Thursday, May 31, 2007


Director Theo van Gogh was murdered November 2, 2004, by Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri, an educated Dutch citizen born in Amsterdam.

Why do some people resist science?

Why Do Some People Resist Science?:
The developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

No work list

No jobs for US citizens without Homeland Security approval:
US citizens who apply for a job will need prior approval from Department of Homeland Security under the terms [of the] immigration bill [PDF] passed by the Senate this week.
According to ACLU Legislative Counsel Timothy Sparapani, the law will create "a ‘No Work List’ similar to the government’s ‘No Fly List.’"

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Unimportance of God (or, Why I'm an Atheist)

Of all the charges I usually see leveled at atheists who publicly profess their addition of the Abrahamic god to all the other gods we Westerners don't believe in, the one that tickles my fancy the most is that we "hate" God. It took me a while to appreciate the subtlety of the charge. And what I mean by "a while" is, I just figured it out a few hours before composing this.

Hatred is, to the Western mind, completely irrational. It is emotional, incoherent, undesirable, the province of a childish mind. We associate hatred with bigotry or loss of control. It is the latter part that holds the most power. Picture a young child in a tantrum, disappointed by a parent's decision. "I hate you!" the child screams, face turning red. This is the image conveyed when we are accused of "hating" God. The charge brilliantly marginalizes and infantilizes the atheist in question.

The very illogic of being accused of hating something one doesn't believe exists is part of the brilliance of the charge. Again, it's like that child: "I don't love you anymore!" we can picture the tantrum concluding. Oh, the intemperance and irrationality of a child, sighs the parent. So, too, sighs the theist. It's an attack both subtle and completely spurious; hatred of God might lead to denial of worship, but why a denial of belief?

When I hear of "hatred of God," I think of my wife. She has an absolute and unwavering faith in God and Jesus Christ as His Son. She also hates God with a passion she usually reserves for myself or the children she works with. There is a real depth of feeling to her hatred: She thinks He is an asshole, a bastard, a complete waste of her time and devotion. She is absolutely convinced He exists, of the veracity of the Christian Scripture she was taught as a young Seventh Day Adventist. She is convinced that she is going to Hell for marrying an unbeliever, for having sex outside of marriage, and for eating freaking shellfish, among other various and sundry ridiculous sins. But she doesn't care. She's pissed at His ass, and so He can kiss hers.

I love my wife with a devotion that makes the sun seem a cold and puny thing.

I don't hate God. I find the iteration of the Abrahamic god offensive in the extreme. Any way you cut it, the Torah is a story of hatred, bigotry, genocide, and blind submission to authority, all of which I abhor as an empathetic being. But I don't hate God, because I don't think the Torah was dictated to man by it; it is a human conceptualization of phenomenon man required an explanation for.

I am not one of those evangelizing atheists; not because I believe in accommodating the beliefs of others for pragmatic purposes, but because I don't hold my atheism stridently. Ultimately, the truth of my atheism isn't something I can "know." By the time I would have my answer, if I'm right, then I won't exist to receive it. And if I'm wrong, there's nothing I can do about it at that point (especially if any of the Abrahamic conceptions are correct). That doesn't make Pascal's Wager attractive, though: As Colin McGinn has said, you can't make yourself believe anything you aren't predisposed to.

Since I like to consider myself an honest and intellectually curious person, I remain open to the possibility of the phenomenological experience of God. "Revelation" is the argument for God that has the only real chance of "proving" its existence to me. But that cuts both ways: If I haven't experienced revelation, what makes my lack of experience less valid than someone's positive experience?

It's like trying to explain the beauty of a sunset to a blind person trapped on the dark side of the moon. With nothing to compare it to, no shared point of reference, how could I impugn their skepticism and doubt? It's an imperfect analogy, I know, but it's damned close. This is why the theist has to use arguments like the atheist "hating" God or "turning a blind eye." It has to be willful or personally motivated because they can't fathom that someone can find simplistic beauty in nature or look at the vastness and complexity of the world and not see the divine.

Since I haven't experienced "revelation" or a dispositive moment, I retain a form of personal intellectual agnosticism towards the existence of God. No, I can't say for sure that it doesn't exist; but, barring revelation, I may never. And without that moment of revelation, with so many rational -- that is to say, historical, cultural, social, and psychological -- explanations for religion, belief in iterations of God, and morality, so many opportunities for community and companionship, I simply see no need for God.

This is why I'm not a strident atheist on the matter of the existence or not of God. I really, really don't care. Its existence doesn't matter to my life. I have a wife I love. I'll have kids some day. I have family and friends, a job that, while not as financially rewarding as I'd like, fills me with a sense of purpose and contributes positively to the lives of others in my community. I am ethical, giving, compassionate, and intelligent. I have a world to explore, things to do, books to read, thoughts to have, actions and feelings to experience. Who has time to worry about God, about the afterlife, or about questions that are ultimately unanswerable with so much around them? Who needs Abrahamic teleology when one's neighbors and children and grandchildren will inherit the consequences of one's actions and the world they build? I pity those people who need a God to get them through life, to give that life meaning. I don't think they're actually living much at all. I pity the people who need any more authority to govern their actions than their empathy for their fellow man and their own reason.

I do believe in rare, genetic evil. I believe, even more so, in the evil that self-interested, fearful man can do to its fellows, especially when enabled by false authority. Such evil should be confronted and excised, through the violence of decisive action or the violence of subversive, deconstructive reason. This is why, when I am a strident atheist, I am in strident opposition to the human construction of religion, to its inherent, logically inescapable dogmatism, and its adherents. Dogmatism is my enemy, be it secular or theistic. Actions have consequences. I tolerate the quiet, "moderate" believer because their actions demonstrate that they have positive regard for others, and there's not enough of that to go around.

[This post originally appeared at Often Right, Rarely Correct.]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Doing it right

As Ali Eteraz reports, Tarek Fateh shows us how to critique a social practice correctly: He identifies specific practices in actual reality, makes his criticism directly, and draws reasonable conclusions about the underlying principle:
I attended an Iranian Canadian event in Toronto where I was, perhaps, the only non-white, non-Iranian among the 1,000 immaculately turned out guests. When I asked friends at the table why there were no black, Chinese or Arabs at the event, I drew blank stares of bewilderment. Unsaid, but easily understood in the silence was the answer “Why would a Chinese Canadian or an Indian Canadian be interested in an Iranian event?” ...

Earlier that week, I had attended a Tamil Canadian event, where, too, the situation was the same. Only Tamil Canadians and white Canadians were invited. No Arabs, no Iranians, no Chinese were among the audience; my presence being the anomaly. When I raised the same issue with my Tamil hosts, they, to their credit, were far more willing to accept the fact that they had overlooked the issue out of neglect. ...

In this era of identity politics, where people are being pushed into religious and racial silos, multiculturalism can very easily provide fertile soil for nurturing our primitiveness, rather than celebrating reason and our common humanity.

Thoughts on academia

Multiculturalism appears to be a Threat To The Very Soul Of Western Civilization.

Several months ago, I read a particularly appalling doctoral dissertation for which the candidate was granted a Ph.D. The author rarely went a single page without making an intellectual solecism. Where they bear any relationship at all to the body of the dissertation, the recommendations directly contradict even the conclusions fallaciously drawn from the tendentiously selected evidence.

I'm currently reading Not Even Wrong, where Peter Woit makes the case that the entire body of theoretical physics has spent a generation pursuing the blind alley of string (or superstring) theory.

The intellectual vacuity of much of Postmodernism, Deconstructionism and "Radical Feminism" in the academic humanities has become a trope.

My conclusion: Everything is precisely as it should be.

WTF? Stupidity and vacuity are rampant in academia and everything is fine? "What are you smoking, Larry? (And why didn't you offer me any?)"

There's a reason why we grant tenure to academics; for the same reason, we don't (unlike the religious) automatically appoint Ph.D.'s to positions of political authority. Academics have the ability to make arguments, and employ modes of argumentation, that later prove stupid, a waste of time and/or downright evil. This is a good thing, and it's good because of the highlighted qualifier: later prove. By definition, we don't know in advance what will prove smart, valuable or good. The only way to find out is dialectic[1]: The critical examination of alternative, opposing theses presented by advocates. The entire structure of academia is geared towards creating a "sandbox" for this sort of dialectic, where the worst direct effect of a stupid idea is a stupid doctoral dissertation. It is up to us, the people, the voters, and the politicians we elect, to select which ideas from academia actually make it into public discourse, public life and civil law.

