Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Evolving Towards Reason

Darwin's Bulldog
T.H. Huxley
Today is an auspicious day in Theory of Evolution History.  On this day in 1860, T.H. Huxley and Joseph Hooker held their first evolution debate against Bishop Wilberforce and HMS Captain Robert FitzRoy at Oxford University.  Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” and Hooker, one of Charles Darwin’s closest friends and allies, dealt the first blow - indeed had fired the first shot heard around the world - in defense of the Theory of Natural Selection as presented by Darwin in The Origin of Species.

Remarkably, the ignorance and downright challenge to evolution via natural selection has itself not evolved very much although it's now masked in the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design and Creationism. Essentially the argument from the religious is that an all powerful and omnipresent god is and always will be the first cause for life on Earth and also for creation of the entire universe. They claim evolution is false and even worse that it is "the devil's theory."

This devotion to biblical first cause has been stated in numerous ways. However, even using what some claim is “sophisticated theology” no proponent of creation science in the last 155 years of debate, not Wilberforce and certainly not Ken Ham, have ever produced a shred of evidence for their conjecture. But instead they rely fully on the bible to inform their views and their arguments for special creation.

And we must be reminded that each time Intelligent Designers try to teach creationism in public school science classes their efforts have been consistently struck down by judges.  The courts have consistently found that Intelligent Design is akin to theology and thus violates the Constitution’s First Amendment regarding separation of Church and State when attempts have been made to teach creationism in science classrooms.

Huxley was quick witted and a staunch defender of Darwin. When Bishop Wilberforce asked him if he felt any shame to have a monkey as an ancestor, Huxley shot back, “(He’d) be more ashamed to be connected to a man who used his great oratory to obscure the truth.” Essentially calling Wilberforce and his ilk intentional obfuscators for the sake of their religious beliefs rather than actually knowing science and the wonder that comes from understanding nature.

Charles Darwin should be remembered as a great man, a great philosopher and a grand master of science. His ideas were and remain so profound that it is impossible to think we’d have the multitude of scientific disciplines today without the Theory of Natural Selection sewn tightly into the breastplate of reason so many of us proudly wear as we claim our own understanding of the operation of the natural world.

But for all of Darwin’s brilliance we also know his was a tortured soul.  A man who made himself physically ill at the thought of having to debate or be publicly challenged for his theories. A man who was part of British aristocracy and dearly knew that his Theory would upend Church teachings, call into question the elitism of British society, and cause a scandal in the halls of academia. While also upsetting his deeply religious wife concerning the implications of a natural world without a divine plan or a warm afterlife for the religiously moral.

This is why T.H. Huxley, while not the co-discoverer of Natural Selection (Like Alfred Russell Wallace), deserves equal atheist and humanist piety in the halls of freethought. His advocacy for Darwin’s ideas made him and a core group of intellectuals, naturalists and scholars Darwin’s chief advocates at the birth of what could have easily been an aborted scientific revolution had the religious gotten their way into shaming Darwin and his theories into obscurity.

So we will always remember Darwin for his reasoned and careful brilliance and we should recall Wallace his extraordinary research as well. But no telling of the story of Natural Selection could be told without Darwin’s advocates. Men like T.H. Huxley, John Hooker, Asa Gray, John Draper and even Wallace who came to Darwin’s aid in the first decades of debate over the efficacy of natural selection.

For their protection of Darwin, for their perseverance and honesty the world owes these men a huge and gracious thank you.  Let us offer a tip of the hat and allow me to raise my glass in their honor. This for the sake of all species, living and extinct, because to know where we’ve been evolutionarily just may mean we’ll figure out where we’re heading.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Re-Examining a Hitchens/Craig Debate

The freethought movement owes Christopher Hitchens its absolute and unending respect for many reasons. His TV appearances, especially on Fox News against many faithful pundits, were on point and forceful. His many books and numerous articles on the damage religion does to civilized society remain a cornerstone of how we shape the skeptic and freethinker message.  

