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Certain chickenary establishments and their principles…

July 27, 2012

This will be a fairly short post. That there exists a debate over whether or not to boycott a certain restaurant chain because of the remarks by its CEO shouldn’t be news to anyone who reads the news. However, the admittedly few opinions I’ve read by religious people seem to be missing the point of responses like mine. Here’s an example, and here’s what I understand to be the distillation of her outrage: this is free speech.

I can’t speak for anyone else, and I’ll be completely honest I only skimmed the post linked above (after the 30th or 40th aviary pun I just couldn’t keep reading), but I agree. Of course it’s free speech, and I wouldn’t want it restricted. If nothing else, I wish more people like Cathy would speak out because in doing so they do more damage to themselves than any well-meaning atheist like myself ever could. I am thrilled that the CEO of this company is outspoken about his devotion to a religion that condemns and, according to some interpretations, condones the killing of, homosexuals*. Now I know where to spend my money.

Other responses seem to focus on the fact that most reasonable people have no tolerance for discrimination against homosexuals. It’s all very upsetting to them. Well, I’m guilty as charged. I have no tolerance for lots of things. I think tolerance for it’s own sake is a fairly stupid and misguided principal strictly because it allows for semantic loops like “tolerance for intolerance”. Tolerance has to be limited. Personally, I think the Southern Baptist Church’s stance on homosexuality is wrong not because it’s intolerant, but because it marginalizes a group of people both legally and socially, and seeks to prevent them from enjoying the full protection of the law. This protection, under the institution of marriage, is important because it allows for things like health benefits for married couples, without which homosexual couples may not be able to enjoy the same quality of life as others.

So I think it only makes sense that if I want people to be free to live happy and full lives and have the same rights as everyone else, I wouldn’t want to put money in the pockets of people who disagree with me, in case they have any power to influence the distribution of rights. But the trouble with calling for a boycott is that boycotts are meant to change or mitigate bad behavior, to be sanctions that make the cost of unacceptable behavior prohibitive. No one who understands Christians or Christianity would expect the unacceptable behavior–endorsing bigotry in this case–to change. The company might backpedal, but it won’t change. For Christians, ideas about homosexuality are fundamentally connected to religion. Unless they’re willing to subscribe to an artificially selective reading of their sole governing document (or deny its truth altogether) they have to continue being irredeemable dicks.

So boycott is the wrong word, at least for me. I won’t patronize the company in question again, ever. I don’t expect its position or behavior to change. The only reason I mention it at all is because I hope other reasonable people will do the same and, as I said already, I hope people keep vocalizing their beliefs so I can adjust my spending accordingly.

It’s always been true that money given to corporations is more than just money given to corporations. Corporations have for some time had a disproportionate influence on American politics, but after decisions like Citizen’s United, it’s worth noting more than ever that our patronage really is more than just dollars in someone’s pocket. It’s dollars given to political campaigns, presidential races, super PAC’s, and the like. The corporations who take money from consumers may not actively discourage or discriminate, but there’s no reason to believe they won’t make it easier for elected officials or governing bodies to do so. It’s not hard to believe that some of the money you so innocently plunk down for a chicken sandwich might find its way into the hands of people who actively influence and campaign for discriminatory policies.

The best part of the whole debate, though, is that the company and its CEO seem to understand all of the above better than the apologists who are getting offended on its behalf. As Cathy put it,

 … we know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

I can’t imagine he thought the decision’s lack of popularity would fail to be reflected in patronage or in the company’s earnings. So why are all his supporters having such a hard time with the idea?

*Whether you think the old testament is binding to modern Christians or not, there’s a problem here: at some point, the Hebrew god required that homosexuals be put to death. If he has since changed his mind, why? Was God’s initial decision to require homosexuals’ execution arbitrary, or is the wrongness of homosexuality contextual, changing with time and place and thus dependent on more than God? If that’s the case, Christian morality loses some of it’s universality and opens itself up to some very convincing challenges.

