27 September 2011

The Christian god and forgiveness

I recently caught the above video online and, well, I don't think it's that great of a video. Not because I don't agree with the message (quite the contrary), but because it's just not a very creative video and it's peppered with f-bombs for some reason. I'd hope that people who make such videos generally expect that some inquisitive believers will watch them, and I don't think that God saying "fuck!" early on is exactly a persuasive rhetorical device.

Anyway, aside from it not being the best video, the central message is interesting to me because it's one of the many conundrums that drove me away from Christianity. In the description of the video, the creator ("DarkMatter2525") states,
"I can do something that the mythological Abrahamic God can't: I can forgive someone without giving them an ultimatum."
When I was a Christian, the book of Hebrews did more to drive me away from the faith than just about anything else. Hebrews more or less explains how the sacrifice of Jesus is connected to Old-Testament Judaism, but it left me with one major question:


God is supposedly omnipotent. Why couldn't he just forgive? Why this elaborate system of faith-based covenants and ritual sacrifices? What does killing an animal (or a person) have to do with forgiveness? Now, the de facto response I've had from Christians over the years is that it's a matter of justice. Some price has to be paid for our sins. Why? Well, because God says so, that's why. But I'd argue that we bear the price for selfish behavior in this life. We may gain material wealth or power through selfish behavior, but we'll never know the happiness of loving and being loved while viewing others as our equals – we'll be alone and looked up with scorn and contempt through the eyes of others.

But still, let's entertain this idea that some people can just "get away with it" in this life, so presumably there needs to be retribution in the next. Why? What's the value of such "justice"? Let's say, for example, that Hitler pays for his evils by burning horribly forever. What does that accomplish that his mere annihilation in death could not? Does knowing that he's burning in Hell relieve the pain of those who suffered because of him? Does it erase or change anything that happened? Of course not. It's not "justice" at all – the entire concept of Hell is little more than petty revenge.

Then you have the nonsensical nature of the Christ covenant in itself. Jesus is supposedly sacrificing himself to God on our behalf, to pay the price for our sins so that – if we believe – we won't have to. But according to Christianity, Jesus is God. So, God is sacrificing himself to himself to pay a price he determined was sufficient to atone for our sins. Which, for some reason, involves ritual blood sacrifices. Couldn't it just as arbitrarily involve, say, burning large amounts of crops or submitting to a good old-fashioned face-punching?

So it may be a pretty lame video, but it does raise some interesting points that played an important role in my exodus from Christianity. Maybe next time he can make one without the f-bombs.

18 September 2011

Dr. Oz, quack (or yes, you can drink apple juice)

Last time I mentioned Dr. Mehmet Oz, he was extolling the virtues of psychic readings as a form of grief counseling and touting a hybrid of homeopathy and acupuncture as some sort of panacea. If you thought this guy couldn't get any worse, guess what: he just did.

Here's the saga in a nutshell: Dr. Oz recorded a show in which he tested apple juice for total levels of arsenic, and came to the conclusion that apple juice is potentially unsafe due to levels of arsenic that exceed the FDA's standard for drinking water. The FDA wrote him a letter prior to the show being aired informing him that his testing methodology was deeply flawed and his claims misleading. Oz and company ignored the FDA's letter and ran the show anyway.

You can read the FDA's letter here, but the gist of it is this: Oz's tests were not only inaccurate, but they failed to distinguish between organic arsenic (which is safe) and inorganic (which is not safe). Oz's test looked only at total arsenic. Further, the FDA varies the amount of safe arsenic based on consumption; since people drink a lot more water than they do apple juice, the safe amount of total arsenic is a little higher in apple juice.

In other words, Dr. Oz has fabricated a health concern where none need exist. It's irresponsible fear-mongering, and Oz should be have his feet held to the fire for it. Oz's audience is unlikely to be informed enough to do anything other than take Oz's claims at face value, breeding a misplaced mistrust of the FDA and a pointless aversion to a completely safe fruit juice.

