants to this country:

It’s time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don’t believe in God, then get out of this country.

The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc. which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.

I don’t recall freedom of religion meaning no religion. Our currency even says, “In God We Trust.” So to all the atheists in America: Get out of our country.

Atheists have caused the ruin of this great nation by taking prayer out of our schools and being able to practice what can only be called evil. I don’t care if they have never committed a crime, atheists are the reason crime is rampant.

Legal and sociological questions aside, it’s worth noting that Ms. Shannon’s viewpoint is effectively an atheistic one. Whatever the Constitution might say, no religion actually holds that people should believe in God any way they want. Rather, each establishes a particular definition of a deity with defined powers and moral views, and disqualifies all other proposed beings from holding the title of “God.” To pronounce, as Ms. Shannon does, that it doesn’t matter what meaning is given to that word is to render the concept meaningless.

Watch Your Language

May 22, 2007 | 1 Comment

Watch Your Language

Earlier this year Bill O’Reilly devoted two consecutive shows to attacking atheist blogger and former John Edwards blogmistress Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon. Reviewing them recently (I’ve posted the video clips on YouTube here and here, together with the full version of the Falwell clip I posted Friday), I wondered whether what sparked his anger was more related to religion, politics or obscenity.

O’Reilly has had other atheist guests, including Sam Harris and Bill Maher, who have expressed their distaste for religion as strongly as Marcotte. But he treated them civilly and without leveling accusations of bigotry or discrimination. So it’s not entirely a question of atheism or even anti-religion.

As to politics, O’Reilly did direct some of his ire towards the “far left.” Harris and Maher, however, are not conservatives, and with respect to the issue primarily in play — reproductive rights — Marcotte, Harris and Maher are more or less on the same pro-choice page. Although O’Reilly is cagey about it — watch this clip if only for Maher’s priceless expression when O’Reilly tries to evade the issue — he’s come out in favor Roe v Wade.

The only difference I can see between the other atheists and Marcotte is that her criticism employed x-rated language. So obscenity may have been the key as much as anything else. It certainly didn’t help that the cursing was directed at religion, but even without the faith factor I think O’Reilly would have agitated for her dismissal from the Edwards campaign. Candidates aren’t allowed to swear in public, either directly or through their spokespeople.

To Hell with Him

May 18, 2007 | 1 Comment

Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Miller pile on atheist blogger Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon for her post disrespecting the late Rev. Falwell. Oddly, for most of the segment O’Reilly was focused on side issues such as timing of her attack and her failure to capitalize the word “God” — overlooking my point that her attack on religion itself relied on religion. Christopher Hitchens, criticized in the clip by Miller, also invoked Hell, but qualified his statement with “if there was one.”

Using It

May 17, 2007 | 3 Comments

“Oh, he’s just using religion.” The accusation has a number of meanings. Most commonly, the claim is that the “user” doesn’t really believe (say, Elmer Gantry) but is merely capitalizing on the sincere faith of others to manipulate them in service of baser monetary or political ends. Sometimes it’s directed at a truly religious person who is thought to be misusing or “hijacking” the faith (say, Jerry Falwell), perhaps out of overzealousness or a misunderstanding of its true principles.

But did you ever hear someone get charged with “using atheism”? The concept has a number of difficulties. First, atheism’s traditional unpopularity makes it hard or futile to use; in some circles the attempt would be seen as akin to trying to “use pedophilia.” Second, because affirmative moral principles can’t be directly derived from the non-existence of God, it is questionable whether it can be appropriately used toward any particular end. Third, at least with respect to the first sense described in the paragraph above, an insincere “user” of atheism would necessarily be a believer — and I don’t know of any religion that would advocate that sort of charade.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, nevertheless, merchandized nonbelief to some extent while in the sincere but limited pursuit of policing the church/state border. I suspect that in the coming years, atheism will become more fully “used” than it ever has, both monetarily and politically. The Iraq war and other administration policies have fostered an anti-religious backlash, with books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and now Christopher Hitchens becoming top-ten bestsellers. The works are only nominally about theology — they’re not thorough philosophical treatises like the classics by George Smith and Michael Martin — and so they invite their readers to see atheism as a necessary part of a broader social movement.

The “using” will become more apparent as the movement fragments. Although at present atheists are largely left-of-center, they will eventually come to inhabit all niches of the political spectrum. The competition among factions will lead to heated debates over the true implications and imperatives of godlessness — and suspicions will arise on all sides that some of those marching under the banner of an unsupervised temporal existence with no afterlife are actually pursuing some more nefarious agenda.

