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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Enemy of Good

I've noted previously that I'm skeptical of Hillary Clinton as a progressive. In the six months since I wrote that, four other people threw their hats into the ring as candidates for the Democratic Party nomination including Bernie Sanders. Presently, Bernie is my preferred candidate as he best represents me on the issues I care about. Everywhere I look he continues to lead the pack as a progressive, liberal or whatever label you choose to apply.

Clinton's campaign is a juggernaut, with campaign money that dwarfs all competition and political endorsements from all over. Although a lot can happen between now and July, safe money continues to be on Hillary Clinton as the heir apparent. This is now her race to lose, which prompts another look at her as a politician and as a candidate for President of the United States. In the last six months I've discovered a few things about her, some of which surprised me and others that don't.

What I care about the most is not who slept with whom, what scandals may surround a politician or what dirt can be dug up on someone. No one is perfect, so I have to make allowances for the fact that my candidates won't be as well. If their misbehavior is relevant to the issues they claim to value then certainly I'm willing to cluck my tongue over the Family Values candidate caught having multiple affairs. On the other hand, if you spent years trying to dig up dirt on someone but investigations keep finding no wrongdoing then it's clear that what you're doing is engaging in a witch hunt. The email scandal is settled. All that remains is where Clinton stands on the issues.

Hillary Clinton on the issues is where I'm both surprised and not surprised. In both her voting record and her campaign platforms Hillary comes across very solidly as a liberal. In fact, when you compare her to Bernie she's closer to his position than any other Democratic candidate including Martin O'Malley and Jim Webb. I'm not going to bother with former Republican governor Lincoln Chaffee because he's not even on the radar. The only place where Hillary doesn't shine as a liberal is on military and foreign policy where she's one of the most hawkish candidates around.

There are, of course, still problems. First and foremost there's a strong movement for Anybody But Hillary which is popular among both Republicans and Democrats. Yes, Democrats. Do you think the Clintons could suffer through two decades of scandals and not have that taint stick in people's minds? She's untrusted because of her corporate connections, her history with Wall Street, her war-mongering, allegations of corruption and criminal behavior and so on and so forth. Clinton opponents have thrown everything at her in the hopes that something would stick, and for some people that's enough to bias their thinking. As I observed previously some of it is deserved, such as her relationship with special interests, but in this campaign she's come out with some credible proposals to combat those interests (author's note: this link is best viewed in privacy/incognito mode). People are still skeptical of her apparent change of heart on issues like Wall Street regulation and trade deals, and they should be. But the problem runs so deep that there are committed progressives who would normally vote for a Democratic nominee have pledged to vote third party rather than for Hillary Clinton.

The phrase for this is the Nirvana fallacy or "making best the enemy of good." So while I would rather see Bernie Sanders take the Democratic nomination and become the next President of the United States, I won't reject Hillary Clinton as the candidate who next best represents my interests. She promises to be more of a liberal and less of a centrist than Barack Obama has been, and that's still progress to me.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Failure of Faith

The incomparable Matt Dillahunty recently posted the video of his lecture at Baylor University regarding what he calls "the problem of Divine Hiddenness." It's an excellent talk and I highly recommend it.

At timestamp 13:59 he brings up the question "why create a world where you put thinking beings, give them a brain...where critical examination of what you see in the world is consistently the best way to find an accurate model of the world?...and then to say that the most important piece of information is one that doesn't fit that paradigm?" I've examined this before in my comparison of the conflict between faith and knowledge, but since Matt doesn't take much time to address the typical excuse of "faith" here I want to revisit the topic.

While he correctly points out that "faith" isn't an answer because it can be used to justify any claim, he's set up a question that invites more scrutiny. Whatever god allegedly created this universe has therefore put us in an environment where our survival as individuals and as a species relies on our ability to gather knowledge to form conclusions. hunter in the bush Sometimes our conclusions aren't justified, like assuming that the vague shape we perceive in the bush is a predator which prompts us to run away. Such assumptions were helpful when predators were a constant threat, but better knowledge is more helpful. Waiting to confirm whether or not that shape is what we suspect it might be could result in an easy meal for a predator, but it could also reveal that it was just our imagination playing tricks and enable us to get at the berries in the bush. Our survival is better served when our conclusions are informed by knowledge. Running away on faith (or conversely pursuing the berries on faith) doesn't serve us nearly as well, it's hit-or-miss.

