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

Friday, January 17, 2014

Religious Freedom

Last night I had the most fascinating exchange on reddit with a variety of self-described conservatives. While I keep Poe's Law in mind when dealing with people like that, I'm not willing to assume that all of them were trolling.

The topic was health insurance and the conservative argument that religious freedom means employers cannot be required to fund birth control in health insurance if they have a religious objection to it. I find this positively absurd at face value; how on earth does your position as an employer entitle you to dictating what an employee can or can't get through insurance? The response I got was nonsensical: to do otherwise is to force my values on the employer and besides I can buy health insurance elsewhere.

There are so many problems with this argument it's hard to know where to begin. But to each I posed this question: if employers can deny birth control to employees through health insurance on religious grounds, what about religious objections to blood transfusions? What about employers who believe that the only appropriate medical treatment is the power of prayer? What about their religious freedom? The best answer I got was "then buy your own."

"Religious freedom" has become a cancer on our society, a red herring that social conservatives invoke whenever they want to deny something to other people for the sake of their religion. It's because of "religious freedom" that pharmacists claim the right to refuse to sell birth control pills to women even when they have a medical need not related to contraception. It's because of "religious freedom" that social conservatives insist that marriage equality be denied and that marriage be redefined as strictly between a man and a woman.

I think it's time to remind people that "religious freedom" is the freedom to worship as you choose, not to impose your religious beliefs on other people. Religious partisans have been trying to attack Jefferson's Wall of Separation between Church and State for years, and this is where it has led. I'm all for civility in a civil society, but not when it produces results like this. The self-proclaimed "Moral Majority" is anything but, and they're certainly not civil in their attacks against our rights. I see no reason why we should tolerate it or remain silent while they install their religious beliefs without consideration of anyone who doesn't share them.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Myth of Liberal Peaceniks

Conor Friedersdorf posted an article in today's online Atlantic with the title
The Most Dangerous Myth: That Liberals Are Peaceniks
. The short reply to this is "Duh!" However, I felt compelled to write a longer answer as follows. Naturally I can only speak for myself but I've had a few people congratulate me for providing a succinct description of liberal attitudes toward war.

Of course we aren't [peaceniks], and never have been. I object to unnecessary wars and wars of adventure. I object to war by proxy and the use of force before all diplomatic venues have been exhausted.

I agree with the necessity of war for common defense and honoring our treaties. I agree with the use of military force to intervene when we're invited to do so. I agree with joining in a military coalition where there's broad support to stop attempts at genocide or similar crimes against humanity.

I do not agree with invading a country because we're greedy for their resources or because we wish to install a government that's friendly to us. I do not agree with war as an immediate option; I think it should always be the option of last resort. Carry the big stick, fine, but be cautious with its use. Don't insist on a stick bigger than you need to get the job done.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Work Ethic

We're rapidly approaching a world of post-scarcity, at least within the developed parts of it. We control vast amounts of wealth and resources and produce enough food and material goods to supply the entire world. This is a major achievement for our species; we have effectively mastered our planet to make it comfortable for us as we choose. It's not perfect of course, and many areas lag behind unacceptably but because of artificial boundaries we place on regions and cultures we shrug it off as not our problem.

In the developed world our advancement has progressed to the degree that we're starting to revert to service jobs rather than production. We're creating work for people so they can work rather than providing a specific purpose for that work. Particularly in the US we're skeptical of public support programs that allow people to live without slaving away at a job because we consider it an abuse of the system. But how do you define abuse? This is a ridiculous Puritan ethic that says the only way you can justify your existence is if you either work yourself to death or you have enough money to justify not working. How much money you have defines not only how much you're allowed to enjoy life but how successful you've become.

I've been frustrated by this mindset for years. Aren't there other standards to define a successful life? What if you've been a good parent? There's no money in that. What about artists like Vincent van Gogh who dedicated their lives to art but were never recognized during their own lifetimes?

According to far too many people, living on the public dole while pursuing your own passion is abuse of that system. My question is: why?

Pope Francis I

We're approaching the end of the new pope's first year on the throne and he seems to be a popular guy. A genuine ascetic who sneaks out of the Vatican at night to minister to the poor. This is good stuff that looks really good in the papers. In the meanwhile he's reaffirmed the Vatican's policy on homosexuality and homosexuals, women's rights and pedophile priests.

The Vatican's problems are legion. They're hemorrhaging members, mostly among the younger generations and they're plagued by corruption. Thanks to the Age of Information we live in they can't hide these problems like they once could, so they hired a Fox News reporter (I can't call anyone from Fox News a "journalist") as a media adviser to manage their image.

Ponder that a moment. They hired someone from one of the most demonstrably dishonest media organizations to manage their image. Consider what this means for their intentions.

Obviously there's a great deal of pressure on the organization to address their problems and institute reform. Shortly after Greg Burke signs on Pope Benedict XVI, affectionately referred to by many as Pope Palpatine, steps down from the throne to live in seclusion at a nunnery. Many people saw Benedict as directly responsible for the Church's woes as he was in charge of the department that decided policy to shift pedophile priests around to avoid prosecution and intimidate families of sex abuse victims into remaining silent. Enter Cardinal Bergoglio with his lifelong message of compassion for the poor elected to take Benedict's place under the ruling name of Francis I. Pope Francis quickly shocks the world by suggesting that atheists can be good people after all (welcome to the Twentieth Century, Frank) and furthermore it's not his place to judge homosexuals (although it's still his god's place and they're still not allowed to get married or enjoy equal rights).

The world is abuzz with the news. Pope Francis is a genuinely nice guy! He urges the world to be generous and give to the poor! He denounces "trickle down" economics (again, welcome to the Twentieth Century, Frank)! He puts the golden throne in storage and sits on a wooden stool! Like I said, this is good stuff.