When Oz was taken to task on the issue by ABC's Heath & Medical Editor Dr. Richard Bessler, he backed down from his conclusions – suggesting that he merely wanted to "start a conversation". He acknowledged that there is no immediate health concern from apple juice, but stood by the misleading results of his lab.

He's a peddler of pseudoscience and quackery, and now he's manufacturing a health crisis. But hey, I'm sure the ratings were great!

Further reading:
Oz Gets Taken to Task Over Apple Juice (Steve Novella @ The NESS)
Dr. Oz is a piece of shit (Michael Hawkins @ For the Sake of Science)

16 September 2011

There are no gods

TheraminTrees delivers an incisive rebuke of religious thinking:

He has a great line toward the end that I think is worth repeating:
"My loyalty is not to naturalism or materialism, as some folks suggest; my loyalty is to systems that demonstrate their claims."

15 September 2011

Science wins again: near-death experiences explained

If there's one constant about supernatural 'explanations', it's that they're gap-fillers. Arguments from ignorance. If a scientific explanation neither apparent nor forthcoming, it's assumed the failure lies in the limitations of scientific inquiry. They not really explanations, but fillers in lieu of real explanations. Nowhere has that been more apparent than with near-death experiences. There's a website called Skeptiko (not to be confused with the skeptical blog Skeptico) that regularly argues in favor of the supposed supernatural side of near-death experiences (along with a litany of other woo). I've talked about near-death experiences before, but I basically concluded that the evidence of any mind/body dualism was weak and inconclusive.

Well, now I get to take it step further, because according to Scientific American, we now have good, rational, evidence-based explanations for near-death experiences:
Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features.
The article goes on to explain that all of the common phenomena of near-death experiences are actually experienced in other conditions, and can be linked to specific biological cognitive functions.
Altogether, scientific evidence suggests that all features of the near-death experience have some basis in normal brain function gone awry. Moreover, the very knowledge of the lore regarding near-death episodes might play a crucial role in experiencing them—a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, I can't help but offer an extra facepalm for the people who enthusiastically bought the book "Heaven is Real".

12 September 2011

Conversing instead of arguing

Yesterday, it all got to be just too damn exasperating and I finally slapped a long-overdue IP ban on longtime reader/antagonist Jack Hudson. It's the first time I've ever banned someone who wasn't just spamming or being a dick just for it's own sake, and I think 99% of those cases were Dennis Markuze.

Not too long ago I had a fairly long conversation with my brother, who unlike me is still a committed Christian. We undoubtedly disagree on many things. But throughout our hour-or-so conversation, we never raised our voices, belittled one another or cut each other off. It really is possible to have a vigorous but civil discussion, so long as the goal is discussion rather than arguing for its own sake or attempting to "win". 

I've no doubt that Jack, his ego being what it is, will think that he was banned because his arguments are devastatingly incisive, and I the atheist just didn't have the cojones to engage him. I really don't care, because it's impossible to "win" with someone like him. The reality is that I banned Jack not because we disagree, but because he is literally incapable of maintaining a civil, open-minded discussion. He'll lie, backtrack and dodge simply to avoid the shame of conceding even the most minor point to the non-believers whom he looks upon with such snide condescension, all while peppering his posts with thinly veiled insults. Argue with someone like Jack long enough, and you'll find yourself becoming like them. Personally, I have no desire to sink to that level.

I reminded myself that you simply cannot force people to see things from your own perspective; all you can do is invite others to examine your views openly, critically and honestly. We apostates and non-believers often like to call ourselves "free thinkers", and it's because most of us did not arrive at our beliefs through rhetorical persuasion or emotional appeals, but through self-criticism and introspection. Intellectual growth requires the ability to critically examine one's own beliefs, and those whose conceit prevents them from such reflection cannot be argued out of a position.

