Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Georgia Republicans Consider Change to Electoral System

Dissociated Press. 9/20/2011

One week after Republicans in Pennsylvania considered changing their state's distribution from a winner-take-all system to one in which those votes are distributed by county, and one day after Republicans in Nebraska began a push for a winner-take-all system rather than the proportional one that gave Barack Obama a single electoral college vote from Nebraska, Georgia Republicans have considered a bill to change their electoral voting system.

Currently, in Pennsylvania's winner-take-all system, the popular vote winner receives all 20 (as of the current census) electoral college votes. The Pennsylvania state legislature is considering changing this system to "each congressional district elect one presidential elector and award the other two electors on a statewide basis," according to this AP story.

Given the distribution of voters in the various districts, this new system could easily mean a Republican who lost the popular vote could receive approximately the same or more votes as the popular vote winner. This is possible because of the tendency for Democratic voters to be concentrated in a relatively small number of districts (that have large majorities of Democratic voters) and Republicans to be dispersed in many districts in which there are slight Republican majorities. This distribution of voters would, according to Rachel Maddow, have turned Barack Obama's 11 percentage point victory in Pennsylvania in 2008 from a 21 electoral vote advantage into (probably) a 1 electoral vote advantage.

Nebraska Republicans are also advocating changing their state's distribution of electoral college votes to a winner-take-all system, apparently in order to deny Barack Obama the chance at the one of five votes he received in the 2008 Presidential election.

The bill Georgia's legislature is considering is not a change to the winner-take-all system but an enshrinement in perpetuity of Georgia's penchant for electing Republican candidates. The proposal is that the state's 16 electoral votes are to go, in perpetuity, to the Republican candidate for President. Georgia's electoral votes have gone to Republicans in the last four presidential elections.

State Sen. Goober Hayseed (R-Anywhere) asserted, "This bill is in perfect conformity with the law and the wishes of the good citizens of our state. I see no possibility that the Republican party might stray from its foundational principles of small government, states' rights and the permanent enrichment of wealthy whites at the expense of the poor and minorities. This is a win for all of us who value democracy. And if the Democrats want to change the law, they would only have to gain control of both houses of Congress and the Governorship."

A reading of article II of the U.S. Constitution suggests that Hayseed is on firm constitutional ground. That article states that
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

"Nothing in the Constitution says that we have to choose them at the time of the election," Hayseed said. "We just want to save the voters of Georgia the time of punching in the name of the Republican party candidate for President since they have made their views abundantly clear over the last several elections."

While not commenting on the constitutionality of the proposed law, others are not in favor of it. "If Senator Hayseed's law had been in place before the War of Northern Aggression, it would have given the precious electoral votes of this great state to that tyrant Abraham Lincoln," said random person on the street Percy McShaw, adjusting his white hood. "What if somehow that Mormon apostate wins the Republican nomination? The state of Georgia might want to take its votes and move to the Republic of Texas."

In response to critics who claim that the move to a permanent Republican vote for President is purely political, Hayseed lashed out. "These carpetbaggers don't know the state of Georgia like I do. We always have and always will vote for the Republican, so there's no reason not to respect the will of the voters by passing this law."

When this reporter noted that Georgia's electoral college votes went to Democrats in 1992, 1980 and 1976, Hayseed responded, "I know there's some fear-mongering out there from Government bureaucrats and so-called 'scientists', but there's a lot of room for disagreement about our history. And I don't cotton to those revisionist historians who say that the civil war was about slavery, or that Georgia once voted for Democrats. That's all just ivory-tower hogwash."

Georgia Democrats are reported to be troubled by the prospect of being permanently disenfranchised from presidential elections, but none could be found by press time.

Note: I apologize for the lack of posting. My computer died and was only revived after about three weeks, so posting may begin again.

Sophisticated Theism: The New New Atheism

Gather around, children, and hear the tale of sophisticated theism. A sophisticated theist does not believe statements made by religion; a sophisticated theist adopts a practice he or she finds congenial; he or she accepts myths that have a metaphorical version of the truth; but he or she would never be so gauche as to believe any set of statements associated with a religion.

