Thursday, January 31, 2013

Communism: The Blood Stain On The History Of Atheism




One of the most common arguments made by theists against atheism is that atheism inevitably leads to communist style dystopias where all commonly good moral values are eroded away and replaced with one person's vision of madness. They point to the horrible social experiments of the 20th century in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and Vietnam where religion was eradicated and millions ended up being murdered and forced into labor under the direction of the State. There is this ongoing conflation of atheism with communism that each of their existences necessarily requires the other as if they're two in the same. While it is true that communism requires atheism, atheism itself implies no political connotations at all whatsoever. And atheist can be capitalist, or a Marxist, or a libertarian, or be completely apolitical. All atheism itself implies is the disbelief in any gods.

Atheists will probably never be able to clean the dark stain of communism off of its history. But it is worthwhile to note that even if we successfully educate the masses that atheism doesn't equal communism, we are still in a position to have to explain the failed communist experiments. I agree with all the critics that the communist regimes of the 20th century were absolutely horrific crimes against humanity. I'm a critic of communism both in theory and in practice. In theory, the idea that society should be controlled and centrally planned so that individuality isn't recognized and people are turned into nothing more than worker bees and forced to build the State's vision of what a civilization should look like, is like as Bill Maher recently said, trying to make the river flow upstream: It goes against our natural need to be recognized as individuals and to be able to pursuit our own goals and happiness. Communism can only really work on small scales and when it is completely voluntary.

It is also important to note that although communism is atheistic and suppresses religious freedom, communism is not done strictly in the name of atheism. The primary goal of communism is not to eradicate religion, the goal is the establishment of the common ownership of property and the means of production for the State. From the perspective of communism, religion was seen merely as an inconvenient obstacle in the way of achieving this dream that had to be taken out.

The main problem of communism is that it is totalitarian - it allows one person to have total power. Total and absolute power, as they say, corrupts its individuals absolutely, that's why monarchies have waned and democracy is on the rise. Most people recognize that power must have checks and balances to ensure that the power is shared amongst different minds. Without this, the citizens of a communist republic are at the mercy of one person's will, and if that person is psychopathic, like Stalin was, unmitigated cruelty is almost inevitable.

Christopher Hitchens argued that when Stalin took the reigns, he was merely exploiting a vacuum of power left over by the Czars of Russia who for centuries were regarded by the Russian people as being somewhere between human and god, and who conditioned the people to credulously obey their authority without question. In other words, according to Hitchens, religious thinking and unquestionable obedience to authority enables dictators like Stalin to come to power, and that the main culprit in all of this is the willingness itself to submit to authority. I think on that he makes an excellent point.

Not that the numbers of the massacred are the most important thing to focus on, but religion itself has been the cause of much unnecessary killing and suffering specifically done in its name. Now I agree with many others that the social consequences of a belief say nothing about whether that belief is true of not, but I am also not ignorant to the role that the ugly stain of communism has on atheism. Thus, the primary reason why the word atheism in the West has had such negative connotations, is because of its association with communism, and to a lesser extent with Darwinism. In the future, as atheism becomes more closely associated with secular humanism and secular democracy, which by all measures represents a more humane and tolerant system of ethics and government, the word atheism or atheist will no longer arouse such fears as it used to.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is Capitalism A Sin?


There was a scene in Michael Moore's 2009 documentary Capitalism: A Love Story when he sits down with a Catholic Priest and asks him if capitalism is a sin. The Priest responds saying the practice of capitalism as it is today, is a sin and is contrary to what is moral and what is for the common good. Was the Priest actually right? Is today's incarnation of capitalism immoral?

I've written about my views on capitalism before. I'm a compassionate capitalist as I say, because without the element of compassion, capitalism is unnecessarily cruel and immoral. There is new episode of Frontline on PBS about the financial crisis of 2008 when the mortgage bubble burst triggering the Great Recession and  it investigates how over four years later, there hasn't been a single prosecution and conviction of anyone involved. Many people feel that the banks involved with the mortgage crisis were fraudulently responsible for the fallout, and that top executives should have been criminally charged at the very least.


Watch The Untouchables on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.


Wouldn't it have been great if those knowingly responsible for the mortgage crisis were convicted and sent to jail along with your common ordinary criminals?

Bankers don't particularly score very high for me on the sympathy scale. I've worked on Wall Street before so I know their general mentality. Most of them are not particularly religious although some may say that they believe in god at some level. Opportunistic theists will seize on the lack of moral and legal accountability on Wall Street and say it's another example of the problems that are the result of our secular culture. (Although conservatives who tend to be more religious seem to be against regulation as the very thought of it conjures up nightmares of socialism.) Perhaps there are many Wall Street execs who feel that they're above the law and that they're heading banks they think that are too big to fail and too big to jail.

Some people theorize that CEOs and execs tend to be charismatic sociopaths who care not at all for the millions of lives their decisions can sometimes ruin. I think at some level there is a culture of sociopathy in the corporate world. When profit is put up so high on a pedestal, the common good down below is out of view. I don't propose invoking the fear of god and all the baggage that comes along with it as a cure, but a culture where compassion is emphasized will help reduce the problems associated with the mindless narcissistic indulgences. Legal accountability and regulation will help also.

All we really need to do is once again have an economy primarily based on producing real tangible goods and real services to real human beings along with clean energy standards, where a getting-filthy-rich-as-soon-as-possible-by-any-means-necessary mentality is avoided because its harmfulness is recognized.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Christianity 2.0?


On my free time I sometimes try to understand religion as best I can. Since I didn't grow up in a religious household, I knew little about religion until my 20s or so, and so now I'm playing catch up. Since there are so many interpretations of religions like Christianity, I wanted to comment on some of the more modern views of it. 

Dr. Francis Collins is a well known scientist and geneticist who in 2000 along with Craig Venture helped map the human genome. He was appointed in 2009 by Pres. Barack Obama to head the National Institution of Health. While he's clearly a very smart and talented man, he's also a devout Christian. His coming to the faith is famously told in a story that he was hiking in the Pacific Northwest one day and saw a three-columned frozen waterfall. Upon seeing this as representing the trinity, he fell to his knees and pledged his love for Christ.

As unmoving as this story is to those of us without religious faith, nevertheless I accept his belief as being sincere. Because of his impeccable scientific credentials, Dr. Collins subscribes to a different kind of Christianity than has been traditionally been observed. It is an interpretation much more compatible with modern scientific knowledge. Call it Christianity 2.0 if you will.

His understanding of god and the universe are described below that are taken from a lecture on science and belief that he gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.” 
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.” 
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” 
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.” 
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

If Christianity is going to survive well into the 21st century, it is going to more or less, have to adopt this view in order to stay relevant. This Christianity's god is a bit more deistic than the fundamentalist view, but nonetheless he is still especially concerned with the affairs of one of his evolved species whom he "gifted" a soul that can eternally perish if it makes the wrong moral choices. I suppose this will also be the version of Christianity we'll be seeing more of in the future on college campuses, in academia and the like.

While I'd much rather deal with this kind of Christianity than the absurdity of fundamentalism, on the issue of morality there is still room for argument. Under naturalism, our moral behavior is a product of our evolutionary history and behavior. Our morality is tuned to the biological nature of our species - if we hadn't evolved and some other species had evolved in our place with different characteristics, our morality wouldn't apply to them. Our moral codes of conduct would only exist in theory with no practical application. In order for our moral codes to have relevance, there needs to exist our species homo sapiens.

This doesn't mean that there is no wrong or right, good or evil. It just means that morality is relative to the species. Even the Christian wouldn't say that the 10 commandments apply to chimps and spider monkeys, because they understand they are only applicable to us. If that is so, there should be no problem accepting that our morality is only a code ethics for human beings. And if it sprung from the evolutionary process, it's inconsequential. 

Now I'm not going to settle this debate right here and now, but this disagreement is indicative that there will be challenges going forward for the Christian and atheist alike despite a future with a more scientifically compatible Christianity.