It is a core principle of free, democratic societies that words alone cannot harm us. The most vacuous, stupid, or even downright evil idea has no effect unless we choose to implement it.

A businessman once told me, "If you're not getting people returning your merchandise, you're not selling hard enough."[2] Since there's no way to precisely define your target market, you're missing some legitimate customers if you're not also hitting some who don't actually want your product. The same is true about academia: If academics aren't considering some stupid ideas, they don't have sufficient freedom to discover surprising new intelligent ideas.[3]

It is for this reason that I criticize anticant's condemnation of "multiculturalism". I don't believe that "all minority values must have equal status to those of the majority. Any attempt to uphold majority values over minorities is a form of prejudice. [Melanie Phillips]" I don't believe that we must tolerate the egregious violence and misogyny (to name but a sample of objectionable components) of Islamic culture.

What I object to is the implicit idea that even discussing these ideas—wrong as I think they are—is in some way dangerous. I want to emphasize yet again that neither anticant nor his sources actually cite any proponent of their version of "multiculturalism"; instead it is this vague, mysterious conspiracy, tendentiously defined, and which is (supposedly)
"a combination of hyper-individualism — which grew out of liberalism — and a form of cultural Marxism whose agenda is to destroy liberal values. Between them, these trends tore up the concepts of objectivity, authority and the Judeo-Christian moral codes underpinning western values and substituted emotion, subjectivity, and moral and cultural relativism. [emphasis added]
The clear implication is that discussion of the idea itself is bad; otherwise why not simply cite people who are wrong and criticize them directly?

Academics are not authorities of any stripe, political, moral or even intellectual. They are in an important sense the exact opposite of an intellectual authority: They are paid and given almost unlimited freedom precisely so they can explore specifically bad ideas. Any argument made by a professional academic[4] should be examined more skeptically, more critically, precisely because the economic and intellectual barriers against stupidity have been intentionally relaxed.

But, by the same token, we should criticize the actual ideas and work of academics. When we start criticizing vague, abstract labels with ambiguous or mysterious referents, we stop criticizing ideas and start criticizing the discussion of ideas. And millennia of religious and civil tyranny have taught us that down that road lies only stasis, ignorance and atrocity.

[1] In the prosaic, non-mystical sense, as opposed to Hegel's mystical bullshit.

[2] The ethical implications of this principle are easily addressed by having a permissive refund policy.

[3] The same principle applies to liberty in general: If people aren't actually making mistakes, they don't have sufficient freedom.

[4] Yes, Ms. P, I'm talking about him.

Monday, May 28, 2007

“Multiculturalism” and meta-ethical subjective relativism

There have been some posts floating around the blogosphere denouncing "multiculturalism". First, I'm not at all convinced there is such a thing as "multiculturalism" as any sort of cohesive intellectual or political movement. Of course, academics and politicians express a wide range of opinions and arguments, some of them astonishingly bad.

I'm always suspicious and skeptical when I see an otherwise obscure point of view criticized or condemned in general terms without specific examples. It's one thing to criticize some specific instance of stupidity or criticize something like "religion" in general—it's not like this whole religion business is new to the intellectual arena—but I suspect hysteria and a hidden agenda when some new intellectual fad is taken to Threaten The Very Soul Of Western Civilization.

A particularly disappointing instance of this sort of irresponsible hysteria can be found at anticant's arena. Ignoring that the post is hearsay, anticant's non-Muslim correspondent describes a violent, criminal assault against first his Muslim girlfriend and then himself.

"Yes, that´s ‘multiculturalism’," says anticant.

I call bullshit.

Who, other than anticant (who appears to hate nothing more than a word) excuses or condones this sort of action? anticant does not offer us any description of multiculturalism by a proponent, only characterizations offered by opponents: Gates of Vienna and Melanie Phillips.

There are, most probably, a few moronic academics and Islamic apologists who would excuse such criminality. This is the way of academics: They are pretty much free to write whatever they please, exposing their thoughts to critical scrutiny and sometimes public ridicule. Any specific person who would excuse or condone such behavior would definitely earn my own condemnation. But I see no evidence of an intellectual movement, a "school of thought", a political organization which would warrant such blanket criticism.

Even given the most uncharitable assumptions about multiculturalism, that "cultural acceptance" does objectively excuse anything, anticant's evaluation is still fallacious. Even if Islamic culture accepts violence to prevent miscegenation, Swedish culture accepts imprisonment to prevent violent assault; both activities are at least on "equal" grounds.

Insofar as meta-ethical subjective relativism is concerned, anticant's inference would be completely unwarranted. Meta-ethical subjective relativism denies that any ethical belief—including the belief that "cultural acceptance" excuses anything—can be objectively justified, that is, justified without reference to anyone's actual subjective belief. At worst, meta-ethical subjective relativism entails that the issue anticant mentions is, in an objective sense, a conflict between values held by two competing societies: The citizenry of Sweden and a sub-subculture of its Islamic immigrant subculture.

But the whole point of meta-ethical subjective relativism is that our subjective ethical beliefs do not follow from an objective evaluation of the situation. An objective evaluation just tells us what is happening or what can happen. An objective evaluation is utterly silent on what should happen; it does not establish any sort of normative belief, it does not tell us if we should approve or disapprove of an activity. There are only facts about what we do approve and disapprove of.

If anticant had substituted a single word, and said, "Yes, that´s Islam. Phew!" I would have agreed without reservation. Islam is a violent and misogynist culture, and I thoroughly disapprove of their violence and misogyny. They also believe—and this is why Islamic culture is especially virulent and dangerous—that their violence and misogyny is commanded by God. There can be no reasoning, no negotiation with someone who believes that his ethics are commanded by God.

Neither anticant himself nor the linked articles offer the slightest bit of evidence that multiculturalism is anything more than "showing respect and tolerance to other cultures and faiths." The construction of multiculturalism as
[A]ll minority values must have equal status to those of the majority. Any attempt to uphold majority values over minorities is a form of prejudice. [Phillips]
is an obvious straw man. Why shift the blame from Islam, where it is uncontroversially deserved?

Any time someone shifts a sound argument to a fallacious argument, alarm bells should go off. They are attempting to trade on the soundness of the underlying argument to make point otherwise insupportable. This transference technique is so time-honored that every sensible person should be sensitive to its use. What is the insupportable position being argued? A confident answer must rely on a detailed analysis of Phillips and Baron Bodissey's essays, but a superficial reading does nothing to eliminate the usual suspects of authoritarian nationalism, Christianism and outright racism.

I am a critic of Islamic culture just as these sorts of assholes [update: I am referring to only Phillips and Bodissey] (although I don't at all support slaughtering all the brown people who pray in funny ways). But the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Some such thing

In my previous post, I wrote about why there's no such thing as religion, but I must admit I'm not precisely correct.

This issue comes up often when criticizing some specific ugly or hurtful practice or ideology, such as Female Genital Mutilation in Islamic Somalia, or the virulent homophobia and misogyny in Fundamentalist Christian America. "It's not the religion," apologists exclaim, "it's barbarous cultural practices masquerading as religion."

I have to grant such apologists the point. It's not the religion, because religion isn't anything: It's all cultural. But in just the same sense, everything that's beautiful and humane is also cultural. Because religion is vacuous, it deserves neither the blame nor the praise for anything specific.

If religion isn't anything, why criticize it? As I mentioned above, I'm not precisely correct. Religion is something: It's a cultural artifact itself, common to human culture. And in every society with religion, it serves but a single practice: To use dogma to justify the specific arbitrary practices of that culture as truth.

Many specific arbitrary practices simply do not need dogmatic justification. A Seder need not be "true": It's how Jewish people get together and have a fine meal with family and close friends. Christmas carols need not be "true": The melodies and harmonies are beautiful in themselves, much of the poetry is good, and the connection to one's own history and traditions just as present if the words are no longer literally true. One can even sit on an uncomfortable bench and listen to a person of some wisdom expound on moral philosophy—and evaluate his words on their own merit—without relying on any sort of dogma to establish truth. These practices harm no one, and make the practitioners feel good. What more justification is necessary?

