God would be just another mind

One of the things that annoys me about the study of philosophy is how frequently philosophers equate "God" with "Absolutes."  Even atheistic philosophers generally concede to the claim that, if God* exists, it naturally follows that there is an objective morality, truths about experience, right and wrong aesthetic judgement, etc. This really bothers me.  I can't see any sense in which, if God existed, it would be anything other than just another mind, thinking and acting within the universe.  Its conclusions would, therefore, be just as subject to the criticisms raised by nihilism and relativism than anyone else's.  Its positions would be better informed, but if there's no moral law in the universe outside God, its positions are just as subjective as everyone else's.  On the other hand, if there were universal moral laws built into the physical law of the universe, then there's no need for God to vouchsafe them.

You could argue that God has access to the moral laws that humans don't, but then God is just an intermediary -- a glorified Priest, officiating the will of the real Deity, the uncaring universe.  In that case, the only advantage God gives us is as a tool of increased perception.  From there, all the traditional problems of the existence of God are still present, but if you argue that, you would have to concede that even if there was a God, there's still objective right and wrong.

I'll be posting my Pulp Fiction post later tonight, but this was bugging me so I wanted to get it down.

And, for the record, I think meaning and morality are inherently subjective premises, and the most valid way to sort out which elements can be extended beyond the individual is pragmatism.

*I'm capitalizing it because I'm using the term to refer to a single, omnipotent, universal entity, rather than the broader sense of god which would include more limited, personal gods like Zeus or Jesus.

"Why Are You Atheists So Angry?" Greta Christina's Book!

My favorite Atheist Blogger, Greta Christina, has finally written a book.  It seems to be based on her incredibly popular post from 2007, "Atheists and Anger," which was the post that convinced me that the atheist movement was important, and deserved my attention.

She's self-publishing it, and it should be coming out soon -- I believe, some time in March.  I intend to get a copy as soon as I can.

I haven't been very involved in the Atheist community lately, for a few reasons.  I've been busy with writing, the whole elevatorgate thing pissed me off enough that I wanted to avoid it for a while, and I felt like I needed to re-examine my priorities a bit in life.  I still care a lot about the movement, and maybe this book will rekindle some of my drive to actively participate, sooner rather than later.

I'm really looking forward to it, and if it's anything at all like her blogging, I recommend it.  Also, check out her blog.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? The Cover! | Greta Christina's Blog.

What.

When I can't think of something to blog about, one of the first places I go is reddit.  Not trying to steal content or anything, just looking for inspiration, perhaps something to comment on. Browsing through the Minecraft subreddit, I discovered this conversion guide for using Minecraft as a missionary tool.

I honestly can't tell whether it's a joke.  This looks like a real website, but it contains lines like this:

Also, the Endermen drop "enderpearls", which if you use on a pig will do absolutely nothing (a clear reference to Matthew 7:6).

Matthew 7:6 (NIV) says:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

If Minecraft has any sort of religious undertone, I can't really see it as being Christian.  (spoilers:) The end of the game is a weirdly obscure new-agey sort of spirituality, and the enchantment of weapons, tools and armor seems more like witchcraft of the sort that gets Christians up in arms about stuff like Harry Potter than anything resembling traditional Christian values.

This website seems like it's too completely put together to be fake, so I'm going to go out on a limb and say this looks like the sort of crazy confirmation bias that, honestly, most people do about some thing or another.  I know I've personally done it, about personal relationships and semi-subconscious desires, and it tends to work out poorly for me.

It's weird to see people who've gone that far off the deep end, but I think it's worth remembering that that sort of crazy ins't a categorical difference, it's just a matter of degrees.

I

Of course, I take issues with some things in the movement.  But there are moments that make me love to be a part of it.  Among them, this quote from JT Eberhard's blog:

I get so many emails about that.  When responding, I try not to think about the good coming out does to the atheist movement.  How quickly would the stigma on atheism evaporate if people started realizing that atheists were not banded together in a dark place plotting the unmaking of the country, but that believers were already living unmolested in the presence of atheists – atheists they love?  I try not to think about that because individuals are important, and forced separation from one’s family or the loss of a job may not be worth that contribution to the movement on an individual level.  The best thing is to make sure people come out only when the time is right for them.

