Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are You A Capitalist?

When I talk economics with people I have a few times been mistaken for a socialist. It seems that in our country today this idea has been drummed into us that anything that even remotely curtails capitalism is immediately labeled to be socialist or communist. That means unless you are prepared to accept this label, (a la Fox News style) you must be a supporter of unobstructed capitalism. This has angered many who believe in free markets but with a fair and conscious approach to it.

When asked if I am a capitalist I usually respond that I am a liberal capitalist. Recently the idea of compassionate capitalism has struck me as more accurately describing my economic beliefs. While there is no single definition, compassionate capitalism is fair capitalism; it is conscious capitalism; it is against the cut throat corporatism that we've seen increasing over the past few decades that seeks to outsources jobs, and cut wages and benefits of workers regardless of the profits line. Compassionate capitalism is for protecting worker's rights to have fair and decent pay and benefits; it is for considering the environmental consequences of a business' actions, and it is for a fair tax code that doesn't allow those making the most money to pay a lower tax rate than those in the middle.

In an interview with, Raj Sisodia, head of the Conscious Capitalism Institute describes compassionate or conscious capitalism has having four traits as it relates to business:

  1. First is a higher purpose. There needs to be some other reason why you exist, not just to make money. 
  2. Second is aligning all the stakeholders around that sense of higher purpose and recognizing that their interests are all connected to each other, and therefore there's no exploitation of one for the benefit of another. 
  3. The third element is conscious leadership, which is driven by purpose and by service to people, and not by power or by personal enrichment. 
  4. And the fourth is a conscious culture, which really embodies all of these elements: trust, caring, compassion, and authenticity.
More or less, these were the characteristics that many businesses used to have that we have since strayed from. There was a time when CEOs recognized the value of their workers and the community in which they operated. Over the years, the thirst for greater and greater profits led many business leaders to put profits over people. And so here we are, with CEOs making 400 hundred times the average worker when it used to be 10 or 20 times; we have workers taking pay and benefit cuts while CEOs get raises and even while profits increase. Something's wrong here. It doesn't take a genius to recognize why our economy is virtually flat: the middle class carry the economy, and the less disposable income they have, the less Americans consume. 

The lack of compassion exhibited by many corporations in recent years demonstrates the inability to consider those outside their social circles. That's what it means to lack compassion. If you live your life with a mentality that only considers the well-being of yourself, your family and friends, and those basically inside your social circle, then you allow yourself to be open to economic policy that will hurt thousands or millions of people, as well as animals and the environment. 

There is much more to this than I can possibly mention in a single post. For example, how exactly would compassionate capitalism be implemented in relation to the healthy competition between competing business interests? It seems that the compassionate capitalist must strike a careful balance between collectivism and individualism. Either extreme serves many the wrong way and there is plenty of room for argument. I just want to help offer the liberal capitalist an identity that isn't between either extremes of communism and unobstructed capitalism.

So when asked if I'm a capitalist, I'd say yes. I believe in free markets and free people, I just don't think that the bottom line is above all that we should be focusing on and that there is a need to have an economic system that consciously and compassionately considers all the pieces entangled in its web. Therefore, you can call me a compassionate capitalist. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Secularism, The Culture War, & The Anti-Secular Perspective

I've previously written about the ongoing culture wars dividing the US. One of the most important battles being waged in it is whether or not we are going to continue living in a secular society that separates religion from government. There are forces out there that are trying to push religion into all aspects of government and public life and who are only stopped by the constant and determined effort made by secularists. It is apparent that the more religious a person is, the more likely they will support an encroachment of religion into government. There are many conservative Muslims out there who are advocating for Islamism, and there are Christians out there who want the Bible back in the classroom in the form of creationism. Some of them even go further and want sanctioned prayer in schools and religious based legislation created and passed that would force others to observe their religious duties.

While debating people like this recently I have learned a few things about the way they think and I want for a moment to see the war from how it looks from their perspective.

First, some of those who want religion formally in government think that secularism is itself a religion, being shoved down their throats. I have already argued against the notion that secularism is a religion, but from the theist's perspective, is he/she right in their belief in an ever-increasing and intolerant form secularism chipping away at their religious liberties? Imagine if we had an officially Christian government, and those who were in favor of preserving this rule were forcing non-Christians to observe their faith's traditions and rules? Would I be upset? I certainly would. Is it possible to live in a Christian country and not be forced to observe any practices that are Christian? Yes. There would still be issues of whether schools teach from the Christian perspective, or whether tax dollars go to support the church, or whether other religions would have equal rights to Christianity. These policies exists in many secular and non-secular countries around the world.