The only time when these arbitrary practices do require dogmatic justification is precisely when they are ugly and hurtful. Take out the the authority of the Koran to dictate ethical truth, and Female Genital Mutilation and the rank misogyny of many Islamic countries is blatantly indefensible. Take out the Bible's authority to dictate ethical truth, and anti-homosexual bigotry—indeed the whole apparatus of fear and hatred of the diverse glory of ordinary, natural human sexuality—becomes obviously the expression of nothing more spectacular than petty neurosis and low self-esteem.

I have some sympathy with the religious moderates. The best of them attempt to take an ethical philosophy which can earn on its own merits the respect of any ordinary, empathic human being and retroject it into their scripture to give it an illusion of dogmatic authority. Their project, though, is ultimately futile. Because to even admit that the concept of dogmatic authority is meaningful in the first place is by definition to leave the door open to the justification of what cannot otherwise be justified.

The most obvious problem is that the scriptures of most religions—especially the Abrahamic religions— are simply a mess from a modern ethical perspective. Taken literally, the Torah, the worst of the lot (and the one book common to all three Abrahamic religions) justifies slavery, human sacrifice, genocide, war of aggression, murder, incest, the killing of recalcitrant children and a host of what are, by modern standards, obvious crimes.

Trying to reinterpret these scriptures to justify modern ethics is an exercise in circular logic:
  1. We believe that stoning recalcitrant children to death is bad and providing loving discipline to your children is good
  2. Therefore, when the Bible says that stoning recalcitrant children to death is good it must mean that providing loving discipline to children is good
  3. Therefore providing loving discipline to children is good because the Bible says it's good.
This sort of circular sophistry ought to (and does) offend the reason of anyone, even a religious fundamentalist. If you're going to take the Bible as a dogmatic authority, then when it says that stoning recalcitrant children to death is good in plain, unambiguous language then stoning recalcitrant children to death is good. Contrawise, if you want to say that stoning recalcitrant children to death is bad, you're no longer using the Bible as an authority.

But there's a much bigger problem, and the problem is not just flaws in the scriptures but inherent in the problem of employing dogmatic justification in the first place.

We can see this happening all the time in religions. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig asserts that Hindu culture, impressed by the usefulness of cows, began to attach divine meaning to their existence, and ended up adopting a dogma that invalidated the original justification by refusing to use them. Scholars have asserted that the Islamic attitude towards women was in response to their even greater persecution and exploitation in pagan Arabia. The Christian ideology of marriage, some assert, provided more security towards women than was available in earlier days.

These theses are controversial, but let's charitably grant their truth for the sake of argument. Justified on non-religious grounds, they make sense for their place and time, and it is in each person's own place and time—not some fantasied utopia—that she must make her ethical decisions. But it is precisely the attempt to establish dogmatic support for these then-benign ethical beliefs which has rendered them impregnable to change when the circumstances have changed in a new place and a new time. Irrevocable marriage might have made sense twenty centuries ago, given little or no birth control, the overwhelming economic power of children, the minimal economic power of women, and the blood-related clan as the primary political organization. But today? When most any woman can support herself? When she herself can choose both to have a normal, healthy sexuality and unilaterally choose when and how much she wishes to reproduce? When the nation and the geographical community, not the clan, are the primary political organizations? Such beliefs make no pragmatic sense today.

There is nothing wrong with our present state of ethical beliefs. They are what they are, and, to no small extent, they are who we are. But they are who we are here and now. We have no way of knowing what our great-great-great grandchildren's circumstances will be nor how their beliefs will evolve. By insisting on dogmatic justification for what we sincerely consider here and now to be naturally and humanly justifiable, we do nothing at all but saddle our grandchildren with impregnable anachronisms. If our ethical beliefs still make as much natural sense then as they do today, then no dogmatic justification is needed; if they do not, dogmatic justification is obviously harmful.

We can see the very same process of establishing dogmatic justification even in supposedly atheistic, secular beliefs. Leaving aside what Marx really said and meant, it's very clear that the Soviet Union and China treated Marx as some sort of dogma: Something was true not because it made sense, but because Marx said it. Marx, perhaps unwillingly, became a prophet rather than a philosopher, a man revealing truth, not presenting an argument to convince any rational listener. Had Marxism survived a thousand years, it seems almost certain that Marx would have been canonized and made divine.

(To a certain extent, scientists can fall into this trap: Light is a particle because Newton said so, not because the theory actually fits the facts. Scientists, however, tend to take only a generation to outgrow old dogmas, one or two orders of magnitude more quickly than the religious.)

It is against dogmatism itself that the uncompromising atheists struggle.

Indeed we are uncompromising only in the intellectual sense. I'll approve at least of the specific ethics of a moderate Christian even if I strongly disapprove of his effort at establishing a dogmatic justification by reinterpreting his scripture. I'll vote for a religious candidate if I find her political position more compatible than her atheist opponent. I would support a law forbidding religious proselytization in the schools even if it were introduced by a Christian to insulate his own sect's views from government establishment of alternative dogma. We are "uncompromising" only insofar that we will not keep silent on—much less indulge in hypocritical placation of—the vacuity, lies and bullshit of that chief purveyor of dogma, religion.

To be against dogma is not to be against truth. To be against dogma is to be against only the establishment of truth by anything other than natural reason and natural perception; in ethics, to establish the good—here and now's good—by anything other than natural moral intuition. If the words of scripture make logical, physical or moral sense, it is because a rational human being can naturally make sense of the words, not because God, or a prophet has revealed supernatural wisdom.

We uncompromising atheists (really naturalists) are a lonely minority, beset on all sides. We are beset by nihilists denying truth and attacking any confident, rational belief as "dogmatic". We are beset by the religious, claiming that truth can or must be revealed supernaturally or prophetically. We are beset by the accommodationists, demanding that we keep silent just one day more until this issue or that is resolved in our favor, ignoring that, until dogmatism itself is destroyed root and branch, there will always be one more issue, and another, and another: The world never stops changing.

But that's ok. I can live with being in the minority. Every new idea has to start somewhere.

No such thing

There's no such thing as religion. No such thing (in a religious sense) as Judaism, Christianity or Islam. No such thing as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Mormonism, or even (the Pope notwithstanding) Roman Catholicism. To be absolutely honest, there's no such thing as atheism either. As Sam Harris puts it, "Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma."

None of these isms are actually about any thing. There is no "objective" way to discuss any of these isms because there is no object to discuss. Even sports fans—as Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently puts it—have at least the shirts to root for; religion doesn't even have the shirts. Because that's what religion is: When you take away everything, even the shirts, what you have left is religion.

Of course, there is much real philosophy, especially ethical philosophy, that gets thrown in the big box marked "religion". But calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one, and calling an ethical philosophy a religion doesn't make it one either. It's easy to make the distinction: If the idea makes sense—even if it just makes enough sense to be wrong instead of meaningless—when you take "God" (or whatever label the religion puts on its incoherent mystical mumbo jumbo) out of it, then it's not religion.

The same is true of culture and tradition. An atheist Jew can participate in a Seder. Millions of Americans can celebrate Christmas without the slightest connection to Christianity. I myself know the lyrics, melodies and harmonies to a score of Christmas carols and sing them in December without a trace of irony or hypocrisy—it's how I grew up, a connection to my own childhood and family. Anyone can admire the great works of art, literature, architecture and philosophy without believing for a second that a cathedral is magnificent because it honors "God". Again: Take out "God" and leave in the connection to our families, our fellow human beings, our ancestors and our common humanity, and if there's anything left it's culture; if there's nothing left, it's religion.

When you have nothing left but empty words, devoid of meaning, then you have religion.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It may already be too late

A Whore in the Temple of Reason has a terrific post on Christianism in the US Military:
An extremist segment of Christians has become increasingly dominant thoughout all branches of the armed forces. Recently, for example, the cadets at the Air Force Academy were all required to watch Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ. And while the military has regulations in place to prevent superior officers from "pushing Mary Kay Cosmetics and Amway and Tupperware," religion seems to be given free rein.
Quoth conservative wingnut pundit Thomas Sowell,
When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can't help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup. [emphasis added]
You might soon get your wish, Mr. Sowell.

Update: According to this commenter, the assertion that AFA cadets were forced to watch The Passion of the Christ might not be accurate. If anyone has more information, please comment here or send me an email.

Why Bush Hasn’t Been Impeached

Gary Kamiya tells us why Bush hasn't been impeached, and why he won't be. It's not just that
The Democrats think it’s bad politics. Bush is dying politically and taking the GOP down with him, and impeachment is risky. It could, so the cautious Beltway wisdom has it, provoke a backlash, especially while the war is still going on. ...

