Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Wizard of Oz: an Atheist Allegory.

The movie The Wizard of Oz, based off of L Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an American classic.  The story is also often used in social studies classes as an allegory to the Populist era of the late 1800s.  Baum did not write Oz as an allegorical tale, but it fits quite well.  The Wizard of Oz can also be used as an allegory to an Atheists shedding of religion and superstition, on the Atheist's road to self-discovery.  I will use the movie version here as it is most familiar to the general public, and it's easier to obtain the movie online than the book.
The Wizard of Oz centers around Dorothy, a young girl from Kansas.  In the beginning of the film, Kansas is in black and white.  Kansas is Dorothy's home, her background.  It is in black and white because in her theist culture, things are seen in black and white; there are the saved and the heathens, the word of God and that of man.  Everything is either-or, there is no middle ground.  You are either with the theists or you are evil.
Critical Thinking and the Atheist
Dorothy is, if you haven't figured it out, is the protagonist, the Atheist in the making.  In Kansas she is a trouble maker, due mainly to her dog Toto.
Toto represents Dorothy's critical thinking.  While Dorothy keeps Toto close, he has a knack of getting her both into and out of trouble.  When we are introduced to Toto, he is in trouble for getting into Miss Gulch's garden.
Preachers, Priests, and other Shaman
Miss Gulch represents the local church. When we first meet Miss Gulch, she wants to have Toto destroyed.  To the Atheist this is a familiar scene.  Critical thinking (Toto) is seen as dangerous to established religions. Or it is when it is used to question the religion. That is what Toto did in the movie, he got into Miss Gulch's garden, or he was able to destroy what Miss Gulch had planted in the mind of Dorothy.
Fortunately, the tornado whisked Dorothy and Toto away from Kansas. For many who leave religion, it is like a tornado. It is scary, confusing and you don't know what will happen next. 
Eventually, Dorothy lands in Oz.  The land of Oz is full of wonder and self discovery. Oz is Dorothy's return to innocence.  The innocence is short lived once Dorothy realizes that she has inadvertently killed the Wicked Witch of the East, by landing her Kansan house on the witch.
Religious Upbringing
The Wicked Witch of the East represents Dorothy's faith- her religious belonging.  No longer does Dorothy identify with her faith which causes a feeling of being lost, being alone.

Those who've gone before
 But soon, Glinda the Good Witch introduces herself to Dorothy.  Glinda is all the atheists that have left their faith before Dorothy.  Glinda knows Dorothy is on the road to self discovery, and does like any good teacher, Glinda does not give Dorothy the answers, but shows her the road to find them for herself.
But before Dorothy sets off, the Good Witch gives Dorothy the Ruby Slippers.  The slippers are magical in the movie, but in our allegory they are far more powerful.  The Ruby Slippers are Dorothy's self-reliance and perseverance. It is these two traits that carry Dorothy through her arduous journey through Oz.

So Dorothy sets off on the Yellow Brick Road.  This road is the path of reason.  Each brick is evidence held together with the mortar of logic.  The path is long, but the destination is well worth the trip.


Along the path, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow.  In the movie, the Scarecrow wants a brain and goes with Dorothy to meet the Wizard.  To our Atheist Dorothy, the Scarecrow is the desire for knowledge and education.  Also, the Scarecrow is the most common tactic theists use to discredit Atheists: The Strawman.  They will phrase Atheist views in the most ridiculous way possible and then attack that, but never the Atheist's actual argument.

Humanity & Ethics
Later, the pair meets the Tinman.  In the movie, the Tinman wants a heart.  In our story, the Tinman is the Atheist's discovery of ethics grounded in humanity.  No longer are Dorothy's morality fixed to the relativistic divine command, but in the rational and empathetic consideration for her fellow humans.  Despite this, the Tinman is a reflection of the theist's depiction of the Atheist as cold-hearted. 
Further along the road, the trio meets up with a lion.  The lion tries to be tough, but he is really a coward. He joins with Dorothy and company to get some courage from the Wizard. As the Atheist is a minority, they are often socially ostracized and in some places jailed or killed. The Atheist must have courage to hold true to their views.  Yet to the religious, the lion is representative of the Atheist persecuting the theists.  Theists often really believe this.  That the Super-Majority in a culture is being persecuted by a small minority.  A minority that cannot legally run for public office in 17 States of the Union.
The Church

Eventually our troupe reaches the Emerald City.  This is the whole of religion, the physical church.  Dorothy is still unsure of herself, still searching for meaning.  Yet this is where the Yellow Brick Road has led her.