The sophisticated theist tells us that those who think that belief in God, disbelief God, or suspension of judgment are relevant to religion are mere ignorant children and buffoons with no understanding of the subtlety of religion. You see, as the honorable Monseigneur* John Gray, S.J., tell us, religion is not about belief. Religion is a practice and a set of myths, not a system of beliefs. The sophisticated theist does not believe in religion at all but merely enjoys religious practices that are in no way related to or connected to any beliefs or claims about reality. The sophisticated theist recognizes the validity of myths not because they are true but because they reveal deeper truths about us. And while these deeper truths are "true", they are not actually true. These myths are metaphorically true; the metaphors that make up the myth are true. Religious belief hardly even exists--it exist only in the minds of the ignorant--but its myths enlighten, despite their evident lack of connection to any literal truth, because of their metaphorical truth. Religion is Shakespeare and Donne, Michaelangelo and Picasso, Bach and Beethoven, not Hawking or Dawkins. Religion is not so crude that it says things or, if it says things, that it means what it says. Only a moron, rube, ignoramus, literalist monkey-child or atheist could believe that it makes claims about the world, our nature, our place in the world, or the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Mahatma Gray enlightens us:

We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe. It's an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism.

We were all so tired of reason, debate, truth and fact, and we longed for charades to hold our ennui at bay at least until tea and crumpets. I, for one, hope that we decide to play mental representations.

In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there's no longer any need for religion.

To say that any two ways of thinking or living are fundamentally the same because they all involve believing things one thinks to be true is like saying that Fascism and Democracy are fundamentally the same because they are both political movements. Or that cannibalism and vegetarianism are fundamentally the same since they both involve mastication. Science and religion may still be different in certain rather important respects even if both are similar in other respects. Science is based on evidence and observation whereas religion is not. That means there are differences and similarities between the two, and claiming that these similarities are fundamental but the differences are not is irrelevant. Atheists are, for example, quite comfortable with the idea that religious believers do not base their claims upon evidence, and in that respect (according to atheists at least) their beliefs differ from the rationalist's belief in atheism. Coincidentally, both sophisticated theists and atheists agree that it is not the case that religion is based on a careful evaluation of evidence. I would say, I suppose, that atheism and sophisticated theism might be fundamentally the same if only I knew what 'fundamentally' meant in this context (other than "in whatever ways I want for rhetorical purposes").

Atheism, however, concludes that this lack of rationality means we should disbelieve in religion rather than continue to practice as if one believed in it without any actual belief. At any rate, after the harrumphing and well-poisoning, we are now ready for Imperator Gray's substantive argument.

The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.

This is where [James] Frazer [author of the Golden Bough] and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this Western tradition says it is - a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.

You see, as Herr Professor Doktor Gray explains, Christianity, which has specific doctrines or creeds as statements of belief, is not a religion since religions are neither sets of beliefs nor include sets of beliefs. I'm sure that here in the US we would be happy to know that Christianity is not a religion since it would let us take away its tax-exempt status and help with our national debt. Following Poet Laureate Gray's logic, the creeds of Christianity comprise a philosophy, not a religion. Obviously, if it were a set of claims, those claims would have already been falsified, but real religion involves no claims to be verified or falsified.

One wonders whether Shogun Gray would consider Christianity to be a system of beliefs if they turned out to be supported by evidence. Generally speaking, it's only the repeated falsification of the beliefs that leads the religious to pretend they never believed them in the first place. I don't know if this is more like a Cubs fan claiming he never really believed they could win the World Series, a four-year old stealing cookies while pretending not even to have his/her hand in the cookie jar, or someone caught sexually harassing an employee only to claim later that he was only joking.

