November 2007

How Moderation in Faith Fosters Fanaticism

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group

by Craig Wilkinson, MD

The importance of “How Moderation In Faith Fosters Fanaticism,” extracted from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and its message revolve around the following: When two people, two ideologies, two communities, or two nations sit down to discuss their differences they can either talk or fight. If they choose to talk, there must be a mutual agreement as follows. The thoughts, ideas, truths, or facts that have the most verifiable evidence behind them must be given more credence than the thoughts, ideas, truths, or facts that have less verifiable evidence to support them. Without this agreement, there can be no discussion. If the sides resort to defending their arguments with “faith” it will turn into a fight.

It has been the “norm” in most of mankind’s history to give “faith” an automatic, implied, condoned, and demanded acceptance. Faith in support of a fact, need not supply any verifiable evidence. All other claims to truth, like “external beam radiation therapy can cure prostate cancer,” would need to provide supportive evidence.

It is Richard Dawkins claim that the world is now too dangerous a place to continue to allow faith such a sacrosanct position. Quoting from his article, “Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his “faith”, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to “respect” it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings.” Or perhaps manifests itself in the Christians in America who blow up abortion clinics and murder physicians who work there.

The defenders of faith point out that these people can be considered religious fanatics or extremists. But, as Dawkins points out, “Even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes. As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers.”

As Dawkins points out, “Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R-word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against “terror”, as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists, as motivated by “evil” (As President Bush has said, “The axis of evil.”) But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but, because they have been brought up, from the cradle to have a total and unquestioning faith.”

The respected journalist Murie Gray, writing in the “Glasgow Herald” after the London bombings stated. “Everyone is being blamed, from the obvious villainous duo of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, to the inaction of the Muslim “communities.” But it has never been clearer that there is only one place to lay the blame and it has ever been thus. The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror, and ignorance is of course religion itself, and if it seems ludicrous to have to state such an obvious reality, the fact is that the government and the media are doing a pretty good job of pretending that it isn’t so.”

In conclusion I quote from Mr. Dawkins, “This is the one reason why I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called “extremist faith.” The teachings of “moderate” religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” I would add that it is the blind acceptance of faith by the religious “moderates” that opens this invitation.

Utah Politics

Respectful and rousing was the banter of Frank Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb, their presentation in October’s meeting much like their conjoint column in Deseret News. They articulated how politics in Utah could swing from the current flaming red to cool blue if–if certain conditions prevail or had prevailed.

What is the state of partisan electoral politics in Utah was a question that Webb and Pignanelli tackled. Said Webb, “Probably the best measure was the gubernatorial race last year between Jon Huntsman and Scott Matheson. It was a classic match-up of two highly attractive candidates, each articulate, well-qualified, with strong name identification. Each had sufficient funding to get their messages out. Both campaigns were well-run without major mistakes to skew the results.”

Although some analysts said Matheson should have drawn a stronger contrast to Huntsman to give voters a reason to vote for him, Webb believes that the outcome was indicative of how Utah politics will be as the 2008 elections close in.

In the 2004 race, continued Webb, Huntsman beat Matheson 57.7% to 41.3%, probably a fairly reliable estimate of what a good Republican could win against a good Democrat in a statewide race, all other factors being equal.

Especially discouraging for the Democrats are the quite “red” Utah and Davis counties, the state’s next two largest counties after Salt Lake. In Utah County, Huntsman overwhelmed Matheson 71% to 26%. Not surprising, Salt Lake County is the swing county, obviously Utah’s most important county politically although “wild and unpredictable.”

Webb’s bottom line is he believes that a “really good Democratic candidate could beat a mediocre Republican candidate statewide in Utah. But if the Republicans nominate solid candidates who run good races with sufficient funding, it will be awfully difficult for a Democrat to win a statewide election for some time to come.”

Somewhat surprising, Frank Pignanelli started out as a Catholic Republican, but converted as a young boy to the Democratic Party during the civil rights movement.

More surprising was Pignanelli’s belief that Democrats are their worst enemies, citing how several specific and critical issues were not addressed in a way conducive to building support for the Democratic party in Utah. They have done a poor job of marketing their otherwise important values and principles, he said. Mistakes were made, particularly about the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion.

Pignanelli noted that the “dark ages” for Democrats began in the mid-1970s with Ronald Reagan helping Hatch win, and continuing in the 1980s with the Ronald Reagan presidency. Again, Democrats were unable to craft a message that resonated with Utah voters.

But few people realize that Democrats made a huge rebound in the late 1980s, doubling the numbers in the legislature, including elected officials from Utah and Davis County, thus recapturing two congressional seats. Partly responsible for this surge was the popular elected Democratic mayor Palmer DePaulis. “Utahans loved Mayor DePaulis, and were willing to cross over and vote for a Democrat,” Pignanelli said.

In addition, with the help of party chairman Randy Horiuchi and others, Democrat candidates started fashioning a message that worked.

