Friday, September 28, 2007


I found an entry over at Town Hall on Benefits of Religion Even a Skeptic Should Acknowledge.

The benefits, according to the article, spring from the observed fact that theists tend to more often report that they are 'happy' than theists.

There are, of course, two things wrong with such a study.

First, if a person were to take a poll comparing slaves in the early 1800s to their masters, chances are the masters will report more happiness. Also, it would not be unreasonable to expect that whites in the 1900s expressed more happiness than non-whites. One of the things that atheists have to put up with is the fact that they live in a society that constantly denigrates them and dismisses their accomplishments, insults them, and categorizes them as the 'anti-American'. They put up with daily rituals that intend to separate and ostracise them. Even when looking at a coin, they are reminded that they are outsiders and "We" are people who trust in God.

Second, happiness is not the only measure of value. I have written several times about imagining a person in an 'experience machine' where electrodes attached to the brain feeds one images. This person gets to believe that he is doing 'great things' when he is actually laying in a vat of goo being fed false beliefs about the world around him. He may be happy. However, this does not imply that he has a good life.

I have also used an example where a person is given two options:

Option 1: The option to believe that your child is healthy and happy while your child is, in fact, being mercilessly tortured.

Option 2: The option to believe that your child is being mercilessly tortured while your child is, in fact, living a healthy and happy life.

The first option will make a person happy, but no moral person would recommend to the world, "Okay, everybody, Option 1 is the morally best option."

Religious people are far more likely to develop thankful personalities not only because gratitude and praise for the Creator plays a role in nearly every literature but because people of faith know whom to thank.

People of faith do not know whom to thank. They thank an imaginary creature for the work of real human beings, without thanking the real human beings. When my wife went to the hospital with a 106.7 degree fever and left 10 days later with a pace maker, I knew who to thank - the doctors and researchers and scientists who spent their time studying the human body and discovered how to repair this type of damage. I know full well that the quality of my life depends a great deal on the contributions of those around me, and that the quality of their lives depends on me. That is why I am here writing this blog. People around me know full well that if they should do a good deed or show an act of kindness that I am going to thank the person who is truly responsible for those actions - and not give the credit for their good deeds to somebody who not only had nothing to do with it, but who doesn't even exist.

Traditional religions lay down useful, supportive standards – along with mechanisms for winning forgiveness when (not if) you fall short.

It is simply wishful thinking to say that religion offers any type of consistent standard. Even if one decides to believe in God the questions remain, "Which
God? Which scripture? Which interpretation of scripture?" A theist has a billion different interepretations of God's will to choose from.

More importantly, every one of those interpretations is nothing more than the wishes of those priests. Scriptures represent the prejudices and opinions of largely ignorant people, and gets as many moral facts wrong as it gets science facts wrong.

Indeed, one of the great failures of most religions is that they teach people to be content (happy) performing actions that are, in fact, immoral and unjust. They buy their happiness living a life where they do harm to others while feeling good about it, because they can convince themselves that the harms they do is God's Will.

Regardless of how boring religious services can sometimes seem, they provide one incontestable blessing: they provide a framework every week (or sometimes even more often than that) for people to establish the neighborly ties that constitute community.

This appears to be more of a function of finding others with which one can communicate as equals - who do not look down their noses with condescention at you. The larger the percentage of a population deny the existence of God, the easier it will be for those with this belief to form communities. Sweden, for example, is about 85% atheist and non-believers. Yet, I do not hear of any particular problems with Swedes being unable to form a community. There communities are simply centered around things other than church.

If happiness counts as one of those rewards —based on the gratitude, behavioral standards, and neighborly connection that religion promotes – maybe even cynical unbelievers ought to reconsider the advantages provided by participation in faith-based communities.

Happiness counts - but I would rather be a good person living a good life than a 'happy' person living in an exerience machine disconnected from the real world, and in particular with the real-world effects of my actions and the real-world benefits and harms that I might cause others.

I enjoy happiness - but not at the expense of truth, and not at the expense of others. The happiness found living in an experience machine doing harm to others while deluding oneself into thinking that it is 'good' is not at all tempting to me.

Individual Responsibility

In my morning review of the news, I came upon a story where a Louisiana prosecutor gives credit to Jesus for the fact that 20,000 (mostly black) protesters came to the town without incident.

As an atheist, of course, I would say that Jesus had nothing to do with this. Instead, I make it a point to hold people personally resposnible for that which they do - giving them praise when they do good and giving them condemnation when they do bad.

In this case, District Attorney Reed Walters' remarks are particularly troublesome. The people that Walters is unwilling to give credit to in this case is a number of black protesters. It is as if he is saying, "It is so unreasonable to expect that 20,000 mostly black protestors can descend on a town and behave themsleves that we must consider this to be a miracle. Something other than these protesters - something with supernatural powers - must be responsible.

