What’s Up, God?

 Posted by on 28 December 2005 at 12:19 pm  Religion
Dec 282005

I was not raised in a particularly religious home, and while my parents weren’t thrilled when, at the age of fourteen, I became an atheist, there wasn’t any significant pressure put upon me to recant.

But as proof that everyone needs a philosophy, my parents reached a point where — despite all the worldly success anyone could hope to achieve — they felt that something was missing from their lives. Seeking answers, they turned to religion. And then, feeling they had answers, decided I needed those answers too.

Recently, my parents read a book called I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek. It was a supposedly rational defense of Christianity, and my parents pushed me to read it. Personally, I have no interest in religion. Atheism has been a non-issue for me for years, but I finally agreed to read it on the premise that I would now be able to end any attempt to convert me by saying, “I’ve heard what you have to say, and I disagree.”

I just finished the book, and let me say: I was convinced. I must humbly renounce my former views and state publicly that I have discovered and accepted in my heart and mind the Truth that Jesus was born of God and died for our sins.

Oh, wait, never mind. What I actually discovered is how vicious religion actually is.

The basic thesis of the book is this: both Christians and atheists have faith, but atheism requires more faith than Christianity. Thus the title. What is gruesome is the method by which the authors try to justify that thesis.

Let me start by saying that this book has some virtues. It does pay lip service to reason, logic, and science and never explicitly assaults any of these. (In the end, that is what makes this book so much more evil than other defenses of religion I’ve read). It also has a heavy Aristotelian streak, and does a good job of rebutting skeptics and subjectivists. It is also the most sophisticated defense of Christianity I have read, avoiding the more obvious errors atheists usually encounter when discussing religion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a non-Objectivist would probably have trouble answering many of their points.

That said, this book does not, in my view, represent a series of honest errors made in an attempt to defend religion, but an outright assault on man’s mind.

Its method is simple: assert that reason cannot lead man to certainty and that every idea demands faith; then claim that the only alternative to skepticism and subjectivism is religion; and finally, employ twisted science, pseudo-science, logical fallacies, and outright lies to establish Christianity as a more rational hypothesis.

The starting premise of the book is that reason cannot lead man to certainty. Why not? Because induction, the authors claim, leads man only to probable truths. What’s so fascinating is that in their efforts to condemn skepticism, the authors grant every one of the skeptic’s premises. Whereas the skeptic would say, “It is a leap of faith to say that man is mortal,” the Christian retorts, “That’s right, but it’s such a small leap! Sure, you can’t know for sure that all men are mortal, but you can know they probably are. It takes more faith to conclude that some men are not mortal than to conclude all of them are.” This means that man is obligated to accept conclusions that cannot be justified by reason. It means that reason demands the acceptance of ideas that cannot be proved by rational means. It means that reason demands irrationality.

Keep in mind that if no amount of evidence is sufficient to establish certainty, then there is no basis for judging probability. If you don’t know where your destination is, you can’t know how far you are from it. It also means that you have no means of determining what counts as evidence for or against a conclusion. Is the fact that all men have died evidence that man by his nature must die? Unless we know what proof would consist of, we have no way to answer that question.

This is illustrated by the next chapter of the book, where the authors break out the cosmological argument to prove God’s existence. Their arguments runs thusly:

P1: Everything that had a beginning had a cause.
P2: The universe had a beginning.
C: Therefore the universe had a cause.

Now, I am not a scientist, and I suspect that much of the science they use to defend P2 isn’t even accepted by today’s mixed up scientists. Moreover, that premise is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. Or, more precisely, it can be ruled out philosophically: existence cannot come from non-existence. The big bang, if it occurred, represents the universe changing its form or organization, not coming into existence from nothing.

But what’s most relevant here is what Geisler and Turek do with the scientific evidence. They assert that science cannot now explain what happened at the time of the big bang or before, and conclude that the only reasonable explanation is that it was created by something outside of existence. In other words, they do not identify what would be conclusive evidence that God exists and thereby determine what would count as evidence of this conclusion. Rather, they posit that there is something science cannot explain and say that this is evidence for God. Evidence? By what standard?

In fact, as Leonard Peikoff pointed out in OPAR, “Inference from the natural can only lead to more of the natural, i.e., to limited, finite entities acting and interacting in accordance with their identities.” The key to every argument for the existence of God is the claim, “We don’t know X… and therefore God exists.” This is worse than a logical fallacy; it is the antithesis of logic. It makes ignorance the basis for certainty — the only basis for certainty.

Yet Geisler and Turek repeat this pattern again and again. Their second argument for God is the design argument. In that chapter, they engage in a full-out assault on evolution, raising the “Intelligent Design” claim that certain features of life are “irreducibly complex” and could not have arisen through natural causes. Apart from the fact that this point has been answered time and again by scientists (proving to my satisfaction that the authors are completely dishonest) the basic logical point still stands. From the fact that we cannot explain something, we cannot conclude anything. Only on the premise that all conclusions require a leap of faith can someone make such a demand.

