Fish in Space

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

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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Myth of Christian Persecution in the US

A very nice Christian kindergarten teacher made a post about Christian priorities that I would find almost heartwarming if not for this poison pill right at the beginning:
Don’t get me wrong, it saddens me that a teacher can actually get fired if he or she offends someone by praying aloud or teaching scripture in a public school. It sickens me that some school systems (not mine) have taken the phrase “under God” out of their daily Pledge of Allegiance. It frustrates and sometimes angers me that other religions seem to be tolerated so quickly, yet Christianity simply will not be tolerated in some public school systems. It makes me want to cry out “What are we doing?”
This was my response to her. I hope she allows my comment to pass moderation, but I'm posting it for posterity.

I apologize for being the voice of dissent here, but I have to ask: do you truly believe that that there's some kind of War on Christianity ala Fox News? Do you really think your beliefs are under attack, that secularists are seeking to make it illegal to worship in a church or in the privacy of your own home? You claim that other religions are tolerated while your beliefs are being suppressed, but what schools are seeking to replace Christian prayer with Muslim or Hindu ones? Where are we trying to take down Bible verses in favor of those from the Koran or the Eddas?

I applaud your desire to live by your beliefs and show your conviction by walking the walk as well as talking the talk. This more than anything else is what secularists strive to achieve: where people feel free to live according to the dictates of their conscience without imposing them on others. Otherwise where does it end? It's frequently claimed that the United States is a Christian nation by virtue of the majority, but Christianity isn't a monolithic belief system. There are over forty-two thousand different sects of Christianity, many of whom directly contradict each other. Some deny the divinity of Jesus while others not only uphold the doctrine of the Trinity but the unassailable truth of predestination. Which of these doctrines should become the law of the land? Yours? Theirs? Who decides? Whomever happens to be in the majority at the moment?

The point of enforcing secular values in our schools and governments is not to suppress your beliefs. The point is to make sure that your majority beliefs do not suppress all others. You are always and have always been free to worship as you feel is right, but you were never supposed to have the freedom to make sure that others worship as you require.

Leading by example is fantastic. I utterly support this. Claiming persecution because we want to respect the right of others to follow different examples is something else entirely.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Justice in the Afterlife

Sometimes injustice happens. Hitler lost the war but was never brought to justice. More violent dictators die of natural causes than are executed for their crimes. Dick Cheney continues to influence US politics in spite of his fear of being tried for war crimes.

As much as we don't like it, crime does pay. It's usually the stupid criminals that are brought to justice; the intelligent ones are rarely caught and the most successful of those never let their crimes come to light. How do you feel about that? Angry? Frustrated? Outraged? I hope so.

Common questions asked of atheists revolve around morality. Without a god, what's to stop people from being immoral? Why not screw people over for personal gain? The answer is of course that the vast majority of immoral behavior is perpetrated by people who fervently endorse belief in one or more gods. They just tell themselves that either what they're doing isn't wrong or that they'll be forgiven for it. But it's more than that. Where does morality come from if not from a god? There are three answers to that: empathy, reciprocity and game theory.

Reciprocity is the idea that you reap what you sow. If you're kind and generous to other people, people are more likely to be kind and generous to you. The more I cultivate a reputation for being honest and forthright the more people are inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt if my behavior is called into question. Similarly, people who feel I'm being honest with them feel safer in being honest with me. They feel that there's less threat that I'll use their honesty against them. We empathize with each other, neither wanting to be hurt by the other.

That's where game theory comes into play. Sometimes honesty can be used against us. If I tell you about my sexual perversions because I feel you can be trusted with my secret, you have leverage over me. You can choose to reveal that information at such a time that would benefit you, or blackmail me into compliance with your demands in return for not revealing my secret. Of course, this carries a consequence but if you judge that the risk of retribution from me is slim then you might deem the risk worth it. Empathy is weighed and judged insufficient.

We see all of these concepts carried out every day in the news. People perceive an advantage to be gained by breaking the rules and behaving immorally either to amass wealth or cheat. They may feel that it's a victimless crime or that the suffering they impose on others is of lesser concern than their own interests (lack of empathy). But they're aware that public awareness of their behavior would likely provoke retribution so they develop strategies to hide or deny the behavior. When their strategies fail they typically make the news.

One of the big selling points of religion is the promise of justice. It doesn't matter that Hitler escaped trial or that Pinochet escaped his crimes to die of old age because the afterlife promises justice. In Hindu and Buddhist terms they'll reincarnate as a lesser creature to suffer and work off their karma. In the Abrahamic religions they'll go to hell to suffer forever. In either case they can't escape justice in death, justice will follow them. Whether or not it's true, it makes people feel better.

I was recently asked what makes atheists feel better when injustices go unpunished? My answer is nothing. I don't want to feel better, I want to feel outraged about it. I want to feel motivated to do something about it. That's something that religion's promise of divine justice doesn't do. Christianity in particular urges us to let go and leave it to their god. That means not doing something about injustice, because justice isn't in their hands. Sadly, there's nowhere else justice can be found.

Richard Dawkins once said, "I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." To that I must also add that I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not pursuing justice with all the strength we can muster. Not just vengeance for wrongdoing, but making things right for everyone. Whenever a little girl is taught that math is hard and she should play with her dolls instead, that's injustice. Whenever anyone goes hungry or suffers from an untreated illness, that's injustice. Injustice abounds in our world and we can't depend on divine or supernatural forces to make it right for us. It's our responsibility to fix it, and we won't do that while we rest on the assumption that it's out of our hands.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

No More NOMA

There's a problem with Stephen Jay Gould's ill-considered "non-overlapping magisteria." The problem is that it was never true. Religion has been making claims about reality since its inception. It's been giving ground on those claims for centuries because its claims are unsupportable. As Jerry Coyne is reported to have said, "when something in science is disproven it get tossed on the junkpile of bad ideas. When something in religion gets disproven it becomes a metaphor."

Religious beliefs make claims that compete with science all the time. The most glaring ones involve evolution denial and creationism and are easily disputed by evidence. The more subtle ones merely claim a deist god or a magical energy field that powers our consciousness. All of them make claims about reality and when we turn our skepticism toward them we're inundated with protests that it's not something we can be skeptical about. It's not subject to scrutiny or evidence.

You know what raises a red flag to me? When someone tells me that what they said shouldn't be scrutinized.

If religion doesn't want to compete with science then it shouldn't make claims about reality. Talk about how it's a good thing to be nice to each other. Talk about the importance of meditation and creativity and appreciation of love and beauty. These are nice, safe topics that don't provoke skepticism. Everyone appreciates a good song and a hand extended in generosity. But if you're going to talk about souls and gods and divine plans then be prepared to butt heads with science because your beliefs can only survive in the gaps of our knowledge, and those gaps are closing slowly but surely. Be prepared for the day when there's no space left.