Monday, October 31, 2005

Note to Patrons: There was apparently a problem over the weekend with the web poll opening literally dozens of popup boxes for some users. When I (jb) checked it this morning, it tried downloading some software to my computer. Third-party programs like the web poll occasionally do things like this, and generally it's in violation of the providing company's terms of service. They can't help it and neither can I. (It's certainly not something I deliberately chose to inflict upon users, as the user who caught the problem implied in his note to me.)

So you have to take matters into your own hands. You need a popup blocker, a firewall, and automatically updating anti-virus software to go anywhere on the Internet. If you don't have all of these, you're asking for problems far worse than popups gone wild. In fact, you may already have them and not know it. So I apologize to anyone who had similar trouble. If you have clicked the web poll since I put it up last week, you might want to run your virus scanning program now. We now return to our regularly scheduled Internet news and commentary feature.

Believe It Or Not
Aside from being dazzling conversationalists and brilliant dancers, JB and I also have this in common: we're atheist, and we make no secret about it.

Readers may come away with the impression that he and I are hostile to religion. JB can speak for himself on the matter, but I admit that I am hostile to religion, insofar as it trains its adherents to wear blinders. Often, the intensity of the belief is in direct proportion to the size of the blinders.

I try to believe as little as possible. This requires a fine distinction between "believing" and "accepting," terms which in casual use are often seen, unfortunately, as interchangeable.

Belief, in this context, is a process that requires no evidence and in fact can readily persist in spite of contrary evidence. It may be based on intuition, tradition, wishful thinking, fear, hope, and a whole range of similar factors. Acceptance, in contrast, is based upon evidence and reason. I do not "believe" that the can I'm about to open contains Coca Cola. I accept the likelihood that it will, based upon my experience with similar cans, the consistency of the brand, the reputability of the vendor where I purchased it, and so forth.

Religion is bad, in my view, because it values faithful belief in a far-out claim over reasoned acceptance of evidence. Worse, it lays the groundwork for magical thinking, which populates the shadows and unseen places with all manner of ghosts, goblins, and bogeymen, be they ectoplasm or flesh and blood. It creates a rubicon of uncritical thinking and a precedent for declaring certain subjects off-limits for questions and investigation.

Persons of faith will object that they routinely subject their faith to critical examination, but the vast majority of such inquiry is of the C.S. Lewis "here's why you should continue to believe" vibe, rather than a wholesale reevaluation of the belief itself. Few apologists truly inspect their faith on a level playing field, and field invariably slants toward the reaffirming of faith.

In science, every assumption is open to modification and deletion. Every religion, by contrast, has a handful of "thou shalt nots" that halt inquiry, by fiat. If a reader can name a major religion in which this is not the case, please comment.

One particular religion that will enjoy the spotlight in the coming days is Constitutional Originalism, which I've decried previously. High Priest Antonin Scalia worships the document as an inviolable parchment writ by Almighty Jefferson himself, never to change or grow regardless of Jefferson's own wishes on the matter. Scalia, a man of faith, has spent decades training himself to avoid critical inquiry into "sacred" matters, and by his judicial philosophy he considers his interpretation of the Constitution to be sacred.

The Republican base, which still approves of Dubya's performance despite any empirical evidence of his nonpareil incompetence, has similarly trained itself not to question the Annointed Leader. They need no evidence to believe that he is a good man who's keeping us safe from the terrorists and leading us into unprecedented economic prosperity.

How many non-theists, I wonder, number themselves among Dubya's supporters? (Aside from full-blown Libertarians, who are crazy anyway.)

While thinking about all of this, I heard a snippet from an old Reagan speech over the weekend. It was offered as an exemplar of the "proper" way a President should accept responsibility for the gross criminality of his underlings. Here's the salient point:
A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.
To anyone reading with a critical eye, that passage should read like a diagnosis of abject insanity. Yet Reagan sycophants herald it as the contrite genius of a great communicator.

on edit: I originally typed "genious," which might just qualify as irony.

What does it mean when your "heart" and your "best intentions" tell you something in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? My "best intentions" tell me that I've paid off my student loans—will that be enough to get Sallie Mae off my back?

People of faith aren't necessarily any dumber than people of non-faith or people who have no belief in magical fantasies. However, people who are willing to live as though evidence is subordinate to "best intentions" are setting themselves up as patsies for unscrupulous manipulators all too willing to exploit them.

As Fitzgerald moves forward with his investigation, let's be thankful that he is moved more by evidence than by his beliefs. If instead he were like 39% of the country, then Dubya would be appointed god-king for life before the next grand jury is seated.

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