Very early in the movement -- back as far as Dawkins's TED talk -- movement leaders made a point of preemptively standing up against outing people, or putting undue pressure on atheists to come out of the closet.

We may be the least trusted group in the United States today, but we don't have it as bad as gay people did in the 80's, or black people in the 50's.

I have nothing but respect for atheists in dangerous situations, who're dependent on religious parents or guardians.  And I understand completely when they don't want to come out of the closet.  It's not like it's never gone badly before.

I love being part of a movement that takes seriously the emotional and social hardships its members put upon themselves by coming out, and I love that we don't pressure people out of the closet before they're ready, or out people against their will.

And by the way, the blog post that quote comes from has a happy ending.  Check it out.

Why Radical Doubt doesn't really support supernatural or anti-scientific beliefs

There's an argument for non-mainstream, non-scientific beliefs* that goes something like this:  "You can't know anything.  You can't really ever know what other people are experiencing, what things happen to them, and what's true for them.  So to claim that there's a right answer to questions about reality is just always wrong." It sounds like a stupid argument, doesn't it?  But I've had conversations -- I've had many conversations -- where people actually try to defend their supernatural or anti-scientific** beliefs with that argument.  Not a more sophisticated version, or a subtle take on that argument, but that argument itself.

So, for a moment, I'm going to take it seriously.

After all, it's a valid proposition.  It's true that we can't ever know anything to 100% certainty.  It's also true that science frequently 'changes its mind' about things, if only in the sense that new information often subtly and sometimes radically changes our best understanding of the probable reality.  For example, apparently in the last two decades, the consensus changed from the belief that dogs were more closely related to cats than bears, to the opposite.

But that doesn't mean everyone's completely off the hook for deciding what to believe in.

Once we've agreed that we can't know anything with perfect certainty, we have to decide upon a method for deciding what we will believe, and what we won't.

I'm going to assume, for the sake of argument, that being able to function in life is among your goals.  We've already agreed that rational argument is a valid route to truth, because if we don't concede that things rationally make sense, then concepts like "100%" and "absolute certainty" don't belong in the argument.

The next step to take is to agree that our experience of the world outside ourselves, our sensory experiences, have at least some connection to reality, however vague.  Without this belief, we are so deeply without information that we can't take any sort of action that could conceivably have meaning.

As far as I can tell, the earliest point of functional acceptance travelling from radical doubt to absolute credulity is an acceptance of science where it's available, less-than-scientific evidence where it's not available and a conclusion is absolutely necessary, and a whole lot of "I don't know."†

Alternately, we could go with any other level of doubt -- levels which range from crippling solipsism to self-endangerment.  But I think the most damning argument against more credulity than I've proposed is that not much farther past the position I've proposed, you're faced with the reality that there are several, if not hundreds or thousands, of roughly equally valid positions.

There are a great many reasons why this is philosophically unsound, but my biggest objection to it is that it makes a person ethically suspect.  Because their behavior is based on essentially unknowable variables, what they believe is 'ethical' becomes both inarguable and, usually, nonsensical.  Greta Christina has argued, and I agree, that this is the greatest danger of religion.

One of the great benefits of science is that it narrows down to a very small number of potentially right answers.  Even if you don't believe that science is always right, or that it's the only valid window into the truth, it certainly offers the best odds.

*I'm not saying that all mainstream, scientific beliefs are true -- they're often proven wrong, mainstream beliefs especially, and one should be duly credulous of all claims not clearly supported.  But there are arguments that make sense for deconstructing beliefs in that category.  This one doesn't. **For the purposes of this blog post, I'm defining "Anti-scientific" as "explicitly contradicted by accepted science, and not supported by any cutting-edge science."  Examples:  Homeopathy, vaccines as a cause of autism, '9/11 truth' conspiracy theories. †I hope to elaborate, in future, on my views about levels of doubt.  I think the issue is more complicated than the points I've laid out here, although I don't think any of the complications are particularly relevant to this argument.

