Monday, December 31, 2012

Depression, Nihilism & Humanism

I am sad. I am weary. I sometimes wish I was never born. Why does life have to be so tragic? Why does happiness evade me so easily? I often have those moments where I am alone and can do some self-reflecting. I think about my past and what things in my life have meant to me. Like the Buddha, I recognize that all things change. People die; relationships whither; money dries up; beauty fades; material things are lost or broken. One can never attach themselves to any of these things because they are all temporary and finite. As much as I wish that things I value would last forever, such is never the case; for change is the only thing that is constant.

I still can't help but speak of tragedy when I reflect upon the hardships I have endured. My life has been a roller-coaster of emotion, with a lot more valleys than peaks. I have come to think of my life as near constant depression, punctuated only by momentary episodes of bliss. Is it my nature to be such a way, or is it due to the circumstances beyond my control? I cannot help but be an emotional being. If nineteenth century romanticism has taught us anything, it is that we are as emotionally sensitive to our surroundings as a feather is to the wind. Love almost always ends in tragedy; happiness almost always ends in sorrow. Perhaps there is the need for a balance to be struck, in that one must exist for the other to have grace. I don't know if nature requires such equalizing properties with regards to emotion.

Is the prospect of nihilism to blame? Is the belief in no ultimate purpose or value the cause of such conditions? Like most atheists, I would rather know the truth even if it has negative consequences than live under an illusion. I reject accepting notions of false consolation, even if their falsity is not absolutely demonstrated. What hope can there be under nihilism when one is faced with depression?

I have a sought refuge during periods of depression in the hope that the future will be better. One thing that really depresses me is the idea of permanence, in that hardship will never improve or get worse. It is not easy accepting that things will never get better. Hope drives us all to wake up and start our day and think that a little bit of improvement can be made.

Is nihilism rationally justified given naturalism? Is humanism and nihilism one in the same or are they opposed to one another? Well it may depend on how you define each of them. Humanism can be defined as a variety of ethical theory and practice that emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world and often rejects the importance of belief in God. Nihilism can be defined as the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life and argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. 

So with these definitions do we have a conflict? I consider myself both a humanist and a nihilist. I do not believe human beings have objective or intrinsic value that exists beyond other living beings and certainly not beyond the material world, and I affirm human value on the basis of reason through the recognition that humanity benefits best from being treated with dignity, and with certain inalienable rights. The fact that we will all individually and collectively perish is by no means a source of conflict for the humanist.

Humanism is not attained by default given atheism, but nihilism apparently is. I have discussed this notion with other atheists who like to reject nihilism perhaps due to its negative connotations. I tell them, that in the absence of god nothing gives objective meaning and value to human life, and that even in the presence of god, human value is still not really objective but rather is subjective to god's will. He could have easily just said that rats and not humans have objective value. I think all atheists accept the idea that human life has no objective meaning, purpose or intrinsic value but some are simply not willing to accept the idea of nihilism because it is perceived as believing that there is no hope and can be no value at all to human life. But I like to remind them that nihilism doesn't say that life has no value, just no objective value. We can still give ourselves meaning and purpose and lead fulfilling finite lives.

So when it comes to tragedy and depression which none of us are immune to, atheists can seek hope in humanist values which affirms scientific inquiry and moral progression free of dogmatic constraints. Free and open inquiry will allow us to best discover the realities of our natural world, which unlock the potential to better the lives of everyone, leading to less unnecessary misery at the hands of nature. Recognizing human rights and dignity through reason will affirm the value of human beings, leading to less unnecessary misery at the hands of mankind. While this by no means will result in the end of all personal hardships and depression, we can know that we are using our intelligence to better the lives of mankind and nature not only through science and this will lead to more fulfilling lives for all conscious beings.

Happy New Year to all.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

By What Sense Can We Consider Our Cognitive Faculties Reliable?

Our five sense are what we use to interpret the world around us. They feed our brain information, and we use this information to perform logic and reason and deduce what is and what isn't real. So by what sense can we consider our cognitive faculties reliable? How do we know if the reality we interpret really exists, or if it is just an illusion fed by our senses? Many say that we can never know with certainty that the reality we perceive does indeed exist, but rather its existence is measured by probability.

I like to think of myself as a man well exercised in logic and reason. I have patiently listened to some of the best and most knowledgeable experts on religion, science and philosophy regarding the nature of reality, the existence of the supernatural, the limits of logic and the cognitive faculties by which we all use to make sense of these things. Through the use of my senses and logic, I have came to the conclusion many years ago that naturalism best described the nature of reality since among other things, there is no evidence for the supernatural and it must be taken on faith.

Naturalism is sometimes criticized by theists by the argument that it cannot be rationally affirmed. William Lane Craig wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post recently criticizing humanism and naturalism. He writes:

For if naturalism was true, the probability that our cognitive faculties would be reliable is pretty low. For those faculties have been shaped by a process of natural selection which does not select for truth but merely for survival. There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true. Hence, if naturalism were true, we could not have any confidence that our beliefs are true, including the belief in naturalism itself! Thus, naturalism seems to have a built-in defeater that renders it incapable of being rationally affirmed.

His statements address the heart of my concern on whether our senses can be relied upon. Dr. Craig says that evolution may not select for truth and so naturalism can thus be an illusion with no basis in reality. But knowing the truth and having an understanding of the surrounding world that is accurate and not based on illusion would indeed benefit the species that evolved it. Since we are the most advanced and evolved species that we know of, and since part of our evolutionary advantage over other species is due to our intricate grasp on intellect and being able to connect information and see patterns, we have every right to believe our cognitive faculties accurately explain reality.

So Dr. Craig is wrong when he theorizes that evolution does not "select for truth but merely for survival." Having the ability to accurately sense truth would provide an evolutionary advantage, and it seems that us homo sapiens have yielded the most benefits of this process.

So as an intellectual thinker, I have wondered like Dr. Craig whether we can believe our cognitive faculties can accurately portrait reality. All we have to go on are our senses and intellect to discern what is and what is not real. The fact that human beings are the most progressive species ever to live is a testament to our senses being accurate. Our accurate assessment of reality allowed us to exploit nature to suit our needs through the manipulation of its resources. Who is to say that our understanding of physics is an illusion?