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A response to some angry comments about Atheists, part II

June 24, 2012

PART II

Continuing from Part I, I want to address a word that gets thrown around a lot in religious arguments, and that’s “respect.” The assured response of indignant Christians and Muslims, et al., when confronted with an atheist is a desperate cry that someone “just think of the children!” Wait. That’s not right–that was Helen Lovejoy. They do want us to think of the children, but some religions haven’t exactly been so kind to children. Rather, they want us to respect their views, just as they would ours. But like a lot of other arguments, once you begin to define the terms involved, the argument quickly becomes meaningless.

There are two meanings, practically speaking, with which the ‘respect’ is most used. In the first, respect is used to mean the sense of esteem for, or the recognition of the worth or excellence of something. Here, we’ll call this ‘intellectual esteem’. It is often confused or, even worse, used interchangeably with another meaning: the courtesy due any normal human being under normal circumstances (and certainly in a debate). I’ll call this courtesy. Notice I don’t use the word respect to refer to either. I didn’t call one ‘intellectual-respect’ and the other ‘politeness-respect’, or anything like that. That’s because I think, at least for the sake of our discussion, they’re so different that they should be treated as mutually exclusive categories of behavior.

To illustrate, the commenter below seems to be asking for respect but, in fact, is making an appeal to our sense of courtesy:

“I once was having dinner with a friend’s family when her dad began to tell a Jesus joke. He stopped himself and said, “Wait, you’re not religious are you?” I responded, “No, but I like to be respectful of religion.”

In other words, she didn’t want to ridicule religious people and so didn’t approve of doing so for the sake of a joke. She at least implied that she did not believe in any particular religion, and so it seems hard to imagine how she could find the intellectual process that leads to religious belief valid, much less excellent or worthy. She believed religious people deserved politeness but didn’t hold their beliefs, I can only assume, in high intellectual esteem. Notice that there’s another distinction buried in there: politeness is directed at the person, while intellectual esteem is reserved for some intellectual process–in this case–a particular belief. 

Obviously, atheists don’t and shouldn’t regard belief in religion with intellectual esteem. It can’t be done by anyone who’s rejection of religious belief is the result of serious consideration and not a whim. To do so would require that we either tacitly or explicitly recognize as sound the intellectual process or lack of it that led to the belief in question. Of course, this would also require that if we are truly rational we assume the same position.

When I was young, I remember when David Copperfield starred in a television special wherein he, apparently, made the statue of liberty disappear. If a reasonably smart adult had been watching the show and not a six year old boy, they would have realized that an admittedly impressive use of smoke an mirrors, figuratively speaking, was responsible for the apparent disappearance. They would not have wondered if he actually made it disappear, as I did then. If they did, however, they would not have been entitled to the kind of respect that many religious people seem to be asking for: intellectual esteem. They certainly would have been entitled to courtesy, but that’s all. How can we recognize the excellence or worth of the intellectual processes–or lack of them–that caused this person to believe that Mr. Copperfield had actually caused a 15 story statue to vanish and then reappear?

This is example is doubly apropos because the restrictions imposed by epistemology prevent us from proving Mr. Copperfield didn’t make the statue disappear. But there are really good reasons to think he didn’t, including the fact that in order to do otherwise we’d have to toss out most of what makes the world around us intelligible.

Now, granted, the author of the blog post that inspired this response seemed to put a toe or two over the line into discourtesy when she called religion a big joke. And this isn’t because religion isn’t a joke in the sense that people like myself and her find it ridiculous; if she had said religion is hard for a rational person to accept, it would have meant more or less the same thing, though without the deliberately agitating tone. But that’s all, and in their responses people seemed to be asking for more than the courtesy they were due. It’s natural to assume in their defense that perhaps religious people only really want courtesy and not intellectual esteem, but consider the following comment from the same thread:

“Atheist/laughing at religion as signifiers of intellect/superiority is so passé, like, so masturbatory and childish and boring. Nuance! Respect!”

As if the difference between believing that Mr. Copperfield actually made the statue vanish and that he created the illusion that it had vanished is a matter of nuance.

