Religion

Now Available: The Unbelievers with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

After a long wait, the anticipated documentary, The Unbelievers, is now available on iTunes, Amazon, etc. If you’re not familiar, it follows two scientists and well-known religious skeptics Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world debating apologists, delivering lectures, and having public conversations about science and reason in enormous concert halls (what makes me giddy is that these halls are all full). The best description of the style I’ve heard is a rock-documentary for scientists. The film is fast-paced, moving from hotel to hotel, city to city, event to event – and culminates during the 2012 Reason Rally in D.C., which turned out to be the largest secular gathering in recorded history (and was somehow completely ignored by the major media).

You can see the trailer below. I rented the flick last night ($4.99 in the US on iTunes) and did really enjoy it, despite being – appropriately – skeptical. I read some initial reviews, like this one in the NY Times, that seemed to focus too much on what the reviewer wished the movie had been instead of what it was (if I recall correctly, John Updike had a rule about book reviewing where he would try to avoid doing just that, no doubt because he found it annoying when his own books were reviewed that way). In order to move at its breakneck speed, The Unbelievers assumes the viewer is already familiar with the standard arguments for and against religion, and so there are no prolonged or deep discussions of the issues. Maybe a bit more character or issue development would have been nice, but that wasn’t what this film was trying to do. And no, none of the “good” arguments for or proponents of religion are featured, but the movie only covers a short tour and I think was intended to simply be an accurate representation of that small slice of time. Richard did have a debate with the Archbishop of Sydney – supposedly a sophisticated theologian – during period the film covers, but it’s pretty clear in the film (and if you watch the full debate below) that he’s far from deserving of that adjective.

In addition to the travel scenes, the movie is book-ended by interviews with a few celebrities commenting on unbelief, including Woody Allen, (the always brilliant) Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz, Werner Herzog, Sarah Silverman, and many more. I had assumed they would be interspersed throughout the film since their names were used so blatantly for advertising, but they come in just two small segments. Finally, if you stay through the credits, you’ll see a moving tribute to Christopher Hitchens, when the following scrolls up on the black screen amidst the music and slowly stops, right centered:

“For Christopher.”

Krauss has a similar touching scene in the movie, where before a debate with a Muslim apologist he retires to read “his Bible”, a paperback edition of Hitchens’ god is Not Great, saying a bit longingly that  “Christopher always inspires me.” The two were good friends prior Christopher’s passing and you see immediately how much Krauss (and the entire secular movement) misses him.

The film debuted at #1 in several outlets yesterday.

Dawkins

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Misquoting Einstein: Walter Isaacson doctors a quote (maybe)…

If you’re not already familiar with Aspen Institute CEO and acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson, you should be. His most notable works are Einstein: His Life and Universe and the recent Steve Jobs biographies. Both get two thumbs up from me – the first actually sparked a pretty intense fascination with Albert Einstein, which has continued to this day (somewhat embarrassing example: I have a portrait of Einstein above my bed…). And when you combine that personal fascination with an equally intense interest in religion and philosophy, and you end up with someone (me) who has read pretty much every quote attributed to Einstein having anything to do with faith or lack thereof. That will be my only claim to credibility on this issue – simply  that I’ve read a lot about the subject – and so I hope you don’t find me too bold for suggesting that, in the clip below, Walter Isaacson has pretty egregiously (in my opinion) misquoted the man. If anyone can find proof Einstein said what Isaacson claims he said, I’ll be happy to retract – but until then, let the venting commence.

First, the contested quote. Isaacson claims, starting at about 2:30, that Einstein said this: “There’s a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, in the face of which we must be awed and humbled. To me, that is the closest feeling I can have to a cosmic religion and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God.”

