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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Role Models in the Modern Age

It's often observed that we don't have a lot of heroes to look up to any longer, not a lot of role models we can point to for behavior we can emulate. Part of this is human nature; there's no one who is perfect so there's always someone who disapproves of something you said or did. Another part, and I think it's a big one, is that communication has never been easier and there are cameras everywhere. Little mistakes get picked up and broadcast worldwide in proportion to the extent of your celebrity status. Hell, there's an entire subculture dedicated to celebrity gossip.

So there's no one I could point to and say "I want to be that person. That person is the epitome of a moral role model." But that doesn't mean there aren't people I can admire. Who would they be? Just off the top of my head, here are four of them.

First there's Stephen Hawking. Aside from his academic brilliance, he's a man who was stricken by a debilitating disease that horrifies any thoughtful, independent human being. He's physically incapable of doing anything for himself without significant human and technological assistance. But in spite of all that he's managed to make some of the most incredible contributions to human knowledge and understanding in a generation. He teaches, he writes books and he can do differential equations in his head that make my head spin. There's so much to admire about him, particularly his willingness to overcome obstacles that would crush others.

Then there's Greta Christina, a woman who has dedicated her life in the pursuit of social justice for atheists, women, homosexuals and other sexual "deviants" as well as other groups she's not a member of. She's deeply egalitarian in her pursuit of social justice and she's damned eloquent about it. There's a reason she gets cited in the /r/atheism FAQ on the topic of atheists and anger.

Matt Dillahunty is another individual I admire. He has a similar background to mine and helped found the Atheist Experience broadcasting out of Austin, TX. He has similar attitudes to Greta Christina but he focuses more on debate and examining religious apologetics. He's not a firebrand like Hitchens; his debate opponents don't tend to walk away feeling like they've been insulted, but he skillfully saws away at the foundations of their claims until all that's left is a pile of dust to be blown away.

I also admire Keith Olbermann, even though he hasn't done much of note lately. I remember back when he was still on broadcast television he demonstrated the difference between a journalist and a modern media talking head by publicly announcing he'd made a mistake and issuing a correction. That sort of journalistic integrity is rarely found, and is probably one reason why he's just reporting sports on ESPN these days. He's passionate about what he believes and fearless in his pursuit of the truth.

I suppose if I thought about it some more I could come up with more, but this will do for now.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Immorality of Divine Command Theory

The story of Abraham binding Isaac from Genesis was brought up as one of several examples why the god of Abraham, if real, is an evil god. Someone then replied to complain how this story shouldn't qualify because "the whole point of the fucking story was to differentiate the God of Abraham from other gods that required human sacrifices." This is the same logic that tells us Biblical slavery is okay because it wasn't as bad as other slavery, but it prompted me to examine the story a little closer.

  • We have a god who orders Abraham to sacrifice his son. No winky-face emoticons to indicate Poe's Law, just an outright command that Abraham has no reason to assume isn't sincere. This is okay because this is Yahweh, the source of all morality who therefore has the moral authority to order immoral actions and still have them be moral.
  • Abraham, rather than telling his god to shove it, dutifully obeys and goes through with the preparations, right up to the point where he's holding the knife over his beloved son's chest. He doesn't bargain the way he did for Sodom, a city synonymous with moral depravity. He doesn't say anything other than "okay." Remember that Isaac is supposed to be Abraham's beloved son by Sarah, the only child she was able to bear him long after she was supposed to be barren.
  • Isaac, once he learns that he is to be the sacrificial victim, doesn't utter a word of protest. According to the story he just meekly goes along with it the same as his father.
  • Only then does Yahweh say, "just kidding! Go kill that ram caught in the bushes instead." Why? Because it was a test to see if Abraham would obey.
  • And then we're told that the moral of this story is that obedience to authority is the greatest virtue and will be rewarded. This idea is so pernicious in human thinking it's listed as a formal fallacy in logic.
No, I think that the story of Abraham binding Isaac still qualifies to be on the list of Yahweh's dick moves.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What is a Christian Nation?

I still see this being brought up, so here are some reminders of why the US is not a Christian nation.
http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlevi
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment1.html
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
http://www.usconstitution.net/tripoli.html
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
A nation's laws determine its character. If we were a Christian nation our laws would be based on Christian laws and claims, but we are not and we are prohibited from basing our laws on any religion. We are a secular nation with a population dominated by Christians. But a further point can be made in showing how our laws violate what the Bible requires of Christians. Credit goes to /u/Xenolan for compiling this list. It was so good I felt it should be mirrored here.
Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. (Amendment I)
Bible: I am the Lord thy God… Do not have any other gods before Me. (Exodus 20:2-3)
Constitution: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (Amendment XIII, Section 1)
Bible: Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
Constitution: We the people of the United States… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Preamble)
Bible: It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. (Jeremiah 10:23)
Constitution: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. (Article VI, section 3)
Bible: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16)
Constitution: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Amendment XV)
Bible: An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever. (Deuteronomy 23)
Constitution: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. (Amendment XIX)
Bible: Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-36)
Any questions?

The Problem With Unions

In the news today, Obama has finally done something to help unions, only six years late. Naturally, I posted this to social media and almost immediately got the following response:
FUCK unions. It is the unions who protect people like the cops who shot Hans Arellano, James Boyd, Levar Jones, Brian Dennison, Timothy Mitchell, Oscar Grant... I could go on.
In these situations not all of these guys are saints. But in all of these situations the officers life was not in danger and they killed them anyway. A single life lost unnecessary is too many.
I have a problem with leveraging popular outrage against genuine civil rights violations to build a straw man argument against an unrelated issue. Police unions -- not even the unions that helped to protect the police officers guilty of crimes -- are representative of all unions. There's a much bigger picture to consider here.

