29 April 2012

Sam Harris says we should profile Muslims

Alright, so I disagree with Sam Harris about free will (kind of). I disagree with him about the safety of fireplaces, and I think his musings on transcendent experiences are kind of nonsensical. But I still love The End of Faith, I thought The Moral Landscape was right on the money, and I agree with him about all sorts of other random stuff (like self-defense).

But with his latest piece, I really have no idea what he's smoking. It must be powerful stuff though, so I hope he's nice enough to share. He begins his thesis by pointing out something we all agree is ridiculous: searching children and/or disabled elderly people as part of airport security. I mean really, how many bomb threats do we think we've thwarted by asking grandma to park her scooter off the side so she can be frisked by a rubber-gloved TSA agent? He then proceeds to argue, unconvincingly, that profiling is okay – specifically, Muslims. Because, y'know, a non-Muslim jihadist is an oxymoron, and everyone knows that only Muslim jihadists are interested in acts of terrorism. 

It's a short piece, so I encourage you to read it if you haven't already. But I just want to point out some things that seem to me to be, I dunno, fucking obvious, that Sam Harris didn't really consider:
  • Muslim terrorists who know that TSA agents are screening for Muslim-looking people aren't going to show up at the airport in robes and beards. In fact, the 9/11 hijackers were, to my knowledge, all dressed just like normal Joes. Here's a pic of one of the hijackers from 9/11, courtesy of Wikipedia. See if you can spot the guy in robes who is, like, obviously a Muslim jihadist:

  • There are a couple of billion Muslims in the world, only a trivially insignificant percentage of which are crazed jihadists. Most are normal, nice people just like you and me. 
  • Shockingly, other people besides Muslim jihadists want to kill people. Do we profile white Christian males because one of them blew up a Federal Building?
  • Sam is showing a great deal of privilege by suggesting that it's really not that big of a deal to profile all the Muslim people. Easy for him to say when he's not in the minority being marginalized. When we account for the Timothy McVeighs of the world and the fact that most of the world's two billion Muslims don't want to blow you up, random searches are probably just as effective, and probably more so, as singling out any group who fit one broad ethnic description.
  • Sam's touting a mindset that would worsen the stigmatization and marginalization of Muslim-Americans, who are having enough of a hard time as it is thanks to dickheads who believe everything they hear on Fox News. 

Okay. *Breathe*

So, we all agree that frisking kids and grandpas is a little over the top, and doesn't actually make us any safer. And Sam's arguments are wholly shortsighted, and frankly most of us who aren't as stupid and vile as Ann Coulter have already figured out that we can't just profile whatever minority we feel is convenient. Is there a middle ground? I'm not going to pretend to know the answers to something as complex as airport security. But I think most of us would agree that current TSA procedures are excessive, ineffective, occasionally invasive, and an annoying inconvenience that is not helping the airline industry's bottom line. But one thing that definitely won't do anything but make matters worse is to single out a minority of people who are already facing an uphill struggle to be treated with fairness and dignity.

Did Dan Savage cross the line?

Dan Savage recently spoke at the High School Journalism convention, presumably to discuss bullying. He helped start the "It Gets Better" campaign which aims to address the bullying of LGBT youth, and he's long been an outspoken advocate of gay rights. But things got a little tense when he started criticizing Christianity and the Bible, and a small group of offended students left the auditorium in protest. Here's the vid:

The link in the video description (if you view it on Youtube) is for a conservative website affiliated with Focus on the Family. Not surprisingly, they were none too thrilled, and some conservatives are demanding an apology.

Now, even Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist, whom I respect and admire greatly, criticized Savage's remarks in part:
No matter the topic, I don’t know why he was compelled to use the words “bullshit” and “pansy-assed.” Right off the bat, he’s alienating the people who believe in the Bible (and, therefore, the people who need to hear this message the most). Plus, when you’re giving a talk about how gay people get treated like shit, don’t use a word like “pansy-assed” to describe the reactions of the kids walking out on you — it just makes you look like a bully yourself, even if you’re not. It would’ve also helped his case to point out that plenty of Christians support gay rights — they might rationalize or ignore what the Bible says, but they are on Savage’s side on this issue.

Personally, I've absolutely no problem with anything Savage said. It should first be noted that one does not simply walk into Mordor... I mean, one does not simply invite Dan Savage to speak at an event without expecting some profanity and some comments that may offend certain people. Part of Savage's charm, and a big part of his efficacy, is that he doesn't mince words – in the vein of Christopher Hitchens, he calls a spade a spade. 

It's certainly sobering that as I am writing this, I popped over the Facebook and found a link to a Huffington Post article about a gay teen who committed suicide last week after being incessantly bullied for his sexuality. And here's the dirty little secret: virtually the only reason anyone in this country tries to rationalize discrimination against gays is because of the Bible, and it's the homophobic subculture of right-wing Christianity that promotes bigotry toward gays in the name of their antiquated religious beliefs. The science is in, but conservative Christians aren't going to let pesky things like reality get in the way of their religion.

Savage rightly pointed out that Christians ignore a great deal of what is commanded in the Bible. They may cite Leviticus to support their anti-gay agenda, but they won't be citing the prohibitions against tattoos, stoning women to death for not being virgins, or the many verses supporting slavery (when Southern Christians in the Confederacy wanted to preserve slavery, they justified it with the Bible). Modern Christians ignore Jesus' prohibition of divorce being justified only in the case of adultery, and Paul's instructions for women to be silent and covered. If Christians are experts at anything, it's at conjuring up new interpretations of scripture to accommodate the forward march of secular modernity. They've done this with regard to slavery and women's rights, so there's no reason they can't do it with regard to gay rights as well – as many liberal-minded Christians have already done.