Furthermore, he said something interesting that I think applies to theism. Dr. Craig says "There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true." I agree, and think this would be true of all religions. Having false beliefs like religion, studies show, may actually provide survival benefits in terms of how wishful thinking can sometimes benefit morale which can aide recovery from disease. But this is more of an accidental byproduct rather than a serious method to aide recovery. To best cure disease and injury, it requires a truthful biological and scientific understanding of the human body and microbial life. In other words, a more accurate understanding of reality allows for greater survival. So we were able to survive better once we jettisoned superstitious beliefs in favor of science and biology. Naturalism seeks to explain reality by what is observable and testable, and such methods provide the greatest capability for accurately describing reality.

So contrary to what Dr. Craig argues, I think we have a very sound grounding for believing our senses accurately describe reality, and that naturalism best explains it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's Christmas Time, So What's An Atheists To Do?

Every year around this time I write something about what the Christmas holiday means to an atheist like me.

When I was a kid I remember the joy of waking up on Christmas morning and opening my presents under the Christmas tree. I loved getting new toys as any kid would. Today as a grown up atheist, I see nothing necessarily wrong with gift giving, or spending time with family during Christmas. Although I don't really celebrate Christmas, an atheist can take part in these social traditions without any violation of their naturalistic beliefs.

One of the bad images atheists have is that we are trying to destroy Christmas and take the fun away for millions of its celebrants. I can fully appreciate this concern. I too am concerned that atheism can be an annoyance for anyone wishing to keep a relatively benign tradition. So I think as atheists we should conduct our preservation of the separation clause carefully. What groups like the American Atheists are doing is trying to prevent any government money and institution from funding or displaying a religious based holiday. So that means, among other things, there should be no nativity scenes on public property. When it comes to Christmas trees, wreaths and holiday lights, it gets a little more fuzzy. Some say that the lights and decorations do not necessarily have a religious meaning to them, and that the Christmas tree itself was a pagan tradition that can be secularized into a "holiday tree". So the question I ask is, do we as atheists really want to eradicate any and all visual displays of holidays, whether they are associated with a currently practiced religion or not, from all public buildings and property?

I'm actually not sure. Imagine a public building displaying Halloween decorations or Thanksgiving day decorations. None of those holidays are associated with a practiced religion today, indeed Thanksgiving was never ever a religious holiday. Would this be OK according to the American Atheists? Just how far should the "wall of separation" between church and state go? If Christmas is a pagan tradition adopted by Christianity as I and many others see it, than can we say that every aspect of Christmas  -  lights, wreaths, trees, candy canes and other visual displays, are all religious in their very nature? Might we allow a city to display on public property, (and paid for with public money) a snowman, some wreaths and a light display without any violation of the first amendment as we might also with a display of a jack o'lantern and scarecrow?

Although I have reserves about the consumerism surrounding Christmas today, I think atheists should trend carefully in the so called "war on Christmas". Officially, groups like the American Atheists are not trying to prevent anyone from celebrating Christmas, they are only trying to make sure that government does not fund or display what they see as religiously based holidays. I pretty much agree with this but I have reserves when it comes some of the holiday decorations commonly associated with Christmas. I do not see a snowman display or wreaths as religious.

Furthermore, just like how Halloween started out as a pagan tradition that was incorporated into Christianity, no one today dons masks and costumes because they actually believe it will scare spirits. The tradition of Halloween remains after the supernatural aspect disappears. Modern Christmas celebration can detach itself from the Christian mythology that it was fused together with, along with the pagan spiritual elements, so that Christmas becomes a holiday solely focusing on family, friends and gift giving. The Christmas mythology need not be suppressed, but rather it should be regarded in the proper domain myths belong to, where they are not in any way based in reality.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gun Debate: My Thoughts

The recent tragic shooting in Sandy Hook Connecticut has griped the nation in the gun debate in the past few weeks. This is a debate that we seem to be having over and over, every time that there is a senseless mass shooting. Personally, I have been a long term supporter of 2nd amendment rights and have been a member of the NRA for years. I don't always agree with their politics rejecting all regulations of weapons laws, and understand that they are largely today an organization that tries to get republicans reelected.

It seems reasonable and obvious to me that we can preserve an individual's right to bear arms, and also have reasonable laws and regulations that restrict certain people from getting their hands on guns and assault rifles. A starting point would be a requirement that all gun sales require a background check by closing the loophole at gun shows. Additionally, I support regulations banning large capacity magazines and certain military style assault rifles. Newer proposals include ideas where we have smart guns where only the person who owns the gun can fire it with the use of fingerprint recognition technology.

No amount of regulation of weapons is ever going to prevent every massacre, so I think we also need to address the cultural impact surrounding our problem with young men and boys mass killing others.

I was in high school when the Columbine high school shooting tragedy occurred. I remember that the gun debate surfaced in the wake of that event as well, but also a debate on the crisis of masculinity. We live in a country with a culture where if you are a male going through some trouble, you cannot cry, you cannot show emotion or admit that you are troubled or vulnerable, or else, your very manhood itself will be questioned. So we have a culture in America where the only socially acceptable way males can express themselves without having their manhood insulted or questioned, is through violence.

We need a fundamental change in our culture in the way we treat masculinity or else we will continue to see outbursts of violence by males. We need to help foster a culture where is it acceptable for males to seek help and admit that they are dealing with trouble. We must remove this idea that a "real" man is a man who is always right, always on top of his game, and never shows any emotion or vulnerability.

If we can do this combined with some sensible gun laws, then we will begin to see a decrease in the amount of mass shootings and an overall decline in violence committed by males.

Are College Campuses Atheist Factories?

While digging through some old paperwork I discovered some old essays I wrote when I was a freshman in junior college for my philosophy class. Some of these papers I had not read in ten years. It's amazing to read that even back then I was a fervent atheist. In one paper where I was to write a Socratic dialogue, I create a mock trial where I am being accused of being an atheist in a system where it is illegal. I write:

I myself am an Atheist, I don't think religion is evil, I understand it has many good aspects of it, but I just do not have a place for it in my life. Let us say for example I didn't live in this era and place of religious freedom. I probably wouldn't be an Atheist, but lets say I was in a time and place where Atheists faced punishment or even death. I am accused by the authority for not believing in God. My devotion to Atheism is so that I am willing to [face] whatever punishment they have for me, even death.

