Your Straw Man’s House Won’t Stand

The Internet may be the most powerful democratic force in the world. Theoretically, every user has an equal voice. There are still a few problems, of course. Every once in a while a user  encounters a seriously problematic idea. Send in the trolls.

A tweet I read by Lauren Dubinsky (wife of Max Andrew Dubinsky, whose hyper-creative multimedia is worth checking out) this morning said:

@laurendubinsky I have yet to meet a homeless person that doesn’t praise God for what little they have.

Two replies followed thus:

@GabrielGadfly @laurendubinsky I wonder if homeless atheists feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers.
@GodlessAtheist @gabrielgadfly Many of the religious groups force their religion on them in return for food. Also much of the support is state funded.

In the first reply, Gabriel Gadfly (surely his birth name) poses what seems like an honest question. Do homeless atheists, in general, feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers? We will get to his question in a moment.

Meanwhile, both Lauren and Godless Atheist have made claims.

Lauren’s claim is based on her personal experience on the ground. Personal experience is good, but can be misleading. It’s easy for me to have an experience that is counter to the norm. But if Lauren’s sample group was large enough, we’d say her claim is statistically safe. So, Lauren, you’re off the hook for now.

Godless Atheist’s claims are:

1) many religious groups force their religion on them in return for food

2) much of the support is state funded

You, the reader, have a choice. You can believe these at face value, or you can question them.

If these claims were made in an academic setting, these arguments wouldn’t fly because they completely lack evidence, are unspecific, and are logical fallacies. They aim to persuade through rhetoric rather than evidence.

We are not in an academic setting here, but that doesn’t mean we throw out our brains. It’s simple to see when someone is making a broad claim to change someone’s mind, but doesn’t have a sufficient basis to do so.

At best, Godless Atheist’s claims contain several logical fallacies found on this beautiful illustrated chart: 1) Appeal to Ignorance, 2) Appeal to Popular Belief, 3) Division (or Spotlight), and 4) Sweeping Generalization.

At worst, Godless Atheist saw an opportunity to stir up angry debate. For now, we will give him or her the benefit of the doubt, and deal with why this claim they’ve made is such a problem.

1) Appeal to Ignorance: In both claim 1 and claim 2, Godless Atheist has not given any evidence for, but has not received any evidence that points the other way. Their own ignorance plies our own ignorance until one of us becomes better informed.

2) Begging The Question/Red Herring: Because it’s a common thing for states to fund humanitarian work, it’s not a stretch to make, or believe, claim 2. But what is the author’s intent with this comment? Are they trying to undermine the work that religious groups do because funding comes from the government? This would be like saying the work of teachers doesn’t matter because the government funds schools.

3) Sweeping Generalization/Composition: Claim 1 applies the characteristics of one or a few of these “religious groups” on all of the religious groups. This is unfair. It’s equivalent to calling all American citizens pro-war, because of their government’s position and their military prowess. (This links with guilt by association)

4) Generalization: Use of the word “many” and “most”: these are vague and generalizing, and can steer evidence very poorly, in the same was as using superlatives like never or always.

5) Appeal to Emotion (Fear): Use of the term “force their religion”. A vague term to begin with, no definition, examples, or evidence has been given. Has Godless Atheist observed an instance of this which they can cite? Forcing religion, in this situation, seems to me to be a general statement expressing potential discomfort from encountered ideas that are foreign to a person. And this happens every single day.

6) Division/Generalization: If a religious group exists that does proselytize to needy people before they give them anything, that group would not be representative of the majority. It is completely unfair and untrue for Godless Atheist to use words like “most” in their claim.

 

So, let’s get back to Gabriel, who has been waiting patiently to have his question answered. If Gabriel is in earnest, can we find the answer to his question? Yes, we can!  We will need to ask the only people qualified to answer: homeless atheists themselves.

But I’m pretty sure that if we do ask them (and there may be none, or very few, or very many), that they’re likely not going to all give us the same answer. I’d say it’s safe to assume that some will say yes, some will say no, and some will give a conditional answer.

But to further the discussion, why don’t pose a corollary? Do religious people feel uncomfortable receiving aid from non-religious organizations? Do religious people feel uncomfortable buying groceries from an atheist supermarket cashier or receiving tax breaks from secular governments? Sometimes it helps frame the nature of a question to think about its reverse.

If Gabriel’s question is not in earnest, it might instead be an incendiary comment meant to stir up debate on a completely unrelated topic, for example, whether religious groups oppress others.I chose to take some time out of my morning to respond to this discussion at the risk of feeding a troll, because I believe we can all do our part to make the Internet a place where good ideas are valued and fallacies aren’t simply let off the hook.

“The universe resembles a great thought”

Two powerful and intriguing thoughts, first from Sir James Jean, in his interpretation of the discoveries of physics:

Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the side of Physics approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.

And second from Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner:

It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.

