Monday, October 27, 2014

I Could've Been Even Clearer: New Atheists Are Ignorant ABOUT HISTORY

(I'm not ignorant of the objection which will be raised by some, that "ignorant about" in the title is incorrect and should be "ignorant of," but those who would so object may themselves be ignorant of the ways in which language changes more quickly than manuels of supposedly "correct" language. I'm lucky I eventually found me a whole differnt kind a English teacher. "About" is correct in the post title. "Ignorant of history" would suggest that New Atheists are unaware that there is something known as history, and honestly, in several cases it's not as bad as that.)

This insight -- that I could've been clearer about the bug the New Atheists have put up my butt -- came to me last night in the midst of a horribly unsuccessful attempt to communicate with someone about my previous blog post. The New Atheist with whom I was trying to communicate was disputing my accusation of Richard Dawkins' ignorance, and referred to Dawkins' refutation of Anselm's cosmological argument.

That led to an a-ha moment for me: Dawkins engages in theological disputation, and I don't. I mean, I knew already that Dawkins debated theologians, but this suddenly made clear to me how Dawkins and I approach certain subjects, such as Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, in two completely different ways: Dawkins from a theological perspective and I from an historical perspective. I've never engaged in a theological debate, and I don't ever intend to. I've got a streak going, 54 consecutive years without engaging in theological debate, and I'm proud of that streak and I intend to keep it going. Dawkins has spent some time countering Anselm's ontological argument. I'm much more interested in Anselm's role in things like the investiture controversy, a power struggle in the 11th and 12th centuries between some Popes and some European monarchs, because those Popes and those kings and the power they fought over all actually existed, whereas God, the sole subject of ontological arguments, does not. It's similar to the way that long debates over who would win completely imaginary fights between completely imaginary comic book heroes -- debates not seldom participated in by New Atheists, notorious for their comic book fandom -- do not interest me, while discussions of things which do exist or have existed do interest me.

So there it is, one major difference between me and Dawkins: I have nothing to say about theology. Maybe I'm wrong, but it really does seem unnecessary to me to respond at all to someone like, for instance, Terry Eagleton. In my opinion, Eagleton makes himself seem quite horrible enough. No need for any help from me. And as Eagleton attacks people like Dawkins he also promotes Christianty, making it look horrible too. What is there left for me to do, except perhaps to ask people to please note that just because Eagleton and I both criticize Dawkins, it doesn't mean we'd have one nice thing to say about each other?

Yes, I know that theists do exist, and that some of them are ready at the drop of a hat to discuss Anselm's theology and in some cases even to defend it. But because of historical developments between Anselm's time and our own, there is no requirement for me to pretend that Anselm's theology is worth taking seriously, or that there is any Christian theology which doesn't bore me excruciatingly. Maybe I'm wrong, and Dawkins is right, and there actually is a need to critique theology. I think all that's needed is to offer something better. And what's not better than theology?

When I take Dawkins to task for talking about Islam without having read the Koran, it is not a theological objection -- although Dawkins going into detail about someone like Anselm makes his proud ignorance of the contents of the Koran look even more provincial than it already did -- but an historical one. From my point of view with my emphasis on the importance of the study of history, the importance of reading the Koran is not in order to be able to discuss God. What is said in the Koran about God resembles what Anselm said about God in that both are talking about something purely imaginary, and therefore infinitely less interesting than all of the Muslims who have actually existed and actually do exist now. We're talking about billions of people, and one book, not even a particularly long book, which might just tell you more about all of those people than any other book could. If you're at all interested in those people, why on Earth wouldn't you read that one book? And Dawkins, as we all know, can't seem to shut up about all of those people. He's constantly trying to tell us all just exactly what is going on with all of those people. It's beyond the beyond. It reminds me of the anti-Western cleric in exile in London in Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses,

who constantly issues stern warnings of the evils and dangers of the West, who stays in an apartment with the curtains always drawn so that he will not see the West, and whenever he must leave the apartment his followers walk before and behind him and to his left and right and hold up veils so that he will never get a glimpse of the West. The West he's always criticizing and damning. Okay, Dawkins isn't actually quite that daffy, but he's headed in that direction.