The Self Created Problem Of Secular Unfairness


Christian fundis often complain about secularism's perceived unfairness towards religion, but in actuality their problem is self-created. I've made this point before that if you dilute the definition religion to mean any worldview, you open the doors to philosophy and politics potentially becoming religions. Then secularism becomes a religion, and the theists cry over the government favoring one religion(secularism) over another.

But this doesn't happen if you define religion like most people: the belief in and worship of god or gods. Sure we like to throw around the word religion to mean anything from being a devout soccer fan to obsessively following the stock market, but these aren't technical uses of the word. When we define secularism as a religion, its own definition becomes "a religion to separate religion, from religion." Since this makes no logical sense, the theist who defines secularism as a religion creates his own problem for him. Then he complains of governmental favoritism.

Since Christianity already has enough of its own internal contradictions, Christians shouldn't be defining religion in ways that create even more problems for them. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Immigration Reform: Round Two


Congress is working on immigration reform legislation. I definitely believe we ought to allow pathways towards citizenship for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in the US, so long as they have not committed additional crimes while here.

The proposals being made are not that different from the policies I wrote about years ago. The actual senate plan's four principles are outlined below:

  • Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required; 
  • Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families; 
  • Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers; and, 
  • Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.

As long as we implement a plan that tackles the illegal immigration issue once and for all so we aren't in the same situation 20 years from now, we can call it comprehensive. If illegal immigrants wanting to work here come forward and are given documentation allowing them to do so, we'll have to implement an E-Verify system preventing preventing those who did not come forward to be able to find work. That will encourage many to come forward, and will prevent future illegal immigration. And along with securing the border, this plan seems to do that, even though I don't have a great deal of confidence in our "do nothing" congress. 

What I want to see are conditions and wages of many of the jobs done by illegal immigrants improved. By giving them the legal rights to work in the US, we will better be able to make this happen. Labor has for decades been hit with stagnant wages and declining benefits - all while productivity is at the highest levels ever. I do not want to allow any longer businesses to be able to exploit cheap labor that drives down wages and dehumanizes workers in the process. We need fair wages and wages that keep up with productivity and the cost of living. Immigration reform can most realistically make this happen, so I support it.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Cosmic Perspective: The Ego Centered Universe?



For me, small talk sometimes includes the controversial topics of politics, philosophy and religion. And because of this, I've met many people who hold to the view that the cosmos or universe has a plan for them, and that it's responding to their lives. I remember years ago meeting these two women at a bar and one of the women said to me that she knew for sure that certain events in her life have been put there by some spirit force to teach her some kind of life lesson. I asked her how she knew for sure, and she responded that it just couldn't have come naturally (!). I tried to cast some doubt into her by making the usual skeptical arguments but it was futile. This went on for a few more minutes before I eventually got bored.

But the point I'm getting at is that the natural human personality is always searching for answers, it's always searching for meaning and pattern. I myself have even fallen victim to this way of thinking at times and I know how it works. If there isn't any skepticism present that is built off our knowledge that the cosmos doesn't operate with us in mind, most people will delve into the superstitious pattern seeking mentality where every event, no matter how random it is, will become seen as some interconnected sign to produce change in your life.

When I take a big step back and look at the cosmos and try to imagine the immensity of it and how tiny and insignificant I am in the face of it, and how I am made of the same star dust as the cosmos is, I cannot come to the conclusion as many others do that it's all designed with a purpose for me. That is to me the very definition of narcissism. I am a part of the cosmos, but I am not the purpose of the cosmos. That's why theists to me never really seem that humble, they actually appear quite the opposite.

Why is it that there is a much higher percentage of atheism and agnosticism amongst scientists? Well, one reason is that as you become an expert in your field and as you understand how things actually work and the mechanisms behind them, the mystery of it is taken away. It's kind of like being amazed by a magic trick and really thinking it's magic, and then once you learn how it's done you're suddenly not moved by it anymore. Once you learn how physics and biology actually work, the mystery of their mechanisms disappears. Science cannot work assuming supernatural mechanisms are at work. The moment a scientist faced with a difficult problem folds his or her arms and says "God did it!", they cease doing science. If scientists had done that from the start, we'd still think lightening and thunder were caused by angry gods.

A growing number of people are finding the scientific story of how the cosmos came to be and our place in it to be just as beautiful and poetic as any tale from religion. We might find it even more beautiful because we know it is true! There's no reason to water it down with metaphor and nonsense, it's just as beautiful as it is. Perhaps the greatest story ever told throughout the cosmos will be the actual story of how the cosmos came to be from nothing to everything, and we'll be able to share this creation story with all intelligent life that exists.

I wonder what it would be like if we actually did contact intelligent life from elsewhere in the cosmos. The theological implications would be enormous, and there are theologians already prepared for that possibility by taking the position that god may have created other life elsewhere. But if we ever did get visited by alien intelligent life, and we found they had discovered all the same fundamental laws of physics as we have, and they were a post-religious society who long ago discarded their creation myths in favor of science, I think we could them safely conclude that our creation myths and deities were a product of our wild imaginations.

And that is the cosmic perspective for now.....

Friday, January 25, 2013

"A Case for Secular Morality" Still In Progress


I am still in the process of writing my paper called A Case for Secular Morality, or at least that is its current working title. In it I am planning to coalesce all of the points on morality that I have written about and developed over the years on this blog and put them into one simple relatively short paper. I want it to read out like a college paper and be highly organized. Since it's been a while that I wrote a college term paper, my organization skills are a little rough. I want it not only to be organized, but be very concise and free of unnecessary rhetoric. I want it to get straight to the point and be an easy read for those who are only lightly knowledgeable about ethics and philosophy. The main point I will argue is that there does exist an objective standard for morality. It is a kind of build off of Sam Harris' Moral Landscape, but corrected for the flaws he had. I don't expect my case for secular morality to be bullet proof, but I think I have a pretty solid case for objective morality free of god.

Making the paper concise and organized is a little harder than I thought it would be and I've had to revise it over and over again. It's still a work in progress but I think I've hammered out the major points. It might take another few weeks at least before it's ready. I don't want to post it too prematurely and then have to revise it again. I want it to be ready for prime time and it goes public. I will have two versions of it, a version in either Word, Adobe or both, and another that I will post it here on my blog.

The Perfect God Who Compromises


Many Christians have tried over the years to re-brand the god of the Old Testament in a kinder gentler light especially after the recent tidal waves of secular criticism coming from the new atheists. It's always a good laugh hearing Christians try to gloss over horrific detail and superfluous cruelty created at the hands of the benevolent deity they adore. I have been reading a book written by Thom Stark called Is God A Moral Compromiser? It's a critical review of Paul Copan's book Is God A Moral Monster? Among other things, Paul has tried in his book to argue that the slavery of the OT was really just a humane form of indentured servitude. Thom Stark disagrees. He writes:

Telling masters to be kind to their slaves is all very well, but far from representing moral progress, that just has the effect of reinforcing the institution of slavery by putting a kindly face on it. If slavery was so emphatically against the grain of the gospel, then why not just make it a requirement of church membership that one cannot own slaves? (p. 24)

The argument made by many theists that the Bible actually regulated slavery and made it more humane compared to other cultures still does nothing to denounce the institution itself. Trying to argue that regulating slavery somehow makes slavery morally acceptable would be like trying to argue that regulating how often and severe a pimp can beat his prostitute makes it morally acceptable. Theists are just kidding themselves, they really are. I think it is psychologically difficult for many theists to come to the acknowledgement that their god could be capable of the type of cruelty that the new atheists accuse him of.

Regarding the indentured servitude theory, was it really as humane as many Christians make it out to be? This is another popular tactic made by the apologists. Thom Stark addresses this in detail in his book. He writes:

It’s true that Hebrew male slaves served only a term of six years, to be released in the seventh, but this was emphatically not true of any and all non-Hebrew slaves, despite Copan’s attempts to force the text to say otherwise. Moreover, most ancient Near Eastern societies had release laws comparable to Israel’s mandates, and while a six year term of service was stipulated in the laws of Moses, only a three year term of service was permitted in the Code of Hammurabi! (p. 165)

I always knew that biblical slavery was indeed slavery. And even if it wasn't, indentured servitude where your "master" is allowed to beat you within certain regulations, I cannot imagine an all-knowing and all-loving god permitting or commanding. Rather, these biblical "morals" are much more obviously the product of a Bronze Age, Near-Eastern tribe full of superstition and xenophobia, and that's why they make little sense in today's light.