I've changed my tune on several issues over the years. Obviously, I de-converted from evangelical Christianity, which took nearly a year. But I spent many subsequent years as a "theistic agnostic" who would use the moral, design and cosmological arguments to defend my position – one I did not concede easily. I've changed my mind about ontological naturalism and what it means to call myself an atheist, and I've been willing to concede a point when the facts turn out not to be on my side. I'm certainly not claiming to be immune from bias and I'm well aware that even now I could be wrong about many things, but I do try my best to hold no idea sacred and to approach a subject with thoughtful skepticism, even if it appears to reinforce my beliefs.

I've been civilly challenged on my views by believers and non-believers alike, and I'll continue to engage those who are seeking a thoughtful discussion. I think it's important to be challenged, and I publish this blog in part because I hope that those with thoughtful criticism will engage me. But just as I recently discussed the fact that I'm no longer interested in talking about apologetics on this blog, it's also time I make it clear that this blog is not a place for arguing. It is a place for discussion, and those incapable of doing so with courtesy, respect and an open mind are not welcome.

p.s. - H/T to Bruce for inspiring this post

11 September 2011

The terrorists won

It's safe to say that the 9.11 attackers didn't have ambitions of global conquest. Well, many radical Muslims do, but it's more of an intangible ideal, not an immediate objective. The attacks were designed to strike fear into us. And as much as we like to hold hands and sing and pretend that we won, the harsh reality is that the terrorists got exactly what they wanted out of it.

First, we got the Patriot Act, an insidious encroachment on personal freedoms in the name of protecting us all. I'm reminded of the famous quote by Ben Franklin:
Those who would trade in their freedom for their protection deserve neither. Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.
Then we got those stupid color-code "alert" systems. Today's orange! Be extra alert! What does that even mean? What, specifically, were we supposed to do? Nobody seemed to know.

We invaded Iraq. We took out Saddam and killed many thousands of civilians – hundreds of thousands, by some counts. We didn't even have a legitimate reason to be there, but if you protested the war you were branded as unpatriotic. "Support our troops!" became synonymous with "support the current administration's policies!"

Then we started demonizing Muslim citizens. When they tried to build a community center that was fully compliant with all zoning laws in New York City, they were met with hateful protests – even though Muslism Americans were killed in the attacks, and even though the vast majority of Muslims are perfectly kind, normal people.

We now go through an absurd security checkpoint every time we want to fly. When I flew back from Vegas last week, I had to give them my bottle of sun screen. Sun screen. It was deemed too dangerous. We go through x-rays or a pat-down. Does anyone honestly believe this makes us any safer?

One thing is for sure: we're afraid. We've sacrificed freedoms, we've killed innocents, and we've scapegoated minorities all in the name of protecting ourselves. Those who died ten years ago were victims of a hateful and false ideology. As a nation, we've chosen to become victims.

Ten years ago today....

I'm going to spare the whole spiel about how the 9.11 attacks changed everything, because I think that sort of thing tends to be greatly exaggerated. But I do want to reflect briefly on a relevant issue.

Terrorism and war is one of those fringes of the religious debate that arouses lots of ire from religious moderates who don't like to be associated with fundamentalist killers. Most Muslims are peaceful, normal people. The US is home to some two million of them, who unfortunately have had to endure being stigmatized by reactionary conservatives. Remember when they tried to build a community center in New York, perfectly within their legal jurisdiction? I sure do.

Anyway, here's the issue: the problem with fundamentalist Islam, as is the problem with all religion, is that it is based on a bunch of ridiculous ideas that are shielded from criticism precisely because they are religious in nature, and command some bizarre form of special privilege. It's still taboo to criticize people's religious beliefs, no matter how stupid they are. The problem is not that the 9.11 attackers picked the wrong religion, but that they subverted reason for ideological blindness and bought into a litany of false beliefs, which they believed with enough passion and conviction to become martyrs.

