Monday, July 30, 2007

Victims as Experts

There is a post at Why Don't You Blog entitled Victims Are Not Experts that identifies just the type of common moral fallacy that I like to bring people's attention to.

Being the victim of a crime (or knowing somebody who was the victim of a crime) does not give one insight into the type of system that best fights that type of crime, or on how to create a system that does not cause more problems than it solves.

Refusing to Stand

At the blog "No More Hornets", one author (whose name appears nowhere on his blog as far as I was able to determine), speaks about the importance of Americans remaining seated during the Pledge of Allegiance.

He took as his role model Exeter councillor Paul Pettinger in England who refused to stand for a convocational prayers. Pettinger protested that he was an atheist and thought it was wrong to pressure people to participate in a religious service when they did not share that religious views.

The anonymous author at No More Hornets then asks:

Who among our governmental officials has ever dared to utter the opinion that convocational prayer is “highly inappropriate”? No one.

This is not true.

David Habecker, of Estes Park, Colorado, refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

As a result, the Voters of Estes Park held a recall election in which they removed Habecker from office.

Yet, even in the Atheist community, virtually nobody knows his name.

Any atheist discussing the bigotry in this country should be able to recall Habecker's story in an instant, as soon as somebody protests that "under God" is not used to establish a religion in this country.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Explosion at Scaled Composites

As a "Private Space" advocate, I was upset this evening to discover that there had been an explosion at a rocket testing site for Scaled Composites.

Scaled Composites is the company that won the X-Prize for launching the first ship to 60 miles and then repeating with the same ship within 2 weeks. Since then, they have been working with Richard Bransen to create ships that will carry paying passengers to the edge of space.

2 people killed, others injured.

Blaming Theism or Atheism

Michael gave some extensive comments to my last post that deserve an extensive response. However, there is one particular claim that I would like to focus on here.

It is the idea that people do harm in the name of religion, but it is impossible to do harm in the name of atheism.

There are two things that can be said of this.

First, if this is true, then it is also true that people do good in the name of religion, but nobody has ever done good in the name of atheism. If the former is a reason to condemn religion, then the latter is a reason to condemn atheism.

I reject the latter as a reason to condemn atheism because, any good that a theist will do, an atheist is capable of doing - though for other reasons.

Yet, consistency requires rejecting the former as a reason to condemn religion - because any evil a theist will do, an atheist is capable of doing - though for different reasons.

Second, it is true that generic atheism contains no commandments - no orders to do or to forbear from any activity. However, genetic theism does not contain any commandments either. The proposition, "One or more god(s) exist(s)" says nothing about what we should or should not do. Those prohibitions and requirements come from things added to the proposition that God exists.

The same is true of atheism. An atheist can do evil, depending on the other beliefs that one adds to the proposition that no god(s) exist(s).

If it is invalid to blame generic atheism for harms done from beliefs associated with generic atheism, then it is similarly invalid to blame generic theism for harms done from beliefs associated with generic theism.

And if it is valid to blame generic theism for harms done from beliefs associated with generic theism, then it is similar valid to blame atheism for harms done from beliefs associated with generic atheism, such as communism.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Scope of Intolerance

At Atheist Persepective, in a post, Moderate Christians - Take some responsibility, stop blaming Dawkins contained this statement:

Many atheists are intolerant of religion. Why? I won’t speak for Dawkins but my own intolerance is triggered by the dishonest and reprehensible conduct of those who purport to spread the love of Christ’s teachings, when, in actual fact, they cause fractions in society and hinder our ability to move forward as a species because of the absolutes they feel so comfortable wallowing in.

If one's object of disapproval is those who 'cause frictions in society and hinder our ability to move forward as a species', then it would seem that these should be the objects of one's intolerance, not 'religion', unless one can argue that the two are identical.

Unless one can prove an identity between the two groups, then the argument is just as valid as saying that one's intolerance of blacks is supportd by the 'reprehensible conduct of those who join gangs and engage in the drug trade'. Such an attitude is blaming the guilty with the innocent, which is entirely unjust.

I have no intolerance for religion. Instead, I have an intolerance for those who advocate policies that promote death, disease, injury, injustice, and ignorance. I am intolerant of these people even when I discover that they are atheists - because it is not religion that I dislike, but the harms inflicted on others. Turning this dislike into a dislike of religion has two bad side effects. First, it condemns those who are innocent because the innocent happen to be religious (even if it is a religion tht says to trust others). Second, it lets the guilty off the hook where the guilty happen not to be religious.

When casting blame (and praise) about, there is a particularly high level importance to coloring inside the lines - blaming those who are actually guilty, and refusing to punish or condemn those who cannot be proved to have contributed to the harm done.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Eight Facts

I am not much of a fan of the blog style of chain letters - the type that involve completing some task then assigning a number of other bloggers to do the same thing.

However, I had been tagged a few times to present 8 random facts about oneself. And, I thought that the exercise might be useful.

These are not actually random facts. They are things that I thought might provide a useful context to my writing. I have ignored most of the other rules as well.


(1) I have never believed in God . . . not really. I grew up with the attitude that back in ancient times people used to make up gods to explain things that they did not understand. However, we don't do that stuff any more. By 'we', I meant everybody. I was seriously of the opinion that nobody took this God stuff seriously. Rather, people pretended there was a God like they pretended their was a Santa Clause - because it was fun. Children have such wierd beliefs. When it came to "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and "all men are created equal," I simply looked at the fact that the latter said that all men are created equal, and that the founders only meant white men. Obviously, they did not get everything right. Nobody believed that only white men were equal any more. Yet, that did not keep the Declaration of Independence from being important. Nobody needed to believe that humans were 'created' to be equal either. The core part of the Declaration . . . the important part . . . is the part that says, all . . . are . . . equal. That's all anybody needs to understand.