Finally, Dorothy and Company meets the Wizard of Oz.  Oz is of course God.  Dorothy finds God, yet she has to prove herself worthy.  In most religions this is some sort of incantation, or declaration.  But not Oz.

Organized Religion
He commands Dorothy to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West.  The whole scene represents the social control and conflicts from it the church incites. It commands the bad that good people do to opposing views, apostates, Atheists, even other believers.
Dorothy does this.  But it is for a different reason.

Melting Organized Religion
The water washes away the what the Wicked Witch of the West represents: Organized Religion. The Flying Monkeys, the Munchkins, were all under the spell of the Wicked Witch.  But Dorothy was able to break that spell, to break the witch's control over Dorothy's life.

After Dorothy melts the witch, she returns to the Wizard.  The Wizard refuses to help her any further, after all she is to serve him, not the other way around.  But then little Toto, Dorothy's Critical Thinking, finds the man behind the curtain. The Yellow Brick Road did not lead Dorothy astray... Toto finished the journey, showing Dorothy the truth.  The Wizard of Oz is man made. Man made God, not the other way around.
Toto exposing the "Wizard"
With the curtain pulled, Dorothy discovers that she has the power to return home.  Because of Toto, she is no longer enamored with the Wizard.
Yet when she gets home, it is all black and white again.  While Dorothy has seen the myriad of colors that make the real world, she still has to live in one framed and molded by people who only think in black and white.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Faith: What is it?

I made this little video to explain my thoughts on the concept of “belief without evidence”. This video is not an attack on religion, per se, but rather a critical outlook on the the very concept of faith.  To a degree, this video serves as a coup de grace to by blog post on R.R. Reno’s assault on critical thinking where he espouses using pious faith as a substitution for critical thinking.
Below is the video.  If you rather just read the transcript, it is below the video, but without the pictures.
What is faith?
The word “faith” is used in many instances as a synonym.  The most common is the use of faith to mean religion:  “He was of the Baha’i faith.”  Another is that of trust, as in you trust someone or something:  “He had faith in his wife’s fidelity.” or   “She had faith the rappelling rope would hold her weight.”  Faith can be used to mean confidence:  “She had faith her students would do well on the test.” It can also mean hope:  “The students had faith that they would do well on the test.”
But then why not just use those words?   In all of these cases the word faith creates ambiguity.  But faith has another, more specific meaning:  Acceptance of an idea as true, without any evidence.
This alone can be folly.
At times you must act before you can consider all possibilities, before you can learn the facts.  Fortunately, however, these situations are rare. Unfortunately, they usually involve hungry tigers or gunfire.
Where faith becomes sinister, is when it is paired up with either of these two concepts:
  1. When faith is coupled with strict obedience.
  2. That faith is a sacred concept.
The application of faith to a leader leads to atrocities.  Be it faith and obedience to the Pope (The Inquisition); To the Pastor (Salem Witch Trials); To the Imam (September 11th); To the secular leader (Stalin).
When the concept of faith is held sacred it cannot be challenged.  There are many bad ideas in human history. Sacred faith in these ideas means they cannot be questioned. This is problematic for two reasons. One is that it prohibits discovery into the world around us. If we kept sacred faith that disease is caused by evil spirits, or wrathful deities, we would not have vaccines, medicine, or surgery. We would all still die at an early age, toiling our lives away at the behest of an authoritarian overlord.
The other problem is that it puts ideas above people.  The faithful are quick to point out the human rights abuses of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.  But they ignore the fact that faith played a role in such atrocities as 9/11, the Inquisition, even the holocaust.  But faith, at least one’s own, is sacred.  Believe, but do not question.
To have faith is to believe first.  The problem with this is that people often hold fast to beliefs.  This is because belief is an emotional attachment to an idea.  We are emotionally programmed to keep our beliefs.  Unfortunately, this inhibits learning.
Faith often leads to tailoring evidence of phenomenon to conform to that belief.  In other words, the conclusion is drawn, then evidence is forced to fit the conclusion.
Reason is the reverse of this.  To reason is to follow the evidence to the conclusion the evidence shows you.  Even if that means changing your world view.  Philosophy, Science, and the Social Studies all rely on this.  Ironically enough, it was a theist, a Christian to be exact, that gave modern reason it’s greatest tool. That man was RenĂ© Descartes. That tool is doubt.