Unions are designed to protect their members and serve their interests. Now, not all of their members deserve protection. If they screw up badly enough they should be fired and where appropriate brought up on criminal charges. Where a union protects a member from appropriate consequences we can rightly say that the union has gone too far. It doesn't serve the interests of the union or its members to shelter bad members from consequences.

The point of public service unions is to provide a buffer between politics and people just trying to do their jobs. Should a science teacher be fired because someone objects to their teaching the theory of evolution according to natural selection? Should a cop be fired because he arrested a powerful person for breaking the law? In an ideal world unions protect the innocent and surrender the guilty. But we don't live in an ideal world and we don't have all the information we need to create an ideal world. We do know what kind of world we create when we discourage unions: a world where income inequality becomes the standard, worker rights get trampled on and median wages stagnate or decline.

We don't have perfect solutions. Let's stop attacking the solutions we have because they're not perfect. Where we can identify problems, let's work to make them better, not get rid of them with nothing to replace them.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Path of Least Resistance

I'm always jealous when better people than I formulate a thought I'd been circling around for years. In this case it's Michael Sherlock's tweet sporting this image. I'm impressed by his succinct description of the consequences of non-skeptical thought.
Path of Least Resistance
Critical thinking and scientific skepticism are the filters required for producing rational statements of probable truth. Without these filters our brains will inevitably follow the path of least resistance and succumb to credulity, supernaturalism and all manner of magical thinking.
I'm unable to find a source for this on the web, leading me to believe that this is taken from Sherlock's new book. I don't yet have confirmation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sacrilicious

Sacrilicious: adjective

: a description of something so sacrilegious that it's delicious to behold.

Portmanteau of sacrilege and delicious.

example: The Loophole by Garfunkel and Oates is positively sacrilicious!
What I want to know is this: why is this not a thing? Come on, Oxford! It's time to step up!

Friday, December 5, 2014

On The Outside Looking In

As an American who has lived outside the US, I can fully appreciate how insane our nation looks. Unfortunately, the reason it looks that way is because our nation is undeniably insane.

We were once on our way toward being a secular culture that didn't care too much to advertise our religious beliefs. Then the Cold War happened and suddenly we had to do everything in our power to differentiate ourselves from the godless Communists. We became a Christian nation, proclaiming it in our motto, on our money and through our political rhetoric.

Then it started to calm down again for a while until the late 70s brought the rise of Jerry Falwell and his poorly named "Moral Majority." Falwell midwifed a new era of religious fanaticism in the US, and we're riding out its death throes now.

We envy other Western nations so much, you have no idea. But our religious extremists are afraid of them and for good reason. They're irrelevant in those nations, and they're not going to let that happen in the US without a fight. So it behooves us to fight back since they're determined to do as much damage as possible before they go.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson

What is left to say that hasn't already been said?

Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Meaning of Things

Twice today I've been confronted by people who assert that "meaning" is some sort of property that can be found in objects or events. One asserted that beauty is proof of his god and another asserted that religion gives people meaning to their lives. So now I feel compelled to write about meaning and how we confuse what we want with what really is.

The first individual asserted "...it is the meanings which are encapsulated within it which make it beautiful, which make it something enlightening." Naturally I pointed out that this implies that meaning is an objective property that we can glean from something, but an objective property doesn't change based on the perspective of who is looking at it. An apple doesn't change into an orange when viewed from the proper angle. Meaning shouldn't change at all if it's an inherent property.

To further make his point this individual presented to me three actions that he believes have inherent meaning: a handshake, a hug to a crying child and a thumbs up gesture.

First the handshake. Apparently he wasn't aware of the history of greetings, from the Greek wristclasp demonstrating neither of you were armed (although this is disputed) but today having nothing to do with weaponry. When did it change from "I'm not armed" to "I'm pleased to meet you?" This is not established, but it serves to refute the idea that a handshake has inherent meaning, only the meaning we assign to it.

Then the hug to the crying child. Obvious this invokes some biological imperatives recognizing that as social creatures humans crave physical contact. The crying child is looking for reassurance but the person offering the hug may be more concerned with silencing the noise than with the emotional distress of the child. The meaning behind the hug may not be what you assume.

Finally the thumb up. It turns out there are six different meanings to this gesture which completely blows away any inherent meaning to it. But the most common meaning, the one meaning "okay" or some form of approval meant something very different to the Romans from whom we inherited it. During gladiatorial games when two opponents fought and one fell the crowd would extend their thumbs if they wanted to see the defeated fighter die. If they felt the fighter's combat was valiant and honorable they would hide their thumbs. So again, the meaning of the gesture has changed over time.

Objective properties don't change. If you can demonstrate that the meaning of something has changed then meaning is not an inherent property.

Related to this is the idea that we derive meaning from things. A painting or a sunset may inspire us, but what does that imply except that we have the capacity to be inspired? Did the inspiration come from whatever inspired us or do we project our own creativity onto what we see? For example, people have been inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock aka "Jack the Dripper" for decades, but I don't see why. When I look at it I see paint drippings on a canvas, not a key to the mysteries of the universe. But show me a nude by Rembrandt and I'll show you a love of the human form, particularly the soft curves of a woman. Someone else might see lechery and perversion, while yet another might see a blatant rejection of puritanical values.