And that is the whole point. That is why Geisler and Turek are so desperate to claim that every conclusion requires some amount of faith. If rational certainty is impossible, there is no way to determine what counts as evidence, and if there is no standard for what counts as evidence, then everything counts as evidence — including ignorance.

The third argument offered for God’s existence is the moral argument, in which they simply assert that without God there is no objective basis for morality. I trust I need not spend time refuting that, although I will point out that I think one of the best arguments against Jesus’ divinity was that the morality he preached is evil: faith, original sin, mercy over justice, love divorced from values, self-denial, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice… Aristotle was a more careful moral thinker than God Himself.

The rest of the book is spent defending the accuracy of the Bible. Reading page after page of trivia, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of what the authors are actually trying to prove: that even though we know people can err or lie, and that documents can be inaccurate (especially historical ones), and despite the fact that religion contradicts everything we do know, it is irrational to doubt the Biblical story and rational to believe that the Son of God came to the earth, performed miracles, and after telling people that murderers need not burn in hell but an honest atheist will, was crucified and awoke from the dead. Can I get a “Chutzpah”?

To be sure, I have only touched on the errors and absurdities (and viciousness) of this book. But the book does have one accidental virtue: it highlights how badly Ayn Rand is needed in today’s philosophical climate. It was Ayn Rand who saw that the alternative to materialism isn’t idealism. that the alternative to skepticism is not intrinsicism, and that the alternative to moral subjectivism is not religious authoritarianism.

Not enough faith to be an atheist? That’s true. I don’t have any faith at all.

The Growing Market Clout of Evangelicals

 Posted by on 12 December 2005 at 11:05 am  Religion
Dec 122005

The Economist reports that mainstream corporate America has recently discovered the immense market clout of Evangelical Christians and is starting to pay more attention to this hitherto neglected market segment. A couple of interesting facts from the article:

Christian radio has seen its market share expand from 2.2% in 1999 to 5.5% today. The Association of American Publishers reports that the market for religious books grew by 37% in 2003. The definition of religious books is vague–but religious publishing is undoubtedly growing much faster than the industry as a whole.

Even if the religious bit of the media industry is still relatively small, it accounts for a disproportionate share of the “mega-hits”. The Left Behind series of novels on the end of days has brought in $650m. Bantam Dell, a mainstream publisher owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann, has reportedly paid Tim La Haye an advance of $45m for the next series. The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, an evangelical preacher, is the best-selling hardcover book in American history, with more than 25m copies sold. Christian blockbusters are dragging a huge flotilla of other Christian products in their wake–from “praise the Lord backpacks”, in camouflage colours, to Christian dieting books such as Don Colbert’s What Would Jesus Eat.

The reason the religious market is booming is simple: religious America is booming. John Green, of the University of Akron in Ohio, calculates that there are 50m Evangelicals in America. He argues that Evangelicals are growing as a share of the population. They are also getting richer, in part because the Evangelical heartland of the South is booming and in part because richer people are joining the cause.

From all indications, this influence is only going to continue to grow over the next several years.

(If I were an unscrupulous atheist looking to make a dishonest buck, I’d think pretty hard about starting a bogus Christian rock band, just like Eric Cartman in South Park episode 709!)

Christian Libertarians

 Posted by on 21 November 2005 at 10:26 am  Libertarianism, Religion
Nov 212005

A while back, Ari Armstrong sent me to no-longer-available blog post of more horrifying quotes from Christian libertarians than I could possibly stomach.

For example, consider Jacob Hornberger’s reply to this question: “It has always bothered me that so many individuals who purport to be followers of the libertarian philosophy have the notion that liberty and religion are mutually exclusive. What’s your view on that?”

It’s a ridiculous notion. I’m a born-again Christian and a libertarian. To me, the two are entirely consistent, and I cannot see why anybody would find it inconsistent, except if they’re saying that you’re not free because you are subject to the dictates of the Pope, or God. But that is a voluntary choice.

For instance, there is nothing wrong with anybody entering into a voluntary contract for employment — even if it’s long-term — which may therefore interfere with your “freedom.” And there’s no reason why people cannot exercise their free choices to pursue God, and to obey God, and to live your life the way you want. God says, “Thou shalt not steal,” which is entirely consistent with the moral case for liberty. He gives us free will, which argues that people should be free to do what they want with their lives as long as their conduct is peaceful. So the area of peaceful sin would therefore be taken out of the hands of the state. How can any of that be inconsistent with libertarianism?