(2) When I was 11 years old, I found out how wrong I was about nobody taking this god stuff seriously. I had started a new school. It became known that I did not believe in God. I didn't think anybody really believed in God so I probably made some casual comment. Things instantly went sour. Friends came up to me to tell me that their parents would not let them hang around with me any more. The school bullies made me an instant target, and had the support of the school. For example, one day, I returned to my home room after recess, to find my desk tipped over and all of my belongings scattered about. This happened on a regular basis. I decided to prod the teacher into at least saying something and said, "Not again." The teacher then made a comment to the effect that the students shouldn't do this. The important thing to note is that the teacher was already in the room when I walked in to find my desk tipped and my stuff scattered around the floor.

(3) One ally that I had during this time was as much a fundamentalist as one could imagine. He was being subjected to the same treatment as I was, because he had epilepsy. He would have a seizure two or three times a week in school, so this made him the object of a lot of cruelty. He told me his beliefs, but never tried to convert me. During lunch in the cafeteria, he would give me the food he was not permitted to eat, and I would trade him what he could eat. One fortunate aspect of this relationship was that, at age 11, he was over 6' tall. So, he provided somewhat of a buffer against some of the violence. They would taunt him, but they never got too close.

(4) My parents required that I stop seeing this fundamentalist friend. Now that I am older, I think that they were aware that things were not going well with my life, and thought this friend was the cause. After all, I spent all of my time with him, and did not socialize with other children. Obeying my parents' prohibition meant that I had nobody to talk to.

(5) The worst of this brutality happened when I was 13. The city had a swimming pool 1 block from the Jr. High School, so for half of each school year 'physical education' class meant going to the pool every day. Sometimes, the teacher would give us free time. One day, the teacher announced free time just as I had finished my dive off the diving board. The result is that I was caught in the deep end of the pool by several of the students who had a habit of tormenting me. They said that they were going to baptize me and pushed me under. And they held me there. When I could not hold my breath any more, I screamed for help. However, screaming for help while being held under water doesn't carry very much. Fortunately, when the students saw all of the bubbles, they let me back to the surface. From that point on I pretty much hid from everybody - not by actually hiding, but by making myself inconspicuous - unnoticable.

(6) The only job I have ever been fired from was for reasons of ethics. I was working for a think tank. I was told to put things in a report that was not supported in any of the research I had done. Nothing contradicted it either. I refused to put the information in the report. They refused to continue to give me money.

(7) When I told my boss that I was going to go to graduate school to study moral philosophy, he offered me a raise of my regular income plus 15% of the gross to stay on and run the company. I refused. I wanted to go to graduate school and study moral philosophy, and no amount of money was going to keep me from that. I have thought about it a few times. If I had accepted the offer, I would likely be much wealther than I am today. Yet, to have had the money without the education - without the things I learned in graduate school - would still have been a much poorer life.

(8) One of my current past time is online role playing games. If there are any readers playing Lord of the Rings Onlinel, if you were to visit the Landoval server, you may encounter a halfling named Meadowlark. If you do, then stop by and say hello.

On Atheists and Closets

An article entitled Ditching God assigns significance to atheists 'coming out of the closet'.

I would like to temper this line of thinking, which I have encountered elsewhere, with a little bit of reality check.

Here goes:

Right. As if the one thing that blacks needed to do to end slavery and, later, racist discrimination was to come out of the closet. And if the Jews in Europe had only come out of the closet in the 1930s there would have been no holocaust. Or women could have ended gender-based discrimination centuries earlier if they were only willing to publicly identify themselves as women.

Something about these events tells me that "coming out of the closet" has only limited effectiveness. That unless somebody is willing to do more - unless somebody is willing to protest being sent to the back of the back of the bus - that the discrimination will not end. It will only be easier to identify who to hate.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Negative Perceptions of Atheists

In my previous posts I hit the aggressive atheists. In the name of being fair and balanced, I have something to say about the "appeasers.

Particularly, to claims like that recently expressed in Secular Planet in Perceptions About Atheists

I have come to the conclusion that the negative perception of atheists by theists seems to result primarily from interaction with two distinct groups. The first group is what I here term militant atheists. I fully realize that this term has been greatly abused by theists, but sometimes it's a completely appropriate description of certain individuals who are aggressively antagonistic toward believers without provocation.

First, as I have previously argued, 'militant' is not an appropriate term to use except to those who are taking up weapons. I have heard the claim that it means verbally aggressive. However, 'militant' is a marketing term. It is used because it has an emotional impact. People who hear the term do not instantly think 'verbally aggressive'. It brings an immediate reaction of fear - as if from violent attack. The word is used, in most cases, precisely because of its power to generate a fear response. Endorsing its use is to play to this marketing stunt, which I am disinclined to do.

Second, the idea that Dawkins, Harris, and the like are responsible for the negative attitudes towards atheists is simply absurd. Where did the negative attitude come from before this recent round of books hit the press? Why is it the case that people who file court cases and make verbal insults generates hatred of an entire group, yet similar actions on the part of some theists do not have the same effect?

It is because the bigotry and prejudice is already built into the culture.

I have to ask . . . were blacks enslaved as a result of Europeans running into 'uppity nigers' in their first trips to Africa? Was the 'selfish Jew' responsible for the Holocaust, or the 'savage native American' to be blamed for being nearly wiped out by European conquerors?

These types of arguments are true instances of blaming the victim. If a group is considered fairly and justly, then the blame for any perceived excesses will fall only on those who are guilty. The very fact that people are generalizing a few excesses to the whole group is proof of an underlying bigotry that cannot be blamed on those who have committed any perceived excesses.

There is a negative perception of atheists because we live in a culture where the vilification of atheists is second-nature to most people. It is such a pervasive part of our cultural atmosphere that it seeps into everything and is now barely noticed - and will continue to be unnoticed - until people start pointing it out in no uncertain terms, and expressing the fact that they will no longer quietly and passively ride at the back of society's political and cultural bus.

