Tuesday, November 9, 2010

More "F" word

(This is taken unedited from comments I made elsewhere. Where it lacks context or reiterates earlier postings... that's why.)

Faith is unworthy of reverence. Faith, on any consequential scale, is absolutely deserving of despite. It’s only a state of mind, but then again so are bigotry and hubris.

If the religious and non-religious could stop using the world faith to describe reasonable naturally-supported expectations then there would only be one reason to object to its usage. And the rest of the crap could stand or fall on its own merit. If the twenty or so church marquis I pass on a regular basis are any indication, equivocation is a siren song to christians. They eat that shit up. So if non-believers seem overly reticent about broad usage of the “F” word it is a well founded concern rather than unreasonable anxiety.

One stumbling block we are going to run into is semantics. Subtle (and not so subtle) differences in the definition and proper range of usage will (and seemingly have) lead to disagreements based on misunderstandings. As a proponent of secularism and as an anti-theist I’ve come to expect this from supporters of superstitious and religious orthodoxy. But we are not evaluating “faith” for its poetic value so there is no honest benefit to leaving the door open for further equivocation.

* Faith is a belief or convicted decision made in the absence of adequate objective evidence.

There are occasions when expedient decision making is required. This is usually a matter of urgent need and limited resources (time and information being considered resources). This is not faith, unless you’d like to consider faith to be synonymous with desperation. When inaction and indecision equate to increased risk of suffering even a gamble or poorly informed guess is reasonable. In the cost/benefit analysis of “Known bad” vs. “Unknown alternative” wherein the “known bad” is severe enough, most people will brave the unknown.

There is a degree of uncertainty is every aspect of life. But the natural world, especially the civilized world at peace, is fairly predictable. We develop expectations and they are generally met. Gaping sink holes under the street seldom collapse our driving surfaces under us. But it does happen. Is it reasonable to expect it is going to happen to you at any moment? Is it more reasonable to expect that while this could happen to you it probably never will? We can make a fairly well informed decision in such matters (local geology, history lacking sink holes and undermining, competent geologists and civil engineers) and develop reasonable expectations. We might even call it trust, informed trust. To call this faith belittles the faith of the religious. There is nothing preventing you or anyone from calling this faith, except (I hope) intellectual integrity.

In situations where objective evidence is missing and there is no impending peril it is better to admit ignorance. We may operate under assumptions but if we don’t recognize that that is what we are doing we are likely to reinforce our ignorance. Where the resources exist to make informed decisions, relying on faith is willful ignorance, absolutely. If someone is too lazy to seek and consider objective evidence regarding a matter they clearly consider important… it is mildly tragic. When they think their ideas are important enough to share with others but are still too lazy to seek and consider objective evidence… it is disgusting.

*Faith may also be a belief or convicted decision made contrary to objective evidence, sometimes overwhelming evidence.

This type of faith goes beyond willful ignorance. This is delusional fanaticism. It can even be self-inflicted. Outside of “spiritual” matters and Cubs fans this is recognized as psychological affliction. And here we return squarely to the realm of beliefs based on wishful thinking and fear. This is faith at its purest (as in undiluted) ugliest form. This is the faith that too often rationalizes incivility, inhumanity and atrocity. This is the faith wherein a preconceived belief negates any contrary evidence *a priori*. This faith is a weapon, loaded and looking for a target. Most people will stop short of violence to themselves or others. But few people have difficulty condemning non-conforming culture... evidence and facts be damned.

> “Faith in vows made to others, and by
> others”

Why do these deserve faith? If they are deserving of trust (trust that you give and/or trust that you feel), that is, if they have earned trust, it’s not faith. If they are not deserving of trust neither are they deserving of faith.

> “in talent, ability, skill”

If there were anything to this then no one would ever practice. Faith is meaningless. Reasonable expectation based on previous performance is meaningful.

Positive outlook does not have a statistical influence on recovery rates. It just makes us more sympathetic to the patient. Everyone seems to think it does but studies do not back it up.

Self confidence is more reliable as a manifestation of reasonable expectations than it is as a manifestation of faith. A lack of self confidence may also be described as faith in inability. A lack of self confidence is a self fulfilling prophecy in that it deters effort. Faith or over confidence is also detrimental in that early failures tend to deter further efforts. Reasonable expectations and the knowledge that real challenges generally require tenacity are much more reliable.

All of these examples fail for the same reasons. Placing trust in something or someone that doesn’t deserve it is a gift or a gamble. Placing trust in something or someone that has earned it is evidence-based reasonable expectation.

Faith, religious or otherwise, should be despised. Using the word “faith” to describe what should be reasonably expected is an indirect, possibly unintentional, endorsement of uninformed epistemology. Willful ignorance should be mocked, not praised. The quality of a belief cannot and should not be measured by conviction of believer. To suggest otherwise is dishonest and irresponsible.

I like fiction too but I don’t see the point in celebrating the excuse a girl used to explain how her full-term baby was born 7 months (I’m guessing) after her marriage… two thousand years ago. Not even if she had a note from Epstein's Mother's deity.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Some thoughts on the "F" word

"We are most superstitious when we are least in control." I believe it was Andy Thomson who said that.

Faith should be despised as a venom inflicting insidious credulity.

The definitions of "god" change as needed by the believer. It is essentially impossible to disprove god because any attempt nearing success prompts the believer to "move the goal." That which defies observation is at a neutral buoyancy between "indisputable" and "incredible." Every person has an array of motives driving their epistemology. Just as we may find some people's behavior confusing, we tend to interpret their thoughts and motives through subjective filters. What we want and what we fear seem to be most influential. Likewise, the existence of a superghost is supported through selection bias, wishful thinking and, of course, fear.