I frequently hear that faith is superior to knowledge, but our world doesn't reward faith as consistently as it rewards knowledge. When was the last time you saw a mountain moved exclusively by faith? If you consistently visit a casino because you have faith that eventually your luck is going to favor you and grant you a massive jackpot, you're likely to lose everything. If you close your eyes while crossing a busy street using faith to guide your steps you're likely to create an accident. People who reject medical care for serious illness like cancer tend to die quickly and painfully compared to those who follow a doctor's advice. And yet people continue to uphold faith as the gold standard of behavior, trying to muster sufficient faith to move mountains on nothing better than religious authority. This is what prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to observe that "a casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."

But what about love? I'm asked. You can't prove love is real, you have to take it on faith, right? I don't know where this silly trope came from but it's patently ridiculous. It's complicated. Unrequited love frequently depends on faith, but genuine love requires nothing of the sort. When someone loves me I can see it in their behavior toward me. When I love someone I don't expect them to rely on faith to know it, I assume the responsibility of demonstrating my love for them through word and deed.

So to return to Matt's point, you can't have a relationship with someone based on faith. Any relationship requires action that goes both ways; if all the effort is one-sided then someone is lying to you and you should consider the possibility that it's you.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Magic Tricks

I don't often talk about my personal life here for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, recent life events brought an issue to the forefront that I feel deserve a few words. Namely, marriage and relationships. For some background I was married before while I was living in Australia but that didn't work out. I left my wife and two children behind to find work back in my native United States, and she decided not to follow. She sent me divorce papers and forced me to move on with my life so I did. Shortly after, I accepted a friend's invitation to join his game and there met the woman who would ultimately become my second wife. We've been together nearly ten years and look forward to the next ten years with great eagerness. She is in all matters my partner and my best friend, an achievement that I hoped for in my first marriage but never accomplished.

How did we do it? How did we succeed this time when I failed before? That's the rub.

At our wedding my best man (and one of my oldest and best friends) performed a magic trick. Yeah, it was that kind of wedding. We presented him with a problem, that we didn't have any rings to give to each other. He performed his trick and came up with a solution for us. And when I was watching the video of our ceremony it occurred to me that this made a useful metaphor for how people seem to treat relationships: magic.

For my next trick... It seems that almost everyone I know is having trouble with their relationships. My best man's marriage is on the rocks, and he's almost given up hope in finding a solution. My brother got divorced from his wife. My mother-in-law was talking about divorcing her husband. Another friend's wife has been cheating on him and has no intention of stopping. Everyone expresses how much they admire the relationship between my wife and I and how much in love we still are after so long together. It seems like magic to them, and unfortunately that's the problem.

It seems like it shouldn't need to be said, but good relationships don't simply happen. There's no magic trick that decides whether your relationship will succeed or fail. The balancing act There are elements involved in any good relationship that require you to put effort into them. These elements include communication, honesty, respect and an open mind. You have to be able to give as well as take, leaving the burden on neither party to always give or always take. Sometimes you have to compromise. Sometimes you have to pay attention more than you're used to. Always, always you need to be talking with each other and not assume things. You have to be willing to accept and forgive. You can't assume that the other person is capable of reading your mind even if sometimes it seems like they can. You have to be willing to concede your mistakes, even on some occasions when you don't think you made any.

It all sounds easier than it is. It's hard to swallow your pride and let someone else win sometimes, even when you love them. I don't always manage it even when I know I should. Sometimes I get caught up in emotion and feel like I'm the one who has been giving all the time and dammit, it ought to be my turn to win one. It's natural to feel like that, but it isn't very healthy for the relationship. Sometimes when you win, you lose.

