A French Writer On Politics & Society Today

From Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel, Submission:

“The Muslim Brotherhood is an unusual party, you know. Many of the usual political issues simply don’t matter to them. To start with, the economy is not their main concern. What they care about is birthrate and education. To them it’s simple–whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins. If you control the children, you control the future.” pg. 64

“My only goal in life was to do a little reading and get in bed at four in the afternoon with a carton of cigarettes and a bottle; and yet, at the same time, I had to admit, I was going to die if I kept that up–I was going to die fast, unhappy and alone. And did I really want to die fast, unhappy and alone? In the end, only kind of.” pg. 203

“The fact is, most people live their lives without worrying too much about these supposedly philosophical questions. They think about them only when they’re facing some kind of tragedy–a serious illness, the death of a loved one. At least, that’s how it is in the West; in the rest of the world people die and kill in the name of these very questions, they wage bloody wars over them, and they have since the dawn of time. These metaphysical questions are exactly what men fight over, not market shares or who gets to hunt where. Even in the West, atheism has no solid basis.” pg. 204

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One Thing Matters, In Science and Religion

As the world continues to scrutinize the LDS Church during this election season, there are plenty of would-be experts ready to share some weird and scary nuggets of what Mormons “really” believe.  Besides almost always being bizarre, disingenuous distortions, these “shocking secrets” never seem to be considered by those who “reveal” them—or by those who reads them—with the only important question in mind: are they true or not?

Secular America prides itself on being scientific, a bastion of the reason bestowed by the Enlightenment; only an extreme irony can account for this myopia.  Yes, a lot of the supposed facts out there about Mormons are, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “weird and sinister.”

But why stop at pointing that out?  Plenty of things that are weird and sinister are also true (any number of strange historical occurrences and scientific findings).  If those who would criticize the LDS Church have any real intellectual honesty, why not definitively expose the errors in its claims?  Or, more objectively, investigate those claims to see if they’re true or not?

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The Anti-Book of Mormon Musical

A lot of wise things have been said of this runaway Broadway hit, but this review is by far the best:

The main thrust of its claims about Mormonism is that Joseph Smith made it all up, and that his message does not apply to the modern world. It portrays Mormons as naïve and simplistic. Of course, Mormons are also a cheerful, polite, and well-meaning bunch, and as such, are basically harmless. But the only way for them to truly do good in the modern world is to change their story so it applies to current problems, which should be fine since their scriptures were made up in the first place. This is all very appealing to the audience and to theater critics. They are made to feel superior to the delusional Mormons, while at the same time, feel good about themselves for acknowledging that it is important to help relieve suffering in the world. They don’t have to feel bad about lampooning the Mormons since the show acknowledges that Mormons are nice people, and since it is just satire, after all.

The creators of the show are welcome to their opinion, and even to advertise it in a propagandistic play (for what else is the play’s value?), but such lazy cultural tropes, in a better world, would at least be honest about the basis of their approach: an immediate rejection that the Book of Mormon, and religious beliefs in general, might have any grounding in historical fact.  Certainly, again, anyone is free to conclude that such is not the case after they have considered and investigated it, but until they’ve done so, how are they honestly qualified to assert so boldly that it isn’t true? 

Nobody would care a lick for a random layman’s scathing indictment of particle physics or macroeconomics.  Why is it OK, even encouraged, in our society to simply spew hot air about religion?  Why is so much respect accorded to the mockers of faith, especially when they present mere prejudice as entertainment? 

Far more offensive than any possible content to the show is that those who participate in it, including the audience, are so satisfied of their superiority, despite a massive ignorance of what they claim to definitively scorn.

Why Atheists Should Respect the Idea of “One True Church”

I read something recently where someone railed against the idea of any church claiming to be “true,” because it could only lead to pride and persecution.  I’m sure such has been the case at times, where some person or group has let their claims to truth give them license to alienate or oppress those on the outside of their vision, and this is awfully unfortunate.  But that’s hardly evidence that such always leads to violence, or that the claim is always untrue.  Actually, this is one religious claim that the most stridently secular among us should genuinely respect. 

A few years ago, I posted a message on a bulletin board for atheists that, if they were so inclined, they could consider the Book of Mormon as something they’d been missing but should be interested in–a physical artifact whose very nature could substantiate the existence of God.  That started a decent dialogue, but when some readers got the point that I was implying that religious claims were even capable of being literally, empirically accurate, they reacted with mockery.  That claim sounded like a fresh bit of arrogance, I suppose, but, once again, they should have seized upon it.