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for." ~inane christian babbling

If you encounter this platitude issue the following correction:

"Wishful thinking is the substance of things hoped for." ~me And then you can debate the subtle differences between the two statements or the complete lack of difference.

"Faith" is an insidious social tool that preys on our desire to belong... our desire to be civil. In all non-religious matters we are told: caveat emptor... "Let the buyer beware." But how often are we made to feel guilty with phrases like, "Don't you trust me?" "What are you afraid of?" For some reason it is uncouth to suggest to someone they haven't earned your trust.

Side note, old joke: How does someone from Los Angeles say "Screw you?" Answer: "Trust me."

We are told to be wary of salesmen, to convict only in the absence of reasonable doubt and "Don't believe everything you read." But with religion the rules are reversed. For "spiritual" matters belief is touted as superior in the absence of evidence. It's not hard to understand why. "Evidence" that supports supernatural claims is at best subjective and suspiciously incomplete.

"What Can Be Asserted Without Evidence Can Be Dismissed Without Evidence" ~Christopher Hitchens

And yet, the believer puts stock in the lack of evidence DISPROVING the existence of whatever supernatural phenomenon they cling to. It doesn't seem to matter that every alternate supernatural claim shares equal footing through the same stale argument. It seems quite possible for anyone to believe anything. The main steering point seems to be self-preservation. In order to believe in flying pizzas or to disbelieve in gravity it is useful to have an alternate explanation and essential to have a reason to do so. If you can overcome those two hurdles you could probably convince people of ancient space warlords, magic underwear or an intangible eternal essence of self.

This is why skepticism is so important. It is not just in legal matters, financial matters, physics and used-car purchases. If there is an omnipotent deity that wants to interact with us it would be a fairly important issue. Why would we go with the least reliable, most abuse-able epistemology? Who is making these claims? Why should we believe them? Why should we believe their claims? Is it trust? Faith? Tradition? Fear? Desire? These are all horrible reasons to accept something as true. These are the weaknesses that grifters and charlatans rely on. You do get the "benefit" of being able to believe in something that is otherwise unbelievable.

It is only by faith that we may be fooled.

Sometimes the word "faith" is misapplied when what is meant is "trust." For instance, "I have faith in my friends." If that faith is based on a track record of reliable behavior then that's not really "faith." If that faith is based on a history of unreliable or consistently detrimental behavior then it should be called "faith." It should also be called "sick."

Most people who try to justify their faith in something supernatural do so by crediting (confirmation bias) welcome events to that supernatural entity. As mentioned before: subjective, incomplete evidence. Unwelcome events? For some reason the entity gets no blame. The distribution of welcome and unwelcome events across cultures and belief systems is suspiciously uniform. If there is a supernatural influence casting benevolence upon the world it doesn't seem to matter if you believe in it.

There is a certain comfort to be gained in a single tidy supernatural explanation for everything you don't understand. And it is a lot less embarrassing than admitting you don't understand the myriad details of how the world works. In light of reality, empiricism, demonstrable facts and technological progress faith has become an embarrassment and a burden. People can, may and shall believe whatever Determinism or their freewill dictates. But as long as people continue to value faith over evidence, regardless of quality, regardless of quantity, people will continue to thank god for the airbag or medical treatment that saved their life. As much as I enjoy irony, the injustice makes me cringe.

When someone says, "You gotta have faith," ask them not to use the "F" word around you because it is perverse.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Deity asks: you feelin' me?

How might one respond to the claim...

"I believe in God because I feel his presence."

Always keep in mind that you will almost never win an argument WHILE it's happening. You may influence onlookers. And your partner (a term which some may find preferable to "opponent") may give honest and earnest consideration to your points upon review. That being said, how might we respond?

Seek clarity. Theists tend to dodge by changing the subject or definition when their suppositions are deflating. Here too, any direct assault will be like squeezing a wet watermelon seed. In seeking clarity regarding the "I feel" pseudo-evidence try to establish why the claimant believes that statement is meaningful.

A possible question to ask: "Should I (or anyone else) believe because of what you feel?" If the answer is "yes" then we might ask why this single perception of presence countermands the presence perceived by adherents of non-abrahamic faiths both today and historically. If the answer is "no" then we might ask how they can recognize that their perception of presence is insufficient second-hand evidence but as the object of the unreliable subjective experience they feel justified in accepting it as irrefutably divine.

The senses can be fooled and the psyche may be led astray.

The same experience of "divine presence" is available through every faith system, electromagnetic bombardment of the brain, neural chemical imbalances, physical brain damage, intoxicants, mental illness and the good ole natural high (usually brought on by awe, wonder or enthusiasm). That such a feeling is so commonly a result of religious fervor should not be considered "inspirational" as much as it is should be considered "embarrassing."

In every other realm of the human experience, loss of bodily function or mental faculty is either tragic or comical. But we've bound this psychological handicap to culturally accepted intangible forces that defy all objective observation. Somehow this disguises our pitiful and primitive misunderstanding of the world (and of ourselves) with a euphoric facade of exalted cosmic self-importance.

What is "felt" does not indicate substance. What is "felt" can only influence valuation. If you don't believe me just ask every girl I thought I was in love with as a teenager.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Upon hearing, "It's a miracle!"

A deity deserves exactly as much credit for the salvation as it does blame for the adversity.

Monday, September 27, 2010

“Rally to Restore Sanity” possible signs

Not much of post here. But reading some of the ideas other people had for signs they will or would carry to the Jon Stewart "Rally to Restore Sanity," I had a minor brainstorm of several signs I might carry... or vend, hmmmm. I won't be making it to DC. That's probably for the best as I would be too ambivalent to choose ONE sign. Some are funny. Some are serious. Some might be both.