And he has set the tone for New Atheism, and so we get things like Free Inquiry's publication of Michael Paulkovich's list of 126 people who supposedly should've left us some mention of Jesus but didn't -- a publication in the leading New Atheist magazine, in New Atheism's flagship, almost, of an essay that would've gotten an F in any Ancient History 101, because it purports to be about ancient history, and yet is so jaw-droppingly free of any connection to something like historical facts.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

How New Atheists Can Make Even Someone Like Reza Aslan Look Bright By Comparison

You heard me, pardner: there's a feud a goin' on between Reza Aslan and the New Atheists, and I must take Aslan's side.

A lot of people, probably most of them Christians, heard about that awful woman who reads the diatribes posing as news on Fox News ask Aslan how he as a non-Christian could dare to write a book about Jesus, and naturally took Aslan's side. Maybe some of them first actually read something by Aslan after that interview and said, Hm, this guy isn't much of a writer, but still, between him and that lady on Fox, I'm totally on his side.

In a not dissimilar way, I and some other atheists have seen the Harris-vs-Aslan shitstorm gathering force, and been terribly unimpressed by Aslan, but still side with him immediately and unconditionally on topics of religion if it's a choice between him and Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.

Aslan has become famous with a supposedly nonfictional book about Jesus which is just as fictional as most supposedly nonfictional books about Jesus are. Like the authors of most of these books, Aslan has created a Jesus in his own image, or in the image of what he flatters himself to be. There's so little we actually know about Jesus that whoever writes an entire book about him, or even a book which long sections about him, has to make stuff up. Some of us, like me and Kazantzakis and Gore Vidal, have been honest enough with ourselves and the world to call these books what they are: novels. (And Kazantzakis' novel about Jesus, for one, is effin brilliant. Basically, he told the story of the Gospel of Judas decades before the Gospel of Judas was discovered.)

Aslan is no Kazantzakis and no Ehrman, but he's making a decent effort. Sam Harris is making a spectacle of himself. Aslan said that there is no relationship between religious texts and the lives of religious believers, and that was very silly, of course, but instead of acknowledging that of course he couldn't literally have meant that, the New Atheists have seized upon it and gone on an on and on about how ridiculous Aslan's statement is.

As opposed to making the slightest effort to understand what Aslan meant, which is that there are a wide variety of interpretations of the Koran, and a wide variety of beliefs and political positions among Muslims. Exactly the same way that they obsess on the few verses from the Koran or the Bible which cast Islam or Judaism or Christianity in the worst possible light, and ignore the rest of those books. (Let me take the opportunity to once again call BULLSHIT on the vast majority of NEW Atheists who claim to've read the Koran and Bible cover-to-cover.) Or the way that some of them reacted to Bart Ehrman's book Did Jesus Exist? by going on and on about some drawing of a bird in the Vatican and how that drawing supposedly exposed Ehrman as a fraud. That was bizarre, the way they went on about that drawing. I wish i could say it was atypical.

Aslan is attempting to point out the diversity in the actual lives of the actual more than one billion Muslims in the world, over the din of the New Atheists saying Oh there's some horrible stuff here in the Koran, Oh we've got to watch out for these Muslims, Oh, be very, very afraid -- a din which of course fits in very nicely with the islamophobic rhetoric of people like the aforementioned Fox News correspondent who asked Aslan how he got the nerve to write about Jesus without even being a Christian.

Of course Aslan pointed it out in a very unfortunate and clumsy way when he said that there is NO connection between the lives of believers and the texts of the holy books of those believers. Still, his point was against prejudice -- against assigning characteristic to Muslims because they are Muslims instead of looking closer and regarding them as the individual human beings they are. And that is a point which urgently needs to be made in our society which still suffers from so much prejudice against and fear of Muslims. Between Aslan's attempt to counter this prejudice and fear, and the New Atheists stirring it up, there's no question that any and every intelligent atheist must side with Aslan. In spite of the frequent facepalms over the clumsy way Aslan expresses himself, the message he expresses is far the wiser one. Stemming the tide of violence is far more urgent than whether or not someone believes in God. Identifying with and supporting Muslims fighting against extremism and Christians countering prejudice and fear is far more important than critiquing ancient texts.