The first part seems to be paraphrased from Einstein’s reply to a sixth grade girl in 1936, who was asking him, “Do scientists pray?” I’m familiar with the quote, printed in full below:

Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being…Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

I take no issue with Isaacson’s paraphrase of the section above, but you might notice that the phrase, “and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God” is noticeably absent. Why? Well, my claim is that Einstein never said it – and never would have said it because it’s so incommensurate with his views as expressed elsewhere. I was actually pretty shocked upon hearing it, and began searching my main sources (mostly the inter-webs and Max Jammer’s thorough, Einstein and Religion) in vain for any quote invoking the word “creator” or “faith in a creator”. I even re-read Isaacson’s chapter, “Einstein’s God” but turned up nothing. I emailed Isaacson about a week ago (he responded to a letter from me back in high school so I’m hopeful) to see if he can give me the source, and if he can I’ll happily update this post accordingly. Until then, I’m assuming it was a misquote.

Now, why do I care? Isn’t this a small difference? No, not really. Saying something like “faith in a creator” reeks of deism or even theism, which are contrary to Einstein’s actual views, most readily described as pantheism (again, see Jammer’s Einstein and Religion). Einstein is already one of the most quote-mined figures of the 20th century, and is frequently taken out of context by both believers and nonbelievers alike. We don’t need to fuel this fire, and tacking on phrases, even small ones, is how misattributions are born.  People, particularly of such esteem as Isaacson, need to be careful when quoting others, especially those who are long dead and can’t defend themselves anymore. It’s an issue of respect and an issue of intellectual honesty – we all want Einstein to agree with us (who wants to be in disagreement with a genius?), but if there is no evidence he agreed with our views, we’ve no right to argue as such, and certainly no right to liberally paraphrase. My speculation is that Isaacson is religious in some way himself, and was, in the above clip, projecting some of his own views onto Einstein.

As for Einstein’s actual thoughts on religion, I recommend you read Jammer’s book, but I will try to give a short summary. First, he explicitly stated multiple times he did not think of himself as an atheist (think Sigmund Freud for what he meant by atheist). He invoked God many times in public statements about the harmony of nature and the Universe (though he meant Spinoza’s God, which is pantheistic, more or less, if you can understand what Spinoza is saying), and even described himself as “religious” in a cosmic sense. All of this has been used by believers to make assertions Einstein was one of them, but that is clearly false. He was straightforwardly not a believer in a “personal” God of any sort – which means he was adamantly not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. He did not believe in a God who intervenes or rewards or punishes or has anything whatsoever to do with humanity. In other words, he didn’t believe in a God anything like what most people think of when they think of God. Jammer concludes that this made Einstein more or less a “practical atheist”  because what’s the difference between there being no God and there being a God who doesn’t interact at all with the fates of humanity? I get Jammer’s point, but disagree slightly – I do in fact think there’s a big difference between those two hypothetical realities (one would suggest some sort of teleological direction in nature, the other would suggest chaos and nothing more, though a pretty cool brand of chaos). Moreover, if what you care about is the fundamental truth and nature of the Universe – which I suspect is what Einstein cared about – and not necessarily humanity’s role or involvement in it, then again, there’s a big philosophical difference between those two worldviews that I imagine would play out practically in some form during one’s life. Now, if Einstein were around today, what do I think he would call himself? My guess is that with the softening of terms that has happened since his death, he would likely call himself an agnostic when talking generally (in the Carl Sagan vein), and an “atheist” when confronted about Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Of course, he’s not here, so I can’t claim he’s either of those things with any certainty…unless I doctor a quote…

The Greater of Two Evils: Lt. Gov Elect, Dan Patrick (TX-R)

I live in Texas. That’s a fact. But thankfully, with a little discipline, I manage to forget that fact most of the time (it certainly helps that I live in a major city in Texas, and that major cities in Texas are not really in Texas). Yet every once in a while, I am jolted back to reality by a piece of news I can’t ignore.

The most recent jolt of this kind came on Tuesday, when Texas state senator Dan Patrick defeated long-time incumbent David Dewhurst in the race for Lieutenant Governor. Now, I’m not a Republican. There’s probably not a single social policy issue on which I agree with Lt. David Dewhurst. He’s very conservative, and I mean very – not even close to being considered a “moderate”. Against a competent democrat, I wouldn’t vote for Dewhurst in a million million years.  But in this race, he was unquestionably the lesser of two evils, and I found myself, strangely, rooting for him.  And the reason, my friends, is that the stakes were so high.