Appeasment vs. Assertive Atheists Part II

In a recent example of the debate between 'appeaser atheists' and 'aggressive atheists', we have Shalina at Scientia Natura discussing Appeasers: The Spineless Pushovers, and MikeGene at Telic Thoughts explaining how Shalina's comments warrant the term 'militant' in Don't Call Me Militant

In the comments to the latter, one writer states,

Yes, we shall certainly never forget the day that jumbo jets were crashed into the Vatican by militants screaming "Dawkins Akbar!"

However, an important question to ask is, given Shalina's argument, what objection can be raised against flying a jet into the Vatican or launching a terrorist strike against Mecca?

It may be true that no atheist has performed similar actions in the past. However, aggressive atheists also make the case that, in the past, atheists were too passive and accepting of religion. It was the so-called 'appeaser atheists' who were not blowing up churches or committing violence against the instruments and symbols of religion.

We do not yet know what type of history the aggressive atheists will give us.

It certainly makes no sense to say that the aggressive atheists deserve credit because appeaser atheists have not engaged in violence.

Yes, it is true that Dawkins and Harris do not advocate violence. Yet, I would like to know if either one of them could give a coherent argument against the use of violence.

What would happen if an atheist did blow up a church and post a manifesto where he declared that we are in a war between science and superstition, that the enablers of superstition deserve to die for the misery and suffering they have brought to the human race, and that this is a battle the friends of science must win?

What could the aggressive atheist say against such a person?

In fact, where has any of the aggressive atheists written, "Do not do this, because it would be wrong, and here is why it would be wrong"?

Read Shalina's post. It is filled with the 'us' versus 'them' rhetoric that has always been the precursor to violence. It even includes the rhetoric of, "You are either for us, or you are against us," the over-simplistic rhetoric that everything in the universe can be seen as black or white - no shades of gray, no shades of doubt.

So, this is what I want from the aggressive atheists.

A coherent argument to their readers explaining why it would be wrong to violently destroy the symbols and the leadership of the agents of superstition?

And, don't cheat and say that, "It is because it will not be effective." Because then, I will ask, "What proof do you have have that it will not be effective?"

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Appeasment vs Assertive Atheists

I sometimes feel a bit discomfited at having no home in the debate between 'appeasment atheists' and 'assertive atheists' then it comes to religion.

It is not even accurate to say that I hold a middle ground between them, because my actual position is that both camps are utterly and completely wrong. Somebody in the middle ground between them would, then, be twice as wrong. (Well, not exactly, but you get my point.)

The problem with the aggressive atheists is that they want to assert that it is some sort of moral crime to hold unfounded beliefs. Yet, every one of us holds a number of unfounded beliefs. Our beliefs simply do not come to us in a manner that allows us to hold each and every one of them to the light of reason.

Even many of these aggressive atheists hold unfounded - even rationally absurd beliefs. As somebody who has studied value theory, I see this absurdity most commonly expressed in what they say is true about value. Many profess to a genetic or biological root to morality without recognizing that all good acts and all evil acts are equally rooted in biology.

In fact, they are quick to profess that the Euthyphro argument defeats all God-based morality. Yet, they prove the equal of their religious counterparts when it comes to the fact that this same argument defeats Gene-based morality.

So, they condemn people for crimes that everybody commits. Their accusations are untrue and unfair at best, and bigoted at worse.

So, this means that I side with the appeasers, right?

Appeasers are people who do not condemn religion because they think it is not nice to say bad things about other people's faith. If it was harmless faith, I could understand - though I would base my judgment more on the fact that we have far more important things to worry about than harmless false beliefs.

But we are talking about innocent people dying, suffering, forced to endure tremendous injustice, wollowing in ignorance of the real world, and making decisions based on myth and superstitions that have tragic consequences when they collide with reality.

The claim, "It's okay, they're not hurting anybody," is, in a huge number of cases, flat out and completely wrong.

People are dying and enduring great suffering as a result of these myths.

Since they are closing off medical options and discount long-term planning for the well-being of the earth in a universe that does not care whether we live or die, we, and everybody we care about, will be adversely affected by these myths and positions these myth holders take on public policy.

It is of extreme importance - particularly to those who would die prematurely or suffer greatly in life - that we take action against the causes of that death and suffering.

So, mine is not a middle ground between these views. They are both mistaken. My position is to start over here, with people who are now suffering or dying or who will be suffering and dying, and trace it back to its root. Where those who defend their actions do so on the basis of religion, that is where I say that a religion that does this does not deserve to live.

I so not say that no person may hold an unfounded belief - that would be absurd.

However, any specific real-world case where people are using a belief to promte death and suffering deserves our specific and targeted condemnation.

Leave it to people to decide for themselves where they want to go once they abandon the faith responsible for such harms. If they go someplace else that defends policies leading to death and suffering, then good people should pursue them and drive them out of that place as well. If, on the other hand, they retreat to some place harmless, then we have more important things to worry about.

Friday, July 20, 2007

In Groups and Out Groups

Some dabate has been created by PZ Myers decision to post a map of religious adherents as a percentage of residents, and describe it as:

the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States, with the lighter colors being the most enlightened and the dark reds being the most repressed and misinformed.

Myers himself later called it a "casual and flippant comment."

Yet, his use of terms have caused a bit of a stir, including some, such as Atheist Revolution saying that the claim is true.

In fact, the claim is not true. Instead, what we have here is a standard example of in-group favoratism and out-group hatred. The statement equates being a religious adherant with a number of traits that make the individual worthy of our hatred - somebody to be excluded from society - as 'out group' members. While, at the same time, it identifies those who would not give such an answer as 'ingroup' members.

It appeals to a psychological need to divide the world into tribes, to in-tribe loyalty and out-tribe hostility - which is perhaps the greatest source of misery and violence in the world today.

Some may want to say that religion itself is a major source of violence. Yet, religion only contributes to violence when it feeds this apparently innate desire for in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. Religions that do not feed this tendency are not causes of global conflict.

Yet, as Myers shows us, religion is not the only way to generate patterns of in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. Which is why it is foolish to think that we can reduce violence by reducing religion. We will simply replace religion with other ways of defining in-group versus out-group; nationality, skin color, membership in a gang, favorite sports teams. We have actually seen violence built around every one of these distinctions - every one of these classifications of in-groups and out-groups.

