Monday, December 26, 2011

Why is it important to convince a theist that he is wrong?

(quick rant)

People allow, nay, insist that their religion inform their opinions on social, civil and political matters. This necessarily has an effect on everybody.

Even if someone's religion happened to point them in directions beneficial to mankind, their mere ability to hold a belief which is based on groundless hearsay and that horrible F word, indicates that they can not be trusted to use sound means to deliberately inform their opinions in AT LEAST one matter.

If someone can believe something crazy without harming the rest of us, no problem. But that's not how it works. If someone wants to demonstrate that having reviewed a great breadth and depth of "evidence" they've come to the conclusion that there is no reliable reason to believe... but they still believed... as long as they recognize that their supernatural beliefs have no place in deciding how best we may live, work and advance together, there's no problem. But that's not how it works.

Why is it important to convince a theist that he is wrong? Because it hurts us all, in small but cumulative, massively cumulative ways.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Can theists be convinced by reason?

They can be reached by reason. However not all avenues are assailable. That which may be believed without reason may be immune to reason. The only hope is to discover the underlying foundation to beliefs and addressing those.

Belief is a subjective response to the best (also subjective) available evidence. Misinformation can be more valuable in making a decision in the mind of the subject. A convincing and engaging liar may appear more credible than a fact laden empiricist. We can try to teach and motivate our acquaintances to be more demanding in their epistemology. But convincing people to think harder and to consider the counter-intuitive is exhausting and poorly rewarded.

Generalized reasonable atheism advocacy will find purchase in some individuals. But we cannot predict whether such advances remain chronic moot doubts, get rationalized away or lead to serious inquiry. We probably won't hear about many near-success stories. Here too, general refutation of theologies and super-naturalism is exhausting and poorly rewarded. But retreating from either front would be a tacit invitation to every charlatan and would-be prophet.

When dealing with fallacious beliefs on a case-by-case basis we may ask the individual what they believe and why they believe it... and why they believe that... and why they believe that, until you either reach a point of mutual agreement or it is demonstrated that there is no reasonable foundation to the larger belief matrix. If you are rigorously skeptical and don't fall for any false syllogisms, reason may prevail.

Most religious ideologies encourage adherents to share their beliefs so it shouldn't be that hard to open this dialog. But questioning the beliefs is generally not welcome so expect that to get sticky. Whether I believe that milk is good for stronger teeth and bones or that dreams come from ethereal creatures, if I'm not willing explain why I believe these things I should not be treated as credible. Beliefs may be completely out of touch or demonstrably factual. It is the responsibility of the proponent of any belief to explain why it is true. Responsibility.

In the end every believer is left with "evidence" and reasons that are not substantially better than those for most competing supernatural beliefs. All the believer has left is faith and subjectivity. Not coincidentally, believers of most competing supernatural beliefs are identically "supported" by their faith and subjectivity.

They can be reached by reason. But your best bet is to have them search for reason, then let them wonder why they can't find it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

One nation, above all gods

News item: The Obama administration does not want “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. link

This republic is not one nation under God. To say that it is, establishes the government and the governed as subordinate to a deity. This is not OK. Even if it read, “one nation, under some undefined supernatural entity," it would still not be OK as that would still imply recognition of a higher authority for America and Americans, ALL Americans . The United States government does not have the authority to unilaterally create a treaty with absentee supernatural forces. Why are we surrendering? It could even be inferred from the subordination, that the US derives its authority from such an entity. The United States government did not and does not derive its authority from a supernatural source. If we made that claim then anyone having a superior claim to knowing the will of the vague or specific god could challenge our authority to confederate, legislate and self-govern. It might also be inferred that, as a subordinate to a general deity, the US is a deist theocracy, or worse.

All that would be bad enough but the current pledge says "under God." So it's not a just a noun it's a proper noun. It's a name; the name of the abrahamic god; the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The pledge makes the US not only subordinate to a vague deist god but a specific, named god of three religions. For anyone who holds a religious belief contesting the existence and/or authority of the abrahamic god, reciting the pledge prohibits their free exercise of religion. This alienates followers of Jainism, Buddhism, Scientology, Sikhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, Paganism, any number of indigenous belief systems and also non-believers. The alienated must choose to forgo the pledge, miss-cite it or display deference to the abrahamic god, if only nominally.

Regardless of anyone's religious beliefs, the US is a secular state. We operate as a nation of laws. We derive our authority for self governance not from the supernatural but from the people. Any statute that grants or recognizes deference to a vague or specific supernatural entity undermines the authenticity of our self governance, establishes subordination to a religious entity and encumbers the free exercise by those with conflicting beliefs.

