Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Strawman Chronicles: The Plight of the Atheist

A: It's horrible how much hate atheists are subjected to in America.
B: Since when?
A: Just look at the polls! People would be less likely to vote for an atheist than a homosexual, or even a muslim! It's hateful and wrong that so few atheists are elected.
B: Huh. But you're always telling me how you're sure this or that politician is really an atheist.
A: Yes, but not openly! They couldn't get elected if they admitted they were atheists! So they have to lie just to have a chance at winning.
B: Interesting. Why do people say they won't vote for an atheist anyway?
A: They consider them untrustworthy for some crazy, bigoted reason.
B: Ah...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fire David Barash

David Barash has written about "The Talk" that he gives students in his animal behavior class at the University of Washington. The central points of his "talk" is framed as coming down to three claims, but in reality Barash presents a mishmash of nonsense, and does so in the sort of unwarranted smug, lecturing tone that academia is so reliable at producing.

Some examples:

He claims that Paley's Watchmaker argument required the existence of a 'supernatural' creator. Common claim, but apparently untrue - one search through Paley's book shows a single use of the term 'supernatural', and in another context. This is no small point.

He talks about how 'no literally supernatural trait' has ever been found in Homo sapiens, as if there exists some supernatural-detecting device that has failed to go off. The idea that science is capable of detecting 'the supernatural' is itself absurd - doubly so since even defining 'natural' (and thus supernatural) is notoriously problematic, as one look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will illustrate.

He talks about 'the illusion of centrality', rendering humans as nothing special - again, as if science is capable of detecting 'centrality', and has not detected it where it should have been found.

He implies that science shows that the pain and suffering in the natural world undermines the existence of God - and worse, he makes it sound as if the existence of such was some strange new idea that was brought onto the scene with evolutionary theory, rather than plainly obvious to humanity since humanity could write.

Of course, on top of all of this he talks about his 'respect for their religious beliefs' while at the same time saying they'll need to engage in all manner of mental gymnastics to retain them, and implies it's time for biologists like him to start telling religious people what they can and cannot rationally believe about God.

I could take all this apart, piece by piece, and fire back at Barash's reasoning. Instead, I'm taking a different tack.

My understanding is that David Barash works at a public university. Splendid.

Then David Barash should be fired.

More than that: David Barash's firing should be demanded by anyone who insists that religion and religious claims must be kept out of the (public) classroom and out of science. He can believe whatever he wants about religion, God, science, theodicy, philosophy, metaphysics and more. What he cannot do is take on the role of a teacher on the public dole, inserting his religious beliefs into a science class.

Or if someone insists that David Barash should not be fired, that it's okay for a public teacher to lecture as he did about what 'science shows' relating to God and religion, there's only one other reasonable alternative: upend the Dover decision, and declare that if a teacher in a public school wishes to take the opposing view - that evolution is not in fact capable of giving a total explanation of biology in the relevant sense, that science has uncovered or suggested 'supernatural' findings in man and elsewhere, that what we know of the world gives evidence for the existence of a supernatural, even benevolent creator - they may do so. Intelligent Design and even creationists will suddenly win after all.

Me? I'm calling for consistency, and a reasonable, continued separation of Church and State. And that means calling for David Barash to be fired for his "Talk".

And I demand the same of anyone else who claims to want church and state separated. Be consistent, or be gone.

The problem of progressive olive branches

I now and then see progressives rejecting laws about legally punishing Christians who refuse to prepare and serve cakes for gay weddings or firing people for opposing gay marriage because "we don't need to do things like that to win" or "things like that will only turn people away from our point of view".

This usually gets offered up as evidence that they're fair and civil people who are willing to agree to disagree on topics like these. For me, it's just a big flashing light that they're not to be trusted - because implied by their words is the idea that if in fact doing such a thing WOULD help them or would NOT harm them, they'd damn well do it. This is all made worse by my conviction that it's that kind of systematic abuse of authority that is helping to sustain the current trends in many areas - and that it's therefore only a matter of time that others realize such, if they don't realize it already.

Really, in context it's just a bizarre thing to say to someone who you're expecting to ingratiate yourself with. "I treat you with fairness because I think I can afford to do that and still get my way!"

Do you expect a thanks from me?

The sort of Christian the Cult of Gnu loves

For all their hostility towards theism in general and Christianity in particular, there's one kind of Christian the Cultists of Gnu absolutely love: the perpetually apologizing, shame-filled, doubt-wracked Christian.