First of all, every religion’s depiction of reality can’t be accurate, because so many of them are contradictory.  So either none of them are, or one of them is.  Some combination of aspects of various faiths could conceivably be true, but unless multiple religions are exactly the same, only one could be purely, fully true.  The fact that any church makes such a claim–and there are few today which do–shouldn’t be an invitation to ridicule, but a recognition that even in religion, reason rules. 

If the popular conception of religion is that it’s merely a cultural tradition, or a product of wishful thinking, etc., I’d think that those who don’t find it valid (and who hold those critical assumptions about the origin of belief) would welcome a claim that not only is such not so, but that the seemingly supernatural claims of religion can be investigated, tested, and either authenticated or disproved. 

Finally! an atheist might shout.  A chance to definitively debunk this nonsense.  Which is exactly the opportunity the Book of Mormon offers the would-be skeptic.  At the same time, it provides the hard-headed devotee of reason an approach to religion that is as far from mystical as possible: a long, dense, sober text that begs to be scrutinized, studied, compared, researched, and analyzed until a verdict can be reached.  The text itself explains a method of experimenting on its truth claims that will yield consistent, reproducible results. 

The intellectually honest atheist should respect the exclusive truth claims of the LDS church because they are logically consistent, and because this is one religion that is ready to put up or shut up.

It’s Just Hitch Being Hitch…

International columnist and atheist advocate Christopher Hitchens has a new syndicated column in Slate, which also ran in my local Las Vegas Review Journal today.  As always, his writing is passionate, clever, and lucid.  And, also like much of his writing, it is very, very wrong. 

Now, I actually agree with his ultimate thesis: that the freedom of religion, like freedom of speech, is not an absolute: speech is limited by not being able to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and religion is limited by, for example, not being able to deny emergency medical care to children (one example that Hitchens uses).  Hitchens discusses this to make his main point in the article: that Islam, as it comes into increased contact with the West, must reform some of its aspects, such as its hostility to criticism.  If it doesn’t happen voluntarily, Hitchens implies (referring to the first half of the article), it must be done by force.   

Well, sure, this is an important conversation to have now, and many others have already said as much.  The general agreement that as new cultures increasingly interact, there must be adaptation, is so common, in fact, that one wonders why Hitch feels compelled to repeat it.  It’s not like him to be unoriginal. 

But the first half of the article is where he shines, and where his heart clearly is.  This article is just a platform for him to do his favorite thing in the world: bash religion. 

However, Hitch reveals his own lazy prejudices when he does this: his evidence and arguments against religion are sloppy, to say the least. 

Consider the religion that takes more heat in the article than any other, even Islam itself: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Yes, Hitch has some opinions about the Mormons.  Continue reading

Christmas Is For Christians (And Their Friends)

I just re-read a thundering post I put up a year ago about a major concern of mine this time of year.  The mainstream culture’s war on Christmas has me wanting to mount a backlash.  In light of the economic meltdown and bailouts, a lot has been said this year about Ayn Rand and striking against the system.  I wonder if it’s time for Christians to “strike,” at least in terms of taking back their holiday from the secular mainstream that has watered it down and now wants to deny the validity of the original completely. 

The language in my original may have been a little harsh–I don’t really think that only Christians should celebrate Christmas.  It’s important to be able to share our traditions and beliefs with others, and certainly I don’t mean to deny the celebration of Christmas to anyone just because they may not exactly be devout.  However, yes, it does bother me when that growing body of society that denigrates Christians, that belittles God, and that wants to flout the Western world’s–and especially America’s–Christian heritage, or strip our public realm of it entirely, still wants to put up a tree and get presents. 

If atheist warriors like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins want to put up lights or a tree this year, they’d better face a huge groundswell of protest from outraged Christians. 

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The “Gift” Of Faith

One of my favorite colleagues in education was an agnostic science teacher with whom I whiled away more than a few lunch periods commiserating about all our sundry complaints.  Particularly at the school where we worked together, we had both noticed that the population had a strong, seemingly built-in sense of fatalism, wholly internalized, woven into the fabric of their DNA.  Far too many kids would come into our classes at the end of a summer already convinced that they couldn’t learn, that they would never want to learn, that work of any kind just wasn’t important.  Their philosophy was one of paralyzing nihilism, a mix of predestination and hedonism, I thought.  They were absolutely sure that their intelligence, talents, and abilities were all immutable, a fixed, inherent quantity that they couldn’t improve or develop even if they wanted to, so why bother?  My friend and I lamented our failure to convince them that they were far more powerful than they were giving themselves credit for. 

