People, Get a Grip

Niall Ferguson, who isn’t content to be ridiculously wrong about economics, has a go at comparing the attacks in Paris to the Fall of Rome:

I am not going to repeat what you have already read or heard. I am not going to say that what happened in Paris on Friday night was unprecedented horror, for it was not. I am not going to say that the world stands with France, for it is a hollow phrase. Nor am I going to applaud President Hollande’s pledge of “pitiless” vengeance, for I do not believe it. I am, instead, going to tell you that this is exactly how civilizations fall.

Here is how Edward Gibbon described the Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410 AD:

“In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed . . . a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and . . . the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies . . . Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless . . .”

Now, does that not describe the scenes we witnessed in Paris on Friday night?

Oy. Where to begin. Yes, Niall, the scenes we witnessed in Paris were ugly and bloody. But after that, your comparison fails. The Fall of Rome started a mass depopulation of the city and the end of an entire political order in Europe. Parisians aren’t going anywhere, and though European governments and the EU have their problems, this attack, or others like it, have almost no chance of devastating the political order of Europe. Paris is damaged, but it’s been through far worse in the last hundred years (what with the Nazis and all) and survived. Europe has seen much more formidable challenges to its civilization than Daesh (what with the Nazis and all). Daesh is a feeble death cult, a wealthier and larger Manson family. It seeks to overthrow the entire world but in the end will accomplish nothing more impressive than murder.


Daesh can’t wreck us, but we can wreck ourselves by succumbing to our own fear, allowing it to drive us toward what will later be embarrassing bigotries and paranoias, allowing ourselves to score own-goals against our civilization by curtailing rights and freedoms in the vain hope of absolute security.

Daesh believes in apocalypses, but we needn’t believe along with them. Yes, these butchers will kill people; but despite all their bloodletting, civilization, problems and all, continues, and that’s what frustrates them. They can’t shift it no matter how many people they shoot or behead or throw off roofs. And because no apocalyptic ideology can survive if the apocalypse keeps stubbornly not happening, they’ll eventually fade as all before them have faded, their adherents leaving as they realize the waste they’ve made of their lives. Beating Daesh is easy. All we have to do is remain who we are in spite of them.

When I think of Daesh, I think of an exchange of dialog between Vincent Bugliosi and Charles Manson in 1976’s Helter Skelter. In it, Charlie asserts he nearly pulled off fulfilling his apocalyptic vision and overthrowing the world with the Tate-LaBianca killings. Bugliosi’s answer is key:

Manson: But I almost did it, didn’t I? I almost pulled it off, almost made it, huh?

Bugliosi: No, Charlie, you weren’t even close. You killed some people, that’s what you did. You accomplished murder. You took a bunch of sad kids, human flotsam, and you played jailhouse games on them. That’s it, Charlie. You’re not even important anymore.

I have a feeling we’ll be saying this to the leaders of Daesh at some point, unless we, by childishly lending credence to their absurd visions of doom, scare ourselves to death.

So, people, if you want to beat Daesh, you start by doing something simple: getting a grip.

My Answers To 31 Questions For Atheists

Steve Shives put me on to this series of questions for atheists by apologist Matt Slick. (Unfortunate name, I know, but let’s try not to hold that against him.).  I’ve done this before, with a series from Today’s Christian. Slick’s list of questions, 31 in all, is more involved, though some of the questions strike me as duplicates. Anyway, strap in for a long, heretical read.

1. How would you define atheism?

The absence of a belief in supernatural entities, specifically gods.

2. Do you act according to what you believe (there is no God) in or what you don’t believe in (lack belief in God)?

I suppose I do, in that I don’t make decisions based on what an imaginary all-powerful being might think of what I do. But I don’t do things like announce that I’m eating breakfast in denial of the almighty, if that’s what you mean. Most of the time I simply act and make decisions with no god in the picture.

3. Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who “lacks belief” in God to work against God’s existence by attempting to show that God doesn’t exist?

Not really, anymore than it would be inconsistent for someone who lacks belief in Gandalf as a real White Wizard to demonstrate that Gandalf is a fictional character. 

4. How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?

I’d say I’m reasonably confident, given the limitations of my senses and my ability to acquire and apply knowledge. The arguments in favor of God strike me as flimsy, and the evidence that the universe, and all that is in it, developed through natural, contingent processes, is strong.

5. How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

I’m not sure how this question differs from question 4. I’ll refer you to that answer.