Another website of New Zealand Christian apologists called thinkingmatters.org expresses concern over whether the OT god changed his mind. According to the blog, god in a way compromises and gives moral commandments in the OT that are an improvement over what existed before, but are still less than ideal. If that's true, god's moral commandments in the OT are intentionally imperfect, but function as a "compromise between the ideal and the enforceable." It's funny that this same blog praises Paul Copan's responses to the criticism of the new atheists apparently unaware of the his on-again off-again relationship to the truth.

If misguiding your readers and compromising on the truth are what you need to sugarcoat the god of the OT so he doesn't look like a moral monster, then you're really just following in the footsteps and examples set by the god of the Bible.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Roe Vs Wade: 40 Years Of Legal Abortion


I have expressed my thoughts on abortion several times already so there's no reason for me to state them again. Since it's the 40 year anniversary of the Supreme Court Roe V. Wade decision, I just want to comment on the legality of it. There are two components to the abortion debate: the legality of it, and the morality of it.

The legal debate is pretty clear. The 14th Amendment* guarantees the rights of "any person of life, liberty, or property" who are "born or naturalized in the United States". That means that citizenship rights are only given to those already born. The unborn do not qualify.

The majority of Americans want to preserve the right to access abortion services. A 2013 Pew Forum poll shows that 63 % are in favor of keeping the Roe V. Wade decision the law of the land. That's up slightly from 60 % in 1992. And while the statistics show an increase in support for the Roe V. Wade decision, and a decline in the number of people considering abortion to be a critical issue to them, the debate over the decision is far from over.

The Republican party has continued to move further to the right on the issues at the same time the country as a whole moves further to the left. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of laws passed restricting access to abortion, and it is the goal of many of the right to see Roe V. Wade overturned, or have it delegated to the states where states can make it illegal.

While I am not an abortion activist, or one who spends a lot of time arguing about it, when it comes up I make my pro-choice opinions heard. I am pro-choice not pro-abortion. I wish there were no abortions, I really do. I wish no women ever got to that position where they even had to make that choice. That can only come if they are educated and have easy access to contraception. The rates of abortion have been decreasing almost every year because of this in the US.

And what about the the actual possibility of overturning Roe V. Wade? Do conservatives really want a million more children born in the US whose mothers do not want or cannot support, and who will be more likely to need government assistance? If the conservative is in support for making abortion illegal, it is only fair that they also support increased government programs that aide mothers and their children when they are not able to afford them. I'm talking about food stamps, subsidized nursery school, subsidized parental training and the like. It's only being consistent, and it's only being fair.


* The Fourteenth Amendment Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

A Few Thoughts On Hell


Whether theists like it or not, invoking the fear of going to hell is one of religion's greatest selling points. How convenient it is for a Christian or Muslim to be able to tell the skeptic that they are doomed to eternal punishment if they continue doubting. Atheists employ no such fearful tactics. As much as I disagree with theists, as much as our agendas oppose one another from opposite sides of a culture war, I would never wish hell on them, and I would never think they are deserving of hell. The theist who may not wish I go to hell, but who believes that I am deserving of it from my atheism, I have serious quarrels with.

When I think of my intellectual heroes who were non believers and who are now dead, just the idea that they are being tortured in hell now, and will continue to be forever, is sickening. I could never voluntarily love a god who would do such a thing. And the idea that we are commanded to love god or else face dire consequences is also sickening, and very totalitarian. Love must come natural, it cannot be ordered. It's like ordering someone to love blueberry pie. You either love it, or you don't. If you try to force yourself to love it, you will only be lying to yourself. In the case of god, if he exists, he apparently knows who really loves him and who doesn't. He knows who is faking it out of fear or out of self interest. What kind of perfect and holy loving god would think kindly to someone groveling on their knees clamoring, solely out of cowardice?

This points to the self-evident absurdity of religions like Christianity and Islam. God wants us trembling before him, as his slaves, in recognition of his supremacy and perfection, as if god somehow needs to hear he's perfect to boost his confidence. This narcissism and jealously bothers me quite a lot. It is hard for me to rationalize how a holy perfect being with no earthly desires is absolutely furious at the idea that we might ignore him and live as we please. He apparently created us so we could have the pleasure of worshiping him. He is also so loving that he endowed us with the free will to choose to not worship him, and he set it up so that if we did not make that choice, or if we worshiped incorrect attributes of him, he graciously created a place of eternal torture called hell. He sends all those who do not worship him properly (according to the ways he described when he revealed himself many centuries ago to illiterate desert dwellers) to hell and insists that it is their choice since they chose not to worship him properly.

This is more or less an uncaricaturized portrayal of the beliefs that billions of theists have. While some theists express reservations about the unnecessary cruelty of god's chosen way to handle his creation, others are perfectly fine with it and even emphatic about it. I've always thought the idea of eternal torment could only be born out of cruelty and a lack of compassion. To eternally punish those who exercised their logic, reason and  doubt, or who were unlucky enough to have been indoctrinated into the wrong faith as children, when given amount of evidence one had to go on is weak and vague at best, must be the product of deliberate sadism. This idea that god sends us to hell with the attitude that "it's going to hurt me more than it hurts you" I'm not buying.

Just think about how the example below emphasizes the absurdity of the system I'm asked to believe is the work of a perfect being:

Suppose Christianity is true. And now imagine a simple minded fool who out of sheer luck, happens to have been born into the faith. He never thinks deeply about Christianity's precepts or the deeper questions surrounding the story, he just accepts it and believes. He eventually dies and goes to heaven. Imagine someone else born with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. His highly inquisitive mind is always searching for answers and the evidence to back them up. Through his quest for truth, he decides that Christianity's claims cannot be scientifically and rationally justified given the available evidence and so he concludes it isn't true. He dies and goes to hell. 

Assuming that both men are morally equal in their lives, imagine the god who rewards the simple minded fool for his credulity and cultural luck, while the deep thinking intellectual is doomed forever. It's almost as if god is saying, "Don't use the critical thinking abilities I gave you, be credulous and accept." What kind of mind could this be, who would create such a system whereby winning the cultural lottery at birth, and blindly following what is told is worthy of reward or being shown mercy? The thinking theist might say that god takes into account everyone's individual situation, but most often he or she goes by the traditional rules that say there are no exceptions for anyone who doesn't worship the right way. They also tend to believe that we all deserve hell for not being perfect, but seem to be unaware that we were created imperfect to begin with.

I can almost understand a theist accepting this as true but wishing it were different, but I cannot understand the theist who wishes this were true or who believes this is the way it should be. That to me is as absurd as the proposition itself.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Nostalgia



I've always had a thing for nostalgia. As memories fade we often remember the past as being somewhat better that it actually was. For me there is no nostalgia for my youth. Adolescence for me was a very uncomfortable time and I would never want to go back to it. Instead, nostalgia for me is thinking about times before I was born, like Paris in the 20s or New York in the 1950s. It would be interesting to have been around to experience those times.

If I had been around in New York in the 1950s for example, I'd definitely want to absorb the beat culture happening in Greenwich Village at the time. I'd go to poetry readings and drink whiskey in smoke filled jazz clubs. I'd converse with bohemians, intellectuals and seek the comfort and hospitality of liberal women. It seemed like such a grand era. It was cheap to live in the city back then too, and more money could be spent on things that are important, like alcohol and nightlife. But, there are serious things to consider, such as the open racial and gender discrimination of the day. Alas, it will never be, but it is fun to fantasize.

Why Fight Religion?


Some theists ask why an atheist should fight religion. "Why don't you just leave god and religion alone?", they ask. "No one is forcing their religion on you." Well we can argue forever over whether god exists, or whether one religion is true or not, but there is another important element to this debate that is sometimes overlooked. And that is on the issue of secularism which I am very strongly in support of. Generally speaking, the more religious a person is the less likely they will be in support of secularism and the more likely they will be in support of having their religious traditions and principles imposed onto others through government.

