Monthly Archives: December 2013

Sagan and Hope

December is a heavy month for the Deathdays of atheistic celebrities – Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong-Il being the most obvious examples. However, there is one that slipped my mind before being reminded by Jerry Coyne. (Not personally, obviously. Despite deigning to pose for a picture with me, Dr. Coyne and I are not on a first name basis…) 17 years ago today, Carl Sagan died. At the time, I was a fresh-faced five-year-old with no concept of… well… anything, but many years later, I discovered Sagan’s work through the incredible documentary series Cosmos, and John D. Boswell’s fantastic Symphony of Science videos. Apart from his enviable eyebrows and aurally orgasmic voice, what most struck me about Sagan was how obviously he was enamoured with science, and its ability to explain the world around us. Particularly stirring is his image of the pale blue dot, that tiny orb upon which every great figure, every incredible idea and every single human event ever occurred. Sagan phrases it much more elegantly, of course:

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

I still look up often, and on a cloudless night am struck by a terrifying feeling of insignificance, staring as I am into effective infinity. But Sagan has these comforting words:

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

This profound statement says almost all that is necessary about humanism. When challenged to explain how love evolved, or how it can have meaning in a world of “mere” chemical reactions, or why those of us without a god don’t commit suicide en masse, this is my response.

As I said about Hitchens just a few days ago, I admire the stoicism and courage with which Sagan faced his death. Both men had the questionable advantage of seeing their end coming to meet them, and this makes their adherence to principle and their refusal to give in to delusion all the more admirable. Sagan’s thoughts on death are as comforting and reasonable as his thoughts on our cosmic finitude:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Not much else needs to be said by me about Sagan. He was more than capable of speaking for himself, and his Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is still a superb primer for any budding sceptic. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space will quickly knock any anthropocentric chauvinism on the head. And Cosmos (both the book and the television series) will provide a riveting introduction to life, the universe, and everything.

On a final note, Sagan also counts as my favourite celebrity chef, purely for his apple pie recipe:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

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Hitchens and Mortality

Well, it’s after midnight, which means I’ve been terribly remiss. Two years ago yesterday, 15 December 2011, Christopher Hitchens died. (Incidentally, two years ago today, Kim Jong-Il died, broken-hearted at having lost the one person on Earth who understood what a truly twisted, cockatiel-haired little psychopath he was.) Hitchens’ death affected me more profoundly than the death of any other public figure, and recently reading his autobiography and re-reading his short volume “Letters to a Young Contrarian” both saddened me and emboldened me to renew my efforts to make some impact, however small, towards making this planet a better place for my fellow primates to live. The man himself would likely have regarded me as slightly obsequious, but sometimes it is hard to repress feelings of admiration. I didn’t agree with him about everything, but he could never be accused of having made a statement lightly, or of being unable to defend his positions with admirable reasoning, delivered in an infuriatingly clever way. As for thoughts on death, I’ve yet to hear someone better Hitchens:

“Well, to the people who pray for me to not only have an agonising death, but then be reborn to have an agonising and horrible eternal life of torture, I say, ‘Well, good on you. See you there.”

And:

“They call it gallows humor for a reason. You may laugh at death all you like, but only on the condition that you allow death the concluding cackle.”

To follow Hitchens’ own advice, it is important to remember to regard every expert as a mammal. Hitchens was every bit the fallible human, capable of error, boorishness and arrogance. However, I would claim that it could never be said of him that he was a friend to tyranny, earthly or celestial, and nor was he willing to surrender an inch of hard-won ground to those offering threats of eternal or temporal harm. Unlike prophets and preachers, whose words must be regarded as sanctified and inviolable, instead we ought to take Hitchens’ work as exactly what it is – the thoughts of a fellow human, sometimes correct, sometimes incorrect, but always worth considering and challenging. Even violent disagreement, if it stimulates thought and results in a more well-reasoned conclusion, can be of tremendous value.

From Hitchens, I learned that the written word can stir more than simple emotion or excite the imagination. Purpose and intent can be communicated through the pages of a book, and can stimulate a strangely irresistible impulse to action in the right mind. For now, I can honestly say that I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I do know how I want to do it – boldly, intelligently, and always remembering that as this is the only life of which we can be assured, squandering too much of it on useless or malicious endeavours is an irretrievable waste.

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Return from the Dead, and the Persecution Delusion

I’m not dead yet, for the none of you who were curious. It’s been a rather busy six months or so, and quite a lot has happened. I can now legitimately refer to myself as more than a mere student of philosophy – a philosophy graduate. This is a distinction as consequential as that between a juggler of imaginary geese and a juggler of imaginary flaming geese, of course. But at least I’m now able to put a few letters after my name, which is an amusing novelty. Naturally such a relevant degree from such a prestigious institution has left me adrift in a veritable puddle of job offers, but for now I’m walking among my people in the service industry, selling discount books, imitation Lego and bargain Xmas decorations. Hence, my bloated schedule and inability to update this brain-dump of a blog in a timely fashion.

But something has broken through into my little corner of Paradise. Naturally, I still find time to browse Facebook. How else is one to keep abreast of the developments of one’s friends and who is playing which free, inbox-bloating casual game these days? But one particular chain letter caught my eye, not least because of the grey and bespectacled visage of the author – former Nixon speechwriter and peddler of misinformation, Ben Stein. Admittedly the message was posted last Xmas, and thus this is hardly timely, but since this has only come to my attention in recent days, and since I have already extensively commented on Stein’s statements, I thought this might serve as a springboard back into blogging. If nothing else, I hope for a catharsis, and an opportunity to correct some persistent myths about the state of the persecution of Christians in the United States. There follows the text of Stein’s comments, as quoted by Steve Forbes on Facebook:

My confession:
I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejewelled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are, Christmas trees.

