David Cowan has written a genius post revealing the liberal, secular bias of the mainstream media.
I've known David for more than 15 years, suddenly. I remember having a conversation with him at his parents' house in New Rochelle about consciousness and AI. His family graciously offered their hospitality to Brad and I when we were in town for Brad's cousin's bar mitvah, which is an opportune time for lively discussions. David was arguing that consciousness was essentially a matter of processor speed. I challenged him to explain what religious belief was about, and why he attended temple. Seems like maybe David doesn't go to temple anymore. David is an excellent breakfast conversationalist.
I've had several conversations recently about faith and belief and the differences between knowledge and belief. I believe in science, especially physics; which is quite beyond my rational intellectual abilities to claim to know in any strong philosophical sense -- but I believe physics is how the universe really works. I used to define myself as a skeptic and an agnostic / secular humanist. After the last election, I'm more skeptical than ever; but I've moved to defining myself as an atheist, at least partly because I didn't want to coast along in some comfortable middle ground without being able to clearly articulate my thoughts and position, especially as our country drifts into prayer across the land. It's interesting how much more strongly and negatively some people react to atheist than agnostic.
I share David's admiration for Richard Dawkins. Here is Dawkins' quote from the Wiki page on strong atheism, which nicely sums up why I made the transition from agnostic to atheist:
Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can't prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can't disprove it. But that doesn't mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn't.
Logic and the difficulties of negative proofs make for fun conversations, but don't appear often in the political actions of religious groups, which is why I support Freedom from Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who are doing interesting work.
And from the long and lively chain of comments following his post, David responds with a fantastic quote from Douglas Adams, who mirrors Dawkins' thinking:
Comment: David - you must be "God" because you make declarative statements that intelligent design is mythology, fable, fairy tale, etc. You've essentially stated that intelligent design is patently false, a figment of our imagination. How can you prove it? You can't. So, at the very least, be intellectually fair and call it a "theory", but to automatically declare an absolute negative is to presume your omniscience.
David's response: I can't respond any more clearly than Douglas Adams did, when he responded to the following question:
Mr. Adams, you have been described as a “radical Atheist.” Is this accurate?
Adams: Yes. I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god - in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted from vague wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague wishy-washy Agnosticism - both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.
People will then often say “But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?” This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.)
Other people will ask how I can possibly claim to know? Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say no for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.
I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me “Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” - then I can’t even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.
David's post also talks about George Gilder's thinking. Gilder appears in my David Foster Wallace essay on television E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. DFW (p. 76):
Oh God, I've just reread my criticisms of Gilder. That he is naive. That he is an ill-disguised apologist for corporate self-interest. That his book has commercials. That beneath its futuristic novelty it's just the same old American same-old that got us into this televisual mess. That Gilder vastly underestimates the intractability of the mess. Its hopelessness. Our gullibility, fatigue, disgust. My attitude, reading Gilder, has been sardonic, aloof, depressed. I have tried to make his book look ridiculous (which it is, but still). My reading of Gilder is televisual.
In the meantime, I'm closely exploring the theology of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.