But it is the sharpened Hitchens in debate mode that still makes my heart pump faster and with deep appreciation. I must admit I really enjoy watching this brilliant man whose deeply inquisitive mind coupled with amazing rhetorical skills eviscerate pro-faith arguments and pro-religion opponents each time they try to prove that gods exist or that prayer, faith and organized religion are good things for humanity.

So I was a bit stumped while re-watching the 2009 Biola University “Does God Exist” debate between Hitchens vs. William Lane Craig. Craig is a strong orator and apologist for both organized religion and the assumed importance of faith. He certainly held his own as he played to his constituents in the audience. Hitchens, for his part, made his usual brilliant and thought provoking points concerning religion’s frequent negative impact on both faith and non-faith communities. But I don’t think he threw his typical “Mike Tyson” knock-out punch. The debate was more of a sparing session between two dramatically different views of the world, and our humanity, that can never be united.

Smirking like a Cheshire cat constantly during the debate, perhaps Hitchens was feeling bemused to be on yet another stage in yet another venue defending atheists and their ethics, morality and their Good without God conclusions. Or perhaps he just was bored (in an excited and effervescent way) to yet again need to state the obvious conclusions that understanding reality and science while living in a world without prayer, the need for a super-father or religious faith is a better and more deeply humane and honest way to live one’s life.

If there were one place where I wish I could have whispered in Hitchens’ ear just to offer a suggestion, it would have been during the post-debate question and answer session that drifted a bit. Especially when it came to defending the death toll in the 20th Century allegedly caused by “atheists” versus the past, present and ongoing crimes against humanity done in the name of religion, faith and god.

Hitchens did deal with the proposition of whether Hitler and Fascism and Stalin and Marxism were truly atheist movements. Indeed, as purely European-confined phenomenon (except now we should include China and North Korea), it can be argued that both Nazism and Communism were and are anti-humanistic and violent movements which have nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with immoral doctrines - ironically similar to those found in religion.

Here’s a fact ignored by Craig and his audience. Most of the perpetrators of these anti-humanistic political movements were indoctrinated in the Judeo-Christian faith. Also, thanks to history we know that the Vatican, as a limped moral phallus, was the first “nation” to create diplomatic relations and sign non-aggression treaties with Hitler. German and European priests, many of whom were deeply anti-Semitic had few if any issues with the mass deportation and extermination of the Jews.  Indeed, it was isolated Christian believers – the regular folk - who hid and saved Jews and partisans. It was not the organized church, the mass of clergy or the Christian majority in Europe (Except for Great Britain) who stood up to Hitler. In many cases, and especially in Eastern Europe, they fought for and joined Hitler and Stalin in perpetrating crimes against humanity.

In Stalin’s Russia the idea that violence and purges were done because of atheism borders on the ludicrous. Killings and imprisonments didn’t occur in the name of non-belief, but in belief that the State and its supreme leaders have every right to ban or exterminate anyone who is not a “true-believer” in their authority and Marxist ideology.

The genocides committed by Stalin, a failed seminarian, were not done in the name of atheism but were certainly done in the name of Communism, an equivalent moral evil to organized religion if there ever was one. Communism replaces religious order and does not indemnify believers from deifying their communist leaders or stop them from using Marxism as yet another form of religion.

But for the sake of argument, and had I had the opportunity, I would have substituted the word atheist for “humanist” in the debate. I would have then recast and asked how many humanists and how many humanist movements have caused a single death or the mass death of whole ethnic, religious or social minorities? Of course that answer is a simple and flat one. NONE.

That’s because atheism is just the conclusion that there is no god and no after-life. It cannot define morality or one’s ethical world view as it is simply a word that defines a person’s non-belief in the supernatural. It is not a doctrine like Christianity, Marxism, Islam , Hinduism or Buddhism. It is simply an idea with a defined meaning that 1.2 billion people on the planet (and growing) accept as true.