Even after the incident, Walters was unwillinig to state that, "I pre-judged the situation incorrectly; these people were better behaved than I expected." Reather, he persists with his original prejudice in crediting Jesus rather than the people who were actually responsible for giving him his desired result.

Pulling Out Of Iraq

I am actually quite pleased that the leading Democratic Party candidates were all unwilling to promise that we will be out of Iraq by the end of their term.

An intelligent President will base policy on the available evidence. Every candidate should be well aware of the fact that he or she is going to be presented with facts that she or he does not have at this moment. To make a promise in the absence of that information is to say, "Whatever I do not know that I might learn in the future is irrelevant. It does not matter what else I may learn, my current (though incomplete) knowledge is sufficient."

Clinton's answer, "It is difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," was entirely correct. It is a statement that says, "I do not have all of the information I need to make a decision, and I will not make that decision until I have the available evidence."

Some people think that they already know the right answer to that question. This is an arrogant, presumptuous, and irresponsible position to take.

This also explains why certain intangibles are important in an elected official. We will not be able to see everything the President sees when making a policy. So, the best we can do is to support a candidate whose character is such that he or she will do the right thing based on the available evidence, including evidence we will never see ourselves.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Local School Does Good and Other Stuff

A local high school is planning a protest against using school time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance tomorrow.

I hope they do well.

In another piece of good news, parts of the Patriot Act giving the President the authority to engage in warrantless searches and seizures without showing probable cause was declared unconstitutional today.

I don't know where the court got that idea. It's almost as if they think some part of the Constitution says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


I need to refer back to something in that Bill Mahar clip that I linked to a short while ago – something that simply does not sound exactly right.

Mahar lumped 20% of the population who has no specific religion under the heading ‘rationalist’. While I wish that this were true, it is not true.

Just because a person does not believe in God, this does not mean that he is particularly rational. And, in fact, the greater the numbers who do not believe in God, the more likely it is that those who become atheists will do so for the same reason that people become Christians today – because they unthinkingly absorb whatever views they pick up around them. The only difference is that they happened to pick up (in an unthinking and unreflective way) a different set of beliefs.

In order to be a rationalist, I would argue that some additional criteria are required. An individual has to have a familiarity with logic. He should not only be able to identify at lest the most central concepts in logic, but also be able to recognize at least the most common informal fallacies and actively worried about having a fallacy show up in his arguments – and embarrassed when one is discovered there.

Equating ‘does not believe in God’ with rationalism is a stretch.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bush's Accomplishment

I have obtained reliable evidence of a threat that will destroy . . . not a few buildings . . . not even a city . . . but a whole state. The nature of this attack is such that it should be possible to move most of the people out of the damage zone ahead of this destruction. However, every piece of infrastructure – road, railroad, airport, home, business, and park will be rendered unusable.

Furthermore, you received intelligence on this threat at about the same time that people were warning you about Al Queida. Unfortunately, you did not care. You dismissed the news as unimportant.

This is the really interesting report. The people that these intelligence reports said would attack the United States – they were your friends and campaign contributors. In fact, any reasonable examination of the evidence would suggest that they put you in office precisely so that you could disarm the nation against their threat, allowing them to act with impunity.

Of course, these assailants were not acting on religious zeal. They were acting on pure profit motive. They saw a way to make a couple billion dollars, and all that it required was the destruction of one American state. And you agreed to be their front man, sent in to the Capital like a Trojan horse to destroy this nation’s defenses so that this attack could succeed.

Scientists now report that, over the course of the next century, America will lose 25,000 square miles of land due to sea level rise due to global warming. This is equivalent to the state of West Virginia . . . gone . . . totally destroyed. This figure only considers the land in the 48 contiguous states, and does not include the damage that will be done to Hawaii and Alaska.

The amount of land will be equivalent to that of West Virginia, but the quality of the land (the land value) will be much higher. This will be coastal land – coastal roads, coastal buildings, coastal parks, coastal businesses, homes, lives, and livelihoods.

We could have prevented this threat. We could have mobilized this country against it. It might have cost a couple of hundred billion dollars – though it probably would not have cost any lives lost or bodies mangled. But it would be worth it to protect this country from such a threat, would it not?

Oh, I forgot again. The people launching this attack were your friends and supporters. You worked for them.

I hope that you are proud of what you have accomplished.

Bush's War Metric

With nearly seven years of experience behind us, we know how the Bush Administration works.

Step 1: Decide what conclusion to support.

Step 2: Invent a metric or an interpretation of evidence that supports the conclusion selected in Step 1.