Signs suggested by The Daily Show:
-I DISAGREE With you, But I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler

What sign would like to see? Or maybe if you're reading this after the rally, what sign did you like seeing? Here are some of my ideas. Be forewarned, many lean to the left... a bit.

-I was mad ’til I checked the facts.
-No foxnews is good news
-Boycott fear mongers (network logos?)
-“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” — Sinclair Lewis (?)
-I was mad ’til I stopped watching the news.
-The old deities aren’t working, let’s make (or make up) some new ones.
-I can no longer decide who is more wrong.
-”…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Treaty of Tripoli 1797
-Willful ignorance is still ignorance
-Wishful thinking is the substance of things hoped for
-It is only by faith that we may be fooled
-Keep Jefferson in the text books
-Texas School Board, America is ashamed of you
-Stop shouting… um, please?
-GOD HATES CRABS (leviticus 11:12)
-Speak up, just a little.
-No Pot? No Tea Party.
-Want to lose my vote? Try to scare me.
-I have unqualified unreasonable belief in you.
-Remind me what you mean by “fact.”
-Hey Mister, you forgot your sign.
-He was all like “Yahweh!” and I was like “No way.”
-He who is least of my brothers doesn’t have a lobby.
-It's time for Congressional Turnover, or Apple
-Who do you have to blow to get press credentials?
-I can’t picture mohamed here. Can you draw him?
-DRAW ~blank vertical space~ MOHAMED
-Are ya gettin’ this, camera guy?
-Thanks to Bush I can watch foxnews 24/7
-Thanks to Bush I didn’t have to miss work today.
-No reasonable person ever called me “heathen”
-Without fear and anger how will I rant?
-Prayer not working? Sacrifice a goat… or kid.

Some aren't really in the "Take it down a notch for America" theme. Oh well.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

my Stephen Hawking rant

Hawking irritates me anymore. Certainly there's a lot to admire about him. But there's a caginess that suggests he may be motivated toward marketing more than toward candor.

His "know the mind of god" quote was sheer frickin' genius, if his goal was to sell books. Did that book sell a lot of copies? Oh, yea. Maybe he was just being poetic? pfft That line seems more like disingenuous populist drivel.

The need for supernatural investment to explain the origins of the universe has been superfluous for years. But now that Hawking is publishing it suddenly people notice? I suppose I should be grateful that his celebrity status has gotten this information some media attention. I guess I'm just mad at the world. Why should it take years for natural cosmology to seem interesting. Why does it need a celebrity endorsement? Why is that celebrity Hawking? ARGH!

Misreporting of what was actually written may be part of the what is stirring the hornets' nest. I've probably seen three different outlets headlining that Hawking wrote he had proved god didn't create the universe, and several others that implied as much. Again, I guess I'm just mad at the world. Competition in the media markets rewards controversy and punishes accurate unbiased un-hyped reporting.

And Hawking is JUST NOW sharing this information with the public? He waited until he was ready to publish again? That seems too coincidental to be anything but mercenary.

Maybe I'm just cranky. Maybe I just hate capitalism. Maybe I'm just jealous. Maybe I'm just a cynical idealist (actually, I am). Maybe I shouldn't be picking on Stephen. I don't know what it's like to be him, what motivates him, what worries him. I learned from and enjoyed Brief History and Nutshell. But once more, by being just the right amount of controversial, he is getting another avalanche of free publicity for his book.

Maybe I should be mad at humans and western culture for being such easy targets. But I find it hard to overlook crafty opportunism, even if I may benefit.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fillet of souls

Assuming there is a soul... and assuming souls have an influence on people, presumably on the brain(?)... then there would be a natural and physical (therefore observable) effect or result on the brain with no natural cause. This is not what we observe.

One might try to impose the idea that consciousness is a direct result of the soul. But if this were true then the brains of infants, amnesiacs and victims of brain trauma would be on similar consciousness footing with custodians of "normal" brains. This is not what we observe.

And if there were souls wouldn't they (therefore "we") have a much clearer picture of the nature of the supernatural realm, all things spiritual, the nature of deities and the afterlife? Yet what we observe is many disparate supernatural belief systems. Culture seems to be a bigger influence on supernatural expectations than any commonly held unseen informed "soul."

What we do have in common is the ability to identify the agency (consciousness or intent) in people, animals, plants, fire, gravity... This is a great survival tool. It allows us to make predictions. Though we might not always predict correctly we can make partially informed decisions. And we usually chose what we predict is safest or most satisfying.

Animals, plants, fire, gravity, etc. all have behaviors, some more predictable than others. But do abrahamic adherents suppose these things have souls? I am not suggesting these things do have souls. We are very similar to a great deal of the animal kingdom. Physically, what most separates us from the animals is our neurophysiology.

Our fore-brain activity, predictive thinking, organizational assessments, pattern recognition, imagination... make us distinct, arguably "special" on Earth. Do we have a more "special" neurophysiology because of our un-observed souls? Or do we have un-observed souls because because of our "special" neurophysiology? Or does that neurophysiology allow us to believe we have souls despite a lack of any objective informed reason to do so? Or maybe it is just a coincidence that only humans have both souls and imagination.

The neurophysiology of the human brain does not require a soul to explain its functionality. Subjective experience, fear of death and wishful thinking may make the idea of an eternal soul so appealing that confirmation bias will overwhelm reasonable and objective skepticism. If someone has any objective evidence of a soul, by all means, let's take a look at it. But if you want to present a cosmic conspiracy theory about why souls exist but can't be observed, I already have a shelf full of fiction I've been meaning to get to.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Wishful thinking is the substance of things hoped for.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Religions are the most divine of all conspiracy theories.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Does atheism need a popular quote, a la John3:16?

