Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new book , Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue, that I’ve co-authored with Peter Admirand, a Catholic theologian at Dublin City University. We worked together to think about our differences and what we share in common.

I’m an atheist. Peter is a believer. We disagree about some important and fundamental things. But we share the belief that dialogue and mutual understanding are crucially important in our polarized and divided world.

The book is framed by seven virtues of dialogue: curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well as honesty, honoring our commitments, humility, and the desire for harmony. If more people exercised these virtues the world might be a better place. The goal is not to erase our differences but, rather, to journey together to find common ground.

The book includes some biographical tidbits. I share the story of how I came to realize that I am more humanist than theist, a nonbeliever who remains interested in all of the world’s religions. As I explain, this was not a spectacular conversion from theism to atheism. Rather, it was a slow realization that the religion I was raised with no longer spoke to me.

Peter, of course, tells a different story. Our differences emerge in chapters that discuss the meaning of curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well honesty, humility, honor, and harmony. It was eye-opening to engage in this process with Peter.

The book ends with an account of letters (well, emails) we exchanged. We discovered a common love of music, a common love of friends and families, and a common concern about the crises emerging around us.

As I say, in the conclusion, I think we succeeded in finding common ground. But this does not mean that the conversation is over. Rather, there is alway more to be learned.

We were fortunate to have Rabbi Jack Moline, the President of the American Interfaith Alliance write a Foreword to the book. Peter and I are both engaged in interfaith and inter-religious work. We both think that this work needs to involve atheists, secularists, and humanists as well as members of the world’s diverse faith communities.

You can buy the book on Amazon or from Wipf and Stock Books.

Abortion Ethics and the Texas Heartbeat Law

Fresno Bee, September 12, 2021

Abortion is a contentious moral and political issue. The new law in Texas, “The Texas Heartbeat Act,” gives us a lot to think and argue about.

One issue is the law’s novel “enforcement” mechanism. The law does not put the state directly in charge of policing abortion. Rather, that is left up to what the law calls “a private civil right of action.” Citizens may direct lawsuits against abortion providers.

Critics have pointed out that this is a kind of vigilante enforcement, where ordinary people are empowered to punish abortion. There will likely be legal challenges to that enforcement mechanism.

The deeper moral question is about where we draw the line that establishes the moral worth of a fetus. The Texas law draws that line around so-called fetal heartbeat. The law states that “fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.” It defines fetal heartbeat as “the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.”

Critics have pointed out that while rhythmic activity is detectable at about six weeks, this is not a heartbeat. There are no heart valves at that stage of development.

You might think that the question of fetal heartbeat would be easy to answer. But is there a “heartbeat” before the heart is fully formed? Furthermore, why does heartbeat matter?

This is connected to questions at the other end of life. Is a person whose heart has stopped beating really dead? Hearts can be re-started and even transplanted. And blood can be pumped artificially.

So, heartbeat is not the only thing that matters in thinking about the moral status of a body. Indeed, there are deep disagreements about how we determine that moral status.

Some opponents of abortion draw the line earlier than six weeks, claiming that “life begins at conception.” This perspective claims that when there is a unique set of DNA — when sperm and egg unite — a unique person is created. The “life begins at conception” idea opposes abortion as well as “contraception” that prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus.

On the other hand, some defenders of abortion argue that what matters is “viability,” the ability of a fetus to live outside of its mother’s womb. Others focus on brain development. The brain-based view may be fleshed out in various ways. Perhaps what matters is sentience, the ability of a fetus to feel pain. Or maybe what matters is the development of complex neurological systems capable of desire, intentionality, and higher-thought.

Viability and complex brain development happen much later than six weeks.

A further consideration is what happens when there is a conflict of goods and values. Some pro-choice arguments will admit that a fetus has some moral value while also maintaining that the mother’s autonomy can trump that value. Sometimes this is articulated as saying that an actual person’s rights outweigh the emergent rights of a merely potential person.

Furthermore, there is the legal question of what we should do when there are fundamental disagreements about all of this. In Texas, the state has decreed that what matters is the so-called heartbeat. But what if a woman in Texas disagrees with that? She may think that brains matter.