Paramount to the atheistic agenda, is the preservation of our secular democracy. It is not as some fear, to have a goal of state atheism. What we want is merely to maintain the "wall of separation between church and state" that Thomas Jefferson had envisioned. And if it weren't for theists constantly trying to tear that wall down, we atheists might be a lot more quiet.

Let me run down a short list why I personally think it is worthwhile to fight against religious belief.

  • We have plausible natural explanations how our universe, life, and we, came to be without the need for a deity
  • Religion (therefore) misrepresents the true nature of our cosmos
  • Religious belief can lead to superstitious thinking which can make us act irrational
  • Religious belief can retard our moral and intellectual progression
  • Religious belief divides us and leads to tribalism 
  • When politics and religion are mixed it often results in the freedom of and from religion being violated

You know if religious minded people kept their personal beliefs to themselves and kept it out of politics and public policy, I wouldn't have so much of a problem with them. But the very nature of religious belief for many requires that I be convinced of it too, or that I be forced to respect it. Well I am thankful that I live in a country where I can pretty much say what I want about religion without being penalized. And it is organized atheism's goal to preserve this and make this possible everywhere so that the right to express one's mind is recognized and respected.

I'm tired of the false accusations that atheists are just imposing secularism on others in a similar fashion that theocrats are with religion. Secularism is a principle, not a religion. Politics is fair game; I have no problem with people with opposing political beliefs having the right to impose them on me. Religion is a different matter: I want you to be able to justify your politics with reason and evidence, not by appealing to scripture or tradition. That's the dividing line.

So as long as there are theocrats trying to tear down the wall between church and state, there will need to be activists and a voting block of secularists holding it up.

Scientism's Unscientific Claims


If the question of whether god exists or not is a metaphysical question, and if metaphysics lies outside the empirical domain of science, then it would suggest that god's existence is not something science can ever determine. Most atheists and theists agree on this.

There have been for decades ongoing feuds between scientists and philosophers. Science deals with the domain of the empirical, and philosophy doesn't. Philosophers are quick to criticize the view some scientists still today hold of scientism that says only scientific claims are meaningful and true. As the critics point out, the claim of scientism itself is not scientific, and is therefore either wrong or meaningless. So scientism is a self-refuting idea.

Theists who hold that critical view of scientism say there are many things that exist beyond the domain of science that we hold to be true on assumption. Metaphysical statements like "the external world is real" and "the past was not created 5 minutes ago with an appearance of age" are metaphysical beliefs that cannot be scientifically proven, and yet most of us without hesitation go about our lives assuming they're true.

In regards to the question of whether god exists, we do not have proof one way or the other, yet the atheist is fine going about life assuming god doesn't exist. So if science cannot prove that we are not living in a computer simulation, are we justified in assuming we aren't despite lacking proof? This is a very good question. Without proof, we will never know for sure if we are or aren't. Most people, including myself, reasonably believe the world around us is real, but, I can't prove god doesn't exist, and yet I still assume he is not real. Is this a hypocrisy on the part of the atheist?

The reason why believing the external world is real is justified because we can directly sense and experience it. We can touch, smell, hear, taste, observe and test our world. While this does fall short of proving that the external world is real, the only way we can interpret the world around us is through our senses. God cannot be sensed in such a way that is not explainable by science. The feeling of transcendence, the experience of seeing and hearing what one thinks is god, angels, demons or spirits, these are explainable by neuroscience as natural phenomenon and are reproducible to a degree in the laboratory. I explained this further in a recent post when I mentioned the transcendent.

Because it is now possible through science to explain how and why we have experiences that seem supernatural, I'd say it is much more likely that god is a product of the brain and not a product of some metaphysical reality beyond which we can prove.

Every possible domain it is said that cannot be proven by science - math, logic, metaphysics, morality, aesthetics, and perhaps even science itself - I can grant the all these arguments to be true and god may still not exist. None of them require the supernatural. Everything we know to be true, we know through science. (This doesn't of course account for subjective knowledge that is a matter of preference or opinion, such as the statement that you prefer chocolate over vanilla, or that you find sand dunes to be beautiful.)

So I would say that a fanatic adoption of scientism is not healthy. Fanaticism of any kind is not healthy, especially in religion. But I don't think it can be denied that scientific progress has enabled us to better discern irrational superstition from what actually is real, and this has greatly aided our progression into a more humane society. Imagine if Medieval Europeans during the witch hunts of the Inquisition were suddenly made aware of the scientific knowledge we have today concerning a germ theory of disease, and the nonsense of alchemy and sorcery. The Inquisition and the thousands that were tortured and burned at the stake never would have happened. No scientifically literate society could justify burning accused witches, only a society steeped in ignorance and superstition aided by religion could do so. So while we can't say that the domain of science unearths all truths about everything, it is the best method we have for understanding reality and separating truth from nonsense.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

When Worlds Collide




For years I had been fascinated by the history surrounding the contact between the peoples of the Old World with the peoples of the New World. It is about as finest an example that we've got in determining what happens when very distinct cultures clash and their worlds collide. The history of man is very disturbing. It is rife with hatred and ignorance and brutality unseen anywhere else in nature. You would expect that mankind's past would reflect a slow progression from savage to noble. Have we really evolved from the savage? Or are we just tamed under the facade of civility? I certainly think that the modern world has forced man to think and act rational. We have extended our compassion beyond those who are just like us, and this we can all agree is good. Compassion and empathy knows no limits, and with each passing year it seems our world becomes a little more humane. But it is not without its problems.

When mankind encountered his fellow man, things often didn't go quite well. When I think about the holocaust to the Native Americans it makes me sad. I find a deep sense of intrigue and comfort in the Native American way of life. It is a amply more harmonious with nature. There is no concept of conquering nature, or taming nature, there is living with nature, as nature. When the Europeans arrived they brought with them a totally new way of live, alien to the Native American ways. European culture required exploiting the land, controlling it, making it conform to serve their needs. They didn't just want what they needed, they wanted more so that they could sell it and trade it to make a profit. The land was a means for them to get rich. The Native way was in tuned with nature, it lived with it. You took from the land only what you needed, and you put back into it only what you took. There was no need to take any more than necessary.

These two ways of living would eventually clash, and it would be the Native American way that would lose. Gone are the spirited hunters and gathers on the great plains chasing buffalo herds.

Although I have deep respect for the Native American way of life, I must admit that I am a man of the modern world. And my modern way of living requires that the land be tamed and that land must be extracted and turned into products. At best I could strike a balance between these two ways of living, but finding the right way is the hard part.

When cultures collide they can sometimes mix well. But like oil and water put together, sometimes they do not mix very well, and often when this happens one destroys the other. When I think of the conflict between the West and Islam I think that the latter might be the case. I think at some fundamental level it will not mix very well. I have hope however, that there won't be violence and that our coexistence will be peaceful. We are not the savages that we were just 60 years ago. All educated rational people know that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet, and that to kill your fellow man is to kill your distant brother. Since in the modern era our compassion has been extended beyond those who are like us, we will more likely treat the other like one of us. This makes violent confrontation less likely. We all desire the same basic things. We want to live our lives with freedom as we wish. We want happiness for ourselves and our families. We want to live in a safe community where compassion is exercised, and there is respect for one another. Most of us want man to extend his compassion to nature as well because it is nature that supplies us with everything we need. We did not come into this world, we came out of it. Man is nature. We are made of the same chemical elements that surround us everywhere. Our nature should therefore respect nature, because we deserve self respect too.

Someone years ago created the 10 Indian Commandments. I have reprinted them below. I must admit that they make more sense than their biblical counterparts. If we actually lived by them we would be fully living in harmony with one another and with nature. I would advise that you take whatever wisdom it contains and make it work for you.

The 10 Indian Commandments

1. Treat the earth and all that dwell thereon with respect
2. Remain close to the great spirit
3. Show great respect to your fellow beings
4. Work together for the benefit of human kind
5. Give assistance and kindness whenever needed
6. Do what you know to be right
7. Look after the well being of mind and body
8. Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good
9. Be truthful and honest at all times
10. Take full responsibility for your actions


Friday, January 18, 2013

How Many Countries Would I Get Killed In For Writing This Blog?