But there’s a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off — and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush’s warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America’s support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It’s a national myth. It’s John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness — come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we’re not ready to do that.

Arthur Silber is half right: The war in Iraq, and the upcoming war in Iran, is fundamentally about American exceptionalism, our "angry, resentful patriotism". But, with all due respect, I think Silber is not completely correct: It is not the politicians or even the big name bloggers who are pushing this exceptionalism. The American people themselves are demanding this narrative, and they will viciously turn against anyone, politician, pundit or blogger, who denies or contradicts it, just as the German people positively demanded an exceptionalist narrative in the 1930s.

Read the whole thing.

(h/t to The Left End of the Dial)

Why can't we all just get along?

Whenever anyone laments, "Why can't we all just get along?" I always read it as saying, "Why don't you just shut up and do as I say?"

Michael Ruse wonders why those of us who are against religion don't just shut up and tolerate mediocre religious bullshit for the sake of opposing creationism, which is really virulent religious bullshit. The question is self-answering: Because mediocre bullshit is still bullshit; if you tolerate mediocre bullshit, you compromise an important principle contra virulent bullshit.

Ruse trots out his anti-creationist credentials (and good for him) and whines that atheists are being "nasty" to him. Well boo fucking hoo. Dennett says Ruse stands in danger of losing the respect of his peers. Dawkins calls him a "Chamberlain".

Ruse is entitled to his position:
I do not see that committing oneself to science necessarily implies that one thinks that all of religion is false, and that those who worship a supreme being are in some respects at one with the fanatics who flew planes into the World Trade Center. ... I fully accept that many believers are good because of their beliefs. Moreover, I think it is both politically and morally right to work with believers to combat ills, including creationism.
There's a real controversy here; and Ruse is certainly entitled to argue his position.

His argument, which spans almost two full paragraphs, a whopping ten percent of this essay, certainly deserves consideration: Dawkins fails to "acknowledge that few if any Christians have ever claimed that the proofs are the true reason for the belief in God ... [and] the proofs are a lot more subtle than these critics recognize." That's it. Sounds to me like a variation on the "bad food and not enough of it" argument.

Ruse holds up Augustine's cosmological proof as an example of this subtlety. It's uncontroversial, though, that that Augustine himself was an intelligent person and his argument subtle. But Augustine proffers this argument sixteen centuries ago; subtle it may be, but it is still wrong and has been proven wrong. Ruse states that he is "absolutely committed to the belief that science is our highest form of knowledge." Is this sincere? Why mention then that "few if any Christians have ever claimed that the proofs are the true reason for the belief in God" to defend them?

Ruse does not merely argue his position, but also demands that his opponents remain silent in the name of "unity", while simultaneously calling them dogmatic "true believers", unwilling to listen. Ruse labels his opponents dogmatic because they fail to maintain unity; Ruse seems to think that it is impossible that anyone could honestly disagree with his position, therefore his opponents must fail to listen.

The projection, hypocrisy and utter lack of intellectual integrity is blatant and loathsome.

(h/t to Darwiniana)

Over his head

It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's the point of the debate flying right over your head. House of Eratosthenes seems very puzzled by outspoken atheists. He wishes that "our video-game atheists would abstain from believing in God — quietly — just as I abstain from buying lottery tickets."

He laments, however,
This is not how our atheists talk about God, I notice.

Simply put, they don’t treat it as a personal decision. They treat it as a community policy decision. I mean, the loudest ones treat it that way. Consider the case of Intelligent Design from two summers ago, when President Bush went on record to say both sides should be taught in school. Both sides, meaning…evolution, and the hated Intelligent Design.

This touched off a firestorm.

Why? I dunno.
Let me explain. No, that'll take too long, let me sum up.

What is taught in taxpayer-funded public schools is a community policy decision. In general, what we teach our children in a democratic society is a community policy decision. We also have a little thing called the First Amendment which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Judge Jones held in Kitzmiller v. Dover that Intelligent Design transparently violated the First Amendment:
The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory. ...

ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID. ...

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy. With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.
(Keep in mind that this is a ruling by a Christian, Republican judge.)

The poster says that, "Jerry Coyne’s essay from that tumultuous time, The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name... inflict[s] incendiary broadside attacks upon... logic. Coyne supposedly argues from "pure paranoia" that some unspecified "insidious forces should be silenced forever because their intent remains the same."

The only substantiation the poster offers is this:
One thing though. “If [incremental evolution] could be done - and it can - then the argument for irreducible complexity vanishes…” This is a mishandling of logic... [and transgresses the principle that the] mere fact that plausible argument can be made does not mean that its conclusion is valid [sic].[1]
The poster clearly, despite his protestations that he has "learned some fascinating stuff," does not in any way understand the fundamental argument for irreducible complexity: Some structures cannot in principle be reduced to incremental evolution. The fact that a plausible argument does exist soundly rebuts the implicit claim that such an argument cannot exist.

I suppose I must admit that it is the intention of rationalists to "silence" lies, superstition and bullshit. But we intend to do so the hard way: By rational argument and evidence. The breathtaking stupidity and hypocrisy of this essay is precisely why we atheists cannot and will not shut up.

[1] This principle is poorly stated. A plausible argument is, by definition, sound. This principle is more accurately stated as "The validity of an argument does not by itself establish its soundness or truth."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Greg Egan on religion

Greg Egan is one of the most philosophically astute science fiction writers since Stanislaw Lem. His work explores not only the classic science fiction themes, but also ethics, identity, religion, and politics. Here are a couple of terrific selections available on the internet.


On the far world Oceanic, where the special creation of humans by God is a scientific fact, ten year old Martin has a profoundly affecting religious experience. As he matures, studies and pursues his scientific career, the dogmas of his religion slip away one by one, until he is left only with the ineluctable experience itself. And then he discovers the shocking truth about both his religious experience and the origins of humanity on his world.

The Moral Virologist

Although the moral is heavy-handed and the ending somewhat weak, Egan's tale of a fundamentalist Christian's effort to enforce the will of God is especially relevant in the light of the recent demise of Jerry Falwell and the debate over the human HPV vaccine.

(Also have a look at Greg Egan's home page)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hitchens pwnes Hannity

"If you gave Jerry Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox."

We're not worthy!

(h/t to INSTAPUTZ)

Covert action against Iran

Pravda reports that Bush Authorizes New Covert Action Against Iran:
The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert "black" operation to destabilize the Iranian government...

A chilling aspect of this story is the sheer number of those commenting who understand neither the First Amendment nor their responsibility as citizens. (There's a big bolus of comments in the beginning denouncing ABC as "traitors" (or "Traders") and then the proportion evens out; I suspect some wingnut blog sent its sheep over to comment.)

All right, kids, settle down and pay attention. It's time for Civics 101.

Democratic governments do not wage secret wars. Full stop. Secret wars are a feature of dictatorships and oligarchies. "Destabilizing" a foreign sovereign government is an act of war (and is clearly State-Sponsored Terrorism) and requires at the very least Congressional approval, and ought to require the explicit consent of the citizenry. This action is most probably not only unethical and unconstitutional, but also contrary to Federal law.

The citizens of a Democracy are the fundamental government. If you do not want to know your representatives' governing policy, then you have abrogated your fundamental duty and responsibility as the citizen of a democracy. We don't call them "representatives" for nothing.

The First Amendment absolutely immunizes publications from criminal charges, including treason, for printing government secrets. Those leaking the information might, however, be subject to prosecution. Just because our representatives call something a secret does not automatically entail that such secrecy is deserved.

Anyone who believes that Pravda or Izvestia would print something the Bush administration does not want to be printed is living in a fantasy world. Bush is getting a "twofer" here: He releases the information he wants to be released, and he's gets another phony instance of the "liberal bias" and irresponsibility of the commercial media. This "bias narrative" allows him and his cronies to deny responsibility when the media, overwhelmed by obvious evidence of failure, starts tentatively printing some of it.

And let's not forget this fundamental point: The US government has repeatedly and explicitly refused to reassure the government of Iran that its sovereignty will be honored if it abandons its nuclear weapons program. Regardless of its form, the government of Iran would be failing in its fundamental responsibility to maintain the country's territorial sovereignty if it did not seek nuclear weapons, the only proven means to deter US aggression.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An oldie but a goodie

Possibly NSFW.

