Fish in Space

A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why I Am An Atheist

I don't know if Tim Minchin had this post in mind when he wrote this song but it's possible. He's a fiendishly clever fellow. I'll just give him credit for helping to inspire this little essay while listening to this song.

There are lots of reasons for me to be an atheist; the lack of evidence for gods, the mountain of debunked religious claims, the a priori arguments and assorted fallacies and so forth. Many trees have given their lives to record the multitude of reasons people have for not believing in any gods. Skepticism on the topic goes back as far as ancient Greece and the early philosophers who urged us to question everything, even the gods. There isn't much new to say on the topic since apologists are still trying to catch up with the fury of "New Atheism," but all these high-minded arguments from philosophy and science tend to go above the heads of the average believers and non-believers like myself. There are some simple very reasons why I don't believe, and Tim Minchin helped me realize one: existence isn't perfect.

It's so obvious that it's a tautology, of course. Nobody really thinks reality is absolutely perfect; if it were we wouldn't have suffering and death, constant conflict and struggles to survive in a universe where 99.9% of everything will kill us instantly. Even when we limit our focus to our immediate surroundings human nature is deeply flawed and that's one of the big reasons why people invented religion. Religion is intended to give us comfort, guide us around those flaws and give us hope. But it does so by claiming perfection. Perfect gods deliver perfect answers even if our understanding is imperfect. It's a lovely idea but it doesn't work. There are no perfect answers, and it causes problems when we insist that the answers we embrace are beyond criticism.

The other day I was arguing with a self-professed Jewish scholar who is very taken with his scholarship. He brought up sexual fidelity as an example of why I should deem his god worthy of praise and worship; the argument goes that it's a contract that I'm obligated to follow just as I'm obligated to sexual fidelity with my spouse. To his shock and horror I pointed out that no, sexual fidelity isn't a given, it's negotiable like any good contract. If neither my spouse nor I are threatened by sexual experimentation, why shouldn't we explore an open relationship? It's been working well for most of a decade and we're closer than ever. He immediately passed judgment on me and my relationship with my spouse in spite of the fact that he knows nothing about either of us. He already an answer handed down through his religion that he considers perfect and he won't hear of anything to the contrary. At one point he had this to say:
I didn't say what it is FOR YOU, I said what it is. If I get in a business relationship, that means we're in a contractual bind with certain agreements which means I can't use his competitor and he can't use mine. That's what a relationship is.
Pause with me for a moment to savor the audacity here in which the person claims the moral probity to declare what can or cannot be part of a relationship. He has it all tied up in a neat little bow, perfect and pristine and not to be sullied by anything so petty as human nature. Nevermind that my Lady and I are very happy together, and we don't need to pretend that no one else can catch our eye. Nevermind large communities of people who are happy with the staggering variety of arrangements with their significant other(s); he's decided that no matter what reality shows him we're all unstable and emotionally sick people whose relationships are doomed.

This is the problem with perfection. It sets an impossible standard that creates havoc when we try to live up to it, let alone when we attempt to hold others to it. Why does this man claim this perfect standard? Because of his perfect god. He's found his answer and his search is over. The discussion is done.

Gods offer perfect answers, but perfection is a lie. There are no perfect answers. There are good answers and answers that fit the data but they're never complete; the discussion is never done. No matter how much we learn about things like physics, chemistry, morality and so forth the more there is to learn. We progress by challenging what we think we know and seeing what works. Even if all we're doing is refining our understanding we're not standing still. We're not satisfied with incomplete answers and we never should be.

So for now my answer is atheism. It's not perfect, but it's mine.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Jealous God

A common dogma tells us that the Abrahamic god is a jealous god, meaning there are things he demands that we must give him and he'll punish us if he doesn't get them. Why do I mention this? Because he's also supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent and allegedly the source of all wisdom and morality. So let's consider that for a moment. How do we look at a person who throws a tantrum when they don't get what they want? Childish? Juvenile? Certainly not someone who is wise, moral or benevolent. But he's the creator, we're told. We owe him things like worship and praise because he has that right. Let's look at someone who builds an ant farm. What do the ants owe the person who maintains their farm? Do they deserve to be flooded, baked or starved if they don't behave according to the rigid demands of their owner? History tells the story of hundreds of kings and queens with total dominion over their kingdoms. As a general rule we look poorly on the ones who treated their station as a right to be exploited and we look favorably on the ones who treated it as a responsibility. Jealous kings and queens aren't deemed wise or benevolent but tyrants. Benevolent kings and queens were the ones who ruled fairly, forgiving human frailty while guiding their kingdoms through crisis and prosperity alike. The god of Abraham has more in common with a child than a benevolent ruler. Children are jealous of what they consider their rightful due and we try to teach them to abandon such attitudes as they mature.