Wow. This was written on September 30th, 2001, when I was nineteen. Even back then I was devoted to atheism enough to the point where I could imagine myself perhaps dying for it. The following mock trial dialogue that I wrote in the paper contains some interesting justifications I made for my atheism. I write:

Pros [Prosecutor]: So you began to question the very existence of God. Was there a particular moment in your life when you began to question God, such as a traumatic event or was it a gradual process? 
Me: It was a gradual process. I didn't wake up one morning and say "I don't believe in God." I guess as I got older I just didn't except the explanations religion gives you. I mean it's so vague. 
Pros: So you weren't convinced from what you were taught as a child. And I;m assuming you have your own theory and beliefs of how the world was created. What is it that you believe in?
Me: Evolution. 
Pros: Evolution. I see. I've heard of this theory. Something about how we humans, are descendents from Monkeys. 
Me: Yes, and it was the Apes not the Monkeys. 
Pros: And this is what you believe in? You are positively sure that evolution is true. 
Me: From the evidence I have see, yes, and it makes a whole lot more sense to me than religion had.

It's funny how I justify the world's existence through evolution, which not only does it not address the origin of the universe, it doesn't even address the origin of life itself. At nineteen, I wasn't as knowledgeable about the cosmological arguments or any of the other ones which theism uses. That didn't stop me from getting an A on the paper though.

In this introduction to philosophy class, I do remember us students having our beliefs challenged. Most of the students I was with were people who believed in god and I remember that many of the assignments and reading we did on morality were challenging to the idea that morals come from and are grounded in god.

So, when conservatives argue that colleges are really just liberalizing, atheist factories, they do have a mild point. Theistic beliefs and assumptions are going to be challenged in college, as well as long-held stereotypes of different people. College is the time to experience real diversity, and to have your beliefs challenged. Colleges are mostly liberal because it is the liberal point of view that is almost always on the right side of history. Conservatism is almost always on the wrong side of history, and we have plenty of examples of that. Furthermore, liberalism is more inclusive, whereas conservatism is more exclusive. For example, liberals are a lot more accepting of gays, immigrants and people with alternative lifestyles than conservatives are.

Conservatives have their own private colleges where they can spew out their creation "science" nonsense and teach kids that homosexuality is a choice. Fine, but public universities at least should steer clear of those non-scientific and religious based views. With religion aside, a university can still hold onto conservative politics. What we should have is debates with students participating from all points of view. College is suppose to be the time where beliefs are challenged, and if that means that someone with a conservative moral philosophy or someone with a liberal moral philosophy is going to be put in the hot seat where they will have to justify their beliefs, all the better.

Many conservatives do not want to have their student's beliefs challenged. They'd rather live in a box, where they can sometimes impose their beliefs on others without having them challenged back. And liberals are sometimes guilty of the same thing. I've met many liberal atheists over the years who I disagree with quite a lot on morality. One thing I hate to hear atheists say is that there is no such thing as morality, or good or evil, that we are all just products of our culture and families and that morality is all just an opinion. These atheists have to have their beliefs challenged too, as we all do.

So if colleges are the place to have one's orthodox beliefs challenged, does that necessarily lead to a more liberal way of thinking? I would think so. Since many conservative beliefs are religious based, and since many religious based morality has little to no secular justification, this means that morality that is ultimately held up by dogma is unlikely going to be able to withstand a torrent of secular critique. Thus, a conversion to liberalism can take place. If proper critical thinking usually leads to a more liberal or atheistic approach towards morality, then I have no problem with that in our college campuses.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

"A Case for Secular Morality" Coming Soon....

You can think of this blog as a kind of record showing my moral growth and progression. Over the last few years that I began really getting into the arguments made for and against religion, I have learned a tremendous amount of knowledge concerning morality. I am developing my own moral philosophy concerning the nature of good and evil, and the source of morality. When it comes to ethics, we all have our own opinion. My goal is to simply offer my beliefs on the matter and have them compete in a free market of ideas where the best system of ethics wins on its own merit and logic.

So, I am beginning to write now a relatively brief and simple to understand paper outlining my moral philosophy, taken from the beliefs that I have already outlined on this blog. It will be called "A Case for Secular Morality" and it will be my attempt to explain as best I can, the precepts and principles of my moral system with regards to my atheism. I hope I can pull of a decent paper. I want to make it easy to read and interesting so that the laymen on morality can make use of it. In my paper I will address some of the objections that I have encountered debating theists who believe that only with god can there exist a complete moral system. Depending on the eventual size of the paper I will either post it on here whole or in sections hopefully over the next month or so.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Does Religion Retard Human Achievement?

It might seem pointless to pose the question of whether religion retards human achievement to atheists since we pretty much already know that it does. So my question is not really to address whether or not religion retards human achievement ( it does), but rather to address whether or not it is possible that religious people can recognize that it does, and understand that it's this retardation that bothers most atheists, free-thinkers and progressives.

Most atheists in the West are humanists. On the American Humanist Association's website, humanism is defined as:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Now humanism is not a default belief given the absence of religion. There are many other alternatives that can compete in a free market of politics, philosophies and ideologies. Humanism must therefore be arrived at through the use of critical thinking with the goal to seek the "greater good of humanity".

When I debate with conservative theists on the epistemology of truth, they all believe that the use of logic, reason and science, are inferior to the "truth" of revelation; meaning, if a supposed revelation gives us a claim to scientific or moral knowledge, even if it seems counter-intuitive, mankind's use of his critical faculties is futile, or in the case of Islam it is forbidden, to try to better explain events or arrive at better truths. So to the conservative theist, revelation must always supersede any amount of knowledge that contradicts it.

One of the most enduring arguments that Christopher Hitchens repeatedly made against religion, was that religion forces us to constrict our critical thinking abilities, - the most important abilities that we have, in favor of unproven dogma believed on faith. This is a retardation of human achievement if there ever was one.