I commonly hear that religion gives people comfort and offers meaning to their lives but I don't buy it. Like these paintings, religion doesn't have any intrinsic meaning or there wouldn't be so much dispute over what various religions mean. Instead what we have are examples of people projecting meaning onto religion, finding whatever they expect to see. How else could we have over forty-thousand different interpretations of the same religion? Religion is a blank canvas on which we paint, some by the numbers and others with free form. Put another way, religion is a blank page on which we write all our opinions and bias and call it sacred. Whatever religion offers that doesn't fit our expectations gets ignored or denied, often dismissed as metaphor or allegory for something else.

So what's the point? If meaning isn't inherent to anything, does that imply we should abandon all meaning? Of course not. When we find meaning in something that doesn't mean whatever we found was always there. It means we found it inside ourselves. We learned something new about ourselves and we're free to explore its implications. We can share this meaning with others and see if it resonates with their values as well. Perhaps the meaning we find will help others discover something new about themselves. We're just not justified in imposing that meaning on anyone else. Just because it has meaning for us doesn't imply that it must have meaning for everyone.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A little post bailout rage

Thank you, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show writers. I apparently needed this hot rage injection.

What Is The Great Existential Threat To Civilization?

Thanks, Bill Maher.

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about ISIS/ISIL, Islamophobia and whether or not Muslims are a threat to civilization (or at least Western civilization). It came to a head when Ben Affleck argued with Bill Maher and Sam Harris, accusing them of bigotry against all Muslims for their criticism of Islam. Some people agree with Affleck that Harris and Maher take it too far, others side with Maher and Harris that Islam is a genuine threat. Also, Christianity has been reformed which is why we don't see these problems in Christian countries. I want to come back to this in a bit.

They're all correct and they're all wrong. Islam is a threat, no doubt about it. Any religion that isn't constrained by secular law is a threat both to its own members and non-members alike. But Islam is not an existential threat to civilization. They're not going to take over the West and establish a European or North American Caliphate. Yes, liberals in Europe have taken the idea of cultural and religious tolerance too far (as I've previously observed it's self-defeating to be tolerant of intolerance). But as hard as those immigrants try to avoid assimilation they can't succeed. Living in a non-Islamic country under non-Islamic rules means that you can't stop your children from encountering non-Islamic ideas and eventually they're going to pay attention. Yes, Muslim families are probably going to outbreed us but future generations born in France and Britain are going to be French and British. The world will continue to turn.

There are steps we need to take to protect ourselves from the threat of religious invasion and domination, and we already know what those steps entail: secularization. Most sane Western nations have already implemented it to great success. It's the reason why those countries aren't under any threat of living under a theocracy, because their laws aren't dominated by religious preference. Christians can be Christian, Muslims can be Muslim and atheists can be atheist. Everyone is protected and no one gets special privilege for their beliefs.

This is how we defeat the Islamic threat: not with bombs and military action but with secularism. When people behave badly we don't bomb a village and hope we got some terrorists in the process, we do police work to identify the perpetrators and arrest them. We show the Islamic world that secularism doesn't just protect our innocent, it protects theirs as well. Islam rejected secularism a thousand years ago when their clerics took back control, but that doesn't mean it can't work again.

Secularism is the reason why people have the mistaken impression that Christianity has been reformed and isn't a threat to us the way Islam has become. No, Christianity has not been reformed, it's been leashed. Before we started instituting secular law religious authorities were brutal about purging anything they considered heresy before it could spread among the population. Men and women were murdered on the strength of nothing more than the accusation of a neighbor hoping to curry favor with the authorities or to exact revenge. Ideological purity was enforced by the priests who recognized no authority but their own, and they interacted as peers with the nobility in a mutually beneficial relationship. Is it any wonder that French Reign of Terror and the Communist uprising in Russia targeted the priesthood as enemies of the people?

Christianity has been restrained by secularism. Its priests and authority figures don't have the right to punish heresy, giving way for people to construct their own liberal interpretations of the old religion. That mighty bastion of the old guard, the Vatican, is currently playing catch-up to modern morality without ever publicly conceding that liberal interpretation is valid. How ironic is it that the current pope, bad as he is, is probably more liberal in his religious beliefs than was Martin Luther the German reformer?

What do you think would happen if we let Christianity off the leash? Do you think the liberal churches would survive very long? How long would it take before a new Inquisition or three are resurrected to root out the heresy within Christendom? Not very long. Fundamentalist Christianity is no better than Fundamentalist Islam, it just doesn't have as much slack.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Evaluating Truth Claims

People make claims all the time, some more extraordinary than others. The claim I has a baseball is not an extraordinary claim given the number of baseballs produced and the popularity of the game in various places of the world. Curing cancer with baking soda is a significantly more extraordinary claim and typically provokes skepticism.

I'm sure that someone who feel hopeful about treating their cancer with baking soda might actually experience a remission since we don't fully understand how cancer works. But does that mean that the baking soda is responsible for the remission, or is there something else at work that is completely unrelated to the asserted cause?