Or she might think, as they used to in the old days, that what matters is “quickening” — the moment when a woman feels the fetus move within her. Or she may believe that a fetus becomes a person when it draws its first breath at the moment of viability.

How can we restrict abortion without violating a woman’s right to decide for herself about fundamental questions of personhood, ensoulment, and the value of her own autonomy?

Abortion is contentious because we disagree about the answer to that question and the other questions mentioned here. These disagreements are not going away. They cannot be solved by science and medicine. Nor does yelling and protesting resolve them.

These are metaphysical and moral disagreements, involving disputes about the meaning and value of life. As we continue to argue about abortion, we ought to try our best to understand the depth of these disputes and to think critically about our disagreements.

On Fixing Stupidity: Replace Dumb Ideas with Critical Thinking

Fresno Bee, September 5, 2021

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, warned this week of an “information pandemic.   He said, people who are “infected by viral misinformation” need to “inoculate themselves with the truth.” 

We are plagued by misinformation, disinformation, and outright stupidity.  Mis-information is mistaken information.  It is not necessarily malicious.  Dis-information is worse.  It is basically a lie.  Disinformation is a malicious attempt to make you believe something that is not true.  And stupidity?  Well, it’s a failure of intelligence.  But it is not only a mental malfunction.  Stupidity also involves actively embracing false and pernicious ideas.

The doctor was calling out people who are reluctant to get the Covid-19 vaccine because of false information.  Almost half of the population of Fresno County remains unvaccinated.  There is also the problem of people poisoning themselves with ivermectin, a horse de-wormer. 

This is dismaying but not surprising.  History is full of terrible ideas and epidemics of stupidity.  Not long ago, kids were eating Tide pods and teenagers were stuffing their mouths with ground cinnamon.  Even worse was smoking, a stupid habit that caused long-term health problems for millions of people. 

The good news is that people usually wise up.  The bad news is that advertisers and propagandists are always working to spread more stupidity.  Ideas are contagious.  They circulate and propagate.  Some catch on.  Some die out.  This is true for all ideas—good ones and bad ones. 

Stupidity has a tendency to attract our attention because it is ridiculous.  It can also cause us to lose faith in humanity.  It is not only the absurdity of dumb ideas that bothers us.  We are also alarmed by the strange sense of certainty that stupid people seem to have.

We may worry that our own beliefs may be just as stupid.  This can prompt a crisis of faith.  As Shakespeare said, the fool thinks himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

Cynics worry that bad ideas are more easily spread than good ones.  But this is not true.  Bad ideas only spread when the intellectual immune system is weak.  And good ideas can be reinforced through conscious effort.

It is disheartening to know that stupidity is contagious.  But we know the cure.  Social distancing helps.  We should isolate dumb ideas and prevent them from proliferating.  The long-term solution is the vaccination we call education.  Education strengthens the intellectual immune system.

The campaign against smoking provides an example of a successful approach.  People were taught that smoking was unhealthy.  Smoking was prohibited in public places.  And taxes were levied on tobacco products.  It took decades, but smoking declined.  In the 1950’s, 45% of Americans smoked.  These days the number is around 15%.

As we fret about the recent plague of stupidity, let’s celebrate the fact that many good ideas have caught on.  And some very bad ideas have died out.  Slavery was abolished.  Women were liberated.  Old superstitions and stereotypes have faded away along with the idea that smoking is cool. 

Technology and culture play a role in all of this.  Human culture is a process of spreading ideas.  We gossip and talk, exchanging stories and information.  In the old days this occurred slowly through face-to-face interactions among friends and family. 

Electronic communication is faster and more volatile.  Memes and trends explode overnight.  Robots and artificial intelligence manipulate the cyber-ecosystem.  They target us with advertising, including misinformation and disinformation. 

The bad news is that misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly in cyberspace.  The good news is that the truth is also out there and is often easy to find.  But we need to be educated about where to look and how to distinguish the truth from a lie.  That’s called information literacy and critical thinking.

