Ben Avuyah

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Sunday, July 06, 2008


Well, it appears I have not written anything on this blog for at least six months, probably nothing of substance for much longer than that...for shame, for shame.

A portion of my excuse for what appears to be late homework, I shall blame on my almost two year old daughter, whom, in addition to saying “hot” “ball” “car” and “colors” in the most adorable fashion; also recants the dreaded “no” to almost anything she is presented with. She, on a regular basis, runs rampant in her huggies, rounding our house with blistering speed, creating our private version of the indy 500 pediatric style,  during which our walls become smartly streaked with  smears of chocolate, egg, crayon and .....“unidentified substances”;  whose ever-present nature, despite my frequent hand wiping interventions, has led me to believe they must actually be secreted from her fingertips.

Sure, being no better than the next man, I was of the mind to sink in to a sulking semi-defeat of sorts; and try to find a comfortable perch from which to watch my dwelling reduced to some barbaric, pre-civilized afghani hut, thatched with whatever was in todays baby gerber can; but the circumstances of my life are unforgiving. 

I am moving, and doing so in one of the worst markets to date. My house must be pristine, host to whichever buyer’s realtor might call on a whim and say, “We’d like to come at that OK for you”?

“Sure”, I might say, glancing over my shoulder at a living room most resembling a stretch of land over which a tidal wave had just receded. Left in the awful wake the scattered flotsam and jet-sum of my little tsunami...a veritable stew of half eaten crackers, broken crayons, scattered books, and a generous sampling of this weeks “ages 18 months and above” toys from the consignment stores.

At those quiet, dark, moments of the night when I am of a mind to jot down my latest science fiction theme ideas, I will often envision the barnacle that has settled over my living room floor, as a protoplasm, as pre-life...thriving, seething, vibrating, growing...within it the vaguest glimmering of sentient intelligence....did something move there in the corner?

But in the more practical moments there is only the reality of the frenzied cleanup, the stress, the time crunch, and the hurried evacuation of a dwelling narrowly turned from a toddlers romper room to home and garden extraordinaire.

So it is no surprise that my wife and I have colonized the local Targets, Whole Foods, and Publics stores, where, when called upon to abandon our home at a moments notice, we unleash our little rapscallion upon the unsuspecting gentility of the public marketplace.

I do confess, I think my little girl believes Target to be the larger room of her day care, with far better amenities.

I tell you this to explain why I spent most of the weekend shuttling between Barnes and Nobles and Whole Foods, while two families spent most of their weekends looking at my house. 

I love bookstores and once my daughter was happily engaging her powers of destruction in the children’s section, I took the rare chance to flit around through the isles engaged in one of my all time favorite pastimes, perusing for books.

I did stumble past Hitchen’s God is not great, but hesitated before picking it up. 

I have not been very motivated by the religion vs secular war recently. I feel that after so many years on the blogosphere I have heard, and probably argued every argument there is to be had, most of them over and over again. I have made my peace with my own opinions and my place in judaism and turned my attentions to other endeavors.

But old habits die hard.

So I picked it up and thumbed through the first ten to twelve pages. I’ve never been a huge fan of his, I think his pomposity undercuts his argument. And the book was no surprise. Sharp prose, a little too reckless with his blade for my taste, but the essence of his arguments where familiar to me, I’d probably paraphrased some arguments in blogosphere debate over the years... I hadn’t expected to find much new, and hadn’t by the time I observed a shadow making a slow ark through my peripheral vision.


“She’s throwing toys”, complained my wife, as I crammed Hitchen’s amidst the Tween fiction section, sure to shock the pants off some poor kid looking for Harry Potter.

During the short “time out”, and hasty exit from the bookstore that followed, I wondered aloud to my wife if we were on a department store most wanted list, our grim faced photos part of a portfolio of those blacklisted for disturbing the peace.

On the bright side, the next encampment of our sojourn through the wilderness was a nifty little Whole Foods in my neighborhood that has free WIFI, and since I had Hitchens on the mind, I did a little surfing through You Tube to watch some of his debates, whilst dispatching my evil little apprentice with her mother to name fruits, and possibly throw fruits, in the produce section.

Of the two or three video’s I perused, I noticed two of the questions for Hitchens were identical. One was a video debate with Al Sharpton, in which I believe Sharpton leads with this question, and seems to act as if this is the true clincher for the demise of atheism. The identical question was chosen by Chris Mathews in his interview with Hitchens as a selected viewer question.

The question is a familiar one and goes something like, “How could you ever sentence a man to death, or inflict a heavy penalty, when you don’t believe there is a higher power and absolute wrong and right.”

Hitchen’s didn’t get flustered by the question but I don’t think he got the answer out very well either. I do think this is the question that most often confuses atheists or agnostics and they generally make attempts at justifying their reasoning regarding organic, innate morality and why it has value of it’s own.

