Saturday, April 28, 2007

An Open Letter to Believers

We all have a right to our opinion and the right to voice it. As a thinking human being, I have a duty to evaluate the opinions that come my way (as well as the people who espouse them) on their merits. By this I mean that if I voice an opinion on say, economics or history, I then have, having voiced an opinion, a duty to defend my opinion through reasoned, rational argument supported by objective, testable facts and evidence, and relevant knowledge or expertise (in other words, one not need be a Ph.D. in a particular field, sometimes an extremely well-informed layperson will do just fine). Furthermore, (and this is where the part about evaluating the people who hold the opinions in question, whatever they may be, comes in), if the arguments and evidence on which my opinions are based FAILS to withstand the critical scrutiny of adequately informed opposing parties, I have a duty to acknowledge defeat. Should I continue to espouse a particular opinion after I have been made aware of its shortcomings and refuse to acknowledge its defeat because my opinion supports an underlying irrational belief which I am unwilling to change despite any, no matter how compelling, evidence to the contrary, then I can expect to be fairly, and justly, labeled a fool and possibly a hypocrite.

In this great country of ours, no beliefs or opinions are out of bounds for questioning, religious beliefs included. There are too many sadly misinformed (or just plain intellectually blind) people who believe that the United States (the country) was founded upon “Christian” ideals. Our country, and its form of government, was in truth, founded upon the ideals of the 17th and 18th century European Enlightenment, which was itself part of a larger period now known as the Age of Reason, both of which emphasized a rational (i.e. naturalistic), empirical basis for science, art, literature, morality and ethics, as well as for government.

I will grant that many of the first settlers in America fled religious persecution back home, wherever home may have been. But sadly, once they got here, they immediately continued to perpetuate the very intolerance they had originally fled. Of course with them being on the majority side this time, they found that being in the majority position was too big a temptation (what’s that saying about power corrupting?) What a difference suddenly finding oneself in the majority makes in ones perception of good and evil, right and wrong!. Thank God that such people played no part in the founding of our form of government or in the writing of our Constitution (by the way, the irony of my invoking God was intentional). Most religious conservatives seem to fail to make a distinction between the leaders of the puritanical witch-hunters of the Massachusetts Bay colony (which is where Ronald Reagan got his "shining city on a hill" phrase from, and which was in fact, a reflection of the Puritans' desire to build in the New World, the "New Jerusalem" spoken of in the end-time prophesies in the Bible) and the leaders of the Constitutional Convention, men the likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and James Madison. While Thomas Jefferson did not attend the convention as he was at that time our ambassador to France, of all the state constitutions which influenced the writing of the national Constitution, Virginia’s Constitution, to which Jefferson was a major contributor, was one of the most influential. Specifically, Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and on which the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is based.

Here is a partial quote from the text of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain (emphasis mine, meaning that their beliefs are not somehow “off limits” and that others are free to question them), their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Section 3 declares "...that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights (emphasis mine, to point out that they are NOT divinely ordained, and to which I will provide a clue to Jefferson’s own thoughts on the issue in a moment) of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."

I have included some more quotes that shed light on this common misunderstanding of our history:

Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.

-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.

-Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

In conclusion, I wish to make a reply to the charge of arrogance, to which people of my intellectual and philosophical bent are often subjected. I endeavor not to have “beliefs,” but rather, to have “conclusions,” which have a connotation of being based on evidence, and which the term “belief” does not.

I only profess and maintain those assertions which I feel I have sufficient objective, testable evidence to support. This is, I feel, the very opposite of arrogance, and is often called humility. To put it in language suitable for the more simple-minded, I am humble enough to not to have beliefs which I cannot prove, or at the very least, argue plausibly for. I am also willing to change those conclusions or beliefs in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. Those who maintain belief in things that lack supporting evidence, or have been credibly falsified, who feels that no matter what the evidence to the contrary, they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are the ones who are arrogant. Those who blithely use computers, without which the rules and equations of quantum mechanics that govern the behavior of CD lasers and semi-conductor chips, would not work, and yet simultaneously maintain that those same equations and rules when applied to the beginnings of the universe are somehow invalid, they are ARROGANT. Those who get their yearly flu shots, which are based on projections of the year-to-year EVOLUTION of the influenza virus, yet simultaneously maintain that those same rules of population genetics do not and cannot apply to higher organisms are ARROGANT. To be quite blunt, who the hell are they, having no particular expertise or relevant knowledge of the field in question, to say that they know where the lines between where our knowledge applies and where it does not, ought to drawn? That is to me the very height of ARROGANCE and HYPOCRISY.

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