If you're going to address the problem of gay bullying, you've got to attack it at the source. The irrationality and stupidity of fundamentalist religion is the virus that is perpetuating abuse and discrimination of gays. And, in a classic case of being able to dish it out but not take it, Christians are in an offended uproar over Savage saying mean things about the Bible – and with naughty words no less. Oh, the horror! Another teen committed suicide last week because of the anti-gay culture that this kind of Christianity promotes. So excuse me while I play the world's saddest song on the world's smallest violin for the Christians who were offended at the suggestion that they look in the mirror when trying to understand why this kind of discrimination continues. And no, I don't think we should be 'nice' about it. This is bigotry, plain and simple, hidden being a transparent veil of religious piety. We should call it out, condemn it, ridicule it, and squash it out of existence.

26 April 2012

Theists and atheists: who has the burden of proof?

Yet another outstanding vid from QualiaSoup:

One quick thought to add: I've often seen it stated by theists over the years that atheism is the positive claim that gods do not or cannot exist. William Lane Craig famously begins many of his debates by asking, "What is the evidence for atheism?", conflating atheism with some sort of philosophy. When atheists 'admit' they cannot prove there are no gods, he says they are merely 'agnostics'. QualiaSoup has another great video on this topic – the Lack of Belief in Gods.

Theists like WLC are overlooking the fact that agnosticism and atheism answer different questions – "gnosis" meaning knowledge, and atheism dealing with belief. We can say:
  • There is no evidence that gods exist, therefor I remain agnostic until evidence is presented 
  • Because there is no evidence, I do not hold a positive belief that gods exist, thus I am an atheist
Clearly, atheism and agnosticism are not exclusive positions – and, for that matter, neither are agnosticism and theism. 

There is, however, one positive claim entailed by atheism that I think does need to be defended: that our beliefs ought to be derived solely from empirical evidence – and that things like faith and revelation are not a valid basis for forming beliefs. I made just such a defense recently in my post The Importance of Evidence.

24 April 2012

Christian privilege

"I have to say, as someone who is not a Christian, it's hard for me to believe Christians are a persecuted people in America. God-willing, maybe one of you one day will even rise up and get to be president of this country - or maybe forty-four times in a row. But that's my point, is they've taken this idea of no establishment as persecution, because they feel entitiled, not to equal status, but to greater status." – Jon Stewart

Hemant Mehta has an article up about a high school student named Jeff Shott who dressed up as Jesus on the school's "fictional character day". I thought that was pretty funny, and apparently so did many of his peers – even religious ones. But his teachers and the principle didn't think it was so amusing, so they asked him to take it off.

It's worth reading through the full article, just because it shows how absurd Christian privilege really is. His 'science' teacher flatly said that she does not believe in evolution, and that we all came from Adam and Eve. Teaching creationism, besides being stupid, has been rightly declared unconstitutional. But in those types of situations – which I believe are likely far more common than this one example – it's not like the students are ever going to get a quality science education out of some Biblical literalist, even if the rest of the staff puts the clamp on her preaching.

Meanwhile, PBS recently covered the Rock Beyond Belief festival, which gives a sobering insight into religious discrimination in the military. Again, it's worth watching the video, because it shows that religious people are entitled to certain privileges that non-believers are not. For example, atheists have requested that the military appoint an "atheist chaplain"; while that may seem a contradiction in terms, chaplains have access to the troops in a way that no other counsel does. If, as the Christians suggested, troubled atheists just go see psychiatrists or psychologists, those visits go on their military record and may compromise future opportunities. But a religious soldier can visit a chaplain for counsel as often as he or she likes, and it's both confidential and off the record.

This is the tip of the iceberg, of course, and absolutely nothing new. When it was ruled unconstitutional for teachers in public schools to lead children in prayer, Christians began throwing a fit that's lasted decades. When Jessica Alquist fought to remove a prayer banner from her public school and won the case, she received death threats. Not a year goes by when some religiously-motivated attack on evolution or reproductive rights doesn't fester its way through conservative legislatures. And, much like Jeff Shott recounts "a teacher leading the class in prayer openly criticized my brother for refusing to bow his head," students are still coerced into attending religious events.

Our constitution explicitly forbids government endorsement of religion and religious litmus tests for office. And yet, for some reason, Christians feel entitled to some sort of special status and privilege. After all, when was the last time you saw a Buddhist trying to get a monument of the Eightfold Path erected in front of a courthouse? It's vital that non-believers keep speaking up and putting religion in its place. And I mean that sincerely: religion has its place – in the privacy of one's home, among one's family and friends, and within one's community to the extent that it does not demand special status or privilege over other faiths or no faith. But reminding Christians of this fact is a sure path to cries of "persecution". Well, cry me a damn river.

Don McLeroy on the Colbert Report

I thought this would be unbearable to watch, but it ended up being damn entertaining thanks to Colbert's wit. Don McLeroy is a young-Earth creationist who was on the Texas Board of Education when they were busy butchering annoying obstacles to blind faith like "science" and "facts" in textbooks. He ends up just looking like the butt of a joke, which he was, but Colbert plays it expertly as usual.