(h/t to The Unchurched)

Iraq war news

Lot’s of Damage, but Precious Little Control: British think-tank Chatham House's report on the realities in Iraq [PDF] "is stark and sobering in its assessment and it delivers a stinging indictment of the folly of the Iraq misadventure, stupidly launched on lies by mendacious, warmongering, agenda-driven idiots."

Or, in more colorful language, "F@#%! The f@#%ing f@#%er's f@#%ed!"

Top ten religious idiots #2

(Previous list)

(I'm tired of ranking everything. New items will appear at the top of the list.)

  1. The Government of Pakistan: Fellow ministers failed to support Nilofar Bakhtiar, Pakistan's Minister for Tourism (Pakistan has tourism?), when hard-line Islamic clerics demanded her resignation for hugging her parachute instructor at a charity event.
    (Izvestia; h/t to Fark; 22 May 07)

  2. 49 State Legislatures: Religious conservatives are lobbying nationwide against mandated HPV vaccine, claiming that it will "encourage promiscuity". Assuming arguendo that this claim is true, apparently such people consider promiscuity to be worse than death by cervical cancer. Only Virgina has mandated the administration of this life-saving vaccine.
    (e.g.; 22 May 07)

  3. Eva Marie Mauldin: Their infant daughter was severely burned after her husband, Joshua, placed her in a microwave for 10-20 seconds. The mother blames... Satan. Authorities are seeking to sever their parental rights.
    (Houston Chronicle; h/t to News of the Weird Daily; 21 May 07)

  4. Iraqi Yazidis and Muslims: "The stoning to death of a teenage girl belonging to the Yazidi religious sect because she fell in love with a Muslim man has led to a spiral of violence in northern Iraq in which 23 elderly factory workers have been shot dead and 800 Yazidi students forced to flee their university in Mosul."
    (The Independent; Thanks anticant!; 15 May 07)

  5. Rev. Sherman C. Gee Allen: Just being a clergyman accused of assault and rape is not enough to make it to the list (even given the blatant hypocrisy: clergy are held up as moral exemplars). However Rev. Allen had his own "spin" on sexual assault, justifying it with biblical verses: Plaintiff Davina Kelly said that Rev. Allen
    gave her a Bible and asked her to turn to passages such as the one that yielded the phrase "spare the rod, spoil the child."

    "It ended up being a lot of Scripture on spanking for the most part – parents disciplining their children," she said in a February interview. "When he had me read them, it became obvious he meant for it to be spanking me."
    Rev. Allen has denied the allegations.
    (; h/t to; 15 May 07)

  6. Eric Rudolph: Serving life in Colorado's "Supermax" prison for a series of religiously-motivated abortion clinic bombings and the murder of a police officer, Rudolph is still able to taunt his victims thanks to the cooperation of an Army of God supporter.
    (Tulsa World; h/t to; 15 May 07)

  7. Fred Phelps: Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church will be picketing Jerry Falwell's funeral.
    (Westboro Baptist Church [pdf]; h/t to Fark; 17 May 07)

  8. Dick and Luke Otterstad: This father and son team is picketing San Juan High School principal Dave Terwilliger. Their agenda: To permit Christian students to wear anti-gay t-shirts to school. The principal had previously suspended students for wearing t-shirts implying that homosexuals would go to hell. [see comments]
    (Sacramento Bee; h/t to Atheist Revolution; 19 May 07)

  9. Straitgate Church proselytizers: Several members of the Church were mistaken (?) for child molesters for approaching children in a Minneapolis public park.
    (; h/t to Fark; 19 May 07)

  10. The National Association of State Boards of Education: The only candidate for president of this august institution is Kenneth Willard, a Kansas Republican who supports the teaching of Biblical creationism, er... scientific creationism, oops... intelligent design in public schools.
    (; h/t to Fark; 19 May 07)

This list: Religion 10, Nontheism 0
Previous list: Religion 10, Nontheism 0
Total: Religion 20, Nontheism 0

The truth matters

Apparently, I'm an arrogant twerp, "hiding behind the mask of 'intellectual honesty.'"

How does one hide behind a mask of honesty? Does PJ therefore endorse intellectual dishonesty? And what precisely am I hiding?

I think PJ is conflating "rationality" with "sanity". Of course I don't think she's insane, and she has a right to hold whatever beliefs she wants—rational or irrational.

The real question is: What is a matter of truth, and what is a matter of opinion? If truth is a matter of opinion, there is no truth, and "rationality" becomes vacuous. When can we civilly call a belief false? Is everything a matter of merely propaganda and negotiation? Are all opinions—whatever they may be—on the laws of physics objectively equal in the same way that all opinions are objectively equal on the beauty or ugliness of much of what passes for modern art?

I have had many of my cherished beliefs overturned in the light of reason. They proved to be false beliefs, and it would have been irrational to retain them. Since I actually believe that rationality is descriptive, I hold it as normative. Apparently PJ, unconcerned with actual truth, considers "irrational" only pejorative, in the same sense that "twerp" (or "egregious stupidity") is only pejorative.

Monday, May 21, 2007

To serve and protect

On Pravda

On Izvestia

In Izvestia (print version):
A federal magistrate judge yesterday released about 600 pages of secret documents relating to police preparations for the 2004 Republican National Convention, held in New York. ...

The Times reported in March that the Police Department had conducted wide-ranging surveillance of political groups and activists who were planning to attend the convention. While a small number appeared to be bent on creating trouble, the authorities said that most of those who came apparently had no plans to break the law.
Bob Harris has a list of organizations subject to fascist police spying benign surveillance by our trustworthy men in blue.

(h/t to Jonah Walters for the video and This Modern World for the print.)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A mighty rant!

Encho gives us a mighty rant on one of the only national politicians, and the only presidential candidate, to speak the plain truth about the neoconservatives and the war in Iraq.

A Republican.

From Texas.

Representative Ron Paul.

Read it.

A Sham Democracy and It's Pocket Media Kingmakers

(h/t to Himself)

Sometimes I wonder

... if it's all worthwhile, writing this blog and ranting about atheism, religion, philosophy, science, etc.

And then something comes along that makes it all worthwhile. I chanced upon Anonymous Coward's post, written about about a year ago, where he says,
It's only recently that I finally came to terms with the fact I didn't really believe in my religion--or any other--at all.

That may seem like an odd phrasing, but that's the way I mean it. I don't mean that I stopped believing. I mean that I finally consciously realized that I hadn't really believed it in the first place. I'd been fooling myself, trying to convince myself that I believed, but deep down I didn't. ...

Why now? ... Maybe because I've been reading a lot of blogs lately, and I've been seeing not only how reasonable many atheists are, but how very unreasonable the religious too often are in their arguments. [emphasis added]

Of course, it wasn't me he was reading; this blog didn't exist a year ago. But it was probably people much like me, some individuals just writing their personal thoughts and their best arguments. Who knows, perhaps someday my blog will help tip some tormented soul to rationality. I can't save everyone, but it does matter to the ones I can save.

This is precisely the problem

PJ's recent reply to me on her post regarding atheist incivility perfectly exhibits the vacuousness, hypocrisy and blatant double standards of the religious believers' insistence on "civility". My comment asserted:
[T]here's really no other conclusion than to call belief that intelligent design is legitimate science prima facie evidence of irrationality.
Her reply:
In your opinion, sir, which I do not and will not accept. ...

If you wish to comment on my blog, you must accept the following premise:

I am just as rational in my acceptance of God and/or Intelligent Design as you are in your denial of same.
Curious. I was unaware that rationality was a matter of opinion or could be established by fiat. I was naively under the impression that truth was established by evidence and logical argumentation, that a dialectic between opposing points of view was a productive means to discover the truth, and that rationality entailed believing the truth on the basis of evidence and logical argumentation. Silly me.

Merely questioning contradicting a Christian's assertions of truth—of scientific truth—appears to constitute incivility. Another commenter concludes that atheists "attack" believers usually in disregard of intellectual integrity; this comment—perhaps unsurprisingly—passes without objection. I'm guessing, however, that PJ does not consider postmodernist epistemic relativism in general a viable philosophy.

(She also asserts, rather amusingly, that I have "come into [her] cybernetic living room." This metaphor seems a trifle inapt: I don't know what her living room is like, but my living room is most assuredly not on display to (potentially) a hundred million people on the Internet. When I criticize someone publicly by name (as she has done me) I do not plead privacy to escape criticism.)

I think Hitchens is on to something: Religion really does poison everything.