During one of our conversations about religion, though, he short-circuited my attempts to get him to analyze his own agnostic assumptions when he asserted that I simply had the “gift of faith,” a thing which he said he respected, but just didn’t have.  I don’t think any amount of banging my head against the wall ever got him to see the irony. 

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Defending Ayn Rand

atlasPoor Ayn Rand.  She’s taken her licks lately in the Bloggernacle, getting excoriated at By Common Consent.  Some have stepped up to defend her honor, conservative gentlemen they are, but there are still some important points to be made that I don’t think anybody has explained yet. 

Rand is criticized for three main things: that her philosophy promotes greed and selfishness, that she was militantly anti-religion, and that her writing is poor.  I’ll address each:

1.  On the title page of my personal copy of Atlas Shrugged, I copied this famous quote from Book IV, chapter 2 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:

Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it…he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more efficiently than when he really intends to promote it. 

Meaning, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism may seem selfish and greedy…but it results in a better world for all, a world more just, more prosperous, and more fair than any other system.  Continue reading

Should Non-Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Non-religious friends and associates often ask me if I’m offended when they express a lack of belief in traditional religion, usually with the tone of an apologizing diplomat. I assure them that such ideas are not inherently offensive. However, ironically, few people seem to worry about something which truly is offensive: the warping of traditional religious belief itself.

We’re trained to resist offense and be as accommodating as necessary so that nobody feels that their toes are stepped on.  To that end, the public celebration of Christmas, enshrined for generations as a bedrock part of American culture, has been quietly stripped of religious significance.  We’re now to the bizarre Orwellian point where we see many voices in the media complaining that the secular holiday of Christmas is being infringed upon by nosy Christians. 

Glancing at the news this morning over my breakfast, I saw a local news channel announcing a contest: they’d be giving away a “holiday tree.”  What?  Why is Christmas picked on like this?  (Have you ever heard of a “holiday menorah?”)  Why are so many in our country desperate to preserve the commercial trappings of Christmas long after they’ve abandoned its spiritual significance?

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Ten Best Atheist Arguments?

Presented here for your convenience, for the first time ever and after countless hours of painstaking research by eavesdropping on actual cafe conversations and Internet chat rooms, are the top ten reasons I overheard secular Americans give for dismissing faith.

Well, not really, but it sounds about right.

 

10. “If there truly is an infinitely powerful and all-knowing God, then why can’t I easily understand him right away? He may well be an omnipotent and eternal deity ruling over a universe larger and more complicated than the mortal mind could ever possibly envision, much less comprehend… but I do read The New York Times, you know.”

 

9. “Why are all Christians such closed-minded morons? Their attitude towards atheism is marked by perpetuating generalized misconceptions about honest seekers of truth like me… often in the form of pitifully sterile insults. They should celebrate those whose opinions differ from their own, like we do. Stupid Christians.”

 

8. “Completely unlike us, Christians never demand any more evidence for the validity of their belief than bandwagon appeals to common knowledge. Everybody knows this is true. How could anybody even entertain conclusions drawn about an opposing point of view from such ridiculous ignorance? Hypocrites!”

 

7. “And what about the Bible? If there is a God, reason dictates that the Bible should have compelling, dynamic theological and ethical innovations unlikely to be conceived by human beings alone. It should also offer strong circumstantial support for divine inspiration. Of course it does not. I know this because I heard somebody quote a verse from it once.”

 

6. “The Bible has been proven many times through scholarly critical analysis to be nothing more than a biased collection of fairy tales written for the sole purpose of subjecting the superstitious masses under a code of moral liberty and civil enlightenment. This conspiracy is what allows monsters like Mother Teresa to rule as the despicable despots they are, breaking the spirits of proactive altruists everywhere.”

 

5. “Why is there any degree of disorder and injustice in the world? It’s not like a perfectly black and white world would make the existence of God obvious, thus removing our crucial need to develop faith in God and would reduce us to mindless automatons forced into conformity!”

 

4. “The complex worldview that Christianity posits suggests that humanity is an intricate tapestry of interdependence working towards a fundamentally greater collective good. That selfishness cannot distract us from the more neutral, objective conclusion that life is simply a series of random events, the inevitable result of a physical system that developed completely by chance and that ends in death, rendering life ultimately pointless and devoid of any obligation to improve ourselves or the world in general. I know how ennobling this sounds, but it is merely a fact, unadulterated by any ulterior motive.”