As Dallas Willard, to whom I am indebted for these quotes, points out, the purpose of printing these quotes is not to interpret them further than is warranted, but to shed light on the intersection of a non-spatial, conscious or cognitive dimension with the dimension of physical matter, which for any person is a fascinating proposition with ramifications in areas such as possibility thinking, creativity, faith, and philosophy. I am grateful for those physicists who are daring and open-minded enough to make statements based on their research that cause the whole scientific establishment reason to rethink, innovate, and deviate from governing, even hegemonic strictures of belief and acceptability that may cross over into the unscientific.

Nouwen: What We Feel Is Not Who We Are

I read this a few days ago and I felt there were many who might benefit from reading it:

Our emotional lives move up and down constantly.  Sometimes we experience great mood swings: from excitement to depression, from joy to sorrow, from inner harmony to inner chaos.  A little event, a word from someone, a disappointment in work, many things can trigger such mood swings.  Mostly we have little control over these changes.  It seems that they happen to us rather than being created by us.

 

Thus it is important to know that our emotional life is not the same as our spiritual life.  Our spiritual life is the life of the Spirit of God within us.  As we feel our emotions shift we must connect our spirits with the Spirit of God and remind ourselves that what we feel is not who we are.  We are and remain, whatever our moods, God’s beloved children.

Taken from Bread for the Journey, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, ©1997 HarperSanFrancisco.

Reflections: Wandering

Published in www.convergemagazine.com

“Like a bird that wanders from its nest is a person who wanders from his place” – Proverbs 27:8

I remember my first time witnessing a sparrow hit a window. As the little thing lay lifeless on the ground outside grandpa’s office, it was unbelievable to think that life had departed so instantaneously. Leaving the nest is dangerous, but it’s a necessary process. A bird that never leaves the nest will never learn to fly – foregoing the quintessential characteristic of their species.

Like birds, we all have our nests; a familiar place, tangible or intangible, which we have constructed. We also wander from those nests, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. There are times of distress that force us to pack up and search for something more profitable. In Hebrew history, Jacob’s sons went down to Egypt to escape famine. David, while crown prince, was forced to flee the palace and live as a fugitive. Ruth and Naomi were left widows and had to return to Naomi’s old country.

Wisdom separates these sorts of wanderers from those who simply seek greener grass and are never satisfied. Today’s unprecedented mobility offers both opportunity and disaster. Unbridled experimentation becomes perpetual promiscuity, and I’m not just talking about sex. Unsure of what we seek, we wander, looking with blinded eyes for something that will satisfy. Promiscuity is easy, has moments of exhilaration, but is ultimately unsatisfying.

Our lives are filled with longing for better days. “In this life, you will have trouble”, Jesus says, “but fear not, I have overcome the world”. His challenge was whether you believe God is with you. If you do, your actions will reflect your belief that he is able to make good out of evil, see you through, and finish the work he began in you.

We don’t want to look back over our life and see what could have been if we had only stayed the course. “We feel that under other skies, we would succeed”, C.H. Spurgeon observes. “I may know something about my weakness in the present trial but I cannot know how I might stagger under another. Be wary of changing your trials. To exchange one trial for another is all the relief you will get.”

Not all who wander are lost. Nevertheless, be careful how and why you wander.

Words With Meaning

As an English literature student become writer and teacher, I am very fond of words. I wrestle with them in order to find the right ones to say.

But the biggest challenge is not in saying the right words, but in refraining to say words that lack value. I bemusedly confess to my friends that as a teacher I say much more than I would like to, yet in the moment my words never seem to be enough to effectively communicate the ideas I wish to convey in the classroom.

Two years ago I was deeply challenged by Henri Nouwen’s appropriately thin book on silence, solitude, and prayer, The Way of the Heart. The following passage increased my awareness of how full or void of power my words can be, when they are just more words in an ever-growing sea of babble. I must choose my words carefully. We all must, if we hope for our words to mean anything at all:

Words, words, words. Our society is full of words: on billboards, on television screens, in newspapers and books. Words whispered, shouted, and sung. Words that move, dance, and change in size and color. Words that say, “Taste me, smell me, eat me, drink me, sleep with me,” but most of all, “buy me.” With so many words around us, we quickly say: “Well, they’re just words.” Thus, words have lost much of their power.

Still, the word has the power to create. When God speaks, God creates. When God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), light is. God speaks light. For God, speaking and creating are the same. It is this creative power of the word we need to reclaim. What we say is very important. When we say, “I love you,” and say it from the heart, we can give another person new life, new hope, new courage. When we say, “I hate you,” we can destroy another person. Let’s watch our words.

Excerpted from Bread for the Journey and The Way of the Heart, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, ©1997 HarperSanFrancisco. All Scripture from The Jerusalem Bible ©1966, 1967, and 1968 Darton, Longman & Todd and Doubleday & Co. Inc.