Before Descartes, new knowledge was forced to fit within the confines of tradition. This is the thinking that hampered progress in Europe during the Dark Ages. Medieval scholars used their faith as a hammer to pound the square pegs of new knowledge into the round holes of their traditions. Descartes’ big idea is that the beginning of knowledge must be doubt. Doubt first, and then seek evidence. This skeptical approach is the foundation of modern science. It places the burden of proof on those who make a positive claim.

But what is a positive claim?

A positive claim is an explanation for something, rather than nothing.

Example:  A car is a certain primary color.  
Is it red, yellow or blue?  
It is a fact that it must be one of the three. But which color to believe the car to be is another matter. The default position is to believe that the car is none of the colors. This is the default, skeptical position used in modern reason.  To believe the car to be yellow without having seen it is faith. To suspend belief until you see the car is using reason. This is how we got out of the dark ages and to the moon; To follow reason is enlightenment.
To hold to a belief when the evidence shows it is not true is delusion.  The sacredness of faith demands obedience of belief in the face of contrary evidence. Thus faith leads to delusions.
Faith is a hold over from the ancient world.  Taking a leader’s word as truth was the glue that held society together. Today, that is not the case.  Today, leaders are held accountable for their lies, and discarded from office when they break the public trust.
That is, unless you put your faith in them.
The world has advanced beyond petty dictators in the desert, in the jungle, on the plain.  We have walked on the Moon.  Reason got us there, not faith.  Leave faith, but preserve your confidence.  Discard faith, hold on to trust.  Lose your faith, but keep your hope.
Take up the charge of reason.  Follow the evidence.  Think Critically in all of your endeavors.  Humanity is on the march to great things once the baggage of faith is left behind.
Do not be left behind.

The Ten Commandments and the Constitution

In honor of Arkansas’s decision to place the Decalogue at the state capitol, today I will look at whether or not our government is based on the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are as follows:
  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
To break this down, we will ask but a simple question: Are any of the commandments upheld in the US Constitution?
To answer this, the obvious solution is to go through the list and see where it applies to the Constitution.  As a reminder, the body of the Constitution sets up the how the government works, the only bit of law is an outline of preceding of treason. Since treason is not expressed in the Ten Commandments, we can disregard the bulk of the Constitution.  That leaves us with the Amendments which spell out individual rights.  We must limit ourselves to the first ten Amendments as the others were added after our founding fathers.
Ok, so Commandment 1: Only worship God (Yahweh).
Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
We can stop there.  The First Amendment directly invalidated the First Commandment.  Where God commands worship only for him, the Constitution says that the government neither force you to, or force you not to.
But I shall go on.
The second Commandment is also annulled by the First Amendment.  Again, you have the right to make a statue of Marduk out of your boogers and worship him as you please.
The third Commandment is to not take the Lord’s name in vain.  This is often interpreted in two ways.  One is to not blaspheme.  Again the First Amendment trumps the Commandment as blasphemy is protected speech.  The second interpretation of the third Commandment is to hold to your word, to keep your contracts.  Between individuals, there are no contract laws written in the Constitution, which would satisfy the name-in-vain Commandment.  However, there are limitations to what kinds of (essentially) contracts the States can make.  But Article I, Section 10 outlines prohibitions on contracts and treaties between states and with foreign powers without consent of Congress.*  I think we can safely say that keeping contracts are as much of secular life and be it between governments or individuals, it is better for the general assumption that one’s word will be true.  Otherwise, why bother with contracts?
The fourth Commandment is not mentioned in the Constitution at all.  In fact, most businesses are open seven days a week.  In fact, it is generally held that laws forcing businesses to close on a certain day, or limiting sales of certain goods on a certain day are thought to be a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of promoting religion.
The fifth Commandment is not a matter of Constitutional law.  The closest thing to it are state laws that require not the child to honor the parents, but that the parents honor (provide for) the child.  A child can neglect a parent, and nothing happens legally.  But it is illegal for a parent to neglect a child.
The sixth through eighth Commandments are also not in the Constitution.  Homicide, and theft are defined by the states, not the federal government, except in rare cases.  But in any case, murder and theft are not in the Constitution.  Neither is adultery, which is legal everywhere.
The ninth Commandment prohibits perjury, libel, and slander.  Again, this is found in common law, not in the Constitution nor in any of the Amendments.  While it is found in common law, like murder and theft, all civilized countries have prohibitions against such things.
The tenth Commandment says not to covet your neighbor’s property.  Included in that property are slaves and wives.  Yes, slavery is in the Constitution, and before the 13th Amendment it allowed slavery, just like the teachings of the Abrahamic prophets.  But you could covet them as much as you wanted to!  In the Constitution thought crimes are not addressed, and to say coveting is evil is to create thought crime.  Fortunately, Amendments past the Tenth in the Constitution not only freed humans from slavery, but gave women the vote, recognizing them as no longer property of their husbands.
So before you vote on or petition for the Ten Commandments displayed on or in a government building, remember that not only is the Constitution written without them, but to adhere to them would be a step backwards for civilization.
So, what is the point of all of this?  If you want to put up the Decalogue on government property, it is the same as “respecting an establishment of religion”.  It is no different than a Muslim group wanting to post Sharia law, or Buddhists wanting to post the Eight Fold Path.  Want to post something in your town square?  Try the Ten Amendments, not the Ten Commandments!
*Thanks to Mike Wyner for pointing this out.