6. How would you define what truth is?

I would take it that an idea that is rationally compelling can be said to be true. “An object whose surface is entirely one color cannot simultaneously be an object whose surface is entirely another color.” would be an example of this. To accept the premise—that one color cannot simultaneously be another color—but fail to agree to the conclusion is to be irrational. Very seldom do we arrive at ideas that are “true” in this sense. We more often end up with ideas that are sensible or practical or likely correct.

7. Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?

Absence of compelling arguments or evidence to the contrary. I regard the existence of an all-powerful supernatural entity to be, as Carl Sagan would describe it, an “extraordinary claim”, for which I expect extraordinarily compelling evidence. So far, none has been forthcoming, and evidence that was once claimed for the existence of a god or gods has since proven to be better explained in scientific terms.

8. Are you a materialist or a physicalist or what?

I looked up your definitions to these terms. Since you couldn’t articulate a difference between them, I won’t bother either. I suppose I could fall into either category, or both, or neither (which I guess would make me “or what?”). I’m not sure what’s at stake in the question, honestly.

9. Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview? Why or why not?

I think it’s fine to look at atheism as the basis of a worldview. The world does look different to theists than it does to nontheists. Theists see a governed universe; atheists don’t. But starting from atheism a person can go in lots of different ideological directions, as the history of atheism has shown. Indeed, once of the abiding characteristics of atheists is that, aside from a lack of belief in supernatural beings, they don’t agree on much. There are atheist libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, Right wing European Nationalists, and on and on. If asked, they’d say that all other atheists are wrong and insane, except when it comes to their lack of belief in gods.

10. Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?

I expect this is a phenomenon peculiar to Western atheism, where Christianity is the dominant religion, and where atheism developed as a reaction to the political power of the Church. This was de jure power in Europe, of course, and de facto power in the United States. Further, many atheists came from Christian households, and they sometimes had to deal with being condemned and shunned by Christian relatives. Also, claims of Christian victimhood in the West can rub atheists the wrong way, since atheists see Christians as the vastly more culturally and politically powerful group. For us, it’s a bit like when poor people hear rich people complain.

Beyond that, atheists can become antagonistic to Christianity because the way certain Christian denominations have mistreated women, LGBT people, children, and racial and religious minorities.

11. If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny His existence?

I never bought into it, really, so someone else should answer this.

12. Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?

Hard to say for sure. Religion is, like or not, embedded in political, economic, and cultural life as we know it. It might be better off without religion. Or we might just find other ways to mark in and out-groups to bond with or to hate. We’re good at that.

13. Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?

Again, tough to say. Civilization got along without it for most of its history. Despite Christian claims that Western science would have been lost without it, Western science actually predated Christianity, and Christianity is responsible for destroying as well as preserving it through the fall of Rome and the Middle Ages. (And the Near East and India did more than their share in both the preservation and the expansion of ancient knowledge.) Members of various churches have certainly done good deeds over the centuries, but Christianity as an institution has crimes o’plenty to answer for.

But we got some great music out of Christianity. I’ll give it that.

14. Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?

No. A person is capable of being wrong without being mentally ill. And, as a person who suffers from anxiety and depression, I dislike being too loose with the words “mental disorder”. 

15. Must God be known through the scientific method?

Depends on what you mean by known, I guess. If you feel some sort of sense of the divine, I’m in no position to argue you don’t. If that sense is your claim to knowing God, I can’t fight you, except to point out that such feelings are probably illusory. But if you make the claim that this God that you sense can raise the dead, heal diseases, or in any other way affect the behavior of the universe, I’m entitled to ask how and to expect an answer that can be tested and demonstrated out in the open.

16. If you answered yes to the previous question, then how do you avoid a category mistake by requiring material evidence for an immaterial God?

I think I just explained that.

17. Do we have any purpose as human beings?

Whatever purpose we have is entirely up to us, as individual human beings, to decide. Do we have a purpose on the grand scale of the universe? Probably not. We’re the only ones who ultimately care about us.

18. If we do have purpose, can you as an atheist please explain how that purpose is determined?

I think I already covered that.

19. Where does morality come from?

Primarily from our sentiments, our feelings of right and wrong, which as social animals are instinctive. From these we develop moral concepts, which are tested both in argument and in the world over time. We also have memory and history, which tell us how certain ethical and moral decisions turned out. From this, we can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, evolving in generation after generation a morality which widens the circle of in-group care and lessens our propensity for out-group criminality. We have codified some of these moral concepts in various literature, religious and secular. Some have proved useful. Others, less. But in reality, and I know this bothers Christians, we, atheists and Christians alike, are making it up as we go along.