In Iraq, it appears that the Bush Administration has appointed a group of soldiers to spend their days building Republican Propaganda, giving each Iraqi death the spin that they need in order to count their strategy a 'success'.

In What defines a killing in Iraq as Sectarian?, MSNBC describes a team of military personnel who have been given a set of criteria for classifying deaths that, hopefully, will yield data that that be interpreted in ways useful to the administration.

Before the war, in the famous Downing Street Memo, the Bush Administration was quoted as saying that war is inevitable, and that the intelligence is being fixed to the policy. They are still fixing the data to the policy - selecting only that data that yields the conclusions that they like, and ignoring the rest.

Does it really matter how your neighbors are dying, whether it is a shot to the head or a shot to the body? They are just as dead. And you are just as likely to end up like them.

We really need an administration that has a respect for independent, peer-reviewed processes for collecting and analyzing data so that it can have an honest assessment of what is going on, and make an honest adjustment in policy that is tied to reality - rather than attempting to distort reality to fit a desired policy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Rationalist Litmus Test

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University today. Among his remarks, he stated that he questions whether the holocaust occurred, and that his questioning the accuracy of these beliefs represents some sort of academic virtue.

In fact, he is mistaken. Academic virtue does not mean playing fast and loose with clearly documented facts. If an academic finds research that contradicts his favorite theory, then academic integrity means accepting that research and moving on.

As bizarre as it is to deny the existence of the Holocaust, it is really not that much different than doubting the age of the earth, the existence of evolution, or the science of global warming.

If some think that 'the science of global warming' does not belong on this list, I answer that they are the victims of a propaganda campaign. If holocaust denial were as well funded as evolution denial or global warming denial, then this too would be seen as 'controversial'. It's the amount of financial backing, not the quality of the evidence, that distinguishes these three items.

I recently commented on Bill Mahar's 'new rules' where he stated that he has a right to take people's wacky beliefs - including religious beliefs - into consideration when casting a vote.

It is a sentiment that I whole heartedly endorse - and did endorse on October 25th when I wrote, in Religion, Science, and Bigotry that anybody who believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old is almost certainly unqualified to hold public office.

I think that we need to create a world culture in which thinking stupid things automatically disqualifies a person from holding public office.

In fact, I would like to propose a litmus test for public office for rationalists.

That litmus test is based on how a candidate answers a simple question.

"Candidate X. In your opinion, how old is the Earth."

If the candidate gives any answer in the range of thousands to tens of thousands of years, that candidate proves himself or herself unfit for public office.

If the candidate gives a wishy washy answer that shows unwillingness to stand up to those who believe in a young earth, then that candidate is unqualified to hold public office.

Every candidate should be required to answer this simple question.

In fact, dear reader, if you can get a candidate to answer this question directly, consider coming here and posting their answer.

That question is:

Candidate X, in 5 words or less, to the best of your knowledge, how old is the Earth?"

Atheists and their Ethics

I still have some serious concerns with the "new atheist" movement, largely because when "new atheists" talk about morality they reveal that they get their morality from a place that is just as frightening as where the theists geti their morality.

Theists do not get their morality from scripture. This is obvious - given the large percentage of moral prinicples found in scripture which theists do not accept (e.g., working on the sabbath and charging interest).

They get their morality from "feelings", and then read their feelings into scripture, embracing those parts that "feel" right and dismissing the rest.

We can see where that has gotten us.

An atheist's "feelings" can be just as vile and corrupt as any theist.

Some theists attempt to give their feelings legitimacy by using scripture - that it was written in the Bible so it must be justified. This is a nice, convenient shortcut where an agent does not have to ask himself, "I feel this way about X, but how should I feel about X?"

Atheists try to give their feelings legitimacy by saying, "My feelings on this matter came through evolution. Therefore, they cannot be questioned." This gives atheist a parallel to the tactic of refusing to ask, "I feel this way about X, but how should I feel about X?"

Ethics is not the study of examining how one feels about something. I have no doubt that the slave owner, inquisitor, Nazi guard, jihadist, etc., all felt pretty good about what they were doing.

Ethics is about how we should feel about things.

And there is no legitimate inference from, "I feel this way about X; therefore, I should feel this way about X."

To the degree that atheists depend on their feeling for morality, I find them no less frightening than theists.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New Rules

I suspect that some people accuse me of being 'soft on religion' because I reject the argument, "Some religious beliefs are X; therefore, all religious beliefs are X", and because I can understand how a person can believe an absurdity when they are surrounded by people who believe an absurdity.

However, it is perfectly consistent with the proposition, "Some religoius beliefs are X" that "Some religious beliefs are X".