Idaho and Faith Based Child Neglect

Amy Martin’s daughter, Melissa gets pneumonia after playing in the rain.  Melissa misses two weeks of school as her illness gets more and more severe.  Aside from a steady diet of chicken noodle soup, Melissa isn’t given any medicine.  After another week, she loses the battle and dies.  When the coroner comes to the house he asks why Melissa wasn’t taken to the hospital, and Amy replies that she didn’t feel like it.  The officers on the scene would immediately arrest her and charge her with homicide, child neglect and child abuse.  And Amy would rot away in jail for killing her daughter.
037-Healed-by-prayer But instead, Amy says that she didn’t take Melissa to the hospital because it conflicted with her religious beliefs.  In Idaho, Amy would then be free to go.
The difference between murder and a tragic accident is Amy’s belief in prayer and God.  Really?
Al Jazeera-America recently ran an article about a push in Idaho to end parental denial of medical care for their children based on faith.
Here is the Original Article.Pleasent+Valley+Cemetery+(31)
It is about a slew of mostly preventable child deaths from a Followers of Christ church.  A further investigation is found here at KATU.  Around 600 graves mark where children were murdered by their parents who neglected to get them medical treatment and instead relied on prayer.
Religion should be treated like sex.  It is fine between consenting adults, but when applied to a child it is a form of rape.  The murdered children of the Followers of Christ did not have the ability to reason for themselves and thus could not have the ability to fully weigh the consequences of not seeking medical attention.  This is the exact same reason why sex with a child is always rape, even if they consent and are willing: they don’t have the capacity to weigh and deal with the consequences of their choice.  In other words, they do not know what they are doing.
This phenomenon of statutory indoctrination must be stopped.  There is no need for children to die because their parents wish to believe in a God.  Their community needs to step in and save those children.  How?  By prosecuting the parents of those dead kids for murder, just like any other neglectful parent.