Hornberger is seriously confusing the fact of metaphysical freedom with the value of political freedom. More precisely, he is wrongly attempting to directly infer the value of political freedom from the fact of metaphysical freedom. That’s simply not possible. The fact that humans can freely choose their actions does not automatically imply that others ought to allow them to do so. That inference requires substantial intermediate steps, most notably: (1) free will as the choice to exercise reason or not, (2) life as the standard of value, (3) reason as man’s basic means of survival, and (4) coercion as the only means of preventing a man from acting by his reason. So political freedom is good because it protects a man’s capacity to act in accordance with the volitional exercise of his reason in pursuit of his life amongst other men by banning coercion.

Without those intermediate steps, the inference from metaphysical to political freedom is nothing but a straightforward example of the naturalistic fallacy: X is the case, so X ought to be the case. Significantly, none of them is even remotely supported by Christian theology. Most significantly, the proper end of Christians is not this life but the next, and the proper means to it is not reason but faith. As the story of Abraham and Isaac makes perfectly clear, the proper servant of God should be willing to do anything — even murder his own son — in obedience to God’s inscrutable will.

On a related point, Peter Schwartz has a nice discussion of why the devout Christian who refrains from killing because of God’s command “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is not actually opposed to murder in his lecture on “Contextual Knowledge.” Such a person is actually in favor of obeying God’s will; that’s the principle that governs his actions. So if God told him in a revelation to murder, he would do so. In refraining from killing other people, he is not acting upon any opposition to the moral evil of murder, but only upon his commitment to conform to God’s commandments. (By way of contrast, a more worldly Christian’s opposition to murder would be based upon common sense reasoning about the evil of destroying an innocent human life. So even if he believed that God commanded him to murder, he could not do so.) Obviously, the same applies to “Thou Shalt Not Steal” — and any other vaguely libertarian Biblical commandments.

If Christian libertarians like Hornberger cannot see the contradiction between religion and liberty, that’s his problem, not ours. It’s his failure to think seriously about the philosophical foundations of liberty.

I also love this bit from Cato Institute “Senior Fellow” Doug Bandow:

Is capitalism Christian? No. It neither advances existing human virtues nor corrects ingrained personal vices; it merely reflects them. But socialism is less consistent with several Biblical tenets for it exacerbates the worst of men’s flaws. By divorcing effort from reward, stirring up covetousness and envy, and destroying the freedom that is a necessary precondition for virtue, it tears at the just social fabric that Christians should seek to establish. A Christian must still work hard to shed even a little of God’s light in a capitalist society. But his task is likely to be much harder in a collectivist system.

Capitalism makes people rich — so let’s ignore Jesus’ statements about heaven’s hostility to rich men. Capitalism protects rights by retaliating against the initiators of force — so let’s say that Jesus was misquoted about the obligation to passively comply with compulsion and ignore Paul’s statements about the evil of resisting the powers that be. Capitalism’s justice rewards men according to their this-worldly competence — so we’ll just imagine that’s what God loves too.

Last but certainly not least, let’s consider this lengthy comment on Ayn Rand from Jacob Hornberger from a Full Context interview.

Q: On the topic of ethics, Ayn Rand maintained that self-sacrifice is wrong and destructive. The morality of most of America is the Judeo-Christian ethic, and self-sacrifice is one tenet. Rand maintains that the ethic of self-sacrifice is undercutting American Capitalism, giving the liberals the moral justification of the welfare-state, and leaving the conservatives morally helpless to argue against it. Because of this, we keep sliding further into socialism and our rights are continuing to be diminished. As a Christian and a Libertarian, how would you solve this dilemma?

Hornberger: I’ve concluded that this subject is so complex that not even the Randians understand it. For example, Randians would argue that Mother Theresa acted irrationally because she sacrificed her life for others. Yet, if a person donates all his earnings to an Objectivist foundation, Randians would say that he hasn’t sacrificed his life for Objectivists but simply placed a high value on feeling good over what the foundation did with his money. Well, why can’t we say that Mother Theresa put a high value on feeling good through helping others?

Or let’s say that a child is about to be run over by a bus. A 50-year-old Christian jumps in front of the bus, knowing that he will be killed but that the child will be pushed to safety. The Randian would say that the man has acted irrationally by sacrificing his life for another. But if the 50-year-old happens to be a Randian and the father of the child, the Randian will say that his act is rational because he places a high value on his child’s life. Well, why isn’t it possible for a Christian to put a high value on a child’s life who he doesn’t know?

Part of the problem, of course, is that Randians haven’t yet discovered that God really does exist, and therefore it is entirely rational for them to believe that those who have are acting irrationally. Moreover, Rand was not being logical in suggesting that simply because people in society like to help others, that that necessarily means that they’ll turn to the state to do so.