But through all my debating what I have not been able to achieve, is to get any theists to admit this and say something like, "yes religion does hinder critical thinking, and that can slow human achievement, but my religion requires that I belief certain things on faith." If a religious person actually said something like that, perhaps with a difference choice of words but with the same overall message, I think it would be a milestone in the debate between reason and faith.

Instead of an acceptance that religion retards critical thinking, I get a bunch of history lessons thrown at me about Islamic and Christian scientists who made great achievements in math and science. For example, one Muslim debated me this position:

You still keep lying & saying that Islam retards Human-achievement, yet you have absolutely no proof of this. However, there are countless historical & contemporary proofs that the light of Islam has inspired Muslims to excel in the fields of history, science, medicine, mathematics, and the list goes on. In fact, the world-renowned “1,001 Inventions” exhibit, which highlights the technological achievements of Muslims, over the past 14-centuries, as well as the renovated Islamic-Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, thus proves how Islam helped, and even pushed people towards greater understanding of the cosmos, art, mathematics, technology, etc

Now I don't deny that there have been many people who believed in god that have made great achievements for mankind, but I cannot also forget that it was institutionalized religion in Europe and the Middle East, that feared many discoveries these inquisitive minds brought us because it contradicted long held assumptions founded on dogma. So I respond saying:

I fully acknowledge achievements made by Muslims during the golden era. But Islamic thinking (much like how Christianity was centuries ago) began to resent the critical thinking that lead to scientific and philosophical progression. Greek philosophy, which Arabs had preserved, became illegal to copy; the Ash’ari school of thought which still dominates Islamic thinking today, closes off the idea that human reason, science and observation can discover scientific & moral truths, and instead believes only revelation can do so. This is clearly evident in the way you argue. This lead in part to the decline in Islamic science and understanding, and the West, which had less restrictions on reason and logic, passed the world in all areas of achievement. So, if you do not have a free and open system, that allows all ideas to compete in a free market, where the best wins, you will retard human achievement. And Islams does exactly that.

When religion turned against the free pursuit of knowledge, many great minds were jailed, tortured, killed, and burned alive in the religious war against knowledge before, during and after the Middle Ages. Just because a person can be inspired by religion to pursue knowledge, doesn't mean that the religion as a whole supports an open platform for free inquiry if it also held down by unproven dogmas, as all religions have. 

Religious people do not want to publicly acknowledge the fact that religious dogma can hinder the pursuit of truth because they know that by doing so they will be admitting that religion acts like an anchor that prevents growth and thus retards our body of knowledge. That is why atheists like myself are extremely passionate about maintaining a system in which the free pursuit of knowledge, unchained by any dogmatic beliefs, continues to thrive. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Are Religious Liberties The Civil Rights Issue Of Our Day?

In the US today it seems that the playing field between atheists and the religious has turned quite a bit. Atheists organizations like the American Atheists have a public campaign erecting billboards with messages of religious doubt; secular student groups are popping up all over college and high school campuses; blatant violations of the establishment clause are vehemently challenged by those wishing to preserve our secular tradition; and the numbers of people identifying themselves as "religious" continues to drop. It seems by all accounts that those who disbelieve are gaining the upper hand on matters of culture and policy, if they don't already have it.

Given this reality, the religious have been increasingly vocal about their concern that their religious freedom is now jeopardized by a more confident and militarized secularism. Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddleback Church, recently said that “religious liberty is going to be the civil rights issue of the next decade" in an interview earlier this week. His remarks stem from the increasing secularism of our nation and what he considers government intrusions into religious convictions like the healthcare mandate requiring contraceptives in healthcare plans.

There are people on both sides of the aisle with differing views. Some atheists/secularists think religion still has the power and a privileged status in American culture and politics. While some theists believe that secularists in our country are overstepping the constitution and violating religious liberty with a progressive and godless agenda that is increasingly more powerful. It is hard to say who is right; America is a large country, and a patchwork of different laws and subcultures.

This central issue here is whether religious rights should supersede civil rights. If a religious institution is against homosexuality, does it have the right to discriminate against homosexuals? To those who think it does, I always use the following analogy. Imagine a Mormon who believes black people to be a cursed and inferior race, as traditional Mormonism teaches. Would we allow that person to openly discriminate against black people because of his religious convictions, or would the civil rights of black people take precedence? It seems obvious to me here, that civil rights trump religious conviction. I believe issues of homosexuality are much the same, but other cases are not so clear.

Contraception use is still for some religious institutions and people a matter of controversy, even though studies show that 99% of women in the US between the ages of 15-44 either have used or will use some form of contraception. I was as shocked as anyone else when contraception use became a raging national debate earlier this year. This issue is not so cut and dry. There is a part of me that wants to say that no one should be forced to fund contraceptives or anything on personal convictions, just like no one should force me to fund religious causes. I believe access to contraception is a civil right for women, and I also believe people with religious or personal convictions have the right to be free from being forced to violate their convictions. Now we have a problem.

But if I grant that religious institutions do not have to pay for contraception for their employers, then we are opening the door to many other religious sects refusing to fund anything they don't see as being in-line with their beliefs.

  • Imagine a Quaker who refuses to pay taxes because his tax dollars will fund military drone strikes that kill people, and this violates his convictions of non-violence. Would the government allow him to not pay taxes? I think not. 
  • Would we allow a business owned by Jehovah's Witnesses to not fund in their healthcare program blood transfusions in cases of an emergency to their employees because it violates their beliefs? The very idea seems ludicrous. 
  • Many religions have some bizarre rules that they take as personal convictions. Religious liberty gives you the right to observe these convictions but not impose them on other people. If I take away your funding for something because I oppose it, I will have just imposed my beliefs on you.
When civil rights are pinned up against religious liberty, I side with civil rights because to me, religious liberty is no excuse to be racist, sexist or homophobic. The bottom line is this, we cannot let the claims of religious "liberty" be used as an excuse to discriminate against long fought for civil rights. We have collectively fought too hard to let such achievements slip. But we must also recognize religious liberty for what it is: the freedom individuals have to impose religious convictions on themselves without government interference but not to impose those same things on other people. The first amendment outlines that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof". I do not see how providing contraceptives to those receiving healthcare from religious institutions violates the free exercise of a religion. The "free" exercise thereof, means your religion can be practiced, as long as it doesn't impinge anyone else's freedom. Now you might say "no one is stopping the sale of contraceptives" (well Rick Santorum would if he had his way), but nonetheless, if a necessary civil right exists, religion cannot be used as an excuse to discriminate against it.