On Humanism

“”It’s rare to walk anywhere in public and not see some religious advertisement every few moments. Imagine if the cause of non-belief were promoted to even one hundredth this degree? Theists would be totally outraged. Yet if an atheist decides to react to the overwhelming pro-religion propaganda that’s in his face on a daily basis, he’s labeled as “militant”, “intolerant” and “extremist.”
—Morgan Matthew, Why atheists care about religion
Part of the human psyche is tribalism: an unwavering loyalty to one’s in-group.  Tribes served to protect families from other tribes that wanted the same resources.  These tribes were formed from several extended families which would evolve over time.  From these loose tribal relations arose permanent settlements and cities.  As individual tribes arose to power they were able to subjugate other tribes creating kingdoms and even empires.  With the formation of nations, a tribe became self-sovereign with respect to other tribes.  Yet as the borders of these kingdoms, empires and nations grew, so did the tribes become split between ideologies, religion, even sports teams.  Our schools are infused with it, even the social construct of race is based on tribalism.
Another equally powerful aspect of the human psyche is the need to explain the world around them; a species-wide compulsion really.  This compulsion is met by two abilities that are also definitive of humanity: imagination and reason.  Reason is basically our ability do deconstruct the world around us to see how it works.  Imagination is our ability to construct things not found in nature.
Ancient man used myth to explain natural phenomenon.  The basis for these myths was a stout dose of imagination tempered only by the very human experiences of their creators.  Out of these myths, religion was born. Once reason was applied to imagination philosophy was born.  Once the collective ego was removed from philosophy, only the natural world remained and the study of it with awe and imagination tempered only by reason is science.
Science has dispelled nearly all of the myths of ancient man.  However, religion still remains.If not in the 21st century, then surely the 22nd century will see the end of religious tribalism in developed countries.  This trend has nearly happened in most of Europe and is beginning to take hold in the U.S. While the Mid-East is seeing a resurgence of fanatical, militant religiosity it looks more like the death throes of extremist theocrats.  Once more moderate Muslims temper the extremists in their midst, even Islam will wane.
Once religion has disappeared, or at least marginalized, then what?  The tribalistic nature would still remain. The what?  Statist tribalism?  Cults of personality?  It doesn’t work.  Be it Mohamed, Hitler, Reagan, Pol Pot, Mao, Moses, Stalin, Karesh, or Paul the application of religious-like (as in faith-based) obedience to a leader nearly always ends in bloodshed. The few exceptions are mainly Gandhi, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Martin Luther King Jr. (who based his work of passive resistance on Gandhi).  What religion (or ideology) those listed above follows is mostly irrelevant rather it is the mechanism of religion that gives these people their power.  That mechanism in faith.
Faith is obedience without evidence. Faith in a person beans one follows that person without evidence that their ideals are just.  Faith in an idea is blind acceptance.  It is faith that is the destructive force behind religion, and the very thing that allows bronze age myths to be taken as true by modern man.
But to quell religion should it be outlawed?  Absolutely not!  Outlawing religion would only harden and embolden its fanatics, while increasing their number. But that is not the real reason.  In any society, secular or theistic, crime is stigmatized.  It would be very un-humanist to stigmatize someone who is harmlessly mistaken in a belief.  However, an organization is not a person. To stigmatize a church is no different than stigmatizing the Ku Klux Klan.  Both groups exist to spread tribalistic ideology aimed at controlling others.
Instead, the humanist approach is not to legislate away bad ideas like religion, racism, and chute-less skydiving, but to debate it away; to demonstrate the absurdity and immorality of it.  How is this done?  Through education, but never indoctrination.  What then is the difference?  In education the facts lead the conclusion and all conclusions have merit only as long as the facts support them.  In indoctrination the position is mandated by those in power.  To outlaw religion means to fine, jail, even execute the practitioners.  Thus to outlaw religion is the most violent form of indoctrination.
The need to be a part of something larger than oneself still remains after the gods die. So then what do we replace our petty tribes with?
Hold to humanity itself.  That which fosters our species is good, and that which hinders it is bad.  But what actions should we take?  Our collective endeavors, be they political, economic, or social should be to relieve suffering (compassion), advance understanding (knowledge), minimize forced tribalism (liberty) and advance voluntary cohesive cooperation (community).
It is time for the human species to quit living on its knees and stand.  Stand up to the oppression of religion by battling the very idea of faith.  But the battle of the humanist is not fought with guns and bombs, and these must never be wielded in the name of humanism. Our weapons are knowledge, logic and love.  Our love for knowledge, logic and humanity are all we need to free our fellow humans from the bondage of religion.  To do so the very idea of faith must be exposed as villainous and destructive.  By opening minds, hearts will be opened.  Once educated, people will either reject superstition, or reject the notion of forcing it on other people.
To Humanity!