But what attracted me so much about Rand is the strong moral foundations she presented for a free society, even if the roots of her convictions are different from mine.

Actually, I believe that the failure to understand this supposedly complex subject lies solely with Jacob Hornberger. He cannot conceive of self-interest as anything more than the satisfaction of whatever subjective desires we happen to feel. The Objectivist conception of self-interest as defined by the actual facts about what promotes a person’s life is not even on his radar. That’s an understandable confusion for a typical college student. It’s inexcusable coming from a leading libertarian intellectual.

However, even that pales in comparison to his summary and criticism of Ayn Rand’s view that altruism in ethics (i.e. the moral obligation to sacrifice self to others) means collectivism in politics (i.e. the political obligation to sacrifice individuals to the group) as “Rand was not being logical in suggesting that simply because people in society like to help others, that that necessarily means that they’ll turn to the state to do so.”

I couldn’t make that up in a million years.

Turn That Cheek, Brother!

 Posted by on 9 November 2005 at 10:51 am  Religion
Nov 092005

It’s time for the Christians to turn the other cheek, since they just got slapped.

Voters on Tuesday ousted a Pennsylvania local school board that promoted an “intelligent-design” alternative to teaching evolution, and elected a new slate of candidates who promised to remove the concept from science classes. The board of Dover Area School District in south-central Pennsylvania lost eight of its nine incumbents in an upset election that surprised even the challengers, who had been hoping for a bare majority to take control of the board. The new board, which includes teachers, opposed the incumbents’ policy of including intelligent design in science classes.

In recent years, evangelical Christians have been diligently influencing local politics, largely via school boards. I’m delighted to see them so utterly repudiated by voters after attempting to implement their theocratic agenda.

Christian Hysteria

 Posted by on 26 August 2005 at 7:58 am  Religion
Aug 262005

Gee, I only wish that Paul and I had neighbors as fantastic as this guy! See for yourself:

DEAR ABBY: I live in a family-oriented neighborhood. My problem is my next-door neighbor flies his gay pride flag in his front yard. Because we have a lot of families with young children who do not need to be subjected to that kind of thing, I have asked him numerous times to remove it.

His response is it’s a free country and he does not subject anybody to his lifestyle.

I strongly feel that in a neighborhood devoted to children’s morals and the way life should be, he should not be allowed to have that flag in his front yard for everyone to see. I threatened if he didn’t take it down, I’d call the police. I feel it’s harming the children to see that flag flying, especially on a busy street that everyone travels on. What should I do? — RIGHTEOUS IN NEW CASTLE, PA.

Oh, who cares a jot about personal freedom when the morals of children are at stake?!? (What thin and brittle morals those must be, if they are undermined by the mere sight of a flag!)

Abby replied well enough:

DEAR RIGHTEOUS: First of all, calm down. Your neighbor is hurting no one, and “young children” will not understand what the flag symbolizes. Unless there are codes, covenants or restrictions in your neighborhood governing the display of flags, your neighbor has a right to hoist his banner. Rather than picking a fight about something so insignificant, you should concentrate on cultivating your own garden and stop obsessing about what’s going on in his.

The neighborhood might have covenant restrictions on the display of flags, but I doubt that they require homeowners to be “devoted to children’s morals and the way life should be” in the fashion of Mr. Righteous.

Intelligent Falling

 Posted by on 18 August 2005 at 9:11 pm  Religion
Aug 182005

After reading about the insanity of the growing opposition of “Full Quiver Christians” to birth control, it took me a moment to realize that “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory” was an Onion satire.

If evangelical Christians assume adequate political power, the elimination of abortion rights will be a minor issue compared to their eventual ban on all forms of birth control. As Southern Seminary President Al Mohler says:

The Scripture does not even envision married couples who choose not to have children. The shocking reality is that some Christians have bought into this lifestyle and claim childlessness as a legitimate option. The rise of modern contraceptives has made this technologically possible. But the fact remains that though childlessness may be made possible by the contraceptive revolution, it remains a form of rebellion against God’s design and order.

Why oh why should we allow people to rebel against God’s design and order? (In thinking about this possibility, I felt what life without birth control would really be like for the first time. Although I’d be happy to have even a large number of children, the omnipresent possibility of pregnancy would make long-term plans for my life utterly impossible. Gack.)

Less seriously, omnipotence must not be all it’s cracked up to be if God so powerless that he cannot break a few sperm through a condom!

Tertullian Delights

 Posted by on 12 August 2005 at 7:11 am  Religion
Aug 122005

Leonard Peikoff often quotes Tertullian (ca. 155-230) on Christian faith (“I believe it because it is absurd”) to show just how thoroughly the early Christians rejected the ancient Greek and Roman commitment to reason. In the course of reading A Short History of Medieval Philosophy, I found this delightful passage from Tertullian on the Greek philosophers in “De Praescriptione Haereticorum” (or “The Prescription Against the Heretics”). Of course, it’s a philosophical monstrosity. Yet it has the virtue of explicitness, as well as some fantastic rhetoric.