Myers is simply feeding another in-group vs. out-group distinction. One which, if we decide to live in denial of which dynamics are actually at play here, can lead to violence as easily as any of the other distinctions I have mentioned.

My policy . . . do not call a person wicked unless you have evidence that the person you are talking about, as an individual, is actually guilty of doing something evil. Do not call a person enlightened unless he actually holds a belief for good reason. Even a person who believes that no god exists does not necessarily hold that belief on the basis of good reason. In general, my policy is to judge individuals as individuals, and not as members of any 'in group' or 'out group'.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Moral Absolutes

In my most recent encounter with the idea that theists have access to a set of moral absolutes while atheists do not, I had a phrase pop into my head.

"Well, since so many theists' moral absolutes promote death, disease, misery, injustice, ignorance, and conflict, I can only think that the lack of moral absolutes is a good thing."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Persistent Claims Linking Biology and Morality

One set of views that I have often raised objections to is the idea that morality is an evolved disposition. Yet, I find this view repeated yet again, this time at Letters from Le Vrai.

Let me first say there have been an increasing number of plausible, evidence-based and well-reasoned accounts of the evolution of morality in the human animal, even tracing its roots to our primate cousins.

Nope, not plausible. They all contain a fundamental logical error - confusing the concepts of 'is desired' (a description) and 'should be desired' (a prescription). It is quite possible to show that, through evolution, humans do desire sex. It is quite impossible to expect a study of biology to prove that humans should value sex.

The most important objection - if humans have so much innate morality evolved into us, then why is it that we do so much evil? Indeed, how does evil happen at all? I mean, everything we do is based on our biology, so how do we tell the difference between 'good' biology and 'bad' biology?

However, the greatest irony is that this article expresses the Euthyphro problem with respect to the idea that morality comes from God. Yet, it ignores the fact that the idea that morality comes from our genes has exactly the same problem.

"Is X good because it is loved by our genes? Or is X loved by our genes because it is good?" If we say that it is the former, then the most horrendous things can be moral, if we evolve a disposition to like it. And, remember, nature invented the predator and the parasite. If we say the latter, then 'good' is still a concept that is quite independent of our evolved dispositions, and a study of our evolved dispositions is quite distinct from a study of what is good.

Like I said, I have covered this topic quite a bit. If you're interested, you can find more detailed arguments in:

Richard Dawkins; Morality and the Selfish Gene

Evaluating Moral Theories

The Genetic Morality Delusion

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Like Hitler

Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison made a statement that Bush used 9/11 to manipulate the public into granting him extraordinary power, the way Hitler used the Reichstag Fire in Germany for a grab for power. NOw, critics are condemning the comparison, accusing Ellison is implying that Bush was behind 9/11 or, just generally, asserting that it is wrong for anybody to make comparisons to Hitler. (Critics: Muslim rep. likened Bush, Hitler

This is a common form of political rhetoric that I detest. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in an essay that I titled, "Like Hitler".

One of my objections to this policy is that if we prohibit people from saying tha something is "like Hitler", then we prohibit warning people of political trends that are actually "like Hitler." I postulated a reincarnated Hitler seeking political office, protesting any attempt to say that he is "like Hitler" by playing on the national prohibition on making such comparisons, even when they are accurate.

In this case, the comparison being made is that Hitler knew that an attack on the nation is politically useful in grabbing power. Bush (or, perhaps more accurately, Bush's master Dick Cheney) recognized the usefulness of the 9/11 attacks.

Hitler could not wait around for history to hand him an attack that he could then exploit, so he engineered his own attack. However, there is no doubt that if communists would have actually attacked the Reichstag, that Hitler would have considered this a blessing and still exploited it to the future.

We may assume that Bush/Cheney would not have engineered an attack on the United States. (Some conspiracy theorists say otherwise, but I hold that conspiracy theories require extraordinary proof). Yet, like Hitler, they knew how to put an attack (whether engineered internally or externally) to good use.

All protests to the contrary, this is an objective fact. It would be legitimate to protest this claim by saying that it is not true. It is not a legitimate response to say, even though true, one is not socially permitted to utter this truth because it contains the word Hitler.

Some things in the real world really are "like Hitler".

The Cause of Vocal Atheism

In an article about local atheists in The Argus (Increasingly, atheists are coming out of the closet), the article states:

Atheists say this sprouting visibility is partly a response to the country's growing religiosity — especially under President Bush.

This is one atheist that does not share that theory. In fact, I think it is mistaken.

If not for the harm that is being done in the name of God, I do not think that atheists would concern themselves with the matter of religion at all. If it remained a substantially peaceful and private pasttime, like taking mega-vitamins or wearing good luck charms, atheists would substantially ignore the practice as they went about the business of living their lives.

However, when one looks at religiosity in this country and the world, one sees great harm being done - people being killed or denied medical care, women who are denied an education, cures for diseases going unresearched, qualified individuals kept out of public office, poverty and diseases spreading, and a growing ignorance of the way the real world works, because of adherance to myth and superstition.

People are dying, and those who do not die are still being made to suffer, because of actions taken by those who claim to be serving a "higher power".

What it means to identify the 'cause' of something is to identify a property that can be linked to a change. If it is possible for religiosity to shift without a vocal rise in atheism, then religiosity is not the cause. And, I would assert, this is the case. It is not the rise in religiosity that is the issue. It is a rise in an awareness of real-world harms being inflicted on real-world people that is the cause of this increased vocalization.

And this is how it should be.

I think that it is important to get this simple truth out to the public as loudly as possible. Attributing the rise in atheism to increased religiosity gives atheists an appearance of being overly concerned with trivial and unimportant matters. Attributing the rise in atheism to its true cause - a rise in the awareness of real-world death and suffering supported by beliefs in myth and superstition - accurately explains its importance.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Progress Report 07/16/2007

I started this journal to keep track of my progress on a number of fronts.