NH to inhibit teaching of evolution

I have distressing news, and I don't know quite what to do about it yet. New Hampshire's state government is considering placing new restrictions on the teaching of evolution.

The two antievolution bills on the horizon in New Hampshire have now been prefiled in the state House of Representatives. House Bill 1148, introduced by Jerry Bergevin (R-District 17), would charge the state board of education to "[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism."

That's not the only one, either.

I am genuinely distressed by this, and will begin organizing opposition as best I can some time within the week.  Make sure, at least, that my friends and family know how to do something about it.

I'll continue to update on the subject here.

My thoughts on "The Ledge"

I've been meaning to get around to seeing this movie for a very long time now, and finally noticed it on HBO OnDemand earlier today. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, "The Ledge" is a drama/thriller about a man standing on the ledge of a building, about to jump, and the story that lead him there.  It deals with the implications of fundamentalist faith and the main character's atheism.  Greta Christina wrote a great essay on it when it had just come out.

My feelings about it were mixed, and I'm not sure where to draw the lines between my personal discomfort and distaste.  I like that it's a serious, honest treatment of atheism that takes the main character, Gavin's, beliefs seriously and portrays them in a neutral/positive light.  (It's an overwhelmingly positive light compared to mainstream views of it.)

The characters largely respected Gavin's atheism, outside the main conflict with his fundamentalist neighbor.  And Gavin is portrayed as a genuinely flawed human being, but it's not all chalked up to his being godless.

But I'm not a huge fan of the genre, and I found myself consistently torn between my strong positive feelings for the treatments of the ideas in the movie and the cultural implications of them, and my general lack of interest in and distaste for the movie itself.

I don't want to spoil anything, but I did find the ending gratifying.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Re: Greta Christina's "'(X) Is Just Like a Religion'..."

In Greta Christina's recent article, "(X) Is Just Like A Religion" -- No, It's Not, she argues against one of my favorite hobbies -- conflating certain kinds of fandom, and religion. I wanted to respond to her points, but I don't know exactly what I want to say.  This is a sort of thinking-out-loud post (a format I am directly stealing from Greta.)

Because I agree with her point, that when people talk about religion, with overwhelming consistency they mean something to do with a belief in the supernatural.  And I agree with her point that religion is either different from other forms of human group-forming, or it's not.  But I think there's room for some subtlety here, and I don't think the best response is to declare that there's no possible analogy between a sports following and a religion.

Because there are things that involve belief in the supernatural that aren't religions.  Depak Chopra's work is not a religion, neither is The Secret.  If we're defaulting to the commonsense view, then there are plenty of supernatural beliefs that don't remotely qualify as religious in nature -- things that might have some relationship to the religious, but aren't inalienably connected, like Leprechauns, or things that simply have nothing at all to do with any religious tradition as it was ever actually practiced, like 2012 apocalypse theories.

I think religion as it's generally understood is a complex phenomenon, with a number of necessary elements.  I think it has to have some sort of organizational structure (which it has in common with politics), it has to have some sort of holiday-like events or rituals (like football), and it has to have some sort of narrative through which one can draw guidance from it (like Doctor Who).

And, yes, it needs to have elements of the supernatural (like fairies or woo).

And I think Greta's right that this combination makes religion dangerous in a unique way.

But I also think that certain elements of that collection, like the narrative or the rituals, have intrinsic value, and those aspects of religion don't bother me so much.

I've been telling people lately that my litmus test for whether someone's going on too much about religion is: if I would be comfortable bringing up Doctor Who this much, it's okay for them to talk this much about Jesus.  Now, I don't talk too much about Doctor Who, I think, but I don't talk about it not at all, either.

And there are key differences between fandom and religion:  I can be a Whovian and a Browncoat and a Nerdfighter and a Star Wars fan, and I'm not committing any sort of idolatry.  I can pick my own dietary restrictions, and nobody's telling me I'm going to hell.  And since no one ever claimed the writers are infallible, I can cherry-pick without guilt.