The pledge is defined by U.S. Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, § 4. And while no one is likely to get arrested for messing up the pledge, The U.S. Code is law, enacted by Congress. How and why the 1954 addition of "under God" hasn't been overturned by the courts should baffle anyone who respects our integrity as a nation of laws.

And just so no one has to look for it elsewhere:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." ~First Amendment to the United States Constitution


pictured: United States Bill of Rights



With an election right around the corner the last thing President Obama needs to do is lose support from the rest of the god crowd. I can’t hold this against him. On this issue, at this time, my cynicism outweighs my idealism. It does seem as though he genuinely prefers the phrase in there. That’s disappointing. It’s really Congress’s or the court’s job to take it out. I’d prefer it were the court. But with the current lineup on the bench (ie, corporations are people) now is probably not a good time.

Monday, August 29, 2011

2+2=5



I believe 2+2=5.

I can’t prove that 2+2=5.

You just have to believe 2+2=5.

2+2=5 transcends naturalist and scientific explanations.

You have to accept 2+2=5 on faith.

I can feel 2+2=5 at work in my life.

I have the right to believe whatever I want.

2+2=5 is everywhere, if you care to look.

Schools that do not teach 2+2=5 should be required to teach the controversy.

There are those who deny 2+2=5.

If they would only accept 2+2=5 they would see the truth of 2+2=5.

You too should believe 2+2=5.

2+2=5 is the foundation of morality and knowledge.

That which contradicts 2+2=5 is necessarily wrong.

We need to get this country back to 2+2=5 values.

It is the lack of 2+2=5 values that is undermining what makes this country great.

It is rude and contemptible to openly question 2+2=5.

As I believe 2+2=5 I will take it as a personal attack if anyone questions 2+2=5.

2+2=5 is the light and the way.

To claim 2+2 does not =5 is blasphemy.

Blasphemers are poisoned wells.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Gay Marriage and Subjectivity

Short Version:
How would you feel about gay marriage if you learned it wasn't (whatever reason you have for being opposed to it)?


How bigots view the laws of Nature
subtitle: I wonder how they don't find it at all strange that the Universe has the same biases as them

( lolgod.blogspot.com )


Long Version:
Why are you against gay marriage? Is it because it is sinful, against the will of god or unnatural? What if you learned, irrefutably, that none of these were true. Let's not be distracted by the implausibility. We've all come to some point(s) where we realized something(s) we had believed was incorrect. Otherwise we would still believe the things we believed as children. I don't know what it would take to convince you. Certainly nothing I say or write will do the trick. But let's assume, purely to consider another question, that there was a way to convince you. Let's also assume, purely hypothetically, that somehow you've crossed that threshold.

Somehow... something... caused you to realize that the basis for your opposition to gay marriage was misinterpreted, misrepresented, faulty, wrong or completely absent. Whatever that reason was, your previous basis for opposition is now completely neutral. It's not that gay marriage is necessarily good. It's just that (again, hypothetically) you no longer have an instruction, evidence, example or reason to to be against it. Whatever reason you had, let's pretend that it is now completely indifferent to gay marriage.

How then would you feel, and I emphasize "feel," about homosexuals getting married? Remember, in this hypothetical it's not a sin. God doesn't care. It's not unnatural. Whatever objection you had, is now irrelevant. The question here is how would you personally feel about it. If your church, your holy text, your political party, your social club and everybody & everything in the world suddenly became OK with gay marriage would you still have a subjective desire to prevent homosexuals from getting married? What is it you would be feeling?

Would you be indifferent to two men talking about when one of them popped the question? Would you feel indignant if a lesbian shared her nervousness about the marriage bed? If gays got to visit their spouse in the hospital, claim "married" on their taxes, adopt as a married couple, come to you for advise on their anniversary party, be the default "by law" beneficiary, be eligible for alimony/palimony and brag about how great married life is... would that be OK with you? Or would you still find it objectionable based purely on how you feel about it? Would the way you feel about gay marriage change if cultural and religious objection vanished? Or do you think you would feel the same way?

Conclusion:
The point of this hypothetical line of inquiry is to suggest that perhaps many people hold up their ideologies as a justification of their personal objections. As it relates to gay marriage, if gay marriage would still feel somehow offensive in the absence of source-able external objections then we should consider what that might mean.

Maybe it means your ideology is justified by your feelings because your gut or intuition is reliable. Maybe it means god has written this on your heart. But if we go that route we would have to answer some tough questions. Regarding the people who were against abolition, women's suffrage, racial integration, civil rights... What is it about your gut, your intuition or what's written on your heart that is superior to their collective gut, their intuition and that which was written on their hearts? And not just you, why are the opinions of everyone who agrees with you more reliable than the opinions of those who were for slavery, against suffrage, etc.? For many things, "how you feel about it" is a perfectly legitimate factor in informing your opinion. But when it comes to limiting or liberating other people's civil participation, "how you feel about it" means very little. Just as it did for those who felt women should not be allowed to vote.