Unfortunately, the abortion war erupted in the early 1990s. Utah Democrats did not “think through” this issue, Pignanelli said. Had clarity happened, Democrats could have won more support by stating, for example, that their belief about abortion was very close to the LDS Church’s belief. After all, Pignanelli inserted, the Catholic Church and evangelical groups are much more conservative about abortion than the LDS Church.

Added Pignanelli, another major issue for Democrats is that the party is viewed as a refuge for non-Mormons or former Mormons who have grudges with the LDS church. But the bottom line purpose of the Democratic Party is to elect Democrats. “If you have problems with the LDS church, take it up with the church. That’s not the role for Democrats.”

Pignanelli noted that a number of Mormon Democrats feel isolated because they’re not welcome in the LDS Church and they’re not welcomed at their political party. However, the church reached out to Democrats in the late 1990s, but the anti-Mormon Democrats “slapped their hand.” If Democrats wish to regain their strength in Utah, this attitude needs to change.

Yet Pignanelli is optimistic and hopeful about the Democrats’ ability to bridge the divide citing, for example, that Jim Matheson works hard and has a first-class constituency. Furthermore, Pignanelli noted that Utahans care about neighborhood and community issues, stating that it is Republicans who challenge big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and demanded environmental impact studies. “If Democrats can overcome the ridiculous religious issues that separate them from Utahans, they have a bright future,” Pignanelli said. He believes that Utahans will respond to Democrats of any religion who talk about values that people care about, values that “tug at the heart.”

–Sarah Smith

The God Delusion

~Book Review~

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is a book everyone should read. It is eminently rational and wonderfully readable, as Dawkins’ writings always are. Take, for example, his “amusing strategy” when asked whether he is an atheist. He points out “that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithra, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Dawkins just goes “one god further.”

Dawkins challenges the privileged position that religion enjoys in society, which puts the “sacred” beyond criticism. He extols the scientific method and criticizes religion’s promotion of faith, or belief unsupported and even opposed by facts. And he does not duck any of the criticisms made against naturalism but answers them fairly and cogently.

He examines each of the traditional proofs for God, including the argument from design-the only one of Thomas Aquinas’s “still in regular use today”–that whatever looks designed is designed. Charles Darwin blew this “out of the water” since “evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance.”

Creationist “logic,” he writes, is always that some natural phenomenon is too complex “to have come into existence by chance,” and therefore “a designer must have done it.” He answers that design raises an even bigger problem of who designed the designer. And he agrees that “chance,” considered as a “single, one-off event” as creationists do, also fails. The real alternative to design is not chance but natural selection, which “is a cumulative process,” breaking “the problem of improbability up into small pieces,” each of which is “slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so.” The end product is an accumulation of these pieces, but creationists fail to “understand the power of accumulation.”

This is but a small sampling. Dawkins later gets into the origin of religion and the roots of morality or being good without God, with evolution playing a dominant role throughout. He’s always careful with his answers. For example, he is “inclined to suspect” (with some evidence) that “there are very few atheists in prisons,” but does not claim “that atheism increases morality, although,” he notes, “humanism–the ethical system that often goes with atheism-probably does.” And he examines both the Old and New Testaments as bases for moral living, and the problem with religion. It is no wonder that this book has received so much attention in the press.

–Earl Wunderli

The Importance of Words

Centuries before Socrates lived, there were Greek thinkers in Ionia who made a remarkable discovery. They recognized the difference between things considered supernatural, and the observable world of nature.

Their ideas about nature and nature’s laws led to the development of natural philosophy. Thinking about what is outside nature was left aside, to develop into theology. Natural philosophy meanwhile became natural science. In our time it is simply “science.”

In the scientific way of thinking, the language used is about what exists or may exist in nature. Modern humanism is built within nature, using the language of nature. Thus, right and wrong are known by human experience, in this world, with no reference to any supernatural authority.

Theologians, not scientists, discuss supernatural interests. Theological language includes “revelation,” “theism,” “atheism,” “agnosticism,” “predestination,” “Satan,” “God,”

Lenin’s “historical determinism,” Hubbard’s “engrains,” Reich’s “orgones” and Freud’s “drives.” Humanism stands on its own–no need to use language of supernaturalism.

Asked if he believes in the existence of God, no Humanist should be trapped into responding “yes” or “no.” That question belongs entirely in the realm of theology, not of nature. It makes no sense unless you are in the realm of thought which makes room for supernatural things to exist, the realm of theology. For us, it is not a real question. Humanism moves on and leaves all that behind.

Are you an “unbeliever”? A “non-theist”? These terms are meaningful to theologians. But Humanists discuss their stance and perceptions in the language of science, not of theology. Humanism is not defined as mere denial of what theologians assert. It stands apart from theology on the firm ground of experience within nature. Why talk about other people’s fantasies? Humanity and human experience are real and natural. These are what matter to humanists.

–Freethought Forum
Humanist Fellowship of San Diego

Margaret Downey

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Through Margaret Downey’s work, harmful taboos that venerate religious belief as a topic beyond critique are crashing down and leaving in their wake a freedom of inquiry that will help people to grow as individuals and push society toward progress.

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