At any rate, Grand High Inquisitor Gray means that religions are not essentially sets of beliefs, and that Christianity has adopted a creed as an unnecessary adjunct to its essential nature. It should never have given in to those philosophers' demands. What, then, is religion if belief is not essential to it? It is clearly nothing to do with rationality or reasons.

Obviously, there are areas of life where having good reasons for what we believe is very important. Courts of law and medicine are evidence-based practices, which need rigorous procedures to establish the facts. The decisions of governments rest on claims about how their policies will work, and it would be useful if these claims were regularly scrutinised - though you'd be well advised not to hold your breath.

But many areas of life aren't like this. Art and poetry aren't about establishing facts. Even science isn't the attempt to frame true beliefs that it's commonly supposed to be. Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it's that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better.

Taken together these two paragraphs are wildly incoherent. The first paragraph tells us that in certain arenas we need reasons and evidence to establish facts. These are very useful, and we would not want to do without them. Law, for example, is about establishing facts about guilt or innocence, and we need to consider evidence in order to establish these facts. Medicine, similarly, is about establishing correct diagnoses of diseases and prescribing the best treatment for them.

However, according to the second paragraph, science is not part of the business of establishing these facts. So, if your lawyer starts talking about DNA evidence or scientific studies of cause and effect, get a new lawyer because all that stuff is probably false, riddled with error and only tentative anyway. You are better off volunteering to be thrown in a pond to see if you float. Similarly, if your doctor starts giving you a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about studies and molecules and X-rays, get out immediately because that's all just tentative theorizing, prone to error, and it's not going to cure your gout. You're better off finding a witch-doctor.

Weirdly, according to Earl Gray, our law and medicine are about using reason and evidence to establish facts that we can use to cure disease and determine guilt or innocence. But this reason and evidence is not based on science because science is all tentative airy-fairy stuff that's probably just not true. Science is just too tentative and riddled with errors and imperfections to establish facts in law or medicine. So, science does not actually establish facts, yet any rational person knows that science is necessary for establishing the facts to be used in these practical endeavors.

Xiàozhăng Gray is committing a false dilemma. To say that science is tentative is not opposed to saying that it is our best source of belief, our best insight into the facts. Science is just as much in the business of establishing facts as are our courts of law (assuming we're not talking about Texas where facts are rather secondary to the goal of executing people), and noting that science is tentative and prone to error is no more relevant to undermining that claim than it would be to note that courts of law also can never provide certainty and often commit errors.

In fact, it is more plausible to consider the evidence vs. utility situation reversed and that science is the area devoted to the facts. Medicine, for example, is concerned with what works, not strictly with the facts and truth or falsity. Doctors want to cure their patients as reliably as possible, and if false beliefs are effective, doctors would, presumably, be happy about that. The reason, from the perspective of medicine, to want true beliefs is that they are more robustly useful than false beliefs in treating illness. You might even argue that lawyers and judges are more concerned with what can be proven in court than with facts. If the facts are on your side, you will most likely be more successful in your trial, but the courts have no perfect access to these facts, and so needs must make do with provability in court. The point is that there is no good reason for treating science as not interested in facts. Science, medicine and law are all interested in facts, and mostly for the same reasons. We want to know the truth as well as we are able, in part because we want to function well in predicting and manipulating our environment.

But, wait, Maharishi Gray tells us more about the nature of science:

Science isn't actually about belief - any more than religion is about belief. If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.

Sensei Gray-san is suggesting an instrumentalist view of science whereby we have good reason to think certain predictions will be true (e.g. taking this drug will result in remission of your symptoms or this setup will result in a particular set of lines in a cloud chamber) but theorizing about unobservables (e.g. molecules, electrons) is but a useful instrument in giving these predictions. I think this view is fundamentally wrong-headed. The reason science gives these predictions is that its explanatory posits are largely real (or something approximating them is real). It beggars the imagination that a complex set of laws and constructs would be predictively accurate without being at least connected to facts and underlying reality. Still, contra Aga Gray, even the instrumentalist thinks that science makes factual claims, and thus supports beliefs, about what will or will not happen even if it is not committed to the reality of unobservables.