But there's still something very, deeply similar about them, and I think that's not insignificant.  Personally, I'd love to see more people switch from religion to fandom -- even if it just means a bunch of huge Bronze-age nerds promoting the Bible and the Quran as literature.

I agree that the distinction is important.  But I think those similarities are really important, too, and we're losing out -- not on rhetoric, but on the ability to understand each other -- if we ignore that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's Starting

Actually, it's already started, and has been going for a few weeks now.  It's already been a source of inspiration for some of my posts. I'm talking about the war on "The War on Christmas."

Being a northerner (I live in New Hampshire) the holidays are the only time of the year when religious oppression really starts to set in.

I say "Religious opression," but what I really mean is "Christian whining."  It's not like there are Islamic groups getting particularly active this time of year.  No, this is the time of the year when the entirety of the Christian nation conspires to try to force everyone else to simultaneously celebrate their holiday, and refuse to allow anyone to celebrate their holiday without making it all about their god.

Most of the year, it's not really a big deal.  My friends are mostly atheists and all accepting of my atheism, it's been years since High School, where I was afraid to let people know publicly that I was an atheist (my close friends knew, and it's not like no one ever saw me with a copy of the God Delusion, but I was always careful not to bring it up) and, in general, the only thing that really bothers me about Christianity's intrusion into the secular world is the unusual shop hours on Sundays, which seem to be the day I most frequently need something after 6pm.

I've been called Scrooge already, which is annoying after forty or so times a season.  I've been called soulless, evil and gay, though that last one isn't really an insult so much as an arguably false claim about me, and those last three were in response to an article about the Salvation Army's systemic homophobia.  People have made fun of me for celebrating, and for not celebrating, Christmas.  (I haven't actually gotten yet, this year, the solution to the double-standard:  "Just become Christian.")

There are some things I like about Christmas, but they tend to be overwhelmingly outweighed by my paired distaste for the rampant consumerism of the season, and the annual nationwide campaign to attempt to widen the hole in the separation of church and state, and shove Christianity into the homes of every non-Christian in the country.

I'm still up for adoption

Aww, the Catholic League was just "joking." It does make me wonder whether the program was meant to be tongue-in-cheek from the start, or they just freaked out when a bunch of atheists volunteered.  The fact that they took down their contact page seems to me to suggest the latter, but I seriously doubt they'll ever own up to it.

For the record, if there are any Christians (or religious people of any denomination) who are still interested in attempting to persuade an atheist that he or she is wrong about your god, my offer still stands.  It seems unlikely, now, that the Catholic League is likely to put me through to someone, but I also posted my position in the comments thread on Greta Christina's original post on the topic, and emailed it to my local American Atheists affiliate.

So, fingers crossed.  (No, not like that.)

 

 

 

 

 

I'm up for adoption

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has put forward a challenge.  He is encouraging Christians to go into atheist communities and attempt to... er, persuade them that they were Christian all along. To me, this sounds like a lot of fun.  I would love to volunteer myself for adoption -- if there are any Christians out there (and I will do my best to get this post into the hands of potential missionaries) who are looking for an atheist to adopt, I'm happy to offer my blog as a public forum within which to open up a dialogue.  I promise that all communications that are part of the attempted conversion will be published accurately here on my blog, and responded to in public.

My only request is that if my adoptive Catholic decides to discontinue the dialogue, they make some formal statement of the fact to be printed, just to avoid loose ends.  It doesn't need to be an admission of failure, either -- I'm okay with anything from "You've converted me to atheism/agnosticism/Buddhism/radical-Whovianism" to "I'm getting too busy for this right now" to "I respect your position and have decided to put our theological differences aside" to "You clearly aren't listening to me and I give up out of frustration"*, or even no reason at all, just "I've decided to stop."

I want to do this for three reasons.  One, I look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate that I as an atheist (and atheists in general) have thought through my theological views and arrived at my position after serious consideration of the alternatives.  Two, I like talking about religion, but I don't really enjoy bringing it up for no reason, and an attempted persuasion would make a good source of explicit prompts for specific blogging.  And Three, if I'm being totally honest, I think it'll make my blog more interesting for a while, and I'd rather blog a bit less about how I've got nothing to blog about, and a bit more about things that matter to, you know, anyone.