These are “the doctrines” of men and “of demons” produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called “foolishness,” and “chose the foolish things of the world” to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the AEons, and I known not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system of Valentinus, who was of Plato’s school. From the same source came Marcion’s better god, with all his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics. Then, again, the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans; while the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the aggregate school of all the philosophers; also, when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; and when any doctrine is alleged touching a god of fire, then Heraclitus comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come? Besides the question which Valentinus has very lately proposed–Whence comes God? Which he settles with the answer: From enthymesis and ectroma. Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions–embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.”

Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.

Try as they might, modern evangelical Christians cannot even aspire to such total irrationality. They might revere those early Christians who drank laundry water and sprinkled their meals with ashes to diminish the physical pleasure of food and drink, mortified their sinful flesh by flagellation, and flung themselves into snowbanks to stop their sinful sexual urges cold (so to speak). Yet they do not mimic such insanity.

We should all be grateful for that, I think.

On Testimony

 Posted by on 10 August 2005 at 9:01 am  Religion
Aug 102005

After a quick read of Don Watkins’ recent post on the use and abuse of testimony as evidence, I thought I might have some doubtful questions to raise about it. So I printed it out for Paul and me to discuss on the drive up to a dinner party on Saturday. However, after a careful read and some discussion, I realized that my worries were groundless. I’m almost disappointed!

At this point, I am reduced to this footnote of a comment on Don’s warning that “early Christian writers… were not objective observers” but rather “believers trying to spread their message”: The Teaching Company’s course The New Testament by Bart Ehrman does an excellent job of highlighting the various conflicts between the Gospels — and then explaining why they aren’t significant, given that the purpose of each Gospel is to portray the life of Jesus according to a particular theme, not to accurately record the facts of his life. I’ve only ever read bits of the Gospels myself, but Ehrman presents a compelling case.

Also, I should mention that Don’s comments on the inadmissibility of testimony about causes were quite intriguing to me, likely because I’ve never thought much about this issue. Here’s my take on the matter:

Consider a case in which John wishes to convince us that Mary was killed by a lethal dose of poison administered by her Aunt Bertha. John cannot merely assert that conclusion about the cause of Mary’s death — not if he expects us to agree with him. Why not? Because, as Don says…

Testimony, at its best, can only tell us that something happened, not why it happened. This is inherent in its nature: testimony is a verbal report of an individual’s perception of an event, and perception by itself does not lead to the discover[y] of causes. To identify a cause is a conceptual discovery, and while it is based on sense experience, it requires more than sense experience.

So John can testify as to the concrete facts he witnessed, e.g. that he saw Mary’s Aunt Bertha pour rat poison into her drink, then he saw her drink that drink, then he saw her vomit, convulse, and die. Armed with such particular facts — hopefully also expert testimony from the doctor who performed the autopsy — we can determine for ourselves whether John’s conclusion of death by poison is adequately supported by the evidence. We might confirm his conclusion. Or we might discover that he was lying to conceal his own murder of Mary. Or we might discover that Mary had no poison in her system because Aunt Bertha actually kept vodka in the rat poison jar to hide it from the alcoholic Uncle Bob. In essence then, John can testify as to the facts he witnessed, but to convince us of his conclusion, he must walk us through the reasoning about those facts that led him to conclude that Bertha poisoned Mary, allowing us to check his every step.

For John to try to testify directly as to the cause of Mary’s death instead would be an abuse of the proper standards of epistemology, even if he himself is armed with more than adequate evidence for that conclusion. We would be reduced to accepting his conclusion on faith. So how much worse is it for Christians and other religious folks to demand that we accept testimony not just that some wild and strange event happened, but that the cause was the unseen hand of God? As an arbitrary argument from ignorance, it’s much, much worse.

In discussing this issue with Paul, it occurred to me that people often magnify certain reasonable epistemological mistakes into sheer absurdities in attempting to rationally argue for their faith. That’s a pattern I’ll have to watch out for, I think.

Stinky Garbage on Islam

 Posted by on 8 August 2005 at 12:54 am  Libertarianism, Religion
Aug 082005

On May 14th 2005, David Kelley spoke on “The Ideas That Promote Terrorism” at a “March against Terror” sponsored by an organization called Free Muslims Coalition. Although I heard that Kelley was slated to speak at that event, I didn’t notice that his remarks were posted on the web site of The Objectivist Center until an alert NoodleFood reader brought them to my attention. I’ve grown weary of beating on poor Ed Hudgins, a man seemingly incapable of grasping even my basic criticisms. So I hoped that David Kelley might say something more interesting and revealing in such a speech. I was not disappointed.