The point of his argument that science is not about belief is to undermine the idea that there is anything wrong with or irrational about religion because of its lack of literal meaning or factual claims. However, I have argued, science really does make factual claims.

Putting the question of science aside for now, what does Most Reverend Gray think religion is if it does not involve belief? Religion, on his view, is a different instrument with a different purpose, to tell a story about ourselves in a way that makes life worth living.

Myths aren't relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They're stories that tell us something about ourselves that can't be captured in scientific theories.

Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

Myths can't be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I've no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.

I do not know what the difference is between truth and truthfulness. I would suppose that myths are truthful to human experience when they express metaphors that are themselves true. In fact, they can be both literally false but truthful (or metaphorically true) at the same time. So, the question is what the metaphors of a given religion mean and whether they are true. And if metaphors have meaning, they must still have truth conditions, so it ought to be possible to verify or falsify them.

Let's take a standard part of the Christian mythology, the kind of thing you might see on a football fan's signs. John 3:16:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Clearly it is absurd to claim that God physically sired a son. God has no penis or semen to beget a son; God is not Zeus to turn into a swan and impregnate young Mary. That's absurd anthropomorphism.

Supposing God loved the world is also anthropomorphism. God has no ventral tegmental area, no dopamine, no norepinephrine, no oxytocin to give Him/Her/It human feelings such as love.

God would never give everlasting life in heaven only to the select few with the good fortune to be born into the correct time and culture to believe in Him/Her/It. That's absurdly and impossibly unjust. Moreover, the possibility of an afterlife conflicts with the well-supported dependence of the conscious mind on the physical brain. The claim is both unjust and falsified, at least indirectly.

Moreover, how could there possibly be an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good being that would allow the savagery, suffering and death that we find everywhere in the universe hospitable enough to allow life? And if God is not these things, then what sort of being is God? On what concept of God is there a God worthy of worship? None. The evil in the world disconfirms belief in the existence of a humane or wise God; such belief is rationally indefensible.

Instead, according to sophisticated theism, what John 3:16 really means is, literally, nothing. These are just words people mouth in Church or hold on signs at football games as cultural signifiers and social practices intended to engender group solidarity. They have no sentence or word meaning. Many sentences have a use but no meaning. For example, when someone asks, "How are you?", they mean nothing by it; they do not expect an actual answer. I often answer the wrong question. I'll say, "Good morning," "Hi," or "No, they were dead when I got there." No one ever notices. "How are you" is almost always just a ritual greeting, a phrase without sentence meaning but only a use.

Christian practices, and the statements that accompany them, could be either completely arbitrary practices with no meaning but only a use, or they could be based on myths with a metaphorical meaning. If the practices are arbitrary, then the only justification for following those practices can be based on the benefits of those practices, and I think that it's been fairly well established over the years that the practice of ceding control over our thoughts to others is not beneficial overall. One might say that there is nothing irrational in the practice if no beliefs or actions follow from this religion. I suppose this might not be irrational, but it would be remarkably insincere for sophisticated theists to adopt the forms and empty symbolism of religion without any significant commitment to it.

The alternative to empty ritual is truth of a metaphorical meaning. Could John 3:16 be metaphorically true? What metaphorical meaning could it have that could be truthful? That the world was made for our use? No, that would imply the actual existence of a deity with plans for us and the universe, that the universe operates in some rational, ordered way. That the world is well-suited for our habitation and use? That's not likely; not much of the universe is habitable, and the parts that we inhabit are not particularly friendly to us. Perhaps that humanity has a spark of the divine, a soul, or they differ from all the other living things in a morally significant way. This is unlikely too, and is just the sort of harmful dogma that religion has perpetuated for far too long.

