Fish in Space

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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Does the Chapel Hill Atrocity Matter?

It's only the second day since Craig Stephen Hicks and a lot of atheists are already tired of hearing about it. Although the police have been careful to avoid accusing Hicks of a hate crime, everyone else has been quick to leap to that judgment. Of course, rather than blame anti-Muslim sentiment everyone assumes that atheism itself acted as motivation for Hicks' crime.

We've been saying it for a while but it needs repeating: atheism doesn't inform our actions any more than not believing in unicorns informs yours. That doesn't mean religion can't be a factor in an atheist's behavior, it means that our non-belief isn't justification for action. Religion can still motivate us to react, to speak up or act in response to something that believers are doing. It can make us fear for our safety, and fearful people are more likely to lash out. History shows us several examples of this.

In 1793 French revolutionaries passed a law outlawing religion and religious belief. This anti-religious behavior added to the atrocities that history now calls the French Reign of Terror, as priests and devoutly religious people of all social and economic stations were tortured and murdered. In 1917 Russian revolutionaries formed the Soviet Union and seized all property and wealth of the elite including churches, beginning an era where religion was discouraged, suppressed or drafted to support the leadership depending on circumstances. In 1966 Mao Zedong duplicated the Soviet uprising through his "Cultural Revolution" with similar actions and results. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh and began a Communist dictatorship that oppressed religion and cultural minorities alike, classifying people into categories and starving or executing them as they saw fit.

Atheists will quickly point out that these actions were political, and they're correct. But the fact that religious followers were explicitly targeted can't be ignored. Atheism doesn't justify this, but humans can use any excuse to misbehave as long as we have reason to categorize people as "other." Why do I bring this up? Not to suggest that atheism is a religion or that it's just as guilty of promoting atrocities as any religion. It's to point out that even though we don't believe in any gods or follow any religion we can still rationalize our bad behavior, just as Craig Stephen Hicks did in Chapel Hill.

Human nature being what it is, we'll probably never completely excise our violent urges, and I'm not sure that we would be advised to do so. It's one thing to channel such urges into productive action, but another to remove them completely. It's not that these urges are bad in themselves, it's that allowing those urges to provoke us to bad behavior is the problem. What we need is not a lobotomy, we need to learn self-discipline. Atheism is not a cure for violence or any other bad behavior, it's just one less excuse for it. We can still find motivation through greed, fear, politics and so forth but we can't claim a divine mandate for it.

Given our tendency to rationalize our behavior I think it's in our best interests to police ourselves rigorously when someone suggests we need to kill all the Muslims or lock up all the Christians. No, it's not something that comes up often but I do see it from time to time. And when I do I'm quick to stomp on it. For one thing it's a deeply immoral thing to suggest, and for another it doesn't solve the problem. Religion spreads through indoctrination and justifies itself through fear. We can try to suppress indoctrination by force, but that simply aggravates the fear. Indoctrination goes underground and gets enhanced by fear of discovery and oppression. It didn't take long after the fall of the Soviet Union for the Russian people to return to their old religious habits, minus the aristocracy. Their reasons for clinging to religion for comfort were never taken away, in spite of the promises made by Communists. The Socialists of Western Europe offer a much better model by taking away the insecurities that drive both conflict and religious devotion.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Disavowing the Chapel Hill Murders

I've been slogging through a post taking another look at Pope Francis I as he enters his third year as the Supreme Pontiff, but the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill demands a response. I disavow this act of bigotry. Violence is not justified by atheism or even anti-theism. I will happily do violence to your default assumptions about religion, but not to your body, your rights or your freedom. There is no justification for killing someone because of their religious beliefs. However, it seems that the primary motive in this case was just as petty:

Police said in a statement Wednesday morning that a dispute about parking in the neighborhood of rented condominiums may have led to the incident.

“Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking. Hicks is cooperating with investigators,” Lt. Joshua Mecimore, a police spokesman, said.
Do I really have to express just how stupid it is to end anyone's life over parking?