Among those who lack belief in gods there is a movement for secular politics and civility. There is a movement skepticism. There is a movement to mitigate the influence of ideologies that lack objective support. There is a movement to free people, as individuals and in general, from the lies of charlatans and mystics.

But among those who lack belief in gods there is no pervasive dogma. There is no common doctrine. Even among those who rally, fuel and advance the movement there are no central treatises or tenets. Atheism does not value ideology. Atheism may be subjective or objective, passive or active.

Atheists do not require a verse or quote. Atheists need only know that the empty testimonies and scriptures offered do not merit belief. It is only by unqualified belief that such reveries may be accepted. It is only by a lack of discretion that phantoms may be thought tangible.

It is only by faith that we may be fooled.

If we adopt a quote, a secret handshake, a coat of arms… we become something more than skeptics. It may be out of necessity that we organize to push back against anti-secularists, liars and child abusers. But let us not forget we bind together because the spiritualists are wrestling for the reins.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Transcendent B.S.

This is a response to Reza Aslan’s OpEd at newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices. I assume this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Aslan) is the same Reza Aslan. I like his name so much I had assumed it was a pseudonym. I also like his writing style. I imagine it’s very influential to anyone like-minded or uninformed. But while he brings up some good points he manages to suggest that the subjective “evidence” for spirituality, transcendence and the supernatural are equal to or greater than the objective and subjective evidence against them. So I thought I’d point out a few points he managed to get…

There are "new atheists" who have never been burdened by unqualified subjective supernatural explanations of the aspects of consciousness that are popularly thought of as spirituality or transcendence. But vast numbers of "new atheists" are apostates who have first-hand awareness of the religious experience.

Wrong again.
The histories of philosophical and theological study do not support the validity of the supernatural any more than do the histories of tarot, astrology or voodoo. The supernatural is entirely dependent on a lack of understanding of natural relationships and causes. As our understanding of the natural world has increased, natural explanations have had a nasty habit of debunking supernatural beliefs. So too, improved understanding of neuro-physiology removed any objective reason to suspect that "spiritual transcendence" is anything more than brain function. Stimulating the brain naturally/artificially (electromagnetically, via brain damage or chemically... as opposed to supernaturally) results in the same experience as that induced by religious fervor. This is not coincidence or mere correlation. There is a cause and effect here. Artificially stimulating the brain doesn't induce a spiritual episode, it induces the perception of a spiritual episode. When a "spiritual" episode is induced by religious fervor the same brain function is taking place. Do supernatural occurrences have the same effect on the brain as artificial stimulation? Does artificially induced perception of spirituality merely open a window in the brain to let transcendence in? Is brain function is a side effect of supernatural influence? If so, and we take away the side effect, where is the spirituality? There's nothing left.

There are arguments to be made on behalf of "spirituality." But every argument that mitigates natural explanations (which we can observe and measure) also may be used equally well or better against supernatural explanations (which we can't observe for some strange reason).

So right, you're wrong.
Additionally Aslan supposes that the ubiquity of "spiritual" or "transcendent" experiences is evidence of the supernatural. And I have to admit that this is subjective evidence. But it is also evidence that no religious doctrine can claim authority. If there is a supreme supernatural entity being accessed through spirituality then apparently every religion, as well as deism and agnosticism have equal access, contrary to the claims of at least the big three religions. So thank you Reza for debunking judaism, christianity and islam.

And would you believe: Wrong?
Is the supernatural knowable or not? (not = unknowable)
Does the supernatural influence the natural or not?
Is the influence of the supernatural observable (objectively attributable) or not?
If the answer is "no" then there is no point in pursuing the supernatural even if it is real. If the answer to any one of these questions is "yes" then the answer to all of them is "yes." If the answer is “yes” then the supernatural is subject to scientific investigation. Well, it could be that the supernatural can only be known through subjective intuition and/or unassailable prophets. But even then, observations and predictions should be possible. But for some reason attempts to observe supernatural influences either rely on bias or result in random (non-confirmational) results. Supernatural influence is exactly as reliable as random chance. So even if the answer were "yes," even if it is real, the supernatural is moot.

Fundamentally wrong.
If there is anything new about "new atheists" it is their motivation. As a movement, atheists are responding to the growing influence of religious fundamentalist. While most religious people are "watered-down" or moderate about which cherry picked specifics deserve their faith, it is the believers who submit more of themselves to faith that grab the reigns* and pull the rest along. The very nature of faith is to believe without evidence, or worse: despite evidence. Beyond the topic of religion faith is recognized as being unreasonable or ideological. But in a religious or spiritual context, it is somehow considered admirable. It is the less reasonable, more faithful people who are motivated to represent their groups. These faithful are the people who drive their groups’ agendas. And it is the most faithful who taint civil progress with archaic superstition and dogma. It is these people who disrupt secular politics and education with claims of moral superiority and magic origins. They have become better organized, better funded and more intrusive with their "spirituality." The only thing new about "new atheists" is their new-found motivation from necessity.

The term "atheist fundamentalism" is either an oxymoron or redundant. Atheism is an absence of belief in god(s). For purposes of this argument I would even allow a substitute definition: belief in the absence of god(s) (assuming we all understand the distinction). This definition is the sole and fundamental belief of atheism. What does the fundamentalist atheist believe that the non-fundamentalist atheist does not? Their belief is the same. Their interpretation of their belief is the same. If their behaviors differ it is not because one follows a more fundamental or literal interpretation of the sole belief. Attempting to liken verbose atheism to bible literalism is a disingenuous ad hominem distraction. In short, it’s dishonest.

*(Yes, I know how to spell “reins.” The homonym was too good to ignore.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

blame or credit...