Non-believers often paint a picture that without religion, the world would be more peaceful. To an extent, I think that's accurate. The entire Israel/Palestine conflict is happening because two diametrically opposed religious sects each think that God gave them a certain plot of land. They feel entitled to it and they'll die for it. Well, sorry: there is no God and he's not a divine real estate agent. It's just land. The sooner those people accept that, the sooner they can quit killing each other. As Steven Weinberg has said, With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

But I also think that it can be easy to over-simplify. There are all kinds of false beliefs that a positivist society could purge including racism, sexism, nationalism, gender discrimination, and even dangerous pseudosciences like homeopathy and the anti-vaccination movement. Getting rid of religion would be a good step in eliminating some real cruelty, but it wouldn't turn the world into some secular utopia.

The erosion of religion is really just one stop along the way. Religion is, by far, the most prominent label by which we divide ourselves against each other. But what we are really after is not so much the elimination of religion, but the broader adoption of a rational, science-based understanding of the world in place of superstition and dogma.

One last point, unrelated. We love to lament at the 3,000 or so civilians lost in 9.11. But in our completely unnecessary invasion of Iraq, we have by most estimates been the cause of over 100,000 civilians deaths. Brings to mind the old saying, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

09 September 2011

Thought of the day

Re: Christianity

How can an omnipotent deity sacrifice itself? What is it sacrificing, and to whom?

08 September 2011

Morality series index

Here's a quick index of the series of post on morality that I've done over the past month:

Objective morality does not exist (and nobody believes in it anyway)

Morality is subjective

The essence of moral reasoning, part 1: why "evil" fails

The essence of moral reasoning, part 2: making moral decisions

The essence of moral reasoning, part 3: informed decisions





The essence of moral reasoning, part 3: informed decisions

In my previous post in this series on morality, I talked about the biological underpinnings of our moral judgments, and argued that variances in the development of "empathy circuits" in various regions of the brain can powerfully shape the manner in which we make moral decisions, and that in our natural environment we may experience a conflict between the emotional circuitry in our brains and our rational faculties, which makes moral reasoning more complex. For the final post, I want to turn to the rational component of moral judgments.

There's a question regarding morality that is commonly posed to non-believers: "If you don't believe in an objective, transcendent and absolute moral authority, how can you say that the behavior of the Nazis was wrong?"

False morals

There are really two components here. The first is that what the Nazis did – treat people as mere objects – requires an erosion of our empathetic circuitry. Save those who suffer from abnormalities in various brain regions affecting empathy, it is simply not in our nature to be cruel to others; in fact, we have very specific, involuntary biological responses to seeing others in distress in which we experience many of the same symptoms that the other is showing. This response, however, can be temporarily eroded – we can be "de-conditioned" of our natural empathy.

The second component has to do with the more rational component of moral reasoning. Although it is in our nature to desire fairness and to feel compassion, we must reconcile those feelings with objective information about the natural world. So in forming rational moral judgments, it becomes absolutely vital that the information to which we have access is accurate.

A Nazi cold-water immersion experiment
And that, quite simply, forms a solid foundation upon which to reject "Nazi morality": the beliefs underpinning the Nazi's attempt at global domination and extermination of Jewish people are false. The German people were not a genetically superior "race" of people, but were every bit as human as the Jews they so villainized. The notion that the Jews were partly, if not entirely, responsible for Germany's economic woes was similarly pure nonsense. That's how you get Nazi morality: you have people who passionately believe information that is patently false. It's quite plausible that many Nazis, if not most, took no delight in the suffering of other people; but, by adopting the false belief that Jews were not actually people, they were able to overcome their natural human empathy, to the point that great atrocities were committed.

Since we recently passed the 10th anniversary of the 9.11 attacks, they will serve as a similar example. The bombers were not, in their own minds, villains; on the contrary, they viewed themselves as righteous soldiers in God's army. How can we say they were morally wrong? Easy: because they were factually wrong. False beliefs such as racism, sexism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism can be flatly rejected as immoral precisely because they are indeed false.

I'll provide one more example. The journalism show Vanguard recently documented the anti-gay culture in Uganda, and showed that evangelical pastors were spreading false information about the behavior of homosexuals that incited outrage from congregants (view the full episode here). It's entirely plausible that such people are true believers and are not knowingly spreading false information, but it highlights a central point to my post: sound moral reasoning is dependent on accurate information.