Again, I regret that I must report that I have not made as much progress as I have liked.

I continued to post one post per day on the Atheist Ethicist blog. That is my minimum standard. Sometimes, I do not accomplish even that much. However, so far this year, I have posted every day but one. That is a better record than on any other year. Then again, this is only the third calendar year - and the second full calendar year - in which posts exist.

I have made progress on the Scrap Wiki for Desire Utilitarianism. I am adding a page on J.L. Mackie's Error Theory - explaining what it is and how desire utilitarianism can defend moral realism while agreeing with Mackie on the issue of 'objective values'.

On the book criticizing intelligent design for 12 to 14 year olds, I wrote to PZ Myers at Pharyngula last week for information on material criticizing intelligent design for this age group. He put my request on his blog, which generated a number of useful leads in the comments. Many of the comments focused on books on evolution fit for this age group, but that is not what I am interested in. I am interested in books or other materials critical of intelligent design. It does look like there is a need for such a project. However, now I am curious as to whether somebody who is more skilled than I am on these matters might have seen the request and started his or her own version of the project. Nonetheless, I continue to make contributions, from time to time.

I have received a request from a reader for permission to use his or her influence to get me on a podcast. I'm not going to offer any details here, but I certainly would be pleased for an opportunity to present my work to others. I am considering the possibility of adding a line on the family budget next year for air travel to certain atheist events.

That's it for this week. Next week, I hope to do more of the same, only more of it. I'll let you know how I do.

Religion as a Proxy for Moral Character

CBS News carried an article about faith in the Democratic party ("Faith and Politics Do Mix for Democrats").

I would agree that courting religious voters is a political necessity. Any voter who will support only candidates who refuse to solicit votes from theists is a voter who insists on voting for a losing candidate.

It does no good to condemn winning candidates for this state of affairs. Instead, the only good that is to be done requires turning to the people who insist on putting superstitious, irrational candidates in charge of trying to discover real-world solutions to real-world problems.

One of the things that military leaders worry about is the observation that generals are always fighting the last war. At the start of World War II, Admirals still thought of naval warfare as a conflict between battleships, with aircraft carriers as support weapons. It did not take long for military leaders to realize that the carrier group was the heart of the navy now, and battleships had outlived their usefulness.

We have reason to wonder whether candidates who are soliciting religous support are fighting the last election, without realizing that things might have changed for the next election.

The article cites Time Magazine's Amy Sullivan, who

Sullivan believes the emergence of faith in politics stems from Watergate, when the nation felt deceived and betrayed by President Richard Nixon. "Americans care about more than just the policy positions of the candidate," she explains. "They care about what their character is, kind of what their moral grounding is. And religion is one kind of proxy for that."

The idea that it makes sense to use religion as a proxy for moral character is, first, just the type of nonsense that got us into this mess. Most people who voted for Bush were people who were using religion as a proxy for moral character. The people they elected turned out to be the authors of wars of aggression, extraordinary rendition, the repeal of nearly every amendment in the Bill of Rights, torture, an attempt to abolish the systems of checks and balances, and 'get out of jail free cards' for administratin staff members convicted of breaking the law, torture. This is the consequence of using religion as a proxy for character.

People also need to become aware of the fact that this 'proxy' selects people who will seek to slow or stop research into ways to fight disease. It selects people who oppose policies that fight poverty with all of its ill effects through family planning. People who seek legislation to deprive harmless neighbors of a quality of life consistent with their nature. People who promote a fundamental ignorace of the world in which we live through their rejection of science, hindering our ability to understand the consequences of our actions.

All of these traits also promote death and misery across the planet.

A person who wants to use religion as a proxy for character can consider voting for Osama bin Ladin or one of his followers, or the reverend Jim Jones, or any of a few thousand Catholic priests who are on the sex offender lists across this nation.

More importantly, this is an example of flat-out bigotry. Using religion as a proxy for moral character is as obnoxious as using skin color as a proxy for moral character. In fact, statistically speaking, skin color is a much more reliable proxy. However, it is a sign of bigotry to judge an individual by a 'proxy' like skin color, rather than to evaluate the person as an individual who stands or falls on his or her own merits.

Of course, this is one of the qualities that many religious people excel at - bigotry, the use of proxies for moral character instead of judging the individual on his or her own merits.

Perhaps one of the most depressing aspects of this is while religious people are using religion as a proxy for moral character, I have encountered some atheists who try to do the same thing. When I encounter it among atheists, I condemn it, precisely because each person should be judged by his own merits, and not by some arbitrary group membership. I put a great deal of effort into getting other atheists to treat theists with a measure of justice and fairness.

I am wondering whether I would hear any voices among the theists asking their fellow members for the same measure of justice and fairness? Or do the concepts of fairness and justice somehow fail them?

The Surgeon General and the Definition of 'Science'

The Senate is looking to approve President Bush's nominee for Surgeon General, Dr. James W. Holsinger.

Holsinger has opponents, in part because he wrote a paper in 1991 where he wrote that homosexuality is unnatural and is to be blamed for a number of diseases and side effects.

He has told the Senate that if pressured to put ideology over sound science, that he would resign. (Holsinger: Politics Won't Trump Science.

However, we need to look at this in the proper context.

This is an administration that promotes the idea that creationism is science. Indeed, it seems to operate on the idea that we can distinguish good science from junk science by how well it supports religious beliefs. The Bible is, in essence, the answer book, and any scientist that gets an answer that is not consistent with the answer book needs to redo his science.

On this view, science cannot trump conservative ideology because good science necessarily agrees with that ideology.

We see the same attitude towards intelligence gathered before the invasion of Iraq. Intelligence that supported the Administration's policy was good intelligence. Intelligence that contradicted that policy was sloppy or politically motivated, and needed to be done over. The policy was the standard by which intelligence gathering was determined to have been done well or poorly.

