A 21st Century Rationalist In Medieval America
Essays on Religion, Science, Morality, and the Bush Administration
by John Bice
Chelydra Bay Press, Copyright 2007
220 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker
(For more information and other reviews, please visit John Bice's site.)
If you consider yourself an atheist or a rationalist, you probably feel like an alien in your own country. Ever since the Supreme Court appointed George Bush to power, the religionists have taken control, or at least it appears that way. You may wonder where all the rationalists have gone. Who speaks for you? Yes, you can read books by Dawkins, Dennett, Shermer, and Sam Harris, but these come rare compared to all the supernatural stuff. The news media, in general, avoids any discussion about the dangers of religion. Add to this that atheism sits at perhaps its lowest popularity in the United States right now and you just might feel a little bit lonely right now.
Well, I'm happy to report a rising star in Op-Ed journalism in America and he represents a rationalist and atheist. John Bice writes for various newspapers and publications including The State News, The Lansing State Journal, and Infidels.org. Bice's book describes a collection of Op-Ed essays on religion and politics written between 2002 and 2006. The title comes from an allusion to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," where the main character, an educated man of the 19th century, gets flung back in time to 6th century England and he has to contend with medieval ignorance and superstition.
Bice recognizes that although Americans live in a scientific world, their beliefs come permeated with superstition not unlike those of the medieval times. As in the Dark Ages, religionists live in fear that their beliefs will die out. It comes from this very fear that religionists cannot, and will not, tolerate any absence of belief in the supernatural. And when they can't convince us in their pews and pulpits, they will attempt to force others to believe through the powers of government. To counter this, Bice uses rationalist thinking to examine beliefs, religion, the Bible, morality, science, and offers opinions and facts about evolution, religious conservatives, gay marriage, and politics, including the media and the Iraq war.
Bice's writing style comes through exceptionally clear and concise. He provides source material for the controversal subjects he discusses, and his fact based commentaries lead to obvious (if you actually think about it) conclusions. His comparisons of religious beliefs against rational thinking illustrates that if people began to actually think about their faith, they can't avoid the fallaciousness of their beliefs.
In spite of Bice's rationalist insights, this should not lead a Christian to conclude that Bice wants to destroy all religions. On the contrary, just as the American founders constructed the United States as a secular nation, they wanted to protect all forms of belief, including religious and non-religious beliefs. So does Bice. But the arguments for and, especially, against religion shouldn't have to take a back seat to religious fundamentalism. Bice recognizes that to remain a silent minority would allow faith-based absurdities to go unchallenged and the situation could grow much worse. John Bice simply levels the field a bit.
So if you feel like a rationalist living in medieval times, read Bice's book and you will feel a little better about the world.
Imagine a day when newspapers and television news shows have regular reports that confront dangerous religious beliefs. Maybe it won't happen soon, but it can happen. Consider that about 14% Americans consider themselves non-religious, and probably a lot more who feel skeptical about other religions (and I suspect a lot more secretly hide their atheism). This leaves wide open an unaccessed readership potential. Moreover, newspapers have struggled recently against competition with online and television news media and they continually lose revenues. Attention, news media: Get John Bice into your newspaper and put him in syndication. You just might see a rise in your readership.
A few quotes from the book:
It's easy to see the appeal of irrational thinking; magical, pseudoscientific and faith-based explanations are effortless, nonfalsifiable, unambiguous, and instantly satisfying. In contrast, rationality, science, and skepticism are difficult, time-consuming, and generate only tentative conclusions of varying confidence levels. Rational people, however, base beliefs on the strength of the evidence, not on emotionality, tradition, faith or unreliable anecdotes.
If we can marshal the courage to rigorously instruct our children in critical thinking, perhaps the next generation will be more comfortable in admitting ignorance when an answer is unknown. Maybe, when forming a belief, they will instinctively ask, "What does the evidence suggest?" instead of "What would I like to believe?" Until then, can I interest anyone in therapeutic magnets, healing crystals, or freshly blessed holy water?
In science, disagreements are settled on the weight and persuasiveness of objective evidence. When conclusive evidence is obtained, the debate is over. As a result, science gradually progresses from diversity of opinion to consensus.
Religion is just the opposite. Throughout history, religious disagreements have frequently resulted in the deaths of those who questioned the ruling orthodoxy, or in church schisms and mutual enmity. Such church splintering has repeatedly transpired, resulting in hundreds of distinct Christian denominations, or sects, and a wide variety of beliefs. Lacking objective verifiable evidence, religion moves from compulsory consensus to belief anarchy.
Morality is a product of man. As such, it has changed over time with evolving attitudes, premises, and values. Biblical morality, however, is static, and, as we have seen, becomes increasingly antiquated with each generation. The Bible was a reflection of the beliefs and morality of times passed. Happily, we have outgrown it and far surpassed it.
"He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." This charming story of tolerance is frequently quoted and loved by many Christians. However, the author(s) of John did not write that story; it does not exist in the earliest Greek manuscripts. The narrative was added by a scribe, possibly in the margins, and dutifully retained and copied by later scribes. What this fact in mind, I wonder if Christians who supposedly revere the "word of God," rather than merely the "word of a scribe," will discontinue referring back to this debunked story of Jesus. Somehow, I doubt it.
An under appreciated problem with theism is that belief in an afterlife has the unavoidable effect of making this life less unique and precious. Theism, therefore, inherently devalues life. Unfortunately, as we have seen, this can have dangerous consequences. The suicide bombers in Israel and the September 11 hijackers clearly believed in a heavenly afterlife. Good luck finding an atheist willing to strap on a bomb to his or her back, or fly a plane into a building. Frighteningly, however, there seems no end to theists willing to perform such monstrous acts.