If we don't treat our own beliefs with adequate skepticism our various successes and failures are likely to be attributed unjustly. ~T. Ray

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The right to believe vs. the responsibility to doubt

We are quick to claim our rights. We are not so swift in owning our responsibilities. I am reluctant to suggest that there be a moratorium on any particular belief, any brand of belief or any style of belief. I agree that some beliefs will land you in a padded room but no belief should land you in jail.

Behavior. Actions. These we not only may police but we must police them. It is very nearly the definition of belonging to a social group. We have rights as individuals but we also have responsibilities to the group, at least if we are to be part of the group.

But beliefs... Erroneous belief is but a symptom. Unqualified belief, likewise. It is the process of thought (or lack thereof) that allows and leads to faulty and/or unqualified belief that is the underlying issue. We (humans) are quick to claim superior knowledge, quick to defame conflicting opinions and information but reluctant to meticulously verify the evidence and lay out a case. That's hard work. No wonder so few people make the effort. And many of those who appear to make the effort use erroneous or subjective evidence, faulty reasoning and fallacious premises. Trusted "thinkers" often jump to ostensibly solid, often predetermined, conclusions.

We have the right to speak. We have the right to hear. We have the right to draw conclusions. But do we not also have the responsibility to think clearly, rationally, logically, rigorously, deliberately, diligently...?

We are quick to claim our rights but slow to own our responsibilities.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

No new mosque near ground zero! (part 2)

After writing “No new mosque near ground zero!” I had a subtle but nagging sense of anxiety. I realized that I was thinking viscerally. Thinking viscerally is a course of action I generally discourage. What bothered me is the question of "What is right? What is just?" I allowed (or maybe forced) myself to focus more on what would be the right, fair and constitutionally consistent course of action. While I FEEL the mosque is a bad idea, while I can identify why it's a bad idea, I can't deny that preventing its construction would be government infringement on religion.

As a militant atheist I would love to see the mosque blocked by a "community standards" decision the way we might restrict porn shops and strip clubs from opening near a school. As a militant atheist I would love to see the mosque blocked by public safety standards the way we might restrict toxic dumps from opening near populated areas. As a militant atheist I would love to see this applied equally to all buildings and organizations dedicated to the promotion of unqualified belief, for example a church, or a temple, or a Discovery Institute…

But as an American I have agreed to the EULA, the terms and conditions that apply to being American. Due to the underlying jihadist motives of the 9/11 attackers I don't want to see a mosque built near ground zero any more than I would like to see a Japanese embassy built within site of the USS Arizona memorial. (and I love Nihon) I don't want it there. But (back to the terms and conditions) if a mosque can be built at any other US location and there are no restrictions for other religious or secular misinformation centers then obstruction there would be serious Infringement issue.

While the attackers were fringe followers of a more common ideology their heinous act was accepted, and even praised, by many muslims of the "moderate" or "religion of peace" variety. Even some among those who regard the attack as unjust may still regard the attackers as martyrs for the cause. In a community where it is universally considered good to be a follower of the faith, stronger convictions are (intentionally or otherwise) encouraged. Throw in political discord, a lack of opportunities and a feeling of unused potential (or self-importance) and the resulting militant extremists should not come as a surprise. The wider islamic community is a crucible for extremists and fanatics. Not that we don't have a similar (typically less violent) problem with christians here in the U.S.

It is illogical to infer causation from correlation. (begin facetiousness) As long as we can count on eastern muslims (liberal, moderate and fundamentalists) to be logical we shouldn’t need to worry that a new mosque will be perceived as the result of the 9/11 attack. (end facetiousness) But to the wider islamic community, the building of a new mosque near ground zero will be interpreted as being a direct result of the 9/11 attack. It will be interpreted as the mayor of New York posthumously presenting the attackers with the Ahmadiyya and the key to the city. It will legitimize (in their eyes) future attacks. Generally, information proliferation is driven less by factuality and relevance than it is by how interesting it might be. And this story has been sensationalized. It is likely this story will be shared around the world. Maybe not. I have yet to find it at english.aljazeera.net. There's room for hope. How it is presented and how it will be received is more likely to be tied to ideology than to reason. It could catch some positive spin overseas. The idea that America is a land where spite, paranoia and persecution do not reign could come through. I would expect that to come from a quiet minority but it is an idea that could spread and perhaps outlast initial propaganda. Maybe.

While the perception of jihadist victory may be a good reason to block construction I must acknowledge it is not an adequate reason. And I don’t see how we can justify blocking it based on the palpable sensitivity of an historical event. It's as though New York has to choose between unjust or stupid. Maybe someone will present a legitimate, legal and just reason for the cancellation of construction. As much as I want to, I haven't found it. I doubt there such a reason can be found.

I was staunchly against this project. And I still don’t like it. But I’m more interested in seeking the right answer than clinging to what I find most comfortable. For my aversion to feeding the hand that bit me and for my revulsion toward organized disinformation, I oppose this mosque at the location. But if the burden were placed on me to decide whether the mosque should be blocked or permitted I would have to permit it. Foreign perception and the harm of unqualified belief do not supersede the values of law.

If we are at all concerned about doing what is right, what is fair, then this project will not be obstructed.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

No new mosque near ground zero!

Building a mosque near ground zero (and as a consequence of 9/11) reflects the wisdom of Montezuma when he sent gold to the conquistadors in an effort to make them go away.

Am I the only one that sees this sends the message of, "Want to proliferate islam? Maybe you can get things rolling with some preliminary demolition work."

What? I'm being extremist? I'm being xenophobic? I'm being a bigot and intolerant? BULSHIT. Every muslim extremist and nearly all moderate non-American muslims will interpret (and laud) the building of a mosque near ground zero as a justification for and victory brought about by the 9/11 attack. "At least something good came out of it. It must have been allah's will."