On incivility

It is a common trope to accuse atheists of incivility, mean-spiritedness, arrogance and "intolerance", as if civility, mildness, humility and tolerance were absolute virtues. But it is trivially the case that these virtues are indeed relative to the subject under discussion.

Tolerance as an absolute virtue is trivially self-contradictory: To espouse tolerance as an absolute virtue, one has to be intolerant of intolerance, a blatant contradiction. (I'm always amused when various conservative Christian writers condemn out of one side of their mouths liberal tolerance for just this reason, and demand out of the other side tolerance for their irrational beliefs.)

Arrogance and humility are much too vague to even be discussed as vice and virtue. Is it arrogant to argue that one's position is actually true?

Which leaves us with "civility".

I have, for instance, been accused of making a personal attack (and punished by removal of my blog from his blogroll, an action which cost me literally ones of readers) by a professional philosopher for calling his arguments "usual[ly] intellectually lazy" in the context of a specific post that did not even bother to offer any sort of argument at all for an insulting and false-to-fact conclusion. (The Deacon has deleted the contents of his blog, so his original post is no longer available.)

This seems like a very mild criticism, and a criticism of the man only insofar as his character is reflected in the low quality of his work—on which I had offered a considerable amount of substantive criticism, now deleted with the rest of his blog.

If this relatively mild criticism is seen as incivility, what about admittedly more extreme and relatively uncontroversial incivility? We put murderers, rapists and thieves in prison and call them, well, murderers, rapists and thieves. A considerable number of people—including some conservatives—call President Bush and members of his administration monsters and evil men and women for torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and lying to the American people to justify a naked war of aggression (to name only the most egregious of their offenses). Even those who unconditionally support the President and approve of his actions have offered decidedly uncivil comments about the terrorist criminals responsible for 9/11 and the millions of ordinary Muslims who cheered their crime (again only a sample of their offenses)—uncivil comments with which I myself unreservedly agree. If civility were an absolute virtue, such incivility would be obviously wrong.

Of course, finding that tolerance and civility are not absolute virtues does not entail that they are not virtues at all. They are, rather, virtues relative to the subject under discussion, and justified by their pragmatic effectiveness at actually affecting public discourse and public behavior. Incivility and intolerance has the effect of polarizing debate. In some cases, polarization—such as the polarization between liberal and conservative political views—is not helpful. In other cases polarization—such as the polarization between lawfulness and criminality—the polarization is both effective and warranted by most people's ethical beliefs.

In some cases, the polarization already exists; it seems the case that civility can maintain an unpolarized state, but it does not seem to be able to reverse a state of polarization. The only cure for polarization outside of open warfare seems to be the intellectual humiliation of one side of in the debate. (A notable example is the humiliation of Joseph McCarthy.)

PJ of Christian Feminist criticizes atheist hubris and bemoans a particular atheist reviewer's "mean-spiritedness". (I will ignore that calling someone mean-spirited seems itself somewhat uncivil.) It is definitely the case that the reviewer in question hardly bends over backwards to respect the beliefs of theists. There's no question that the reviewer is uncivil; the question becomes: Is his incivility warranted?

I say it is. The explicitly political agenda of most atheists is very simple: Upholding the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which has been in place for more than two centuries—more than ten generations. And we are still fighting blatant violations of this fundamental Constitutional principle: "under God", "In God we trust", using public funds to promote specific religions and transparent attempts to mask religious proselytization as pseudo-scientific "intelligent design". Madelyn Murray O'Hair was called "the most hated woman in America" for her successful efforts to remove state-mandated religious prayer from public schools. Even PJ herself says,
I think both sides should leave each other alone.

(Of course, this might be easier if most religions, and Christianity in particular, hadn't made such a nasty habit of sticking its nose into places where it has no business, namely politics.)
Well no shit, Sherlock.

Why should we believe that civil discourse is going to help now? It's not like the separation of church and state is a new concept that deserves careful consideration of competing points of view. It's a bedrock and well-established Constitutional principle. The establishment clause is the very embodiment of what PJ specifically asks for: That both sides should leave each other alone.

Atheists have, at the political level, honored this request (with the exception, perhaps, of a few cranks who have no status within the atheist community). We do not demand that our public schools teach that there is no God. We do not demand that specifically atheists beliefs be printed on our currency or included in the Pledge of Allegiance[1]. We do not demand that public money be spent in any way to promote our views. To my knowledge, no notable atheist[2] has ever asserted that religious believers were unfit to be citizens. We ask only that the First Amendment be honored as written. For this demand alone we are vilified, hated, insulted, assaulted, our property vandalized and our leaders murdered.

And the Christians accuse us of incivility. The debate has already been polarized. It has been polarized for millennia, and it was not the atheists who originally polarized the discussion. Start actually leaving us alone, and then we can discuss civility. I'm not holding my breath.

[1] I must remind my readers that the phrase "under God" was specifically inserted into the Pledge to establish the specifically religious character of American democracy vis a vis the "godless communists" of the Soviet Union; an especially ironic move given that the author of the original Pledge, Edward Bellamy, was a dedicated socialist.

[2] Well, no notable Western atheists. The atrocities of the atheistic Soviet, Chinese and Southeast Asian Communist regimes are universally condemned by atheists in the West on Humanistic grounds.

What if women ruled the world?

We might have a substantive debate on national television about the war in Iraq.

The general election might even been between Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. The debate over Iraq would be about how much and to whom we would pay reparations. Hell would be a popular summer vacation spot, and pigs would fly.

I for one welcome our vagina-ed overlords.

(h/t to This Modern World)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

In the blogosphere

Sorry I haven't been posting much; I've been absorbed commenting on a few threads on other blogs. For my dedicated fans (both of you!) and so I don't lose track of the work, here are some links:

We're having a very interesting conversation with philosopher Steve Fuller about the use of "design" in biological evolution, and the implications thereof.

I'm having a leisurely discussion with Avery Archer about probabilistic justification in epistemology.

Stephen Law has a series of posts on whether atheism is a faith position:
The "atheism is a faith position too" competition
"Atheism a faith position too" - best shot?
"atheism is a faith position" - another example
"Atheism a faith position too" - best shot? (redux)

TBB contributor James Elliott has talks about a looming funding crisis in the social services, issues about efficient resource allocation treating developmental disabilities and the ethics of autism treatments.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

We'll miss you, Jerry!

Jerry Falwell will always live on in my memory...

FALWELL: My first time was in an outhouse outside Lynchburg, Virginia.

INTERVIEWER: Wasn't it a little cramped?

FALWELL: Not after I kicked the goat out.

INTERVIEWER: I see. You must tell me all about it.

FALWELL: I never really expected to make it with Mom, but then after she showed all the other guys in town such a good time, I figured "What the hell!"

INTERVIEWER: But your mom? Isn't that a bit odd?

FALWELL: I don't think so. Looks don't mean much to me in a woman.


FALWELL: Well, we were drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari, ginger ale and soda -- that's called a Fire and Brimstone -- at the time. And Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation.

INTERVIEWER: Campari in the crapper with Mom . . . how interesting. Well, how was it?

FALWELL: The Campari was great, but Mom passed out before I could come.

INTERVIEWER: Did you every try it again?

FALWELL: Sure . . . lots of times. But not in the outhouse. Between Mom and the shit, the flies were too much to bear.

INTERVIEWER: We meant the Campari.

FALWELL: Oh, yeah. I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit. You don't think I could lay down all that bullshit sober, do you?

(Hustler Magazine, 1983; h/t to Dennis Perrin)

Shorter Bernard Lewis

Shorter Bernard Lewis: Why can't we be more like the Soviet Union? [The Nazis didn't take any shit from anyone, either.—Ed.]

Update: Lawyers, Guns and Money decisively rebuts Lewis's comments.

(h/t to INSTAPUTZ)

Hitchens on Falwell

Don't be shy, Chris; tell us what you really think.

(h/t to The Rude Pundit)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Top ten religious idiots #1

In the spirit of Democratic Underground's Top Ten Conservative Idiots, I'm starting a new feature: The top ten religious idiots. I'll be adding and ranking stories to this post as I find them; when I get to ten I'll start a new post.

If you have any stories of religious idiots, comment on this thread or email me at lrhamelin (at) gmail (dot) com. To be fair, if any nontheists do something amusingly or egregiously idiotic on the basis of their nontheism, I'll include them here.

Update: Thanks to potentilla, we have our first ten religious idiots!