Speaking Ill

May 16, 2007 | 6 Comments

It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead. The journalistic convention for signaling that you’d like to is to call the deceased “controversial,” but that’s often as far as it goes. In Obituary Cartoonland, however, there are no such constraints. And so the Rev. Jerry Falwell has achieved a distinction last obtained by Saddam Hussein — every depiction of him is negative.

A recurring theme of the drawings is that Falwell impermissibly mixed religion with politics. Unfortunately, that’s a point which is impossible to make in obituary cartoon-form with committing the offense oneself. The genre requires the cartoon to portray the departed in either Heaven or Hell. That necessarily compels the author to express a theological judgment regarding the subject’s politics. So depending on the artist, God will turn out to be left-wing, right-wing or moderate.

At the very least, He will have a very definite political opinion regarding the mixing of church and state. In general, it seems that the cartoon Gods punish it more when the mixing favors conservative rather than liberal causes. Whatever the case, the view will usually coincide precisely with the politics of the cartoonist.

Not that it’s always easy to determine what those politics are. Consider Matt Bors’ handiwork (first strip on the fifth page of the link above). I understand the picture of a kissing inter-racial gay couple emblazoned on Falwell’s Tinky Winky costume, but it’s unclear what point is being made by having Hell guarded by a winged, trident-bearing fetus. (Although Bors’ is entitled to some credit for addressing the abortion issue at all, a topic whose absence from the other cartoons is conspicuous given that the Moral Majority was founded largely in response to Roe v Wade). Also puzzling is the message sent by depicting the only available magazine selections as Hustler, Penthouse and The Origin of the Species. Yes, Falwell hated them all — but what’s left for Bors to use when it comes time to stock the newsstand in atheist Heaven?

May 16, 2007 | Comments Off

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, 1868

Just to Prove I’m Not Dead

May 15, 2007 | 17 Comments

[Note: This post was originally begun and meant to run in early February, until personal circumstances resulted in my blogging hiatus].

Can a possible-worlds analysis of fictional reference overcome the problem of specifying the relevant identity conditions? “Q” The Enchanter of Meta and Meta disputes Kripke’s rationale for believing otherwise. I would weigh in — heavily — on one side or the other if I fully understood the question, but I don’t. So instead, I am going to make comments on some of the bits and pieces that I think I grasp, making conclusions where I feel comfortable and tying it into theology here and there.

First, the Kripke passage at issue:

Granted that there is no Sherlock Holmes, one cannot say of any possible person, that he would have been Sherlock Holmes, had he existed. Several distinct possible people . . . might have performed the exploits of Holmes, but there is none of whom we can say that he would have been Holmes had he performed these exploits. For if so, which one? [Naming and Necessity (22).]

“Q” explains that “on Kripke’s account, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ names an abstract entity — the fictional character Sherlock Holmes. Since names are rigid designators, Holmes is necessarily fictional — fictional, that is, in all possible worlds in which Holmes exists.

Kripke’s first point (“for if so, which one?”) appears to be that merely performing Holmes’ exploits would not automatically give a person his identity, because numerous people could perform them but obviously not all of them could be Holmes. The problem, however, isn’t so much that many people can’t share a single identity, but that personal identity isn’t conferred simply by imitation. Running around with a pipe in a tweed suit and delivering presents doesn’t make one person (or three) Sherlock.

This seems to be the essence of Kripke’s second and main point: that “Sherlock Holmes” is definitionally fictional so that it would be futile to try to locate a person in any possible world to fill his shoes. In a way, Kripke is proposing the reverse of the ontological proof — Sherlock Holmes cannot not exist because to imagine that he existed outside of our minds would strip him of the imperfection — fictionality — that is part of our mental construct of him. The point seems clearer with less anthropomorphic beings, such as cartoon characters. It’s almost silly to speculate about whether Bugs Bunny or Fred Flintstone or SpongeBob Squarepants could be “real” in some alternate world. If Bugs or Fred or SpongeBob do exist on another planet, they do so only as cartoons. Their fictionality is as much a part of their composition as the two-dimensional plastic strips from which they are projected. Put one more way, it’s as futile as asking who could be put inside a Barney the Dinosaur costume so as to make him the real Barney. It doesn’t matter, because the identity of “Barney” is controlled by the fantasy created by the costume, not by the identity of the person inside pretending to be him. It’s definitionally a fantasy, built into the very premise of Barney.