The (im)morality of God

This video is nicely complimented by one of my favorite quotes from Richard Dawkins:
"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

I should also add that this is from the debate between Harris and William Lane Craig. Craig did not even attempt to address the bulk of this, instead sticking to his tired "objective morality" canard that's already been shot down six ways from Sunday. But Harris is raising a really good point here – Believers have no choice but to rationalize all this horror as part of God's mysterious plan. But why would an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being create a plan that requires suffering on such a scale, and inflicted upon so many innocents? And who in their right mind would want to be a part of such a "plan"?

This is analogous to me to comments that God sends non-believers like me to hell. Not because I'm a bad person, but because I got the theological arguments wrong. Well, guess what? Fuck such a tyrant of a god. If my atheism is completely misguided and I turn out to be wrong, God wouldn't have to throw me into the lake of fire – I'd flip him the bird and jump in, and my 'saved' friends and family could spend eternity knowing that I'm suffering horribly. I wonder if they could really call that 'heaven'.

There is simply no amount of eternal bliss that could reconcile the mass suffering God's plan purportedly inflicts for those 'mysterious' reasons. It's not a plan that I, nor any decent human being, should want to be a part of. Such a god would be a despicable tyrant, and surely unworthy of 'worship'. Good thing, then, that he's a work of fiction.

23 April 2012

Brian Green: Why is our universe fine-tuned for life?

Good TED Talk from the most well-known popularizer of String Theory.

So, you're an atheist. Now what?

Some time ago I was having a discussion with a Christian friend of mine, and he mentioned (as he often does) the proliferation of various Christian charities, and that it is (supposedly) rooted in a sense of religious duty. Deriding atheism, he said, "So, you're an atheist. Now what?" I didn't have the chance to respond as I would have liked in that conversation (it was about a completely unrelated subject), but I've had this retort pent up in me ever since, and I want to set it free.

Essentially, he was knocking atheism for its nothingness. While Christianity, he would argue, calls people to be charitable and kind and whatever, atheism is just one big vacuum. And it's true! Atheism has no creed, no philosophy, no dogma, no doctrine, no decrees. It just means you don't believe in gods. But for someone who's been swimming in Jesus-love their entire life, atheism can probably seem pretty dark, because it can seem like you're not just rejecting God, but all of the things that believers associate – no matter how wrongly – with God. And y'know, truthfully it's not such a bad question at all. So here's the answer:

You have to think for yourself.

Crazy, I know. But instead of being told what is true and right, you have to figure it out. You actually have to think of good, rational reasons to be kind and charitable instead of... well, instead of being a dick. Fortunately, it turns out that there are lots of good reasons to be a kind, charitable, loving person. That's right – no more doing things because God commands it, which really isn't moral at all anyway. Doing something because you're commanded means you're doing it out of fear of punishment or the desire for reward. That's why, as Penn Jillette has noted, atheists are more moral than believers. Because when we are kind and charitable, we're doing it because it's the right thing to do. Because we recognize that we're all in the same boat in this life, and that we're all depending on each other – and that we'd like to live in a world where if we or our loved ones were the ones in need, others would reach out to help. What better way to create that world than to lead by example?

Psshhh... that's just a snack
Besides, the whole "religion = love" canard smacks of so much cherry picking, it's absurd. Let's not forget that while Christianity is spread with peace and love these days, for the bulk of its history it was spread through tyranny, conquest and coercion. And frankly, I flatly reject the notion that most people who do take part in various missions or religious charities are really doing it out of a sense of religious duty. I'm willing to wager that most people are doing it for the same reason non-religious people do that sort of thing: because it feels good to make a positive difference in other people's lives. It makes us feel valuable, like we are positive contributors to the cooperative social hierarchy of which we are all a small part.

Jesus wasn't the first to spout the Golden Rule, and the reason cultures the world over have valued it (regardless of whether they have canonized it) is because it's pragmatic. Whenever you have pragmatic reasons to do good, it removes the need for religion entirely. And if there aren't pragmatic reasons to do good, then religious commandments are totally arbitrary anyway. Either way, religion adds nothing to the equation.

That's why lots of religious people feel threatened by the new atheist movement, and by the decline of religion in general. Because we're rejecting religious dogma, but we're not jumping off bridges, going on crime sprees, or wasting away in despair. We're happy, fulfilled people living perfectly normal lives. Those countries that are the most atheistic, like Sweden and Denmark? Those are some of the most peaceful, happy countries on Earth. I'm not saying rejecting religion is a guarantee of happiness; happiness can be a complex thing. But we "nons" the world over are living proof that religion is antiquated and unnecessary. We can think for ourselves, thankyouverymuch, and we're better for it.

22 April 2012

I'm losing more respect for Bart Ehrman every day

Posted on his Facebook page:
As many readers know, Richard Carrier has written a hard-hitting, one might even say vicious, response to Did Jesus Exist. I said nothing nasty about Carrier in my book – just the contrary, I indicated that he was a smart fellow with whom I disagree on fundamental issues, including some for which he really does not seem to know what he is talking about. But I never attacked him personally. He on the other hand, appears to be showing his true color.
What? Carrier's criticism of the book was scathing, no doubt. But he didn't attack Ehrman "personally". He attacked the book, quite relentlessly, for being a really shitty and poorly-researched book. I suppose it's hard for anyone not to take that personally, but Ehrman should have done his homework – and he definitely shouldn't have misrepresented Carrier's credentials. It also doesn't help Ehrman's case that he's stuck his own blog behind a paywall, basically ensuring it will be an echo chamber.