So my question is why should I not be skeptical of your claims? Why should your claims about gods and reality be treated as an exception, exempt from skepticism or suspicion? Why should I not approach it with the same attitude that I approach claims of baking soda or crystal therapy cures for cancer?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Scientism

What is "scientism?" Broadly, scientism is a criticism levied by believers against people who point out that science and skepticism have done more to expand our knowledge and improve our lives than any religion or faith. Thomas Burnett of the creationist organization BioLogos claims:
As this new method [science] found great success, the specter of scientism began to emerge. Both Bacon and Descartes elevated the use of reason and logic by denigrating other human faculties such as creativity, memory, and imagination. Bacon’s classification of learning demoted poetry and history to second-class status. Descartes’ rendering of the entire universe as a giant machine left little room for the arts or other forms of human expression. In one sense, the rhetoric of these visionaries opened great new vistas for intellectual inquiry. But on the other hand, it proposed a vastly narrower range of which human activities were considered worthwhile.
Astonishingly, Burnett quotes Carl Sagan as an example of scientism in the modern age when Sagan said, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” For those of you who may not be familiar with his work, Carl Sagan never once denigrated creativity, memory or imagination. In fact he had a lot to say on the importance of those topics.

It's worth pointing out that creativity, memory and imagination are all important aspects of the human experience. They help us create solutions, express feelings and communicate ideas. Without creativity and imagination it would be impossible for us to form new questions for us to test on our way to finding answers. It would be impossible to challenge the ideas we've already formed to make sure that they accurately reflect reality. In science and all other aspects of life these qualities are what allow us to do more than merely survive but also thrive.

We look to the dark and undiscovered places, imagine what their secrets are, and pour every bit of cunning we have into amazing, complex tools just to see if we were right. We cast a light into the darkness and find ourselves intrigued by the darkness beyond that and start the whole thing over again. Imagination both fuels and is fueled by science. Creativity is what turns theory into knowledge and knowledge enables further creativity in turn.

However, this has its limits. We can't invent an answer and expect it to be correct simply because we like it and want it to be true.

Scientism is a slur against people who dare to acknowledge that we are flawed creatures with senses that are not always reliable. Consequently we must approach our assumptions and conclusions skeptically, no matter how we arrived at them or how long we've held them. What accusations of scientism does is betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. Ultimately, science is skepticism applied in a rigorous and methodical manner.

Another thing the accusation tries to do is pull science down to the level of religion. I'm often faced with accusations that they're both based on faith. Richard Dawkins shows us what science would be like if that were true.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fear is the Mind Killer

Earlier today I read a post pleading for help from a person who said that they felt physically nauseous when they contemplated death and what comes after. It's a common complaint from people who are still trying to deprogram themselves from religious thinking, and it's deliberate. I have a common response that I'd like to share.

Fear, especially fear of the unknown, can't withstand scrutiny. You're following the programming you were taught to fear death and assume the worst. The truth is that what you were taught isn't based on good information, it's a scare tactic intended to keep you pliable and frightened. Frightened people don't challenge authority.

You're not going to Hell after you die and neither am I. We will cease to exist, and while that's not a preferable outcome it's better than an eternity of unending existence. Ponder that as much as you can then set it aside. Think about it again tomorrow and the day after. The more you confront your fear the less power it will have over you.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

End it now.

Someone I can only describe as a troll posted a video of Alan Watts giving his speech beginning with "You are a fluke. You are a separate event, and you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium and that's it." He goes on to scold non-believers for envisioning such a cold, dark world where nothing we do matters so we may as well just commit suicide now and get it over with. It's a very dreadful speech focusing on the inevitability of death and how non-belief gives us nothing to live for.

This is my answer.

Did you ever enjoy a meal or a dessert? An event or activity that gave you pleasure? But what's the point, it's over now. The impermanence of the things that give us joy is a reason to not go on living according to the worldview of this troll. Only a god invented by humans is sufficient to give us a reason to live, a god that tells us not to live for this world but the next one.

I enjoy a good meal or a dessert. I look forward to activities or events that give me pleasure, not because they're impermanent but because they happen. Those experiences become part of the tapestry of my life. Good things are ephemeral yes, but so are bad things. My life is not a tale of woe punctuated by occasional spots of happiness. It is a mosaic of high points and low points with no more of one than the other. There are people I love and who love me, there is art and literature to uplift me and challenges to overcome.

I take this world as it is, not how I insist that it must be. As time passes I will lose those I love and eventually they will lose me, but I will die knowing that I have lived in full the only life available to me. Life is precious to me not because there's another one to look forward to after death but because this is the only chance I have to make an impact with what I say and do.

The value of my life is not measured by the moments of pleasure or joy I experience, nor the sadness. The value of my life is measured in the richness of experience that I share with those around me. If I have contributed in some way to the whole of experience, however small, then my life is an unqualified success. Any person who felt loved or appreciated by me is a success. Any person who was inspired by something I said or was given something to ponder by something I wrote is a success. Each one creates a ripple that can spread out creating new ripples of their own. Progress is not defined by great events or achievements but by the steady progress of those little ripples coming together to form a wave.

I have no reason to commit suicide. My life will end in the fullness of time when events converge. I might die of a disease or an accident or simply old age. I could die because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is the way of life. But I have reason to keep on living, keep on struggling with the obstacles in front of me and keep on learning so that I can meet each new experience with the courage and vigor of the last one. I have more ripples to make before I'm done.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The wall of separation

Years after the issue should have been settled, I'm still hit with claims that the Establishment Clause in the US Constitution isn't really there because it wasn't explicitly stated as a "wall of separation" as Jefferson's letter clarified.

I find it ironic that so many people who complain about my criticisms of the Bible or their religious beliefs being "out of context" are nevertheless willing to ignore the context of the US Constitution.

God is intangible, unknowable and ineffable. Except when he isn't.