One workaround to this dilemma would be if government provided a healthcare alternative to the private insurer and funded contraceptives. Then we wouldn't have to rely on our employers making healthcare choices for their employees. But something tells me that conservative tax payers would be up in arms over the idea that their tax dollars are funding contraception.

To address Rick Warren directly, I can understand how the future may look a bit uncomfortable for conservative religious people. Their beliefs will be increasingly at odds with the culture around them, and this will make them feel like a persecuted minority. They will either adapt or continue to shrink into eventual obscurity as morality progresses towards an ever more accurate description of a fair and just society.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How To Talk To A Muslim: Debating Homosexuality Part 3

Continuing from part 2 of my dialogue and commentary over homosexuality with a hard line Muslim Gareth Bryant which basically turned into a written debate, we address deeper issues of morality within the Islamic framework. Gareth basically comes to the conclusion that he is in a way forced to take as a fundamentalist Muslim, which is that the Qur'an has the final word on what is right and wrong, and that any critical thinking that can be used to justify better moral alternatives are the result of selfish acts of "ego & desire".

I present to you this debate as an example of how trying to have a rational debate with a fundamentalist Muslim on almost anything is futile, because when it comes down to the detail, they just invoke the Qur'an as the supreme authority on what is right. As atheists, we all know how difficult dealing with fundamentalists of all religions can be. Tactically, we must force them to justify their beliefs using reason and science because we know that on most points of disagreement, whether scientifically or morally, they have no case outside of their religious texts. Even if you never win them over through argument, it is important that it is made apparent to them that their beliefs are not justifiable outside their religious texts and that using those texts to justify their texts is not a valid method in the realm of logic and reason.

The debate stemmed from Gareth's critique of gay-friendly mosques. He doesn't acknowledge that they should even exist since he believes homosexuality is a sin and that it is un-Islamic to name a mosque after a sinful act. What I care about is how he justifies the sin of homosexuality in Islam, but is OK with forcing prepubescent girls into arranged marriages with older men which Islam condones. He never makes a rational argument to support his position even after many attempts by me to squeeze one out. Please enjoy this insight into the mind of a fundamentalist Muslim.


Islam is probably the last bastion of absolute intolerance towards homosexuals. It is because Islam has not gone through an enlightenment period. It probably will eventually as Western influence and modernity forces it to. Tariq Ramadan has voiced a slightly more modern view a Muslim could have towards homosexuality that I personally think is a step in the right direction, but not quite there yet. He says although you might not personally agree with the homosexual lifestyle, it can be acknowledged that people have the right to freedom, and privacy, and to live their lives differently than what Islam says is true. But if Muslims think that homosexuality is a choice, and think they can cure it somehow with Islamic philosophy, their efforts will be a waste of time and hopelessly futile and instead should best be used towards alleviating the poverty and suffering, that of course you believe allah willed for, created and designed.


Firstly, Homosexuality is, just like any other sin that people choose to do, a choice. I know people personally, whom have become Muslims, and they were Homosexuals, before they became Muslims. And, they have admitted, publicly, that Homosexuality is a choice & sin.


What kind of evidence is that for anything? Anecdotal evidence is not science, it is about as scientific as revelation. I can just as easily say I know someone who heard the voice of an angel named Maroni telling him that Mormonism is the one true faith. Would that make Mormonism true? Your friend could be bisexual, in which case they can be both gay ad straight at the same time, or they could’ve been faking their homosexuality, or are faking their heterosexuality now. They’d have to be hooked up to a machine that measures whether they get aroused or not when exposed to homosexual imagery. Saying they are “straight” means nothing, anyone can lie about anything. Religious people like you base far too many “facts” on what a few people say.


You claim that Homosexuality is normal & natural. Now, if this were true, then: one, how do you explain the fact that there is no such thing as a “Gay-Gene”; two, how do you explain a straight man, in prison, who gets raped, and because of whatever reason (most probably pressure from fellow-inmates or shame), decides to be Homosexual. Are you saying that all of these men, whom have succumb to rape were all Homosexual from the very start, they just needed to get raped, in order to activate their Homosexual nature that was hiding inside of them, dormantly?

Or, better yet, how about a young person, regardless of being male or female, whom was sexually-molested as a child; are you saying that they were really Homosexual, all along, but just needed to be sexually-molested, in order to activate their Homosexuality?

To really believe this would be utterly retarded.

Monday, December 10, 2012

How To Talk To A Muslim: Debating Homosexuality Part 2

Some theists today take the position that religious "holy" books are not meant to be books of science, even while they all do indeed make factual claims. Nevertheless, you can interpret many of these claims as symbolic parables. With Islam you generally get a more strict interpretation of the stories with in the Qur'an and this makes talking to Muslims a bit more difficult. Being that I live for debate and challenge when I come across a theist I feel is uttering nonsense, I call them out on it. One Muslim named Gareth Bryant wrote about how he thinks Western culture is turning people gay. He insists that homosexuality is a choice, and that it can be "activated" like a button from a situation like going to prison, or being taught that it is OK. His Islamic view point forces him to believe homosexuality is a choice, because if it is biological than this brings up some serious theological issues for him. He offers only personal anecdotes and one-off examples of bisexual celebrities showing their ability to switch their sexuality from hetero to homo as proof that homosexuality is a choice, and he even plays up the term "sexual preference" saying that it denotes a preference - as in preferring vanilla or chocolate.

So I challenge him on several points and even offer 7 physiological findings that show differences in gay people from the general population. He offers nothing in response as a rebuttal and from this it is obvious that his position is not scientifically based, but instead based on his own close minded ignorant religious world view. Now he doesn't represent all Muslims, and on his blog there were many Muslims who voiced opposition to his views. He does however offer a very typical conservative hard line Islamic approach to various issues on sexuality that a growing number of Muslims are moving away from.