“Q” offers several objections to all this. First, he alludes to historical fiction. Although he doesn’t elaborate, I assume the point is that the “identity conditions” of the relevant historical figures are fully fleshed out. Consequently, if there were a book called “Eleanor Roosevelt Conquers the Martians,” we could imagine its heroine existing as a real character in other possible worlds just as she did in our own, even though she is fictional in that particular novel. In a related example, “Q” imagines himself (the equivalent of a real, historical figure) assisting Superman. He rejects the notion that the “‘Q'” in the daydream must viewed be a fictional character completely distinct from his real self (any more, I suppose, than one would view oneself as a fictional character when describing a planned but as yet unrealized trip to Paris).

Second, “Q” notes that the difficulties with specifying the identity conditions under which fictional characters could exist in the fictional world are the same as the difficulties with specifying those conditions in the real world. Is the “Holmes” in a story by Arthur Conan Doyle the same “Holmes” in a sequel written by a different author, or by a randomly-typing monkey? Is the Fred Flintstone who appears in the vitamin commercials the same one who stars in the old cartoons? Is it still Fred if he is depicted in a dream by Barney Rubble?

Third, “Q” posits a scenario under which a presumably mythological creature — the unicorn — might have its identity conditions realized through the archeological discovery of an equine skeleton with a protruding horn.

None of “Q”‘s objections, to my mind, directly address Kripke’s point. Historical fiction merely borrows the name of a person whose existence is undisputed for use by fictional characters. But once those fictional characters are created, they lose the most important identity condition — actual existence — possessed by the original person. It is little different than hiring an actress to portray Eleanor Roosevelt in a play, whether dealing with real or fictionalized events. The actress doesn’t become Mrs. Roosevelt merely by imitating her or pretending to share her past. Like Barney, she’s just wearing a costume.

I will grant that various difficulties exist in determining whether an invented character remains the “same” from one work of fiction to another. But this only reinforces Kripke’s point. If it’s hard to prove that it’s that the same “Holmes” from one story to another, it’s harder to prove when he’s stepped out of a story and into reality. Again, I think that under Kripke’s premise it’s definitionally impossible for him to make that leap.

As for the realized unicorn, I don’t know that it presents a question far different from that in the Holmes scenario. There might well turn out to be a man who now coincidentally resembles Holmes in many respects, including appearance, dress and profession, but Kripke’s objection to calling him “Holmes” would still apply. That a horned horse has some features commonly used to describe a unicorn does not warrant the use of that term to describe it. I might one day find a cat that is the first and only cat to exactly resemble the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, but I would not be entitled to say it is that cat.

Which brings us to Santa Claus and God. Atheists are fond of the comparison. Believers find it unfair, usually raising a point similar to Kripke’s. Santa is not real because “everyone knows” he’s invented, that by definition he’s a fictional character.

But God? Atheists certainly do argue that particular definitions of God contain contradictions which make His existence impossible, and in that endeavor they are enthusiastically joined by theists seeking to narrow the field down to the God that they proclaim to be the one true one. But this philosophical exercise seems to me different from that involved in discounting Santa. Fictionality is built in to every definition of Santa, his status as a non-existent “character” is presumed of whether the attributes used to describe him form a being consistent with the rules of logic or not. In contrast, the premise of the God debate is not that He is a fictional character, however much it may be the conclusion that His detractors labor to prove.

Just to Prove I’m Not Dead

May 15, 2007 | 1 Comment

[Note: This post was originally begun and meant to run in early February, until personal circumstances resulted in my blogging hiatus].

Can a possible-worlds analysis of fictional reference overcome the problem of specifying the relevant identity conditions? “Q” The Enchanter of Meta and Meta disputes Kripke’s rationale for believing otherwise. I would weigh in — heavily — on one side or the other if I fully understood the question, but I don’t. So instead, I am going to make comments on some of the bits and pieces that I think I grasp, making conclusions where I feel comfortable and tying it into theology here and there.

First, the Kripke passage at issue:

Granted that there is no Sherlock Holmes, one cannot say of any possible person, that he would have been Sherlock Holmes, had he existed. Several distinct possible people . . . might have performed the exploits of Holmes, but there is none of whom we can say that he would have been Holmes had he performed these exploits. For if so, which one? [Naming and Necessity (22).]

“Q” explains that “on Kripke’s account, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ names an abstract entity — the fictional character Sherlock Holmes. Since names are rigid designators, Holmes is necessarily fictional — fictional, that is, in all possible worlds in which Holmes exists.

Kripke’s first point (“for if so, which one?”) appears to be that merely performing Holmes’ exploits would not automatically give a person his identity, because numerous people could perform them but obviously not all of them could be Holmes. The problem, however, isn’t so much that many people can’t share a single identity, but that personal identity isn’t conferred simply by imitation. Running around with a pipe in a tweed suit and delivering presents doesn’t make one person (or three) Sherlock.