And once again, New Atheists, if you're going to critique those texts, read the whole texts first. That's a bare minimum to have a chance not to look like fanatical fools. Don't keep telling me you already have -- like I keep telling you: I don't believe you. Show me you have, by saying something intelligent about the entire Koran or the entire Bible.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Someone Asked Me What "New Atheists" Are, And How They're Different From "Old Atheists"

Dawkins, Harris, PZ Myers and their fans are New Atheists. Hitchens and Victor Stenger were New Atheists. They combine a cluelessness about history and religion and the humanities with a propensity for making sweeping inaccurate statements about them, and don't seem interested in ideas concerning religion which are more complicated than sound bites. Some prominent examples:

Dawkins started the "Bronze Age goat herders" meme. (Coincidentally, he also coined the term "meme" in his book The Selfish Gene, back when he was doing something he did exceptionally well: writing about biology.) Point out to a typical New Atheist that the oldest parts of the Bible were written in the Iron Age, by town-dwellers, and that the Israelites' primary livestock animal was sheep, not goats, and the typical response is "So what?" So why do you keep repeating Dawkins' meme, that's what.

On p 1 of The Selfish Gene Dawkins approvingly quoted GG Simpson's pronouncement that we should completely forget about all attempts made before 1859 to answer the question, "What is man?" That should have warned me that neither Simpson nor Dawkins knew very much at all about things written up to 1859, and led me to expect things like Dawkins' activity since 2004, when he's published very little work in biology.

More recently Dawkins tweeted the fact that there were more Nobel prize winners from Trinity College than from "the entire Muslim world." Immediately I and a whole bunch of other people pointed out cultural bias, duh! in the awarding of Nobels. Last I heard Dawkins hasn't felt the need to reply to any of us about that. It's getting more and more difficult to take him seriously except in a very negative way.

Hitchens created a very popular meme in the subtitle of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

But of course it doesn't poison EVERYthing. Life's much more complicated than that, billions of people's lives over the course of tens of thousands of years, and yes, I'm saying that if you want to say something deep about religion, you have to have at least an inkling of all of those billions of people's lives, or at the very best you're only going to say something deep every now and then, completely by accident.

Michael Paulkovich is a New Atheist, and the editors of Free Inquiry demonstrated quintessential New Atheist behavior when they published an article because they liked the sound bite: "126 ancient authors who should've mentioned Jesus but didn't," without seeming to care at all about checking into whether or not Paulkovich is making any sense. He's not.

Sam Harris is a peculiarly mid-19th-century sort of New Atheist: his moral philosophy is utilitarian, like that of John Suart Mill, as if he hadn't heard of how Mill had been thoroughly dismantled by the late 19th century by people like Nietzsche.

Dawkins has a lot of credibility in the filed of biology, richly deserved, but he's helped to give an undeserved credibility to New Atheism. It's very bad luck that these people are currently the public face of atheism, but we atheists who actually know something about history, philosophy, the arts and religion -- about the humanities -- just have to speak up louder and more persistently. That's the only way that an intelligent and informed public discussion of religion will get underway.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

In The Reza-Aslan-Vs-The-New-Atheists Flapadoodle, I'm Rooting For Neither Side

What a bunch of idiots. On either side people are twistng their opponents' words and trying hard not to understand one thing about what their opponents actually mean. (Not that there's a tremendous amount, on either side, to be understood.) This isn't a debate, it's the forensic equivalent of pro wrestling, except that the wrestlers aren't even in on the scam.

So, they're fighting about the Koran and its relationship to terrorism. On the one hand Aslan says that there is no relationship when we're talking about people who scream verses from the Koran as they commit acts of terrorism. On the other hand there are over a billion Muslims, and perhaps as many as 30,000 men in ISIS, and the New Atheists constantly talk as if those 30,000 were representative of the whole billion, interrupted by frequent protestations that they're doing nothing of the sort. Lately it's become fashionable to accuse any and all of their opponents of being "dishonest" and "cowardly." I think the real cowards are keeping their heads down and hoping that the New Atheists will simply go away, as most people do most of the time when confronted with raving lunatics.

An anonymous post on Richard Dawkins' website asserts that:

"Aslan insists that approaching these holy books the way most people approach most books — by reading the words on their pages precisely as they are written and assuming that the author actually meant what he wanted to say — is somehow 'unsophisticated.'”