 

3. “‘By their fruits you will know them?’ So has anyone ever abandoned a materially abundant lifestyle or altered behavior inconsistent with their beliefs because of religious conviction? Nobody that I know of! This is because religion is only a selfish delusion of convenience, not a vigorous and vital dimension of life whose empirical validity empowers adherents to make vastly positive personal change. Their wanton mental self-indulgence is starkly revealed when placed in contrast with those of us who so stoically bear the Spartan torch of atheism.”

 

2. “I read this in the correspondence of a European philosopher and scientist to his brother in 1895: ‘If there were in existence some Supreme Being, why has he then withheld from his own children that most natural of blessings, automated wheeled transportation? For, as any fool can see, such a marvel absolutely must be commensurate with the existence of God. If not for this insurmountable flaw, however, I would gladly become a Christian.’ This perfectly logical query was never satisfactorily addressed, and he died a happy atheist in 1948.”

 

1. “Clearly, belief in God amounts to no more than wishful thinking. Simply put, while those of us who accept atheism only do so after the most stringent open-minded research into every possibility, and then often reluctantly, those who embrace any faith-based belief system always do so blindly. The more they explain their opinion, the more they reveal their fundamental ignorance.”

 

Dialogue On The Richard Dawkins Forum

I was raised Catholic but, by the time I was a teenager, I considered myself agnostic.  I felt like there was something out there, but I wasn’t sure what it was or where to find it.  Frankly, if I hadn’t ever studied the Book of Mormon, I’d probably be an atheist today.  So I actually have a lot of respect for agnostics (and to a slightly lesser degree, atheists); I applaud them for insisting that the rational mind not be held hostage to superstition and tradition (a view which is wholly compatible with the LDS Church).  In a way, these are my people, and I enjoy interacting with them.

Last December (ironically, right around the time that Elder Ballard first gave his now-landmark address about using the Internet to share the gospel), I tried to engage people on Richard Dawkins’ pro-atheist forum about evidences for the Book of Mormon (Dawkins, of course, is the world-famous author of The God Delusion).  As I explained in my first post, my goal wasn’t to convince any readers of the veracity of any of our church’s supernatural claims (though they are), but rather to introduce them to information about this important topic with which they probably hadn’t been familiar, and to ask them to rationally evaluate the arguments for and against the Book of Mormon, to see which theory for the text’s origin is best supported by artifacts and logic. 

I approached them this way not because I feel my faith is lacking or that bearing testimony is inappropriate (quite to the contrary), but only because I knew that those were the parameters of discussion on the Dawkins site, and I didn’t want to offend.  I do feel, though, that an examination of the physical evidence for such a text is a valuable part of developing a powerful witness of its truth, and an essential part of understanding it deeply and getting as much out of it as we can. 

The response to my post was overwhelming.  By the time the thread ran down about a month later (I had long since written–twice–everything pertinent that could be said), it had been viewed over 3,400 times.  It was in danger of being hijacked a few times by ex-members with an axe to grind, but I was most worried about novice readers being poisoned by the seemingly-simple answers of anti’s.  I did my best to explain the problems with these theories, while politely reiterating the facts behind my thesis–that the Book of Mormon is, according to an objective analysis of the available evidence, most likely authentic. 

To see the series of posts in my “Reason, Evidence, and the Book of Mormon” thread, please click here.  You might have to register on their site to make the connection, but it’s quick and free and, in my ever-so-very-humble opinion, worth it.  

Even if nobody ever becomes converted to Christ through that post (though it would be wonderful if they did!), I hope that some of the prejudice and disrespect which people often hold about the Book of Mormon is ameliorated because of it.  I only wish I had some way of knowing if it did that, or any good at all.

Rebuttal To A Snide Swipe At Religion

As is so fashionable these days, a British article I came across this morning breezily dismissed religion as, shall we say, “the effect of a frenzied mind” and “silly traditions” (Alma 30:16, 31).  Here’s a quote:

People say they believe in life after death but still grieve when people die. Christians try to get rich and Muslims gamble. The state of mind here is unaccountable in the same way as that of the child who pretends that the tree stump is a bear and then becomes genuinely frightened of it, while knowing all the time that it is a tree stump. Like the child’s game, the grown-up one deserves no special respect, but provided it keeps away from the serious side of life it can remain harmless enough.

My response is posted (by “Huston”) in the comments section near the bottom of the page: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=401547&c=1