Below is our dialog going back and forth on the issue of whether homosexuality is a choice taken from the comments section of his blog post about "Princess-Boy", a boy who's fond of wearing girl's clothing who Gareth thinks is a “Homo-In-Training”.


It could be possible that this boy has gender identity issues. There are people born who identify with another gender, and it has nothing to do with the “Devil”, it is simply just a product of hormonal/chemical imbalances and issues with DNA, just like hermaphrodites are. I don’t know of this case but as long as the child is not forced or pressured into behaving how he is, there is no problem here. Your narrow minded Islamic world view forces you to look at everything being black and white, but our world is much more complicated than that. Human sexuality comes in a variety of shades.

You seem to think that all gay people are straight and then one day wake up and decide to be gay. Where is your scientific evidence of that? You know there are bisexual people who can identify as more straight or more gay, and can go both ways. That doesn't mean being gay is a choice. How could a straight man, make his penis get hard for other men when it doesn't do so naturally?

It is comforting to know that ignorant people like you are a shrinking and disappearing minority in this country, and eventually you will be a tiny fringe group of extremists complaining to each other why the world doesn't think like you. And the reason why is because you base knowledge on a book from the 7th century while ignoring much of modern science and blasphemy.


Well, since you’re an atheist, I’m going to move right past responding to this previous comment of yours, because, the fact that you can deny the existence of a divine-creator, yet believe that Homosexuality is something scientifically/biologically natural is more serious than the current topic-at-hand.

Firstly, I've never viewed anything as “black & white” as you’ve so foolishly presumed. I’ve simply viewed this particular topic based upon right & wrong, thus dictated by Allah, the Lord of the Universe, because it is He who decides what’s right & what’s wrong, what’s pure & what’s filth. And, since Allah is responsible for everything which exists, then, yeah…I’m of the position that He has the right to tell us what to do/not to do, how to live/how not to live.

Furthermore, chemical-imbalances have absolutely nothing to do with gender, because of the term, itself, “sexual-preference” anything that we inherit, biologically, is outside of our control. But, whom we are attracted to is within our control.

And, one of the even secular proofs of this are the following: Cynthia Nixon, one of the popular character-actresses from the SexAndTheCity franchise, not too long ago, recently announced that she was no longer a Homosexual, that she no longer lives that lifestyle; she spoke out concerning her choice to be a Homosexual, and this caught monumental media-attention. In fact, to the extent that, the LGBT lobby blasted her, and tried to pressure her not to say that “being ‘Gay’ is a ‘choice’.”, and, obviously, the reason why they would try to place pressure upon one of the most famous actresses in the world, right now, from taking a position like that, is simply because it completely shoots down their falsified-propagation that Homosexuality is something biologically-natural. And, that fact that she’s a very popular celebrity, people are going to be prone to take he very seriously, regarding this issue, based upon her personal-experience with being a former Homosexual.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The "War" On Christmas?

It is once again the holiday season. Oh sorry, I meant to say it's "Christmas" season. Damn my political correctness and those godless liberals for making me fall in line with their war on Christmas! Ha ha, just kidding. Even though I am a pretty staunch atheist, I was raised in a cultural Christian setting. We celebrated Easter and Christmas although I was never really taught their religious significance. Today as an adult, I really don't celebrate any holidays to be honest with you and it kind of sickens me how Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween have now become month long celebrations. My uncle told me that decades ago Christmas season used to start a week or so before Christmas, and now it starts at midnight on Thanksgiving day.

When it comes to Christmas today I see it for what it is: a pagan tradition incorporated into Christianity that evolved into a celebration of unfettered capitalistic materialism. Yes I am against the nativity scenes on public property; they belong on private land and paid for by private individuals. The so called war on Christmas is really just secularists repealing the violations of the first amendment when countless state and local governments created religious displays with tax payer money. Christmas time for generations has really been the war on secularism. But what I really think is an interesting note on the "Christmas" holiday, is how capitalistic it is and how that is really what drives the continuation of the holiday. What I think some people fear about secularism pushing back the religious displays is that it might lead to a time when Christmas is not celebrated and this would ultimately hurt the economy. In other words people care only about the bottom line.

Today in the US I can pretty much say anything I want criticizing religion, but what really is blasphemy today, is any critique of capitalistic materialism. Telling people that they really don't need to buy all the things they want, and that they should buy mostly what they need, or focus on non-material things, is the equivalent today of what doubting the existence of god was two or three hundred years ago. You will be branded a heretic if you even imply to Americans that materialism has gone too far. Now I understand consumption drives the economy, and that any curtailing of this will slow and hurt the economy and stock market. What I really want is the world to wake up and realize that our economy based on the consumption of goods made from finite resources that adds pollution to the world and that will eventually end up, in part, as unrecyclable waste, cannot last forever and is leading us to our downfall.

I don't celebrate Christmas because of this. I refuse to be a part of the machine that drives mankind into oblivion. When we have an economy that is based on the sale and purchase of fully recyclable goods made with fully renewable clean energy, then I will reconsider. But that day is many decades away at least. So with secularists working hard to keep religion out of government this time of the year, my war on Christmas is really a war on the type of capitalism we have today. We are still using a 20th century system to supply a 21st century demand of consumer goods. It is about time that business leaders realize this and put this concern ahead of their short term goals.

David Hume On Religion

No one, I am confident will mistake my intentions. No one has a deeper sense of religion or pays more profound admiration to the supreme being.
                                                                                                                     -David Hume

I am an atheist who probably spends more time thinking about god and religion than most theists do. Studies show that atheists generally know more about religion than those who are or claim to be religious. It seems important to me, and in a way an obligation, that I know about religion and theism before I disbelieve in them, or else I should be committing the same ignorance as the person who disbelieves evolution without knowing anything about it. The skeptic therefore often thinks of god in the deepest and most thoughtful ways as Scottish philosopher David Hume said above, because it is usually him or her that treats god as an adult.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Burden Of A Thinking Mind: Some Thoughts On Existential Nihilism

Because I think. Because I think. I can't stop thinking. I am plagued by my consciousness, by my inquiring mind, to pursue the answers that I seek to find. Perhaps I have the philosopher's mind. Why do I overburden myself with so much thought? I would be so much better off in many regards if I could accept the blissfulness of ignorance. But I am so made that I cannot be. 