Maybe instead of your ideology being justified by your feelings you've attached yourself to an ideology that justifies your feelings... an ideology you're comfortable with. Would you cling to a belief system if it caused you emotional discomfort? Regarding belief systems, you are where you are for a reason.

For most of us, perhaps all of us, there is a vicious circle of our feelings informing our beliefs and our beliefs further (perhaps irrationally) justifying our feelings. If we can accept that this is true of many other people then perhaps we should consider that it's probably true personally as well. It isn't as simple as you having jumped on the band wagon because they were playing your tune. This is a life-long process. If your sources of information are limited then your perspective will likely be limited as well. Every belief has a cost/benefit motivator, not unlike Pascal's wager. And thinking objectively and critically is hard and can be counter-intuitive. But objectivity and critical thinking are the best tools for breaking the feelings>beliefs vicious circle.

Returning to the point, if gay marriage would still feel somehow offensive in the absence of source-able external objections then what does that say about your objection? I'm not asking you to defend your objections. I am asking you to try to better understand it. Where does that feeling come from? Do the feelings justify the beliefs or do the beliefs justify the feelings? Or would you benefit from taking a step back and considering just how much your feelings and beliefs are dependent on each other. That interdependence is fine if you just wanna live your life. But if you feel the need to speak on matters of public policy and to restrict the civil participation of other people, maybe your feelings and personal beliefs aren't enough. If I wanted to limit or change your civil liberties based on my feelings and personal beliefs, how seriously should you have to take me?

We have a responsibility to each other as members of a society, and especially as members of a democracy. We know that we have had, will have and do have the capacity to be wrong. We have been, will be and are probably right now wrong about something. For this we can forgive ourselves and each other. But if we ignore that capacity and allow our feelings and personal beliefs to be the the only sources informing our discussions and decisions on matters that effect other people, then we have ignored our responsibility.

It is my hope that people will consider the correlation between what they believe and what they feel. It is my hope that people will recognize the fallibility of basing beliefs on feelings. It is my hope that people will try to understand how to distinguish between facts, informed opinion, ideologically-driven opinion and pure speculation. It is my hope that people will try to understand how to recognize what makes information reliable. It is my hope that people will care enough to want to.

Unless these hopes are realized soon we will be remembered as the generation that got it wrong on gay rights.


In a democracy surely an uninformed or misinformed opinion has greater weight than an informed opinion. For which will do the greater harm?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

People: our best hope

Let me share this comment in case it gets deleted:

Joplin is full of relgious groups, you know, all those people with false hope whom you say aren't looking, do everything they can to help.

I have seen no atheist organizations making a concerted effort to help.

Where are those atheist activists like who went down to Joplin last year organizing meetups?

Where are the American Atheists and FFRF?

On their blogs.

Taking swipes as Christians.

Atheist spells Eatshit as far as I am concerned anymore.


Where is Doctors Without Borders? Where is the American Civil Liberties Union? Where is the Heritage Foundation? Where is the United Nations? Midwest relief from natural disasters does not fall within the purview of any of these organizations. Likewise, American Atheists nor Freedom From Religion Foundation.

RichardDawkins.net, in partnership with many non-belief organizations, has set up a donation link for Joplin relief, just as they did for Haiti relief:
http://givingaid.richarddawkins.net/

And of course Westboro Baptist Church is also doing their part.

There are a lot of good people doing good work in Joplin. Some of them might even tell you they are doing so because Jesus wants them to. But even if you could convince these people there is no divinity, they would not abandon their efforts. So too there are many non-religious christians and non-christians that are helping their neighbors. Tightly knit pre-organized church communities are going to make the most of their bonds. The rest of us sift into where we are needed. If anyone bothers to claim they are helping in order to glorify atheism, hopefully those tempted to claim they are glorifying their religious icons will recognize how silly that is.

"...all those people with false hope whom you say aren't looking, do everything they can to help."

While I was speaking more generally, this complaint exemplifies my point. They are doing. There will be those who do nothing more than pray. That's a great way to feel like you're doing something without really doing anything at all. And their prayers will be answered not by angels but by humans. For in other humans, there is real hope. The potential for help, progress and salvation are tangible in social groups, civilization or more specifically: people.

When the buildings once again stand, the foliage fills and the biggest concern is who will make the playoffs too many people will give a perceived deity all of the credit and none of the blame. Maybe we could run an experiment and see how much gets done without any human intervention. Is there any real hope that a supernatural being will replace or repair all those buildings and all that infrastructure? Or maybe we could bet on a sure thing: people. Real hope.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

False Hope

I would say that false hope is better than no hope except people who find false hope tend to stop looking for real hope.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Great Joplin tornado of 2011

(It's somewhat ironic that my last Note was "This Day.")