I really do hope someone takes me up on this.  I think I'll enjoy it.

*If it's this one, I will seriously suspect you of intellectual dishonesty.

Boycott the Salvation Army

This post isn't actually about the reasons you should boycott the Salvation Army (though you totally should). I write for the newspaper at my school, and, being hard-pressed to come up with a topic for the upcoming issue, I decided to take the suggestion of one of my fellow staffmembers and write about the bellringers that begin to pop up around this season.

The thing is, my position isn't exactly likely to be popular.

For those of you who don't know, the Salvation Army is a proactively homophobic organization that devotes resources to acts of discrimination.  I don't support them, and I think it's morally irresponsible at best to give them your change.  (I don't care how warm and fuzzy it makes you feel.)

In the back of my mind, it bugs me a bit that I know this will probably be my least popular article this semester.  It seems like it should be really morally straightforward -- it's a bad idea to support organizations that suppress human rights.  It's not like the SA is the only organization out there that helps poor people.  Goodwill is around, so are various secular soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  There are hundreds of other charities you could devote that money to, as well.

But the SA has ingrained themselves in the Christmas culture so thoroughly that people take it like an attack on the very notion of charity when you point out the fact that that particular organization is made up of total assholes (and a great many part-assholes and less well-informed employees and volunteers who (a.) should have done better research or (b.) couldn't get a better job.)

As a general rule, I think it's a bad idea to donate money to people on the basis that they happen to be standing by with a bucket.  While I do believe most charities have good in their hearts, a lot of them don't necessarily have sense in their heads.  An irrationally run charity can do more harm than no charity at all, and it's a lot harder to do research in the thirty seconds it would otherwise take to just walk past the annoying beggar and give that same change to (a.) a real homeless person who can use it for food or (b.) go home and use that guilt you have from walking past the bellringer to motivate you to look up a charity worth supporting and send them a fiver.

Some of the text of this post might make it into my article...

The Skepticon vids are up!

I know, I should have blogged about this days ago, I think they've actually been up for a week or two.  But I'm  just getting around to it.  (I've only watched one so far: Julia Galef's talk on the Straw Vulcan.)  The channel they're all up on is here.

Here's the aforementioned Straw Vulcan talk, which is a little under an hour long.  It's worth it.

One of the things I love about the skeptic/atheist community is these conferences.  I haven't been able to go to one, the only really significant event like this I've been able to make it to is when Stephen Fry gave an acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, given by the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy.

But it's great to see thought processes I've had articulated so much more clearly than I would have been able to.  It's especially nice to see the stereotypes I've been subjected to pointed out in explicit examples, thrown up on a powerpoint.  Julia Galef very clearly articulates a real bias people have against anyone who strives to be 'rational' -- the belief that that means we want to avoid emotions, or can't solve problems in real life for lack of data or an inability to sense nuance.

About a half hour into her talk (I think, I didn't mark times) she explicitly lays out the core of the problem with that argument -- there's no point to being rational if you eschew emotions.  Emotions are what motivate and inform the end goals of rational action.  Rationality is just maximizing one's realistic odds of achieving those emotionally motivated ends, and, sometimes, choosing between mutually exclusive emotionally motivated ends.

The Skepticon talks are always awesome, and I recommend checking them out, whichever seem interesting to you.  They're generally well-worth the hour's investment of time.

Oblivion

I've had a few conversations about godlike powers with a friend of mine lately, because sometimes, weirdly, the same obscure topic comes up three or four times in unrelated conversations in a short period of time. As a result, I've been using the word "Obliviate" a lot lately.

