The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.
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One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns-about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering-in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more that the respect we accord religious faith.
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To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world - to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish - is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.
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The same comparison holds true within the United States itself: Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious literalism, are especially plagued by [high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and infant mortality], while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European standards.
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A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it.
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Life is a continuous flux. Our nonhuman ancestors bred, generation after generation, and incrementally begat what we now deem to be the species homo sapiens - ourselves. There is nothing about our ancestral line or about our current biology that dictates how we will evolve in the future. Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way. Very likely, they will not resemble us. We will almost certainly transform ourselves, likely beyond recognition, in the generations to come.
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Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history-when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world-not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors.
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Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person's thoughts.
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Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment. . . . And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good. . . . This inversion of priorities not only victimizes innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics.
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Religious faith is the only area of discourse where immunity through conversation is considered noble . It's the only area of our lives where someone can win points for saying, "There's nothing that you can do to change my mind and I'm taking no state of the world ultimately into account in believing what I believe. There's nothing to change about the world that would cause me to revise my beliefs.
According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.
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The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.
We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God's teachings on morality: if a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father's doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
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It is taboo in our society to criticize a persons religious faith... these taboos are offensive, deeply unreasonable, but worse than that, they are getting people killed. This is really my concern. My concern is that our religions, the diversity of our religious doctrines, is going to get us killed. I'm worried that our religious discourse- our religious beliefs are ultimately incompatible with civilization.
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Every one of the world's "great" religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. Books like the Bible and the Koran get almost every significant fact about us and our world wrong. Every scientific domain - from cosmology to psychology to economics - has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture. Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.
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If faith is what you have to go on, if faith is the link between your beliefs and the world at large, your beliefs are very likely to be wrong. Beliefs can be right or wrong. If you believe you can fly, that belief is only true if indeed you can fly. Somebody who thinks he can fly, and is wrong about it, will eventually discover there's a problem with his view of the world.
While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.
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The problem I want to talk to you about tonight is the problem of belief. What does it mean to believe? We use this word all the time, and I think behind it lurk some really extraordinary taboos and confusions. What I want to argue tonight is that how we talk about belief- how we fail to criticize or criticize the beliefs of others, has more importance to us personally, more consequence to us personally and to civilization than perhaps anything else that is in our power to influence.
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There is a sense in which all cognition can be said to be motivated. One is motivated to understand the world, to be in touch with reality, to remove doubt, etc. Alternately one might say that motivation is an aspect of cognition itself. Nevertheless, motives like wanting to find the truth, not wanting to be mistaken, etc., tend to align with epistemic goals in a way that many other commitments do not. As we have begun to see, all reasoning may be inextricable from emotion. But if a person's primary motivation in holding a belief is to hue to a positive state of mind, to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt for instance. This is precisely what we mean by phrases like "wishful thinking", and "self-deception". Such a person will of necessity be less responsive to valid chains of evidence and argument that run counter to the beliefs he is seeking to maintain. To point out non-epistemic motives in an others view of the world, therefore, is always a criticism, as it serves to cast doubt on a persons connection to the world as it is.
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There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad... To produce this horrible confection at home, start with our genocidal treatment of the Native Americans, add a couple hundred years of slavery, along with our denial of entry to Jewish refugees fleeing the death camps of the Third Reich, stir in our collusion with a long list of modern despots and our subsequent disregard for their appalling human rights records, add our bombing of Cambodia and the Pentagon Papers to taste, and then top with our recent refusals to sign the Kyoto protocol for greenhouse emissions, to support any ban on land mines, and to submit ourselves to the rulings of the International Criminal Court. The result should smell of death, hypocrisy, and fresh brimstone.
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All I'm arguing for really is that we should have a conversation where the best ideas really thrive, where there's no taboo against criticizing bad ideas, and where everyone who shows up, in order to get their ideas entertained, has to meet some obvious burdens of intellectual rigor and self-criticism and honesty-and when people fail to do that, we are free to stop listening to them. What religion has had up until this moment is a different set of rules that apply only to it, which is you have to respect my religious certainty even though I'm telling you I arrived at it irrationally.
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This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and the ground for any experience we might wish to call 'spiritual.' No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish.
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When we consider that so few generations had passed since the church left off disemboweling innocent men before the eyes of their families, burning old women alive in public squares, and torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars, it is perhaps little wonder that it failed to think anything had gone terribly amiss in Germany during the war years.
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It is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.