My point is that if one wants to treat religion as metaphor and myths that are truthful without being true, then you have to specify what the metaphors mean and subject them to the same kind of criticism as any literally meaningful claim. Clearly Maharaja Gray does not want to do this since any understanding of the key metaphors of Christianity would be false. Metaphors have meaning (even if not literal sentence-meaning), and they can be evaluated and, in the case of Christianity, be discovered to be false. Whatever truthfulness there is in Christianity, it could hardly be literal or metaphorical truth.

So, what about the idea that are myths without even a metaphorical meaning? Let's skip to the end and see if we can make sense of this idea. He returns to the example of Graham Greene who, allegedly, could not remember the reasons for converting to Catholicism.

No doubt there will be some who are deeply shocked by Graham Greene's nonchalance about the arguments that led him to convert to Catholicism. How could he go on practising a religion when he couldn't even remember his reasons for joining it?

The answer is that he did remember - but his reasons had nothing to do with arguments.

Human beings don't live by argumentation, and it's only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.

Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.

We'd all be better off if we stopped believing in belief. Not everyone needs a religion. But if you do, you shouldn't be bothered about finding arguments for joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there.

What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

Whew! There we go. Because people do not make judgments based on reason and argument, there is no reason (oops!) to object to their failure to have reasons for their non-belief-based practices. It doesn't matter that people adopt a meaningless ritual, set of apparent claims, and social structure. They don't have reasons for the things they do, so meaning isn't necessary for their choices.

First, this is a simple is-ought fallacy. Just because people don't use reasons, it does not follow that they shouldn't. People also beat their spouses, drive too fast on the highway, and create inscrutable financial instruments to defraud borrowers and investors. The descriptive fact about what people do is completely irrelevant to the normative fact about what they ought to do. Now, it may be that people will resist the best of reasons, but we should give them the opportunity to consider those reasons by presenting them as clearly and forcefully as we can. If people are not capable of listening to reason, then we, who apparently are capable of it, should give them the option to hear it.

I think, however, it's obvious that Meistersinger Gray is wrong that people do not base their practices (especially their religious practices) on reasons. If people didn't do things for reasons, then the fact that it's raining outside would not cause people to take their umbrellas with them. But, for many people, reason and evidence does influence this behavior. Perhaps they are not capable of considering reasons for and against religious practices, but why religious practice would be particularly immune to reason is mysterious unless it's because those practices have been immunized from the need for reason by people such as Monsieur Gray.

Is atheism just as dogmatic as religion at its worst? It's somewhat contradictory, to put it mildly, to claim it's dogmatism to encourage people to use their reason to come to the conclusion that God does not exist. No doubt atheism has its share of dogmatic believers, but Gray does not even attempt to show that atheism is not founded on reasons and rationality. And trying to get people to hold the same belief is not so bad if it's done from respect for their rationality and not through force. It's the burden of my argument to show that believing that we should have beliefs about religion.

Yogi Gray does try to support his claims. He does it, first, by claiming that no one really is capable of forming the kind of rational beliefs that atheists desire, so we must and should base our practices on something other than reason. Second, everyone, even the most scientifically-minded, must base practices on myths (or something other than reason and evidence). So, since we all have to have faith in something, there's nothing wrong with faith in religion. Here's the skeptical part.

The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories. There's nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind.

If Darwin's theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren't built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life.

Through science humans can lift themselves beyond the view of things that's forced on them by day-to-day existence. They can't overcome the fact that they remain animals, with minds that aren't equipped to see into the nature of things.

Darwin's theory is unlikely to be the final truth. It may be just a rough account of how life has developed in our part of the cosmos. Even so, the clear implication of the theory of evolution is that human knowledge is by its nature limited.

It's been said that the universe is a queerer place than we can possibly imagine, and I'm sure that's right. However rapidly our knowledge increases, we'll always be surrounded by the unknowable.

Ayatollah Gray's argument here is one of my favorites. Here's how it goes.