In any case, I still have no idea why anyone cares about whether a historical Jesus existed. Ehrman frequently uses the term "mythicists" in a derisive context, and in the process creates a false dichotomy. There's a third and much more evidential view of a historical Jesus, which is that there isn't enough evidence to conclusively establish that he existed. It's certainly plausible, but beyond that, what's the big deal? Who freaking cares? Why is Ehrman so insistent that we must accept that some guy named Jesus actually existed?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's an irrelevant issue. All anyone, besides indulgent academics, really cares about is whether Jesus existed as he is described in the gospels. Since Ehrman has been one of the foremost advocates of exposing the gospels' utter lack of credibility, I don't really see why he'd get in a huff about a so-called "historical" Jesus. Who. Gives. A. Shit?

20 April 2012

Prayer is still stupid

Once upon a time, I found a group on Facebook called Praying for Layla Grace, about a young girl suffering from terminal cancer. I blogged then about how stupid prayer is, and unfortunately her tragic and untimely death only cemented in my mind what an utterly ridiculous charade praying for sick people really is.

Tonight, I spied (through a friend who is a pastor) a very similar group, called Prayers for Lane Goodwin. Like Layla Grace, Lane is suffering from a rare and deadly form of cancer. I took a couple snapshots of the page, to give you a sense of what the mindset is:

"Praying and believing" that the cancer is gone forever? I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that they probably "prayed and believed" that back in 2010, when his cancer went into remission before it ultimately returned. And I posted these two particular shots for a reason – the first specifically says that they're praying for "no fevers", which is shortly followed by the news that he has a fever. The solution? Why, more prayers, of course! Makes perfect sense.

This raises all kinds of questions that should be blatantly obvious to anyone who hasn't completely drank the Kool-Aid:
  • Why did God allow Lane to get cancer in the first place?
  • If God can cure cancer, why doesn't he just get on with it? Why saddle the family with astronomical medical bills while they watch their son suffer, terrified of losing him forever?
  • If God's going to let the cancer kill Lane, then again – why drag it out and make him and his family suffer? F'in pull the trigger already instead of prolonging everyone's suffering.
  • If God's Perfect Divine Plan involves curing Lane, what's the point in praying? It's already in The Plan! 
  • If God's Perfect Divine Plan involves letting Lane die, what's the point in praying? It's already in The Plan!
If Lane recovers, as surely we all hope he will, God will get the credit. He answered their prayers! If Lane dies, God will still get the credit – "it was just God's plan". Well, dipshit, if it's part of God's plan, and God is all-knowing, then why the hell are you praying to him? He obviously knows more about the situation than you possibly could, and he has a plan in place that he's going to follow regardless of whether you pray. Wouldn't be much of a Perfect Divine Plan if God had to change it every time someone wanted something, would it?

Here's the bad news: prayer has no effect. It didn't make a lick of difference for Layla Grace, and it won't make a lick of difference for Lane Goodwin. Prayer is a theological black hole and there's not a lick of empirical evidence that it works.

Here's the good news: prayer has no effect! That means you can spend your time doing more productive things that might actually help. Like, say, donating to cancer research or helping the Goodwin family with their medical bills.

I think this kind of prayer is a relic from ancient religions in which various gods were thought to be in control of the minutiae of daily life, and gods inflicting people with undesirable things could be appeased with pleas, worship, and sacrifices. It's stupid, it doesn't work, and it just distracts people from spending their time doing things that could actually help. If Lane does recover, it won't be because of prayer – it'll be because while anyone with this cancer just a few decades ago would have surely died, he's the lucky recipient of a litany of 21st Century cancer treatments developed by scientists and administered by doctors.

I have to add that I don't think this kind of prayer is harmless. It gives people false hope. It forces people, when they don't get what they desire, to defend God instead of grieve. And it coerces people into blaming themselves – that if only they'd prayed harder, if only they'd had more faith, things might have turned out better. It's bullshit. Things happen. Terrible things. There's no rhyme or reason to it. It's no one's fault. We just have to deal with it as best we can.

The Bible practically wrote itself

I was reading Richard Carrier's merciless critique of Bart Ehrman's new book Did Jesus Exist?, in which Ehrman tries to argue that even though he thinks all the God stuff is hooey, Jesus is (or is based on) a real historical person.

I've never been particularly impressed with Ehrman's arguments on the matter, and frankly I'm not particularly interested in the book because, well, I don't see the point of it. Obviously what matters is whether Jesus existed as he is described in the Gospels, which even Ehrman would argue (and has argued) he did not. Anything beyond that seems pretty masturbatory.

In any case, Carrier mentioned something kind of cool, that I never knew about. Here's the quote:
Paul in his own letters frequently talks about revelation as a source of Jesus’ teachings. Again, Ehrman even agrees that some of the teachings of Jesus were probably “learned” that way. But if some, why not all? Paul never once mentions any other source (except scripture: Romans 16:15-26; e.g. Hebrews 10:5-7 records a saying of Christ, which is in fact simply Psalms 40:6-7, so evidently Christians were also learning the “teachings” of Jesus by reading them as hidden messages in scripture).