If we cannot find our way to a time when most of us are willing to admit that, at the very least, we are not sure whether or not God wrote some of our books, then we need only count the days to Armageddon-because God has given us far many more reasons to kill one another than to turn the other cheek.
The truth, however, is that most Muslims appear to be "fundamental- ist" in the Western sense of the word-in that even "moderate" approaches to Islam generally consider the Koran to be the literal and inerrant word of the one true God. The difference between funda- mentalists and moderates-and certainly the difference between all "extremists" and moderates-is the degree to which they see political and military action to be intrinsic to the practice of their faith. In any case, people who believe that Islam must inform every dimension of human existence, including politics and law, are now generally called not "fundamentalists" or "extremists" but, rather, "Islamists.
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It is time we admitted, from kings and presidents on down, that there is no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe. The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldview-however heroic the efforts of redactors- is to repudiate two thousand years of civilizing insights that the human mind has only just begun to inscribe upon itself through secular politics and scientific culture. We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.
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What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose on earth? These are some of the great, false questions of religion. We need not answer them, for they are badly posed, but we can live our answers all the same. At a minimum, we can create the conditions for human flourishing in this life-the only life of which any of us can be certain. That means we should not terrify our children with thoughts of hell or poison them with hatred for infidels. We should not teach our sons to consider women their future property or convince our daughters that they are property even now. And we must decline to tell our children that human history began with bloody magic and will end with bloody magic in a glorious war between the righteous and the rest.
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One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not-that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation. Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral-that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings.
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our moral reasoning is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the wag-the-dog illusion: We believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the wag-theother-dog's-tail illusion: In a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent's arguments to change the opponent's mind. Such a belief is like thinking that forcing a dog's tail to wag by moving it with your hand will make the dog happy.
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Are you really surprised by the endurance of religion? What ideology is likely to be more durable than one that conforms, at every turn, to our powers of wishful thinking? Hope is easy; knowledge is hard. Science is the one domain in which we human beings make a truly heroic effort to counter our innate biases and wishful thinking. Science is the one endeavor in which we have developed a refined methodology for separating what a person hopes is true from what he has good reason to believe. The methodology isn't perfect, and the history of science is riddled with abject failures of scientific objectivity. But that is just the point-these have been failures of science, discovered and corrected by-what, religion? No, by good science.
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It is also worth noting that one can obtain a Ph.D. in any branch of science for no other purpose than to make cynical use of scientific language in an effort to rationalize the glaring inadequacies of tbe Bible. A handful of Christians appear to have done this; some have even obtained their degrees from reputable universities. No doubt, others will follow in their footsteps. While such people are technically "scientists," they are not behaving like scientists. They simply are not engaged in an honest inquiry into the nature of the universe. And their proclamations about God and the failures of Darwinism do not in the least signify that there is a legitimate scientific controversy about evolution.
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[I]f the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to supernatural modification as to be rendered nearly ridiculous; if the basic claims of religion are false, most people are profoundly confused about the nature of reality, confounded by irrational hopes and fears, and tending to waste precious time and attention-often with tragic results. Is this really a dichotomy about which science can claim to be neutral?
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If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: 'Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.' Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.
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If our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and events in the world, and there are better and worse ways to secure it, then some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human misery.
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This concept of the afterlife really functions as a substitute for wisdom. It functions as a substitute for really absorbing our predicament, which is that everyone is going to die; there are circumstances that are just catastrophically unfair; evil sometimes wins and injustice sometimes wins, and that the only justice we are going to find in the world is the justice we make. We have an ethical responsibility to absorb this, really down to the soles of our feet. And this notion of an afterlife, of how it's all going to work out and its all part of god's plan, is a way of shirking that responsibility.
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I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way that you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying. I don't wish to denigrate any of these experiences. I would point out, however, that billions of other human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences - but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of Nature. There is no question that it is possible for people to have profoundly transformative experiences. And there is no question that it is possible for them to misinterpret these experiences, and to further delude themselves about the nature of reality. You are, of course, right to believe that there is more to life than simply understanding the structure and contents of the universe. But this does not make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about its structure and contents any more respectable.
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Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, 'atheism' is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a 'non-astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist.' We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
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Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic-in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn't draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn't do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system-learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention-may radically transform one's life.
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We are all trying to find a path back to the present moment. And good enough reason to just be happy here... Mindfulness meditation is just a trick for doing that. It's a trick for setting aside your to-do list, if only for a few moments, and actually locate a feeling of fulfilment in the present
As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question. Any being capable of creating a complex world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed repeatedly, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.
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