It doesn't matter how non-muslim Americans view this. It doesn't matter that this may display an ostensible warmth to muslim Americans. It doesn't matter that this could be a symbol to show we can all be friends. What does matter is that this action rewards the faithful for biting us. And apparently we are so worried about the feelings of the few faithful who haven't bitten us that we can't see the scope of our magnanimity.

And it will be there forever. I like the Haghia Sophia as much as the next secular human. But as a society that pretends to value education, the rule of law and a better tomorrow how can we be so desperate to anchor ourselves to the dark ages? Maybe they could build a sharia courthouse? Oh wait, that would be seditious to American law. We better get some more mosques built first.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

God is: 1. Incapable, 2. Indifferent or 3. Fictional (choose all that apply)

“Without a god in this universe the world would be full of evil.”

“Without belief in god people would just live their lives according to themselves.”

These claims are not new. The fallacies of these and similar statements have been and are continually exposed and dismissed. Countless cultures managed to function socially (as opposed to individuals living “according to themselves”) before the Romans conquered Israel. Countless cultures managed to function socially without any awareness of the mythology of the Hebrews. Most cultures have managed roughly the same evil-to-good ratio without yawei or Jesus. There is no objective reason to think that without believing there is a god in the universe “the world would be full of evil.”

But maybe they are referring to god’s existence rather than belief therein? Evil does exist in the world. (I hope we can agree on this premise. If it is not obvious to someone that there is evil in the world there is little hope of reaching them with demonstrable facts, let alone logic.) The definition of “evil” is a slippery and a possible point of equivocation. But whether we define “evil” as “a metaphysical force that erodes morality,” “that which causes physical or emotional harm” or “malicious intent,” the same conclusion is inevitable. Let us assume (as has been suggested) that a god capable of influencing how “full of evil” the world is, actually exists. Evil does exist so this god is either incapable, unwilling or both to reduce evil to zero.

Metaphysical evil. If evil is a malevolent force, independent of humanity, then it falls entirely under the purview of such a god. Humans could not eliminate or create this kind of evil. The quantity (or absence), quality and placement of such a metaphysical evil would be the responsibility and fault of the god. Whether the god directly created the evil or merely created the possibility/potential for metaphysical evil, attempts to direct blame at mankind for metaphysical evil make as much sense as blaming mankind for any other supposed metaphysical manifestation. Ghosts? Souls? Dualistic consciousness? If the god is capable and willing to reduce metaphysical evil then why does metaphysical evil exist at all? There are four possibilities: 1. The god is incapable of reducing/eliminating metaphysical evil. 2. The god is unwilling to reduce/eliminate metaphysical evil. 3. The god is a fictional construct. 4. Metaphysical evil is a fictional construct. At LEAST one of these possibilities is true.

Harm. This is basically natural evil. Plenty of people point to volcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunami, hurricanes, sickness, death, hunger… as evidence that there is no omniscient omnipotent sympathetic intervening god. Some will even include our fragile emotional reliance on moderately benevolent circumstances and order (as opposed to chaos.) But the claim is that without god the world would be full of evil. If we are talking about natural evil, once again the responsibility and fault go to the supposed creator. If humans were created then their creator is to blame for their nature and potential. If the universe, Earth and life were created then their creator is to blame for their nature and potential. Once again we must consider: 1. The god is incapable of reducing/eliminating natural evil. 2. The god is unwilling to reduce/eliminate natural evil. 3. The god is a fictional construct. 4. Natural evil shouldn’t even be called “evil” though the described phenomena do exist… because they can.

Malicious intent. Let’s broaden “malicious intent” to include selfish indifference along with cruelty for the sake of cruelty. This kind of evil is uniquely human. Certainly in nature we’ve seen predators sate their hunger via the suffering and death of another animal. We’ve seen cats toy with their prey. But we are reluctant to name this imposed ill “evil” in the absence of conscious self-awareness. When we have the capacity to sympathize with another being and still intentionally allow or cause them to suffer is this not evil? Certainly we prioritize, rationalize and justify our choices before and after the fact. But if this is not evil then what is? If we assume humans were created we can credit the creator with giving us the potential for intentional conscious evil. But given that we have consciousness, we have sympathy, we have choices, we must take the lion’s share of responsibility for our malice. I wouldn’t characterize the world as being FULL of malice or self-interest. Although both spite and egoism are very common. But we also have cooperation and altruism. Could there be altruism and cooperation without god? These are the traits by which we categorize creatures as being social. Behavior that benefits the group increases the likelihood that the group will have descendants, descendants that also have social tendencies. While we may credit/blame a god for our potential to do good and evil we must take responsibility for our decisions to cooperate or harm. Does the balance of good and evil rely on the existence of a god? There is no objective reason to believe it does. 1. Incapable? 2. Unwilling? 3. Fictional?

It has been suggested that sincere prayer will lead us to revelation, epiphany and the holy spirit. I’ve already done that. Thankfully, the delusion wore off. The world works fine and doesn’t need a supernatural entity to explain how or why. And even if it did need supernatural explanations the available mythologies (religions) are inadequate at best. The more popular mythologies are generally self-contradicting, especially christianity. And why is it not suspicious to everyone that the same feeling of transcendence is available no matter which religion a person chooses? How can a Tibetan monk, a muslim, a baptist, a catholic, a lutheran, a voodoo priest, a jew, a rastafarian, a hindu (and the list goes on) all receive what christians call the gift of the holy spirit? Alternate religions may call it something different. And they too know it to be Truth. How is it different? That’s funny; they said the same thing about yours. It is a subjective knowing. It is a conclusion based on (and reliant on) what is felt internally. How is it that all religions can provide the same feeling of transcendence? Is it that none but one religion is correct and the others are tapping into something internal and natural rather than external and supernatural? Is it that all religions tap into the same supernatural source and that our natural understanding is too simple to see all religions are true? Or is it that they are all false, all rely on the same internal human foibles and provide nothing that isn’t already in us?