A Christian who repeatedly apologizes on behalf of all Christianity for every single sin a self-proclaimed believer ever committed, who will talk about the monumental doubts they have in their faith, who will talk about how atheists not only can be as moral as Christians but as a matter of fact (in their experience) almost always are vastly more moral? Who has nothing but kind words and praise for atheists and skeptics, and open bitterness for any (particularly conservative) Christian leaders?

Be one of these and you can practically count on a guest post at Myers' swamp.

They are useful idiots with yellow crosses stitched on their clothing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Natural Law and Menopause

One topic in Natural Law arguments that often comes up is 'But what about cases of the infirm, or menopause, or the sterile, or..?'

Just to provide an easy reference, Ed Feser has written about this:

Nor does any of this entail that we cannot use when we know its end won’t in fact be achieved; for in that case we are not using F for the sake of frustrating the realization of E, and we are not ourselvesattempting to frustrate the realization of E in the course of using F.  To foresee that F’s end E won’t in fact be realized is not the same thing as using F in a way that will prevent E from being realized, any more than foreseeing that something will happen is the same as causing it to happen.  Hence there is nothing inherently wrong with sex during pregnancy, or during infertile periods, or with a sterile spouse, or after menopause.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with using broad mental reservations -- which do not actually convey falsehoods but merely express truth in an oblique way -- even though one knows that one’s listener will in fact probably draw the wrong conclusion.

Nor does anything said here entail that man-made devices are per se contrary to nature in the relevant sense.  The reason contraception is objectionable from a natural law point of view is not because it involves the use of drugs in the case of the birth control pill, or artifacts in the case of condoms.  The use of drugs to treat impotence, or of eyeglasses to improve vision, are not “unnatural” in the relevant sense, despite the means being artificial, because they do not involve using a faculty contrary to its natural end.  Indeed, these means restore or enhance the faculties’ power to realize their natural ends.  By contrast, the “withdrawal method,” though it does not involve the use of any artificial devices or drugs, is unnatural in the relevant sense, because it does involve using a faculty contrary to its end.

Nor is it any objection to “perverted faculty” arguments to point out that some people have very strong desires to use their faculties in a way contrary to what natural law theorists claim to be their natural ends, even if these desires have a biological basis.  That something has a biological basis doesn’t by itself make it “natural” in the relevant sense, since some biologically grounded traits are defects.  For instance, color blindness and Down syndrome have a genetic basis, but that hardly makes them “natural” in the relevant, A-T metaphysical sense.  By the same token, even if it turned out that homosexual attraction or a compulsion to lie had a genetic basis, that wouldn’t show that these desires are “natural” in the relevant sense.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Conservatives suddenly notice Tyson

It's kind of odd that Neil Degrasse Tyson is suddenly getting noticed by conservatives in a way that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens never really did. Obviously the Cult leadership was known by religious conservatives, but political conservatives seemed to take an entirely hands-off approach to the topic.

My guess is that, insofar as the others attacked conservative religious people, the typical talking heads of conservatism didn't care so much - call it some assistance in their desire to shed the social conservative wing of the party. Tyson, however, seemed to have made a mistake in deciding to go after people who are skeptical of global warming, which is tied into the more business-oriented end of the conservative talking head spectrum - so now his record is under scrutiny for anything mock-worthy. Lo and behold, it's not hard to find something to have a go at him over.

Speaking of "science", I notice the BICEP2 results came back negative on inflation, and therefore the latest multiverse rumblings. No matter - I'm sure in another universe the results were more positive.

Theological academia on humanity

Marriage and sexual intercourse are not equivalent terms for the paradigm of ‘male and female’. If they were, then the corresponding understanding of human nature would be exclusivist. It would place those male–female relations in which neither marriage nor coitus is a part into a subordinate position and the humanity of all those unable or choosing not to enter such relations in question. The elderly, the impotent, the widowed, the celibate, the hermaphrodite, the transsexual, the deformed and handicapped, and the homosexual would have their humanity and the humanity of their interrelationships denied them. The creation narratives do afford some special status to procreative, and therefore potent, heterosexual relations; however, procreation is construed as a blessing which is bestowed not primarily on individuals but on the species so that it can continue through generation. In short, this way of understanding the image provides no basis for the exclusion of the homosexual, the single and the variously infertile from the image.
Luke (who I've been talking with often on this blog) posted this elsewhere as an example, I think, of thoughtful and thought-provoking discourse on the subjective of gay marriage. His comment was that some conservatives would no doubt find even this passage objectionable.