Nevertheless, I don't think we can rule out religion just yet. Since this idiot has been a fairly vocal atheist the press is naturally digging into what appears to be the first major incident of "atheist violence" since Pol Pot. And I suspect there really was an element of religious bigotry involved, but if it was informed by either his atheism or his anti-theism I can't see it. Why target Muslims in a region dominated by Christians? Back in October I talked about the dangers of anti-Islamic rhetoric. I suspect this is my prediction coming true. "So let's stop pretending that Islam is the great threat of the Twenty-First Century and buying into the culture of fear that's allowing Christian extremists to undermine secularism in the West. If they succeed it's not Islam that will take over."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why Is Faith Bad?

Knock Knock!I was asked by a self-described "traditional Catholic" why faith is a bad thing. It's a good question that deserves an answer, and here's mine. Since so many of us are most familiar with it, let's examine Christianity. Over two billion people currently have faith that Christianity is the One True Religion/Belief/Faith/Whatever. Millions of Christians believe that Jesus is their god and savior, while millions of others just believe that Jesus is just their savior but not god while still others just believe that Jesus was a good man with a good message that they try to follow.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Billions of Christians believe that Heaven and angels are real. Many of them believe that Hell is also real, but not all. Many of the people who believe in Hell believe that anyone who have not explicitly sought salvation go to Hell, while others claim that all good people go to Heaven and only the truly wicked go to Hell. Still others believe that no one goes to Hell, it's only a place for Satan and his demons. Some believe that Hell isn't real at all, that it's a misinterpretation or mistranslation or outright forgery in the Bible.

These are just a handful of disagreements over the dogma of the largest religion in the world. Whoever is right -- if any of them -- can have profound implications for belief and humanity as a whole. Every one who believes whatever variation of dogma has a strong foundation for what they believe and why they believe it. They can quote scripture, cite authorities and argue endlessly about why their belief is the correct one. The only thing they have in common is faith. They all have faith that their beliefs are correct, even though their beliefs can't possibly be all correct.

Yes, faith does interfere with reason. In an argument with me over my atheism a family member declared that I have to abandon what I know to embrace faith, because faith is superior to knowledge. If my eyes observe something that contradicts my faith, I should reject what my eyes see and embrace faith. Ken Ham echoed this in his debate with Bill Nye last year when both were asked what would change their minds, if anything. Ham said "nothing." Faith is his bedrock and he will not be moved, no matter what facts may contradict it.

Faith does not bring us closer to the truth. When we use the scientific method to explore a question, understanding converges. When we explore a question through faith, understanding diverges. The end result is that we add confusion to already complex topics and hinder our efforts to arrive at real, practical answers.

So I have to go with Mark Twain on this one: faith is believing what you know ain't so.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Liberals have been betrayed

Very recently Obama's administration released a four trillion dollar budget proposal for 2016 that for the most part is not going to happen. Don't let the numbers fool you; just because it's a big number doesn't mean it's either irresponsible or unfeasible. Total economic output from the United States in 2014 was close to seventeen trillion dollars with a surprisingly strong fourth quarter growth of five percent, up from prior estimates. What Obama has proposed spends less than a quarter of the nation's wealth on national priorities. Maybe that still seems excessively high to you but there are a lot of things that still need to be addressed with no one but the federal government even considering addressing them. Four of the five of Obama's proposal are things that liberals like me have been waiting impatiently for since he first took office in 2009. So why do I call this a betrayal?

bait and switch

Doyle McManus of the LA Times had this to say about the President's 2016 budget: "...it's merely the president's announcement of what he'd do if Congress weren't there. It's a party platform with numbers." In other words he's reminding us that this isn't a serious proposal and reminds us along with everyone else that nothing in this budget is likely to pass with the exception of the defense spending that the Pentagon asked for. With both sides of Congress held by the Republican Party who have been almost pathologically hostile to Obama since he won the 2008 election, there's really no hope that they're going to take anything from him seriously. Of course, most of us figured that out six months into 2009. So my problem is that this is the budget proposal Obama should have been making every year since he took office.

Only now in his last two years of office has Obama come forward to once again champion liberal causes and liberal priorities. Only now is he willing to stand up to Republican opposition and show the nation what might be. I will be the first to admit that the budget he's set forth is a good one for liberals to fight for, with eighty percent of it promising things we can get behind. Only none of it will be possible now and both Obama and his administration knows this very well. This is my problem. This is a glorious proposal, only presented to us six years too late long after the damage has been done and there's no chance of negotiating even a slight compromise.