I cannot tell you what you won’t hear; show you what you won’t see. You will make excuses, rationalize and generally find a way to believe what you want to believe. But if there is a god, it did an excellent job of making itself deniable and irrelevant.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The fox (Mark Signorelli) and the sour grapes (meme theory)

The subject is memes. The author criticizes the meme concept and its proponents.

From wikipedia.org (3/10/2010):A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word μιμητισμός ([mɪmetɪsmos]) for "something imitated".)[2] Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.[3]

(It should also be pointed out that memes originated simply as a metaphor for the way genes transfer genetic information. But the meme concept caught on with intellectuals and the perspective the concept grants has proven itself valuable.)

Is Mr. Signorelli deliberately misrepresenting the meme concept or does he actually lack the acumen to grasp it?

Why is it so hard to understand that extragenic information and behaviors may be replicated from one organism to another, one brain to another? “Monkey see, monkey do” was hardly a new idea when I was a child.

Why is it so hard to understand that in the process of replication the copier may inadvertently or otherwise make minute but distinguishable alterations to the information or behavior? Does Signorelli have no grasp of information theory? He doesn’t address it in the sections to which I subjected myself, but I feel comfortable speculating he does not.

There may yet be no objective way to quantify discrete units of extragenic information or behavior. But they are subject to being copied, to being repeated. Is there a name for these analog bits (pardon the equivocation) of information and behavior? Thanks to Dawkins, there is: memes. And the process by which these memes and their subsequent versions (or perhaps subversions?) are spread (or not) by various means of communication is highly analogous to asexual reproduction or viral pathology and also somewhat analogous to sexual reproduction. (Preexisting memes may interact with new memes to produce something like a hybrid.)

They are also subject to not being copied, of going extinct. For example, in thirty years Dawkins’ books and other writings will likely be available in libraries and online. Signorelli’s? Probably not. The main driving force for replication is interest… how interesting the meme is. That which is interesting is more likely to be repeated/replicated. Factuality and utility may factor into how interesting a meme is. But Cinderella, moon walking (the dance) and (insert your least favorite deity here) are all fictional and (arguably) lack utility. An interesting lie spreads farther and faster than its rebuttal.

But memes, like ideas are not tangible. We can observe an example of an idea but not “ideas” themselves. And while information may be digitized, ideas are a little more slippery. And to use the gene/meme analogy, it is generally a lot easier to identify physical peptide chains that correlate to phenotypes than it is to quantify and display discrete units of replicable analog cultural information.

Neither Dawkins nor the English language are perfect. Dawkins' approach may throw in a dash of dramatic or poetic license to which a willful dissenter might cry foul. And his metaphors, like most metaphors, also leave room for misinterpretation, more so when the interpreter is predisposed to do so. Here too Signorelli is more confounded than confounding.

But to get back to the original question: Is Mr. Signorelli deliberately misrepresenting the meme concept or does he actually lack the acumen to grasp it? While I would like to give Signorelli the benefit of a doubt the vituperation he applies to Dawkins and Dennett strongly suggest a prejudice. It is possible Signorelli only scanned the source material for opportunities to disagree. It is possible that his only exposure to the source material was through a disingenuous third party, perhaps the Discovery Institute? If he were genuinely attempting to refute the theory he has failed. Even the “straw man” he attacks is largely unscathed. The only real damage is to those who are first exposed to the idea of memes through his writing. Upon reflection, his own credibility is damaged as well. So while I can not assert Signorelli is technically lying, I suspect if he were actually capable of understanding the simple idea of “monkey see, monkey do” or the game of “telephone” that he would still do his best (don’t laugh) at trying to refute it.

I'm forced to wonder why Signorelli even wrote this. It reeks of assigned work. The conclusion seems to have been reached before the subject was broached. Did Dawkins and Dennett steal his girl, or otherwise wrong him? Sig (can I call ya Sig?) surely can't have stumbled upon the concept of memes, investigated further and gone into a rage over the audacity of such a flagrantly bogus concept and the detriment that it will or has caused? Even his corrupted perception of memes doesn't warrant his misguided rage.

There's something else at work here, another layer. This isn't just Sig expressing his internal musings. Maybe the piece was commissioned. Maybe he's seeking favor or employment from a think tank or special interest. It could be that he is just a bitter but florid idiot. But it doesn't seem that simple. It doesn't sit right. Something is askew.

Two of the best meme examples I rely on are toilet paper folding and grain floating.

Toilet paper folding. Susan Blackmore gave a TED talk (ted.com) on this phenomenon. It is not quite universal, but extremely common for professional housekeepers to fold the end square of toilet paper. Typically it is folded under creating a triangle. It is actually counter-productive but it signals deliberate and detailed preparation of the facility. Thirty years ago I had never seen an example of this display. I was introduced to this form of "salute" during basic military training in the late eighties. A few years later I would sometimes encounter this display when taking lodging. Many years later it was quite common. And in the last few years I am not likely to notice unless the salute is missing.

Grain floating. I think I may have learned of this from Carl Sagan's 'Dragons of Eden.' The details are fuzzy to my recollection. A group of humans, for a reason I have forgotten, would often have left over grain, possibly rice. They would scatter it outside to be rid of it. Local primates became aware of the routinely available free food and made a practice of collecting and consuming it. (Sort of a meme in itself there) The humans were unhappy with the primates so took to discarding the grain on a convenient beach. It was so difficult for the primates to separate the sand from the grain that most would give up. But one primate took some of the sand/grain and put it in the water where the sand fell away and the grain floated. It continued to do so and the younger members of its social group copied the behavior. The point of the story was the older primates were less receptive to new behavior. But if ever there was an example of a meme, this is it.