And, so, I have nothing to complain about with respect to Bill Mahar's "New Rules"

As posted at Non Credo Deus.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Righteous Indignation

I have written quite a bit about the need to express condemnation when wrongdoing has been done.

This week, however, seems to have been a week for condemnation at anything that can be twisted into a reason to condemn others, regardless of the facts.

For example, a lot of people were upset at a student in Florida who attended a Kerry function who got hit with a taser. They want to make him a martyr for free speech.
So, when does 'free speech' become a right to interrupt others, deprive them of an opportunity to speak (when they waited their turn to do so), and to monopolize the conversation in a perpetual monologue? That's not free speech - it is quite the opposite of free speech, in fact. Mostly, this is due to people who have decided to look only at the video - the ultimate example of taking something out of context in order to get it to mean what one wants it to mean.

I am not saying that the taser was justified. I was not present at the event myself. I do not know the full context either. However, that does not change the fact that there is no sense in saying that this has anything to do with 'free speech'.

Then there is President Bush's statement at his press conference where he allegedly said that Nelson Mandella is dead. Only, anybody who listens to the press conference can tell what he was trying to say - that Saddam Hussein made it a point to execute anybody who could play the role in Iraq that Nelson Mandella played in South Africa. But, lying about what Bush said in order to score rhetorical points seems to be all the rage these days. Strangely, this seems to come from people who tend to get fairly indignant themselves when they catch members of the Bush Administration lying in order to score rhetorical points.

Third, a number of people are expressing outrage over an advertisement from MoveOn.Org accusing General Petreus of betrayal for fronting for the lies of the Bush Administration. Conservatives apparently want to assert that any accusation against the honesty and integrity of a member of the Armed Forces is an insult to the whole military. Sorry, no, it is not. This, too, is an example of distorting the truth in order to score rhetorical points.

If anything deserves outrage today, it is the people who take fake outrage at pretend offenses. This simply makes it that much easier for people to get away with real offenses. They get to hide in the noise - either committing real offenses without being noticed (like those who engaged in any of the 'protests' mentioned above) or, when noticed, get to dismiss criticism as just another example of mock outrage.

Is it too much to ask that people actually go through a little bit of effort to get their facts straight before they criticize others?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pentagon and Solar Power Satellites

The Pentagon, it seems, is interested in promoting a project to collect energy in space and beam it down to earth. ( Space Based Solar Power Fuels Vision of Global Energy Security )

The reason . . .

The Pentagon is anticipating two sources of violent conflict over the next 50 years; energy and water. If the United States can do something that will provide the people of the world with cheep energy, then there will be less of a need to fight wars over the energy. The Pentagon is investigating the idea that satellites in space that collect energy directly from the sun and beam it down to Earth will prevent war.

Over at my other blog, Atheist Ethicist, I have been talking about free rider problems. These are cases where people do not contribute what they should to a 'public good' because the benefits do not go directly into the investor's bank account. Instead, they are distributed among a wide population.

Investing in preventing future wars is an example of a public good. The people who will benefit from not having a future war will benefit whether they invest or not. So, everybody has an incentive to do nothing themselves, while waiting for somebody else to take the first step. So, nothing gets done, and everybody suffers as a result.

It will be interesting to see if this particular public good will get the public support it deserves.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Habeas Corpus

The following is a list of U.S. Senators who believe that the government should have the power to detain an individual - including you and me - without a trial, without even giving anybody a reason. If the government does not like what you wear, what you write, how you vote, whether or to whom you pray, or anything about you, it has the power to throw you in jail, and keep you there.

News about this legislation often says that this is about restoring habeas corpus to terrorist detainees. However, the whole point of the question becomes, "What does it take to become a terrorist detainee?"

If a detainee wants to claim, "You have the wrong person. You are looking for Al-Harra, but I am Al-Hara!" or even, "The only reason you are doing this to me is because I would not sign a contract with Haliburton," or "I am a reporter with irrefutable evidence that shows that the bidding was rigged to favor people who contributed to Republican campaigns," that's tough.

Once locked away, the "detainee" - under this legislation - is denied any opportunity to tell this to a judge or to demand that the government provide evidence to support its accusations.

Once upon a time, there was a country called "America", whose citizens would call this "Injustice" and would have pledged to fight against it, not vote for it.

Alexander (R-TN)
Allard (R-CO)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Bennett (R-UT)
Bond (R-MO)
Brownback (R-KS)
Bunning (R-KY)
Burr (R-NC)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Coleman (R-MN)
Collins (R-ME)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Craig (R-ID)
Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)
Dole (R-NC)
Domenici (R-NM)
Ensign (R-NV)
Enzi (R-WY)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Gregg (R-NH)
Hatch (R-UT)
Hutchison (R-TX)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Kyl (R-AZ)
Lieberman (ID-CT)
Lott (R-MS)
Martinez (R-FL)
McCain (R-AZ)
McConnell (R-KY)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Stevens (R-AK)
Thune (R-SD)
Vitter (R-LA)
Voinovich (R-OH)
Warner (R-VA)

Teaching Morality in School

New Jersey has a law requiring public schools to provide students with diversity training describing different types of family arrangements. This includes same-sex families.