It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a nativity scene, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina). Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

In light of recent events… terrorist attacks, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said okay.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell.
Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. 

Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. 

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you’re not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit.

If not, then just discard it…. no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what a bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

A few points of rebuttal, covering both the simple factual errors and the lapses in logical argument, as well as the broader implications of what Stein appears to be saying.

1) America is not an atheist country, it is a secular country. The difference is subtle but significant. The only way in which to treat all faiths, and lack of faith, fairly is to offer no special treatment to any one belief. Thus, the First Amendment to the US Constitution states that Congress can make no law respecting the establishment of religion. This means that the government cannot endorse any particular religion, or lack thereof, over any others, leaving an equal playing field for all systems of belief, with neither favouritism nor oppression.

2) If God was unwilling to save victims of Hurricane Katrina simply because it is illegal for the government to promote religion in schools and government – while it remains perfectly legal for schoolchildren and government officials to believe and privately practice as they please – such a god is no gentleman, but a petty and malicious egomaniac, who is more interested in his own reputation than saving drowning people. Such a god, if he exists, merits no worship. Anne Graham’s comments, far from being profound and insightful, smack of victim-blaming and emotional blackmail. To use an analogy that I have come to adore, the difference between God and Superman is that Superman will save you whether you believe in him or not.

3) Madelyn Murray O’Hair campaigned successfully for the removal of school-led prayer in public schools, as such a practice is a palpable violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. To characterise this effort as her own personal prejudice being adopted by the government is an attempt to tar this necessary and just development with the legacy of the “most hated woman in America”. Prayer is still perfectly legal in schools, so long as it is not supported by the government-owned establishment. This is entirely the point of a secular government – in refraining from legislating any religious behaviour, any given citizen is free to practise their faith in their own way, or not, as the case may be. And once again, any god vindictive enough to allow the deaths of thousands because his pride has been bruised is worthy only of pity and contempt.

4) As above, reading the Bible is perfectly legal in public schools, so long as it is not a mandatory reading of the book, enforced by the school. Any student may bring their own Bible, and read it during any time that is their own during school hours. The more worrying implication is that we would have no basis for saying that murder and theft are wrong if not for the Bible. Firstly, ethics are a concern entirely independent of religion, and this is plain enough due to the fact that we make ethical judgements about the actions found in religious texts. Secondly, the Bible also teaches behaviour that would make any school environment, and society at large, a much more miserable and inhospitable place. Ought we stone disobedient children (Exodus 21:17), fire all female high school teachers (1 Timothy 2:11-12), or teach children to despise their families (Matthew 10:35-37)? Simply put, the mandatory teaching of the Bible and its morality will do nothing to curb “terrorist attacks, school shootings, etc.”

5) Not merely Dr. Spock, but the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes corporal punishment for children. Minimising the issue by attributing it to one man – and taking a low potshot at his own personal tragedy – is a miserable strawman and appeal to emotion. Is Stein really suggesting that to make beating children illegal is an infringement of religious liberty? If so, this rather undermines his prior point that violence in society stems from a lack of religion.

6) “Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.” – I must ask Mr. Stein for his sources as to a general homicidal, sociopathic tendency among American youngsters, as compared to their pious forebears. This is simply a vile generalisation based upon a few extreme cases – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook – in order to make the political point that the US Government ought to be in the business of indoctrinating children into religion. In the simplest possible terms, conscience is an innate part of our self-awareness and social instincts, right and wrong are meaningful only insofar as they relate to the suffering and flourishing of conscious creatures, and only those who are seriously mentally aneurotypical – psychopaths, for instance – are not bothered by murder.

Mr Stein is mistaking a loss of privilege for persecution. If a Christian is receiving special treatment, above and beyond the treatment meted out to non-Christians, it is not persecution to remove such treatment to the point where all are treated equally. If we are to believe that all people are equal before the law, then the body making those laws, the government, cannot show preferential bias towards any one group in society.And the pitiable complaint of the majority about their loss of privileged position, and their being forced to be treated equally to those they used to look down upon, shows nothing but that the plaintiffs have yet to progress beyond the level of spoiled children.

Funny that a group comprising 80% of the US population regards itself as a put-upon minority.

Funny that those who believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God can find ready, weaseling excuses for his absence during times of real need.

Funny that those who claim a higher moral character must resort to mischaracterisation, ahistoricity and emotional blackmail to advance their cause.

Actually, it isn’t funny. Rather, it is exactly as funny as Stein’s attempted irony. A final analogy: If you have received, every day of your life, a full-body massage, while everyone else must do without, it is not persecution for your shiatsu privileges to be revoked. Rather, for societal equality to be achieved, either everyone must receive special treatment, or no-one. In the case of religious liberty, special consideration for every faith is contradictory and self-defeating – one cannot privilege both the Jewish notion that Jesus was not the Messiah, and the Christian one that he was – and thus secularism, the removal of bias for any particular religion, is the only viable path.

My Best Regards, actually honestly, but only respectfully as far as such respect is merited,

J. Millar

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