The Psychology Behind Morality

June 21, 2012

**This is a guest post from a friend the graduate Psychology department at Northwestern University. For more about empathy’s role in “natural morality”, consider reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments**

One of best reasons to work or live near a liberal arts campus is that there is always an incredible amount of debate due to socio-political diversity. More often than not, some of these debates include views from zealous individuals such as a street preacher who argued, while standing outside a student commons, that America should tie each courtroom decision to the Ten Commandments presented in the Bible. These arguments rest on a common fundamentalist claim–that without the bible’s punishments there exist no reasons to be moral. I won’t retread arguments that most of the commandments are useless and involve the jealousy of an anthropomorphic being (i.e., Are we created in God’s image or is God created with our flawed traits?; see Dawkins, 2008 or Hitchens, 2009 for further discussion on the Ten Commandments). However, I find his argument—that without the threat of hellfire there exists no reason for individuals to be moral—deeply concerning. To preface it I digress briefly into the science of psychology.

Each of us is a complex interaction of what we believe and know with our genetic traits and abilities. These traits, such as neuroticism, are as unchangeable as your height and influence the things you believe and how strongly you believe them. For example, I hold rationalism and critical thinking, or that intellectual ability to think in abstract ways about data in order to draw conclusions that are appropriate, in very high regard. In fact, as a researcher, I believe that this ability to go beyond the superficial correlations life presents us with is what gives humanity any hope for its future. We are primed to ascribe agency, or intention, to unrelated phenomena and only critical thinking can get us past these inborn superstitions. However, I’d be foolish to believe that the rest of the world holds the same values or, if they do support the same cluster of beliefs and values that I do, weighs them similarly. I don’t blame people for their belief in the supernatural because we’re biologically predisposed for belief, some more than others.

From an evolutionary perspective, belief in an omnipotent moral agent may favor the survival of one group over another. For example, Darwin noted (1871) that supernatural belief appears to be universal and therefore must offer some advantage to the species survival otherwise it would have been filtered out long ago due to natural selection. Here, the important differentiation is that even if belief in God doesn’t confer on an individual any advantage over a non-believer (i.e., Would the children of sympathetic parents be reared in greater number than children of selfish parents?; see Shermer, 2011), it may have been beneficial to the survival of one group over another. For example, belief in an all-knowing agent who punishes sin is an excellent deterrent against violations of social conformity and equality that govern things like food distribution. This might ensure that a group of believers would be more successful at reproduction and survival than a group of non-believers.

However, I believe this type of behavioral compulsion by social pressure is only effective on individuals most deficient in intelligence and empathy. After all, most people do not seem to need an explicit understanding of their religion before having a sense of right and wrong. There are a variety of cultures that employ different Gods yet have similar moral systems – the shared variance despite differences between cultures is striking. Indeed, this sense of morality may be hard-wired into our brains to promote in-group survival. What frightens me is that this type of vindictive morality is only effective on individuals with low capacity for empathy and continuousness, to follow the Big Five model of personality (see Revelle, W., Wilt, J. and Condon, D., in press, for an excellent review on individual differences). In other words, if you require vindictive threats of punishment to avoid doing horrible things to others, you’re not the type of person I generally want to walk down the street with, let alone have a conversation about good and evil. In other words, most personalities do not require vindictive threats to know the difference between right and wrong and cross-cultural evidence strongly supports this.

But let me turn again to the street preacher’s argument: Without vindictive threats of punishment, he has no reason not to murder his wife and children (or lover, in the case of fundamentalist Ted Haggard; see Johnson, 2009). First, if I wanted to describe this type of individual, I might assert that they are sociopaths, or persons who manifest such an extreme antisocial tendency and lack of conscience that they may be said to have a legitimate personality disorder. Is the street preacher arguing that we are all sociopaths? How do we know to classify sociopaths if we are the mean? Second, if I wanted to find sociopaths with a lack of moral conscience, I can think of two places I’d be successful at recruiting this population: prisons and fundamentalist churches. Inmates have proven that they lack a moral compass and need strict rules to guide them. If I take the street preacher’s views to be representative of fundamentalist Christians (and I hope I am wrong and biased), then they as well lack an innate moral compass and see no value in empathy and kindness for its own sake, nor any value in promoting the success of one’s kin (instead of murdering them). Without God, why not murder? Because the rest of us appear to be more intelligent, productive, conscientious, and empathic individuals that care about humanity’s journey and continued success.