I haven't seen any of the damage first hand. But from what I'm piecing together... imagine (for my Santa Clarita friends) a force of nature starting at Newhall Ave on Lyons and and demolishing everything from there to I-5. I'm told this may have been a mile wide. From pictures, it leveled everything, cutting a path at least six blocks wide. Does "everything" include sturdy brick buildings? Yes it does. The path the tornado took in Joplin was about 70-80% residential.

I always thought it was a supremely bad idea that both hospitals were tucked in the same corner of town, about half a mile apart. One of those hospitals, St. John's, was hit. I'm told it was "destroyed." From pictures it *looks* like the structure is intact but everything else will need extensive repairs or replacement. A casino/hotel about 5-7 miles away is being used as a hospital.



caption: Water gushes from a broken pipe in a building along Rangeline Road.
credit: Globe/Roger Nomer


http://www.news-leader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Site=DO&Date=20110522&Category=NEWS01&ArtNo=105220802&Ref=PH&odyssey=mod|mostpopphotos

http://www.joplinglobe.com/local/x433426155/Widespread-damage-reported-after-tornado


I took a circuitous route home, around the north side of town, to avoid the problem areas. My folks were without power the last time I had spoken to them. They report they lost some siding off the house. Mom described the storm to me as being on the other side of the railroad tracks. The tracks are about 100-150 yards from their house. There's a ridge about 300 yards beyond the tracks so "the other side of the tracks" is less than 400 yards away. Mara, Rose and Wolfgang were with them when all this happened, hunkered down in the laundry room. That is some scary shit. I had just dropped them off not an hour earlier. I had remarked to the kids during the drive that the clouds looked angry. I had no idea.

At work I was so busy with IT outages that I was mostly shielded from the news, certainly from details. Phone and cell service was spotty over the area. And everybody that had a phone was trying to use it. Luckily I was able to verify and occasionally re-verify that everyone was OK. But it was fairly frantic trying to juggle responsibilities and confirm that my nearest and dearest were out of danger and not taken from me.

As I neared home the clouds to the south were ablaze with lightning. There was barely time for them to grow dark between arcs. Power was out in patches. The light pollution from the city was noticeably dimmer. Traffic lights were out. The path of destruction ended a between one and three miles from our house. The direct suffering this tornado has brought me amounts to inconvenience. We're almost out of laundry detergent. I would go to the nearest Wal-mart super center but there is probably still debris in the road and, oh yeah... that Wal-mart won't be open for a long time. We suffered some anxiety and fear. Sharin had to navigate an obstacle course to pick the kids up and get them home, suffering a flat along the way. Road debris? Can we count that as tornado related property damage? By the time this is over the death toll will probably be in the hundreds. 1000 plus would not surprise me. But me and mine have escaped unscathed.

I am thankful. I got lucky. We (my family) got lucky. But if anyone wants to give the credit for that luck to anything or anyone STOP. Tell it to the people who lost their place of employment. Tell it to the hundreds of people who lost their homes. Tell it to the people who were injured. Tell it to the people who did lose loved ones. Tell it to the dead. Tell them why my family was lucky but they were not. Only tell me if you want me to jump down your throat. I know my family was lucky. I actually wish I had someone or something to thank. I'm not ungrateful. But if there were a something or a someone to thank then I would surely also have to damn them/it for the horrifying devastation visited upon the people of my city.

Which reminds me: Mara won't be going to pre-school in the morning because the church facility where she attends was at least partially damaged. A lot of nice people with good hearts work and attend there. I kind of like the place except for all the displays of archaic torture/murder devices. I don't know how bad the damage was to the buildings. Hopefully not too bad. But it's only about half a mile from St. John's hospital and directly between my folks house and St. John's. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Human interest story: At a fast food restaurant, Wendy's I think, people took cover in a bathroom as the tornado hit. The building was leveled. The survivors had dig themselves out of the ruble. The good new: they all survived. I'm hoping that story is true and stays true. Damn, now I'm hungry.

So far this whole thing hasn't really sunk in emotionally for me. I keep catching myself on the verge of make glib comments, gallows humor. If this had happened the first year I moved out here I'd be on the road back to earthquake/brush-fire/mudslide country. But I've been here so long, it feels like tornadoes aren't real or they only happen to other people. I am completely serious (and completely selfish) when I say I hope it stays that way.