This seems to be the essence of Kripke’s second and main point: that “Sherlock Holmes” is definitionally fictional so that it would be futile to try to locate a person in any possible world to fill his shoes. In a way, Kripke is proposing the reverse of the ontological proof — Sherlock Holmes cannot not exist because to imagine that he existed outside of our minds would strip him of the imperfection — fictionality — that is part of our mental construct of him. The point seems clearer with less anthropomorphic beings, such as cartoon characters. It’s almost silly to speculate about whether Bugs Bunny or Fred Flintstone or SpongeBob Squarepants could be “real” in some alternate world. If Bugs or Fred or SpongeBob do exist on another planet, they do so only as cartoons. Their fictionality is as much a part of their composition as the two-dimensional plastic strips from which they are projected. Put one more way, it’s as futile as asking who could be put inside a Barney the Dinosaur costume so as to make him the real Barney. It doesn’t matter, because the identity of “Barney” is controlled by the fantasy created by the costume, not by the identity of the person inside pretending to be him. It’s definitionally a fantasy, built into the very premise of Barney.

“Q” offers several objections to all this. First, he alludes to historical fiction. Although he doesn’t elaborate, I assume the point is that the “identity conditions” of the relevant historical figures are fully fleshed out. Consequently, if there were a book called “Eleanor Roosevelt Conquers the Martians,” we could imagine its heroine existing as a real character in other possible worlds just as she did in our own, even though she is fictional in that particular novel. In a related example, “Q” imagines himself (the equivalent of a real, historical figure) assisting Superman. He rejects the notion that the “‘Q'” in the daydream must viewed be a fictional character completely distinct from his real self (any more, I suppose, than one would view oneself as a fictional character when describing a planned but as yet unrealized trip to Paris).

Second, “Q” notes that the difficulties with specifying the identity conditions under which fictional characters could exist in the fictional world are the same as the difficulties with specifying those conditions in the real world. Is the “Holmes” in a story by Arthur Conan Doyle the same “Holmes” in a sequel written by a different author, or by a randomly-typing monkey? Is the Fred Flintstone who appears in the vitamin commercials the same one who stars in the old cartoons? Is it still Fred if he is depicted in a dream by Barney Rubble?

Third, “Q” posits a scenario under which a presumably mythological creature — the unicorn — might have its identity conditions realized through the archeological discovery of an equine skeleton with a protruding horn.

None of “Q”‘s objections, to my mind, directly address Kripke’s point. Historical fiction merely borrows the name of a person whose existence is undisputed for use by fictional characters. But once those fictional characters are created, they lose the most important identity condition — actual existence — possessed by the original person. It is little different than hiring an actress to portray Eleanor Roosevelt in a play, whether dealing with real or fictionalized events. The actress doesn’t become Mrs. Roosevelt merely by imitating her or pretending to share her past. Like Barney, she’s just wearing a costume.

I will grant that various difficulties exist in determining whether an invented character remains the “same” from one work of fiction to another. But this only reinforces Kripke’s point. If it’s hard to prove that it’s that the same “Holmes” from one story to another, it’s harder to prove when he’s stepped out of a story and into reality. Again, I think that under Kripke’s premise it’s definitionally impossible for him to make that leap.

As for the realized unicorn, I don’t know that it presents a question far different from that in the Holmes scenario. There might well turn out to be a man who now coincidentally resembles Holmes in many respects, including appearance, dress and profession, but Kripke’s objection to calling him “Holmes” would still apply. That a horned horse has some features commonly used to describe a unicorn does not warrant the use of that term to describe it. I might one day find a cat that is the first and only cat to exactly resemble the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, but I would not be entitled to say it is that cat.

Which brings us to Santa Claus and God. Atheists are fond of the comparison. Believers find it unfair, usually raising a point similar to Kripke’s. Santa is not real because “everyone knows” he’s invented, that by definition he’s a fictional character.

But God? Atheists certainly do argue that particular definitions of God contain contradictions which make His existence impossible, and in that endeavor they are enthusiastically joined by theists seeking to narrow the field down to the God that they proclaim to be the one true one. But this philosophical exercise seems to me different from that involved in discounting Santa. Fictionality is built in to every definition of Santa, his status as a non-existent “character” is presumed of whether the attributes used to describe him form a being consistent with the rules of logic or not. In contrast, the premise of the God debate is not that He is a fictional character, however much it may be the conclusion that His detractors labor to prove.

  • Basic Assumptions

    First, there is a God.

    Continue Reading...

  • Search

  • Quote of the Day

    • Fifty Random Links

      See them all on the links page.

      • No Blogroll Links