I looked up those scriptures, and here they are:
6 Sacrifice and offering you did not desire – but my ears you have opened – burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. 7 Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. [Psalm 40]
5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. 7 Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, my God.’” [Hebrews 10]

Like we needed more proof that the Bible is ordinary human fiction.

16 April 2012

Study finds that opponents of gay marriage think it will ruin other people's straight marriages, but not their own

From Live Science:
Opponents of same-sex marriage worry that extending the institution's rights to gay people will harm heterosexual marriages. But a new study suggests that no one really believes their own relationships are at risk — only other people's.
The study is a demonstration of the "third-person perception," a common psychological bias in which people are convinced that others are much more influenced by outside sources such as media and advertising than they themselves are. In the realm of same-sex marriage, people who strongly value authority and tradition were the most likely to demonstrate this third-person effect.

Full article. 

15 April 2012

Freethought comes to Oklahoma

You didn't think it was possible, but here it is: there's a freethought convention happening right here in Tulsa, Oklahoma – smack in the middle of the Bible belt, in the most conservative state in the country (also, home to one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country!). I'll be there, and I hope you will too.

With any luck, my attendance will finally give my blog international megafame, and I'll make billions of dollars and retire with my 10 supermodel wives in Bora Bora. Or maybe I'll just meet Hemant Mehta and that'll be way cool.

The importance of evidence

Over the years, I've watched many debates between theologians and atheists. I've engaged believers in countless discussions, both in person and online. As I look back on all these discussions, I've come to believe that much of the reason for the continued impasse and, often, frustration on both sides is that prior to the discussion, we aren't really clear on the terms of the discussion. Academics spend hours debating the existence of God without first defining what they mean when they say "God"; and they battle over claims of evidence without first agreeing on the role of evidence in the acquisition of knowledge.

If I had to sum up the argument of modern atheists in one fell swoop, it would be, "there is no evidence for a god or gods." Theists will usually attempt to counter by proffering what they believe to be evidence, but what is too often lost is what really counts as good evidence, and what the value of evidence actually is. Because that central argument of atheism isn't just a claim that must be defended on its own terms – it's also operating on the belief that when it comes to acquiring knowledge about the world, evidence is what really counts. Faith, we argue, is not a valid way of attaining knowledge. That's important, because theists often make the claim that in the end, faith is what counts. They may even take it a step further and assert that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is at some level founded on faith. So in this post, I want to clarify the terms and explain why I think theists are wrong.

Good evidence

When we use the term "evidence", it is my presumption that we are talking about scientific evidence – or, more broadly, empirical evidence. I prefer to stick to the term "empirical" simply because the definition of science often varies from one thinker to the next, and it's too easy for theologians to adopt the most narrow definition of science possible and then accuse atheists of "scientism". But we all agree that science is founded upon the philosophy of empiricism. From Wikipedia:
Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, over the notion of innate ideas or traditions.
Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. 
A theologian may proffer some other type of evidence, like the last three above – a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. In an old blog post, for example, I made the argument that nobody has direct, objective access to the mind of God. Someone replied to the post claiming that God had personally spoken to them, and that counted as "direct" access to the mind of God. But that sort of claim can't really count as evidence because, while it may be evidence to that person, it's not evidence that is equally accessible to all people.

Theists will often claim that they experienced the presence of a god or spirit, and that if we pray or meditate (or whatever), we can also experience this "evidence" for ourselves. But this fails because to experience this evidence requires us to make an a priori assumption about the god or spirit with whom we are attempting to communicate; in other words, we can't pray to a god we do not believe in. Just as a Christian can't pray to Vishnu or Thor since they do not accept the existence of these gods, atheists cannot pray to Jesus in the hopes of experiencing the proper evidence for his existence. This brings me to my first contention:

Valid evidence must be equally accessible to all people, regardless of their a priori beliefs. The only form of evidence which satisfies this criteria is empirical evidence. 


The implication of my first contention is that faith and evidence are two different things – that is, "faith" is not a form of evidence at all, but a claim that we can access knowledge through a distinct epistemology. As long as a theologian and an atheist are debating the merits of evidential claims, they are on equal footing. But when a theologian makes a claim of, for example, revelatory evidence – such as when Ian Hutchinson claimed, in the recent debate with Sean Carroll and Michael Shermer, that he had personally witnessed miracles – they are stepping outside the boundaries of empirical evidence and making a claim that truly amounts to little more than, "I know what I know – so there." It may be convincing to the one making the claim, but it's rationally indefensible. The "evidence" in that case is accessible only to Hutchinson; and since it's not equally accessible to everyone, it's not really evidence at all.

Theists and atheists do generally agree on the importance of evidence, and we all agree that empirical evidence gives us a great deal of information about the world. But theists strongly desire faith to be a cornerstone of their knowledge, so they will often argue that the philosophical foundations of empiricism are themselves based upon faith. In other words, they believe that if they can establish an equivalency between an evidence-based worldview and a faith-based worldview, they will have successfully undermined the foundational pillar of the atheist's claim that faith is not a valid means of acquiring knowledge. 

You may have heard these types of arguments before:
  • The notion that the universe can be rationally understood is based on faith
  • The laws of logic and mathematics are based on assumptions that cannot be proved or disproved – just like faith
  • Empiricism, to the exclusion of faith, is self-defeating – after all, it would be circular reasoning to assert that empiricism can be proved through the use of empirical evidence

These types of arguments may be superficially persuasive, but a little critical thinking reveals them to be irreparably flawed.