Second, the problem I have when I try to look at the issue of secular government from the anti-secularist perspective, is that I do not see their comparison that they are the persecuted majority as they claim to be. Sure, there have been cases of religious liberty being prevented, and I am against this as well, but it seems that the secularist is fair in preventing the encroachment of religion into government so long as we recognize that (1) secularism is not a religion in itself, and (2) that we officially live in a secular democracy. I've always felt that religion is a private matter and that it should be kept where it belongs, in private. The problem with some religions, is that its adherents are never happy just believing, they must convince others to believe as well. If religious people would simply just keep their religions to themselves, and adopt the secular principle when it comes to politics, I'd have little problem with them.

There is a lawsuit leveled by the American Atheists to remove a Tennessee law that forces citizens to acknowledge god's existence by asserting that the “safety and security of the commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.” I never even understood the concept of god protecting the US from terrorism. Does he prevent terrorists from hating or attacking the US like some sort of divine firewall? If so he must violate free will in order to do so. Anyway, the law clearly violates the first amendment, and it is one small battle in a never ending war with anti-secularists.

As I've said before, I believe in fair secularism. I wish to preserve religious liberty and freedom of thought and would hate to ever see a system of state secularism where the state decides what can and cannot be believed. Anti-secularists see any stoppage of the mention of a deity a violation of their religious liberty, but what they fail to see is that the mention of a deity in a law is violating the rights of those who wish to be free from religion. The argument is what side should win and take precedence. Should the non-theist, atheist or non-religious person, be forced to acknowledge and respect a god they do not believe exists and might even hate? Would that be worse than if the theist or religious person has the name of his or her believed deity removed from law and government legislation? I think it is less of a violation to the theist to not have their deity mentioned than it would be for an atheist to be forced to acknowledge any deity. If the theist wishes to have their god acknowledged, they are free to do so privately.

I know this answer will not satisfy those who believe in god and actively want others to publicly acknowledge their deity. To them I will say this: secularism preserves and protects your religious liberty and is one of the reasons why religion has historically thrived so much in the US. This debate will rage on as it has pretty much since this country's inception. More reports from the front lines of the culture war are sure to come.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Writing As A Therapy - Teenage Identity Crisis: A Painful Reminiscence Part 2

Writing for me is very therapeutic. I cannot shake off the good sensation I get when I put together a well written post. Not all of my posts hit the mark, but nevertheless, each is an attempt to put into words a concept or memory that I consciously wrestle with, however imperfect it is. Besides the usual posts on religion, theism, and morality, which seem to consume a great deal of my writings, I occasionally like to write about a personal reflection. And as this is the Thanksgiving holiday, I feel somewhat inclined to write about past problems I've dealt with and hopes I have.

I cannot say that I've had it too bad. My life has been a sort of mild journey when I compare it to the most horrible tragedies that have marred the lives of others. Although my parents divorced when I was a young child, I grew up in a pretty stable middle class home. My parents, although not perfect, were certainly not the worst characters when it came to how I was raised. I also grew up in a pretty safe neighborhood that is and was neither privileged nor impoverished.

I've had my bouts with depression. When I was an adolescent I came down with a serious case of acne that stayed with me until my early twenties. All throughout high school I was a mess. Acne made me embarrassed to be seen, it made me withdrawn, anti-social, and awkward. I hated my life at this time and I even contemplated suicide, making one failed attempt at it. In the back of my head what gave me confidence all through these years was the idea that things would get better. As an atheist, I never prayed, I never had any unreasonable faith that things would get better. Instead, I blamed my misfortunes where it seemed logical, namely my genetics. I blamed my mother and father for giving me the genes that cause acne. I angrily held them accountable and fully responsible for what they had done. In short, I had wished on some deep level that I was never even born.

Eventually my problems cleared away but not without leaving their indelible marks. My adolescent years when I was suppose to foster my social skills, were in a way put on hiatus. My withdrawn personality had made me lose the experiences necessary to build social skills and to make friends easily. I was also a person who was not into the typical things young people were into. I cared nothing for sports, and my musical tastes were very eclectic and usually far from the mainstream. My atheism however was never an issue at all since religion was almost never talked about and it pretty much never came up amongst my peers. I also wasn't the polemic anti-theist back then that I am now either.

In high school I did my fair share of partying with the few friends I had but looking back I always felt that somehow I missed out on what it should have been. This is probably instigated my the movie industry's depictions of high school that show a free for all in non-stop partying and sex. I guess I can say that although I've been through some tragedy, others have been through worse and I have to be thankful for that.