Trust is hard to win, and even harder to recover. One of my friends can't trust his wife after she cheated on him and she's not interested in earning back his trust. I have trouble trusting people who have hurt me badly enough. I recognize that when I hurt people I don't necessarily deserve to be trusted again. But trust is so incredibly important to relationships it can't be overstated. You have to be able to trust your partner. You have to be able to understand that sometimes we hurt each other because we don't understand the impact our actions are having. My wife can hurt me more than anyone else possibly could, and I trust her with that power over me. I trust she would never intentionally use it against me as others have. So far that trust has been vindicated and I don't imagine I'll ever regret it.

Bonsai Tree I don't love my wife and friends for who I expect them to be. I love them for who they are, even when I sometimes disagree with them or I don't share all their interests. I don't expect them to be me, I expect them to be themselves. At the same time I expect them to accept me for who I am, because I'm not going to conform to their expectations. I will communicate and compromise but in the end I can never be anyone but who I am. I'm not interested in anyone who wants to transform themselves into my ideal, I want someone who thinks for themselves and has their own preferences. I want someone who will challenge me and expose me to new ideas, someone with whom I can grow. If all you ever do is try to mirror me then you'll never show me who you really are. How can I love someone like that?

Magic tricks ultimately aren't real magic, they're illusion. If you rely on sleight of hand to make a relationship work you're going to draw more skepticism than admiration. There are no shortcuts to a good relationship, only dedication and communication. Eventually you'll find someone who is willing to invest as much into your relationship together as you do. It's worth it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Modern Voter Suppression

For forty years it's been an article of faith that low voter turnout favors Republican candidates. It's one of the reasons why people attribute more electoral victories for Republicans in mid-term election seasons than for Democrats. The truth is that low voter participation favors extremism and further polarizes our politics, but that's neither here nor there. For at least the past twenty years Republicans have been working to discourage voter participation under the guise of voter fraud.

By the most amazing of coincidences, the voter ID laws being passed by Republican state majorities tend to discourage minorities and the poor more than anything else. Of course, conservatives are quick to argue that these laws aren't racist at all, that people disenfranchised by these laws are too lazy. But the fact is that these laws are responsible for lower voter participation among Democratic-voting citizens. The fact that it also tends to target voters who are minorities is apparently just icing on the cake; the racism is incidental rather than intentional.

Republican defenders of these laws insist it's about fairness and combatting fraud, but since Republicans have spent millions of dollars trying to prove voter fraud over ten years and have found only a handful of cases to support their claims, this argument falls flat. Instead we should listen to what Republicans are saying among themselves when it comes to these laws:

So yes, Republicans can argue that this is really about fairness but if your idea of fairness is to discourage a few cases of fraud at the expense of hundreds of thousands or millions of voters, I really have to question your motives.

Friday, July 17, 2015

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

One of the fundamental flaws I often criticize about religious belief is when believers want their cake and eat it too. Specifically, I refer to when their arguments rely too heavily on special pleading. And no, adding caveats to the definition of a god does not bypass special pleading. I can redefine chocolate as the essential first cause of the universe, but that doesn't make the definition valid.

But other examples of special pleading include arguments like this: god is mysterious, unfathomable and uknowable but somehow believers are granted special knowledge of who this god is, what it is and what it demands. Believers typically justify this via "special revelation," that they or their religious founders have been granted special knowledge by that god to carry out the divine will. Each religion and sect claiming special revelation typically considers the special revelation other religions and sects as heresy or at least attributed to human error. But since there are so many special revelations, how does someone not raised or converted to one particular orthodoxy distinguish which are the truly divine revelations and which are heresy? This problem is informally called the argument from inconsistent revelations. One of the supporting criticisms against divine revelation is the way it tends to follow cultural and geographical boundaries.