References

Darwin, C., & Biology. (2010). The Descent of Man (Abridged.). Dover Publications.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion (1st ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hitchens, C. (2009). God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve.

Johnson, K. (2009, January 27). Haggard’s Church Discloses More on Sex Scandal. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/us/27haggard.html

Revelle, W., Wilt, J. and Condon, D. (in press) Individual Differences and Differential Psychology: A brief history and prospect. To appear in Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Adrian Furnham and Sophie von Stumm (Eds). Handbook of Individual Differences.

Shermer, M. (2011). The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Times Books.

A response to some angry comments about atheism, part I

June 21, 2012

This post is a direct response to a common pattern in arguments about religion and atheism. Before I begin I would like to point out that I agree with Russell’s often misunderstood distinction between an atheist and an agnostic:

“I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.”

I say misunderstood because people often point to this as evidence that he entertained some doubt about whether or not the Christian god existed and he did, but the kind of doubt he referred to here is epistemological doubt, which can never be eliminated, not about anything. It’s not that arguments about the Christian god’s existence are uniquely flawed, but that the arguments about the existence or nonexistence of anything are inherently immune to resolution. 

Of course, all sides argue from a position of great conviction but, because of this fundamental uncertainty, those arguments usually get distracted and wander off into pragmatic thickets. That’s where the arguments over this post on The Gloss wound up, of course. Yes–I read The Gloss. Don’t ask. And, yes, I understand that arguing against the vox populi is almost too easy and equally pointless, but really the voice of religion is the popular voice. It’s characteristic of the people at large: unthinking, irrational, and unexamined. I learned a long time ago not to argue with people on the internet, but I see no reason not to write an informed post to clear away some oft used logical fallacies.

Of these fallacies, one that seems to come up every time is what I call the ‘bad medicine appeal’. Here’s an example:

“…Yes, religion has harmed a lot of people. It has also helped a lot of people, though, and explaining to them how “entertaining” you find the whole concept is so condescending.”

Let me sum it up with a hypothetical question. Say you’re the FDA and a pharmaceutical company brings you a drug that cured  an illness in, say, 75% of people who took it in trials, and in the other 25% not only failed to cure them  but turned them into raving lunatics. Would you green light that particular drug for consumption? Maybe not. Maybe some people would. Maybe it depends on the numbers. What if it were 90% cured, and 10% showed the adverse effects? Maybe it’s more about the severity of the adverse reaction. What if 90% were cured, but 10% were affected with something only sort of harmful. I’m sure the circumstances could be hypothetically adjusted so that most people would agree to approve the drug. However, regardless of your answer, the really important question is whether or not you’d keep looking for a better drug, and I think most people, no matter how the circumstances were adjusted, would. That, in so many words, is the position of many atheists*.

Of course, that is not the position of all atheists. Bertrand Russell’s (from his famous essay Why I am Not a Christian) is quite clear:

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.

Of course you could argue that his statement is more about Christianity or churches and not religion. But even some philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, who think it helps some people still think there are better ways to do so (from a recent lecture):

“…I even agree that the concept of god helps some people lead better lives…. I just think there are better ways to help people lead better lives.”

He would, I assume, keep looking for new drugs, I can only imagine because most moral people are uncomfortable with the cruelty perpetrated by even the most marginal members of the fold.

Some people venture farther out and suggest that religion is more than just a helpful presence or moral compass–it’s necessary, as if the world would descend into bedlam without it. Of course I’ve already written about that more than once so there’s really no reason to retread it here. Let it suffice to say that philosophers have, for thousands of years and long before Christianity or Islam, found reasons to behave morally without religion.