Kelley begins by saying:

I am not a Muslim. Nor am I a Christian, or a Jew. My philosophy of life, Objectivism, is a secular philosophy. But we are gathered here to protest the evil of terrorism in the name of values that transcend differences in religion and worldview.

Since a person’s values are determined by his worldview, whether in the form of religion or philosophy, what values might possibly “transcend differences in religion and worldview”? What values might be consistent with a wide range of positions on the basic nature of existence, the nature and means of knowledge, and the standard of the good? In fact, no such free-floating values are possible, as Ayn Rand certainly understood. That’s why the complex abstractions of philosophy matter so very much!

Yet we should wonder: Of what values is David Kelley speaking? He doesn’t say immediately, but his last paragraph identifies them explicitly:

I appeal to all those, of any creed or philosophy, who stand for human life and happiness, for freedom, for progress and for its source–the free exercise of reason–to join in opposing those who want to control the mind, roll back progress, stifle freedom–and who are willing to kill and maim to do so.

In other words, people of “any creed or philosophy” can “stand for human life and happiness, for freedom, for progress and for its source–the free exercise of reason” — meaning that any view is compatible with any other, that logical consistency is unimportant, and that philosophy is irrelevant to life.


Really though, I shouldn’t be so astonished. Those comments just confirm my much-criticized interpretation of the last paragraph of Kelley’s “Party of Modernity” article. (In my public statement of disassociation from TOC, I wrote that David Kelley advocated “a pragmatic and superficial approach to political advocacy in which ‘allies and converts’ to the cause of freedom need not be philosophically grounded in the modernist worldview” in that article.) This latest speech merely offers a clearer and stronger statement of the same basic view.

Of course, most people are inconsistent in their personal philosophies, sometimes due to an honest failure to properly integrate. If we wish to encourage the better ideas of such people, then we must identify the contradictions, argue against the bad ideas, and argue for the better ideas via their proper foundation. We ought not overwhelm people with arguments, but we should take a clear stand in favor of rational philosophy — all the way down to the roots. That’s a necessary part of respecting others as a rational, thinking, honest people, I think. If we instead pretend that the conflicts between ideas don’t matter, we thereby encourage irrationality, disintegration, and carelessness. We also leave decent people open to the dangerous influence of the consistent advocate of their bad ideas.

Skipping a paragraph, Kelley continues:

The terrorists claim that violent jihad is the true path of Islam. I do not believe this for a minute. But I am not a Muslim. I have studied Islam and the history of Islamic civilization, but I am not a believer, I have not absorbed its traditions and practices, I do not know it from the inside. So it is not for me to say what is and is not part of Islam. Since 9/11, many people who knew nothing about Islam before have taken to citing passages from the Quran, either to prove that it does call for violent jihad or to prove instead that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. But you can’t tell what a religion means by citing passages out of context. Christians, too, can cite passages in the Bible to support different ideas about their religion. Like Christianity, and Judaism, and the other world religions that have endured for centuries, Islam includes many different sects and interpretations. Within the broad outlines of Islamic doctrine, the pillars of the faith, the meaning of Islam is a function of what it actually means to those who believe it, practice it, and study it.

The meaning of Islam is for Muslims themselves to determine in their thoughts and actions. If they believe that violent jihad is not compatible with Islam, then they are the ones who have the power, and the responsibility, for making it so. They and they alone must define what the religion means in the world today. But only if they make their viewpoint known. Unfortunately, it is the Islamists who have so far had the loudest voice. That’s why it’s vitally important for Muslims themselves to speak out against the terrorists and reject their actions as evil–absolutely evil, no ifs, ands, or buts. Too many Islamic spokesmen have taken “Yes, but” attitudes: Yes, the violence is wrong but Palestinians are still oppressed… or Yes, but there is still discrimination against Arab-Americans… or Yes, whatever. Well, yes indeed, these issues deserve our attention. But they do not justify or excuse murder and destruction. The “Yes, but” statements serve only to praise the terrorists with faint damns.

In essence, Islam is whatever its adherents want it to be, limited only by its Five Pillars of Faith. Muslims may ignore, reject, or revise any of the teachings found in its scripture, even if their meaning is clear and undisputed. In fact, Muslims positively ought to do so in order to render the religion less hospitable to terrorists. So Kelley does not reject the idea that “violent jihad is the true path of Islam” on the grounds that his study of the sacred texts and history have shown that the religion is fundamentally one of peace and tolerance. Rather, he rejects the very of idea of anything like a “true path of Islam.” The nature of religion is to be subjectively defined by its adherents.