I am so tired of presuppositional arguments, whether or not they're acknowledged as such. One of the fundamental flaws I criticize about religious belief is when believers want their cake and eat it too. More to the point, their arguments rely too heavily on special pleading. And no, adding caveats to the definition of a god does not bypass special pleading.

For example: if a god does not leave any traces for us to observe, then we have no reason to assume that anything we see supports the existence of this god. If this god is unknowable and incomprehensible, then we have no reason to assume anyone understands anything about it and can accurately represent it.

So which is it? Is a god knowable or not? If not then the discussion is closed. If so then show us examples that clearly demonstrate how this knowledge is valid and not human bias.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A humorous aside

Blogger has some basic tools for tracking posts, listing comments (when it occurs to me I might have any) and seeing how popular they are. Most of my posts average between five and fifty pageviews, some browsing in from reddit.com or twitter and some I'm sure from webcrawlers and other technologies. But one post in particular stands out. None of my posts have more than two hundred views except this one: it has over two thousand. So if I ever decide I want my blog to become popular or start up some ad revenue, I have to remember to post a silly comic with every entry.

I find that both amusing and saddening.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Literal Versus Allegory and Metaphor

Liberal religious beliefs came up again today, this time with the assertion that religious texts like the Bible aren't meant to be read literally. Mostly. Sometimes. Whenever we have verifiable evidence that whatever is being discussed has been debunked. Furthermore, someone claimed to me that most religious believers don't take their scriptures literally.

Naturally, this required some verification.

Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels. Literally. Why? It's largely driven by religion.

64% of Americans believe Jesus literally died and was resurrected. Not metaphorically but literally.

46% of Americans believe that humans were created, not evolved, in their present form within the last ten thousand years. Nothing metaphorical about it.

80% of Americans believe in miracles. Not allegory, not metaphorical miracles. Miracles on par with what's recorded in the Bible.

Tell me again why I should assume religious beliefs and texts aren't being taken literally?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why I Don't Believe In Objective Morality

When we describe something as "objective" what we mean is that it is "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: 'an objective opinion'" or "of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality." Since morals are value statements they are necessarily abstract concepts rather than material objects. They cannot be said to exist as part of objective reality. Furthermore, morality varies greatly depending on culture and circumstance which means it is never free of influence by personal feelings, interpretations or prejudice.

By way of contrast, what are examples of objective reality? Those things that can be confirmed through empirical observation: physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and so forth. Standing on the surface of our planet means that gravity will pull you and everything you carry toward the center; this is true wherever you stand and doesn't change based on perspective. We have objectively verified that gravity is a real phenomenon no matter who you are, what culture you belong to or what your opinion is. Any time you let go of something it will fall under gravity.

About the only reason I can think of for why people persist in asserting objective morality is that they want to define their moral values as supreme, trumping all other moral codes. The only way to do this is to back your moral values through authority, either legally or religiously. Legally mandated morality (e.g. laws prohibiting murder, rape, theft, etc) can be challenged depending on shifts in attitude by the people being governed. Bad laws are notoriously difficult to enforce like the War on Drugs. Bad morality is likewise difficult to enforce like blue laws. Typically we see morality successfully expressed in law when there's more objective justification for it, like prohibitions against murder and fraud. When we can't objectively justify a morality we see it expressed more often as a religious value.

Morality is a negotiated behavior between people on both an individual and group level. Nothing that can be negotiated can be accurately described as objective.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Divine Inspiration

One of the most common claims made by Christians is that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. How do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired? Why, the Bible says this about itself. Of course, what this means varies depending on the Christian you talk to. For some it means the Bible is perfect and inerrant, that any time we find something wrong in the Bible it's us who is making the mistake because the Bible can't be wrong about anything. For others it means only parts of the Bible are divinely inspired and the confusion comes because we have to sift the human error in the Bible to find the parts that are genuinely inspired.

The first claim, that the Bible is perfect and inerrant is easily refuted. Looking at the conflicting creation accounts in Genesis, the story of the Hebrews in bondage to Egypt, the prophesied destruction of Tyre by Babylon or the attempts to tie both Herod the Great and the Census of Quirinius to Jesus' birth in spite of Herod dying ten years before the census. From a scientific and archaeological standpoint the Bible is very clearly errant.

The second claim is harder to refute because it offers no concrete guide on how to interpret the Bible. It becomes an open invitation to cherry-pick what you like from the Bible and disregard the rest as "tainted" by humanity. The claim goes that we can't judge the morality of the Bronze Age Hebrews or the Iron Age Christians because they had different values. Slavery was accepted and commonplace. Likewise with dehumanizing women and treating them as property. The Apostle Paul wasn't really a misogynist no matter how many Bible verses he dedicated to telling women to submit to male authority. Divine inspiration, the explanation goes, doesn't make unreasonable demands of people.

Except there's a problem here. Paul tells us that no one is righteous and all are sinners. We have all fallen short of the perfect moral standard that is God. So why does the Bible not speak up against slavery and misogyny, two moral values that we're developing in modern civilization? One apologetic I've heard is that we weren't ready to hear those things so God let us figure it out on our own. But the Bible has no problem giving us impossible moral standards that we can't possibly hope to live up to before Jesus came along and added thought crimes. Why then would a divinely inspired book of morality not insist on a perfect morality whether or not we were ready to hear it? Another apologetic is that because of relative cultural mores Paul wasn't really a misogynist, but misogyny doesn't stop being misogyny because it's institutional.