A point I've made before is that no religion has any better argument or evidence to support it than any other. Believers aren't basing their claims on independently observable phenomenon, they're projecting what they think should be true rather than what they can demonstrate to be true. There's no common experience for believers to reference so revelations vary from culture and region and even among different believers. This leads us to the skeptical position that 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. Excuses aren't enough.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hillary Clinton and the Democrats

The Democrats have a problem in the US. Liberals have been the media's favorite punching bag for quite some time, and a lot of Democrats have been running away from it for that reason. That leaves at least a quarter of the nation with little to no representation as the Democratic Party pushes farther to their right in a bid to poach the moderates edged out by right-wing extremists in the Republican party.

Enter The Third Way, a think tank with corporate ties looking to support the Democratic Party's move toward the center. They're distinctly against populist rhetoric and they want us to play nice with Wall Street and other corporate giants who have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of interest in playing nice with anyone else. They're closely aligned with the Clintons in the aftermath of Bill's administration and have dominated the conversation among Democrats ever since.

An attitude that I find infuriating in American politics is the notion that whatever's good for business must necessarily be good for America. The Third Way seems more interested in promoting business interests at the expense of all else, even if it means reduced consumer protections, growing income inequality or skyrocketing poverty. This is why I've been leery of Hillary Clinton ever since she became Senator Clinton and voted like a Third Way Democrat. In trying to please everyone she abandoned her liberal roots and tried to play to the center. Conventional political wisdom said it was the smart thing to do at the time.

Now of course Hillary Clinton has thrown her hat in the ring as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President. After electing the first black President a lot of Americans are talking about how it would be nice to have a female President, too. The problem is that we don't need people of specific identities to lead us, we need people of specific qualities and leadership to lead us. As much as I approve of electing a female President I don't approve of electing just any woman. Any candidate for political office, whatever their race or gender identification, needs to be qualified for the job before I vote for them. If they already have a voting record I want to see that they're representing me. I don't want another Obama who promises to fight for single payer health care and the restoration of civil rights only to turn around and pretend he never made those promises.

I have a lot of respect for Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton's Administration. He's a liberal, an economist and a keen political analyst. In his examination of Hillary's latest bid for President he acknowledges that she's disappointed liberals but reminds us of her roots and points out her liberal credentials aren't the problem. There's a reason that the Clinton-era health care reform debate lambasted the administration's proposal as "Hillarycare." The question is whether or not she'll stand up and fight for us again the way she did as First Lady? Can she remember her commitment to equal opportunity and upward mobility? Robert seems to imply she can, but it remains to be seen.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton is pulling to the left in an attempt to convince us that she hasn't forgotten liberals. Of course, Obama did the same before he tacked right and displayed a horrendous fetish for unrequited bipartisanship. I knew from the beginning that he was going to be a centrist and at the time I said "I'm not expecting more than a brief respite from the nightmare of the last eight years." I think that's what we've gotten, even though I was thankfully wrong about the economic crisis being worse than the Great Depression. Will Hillary be the one to turn it around? Not if she continues to be Senator Clinton, Third Way Democrat.

Let me be clear, I will not attempt to "punish" the Democratic Party if I don't get a more liberal nominee. I learned my lesson with Nader in 2000 and I'm not doing it again. There's no one capable of winning the Democratic Party nomination who is nearly as bad as the least objectionable candidate for the Republican Party nomination. The Republicans will not get my vote again unless they return to the politics of Abraham Lincon and Teddy Roosevelt rather than Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. But I am getting sick and tired of holding my nose and voting for the lesser of two evils.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

I'm An Atheist. Now What?

There's a stereotype about atheists and atheism, that we're nihilists and that our world is cold and lonely. The thing is, atheism is neither inherently meaningless nor is it inherently lonely. As an atheist I don't see meaning the same way believers do because I don't believe in a god to impose that meaning. As for being lonely, that's a consequence of embracing a minority position. Atheists in largely secular communities aren't lonely because they're not being constantly pressured to conform to religious values. Do you think Christians in communities dominated by Islam don't feel lonely? Do you think Hindus in communities dominated by Christians don't feel like outsiders?

