Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.

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Lindsay’s Clarifications Don’t Make Him Any Less Wrong

I now want to address Ronald Lindsay’s statements vis a vis my argument (which I emailed to the proper address). His arguments are starting to look more and more like the ADL’s, which weren’t good either. The outcry is warranted. I couldn’t find Lindsay’s full remarks online, but they’re being released by the Department of Communications, so I’ll keep an eye out for them. I was emailed them because of my complaint email. Anyway, the important parts are as follows:

CFI in no way called for a “legal ban” on the Center. “Defense of the rights of believers and nonbelievers is part of our mission, as reflected in our mission statement.” But, “Whether such a building would be a good thing for humanity, all things considered, is another issue.” Part of the message is that “faith-based reasoning is not a good thing and, further, without in any way implying that Ground Zero is “sacred,” there is a special poignancy to a new faith-based institution being placed at Ground Zero when the 9/11 attacks were an instance of faith-based terrorism.”

The problems with this are many. Firstly, of course CFI didn’t call for a legal ban on the center. It’s part of their role as an institution to protect freedom of religion, and anyone who cares about the Constitution at all is staying far away from legal arguments, because they obviously hold no water. I didn’t mention anything about a legal ban. I used the phrase “freedom of religion” not because I felt CFI was attacking the principle through legal means, but by targeting this particular edifice unnecessarily, and thus putting undue pressure on the most prominent example of a religious building built around Ground Zero rather than applying the principle equally and consistently. That is cowardice; there is huge controversy surrounding the building already. It’s all too easy for CFI to just jump in the mix, rather than address all religious buildings, such as the Greek Orthodox Church being proposed (though its future is uncertain). By the way, that one is intended to replace the one that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. There is just no way to apply this principle consistently, and so it isn’t useful.

Secondly, he says that the building might not be good for humanity. I demonstrate above that if the CFI Board of Management really felt that all houses of worship were bad for humanity, they’re doing an awful job of demonstrating that consistently. But let’s look at this for a moment. All houses of worship are bad for humanity? We’re equating Unitarian Churches, Reform Synagogues, the Westboro Baptist Church and a Buddhist monastery? Not that I think it matters much; to defend the Islamic Center solely because it satisfies our notions of progressiveness is just as bad as opposing it on Islamophobic grounds. We either support people’s ability to worship as they will or we don’t. But still, it’s a massive oversimplification.

Thirdly, I would argue that there is a tenuous causal link between the existence of places of worship and the flourishing of faith as an epistemology. If all religious buildings evaporated, that wouldn’t eliminate religion, it would just drive it further into the public square. The buildings are just the outward expression, and opposing them does little. If we were discussing the environment created by prominent religious buildings, that’s a different issue, but Linsday didn’t address that. Opposition to this cultural center (which contains many services besides a place of worship) also does nothing to promote rationality and humanism, just a very militant, French-like secularism, which I don’t much support. It’s also, as I say above, an impossible task and one that is, in many ways, counterproductive, offensive and alienating.

Fourthly, let’s look at the alternatives. Does it really appear that public opposition and heckling of a peaceful Muslim community is good for humanity? Because I would like to address the environment created by our actions, and I think it promotes misunderstandings, lack of a public, reasoned response, and xenophobia, especially when we look at the general tenor of the debate. I seriously doubt that CFI would have released a press release if this were a church, mostly because there would have been no public furor to hide behind, which implies that they’re just taking advantage of other people’s bigotry, even if not promoting it themselves. Not much better, in my opinion. Honestly, this brouhaha has made me think that this community center would be excellent for humanity; we need way more Muslims in this country, so that they cease to become the “Other” and become another facet of Us.

Lastly, and I hope this is obvious, there being a “special poignancy”, which is itself up for debate, to building the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero is not reason enough to oppose it. Again, it simply dovetails with the notion that these Muslims are the same as all Muslims, who support organizations like Al-Queda. I do not claim that CFI believes this, and they’ve certainly been clear about stating that they don’t, but the fact remains that the ideas complement each other.

I appreciate Mr. Lindsay responding to the outcry that has erupted in response to his remarks, but unfortunately, the clarification is not better than the original, and all of my arguments still stand.

Secularism and Naturalism: Where the Wild Worldviews Are

In a recent Free Inquiry (a magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism) issue, the idea that four separate bases for worldviews (atheism, naturalism, secularism and humanism) are interconnected and ought to work together for the advancement of humanity came up. The interplay among them is certainly complex, and while I agree in principle that they should be combined in order to create a very powerful tool, in practice, these often come into conflict, and in different circumstances, I tend to prioritize some over others.