Piety and R.R. Reno’s assault on Critical Thinking

against-critical-thinkingI have just spent the past hour listening to R.R. Reno’s lecture at First Things, which you can view here.  The thesis of his lecture, and his book the lecture is based on is that critical thinking as the prime virtue in education produces a vacuous world view as it cannot determine truth and the way to fix that is by pious pedagogy.  Reno clarifies that a “Pedagogy of Piety is pious but not necessarily religious.”  This leaves the audience to conclude that he means the non-religious definition of piety which I will expound upon below.  Since this is a 2500+ word post click here for the "TL;DR" end.
Reno begins with an analogy of a train passenger.  The train passenger who is careless and doesn’t look at the train schedule is likely to jump on to the wrong train and miss the right one.  The overly careful passenger worries so much about the schedule that he is frozen in fear of being wrong and misses the train.  He likens the fearful passenger as the critical thinker.
In the first few minutes of the lecture, Reno is already missing the mark.  For one, the analogy is a false one.  The fearful passenger is just as lacking in critical thinking as the careless one.  Reno states that criticism has become one-sided and in order to avoid being paralyzed with critical thinking, one must form convictions.  What he misses is that one purpose of critical thinking is to find the best possible course of action.  Critical thinking is about finding answers, not just deconstructing assertions.  I am getting ahead of myself.
Reno goes on to create a juxtaposition between the humanities and science.  Science is fact based, while the humanities desire a more subtle interpretation of cultural meaning.  Then he implies that these are two different, competing, bodies of knowledge.  That is where he is off the mark again.  His use of humanities refers mostly to literature, meaning that the discussion of literature is a type of knowledge.  This is a bone of contention between the hard sciences and the humanities across most campuses.  The reason is that knowledge is used in two very different ways.  In science knowledge is something that is falsifiable, can be demonstrated, and is independent of the observer. In literature, knowledge can also mean understanding or interpretation of literature.  But literature is art, the exploration of it is an exploration of the author’s mind, the author’s culture, and the reader’s mind and culture.  In other words, it is not completely falsifiable nor completely independent of the observer and therefore not knowledge in the scientific sense.  However, a reader must be able to demonstrate their interpretation using critical thinking.
Reno leaves this line of thinking to explore the relationship between the ivy league and ROTC.  He asserts that most ivy league schools rejected ROTC programs because of the institutionalized homosexual discrimination in the military.  Here Reno shows two things: he is either ignorant of the effect the Vietnam war had on higher education and ROTC, or he, speaking to a Christian audience, is making a dig on the “liberal” (read secular) culture of the ivy league.
Now that gays are accepted into the military, the ivy league has opened their campuses to ROTC except for Columbia University.  He then reads an open letter from Columbia as to why.  In summation it is because higher education promotes critical thinking, questioning everything, including authority, where the military requires a blind obedience to authority.  Reno quips that the authors of that letter do not know what military training is.  Here Reno is right.  ROTC is for officer training and critical thinking and evaluation is paramount to a successful mission.  Is obedience important in the military?  Naturally.  A soldier’s job is to inflict the will of the state on whomever the state wishes.  Success in this requires obedience… to a point.  If an officer orders his platoon to gang rape a prisoner, those soldiers are required to say no.  That would be a war crime, and the men and women serving in are military are required to be able to know the difference between a lawful order and an unlawful one.  This means that even a private must possess critical thinking.
Reno then attacks the concept of critical distance.  A critical distance is removing oneself from the problem to look at it objectively.  Reno refers to it as cold and dispassionate.  However, Reno is missing the point.  The term dispassionate in this sense is the old Hellenistic use of the word.  It doesn’t mean without any emotion, but rather without letting emotion purely be the guide.  For instance, I was in Joplin on May 11, 2011 when an EF-5 tornado devastated the town.  My wife had been in the path of the tornado at her work while I was outside the destruction zone at mine.  After I finally reached her, alive with a few minor injuries, we headed off to find our kids.  The path of destruction barely missed my in-law’s house where the kids were staying, when we went in they told us that a tree had fallen on the back of the house, but they hid in the bathroom.  I quickly counted the kids, saw that the baby was missing and inquired where he was.  They said they left him in his crib.  I ran in to make sure he was OK, and he was, but I raged at them for leaving him in his crib during the tornado!  They didn’t of course, they had him with them in the bathroom.  But my passions had taken over.  I was not thinking clearly, and thus not acting clearly.  Once I calmed down, once I cooled, I was able to see they did the right thing and apologize.  It is against this that critical thinking requires a dispassionate distance.