Global warming is the same thing. It is easy to imagine the Administration as filled with people who realize that global warming is a problem but who are trying to hide the truth by doctoring the scientific findings. Yet, an explanation that better fits the facts is that the Administration is filled with people who simply believe that there is no way that humans could do harm to the environment, and who judge the quality of the science according to whether it agrees or disagrees with this conclusion.

Abstinence only education, stem-cell research, the effects of abortion on the health of the mother - these are all areas where the people who make up and support the Administration all judge the science as good or bad according to how well it supports their ideology.

Holsinger's answer is just the type of answer that politicians love to give - an answer that says absolutely nothing, because it equivocates on the meanings of terms.

His claim that he is willing to put science above idology means absolutely nothing in this context.

Somebody needs to ask Holsinger a follow-up question.

"Sir, what is 'science'?"


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Criticizing the Views of Others

I am continuing to read examples of people who claim that a general tolerance of religion is required, and that some atheists also do terrible things.

However, I have noticed a particular structure to some of these claims. Ultimately, many of the writers actually say, "The harms done by religion should be tolerated, because some atheists have done terrible things."

Yet, taken at face value, this would be a lot like claiming, "My crimes of murder, rape, and theft should be tolerated because I am not the only person guilty of murder, rape, and theft." It is a poor defense.

So, I want to make a deal. I agree that some atheists in the bast have done terrible things - and some atheists in the present and the future might also do terrible things. However, I want to make it clear that nobody should, in any way, feel obligated to 'tolerate' any evil that any atheist is or will do. Never, will I argue, that any evil that an atheist is doing or will do should be tolerated in the name of tolerance.

However, following the principle of universalizability, on these same grounds, I hold that it is permissible to condemn any evil done by a non-atheist as well. The non-atheist who threatens the life, health, and well-being of others, in the name of God, shall be subject to the same condemnation as those who do harm to the life, health, and well-being of others by somebody who does not believe in God.

The idea that, because some atheists have done evil in the past, that no current or future evil done by a theist may be condemned, shall be just as freely disregarded as the idea that, because some theist has done evil in the past, that no current or future evil done by an atheist may be condemned.

Sound fair?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Interesting Web Sites

I have found a couple of web sites that are going to keep me filled with educational material for the near future.

The first one will likely become a source of several posts in my Atheist Ethicist blog, in the same way that Beyond Belief 2006 proved to be a fruitful source of blog material. It's Ted - a collection of 15-minute presentations on a veriety of subjects from people such as:

Richard Dawkins
Dan Dennett
Barry Schwartz
Burt Rutan
E.O. Wilson
Al Gore
Jane Goodall

And on and on. I figure . . . 3 speeches per night as I exercise.

The other site that I will be spending some time on is Space Prizes. Regular, long-term readers know that I have repeated argued for the use of prizes to promote the development of space, and that the development of space is important to the survival of humanity. Here is a site that will keep me informed about how well the prospect of space prizes is going.

So, I hope you don't mind, I have some listening and reading to do.

Overgeneralization and Bigotry

I have seen a few posts taking the actions of an individual in Colorado, threatening a college professor for teaching evolution, as reported in the Denver Post, as reason to condemn all of religion.

Yet, I can easily imagine some atheist with a screw loose making the same threats against a church somewhere, leaving notes under the door, condemning the preacher for teaching lies to children and making greater and greater demands to be heard by the church.

If such a person showed up, how would we - how should we - react to the claim that this is indicative of the attitudes being promoted by the militant atheist movement?

I continue to hold that each person should be held responsible for his or her own actions, and that it is an act of bigotry to blame me for the actions of any atheist who might go off the deep end somewhere. Consistency requires doing the same for others. I will condemn this one person for his actions - and condemn any who condone or praise his actions, but I will also condemn any act of bigotry tht wants to overgeneralize and blame others who are not guilty.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Christians Disrupt Hindu Senate Prayer

The Chaplain for the Senate's opening prayer was Hindu.

As reported at Election Central, as he started his prayer, several Christians in the audience shouted protests. They could be heard saying, "Lord Jesus, forgive us father for allowing a prayer of the wicked, which is an abomination in your sight," and "This is an abomination. We shall have no other gods before You."

Now, one possible reaction reaction to this is to chalk it up as a sign of religious bigotry - the way that religion teaches its followers to hate others and to generate conflict.

However, I wonder whether secular advocates of separation of church and state would cheer or condemn a group of atheists in the audience shouting claims that there is no God or many of the anti-religious quotes from the founders, such as, "History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government," or "In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." (Thomas Jefferson)

Who would cheer them? And who would condemn them? And would they be able to apply a consistent set of principles whereby they can decide whether to cheer or condemn these Christian protesters?

And if criticized, would that criticism be based on the claim that this type of behavior is wrong? Or merely that, even though right, it is not prudent?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Politicized Health Care

I would like to invite you to consider the testimony of Bush's former Surgeon General, as presented in this report from Crooks and Liars.

It presents an assessment from Bush's own hand-picked attorney general that the Bush Administration has heavily interfered with the practice of protecting the nation's health by the application of the best medical science available. This is because where the science of medicine interferes with the witch doctory of the Bush Administration, he sides with the witch doctors.

Who are these creatures that they think it is morally good and proper to play political games with our health - to sell our lives to the highest bidder?

I have a particular keen interest in avoiding many of the dread diseases that I might come down with, and in obtaining quality health care if I should come down with one of these diseases. I do not want some witch doctor driving away evil spirits or preparing me as a religious sacrifice to somebody's imaginary God.

The difference, by the way, - including an explanation of how the science of medicine actually saves lives - is something I described a while back in a posting called Faith Hospital

Monday, July 9, 2007

Real World Charity

Matthew Nesbit at Framing Science, in The New Atheism and the Purpose Driven Life, discussed surveys that showed that atheists were the least likely to participate in certain types of responses to poverty. These responses mostly centered around direct aid to the poor - providing a poor person with food, clothing, shelter, either directly or through an organization that provides such aid.

If I were to take such a survey, I would report that I do not engage in many of these activities. And yet I devote virtually every free hour of every day to trying to make the world a better place.