The irony of this accusation coming in the midst of a diatribe accusing Aslan and Ben Affleck of making bigoted, racist statements about Muslims, simply because they said that the Koran was not the only source of Muslims' motivations for their actions, must be striking for almost anyone but a New Atheist. (Affleck is the only individual mentioned in this post I don't consider to be an idiot. I think he's very smart. So's Maher, but he has some dumb friends. Okay, so that's a total of 2 smart people, Affleck and Maher.)

"As my friend Christopher Massie points out: 'The conclusion that disproportionate numbers of intrinsically violent and misogynistic people reside in a certain region of the world could not be more bigoted or racist.'”

It also couldn't be further from anything that either Aslan or Affleck ever said, but you're off to the races already.

"Here’s the thing: there is good reason to believe that neither Aslan nor Affleck is racist or bigoted."

Well, of course. And it'd be a shame, wouldn't it, anonymous blogger, if people thought you had accused either Aslan or Affleck of bigotry or racism simply because you said that things they said were racist and bigoted.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"This Beltway Narrative About The Republicans Being Way Ahead Is One Of The Dumbest And Most Fact-Free Things I've heard In A Long Time"

-- Jess McIntosh of Emily's List, just a minute ago on "All In With Chris Hayes."

So it's not just me.

Quoted from memory, my apologies to Jess if I quoted inexactly, but that is the gist of it.

So get out there and vote and let's make this a Democratic landslide.

Motorcycle Road Racing

I was having a terrible time finding facts and figures relevant to this blog post, so finally I just gave up, and so this is going to be more about some personal experiences of mine as a racing fan than about racing per se. If you want some facts and figures to fill out what I have to say here, all I can do is sincerely apologize. Short of some large university library which might have back issues of Cycle magazine going back to the mid-1970's, I don't know what would help here -- and no, I don't know of any library which has those back issues in the stacks.

And so, for example, I can't tell you which AMA road race it was in 1977 in which Kenny Roberts went from last to first in the first 4 laps. Normally by that time in AMA's 750cc premier-class road racing, Roberts would qualify in pole position, zoom out into the lead immediately, settle into a pace which was comfortable for him and faster than anyone else, and win the race easily. He'd win unless he had mechanical trouble. Impressive, but also, since no one was challenging Roberts' dominance, also somewhat monotonous. Before the start of this particular race, Roberts was sent from the pole to back of the starting grid because his bike was leaking oil. And after 4 laps, he was in front. And Cycle magazine proclaimed that those 4 laps demonstrated that Roberts was -- beyond a doubt - the best motorcycle road racer in the world.

That pronouncement showed the provincial outlook of American motorcycle road racing at the time. Maybe Roberts was the best in the world, but an AMA -- American Motorcycle Association -- road race wasn't going to prove it. Then as now, the world class of mororcycle road racing is that organized by the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme), with races all over the world contested by riders from all over the world. Now and then an FIM rider participated in the AMA's most prestigious race, at Daytona. Giacomo Agostini, one of the FIM's all-time greats, won at Daytona in 1974. Roberts left the AMA for the FIM beginning in 1978, and won the world championship in 1978, 1979 and 1980 -- but it wasn't completely lopsided. It's not completely unreasonable to contend that Barry Sheene might have been as good or better. (Sheene himself was never the slightest bit shy about saying so.)

In 1978 I stopped following road racing. I turned 17 in 1978, and it had become clear that although I liked watching road racing, I was no kind of fast rider myself. I can do some things really well, other I can't. Racing a motorcycle might be one thing I can't even do as well as average. Also, lack of skill aside, I was getting too big for road racing. There haven't been many champions over 6 feet tall.

Maybe Roberts was the greatest ever, but you can't say it's beyond a doubt. Not at all. But he did change some things. In the mid-70's he started to freak people out by dragging his knees around corners. He put big pads made out of duct tape on the knees of his racing uniform. Eventually all road racers were dragging their knees, and all road racing uniforms had built-in knee pads. In the 1970's, there was an obituary in Cycle for a road racer who'd died in a crash. The writer talked about the first time he'd seen this racer, when he was "dragging his elbows" around a corner. Back then, "dragging his elbows" was a euphemism and an exaggeration of how far this guy leaned the bike over.

