NYT Asks: Should Atheists Pray?

Joshua Reynolds - The Infant Samuel

In last week’s Room for Debate, the question the New York Times posed was this:

With atheist church services this month in Louisiana and New York, nonbelievers are borrowing some of the rituals of believers: gathering, singing, sermons.

Would it be fruitful for atheists to pray? For believers and others, what is the point of prayer?

I suppose the Times should be applauded for asking a question that seems to take atheism seriously, even if they allowed just one self-identified atheist into this “room ” to answer the question.

The simple answer, from this atheist’s perspective, is a great big fat obvious no. Prayer is by definition something asked of someone (or something), and it seems ludicrous to ask people who don’t believe in the supernatural to close their eyes, put their hands together, bow their heads and concentrate on asking something that might theoretically hear their sublingual thoughts for anything. What is the point? Leave prayer to the believers! Continue reading

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Loving Christianity Better Than Truth: The Craig-Price Debate

Craig Price

I’ve been watching and listening to numerous debates on YouTube between eminent atheists and Christian/theist apologists on subjects like “Does God Exist?”, “Does the Christian God Exist?”, “Did the Resurrection Happen?”, “What’s the Purpose of Life?” and so on. The debaters on the atheist side include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Carrier (whom I wrote about in my last post),  and on the theist side (among others)  Dinesh D’Souza, Rabbi David Wolpe and, most eminent of all, William Lane Craig.

If I had to score the debates he’s been in, though I disagree with him about virtually every point he makes, I’d give by far most wins to the phenomenal Dr. Craig. As atheist and debate aficionado Mark Smith notes about Craig, “He usually wins his debates. However, he wins his debates usually due not so much to being a great debater (which he is), but rather from debating people who haven’t the slightest clue how to debate.” A non-Christian rooting for one of Craig’s atheist opponents and caring about the outcome will probably wind up feeling like a Red Sox fan did last season suffering another visit from the Yankees at Fenway. Continue reading

Why You Should Doubt the Historicity of Jesus

As Richard Carrier explains in this talk given at a skeptic’s conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last spring, most academics who are paid to think, write and teach about Jesus will tell you that, while it’s really impossible to know for certain if Jesus was a historical figure, even the most secular of scholars in the field agree with near certainty that he probably did exist in some form or other. The key word there, of course, is the weasel word “probably.” Carrier doesn’t say so here, but these scholars are also very impatient with the alternative idea that Jesus probably wasn’t historically “real,” even though the degree of difference in certainty between their position and Carrier’s (and my) position is virtually non-existent. What the “historicists” have that Carrier and I don’t have is numbers in the academy who agree with them. That’s all they have, and when you get right down to it, that isn’t much at all.

When people who believe in a historical origin for the Jesus story find out how shaky the theoretical ground really is under their feet, they sometimes turn the conversation to less discomforting terrain, stating, for example, that it actually doesn’t matter if Jesus was real at all in the way the Bible says he was or was just made up out of thin air. The point is the wisdom in the religion and the good (or evil) that it hath wrought–or more neutrally, the impact it had on the rest of history. I disagree that this evasion is a suitable response to the challenge posed by Carrier and other mythicists. Their challenge is not aimed at the content of the religion. It’s aimed at the methods of historical research and the question of whether Christian history should be treated as a special case from other types of history,  one where it is not permitted to get too close to the central questions about its origins.

If  you think whether or not Jesus existed in history is an interesting question,  you’ll probably find Carrier’s cogent presentation on reasons not to believe in it provocative, to say the least.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Science v. Faith: Coyne on the Wrongness of Wright

Call me a sadist if you want, but I love watching a really dumb argument getting smashed to smithereens, maybe because I like blowing up dumb arguments myself.  Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution Is True) performs the devastation on Robert Wright’s spectacularly lame speculation about the effect of angry atheism  on the receptivity of non-scientists in America to evolution.

Wright’s speculation is based on this little snapshot of American attitudes about the origins of humans:

Wright is apparently stuck on the marked divergence in one year of  the top two lines, each reflecting differing degrees of belief in theistic involvement in the appearance of our species. Wright’s “hypothesis”:

Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion.

Before reading any further, take a moment to take Wright’s argument seriously.  Do you think he has a point?

Continue reading

An Atheist Answers the Pope

From a Reuters article “Pope reaffirms ban on women priests, assails disobedience”:

“Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church?,” he asked rhetorically in the sermon of a solemn Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on the day Catholic priests around the world renew their vows.

Disclaimer: I am an atheist, not a lapsed Catholic having never been Catholic, and should, therefore, maybe, not be so interested in this subject. But I can’t help it. This anachronism of an institution to me is like a train wreck in super-slow motion.

Pope, your holiness, forgive me for butting in, but the answer to your question, which something tells me you don’t know, is yes.

Letting Go of God

It's Jesus!

If you know her only as “It’s Pat” from Saturday Night Live, then you probably won’t know that Julia Sweeney is also a talented writer and performer of monologues à la Spaulding Gray. Unlike Gray, Sweeney moves around on the stage a lot, but like Gray, her subject is her journey into self-knowledge. Her first show, God Said, Ha! (1998), concerned disease, death and survival: the story centered on her brother Michael’s lymphoma and how it brought her closer to her parents–literally closer; they moved in with her to help her care for her brother.  It’s a surprisingly unsentimental, unselfpitying show, very funny throughout, and, therefore, a much richer experience than the usual hystrionic tales of family dysfunction and disease.

I picked up the Quentin Tarantino-produced film of Sweeney’s show from the library a few weeks ago thinking it would be about Sweeney’s loss of faith. I’m at the age when titles of movies and plays don’t stick in the head the way they used to and I was thinking of her next piece, with the similarly divine title Letting Go of God (2006). But I’m glad I saw her earlier piece first, not only because it was fascinating and beautifully performed, but also because it drops a few clues about how someone with Sweeney’s deeply Catholic background could take the radical spiritual turn she takes in the second monologue, which I finally got to see last night. Continue reading