According to this theory that I have just claimed is probably false and does not accurately describe reality, we are not capable of understanding that reality. Thus, if this theory (that I have just said is false) is true, then we are not good at understanding arguments and the evidence for our theory of the nature of reality. So, if the theory of evolution is true, then we cannot reason cogently enough to be justified in our belief in evolution. (Mama Gray, chief supreme of the Voudon, expands this to the strawmannish claim that atheists think we can completely understand reality. Maybe we can, maybe not. Who knows? The understanding of all of reality is rather irrelevant to the truth of evolution or the falsity of religion.) Thus, belief in evolution undermines itself; one cannot rationally believe in evolution since the truth of evolution would make our belief in it irrational.

On the other hand, I respond, if you accept Hizzoner Gray's evolutionary reason-undermining argument, then you also should not accept his argument that shows that humanity is not good at understanding reality. Hence, if Captain Gray's (Plantingean) reasoning is correct, then we should not believe his abstract argument that we cannot understand reality. Evolution would not support Chief Undersecretary Gray's position since, if true, it would undermine the very form of abstract reasoning he uses (admittedly, rather painfully) to support it.

But if we didn't evolve, and were designed, by a good God, in such a way that we are good at understanding the world (using abstract reasoning and the scientific method), then the scientists who claim that evolution occurs, are likely to be correct. Since a vast majority of the scientists who study evolution believe in it, then if we were designed, then it is rational for us to believe in evolution. In short, if we were designed, then we would be good at abstract reasoning and science, and so would have good reason to believe in evolution and that we were not designed.

It looks superficially like a paradox. However, it is one only the religious believer, but not the evolutionist, cannot escape. We did not in fact evolve to be good at abstract reasoning. That's why it's so damn hard and why people like The Distinguished Mr. Gray are so damn bad at it. Instead, we have to make sure of lots of careful controls of our observations so that we do not fall into the natural practices that lead so readily to error. What are those careful controls? Why, they're the tools we use as part of the scientific method! So, the evolutionary argument shows that we have to use the kind of care in reasoning that science teaches us to use.

Still, if we are so bad at abstract reasoning, how did we even come to realize that we are often mistaken? If we evolved to be bad at abstract reasoning, shouldn't we not even realize that we are bad at it? The response is that we are bad at it, but not hopeless at it. If we were hopeless at reasoning, we would never have survived at all. We would exhibit, as Willard Quine said, "A pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before we reproduce" (if I remember the quote accurately). So, evolution suggests that we are quite limited in our abstract reasoning capacity, but we must be capable of some reasoning otherwise we would not have survived. It was only through centuries of empirical testing of theories that we came to recognize the shortcomings of many of our natural tendencies; returning to faith-based reasoning would work to undo the standard the scientific, philosophical, mathematical and fact-based community has worked long and hard to construct.

On to the second part of Graf von Gray's story, the necessity of myth:

Science hasn't enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths - chief among them, the myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world.

I'm glad that "many" believe this. I wonder who they are? Seriously, if Matron Gray does not think that science has made the world a better place, I will immediately begin work on a time machine and help him travel back to the Dark Ages. Perhaps a little trepanning would alter his thinking on the issue.

But "humanity" isn't marching anywhere. Humanity doesn't exist, there are only human beings, each of them ruled by passions and illusions that conflict with one another and within themselves.

I'm fresh out of argument, and I'm running only on ridicule at this point. Sharif Gray's objection to the myth of salvation by science (which "many" believe or "believe" since it's, apparently, a myth) is that the abstraction "humanity" is not real. This is a silly objection. Does Christianity say that God sent his son Jesus to save humanity from sin? No, of course not, don't be silly. Humanity doesn't exist; only humans exist. At best, this is a trivial semantic argument. I don't know what stance to take on abstract objects, but it doesn't matter here. Has science, the social construct comprising a set of assumptions, methods, institutions, and individuals with their inconsistent, selfish, and otherwise irrational tendencies, made things better for individual humans? If you think not, I have a genuine, 4th century Russian trepanning device for sale that will surely cure what ails you.