  1. Andhra Pradesh villagers: Villagers burned an elderly couple alive for allegedly practicing "black magic".
    (Reuters India; h/t to Fark; 7 May 07)

  2. Nigerian Muslim Students: Students at Government Secondary School of Gandu, Nigeria, murdered a Christian teacher because she touched a bag containing a Koran.
    (Compass Direct News; h/t to anticant's arena; 6 May 07)

  3. The editors of L'Osservatore Romano: An editorial in the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, called public criticism of the Pope "terrorism".
    (; Thanks, Brian!; 6 May 07)

  4. Managers of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Haggling over the toilets in Christianity's most sacred church
    (News of the Weird; 6 May 07)

  5. NEW! The editors of the Hezbollah newspaper: The editors accused Iranian president Ahmadinejad of "indecency" for kissing the gloved hand of his former schoolteacher for Iranian Teachers' Day.
    (TimesOnline; thanks potentilla!; 13 May 07)

  6. Good News Independent Baptist Church: This North Carolina church put up a sign that reads on one side, "[T]he message of 'Islam' is submit, convert or die." The other side reads, "When is the last time you heard of a Jew or Christian with a bomb strapped to their body?" And when was the last time you heard of an atheist murdering an Ob/Gyn?
    (; h/t to Fark; 12 May 07)

  7. Austin "Jack" DeCoster: According to, DeCoster fired Cacy Cantwell because of Cantwell's atheism, and then lied about the reason for his firing.
    (h/t to Fark; 6 May 07)

  8. Don Larsen: Larson, a Utah County Republican delegate, introduced a resolution blaming Satan for illegal immigration.
    (Salt Lake Tribune; Thanks Brian!; 7 May 07)

  9. Michelle Incanno (or Starbucks?): Incanno became outraged when she read a quotation on her Starbucks coffee cup, which was critical of religious belief. [see comments]
    (Dayton Daily News; h/t to Fark; 7 May 07)

  10. Mic-happy John Doe: "The white zone is for loading and unloading only. If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death." An unidentified person at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport gained access to the public address system and broadcast Leviticus 20:13 multiple times. Authorities are investigating.
    (Orlando Sentinel, h/t to Fark; 6 May 07)

This list: Religion 10, Nontheism 0

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Why we fight

By drakeblackhorn
Music by Bad Religion, “Faith Alone”; used (presumably) without permission.

(h/t to God is for Suckers!)

Mopery on the high seas

"If ethics are a matter of only subjective belief," the objectivist asks, "then how do you justify your condemnation and outright oppression of murder, rape, theft, and mopery on the high seas? If all subjective opinions have equal (i.e. equally zero) objective moral weight, then why shouldn't you simply permit everything?"

There are two enthymemes in this position, one accepted and one rejected. The accepted enthymeme is "Every choice must follow from an asymmetry in the justification of the options." The rejected enthymeme is that "Every choice must have an objective justification."

The second enthymeme is false-to-fact. We make choices all the time on purely subjective criteria. I choose to buy vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate for no other reason that I subjectively like vanilla and dislike chocolate. There is no objective reason—there is nothing at all objectively superior about vanilla—only facts about what I like. I work as a computer programmer because I like computer programming; I'm not stupid, I can tie my own shoes without assistance, and there are many other professions I could have chosen, some which would have made more money, some which would have done more "good for humanity". But I like computer programming. I married the woman I did because I like her. I live in California because I like it here. These are not trivial or unimportant decisions. The idea that one must have objective reasons to make choices seems pretty obviously false-to-fact.

Since we do act on pure subjective preference, the burden of proof is on the objectivist to show that specifically coercive action must follow from specifically objective reasons; such a premise cannot simply be assumed, much less assumed implicitly.

The first enthymeme is accepted, but easily satisfied. All purely subjective properties are objectively symmetric. However, there is a fundamental asymmetry: My subjective properties are privileged to me because they are mine (or I am my purely subjective properties). I act according to what I approve and disapprove of: I disapprove of theft, therefore I physically force (or sanction physically forcing) murderers and thieves into locked rooms where they cannot continue to kill or steal. It's really as simple as that.

Well... not quite so simple. It seems there are a few hundred million people in my own country, and six or seven billion in the world, with whom I interact on a more or less continuous basis. And—however they construct or express their beliefs—they have their own subjective beliefs about what they approve or disapprove of. Because I approve or disapprove of something is a necessary reason to act, but it's not a sufficient reason. Because of all of those people and their opinions—and their ability to coerce me—I have to consider how they feel about things.

For example, I see absolutely nothing at all wrong with smoking marijuana. I also enjoy making money. It therefore follows that I'd love to sell the stuff. However, my fellow citizens strongly disapprove, and they disapprove strongly enough that they'll put me in prison if they catch me selling weed. Since I dislike prison vastly more than I like money, I don't sell weed.

Another example: I very strongly disapprove of the United States' war in Iraq. The vast majority of my fellow citizens strongly disapprove. However, the war has been sanctioned by our political, legal process, And I approve of that process more than I disapprove of the war. (It's no small reason that I approve of the process because it does have a nonviolent methods to change such decisions, and I disapprove of violence.) I don't, therefore, take personal coercive action to end the war.

Yet another example: I violently disapprove of chattel slavery. If I were magically transported to the American South in 1840, I'm pretty confident that I would be a station on the underground railroad, and prison be damned: I disapprove of slavery more than I dislike prison.

"But what if everyone approved of slavery? Wouldn't it still be wrong?" I can only note that if everyone approved of slavery, it simply wouldn't be a topic of ethical discourse. I have better things to do with my life than disapprove of distant alien civilizations or imaginary possible worlds. I live in this world, with these subjective beliefs.

Because we want to

Theists wonder why we atheists don't run around killing everyone in sight, and atheist moral objectivists seem to wonder the same thing about subjectivists such as myself. The idea, I suppose, is that without the idea of divine punishment, or the illusion of an objective ethics, there's no "reason" to be good.

It's as if our modern notions of "good" require so much self-sacrifice, so much self-denial, that it seems incomprehensible that one could be good unless one is forced to be good; it seems inconceivable that one could want to be good.

I give half the blame for this prejudice to Christianity, the other half to Kant. (Kant at least for writing so incomprehensibly that his readers consistently misinterpret him.) It's not surprising that Christians would feel this way: The morality one can extract literally from the Bible is so thoroughly self-denying and self-sacrificing that no rational atheist would ever follow it. Happily, no one actually expects literal Biblical ethics any more. Kant deserves some blame for defining "morality" as an act taken without any self interest. Now I'm not a Kant scholar, and it's entirely possible that Kant (a very smart guy) was attempting a proof by contradiction or some such, but millions of people have read him as establishing that self-interest cannot by definition be the foundation of morality.

Humanism takes a fundamentally different tack: Humanism is about what humans feel is good. And the crux of the biscuit is that human beings are naturally empathic: We do in fact feel bad when our fellow human beings suffer, and we do in fact feel good when our fellow human beings are happy. We didn't reason this out, this is just a fact about how we feel. In much the same way, you could absolutely convince me that eating a pound of Brussels sprouts every day would make me immortal and give me super-powers, you could convince me to eat a pound a day, but no amount of logical argumentation can ever make them taste good. Feelings are not the outcome of conscious deliberation, they are simply facts about our minds.

If people did not usually feel empathy, theists and moral objectivists would simply not argue that empathy "ought" to be the cornerstone of our morality. The idea that empathy is "objectively" true is a conclusion based on the evidence that most people actually feel empathy. I've written elsewhere about why the conclusion of objective truth is unjustified; here I'll just say that if the evidence of common feeling were sufficient to establish objective truth, then this selfsame evidence can also directly justify our social and legal rules, without the mediation of objective truth.

All atheists—objectivists and subjectivists alike—believe there is no supernatural enforcement of ethics. All atheists—objectivists and subjectivists alike—behave as they do because they freely choose (at least free of supernatural coercion) to do so. Even the staunchest atheist ethical objectivist must freely choose to behave according to her beliefs about objective ethics. And even a theist must freely choose to read more-or-less Humanistic ethics back into his Torah, Bible or Koran.