Recently I was thinking about existential nihilism, the philosophical doctrine that life ultimately has no objective purpose or meaning, and I was wondering whether atheism dooms all its adherents to it. The apparent pessimism of nihilism is often used by theists as an emotional argument against atheism. So the question is, under atheism, is there no objective meaning and purpose to life and are we all doomed to nothingness?

Taking this question head on, I would say yes, the atheist does believe that all life will ultimately end as it seems likely that the universe itself will end at some point in the future, albeit trillions of years from now. Scientists says the Earth will perish when our Sun runs out of fuel to support its nuclear fusion and explodes in about 5 billion years. All life on Earth will have ended by this time, unless there exists a species of life evolved enough that can escape Earth permanently. And under atheism, when we die as individuals, our physical matter decays and our consciousness is forever extinguished. We will have ceased to exist. So in short, yes atheists are nihilists.

Contemplating this idea gives many theists problems pertaining to the need for objectivity in purpose and meaning. Let me address these points for a moment.

Objective Meaning and Purpose

First, as an atheist I do not believe in an objective purpose for life (if by objective you mean a purpose given by any intelligence, supernatural or not, that exists outside of the natural processes of the origin of life and its evolution). Life is an extreme expression of matter, it is a by-product that the laws of physics allow to exist. The purpose of the universe is not to permit life, and certainly not human life, because there is no purpose to the universe. Mankind is nature becoming conscious of itself and it is our consciousness that forces us to search for meaning. Once mankind evolved the consciousness, he became plagued with the unquenchable search for meaning to justify his seemingly unexplainable existence. Religion to the atheist, is just mankind's attempt to create meaning for himself because that answered his curious mind.

In the absence of modern science, which much better explains the causal processes resulting in our existence, ancient humans fabricated thousands of origins stories used to explain that which could not be explained. We are lucky to be living at a time when we do have a pretty clear picture of how most of our world came to be. I came to the conclusion that life has no objective purpose or meaning in light of our acquired knowledge of reality. To find meaning or purpose in life, one has to search within; that is to say, search subjectively. A lot of people have a problem with this answer because it is subjective and it requires them to think for themselves. It seems that most people would rather simply be given a meaning to their life because then they could stop thinking about it.

I can say to you that your purpose in life is to make a million dollars before you die, and you could accept this and walk out of here thinking that you now know what your purpose in life is and you wouldn't be overburdened with the search for meaning anymore. But it wouldn't be true. That would simply be my opinion of what I think the meaning of your life is.

The only thing close to an objective purpose of life under the atheistic world view is nature's way of preparing life to reproduce and propagate DNA. The need for objective meaning by many theists, I see in a way similar to the heroine addict unable to imagine life with their fix: The theistic world view is so dependent on it that they can't imagine life without it.

Nihilism does not mean that life has no meaning, just no objective meaning. The atheist can find beauty and purpose in the finite existence of life, even if it is subjective, and the atheist can find beauty and awe in the symmetry and intelligibility of the universe and the laws of physics. For me, that is enough to inspire meaning in my minuscule and finite existence, for I live for knowledge and philosophy. If one's life only has subjective meaning and purpose, they can choose to devote it towards something that either helps or harms other people and the environment. The negative consequences of a life devoted to harming itself or others, is bad in and of itself, and acts as its own reinforcement against it. Why must we pretend that there must exist an object purpose to life in order for one to find meaning?

Objective Value

When it comes to human value, under nihilism there is no objective value as there is no objective purpose. The universe is indifferent as to whether we are happy or are suffering and to whether or not we even exist. We give ourselves value and everything in the universe as it becomes useful to us. Houses for example, are only given value as they relate to a human's desire to buy it or live in it. Would a house retain any value in a universe devoid of all human beings? No. Not unless some other intelligent life could find use for it. Things are given value when they are useful to living things. This makes the value of things always subjective, and never objective.

It always struck me as odd when I hear theists say that god gives us objective value. Does the theist really mean to say, that our objective worth lies in the professed statement by god that we have it? What if god changed his mind and turned his back on mankind and instead said rats have objective worth and not humans? Would our objective worth suddenly disappear? It seems scary to me that our objective worth could be so committed to an opinion, even if it is believed to be unchanging.

The idea however, that there needs to exist this supernatural and unchanging opinion that all human life has value, is understandable to me at least. It allows its believers to say that no human's opinion of human value has any ultimate affect, and that even an unchanging principle recognizing human value must still be constantly upheld by people who adhere to it. To that I have to say that god's opinion that all human life has value is not going to prevent someone who disagrees with it from harming or taking a life. All of our rights, no matter where they stem from, must constantly be fought for, and upheld by human beings who believe in their principles. It simply doesn't matter whether you believe in god given rights, or natural rights, or any other source of rights, because ultimately what it comes down to is human action. Furthermore, the same believed god might have a completely different set of rights and opinions on human value according to members of different religions. This then forces you into religiously interpreted relativism, which gets you no where in defining the objective value of human life.

We can recognize a baseline of intrinsic value and worth of every human life, and then from that recognize that any increases in value will be subjective with respect to how important that person's life is to them. So for example, a person with no loved ones, no money or job, and with no usefulness to anybody else, still has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a principle that utilizes the golden rule: I might lose all my friends and family and become homeless and unemployed one day and I wouldn't want any of my rights taken away simply because I had no one to love me and no money. Years ago rights did depend on race, gender, money and position, and through the philosophy of the enlightenment we came to recognize how incredibly harmful this is. I believe we all have the right to life because we were given it without asking for it. Humans are not mere property, we are not merely inanimate objects, we are sentient beings in our fundamental nature. It is the recognition of sentience that must guide this principle.