If you claim divine inspiration for something, you're making a very specific claim. You're claiming that the divine inspiration made it better than it could have been with only human ingenuity. That is perhaps the most damning observation about the Bible and every other holy scripture I've ever heard of: the morality and understanding of those scriptures was strictly limited to the morality and understanding of the people who wrote them. There's no sign of any divine inspiration in any of them; no hint of superior morality or indeed anything that can't be attributed directly to human thought. This is why I continue to be skeptical of divine morality.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Tom Wheeler Betrays Us

Tom Wheeler, the latest chairman of the FCC, shocked the Internet by calling for approval for a "fast lane" proposal for the Internet. Effectively, in order to avoid having your site and services downgraded by ISPs you have to pay an additional premium for preferred service. It's the proposal that AT&T suggested back in 2005 which sparked the entire Net Neutrality movement. Remember that you're already paying for your connection to the Internet, and sites like Google, Amazon and Netflix are also paying for their connection to you. This proposal amounts to triple-billing.

Of course, Wheeler's betrayal shouldn't shock anyone who knew who he was. An industry insider and lobbyist, he was always going to be sympathetic to ISP demands and ignore the consumers. So now he's trying to get a vote on new rules giving AT&T everything it wants and the backlash has been so severe that the FCC can't handle all the phone calls they're getting. Instead they're requesting that you email them your complaints instead. So I sent the following email to openinternet@fcc.gov:

I STRONGLY oppose Wheeler's proposal of approving "Fast Lane" internet access in direct violation of open internet standards. This is the proposal that AT&T wanted to implement years ago and sparked the Net Neutrality movement. We do not want an Internet where service runs to the highest bidder. We do not want an Internet where ISPs are allowed to downgrade traffic or decide what we can consume. They have been and must continue to be custodians, not traffic cops.

I am extremely disappointed by this betrayal of our interests and I call for the immediate removal of Wheeler from his position with the FCC.

SpaceGhoti
Denver, CO
I invite everyone to do the same. Email the FCC and make your voice heard.

Update: Wheeler turned around and did the right thing. Consequently, I was wrong about Tom Wheeler. I freely admit it. In fact, I will go so far as to say I'm glad I was wrong about Tom Wheeler. I apologize to him.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Milquetoast defense of religion

In discussing Deacon Duncan's examination of god belief I was hit with the following comment:
One can, however, acknowledge what inside of themselves is a story, and have gratitude and mercy for the stories one sees in others. It's the really hard-headed ones who become so convinced that their way is the "truth" and deem those who don't subscribe to their story as the "truth," who can be a bit of a pain, but who also miss out on the grandeur and the majesty of the world and the universe it hangs in.
The implication here is that everybody has their own perspective and they're all unique, beautiful and valid (except when they're not). I often see this Milquetoast defense of religious belief and superstition as religion is forced to concede more ground on the nature of reality. However, there are two claims being made here that I feel deserve attention.

"One can, however, acknowledge what inside of themselves is a story, and have gratitude and mercy for the stories one sees in others." This claims that religious beliefs are based on allegory about true fact regarding gods and divinity, a nod to Plato's Cave in which the god being worshiped is perceived imperfectly but is no less real because of it. The problem is that as I explored previously many of those beliefs are directly contradictory and can't all be valid. This god can't simultaneously reincarnate us endlessly until we all get it right and send us to hell or heaven if we reject salvation in this life. We can cherish these "stories" as stories -- fiction that we invent to amuse or comfort ourselves. However, the stories Deacon Duncan discusses in his essay aren't held as fiction, they're claimed to be accurate representations of reality with everyone's depiction of god a form of Mary sue characterization.

"It's the really hard-headed ones who become so convinced that their way is the 'truth' and deem those who don't subscribe to their story as the 'truth,' who can be a bit of a pain, but who also miss out on the grandeur and the majesty of the world and the universe it hangs in." Here the commenter makes the claim that sure there are some bad apples in the basket but they don't represent the vast majority of believers who keep their beliefs personal and don't take action on them. Do I really need to refute this again and again? Apparently I do. Maybe this overview will demonstrate my point.

Everyone wants to believe that their assumptions are correct and that even if they turn out to be wrong they're going to be ultimately harmless. When it comes to religion, I can't stress enough how the evidence shows that such beliefs are neither correct nor harmless.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Justice vs. Vengeance

Here in the US we have a problem with crime. We're obsessed with it. We dedicate outrageous resources to dealing with it and even romanticize it to some degree (have you seen the latest episodes of COPS, CSI or Law & Order?). In our fantasies the innocent are protected and the guilty are punished. Yes, I said "fantasies" because we have an idealized notion of crime and punishment and it's causing some serious problems.

A recent study points out that 4% of the people on death row are innocent and that percentage is higher for those sentenced to life in prison. Contemplate that for a moment: four out of every hundred people sentenced to death are victims of our legal system. Does that shock you? Does it bother you at all? It does for me, but I know people who don't give it a second thought. For them it's an acceptable margin of error.

Consider also that we spend about $74 billion a year nationwide up from $37 billion in 2007 and just about as much as we spend on food stamps for the poor. It's become a major growth industry for the private sector meaning that once again we've found a way to make a profit off the suffering and misery of others. But they deserve it, right? They're convicted criminals, whether or not they actually did the crime.

American prisons are brutal places. When the inmates aren't preying on each other they're at the mercy of their guards. It's a problem we've known about for twenty years or more and we've turned a blind eye to it. Why? There's a prevailing attitude in the US that people who end up in prison deserve to be abused under the guise of "punishment." We're cutting rehabilitation programs across the board so we can spend money to build more prisons, resulting in high rates of recidivism: inmates returning to prison because they re-offend after they're released.