A common question asked by new atheists is "what now?" They've finally taken that last step and they've abandoned belief. They've rejected what they were taught to embrace for so long, and they might still be hiding it to avoid social backlash or they might simply be looking for something to fill the void. Imagine you've just kicked a bad habit, like gambling. You aren't checking the papers to see which ponies won, you're not attending weekly poker games and you're not practicing your dice rolls. Imagine these things previously consuming your time but now you don't know what to do with yourself. How do you cope?

The answer is: any way you choose. Go back to an old, non-gambling hobby. Pick a new one. Read up on new events or trends that might interest you. Get involved in a group that doesn't revolve around the bad habit you just kicked. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister. Form new, healthy habits that will broaden your experience and teach you new things.

There's a big world out there waiting to be discovered. Go explore it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Does the Chapel Hill Atrocity Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Disavowing the Chapel Hill Murders

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why Is Faith Bad?

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

Do you see where I'm going with this?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Liberals have been betrayed

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

bait and switch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Abusers and Victims

Why you gotta make me hit you?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Importance of Skepticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Republicans are back in power. How did we get into this mess?

Here we are in Obama's last leg in office as President of the United States, and he faces hostile majorities in both the House and Senate. The Supreme Court still has more conservatives than liberals on the bench and they're fairly unpredictable in what sweeping new legal precedents they're going to set. How did we get here? Democrats haven't done well in midterms, but they were also the majority for a while. Every party that's in the majority tends to not perform as well during midterms. This was also true of the Republicans: they lost their majorities in both the House and Senate in 2006 and Bush faced a hostile Congress, albeit a Congress who was willing to give him what he asked for. Obama won't receive that much consideration.

How did we get here? It's been suggested that the problem is with liberals, that we don't vote enough. I disagree with this. I think the liberals are the reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party because we know we really don't have anywhere else to go. If we split away from the Democrats and head for the Greens or Socialists our first-past-the-gate electoral system will punish us for it by allowing Republicans to take the majority. We're awfully gunshy about that after the Bush years. So no, I don't think it's the liberals at fault for the Democrats' poor outcomes in 2010 and 2014. I think it's the moderates who aren't showing up at the polls during midterms. Midterm elections aren't as exciting and they don't get the same media exposure as primary seasons. It's easy to rally behind one charismatic figure or another, not so much to pay attention to "lower" races.

In addition to that I think the Democrat's main problem is that they're not simply courting the middle, they've been courting the right. They're trying to steal from the Republicans' base, which guarantees they'll continue to shift farther and farther to the right. This makes both liberals and moderates frustrated as hell with them. Stop trying to out-Republican the Republicans. Stop pushing the Third Way bullshit that Hillary Clinton is so fond of. You're not going to win elections by allowing Republicans and corporations define where the middle lies, Hillary. You're going to win by listening to the popular support behind Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The Democrats need to come back to the left, not court big money to pursue power for its own sake. Stop repeating the Republicans' mistakes.

How did we get here? Democrats didn't give us reasons to vote for them, reasons that separate them from the Republicans. Instead they've been singing that old song about "anything you can do, I can do better."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

When Freedom of Speech Meets Privilege

In the wake of the the Charlie Hedbo massacre, the always quotable Pope Francis I took the opportunity to weigh in. Did he condemn the violence and urge greater tolerance? Not exactly.
Asked about the attack that killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo – targeted because it had printed depictions of the prophet Muhammad – he said: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.

“There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

He gestured to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side, and added: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Cautioning against provocation he said the right to liberty of expression came with the obligation to speak for “the common good”.
It seems no matter how many times I point this out I always end up needing to repeat it again: "Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views." Anything else is simply not free speech.

