Is Atheism Doomed?
Re “Is Atheism Doomed?” by Russell Blackford, FI, October/November 2014: I do not think that atheism is doomed. In claiming otherwise, religious apologists frequently allude to the upsurge in religious fanaticisms and cult-like behavior that we have witnessed over the last three generations. Religious and political fanaticisms have always come in times of rapid change. When people lose their cultural moorings they become insecure and start embracing reactionary extremism in order to compensate for their existential dread. Skeptics have always been around also, although experiencing differing degrees of toleration according to the political climate at the time.
However, I do believe that human beings necessarily experience a metaphysical component in their psychological makeup. Consciousness may be emergent from the brain process, but it is not synonymous with it. Understanding our consciousness becomes a metaphysical issue from which we cannot escape and remain intellectually honest. This does not discredit our advancing neuroscience at all. We must organize our data with hypothetical constructs (metaphysics) before our ideas can be tested. Also, the only reason we pursue science in the first place is because we “value” the practical results that it brings. This, too, is metaphysics.
John L. Indo
The Ethics of Concealing Atheism
Re “Is It Ethical to Conceal Your Atheism?,” Greta Christina (FI, October/November 2014): I would agree that “coming out is ultimately the right choice for most people” but that it “makes sense to hold off if the timing is bad.” Most of my friends already know that I am an atheist and are completely accepting of it. Of course, their relationship with religious belief is rather strained, so my anxiety toward full disclosure was modest. My family, on the other hand, are unaware of my atheism, All of them are staunch Catholics and, as a result, my anxiety toward coming out to them as an atheist is extremely high.
I have made horrible decisions in my life, and because of those decisions my relationship with my family was severely fractured for many years. I was afraid that it could never be repaired. Slowly, however, we began putting the pieces back together and mending that relationship. As much as I would love to open up to them about what is a big part of my life, I fear that my coming out would only serve to shatter that still fragile relationship.
Is it ethical to conceal my atheism from my family? I would say that it is in this case. Is it right that I still live in a world where I feel that I have to? No.
Adam S. Thomas
Regarding the “Nazis search for Jews” conundrum: you’ll be delighted to know that Catholic dogma has again gasted us in the flabber regions. Back in the 1950s when I was young and the earth’s crust was still warm, I attended Loyola University in Los Angeles and was required to take a class in general and special ethics. During one session, our Jesuit instructor avowed that lying was always wrong. In response, a veritable forest of upraised arms shot up, with their hands begging for recognition. When an elevated hand was finally acknowledged, the chosen student asked The Question: “All right, you’re in a cabin deep in the Black Forest with a cellar full of Jewish refuges that you’re hiding when, all of a sudden, a platoon of Nazi storm troopers comes roaring up on their motorcycles. They dismount, goosestep up your front porch, and pound on our door. You open your door and your newfound uniformed guests ask you at pointblank: “Do you have any Jews in your cellar?” Now—what do you answer, “yes” or “no”?
Our instructor smiled gently and said, “Of course, I would say ‘no.’”
“Aha!” the whole class bellowed. “So you would lie!”
With that same angelic smile, our priestly mentor slowly shook his head and said, “Noooo, that’s not at all a lie. We’ve merely taken the truth and carefully set it aside and fabricated an alternative in its stead. We call it ‘An Extreme Mental Reservation.’”
Since that time so long ago, whenever I’ve been caught in one of my frequent flights of fancy, I’ve always used that term.
Sending Parasites Packing
Arthur Caplan’s essay “Science Finds an Answer for Parasites” (FI, October/November 2014)—which turns out not to be about parasites at all but about arthropod-borne viruses and genetic engineering—begins with the very curious assertion that “helminths . . . and ectoparasites . . . don’t seem to play any positive role in nature: they simply prey on the rest of it.” I would love to know what constitutes, for Caplan, a “positive role in nature.” All animals eat. Hawks prey on pigeons and voles. Wolves eat deer and livestock, and they used to eat people when they had a chance. Oh yeah, what about Homo sapiens? What is our “positive role in nature,” other than preying on the rest of it?
Nature doesn’t have any good or bad, positive or negative; it just is. Parasites usually don’t kill their hosts quickly or directly, but they reduce the hosts’ lifespans and reproductive success, thereby controlling the population and affecting the mix of species in an ecosystem—just like all other predators. Whether this is “positive” or not is imponderable. Unfortunately for most other species, humans have largely escaped this control. Caplan may personally find parasites icky, but they are no more or less “positive” than any other kind of creature.
M. Barton Laws, Assistant Professor
Brown University School of Public Health
Providence, Rhode Island
Arthur Caplan’s nosology is confused, and he mixes parasites with vectors. The parasite is the organism that causes illness. The vector is the transmitter that delivers the parasite to the host. Various vectors can deliver parasitic, viral, and/or bacterial infections.
Helminths are parasites and not transmitters. Mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and kissing bugs are vectors (transmitters) and not parasites. Hookworms, tapeworms, Guinea worms, and roundworms are parasites.
Parasites are eukaryotic, nucleated. The causes of Lyme disease, bacterial; Typhus, bacterial; West Nile, viral; and Chikungunya, viral are not parasites, even though all are vector-borne.
The gene drive he is referring to is of the mosquito and possibly other vectors.
Douglas C. Cable, MD
Newport Beach, California
Arthur L. Caplan replies:
I yield to the experts, but the ethical point still holds.