Source: Wikipedia 

The things I write on this blog can get me imprisoned, executed and murdered in many other countries. Being an American in the United States, I forget sometimes that the rest of the world doesn't care much for freedom of speech. Blasphemy laws and laws penalizing the defamation of religion exist in many countries, especially in the Islamic world.

Of the 51 Muslim majority countries in the world, 7 are officially Islamic states, 18 have Islam as its official state religion, and about 25 are officially secular states where the government is neutral on religion or where there is official recognition of multiple religions. One country, Western Sahara is a disputed territory with no current official government.  The term "secular" also varies from country to country, with some countries having state support for certain religions while still considering themselves secular states. Here are some interesting statistics on religion from a 2011 Pew Forum report:

  • Of the 51 majority Muslim countries, 22 had laws against blasphemy (43%)
  • 32 had laws penalizing defamation of religion (62%), and 
  • 20 had laws penalizing apostasy (39%)

Many of these countries overlap and contain one or more of these laws. In total, 36 majority Muslim countries or 70% had one or more of these laws in 2011. 

And it's not just in Muslim majority countries. A recent Pew study has found that 47% of the world's countries have laws against blasphemy, apostasy, or defamation of religion including hate speech against religious groups.

These statistics make me very happy and proud to be an American. Our sacred Constitution guarantees our freedom of speech, and it's pretty obvious that this is still a radical idea in most parts of the world today. Many conservatives say atheists hate America, I totally disagree. No one cares more about the principles this country was founded on than atheists. We constantly cite our First Amendment rights separating church and state, freedom of and from religion, and freedom of speech.

People continue to debate whether freedom of speech is a universal right. I think that many places in the world have a way to go before they embrace such a right, the Islamic world especially. Until then, we should continue to preserve our values, and oppose those wishing to take away our rights. We should also help spread our values by arguing their importance.

When dealing with Islam, it is also important to help set a distinction between those against freedom of speech when it comes to religion and those that aren't. If a Muslim says they're offended by a depiction of Muhammad, or a criticism of Islam, they must be told that their own religion says very hateful things about Christians, Jews and all non-Muslims. In fact, in the Qur'an it says non-believers are worse than animals. But you won't hear atheists complain about the hate speech in the Qur'an. We may be offended, but we respect a Muslim's right to say what ever they want. Many Muslims just don't understand this. They want to be able to criticize and espouse very demeaning and hateful things towards non-Muslims that's written in their faith, but the moment you criticize them and their faith - it's hate speech. Give me a break.

Does Religious Fundamentalism Help Atheism?


It's just too easy to poke fun at religious fundamentalism, but recently I was wondering whether it can actually help increase the numbers of atheists. The rise in atheism and decline in religiosity in recent years might be due in part to people becoming disillusioned with the messages they are hearing coming from religious fundamentalism. Hearing that god hates fags and that evolution is really just part of a worldwide conspiracy from scientists and people in academia to turn people away from god so they can better perpetuate the homosexual agenda, actually can help people turn away from religion.

It seems plausible. Think about it. Imagine you are a kid today growing up in a Christian household. As you get older you learn the scientific point of view of the world in school and through the internet. Overtime this makes more and more logical sense compared with religion. You now have an irreconcilable conflict between science and faith. In most cases as you grow older, especially when you get to college, you're going to side with science because it is evidence based and not faith based. Accepting evolution is just the first step. Using your knowledge of biology and science you also conclude like most people that homosexuality is natural and not a sin. Now when you hear fundamentalists preaching that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, you will likely regard them as uneducated fanatics.

If religious fundamentalists pit the debate by making a person choose between religion and science, or evolution and Christianity, religion will lose in the long run. No properly educated person is going to believe that the universe was created in six literal days just 6,000 years ago. Many theists today recognize this and so they've adapted their interpretation of their faith to incorporate evolution. I predict that doing so will be the only way religions like Christianity will be able to survive in reasonable numbers into the 21st century.

So this brings me back to my opening question. I think religious fundamentalism actually helps atheism quite a lot because rational people can easily point the finger at fundamentalists and make fun of them and argue about the problem of extremism. Many educated young people are simply going to reject religion if it means they must compromise their scientific knowledge of how the world really operates. The growing acceptance of homosexuality is also going to make people who call it an evil sin become so marginalized that no rational person will want to be a part of a religion that holds those beliefs. The bottom line is that fundamentalism brands religion and religious people as being uneducated, unscientific, close-minded, hateful, intolerant fanatics; a belief that rational educated people don't want to be associated with.

Evolution says that those who cannot adapt will go extinct. Religious belief will have to adapt if it doesn't want to go extinct. But, I want religion to go extinct or at least get as close to extinction as much it can. So, I technically should be in favor of religious extremism and fundamentalism. I want fundamentalists to hold up their signs that read "GOD HATES FAGS"; I want them to believe evolution is a conspiracy and a hoax; I want them to believe Jesus rode on the back of a dinosaur; I want them to believe in Noah's flood and Jonah living inside the fish. Nothing actually helps grow the number of skeptics, free thinkers, agnostics and atheists than having to hear someone who believes these things are actually true.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Agnosticism Vs. Atheism Part 2: Levels of Disbelief



Over a year ago I wrote a post differentiating the agnostic and atheistic positions. I said that in the absence of empirical proof of the existence of god, the evidence for and against god is weighed. The agnostic thinks the evidence about even, and the atheist thinks it's weighted in favor of there being no god. But I recently thought about a recent post of mine regarding Christopher Hitchens' definition of atheism, and so I decided to create a scale with nine levels of belief and disbelief in god ranging from strong atheism, to strong theism.

On my scale shown above, the moderate atheist can stop short of saying "There are no gods," but can say "There almost certainly are no gods. I therefore don't believe in any gods." In other words, given the weak evidence for god, and the powerful explanatory power of science, moderate atheism can affirm a warranted belief in the ability of science to naturally explain the existence of everything in the universe, including the universe itself, without the need for a deity.

Imagine this question posed to a non-believer: Are you an atheist that asserts the proposition that god does not exist, or do you simply withhold belief in god in the way the agnostic does?

This is an interesting question because it seems to accuse the moderate or weak atheist of really just being an agnostic. Does an atheist have to confidently assert that god does not exist? To me really anyone who falls short of at least saying "I believe in god" is an atheist. Since the agnostic doesn't actively believe in god, he or she is technically an atheist.

But let me answer this question using an analogy. Imagine a friend told you they saw Bigfoot outside their bedroom window the other night. Your immediate reaction would probably be disbelief, despite your friend insisting he saw Bigfoot. Most of us, including myself, would require some good evidence to prove that Bigfoot was really lurking outside your friend's bedroom. And in the absence of such evidence, you could rationally conclude that there was no Bigfoot, and that your friend either is lying, saw something that wasn't there, or saw something like a man in a Bigfoot suit. In other words, in the absence of evidence, the default position is disbelief.

I treat the existence of god the same way. In the absence of empirical evidence that cannot be explained by science under naturalistic causes, the default position is disbelief. This is especially so when the claim being made requires the supernatural. That means I say "I don't believe in god" but I don't say "I know god doesn't exist". Proof of non-existence is not required in order to not believe, all that is needed in the case of god is a plausible natural explanatory alternative. So therefore on the scale above, I would generally fall under moderate atheism because I do not assert that "there is no god," since it cannot be proved.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Perspective On The Problem Of Evil


I don't often write of the problem of evil on this blog because to be honest, it is not an aspect of religion that deeply concerns me. I don't think the existence of evil proves or disproves god. I can actually understand the idea of allowing human free will, which would consequentially allow humans to inflict harm on others. Suffering caused by nature is a bit harder to accept however. The idea that earthquakes, floods and diseases can cause misery and suffering not only to humans but also to animals, is very hard for me to reconcile with the idea of a god of love. This is especially true when you consider that god might have designed every deadly pathogen and exactly how it causes the being it infects to suffer and die. I wonder what a good god must have been thinking when designing the intricate viral and bacterial mechanisms that would later wreak so much pain and misery.