To venture into personal opinion, I’d like to note that I suspect a lot of people are really very insecure about their beliefs, almost as if they know, on some level, that those beliefs are irrational or even untenable. That position is summed up pretty nicely in the following comment:

“Anyways, you know what? Fair enough that she would never date a Christian, because I would never date an atheist. At least not marry one. Because most of them don’t get it. They don’t get how deeply offensive it is when they imply (or overtly say) that my deeply held, personal beliefs are a big fucking joke.”

To be fair, the author of the original post did suggest that religion is a joke. I don’t disagree, but it seems she meant to bait people with that tone, and I’ll admit I’ve done it myself a few times. Occasionally, I sincerely regretted it because the people I was baiting turned out to be wonderful human beings (which of course shouldn’t have come as a surprise).

But let’s look at the commenter’s position objectively for a moment–he or she is incensed that the author of the post wouldn’t date a religious person, and then goes on to admit that he or she wouldn’t marry an atheist. Atheists’ views are just as clearly misguided or wrong to religious folk as religious folks’ ideas are to atheists, so why is it so much more offensive when one group points this out than the other?

I suspect this is because religous people, at least those with more rational tendencies, are at heart conflicted about what they must suspect is a foolish superstition. I suspect a lot of people turn to religion because they’re scared or hurt or confused. Religion, especially the way most people practice it (when convenient), is an easy answer; it fixes all problems and makes people feel safe and secure.

Atheism doesn’t come with a long tradition of retarding progress, both social and scientific, but it’s still a very difficult position in which to find comfort, and I think that’s why it’s a very unpopular position and why for otherwise rational people it’s a very touchy subject that highlights some insecurity. I think a lot of the more intelligent religious people prefer to stay away from arguments about it for that reason, and that’s why they always seem so quick to end them with one word: respect. And that brings me to my final subject, which I address in part II.

*Some people would argue that the ‘bad medicine appeal’ works just as well against atheism as against religion, but they overlook the fact that atheism doesn’t come with any normative rules. In other words, it compels no action. It’s impossible to declare war in the name of atheism. You can want to eliminate religion because you believe it interferes with the success of the state, as in the case of Pol Pot in Cambodia, but you must believe something in addition to the atheist position which in that case was Totalitarianism. Atheism by itself provides no motivation of any kind to do anything. 

By the way,

February 4, 2012

I hear there is a football competition of some type this weekend, and that the winners of the competition will be crowned kings of football until they’re deposed by next year’s pageant winner. Related to that:

This kind of enthusiasm for a corporation or corporate franchise:

 

 

 

Is no different than these:

Have a nice weekend.

Choosing my battles…

February 4, 2012

Our lives are full of compromises. They facilitate our interactions with people at our jobs, in our classes, even with people close to us like family members and friends. And I’m learning that the line that delineates battle-worthy disagreements from those that should go by the wayside is extremely fine, which brings me to, of all places, my wardrobe.

I’m a graduate teaching assistant in the math department at my university, and one of my duties is leading help sessions for students taking low-level math classes. It’s not particularly exciting or stimulating; I spend about ten minutes reviewing lecture material with them, briefly meet their blank stares, crack a joke if I can think of one, and hand out a worksheet or quiz that I’ll grade later. If they have questions, I answer them. I’m required to wear clothes, so I faithfully comply. They are almost always clothes I own. Some of the clothes I own look like this:

The fires of controversy rage about this shirt, apparently.

I’m not stupid. I know people are uncomfortable with atheists, but I also think we have a right to express our beliefs much in the same way a Christian does when he or she wears a crucifix pendant on a chain or a Jew when he or she dons a Star of David. That’s all this shirt was meant to be–no more controversial than a crucifix pendant–just an expression of my belief, to which I thought I was entitled.

That gay sense of freedom lasted about two days, and then I received this email:

Jack,

I have received an email from student who was distracted with the fact that you wore T-shirt with “Atheist” word printed.

In general my advise for TAs and instructors is to try to avoid controversy (religion, politics, jokes…) as any situation like that may distract from the academic process and sometimes makes students uneasy.