Alas, we have now elected this loon into office:

“We as Christians have yielded to the secular left and let them rule the day in this country. When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed. It should be heralded.”

– Texas State Senator Dan Patrick

Yes, Patrick said that at a recent debate in Dallas. He was one-upping Dewhurst on his conservative bona fides – the latter had just uttered an atrocious but otherwise expected advocacy for equal time in the public classroom for intelligent design, creationism, and evolution. The fact that Dewhurst even separated creationism and intelligent design into two categories is proof he’s missing something, but maybe naively I wasn’t expecting an even stupider comment to follow from his opponent. Then again…Texas.

It’s pretty easy to bemoan this type of claptrap – no thoughtful person can actually believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that creationism is tenable enough to come anywhere near a science classroom, much less “triumphed” – the hard part is to figure out whether politicians at this level are thoughtful people. Does Dan Patrick really believe what comes out of his mouth, or is he doing what all politicians do, and saying what must be said to pander to an influential base and get elected? I honestly don’t know. Dewhurst, I’m reasonably sure, is not as backwards as he came across in this debate, but nowadays all big races in Texas devolve into sprints to the right, with each candidate trying to out-conserve their conservative opponent through sound bytes about guns or religion or immigration or Obama.

But does Patrick, who will now wield considerable influence across the state, actually believe creationism should be taught in public schools? My good friend, who follows politics pretty closely and actually interned for a while as a staffer in the House (I think it was the House), says no way. Her opinion, and she seemed sincere on this, was that politicians, particularly those at the state Senate level or above, know they have to say certain things to get elected, regardless of their actual views. She admitted some state House members might actually be that dense, but was pretty sure those at the Senate level didn’t mean most of what they said on social policy issues. I was skeptical, but she also tried to assure me that even if Patrick does believe those things, there are enough checks and balances to prevent any kind of ludicrous position to actually get passed.

I hope so. Otherwise I’m going to have much more trouble forgetting that I’m in Texas.

Some articles for further reading (also linked above):

Play by Play: William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll

Last week I posted my initial thoughts after watching the Craig v. Carroll Greer-Heard Forum debate, and admitted that I wasn’t adequately summarizing my favorite part, Carroll’s closing remarks. You can skip to them by watching the video yourself, but interestingly, this poker forum (yes poker) has a really good play by play summary thanks to user Zumby – Carroll himself actually posted it via Twitter earlier today.

I’ve pasted Zumby’s description of Carroll’s closing below (emphasis is mine):

“Carroll’s Closing Remarks

Confesses a bit of frustration as Craig just recapped arguments Carroll believes he already dealt with so says he will take the opportunity to speak directly to the Christian audience.

But first he notes that Craig repeatedly claimed to be “astonished” by the claim that universes don’t need outside causes and quotes David Lewis that “I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare” and says that he gave an explanation of why this is the case. Carroll claims that “popping into existence” is not the right phrase to use when talking about the beginning of the universe. The right phrase is “There was a first moment in time”, which is a much less astonishing claim. The question is then “Are there models like this?”. Carroll always laughs away the claim about his diagram, asserting that Craig has not understood what the arrows are representing. On Boltzmann brains, Carroll reiterates that Boltzmann brains are a model-dependent problem, and in this model they are not a problem.

Addressing the audience, Carroll points out that very few people become theists because they think theism provides the best model of cosmology. There are better reasons to become a theist: community, sense of the transcendent, fellowship with fellow man etc. 500 years ago, Carroll would have been a theist. These days, there is not empirical support for theism. So what should a modern theist do in light of the finding of science? One thing would be to deny science, as the creationists do. A second way is to deny the implications of science and to say none of the finding of science has altered the fundamental view of reality put together 2000 years ago. Carroll see’s two problems with this approach. First, it’s wrong, as he has tried to show in this debate, but strategically it’s a bad move as it marginalises [sic] theists as a part of the wider intellectual community. This is an important time for discussing the future of our species, and clinging to outdated beliefs may isolate theists from being part of the discussions. But there is a third option. We admit we were wrong 2000 years ago. But, this person could reasonably say, religion is much more than just theism. There is a place for insight about the human condition, to feel camderadrie with your fellow man. Perhaps naturalism can learn from religion and the lives of the saints. Naturalism may have replaced theism, but has not replaced religion. The lives we lead now are not dress rehearsals. What matters is what we can do to make the world better. There are hard questions of meaning and morals. Naturalism has picked the low hanging fruit. We will get there faster if we all climb together.” – User Zumby on TwoPlusTwo.com