Reno then brings Rene Descartes into the mix.  More specifically, Descartes’ theory of doubt: all ideas are suspect until proven otherwise.  Or “guilty until proven innocent” as Reno puts it.  This is a true cornerstone of critical thinking.  Medieval thought, to which Descartes was arguing against, would revise modify a particular stance on something to fit new knowledge.  Descartes wanted to tear the whole framework down, and to proceed surely and slowly.
The graph below illustrates Descartes’ call to move slowly and surely:
If you count the hash marks after the year 1000, you’ll see how Descartes was both a product of his time and how he influenced human thought.  Around 1400 CE, Europe started to become more secular, that is less pious, in their outlook.  Descartes was rejecting the kind of thinking that spanned from 400 CE to 1400 CE: the flat part.  Descartes work directly contributed (along with Newton, Leibniz, Galileo, Hume and Kant among others) to the sort of scientific skepticism that by moving “slowly and surely” has advanced science by leaps and bounds.
Reno goes on a bit about Pascal and math, then he comes to his first bit of woo woo.  He says that science cannot answer the “important” questions in life.  It cannot comfort the dying, cannot know about the after life, who should marry who, etc.  Comfort the dying? The after life?  Who should marry who?  What is moral?  Reno is employing two rhetorical devices here.  One is the use of weasel words, in this case, listing “important” questions as the non-scientific one.
Can science comfort the dying?  Not all the time.  But neither can a “there, there”.  But science can comfort the dying in one respect:  It can find cures for terminal diseases.  Which is more than prayer and other forms of authority-based wishful thinking has ever done.  What about the afterlife?  How would one test for it?  The afterlife is more of a philosophical problem.  Who should marry who?  eHarmony claims to be able to with science.  Maybe they can, maybe they cannot.  the problem with match making is there are thousands of variables to account for.  So I will say science could find a perfect match for someone, but the time and cost would be prohibitive.  But that is irrelevant.  What matters is the continuance of the species, and we are here because our ancestors liked to make babies; which is precisely why our children are here.  Morality?  Actually, in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins contains a science-based moral theory.  I would say it is still a philosophical question, but an interesting take on the matter.
Reno is subtle here.  Remember, he is a Catholic, and he is silently advocating an ultimate earthly authority in the Pope. Meaning that all the “important” questions can be solved through pious education.  By obeying the Pope.
Next, Reno brings in John Henry Newman.  Newman asserts that critical thinking is only destructive, and not creative.  He says that critical thinking may kill the weeds, but it doesn’t fertilize the flowers.  To fertilize the flowers you need to believe first (a direct opposite of what Descartes said). To keep with the analogy, Newman, and Reno, miss something.  Believing in everything first, may in fact fertilize the flowers, but it also fertilizes the weeds too.  Whereas critical thinking does away with the weeds allowing the flowers to flourish on their own.
The above makes more sense with a little philosophical history.  In the 1700s, David Hume put science on its ear by demonstrating that all of science is illogical.  Let’s look at this:
If gravity exists then when I drop a ball, it will fall to the ground.
I dropped the ball and it fell
Therefore, gravity exists.
Sounds great tight?  Let’s look at is in another way:
If I live in London, then I live in England.
I live in England
Therefore, I live in London.
Do you see how the argument doesn’t work now?  In formal logic it is called Affirming the Consequent.
popperSounds like Reno has a case?  Meet Karl Popper, a 20th century philosopher. Karl Popper said that Hume was correct in his logic, but incorrect as to what scientists do. Popper said that affirming the consequent is not what they do.  What they do is experiment against their hypotheses to see if it is wrong.  Thus (to re-use the London argument):
If I live in London, then I live in England.
I do not live in England
Therefore, I do not live in London.