This Day

Every day is special. It is easy to forget as we busy ourselves with the seemingly meaningless day-to-day details. We think of birthdays as special. And anniversaries. We perceive a day as special only if has some historical significance. We are told to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. The other six days it would seem may be forgotten and desecrated. We celebrate secular and religious holidays and bemoan the days between. It is what is expected of us. But every day is a treasure. Every day is fraught with challenges and opportunities. Every day is a gift from god or good fortune. Through suffering and joy we have ourselves, each other and we have this day.

Friday, May 20, 2011

God's Parasites

Assuming for a moment that evolution, or macro-evolution, is not responsible for the diversity of life then explain where these little devils came from.



You probably recognize the tick, flea and mosquito. The parasitic wasp of the Ichneumonidae family may be less familiar. Malaria might be hard to recognize. As for the cymothoa exigua, do not research this creature on a full stomach.

I could have added snakes and spiders with necrotic venom, lampreys, anthrax, chiggers (OMG the chiggers!), tapeworms... the list goes on. For that matter, why would a god make a world for humans and include ANY plants that are toxic or even irritating to humans? "Mysterious ways" or fallacious mythology? Would you call this "un-intelligent design" or "malicious design?" Does anyone want to blame this on scrumping? If we owe this world to a creator, it was either cruel, indifferent or incompetent.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Morality Is Not Objective

Morality, the intrinsic sense of right and wrong, is not objective. If there were a single fount of morality then surely we would be able to trace it back to the head. Our connection to that fountainhead would necessarily correlate to our morality. That's not what we see in churches. That's not what we see in mixed (secular and non-secular) society. And that's not what we see in cultures largely untouched by Abrahamic faiths. Morality is the adhesive between social creatures in the struggle for finite resources. Sometimes we cooperate. Sometimes we compete. Usually we do both.

It is a balancing act between perceived self interest, varying degrees of loyalty to various group with which we self-identify (in-groups) and perceived out-groups. In any given situation we have to consider what is best for our self, what is best for our group(s) (family, employer, political party, nation, denomination, neighborhood, etc.) and what forces or entities encroach on our self- or group-interest. This is the way of all social creatures.

But this is a motivator that works primarily at an emotional level. And like most emotions, reasoning beings can intellectually overrule their feelings. Well, theoretically. When resources become more available at the self level we tend to be more charitable to the group. When resources become more available at the group level we tend to expect to benefit personally. When we and our group are doing well we tend to be less hostile to minor encroachment. So too do we reduce our hostility to out-groups when we recognize they are merely a more remote extension of our in-groups.

In addition to the emotional responsibility we feel toward our groups we can also understand and appreciate the benefits of an official civil structure based on codified ethics, rules and laws. While these go hand-in-hand with morality and tend to serve similar functions they are artificial constructions, both extragenic and extrinsic.

If we want to credit a capricious ghost in the sky for our morality (intrinsic selfless social responsibility) but not our selfishness we still have to speculate where that selfishness came from. Assuming we were created, and the god did not put selfishness in us, where did that extra ingredient come from? Were there more fingers in the pie than were reported in the Judeo-Christian creation myths? God and divine creation are very poor explanations for the visceral gymnastics we experience when our various interests are in conflict.

Apologists argue that without an objective source there can be no morality, or perhaps that it is meaningless or that there can be no true justice. But morality is not something that comes to us, it is something that comes from us. It is a balance of interests which are ultimately self-interest. It may seem counter-intuitive to credit self-interest for the creation of morality and selflessness. It may seem vulgar to think that our finest examples of humanity are merely extensions of our basest drives. Though the idea may be hard to stomach, it is staring back at us with pedantic patience. Morality is an intrinsic emotional balancing of often conflicting personal interests in a social environment. While Creation skips over the creation of selfishness, evolution explains both selfishness and selflessness, lo, they are the same.

If everything we could ever need or desire were infinitely available, there would be no competition for resources. Nor would there be an evolutionary selection force for cooperation, other than reproduction. But even reproduction is a need/desire.

When I first recognized that I was no longer a theist I came to the conclusion that morality is a lie and that we need rely only on ethics. Some years later I realized that ethics is a construct that we build. Ethics are cultural and intellectual. And yet even children have an innate sense of justice when objectively observing social exchanges. While they may not be able to articulate why something is fair or unfair, but they are good at identifying injustice when they are a disinterested third party. When they are not disinterested, they tend to make excuses favoring their self or their friend/family.

My first guess is that we are using the term "morality" to represent two different but similar and overlapping ideas. Traditionally, morality is an system of conduct based on ideas of absolute right and wrong. Additionally, such a code of morality is or was typically ascribed as divine edict. That which is permissible by that doctrine is moral. That which is forbidden by that doctrine is immoral. There is also the common belief that morality is ingrained in us by supernatural authority as a sense of right an wrong.