Now that I'm 30 years old I have to realize that my youth has almost completely evaporated and I must accept that my body will forever be in a perpetual state of decline. Sure I can eat healthy and workout obsessively but I will only be delaying the inevitable. Physically speaking I no longer have anything to look forward to, unlike when I was young. As time passes things will not get better, they will get worse, and this has partially led me to another form of depression, the depression of getting old. I still have many years before I am "old" and before I start to look "old", but I do not wish for eternal youth or eternal existence of any sort. Such an idea seems like a cruel trick of hell to me. I enjoy the fact that I will eventually grow old and die, and cease to exist. I just wish that I can age gracefully while it happens. That will give me a tremendous sense of comfort and hope for the future.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Being Thankful Takes Work

We all know that it is important to be grateful for what we have. I usually prefer to complain about what I don't have instead. I actually do not celebrate any holidays, not even my birthday, but today is, according to what I'm being told, Thanksgiving.

I want to make a list of some of the things that I actually am thankful for this year so that I can reflect upon them later, perhaps when I no longer have them.

I am thankful for (in no particular order):

My lack of health problems (for now)
My comfortable apartment
My beautiful cat Sheba
My education
My intelligence and my knowledge of many things
My ability to attract women relatively easy
My friends and family
That I live in New York City rather than some boring town or war torn country
That I live in a country that allows be to express my beliefs freely and without persecution
That I am living at a time in history when using reason and science are common and when superstition is waning
That Barack Obama was reelected
That I am not addicted to drugs and consumerism
My fascination with philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake
That I am not poor
That I still have potential to do what I want
That I am not dead

There is no way that I can capture here all that I am thankful for and most such lists of any kind are incomplete. Perhaps an easier task would be to make a list of what I don't like about my life, maybe a task for another time. All I can say is that I continue to struggle with my lack of being thankful for what I have when I know it has benefits. It is nice to be reminded from time to time.

Epicurus On God

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? 
Then he is not omnipotent. 

Is he able, but not willing? 
Then he is malevolent. 

Is he both able and willing? 
Then whence cometh evil? 

Is he neither able nor willing? 
Then why call him God?

Many theists say that the unwillingness of god to prevent evil is done for sufficient reasons. Evil, many of them say, is necessary in order to have good and in order to draw believers towards acts that are good. Some even claim that the existence of evil proves god's existence.

I don't respond well to this sort of conjecture for the following reasons. First, I think what we consider good and evil, are a natural occurrence in a world where beings evolved the ability to respond and to employ free will, even if that free will is an illusion. Under naturalism there would also exist the imperfection of a world that is not designed. This means natural disasters exist and will sometimes harm beings caught at the wrong time and place. Also, naturalism permits the evolution of beings to evolve that harm other beings such as diseases and other microbes.

Second, the idea that there exists this grand designer who made things this way, who designed the virus and the harm it does, who designed the tectonic plates of the Earth's crust knowing it would cause earthquakes and tsunamis that kill millions of people and animals, is to say that evil and tragedy are also designed and masterminded. The reason why I say this is because if something harmful occurs naturally, it is not evil, it is just a rather sad set of events. But if something harmful occurs because it was designed that way, then it becomes evil because it was intentional.

If the allowance of human evil and the creation of natural evil are all somehow justified by god because it is all to fulfill some sort of grand scheme in the end, then god you can say is just a utilitarian, in that the evil he intends today is just a means to an apparent positive end.

Either way I think that the notion of god the designer and the existence of evil, are confusing at best to the greater notion that we are all created in order to come to know and love god. I think Epicurus more or less got it right when he accused god of being malevolent, because to intentionally create conditions that cause harm and be unwilling to prevent the resulting harm is to be evil.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Perceived Fear of Moral Progression

Many theists fear the moral progression of Western cultures. One Muslim apologist said in a debate that a few hundred years from now the West might allow men to have sexual relationships with 3 year old boys, citing NAMBLA as pushing for this recognition. I disagree. If anything, secular morality has lifted the age in which a person can consent to sexual relations, unlike Islam which must forever allow 50 year old men to marry 6 year old girls. The accusation here, is that secular morality is not static, it is not absolute, it changes with every generation like the way fashion does, and therefore there is no anchor holding it down to any particular set of values. This accusation has become very common when debating morality with theists.

I have written numerous times on morality but I would like to address for a moment the perceived issue of moral progression for the theist and tie that in with concepts of moral absolutism. Whenever I talk about morality with anyone, I always ask whether they believe in moral absolutes. I often get different answers. Theists like to assert their moral superiority over the atheist by asserting their moral absolute standards. But when you press a theist on these moral absolutes, it becomes evident that it is easier said than done in practice.

Recently when I was debating a Christian theist on morality, the theist claimed to have moral absolutes that I cannot have as an atheist. However, during our dialogue he said Old Testament morality was relative to those people, places and circumstances, and is not necessarily relevant to us today. So after admitting that his "absolute" Christian morality is relevant to time, place, people, and circumstance, I asked "How much more relative can you get?" He responded that his absolutes are founded in the written word of the Bible. "What version?" I ask, "King James? ASV? Thomas Jefferson Bible?" He didn't respond.