I submit that with these attitudes and the policies reflecting them, we have transformed our justice system into a vengeance system. We've abandoned the notion that prison is a place to separate troublesome members of our society and teach them not to be problems, but a place to abandon them where they can suffer as they deserve. Consider that with the margin for error in the percentage of innocent victims in the prison system and the overrepresentation of minorities you've got a recipe for a human rights disaster.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Struggling With Money

It's been a common talking point over the past twenty years: Americans have a spending problem. We have too little money saved up and too many of us have nothing saved for retirement. Everywhere you look the message is the same: our debt to savings ratio is too high and it's a serious problem.

Yes, it is. But why are we having this problem? I find it very curious that when I try to track the changes to the cost of living I get a lot of confusing data. We have easy graphs to track spending for the federal government, graphs on health care and driving and gun violence and just about anything else you could want that's pertinent to our daily lives. But not so much for inflation and prices even from official government sources. It's like they don't want us to know how much we're spending just to meet our daily needs.

I live in a nice apartment with one and a half cars (my Lady got her scooter), very little debt (which takes some doing, believe me) and a few creature comforts. I don't live in anything resembling luxury and it took me a long time to get some very good deals, which includes extremely low rent for the area where I live. If I were to move closer to my work as I really want to I'd have to pay half again what I do now in rent and related expenses. Every time I manage to accumulate some savings something inevitably comes up and makes it disappear again. I've taken to tracking my spending and expenses in a spreadsheet, and even using that to identify excessive spending the prognosis isn't good. I simply don't earn enough to do much more than tread water even if I were to cut everything back and live like a monk. Consequently I haven't a prayer of coming up with the 20% deposit for a small home without putting myself at the mercy of predatory lending practices.

When my father was my age he was making approximately a third less than I am today. Yes, my parents also struggled with money but they had a three bedroom house they were almost finished paying off, three cars and two teenaged sons. So what changed between 1986 and 2014? Six years ago someone I have come to admire very much was able to put the numbers together and figure it out.



Yes, we have a spending problem but the problem isn't that we're being irresponsible with our money. The problem is that we're spending too much just to break even. Between the rising cost of living (the CPI doesn't track food or transportation costs!) and our stagnating wages there simply isn't any left over to save. It's not that we're eating out more often, because we're not. It's not that we're buying more toys, because that isn't it either. It's not that our houses are too big or any other factor suggesting that we're too greedy for our own good. The problem is that we're like a frog in a pot of water and someone is slowly turning up the heat. They don't want us to notice before it's too late to jump out.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Delay the Affordable Care Act?

It would be funny if it weren't so insidious. Having spent three years doing everything they can do to either repeal or undermine "Obamacare," we now have some initial indications of success and slower rises in health insurance premiums than at any time under Republican governance. Nevertheless, House Republicans have voted at least 47 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act UPDATE: 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act when they're not voting to delay it.

At this point there's no stopping the implementation of Obamacare. The White House has delayed specific provisions to the derision of conservatives, but the overall provisions are not going to be stopped. Every year conservatives claim that it's going to make premiums skyrocket and every year it doesn't happen. Now we have an election year coming up, a mid-term election where Republicans typically have more success and they've pinned their election strategy on selling the idea that Obamacare is a failure. Clearly, Republicans will keep trying to repeal and delay as long as possible.

So here's the thing: I would completely support a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The one thing Republicans could do to get my support is give us Medicare for all. Give us a public option, a single payer system where the government can negotiate costs. It doesn't have to completely replace private insurance like in Canada; plenty of nations have instituted both to great success. But stop pretending that health care is a luxury rather than a literal life-or-death necessity. Then you'll get your wish. You'll have completely undermined the Democrats and demonstrated that the Republicans are genuinely more concerned about governance than catering to industry lobbyists.

Until then, no. No delays, no repeal, no "compromise" intended to undermine the success of the program. If there's no progress then there's no deal.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What If I'm Wrong About This?

Having just acknowledged that I can be wrong and be perfectly aware that I'm capable of being wrong, I come to the topic of being wrong about gods and the afterlife.

Hell is a particularly insidious concept that really epitomizes the effectiveness of the carrot and the stick approach to coercion. On the one hand you've got this fairy tale place commonly referred to as Heaven where there's no more suffering, no more worry, no more sickness or death. In Heaven you experience an eternity of bliss while you reunite with loved ones and sing the praises of the all-powerful God. But if you reject God (and thus Heaven) then your only option is Hell, a lake of fire and brimstone where you experience unending torment and shame for all of eternity. I've listened to more than a few stories of people who were traumatized by fear of Hell as children, and a few adults who struggle with religion only because they're afraid that leaving it might actually send them to Hell. It can have that much power over our minds.

Unconditional Love Nowadays I can easily laugh it off. If you tell me I'm destined for Hell, I'll tell you I'm going to punch you in the aura. Neither threat has any power over me, but it wasn't always that way. I used to worry that my journey away from religion might actually be sending me to Hell. It's a common question that occurs to anyone with even a shred of self-awareness: what if I'm wrong?

If I'm wrong, then I'm wrong. We're wrong about things all the time. Do I have the chicken or the fish? Let's say I choose the fish and it makes me sick. I had no way of knowing the fish was prepared improperly so I was wrong because I didn't have enough information to make the right choice. There are things we can't know beforehand that necessarily impede our ability to choose.