An article at MSNBC, Same Sex Talk in Diversity Video Divides Town" tells how some districts are having trouble obeying this law. They are running into some opposition from parents to anything that tells their children about children with same-sex parents.

The story contains this line:

“I think it's the parents’ decision to decide to teach their children morality,” local parent Mike Quinn told NBC.

Actually, this is false. Schools have to be very much involved in teaching morality.

Do not lie.

Do not take thinks that belong to other students.

Do not hit other students or be cruel to them.

Do not present other people's work as your own.

Wait your turn.

Do not disrupt the class.

We can well imagine what a school would be like if the school was not involved, from start to finish, with teaching morality to children.

In fact, morality is not optional. Morality consists of those things that schools must teach children if the school is going to function at all.

Imagine a parent asking the school to allow her child to 'opt out' of moral prescriptions against lying or violence? Imagine this parent saying, “I think it's the parents’ decision to decide to teach their children morality,”

If a particular code of conduct truly is optional - if parents can have their children 'opt out' of a certain standard of behavior, then that standard is not 'morality' at all, but 'culture'. If a particular code of conduct really is morality, then 'opting out' is not an option.

As it turns out, teaching hatred of same-sex couples is not morality. It is something that a bunch of primative, preliterate, substantially ignorant, bigoted tribesmen who have been dead for a couple of thousand years thought was immoral. However, they thought a lot of things were immoral, and got most of that wrong. They had prohibitions against everything from wearing the wrong types of clothes to working on the Sabbath to eating shellfish. All of which were wrong.

Many liberals do not know how to respond to this type of challenge because they follow the mantra, "Thou shalt not force thy morality on others, or else!" They do not like the idea of saying that somebody else's morality was mistaken.

This position is entirely incoherent. This liberal mantra, if taken to its logical conclusion, would blame the rape victim for refusing to be raped because she is forcing her morality (view on the wrongness of rape) on her attacker, who obviously has a different opinion.

Of course we can force our morality on others. Morality literally means, "That which we may legitimately force on others." The question should never be, "Shall we force this morality on others?" The question, in all cases, should be, "Is this moral?" - and, if the answer is 'yes' (as with prohibitions on murder, lying, theft, rape, and assault) then it is something that may be forced on others.

Religions in particular have had a long history of tying their prescriptions to morality. Yet, here, as well, we can divide religious prescriptions into two types. There are those that can legitimately be forced on others (prohibitions against murder and theft), and those that may not be legitimately forced on others (dress codes, dietary restrictions, prescriptions that cannot be defended outside of that religion's scriptures). Religions might have a habit of calling the latter 'morality' as well (so that it is easier to force their religion on others, by violence if necessary), but they are in fact 'cultural traditions' - nothing more.

A cultural tradition of denigrating and doing harm to others is not a cultural tradition that others have any obligation to respect. In these instances we have a choice between respecting the cultural tradition in question, or respecting the victims of that tradition. Since the victims in these cases are the harmless but harmed individuals, they are more deserving of our respect than those who do harm (even those who do harm in the name of God).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Show Trial

It appears that we have another show trial on our hands. O.J. Simpson has gotten himself arrested.

What this means is that anything going on in the world that could actually affect people's lives is going to have to work all that much harder to scratch and claw and climb its way into the public consciousness. We will be entering another period (much like the last 5 years with Brittany Spears, Michael Jackson, Anne Nichole Smity, Paris Hilton) have filled the public consciousness, allowing Karl Rove and company to get away with murder.

I hope that I am wrong and the O.J. Simpson case (and all of the other celebrety tragedies) are fading into the back of the newspaper.

Though some social pressure to that effect would not be amiss.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Strategy Review: Promoting Science

In a post Why Pairing Science and Atheism is High-Brow, John Young advocates doing little to antagonize the religious in the name of science because religious moderates hold the balance of political power in their hands, patience and refraining from upsetting others in talking about the relationship between science and religion.

I had written on this subject previously, in a post called The Culpability of the Moderates.

That post was built around a quote from Martin Luther King who, at the time, was sitting in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama.

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.

The arguments in that post still apply here.

It is difficult, at best, to argue (for example) that slaves could have ended slavery by making their masters feel as comfortable as possible and refusing to alienate them, or that the problem with the holocaust is that the Jews did not show sufficient respect for the Aryans.