In the absence of divine authority "ethical" and "unethical" should carry the same weight as "moral" and "immoral". Yet they do not. Why is that? What is the difference between ethics and morality? If "morality" deserves more weight than "ethics" we should be able to say why.

When we speak of morality we tend to suppose that good and bad, right and wrong are absolute (or nearly so) and must be recognized. We seem to be appealing to an inescapable source of discernment. When we speak of ethics we are never referring to an innate sense of right and wrong, rather mutually accepted rules for civility or specific activities. Ethics tend to be based on common values. These values are not arbitrary or prescribed. These values are the description of what most people feel intrinsically about what is good or bad, right or wrong. It is not a matter of what is believed, understood or reasoned. It is a matter of what is felt. Is there a word for this raw, unreasoned, pre-intellectual, intuitive, subjective sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust?

What is that word?

I use the label "morality" for that unreasoned sense which is within us as the foundation of social responsibility. If we had another word for it I would use it happily. It is unfortunate that we do not. The traditional definition of morality as a moral code of conduct leaves the subject wide open to the theist's favorite tool of misinformation: the equivocation.

Where I describe morality as "an intrinsic emotional balancing" I refer to that innate feeling of right and wrong that triggers our conscious intellectual consideration of what is right and wrong. In this sense morality is not our end judgment, not our conclusion of what is right and wrong, but rather our initial motivation (in any given situation) for considering what is best.

Before we devote any objective reasoning to a "moral" or ethical question, it is likely that the more subjective regions of the brain have already assigned values to the variables.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ten Commandments, Remarkably Undivine

People continue, unchallenged, to cite the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament as the herald and pinnacle of human morality. The Ten Commandments is strong evidence that Yahweh was either made up by frustrated uneducated old men or that the creator of the universe has the mentality of a frustrated uneducated old man.


1. I am your god Have no gods before me. (Not “the” god but “your” god. Are there other gods to have before you? Research on “Who wrote the Bible” explains this one. You should look into that.)

2. Make no graven image (No statuary? It’s easy to see how important that is. Right, Barbie?)

3. Take not my name in vain (OMFG. WTF. Petty and insecure? Or is it just crowd control?)

4. Keep the Sabbath holy (Why is it OK to allow any unholy (or less holy) days? Is it because if you’re not in temple they can’t squeeze or control you.)

The first four protect only the religion and religious leaders. NO ONE is harmed by ignoring the first four commandments. And Jesus said you could ignore number 4 if you had a good reason. So he contradicted his timeless god-self. Furthermore, when asked which of the commandments we should keep to, Rabbi Jesus doesn’t mention any of the first four. Hmm. (Matthew 19:17-19, Luke 18:20, Mark 10:19)

5. Honor Mom and Dad (Vague and unconditional)

6. Don’t kill (Potentially good but doesn’t protect non-Israelites or sinners)

7. Philander not. (Good advice, bad commandment. Also, the bible suggests the severity of the offense depends only on who is doing it. Male adulterer: bad. Female adulterer: Kill the whore!)

8. Don’t steal (also doesn’t include stealing from non-Israelites, especially if you’ve killed them)

9. Don’t lie (the ultimate irony… Did god commit the first lie in Genesis 2:17 “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”)

10. Don’t covet (Don’t desire what other people have? That’s just un-American and also hypocritical coming from a privileged shaman class or an entity that created everything from nothing.)


It is disgusting that anyone considers the Ten Commandments to be worthy of consideration, let alone reverence. This most exalted and timeless example of the “moral” superiority of the abrahamic religious systems could be vastly improved by most modern educated adults.

What about rape or statutory rape? What about slavery, which is actually acceptable throughout the rest of bible? What about non-lethal violence? What about domestic violence? Why is it that violating any one of the commandments is punishable by death depending on interpretation and who is in charge? Contemptible are the Ten Commandments and the backward blood-thirsty archaic desert dwellers that made them up.

What would you add, remove or change from the Ten Commandments?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Quran burning

Fundamentalist cleric Terry Jones made headlines with his plan for an "International Burn a Koran Day." Jones ostensibly canceled the event but managed another public display (International Judge the Koran Day) that ended with quran flambé. As a result several UN workers and 2 US soldiers have been killed abroad in some ill conceived attempt at retribution. AP article on Yahoo here.

Sam Harris does well in speaking my mind here:
http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/do-we-have-the-right-to-burn-the-koran/

By placing ANY responsibility on Terry Jones we are assuming that islam is not the religion of peace and its adherents are not capable of morality or humanity on a person by person basis.

Even if we assume that muslims are semi-human hornets, should we ignore the nest in our midst and merely eschew provocation? The real problem is much harder to solve. By ignoring it we allow the problem to fester, mutate and grow. Focusing on Jones' stupid grandstanding diverts our attention from an issue... we were already ignoring.