Foundations of knowledge (with a hat tip to Evid3nc3)

Empiricism requires us to make to two foundational assumptions:
  1. I exist
  2. My senses generally provide me with reliable information
These are necessary provisional assumptions. The mantra of Rationalism, famously espoused by Rene Descartes, is "I think, therefor I am". But this statement requires the assumption that "I" exist, and that I am able to perceive myself as a rational agent. If we adopt a sort of epistemic nihilism, we might say that our senses are never reliable – maybe my whole life is the dream of an elephant, or an illusion of The Matrix. But such a view essentially says that knowledge does not really exist, so there's nowhere to go from there.

The fact that we can rationally understand the universe is not an assumption, and it's not based on faith – it's an observation buttressed by our ability to make falsifiable predictions about reality, the reliability of which is drawn from abstractions of the reality we observe, like mathematics and logic.

How mathematics is based upon empirical evidence

A mathematical proof may not directly be abstracted from our sensory experience. But set theory, which describes the foundation of all mathematics, most certainly is. Look around your room. Notice that you are surrounded by discrete objects that can be grouped into numbered sets. They may be sets of the same things, or arbitrarily grouped into categories, like "food", "plants and animals", and "man-made things". But we can abstract the existence of numbered sets from the reality that we observe. Imagine, by contrast, if our universe looked like this:

Now, this isn't a perfect example, because being that we are pattern-seeking creatures who inhabit a world full of discrete objects, we will naturally try to impose certain patterns and sets upon this picture. But if we inhabited a world like this, in which there were no discrete objects, then we would not be able to abstract the existence of numbered sets, and we could not extrapolate addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of sets. All mathematical proofs are ultimately rooted in our evidential experience of abstracting numbered sets into basic arithmetic – thus, in a world like this, there would be no mathematics at all.

The "laws" of logic – or, imagine if we were quantum-sized

In the quantum universe of subatomic particles, strange things happen. Or at least we think they are strange because they do not follow the same "rules" as our macro-world. For example, a foundational law of logic is the law of non-contradiction: that two contradictory statements cannot both be true (A is B, and A is not B). In the macro world, an object is either in one place or another. It takes only one path from one point to another. It cannot be two things at once. But at the quantum level, these apparent contradictions don't apply. A particle can be two places at once; it can be both a point and a wave at the same time. It does not take one path from A to B, but all possible paths simultaneously.

Quantum mechanics is one of the most rigorously developed fields of science in history. It can make predictions with stunning precision. And yet its development illustrates that what we consider the "laws" of logic are not really "laws" at all, but simply abstractions of our sensory experience that are reliable in one particular frame of reference. We let go of an object, it falls to the ground: cause, then effect – A, therefor B. Cause and effect is so pervasive in our daily experience, so absolutely encompassing of everything we do and so unwaveringly predictable that it's easy to take for granted that it is in fact based upon evidential experience. We need only watch an infant's reaction of utter fascination to a yo-yo, and the counter-intuitive action that the the ball does not continue falling but reverses direction, to see that our brains develop a working framework of reality by abstracting our sensory observations into a set of reliable rules. But in the quantum world, cause and effect do not adequately describe what we observe. Virtual particles, nuclear decay, and quantum entanglement all defy our classic notions of A, therefor B – but we must still accept the reality of these phenomena.

Faith is not knowledge

It's easy to see, then, that it's a false equivalency to compare religious faith with a philosophy of empiricism. And the question that those who make claims to a faith-based epistemology must answer is this: how do you know what you claim to know? As long as the answer is "because of the evidence", we can have a rational discussion about the empirical evidence that is equally available to all. But as soon as appeals are made to faith, revelation, intuition, and a priori assumptions, the discussion reaches an impasse. The theist has undermined our ability to fairly and objectively weigh the merits of all available evidence, and implied that their own subjective experience – which may be prone to a litany of cognitive errors and biases – ought to be sufficient to persuade us to adopt their beliefs. Faith, being divorced from evidence, is not and cannot be knowledge, but is rather belief despite the absence of knowledge. It should be clear now why we atheists find that to be unpersuasive.

14 April 2012

It may or not be a miracle

Back in the recent debate about science and god, Ian Hutchinson made the 'argument', if you want to call it that, that miracles really do happen. His knock-down, airtight argument: I've seen miracles and science can't disprove it, so there.

Whenever people claim to have either personally experienced or witnessed something supernatural, my response is usually something like this:
Just because a rational explanation for what you experienced is not immediately apparent to you, or to those around you for that matter, does not mean that a rational explanation for your experience does not exist. How do you know you didn't just see or feel what you wanted to? What self-critical thought have you engaged in to try to rule out confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and groupthink?
Of course, the response is always some bullshit like, I just know in my heart what I saw. I know that it was real. No, fucktard, you don't. A strong conviction is not the same thing as knowledge.

And now, there's another little miracle cult, this time in Brisbane. Some young adults and teens are parading around the streets offering to magically cure people of their ailments:
The Pentecostal group Culture Shifters says it has healed people suffering from cancer and multiple sclerosis and is developing a large youth following.
Children from the group have been approaching people at random on the street, prompting alarm from parents and warnings from doctors for the sick to seek medical attention.
Ah yes. "Developing a large youth following". Everyone know young minds are more pliable than those of adults, and less susceptible to diseases of the mind that hinder faith, like critical thinking and skepticism. But faith healing isn't just stupid – it's dangerous.