Politicians, I have argued need to try to form an alliance of "the best 51% of voters". In America, this means including a substantial percentage of religious Americans in their majority coalition. At the same time that I condemn certain religious attitudes, I recognize that this disqualifies me for public office. The public office winner will be the one that unites 51% of the population against the other 49%. My hope is that they will be able to unite the best 51% against the worst 49%.

If atheists support reason and truth - this happens to be one of those truths that we have to accept. However, that is the job of the politician.

Each of us has a role to play. Different roles mean different objectives. One of the reasons, I would suggest, why different means all seem to make sense is because these different means are being used in the pursuit of different ends.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Carnival of the Godless 75

The 75th Carnival of the Godless is up at Ain't Christian.

This time . . . after a long absence . . . I made a submission of my own, my posting on Insulting Religious People

News vs. Entertainment

I woke up this morning to headline news about an airplane crash in some distant part of the world (I do not remember where).

The thing is, airplane crashes are not news.

Airplane crashes are entertainment.

The difference between news and entertainment is that news is useful. News tells you something that will affect your life (or, at least, the lives of a lot of people in the circulation area). News concerns things like legislation winding its way through the hill, important information about the nominated Attorney General, international tensions that might erupt into war, international negotiations, medical breakthroughs, technological innovations.

If we are not reading an article because of its usefulness, then we must be reading it because of its entertainment value.

Of course, the reason that entertainment replaces news is because readers are buying entertainment, but they do not buy news. The appearance of headlines such as this is symptomatic of the fact that people will turn away from the media that offers news and pick up entertainment in its place.

"News" does not exist because it doesn't have a market.

I think that one of the reasons that Karl Rove was so successful engineering so much evil in the world is because the evil he engineered counted as "News", and as such it simply does not matter to the public as much "entertainment".

Saturday, September 15, 2007

India, Poverty, and Religion

To say that something is 'ridiculous' is to say that those who accept it may be legitimately subject to 'ridicule'.

This is ridiculous.

In India, some people are upset about a plan to build a canal across a shallow stretch of land that goes from India to Sri Lanka.

Because of this land bridge, ships that sail from one side of India (including the Suez Canal) to ports on the other side of India have to go around Sri Lanka - adding time and expense to the journey - which takes an extra 36 hours per trip.

And we're not talking about a Panama Canal project here. It's a $560 million project that will easily pay for itself in economic benefit.

The problem rests with India's Hindu population. They do not want the canal built because doing so will deface what they say is the remnants of a bridge built by their god Lord Ram and an army of monkeys.

Delhi drops canal threat to sacred Hindu bridge

This is a clear example of ridiculous beliefs doing real-world harm.

At least, in this case, the harm does not involve killing or maiming people (at least not yet), which makes this a case that it is still easier to laugh at. However, the monkey-bridge people are still causing real harm. Preserving their money bridge means that a lot of very poor people will have to pay more for goods and have fewer jobs available than they otherwise would have.

It is one thing for a religion to pay its own money to promote its religious beliefs. It is another when a group of monkey-bridge people demand that others suffer economic harm for something so ridiculous.

In effect, there is little difference between what the money-bridge people are demanding and between them arguing for a 'religous tax' on the people of India and several other countries in the region to support their religion.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bush's Troop Reduction

I have often heard of companies who would plan a ‘sale’ by first increasing the price of some product, then reducing the price back to its original value while calling the event a ‘sale’. For example, such a company would take a product that it sells for $2.00, raise the price $3.00, then announce that people can now buy it on sale – “One-third off!” – reducing the price back down to its original price while claiming to be having a sale.

This seems to be Bush’s strategy with respect to troop levels in Iraq.

Hearing that people are insisting on troop reductions, he begins by ordering a ‘surge’ that increases the number of troops in Iraq by 30,000. Then, he goes before the cameras to announce that because of the success of his plan we can now reduce the number of troops in Iraq. How big of a reduction? Well . . . let’s start with 30,000.

So, just like the store that is selling its $2.00 product for $2.00 while calling it a sale, Bush gets to maintain his $140,000 troops in Iraq while calling it a ‘reduction’.

But, then, honesty has never been one of this President’s strong suits. Careful manipulation of the public has always been their preferred way to deal with us.

Europe's Secular Passifism

The Uncreadible Halq has a post, Europe's feebleness: who's to blame considers who is responsible for the apparent fact that Europe seems so submissive in the face of radical Islam.

Does anyone seriously think that Richard Dawkins and his allies are encouraging such a posture regarding Islam? I would hope not. The blame for such feebleness in Europe lies at the feet of mushy religious pluralists, not staunch secularists.

Actually, this is false.