Memes exist in the same capacity as consciousness or nature. They may be difficult to pinpoint, define or prove but they give identity to very real phenomena.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When fatwa should be welcomed

In response to:
Islamic scholar Tahir ul-Qadri issues terrorism fatwa

Some contend that just because someone is a theologian or religious scholar that anything they have to offer is without value. There are all kinds of scholars. Just because they specialize in fiction doesn't mean they are less studied than scholars of non-fiction. There is an argument to be made along the lines of, "That which isn't worth doing, isn't worth doing well." But I'm reluctant to rob experts of the title "scholar" just because their field of expertise might be the works of Jane Austin, Homer or even Gary Gygax. Furthermore, I wouldn't necessarily want Alan Dershowitz defending me if I were on trial in China. When considering things within a particular framework, of which we are not subject, an expert in that field (regardless of the merit of the field itself) should be given due consideration.

But the bigger question is, "Why is this news." Several islamic scholars/leaders have pronounced similar rulings. Why hasn't EVERY islamic scholar/leader pronounced similar rulings? These fatwa may not dissuade many (perhaps ANY) indoctrinated jihadist, but it may make recruiting more difficult. For people who can't think beyond "If you're not with us you're against us," clearly defined and universal exclusion of and opposition to violent extremism would make the path of al qaeda anathema.

Suicide bombers are touted as heroes within their social-religious-political circles. If that does not change then they are almost certain to continue. Religions may be short on fact and merit but still hold influence. I would prefer every cleric and believer to simultaneously realize and confess that their religion is irredeemable fiction. But that's not going to happen. Proponents of supernatural ideologies are essentially intractable. As long as there are believers there will be paragons. If fellow believers regard violent extremists as role models and we can't yet dissipate general belief perhaps we can welcome the reproval of the misguided and misnamed martyrs.

As homo sapiens we may be embarrassed (to whom?) that the majority of our species still clings to superstitious beliefs. As an atheist it is not the fairy tale beliefs of the religious that gall me (well, OK. Maybe a little). It is the social-political impact of their ideology that riles me. As a non-muslim, it is not the minarets or kowtowing that I find offensive. It is the inhumane practices such as violent jihadism and misogyny that cause me to recognize my own ferocity.

So if islamic scholars can (within the framework of their common fictitious superstition) refute and rebuke the unfounded rationale of self-righteous criminals, we should encourage them (the scholars). So the questions remain: Why is this news? Why hasn't EVERY islamic leader/scholar pronounced similar fatwa? Why has it taken this long for this lone fatwa? Why is official islamic condemnation of violent jihadism STILL so sparse and even then spoken softly?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Hardest Part

What is the hardest part of being atheist?

Maybe it's finding that balance between being candid and being considerate. Is it OK to tell children there's no Santa Claus? Is it OK to tell someone in AA there is no "higher power?" Is it OK to tell someone who is basically a wounded bird that the perceived source from which they think they draw strength, which allows them make it through their perpetual hard times... is all in their head? Is it OK to tell fellow atheists that the spirituality or Harmony or Enlightenment they covet is a delusion? Is it OK to interrupt a wedding to point out that while "we ARE joined here" we are not "before God?" Even the most militant atheist is likely to consider the consequences of unwavering candor.

Maybe the hardest part is the difficulty of learning, understanding and explaining the natural mechanisms of nature and people (and how people are part of nature.) Conversely, if you want to learn, understand and explain how a supernatural being did something you just need three words: god did it. You don’t need to know where he came from or how he did it.

Maybe the hardest part is answering the same questions over and over ad nauseam. Maybe the hardest part is unlearning superstitious indoctrination. I envy atheists who never gave supernatural concepts serious consideration.

Maybe the hardest part is knowing that even in a secular state, my children's curriculum will be undermined by scripturalists. The people that accuse fellow citizens of hating America (or of being un-American) continue to call the US a Christian nation. They don’t know, understand or appreciate the first amendment. They accuse the founding fathers of being christian. They perpetuate misquotes. They push for less secular government and education. But they don’t recognize that islam is spreading in the US. Christian prayers in school this year makes muslim prayers in school inevitable.

Maybe the hardest part is seeing "faith" cherished when it should be reviled and recognized as a favored tool of charlatans. If that linchpin (faith) could be extracted there might be real hope for common ground. Theist arguments almost always fall back to faith. To be clear, I define ‘faith’ as a belief that doesn’t rely on objective evidence or even defies objective evidence. Faith is how you place trust where it has not been earned. Faith is the anchor. Just don’t try flying, swimming, running or any other kind of progress.

Maybe the hardest part is the misconception that the religious are the underdogs. They have the numbers. They have the money. They have the lobbies. They have the ideologies, doctrines and dogmas. They are rather short on facts and evidence but that doesn’t make them underdogs.

Maybe the hardest part is seeing science and scientists dismissed by people benefiting from computers, cell phones, satellite TV receivers, pharmaceuticals & inoculations, satnav, transportation, climate control… Today’s technology is yesterday’s science. Yet despite science’s track record and tangible benefits faith in the supernatural and the erroneous ancient texts still supplant empirical evidence among the faithful. There’s that word again.

Maybe the hardest part is knowing which way to turn to make progress but feeling obliged to answer the doubters and the deluded in hope that a few under-motivated fence sitters will turn to the light and help pull humanity out of the dark ages.

Maybe the hardest part is knowing when to stop whining about it and try doing something... anything. I don't even live in a time or place where I would be killed for my lack of belief. Derided, chastised, berated, reviled, discriminated against? Sure, but not killed. If there is an objective "hardest part" I probably haven't seen it yet.