Obama's not the only one at fault here. Republicans have been fighting tooth and nail from the beginning, doing everything in their power and setting extraordinary new precedents in the lengths they'll go to in order to prevent even the appearance of success by Obama or the Democrats. They've now passed their fifty-fifth bill to repeal Obamacare in the House, and I'm sure the Senate will quickly ratify it. However, Obama will veto the bill and I don't expect they'll have the votes to overturn that veto. And again, six years after we started discussing health care reform they've still offered no viable alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, not even one they themselves are willing to vote for. We spent years without a budget because Republicans did everything to block it, and even when Democrats had a solid majority in both the House and Senate Republicans abused their privileges to make sure as little as possible could be done. I was deeply skeptical at first, but Pelosi managed to pass a remarkable amount of progressive legislation in the House in the first two years of Obama's administration that died in the Senate because Senate Republicans filibustered all of it. There was only a two week period during which Senate Democrats had a guarantee of cloture and most of that was during a recess. So Republicans have been frightfully effective at blocking Democratic legislation and Obama's policies and there wasn't much the administration could do about that.

What Obama did try to do was naive. He kept trying to compromise. He didn't try to negotiate toward the middle, he opened negotiations from the middle position allowing Republicans to drag him farther and farther to the right. Only the GOP's own incompetence saved Obama from even greater disaster when they were given ninety percent of what they demanded and still shut down the government over the last ten percent. Liberal priorities were abandoned for the majority of Obama's time as President, and I'm not going to forgive him for that.

The economy is doing better now, but eight years after the financial crash we still haven't recovered to the same level we were before it. Paul Krugman's prediction of an economic lost decade has come true. The loss and hardship inflicted on the nation was easily avoidable, and Obama shares a portion of the blame for that just as much as the Republicans. So now Obama steps forward with the plan we needed from the beginning and it's all for show, intended to make Republicans look bad as they made him look bad. It's intended to convince liberals that we haven't been abandoned by the Democratic Party after all, that if we put them back in power we'll get the priorities we've been demanding all along. But I doubt that very much, especially if the Democratic candidates are people like Hillary Clinton who are part of the so-called Third Way that focuses on centrist priorities rather than liberal ones.

No. We need someone like Elizabeth Warren who will fight for us without reservation, not another Clinton who will make pretty speeches and promote back room deals. To counter the extremism on the right we need someone who will push back just as hard toward the left. We need balance in our politics, but right now it's totally out of skew. Obama, in presenting this proposal, has tipped his hand about just how badly our priorities are off-center and the irony is that he's one of the primary reasons why. His "art of the possible" never truly conceded that Republicans would refuse to negotiate in good faith long until after the rest of us had figured it out. Does he think we're going to trust him now, that we're going to believe he's on our side after all?

No, Mr. President. You're far, far too late to kiss and make up now.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Abusers and Victims

Why you gotta make me hit you?

In psychology there's a concept developed in the late seventies called the cycle of abuse in which domestic violence follows a continual pattern of tension, explosion, reconciliation and then back again. Those three were later broken down further into fourteen identifiable stages, but that's not the worst of it. Children who witness or suffer such abuse are more likely to become abusers themselves. They learn that this sort of behavior is correct and even necessary and they propagate it to other people in their lives as they grow up. It's tragic, but it doesn't end there.

For the most part throughout history atheists have been the abused more than the abuser. People really don't like it when you don't share their beliefs. But as I've previously explored atheists are just as human as believers and subject to the same human foibles. Believers like counter our criticism by bringing up abuses wrought by atheists, and it would be dishonest to deny it. There are atheists who have been monsters just as much as believers, and the fact that atheism doesn't inform our actions is another topic altogether. The simple truth is that atheism doesn't make us immune to violent attitudes. However, in the last few generations we've learned there are more effective ways to promote our agenda, ways that don't require violence or coercion beyond making sure everyone behaves themselves, believer and nonbeliever alike.

We can't help but be influenced by our experiences and a lot of former believers who have rejected their religions come away with the impression that religion is a bad thing. Even nonbelievers who were never religion get this impression when they look at the world around them. Of course, those are the more extreme examples of religious behavior and we're scolded for cherry-picking the bad and ignoring the good that religious people do. But even at its best religion causes problems because it takes claims we don't know are true and demands we must treat them as truth. The result is that people have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality. It's a pattern that gets propagated with each new generation of believers raised to assume that there are some things we just have to accept no matter what the evidence supports. They're taught that even when they should follow the evidence in all other aspects of their lives they should do what they're told where this issue is concerned. This would be less of a problem if religion didn't bleed over into so many parts of our lives, from our personal interactions to our assumptions about how the universe works. Every believer does this to greater or lesser degrees.