So if I'm wrong about this and I end up in Hell it won't be because I'm rebellious or obstinate. It will be because the god who puts me there doesn't care enough to make sure I have the information I need to make a good choice. That's his fault, not mine. I don't believe in auras, elves, unicorns, leprechauns, gods or the afterlife. If it turns out I'm wrong about any of those assumptions then I'll be wrong because I have no reason to believe in them, and that's the right reason to be wrong.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I Was Wrong

A lot of people who know me don't think of me as a particularly humble man. That would be because I'm not. I am in fact quite arrogant, or at least confident in the correctness of my assumptions. I'm aware that I turn off some people because of my air of arrogance. Other people are attracted to me because of my air of confidence. There's just no way to please everyone.

In fact, I'm wrong about things all the time. I don't project this awareness because that's not how I was raised, but please take my word for it that I am aware of it. I am not right about things more often than the average individual. I'm no polymath like Sherlock Holmes who can speak authoritatively on a wide variety of topics. I have areas of interest in science, literature and politics but I am at best an enthusiastic layman in those areas. My understanding is general at best rather than specific. I grasp the basic concept of quantum mechanics but not well enough to teach a course in it.

On occasion I get accused of being close-minded because I'm fond of arguing passionately about whatever I think is true. I don't just say what I think is true, I usually try to dig up sources to support why I think it's true. For the average discussion this can appear quite daunting. Add to that several decades of experience in constructing and supporting arguments in favor of what I believe and people can walk away with the impression that I'm a know-it-all who can't be told anything. I'd like to take this opportunity to explain why that isn't true.

I do possess sufficient self-awareness to realize I'm not always right about everything. There are things I've thought about and researched sufficiently to feel comfortable about, and I often write about them. I use feedback (when I can get it) to test and refine my arguments. It's an ongoing process and at this point many of my arguments are very polished, especially when it comes to topics that come up in popular discussion. For example when someone attempts to justify their belief in their god because I can't prove their god isn't real, I have a pithy reply to demonstrate how their logic fails. I came up with that pithy reply after years of trying to explain the burden of proof at length and gradually refining my explanation into a simple, penetrating response. Most of the time, however, I include subtle caveats into my statements. "It seems to me." "As I understand it." "The evidence suggests." These are mental bookmarks intended to remind me that I am ultimately agnostic when it comes to absolute statements.

When I'm wrong and I know it I try to explicitly state it as such. "No, I was wrong." "I stand corrected." I then try to point to the source demonstrating how I know I was wrong and what the correct answer is. I'm human and I sometimes try to rationalize how the new information still allows me to be correct (seriously, who wants to be wrong?) but I try to be brutally honest with myself when I know I need to correct my assumptions.

In the end, changing my mind is dreadfully easy: all you have to do is show me the evidence.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Speaking of presuppositionalism

In discussing presuppositionalism yesterday and today, the topic naturally turned to creationism (one of the biggest examples of presuppositionalism around). A few defenders of creationism attempted to argue the old straw about science being unreliable and incapable of offering certainty, therefore God. In doing so they betrayed their ignorance of what science is and how we know what we know.

To begin with science doesn't talk about absolutes, it talks about degrees of certainty. The short explanation of this is that certainty is defined by supporting evidence. The less evidence you have to support your idea, the less certainty we have that it's true. The more evidence you have, the greater the degree of certainty.

There are no absolutes when it comes to knowledge. We're always updating and refining our knowledge, but at this point we very rarely end up refuting something that has a great deal of evidence supporting it. Most of the ideas in science that get left behind are ones that didn't have that much evidence supporting them regardless of how popular they were. One such example is the Big Crunch hypothesis for how the universe will end. Current observations make that hypothesis extremely unlikely so cosmologists have a very low degree of certainty.

Creationism has no evidence supporting it. The conflation of creationism as a branch of science is a lie meant to comfort people who are emotionally invested in it. There's no evidence of a creator, no evidence that the universe was fully formed at its beginning or that a trickster god planted false evidence to lead us to believe that it's actually 13.8 billion years old (See: Last Thursdayism).

The "young earth scientists" out in the world aren't scientists. They're religious partisans who make no useful predictions, perform no repeatable experiments and devote the majority of their time either attempting to refute real science or creating apologetics for what current discoveries mean for their beliefs. What they do is not science. It's more accurately described as lying for Jesus.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

It's A Duck

I've been having a lot of discussions about presuppositionalism when it comes to belief in gods. A lot of believers are invoking it even when they don't know it's name. They assume that the existence of their god is a given and that it therefore falls to non-believers to prove otherwise. It's an extremely dishonest tactic by attempting to reverse the burden of proof.

As I like to say, if I have to prove your god isn't real then you have to prove I'm not your god testing you.

I ran across an old comic that neatly demonstrates the problem with presuppositionalism and the way it's applied in debates over evolution, cosmology and so forth. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

It's A Duck!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jokes involving atheists

I encountered someone who complained that whenever atheists tell jokes it's always about religion, never about atheism or atheists. He eventually clarified that we never allow anything funny and offensive about ourselves. I have to concede the last point; I can't think of any jokes about atheism or atheists that I would find offensive.

Here's what I came up with:

Q: What did the atheist say after walking into a church?
A: Mind if I smoke?

Q: How many atheists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One, and it's not funny!

Q: Why did the atheist die at the bottom of the cliff?
A: He didn't believe in gravity, either.

I realize it's a short list, so I invite anyone to come along and suggest some more. Bonus points if I find it offensive to atheism.