There's a simple answer to the theists who wonder why atheists behave in a good manner: We behave in a good manner for precisely the same reason that theists allow Humanist ethics to perform such textual and metaphorical violence to the primitive, savage and brutal ethics literally described in the Bible: Because those ethics represent how we actually feel about what is good. That we feel something is good is a necessary (but not always sufficient) reason to do it. And that's true whether we just choose to do what we want, or choose to construct an "objective" morality that sanctions what we want, or reinterpret scripture to sanction what we want.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Comments eaten

Blogger is apparently eating comments in the moderation queue. If you're not the troll, and your comment doesn't appear, Blogger has eaten it, I haven't deleted it. Hopefully my pernicious troll will find another bridge soon and I can go back to having open comments.

Dewey on God

(h/t to In the Name of Towelie!)

Creationism with Ricky Gervais

(h/t to In the Name of Towelie!)

Feeding the beast

If I were a brutally honest Democratic politician, this is what I'd say:

To all you liberal, progressive, anti-war bloggers, calling for an end to the war in Iraq: What are you smoking?

You think a few thousand soldiers dead is a political problem? Ha! You think a few hundred thousand brown people dead is filling the American people with remorse? Pull the other one. You think anyone cares that we've put a half trillion dollars in the pockets of Halliburton et al.? Give me a break. Habeas corpus? Torture? Unlawful detention? Puhleeze.

Sure, we made a big deal about the war in Iraq in the 2006 campaign; that's what a lot of people wanted to hear. But we're actually in office, and we have real problems to solve, problems that have nothing to do with why you morons elected us.

Let me tell you about a political problem: The price of gas. What do you think is going to happen if gas goes to $5/gallon? Uh huh: Democratic politicians—the lucky ones—will become assistant professors of Political Science at East Buttfuck State University. The unlucky ones will be drawn and quartered by a torch and pitchfork wielding mob, their families slaughtered, their houses burned to the ground and salt plowed into their fields.

We're politicians, not saints. Do you think for a second we're going to commit political suicide to temporarily interrupt a war which will only be redoubled when you idiots elect Giuliani and 434 (we just can't get rid of that ridiculous bastard Kucinich) Republican congresspeople in 2008?

We're going to keep our bargain with the Devil. We'll keep feeding the beast until the last dollar and the last drop of blood are spent—our job is to shake our heads and say, "So sad," while we shovel money and lives with both hands. With all good luck we'll be retired when the game is up and it'll be someone else's problem.

Because the Devil is the people: addicted to SUVs, cheap slave-labor trinkets and the whole apparatus of mindless consumption, outraged at the thought that if they want something they might not be able to simply reach out and have it. Change that and you might have a chance at ending the war in Iraq. And I have a bridge you might be interested in.

Grow up.

The importance of the subjective

One frequent objection to meta-ethical subjective relativism is that it somehow trivializes ethical discourse by calling ethical statements only subjectively true (i.e. ethical statements are fundamentally only true statements about minds). But why should this sort of subjective relativism trivialize ethics? Implicit in this view is the notion that our emotions are intrinsically irrational and our purely subjective properties intrinsically unimportant. But where is the argument for such a position?

Minds are real: They exist in reality. Emotions and subjective properties are real properties. Real properties are facts, just as that the Earth is roughly spherical and ~8,000 miles in diameter are facts about reality. It is always rational to discuss and account for actual facts. It is the case that our ability to make logical arguments is sometimes impaired when our minds are experiencing certain emotions. But this is a separate issue. Emotions sometimes cause irrational thinking, but that's a different issue than emotions being inherently irrational.

This prejudice is partially due to the fact that professional scientists tend to focus on understanding objective reality—the world outside our minds—because objective reality is much simpler than subjective reality. And, of course, to get a good picture of what is truly objective, one has to subtract out the purely subjective. This is not, however, a metaphysical position; it's just a control, in the same way that a scientist will randomly divide experimental subjects to subtract out effects due to causes other than the one she is studying. It's not that these other causes are unimportant, it's just that it's more efficient to study one cause at a time.

This prejudice is also, I suspect, an artifact of the historical sexist position of attributing "emotionality" to women as a put-down and a justification for their oppression. The idea that women are more emotional—and thus less "rational"—than men is egregious bullshit, flatly contradicted by the thoroughly emotional and almost exclusively male institution of war. (It boggles the mind that anyone could with a straight face call the slaughter of hundreds of thousands or millions of people—one's own countrymen as well as the "enemy"—a dispassionate, logical endeavor.)

I also suspect many hold the notion that our emotions and purely subjective properties, not being directly representative of objective reality, are highly variable. But ordinary observation easily contradicts this notion. Yes, purely subjective properties, not subject to constant feedback from objective reality, do vary more than our prosaic understanding of physical reality. On the other hand, our minds—including the intrinsic properties of our minds—are the product of tens of millions of years of evolution, as well as the product of tens of thousands of years of socialization and acculturation. Our common humanity, our common society and our common culture are not just abstract philosophical or rhetorical positions, they are real effects of real processes.

We are, as a species, quite enamored of objective truth-seeking discourse, just as we are enamored of minded teleological discourse. And for good reason: Objective truth-seeking discourse has been very successful at developing science and technology. Furthermore, because our minds are self-referential, we can apply the mode of objective truth-seeking discourse to rationalize and make consistent our purely subjective beliefs, by treating them "grammatically" as "objects".

MESR denies only that truth-seeking discourse applies to the content of our ethical beliefs. Our ethical beliefs are not about the world outside our minds, they are real properties of our minds. But that's only one mode of discourse, and it's an historically unproductive mode of discourse about ethical content. Every ethical philosopher who has put forth an objective theory of ethics has—amazingly enough—justified his own ethical intuitions (and often the ethical intuitions common to his own cultural and social milieu). Hardly a surprise: What evidentiary basis does he have other than the content of his own ethical intuition?

But why shouldn't we consider the content of our ethical intuition to be objectively true a priori? After all, we take the content of our perception to be true a priori; that's the foundation of science, n'est pas? Au contraire! The veracity of our perception—the truth of the content of our perception—is a conclusion, not an a priori metaphysical position. It just so happens that we are so practiced at drawing consistent, predictive conclusions from our perceptual experience, practiced both consciously and by the physical evolution of our brains, that the veracity of perception seems true a priori.

All that objective truth-seeking discourse in ethics has provided is an illusory justification for sanctimony, self-righteousness and oppression. To call one's own ethical beliefs objectively true is to call competing ethical beliefs mistaken, to invoke the normative value of objective truth to override another's will.

If there really were objective ethical truths, this tendency would be benign. The Earth really is round; no amount of propagandizing, negotiation, or coercion of others beliefs will change this fact. But there aren't any objective ethical truths (or at least we've found no way at all to know about them). The illusion of objective truth-seeking discourse has been exclusively used by a self-appointed, self-privileged elite—usually claiming direct or indirect communication with God—to justify what has mostly been at best parasitism and at worst outright exploitation and oppression.[1]

To say that MESR entails that all ethical opinions are "equal" is either irrelevant, trivial or false. To say that they all have equal objective truth irrelevant; it's like saying that turtles and snails have an equal capacity for space travel: No shit, Sherlock. To say that ethical beliefs are all subjective is trivial. To say that all opinions are absolutely equal is false: My ethical opinions are always privileged to me because they are—unlike your opinions—my own (the reverse is, of course, true of you).

MESR does not entail that our subjective opinions are unimportant. It does not entail that we cannot make ethical judgments. It does not entail that we cannot act on our ethical judgments. All that MESR entails is that we can't resolve fundamental ethical disagreements with objective truth-seeking discourse[2]: We must use other modes of discourse (e.g. propaganda, negotiation or coercion) to resolve fundamental ethical disagreements.

Our emotions, our passions, our will—our purely subjective properties—are who we are, as individuals, as members of societies and cultures, as the human species, as sapient beings. As such, they are important, just as important as objective reality. We are not just will-less, judgment-less, emotion-less computers, and very few people want to be such. Our emotions might not be an excuse for irrational thinking, but rational thinking is as well no excuse for denigration and deprecation of the real facts of our subjective properties.

[1] This is a bit of an overstatement: It's likely that religions and ethical authorities in general serve an important social function, as evidenced by their persistence and prosperity. Any social system based on meta-ethical subjective relativism must identify and fulfill that social function.

[2] There are some ethical opinions that are intrinsically false: Ethical distinctions made on false-to-fact objective distinctions, such as ethical distinctions made on the basis of the false intellectual inferiority of Black people (or, of course, any ethical belief predicated on one's fantasies about God being real). This case is one where objective truth-seeking discourse is applicable to ethical discourse, although at a derivative—not fundamental—level.