This is all explained as the result of man's sins. Man's sins brought this evil into the world, and if it were not for this, our world would be perfect and free of suffering. Millions of Christians accept this sorry excuse for an explanation. Logically speaking, if no living thing ever died, the world would be plundered of all its resources. It doesn't take a genius to see that coming. But it is easy for me to target the low hanging fruit of fundamentalism. Let's take a moderate Christian view that understands Genesis to be symbolic. This take on Christianity sees that god is more like an artist or a farmer - he set the universe in motion and let evolution take control naturally. That way deadly pathogens evolve out of the same evolutionary process that elephants, dinosaurs, fish and people do. If there is no original Adam and Eve, then original sin may have taken place at some point in the past when god chose to reveal himself to us. Either way, death and suffering would have predated original sin, and so the instability of tectonic plates, weather and disease are somehow the result of a natural process that god started and knew would happen. It's equally perplexing.

What about the idea of god sending people to hell for worshiping in other religions or not worshiping at all? Is there any conflict with this and the idea of a just and loving god? I think so. Imagine Christianity to be true. That means the pious Muslim, who devotes his whole life to worshiping god according to the tradition he was born into, gets a very rude awakening upon his death that he has been wrong all his life, and must now suffer the consequences of hell. The same is true for the Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, and depending on what denomination of Christianity, the Protestant and the Mormon. All of these people wanted to sincerely worship and sacrifice according to the traditions they were born into, but because of the geographic bad luck of having been born into the wrong faith, they spend an eternity in hell.

I find this idea hard to reconcile with the notion of a loving and just god. I mean, where's the mercy? Where's the compassion? Why couldn't god make his existence more clear instead of mysterious and invisible? How can a god of love sentence someone to eternal hell-fire simply because they were born into the wrong religion, or were thoroughly misguided by science? Why would a loving, just and omniscient god choose to make his point by rewarding those who happened to win the lottery of geographical luck? Regardless of what monotheistic religion is true, if anyone of them is, it means billions of people today are going to hell. It means billions more who have lived and died have gone to hell. The majority of the world's population is going to hell, all because of a lack of evidence and bad geographic luck. Considering this, I think it would be wantonly cruel if a god did exist and didn't reveal himself or make his existence verifiable for the sake of the billions headed towards hell. Anything short of this is unjust and I would argue, intentionally evil.

To me it isn't man's evil that I find difficult to reconcile with, it's god's evil and indifference. That's how I would interpret the problem of evil with respect to religion.

de·pres·sion


A Poem



I exist not to be seen,
clouded under a shroud of darkness.
I am not to be heard but only for my words.
Darkness is my escape,
it is my sanctuary.
I avoid the light as much as necessary.
Glimpses of myself rile up feelings of sadness.
I no longer seek company like I used to.
I no longer wish to be seen.
I want to disappear.
Consciousness has become my enemy,
forcing me to endure time as it passes with decreasing speed.
I wish death could be so simple.
I wish death could provide hope.
I no longer dream about the future like I used to.
Now the past is all I have.
I regret that I had not done things differently.
It is so hard to accept such a tragic fate that has befallen me.
I wish it never were.
I wish I never were.

Alas, all tears eventually dry in the sun.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Should We Only Believe That Which Can Be Scientifically Proven?


The philosopher is the lover of wisdom. To not think, is his worst crime. 



Consider the following proposition:

  • We should only believe to be true that which can be scientifically proven

And now ask yourself:

  • Is this proposition self contradictory due to the believed inability to scientifically prove that we should only believe that which can be scientifically proven? 
  • Is this a case of positivism? 
  • Does the existence of transcendent experience, moral experience, philosophical and metaphysical facts, and historical facts exist beyond what science, or knowledge gained through our senses can measure?

Perhaps my bias as a naturalist will become apparent, but I generally agree that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven, because if something can be scientifically proven, we can know it is true. And unless there is some invisible force deliberately messing with our senses (whose existence we could never prove) we can reliably trust that our cognitive faculties are accurate.

Now there are areas of knowledge where science gives partial explanation, but falls short of proving it. For example, the multiverse theory hasn't been proven but is speculated within the laws of physics. A lot of science is theoretical in the sense that it is not yet a valid scientific theory. That's fine, every scientific theory starts out as just a regular theory. When something falls short of being proved, then we should also consider the theory not as fact, but as a possibility.

One thing is for sure, and that is science works. Science has been the most successful method for discovering facts that mankind has ever utilized. Science is the reason why most of us exist, and it is the reason why we have the modern world. Now to say that it is a logical contradiction that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven because we can't prove that we should only believe what can be scientifically proven, is a philosophical and logical play on words, as I shall examine.

If you're going to say that personal intuition, or that revelation is a better way of coming to know truth, I am sorry to say, but this is demonstrably untrue.

  • Personal intuition and revelation are about as reliable as guess work is when it comes to finding the truth. 
  • If you grant one revelation, why not grant all the others? The fact that revelations contradict each other and sometimes even contradict themselves, is reason to question their validity. 
  • If revelation and intuition are contradicted by science, we always go with science because science is evidence based. 
  • If science ever gets something wrong, and it does all the time, the scientific method has a built in self-correcting mechanism that revelation doesn't have. In fact, we use science to disprove revelations when they make scientific claims larger than they can justify.

So I want to examine a few of the areas that are believed by some that are said to transcend the domain of science.

The Transcendent
First, I have established that science works. It is the best method we have for finding empirical truth. Second,  personal experiences like the transcendent, or moral intuition can also be explained by science. The transcendent experience that theists always talk about is not something unique unto one religion, it is an experience just about anyone can have within many contexts, religious or not. The fact that the Buddhist and Hindu can experience the transcendent in such ways that strengthen their faith, and thus take them further away from Christianity or the god of Abraham, shows you that there is a universality to the experience and that it is not something caused by the god of Abraham or any other god. Indeed, the causes of transcendent experience are rooted in the neurological components of the brain as I will explain. That means the atheist too can have this experience, and so what this shows is that the transcendent is a product of our evolved human consciousness. No god is required.

Several years ago neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili wrote a piece for a PBS special on god called Wired for the Ultimate Reality: The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience where they explain some of the neurochemical bases for transcendent experience. They write:

It has now become possible to consider asking questions regarding how complex behaviors, thoughts, and feelings occur, even when they are associated with religious and spiritual experience. Our research has been devoted to elucidating the nature of these experiences by determining their underlying biological mechanisms.
We have generally proposed that there are two classes of neuropsychological mechanisms which underlie the development of religious experiences and behaviors. These two classes of mechanisms represent two lines of neurological development involving the evolution of brain structures that comprise what we have previously referred to as the causal operator on the one hand and the holistic operator on the other. "Operators" refer to networks of nerve tissue in the brain which perform specific functions — in the first case allowing us to perceive causality and in the second allowing us to perceive wholeness in the midst of diversity. There is growing evidence that such overarching functions exist in the brain. In considering these two operators, we are led to the heart of why human beings use the concept of supersensible forces or powers (i.e. the concept of a deity) to help control their environment in such a way as to attain those needs which the culture defines as fundamental.
Based on our model presented in prior works as well as our book, it seems that all unitary experiences — ranging from mild aesthetic experiences such as watching a beautiful sunset to the most profound states that may occur only after years of meditation — may have their basis in neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and the flux of neurotransmitters. We have even suggested that there is an aesthetic-religious continuum that is based upon the progressive activation of the holistic operator such that the more profound the experience, the greater the sense of unity.

They also note the critics of this kind of research:

Many find it deeply disturbing that the experience of God, the sense of the absolute, the sense of mystery and beauty in the universe, the most profoundly moving experiences of which humans are capable, might be reducible to specific brain functions that may even be measurable on advanced brain imaging studies.

The fact that science is now able to explain that which was only explainable by invoking the supernatural is an astonishing achievement in the capability of the human intellect. So as we can see, the transcendent is not something that lies beyond what science can explain.

Moral Experience
Moral experience, or the internal feeling of moral virtues, are also explained by evolution, which would also fall under what science can prove. Morality is indeed the byproduct of our evolutionary development, and all the scientific evidence shows this. Evolution by natural selection shaped us into moral beings, and it went something like this.