The problem that Pope Francis has here is that his beliefs and his institution has enjoyed a position of privilege for a very long time. Oh, I grant you that they struggled for recognition in the beginning as the Roman Empire wobbled back and forth between Christian and pagan beliefs but eventually the matter was settled by law and sword that Christianity was the official religion and all others were eradicated. In its golden age after the fall of the empire the Catholic Church was still the supreme power in the Western world (and perhaps the entire known world if it hadn't been for those pesky Persians) making kings and their kingdoms dance to their tune. There was a time when even suggesting anything contrary to official church dogma could earn you a visit from an Inquisitor and if you didn't recant quick enough you'd be lucky to get away with your limbs intact, let alone your flesh unburnt.
We no longer live in a world where the Church can terrorize the average citizen with torture or death with impunity, but that assumption of privilege is still there. Today in the secular world you can criticize art, fashion, news, parenting, politics and just about anything else that we interact with, but woe betide those who dare to criticize religion or religious beliefs! "You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

Actually, yes. Yes you can, and you should. There is no idea, no concept, no institution or practice that is so sacred that it should not be held up to scrutiny and criticized. It doesn't matter if your religion is Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Zoroastrianism, your beliefs are no better than anyone else's and if you think otherwise you are invited to show us how. We've been waiting for that evidence for thousands of years, and I'm not holding out hope that any will be forthcoming in the next few thousand years.
Christian Privilege
As an atheist, my beliefs (or lack thereof) get mocked all the time. There are sites and forums dedicated to creating extreme caricatures of who I am and how I behave, and guess what: that's fine. If you think my opinions are wrong you're invited to explain why. I will do my best to defend them and we'll see who wins in the open marketplace of ideas. What Pope Francis is declaring is that the marketplace of ideas is not open where religion is concerned, that religious ideas should be sheltered from criticism where they might be exposed as false. This tells me he's afraid of criticism, and that can only lead me to suspect that he's afraid his beliefs are false and he doesn't want anyone to admit that the emperor doesn't look good in his birthday suit.

Violence is never justified in the defense of beliefs, no matter how offensive you may think something is. Offense is not an argument, and it's not a trump card, it's censorship. If your ideas can't be defended then they don't deserve protection, they deserve to be destroyed under critical analysis. You can't bully me by crying out that you're offended. You just provoke me to insult you again.

Monday, January 12, 2015

All the gods I don't believe in.

One of the problems frequently encountered in religious debate is that everyone has a different definition of the god(s) they believe in. This creates a moving target for the atheist expressing skepticism regarding those beliefs. There are at last count something on the order of three thousand different gods that humans have worshiped; here's a non-canonical list of them. In addition, there are thousands of sects within various religions all claiming to worship the same god but attributing different personalities to them effectively creating new gods in the process. Then there are Deist gods who are undefined but nevertheless divine by nature and pantheism which holds that the universe and everything in it is some sort of manifestation of godhood. It's exhausting. So here I will go through a top-level list of gods I don't believe are real.

     1. I don't believe in any gods that are responsible for the creation or function of the universe.

If you have evidence to demonstrate that your god is the author of all and that nothing can exist without your god then show me the evidence. Your personal conviction is not evidence of anything except that you're convinced. I need more than words to believe, I need independently verified peer reviewed observation. That then brings me to my next point:

     2. I don't believe in any of the gods that must be argued into existence.

Philosophical arguments from Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways through to the modern modal ontological argument are not evidence, they're speculation. Speculation only ceases to be speculation when you can present evidence that can be independently reproduced and does not depend on a desire to believe before it can be observed. Claiming that life is dark and ugly without your god doesn't show me your god is real, it shows me you have no imagination. Invoking love and beauty doesn't prove your god is real, it proves you view life through a very narrow lens and I have no reason to limit myself like that. Threatening me with dire consequences doesn't convince me of anything except that you have no argument. Arguing for your god doesn't impress me, evidence does.

     3. I don't believe in any gods that are interested or interceding in our lives.

Gods have been depicted as everything from humans or familiar animals with super powers to a single omnimax entity greater than the whole of our universe. I could see how people might think the super-powered gods might take an interest in our affairs but the omnimax god doesn't make much sense. It would be like us focusing on a small batch of mitochondria within our bodies and declaring that everything revolves around them. But regardless of power level, I just don't see any reason to believe there are gods intervening in our lives. I get the same results praying to Zeus, Wotan, Jesus and Ganesh as I do to a jug of milk. Repeated studies find no effective change in outcomes from prayer except those corresponding with the placebo effect and you can replicate that result just by letting people know you're wishing them well.

