May 14, 2007

Problems with neo-atheism.

I am an atheist. I believe that the universe and life on earth were formed by natural physical, chemical and biological actions, that man evolved by natural selection over billions of years, that there is no intelligent being who created the universe and possibly is monitoring the events in it.

This much is clear. Where the indecision arises is when I try to analyze religion and its ill effects.

There is a renewed attack on religion afoot. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and now Christopher Hitchens are the star performers. Among these I have read only Dawkins. His book was exhilarating. It taught me a lot, and it fed into my hostility to religion. But after a while I started becoming uncomfortable with Dawkins, the neo-atheist.

God Delusion mounted a comprehensive attack on religion. It titillated me. Its vitriol paradoxically sweetened my world. It momentarily dulled my suspicion of his extensive charges. This was its problem. In his attempt to surround the enemy from all sides, Dawkins spread his army too thin and left room for a counter attack.

In passionate discussions with friends I tried valiantly to back Dawkins; I recounted his and Harris's list of religion's crimes; I tried to paint a picture of a peaceful world without religion. But I wasn't convinced by my own arguments. I was simply carried away by the eloquence of Dawkins.

Many of these thoughts of mine are articulated in this review of Hitchens's book by Anthony Gottlieb in New Yorker. Apart from recounting the obvious problems with neo-atheism, Gottlieb rises two key points.

First, there is a more considered and nuanced way to attack religion. One of the famous examples of this David Hume who, more than 200 years before Dawkins, brings up many of his ideas.
In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” which was published posthumously, and reports imaginary discussions among three men, Hume prized apart the supposed analogy between the natural world and a designed artifact. Even if the analogy were apt, he pointed out, the most one could infer from it would be a superior craftsman, not an omnipotent and perfect deity. And, he argued, if it is necessary to ask who made the world it must also be necessary to ask who, or what, made that maker. In other words, God is merely the answer that you get if you do not ask enough questions. From the accounts of his friends, his letters, and some posthumous essays, it is clear that Hume had no trace of religion, did not believe in an afterlife, and was particularly disdainful of Christianity. He had a horror of zealotry. Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.

Second, perhaps too much is made of religion's dominance in today's world.
After making allowances for countries that have, or recently have had, an officially imposed atheist ideology, in which there might be some social pressure to deny belief in God, one can venture conservative estimates of the number of unbelievers in the world today. Reviewing a large number of studies among some fifty countries, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, puts the figure at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. This excludes such highly populated places as Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for which information is lacking or patchy. Even the low estimate of five hundred million would make unbelief the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam’s—let alone as long as Christianity’s? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be.

May 5, 2007

Virginia shootings.

Lot has been said and written about the Virginia shootings. This article by Adam Gopnik is one of the most sensible and to-the-point. Forget about another proof of the folly of America's gun policies, there are even arguments for more relaxed gun laws on basis of this tragedy. It's amazing! According to Gopnik, of the 14 worst mass shootings in the last half-decade, US saw seven. Still the trend in the country seems to be toward more relaxed gun control. A recent decision by federal appeals court in Washington D.C. struck down a law which prohibited residents to keep a handgun at home.

Gopnik is optimistic things will change at some future point.
There is no reason that any private citizen in a democracy should own a handgun. At some point, that simple truth will register.

May 4, 2007

Bill Maher on French phobia.

This is a brilliant article by Bill Maher, ridiculing the conservative penchant for hating all things French. First of all, many of the founding fathers were inspired by the ideas of French intellectuals. So if you say America is the greatest country in the world, you must admit that the intellectual foundation for that greatness is partly due to French influence. It is absolutely hilarious to see nutjobs like O'Reilly fuming at France because they didn't support America in Iraq war. May be that, and French suspicion of Bush's foreign policy shows a more mature understanding of international affairs.

Apart from all this, Maher highlights a more important point. The completely different, and infinitely more mature, way in which politics is conducted there.
...French candidates are never asked where they stand on evolution, prayer in school, abortion, stem cell research or gay marriage. And if the candidate knows about a character in a book other than Jesus, it's not a drawback. There is no Pierre Six-pack who can be fooled by childish wedge issues. And the electorate doesn't vote for the guy they want to have a croissant with. Nor do they care about the candidate's private lives: In the current race, Ségolène Royal has four kids but never bothered to get married. And she's a socialist. In America, if a Democrat even thinks you're calling him a liberal he immediately grabs an orange vest and a rifle and heads into the woods to kill something.

And as always with Maher, the article is very funny.

May 2, 2007

Is legalizing prostitution a good idea?

One approach to this question is rejecting its premise: banning prostitution is an infringement on individual rights in the first place. So while the answer to the question is "Yes", it sidetracks the real issue.

As is often the case, this kind of approach is too simplistic. It confines the issue to the intellectual plane and refuses to deal with its political aspects. (As Bismarck said "politics is the art of the possible".)

A more nuanced approach to the question, which arrives at the same answer, is to argue that legalizing prostitution is a "good" thing. This is the approach I tend to take. Clearly everything rests on proving the case.

The basic logic is: first, there are no victims involved; second, by criminalizing the act,the prostitutes are confined to the dark and are therefore more susceptible to ill treatment. So legalizing will enable prostitutes to form unions and fight for their issues. Probably the biggest concern with prostitution now is the role it plays in spreading AIDS. Legalizing prostitution helps here because it will be easier to access people and educate them.

The biggest counterargument I face is that in most poor countries (like India) prostitution is forced on young girls and legalizing prostitution will make the situation lot more dire. This is a tricky matter and it turns largely on empirical data.

This article by Nicholas Kristof
cites some to conclude that it's not a good idea in India. He argues persuasively and provides lot of relevant data.

It is a must read for anyone interested in the topic.

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