The problem he knows is that there are many versions of the Bible, with different translations, and some include whole books that others do not. Also, the process by which the Bible was put together was rather political in its motivations by the Roman emperor Constantine. To ground your moral absolutes in a heavily translated and highly versioned book is a fatuous attempt to find a solid grounding of your values. Besides this, the Bible doesn't give us all the moral answers that we need and since god isn't going to reveal himself when we are faced with moral dilemmas, we are always forced to calculate and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.

Now since the atheist rejects the validity of the written word of any supposed holy book, so what then do we make of moral progression? Are morals merely decided upon by each generation? In order to have the best moral code to live by, we would need to have all the scientific information regarding the laws of physics, the universe, human nature and biology. On top of that we'd have to know the outcome of every possible future event to know what action made today will produce the best possible results. So in the absence of the totality of empirical knowledge that exists, we must make moral judgments based on moral values that are made with limited knowledge. Therefore, any moral values system devised will always be to some degree, imperfect. And so as we gain new knowledge about ourselves and our world through the beautiful endeavor of scientific inquiry, we can better revise our moral system. This means that it would be as ignorant to solidify moral values as it would be to solidify medical or scientific knowledge because new information means they can always be improved upon.

How does this relate to a perceived lack of moral absolutes?

If our moral values can be subject to revision, what grounds them? Think of our attempts to make sense of time. We used to think it was absolute, but then Einstein came along and showed us it is actually relative. The truth was out there all along, we just had incorrect assumptions about it due to our limited knowledge. I see morality in much the same way. There are moral values out there that would best suit humanity regarding our treatment of ourselves and nature, we just don't know them yet because of our limited knowledge. Every attempt to morally progress and to revise our moral values, is an attempt to get one step closer to this moral truth. Religious morality was some of our earliest attempts to understand this moral truth, and that is why they fail so miserably in many areas at assessing human conduct.

How can we recognize this moral truth, and what impact does culture have on it?

The theist will point to cultural differences on what is moral and claim that the ultimate moral truth will differ from place to place. I disagree. Any culture that adopts critical thinking, reason, freedoms of speech, and the pursuit of knowledge through science, will inevitably come to the same basic moral conclusions as the secular progressives in the West has, as long as they do not have cultural and religious obstacles in their way. Moral truth exist naturally irrespective of cultural or personal bias in much the same way that the laws of physics are not relative to cultural belief about the nature of reality. Fairness, love and compassion are naturally good because of their universal benefits, they are simply not a matter of opinion.

As time goes on and we progress morally, some theists cringe because they see moral values step further and further away from what their religions codify. But I must ask you, if you are hesitant to adopt a progressive attitude towards morality, to seriously consider the alternative. How many of you would seriously be willing to literally pick up a stone to throw it at your neighbor's head with the intention of killing him or her, because they were found to be working on the Sabbath? How many of you would be willing to do the same to the accused adulterer, homosexual, or a witch, today in the 21st century? How many of you would be willing to allow slavery and to allow 6 year old girls to be forced into arranged marriages with 50 year old men? Think about this. If the idea of actually doing this makes you cringe and repulsed, you're a moral progressive, because these are all the absolute and unchangeable morals of various religions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Who Speaks For Atheism?

My how I love to debate with theists. I cannot deny the pleasure that I get seeing how they try to justify their irrational and contradictory beliefs. Debating with theists allows me two pleasures. First, it allows me to understand how the religious mind works, and second, it forces me to sharpen my principles so that I make sure I have a damn good argument to back them up.

It is very important that our beliefs are challenged from time to time. If they aren't, we can become irrational, and close ourselves off into our little bubbles. Being challenged forces you to be knowledgeable, logical and not contradict yourself. I openly welcome challenges to just about every belief I have and I pride myself on having a very "bring it on" attitude.

I wish I could one day become a professional debater. After watching many debates on religion, I have to admit that I am very dissatisfied with many of the atheist debaters. Many of them are figity, nervous wrecks when they are up there making the case for atheism, and quite frankly it is embarrassing. Theists on the other hand, have many talented debaters who speak smoothly with humor and deliver their message often better than their atheist counterparts. And this annoys me.

I often wonder, "Who speaks for atheism?" Most atheist debaters are either heads of secular or atheist groups, scientists, biologists or authors. Most of them do not have the persuasive charisma that many of the theologians do who argue for theism. I would like to change that.

When we lost Hitchens we lost one of our best advocates. He will never be replaced. Sam Harris is good and entertaining, but he's no Hitchens. Dawkins meanwhile is aging. I'm sure the field will grow with new voices in the years to come but I just hope they are as witty and articulate and charming as the best that religion can produce.


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