It’s not true, as a folksy proverb puts it, that “you can’t fix stupid.”  Nobody really believes that cynical proverb.  Educators and coaches certainly don’t.  And experience teaches us that stupidity can be fixed.  It takes practice and discipline to overcome intellectual laziness and ignorance.  But we can make progress.  This is a lifelong project.  People make mistakes.  But we can learn from our mistakes.  And we can build up an immunity to dumb ideas.

Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.

The Just War Myth and the War in Afghanistan

The conclusion of two decades of American war in Afghanistan reminds us that war is rarely justified.  A just war responds to aggression or defends human rights.  Just wars should be fought for noble intentions.  Just warriors should avoid deliberately harming noncombatants.  Just warriors should not use torture or commit war crimes.  And a just war should leave the world better off.

In Afghanistan, more than 150,000 people were killed.  This includes Taliban fighters, Afghan government forces, and an estimated 47,000 civilians.  Nearly 2,500 American soldiers were killed.  Trillions were spent.  Millions were displaced, including 2.6 million Afghan refugees. 

It is not clear this was worth it, morally speaking.

This is not to say that the American soldiers who fought, bled, and died in “the war on terror” did anything wrong.  Individual soldiers do not decide where to fight.  In our democratic system, that decision is made by civilian leaders who are accountable to “we, the people.” 

We asked our soldiers to fight in a war that was morally suspect from the beginning.  We should apologize.  In addition to saying “thank you for your service,” we should say, “I’m sorry.”  And we must add, in addressing our veterans, “it is not your fault.”

Retrospective analysis is fraught with difficulties.  But it was not clear from the beginning that an all-out invasion of Afghanistan was a proportional response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  The Taliban regime was not responsible for 9/11.  It is true that Osama bin Ladin was hiding out in Afghanistan.  But it was overkill to invade an entire country in order to root out terrorists.  Critical voices argued, even in 2001, that a more targeted and proportional response would have been wiser.

It is also important to consider whether sustained and well-funded nonviolent alternatives to war could have been efficacious.  What kinds of nonviolent terrorism prevention programs could have been funded with the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan?

The Taliban was (and is) undemocratic and repressive.  It could be argued that removing the Taliban was justified in defense of human rights.  But nation-building wars are much more difficult to justify and to win, as Afghanistan and Iraq show.  As we’ve learned in both cases, the regimes we installed suffered from corruption as well as a lack of legitimacy and popular support.

From the beginning our intentions were mixed.  Some wanted revenge for 9/11.  Some wanted to “drain the swamp” harboring terrorists.  Some wanted to create democracy.  There were also strategic considerations involving Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and China, linked to the neoconservative desire to assert American supremacy around the globe.

Along the way, atrocities were committed.  Lies were told.  Goodwill was squandered.  Contractors enriched themselves.  And brave men and women lost limbs and lives. 

In 2007, I offered a critical analysis of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I showed the problem of “the just war myth.”  The just war myth evolves from wishful thinking about war.  We want to believe that war can be easily justified.  We want to believe that we are the good guys who win the wars we fight because of our moral superiority.  Those are illusions.

We also want to believe that civilian and military leaders are wise and moral.  We want to believe that our leaders know what they are doing, that they are concerned with morality, and that they are not merely playing politics with the lives of our soldiers. 

Our trust in the probity and sagacity of our leaders is broken after years of polarization.  This should undermine our faith in the just war myth.  This does not mean one must affirm absolute pacifism.  Rather, it means we should be more critical of war and more vigilant. 

We, the people must say “never again” to ill-advised and unjust wars.  We should be skeptical of militaristic rhetoric and simplistic narratives that divide the world into good guys and bad guys.  We should question the idea that war can be an effective tool for promoting democracy.  And we should educate ourselves about the importance of nonviolent alternatives to war.

This critical perspective is offered in solidarity with the soldiers who fought and died during the past 20 years.  It is offered on behalf of the next generation of warriors who will be asked to bleed on our behalf.  It is offered with compassionate concern for the men, women, and children who suffer the horrors of war.