And really, on what are they basing their claims? If God could really heal people en masse like this, why don't these preachers just go to hospitals? Why don't chaplains adopt this methodology which, according to the group, has over a 95% success rate? That's far better than any science-based medicine I've ever heard of. How do they know when they've cured someone of, say, cancer? Do they just ask people on the street if they need 'healing'? I'm sure, of course, that they require people to provide medical documentation of their current illness and that they do rigorous follow ups with the patients and their doctors, just like Benny Hinn does. What's that you say? Faith healers never do that? Of course they don't. They're either delusional, or they're con artists like Peter Popoff. 

One of my favorite quotes from PZ Myers comes to mind:
Science is simply a process for examining the world, and anyone can do it, even if you don't have a lab coat. If something has an effect or influence, you can try to examine it using the tools of science — so when someone announces that gods cannot be detected by observation or experiment, they are saying they don't matter and don't do anything, which is exactly what this atheist has been saying all along.
If faith healing really worked, there would be mountains of rigorous documentation; indeed, it would make the entire field of medical science totally obsolete. Instead, all we have are anecdotal claims that, most curiously, are never corroborated by independently verifiable evidence. But hey, who needs evidence when you just know?

12 April 2012

Thoughts on that old morality thing

If you haven't watched Frans de Waal's excellent TED talk I post the other day, do so now – it's very provocative and informative.

De Waal's central point, which he emphasizes in his books as well, is that human conceptualizations of morality are not uniquely human at all, but form a continuity with our evolutionary ancestors. The pillars of morality, as he calls them – a sense of fairness and justice, and empathy and cooperation – are deeply embedded in many of our modern evolutionary cousins. While deWaal rightly points out that morality is more than these two foundational pillars, he notes that without them it is nothing at all.

The religious claim to moral authority is perhaps the single most vacuous argument for religious belief that exists – arguments that only religion provides an "objective" standard of morality, and without religion no one has any reason to treat other kindly instead of cruelly.

The most obvious elephant in the room is that even if it were true, nobody has direct, objective, and independently verifiable access to the mind of God. Few agree on what God is, much less what God wants. All religions are subject to a virtually endless parade of very subjective interpretations, and people simply impose their own sociocultural biases onto their holy text of choice. 

The second most obvious fact is that there's no evidence that humans do, or ever have, adhered to any objective, fixed set of moral standards. Moral standards have varied wildly throughout human history and from one culture to the next. What is evident, rather, is that given a certain set of circumstances and the specific information available, most rational humans will arrive at similar conclusions regarding the best course of action.

The beginning of the end.
Thirdly, the notion that moral virtue is best defined as obedience to authority fundamentally confuses what morality is. Morality is not taking the right course of action because it is coerced out of the promise of reward or the threat of punishment; moral action is done regardless of either. The story of Abraham sacrificing his son to God is a fine example of an antiquated belief that blind submission to authority was more virtuous to taking what any rational person would consider the right course of action. Christopher Hitchens famously opined that if God demanded that he sacrifice his son to prove his piety, he would respond to God with, "no, fuck you!" – and that would be the right thing to do.

The fact is, we humans – being social, bonded, unequal and interdependent – have innumerable rational reasons to respect and value one another. We accomplish more when we share resources and work together. We create a better world for everyone when we're altruistic (since it could just as well be us or our loved ones in need). The existence of rational reasons for treating others the way we wish to be treated removes any necessity of an absolute moral authority. That's only necessary when you have to rationalize horrible things, like total war, slavery, and the subjugation of women.  

I wrote about this a while back, and re-reading the subsequent conversation in the comments section, I spotted a quote in defense of religion that caught my eye:
[You] are right that mere obedience to an authority would not in and of itself be moral. However, we could rationally consider our obedience moral if the standard (or the authority) to which we were obeying was always moral.
This defense fails for a ridiculously obvious reason: it's relying upon an external source of moral standards by which to judge this authority. The whole point of religious moral authority is that the essence of morality itself is derived from this authority. But if we can judge for ourselves whether the standard set by this authority is good or bad, we are appealing to our own moral reasoning. Any way you slice it, religion can make no claim to being a moral compass for humanity – people just mold religion to fit their own biases.

Jessica Alquist receiving notifications of impending departure to afterlife from pious Christians

Jessica Alquist successfully sued the Cranston, RI school committee so a prayer banner would be removed from her (public) school, rightly on the grounds that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Since then, pious Christians have been kind enough to let her know that she's cordially invited to a gang rape and a trip to the hereafter. From her Twitter page:


08 April 2012

Bill Maher interviews Sam Harris

From 2010, but I hadn't seen it before. I've disagreed with Sam about various things (transcendence, free will, fireplaces), but he's exceptionally lucid when he's discussing the trappings of accomodationism and religious moderation.

Easter and Passover are dumb

Lady Atheist did a great post talking about how Easter exposes all kinds of problems with the Trinity (as in, it doesn't make any sense). Since I was going to blog about basically the same thing, I'll just direct my readers to her excellent post. An excerpt:
The basic story is that we are stained by original sin, or sins we've committed, or by being sinful beings by design, and only animal sacrifices could save us from God's wrath until Christ allowed himself to be betrayed, marched through the streets of Jerusalem in shame, and then killed by crucifiction.  .... then he gets put into a tomb (typical of the time) and then disappears from it, and then appears to people, Elvis-style, for a time... and then goes to live with God.