20. Are there moral absolutes?

It’s hazardous to say no, because that statement could itself be construed as a moral absolute (a negative one, but still). I’m prepared to accept the possibility of a moral absolute, but it would have to be, like any truth, rationally compelling. The merely rationally acceptable moral standards have to be judged on success or failure in the real world, over time.

21. If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?

Since I haven’t yet been convinced that a morally acceptable idea is a moral absolute, I’ll have to decline.

22. Do you believe there is such a thing as evil? If so, what is it?

I don’t think evil is a thing. I think that evil is better understood as an absence, a deficiency of moral sense. Ted Bundy didn’t commit his murders because he had something other people lacked, but because he lacked something other people have. He was numb to feelings of guilt or revulsion. He was a fast car that was built without brakes.

23. If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that He is bad?

I certainly think the God of the Old Testament is a strange and miserable character, a genocidal maniac who slaughters en masse those who displease him and demands the grisliest tests of loyalty from his closest followers. He’s a  Holy Josef Stalin. Jehova’s nasty habits of mind stretch into the new testament, wherein, after having created imperfect people and blamed them for being imperfect, he sends his son to Earth to be tortured and killed by these imperfect people in order to redeem them for their imperfections up to that time, and for all their imperfections to come. (It should be said, Stalin didn’t have much better use for his son.)

24. What would it take for you to believe in God?

I’ll give a variation of Hume’s answer on miracles. I’d need a convergence of evidence so compelling that to think God didn’t exist would require belief in an even larger miracle.

25. What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?

You have a tendency to repeat questions, Mr. Slick.

26. Must this evidence be rationally based, archaeological, testable in a lab, etc., or what?

Yes. I don’t credit hallucinations.

27. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?

Religious and secular regimes have both had blood on their hands. Yes, there was Stalin, but before him King Leopold II killed a comparable number in the Congo, even while kneeling to praise the majesty of his God. For every Pol Pot, a Suharto. For every Saddam Hussein, an Efrain Rios Montt. The safety of a regime depends less on the religious identity of its head and more on the strength of the country’s political institutions and civil society.

28. Do you believe in free will? (free will being the ability to make choices without coersion).

Yes and no.

29. If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?

I think of it in a similar way to Marx, who said in the 18th Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

So we make choices, but we make choices with the tools available, our senses and our brains. Absent these tools we’d have neither will nor choice. So we are free, within the confines of the possible. If that’s contradictory, let it be. The universe is vast, and contains multitudes.

30. If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become “deity” and not be restricted by space and time? If not, why not?

That’s pretty fanciful, and based on a flawed understanding of how evolution works. Evolution does not guarantee a smooth upward trajectory of species progress. There are booms and busts. Life forms proliferate, differentiate, then disappear, and which life forms emerge at the end of each boom/bust cycle is largely a matter of luck. I don’t know of any natural selection pressure that would lead our brains to evolve in the way you’re describing. Life forms just don’t have to be that smart to live on this planet. It does seem more probable that we’ll develop artificial extensions to the power of our brains. In fact, we’re communicating through one such extension right now. We may well continue to develop it, if we survive long enough. There’s no guarantee of that. In the future, we may well, in our attempt to build better human beings, destroy ourselves, whether through war or habitat destruction. After that, nature will begin again with whatever life forms survive us.

As for developing to the point that we’re unrestricted by time and space, I’m not sure how that would even work, or what that would look like, since our existence pretty much depends on our presence in space time. In fact, that’s what defines our existence. To be, we must be somewhere, somewhen. There’s no reason to expect evolutionary processes, on any time scale, to change that.

If the universe expands forever, and if what ultimately happens isn’t a Big Rip, eventually the universe will become darker and colder, until finally it’s nothing but black holes and emptiness, with no life at all, forever. In such a case, life in the universe will have been a small warm moment between the hot beginning and the frigid twilight. That’s not quite the future hoped for in the question, but no one said the future had to align with human wishes. (Oh, right, Mr. Slick, you think someone did.)

31. If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren’t you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?

I didn’t answer the last question in the affirmative, so no.

Here’s part one of Steve Shives’s response, for those in the contrast and compare mode.