Let's get a definition for that: (From Wiktionary)

Verb

obliviate (third-person singular simple presentobliviatespresent participleobliviatingsimple past and past participleobliviated)

  1. to forget, to wipe from existence

Related terms

The reason it came up was because there were two basic hypothetical scenarios: if I could have godlike powers, what would I do with them, and if I could choose any sort of afterlife, what would I choose.
The first one came up in a discussion about morality -- in which I argued (as I have here) that morality requires arbitrary presuppositions, but is fact-based from that point onward.  In analyzing the various hypotheticals surrounding that claim, my friend asked what moral acts I would take if I achieved omniscience.
The second one came up because my friend asked, if we could choose, what character in what painting we would choose to spend our afterlife in.  Someone chose God from the Sistine Chapel, which I found a surprising pick. I thought eternity as a god or godlike being would be incredibly boring.
In both scenarios, the course of action I chose was:  "I would obliviate."  That is, cease to exist.  Forget my being.  Wipe myself out of reality.

Religion and Ethics

Yesterday, I wrote a post about not wanting to talk to my friends about why I'm depressed.  Obligingly, one of my friends responded with this comment:

So what are your thoughts on religion and ethics? Do they have to go hand in hand or are they seperate?

This is a fun question, and one I've thought about a lot.  So I want to take some time to break it down.

My first point would be to say that I don't think religion is intrinsically unethical.  I don't think that religion makes you a bad person, and I want to be very clear about that because that's an assumption a lot of people make about my point of view, since I'm critical of religion.

To start with, though, I should explain what I understand morality to be:

Morality starts with values.  Values are the presumed end-goals of actions, things that are considered a priori good, for the purposes of individual morality.  Most people, for example, see the well-being of thinking or feeling entities as being a priori good.

All morality has to be founded on an arbitrary decision like this, because there's no way to work back to a first principle that demonstrates morality as a natural law.  You can't get an ought from an is.

From that point, it's easy to establish moral goals based on one's criteria.  Morally good is defined as things that work towards the goal, morally bad is defined as things that work against the goal, and morally neutral is defined as things that have no noticeable effect on progress towards the goal.

The important thing to note here is that the moral value of an act is determined by its actual effect, not just whether one believes it will be effective. One might have the best intentions in reducing animal cruelty, but no matter how sure the person is, adopting dogs and secretly starving them is not a good way to achieve that goal.  It's morally wrong, even if the person believes it isn't.

We have a word for that causal dissonance -- we call it superstition.  False beliefs about causality seriously hinder a person's ability to make moral choices.

And that's where religion can contribute to immorality.  Religion consists, in part, often in large part, of unjustified claims about reality.  The addition of bad data to an individual's moral decision-making process often results in morally unjustified, or unjustifiable, conclusions.  If, for example, one believes in an afterlife, and one believes that this afterlife can consist either of eternal suffering or eternal happiness, and one believes that a major deciding factor in which afterlife one goes to is whether one has homosexual relationships, one might feel morally obligated to attempt to prevent homosexual relationships from taking root.

That act would be wrong.  Because there probably isn't an afterlife, and even if we can't say there certainly isn't, we certainly can't say we have good reasons to make claims about what it's like, or how one gets there.  Given the legitimate evidence available, the only morally relevant outcome of those supposedly justified actions would be the emotional and sometimes physical suffering of gay people.

So, to answer the question: Religion is at best morally neutral, but usually at least a little bit morally detrimental.

Preparatory Speculation

I'm working on an essay which, lacking a better place, I will probably publish here some time soon.  It's basically going to be a brief treatment of the historical functions of religion and how they're met more effectively by different groups or institutions in modern society.  These are the functions I have so far, can any of you think of something religion would have done in the bronze age that I'm leaving out?

  • Political: Religion provides an embedded system of government to fall back on.  I can't think of a religion that has nothing to say about governance.
  • Social: Religion offers methods for redistributing wealth (tithing) and focusing public service towards members of the community.
  • Scientific (applied and theoretical): Religion proposes hypotheses about the way the world works, and attempts to draw conclusions from those hypotheses and provide insight into good life choices based on them.  Restrictions on diet are common, as well as sociological suggestions on conflict resolution and a psychiatric function.
  • Spiritual/passionate: Religion provides an avenue for the geekier of the civilization to be disproportionately excited about.

I also intend to discuss some extraneous qualities, defining features of religion that aren't strictly necessary functions in a surviving group of humans.