So here's my problem: we've seen this sort of re-branding before. Does anyone else remember "compassionate conservatism"? I was willing to give George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt when he was first elected and he gave me cause to regret it. I therefore reserve the right to be skeptical until I see action that matches the rhetoric. So what has Pope Francis I done to back up his new message? Not a lot.

He suspended but has not removed the "Bishop of Bling" Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, one of the most egregious examples of corruption within the Catholic world. As previously noted he sneaks out of the Vatican at night to minister to the homeless. He established a Pontifical Commission to study the Vatican bank problems. And he...has made a lot of speeches.

The Pope is supposed to be a spiritual leader, but he also wields considerable temporal power. He's the top executive of the Vatican and he directs policy as he chooses. He could divest the Vatican of a fraction of its incalculable wealth to fund his directive to minister to the poor, but the golden throne and billions in art remain in storage. He could change the Vatican's support of anti-gay propaganda to focus on anti-poverty initiatives. He could do so many things just to support the message he's espousing, but he's taken no concrete action on any of it.

Color me unimpressed.

Some people claim that the Pope is not the absolute ruler and can't simply force change against the wishes of Christendom. The pope's official title suggests otherwise: he's the "supreme pontiff" and "sovereign of the state of the Vatican City" which means he has absolute authority where the Vatican is concerned.

But if he pushes change that challenges the status quo he might get assassinated! Well, true. But the Church has a long tradition of martyrdom. If he's a true believer and a genuine agent of change then this shouldn't be a consideration. But perhaps that's unreasonable of me, so let me ask this: why are they spending so much money on the Swiss Guard if not to guard against that?

It's possible that Frank is just spending his first year building momentum for the change he intends to bring. If that's the case I will change my tune. However, until I see action in support of the message I will give the only judgment possible: Pope Francis' message is a whitewash for the church intended to distract from the Church's problems rather than address them. Based on the reactions I'm seeing even from some of my fellow atheists and agnostics, it's working.

Monday, January 6, 2014


A former pastor's journal A Year Without God has been generating some buzz so I took a look around. On the whole I approve of his approach. He starts out with some misconceptions, but the religious community clings to those misconceptions so I can't say I blame him for it.

Not everyone who gives atheism a try is going to find it to their liking. It is a genuinely scary outlook. There are no gods to offer comfort, no afterlife in which to reunite with loved ones, no divine plan to ease our confusion in this messy and complicated world. Of course an atheist would point out that this was always true, it's just that we now acknowledge it. The world is the same whether or not we worship one of the thousands of gods we've invented over the millennia, the only thing that's different is the solutions we construct to address our problems.

Let's start with some misconceptions. There are atheists who still pray, believe in ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon and so forth. Such individuals are still atheists, they're just not very skeptical. Most atheists who pray do so out of habit, acknowledging that they're talking to themselves to make themselves feel better. When we face crisis it often comforts us to fall back on familiar routine. As for belief in ghosts and magic an atheist is not necessarily a skeptic (although I think we ought to be). As long as you aren't asserting that a god is the reason behind the ghosts or magic, you can still be an atheist.

Atheists do not hate God, and we're not rebelling against Jesus. Neither do we worship Satan or engage in any religious beliefs. In order for any of that to be true we would have to believe that those are real people, at which point we can't call ourselves atheists. Don't let the Laveyan Satanists fool you, they're atheists who adopt the label of "satanist" ironically. I can't hate, rebel against or worship something I don't believe is real.

Atheists don't reject gods because we want to sin. Sin is defined as a crime against God and if there's no one to commit a crime against then no crime is possible. See above.

Warning us that we're doomed to hell for rejecting God isn't a threat we take seriously. You might as well threaten to punch me in the aura; I won't feel it either way.

Atheists are not inherently immoral. Neither are we inherently superior. We're just people who don't believe in gods, that's all. But if you want to make the claim that we have nothing preventing us from being bad you should probably back up your claim. Penn Jillette explains how that works.

That brings me to the initial misconception from Ryan Bell that caught my attention:

“If I have to be absolutely certain that there is no God, I don’t know if I can ever qualify for that group,” he said.
I see this repeated endlessly. I must have faith to be an atheist because I claim certainty that there are no gods! Well, no. I've been an agnostic for almost twenty years now. I'm still an agnostic and that's unlikely to change. However, just because Thomas Henry Huxley established precedent regarding agnosticism over a hundred years ago doesn't mean that precedent is set in stone. I am an agnostic because I don't know whether or not any gods are real. I am an atheist because I have no reason to believe they are.

I've talked with "gnostic" atheists who assert that they're convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that gods are false, particularly the ones based on the Abrahamic tradition. They're logically incoherent, internally inconsistent and every claim that can be tested about them has been proven false. I'm glad that the evidence convinces them, but I continue allow for the possibility that I could be wrong. The problem with a claim that can't be falsified is that there's no way to verify that it's true or false. Therefore the only response I can reasonably give is the Scottish verdict of "not proven."

And no, gentle readers. The burden of proof does not rest with me. If you claim your god is real, it's up to you to prove it. It's not my job to chase the ever-moving goalposts to claim that your gods aren't real. I simply rest on skepticism and wait for positive evidence to support the claim. And no, your anecdotes and personal conviction aren't evidence of anything but your willingness to believe. The more tortured the apologetics to explain why your god isn't subject to evidence, the more you convince me that this is simply an exercise to rationalize your belief rather than a belief that's justified.

So good luck to Ryan Bell in his quest to explore life as an atheist. I'm sure he'll find, as I did, that it's not really that different from life as a believer. You still have to pay your bills. You still have to interact with family and friends. You still have to make choices. The primary difference is that the choices are his to make, not his god's. I wish him well.