Making informed judgments

It is for this reason that the pursuit of science is so important to our moral development. Many who treat others cruelly may not be abnormally low on the "empathy bell curve" I mentioned in the previous post; instead, they may sincerely believe that they are acting in the best interest of those they love; any erosion of their empathy circuitry, such as when Nigerian pastors cruelly exile children under accusations of witchcraft, is most likely temporary and reversible since those suffering from abnormalities in the brain comprise a relatively small portion of the population. Many such African nations are bereft of good science education, which will powerfully and adversely affect its people's ability to form rational moral judgments.

It's important to note that rooting our moral reasoning in accurate information provides a sound, non-arbitrary means of making moral judgments. By understanding how empathy works at the level of the brain, we can understand how our emotions inform our behavior and mitigate our rational judgments; and by valuing accurate information about the world around us, we can root our moral reasoning in objective truths, rather than being subject to the arbitrary whims of ideological falsehoods.

The essence of moral reasoning, part 2: making moral decisions

In my previous post on morality, I argued that simply saying that people are inclined to be "evil" fails as an explanation for human cruelty – it not only fails to take into account certain facts about our biological inclination toward empathy, but it leaves important questions about how we make moral decisions – and how our empathetic hard-wiring can be eroded – unanswered. I touched briefly on the fact that many of our "moral" decisions are made impulsively, and we reason about them retroactively. In this post, I want to examine more thoroughly some of the processes involved in making moral decisions – including how our empathetic nature can both influence us and be eroded.

Empathy on the brain

In his excellent book The Science of Evil, Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen discusses the many regions of the brain that are associated with our ability to empathize with others. What's fascinating is that damage to specific regions of the brain cause empathy to malfunction in highly specific ways. Damage one part of the brain, and we can lose our ability to feel any empathy at all (sociopathology); damage a different part of the brain and we may be able to feel empathy, but be confused as to how to react appropriately; damage yet another different part of the brain and we may have difficulty reading facial expressions and accurately inferring others' emotional states.

The list goes on, but what this shows is that the physical state of our brain has a powerful effect on our ability to make moral decisions. If we can't feel empathy or accurately understand others' emotional states, for example, then our decisions will be more utilitarian and egocentric. This is not speculation or hypothesis, either – it is well documented in the behavior of those suffering from personality disorders.

The causes of personality disorders appear to be combinations of nature and nurture – something which may seem obvious, but is now well substantiated with research. Abuse and neglect during childhood can have an irreversible effect on the development of the brain which manifests in antisocial behavior during adolescence and adulthood. This has important implications: the deck is not stacked the same for everyone. Empathy exists on a bell curve, with individuals at one extreme being highly extroverted, sensitive, and compassionate; and individuals at the other extreme being literally incapable of feeling empathy. It's beyond dispute: our biology has a powerful influence on how we make moral decisions.

The brain in the environment

Of course, our brains don't just sit in vats all day; they're constantly bombarded with sensory input from our environment. We live in an environment in which competition over limited resources influences our moral reasoning. Much like soldiers trained to de-humanize their enemy, we can be conditioned to overcome our basic human empathy. And even if we are relatively normal on the empathy bell-curve, desperate situations may influence us to temporarily repress our empathy for others.

Our moral decisions take two forms: the impulsive, emotionally-driven reactions I mentioned previously; and moral reasoning, in which we attempt to dispassionately judge what is fair. The famous Trolley Problem illuminates the conflict between these two broad reason:

In the first scenario, subjects are presented with a trolley on course to kill five people; with a flip of a switch, the trolley can be re-directed to another track, where one person will be killed. Most individuals immediately judge that it is better to throw the switch and kill one instead of five.

In the second scenario, there is again a trolley headed toward five unfortunate souls. This time, you are on a bridge where a large man is standing. If you push him off the bridge, his corpse will stop the trolley.