This is why I consider believers victims of religion. That they dole out abuse as required by their religious beliefs doesn't make them any less victims of that abuse themselves. They are the children of abusers, who were themselves children of abusers and so forth. Whenever this cycle began it behooves us to recognize it and figure out how to break it. I become a victim of religion whenever a believer learns I'm an atheist and assumes the worst about me. I'm a victim whenever religious privilege is promoted over people's rights or needs. I'm a victim when justice becomes subverted by religious principles. But all these things that make me a victim apply equally to believers as well. Religious violence is just as often inflicted on other believers, religiously motivated injustice is just as often inflicted on the faithful. When a Muslim woman forces a female relative to suffer the same genital mutilation that she received, they're both victims. When a Christian woman suffers humiliation and violence without complaint because she's been taught that it's her place, she is also a victim.

We often feel a sense of moral outrage when the guilty are allowed to get away with their crimes, and this is a good thing. Our desire for justice motivates us to take action and create change to make a better world for us to live in. But it's so very easy to fall into the trap of confusing justice for vengeance. We must hold the guilty accountable for their deeds, but we shouldn't forget that in many cases the guilty are also victims themselves. Justice isn't served by simply dismissing them as animals, evil and beyond redemption. They should be made to atone for what they've done, but they should also be helped to realize why atonement is necessary in the first place. Otherwise we'll never break the generational cycle of abuse.

Monday, February 2, 2015

What Does It Mean To Say I'm An Atheist?

So many people have so many misconceptions about atheism and nonbelief. Many people have made up their minds and will not be moved. So be it. But just because you have an image in your head about what an atheist is or purports to be doesn't obligate me to conform to your expectations. So here's what atheism means to me.

Atheism does not mean I'm a scientist. I am not an expert on biology, chemistry, cosmology, geology, physics or anything else that people care to invoke as proof that their god is real. I am a science enthusiast, meaning that scientific discoveries fascinate me and I try to keep abreast of current trends and discoveries made by the scientific community but that doesn't make me a scientist. I am at best a layman on scientific matters and am necessarily limited in my understanding. I don't have the answers to every question in the universe, but I do understand one thing about human knowledge: the fewer assumptions we hold as default the less likely we are to mislead ourselves about what we know. Consequently, if you demand to know what started the universe or how life arose from nonliving matter the only answer I can give is "I don't know." "God did it" is not the automatic default just because that's the traditional answer from religion, it still must be validated as true before it can be accepted. It will be held to the same standards of evidence as any other claim, and if it can't meet that standard I will not accept excuses for why that standard should not apply.

Atheism does not mean I'm a philosopher. In truth I'm less impressed by philosophy than I probably should be, but I've seen some really bad rationalizations trying to justify belief without looking like they're justifying belief. The near-universal admiration of Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways springs immediately to mind. The thing is that religion isn't philosophy, and belief in gods isn't founded in rational thought. It's not taught through rational discourse but an emotional one. People don't wait for their children to learn critical thinking skills before they drill religious beliefs into their heads, and for a very good reason. They're teaching their children to accept religious teachings as a default assumption before they can examine the validity of those assumptions, and most children live their lives without ever considering why they should question them. You can't tell me this isn't deliberate. So I don't need to be a philosopher to be an atheist and I don't pretend to be one.

Atheism doesn't mean I'm automatically a better person. Atheism isn't a magic spell that makes me smarter, stronger, faster, more moral or ethical than someone who believes in a god. Atheism challenges me to reconsider questions that I used to consider sufficiently answered by religion such as science, morality and ethics but that doesn't guarantee I'm going to do a good job with it. I am still the same person I was when I was standing behind the podium leading the church congregation in singing religious hymns, I just no longer believe what religions claim about reality and I don't participate in church any longer. Nor have I become a thieving, raping, murdering monster because I no longer fear divine retribution because my morality is not and never was based on fear of punishment. My morality has always been based on doing what I understand to be right, not about avoiding what I understand to be wrong.