[C]hristians don't owe their modern civility to their religious beliefs; they owe it to values that emerged from the Enlightenment., which emphasized reason, skepticism, progress, and tolerance, while challenging dogmatism, faith, and tradition.
Enlightenment values have become the lens through which scripture is read, altering the way modern Christians approach and interpret the Bible. Varieties of Christian fundamentalism may be on the rise, but few Christians, even fundamentalists, interpret their faith as medieval believers did. Most modern Christians take a salad-bar approach to scripture, picking out what they like, while ignoring or reinterpreting the morally repugnant passages in the texts.
Although the church's animosity toward relativism has achieved a great deal of press coverage, there has been reluctance by media to state the obvious: the Catholic Church has engaged in moral relativism repeatedly throughout its history.
Does the history of support this vision of Catholic moral rectitude and stability? On the contrary, the history of the church has been one of contradiction, inconsistency, violence, brutality, hypocrisy, intolerance, and lust for power. In fact, one could argue that the church's most important contribution to the values of modern society was to serve as the bad example that inspired the Enlightenment.
In a comical attempt to advance their perspective, conservative writers have coined a politically correct name for fertilized human eggs: "microscopic Americans." I'm no joking. Evidently, "brainless Americans" was too vague.
Distinctions are routinely made between potential and actual. Children are potentially adults, but they aren't given adult rights and autonomy. Any 16-year old who has tried buying a beer by insisting they're potentially 21 understands the limits of potential.
The vast majority off elective abortions take place in the first trimester, the time when most natural miscarriages occur. In act, it's estimated that roughly half of all zygotes are spontaneously aborted.
Another aspect of abortion debate, and one that's rarely considered, is the fact that "the risk of death associated with childbirth is about 12 times as high as hat associated with abortion."
When religionists have their faith questioned, they almost invariably respond with the defense, "even science requires faith." Of course, that assertion is nonsense...
[I]ndividuals who are the most ignorant of scientific principles and the natural world are the most likely, by a large margin, to believe in an invisible sky being. Conversely, those who best understand the natural world are by far the least likely to entertain belief in imperceptible entities and superstitions. That may offend some people, but it's a fact.
My position is not scientism; it's rationalism. Opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge not religious faith, tradition, and archaic dogmatic beliefs. Faith and rationalism are diametrically different ways of forming beliefs.
Gender, in contrast to sex, is a socially constructed category of what it means to be masculine or feminine, with specific individuals falling somewhere along a continuous and culturally determined range. Gender identity is intrinsically imprecise, subjective, and potentially variable over time, whereas genetic sexual identity is not.
Americans fail to think critically, fooled easily
Raelian cult beliefs just as nutty as the Christian majority's
Religious affiliation based on Parents' faith, geographic regions
Scientology's wild claims no stranger than those of major religions
Religion is blind faith; Anyone could have written Bible storybook
Homosexuality as a sin one more example of Bible's primitiveness
Both testaments preach discrimination, promote inequality
Bice fights detractors, insists morality grows with acceptance
'Truth' of Bible can't be believed with history of additions, deletions
Readers missed point in column; Bible not literally true, unchanging
Religious majority doesn't understand atheist views
Columnist corrects assertions, 'religiously motivated drivel'
Religion and mental instability an extremely dangerous combination
Concept of eternal afterlife has real-world consequences
Religious dogma masked as fun, lighthearted holiday traditions
Islam doctrine should be modernized with 'Enlightenment' ideas
Religious criticism mistaken for intolerance, discrimination
Moral Relativism and the Catholic Church
Lying for God
Reification rampant in moral judgments
Evolution & Creationism
Intelligent Design: non-science & bad religion
Creationist misconceptions, useful and effective teaching tools
Intelligent design is flawed, requires endle4ss regression of creators
Science relies on confidence, strength of evidence, not faith
Can concepts of 'free will' and 'immaterial soul' survive modern science?
Evolutionary theory, science needed to vaccinate irrational beliefs
Accusations of misinformation in previous column lack merit, fact
Media reports on scientists' faith were full of distortions
House resolution relies on prayer to solve U.S. conflict
Conservative double-standard is abundant
Bush's Godspeak dangerous to country
The faith-based presidency
Bush supporters share common thread with fundamentalists
Columnist clears up misconceptions on Bush, religion, voting trends
Fundamentalist agenda seeking to undermine women's status
Despite popular belief, founding fathers were not all Christians
Society would benefit from people keeping beliefs to themselves
Criticism warranted when any group forces its beliefs on others
Doctrine not for lawmakers
Marriage a religious institution, civil unions should be for all
Sex, gender complexities ignored in marriage amendment
There's a drink to subdue every bad decision Bush makes
Rep. Rogers consistently ignores those he represents, needs ousting
Expect Florida voters to be tampered with again this election
Conservatives realize Bush is dangerous
Enormous U.S. deficit is another invite to international unpopularity
Hard-core capitalist mindset can be detrimental to life, well-being
Iraq War, Media & Patriotism
Censorship of media not very democratic, could get worse
What if God told one of us?
Mainstream media outlets contribute to dumbing down democracy
America, would not any safer because of Bush's war on terror
Mark Twain, human nature, Bush's push to start a war without a threat
Patriotism skewed; people who disagree with war aren't 'traitors'
About the Author
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