Our primate ancestors lived in small social groups. Although there was sometimes fierce fighting over mates and territory, they naturally conformed to a social code of ethics and behavioral norms. These proto-ethics form the basis of what our current morality evolved from. What enabled our ancestral primates to survive and evolve into us was a code of ethics and behavioral norms that allowed for social groups to exist without self destructing. That means as a social species that they were not simply all out for themselves or their own self interests. They had to sacrifice their personal desires at times for the well being of the group. Altruistic behavior evolves out of this sacrifice for the group because each group member's mutual interest was in the survival of the group. The strength of the group was always important because there was always competition from rival groups.

Millions of years later, prehistoric man worked in much the same way with his tribe, and slowly as tribes evolved into chiefdoms and then into states and empires, this in-group vs. out-group idea still held. The lines were drawn in ethnicity, language, geography, religion and social class - distinctions ancient man thought justified his hostile treatment towards the other. As we got closer to the modern era, mankind's intellect forced him to rationally justify why discrimination based on ethnicity, language, geography, religion and social class was moral. Being that science has shown our common ancestry, and that we are much more alike than we are different, the rationale for this discrimination evaporated. And thus we have a more humane and ethical world. Mankind was always able to behave morally with his in group, we just never really extended that to members of the out group. Once we got over our fear of the out-group, we learned to treat all people morally.

Now if this was true, we would expect natural selection to have selected for people who were able to live with others and who were naturally tuned for certain behavioral traits. Willful murder, rape and theft, would always be considered wrong in a social society, because no one would ever be able to know who's going to be next, and this would break down the social order. Since we are social primates by nature, we require a social order.

Now you might be asking yourself - what about male aggression? If a male rapes many females, won't his DNA will be more likely to succeed to the next generation as is evident in many species of animals? Why isn't male aggression also selected by natural selection? Well, it actual is, which is why males are more aggressive than females in almost all species. Although male sexual aggression helps the male spread his seed better, in practicality, human infants are among the most helpless of all species, and need as much help from as many parents as they can. So a male who impregnates a dozen women, is never going to be able to raise and provide for all those babies, and they will likely die as a result. And a male who rapes a female already paired up with another male also risks retaliation by the other male. So the biological nature of the human species forced males to invest in a relatively small number of offspring that they could ensure the survival of, and that forms the basis of pair bonding and love to keep mother and father together to raise the young.

Now the theist will complain that our evolved morality doesn't have any transcendent cosmic significance, but I say "Who cares?" Our morality is only relevant to our species, it doesn't apply to aliens on some other world, it doesn't apply to other species of animals. I even ask theists who the ten commandments would apply to in a universe without humans, and they admit that they wouldn't apply to anyone. In order for moral truths to exist you must begin with a certain set of variables existing. Each hypothetical species that could have evolved in our place might have their own moral codes that uniquely apply to the nature of that species. The bottom line is that our moral gut intuitions are the product of millions of years of evolutionary selection that had a bias in favor of those who could live civilly with others in relatively small social environments. Our intellect, which also was selected by evolution, enabled us to consider morality from the perspective of reason and logic. And it's funny how if you look at any rationally justified moral, it is justified under a given set of prerequisite variables like the laws of physics and the biological nature of humans.


Philosophical and Metaphysical Facts
So if moral experience doesn't require anything supernatural beyond which science can prove, we are left with philosophical and metaphysical facts. Well I think philosophy too is constrained by what science says to be true. Philosophy cannot contradict the laws of physics, it must work within it. With philosophy we can derive an ought from what science can tell us is what is, but any objective truth philosophy can show us, will also have to be measurable by science. For example, if philosophy can tell us what system of morals leads to be least amount of misery and suffering among humans, that can be scientifically demonstrated.

With metaphysics we are concerned largely with ontology. Ontological arguments for the existence of the supernatural amount to nothing more than philosophical wordplay. Just because I can say something exists, or can conjure up the idea of something in my mind, doesn't mean it does or can exist. In other words, when we are dealing with metaphysical concepts that exist beyond of domain of empirical science, we are dealing with conjecture. They can be about as real as any far fetched idea the human imagination can come up with that is short of being proved. And that is to say, not real at all.

The human mind can conjure up a lot more than gods and goddesses. Abstract mathematical or philosophical concepts like logic itself need not require a god. Logic is considered to be transcendent in the sense that if something is demonstrated to be logically true, there can be no possible worlds where it can't be true. Others consider logic only to be true depending on a certain set of conditions preexisting, such as our universe's laws of physics, and that logic will differ depending on the laws of physics differing. If this is so, logic is relative and not an absolute. However, the law of non-contradiction to me seems to be a transcendent concept where there can be no possible world where it can be violated. Our application of logic therefore is only limited by our understanding of the natural laws of physics, and any logical theory that is not corroborated by physics is deemed illogical. So logic, philosophy and metaphysics all operate within the the domain of science where their truth can be demonstrated.

Historical Facts
Many historical "facts" bare no physical evidence backing them up. Often the only evidence backing them up are the written accounts by eyewitnesses. That being said we can never empirically prove that they actually happened, we can only be reasonable sure that they did. We don't know for example if Socrates ever existed, we only know of him as a character in Plato's dialogues. It is possible he could have been invented. Short of empirical verification, we cannot reasonably say certain historical events are facts, we can only give their truth a level of probability. But if they involve the supernatural like the story of Jesus, we must apply a stronger lens of scrutiny. Carl Sagan famously said "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence." Jesus is only known to us through third person written accounts written 70 years or so after the events allegedly happened.

Now I'm not a biblical scholar, but considering that we know the human imagination can run wild, and that mass delusion exists, and that mankind invented every other religion using his own imagination, willfully or not, it seems the most likely plausible explanation for Jesus' resurrection is that it is born out of myth. Therefore, the books of the New Testament, just like much of the Old Testament, all stop short of being considered "facts". To further this point, Israeli archaeology has even been able to show contradictory evidence for many of the most important Old Testament stories.

And if any god did exist, why wouldn't he just make his existence scientifically verifiable? One reason I'm told over and over again is that it could be that god has sufficient reasons to do so beyond which we can know.  But that's basically like saying "The lord works in mysterious ways." In other words, it gets us no where intellectually. You only dig yourself a hole to be filled with anyone's conjecture. And considering that, it seems more feasible for me to assume that god remains mysterious and beyond what science can prove because he doesn't really exist.

Positivism
Considering the proposition, positivism goes a step further and says that what science can prove to be true is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge. In other words, beyond what information science can confirm through our senses, there exists no obtainable knowledge. This would of course discredit god, and the supernatural since they exist outside what science can confirm. I would not commit myself to positivism as I would not commit myself to saying I know for a fact that there is no god. I say that it cannot be proved, tested or observed and thus I am within my rational faculties to conclude its existence is false.

Any concept or idea whose existence or truth lies beyond that which can be proven scientifically, is always open to conjecture or imagination. We can imagine a multitude of different gods and possible universes, but that doesn't mean that any of them can be true. Just because the human imagination can think it, doesn't mean it can translate to reality, even if it is not self contradictory.

Conclusion
So finally, here is what we are left with. There is a group of people who claim that the existence of many different gods or many different versions of the same god exists. They each insist they're right, and the other believer's gods are false. They also say that the existence of their god or gods lies beyond the domain of science and thus cannot be empirically proven. At best, the evidence for their god's existence is circumstantial. So their god must be believed in on a statement of faith, and according to some of them, if this leap of faith is not taken, you might be given an eternal sentence of conscious torture.

There is another group of people, who say that we can only know what is true by what can be scientifically demonstrated. Anything else lies beyond our current scope of knowledge and should be considered theoretical, speculative or something that exists in the realm of subjective opinion. If and when it becomes scientifically proven, it will become part of what we know to be true. There is no place of eternal misery for not believing in this method of verificationism, or if any currently unproven theories are believed. You are free to believe what you want.