 

Debate is up! William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll at New Orleans Greer-Heard Forum

Good folks, the much talked about debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll is now available for viewing on YouTube (embedded below). The proceedings from the second day, which you will recall included presentations and responses by two members from each side (Alex Rosenberg and Tim  Maudlin with Carroll and Robin Collins and James Sinclair with Craig) don’t seem to be available yet but should be shortly. After you watch, I recommend you check out the comment section of Sean Carroll’s post for some opinions on how he fared.

Enjoy (and post your thoughts below)!

The Main Event:

Finally, an atheist protagonist – Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective

Last week I ventured out to a hole-in-the-wall bar for an acquaintance’s birthday party, and as you do when you’re at these things, began chatting up a couple strangers. The two I spent the most time with happened to be brothers, and we got to talking about our favorite television series’. After going through the usual suspects – The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Shield (okay, that one was new for me…I’ve never heard anyone rave about The Shield) – the younger brother started in on HBO’s new series, True Detective, which he cautiously described as one of the better series he had ever seen. That praise of course piqued my interest, especially since several of my friends had been raving about it for a few weeks. But what really got me hooked was this stranger’s mention of the series’ overt atheism, which he described something like this:

“It’s clear the writer [Nic Pizzolatto] is a militant atheist or something, and he has McConaughey’s character go on these long diatribes every few episodes about atheism and how religion is irrational. I actually find it kind of annoying – I mean I like it because it fits with my personal beliefs – but I’m not sure how well it fits in with the rest of the action.”

So I took up the suggestion of my new-made bar friends and started binge-watching True Detective. It is very, very good – smart, suspenseful, and addictive. And sure enough, Matthew McConaughey, who stars as one of the show’s two protagonists (the other being the excellent Woody Harrelson) is indeed playing an outright atheist. Check out the clip below, which is pretty typical of his diatribes (they actually come only two or three times in the series, at least through episode five – so I haven’t found it as annoying as the bar guy made it sound):

Now I found this a little surprising for two reasons. First, for the obvious one that atheism isn’t discussed too readily on television these days. And secondly, because I was under the impression McConaughey was a seriously religious man. Where did I get that impression? From this section of Keay Davidson’s biography of Carl Sagan, discussing the film adaption of Sagan’s novel, Contact, in which McConaughey starred:

“A religious man himself, McConaughey refused to utter the one sentence that Ann Druyan had hoped would make the film: ‘My God was too small.’ The line was sacrilegious, McConaughey told her. The more she talked to him about it, the more she realized the depth of his intelligent and sincere faith; in time they became good friends.” (Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life; page 410)

So how do you go from refusing to say a line because it’s sacrilegious, to playing an outspoken atheist on one of the country’s most watched networks? My theory is that McConaughey has matured a bit, and realized it’s fine to play characters that don’t share his own religious views. I also think the change in national climate toward non-belief has helped – playing an atheist was a pretty strange thing when Contact came out, possibly less so now. Of course, the other possibility is that his friendship with Druyan has led him toward skepticism (The Hollowverse still lists him as “appearing to be Catholic” however)…

[Update 3/3: You can go here for a recent interview with McConaughey, where he confirms he does believe in God, and watch his Oscar acceptance here (congrats!) where he also thanks God.]

How does the atheism impact the character in True Detective? Well, it is actually an isolating factor for him – the show takes place in rural Louisiana – but on the other hand the writers do associate atheism several times with intelligence. More prominently, I think, the atheism helps give his character an unfriendly edge – he’s certainly not a happy guy – bordering on nihilism. I’m a little concerned religious believers watching this will think that’s the type of personality atheism must in all cases lead to – sure you’re smart and can figure things out, but now you’re a brooding, unhappy, dismissive, lonely, and arrogant guy. But maybe I’m projecting a bit. There’s no actual reference to his character’s personality being driven by anything other than a bad, bad past.