Israel and Free Speech
Re Nat Hentoff’s article “Israel, Attacked by Hamas, Annuls its Free Speech History”: the reason most nations believe Israel is primarily to blame for this conflict is because it is! Recognizing this is not ignoring the facts; it’s respecting them. For those interested in the actual facts, I recommend reading the recent piece by Noam Chomsky titled, “The Real Reason Israel ‘Mows the Lawn’ in Gaza.” Israel was indeed attacked by Hamas, as Hentoff’s headline reads, but that was in retaliation to Israel’s behavior against them and the Palestinian people. It’s so frustrating to hear the claim Israel has a right to defend itself when it is the occupying power. The Palestinians are the ones who have a right to defend themselves, and this won’t change until Israel ends its crimes on humanity.
Barry F. Seidman, host
Equal Time for Freethought
New York, New York
Nat Hentoff writes: “Uncharacteristically, Israel silences a domestic critic. But Hamas is the real enemy.” It b
oggles the mind how Israeli propagandists infiltrate every medium in the United States, including what I thought to be a skeptical magazine such as Free Inquiry. Never mind the hundreds of kids that Israel has killed, the home demolitions, displacements, ethnic cleansing, imprisonments, beating of Palestinian youths, destruction of utility plants, etc., etc., etc. I can go on and on and enumerate the hundreds of crimes and massacres that Israel has committed against the Palestinians. In Hentoff’s own words—just change Hamas for Colonial Israel—if Colonial Israel “is not disestablished, death will continue to triumph.”
What’s Religion Good For?
The articles in the October/November 2014 issue’s special section, “What’s Religion Good For?” are all good critiques of religion. But they did not address the question except perhaps to answer “nothing.”
If you examine the lives of individuals who have been “saved,” you find mature individuals who had become dysfunctional in their habits. A religious conversion occurs to some, whereupon they are able to change and become not only functional but happy and relieved to have found “the way” to have a meaningful and productive life.
Religion is a very “target rich” topic. But until secular humanism accepts that benefits exist no matter how irrational and evil religion can be, then progress toward providing an alternative for society cannot be made.
Re “An Indictment of the Biblical Deity for the Crime of Genocide” by Thomas Tandy Lewis (FI, October/November 2014): in their campaign to exterminate the New World’s pagan natives, the early European settlers didn’t have to look far to find their inspiration. It was right there, in Psalm 2:8-9 of their holy Bible: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” The dashing (pun intended) Jeffrey Amherst, a British general, was in fact the infamous inventor of biological warfare. In 1763, while under the pretense of negotiating a treaty with the Delaware Indians, he distributed small-pox contaminated blankets among them. The Indians who died from that murderous act ultimately numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
It has been a long time since I have been reminded of the untold atrocities that the heroes of the Old Testament committed in the name of God. But I had trouble with parts of Thomas Tandy Lewis’s article, starting with the title. The author talks of a single biblical deity. This is not a fair assessment. There is the Old Testament God and the God put forth by Jesus. These gods are completely different.
The author tries to tie Jesus in with the Old Testament genocide with the statement that “Jesus never condemns the violence associated with the conquest of Palestine.” This is true; to go further, Jesus never condemns war. But his failure to do so was not because he wanted to justify the conquest of Palestine. It was because he didn’t involve himself with affairs of state, and whoever has the power to make war is the state.
Granted, there are statements in the Gospels attributed to Jesus that appear to be of a warlike nature. Probably the strongest one is “I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). These are rather strong words, but they can be countered by many other statements attributed to him. It is understandable that the Jewish Gospel writers would convey some warlike characteristics to Jesus since the Jews were looking for a warrior messiah.
Andy Norman weakens his argument in “Reason Unhinged: The Religious Subversion of Civil Accountability” (FI, October/ November 2014) by describing higher brain function combined with language ability as a prescriptive norm called “reason.” He translates cognitive capacity into “the force of the better reason[s]” that commands collaborative deliberation and action for the common good based on evidence cleansed of irrational bias or self-interest. On such grounds he makes a compelling case for eliminating religious belief from civic discourse.
Although reason in the abstract fails to pick out any one practice or outcome, its illumination in the article is largely framed by innocuous scenarios that affirm “common sense.” For all the appealing rhetoric, the essay seems tilted toward commending desiderata that are currently accepted by secular humanists and “reasonable’ people everywhere.
Woodland Hills, California
How Atheists Deal with Death
Dale DeBakcsy’s fine essay (“When Atheists Mourn: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chemistry,” FI, October/November 2014) ends with a shift from how we mourn the deaths of others to our contemplation of our own deaths: “we become a little less worried about our own demise in the process.” Wayne L. Trotta’s review of Death and the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler in the same issue ends with a similar dark warning: “making meaning and cultivating values in the course of a fleeting . . . existence.”
Reason shows that we materialists have literally nothing to worry about. Since we cannot be conscious of being dead, we can therefore only be conscious of being alive. A dualist who foresees his or her consciousness surviving death must worry about what that after-death “life” will be like, and many religions teach that there is plenty to worry about. It appears that many nontheists feel the need to be brave in denying such an active afterlife, tacitly assuming that the alternative is an eternity of sitting in the dark. For example, James A. Haught (“No Qualms,” October/November 2013) looks forward bravely to “nature’s blackout.”
But we actually can’t experience any such thing. From my own point of view, I’m always alive, and far from being fleeting, for me my life is always there. I can never get to the point where I look back and say, “It’s over.”