The blame rests with a set of philosophies that did not come from any scripture, but from largely secular/atheist sources. These were the doctrins of post-modernism and cultural relativism.

These are secular philosophies that have failed as much as Communism failed.

Just because somebody is an atheist, does not mean that they always get everything right. A community can be swept up in a non-religious irrationality as easily as they can be swept up in a religious rationality.

Dawkins and his allies are among the first to speak against that tradition, claiming that it is perfectly legitimate to condemn other cultures when those other cultures create people who are a threat to others. In doing so, they are not acting as representatives of Europe's secular culture. They are, instead, attacking the more popular secular European philosophies as directly as they are attacking religious philosophies.

And more power to them for that!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Google Lunar X-Prize

We have another X prize for private space development.

Google is sponsoring a prize to put a rover on the moon. $20 million for first place. $5 million for second place. $5 million in bonus prizes for fulfilling additional requirements.

The Google Lunar X-Prize

As one who holds that the future of the human species depends on getting at least some of us off this rock, I have often argued for space prizes as a way of accomplishing this.

I only wish the government would get into the act.

NASA is building a lunar base for $104 billion. Imagine that same $104 billion offered as a set of prizes for private accomplishments. NASA would be able to cut this budget in half and still end up promoting twice as much space development.

At least somebody is thinking about the future of the species.

Support Science. Save a Life

Last night while exercising I had a sudden flash of a series of internet commercials - something like a 30-second television commercial but which I suspect would never appear on the air.

The commercial starts with a middle-aged couple coming through the door of a hospital. They are met with a doctor. The woman asks, "Where's my daughter? How is she?"

The doctor quickly says, "We're doing everything we can," calls for a nurse, and walks away.

Cut away to a temple, where the couple is praying. On the way out the door, they stop at a donations box.


"Prayer has never saved a human life."

There is then a series of quick images; a patient being loaded into an MRI, a doctor looking at a series of x-rays, a lab technition with a test tube, the parents themselves doing research on the web, students attending a lecture on anatomy.

Then a final slide.

"Support science. Save a life."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hope Against Peace

Today, after solving a problem, I stated in true hyperbole, "Success. I have made the world a better place. There will now be peace in the middle east."

A person within earshot said, "I hope not, at least not within my lifetime. Peace in the Middle East means that we are in the end times."

A religion that causes its followers to hope against peace is a religion that teaches its followers to hope for the maiming an killing of innocent people.

I hope that this religion gets all of the respect it deserves.

Record Low Sea Ice

One of the claims of global warming denialists has been that climate models are not totally reliable. Simply because they predict a particular outcome, we should not treat it as certain.

One of the fallacies that they used was to assert that if an outcome is in doubt that we should not worry about it - we should only worry about the outcomes we know about.

Unfortunately, 'uncertainty' means that the odds are just as good that the outcome will be worse than expected, as it is that they will be better than expected.

So, while climate specialists have been thinking that we could lose the Arctic sea ice during the summer by 2070, recent measurements suggests that we could lose it by 2030 instead. CNN reports (Arctic Sea Ice Cover at Record Low) that the Arctic sea ice cover has shattered - and I mean, demolished - its previous record (for October 2005) for the least amount of sea ice - a 20% loss.

Since sea ice reflects sunlight back into space (being white), while sea water absorbs solar energy (being of a darker color), this is a 'positive feedback mechanism' - an example of global warming producing effects that result in more and faster global warming.

I continue to hold that the people of Exxon-Mobile and other industries that fed a campaign of doubt - to cloud the public thinking on a matter of global importance because it was profitable for them to do so - puts them morally on a par with Hitler and Stalin. Indeed, it will almost certainly turn out to be the case that Hitler and Stalin were moral saints, compared to the people involved in this campaign.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Imagine No Religion?

I wake up this morning to see the start of a "hate religion day", as exhibited at Non Credo Deus and Dime a Dozen

The symbol comes from Richard Dawkin's web site.

My problem is that 'religion' per se did not cause 9/11. The simple fact of the matter is that the proposition, "At least one God exists" does not entail flying airplanes into the world trade center.

We can produce the same image with the caption, "Imagine no airplanes" or "Imagine no Saudi Arabians" or "Imagine no men." The fact that it is easy to imagine Saudi Arabians or Men who would not crash airplanes into skyscrapers is as relevant here as the ability to imagine religious people who would not fly airplanes into sky scrapers.

I am not saying that religion is good or should be tolerated. What I am saying is that the reasoning being applied here is flawed. This is just an instance of people bracing logically flawed arguments for no reason other than the fact that it supports a desired conclusion - in this case, a desired conclusion that people one is disposed to hate are deserving of hate.