If moderate and liberal muslims don't want islam associated with acts of violence they need to do a lot more than remain silent in the wake of these events. If they don't take their religion back from the fundamentalists then I am quite happy to assume the louder more violent voices are the true representatives of islam. How can the apparent silence of moderates be interpreted as anything anything other than tacit approval?

Terry Jones is just one more false prophet. That's not a crime in the US. I'd be more than happy to make it a crime here and everywhere. But what criteria would we use to determine falsehood? That's where we'll have a hard time finding consensus. I may not like the idea of book burning, probably due to historical correlatives. If the world wants to condemn Terry Jones for being a charlatan, grand-stander, troll, attention whore, self-important prick, asshole or something other than quran burning, I'm OK with that. If anyone wants to gag Jones because we can't hold violent muslims accountable, I'm not OK with that. This is definitely a case where the easier thing to do is not the right thing to do.

If the right thing is the hard thing and the hard thing is getting muslim hardliners to be reasonable, then we better get started.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"F" word, Round Three

The issue that was bothering me when I wrote “More "F" word” is that there is one word, "faith," that is used to mean everything from "This is impossible but I believe it anyway," to “If the ball I’m holding feels heavy then it will fall if release it.”

Youtube user C0nc0rdance does well in describing faith as a lack of doubt. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkuaT3FaoQA From time mark 1:38 through 2:50 it’s like he’s reading my mind. I’m sure somewhere I’ve previously used the example of when taking a step we have faith that the floor will meet our sole. Based on sensory input and experience it may be reasonable to expect that the floor will be there. As likely as it is though, it is not certain.

When it comes to belief, trust, expectation or faith we are dealing with probabilities. And hopefully credibility figures into our assessments of probability. Thus all things are almost certain, almost certainly not or somewhere in between. While many things fall somewhere in between it is difficult, if not impossible, to function without some expectation/faith that our environment is how (or at least similar to how) we perceive it. Conversely, if we assume everything, or any one thing, is exactly as we perceive it, we leave no room for correction… we couldn’t learn nor could we respond to change.

So we need something like faith to function. But we also need skepticism or doubt to reduce and correct errors. “Faith” is used for too wide a spectrum of belief and expectation. If one speaks out against intractable belief, the least doubting extreme on that spectrum, a proponent of faith is likely to cite the benefits of faith in the form of reasonable expectation, optimism, altruism and adventurous exploration. But the necessity of reasonable expectation and the potential benefits of speculative assessment do not justify convicted belief in anything that defies objective evidence. And this is a problem.

“You just gotta have faith.” “You just gotta believe.” “Believing is seeing.” Believing something does not make it true. I don’t think anyone outside of children’s authors is making that argument. But these clichĂ©s are appealing to the faithful. The suggestion is that through belief or faith the truth (or a truth) will be revealed. But this blatantly ignores very real psychological stumbling blocks. If we approach a subject with an assumption of truth then any point of doubt may be dismissed as generally untrue or untrue specifically as it relates to the belief. Cognitive dissonance insures that if conflicting information threatens the perceived truth, the conflicting information (true or not) will be mitigated, discounted or disbelieved. Something's gotta give. While all this is going on, that which is believed is not any truer though the believer may be further convinced.

“Faith” by its various names is a useful tool for basic human functionality. But it is the worst possible tool for reducing ignorance. When gaining knowledge the presenter may be correct but if we don't question why it is true then our understanding is less complete. The type of faith that is promoted by the religious and their prophets as the most valuable or most important kind of faith (it’s really the only kind they refer to) is the unquestioning intractable faith in that which cannot be seen. It is this kind of faith by which good people can be convinced to do bad things. It is this kind of faith that convinces people to act against their own best interest. It is this kind of faith that allows people to justify harming the innocent. And yet, this insidious mode of belief is labeled with the same word as well-reasoned assumption.

There are really two problems. From the perspective of the prophets, it is an insult that such lackluster common everyday reasonable belief is in any way compared the blessed unquestioning faith of the devoutly faithful. Desiring that faith be supported by reason or evidence only diminishes the purity of one’s faith. It’s practically sinful. From the perspective of the otherwise rational believer, it is impossible to function without the reasonable-expectation variety of faith and therefore faith itself is not the problem. Should we infer that if it is detrimental to distrust everything and everyone it is therefore better to have faith in everything and everyone? Unearned trust may be part of the answer but it is definitely not the whole answer.

To call reasonable expectation “faith” is an insult to the prophets, their deities and their ideals. To call blind adherence to an unsubstantiated belief “faith” makes it sound more reasonable than it is. To call cautious optimism “faith” is to miss the point entirely. This word leaves too much open to interpretation. It is self-equivocating. Using the word “faith” circumvents clarity and intellectual responsibility.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Atheist Blogroll

Allusive Atheist has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"The Selfish Gene" describes genes that are selfish.