The reason that I do not spend much time and resources on direct aid is simply because I do not see much merit in doing something that provides temporary help to one or two people, when I can instead provide support for activities that will provide an enduring benefit to countless people.

For example, medical problems are a significant source of poverty and general lack of well-being. I could spend time in a hospital comforting a small number of sick people, or I could write posts that just might get the barriers to embryonic stem-cell research overturned, potentially bringing forth cures to hundreds of diseases.

I could provide some family with food. Or I could write a post condemning those who would promote global warming, which will rob whole countries of crop lands and promote starvation and famine on a global scale.

Atheists are among the best providers of care for the sick and starving. Atheist materialist scientists have discovered most of the cures to the world's diseases. They did not do this by visiting one patient and a time and reading them stories, but by devoting their waking lives to understanding some aspect of human biology to the degree that they could find a cure.

Atheists might not be the best at handing a bag of groceries to a starving individual, but through their understanding of biology and agriculture they have invented the scientific breakthroughs that feed the world.

Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama asks the state residents to pray for rain. This is not an act of charity. This is a waste of time and effort - time and effort that should go into enacting real-world solutions to the current problem and being better prepared for future problems.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Birthday Suggestion

I need more time - or, at least, I need to figure out how to better use the time that I have.

There is so much that I want to do, and I do not have enough time. So, projects that are important to me are not going as well as I would have liked.

And, I make mistakes.

Some readers may have noticed that the blog entry before this one used to be exactly like the blog entry in my Atheist Ethicist blog. That was a mistake - cause by being too tired or too rushed. I do not mean to offer duplicate posts.

Anyway, I am getting behind on the things that I have said I want to do, and yet I still want to add more things to the list.

So, here's what I want.

I have a birthday coming up.

I would like, for my birthday, to have $2 million in cash (post-tax). I will then invest that money, allowing me to draw a reasonably sufficient income, allowing me to quit my job, and work full time on all of the projects that I would like to be working on.

Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Money and Value

One of the things I like about this blog is that it gives me an opportunity to present topics that would, essentially, be a digression in my other blog.

For the Atheist Ethicist blog for tonight I am working on an essay on the relationship between biology and value, in a desire-utilitarian context. My starting point is an article in The Economist, “Money Isn’t Everything”.

The article starts with the following paragraph:

PSYCHOLOGISTS have known for a long time that economists are wrong. Most economists—at least, those of the classical persuasion—believe that any financial gain, however small, is worth having. But psychologists know this is not true. They know because of the ultimatum game, the outcome of which is often the rejection of free money.

What a load of hogwash!

No economist has ever said that money is everything. In fact, money is a medium of exchange and has value only in virtue of what a person can do with it. A $20 bill is only so much paper and ink. What gives it value is the fact that one can give it up for something else that does have value - food, clothing, shelter, chocolate, more chocolate.

And as for "free money" - economists are the ones who invented the phrase, "There ain't no such thing as free money." The article in which this this quote appears is an article about making choices, and simply points out that an individual will give up money in exchange for other 'goods'. This is hardly a surprising result.

What surprises me most is that such an obviously flawed paragraph would show up as the opening paragraph in an article in "The Economist."

In this context, the paragraph goes from being simply wrong to laugh-out-loud absurd.

A Model Atheist Response

Today, I found an article, "Alabama Atheists: Governor Riley's Call for Citizens to Pray for Rain Is a Waste of Time, Money", which contains elements that I think should take center stage whenever governments advocate religious solutions to real-world problems.

The article contains some mention of the separation of church and state. However, the bulk of the article focuses on the fact that real-world problems require real-world solutions, and 'religious' or 'faith-based' options are a waste of time and effort.

Presidents are in the habit of calling for a day of prayer after every natural disaster. There is a protest raised regarding the separation of church and state. There should be an equal protest raised to the effect of, "The whole problem comes from the fact that people spend too much time praying and not enough time pursuing options that can actually do some good in the real world. You are wasting time and resources on options that do not work, rather than focusing on real-world solutions that will work."

Each and every time there is a protest over some church-state separation issue, there should be equal time set aside to simply say, "You're wasting time and resources. And because you are wasting time and resources, you are costing lives and allowing suffering that could otherwise be preented."

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Future of Manned Space Travel

I came across a nice clip of Burt Rutan delivering a talk about the future of manned space flight, which he claims will be in the hands of private companies, not NASA.

I have been defending the same point.

One of the things that Rutan defends is the ethics of fun. The first steps in commercial manned spaceflight is nothing more than rich people spending a lot of money for their own pleasure.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Desire utilitarianism defends the idea of promoting 'desires that tend to fulfill other desires'. A good person gets to do whatever he wants, because what he wants to do is that which will tend to fulfill other desires.

The desire for a joy ride in space will feed an industry which, ultimately, has the power to protect the Earth from environmental degradation and protect the human race from extinction.

How would you like to save the world and have fun doing it?

It's easy when you find fun in doing things that have such side effects.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hypocrisy and Ad Hominem Tu Quoque

Members of the Bush Administration are accusing former President Bill Clinton of Hypocrisy for criticizing Bush's pardon (for all practical purposes) of "Scooter" Libby (Reuters: White House accuses Clintons of hypocrisy in Libby case

This sets up a huge red herring where the Bush Administration can misdirect public attention from its own wrongs by pointing somewhere else. It is the magician's trick of the slight of hand - getting people focused on the wrong target so that they do not actually notice the trick.

As a defense of Bush's actions, even if the accusation against Clinton is true, it would amount to an application of the fallacy ad hominem tu quoque. It would be like Hitler trying to declare his innocence by saying that Stalin (one of the allies) also killed millions of innocent people. However, Stalin's guilt does not prove Hitler's innocence.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


Yesterday, I expressed the need for some measure of outrage over the fact that President Bush commuted Scooter Libby's sentence.

However, I have since recognized some political problems here.

Ten years ago, the Republicans thought that obstruction of justice, in a case as insignificant to national security as a President having sex with an intern, was such an outrage against justice that it was worth removing a President from office. Now, they treat the crime as a misdimeaner worthy of no punishment at all.