In the second scenario, most respondents hesitate – and it is precisely that hesitation which betrays the fact that our moral decisions are not entirely rational (quite the contrary, in fact). In utilitarian terms, both situations are identical; but the second scenario requires us to directly harm a bystander, which causes the empathic circuitry in our brains to remind us that it is unfair to hurt another human being. Interestingly, people low on the empathy bell curve due to lack of development or damage to parts of the brain responsible for empathy (their "empathy circuitry") do not hesitate, since for these individuals all moral decisions are primarily utilitarian.

So we now know that emotions heavily influence our moral decisions, and that individuals whose empathy circuitry in their brains have been adversely affect by genetics and/or their environment will not make the same moral decisions as most of us simply because they do not feel a compulsion to nurture others, to ease or prevent their suffering, or to otherwise respond to their distress. They are unlikely to value fairness or self-sacrifice, as their inability to empathize with others creates an egocentric form of moral judgment. Since moral norms are concerned with how we ought to behave, it's vital that we recognize the pivotal role our biology plays in shaping our relationships with others, that we may properly understand how moral proscriptions are derived.

In the final post in this series, I'll get away from the emotional component and talk about moral reasoning specifically, and how we can use information to make non-arbitrary moral judgments.

Our closest relative?

Sometimes it seems like you can't throw a rock at a new primate fossil without hitting talk about how it's the "missing link". A new find in South Africa, however, may provide some very important clues to understanding human evolution and even has the potential to reshape conventional wisdom on the matter. From the BBC:
The 1.9-million-year-old fossils were first described in 2010, and given the species name Australopithecus sediba.
But the team behind the discovery has now come back with a deeper analysis.
It tells Science magazine that features seen in the brain, feet, hands and pelvis of A. sediba all suggest this species was on the direct evolutionary line to us - Homo sapiens.
"We have examined the critical areas of anatomy that have been used consistently for identifying the uniqueness of human beings," said Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg
"Any one of these features could have evolved separately, but it is highly unlikely that all of them would have evolved together if A. sediba was not related to our lineage," the team leader informed BBC News.

Berger's team believes that, due to many anatomical features of this surprisingly complete skeleton, it's a highly viable candidate for a direct ancestor of us modern homo sapiens. Interestingly, the brain was more primitive, which comports with conventional wisdom that the leap to modern intelligence happened in a relatively short time.

05 September 2011

Vegas, bunny death, Jesus tracks, etc.

I'm back in town after a thoroughly debaucherous weekend in Las Vegas. It was a blast, of course. While I was gone, I had my 'rents swing by my place to check on Alexi, my cat. So upon returning home I swung by their place to pick up my key, and they informed me that the family bunny, Benji, had died while I was away. I'd just taken care of him for a couple weeks while the 'rents were out of state, and I loved having the rabbit and my cat bopping around my apartment together. It's a good memory of him to have now that he's gone. You'll be missed, Benji.

I should be returning to my usual quasi-regular blogging this week. In the meantime:

While in Vegas an old man who was raising money for a no-kill animal shelter thanked me for my small donation and handed me one of those novelty $1,000,000 bills. It wasn't until later that I saw the back: it was a track. It was basically the Ray Comfort pitch: Have you ever stolen? Then you're a thief. Ever lied? You're a liar. Do those things actually work on anyone? By that logic, I'm also a saint, given all the nice things I've done over the years. Anyway, the lesson being: you're not perfect, therefor you're going to hell. Eternal damnation for the crime of being human. Gotta love Christianity.

The rest of the track talked about how God sent his only son to pay my debt for me. Again... does that stuff work on people? Why does an omnipotent god have a son? Especially when he is his own son? Riddle me that! You're guilty of being born human, but God sacrificed himself to himself to pay for the debt he decided you owed him for a 'crime' over which you had no control. And if you telepathically confess your wrongdoings and claim him Lord, your eternal soul will go to paradise when you die. Really? Clearly the only reason we don't make fun of Christianity as much as, say, Scientology, is because we're more accustomed to it.