I know of no national or international humanist movement that supports or tolerates hate. I know of no humanist movement that preaches that the murder of others for being individuals, or because of their life preferences or willingness to express themselves openly, are justifiable acts of goodness. I know of no humanist movement that abides by the tenet that to harm and murder men, enslave women and children, stop little girls from getting an education, destroy cultural sites and generally kill innocents for their ideas, their culture, their preferences, their geography or even their faith, is a morally good thing to do which will bring those holding the “sword of faith justice” closer to their god.

But can we say the same about organized religion? Both historically and today, those who hold the mantle of faith claim to know their god’s intentions and are willing to trample secular law and replace it with canon law. Are willing to murder in the name of their faith in ever more horrible forms of religious retribution and violence. Are willing because of religious doctrine to deny science, deny human and civil rights, deny the right to think, speak, write and gather freely. Deny democracy and the equality that comes through democratic secularism. 

Nowhere can this be said about humanism.  That’s because humanism embraces tolerance and rejects the idea that differences lessen our human family. That’s because the morality, ethics, openness to science and a worldview of kindness permeates the humanist worldview. That’s because many humanists, and I count myself as one, do work to heal the world. That’s because humanism is about respect. Respect for each other, respect for the planet and respect for the awareness that this is our only one and random chance to make the world a better place for everyone. Many humanists are atheists, many atheists are humanists and they need not be exclusive.

Atheism as a defined idea and humanism as a moral and ethical philosophy and way of life shows that through action that we can be good without god. And for me that is the highest and most profound good we can all work towards. Especially if we want to make the world a safer, richer and kinder place for ourselves and for children and the generations yet to come. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Making Sense of Census Trends and Their Impact on the Secular Movement

The United States Census Bureau published new demographic data today regarding the rise of the Millennial Generation. Their rise has impacted and will further impact every aspect of American culture; its politics, national economics, domestic and foreign policy and its social trends for the next 100 years. The Millennial Generation are those born from about 1982 trough the late 1990's.

Their numbers are important because standing at about 83,000,000 individuals, their ranks are now larger and outnumber that of the Baby Boom generation which has dominated American culture in post-war America.

In addition the number of minorities within the Millennial demographic have now placed "minority" populations ahead of majority white populations for the first time in American history - or at least since the nation was settled and then occupied by successive generations of white Europeans.

We know with the rise of the Nones, who dovetail nicely with the Millennials, that faithlessness is growing in all segments of the population. It is not an isolated North American rise since these are global trends found in most western democracies and can even be found in nations whose governments and laws are deeply set in the cornerstone of religion or some faith doctrine.

Because Nones tend to be more open and accepting of others, we know that church participation and attendance is at all an all time low and is still shrinking. We know that the distrust of organized religion has grown as sex scandals, child abuse litigation, financial misappropriations and the denial of rights to the LGBT community have shown either incompetence or conscious obfuscation at all levels, but especially at the highest levels, of religious organizations.

These demographic trends are also important because the Freethought movement, defined here as atheists, humanists, skeptics and unbelievers in general, really got their lift-off and continue their stratospheric rise BECAUSE of the growing number of younger people who forsake organized religion. Most of whom are either full nonbelievers or have a personal spirituality which is well outside the dogma of common religious faith.

Nones as a whole are better educated, accept reason, have a humanist worldview and maintain an understanding with reality. They understand that science helps our world where faith and prayer offer them little comfort. At the same time they accept that acting and being good without god is a real, happy and just way to live one's life.

So it is within this context that we in the Freethought movement must continue to embrace change, especially demographic changes, if we are to continue to grow and be a dynamic social and political movement.

We have to educate and prepare the next generation of freethinkers to continue the secular battles regarding the separation of church and state that we, as perhaps a slightly more older generation of nonbelievers, accept as incredibly meaningful and defining to our freedoms and lives.

Irrelevance is the last thing the Freethought movement can afford. Otherwise, we wind up looking like a specific unhinged American political party which is filled with older angry white men and women. Many of whom are now running for President as if it were the America of the 1950's.

Do we in the Freethought movement ever want to look like that? I think not.