Like I Care?

After linking Greta Christina's Skepticon 4 speech to yet another tone troll I thought I'd watch it again. It's been a little while since I loaded it up and I thought I'd refresh myself on it. I'm glad I did because one section in particular stood out for me.

"Oh, that's not what the religion really teaches! If you look at what the original text says this is being misinterpreted!" Like I care?

The reality is that the Islamic religion as it is widely believed and practiced -- and not just the Islamic religion but other religions as well, this teaching is not restricted to Islam alone -- that religions as they are practiced in the real world teach that little girls' clitorises have to get cut off.
This is by no means restricted to Islam or female genital mutilation. It's a common apologetic even among some atheists, to claim that a common belief is really just a mistranslation of sacred texts like the word "homosexual" in the Bible.

As Greta says, like I care?

I advocate that we not let this excuse slide. It doesn't matter what the original text said or how it's mistranslated if the mistranslation has become the official dogma. I don't care if Paul original wrote against sacred prostitutes or some other variation of homosexual practice if that's not how people are practicing religion today. People repeatedly use the Paul's words as they appear in modern Bibles to help justify their bigotry against homosexuals, and that's hardly the only topic where apologists claim mistranslation to defend their religion.

Like I care?

It doesn't matter what the original text says or what theologians claim if they're not part of the common practice of religion. If you tell me that some theologian explains his god as a genuinely benevolent deity who doesn't intercede in the world and never sends anyone to Hell because that's not what his interpretation says, that's fine. That's what the theologian believes. In the meanwhile we still have the entire Southern Baptist Convention and hundreds of other churches and denominations teaching that their god changes reality in answer to prayer and sends people to Hell for trying to marry the person they love even though they're the same gender.

Don't give me excuses for how the religion went wrong. Own up to what religion is doing today.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Cult of the Celestial Unicorn Herd

One objection to comparing the evidence for unicorns to the evidence for gods is that they're not the same thing. Unicorns didn't create the universe, God did. But how do you justify this claim? There's just as much evidence to support the creation of the universe by a herd of unicorns as there is creation by a god.

Thus I introduce the Cult of the Celestial Unicorn Herd. Rather than there being a single, omnipotent unicorn running everything, the universe is instead segregated into specific tasks. There's a herd of unicorns dedicated to maintaining gravity, and another to maintain magnetism. There are herds to oversee inertia and chemical bonds, biology and everything else we see in the universe, as well as more that we haven't discovered. What we misinterpret as natural processes are actually supernatural forces governing everything.

There is, of course, a special herd of unicorns dedicated to guiding intelligent life throughout the universe. There are intelligent species everywhere and these unicorns look out for them. These unicorns have a plan for universal harmony, but of course they struggle in how to implement them because intelligent life often works at cross purposes to that plan. Sometimes it's easy to help, like finding your lost keys. Other times it's a lot harder, like when biology results in cancer or there's not enough food to go around.

As a whole the Celestial Unicorn Herd is omnipotent. Individually they're powerful but very limited. You never know when you've seen a Celestial Unicorn, often mistaken for angels, demons or other mythological creatures. It's impossible to say where they come from, but it's been suggested that they may be serving the will of a higher power of unfathomable noodly intent.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Justifying Belief Versus Non-belief

Something I've been thinking about lately are the justifications believers have for belief. Right off the bat, belief is usually treated as the default assumption. We should believe in their god because we can't prove them wrong. There are unbelievably intricate apologetics, hermeneutics, elaborate philosophical logic chains that try to hide the fallacies and false premises and of course the indefatigable fallback of "faith." We're unreasonable in our skepticism because we're not experts in their specific religious beliefs, their specific interpretations or their specific arguments. We should just leave them alone and let them believe, nevermind that they do little to stop people trying to force their beliefs on us. Nevermind that most believers aren't expert in apologetics, hermeneutics or philosophy either.