That makes sense.  It is called Denying the Consequent, and is logically valid.
By using a subtraction force, Popper preserved scientific integrity.  The reason is that for any given phenomenon, there are a near infinite number of explanations.  No one has time to sift through all of them, and not all of them can be acted upon.  Thus we have to take the bad ideas away from the good.  This is what science, both hard and social, does.
Reno then goes back to his critique of emotional distance (which he refers to with the weasel word “distance cruelty”).  he does this to begin his assault on skepticism, the bane of all flim-flam.  He states that a skeptic believes that every argument has an equal and opposite counter argument.  This is a flat-out lie.  At first, I thought maybe Reno was just uneducated as to what a skeptic is, but in fact he is a highly educated man.  I am left with the conclusion that he lied.  A skeptic is simply one who approaches all of life through the lens of critical thinking.  Does every argument have an equal and opposite counter-argument?  Not at all.  Separating out the bad ideas from the good is the life’s work of the skeptic.
Reno then goes into what he called the paradox of being yourself.  He claims as soon as you makes yourself a project for improvement, then  you are by default serving a higher power.  This is a flat-out non sequitur.  What doesn’t follow is that to be oneself is thus bigger than oneself.  To be a flower is to be a garden.  That sounds like the random ramblings of Deepak Chopra, than the well-reasoned insights of a learned man.  But I digress, and I ad hominem.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Reno then returns to Newman’s idea of believing in everything first then to doubt.  That it is better to get on the wrong train than no train at all.
It is better to get on the wrong train, go to the wrong destination, than to not get on any train at all.
This is, of course, a ridiculous statement when viewed in the right light.  Sometimes it IS best to miss the train!
Reno then includes his second bit of woo woo by assuming that the human soul is about knowing, while critical thinking is about pushing away, subtracting, destroying.  He finishes by saying that only a pious mind is a truth filled mind.  To shorten this already long post, Reno goes on to a little about how math is to encourage success in finding truth, and that modern education has instilled in students pride in not being deceived.  With concluding that belief risks error which is what makes truth possible.  Reno does go into why the Virgin Mary is the patron saint of philosophers, but that really isn’t relevant as it just illustrates his failed reasoning.
Reno’s failed reasoning.  To understand his argument for piety we must first understand what piety is.  It is the act of being religious, but remember that Reno said that it doesn’t have to be a religious thing.  Then what does he mean by piety? Piety is defined as “a belief or point of view that is accepted with unthinking conventional reverence.”  That means that Reno is advocating knowledge by authority.  In other words, believe what your “superiors” tell you.  One of the reasons why critical thinking is essential in a democratic society, is that it evens the playing field of knowledge and policy.  If the masses can think critically, aristocracy won’t arise, fascism won’t gain hold, theocracy will fail to start.  What Reno is arguing for is to turn the fallacy of argument from authority into a cornerstone for knowledge.  This in turn opens the door to theocratic states like the Islamic State and Iran, or to cults of personality like Pol Pot, Stalin and Kim Jong Un.
What is further disturbing is Reno’s use of the word truth.  Truth can be considered the complete body of evidence for something, but that would imply critical thinking at work.  I think Reno is using the word truth as a weasel word to mean “that which those in authority dictate”.  Being Catholic, that authority, at least on the “important” questions, is the Pope.
Reno argues that critical thinking is only a subtractive endeavor that is unable to create.  Instead, we should embrace a pious pedagogy which revises the body on knowledge and doesn’t destroy it.
That is is better to believe first and question only if it is not one of the “important” questions of life, like morality and spiritual matters.  To those we must be pious: unquestioning belief based on authority.
As you can see, this outlook is self defeating.  Which authority do we trust?  In a democracy, critical thinking keeps the Hitlers, Pol Pots, Ayatollahs, and Popes at bay.  If their rhetoric is challenged, they cannot empassion the masses to do ill.
Critical thinking has done more for the advancement of human knowledge than any appeal to authority has ever done. Critical thinking led to the end of slavery, as well as going to the moon.
Reno calls for a return to the medieval, autocratic thinking, i.e. the dark ages, from which the Enlightenment (and scientific skepticism, AKA critical thinking) illuminated humanity.