     4. I don't believe in any gods that have the power to suspend natural laws to perform miracles.

Miracles are tricky things. They never happen when anyone can test or verify them. A discouraging number of them have been debunked, even the "official" ones. They're always held up by the faithful as evidence of their gods' power but they're rarely convincing to anyone else. I rarely hear of devout Hindus experiencing a miracle from the Christian god or devout Christians experiencing miracles performed by the Muslim god. But let's assume for the sake of argument that these miracles really did happen as claimed; where's the evidence? Even an ethereal, extra-temporal omnimax god would necessarily leave traces when interacting with our universe, also known as "evidence." The evidence presented for these miracles is always subjective and typically anecdotal. There's never any evidence that skeptical researchers can point to and say "that must be of supernatural origin, because it violates causality."

     5. I don't believe in any of the gods that have been presented to me because I've not been given convincing evidence that any of them exist.

I've said it before and I'll continue to say it as long as it continues to be applicable: I'll believe anything you tell me as long as you show me evidence appropriate to the claim. Nothing else will do, and you're only wasting your time if you think you've come up with a new argument or example for why I should believe. If your evidence wouldn't win you the Randi Foundation Million Dollar Prize then it won't move me, either.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What to do about Islamic extremism?

je suis Charlie

If you haven't seen the news today, Islamic terrorists shot and killed 12 people at the satirical magazine company of Charlie Hebdo. Their reason why? Because the magazine dared to print a cartoon caricature of the prophet Mohammad. It's not the first time Muslim terrorists have done this sort of thing, and it won't be the last. These people don't just demand unearned respect for their beliefs, they demand submission to them. The idea of civil rights and personal freedom doesn't seem to be part of their vocabulary.

This is a problem. It sets up a conflict between the Islamic world and everyone else in which no compromise is possible, it's either us or them. So far the Western world has been relatively measured in its response, which seems ridiculous considering the widespread destruction we've inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and more but that's us restraining ourselves. If we truly commit to all-out war with people who are a dedicated threat to us we can do much, much worse.

There are factions in the Western world who are screaming for us to do just that. The more Muslim extremists provoke us, the more likely it becomes that people will listen to those factions. More and more people are looking at the Muslim world as problems rather than partners. I sincerely hope to avoid this, but as I discussed previously there are Christian factions looking to use this as an opportunity to come to power.

What do we do? Bringing these extremists to heel is going to be costly and troublesome on our own, and the more trouble it becomes the less likely people are going to treat it as a cost-effective solution. The Muslim world needs to be convinced to police their own, and it doesn't seem likely that this is going to happen. We're not hearing from the moderates, only the fundamentalists. Only it turns out that isn't true either, Muslim moderates are standing up in protest of their own extremists and we're not being told about it. Did I mention the Christian factions? Christians can be and are just as extreme but we're not hearing about them, either. We're getting a very skewed view of extremism in the world and it's not helping our decision-making.

We really need to put an end to this nonsense. We have competing religions vying for dominance, both of whom are willing to be ruthless in their use of violence to achieve their ends. We have moderates who are interested in peaceful coexistence and power elites who clearly have an agenda in which the winner takes all. It's time for us to take power back for ourselves and reach out to other moderates interested in peace. It's time to stop glorifying the extremists on both sides and acknowledge the destruction they're causing. It's becoming another Christianity versus Islam battle because we're allowing ourselves to be manipulated into it, but we have the power to stop this. We just have to stop buying into the idea that one side or the other is right. Neither of them are.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Atheist Agenda Revealed

I was recently accused of harboring an agenda when I talk to people about atheism. I'm not quite sure where this accusation came from; it seems that outspoken atheists are perceived as being no different from the evangelical missionaries who knock on your door or the street preachers who accost you at intersections as you go about your daily business. And yes, I do speak up about atheism, primarily when someone else brings up the topic first. Ask me a question and I'll answer. Ask me for advice and I'll show you resources that I think will help. But the thing is, I've never heard of atheists going on a door-to-door campaign to preach the good news of no gods, nor have I heard of atheist street preachers shouting their message and harassing people in public.