In my last post, I discussed atheism as a topic for discourse and its uses. I came to the conclusion that it’s potentially fruitful ground for personal conversations that focus on frank discussions about belief and understanding where a person is “coming from.” It can also be useful on the national or global stage in order to spark the growth of any and all movements associated with atheism and to foster this growing community.

On to secularism! It’s not the same as atheism, not by a long shot, but they’re often confused. Secularism refers to “the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.” It can also be described, in a more rigid sense, as the separation of religion from the nonreligious, the private declaration of faith from the public daily interactions. That train of thought generally leads to the concept of being free from religion in public life, France-style, but because I tend to prioritize freedom of speech above this sort of thing, the more important definition regards public decision making. This version of secularism simply indicates that while religion can inhabit the public sphere, it has no jurisdiction there.

Secularism is extremely important when dealing with the interaction of the private and the public. From a practical standpoint, in this day and age, one simply cannot depend on all the members of a community being religious in order to form a consensus or come to any agreement on important issues. Contrary to the belief of one George Herbert Walker Bush, atheists are citizens too. The connections that are necessary for public and political life simply can no longer be relegated to the religious realm. From a more philosophical view, even if everyone in a given polis were religious, religion would still be a terrible justification or source of any arguments or points put forward. At its best, religion is a manifestation of a much more fundamental human propensity to attempt to make sense of the world around us and to form tightly-knit communities. Bonding over these and other shared aspects of our humanity is a more useful and noble endeavor than trying to use one twig on the tree of human flourishing in order to bring people together. For these reasons, as well as the fact that faith happens to be a supremely untenable epistemology, any purely religious reasoning for something that affects the community as a whole can and must be thrown out forthwith. This is not to say that religious people have nothing to add to public discussion. On the contrary, there are many religious secularists. There are also many famous philosophers (Kant, Locke and Descartes come to mind) who were religious, derived much of their ethics from religion and who were nonetheless able to come up with well reasoned secular arguments for their position. Arguments must be subject to public scrutiny, and as such it would be in their favor, were they to survive the onslaught of critical thinking, to be based on empirical evidence and reasoned logic, and here lies the basis of the importance of public reason.

Then there’s naturalism, which can be both an epistemology and an ontology. As an epistemology, it tells us that the most practical method for understanding the natural world is observing it in systematic, rigorous ways. Useful knowledge can be arrived at by a thoughtful application of methods such as creation of hypotheses and constructions of experiments designed to test them. It lets our knowledge of reality be defined and informed by, well, reality. And lest it be assumed that naturalism is inherently flawed by its reliance on potentially flawed methods of collecting empirical data, note that well-designed, replicable experiments to test well-constructed, falsifiable hypotheses are intrinsic to the system. (This might be a good place to posit my completely ridiculous mathematical conceptual framework, which involves thinking of scientific evidence as the rational numbers and the real world as the real numbers, which are compact. If you’re a fan of the dreamer problem or similar philosophical conundrums, think of reality as isomorphic to what we see.) And, as can be seen in the history of knowledge, science and technology, naturalism has worked spectacularly well.

Well enough, in fact, that one could extrapolate from the epistemology to the ontology. If that method of collecting and advancing knowledge about the world, why might we not begin to discount and discredit any unfalsifiable or un-truth-apt statements or hypotheses when it comes to making truth claims? In that case, we would start to think of the world as limited in some ways, limited to that which can be observed and studied, in which case one might come to the conclusion that nature is all there is, and all there is is nature. If you’re not comfortable with that, I would suggest accepting that there might be forms of knowledge and reality not accounted for in this framework, but given that there is no way of rigorously investigating the matter, and the nonmaterial generally has little or no effect on the material, such forms may as well not exist. Which of course brings up the question of what it means to exist, but I think I’m using a pretty intuitive, common-sense definition I might formulate more rigorously another time.

So I think it follows pretty clearly here that naturalism is best prioritized at times when the accumulation of knowledge is paramount. If one wanted to take a holistic view, one might notice that naturalism can give us the sorts of information that are best suited to public discourse within the realm of secularism. If these two systems are practiced in a certain way, they’re likely to result in atheism, and raising the visibility of that particular minority might well bring voice to these other issues. How all of this affects humans and how humans interact with each other will wait until Humanism: The Gripping Finale You’ve All Been Waiting For!