...except that he is God.  And in the story, he cries out to God, "Why hast thou forsaken me?"  Now, if he was so powerful that he could have liberated himself if he'd wanted to, why would he say that?  And why refer to God in the second and third persons?  And if he could decide to forgive us via his "sacrifice" of being dead for part of a weekend, why not just decide to forgive us just cuz?  They're his rules.  He can change them... unless he's not all-powerful.

So... the Trinity is problem for several reasons:

  • Jesus refers to himself as "Son of Man"
  • Jesus refers to God in the second and third person
  • Jesus didn't have the power to jump off the cross
  • Jesus was expecting God to intervene for him
  • Jesus as half-God and half-human was more in keeping with stories of his time
  • Jesus didn't willingly sacrifice himself - he could have turned himself in rather than be betrayed
  • In the cannibalistic meal he references himself as a sacrifice, but sacrifice to whom?  Can a god be sacrificed to appease himself?  That's just plain messed up.
  • Jesus says the "father" acts through him, not that he is  his own father
  • Jesus "sits at the right hand" of God.  How can God sit next to himself?
Well, at least that many reasons.  Even if you accept everything else as historically true in the Bible, the Trinity seems like a big stretch.

Read the whole thing here.

And then there's the Jewish celebration of Passover, which is equally absurd. God hardens the Pharoh's heart so the Pharaoh will refuse him, and then punishes the Pharaoh for refusing him. How? By murdering children. After, of course, he's made it rain frogs (South Park: "That just seems mean to frogs!"). It's called "Passover" because God's murderous wrath passed over the houses of Jews. How did God know they were Jews? Well, the obvious answer would have been that God is omniscient, so of course he knew which ones were Jews. But apparently God had been on a bender and needed some help from the Jewish people whom he told to kill lambs and smear their blood on their doorways.

"Kill an animal and smear its blood on your door so I won't murder your son." You have to hand it to the Old Testament god – he was one bloodthirsty bastard.

The redeeming part is that it's entirely bullshit. There is absolutely zero evidence that Jews were ever in Egypt, much less enslaved by them. It's not just the absence of evidence where there should be abundant evidence, though – we also have a great deal of evidence showing the emergence of their culture to be indigenous. Like the rest of the Bible, it's nothing more than an ancient work of fiction.

God is a dick!

South Park, which has a rich history of mocking various religions, did a hilarious satire of Passover:

06 April 2012

Sports, beer, rock, and tits

Tonight I went, for the first time, to the restaurant Twin Peaks. If you haven't heard of it, it's basically like Hooters – basic Americana grub served up by scantily clad hot women. A friend of mine is going through some marital woes, and he wanted the scenery.

Now, I'm not going to pretend like I don't love a scantily clad hot woman. If I'm gonna eat fish tacos, better they're served by a hottie than by some fat old bastard. But I'm not a fan of the way our culture panders to stereotypes of guyness. Oh you're a guy? You must like sports. And draft beer. And top 40 mainstream rock. And of course tits. Sports, beer, rock, and tits. Oh, and stuff. Y'know, cars, gadgets, the polished Harley parked in the entryway, etc.

She's not really doing this to pay for college.
Except actually, I'm not that into beer... I like wine and Scotch. I fucking hate sports. I listen to death metal and I think Nickelback should be launched into the sun. I really don't give a shit about cars and bikes and gadgets. You got me though, I do love tits. But I'm also not stupid enough to get duped into dropping huge tips for those girls just because they flirt with me, call me "babe" and shake their cans. I know that's what they get paid to do. I know when the girl serving us was telling another guy she'd been single for two years, she was probably lying. Because, like strip clubs, Twin Peaks and Hooters sell the illusion that the girl talking to you really is into you. And if she's into you, then hey, you might actually have a chance with her! No, fuckwit, you don't. She's going to go home and tell her boyfriend about what a stupid idiot you were, and then use the generous tip you gave her to buy herself some skinny jeans from Express.

And it's not just that stuff. It's also the stereotype that guys are attracted to women for their bodies, and not much else. I'm not saying that physical beauty is not an important component of attraction, because of course it is, but y'know what really turns me on? A woman who can talk about science and politics and culture, who's knowledgeable and passionate about what she does, and who laughs at my jokes without expecting to get a tip out of it. A woman who doesn't have to wear skimpy outfits to exude sensuality.

The sad thing is, I think that places like Twin Peaks are successful in part because it's actually kind of true. Guys in general do tend to love draft beer, Nickelback, sports, and dumb women with perky tits. I'm sure guys with subscriptions to Scientific American, blue hair and tickets to Opeth concerts who value intelligence over cleavage are in the minority. I just hope that women don't forget that we're out there.

03 April 2012

Oldie but goodie

This is one of my favorite memes. Being an ex-Christian, you really don't see how ridiculous your religion is until you take the goggles off and view it from the outside... y'know, the way Christians view every other religion. Once you deconvert, it's like, Wow... I actually believed that crap?

Dealing with religious apologists, in a nutshell

01 April 2012

Penn Jillette on the distinction between agnosticism and atheism

The hullabaloo over Richard Dawkins' "confession" that he's not 100% certain there is no god apparently reveals that lots of people are still confused on this basic issue. Penn Jillette gives a nice concise summary.