04 October 2011

Liberal Religious "Strawman" Arguments Directed Against "New Atheists"

On 2 October 2011, a subscriber to the the Unitarian Universalist Theology email discussion list said the following:
"But in fact, it seems to me that BOTH the Christian Fundamentalists and the Secular Atheists have decided to exclude all the other points of view from the debate. Each of them allows the other to participate so that they can each have a strawman."
To borrow the Wikipedia definition, a strawman is " ... an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position."

To be fair to the various vocal atheist and freethinkers out there, most of them are aware of liberal religious voices out there. And (to paraphrase Greta Christina and others) atheists would not be speaking out against religion very much if the predominant type of religion was Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Reform Jewish, Quaker, etc (less harmful and more likely to do good in the world).

When atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens ignore liberal religion, it's not because liberal religion doesn't exist.

It's because liberal religions are statistically insignificant and are not representative of religion as it's commonly practiced in the world.

Here are some Gallup polling et al. findings that support this view that literalism and fundamentalism are widespread in North America and not some sort of "strawman" invented by the so-called "new atheists":

  • 92% of Americans believe in God

  • 81% of Americans believe in Heaven

  • 70% of Americans believe in Hell

  • 78% of Americans believe in angels

  • 70% of Americans believe in the Devil

  • 40% of Americans believe in creationism

  • 38% of American believe in evolution with God guiding the process that created humans

  • 16% of American believe in evolution as an unguided and undirected process
This unguided and undirected aspect of evolution is the dominant view in biology and is supported by observation and experiment.

Go Google the "Luria-Delbrück experiment" to read more about the finding that mutation -- the source of variation for natural selection -- is randomly generated and undirected without any consideration for the long-term future of the organism's well-being.

If 40% or more of the North American religious expression were Unitarian Universalist or United Church of Christ, then I think you could make a good case for Dawkins et al. pushing a "strawman" fallacy.

However, 78% of North Americans rejects evolution as it is understood by the scientific community on religious grounds. Perhaps the so-called "new atheists" have a legitimate complaint about religion as it's commonly practiced.

I would suggest that this new atheist "strawman" allegation is itself a "strawman" argument directed towards atheism.

[Cross-posted to Philosophical Penguins]

20 June 2011

Oh ... religious freedom is now a concern for anti-marriage equality folks

With the debate on marriage equality in New York, one of the major issues is protecting the religious freedom rights of those who don't endorse marriage equality.

Today on Andrew Sullivan's "Dish" blog, he wrote about the need for religious freedom protection in any state law granting marriage equality to same-sex couples:
It's a BFD because it will also insist on maximal religious liberty for those who conscientiously oppose marriage equality. A gay rights movement that seeks to restrict any religious freedom is not worthy of the name. And it makes me glad that we have largely avoided anything that looks like that strategy, and that last-minute negotiations were flexible enough to strengthen the protections for religious groups, churches, mosques, synagogues and the like.
One needs to keep in mind that there are some churches and congregations who are being denied religious freedom and prevented from freely exercising their religious beliefs when civil marriage equality for same-sex couples is not the law.

For example, Unitarian Universalists (UU) and United Church of Christ (UCC) support marriage equality as denominations. Many UU and UCC clergy will solemnize same-sex unions in religious ceremonies today.

But UU and UCC folks are told that their clergy must disregard their religious beliefs when acting as agents of the state in solemnizing marriages where marriage equality does not exist.

That suggests that the "religious liberty" concern voiced by anti-marriage equality folks is a specious concern. They haven't worried about religious liberty when it comes to my Unitarian Universalist religion or liberal Protestant denominations like the United Church of Christ that do recognize same-sex couples as families.

I'm willing to support the religious freedoms of anti-marriage equality folks to discriminate but it looks like they don't want to repay the favor and support religious freedom for Unitarian Universalists who want to celebrate same-sex marriages in their congregations.

28 May 2011

Six Blind Men and the Elephant Revisited

I was thinking this morning about the "Six Blind Men and the Elephant" story that is commonly used in Unitarian Universalist religious education and other theological discussions as a metaphor for the wide range of diversity of theological views and views of god in our world.

Atheist blogger Greta Christina describes the use of the elephant metaphor on her blog:
You've probably heard this fable before. There are different versions, but the basics are these: Six blind men are standing around an elephant, touching it to figure out what an elephant is. The one touching the trunk decides that an elephant is a big snake; the one touching its leg decides an elephant is a tree; the one touching its tail decides an elephant is a rope; etc. It's supposed to show the limitations of individual perception, and the importance of not being narrow-minded, and how people with different beliefs can all be right. Or all be wrong. You get the gist.

It was recently suggested in this blog that this fable makes a good metaphor for religion. God is too large (it was suggested), too complex, too multi-faceted, for any one person to perceive correctly. Therefore, Reason #2 in my Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God -- the inconsistency of world religions -- isn't a fair critique. The fact that Muslims see God one way and Catholics another, and Hindus yet another, and Jews, and Neo-Pagans, and Taoists, and Rastafarians, and Episcopalians, and so on -- in ways that are radically different, even contradictory -- it's just different people perceiving different parts of the elephant.
Many interpretations of this story are examples of the "begging the question" logical fallacy (a type of logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proven is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise).

The elephant represents some central and complete unifying divine reality and the six blind men represent different theological points of view that are perceiving the "divine reality" elephant partially and incompletely.

We -- the omniscient reader -- "know" there is a "unifying reality" because we know about the elephant in the story.

However, we may not be the "omniscient reader" in the world we live in.

It's entirely possible that the six blind men who are "experiencing" the pillar, rope, tree branch, leaf, wall, and spear are really experiencing differences in psychology and culture. The metaphor doesn't even acknowledge this possibility.

To assume that a unifying "elephant" is there to explain the widely different theological perspectives in our world is simply begging the question.