This brings me to the idea of "speciesism" - or "the assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals solely on the basis of their species membership." In nature, pretty much all species behave with a bias towards their own. It is a natural necessity to ensure the survival of the species, and this is especially true with social species like primates. If we recognize a very basic intrinsic worth of all human beings, are we just doing so because we too are human?

Well it seems to me that all morality must stem from the way it affects living beings. For example, if I smash a rock in half with a sledgehammer, (assuming the rock didn't belong to anyone) no one would really consider that act moral or immoral. But if I smashed a baby's head open, now we recognize that there is a moral component to my action because it affects a living being. So morality at its very basic core stems from whether or not actions negatively or positively affect living beings. If they positively affect living beings, they are said to be good morals, if they negatively affect living beings, they are said to be bad morals.

With humans, our bias in favor of ourselves might also be justified in recognizing our advanced levels of emotion, cognitive abilities and sentiments that to our knowledge, supersede of other life. From this we can logically conclude that the greater these abilities in a species, the greater the consideration must be given when harm is done to them. That is why we consider the lives of dolphins to be greater than that of bacteria.  It is also worth noting that our preferences for certain kinds of animals regardless of their sentimental faculties  because they are cute or otherwise desired, is another explanation why value is considered.

Imagine if we were visited by intelligent extraterrestrial life forms that superseded us in intelligence sentimental faculties, to the degree where the stupidest among them had the intellectual equivalence of our most gifted geniuses. If they were peaceful, we would be forced to recognize their moral worth, perhaps to a higher degree than ours. But if they had to compete with us for limited resources, only then in order to ensure our own survival would we might have to discriminate against them. So speciesism has its natural justifications but so too does the recognition of cognitive ability. The two only come into conflict when the species' survival is threatened.


So in conclusion, before I ramble on too much longer, let me summarize what I've gone over. Under nihilism, there exists no objective meaning or purpose in life. Life exists as a natural by product that the laws of physics allow, and therefore all meaning and purpose for life will be subjective. This doesn't leave the atheist to wallow in unguided purposelessness, but it does require the atheist to think for themselves and to find their own purpose. This can either be one that harms others or one that helps others. For me personally, fighting for rationality, secularism, freedom, and a better world have become my purpose in life.

There also exists no objective value of human life outside our own existence. We give our lives value and we can also recognize basic human rights and value using the golden rule, while understanding that there is also a subjective element in how important we perceive human life. To place human value in whether a god gives us it, is highly subjective and not going to stop anyone who disagrees with the premise or has a different concept of god. Speciesism certainly does give us a reason to justify our valuing of human life over other species, just as we have a bias in favor of ourselves when we must compete with others.

The bottom line is this: Nihilism does not mean life has no purpose, just no objective purpose, and I've never felt that an objective purpose was necessary in order for me to wake up in the morning and start a fulfilling day. Anyone who does think it is necessary, behaves like the drug addict who can't image finding a reason to get out of bed without their drug.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

UFOs & Alien Abductions In Light Of Skepticism

Many people object to the term atheism as it carries negative connotations in some cultures. As such, a host of other euphemisms are sometimes used to describe one who rejects the supernatural. The atheist can also go by non-theist, naturalist, disbeliever, unbeliever, doubter, rationalist, empiricist, free-thinker and lastly, skeptic. It is the skepticism towards extraordinary claims that I think unites all "atheists." A healthy dose of skepticism I don't think ever hurt anyone. So how does a skeptic like myself deal with such unexplained phenomenon as the possibility that we are being visited by extraterrestrial intelligent life?

When I was a child I was a big fan of science fiction dealing with UFOs and aliens, like The X-Files. If there exists extraterrestrial intelligent life, nothing about that would defy the laws of physics. They would simply be highly evolved intelligent beings from some other planet other than our own. It does seem that considering the universal speed limit of the speed of light, and the immense distances between our planet and other stars, it is very unlikely that we could be visited by alien intelligence. Furthermore, the chances that intelligent life could evolve seems so extremely rare in and of itself to warrant such probability. However, the famous Drake equation used to estimate the number of advances civilizations even with conservative numbers used, yields the possibility of thousands of advanced civilizations within our own galaxy, let alone the universe.

Perhaps there are ways, as Einstein predicted, that can bypass the cosmic speed limit and travel extremely large distances through the use of something like a wormhole. We just don't know for sure yet. In any case, I always felt it a bit odd that the aliens seem to have a preference for Americans over all other nationalities in who they abduct, and why they seem to abduct people living in the most remote wildernesses. Perhaps they want their presence kept a secret, but what then could their agenda be? Are they merely abducting people to experiment on them so that they can learn about us, the same way a biologist captures and studies animals and insects? Are they making clones of humans as many of the stories tell in order to create a race of people perhaps to be kept in zoos? This is certainly all open to conjecture if granted truth.

There are a handful of alien abduction stories that seem plausible, notably the Betty and Barney Hill case from 1961, and the Travis Walton case from 1975 which inspired the movie Fire In The Sky. The fact that most alien abduction reports happened in the last 50 years or so, and seem to happen in the US leads me to believe that there is another more plausible explanation. It seems to me that since the US has for the last 70 years or so been the most powerful nation on Earth, alien abductions could just be the projected fear Americans have that there might be other beings out there more powerful and advanced, and that we are as weak to them in a sense as the weakest nations here on Earth are to the US. People secured in power often fear losing their power and are obsessed with it, and alien abductions might just be a manifestation of this fear with a little science fiction thrown in. Could this be a more rational explanation? The skeptic would certainly say so.

I have to say that I am an agnostic when it comes to the validity of alien abductions and UFOs. In some ways I want to believe, but the skeptic in me appears stronger. What is missing from the reports of UFO sightings and alien abductions is the lack of physical evidence. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, these claims surely do not have it. When I was 18 I once did see what I thought were UFOs while in the woods of Missouri. I saw a bunch of lights in the sky moving in patterns that no aircraft could maneuver in. They were tiny little dots of light almost zig-zagging in various directions very high in the sky, and I never really thought about it much since then. UFO only implies unidentified, not alien, so they could have been anything.  I remain a skeptic about most of the reported UFO sightings and incidents, but if we ever do come into contact with intelligent alien life, I'd surely want to be alive when it happens. 


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