Science is the best method for finding empirical truth. Other methods of finding "truth" such as intuition and revelation have been about as successful as making guesses is. And if any information gained by revelation is contradicted by science, almost all logicians will go with science over the revelation. Since science always reigns supreme, we might therefore be able to say that we can scientifically prove that we should only believe that which can be scientifically proven. Now of course it would be a little arrogant for an atheist like me to say I know for a fact that nothing lies beyond the domain of science. However, it is reasonable and rational to be skeptical that these domains exist, especially when considering the supposed intuitions that indicate that they do exist, can all be explained by science.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sex & The City: A Few Notes On Polyamory



I rarely write about my sex life or my personal life on this blog so this is a marked occasion. As man who has never been married, and who doesn't particularly like the idea of marriage, I've been a pretty active player in the dating field over the last decade or so. And living in New York City, I perhaps have benefited by having a front row seat to seeing cultural trends develop.

One growing trend I've noticed today is that many young women and men are identifying as polyamorous. Polyamory is basically when you have multiple sex partners at the same time and are open about it. So a woman may have several men and women in their lives that they are having sex with, and vice-versa. What I wonder, is whether polyamory is a natural evolutionary expression of human sexuality given that we are no longer really having sex to reproduce anymore.

Throughout the 2000s I was dating a pool of 20 something post-college grads and aspiring wannabe actresses (AKA waitresses). If a girl liked me when we started dating, sex usually came quickly, sometimes it was the first "date", but often no more than a few dates later. The women in the 21st century always seemed pretty sexually liberated to me. I even dated a few girls who were so sexually aggressive they intimidated me.

The modern sexual revolution, enabled largely by the birth control pill, allowed people for the first time in history to be able to have sex without a condom where there was a reasonably high expectation that the woman wouldn't get pregnant. This lead to "free love" and non-traditional displays of human sexuality (i.e. fornication). This also helped ignite the gay rights movement not much later.

Four decades later, the children and grand children of the sexual revolution have continued to make what was once non-traditional, the new normal. Homosexuality and gay marriage for example, are such non-issues to much of the liberal and progressive world that we have simply moved on to more important issues like the environment and the economy.

Today in most of the industrialized world, when a boy and girl start dating, if there is mutual attraction and a connection, they will usually begin a sexual relationship shortly thereafter. This is the norm today as it has been for decades. Polyamory evolves from the idea that having a committed monogamous relationship with one person is too restrictive, unsatisfying and perhaps too suffocating. I can understand this. A woman for example, might have a man in her life that satisfies her manly urge, and another woman who satisfies her female urge. Men can do the same, although it seems to be more rare. It is interesting to note that polyamorous relationships do not always have to involve bisexual people who want to have the best of both worlds at the same time.

Let's look at the morality behind polyamory. I personally have no problems with any juxtaposition of sexuality as long as it is between adults and is consensual. Although conservatives hate the idea of people having open relationships, they must face the facts. For some people, the idea of a monogamous heterosexual marriage does not come natural and can seem even oppressive. This cookie-cutter mold may fit some people, but it does not fit everyone. So to each's own, they say.

People have been cheating on their significant others since the beginning of humanity. I've never really had much faith that long-term monogamy was practical or even natural. Polyamory seems to be just the natural evolution of our sexuality given that long-term monogamy is not feasible for some of us. It basically says, "Hey instead of cheating on each other behind our backs and being deceptive, let's just be honest with each other and agree that we will also see other people." I find this a lot more moral than cheating behind someone's back.

Now the critics will say that having multiple relationships is unnatural and will inevitably lead to heartbreak and failure and that traditional marriage is the only route to go. Now that may be true for some people, but it's for everyone. For some, polyamory is the only way they can naturally express themselves in relationships. We must also recognize that polyamory certainly isn't for everyone just as heterosexual marriage isn't. Human sexuality is extremely complex, and it is much more than boy meets girl, they get married and live happily ever after. Human sexuality is a complex range of interconnected relationships, fetishes, and gender-roles. Sure heterosexual monogamy is one of them, and if that works for some people, then fine. But it must be acknowledged that there are other types of relationships that deserve just as much legitimacy.

So finally, am I personally into polyamorous relationships? Well I have to be honest that I've never actually had an open relationship and I tend to prefer being with one person at a time. But, in the right context, I'd certainly be open to a polyamory.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Not Kill, Rape & Steal If There Is No God? A Christian Fallacy


Why is it commonly assumed by some theists that unless everyone operates with the belief that there is an all-seeing skygod above them, we will all just give into every desire and steal, rape and kill? This is was the "fundys" (fundamentalists) insist what will happen if we remove god from society. Other more progressive theists only argue that without god there is no objective morality. I can understand how one could make that argument (even though I think it's wrong), but not the irrational notion that we'd all be bloodthirsty killers in need of a next victim without god. Where does this irrational belief stem from? 

I think it stems from the Christian notion that we have rebelled against god and that our true nature is one that is only out to gratify our carnal lust and that the only restraint against this will be in the form of the punishment of hell. Christianity in other words, has a very negative view of humanity. It can't fathom the idea that humans can exercise restraint on their own reconnaissance. Under Christianity, we are basically savages who are only tamed with god's commandments. This is an old Iron Age piece of "wisdom" that has been handed down through the generations and has survived perhaps because it was created at a time when we were more or less savages, at least to others outside our tribe.

Iron Age man knew nothing of course of evolution, and how it explains the origin of morality. His brutal nature towards others and lack of empathy towards others in different tribes made him project this state of existence onto all of mankind. It is amazing how Judaism and Christianity were obsessed with chastity and sexual purity. Christianity goes even further and takes it to sexual purity of the mind. What mankind did with religion, is set aside all the natural desires we have (some of which are necessary for our procreation and survival) and cast them as the product of evil and demons so as to believe a mind free of any desire is a mind in touch with god.

This helps associate desire with evil and lack of desire with good and god. So fundis think without god, we are only beings with desire. And since there is no hell without god, why not just give into every desire? They lack knowing how irrational that would be and how evolution shaped us to behave towards a moral system that benefited the group, not the individual, since after all we are social primates.

As I try to explain the practicality and necessity of behaving morally to a Christian fundi, they falsely assume that atheism will necessarily lead to irrational ideas and behavior. When it comes to the practicality of the golden rule I had the following exchange with a Christian:

Christian: [Under atheism] Why shouldn’t we harm others if it means being able to propagate our superior genes? 
Me: Well we compete with others to show off when it comes to finding mates all the time. But truly harming another over sex violates the common sense golden rule: you wouldn't want to be killed so another man can have your wife/girl friend. 
Christian: I don’t think that [the golden rule] can be defended on a purely logical or pragmatic basis. In its defense you wrote, “you wouldn't want to be killed so another man can have your wife/girl friend.” Although this is true, there is no logic or pragmatic consideration that would prevent me from thinking, “I’m going to get him before he gets me,” or “There is nothing that compels me to live like those others with their cattle mentality,” or “There’s no higher law that requires me to reciprocate. I am free!” In other words, there is no logical and necessary connection between the way that I want others to treat me and the way I should treat others. 
Me: Under the Protestant interpretation of Christianity that you subscribe to, god judges us not by whether we lived a good and moral life, or whether we were evil. Going to heaven or hell is determined by one thing and one thing only, that is whether we accept Jesus as our personal savior. So that means I can kill and steal and rape all I want, and if I sincerely repent and trust in Jesus, I go to heaven. What is to stop a Christian from reasoning this way? Why can't they just say "well Jesus died for my sins, therefore if I don't sin, he will have died in vain. Therefore, I should sin as much as possible so that Jesus' sacrifice is more important!!" Now you might say "oh no rational Christian would behave that way." Well perhaps, but no rational atheists would say "There is no god, so I can kill and steal all I want!! Hooray!!" 
My point being, that under atheism one has to behave irrational in order to violate the golden rule and just think he can kill and steal whatever he wants. Irrational people will always do irrational things. And if I grant that, then the Christian has to grant that it is possible for a Christian to act irrational within the rules of Protestantism, and think he can rape, kill and steal, and still get into heaven, which is technically possible. So the Christian's argument gets him no where: Both the atheist and theist will have to act irrational to be irrational. That's not news to anyone. The only difference is that the atheist does not have to believe in irrational and counter-intuitive commandments that he must still think are relevant.

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