God Rest Ye, Village Atheists

Sam Harris is taking time off from saying superficial (but highly lucrative) things about religion to saying less lucrative but equally superficial things about neuroscience.  Time reports his new paper

suggests that within the brain pan, at least, the distinction between objective and subjective is not so clear-cut. Although more complex assertions may get analyzed in so-called “higher” areas of the brain, all seem to get their final stamp of “belief” or disbelief in “primitive” locales traditionally associated with emotions or taste and odor. Even “2 + 2 = 4,” on some level, is a question of taste. Thus, the statement “that just doesn’t smell right to me” may be more literal than we thought.

Wow!  In 2007 we are learning that “the distinction between objective and subjective is not so clear cut.”  That smells about right to me.  

p.s. regarding why we should care: the Time story asks:

Is there a practical application here? He speculates that if belief brain scanning were sufficiently refined it could act as an accurate lie detector….

Naturally!  Sam Harris, scanning brains, rounding up the usual suspects.  If you don’t believe the right stuff, he’ll know.  Makes me want to shout: Totalitarians of the world, unite!

Most important:  the Time report comes complete with a picture of a brain scan.  And we know what that means….

Well, all right then, I give up:  count me in.  I’d like to analyze a scan of Richard Dawkins’ brain.  I’d like to know if he writes this stuff because he really believes it or because he is struggling not to believe something he actually does believe but is too appalled to admit.  Harris’ brain scanner should let us know once and for all about any sort of zealotry.

For instance, wouldn’t you want to see a scan of Richard’s brain when we writes this:

We’d have been intrigued if our scripture teachers had come clean and told us that Isaiah’s Hebrew for “young woman” was accidentally mistranslated as “virgin” in the Greek Septuagint (an easy mistake to make: think of the English word “maiden”). To say that this little error was to have repercussions out of all proportion would be putting it mildly.  From it flowed the whole Virgin Mary myth, the kitsch “Our Lady” of Catholic grotto-idolatry, the sub-paedophile spectacle of young girls in virginal white First Communion dresses, the goddess status of not just Mary herself but a pantheon of local “manifestations.”

Oh, sure, there’s a lot of valuable philological information here, but I am interested in “the sub-paedophile spectacle of young girls in virginal white….”  Whatcha thinking about, Rich?

Okay, I’m teasing.  But I’m as wary of street corner preachers as I am of lecture-circuit atheists.  Neither will rest until the rest of us see it their way–even if they have to use brain scans on us.

But Dawkins makes some good points in his piece, points a Christian could heartily endorse as well, and I want to give him credit.  He complains:

In some states of the US, public display of cribs and similar Christian symbols is outlawed for fear of offending Jews and others (not atheists). Seasonal marketing appetites are satisfied nationwide by a super-ecumenical “Holiday Season”, into which are commandeered the Jewish Hanukkah, Muslim Ramadan, and the gratuitously fabricated “Kwanzaa” (invented in 1966 so that African Americans could celebrate their very own winter solstice). Americans coyly wish each other “Happy Holiday Season” and spend vast amounts on “Holiday” presents. For all I know, they hang up a “Holiday stocking” and sing “Holiday carols” around the decorated “Holiday tree”. A red-coated “Father Holiday” has not so far been sighted, but this is surely only a matter of time.  For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, and I loathe the annual orgy of waste and reckless reciprocal spending, but I must say I’d rather wish you “Happy Christmas” than “Happy Holiday Season.”

In Pittsburgh, where we used to live, they took to celebrating “Sparkle Season.”  I used to love to watch my up-chuck freeze on the sidewalk whenever I saw the downtown banners.

Also, Dawkins reminds us that Jesus’ birthday (whether it was or wasn’t when we celebrate it) is not the only birthday we can celebrate on December 25.  It is also

the birthday of one of the truly great men ever to walk the earth, Sir Isaac Newton. His achievements might justly be celebrated wherever his truths hold sway. And that means from one end of the universe to the other. Happy Newton Day!

Well, Newton’s birthday was on 25 December if you happen to be using the Julian calendar, and not the Gregorian calendar which we use today.  I guess it’s all relative, as they say.  And by the way, this is the same Newton who is reported to have said

“Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Anyway, Merry Christmas and Happy Newton Day, indeed!

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