Ten years ago, the Democrats thought that the same case of obstruction of justice was a trivial matter. When they show outrage today, they show themselves to be just as hypocritical as the Republicans.

The sign that an individual has some shred of moral decency is when he condemns allies on the same standard that he uses to condemn adversaries. It is found in the person who says, "I am neither a Democrat, nor a Republican, but an upholder and defender of Justice. I will not look at your party affiliation to determine if I think you guilty or innocent of a crime."

Unfortunately, there are far too few people like that in this country today.

That lack of a moral standard - the lack of a consistent appeal to principles of right and wrong - is costing us a great deal.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Libby's Commuted Sentence

President Bush has commuted the sentence for "Scooter" Libby, saying that the sentence was excessive.

By what standard does Bush make this judgment?

And if the President is going to commute the sentence of an individual based on the standard that he judges the sentence to be excesive - we have over 2,000,000 people in prison, many of them suffering from excessive sentences as well. Can they get a pardon from Bush?

Not likely.

And the reason? Because they did not engage in criminal activities for the sake of protecting President Bush and his friends.

Really, this is the message that President Bush sent to his staff. "Object justice. Block investigations. Do what you can to protect me, and I will use my power to protect you."

Some people are complaining that Bush did not give Libby a full pardon. These are people who do not care what this will mean for accountability - for the possibility of establishing a tyranny that is above the law. The only way to prevent this type of state is if the people are appropriately outraged that Bush would support obstruction of justice and purjury as business as usual for Administration employees.

I'm waiting now to see if there is the appropriate outrage. If not, the only reasonable conclusion is that truth and justice are no longer to be considered American values - since exactly the crimes that Libby was convicted of were purjury and obstruction of justice.

I covered the moral issue in detail in "Pardoning Libby"

More on Atheism and Discrimination

Much of the discussioni of whether there is bigotry towards atheists seems to be overlooking an important fact.

(See, for example, Ed Brayton: Atheism and Civil Rights)

The charge is that the "militant" rhetoric of some atheists (I continue to hold that rhetoric does not qualify as militant unless it involves a call towards violence) is a part of the 'image problem' of atheists.

Yet, please note that there is not a 'militant' comment by atheists that has not been topped by an outspoken theist - some directly calling for the establishment of a Christian theocracy in America and which actually do make references to Christian soldiers marching as to war.

Yet, this does not create an 'image problem' for theists. For the most part, these claims are ignored.

In fact, we have some Christians blowing up abortion clinics and killing physicians, and some Muslims blowing up just about anybody, and yet, for these groups, we hear nothing but how important it is not to judge others by the acts of these few. Yet, among Atheists, universal condemnation based on the extremes of a few is standard operating procedure.

When members of Group A can make genuinely militant comments without raising an eyebrow, where members of Group B make comments that must be taken out of context to be considered truly militant, yet Group B has an 'image problem' - this shows that there is discrimination and prejudice at work.

Bush's Legacy

According to an article printed online on MSNBC, "A President Besieged and Isolated, Yet at Ease," Bush is asking a number of experts about the difference between good and evil and his Presidential legacy.

Mr President, I believe it is almost certain that future generations will see you as the worst President in American history. They will see their civil rights destroyed and see you as the author of their destruction. They will see their property destroyed and friends and neighbors harmed through global warming that you refused to act against. They will see the size of the bill that you gave to them. They will see all of this and judge you harshly.

The problem, Mr. President, is that you never learned the art of evidence-based thinking. You have a history of ignoring the evidence - ignoring the facts, and going with your "faith" - which tells you about an imaginary (and grossly misinformed) fantasy world that existed only in your head. You took these faith-based policies from your imaginary friend and tried to apply them to the real world and discovered that reality simply refuses to be ignored.

You are like a person who, coming to a street, sees all of the evidence of an approaching car. However, having an approaching car at that moment is inconvenient, so you step out onto the street anyway, having faith that your invisible friend will prevent the truck from doing you harm, and condemning those who warn you about the truck as traitors who only want to prevent you from crossing the street.

Then, BLAM!

Only, the truck did not hit you, Mr. President. You were protected by the thick armor plating of family wealth and power. The truck swerved into a crowd of innocent bystandards who lack your special protections - people who are most vulnerable. Theirs are the lives you destroyed.

The people who suffer and die are the citizens and soldiers in Iraq, our children and grandchildren, and countless people who will suffer from the abuses of government that you upheld and defended in your tenure.

They will have little to thank you for, Mr. President.

That will be your legacy.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Suppressing Ideas

A commenter named 'Z', commenting on an entry in my series about religion is a form of abuse, commented on the article "Taking Action Against Religion"

Sounds like another case of a religion (Atheism) attempting to suppress other folks' ideas.

The methods of suppression that I have written about involved using words and private actions.

I argued that false beliefs and bad desires contribute to death, sickness, and other forms of suffering or harm to quality of life. As such, people have reason to act so as to reduce false beliefs and bad desires. Furthermore, they have more and stronger reason to focus first on the worst beliefs and desires.

I have argued for a strong presumption in favor of liberty that limits the range of legitimate responses to words and private actions. It takes (or should take) an extremely strong argument to defeat this presumption.

However, those who would suffer death, illness, or other harms as a result of false beliefs and bad desires - and tose who care about them, either personally or with generic empathy for their suffering, give people reasons to inhibit such destructive false beliefs and bad desires.

And, most importantly, if the critics charges make sense, they would end up contradicting themselves, because the commenter's criticism itself counts as an attempt to bring the weapon of criticism against the idea that the author is critical of and wishes to suppress.

In the face of this criticism, I am supposed to become aware of the wrongness of my actions and cease making those claims that the commenter disagrees with - and agree with the commenter's use of words to condemn the expresion of an idea he disagrees with that it is wrong to use words to condemn the expression of an idea one disagrees with.

My view is that there is something out of whack with this commenter's response.