However, as an atheist I concede to having an agenda: it's called secularism. atheist missionaries In a secular state everyone is free to believe or not. There is no coercion one way or another. No one is told what to believe or how to think, because everyone is free to choose their own path. If that weren't true, if I weren't willing to let people cling to god belief then I wouldn't tell them the truth. I'd tell them whatever I thought would get the job done to shatter their faith. On the religious side that's known as lying for Jesus.

I know a lot of religious activists are threatened by secularism so they misrepresent it and fight to remove it from our laws. My old church used to wax eloquent about how secularism and humanism are against God's Will and open the door to Satan's evil. As godless people, atheists become the face of the secular movement, communists who want to take away your freedoms and burn your churches. It is not and has not been true. The military dictatorships that impose communism are not secular because they take away your choice, and that is not a secular agenda.

Personally, my agenda is that I want to see the end of religion but not by force. No one should abandon religion because they have to. The Soviet-model Communists tried that and it doesn't work, as well as being an indefensible violation of human rights. I want to see people abandon religion of their own free will simply because they don't need it any longer. I want to end the inequality and ignorance that breeds the fear religion depends on to bring in followers and keep them. I want critical thinking to be at the core of the education we give our children. My agenda scares them to death because they know what will happen if we succeed. We've seen it happen peacefully in other developed countries. They don't want it to happen here in the US, not without a fight.

That's fine with me. Religious believers brought this fight and I'll finish it; not with guns, knives or fists, but with words, passion and genuine concern for my fellow human beings. They can bring their gods and I'll bring my compassion. Let's see who is left standing.

I'll tell you what you did with atheists for about 1500 years. You outlawed them from the universities or any teaching careers, besmirched their reputations, banned or burned their books or their writings of any kind, drove them into exile, humiliated them, seized their properties, arrested them for blasphemy. You dehumanised them with beatings and exquisite torture, gouged out their eyes, slit their tongues, stretched, crushed, or broke their limbs, tore off their breasts if they were women, crushed their scrotums if they were men, imprisoned them, stabbed them, disembowelled them, hanged them, burnt them alive.

And you have nerve enough to complain to me that I laugh at you.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Religious Privilege Rears Its Ugly Head Again

Christians aren't the only one who can be obnoxious about their religious privileges. Once again making the news are ultra-orthodox Jewish men who have been delaying flights between New York and Tel Aviv because they didn't like their seating arrangements.
Many Haredi Jewish communities practice strict gender segregation and refrain from touching people of the opposite gender who are not close family members.

Haredi publications in Israel generally do not print pictures of women and girls. In 2009, the Israeli newspaper Yated Ne'eman famously doctored a photograph of the Israeli cabinet in order to replace two female ministers with images of men.

In the UK, the ultra-Orthadox Jewish community in Stamford Hill, north London, was recently criticised after signs requesting women to walk on a certain side of the street were erected, promoting segregation for a Torah parade.
I think it's time for us to draw a line here. You don't like your seat assignment? Okay, let's see what's available. If nothing is available or you don't like the options, tough titties. Sit down and shut up. If you cause a disruption you're off the plane without reimbursement.

If your religious convictions make it a problem for you to travel on public transport, it's your responsibility to make alternate arrangements. Airlines like Delta allow you to make special seating arrangements, or purchase extra seats if you don't want company. You can charter your own plane or take a boat if you're headed overseas. You can take the bus or a car if not. In any case, it is not anyone else's responsibility to accommodate your bigotry. No one else should be obligated or inconvenienced by the limitations of your religion.