It would be wrong to interpret my statements as a claim that we should be nice to theists for the sake of being nice to theists. This is not the case - and not what I believe.

My objection is that this inference from the specific to the general is, itself, a logical fallacy. As somebody who holds that reason has some merit, for its usefulness if not for its own sake, the use of informal fallacies in a campaign of hate and blame is simply not legitimate.

Not because it is somehow inherently wrong to hate and blame.

But because it is wrong to build hate and blame on a foundation of flawed logic.

My slogan, if I were to make one, would be, "Imagine a world in which people rejected flawed reasoning when it supports hate." Which, of course, would probably be a world without religion. But it would be world without other forms of interpersonal violence as well.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Fear of Moral Relativism

The Barefoot Bum, Larry Hamelin, has a post called, "Modernism, Postmodernism, and Ethics" which contains the following quote:

As authoritarian-submissive as we are, we still want the authority of some true for everyone, any truth, to underlie our ethical beliefs. It's a very scary thing—even for many atheists—to admit that we're simply on our own regarding ethics. There is no God, no Daddy, not even the Universe, that can determine our choices. We're suspended above the abyss of ethics with no net of truth.

"many atheists" in this quote references my blog, suggesting that I have some psychological fear of living in a world without "moral truth".

As far as criticism goes, it does not go far. An actual criticism of my view would have to say, "Alonzo holds proposition P, and here is the evidence that proposition P is false." But, then, the statement was not supposed to be criticism. It was supposed to be illustrative of a point - an assumed example of a person with a fear of life without moral truth.

Naturally, I hold that an actual argument would be hard to make. Ultimately, the bulk of what I write about is rather simple. I have a set of desires. I have tools available that will allow me to influence the desires that you have. Naturally, I have more and stronger reason to cause you to have desires that will fulfill my desires than to cause you to have desires that would thwart my desires.

At the same time, you have reason to have me to have desires that will fulfill your desires and reason to inhibit me from having desires that will thwart your desires.

If we take a population, there are some desires that people generally have more and stronger reason to promote than others.

Am I saying that these outcomes are independent of our desires? Of course not - I deny that sort of value. All that I am saying is that, given our desires, there are some states of affairs that we will prefer to others. And, consistent with this, given our desires there are some desires that we have more and stronger reason to promote than others.

If there is some proof that these propositions are so absurd that only a person with a deep fear of life without morality would accept that they are true, then I would really like to see that proof. In the absence of such proof, The Barefoot Bum needs to come up with a better example.

Losing God

Unorthodox Atheism has a post that starts with a reader saying that she finds atheist arguments convincing but still cannot give up her faith because atheism is so hopeless.

Of course, I, as an atheist, do not experience the hopelessness that some Christians claims to experience as they contemplate atheism.

I covered this topic recently in The Desire to Serve God. Specifically, a person with a desire to serve God is not going to see anything of value in a state of affairs where the proposition, "I am serving God" is not true.

Atheists have no such desire. (Or, at least, very few of them do). So, they do not see the utter emptiness that others see in such a state. Some atheists do share this desire (because it was taught to them as children) and, though they are atheists, still feel this huge sense of emptiness.

I think that it is important for atheists to get a grasp of these dynamics, if they are going to talk intelligently to those who have these impressions.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Liberal and Conservative Brains

Okay, I have taken a bit of a break. I am back now. Refreshed. Reinvigerated. Ready to go.

The Los Angeles Times has an article, Brain Study Finds Political Divide reporting on a study that relates differences in political attitudes to differences in brain structure.

I find the story amusing. My immediate reaction to this startling discovery is . . .

Well, duh!

It is as if the researchers (or at least those who wrote the article) began with the assumption that two people with precisely identical brain structures can engage in different behavior. If they are going to behave differently then of course there is a physical difference underlying it.

The specific test involved showing students a series of letters (either M or W) with instructions to press a button if they saw an M. M's showed up 4 times more often than W, so students could get into a habit of pressing the button.

Conservatives fell into habits and made more mistakes than liberals. Liberals were (according to the study) better able to take in new information and give the appropriate response, while conservatives were less able to process new information.

It sounds like we should chalk one up for the liberals.

Except, this willingness to take in new information included an eagerness to accept a wide range of (to put it bluntly) wacky ideas such as communism, post-modernism, and 'new age' medicines. In many cases, the person who goes with each new fad that comes along is not necessarily a model of perfect intellectual power.

The researchers made these distinctions.

However, I want to suggest another research study. I am wondering how many people - on both sides of the political spectrum - who read an article like this will immediately 'fit the intelligence to the policy'. By this I mean they immediately conclude that the 'right' interpretation is the interpretaiton they like.

It is a dangerous habit to get into, and one people need to be warned not to make.