But enough of this. You should stop reading and go watch True Detective. I’m firing up episode six now…

This is not a dress rehearsal: Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig – Greer Heard Forum 2014

UPDATE: The debate is now available to watch here!

Well, the much anticipated debate between Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig happened this weekend in New Orleans and was – at least to me – as enjoyable as expected. The event was hosted by the Greer-Heard Forum and consisted of a formal debate between the headliners on Friday night and subsequent readings, discussions, and responses to papers by two members each from Team Naturalism (Tim Maudlin of NYU and Alex Rosenberg of Duke) and Team Theism (Robin Collins and James Sinclair). The entire ordeal was streamed live – yes I spent my Friday night and Saturday afternoon watching – and ended with a short panel discussion and Q&A.

All in all, it was an entertaining forum and I was very grateful the event was streamed. In case you weren’t one of the 10,000 people or so watching live and still want to see the proceedings, stay tuned as the videos should all be made available on YouTube in a couple of days (likely on the Tactical Faith page). I will make sure to update this post with the links as soon as they’re ready.

Now, why was I so excited about this debate you ask? Haven’t I grown tired of listening to William Lane Craig distort science in order to prop up his arguments for theism? Don’t I think these debates are really a waste of time and that no one actually leaves with their mind changed? Well, WLC is grating on the ears (and head….because of the induced face-palming), and I think I would have avoided this debate had his opponent been anyone other than Sean Carroll. You see, Sean has a few things that many naturalists (and he prefers that term to atheist as it’s more comprehensive of his worldview – and I think I agree) sadly don’t: not only does Sean have all the good arguments, he can communicate them well and is likable. That last quality seems a little shallow – yes ideas should stand on their merit not the personality of the one espousing them – but debates like this are part performance art, and it’s difficult to get people to consider your point of view if you come across as, well, unlikable. Finally, Sean is without a doubt an expert on cosmology, and could pretty easily (it was a little embarrassing actually) shut down WLC’s naive arguments hinged on misunderstandings of the literature. Finally – I said finally already so finally, finally – Sean is fairly well versed in philosophy and not as dismissive of the practice as some other cosmological experts that have debated WLC.

So who won? Well, WLC technically always loses on substance in these types of things, but does admittedly usually win on style and rhetoric. He’s an extremely practiced debater and I’ve heard tell that he even has a team of researchers who help him prepare. But in reflection – and I’m striving to be as unbiased as possible – I do think Sean Carroll came away on top. This was one of the few formal debates where I’ve seen WLC flustered and actually less organized and clear than his opponent (he’s been known to fall apart in informal discussions but hardly ever in the podium vs. podium battles). Sean repeatedly addressed specific points by WLC, clearly refuted them, and then moved on to offer his own structured arguments against theism. The most frustrating aspect was watching WLC simply ignore Sean’s corrections and refutations, and pretend as if his argument was just as good as before – thankfully Sean pointed this out and I think it was pretty clear to the audience as well.

My favorite part of the debate came during Sean’s closing remarks, when he purposely forwent the opportunity to continue refuting Craig’s ideas and instead spent time addressing the bigger questions of the naturalism vs. theism debate. Nobody becomes a believer because they think God provides the best explanation for our modern understanding of cosmology (that was, by the way, the topic of the forum) – they do so for other reasons, be they fellowship, community, a feeling of transcendence or hope, etc. So why naturalism seems far and away a more reasonable alternative to theism, particularly if you take the implications of modern science seriously, it still doesn’t help provide us with answers to those deep questions of meaning. Answering those deep questions, Sean says, is a challenge for all humanity, and to answer them we’ll need to in some sense start the conversation over. (I’m really not doing this section justice from memory so I’ll make sure to post the link when it’s ready).

In conclusion – Sean did a terrific job and I hope he continues engaging in these types of debates. You can see his own post-debate thoughts here. Also, you’ll notice I didn’t do a point-by-point review of the debate – the cosmological arguments were way too technical for me to make a competent attempt at something like that but you should have luck googling one.