Curiously, they don't demand proof of non-existence for anything they don't believe in. Fairies don't need proof of non-existence, nor do vampires or werewolves. That's different, we're told. Fairies didn't create the universe or die for our sins. But how do they know?

There's an endless list of things we don't believe in that don't require challenge because people aren't promoting their belief in them. They're not plastering their belief on billboards and cars and they're not voting based on how they think the unicorn living in their shoes want them to vote. We don't bother debunking such things because there's no need.

I'm often asked what I believe about the beginning of the universe or how life began. My answer is I don't know and that's okay. Not knowing gives us room to find out. We know the universe began because it's here. We know that life began because we're here and it's all around us. What we believe about those things is irrelevant to the fact that they're here. All that remains us for us to figure out the details. But it's hard to do that when our search for answers is hindered by declarations of faith that have no justification and don't fit the available evidence.

The burden rests on non-believers to challenge these justifications. It shouldn't be; we shouldn't carry the burden of proof or have to justify our non-belief. But since we're still in the minority we don't have much choice so all we can do is keep at it and keep refining our arguments. We can't have too many tools available to accomplish this task.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

When the Left gets it wrong

For years I've been hearing scorn from conservatives about the liberal fetish for multiculturalism and how the Left goes out of its way to make excuses for Islamic extremism. I've always been puzzled by this criticism because I haven't heard anyone make such excuses. Even on the Left we don't see the point in making excuses for misogyny and violence. Finally someone linked me to an article explaining where the criticism comes from. Apparently, it mostly originates from the far left outside the US. It helps to remember that "far left" inside the US is mostly limited to the not-quite socialist Green party and environmentalists. We don't have the liberal extremists that Europe does.

Nevertheless, I suspended my knee-jerk reaction to deny and disavow and read through the accusations. Some of them deserve criticism. Some of them don't. Most of them invite response. So I have two thoughts here.

First, dehumanizing the opposition doesn't solve anything. Meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and declaring "We are all Hezbollah" struck me as a declaration that Iranians are also people and that we need to remember that even as we disagree with them and oppose their actions. Their demand for the genocide of all Jews and the forcible conversion of the entire planet to Islam is inhuman, but it doesn't disqualify them as members of humanity. Remember that respect for people does not necessarily require respect for what they believe.

Second, the Left can get it wrong, too. When we fail to oppose oppression and bigotry on the grounds of multiculturalism and other high-minded ideals we ignore the point of tolerance. It is possible to be too tolerant when we permit intolerance to go unopposed. Absolute tolerance is ultimately self-defeating when we give license to authoritarians to quell dissent and silence opposition.

I am solidly on the Left. I abandoned my right-wing political opinions in the same process that led me to abandon my religious beliefs. I believe in equality for all regardless of nationality, heritage, orientation or creed. I believe that human dignity requires basic needs to be met such as food, shelter, education and medicine without consideration for the ability to pay for them. I believe in freedom of expression for all views, including ones that I disagree with. But I don't believe that freedom extends to the right to oppress others or protect the right to impose institutional discrimination. If your beliefs demand that people of a certain skin color, sexual orientation or gender be treated as anything but equals, I stand in opposition. You have the right to believe what you wish, but you have no right to impose your beliefs on those who don't share them.

The Left has made some grievous mistakes and it's up to us to own up to them and make corrections. So here I am. I wasn't part of that alliance and I don't agree with what they've done. But that doesn't abrogate my responsibility to speak up against what they've supported. Muslims deserve the same right to pursue their culture and beliefs that everyone else enjoys. But the line must be drawn when their culture and beliefs create unwelcome impositions on others.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Do not allow me to give a eulogy at your funeral

Seriously. Don't do it. The following is an example of something that I felt compelled to write when someone asked for help writing a eulogy for his friend.
Bob was a genuine nature-lover. I mean that literally. He loved nature. Once when we were out hiking by a pond I watched him catch a frog and force it to fellate him. I asked him what the hell he was doing, and he told me that God wanted him to have dominion over nature so that's what he was doing. Then he yelled at the frog, "What's my name? Say my name, bitch!"

That was Bob. Always going that extra mile.