Thirty years after the publication "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, detractors still contend that Dawkins is wrong. In every case I've seen, the arguments they advance make it clear they haven't even read the dust jacket.

The eponymous "selfish gene" is not a gene for selfishness. The title of the book "The Selfish Gene" describes genes as acting (replicating) without concern for consequences.

Referring to "the selfish gene" as a genetic predisposition for selfishness displays an ignorance of the original material.

It is the genes that behave selfishly. The degree of selfishness or charity in an organism (including humans) resulting from genetic influence is irrelevant to how a gene or group of genes behaves at the molecular level. It is this molecular level behavior, by molecules, that is selfish.

Genes are incapable of caring, but if we were to anthropomorphize them, the one thing they would care about was self-replication with a high degree of accuracy. The gene would not care about what type of phenotype (including behavior) it generates. Genes merely replicate, sexually or asexually. Selection pressures (i.e. natural, artificial and sexual) favor some phenotypes over others. The genes associated with favored phenotypes acquire more replication opportunities. But the genes don't care. They are incapable of caring. It is this lack of caring that earns all genes the descriptor of "selfish."

Genes, polypeptide components of biological machines (organisms) go about their business single-mindedly. All organisms act toward their own best interest. Altruism, kindness, charity and sharing behaviors are symbiotic rather than pure self-sacrifice. This is detailed by the work of George Price and subsequent evolutionary psychologists. Every animal that behaves socially does so because the selfish genes of its ancestors capitalized on the benefits of cooperation and were favored by selection pressures. Even genes that are themselves selfish may produce organisms that that make small, or even substantial sacrifices that benefit other organisms. The flower/pollinator relationship bares this out.

More examples? Parasite eaters that go unmolested by predators. Animals that call out an alarm upon detecting a predator rather than merely hiding. Hive insects that protect their nest against an overwhelming attacker. For that matter, the maternal instincts of every animal that rears its young.

An organism will act unselfishly if the selection pressures encountered by its lineage rewarded cooperation. This is because all genes are selfish in that they strive (if I may again anthropomorphize) to replicate. If selfish genes that promote altruistic behavior are favored by selection pressures then symbiotic (or reciprocal) altruism will increase.

The selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness but rather a gene that is itself selfish.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What do you call someone who doesn't believe

Language is not liquid. Language is LEGOs (tm). If you use too few blocks you create a very rough form. To add detail you must add scale. So too with language, complex ideas tend to be poorly represented in sparse wording. Once more efficiency is the enemy of quality.

I am a staunch and unashamed atheist. And when I describe myself as an atheist I know exactly what I mean. But I've exchanged ideas with enough people who call themselves atheists to know that though they use the same word they may not mean the same specific thing.

And I've seldom exchanged ideas with theists (on points of contention) when I didn't find it necessary to clarify definitions and implications of words and phrases to avoid equivocation and general miscommunication. Again the words atheism and atheist are likely to create misconceptions. When I use these words I know I am probably seeding a conversation.

I like the term naturalist. But that can be confused with bird-watchers or nudists. I like the term humanist but it seems new-age-y, evasive and doesn't really get the point across. I like secularist but that is more of a political position. "Bright" is immodest. If there is a better word than "atheist" it may not be coined yet. It was super-naturalists who coined and wielded the word atheist. Would it not be poetic justice if they were undone by it?

One way to have the atheist conversation while avoiding the stigma is to balance the Socratic method with dismissals of ungrounded ideas. For some reason it is more acceptable to hold and share a perspective of non-belief as long as you don't seem to have an actual position. By "playing dumb" you can avoid a lot of labels and prejudice. By asking for explanations and details you can also un-stuff or avoid many strawman arguments.

English language and Western culture seem particularly unfavorable to non-super-naturalist. For instance we still say the Sun comes up. And though we know it is the Earth's rotation moving into view, we still think of it as the Sun coming up. Try to describe a situation wherein someone experiences random but favorable circumstances without referring to luck or providence. So too "atheist" carries culturally and historically ingrained stigmas similar to "pagan," "witch" and "devil worshiper."

But by shying away from this word we give it power. We would be foolish to allow "atheist" to become "the A word." Let us instead change the meaning, not by committee or decree, but by action and example. And when archaic stigmas are made moot by an overwhelming inability to stereotype a subset of society who share nothing in common but a lack of belief, what we are called will be equally arbitrary. Let the "non-religious" and "unaffiliated" look on us with admiration so that they too may call themselves what they really are: people find no merit in religious claims, aka: atheists.