I could go on about why this is the case, but I'll just skip to a central point: this 'excluding these people from humanity' line is, put frankly, a load. No, these people are not having 'their humanity' stripped from them. 'Their interrelationships'? Rather depends on what in the hell that means, as the modern academic is typically incapable of talking about sex in a way that makes it easy to linguistically tell "fucking" apart from "holding hands". In fairness, conservative Christians are often the same way, likely for different reasons.

Perhaps the best, if fastest, response is that one way to actually deny someone their 'humanity' is to treat their handicap as something other than a handicap. When the deaf person is viewed as 'functioning normally' - that there is nothing about them, physically, which is in need of healing, which has gone awry - we really are denying them their humanity in a relevant way, precisely by failing to recognize where they stand as humans. It's a bit like convincing a fallen being that they, in fact, are not fallen after all. This may make them feel better - even better than they felt back when they thought they were, in fact, fallen or handicapped in some way - but it's still a kind of robbery.

Blunter still would be this response: few people involved in this debate give much of a shit about 'relationships' or even 'love*'. It's the fucking that drives the debate, thank you. Always has, always will. Tell the a GLAAD activist that you have no problem with two men loving each other, so long as they sexually abstain, and do not expect to find an ally in your proclaimed position. Expect some fury.

(* I'm reminded of a Sam Kinison line. Paraphrased: "I've had a change of heart about sex recently. I don't believe in just having sex for pleasure, no, I think you should only have sex when you're in love. ... Now, it may be for a very short fucking time..!")

Edit: Also, Luke - beg pardon for my coarse language here. Not intended to be offensive to you. I just happened upon this and wasn't too enamored with the tone. Longstanding dislike of mine on this topic.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

North Korea: Gnu Paradise

Ever notice that North Korea's state atheism is hardly ever reported, despite it being not only official, but entirely obvious due to events like this:
A third American, Jeffrey Fowle, was arrested for leaving a Bible in the toilet of a sailor's club in the port city of Chongjin and is currently awaiting trial.
In defense of North Korea, religious belief is a serious threat, and - as PeteBog has made clear - interventions must be made in order to contain and eradicate it.

But really, if you're the sort to read international news regularly, play this game:

Compare how many times an article about Iran (especially when Iran has done something odious) involves declaring it a 'right wing', 'conservative' or 'religious' state with how many times North Korea is referred to as 'left wing', 'liberal' or 'atheist' state.

That said, the North Korea government basically runs itself as a kind of 'New Atheists but with a military' regime. We're talking about a group that reacted to Christmas tree lights by saying it was psychological warfare and an attempt to spread Christianity in North Korea, and the sort of thing that North Korea threatens war over.

Clearly they've been reading their Dawkins.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Atheists and Oaths

For an atheist - if an atheist is defined as 'lacking God belief' or 'believing God's existence is unlikely' - there's no obvious reason why swearing an oath to God is offensive, or really, something that should be rejected. It's at most a commitment to a being you don't think really exists, at least a symbolic act.

Now, if you're an anti-theist, we can start seeing reasons you'd get riled at the oath. But then you can't say that the oath is offensive to a mere atheist. You need something more.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Emotion, manipulation and excuse

A while back, Malcolm wrote a post about Scott Adams talking about his desire to slowly and painfully kill people opposed to legal euthanasia. The gist of it was that Adams said this hot on the heels of his father dying, without the state being allowed to step in and just plain kill him.

For a lot of people, Adams practically had the right to say what he did, for one reason: he was experiencing an apparently emotionally troubling event in his life. That's putting it mildly, even clinically, but it's true: his father had just died after suffering from a painful illness. Adams is, understandably, upset about this. He's emotional. Therefore, if Adams happens to say something horrendous, lashing out and blaming who he perceives (even wrongly) to have had a hand in his father's suffering... well, don't hold it against him.

Because he's feeling very emotional right now.

I can understand the motivations behind that kind of reply. To a degree, I even agree with them. No, I don't think it's a good idea to talk about estate taxes with a widow right before she walks into or out of the funeral. No, I don't think it's reasonable to push the guy who just lost three of his children in a car accident about when he's going to have the TTP reports done because the deadline is in two days. Multiply the examples if you like.