As my astute e-mail correspondent observed, David Kelley’s subjectivist vision of Islam parallels his subjectivist vision of Objectivism as an open system. If we paraphrase his comment on Islam to apply to Objectivism, it reads: “Within the broad outlines of Objectivist doctrine, the fundamental principles of the system, the meaning of Objectivism is a function of what it actually means to those who believe it, practice it, and study it.” That’s nothing but the open system in a nice little nutshell!

Absurdly enough, this open system view of Islam isn’t even compatible with its Five Pillars. The first pillar states that “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” Since the Koran is the word of God as transmitted through the prophet Muhammed, any Muslim who ignored, rejected, or revised its teachings would be violating its basic tenets.

Moreover, Kelley’s application of the open system to Islam isn’t even consistent with his own discussions in Truth and Toleration. There, he specifically contrasts the open nature of philosophic systems with closed systems like “religions and totalitarian ideologies” (T&T 58). Yet I’m not sure that matters, since Kelley may not even believe this argument about Islam as an open system. (I don’t think it has any of the superficial plausibility of his argument about Objectivism.) Perhaps he regards it as the only plausible method of rendering the Islamic world less interested in blowing us to smithereens. (I’ve heard prominent intellectuals involved with TOC defend intellectual dishonesty about Islam on just those grounds.)

In general, if Muslims wish to persuade their brothers in faith that Islam preaches tolerance, values life, and supports democracy, so be it. I regard such arguments as deeply disingenuous based upon my extensive readings on Islamic doctrine and culture from college. They merely attempt to glue a cheap veneer of secular values overtop the stinking heap of Islamic mysticism, primitivism, and authoritarianism. Certainly, I would never wish to take part in such intellectual dishonesty.

However, the alternatives are not limited to either passive resignation to terrorism or dogmatic preaching to nobody. The proper approach is the clear, consistent, and uncompromising advocacy of reason — as practiced by Ayn Rand all her life. We cannot hope to persuade a person to choose reason over faith, life over death, happiness over sacrifice, freedom over statism, and prosperity over poverty — unless we are intellectually honest and clear enough to present those as the either-or options. We cannot hope to change a culture by encouraging people to graft values like reality, reason, independence, and egoism onto a foundation of God, faith, authority, and altruism. At best, the result will be the construction of a mental wall between a person’s abstract ideas and his concrete choices, i.e. between philosophy and life.

If we are uncompromising champions of reason, some younger Muslims may be persuaded to abandon Islam for a more rational philosophy. Yet most will not be — but they may be influenced to varying degrees over the years. If the message is watered down by compromise and delusion, no substantial change for the better is possible.

I won’t bother discussing the rest of Kelley’s speech, as I think I’ve said enough already. I did want to comment on this endorsement though:

I salute Kamal Nawash for the absolute, unqualified stand he has taken, and for his courage and commitment in speaking out. I salute the Free Muslims Against Terrorism for sponsoring this rally. I urge everyone to support them and make common cause with them.

Mind you, this bit of text constitutes an explicit and wholehearted endorsement of a pro-Muslim organization in a speech that never criticizes Islam, religion, faith, or whatnot. That the “Free Muslims Coalition” is deeply tied to Islam is evident from its web site. On its About Us page, the group describes itself as “promot[ing] a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs” and “encourag[ing] Muslims and Arabs to be proud of their faith and at the same time critical.” On its Democracy page, the group justifies its advocacy of democracy on the grounds that “Islam is a religion, not a blueprint for the creation of a modern state” such that “the Koran does not contain sufficient guidance for the creation of a state.” (If only it did provide such a blueprint, presumably we would be obliged to adhere to it!) On its Terrorism page, the group claims that in “a modern day context… no holy war needs to be waged; there is no clear and present threat to Islam.” (If only Islam were threatened, then we could slaughter the infidel!) In other words, Islam governs all, even if only as rationalization.

Of course, I’d rather be friendly with the Free Muslims Coalition than with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. That’s not the point, however, since that’s not the choice at hand, now or ever. The point is that David Kelley is promoting a pro-Muslim organization in both word and deed. He is thereby sanctioning Islam, albeit only when dishonest enough to deny its true nature and implications.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to compare and contrast this explicit sanction of Islam with David Kelley’s implicit sanction of the subjectivism of libertarianism in his talk to the Laissez Faire Supper Club so many years ago.

In that talk to the Laissez Faire Supper Club, David Kelley clearly identified reason, egoism, and mind-body integration as necessary to any proper defense of liberty. He openly criticized those who defend liberty on the grounds that we shouldn’t force anyone to conform to our inherently subjective notions of right and wrong. Given the content of his speech, it can seem more than a bit strange to say that David Kelley sanctioned subjectivism in giving it. That’s pretty much what he says in defense of it in “A Question of Sanction“:

The sole purpose of the occasion was to hear my explanation of why individual rights and capitalism cannot be established without reference to certain key principles of Objectivism: the absolutism of reason, the rejection of altruism, and the commitment to life in this world as a primary value. Since I explicitly criticized libertarian ideas that are incompatible with those principles, I was obviously not endorsing them.

