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

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


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.