I’m not interesting in spending a great deal of time on what I feel the answer to that question is. I think, to put it simply it is fair to admit that human criminal ethics and the morality of crime and punishment is complex, has areas of uncertainty, and that we don’t have a truly objective yardstick, though if reason can be relied upon for objective conclusions and can be at least in part applied to the human  traits of equity, empathy, and equality there is reason to believe that logic may contribute to  some bare standard from which to work, which I believe is the foundation of the secular rule of law that in fact we all abide by, and rely on daily for the administration of justice.

But I think where Hitchens started to go, but was never really allowed to arrive due to the unfortunate sound bite nature of the debates, was the utter absurdity of the question, coming from a religious believer.

Restated with it’s assumptions hanging on the outside the query reads as follows: I religious believer in x, who believe/know via the mechanism of faith that there is absolute good and evil, and who believes/knows via the mechanism of faith that I am privy to knowledge about absolute good and evil and how to judge them from my earthly vantage point...would like to know what right you, who admit to no definite possibility of absolute evil and good, and admit that your mechanism for moral judgment may be subjective, have in making important decisions regarding moral punishment decisions regarding others.

I believe what Hitchens began to say but did not really get to follow through on, was to point out that religious belief, that is to say the mechanism of religious belief, i.e. faith, results in a unanimous opinion of absolute good and evil, but a heterogeneity regarding the details, so stunning as to produce one set of believers who know the premeditated murder of, lets say those in the world trade center, was absolute evil, and another group who knows with certainty that it is absolute good. I believe this observation encourages the believer who is willing to make some type of leap towards honesty, to admit that his claim of certainty should be dimmed to a level of something lower than absolute, given the fact that everyone who uses his mechanism of faith comes up with conflicting directives. An honest person should likely concede at this point, that though he believes he is right, he will concede to back away from the terminology of absolute good and evil given the difficulties apparent in using faith to determine them accurately. Thus there may be absolute good and evil, but we can’t get there. And without this absolute certainty the question loses all it’s teeth and needs to be rewritten as, “How dare you make life and death judgements with your subjective morality, only I with my absolute knowledge of right and wrong should be meddling with that, though I admit that when I step back from my particular beliefs there appears to be the possibility that I am dead wrong.”

Doesn’t even make much sense.

Luckily for them, most religious people are not reasonable and are happy to tidy up their viewpoint with something like, “people who don’t believe in my religion are wrong, and there error doesn’t detract from my 100% certainty that I have accurate knowledge of absolute right and wrong.”

At this point the typical atheist tactic is to point out the fact that almost everyone believes in the religion they were born into, and that the odds of one’s certainty being based on fact or judgment rather than bias in light of this observation are all but laughable.

But this typically does not sway a believers focus either...sure they will reply...but mine could still be the right one !!!

Of course, for a reasonable person, who chose to insist this, he would probably be expected to either relinquish some degree of certainty or some degree of intellectual can’t hang on to both with landing into a big pile of the absurd.

I don’t want to beat the question and answer to death, either you see it’s flaw by now or it probably will not become apparent to you in the near future. But what amused me was what the question really boils down to it when you think about it. It is an attempt to accost the atheist for being intellectually honest.

A dishonest atheist, or one who were as comfortable with the murky logics of religious consumption, as a truly religious devotee is;  should simply answer this question by saying: I know/believe that my estimates of right and wrong create and represent absolute right and wrong, and there need not be any higher being to define them.

I think this answer would be roughly on par with regard to unsupported assumptions, and liberties in “how we know what we claim to know”, as is the religious viewpoint. It as actually the willingness of an Atheist or agnostic not to rely on such shoddy mechanisms that gives the opening for religious attack.

I’m not really looking for a debate on this topic, I’m merely sharing something that interests me about the religious psyche. I think to most rational people the flaws of this attack strategy are extremely apparent, it almost makes one cringe to watch Sharpton and others throw this stone out of their glass house. It makes me wonder if there is not at least some degree of egomaniacal and infantile behavior requisite to hold this position in light of it’s flaws mentioned above; a little bit of the grey matter that sits with it’s fingers in it’s ears screaming, “but I’m right, but I’m right”, so as to drown out all else. 

But to lead with this question on national television as your thundering might, to see your own position as some powerful castle of steel rather than the thin plexiglass that barely supports your  weight, implies an unearned hubris of ideology powerful enough to dull the eyes, seductive enough to plug the ears, and dangerous enough to dim the wit, to which only the faithful can rightfully lay claim.

Nice to be back on the Blogosphere again, it feels good to type.

Well, I think I hear clean up in Isle seven.....that’s my cue....

I hope there is a Shop-Right nearby !