Science has given us many vital benefits, so many that they would be hard to sum up. But it can't save the human species from itself.

Because it's a human invention, science - just like religion - will always be used for all kinds of purposes, good and bad. Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that's far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that "humanity" can use science to remake the world.

I'm confused at this point whether the belief that science can save the world is a myth ("the myth of salvation through science") or not ("a fantasy that's for more childish than any myth"), but the semantics of this do not matter. Science has been and can be used for both good and bad purposes. The science that gave us the atomic bomb has given us nuclear power (still, maybe not so good, yet). The problem is that religion, and its reliance on myth, faith, and blind obedience to authority, is not a neutral tool. Religion can be used for good, to mobilize opposition to segregation, for example, but it is far easier to use it for bad than it is to use science and rationality for harmful purposes. Convincing a religious person to become a suicide bomber is far easier if he or she thinks, irrationally, that heaven awaits martyrs, than it is to convince a rationalist to become one.

I would hope, at this point, to have made an argument "as concise, and elegant, and strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of a serious refutation," (Hume, Of Miracles). Although I have certainly fallen short of concision, I will not continue for much longer. Archon Gray's argument is a disreputable blend of evasion and superciliousness. The atheists are not the arrogant and ignorant ones in this scenario. Claiming that religion is practice and metaphor and myth has no bearing on the rationality of these practices, the meaning of those metaphors or the utility of those myths.

Claiming that religion is not a belief system does not solve problems but merely evades them. For a metaphor to be true, it must have a meaning, and that meaning must be tested against the evidence just as any other claim is. For a practice to be rational, there must be some reason or justification for it. Aga Gray claims that religious practice is exactly as justified as any other practice for which there is no larger justification (e.g. its conduciveness to discovering the truth) but which is not itself harmful or improper. Sophisticated theism is, essentially, atheism with rituals and practices of religion. (If there are no atheists in the foxholes, it's because they are all in the pews.) If Gray really believes this, then he is, no doubt, deceiving most of the congregants at his church. To say "I don't believe any of this nonsense--literal nonsense--but I enjoy the community and fellowship," is not likely to win him friends among his co-religionists, either in his congregation or in the wider world. Sophisticated theism's lack of belief in God combined with empty rituals trivializes the sincere, but almost certainly false, beliefs of the religious. If this is what sophisticated theism is, then it's no less opposed to ordinary religion than is atheism, but at least atheism provides forthright critique rather than deceptive pseudo-agreement. Nothing is more arrogant and dishonest than practicing something with others while at the same time believing that everything they practice is based on nothing, and that the words they mouth have no meaning. Atheists at least do the religious the service of treating them as meaning what they say.

Margrave Gray defends the practice of religion on the grounds that even the atheists are engaged in the same practices, and science is as prone to failure as religion. But these claims are not true. Religion is potentially harmful, and religious thinking offers little in the way of benefit. Science offers benefits but also a productive way of thinking that leads, more effectively than any other, towards truth. Religious myth is not useful, overall, since it promotes and enables ignorance and irrationality. Religious practice is not some innocent pastime such as bowling or tatting. Religion should be opposed in the strongest terms. Even the most innocuous of religions bears some culpability in the excesses of its radical brethren. And even the sophisticated non-believing religious person enables the harms of religion by quietly acquiescing to and supporting religion.

But what of the poetry and beauty of religion? It's not surprising that Europe's most powerful cultural institution for over a thousand years should be responsible for great art, music and poetry, but the religion itself is not particularly beautiful. The myth that a human must be sacrificed to appease an angry God, even if Jesus volunteered to be that human, is rather ugly and inhumane. Nothing about religion enables more beauty in art, music or ritual than any humanistic attitude, and religion limits the subjects and approaches to art in a way that humanism rarely does. Religion can be beautiful, but if it is nothing more than beautiful ritual, one can find beauty as great elsewhere. Genuine commitment to religion is potentially harmful, and religious practice without commitment is dishonest.

*All titles inaccurately applied.