The problem is that what seems like a pretty normal, well-adjusted attitude to have towards people is quickly, and easily, regarded as yet one more rhetorical vantage point to work from, both on the personal level and on the large scale.

We saw some of this in the recent Ferguson shooting (didn't that one fade quickly), where you had marches and riots, complete with everyone repeatedly re-enacting the supposed versions of the incident over and over and over in front of cameras. But when footage of Michael Brown robbing a store 15 minutes before the shooting is released, well, that's a horrible thing that should not be done because it will only inflame the community. It's character assassination. Saying that the cop who shot Brown did so in cold blood due to being racist? Not character assassination, apparently. Maybe it's the good kind of character assassination?

The key here is this: the appeal was based on emotion. 'Don't release that evidence: the mother isn't done grieving!' 'Don't release this evidence: the mob will be angry!' In the latter case, the appeal was partly a threat: some people are so emotional that if you bring up evidence they dislike, they will riot and loot stores and possibly kill or at least beat some people.

I suspect a good number of people, if not exactly encouraging of this state of affairs, at least tolerate it. Few people ever talk about the responsibility for a person to control their emotions. Fewer still suggest that people unable to control their emotions, even in situations where most other people seem entirely capable of it, may well be defective. "Oh, they're just an emotional person."

That needs to end.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Theism, Sans Emotion

One of the things that puts me apart from other theists is the following: emotion plays very little role in my theistic commitments.

I've never been overcome with the presence of the Holy Spirit to the point where it's made my heart leap and realize I had a personal connection with Christ. I've never looked at a waterfall and found it so beautiful that the only way to explain it could be an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God. I didn't watch 9/11 live on TV and break down in tears at the thought of how Our Creator must be weeping right now.

Likewise, I never looked in the bible at any act of God - from what Job went through, to the slaughter of this or that people - and found myself having intense internal worry over how any God could do such a thing, thus leading me to find excuses about how that not only absolutely never happened, but never COULD happen. Nor do I rule out the possibility of God doing or commanding some vicious things, from the get-go. Some things I don't believe God would do, given certain commitments and understandings (Classical theism and God lying, etc). But even there, reason and reflection is largely in the driver's seat. Likewise for hypotheticals about God commanding things I am on record as disagreeing strongly with, from abortion to otherwise.

What used to trip me up were intellectual concerns. The Problem of Evil, for me, always was not just first and foremost but entirely an intellectual issue - 'How to square this with God's goodness, etc'. Not emotional - 'How could a loving God ever permit such a thing it's so horrible, all that blood and violence and..!' If I ever reasoned like that, it's lost from memory for me - and I think that's a good thing.

Part of my theistic commitment is realizing that I don't get to pick the God or gods that exist. I can pick what I think is most reasonable, what is most likely, but I recognize I can make mistakes. I likewise recognize that my emotional distaste for this or that act isn't what gives me license to deny it's possible, or even likely. For that, I need an argument.

I say this because too many times - from atheists and theists both - I've seen claims like, 'If God did/commanded X then God is a monster/Calvinism is true and that's horrible/etc', as if that's supposed to, in and of itself, convince me or make me ward off a conclusion, or remove a particular possibility from the set of possibilities. It doesn't.

Because it shouldn't.

(* Yes, I know Allah and God are the same person according to most understandings, my own included. I'm just making a point.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Protection Racket Christianity

Whenever I read about a progressive Christian warning conservative Christians about how their teachings are causing people to leave the Church, I take careful stock of the situation. Even when the teachings in question are ones I think are wrong or I disagree with, I cannot help but notice that many times they happen to be issues that the progressive is in all other situations gleefully condemning and encouraging people to abandon the Church over.

It's not unlike a mob enforcer talking about what a pity it is that your store keeps catching fire, and a smarter fellow would buy some insurance from his buddy.

Sympathy for an atheist

As the Cult of Gnu's leadership has now decided flat out spirituality - aka, religion - is acceptable, even laudable, I admit to taking some amusement over the order of the mere footsoldier cultist.

To go from spending years bashing religion and religious practice... to now watching your leadership about-face and endorse meditation, New Age yammerings, mystical drug-laden 'spiritual' experiences - and realizing you're going to have to defend all this in order to remain consistent? Or, lacking that, agree with all the theists you'd been attacking over the years for daring to ridicule your idols?

Not a pleasant time for the Cultist of Gnu.