Atheism doesn't mean I know there are no gods. I suspect there aren't, because religious claims about gods and reality don't stand up to scrutiny. The more excuses you have to make for why reality doesn't work the way you insist it should, the less inclined I am to believe you know what you're talking about. Arguing for a prime mover or appealing to consequences doesn't convince me either. I'm intellectually honest enough to say that I don't have concrete knowledge that there are no gods the way I know there's no money in my wallet, but not being able to prove there are no gods isn't enough for me to believe that there are. Wanting to believe there are gods is no more useful than wanting there to be money in my wallet. It's still a claim that requires validation, not a default assumption.

Atheism doesn't mean I worship the devil. I shouldn't even have to say this, but it's still a popular thing to say. If I don't believe in your god, why would I take your devil seriously?

Atheists can be liberal or conservative, intelligent or ignorant, friendly or hostile, moral or immoral. We can be good people or bad people just like everyone else. When you learn that someone is an atheist the only thing you can safely assume from this is that they don't believe in any gods. If you want to know why they don't believe, what kind of person they are and what they know (or think they know) you'll have to dig a little deeper and ask them. Nothing else is implied from atheism but that one thing.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Importance of Skepticism

One of the things I regret about my education growing up is that there wasn't any significant effort made to teach skepticism and critical thinking. These are skills I've had to pick up on my own as an adult, and it's been haphazard at best. I don't have the greatest critical thinking skills and I'm not nearly as good a skeptic as I want to be. The problem is that the more I learn the more I recognize the need for these things. I also recognize that there are a lot of misconceptions about skepticism and people who practice it. I thought I'd dedicate this post to examining the art of skepticism and how it applies to everything we do.

First of all, it helps to define what skepticism really is. As Michael Shermer pointed out, skepticism is not a position, it's a process. A skeptic isn't a curmudgeon who automatically naysays anything they hear. A skeptic isn't someone deliberately trying to pour cold water over your head to ruin your day. A skeptic is someone who follows a process intended to distinguish reality from wishful thinking. Let's face it: there's a lot of wishful thinking in the world and it creates problems we could otherwise avoid.


A skeptic is not necessarily a scientist, but a scientist must be a good skeptic. Your average skeptic isn't going to have better than a layman's understanding of things like biology, chemistry, cosmology, economics, physics or politics. They may sound more knowledgeable but that's relative to your average bloviator. A good skeptic will research a claim before deciding whether it is true or false, but there's no guarantee that the information they find will be accurate. Skeptics are just as prone to bad information and false assumptions as everyone else, they're just more likely to update their assumptions as new information becomes available. A successful skeptic is not someone who can debunk any claim they find, it's someone who can debunk their own assumptions when they're wrong.

There are so many examples of how skepticism should be an essential part of our daily lives, but I'll keep this short. There's one example that's infamous in the modern age, something everybody thinks they know to watch out for: getting conned. In the computer security world it's known as social engineering but confidence artists can be found in every walk of life. It's a profession almost as old as prostitution where someone tricks you into trusting them so they can take advantage of it to defraud you of money or property. How many times have you taken a phone call from someone offering to fix your credit problems or sell you a product that will revolutionize your life? Do you think all the email spam talking about breast enlargement pills and penis enlargement tools get sent out because it makes them giggle? The Nigerian Prince scam has been around for at least a hundred years, possibly more. Years ago I had to explain to a friend that they shouldn't go shopping for a new house just because they received an email advising them they'd won a lottery in London -- a lottery they admitted they'd never entered. These scams persists because people fall for them. Not everyone does, and not all the time, but it happens.

But before you pat yourself on the back for being a successful skeptic, take a closer look at your assumptions. Are you a fan of alternative medicine? Do you believe in angels? Are you convinced that lowering corporate tax rates creates jobs? Do you think that poverty is created by coddling the poor? I guarantee you have assumptions that you are not being skeptical about. So do I. The question is are you constantly questioning your assumptions and trying to update them with current information or are you only willing to accept information that confirms what you already know?

It's up to you to decide: are you a skeptic? Do you think skepticism is a crucial skill or is it a danger to your beliefs? Do you have the impression that a skeptical world is a cold, dark place devoid of love or meaning?