Please consider not wearing any controversial T-shirts in the future.

(Name of supervisor removed–Jack).

I get it: to some particular student or students, my expression felt controversial. But almost anything can be controversial to the right people, so isn’t it important to avoid the response of my supervisor? I realize that’s a pretty weak argument, but honestly it’s all I can muster. I don’t think this needs lengthy analysis. It seems so clearly wrong to me that I’d rather sit back and wait for opposing arguments so I can answer them.

Still, despite it’s clear wrongness, I didn’t fight it. Not even a little. I stopped wearing the shirts (I have about three of them) immediately and even put away my DemocracyNow.org t-shirt, and here’s why: I wasn’t the first choice for this particular teaching assistant-ship. In fact, I was pretty far down on a long list and was only chosen after several others turned it down. Anyway, without it I’d be high and dry (i.e. bankruptcy, homelessness, hunger would very probably follow). It’s as simple as that: I was too afraid to rock the boat that fed me and kept a boat-shaped roof over my head.

I can actually find some peace with the situation as long as the rule is enforced consistently, at least as I understand it after reading the email above: no expressions of religious belief are permitted during execution of teaching assistant duties. I can only assume that if I were wearing a crucifix pendant or a star of David I’d have received the same email. But the thing is, I know damned well I wouldn’t have, and I think you know it, too.

Probably probabilistic, and maybe not even that…

September 6, 2011

Most people who’ve taken even a mild interest in philosophy have read Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding*, in which he essentially dispenses with the idea of causality. Using two colliding billiard balls as an example, he asks why we conclude that when struck, one ball moves off in another direction because it is struck, and not for some other reason. We have no way of necessarily concluding that it moved because it was struck, he says. We can only know that there is some consistency in the way it behaves when the two collide.

But this led to another problem: how can we be sure that such behavior will retain its consistency? Whereas Tom Stoppard (and others before him I’m sure) asked why a coin could come up heads every single time, no matter how many times it was flipped, Hume asked something more like, “How do we know the coin will land at all, rather than float there in mid air?” In other words, just because the laws of physics work right now or have in the past, there is no logical necessity attached to the idea that they should in the future.

At least one or two philosophers have tried to revive the idea of causality, or of making sense of the world by means of predictive coherence, by falling back on the idea of probability. In other words, if we flip a coin a thousand times, and it lands facing heads up about half those times, we should expect the same ratio in the next thousand flips. Likewise, if we flipped it a thousand times and it came up heads always, we should expect it will come up heads for the next thousand trials. For these philosophers, the same principles apply to the coin’s adherence to physical laws. To answer Hume, many would say, “Listen, if the coin obeyed the laws of physics the last eight times it was flipped, the likelihood of it obeying those laws on the ninth trial is 8/9, and if it obeys them for eight million trials, the probability it will do the same on the eight million and first trial is nearly 100 percent.”  In other words, Some philosophers have suggested that even thought we can’t expect the coin to behave  as it has because of necessity, we can expect it to behave as it has probably.

What Hume asked, though, is why we should expect consistent behavior since the past behavior, no matter how long it has persisted, does not guarantee future behavior. Why shouldn’t a flipped coin fly off into space, or stay suspended in the air, or change into a bird and fly away, no matter how many times it’s come back down before? As it turns out, there is no reason. We expect it to behave as it has before because, simply put, it has before, and saying that it will probably behave as it has before is no more true than saying it will necessarily do so.

My objection is based on a pretty simple idea, I think; probability operates on the following principle: if the desired outcome of an event occurs a certain number of times per trial, then future trials will bear a similar ratio of desired outcomes. If we expect a thousand flips to have a certain number of heads because previous trials had similar outcomes, aren’t we just assuming the same kind of consistency with past behavior that we had to abandon in the first place because it lacked logical necessity?

*If you haven’t, please read the book. It doesn’t require any sophisticated philosophical background, and it’s a wonderful exercise in logic for those unfamiliar with the subject.