Toward the end of the 2012 FIM road racing season, almost 35 years after I'd stopped following AMA road racing, I tuned back in, this time to the FIM premier world class, now called MotoGP, and saw that now sometimes the riders literally drag their elbows through some turns. I saw that world-championship racing had gone from 2-stroke to 4-stroke engines, I heard about this guy named Valentino Rossi who'd won 9 world championships and was very popular. Very soon Rossi became my favorite rider. What can I say, he's extremely charismatic. He's not movie-star handsome, he kind of looks like a happy puppy with a pop-eye and matted curly fur. He always seems to be in a good mood.

And although he's 35 years old and 35 generally seems to be too old for this sort of thing, Rossi is still one of a handful of the fastest riders. But, you see, there's this kid Marc Marquez. At the beginning of the 2013 MotoGP season, seconds before the race started, the announcer said to keep an eye on Marquez cause he was special. Turned out it's been really easy to keep an eye on Marquez cause he's usually out in front or close to it. He won the 2013 world championship, youngest-ever top-class champ, and a week ago he clinched the 2014 championship with 3 races left in the season. Earlier this year it seemed like Marquez was just going to whup ass unmercifully. He won the first 10 of the season's 18 races. But, he's crashed in 3 of the last 4, so hold on, this still might be a contest. There's Rossi, and then there's Gorge Lorenzo, a 2-time champ, and then there's Dani Pedrosa, who's finished 4 seasons in 2nd in MotoGP and has about 3 times as many race wins as anyone else who's never won the season championship. The Repsol Hondas ridden by Marquez and Pedrosa have orange wheels, might sound silly to you if you're just reading about it but it looks wicked cool. After a couple of seasons out of contention it looks as if the Ducatis might be as fast now as the Repsol Hondas, and the factory Yamahas ridden by Rossi and Lorenzo.

Or faster. Ducatis are wicked cool. They're Italian, and they're desmos. Desmodromic valve drive was still fairly new in production vehicles back in the 1970's, introduced to the wider world by Ducati, and the Ducatis still are almost the only desmos around. That's wicked cool. Look Ma, no valve springs!

Friday, October 17, 2014

US 3rd-Partiers: The Anti-Bismarcks

In the 1860's, Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia, who a few years later would become Chancellor of Germany when he finished taking over Germany on behalf of the Prussian monarchy, which amounted to taking over Germany for himself, because the Prussian King and soon to be German Emperor (Kaiser) either didn't notice or didn't care that it was Bismarck who was actually in charge -- Ah say Ah say in the 1860's, Bismarck said, "Politik ist die Kunst des Moeglichen." ("Politics is the art of the possible.") Or maybe he said, "La politique, c'est l'art du possible." Or he very well could've said it in English. He was talking to another German dude and he probably said it in German, but he and his pals were a little more cosmopolitan than Amurrkins sometimes realize.

Don't get me wrong: Bismarck was a reactionary and I disagree with most of what he did. On the other hand, however, in the 1880's he instituted universal health insurance and universal pensions for the elderly in Germany. He did this in order to undermine the Social Democrats, against whom he had a -- well, pathological aversion, spying on them, having them arrested and banning their publications and so forth. Really terrible draconian stuff. Bismarck introduced the insurance and pensions in order to combat the Social Democrats, to take the wind out of their sails. (Worked pretty well, too.) But in spite of Bismarck's motives, the universal health insurance and pensions for the elderly marked the beginning of a strong social safety net and were undeniably a boon for the very underprivileged Germans whom the Social Democrats wanted to help.

On the 17th of October, 2014, on Facebook, a Leftist Amurrkin supporter of 3rd parties proposed that anyone who'd ever associated him- or herself with either the Democrats or the GOP be completely barred from the political process. As opposed to voting Democratic because Republicans are worse.

At last check he still has not responded to queries about exactly how he hoped to accomplish this.

Good intentions are useless if they're completely divorced from reality, and conservatives sometimes co-operate with the Left when the Left is strong enough that they have no other good choice. In the midterms it's going to be the Democrats or the Republicans, and the Democrats really are to the left of the GOP, not as far left as I am, but far enough to the left of the GOP that the space between them is clear to see. Vote Democrat, for women's rights and more equitable tax codes and a stronger social safety net and non-creationist science education and the environment and sustainable energy and financial re-regulation and to keep psychos who think Obama's a secret Kenyan Muslim Communist from running this country.