Understanding the criticism leveled at this talk requires understanding the precise way in which the libertarian movement is thoroughly subjectivist. Obviously, not all libertarians are subjectivist in the substantive sense of opposing the initiation of force because right and wrong are just a matter of personal opinion. After all, many libertarians advocate some particular moral foundation for liberty, whether utilitarian public good, vague common sense, Christian scripture, or even Objectivism. However, that doesn’t rescue the libertarian movement from the charge of subjectivism, but only confirms it. The movement is wide open to any claimed foundation for liberty, no matter how absurd. So while each individual person might have his own preferred moral foundation, his libertarian alliance with others simply on the basis of claimed agreement with the principle of the non-initiation of force amounts to an admission that his moral foundation is optional. Even if he claims otherwise, his actions speak louder than his words.

Peter Schwartz makes his general point in his essay “On Moral Sanctions“:

If one wishes to reach those who have been defrauded by Libertarianism, it cannot be done by speaking under the auspices of the defrauders. It cannot be done even if one’s topic is why Objectivism offers the proper foundation for genuine liberty. Such a talk grants Libertarianism precisely the moral sanction it seeks and thrives on. Libertarians will readily listen to a talk on Objectivism and liberty–and the next day they will invite someone to speak on why the Bible is the only basis for liberty–and the next week they will hear someone argue why only skepticism and amoralism can validate liberty, etc. They lap this up. It is all entirely consistent with Libertarianism. It is consistent with the philosophy that philosophies and reasons are irrelevant to a belief in “liberty.” By speaking under the roof of an organization dedicated to purveying Libertarianism, one concedes that Libertarianism does in fact value liberty (and is simply confused about the proper means–i.e., Objectivism–by which to gain that end). Once that fatal concession is made, Libertarianism has obtained the basic moral sanction its survival requires.

The contradiction, then, is this: The handful of Libertarians who may be open to reason need to be told that Libertarianism as such is anti-liberty and that Libertarian organizations should be boycotted. But this cannot be conveyed via a talk which is itself sponsored by a Libertarian organization.

Paul also developed an excellent analogy on this point in his Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon.

So over the course of more than 15 years, David Kelley has moved from the implicit sanction of libertarianism to the explicit sanction of Islam. In light of his pragmatist rules of association, I’m not surprised.

However, I am astonished that any claimed Objectivist could sanction such activities by continuing to associate with The Objectivist Center — whether by donating money, speaking at conferences, or defending their activities. I have some small hope that a few will soon wake up to smell the now-overpowering strench of stinky garbage. I hope they do so sooner rather than later, as they already have much explaining to do.

Harry and Jesus

 Posted by on 31 July 2005 at 7:26 am  Religion
Jul 312005

Don recently commented upon the disturbing way in which Christianity commands belief for salvation:

One of the most disturbing features about Christianity is that the way to save your soul is to believe in God and in Jesus. The problem is, we cannot choose our beliefs. It isn’t possible. If it was, people with low self-esteem could simply choose to believe they were efficacious and worthy. Our only choice is to think and accept whatever conclusion we are led to by reason, or to evade and accept whatever beliefs happen to be in our subconscious. This is a religion of love? Condemn man at birth for a sin he did not choose to commit, condemn him while he is alive for not living up to a moral code he cannot live up to, and condemn him for eternity after he dies for not making a choice he was incapable of making. As JS would say: Give me a break.

Not long after reading that post, I was reminded of the explicit way in which Christians require such belief with this proposed prayer on the fundamentalist “Truth for Youth” web site:

Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and cannot save myself. I believe that you are the only son of God. You died on a cross and gave your precious blood so that I could be saved. I am willing to turn away from my sins. Jesus, right now, I invite you to come into my heart and life and be my personal savior. Wash my dirty sins away with the blood you poured out when you died for me on that cross. Thank you, Jesus, for saving my soul. Since you died for me, I will live for you!

Wow, I feel dirty just reading that.

By the way, that “Truth for Youth” group seeks to smuggle Bibles into the public schools, rid the internet of pornography, and so on. Here’s the general method they propose using:

God spoke it bluntly to the Prophet Ezekiel: He declared, “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word of my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, thou shalt surely die; and thou givest them not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, BUT HIS BLOOD WILL I REQUIRE AT THINE HAND. Yet if thou shall warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou has delivered thy soul! (Ezekiel 3:17-19)


I found them via a link to this truly bizarre comic warning children away from the evils of Harry Potter.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha