20 Sep 2017
Religious fundamentalists sometimes claim atheists have no sense of morality. According to some of these slanders, atheists’ disbelief in god is motivated by a desire to do immoral things. Others view atheists as morally bankrupt or empty – flawed in the sense of missing a certain goodness possessed by members of organized religious groups.
This accusation mistakes atheism for some sort of moral code. It contrasts the lack of moral content in the simple statement “there is no god” with the vast body of theological writings and behavioral codes of religion. It often includes the claim that atheism is itself a religion. The logical conclusion is that atheists’ minds are absolutely empty except for the slogan “there is no god,” which has purged all of the atheist’s other possible knowledge or values about ethics.
Atheism Is; Morality Ought
Actually, theists and atheists agree: the statement “there is no god” provides little in the way of ethical guidance.
We suppose one might use it to argue a point with moral or practical importance, such as “we should not sacrifice people to the volcano.” However, even in this case, it is only a proposition working in tandem with other propositions, such as “Because the volcano god does not exist, it cannot send rain in exchange for sacrifices.”
The proposition that there is no god only applies to moral questions when paired with moral claims, such as “human life is valuable.”
Atheism is certainly not a book of rules, nor does it imply a way of resolving moral questions (although it follows from atheism that religious methods of resolving moral questions are based on a false assumption). Atheism is by definition no more than lack of a belief in supernatural deities.
Moral claims are not only off-topic to the question of the existence of a god, they are fallacious arguments if derived solely from claimed facts. David Hume demonstrated the problem with proving moral sentiments by aggregating facts when he described the “is-ought problem” 278 years ago.
Deriving moral claims from the statement “there is a god” suffers from the same problem, but believers can create endless amendments to their god, such as “and he wants us to…”. They define morality as the will of their god, as amended. Atheists, in contrast, end their story about god when they reach the part about non-existence. This does not mean atheists have nothing to say about morality.
“But Where Do You Get Your Morality?”
Many religions teach that humans are innately amoral until they are taught to be moral by participating in organized religion. By reading scriptures and participating in rituals, the theory goes, we mitigate our innate tendency to sin. In a nutshell, religion makes people morally better – according to religion.
This popular belief about the origins of morality may seem harmless, but what does it imply about those of use who don’t believe, or who don’t participate in the religious activities? It implies we lack moral educations, or that we reject the moral education we once received.
The One-Part Belief Set
For the religious fundamentalist, and many other religiously-minded people, morality and their religion are the same thing. Things are “right” to the extent they conform with god’s will. Things are “wrong” to the extent they conflict with god’s will. Without a god to will, there could be no morality. Therefore, atheists who are unaware of god must also be unaware of morality.
Let’s call this a one-part belief set. The religious person’s beliefs about a god and this god’s properties are interwoven with their moral beliefs. The god defines moral truths by fiat, and the moral truths demonstrate the existence of the god (see circular reasoning).
People tend to limit themselves to like-minded associates, so it is understandable that many with one-part belief sets have never encountered another way of thinking. To them, atheism is a competing religious attitude, with the important distinction of not making any moral claims.
This thought must seem threatening indeed! However, it is based on an unawareness of how most atheists organize their attitudes about god and morality.
The Two-Part Belief Set
Having moved on from the question of god’s existence, atheists find independent rationales and methods to arrive at moral conclusions. Instead of depending on an author or preacher to inform them of god’s moral edicts, atheists find a universe of material to work with in their contemplations of ethics.
Several moral philosophies support their conclusions without any appeals to a god’s authority.
Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative offers a secular method of evaluating ethical decisions: we should pursue those actions that we wish were the universal rule. Social contract theory describes how humans agree to treat each other well in exchange for the benefits of civilization. Utilitarianism offers another secular option, by defining morality in terms of the set of options that create the most benefit for the most people. Perhaps the most popular ethical philosophical approach among atheists is humanism, a stance that emphasizes the importance of human well-being, freedom, and progress.
Each of these approaches has generated entire libraries of works to explore. But secular ethics need not be complicated. The golden rule, a simple yet effective tool for moral reasoning, originated in ancient Egypt centuries before the rise of Christianity.
None of these approaches to morality requires the existence of a god, nor do they require one to be an atheist. Their rationales are self-supporting. So yes, there are moral systems independent of organized religion. For atheists, morality isn’t about the purported rewards obtained from a god. It is more closely tied to our understanding of humanity, our identities, and our aspirations to be part of a better world.
For fundamentalists, morality and god are the same topic, while for atheists they are separate topics. Religious people and atheists could better understand each other by understanding how each other think differently about right and wrong. Virtually no one is actually amoral, but a consensus definition of good remains elusive.
23 Jul 2017
Hollywood movies dazzle us with special effects, creating imaginary and impossible worlds, events, characters, and viewing perspectives. It’s a good thing we adults can walk away from horror movies like “Alien: Covenant” secure in the knowledge that the hyper-realistic monster we just saw is a fiction drawn up by a team of digital animators who spent hundreds of hours on each scene. Because we know we’re watching a movie, we know not to believe what we are seeing. This concept must be explained to children.
What happens when technology advances to the point it no longer takes hundreds of hours or years of expertise to produce digital video? What happens when programs are developed that can create a video of any person saying anything?
Programmers at the University of Washington have developed just such a program. It can transform online videos of a person speaking into a new video of them saying something completely different. Artificial intelligence is used to make the mouth movements exactly match a spliced-in speech.
This announcement comes a shortly after a Canadian startup company developed AI that can recreate any person’s voice based on sample clips. They can create a convincing recording of any person saying anything.
Both teams promoted their inventions with custom-made audio and video of political leaders, as if to highlight – or perhaps sell – the political implications of this technology. The Canadian startup Lyrebird created speeches by Donald Trump, Barak Obama, and Hillary Clinton. The University of Washington team created a series of videos of Barak Obama staring into the camera, saying words put in his mouth by the programmers.
Follow the links above and watch or listen to the clips produced by the software. Could you tell they’re fabrications?
Together, these programs could fabricate an entire presidential speech. Why might someone do that?
Implications for Elections
In the past, the difficulty of fabricating audio or video was sufficient reason to consider it unalterable.
The Watergate tapes, for example, were considered smoking-gun evidence of President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate Scandal. No one at the time could seriously imagine them being modified or falsified, although a minor scandal broke out when a secretary purportedly erased eighteen and a half minutes of conversation about the Watergate break-in by accident. The assumed authenticity of tape recordings brought down a president.
Similarly, when video surfaced of Donald Trump bragging about his ability to sexually assault women because of his fame, he did not bother to deny the video’s authenticity, and instead apologized. He had no choice. It was on video.
Will that be the case when a similarly incriminating video emerges in the 2020 election?
Soon, any political leader recorded saying or doing something offensive may point to the availability of commercial software that could be used by his or her political opponents to create a fake recording. This sort of excuse will be plausible by then, no matter how far-fetched it seems now.
Imagine it’s 2020 and news breaks that a live microphone recorded a candidate muttering a racial slur. The candidate claims the audio was faked by supporters of their opponent. In a world of off-the-shelf audio fabrication software, is there any reason to believe one side or the other?
Perhaps the falsification will be more subtle. Perhaps a partisan media outlet or a political party’s own editors will modify one or two words in a speech to make it mean something different. Perhaps arguments will break out between rival news outlets or social media companies over which video was the original.
In any case, the result will be a lot of confused voters. It’s the voters who don’t know they are confused who are most concerning.
Don’t Be Misled
Video and audio fabrication software will be commercially available to political organizations and special interest groups within months.
Eventually, you’ll have a cell phone app that can fabricate videos of your friends doing or saying sketchy things, just like we use Snapchat today to put dog noses on our selfie videos.
The way we think about video or audio will never be the same.
We can expect this technology to be deployed in our next election. The question is, will we believe our own eyes and ears out of habit? How do we shift toward understanding that everything we see or hear might have been fabricated? Research already indicates people are horrible at recognizing altered photos.
How do we avoid being duped in this future of faked scandals and plausible deniability?
We must make the same sort of mental shift we make while watching a horror movie. When we know we’re watching fiction, we think differently about what we’re seeing.
Imagine bringing a person from 100 years ago into our time, and having them watch a modern horror film. Without cultural inoculation or awareness of technological developments, they would be traumatized. The electorate is probably in a similar position. Most of us still trust audio and video, but technology has changed faster than our mindsets.
Social media will soon be bombarded with shocking viral videos that are fabricated.
The next time a video emerges of a political candidate stuffing cash into a suitcase, having a sexual affair, or smothering a kitten, we should understand that we are probably watching a partisan’s video creation, and somehow not let that image affect our perceptions of the candidate.
If there is a bright side to all this, it may be that increasing numbers of people will realize all they have to do is read the candidates’ positions on the issues and vote accordingly. You can ignore all the rest!
Eventually, the Internet might become completely discredited as a source of information. Something – perhaps a resurgent and transformed mainstream media – will have to fill the credibility void without being falsifiable itself.
We had better graduate to this level of democratic maturity before our elections become a horror movie.
Multiple media outlets have reported the conservative Islamist government of Turkey has removed the theory of evolution by natural selection from the official high school curriculum. This move to dismantle real education comes as dictator Recep Erdoğan is firing or imprisoning thousands of intellectuals, teachers, professors, and civil servants.
First things first: Recep Erdoğan is no longer a “president” of Turkey, he is a dictator.
Like other dictators, he was originally elected but has consolidated power by altering his country’s constitution. Like other dictators, he has taken steps to consolidate his grip on information and eradicate dissent. Like other dictators, he has cast himself as the courageous defender of the local faith.
What Do We Stand For?
During the cold war, Americans used to distinguish themselves from the authoritarian statists of the communist bloc. Americans had an open media, while the poor saps living in totalitarian countries had only propaganda. American children learned the facts in school, it was thought, not the latest political messaging. Finally, many educated Americans of that era believed our scientific prowess was unmatched because our open education system, peer review, and freedom of speech set us apart from the authoritarians and their tightly controlled subjects.
This was the explanation for why America invented the light bulb, was first to develop the atomic bomb, and developed a vaccine for polio. This was why the United States planted its flag on the moon.
The Americans of the near past were certainly not particularly progressive, scientifically minded, or tolerant by today’s standards. However, they could usually at least recite the value set of intellectual freedom. Also, there was an understanding that from intellectual freedom came political freedom. Kids were taught this in school, along with natural selection.
A Truthy New World
These classic enlightenment ideals seem to have fallen by the wayside in the current, post-factual era. Our generation has witnessed “truthiness” being added to the dictionary and we’ve quietly overseen the decline of traditional journalistic integrity. People now get their information from unreliable news outfits on the internet, TV channels, and websites that repackage the news with a partisan skew, and the intellectual herd on ideologically-filtered social media apps.
In this intellectual climate, how long can it be until the United States also eliminates teaching the theory of evolution by natural selection?
How long until the theocrats in our government start to eliminate the science they find offensive – oh wait, that already happened when the U.S. government started scrubbing government websites of climate change information. Similarly, dictator Erdoğan has already banned Wikipedia from his country.
Theocracy And Autocracy
The current generation of Americans may have forgotten what our grandparents learned during the 20th century: It is impossible for a society to have political freedom unless it also has intellectual freedom.
When our teachers are denied the liberty to teach, it will not be long until our journalists are denied the liberty to report. When politically inconvenient facts can be scrubbed from school textbooks, they will soon be banned from other books and from the internet. If the truth can be crushed because it offends religious people, those same religious people will soon crush those who speak the truth.
Theocracy and autocracy are the new enemies of intellectual and political freedom. Theocrats seek ruthless leaders willing to force everyone else to agree with their mindset. Autocrats seek to align themselves with religion, so that their brutality will be seen as a force for good. In Recep Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin we see the future of the counter-enlightenment.
If the post-factual era has confused us about what we stand for, then perhaps we can dig into our intellectual heritage and resolutely state the following:
- Science should be pursued and the results taught without political interference.
- Reason should be applied to evidence in order to make political decisions.
- When political power is concentrated in one person, intellectual, political, and civil freedoms are limited.
- A democratic republic is preferable to a theocracy/autocracy.
Turkey’s ban on the theory of evolution is a wake-up call. After all, this has long been on the wish list of the religious right in the United State. The thing to do now is to exercise and celebrate our intellectual freedom, and to call out this decision for what it is – an attack on education for political gain.
26 Jun 2017
The photo above was virtually smuggled out of Yemen. According to CNN, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen have blocked journalists from visiting the country, by threatening to cancel the aid flights that are their only way in or out.
The photo is of Batool Ali, who is six years old and weighs 35 pounds. She is suffering from “severe malnutrition,” which is a sort of euphemism for starvation.
It may surprise some readers to learn that children are right now being starved to death for political reasons. Perhaps we got the impression from our high school history classes that such behavior has been out of bounds since Hitler and Stalin targeted whole religions and ethnicities for starvation. At stake in Yemen, however, is no ordinary political reason.
The Houthi rebels are Shiite Muslims. Their foe, the Yemeni government, is run by Sunni Muslims. Regional nations have taken sides in a proxy war, along sectarian lines. Shiite Iran supports the Shiite Houthi, while Sunni Saudi Arabia and other gulf states support the Sunni government of Yemen.
Differences between the Shiites and Sunnis are based mainly upon an argument over who was the legitimate leader of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in CE 632. Various other differences have emerged since then in the flavor of worship and selection of shrines, but that pretty much sums up the root of this conflict.
It’s also the root of the conflict in Syria, the civil war that engulfed Iraq after the U.S. invaded, and centuries of armed conflict and persecution before that. It is impossible to guess how many millions of children like Batool have had their lives snuffed out for the sake of a dogmatic clash.
Poor Batool knows nothing of this silliness. It’s safe to say she has never read the books of Islam, and knows next to nothing about the religion – the theocracy – that will be imposed upon her if she survives this manmade famine. Perhaps she knows a song or a prayer, but she is no fundamentalist. Batool’s thoughts at this moment are consumed by gnawing hunger and pain, as they have been for much of her short, tragic life.
What goal could possibly justify doing this to a child? What value set says this is acceptable? Is it anyone’s genuine hope that creating the conditions that led to the starvation of this child will resolve a 7th century power struggle?
Why can’t the adults admit it doesn’t matter whether a man named Abu Bakr or a man named Ali should have been named caliph in 632? The dispute is irresolvable because we are talking about religion, not politics, not ethics, and certainly not nature. No amount of evidence or suffering would matter to anybody in this fight.
For centuries, God has failed to send an unmistakable signal that could have resolved the question and saved Batool from this fate. Take a wild guess why.
In God’s absence, supposedly holy men have spoken on his behalf. Often, they have said that the followers of other holy men must be killed. When enough people believe their local holy man, you live in a place like Yemen.
Sometimes people take us to task for insisting upon secular government. They ask what harm it does to let the fundamentalists erect religious monuments on government lands or lead students in forced prayer. Those critics do not see the connection between the religion of Yemen and the religion of Arkansas. They do not understand that Batool is with us today. She is any Arkansas first-grader and her future is in our hands.
Theocracy in America would lead to the same results seen across the world and across the centuries: brutality, disease, and deprivation. Europe in the era of Christian theocracy looked a lot like Yemen today. Unlike Batool, we were lucky to be born on an island of secular government.
As we struggle to maintain secular government in these trying times, let us not forget Batool, or the millions of other kids whose futures have been diminished by the inherent consequences of religion. Let us not forget how lucky we are, and how as the caretakers of our republic we have a duty to prevent the chaos seen in pictures from far away. The plight of the Yemenis teaches us the descent into theocracy is a long way down.
Remember, this photo is recent. Batool has probably not yet died. She is likely still starving at the moment you read these words. Secularism doesn’t just matter, it’s urgent.
19 Jun 2017
Most critics would have no problem with religion if there weren’t so many toxic side effects. Organizations based on mythology might even be fun if there weren’t a reoccurring tendency to harm people.
Christianity has been associated with significant harm. History is replete with sectarian wars and conflicts, Biblically-justified racism and anti-Semitism, biblical support for slavery, religious excuses allowing persecution of sexual minorities, terrorism, subjugation of women, wasteful temples and sacrifices, child abuse, hate groups…the list of grievances goes on. We can’t even estimate the body count.
Yet, our most thorough indictments of religion can always be met by someone saying “They were doing it wrong.”
Doing It Wrong
According to these apologists, there is a correct way to be a Christian, and the fundamentalists who harm others are doing it wrong.
They can cite various parts of the Bible to support their theory that Christianity is essentially about nonviolence, loving one’s neighbor, tolerance, and charity.
Responding with the biblical citations used by the perpetrators of all this violence and oppression, draws dismissal. The apologist claims that the full context of the Bible instructs us to ignore those parts.
No true Christian, they say, engages in violence, oppression, or hatred.
No True Scotsman, or Christian
This is the No True Scotsman fallacy, a form of circular reasoning that attempts to protect a universal generalization against counterexamples.
A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
A: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
In the case of Christianity, liberal apologists sometimes attempt to exclude people who harm others from their definition of true Christians in order to maintain the generalization that all Christians are a certain way or that Christianity is a positive thing.
A smell of arrogance surrounds this claim.
The apologists are judging whether other people, who consider themselves Christians, worship Jesus, and read the bible actually deserve to call themselves Christians. When pressed on how they became the judges of who’s in and who’s out of the Christianity club, the apologists may claim to know more about the true essence of Christianity than the confused or misinformed fundamentalists.
Of course, we could bring into our conversation a few of these allegedly pseudo-Christians – the homophobes, misogynists, racists, and war enthusiasts – and they would object to being ejected from the True Christian Club.
They can put together a convincing case that the bible supports all their values, and that the liberal apologists, not the fundamentalists, have actually abandoned the values of Christianity. No true Christian would reject these True Christian’s embrace of their favorite verses of, say, Leviticus, and no True Christian would criticize them for cherry-picking.
The only way to make this conversation more ridiculous would be for the nonbeliever to chime in with an opinion about the correct way to be a Christian.
We would certainly like for the Christian fundamentalists to stop harming people, but how exactly would we convince anyone? Is vouching for moderate Christian denominations a practical way to reduce the harm in our world? It is unlikely that religious people would agree to be bound by the decision of any mediator, much less a nonbeliever.
The Rhetoric Trap
Here’s the danger:
If liberal apologists can persuade nonbelievers to accept a distinction between true and false Christianity, then they have succeeded in getting Christianity off the hook for the harms committed by fundamentalist Christians.
By doing so, they have endorsed the idea that some authority figure in the realm of Christianity has information about the correct way to be a Christian. This is, of course, the underlying theory of religious fundamentalism. It’s why people cannot agree on religious concepts – the only evidence is the conflicting opinions of religious leaders.
If we fall into this trap, we give up the promotion of a science-based worldview or humanistic ethical stance. Instead, we find ourselves behaving like theists, picking our favorite sects and proclaiming certain religious leaders to have special insights.
A Better Christianity?
Worst of all, we imply that a better version of Christianity is possible than what exists today. Christian reformers have been working for centuries to make Christianity kinder, more intellectual, or less authoritarian, from Justin Martyr in the first century A.D. to Martin Luther in 1519 to John Shelby Spong today.
What change has come from these efforts? Evidence indicates the more liberal Christian denominations are in steep decline, and have always underperformed the growth of their more fundamentalist competitors. Why?
Perhaps a religion that celebrates human well-being, intellectualism, and individuality contradicts itself when faced with the problem of evil, the scriptural dogma, or the tricky mechanics of holding together a nonconformist group around opinions supported by no objective evidence.
In any case, one would have to be unaware of centuries of fizzled reform attempts to think that a breakthrough waits right around the corner.
Yes, liberal Christians commit much less harm than fundamentalists. That is a credit to them, but not an argument for the essential goodness of Christianity. By refusing to accept the no true Scotsman fallacy and perhaps even taking a systems perspective, we can see why “Christianity” must include fundamentalists as well as liberals, plus lots of other categories.
What To Do When Confronted By The Perfect Religion
The definition of Christianity must include the entire spectrum of practices existing today.
When critics of Christianity are confronted with counterexamples, they should clarify that Christianity means the entire Christian system of religion in aggregate.
The good parts come with the bad. Counterexamples do not disprove our point that Christianity has some toxic side effects, including fundamentalism. Proposed solutions where everyone becomes a liberal Christian have proven implausible.
Bottom line: It’s unreasonable for outsiders like us to sort true Christians from false ones. Don’t fall for this fallacy, and don’t assume Christianity will solve its fundamentalism problem in the next few centuries. Instead of arguing with a theoretical perfect religion, insist upon reality.
11 Jun 2017
Current generations have lived through a shocking few years. We were born into the assumption we would live in a multi-party democratic republic, with guaranteed rights for individuals, well-tested governance systems, and equal rights for all.
We were subtly assured that progress was inevitable. Science and education would obviously advance, lifting both our living standards and our political discourse.
Yet, here we are.
Watching the Decline
In a dizzying few years, we’ve watched American democracy shift closer to a one-party form of government.
We’ve watched the dream of public education for all devolve into a scheme to transfer hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools where the curriculum includes religious indoctrination and science denial.
We watched authoritarianism gain popularity, as our political leaders shut out and attempt to discredit the independent press. We’ve watched the president of the Unites States express admiration for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, a man whose regime has been associated with murders of dissidents and elimination of the press.
We’ve watched the debate over women’s rights descend back to the once-settled question of the birth control pill, as both the Supreme Court and the executive branch have sided with religious extremists who consider the pill sinful.
We’ve watched celebrity provocateurs, discredited authors, and even the President of the United States convince many thousands of people that one of science’s greatest achievements – vaccines – are actually poison. We’ve watched as once-vanquished dreaded diseases, measles and mumps, have returned.
We watched as voter suppression laws were passed in numerous states, usually making it more difficult for ethnic minorities and the poor to vote. We watched the effect of these laws in the 2016 election. One study found that 200,000 votes were suppressed in Wisconsin. Courts have found that a voter suppression law in North Carolina was designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
We’ve watched the return of racism. Steve Bannon, whose website includes a “black crime” section, is one of the President’s top advisors. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was once denied a federal judgeship because of his alleged racism, is now in charge of enforcing civil rights laws – or not. Nooses were recently hung at universities and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
We’ve watched America slide further into theocracy, with President Trump ordering the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt churches from being used as platforms to promote political candidates. He also declared that “America is a nation of believers.”
Questioning the Assumptions We Were Taught
Events have disoriented those of us who were taught the assumptions that racism, misogyny, church-state mingling, the validity of science, and democracy itself were settled issues.
Our high school history lessons were stories of heroes who created permanent change. Ben Franklin, George Washington, and others risked their lives fighting a Christian king to establish a democratic republic that persists hundreds of years later. Women’s suffrage activists including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul won the right to vote for women with a full-fledged constitutional amendment. Science pioneers Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Marie Curie invented the polio vaccine, pasteurization, and radiography, advances that would permanently change human life for the better. Civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, and the Little Rock Nine endured violence and imprisonment so that racial inequality could be eradicated.
We were taught that freedom and prosperity were our birthright, our inheritance from these heroes and martyrs, and would be ours forever.
We believed it too. After all, why would people in a democracy vote to take away their own freedoms or reject the benefits of science?
Yet here we are, watching the progress that our heroes devoted their lives to slipping away. Here we are in a world where rapidly decreasing percentages of people think it is important to live in a democracy, and where the percentage of people who vote is reaching new lows.
There must have been something wrong with those assumptions about progress.
The New Understanding
It should now be clear; progress is never permanent.
Individual freedom, once won, can easily be given back to tyrants, as has occurred frequently throughout history. The knowledge of science can be lost as it was in Alexandria and during the Dark Ages of Europe.
As our new understanding of progress emerges, we realize that we cannot blame our long-dead heroes for the disintegration of what they built, nor can we count on their memories to fix it. We can appreciate the heroes of the past for showing us the way, but we must do our own work to remain free.
A house left without maintenance will decay regardless of the skill of the builders. The responsibility for upkeep can only fall upon us.
A house periodically needs work to the roof, the floors, the windows, and a thousand other places. Similarly, a democratic republic that celebrates liberty and science must be continuously maintained by its occupants if it is to survive.
That maintenance involves spending, organizing, sacrificing, leading, and following. It is a steady stream of work. There is no permanence to freedom. Each generation must earn its own freedoms. The fight goes on forever.
Back On Our Feet
To return to progress, we must first reject the idea that it is permanent. Civilization will naturally entropy unless new energy is added.
The second step is to realize that we, the generations alive at this moment, have been neglectful and remiss in our maintenance of civilization. Our lifestyles have lacked the level of civic engagement necessary to sustain this world we were lucky enough to be born into.
Realize these things, and some conclusions fall into place. Political and cultural engagement must become regular parts of our lives. We should join organizations, attend events, and make friends with activists.
This civilization is our only home. We must make the effort to maintain it.
15 May 2017
On February 28, 2017, America’s new president gave a speech before Congress. In it, he restated his campaign formula to “make America great” through trade restrictions, a wall on the Mexican border, and military action against foreigners.
The press apparently expected more of the broken sentences and Twitter English that were still astounding people in those early days before our current numbness set in.
Instead, the president surprised everyone with mostly complete sentences, good grammar, optimism, and surprising formal presentation skills.
The press fawned over his performance.
NBC News called it a “bold agenda with a softer tone” by a president “at his most presidential.”
A Fox News headline declared that the president “…stuns media detractors with ‘extraordinary’ speech…”.
According to CNN, the president “adopted a statesmanlike cadence, hitting notes of inspiration. For once, this most unorthodox of politicians struck a conventional presidential posture…”
What exactly were these “presidential” “notes of inspiration”? Nestled between the casual promises to “break the cycle of poverty” and put “American footprints on distant worlds” may have been a promise to produce anti-immigrant propaganda.
“…I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims. The office is called VOICE – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”
The president then pointed to three people placed in the audience whose family members had been murdered by undocumented immigrants, as if to make real the supposed emergency of immigrant crime.
Certainly these three carefully-selected individuals have suffered due to crimes by immigrants, but how many millions of people could be found whose relatives died at the hands of a US citizen?
The president claimed in no uncertain terms that there is a crisis of criminality among undocumented immigrants. Does this claim stand up to scrutiny? Actually, no. Sociologist Bianca Bersani and criminologist Alex Piquero write,
“Research dating back more than a century documents a pattern whereby the foreign-born are involved in crime at significantly lower rates than their peers.”
Furthermore, the data indicate that foreign-born individuals are less likely to end up in prison, and are less likely to offend in general. First-generation immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native U.S. citizens, a trend that persists throughout the young-adult lifespan:
Overall, the U.S. has experienced a decrease in crime over the past quarter-century, particularly in places with high immigration.
Of course, it would be naïve to think such facts matter. This obsession with American citizens victimized by undocumented foreigners is part of a political narrative that justifies the president’s agenda.
According to this political narrative, the stagnation of middle-class wages is not at all related to the dissolution of labor unions, the automation of manufacturing, information technology, or the shift to service industry employment.
According to the narrative, our dissatisfactions are the fault of illegal immigrants. If the government would simply eliminate or otherwise harm those antagonists, life would return to the halcyon days referred to by the slogan “make America great again.”
The president’s narrative makes little sense to anyone who takes accountability for their own life, or seeks to avoid the disabling habits of finger-pointing and excuse-making. Thus, politicians and pundits manufacture their own evidence, employing the anecdotal fallacy in an attempt to obtain plausibility.
The far-right’s data analysis methodology goes like this:
Stories consistent with the political narrative are selected from across the nation, or fabricated, and presented en masse to create an impression of a general situation. The individual anecdotes are either true or unverifiable, and can sometimes be linked to legitimate news sources.
By presenting dozens of crime stories about, say, members of a certain ethnic or religious minority, far-right propagandists create the illusion of a dataset in the minds of their audiences. Who can argue statistics against hundreds of cherry-picked, emotive anecdotes? Of course, this curated list ignores the much larger list of crimes committed by people not in the targeted demographic.
Recall that Breibart.com, the life work of presidential chief strategist and campaign manager Steve Bannon, has a section for “black crime” which cherry-picks or simply fabricates stories about brown-skinned people attacking tan-skinned people. Breibart doesn’t have to openly state its racist conclusions. What other conclusions could be drawn from such an intentional gathering of anecdotes?
Also recall the president’s multi-tweet rant during the campaign in reaction to a story of an undocumented immigrant allegedly shooting a woman. Why bring this particular murder to the media spotlight? Why this story, out of the 15,000 or so murders that occur in the U.S. each year?
He was cherry-picking support for his June 16, 2015 statement:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Start with a conclusion, and an anecdote can be found.
None of this is new.
White supremacists used this method throughout history. Lynch mobs in the Deep South murdered thousands of brown-skinned people based on often-fabricated accounts of crime. Then, of course, there was Der Sturmer, the Nazi-era propaganda newspaper devoted to anecdotal and fabricated accounts of crime and conspiracy by Jews.
The new VOICE office is ostensibly about advocacy for crime victims. However, a bureaucratic call center in Washington D.C. seems an odd way to help crime victims. Wouldn’t local assistance be more efficient? If helping crime victims is a good idea, why limit the program to victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants? Why the concern about victims of immigrant-committed crimes being “ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests”?
Is the real point of VOICE to gather or generate more anecdotes? Will the White House soon begin publishing Der Trumpstermer, a new racist listing of cherry-picked anecdotes?
01 May 2017
Your author found himself visiting the Houston area earlier this year. Rather than visiting the zoo, one of many museums, or even the Space Center, I wanted to see what the local freethinkers were up to.
When I arrived at Houston Oasis’ weekly Sunday Gathering, a volunteer opened the door and greeted me. Additional volunteers offered a sign-in sheet and name tag. Red nametags were issued to those who did not want to be photographed, and blue to those who didn’t mind.
Several others had roles to play: snack bar, audio-visual equipment, MC, videographer, photographer, and donation collector. As a group that gets together frequently, they had built a well-organized event that contradicted many stereotypes about nonbelievers. These cats were working together as a herd. I saw it with my own eyes.
A banner proudly displayed the organization’s core values:
- People are more important than beliefs.
- Reality is known through reason.
- Meaning comes from making a difference.
- Human hands solve human problems.
- Be accepting and be accepted.
A diverse crowd of 83 people attended. The program included music by a talented guitarist and a compelling talk by LGBT rights activist Debi Jackson, whose trans daughter faced severe discrimination in their home state of Kansas, and even within their family.
The event was strictly secular, yet inspirational.
I must have sounded like a space alien, because my conversation was something like the following: “I am from far, far away. Take me to your leaders.”
Eventually, I met up with Mike Aus, the Executive Director. He agreed to an email interview that I could share with the ASF audience:
Chris: Tell us the story of Houston Oasis. How did the organizers meet? Did it emerge from earlier organizing attempts?
Mike: In the summer of 2012, some of my friends who had left religion realized that we missed the community aspect of church life–getting together for social events, volunteer service projects, and the sense of mutual support that often comes from being part of a religious community. We started to wonder if could experience the things we liked about religious life–only without the dogmas, superstitions, etc. We started meeting over brunch on Sunday mornings to talk about what that might look like. We shared the idea with other friends and they started coming to the table too. During those brunch conversations we came up with the core values that would define our community and we landed on the name Oasis because we like what an oasis represents–a place of renewal, refreshment, and respite.
Chris: What sort of events do you have?
Mike: The main event we have each week is our Weekly Gathering, which happens to meet on Sunday mornings. It’s been described as a cross between a house concert and a “TED” style talk. Each week we feature some of the best live musicians in Houston and we have speakers on a variety of topics of interest from the arts, sciences, and humanities. Recently the former mayor of Houston spoke at one of our gatherings! In addition to the Weekly Gathering, we sponsor a variety of social events throughout the month all over the city: bar nights, potluck dinners, book studies, and an international dining event we call “Dining Beyond Borders.” We also have a huge commitment to volunteer events in the Houston area. Our service projects team has set a goal of 1,000 hours of volunteer service by Oasis folks this year.
Chris: I noted at least 10 different volunteer roles on my visit. Is it possible to start up this organizational model with a very small group of people?
Mike: Yes, it is absolutely possible to start an organization with a small group of people. That’s exactly how we started. Our initial planning team had ten people by the time we launched. At our first Weekly Gathering we had 25 people in attendance and we were ecstatic with that. We just kept getting together and people were having a good time so they told other people and we grew over time.
Chris: Does the Oasis model appeal to certain personality types more so than others? Are some people just more “communal”?
Mike: I suspect that the Oasis model would appeal more to people who want to hang out and do life with others. Humans are a tribal species. Getting together with others is in our DNA. But we are not out to convince people that they SHOULD be a part of a secular community, and we are not “evangelistic” about the concept of secular community. Many people are just fine without being part of a group like Oasis. We just want to provide the opportunity for those who want something like this. Recently a man came up to me after our Weekly Gathering and said, “I have made more friends in the two years I’ve been coming to Oasis than I have in my entire adult life previously.” It felt really good to hear that.
Chris: What would you advise a brand new secular organizer NOT to do?
Mike: Don’t try to do too much at once. Start small and scale up gradually. Building an organization is a marathon, not a sprint. And try not to stress about it too much. Obviously, there are challenges when launching any organization. But the most important thing is to have fun! Life is short and filled with enough stress as it is. And if you’re having fun doing this, other people will want to come and be a part of it.
The Oasis is Growing
Houston Oasis is growing, along with the secular movement in general. Now, the oasis is not just in Houston. It has become the Oasis Network, and communities following this model have sprouted in Austin TX, Kansas City, Toronto, Wichita KS, and multiple cities in Utah.
To learn more, visit http://www.peoplearemoreimportant.org .
To help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers create such an environment, contact us at email@example.com.
One of the most shocking facts about the Holocaust is that Jews comprised less than 1% of the German population in 1933, just over a half-million at the time. This number sounds suspicious, given our knowledge that about 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Yet, that number is not plucked from some crackpot Holocaust denial blog, it comes from the German census of that year, and is consistent with censuses done in 1925, 1910, and earlier (link to census data, in German):
|Jewish Percentage of German Population|
|1939 (during holocaust)||0.39%|
Most Jews killed in the Holocaust resided in other countries, such as Poland (almost 3 million), Ukraine/Russia (over 1 million), and Hungary (about half a million).
An understandable reaction to this information might be –astonishment. Howcould Adolph Hitler and propagandists such as Julius Streicher persuade so many people that less than one percent of their population was responsible for the Great Depression, most crime, moral degeneracy, corruption, and even Germany’s loss in World War I?
Sabotaging an entire nation seems like a lot of work for such a tiny sliver of the population!
Millions of people were persuaded by this conspiracy theory, and it seems likely Hitler believed it too. His invasion of Poland and foolhardy attack on Russia prioritized the destruction of much larger numbers of Jews living there. The thinking was that these Jews were conspiring against Germany from afar.
The people actually undermining the country were the ones leading it. World War II in Europe was caused by the Nazis, and resulted in the deaths of several million non-Jewish Germans. A gullible population allowed themselves to be governed by dangerous leadership. Rapid descent into disaster resulted.
Welcome to the Past
From the distance of history, we can recognize the undisciplined thinking that led people to attribute such negative traits and seemingly magical power to a tiny religious minority. In hindsight, it is almost hard to believe that people could be so gullible.
Unfortunately, there is no longer a need to wonder how such mindsets develop. Here in the modern United States, a new religious scapegoat has emerged: Muslims.
These days, prominent Christian pastors such as Terry Jones, Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress preach hatred for Muslims. They walk in the footsteps of their many anti-Semitic predecessors: Bishop Martin Sasse applauded Kristallnacht, and even Martin Luther wrote On the Jews and Their Lies.
The hysteria reached a point that several states felt the need to ban Sharia law. Again, we see a widespread belief that a tiny religious minority is somehow, perhaps magically, taking over the world. Was it actually likely that Sharia could become the law of the land in Oklahoma, Alabama, North Carolina, or Louisiana, or is this an example of moral panic and scapegoating?
Given these levels of anti-Muslim hatred, guess what percentage of the US population is Muslims?
- a) 1%
- b) 3%
- c) 5%
- d) 10%
The chilling answer is the same as it was for Jews in 1920’s Germany: one percent.
Religious minorities comprising about one percent of the population in majority-Christian countries seem to be especially vulnerable. At one percent, most people have at least seen a person in the religious minority, so they are perceived as real. Yet, a religious minority comprising only one percent of the population lacks the political power and influence to fight back against discrimination and conspiracy theories leveled at them.
In other words, a one percent minority is a defenseless scapegoat. The tiny minority seems realistic only because its presence is known and poorly understood. Nazism didn’t arise in nations with much larger Jewish populations such as Poland, Ukraine, or Greece – it arose where most people did not have a Jewish neighbor or friend to defend.
So what is the current relevance of the German Census of 1933?
It teaches us to recognize the irrationality of today’s mass hysteria.
It teaches us that conspiracy theories, if left unchallenged by courageous people, will become normalized.
It teaches us that if we don’t stand up for the rights of the scapegoats and organize in defense of the ideals of our democratic republic, then freedom itself will not be long lived.
11 Apr 2017
Governor Asa Hutchinson propelled Arkansas, and of course himself, into the national headlines by scheduling eight people for execution within 10 days this April.
As Arkansas slouches closer to the mass-executions of Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, it’s worthwhile to ask why most people will not consider Hutchinson guilty of murder. If a mafia boss ordered his lieutenants to kill eight people, he’d be a murderer regardless of circumstances. Why are governors morally immune for killing people in cages?
Asked this question, most people would reply something like “well, he’s Governor, so it’s his job.” There’s more to this response than the fallacy of appeal to authority.
People carve out a special moral sphere for activities done by their government. Asa Hutchinson can kill eight people in his government role, and most people will not hold it against him, but if he guns down eight people in his personal time, people would decry the massacre.
Are these executions a massacre?
The Magic Box
How can we explain our moral compartmentalization?
Mr. Hutchinson is as morally accountable as any of us, until he steps into the governor’s office, which might as well be a magic box where certain moral standards don’t apply. Inside this magic box, you can kill people and not be guilty of murder.
In most human cultures, members of the military may kill certain other people. Indeed, failing to kill other people when ordered to do so may get you court-martialed. Yet demobilized soldiers exit the magic box and return to moral accountability.
Police officers are permitted to detain people, but when anyone else does the same, it is the crime of kidnapping.
Tax collection authorities may demand your property, and if you fail to give it to them, they may impose punishments such as seizing even more of your possessions or locking you in a cage. When the local mafia does the same thing, we call it extortion.
Thomas Hobbes published The Leviathan in 1651. In it, Hobbes argued that the default, natural situation of humanity is a perpetual war of all against all. We form a social contract to cooperatively escape this miserable state of nature. The social contract forbids the violence seen in the state of nature, but requires an enforcement system to prevent breaches of the contract. That enforcement system is referred to as the Leviathan. Hobbes borrowed his term for government from the fearsome biblical sea monster.
Effective social contracts provide the Leviathan with powers to dole out severe punishments to those who breach the contract and cause harm. Thus, the social contract forbids its signatories from harming each other, but explicitly allows the Leviathan to inflict harm upon violators of the contract. The people who comprise the Leviathan, including the king, in Hobbes’ description, are the only people who are allowed to inflict harm upon others.
Here we see the essence of the morality-free magic box. Government workers may inflict harm to enforce the social order, but the rest of us may not. An economic equilibrium is reached, where we tolerate this inequality rather than risk a return to the more-horrible state of nature.
The Magic Box Expands
The problem with giving government agents permission to do otherwise immoral acts is they tend to expand the scope of their privilege beyond what is required to enforce the social contract.
Sometimes, police officers authorized to use force when apprehending suspects end up using force to discriminate against minorities, suppress dissent, or torture people. Sometimes militaries authorized to kill enemy soldiers instead massacre civilians or commit war crimes. Sometimes, politicians authorized to oversee law enforcement oversee the jailing of their rivals and critics.
Moral immunity in some areas puts the Leviathan in a position to seize moral immunity in others. The same weapons, tactics, information sources, social authority, and organizational structures used to enforce the social contract can be turned on the innocent.
The moral inequality between government agents and the rest of us inspires anarchists to propose a stateless society. There are many flavors of anarchism, but all assume a stateless society could depend on its inhabitants to voluntarily cooperate for the collective good, without the need for coercion from a Hobbesian Leviathan.
Taxes would be paid voluntarily. Soldiers would volunteer to defend the country. Decisions could be made collectively, rather than by authorities.
Of course, the stateless society remains a hypothetical. No nations bigger than a few indigenous tribes have pulled off this organizational model for a sustained time. For now, we are stuck with the task of controlling the Leviathan.
A Libertarian Freethought Ethos?
Hobbes’ Leviathan influenced the founders of the United States over a century after its publication. Whereas Hobbes tried to explain his monarchy, these rebels were trying to engineer an enduring escape from the tyranny of the monarch.
Thus, much of the U.S. Constitution constrains the powers of government. Examples include the Bill of Rights, separation of powers, the judicial system, and of course voting. The Constitution created a Leviathan whose agents were in perpetual conflict with each other, and at the mercy of voters.
The founders reflexively kept the Leviathan’s magic box as small as possible. However, laws alone cannot constrain a Leviathan. A citizenry informed by a free press, allowed to organize, speak, and assemble, and empowered with the vote becomes the enforcer of the Leviathan’s own social contract with the citizens. The job of constraining the Leviathan is yours!
Response To Mass Executions
If you happen to obtain an audience with governor Asa Hutchison, ask whether he believes moral standards are universal and applicable to everyone.
Upon his positive response, ask if he can justify his moral immunity for killing eight people. Ask him to justify it without appealing to the law, his role, or popular opinion.
The conversation will be short, but if people would at least think about the moral voids we take for granted, that would be progress.
In our January 30 post, we debunked the excuses people make for not voting. These excuses included: not agreeing 100% with any candidate, naïve expressions of cynicism, and thinking one’s vote doesn’t matter.
This week, we explore an easy way for citizens to increase their political power: by joining a voting coalition, sometimes called a special interest group.
The Politician’s Dilemma
Imagine you are a politician who has just lost an election by 5,000 votes. How could you win 5,000 more votes in your next attempt? On the other hand, which policy positions would lose even more votes?
The answers to these questions are not clear. Your friends and advisors have opinions, but these are not objective or concrete. Obtaining this information is the most important part of your next campaign.
Suddenly, a representative from a voting coalition steps into your office and states:
“I represent 30,000 single-issue voters who pay $50 a year to support my organization. If you are in favor of our issue, I will write that into our voter guide and direct thousands of votes your way, guaranteed.”
As an aspiring politician, what do you do?
The voting coalition has shared valuable information about how you could get elected:
- a) at least 30,000 votes hinging on a single issue.
- b) these voters are passionate enough about their cause to pay $50 per year to an advocacy organization. If they are willing to make that kind of sacrifice for their cause, most will certainly show up on Election Day and vote based on this one issue.
There is also a veiled threat! Those 30,000 votes could also go to the other candidate.
Of course, you plan to win, so you tell the representative that you support their issue 100%.
This scenario shows how ordinary voters can multiply their influence by banding together. In a world where polls fail to accurately predict elections, voting coalitions provide both politicians and voters with credible information about each other. Politicians learn that many thousands, or millions, of people vote based on an issue. Voters, in turn, make politicians commit to supporting their values.
This is also perfectly democratic. Voters in the coalition are exercising their freedoms of expression and association to participate in politics. They are also counteracting the influence of campaign contributions from corporations and billionaires.
Let’s look at some of the most successful voting coalitions from history and the present.
Examples of Successful Coalitions
American Anti-Slavery Society
At a time when racial equality was a radical heresy, the promoters of justice and human rights organized themselves. The American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1833. Within a few years, its membership had grown to between 150,000 and 200,000, and there were over a thousand auxiliary societies.
Through public speaking events, petitions, and printed materials, they changed the culture of the Northern United States, paving the way for the founding of the Free Soil and then Republican parties. When the Civil War started, they ensured that abolition became an objective of the war.
National American Woman Suffrage Association
In 1887, the Senate rejected a women’s suffrage amendment.
Then, the National American Woman Suffrage Association grew from 7,000 members in 1893 to 2 million members in 1916.
In 1918, the House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. However, the amendment was defeated in the Senate by just two votes. The NAWSA targeted four Senators who voted against the amendment. They formed a coalition with labor unions and prohibitionists and two of those four senators lost re-election.
Literally eight months later, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress. However, approval of 2/3 of the states seemed impossible, because opposition to the amendment was entrenched in the South. Yet, the amendment was ratified by the last required state, Tennessee, by just one vote in 1920.
National Rifle Association
NRA ConventionWhether you love them or hate them, you must agreethe NRA is effective. No national laws have been passed restricting gun ownership since the mid-1990’s. The NRA obtains its power by representing 5 million members who pay $40 per year or less. With those resources, the NRA produces publications, social media, recruitment campaigns, lawsuits, lobbyists, and campaign donations.
They add up to less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, but NRA members essentially control legislative action on gun regulation. The simple reason for this is that they are organized. Remarkably, the NRA requires little from its members besides the payment of dues, although many are politically active. The NRA’s opponents, which probably outnumber the organization, are not nearly as well organized.
Banding Together Works
The American Abolition Society peaked at about 250,000 members. The National American Woman Suffrage Association reached 2 million. The modern bar for political invincibility is the NRA, with 5 million people.
We should keep these numbers in mind as we observe that “nones” are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S, with atheists and agnostics comprising 7% of the population in 2014 (over 22 million ) and the unaffiliated comprising almost 23% (over 55 million).
If only a fifth or even a tenth of freethinkers organized as a voting coalition, history proves they could change the cultural and legal course of the nation.
Time For Action!
What are your values? Do you actually do enough to support them?
If you hesitated when answering these questions, consider joining at least some of the following voter coalitions that support the rights of freethinkers:
28 Mar 2017
“The question you ask – what to read and whom to study – is one that I receive quite often. It ought to be an easy inquiry to answer. But it isn’t, and this for a series of reasons. The first and most obvious is that you should not look for arguments from authority.” -Christopher Hitches, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2009
Christopher Hitchens spent a lifetime attacking figures of political and supposedly moral authority, rarely missing an opportunity to send pointed barbs at those who would go along with the accepted wisdom rather than thinking for themselves. Yet it would be an oversimplification to say authority itself was the underlying cause of the gullible masses and corrupt elites he skewered. Freethought must not be confused with anarchism.
Experience demonstrates how putting humans in positions of command or intellectual leadership creates certain temptations and blind spots. This is clear to those who have seen a police car speeding for no reason, suffered the tutelage of an arrogant mentor, or paid any attention to politics.
When people are elevated by others to be above the law, above suspicion, or beyond questioning, they often can and do take advantage of these public attitudes for selfish gain.
When the authority figure internalizes these attitudes and comes to believe they actually are enlightened or their actions are always morally justifiable, they can inflict monumental damage. Examples may include the thousands of priests who have sexually abused children, the millionaire megachurch pastors who enrich themselves out of the pocketbooks of the poor and elderly, the warlords and violent religious fanatics who force compliance with their views, and the politicians cynically claiming a special relationship with God in order to win votes from the credulous faithful.
To some extent, their positions of authority contributed to the corruption of these people. Our anecdotes have been replicated in the laboratory. Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo’s infamous prison study demonstrated how to transform randomly selected college students into sadistic, abusive authoritarians just by putting them in a position of power over other people. Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment startled humanity years earlier, demonstrating that most people would administer a potentially lethal shock to someone else if an authority ordered it.
So authority is bad, right? And we should refuse to listen to anyone claiming authority, right?
Well, not so fast.
Individuals cannot make much headway in this complex world using senses and reason alone. We all survived childhood by trusting our first authority figures, our parents. We were educated with help from teachers, scholars, writers, and journalists. When we are sick or injured, we seek the assistance of people whose studies and experience make them medical authorities. When our car breaks down, we seek a mechanic whose experience makes them trustworthy. When we want knowledge about something, we look to the writings of other people. At work, we have different jobs because it is more economically efficient for people to specialize and become authorities in some activity. Who would feel safe in a city with no police, or in some imaginary culture without laws?
If we completely disregard authority, and refuse to recognize that to some extent authority may be well-deserved or beneficial, we discard science itself. Who has the time or genius to verify the motions of the planets with their backyard telescope, develop their own antibiotics, or independently re-discover the Theory of Relativity?
A rejection of scientific authority underlies the mentality of anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change skeptics, and true believers in various forms of pseudoscientific woo.
Let’s pick on anti-vaxxers as an example. Hundreds of scientists across multiple generations have spent lifetimes studying vaccine safety, and yet anti-vaxxers are persuaded by celebrities and popular authors that the preservative thimerosal causes health problems. What exactly makes it unreasonable to reject the authority of scientists and accept the authority of Jenny McCarthy? Is it reasonable to be agnostic on the subject of vaccine safety, just because someone – anyone – disagrees?
A parent’s decision to give their child a potentially lifesaving vaccine may rest on which authority figures they choose: scientists or celebrities. Similarly, our knowledge about the age of the universe depends on whether we consider scientists or preachers to have more expertise on the subject.
Here’s the case for scientists: The scientific method has proven reliable again and again, scientists have studied their topics more diligently than anyone else for many years, and scientific evidence is based on real-world, replicable observations.
The case for celebrities, preachers, and celebrity preachers is that they are popular, charismatic, attractive, well-marketed, and speak on an understandable level.
Yet there’s more to it. Many of those afraid of thimerosal, for example, cite a seemingly commonsense rationale: one should not ingest mercury because mercury is poisonous. This claim may sound reasonable to someone trying to “think for themselves”, as it seems to follow from an accepted fact. A non-specialist in chemistry and biology, and specifically in vaccines, would be unable to articulate why the preservative is actually harmless.
Our lives intersect with hundreds of authorities. Most are transactional, or even beneficial. Some, however, are exploitative or simply incorrect.
This leads us to our question: Does rationality boil down to a method for selecting authoritative sources of information or leadership?
Well, it’s complicated.
Freethinkers are not hypocrites for accepting the findings of scientists while also instinctively disbelieving that Benny Hinn heals people with forehead smacks. We are only applying simple inductive reasoning.
At some point, we realized prayers go unanswered or we had too many questions about the philosophical problems of theism. At some point, we saw a pattern of religious opportunists, celebrities with unsupported opinions, and insincere politicians. We’ve also encountered scientists who apply meticulous rigor to their studies, principled police officers, and brilliantly effective professionals from auto mechanics to medical specialists.
We’re not putting our trust in authority at all. We’re extending limited trust to those people who apply methods that have yielded measurable, tangible results in the past, and whose methods are reliable and proven.
21 Mar 2017
This simple question has a Luddite feel to it. How could the most life-changing invention since the light bulb not be good for us? What retrograde codger could possibly question the superiority of a world with information at our fingertips?
The Internet boosted human productivity, enhanced communication, created tens of millions of jobs, and ended archaic practices like snail mail, physical maps, and card catalogs. Who would go back to the era when old news arrived on your doorstep in the form of paper – and at a price too? Who would choose a life where baby pictures are not available to faraway family and friends for weeks? Who could stand paying bills by writing paper checks and mailing them in envelopes?
Yes, the Internet offers conveniences, but does it make life better? It may be hard to believe, but there is a case against the Internet.
Costs of Addiction
Alcoholics often describe their drinking as a beneficial component of their lives, or something they “need”. To the rest of us, these are clearly rationalizations, propped up against all evidence to protect the alcoholic from the terrifying realization that they must either stop drinking or destroy themselves.
Non-alcoholics sometimes marvel at how alcoholics cannot see the damage they’re doing. How can they lose so many hours each day to their addiction, and not recognize the waste? Can’t they see their work suffering? How do they not regret the thousands of dollars spent on booze? How can they not recognize the effects on their relationships, their personalities, and their minds?
Well, guess what? We all show signs of addiction.
Most of us waste hours of each day on social media. Most sneak Internet time into work hours. Most of us spend thousands of dollars per year on the combination of high speed Internet and mobile data plans – oftentimes more than we save for retirement. Meanwhile, there you are staring into your smartphone at the dinner table, while your kids are trying to get your attention, or while your significant other tried and failed to make eye contact.
Go ahead. Tell all your rationalizations for these things.
But then describe how the loss of time, productivity, money, and presence in our relationships makes our Internet addiction not an addiction.
A Microsoft marketing study based on electroencephalography made headlines a couple years ago. It found the average Canadian’s attention span dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to 8.25 seconds in 2015, lower than a goldfish’s attention span.
There’s plenty to criticize here, but if Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and brain-training games can exercise and improve specific brain capabilities, if one’s early childhood environment correlates with IQ, and if social integration reduces memory loss in elderly people, then it’s not a leap to say our brains adapt to better perform the tasks we spend time doing. To paraphrase, your brain gets better at things it practices.
What are we practicing when we peruse Pinterest , Snapchat, or Instagram? What mental muscle are we building sharing memes and arguing on Facebook or Twitter? The obvious answers are thumb-eye coordination, rapid visual scanning, ignoring ads, and so on. It’s certainly a stimulating experience, but are these skills helpful or harmful in our real lives?
One common Internet behavioral pattern is the online disinhibition effect. People are semi-anonymous on the Internet, and more likely to say things they would never say face-to-face.
Thus, socially awkward teens who cannot make eye contact in real life can become vicious trolls and online bullies to victims who share more information about their vulnerabilities than they would in person.
Disinhibition sounds like fun, but self-control is how one sticks to a budget, continues a exercise program, gets homework done, maintains a relationship, keeps a job, reads a book, or accomplishes much of anything in life. What are the consequences when entire generations shift the activities they practice from those requiring self-control to those that elicit disinhibition?
Perhaps being a disinhibited social media user is like being drunk at a party full of drunken people. It sounds like a great time, until the along comes the inevitable drama, loud people, crying people, arguments, fistfights, and vomit. Yet, at some point in our lives, many of us thought drunken parties should be the best time ever!
Similarly, we’re drawn back into social media, even though plenty of research shows it makes people less happy, and quitting makes people happier. A University of Pittsburgh study even found the frequency and duration of social media usage were correlated with indicators of depression. Would you take a pill with these side effects?
More Info Isn’t Always Better
The Internet’s negative effects extend beyond the self.
We tend to create echo chambers for ourselves, by favoring sites that confirm our worldviews, and by “un-friending” people who disagree with our politics. This leads to group polarization, and at a nationwide scale, increasingly intense political partisanship.
Journalism is hard, so the “news” fed to you by social media algorithms is often fiction. In another era, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather attempted to balance a stream of information gathered by professional field reporters. Now, instead of corporations competing to produce more accurate information, we have fake news sites competing to target unquestioning echo chambers with sensational headlines.
Is this a better world?
If It’s A Trap, Should I Escape?
The cost of information has fallen to nearly nothing, so it’s interesting that people haven’t become pickier about the quality of what they consume. In the era of President Trump, it might not be surprising to see a backlash either toward information quality or a low-information diet. If that backlash happens, freethinkers should consider that the critics of the internet might not all be Luddites. They might be onto something.
22 Feb 2017
During the 2016 election, fake news spread through social media, especially Facebook, became more popular than “mainstream” stories written by actual journalists.
As a result, many people believed strange and incorrect things about the candidates. One fake news article prompted a man to walk into a Washington DC pizza restaurant and fire a rifle, thinking he was going to rescue children held for sexual exploitation by Hillary Clinton.
Other top-performing fake news headlines claimed that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton sold weapons to the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton was endorsed by the Islamic State, and 90’s icon/drag queen RuPaul accused Donald Trump of fondling her. Each of these fabrications had hundreds of thousands of social media engagements and earned thousands of dollars for their authors.
The vast majority of fake news articles targeted Clinton. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government was behind some of this propaganda – an effective operation against one of their critics.
Research indicates that people are horrible at distinguishing real news from fake. Even young people, who grew up with the Internet, display a pitiful capacity for critical thinking about what they see on the Internet.
A Gullible Public? Or Changing Rules?
When did people become so gullible? Fake news sources have been around since supermarket tabloids. The National Enquirer, for instance, originated in 1926.
Perhaps the shift from analog information sources to digital left us with fewer signals of quality. In the supermarket, the fake news tabloids have a different format than legitimate newspapers, are sold in a different location, and became familiar with time. On the Internet, however, anyone with a few dollars and some time can create a professional-looking news site, and then pay social media companies like Facebook to promote their stories alongside actual news organizations. No advanced skills are necessary to counterfeit the news.
It’s worth noting how the 1938 “War of the Worlds” panic occurred just as radio was emerging as a news delivery technology. Maybe as new media technologies emerge, the public is unaware of what signals distinguish fact from fiction. In the digital world, any such quality signal could be perfectly copied anyway. While making up the news, why not also give oneself an award for journalistic integrity?
Marketing May Save Us
This leaves us with the brand. One of the reasons corporations use brands is to communicate quality. You might feel confident buying a Toyota, but how would you feel about a car made by Proton? Your unfamiliarity with the brand would cause hesitation. Similarly, it’s safe to assume knock-off iPads sold on Ebay are poorer-quality devices than ones made by Apple Inc.
Brand names like The New York Times, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek may be our only clue that some level of journalistic integrity is being applied. ICANN is generally reliable at ensuring large corporations get to use their brands as domain names, so we can trust that bbc.com will retrieve a site from the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Failures of Traditional Media
Despite their brands, traditional news organizations are in decline. Local newspapers are vanishing, and journalists regularly face layoffs. Note the recent layoffs at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Now, aggregators like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo provide a scrolling feed of other organizations’ news stories, and a market that once supported multiple, independent news organizations based on the reach of radio waves or delivery routes no longer exists. It’s hard to compete with virtually free worldwide distribution.
What’s lost is competition, independent perspective, and local feet on the ground.
With fewer reporters and resources available, mainstream news organizations seem to have responded by lowering the quality of their news. One infamous example is the media’s treatment of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Newspapers and networks with few onsite journalists reported false rumors about “snipers and armed mobs”, mass rapes at the Superdome, and “violent gangs” roaming the city.
Is it surprising people distrust the mainstream media?
Economics of fake news
Fake news is obviously cheaper and faster to produce than real journalism.
Consider foreign reporting. It costs a fortune for legitimate media organizations to station a single foreign correspondent in a foreign country.
Fake news writers, on the other hand, can simply make up a story. They’re done by lunchtime, having never left the comfort of home. Fake news writers can invent a story more sensational than the real news. They might even use the real news as the shred of truth that makes their fiction believable.
Both the legitimate and the fake news end up in millions of Facebook feeds. From there, people are more likely to click the sensational headline of the fake news site than the straightforward headline of the real journalists.
Both the legitimate and fake sites might earn the bulk of their revenue from ad views, but this is hardly enough to cover the cost of the foreign correspondent. Should anyone be surprised when the correspondent is laid off, and fake news becomes the only news?
Should We – Gasp! – Pay For News?
The Internet reduced the cost of distribution to nearly nothing. Yet, the costs of paying journalists and obtaining facts remain.
Even some mainstream news organizations seem to be lowering their standards, earning the distrust of their audiences, sullying their brands – which are now their most important assets, and catering to an opinion-driven style that is more the forte’ of the fake news writers. This can only be because there is not enough of a market for quality news.
Freethinkers seeking to be informed, rather than misinformed, may have to do something radical. They may have to pay for quality journalism. There may be no other way to pay the salaries of actual journalists.
The market for free information favors the lowest-cost producers, who churn out fiction every day.
At exactly what point has a man grown a beard? Is it when the stubble reaches 2 millimeters long, or 7 millimeters? At what precise minimum length does one call it a beard?
This is a tricky question. Hair grows continuously, so there are no major milestones between having no beard and having a beard. Yet our language forces a binary categorization: beard or no beard.
There is no justification for setting an arbitrary measurement. If someone says 5 millimeters of facial hair is a beard and someone else says 4.9 millimeters, no evidence could possibly resolve the controversy.
Does one tenth of a millimeter have some magical significance?
Most people probably answer no to that question, and step into a trap. If each tenth of a millimeter is inconsequential, isn’t a whole millimeter (ten tenths) also inconsequential? Why not any number of millimeters? Taken to extremes, having no beard becomes indistinguishable from having a beard.
This is the Continuum Fallacy. For situations when there is no definable point between two extremes (e.g. beard or no beard), the person committing the fallacy claims there is no difference between the two extremes.
- When does “dark gray” become “light gray”?
- How many wrongs change someone from being a “good person” to an “evil person”?
- How many grains of sand can I add to a bucket before it becomes “heavy”?
Our most contentious political issues are about attempting to fit binary categories like these onto continua. Laws define one thing as “legal” and something else as “illegal.”
Suppose beards are outlawed. A man is arrested. The beard police measure his stubble at 3.65 millimeters. Did he break the law?
This example sounds ridiculous until you replace “beards” with “guns,” or “abortions” and replace the measurement with “magazine capacity” or “trimester”. Let’s explore two of our society’s major political issues in detail.
People declare themselves as either for or against gun control, as if the debate were between total abolition versus zero weapons regulation. Actually, the term “gun,” or “arms” as the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution describes them, must be applied to some portion of a continuum of technologies developed over the centuries.
Flintlock firearms, which existed when the Constitution was written, were improved by the invention of the percussion cap in the early 1800’s, and then the integrated cartridge a few decades later. The integrated cartridge, in turn, enabled the invention of the Gatling Gun during the American Civil War – the first semi-automatic firearm.
Each of these inventions increased the rate of fire. A flintlock musketeer might fire four bullets per minute, whereas various Gatling Guns could fire between 200 and 1,000 bullets per minute. Later innovations made firearms smaller and more effective. For example, the Soviet AK-47 (developed in 1947) brought the firepower of a Gatling gun to a cheap, handheld format.
Which of these technological innovations exceeds the wording “bear arms?”
If you answered “none of the above,” how do you feel about private ownership of vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft guns, heavy artillery, explosive rounds, or depleted-uranium ammunition? How would you feel about unregulated sales of the Mk 19 belt-fed automatic grenade launcher, capable of killing hundreds of people within seconds? Each of these is a point along a continuum of firearm technology.
The gun control debate is a question about where on a technological continuum we draw the line. Which of the thousands of technological advances do we place in the “legal” category, and which in the “illegal” category?
The abortion debate is interesting because it’s not actually a debate about when life starts; it’s a debate about when human rights start.
Sperm and eggs are living cells, as are fertilized eggs, as are the cells of a zygote, blastocyst, fetus, and so on. At no point in the process does a living cell spontaneously appear. Rather, all cells alive today came from the division or combination of earlier cells: an unbroken chain of living cells going back billions of years.
There’s a continuum between living things that almost everyone agrees have no moral value: sperm and eggs, to living things that almost everyone agrees have enormous moral value: delivered human babies.
The developmental process offers few, if any, major milestones. Fertilization is cited by abortion foes as the instant when previously worthless gametes become a person.
However, fertilization has many steps, such as the sperm making physical contact with the egg’s cell wall, the sperm’s penetration of the egg’s cell wall, the ejection of DNA from the sperm, the migration of the DNA to the egg’s nucleus, the combination of the two DNA sets, and the first protein production from this new DNA combination.
Which step differentiates person from tissue? Should we impute such enormous moral worth to tiny molecular events? If not, how does something significant happen during the entire process, if not in any part of the process? No wonder it’s a dilemma!
Perils of Continua
Courts need distinct, measurable criteria to determine who is guilty or innocent.
This need for binary determination drives us right into the continuum fallacy. Police must subjectively enforce laws against reckless driving and disturbing the peace. Meanwhile, the wealthy can escape justice with help from lawyers skilled at exploiting the contradictions that arise when applying binary laws to continua.
Should we see hot-button issues, and morality itself, as shades of gray, rather than binaries? If so, we’ll need better ways to select who goes to prison or where to draw the line on topics like censorship, privacy, or animal rights.
Our culture currently lacks a capacity to define a continuum of moral or practical rules that could correspond to the spectrum of reality. With our current linguistic and intellectual toolkit, we cannot define “beard,” much less resolve our hot-button controversies.
At least we can cool our passions with the knowledge that our deepest disagreements are really about points on a line.
30 Jan 2017
In the 2016 election, over 96,421,000 eligible voters didn’t vote. That’s over 41% of the electorate. Turnout was the lowest in two decades.
Health problems or extraordinary circumstances certainly affected at least a few million of those people. From the rest we hear a consistent handful of excuses for not voting. Let’s explore these excuses one-by-one.
1) I don’t completely agree with any of the candidates.
America’s two-party system provides voters only two policy mixes, and most must choose a candidate they agree with on issue A but not issue B.
For anyone who doesn’t perfectly align with either party platform across all issues, voting can feel like compromising some of their values.
However, voting is not some kind of exercise in moral purity. No one should feel any sense of pride or ethical superiority for a decision to boycott democracy and let fewer people pick our leaders.
Failing to vote doesn’t mean we can wash our hands of responsibility for supporting our values. In fact, by not voting, we abandon all of our values. Somewhere, another voter who disagrees with us on everything did vote, and our positions became less influential as a result.
If our various positions on abortion, guns, human rights, taxes, trade, and war don’t align with a lot of our fellow citizens, we are definitely not alone. In fact, even those who vote with a majority can quibble with their favored party’s choice for office. We will never get to vote for a full set of candidates who endorse our full set of views. Does that mean we drop out and let the die-hard partisans rule us?
Of course not! Having issues with the major candidates means we are “swing voters,” a subset of voters with comparatively larger influence on the election and on policy! If we let our views be known, the politicians will listen.
We should at least vote against the person who least represents our values. That’s a much easier task than waiting for the perfect candidate.
2) They’re all rotten.
This claim should be falling out of favor as we become more aware of fake news and hyper-negative propaganda. Being a cynic is naïve in a political environment where political actors try to sow disillusionment among voters for the other side, in a deliberate attempt to discourage some category of voters.
If something in the media made us not want to vote, it’s fair to say people who crafted that exact message to achieve that exact goal have manipulated us.
Second, it is important to remember we’re not voting for our next spouse or some shining moral exemplar who will inspire our kids to turn their lives around. We’re hiring a public employee. All that matters are the policies and laws they pass or block, and their wisdom to deal with foreign policy and emergencies.
Rational voters don’t care about a candidate’s looks, their families, their charisma, or whether they make a funny face during one of the shouting matches we call debates. Rational voters absolutely don’t care if clickbait news dot facebook says a candidate conspired with the mafia to kill kittens.
3) My vote is just a drop in the bucket.
Another common excuse for not voting is the claim that any one person’s vote is meaningless in the context of millions of votes. Therefore, the claim goes, it is more rational to watch Netflix, pay bills, or goof off on Facebook than vote.
Oh wait, those are all things we can do if there’s a line at the poll.
Stated another way, “Unless my preferred candidate wins the election by my one vote, my vote makes no difference.”
When we say our one vote doesn’t matter, it’s safe to assume we would apply the same logic to our friend’s vote too.
Would 20 of your friends’ votes matter? Would 1,000 votes matter? A million? Where should we draw an arbitrary line between numbers that matter and don’t matter?
Allow me to introduce the Continuum Fallacy. Inventing an arbitrary number of votes that matter is a perfect illustration.
Ask an activist; every vote matters.
Also, consider a politician’s point of view. Suppose you are a politician solely interested in winning re-election.
What if you won the last election with 70% of the vote? Clearly, you have a mandate to relentlessly pursue your ideological direction. The biggest threat to your political career is a primary challenge within your own party, by a candidate more extreme than yourself. So to guard against that possibility, you shift your position further to the outsides of the political spectrum.
In this scenario, anyone who disagreed with you made a tragic decision by not voting. Maybe they knew you would probably win, so they stayed home and contributed to your landslide victory. Yet, your ideological shift wasn’t due to winning; it was due to the margin of winning. The people who failed to vote against you caused their own worst-case outcome.
Now imagine you won the last election with only 50.5% of the vote. You barely won, and your best chance of keeping your job is to move to the center and avoid antagonizing more people who might vote against you. You’ll spend more time campaigning than working on legislation.
In this second scenario, the politician was primarily influenced by the people who voted against him or her. The voters who “lost” the election ended up controlling government policy!
Freethinkers Must Vote, And Organize
There are no good excuses not to vote. Freethinkers interested in effective enfranchisement of our values should refute these excuses whenever they are heard.
Yet, if we truly care about an issue, there is still more we can do. We can send an even stronger signal to the politicians by joining a visible coalition of voters. Next week’s post will explore how voters multiply their influence through organization, and how this tactic has tipped the scales of government policy throughout American history.
23 Jan 2017
We recently had the opportunity to tour some of New Orleans’ famous above-ground cemeteries, including St. Louis #1, St. Louis #2, and Lafayette Cemeteries. The original Spanish and French colonists, or “Creoles” brought with them this Latin/Catholic tradition of tomb construction. (Anthropologists dismiss the theory that above-ground burial was necessary due to New Orleans’ swampy water table. There are too many similar tombs in the lands of the colonists’ origins.)
It’s one thing to gawk, to stand in awe, or to simply experience the feeling a place inspires, but we could not stop ourselves. We had to question it. Amid these outward signs of beauty and community and tradition and love, a freethinker had to ask, “Was all this a waste?”
The Fortunes Spent
The limestone, granite, and concrete required to build these elaborate tombs must have been imported from hundreds of miles away, as natural exposed rock is not found anywhere near the delta. This trade occurred in an era before highways, internal combustion engines, and, for the earliest tombs, railroads. Serious muscle and money once hauled these rare materials to New Orleans.
The people who sacrificed this money and labor lived without electricity or plumbing, in tiny houses on mud streets, without access to healthcare or food security. Infant mortality and yellow fever were facts of life, as the graveyard itself testifies.
In this context, the sacrifice required to build magnificent tombs – or cathedrals for that matter – seems misplaced. No, the buyers of these tombs couldn’t have purchased technology, but they certainly could have bought better drainage, sanitation, food, housing, or roads.
Perhaps the labor savings of ground burials could have meant fewer injured backs or more labor available for lifesaving infrastructure. There is certainly enough brick and mortar devoted to the dead to have built a respectable small hospital.
Also, it goes without saying that slaves watched these ornaments being built, at a price that might have freed their entire family from torture. If we could go back, what would we advise? Spending resources on a tomb, or on freeing a family from bondage?
The Status Bought
It would be incorrect to say nothing was bought for the fortunes spent housing the corpses of New Orleans. The same thing was bought by the sponsors of these graves as is being bought today on a luxury car dealer’s lot, or in a neighborhood of McMansions.
A family tomb was a status symbol in that culture.
It showed that the sponsosr were established, creditworthy, and pious – the kind of people to do business or politics with. The conspicuous consumption of more resources than are necessary to bury the dead is exactly analogous to the modern conspicuous consumption of expensive houses, cars, and fashion. In all these cases, money buys social status and personal identity, rather than meeting an actual need.
Realize this, and the cemetery transforms before one’s eyes into a marketplace for the living.
The connection between religion and this marketplace for social status is no coincidence. It is the churches that claim to raise human beings up the cosmic status scale, decide who can marry whom, justify racism and slavery, and claim to author morality itself so that only fellow believers are considered respectable and trustworthy.
People do not wear their finest clothes to church to impress a god who they think also observes them on the toilet. They dress to impress other people.
As one’s eyes move from the cemetery to the church, one sees the market continue.
The Vulnerable False Thought
Some gravestones contained inscriptions or poems indicating belief in an afterlife. Perhaps if we believe our departed loved one is observing us, the pressure is on to build them a nicer tomb. Perhaps our guard is down a bit due to this added vulnerability, and we allow the funeral director, priest, or casket company to up-sell us a bit more than we would otherwise.
The abuses of today are bad enough that we can only imagine the pressure tactics in place 100 or 200 years ago.
What stopped people from rejecting these hustlers and shysters? How could it not be a disadvantage to the bereaved for them to imagine the soul of their loved ones looking down with disfavor as they try to haggle out of spending another week’s wages on a limestone flower pot like everyone else has?
In this treacherous marketplace, the bereaved of New Orleans found themselves sabotaged from within by the doctrine that the dead will rise from their tombs upon Jesus’ return to earth. Who implanted this idea into their heads but the same people running the cemeteries and associated industries?
How surprised would the purchasers of these crypts be to learn that Jesus had not yet returned to earth nearly 200 years later, and that their expensive tombs would be crumbling by now. As recently as 2010, 41% of Americans believed that Jesus would probably or definitely return within 40 years.
Alas, fateful decisions are made when false premises are in the mix. Each beautiful tomb represents tuition unpaid, investments not made, and various degrees of financial ruin to a family.
Do the few surviving descendants who visit the tombs today understand the wealth they’d have inherited had their ancestors bought stocks instead of stone blocks? Do they understand how the trajectory of their family would have changed had the children at that lavish funeral instead witnessed a pauper’s burial and then gone to college?
The Bright Side of Death
Yet there’s a bright side. It is not to be seen in the graveyard; it is to be heard on Frenchman Street.
The elaborate funerals of New Orleans subsidized musicians, and when those musicians went secular, jazz was born, and music changed forever. Fleeting sound has outlasted stone.
Likewise, may the wandering melody of freethought outlast the rigidity of dogmatism.
16 Jan 2017
The hypothesis of a god’s existence is sometimes said to be untestable. An omnipotent god could create a universe for us and leave no evidence indicating its existence. Such a god, or other supernatural characters, could even manufacture evidence contradicting god theories, such as an unimaginably vast universe or fossils.
For these reasons, both theists and agnostics sometimes argue the existence of god can only be proven, and cannot be conclusively disproven.
One cannot prove a negative, the saying goes; but what, then, is a null hypothesis?
In the scientific method, the alternative hypothesis is a statement about the existence of a relationship between two things (e.g. smoking causes cancer). Experiments often test the alternative hypothesis by attempting to disprove the null hypothesis (e.g. there is no relationship between smoking and cancer).
Scientists’ starting point is skepticism of the claimed relationship. To overcome our skepticism, evidence must be gathered that would be highly improbable if the null hypothesis is correct.
For example, if there is no relationship between smoking and cancer, why in a random sample of 1,000 smokers and 1,000 non-smokers do a large percentage of smokers get cancer and a much smaller percentage of nonsmokers get cancer? This and the results of dozens of other studies create a case for rejection of the null hypothesis.
The question of god can be approached similarly. The alternative hypothesis is that god is causally related to phenomena. The null hypothesis is that god has nothing to do with phenomena. We can disprove the null hypothesis if it is possible to create two treatment conditions: a control group of observations and a group of observations the proposed god would necessarily have to be involved with.
What conditions would necessarily draw in the involvement of a god? This depends on the properties of the god being tested.
Humans have believed in thousands of gods throughout history, and the differences between those theories are the properties associated to each god. These properties include the name of the god, methods to summon the god’s attention, the god’s exchange terms, its relationship to other gods or supernatural forces, gender, powers, level of awareness, personality, history, and objectives. To test for the effects of a god, it is necessary to pick a god, because a proposed god’s properties must determine its only potentially measurable effects.
A proposed god whose properties include an interest in convincing humanity of its non-existence might be impossible to test for. Such a god could simply confound any experiment.
However, I propose we can test for a god with the following properties:
c) Wants humans to discover it.
Most sects of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and many of the Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism) propose a god with exactly these properties. This experiment seeks to test for the existence of such a god. In doing so, we test the actual specific belief of most people, rather than a philosophical construct with undefined properties.
In operational terms, omniscience means the god, if it exists, is aware of the experiment and experimenters. Omnipotence means if the god wants to intervene in the experiment, it is able. Finally, the god’s desire for humans to discover it provides the incentive for the god to intervene in an experimental setting.
An empty Styrofoam 12-ounce cup, weighing less than half a gram, was placed on a level table. Windows, doors, fans, and the building’s HVAC system were shut off to ensure air currents did not affect the foam cup. The experimenter observed the table and the cup from a seated position approximately 3 meters away from the table. The experimenter made no physical movements that could have affected the cup.
In both the control and experimental conditions, the cup was observed for one hour. In the control condition, no intervention occurred. In the experimental condition, the experimenter recited the following statement every five minutes:
“God, I personally guarantee I will believe you exist if you tip over that cup in the next five minutes.”
The cup tipped over zero times in either the control or experimental conditions. As a result, no statistical testing was necessary or possible.
The experiment was designed to identify evidence against the null hypothesis: that an omniscient, omnipotent god with a desire for humans to discover it has nothing to do with phenomena.
If the cup had tipped over significantly more often in the experimental condition than in the control condition, evidence would suggest the null hypothesis is incorrect. Given the lack of tip-overs in either condition, we cannot reject the null hypothesis.
The study is limited to god constructs featuring all three of the properties described above. The most parsimonious explanation for the null result is simply: the god does not exist. However, the following alternative explanations and rebuttals are provided.
- God has unknown motivations to avoid detection by humans, though no such motivation is described in the most popular holy texts.
- God cannot interact with our reality on a regular basis, for example, so that a deterministic plan remains unchanged. Note how there would seem to be a limitation on god’s omnipotence if it could not both intervene and get the deterministic result it desires.
- God finds experiments such as this offensive, laughable, or unworthy of attention. Yet, it would seem that if a god wanted humans to be aware of its existence, the most direct and effective pathway toward that goal would be to interact with us via our most successful knowledge development technology, the scientific method. A reliance on one of our least reliable techniques – faith – would seem a bad choice to achieve the goal of human belief.
The author encourages replication of this experiment, but doubts additional trials are needed to elicit a response from an omniscient, omnipotent god who wants to respond.
09 Jan 2017
Creationists often say that life must have been created in its current state because it is too complex to have developed through evolutionary processes. There are two flavors of this argument from ignorance, and it is a fallacy that freethinkers and non-freethinkers alike should be aware of.
Both are essentially the same argument and the same fallacy. The argument is known as the “God of the Gaps”; wherever there is a gap in our knowledge; it is simply presumed that god did it.
Flavor 1: Tornados and Airliners
One flavor of the theory is for people with an incorrect understanding of the Theory of Natural Selection. Fred Hoyle inadvertently popularized the Tornado in the Junkyard metaphor in his 1983 book The Intelligent Universe:
“A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe.” (p.19)
This meme promptly took off among proponents of creationism, launching many books and sermons. Variants of this metaphor were invented, each involving order arising from chaos by random chance. Creationism was rebranded as “Intelligent Design.”
Unfortunately, this metaphor or straw-man argument completely misrepresents the Theory of Natural Selection as saying that something random happened and then- poof! – complex order appeared!
Actually, the opposite is true. Natural Selection proposes that survival and reproduction do not occur randomly. Instead, survival and reproduction occur consistently more frequently among organisms with traits that are adaptive to their environments than among organisms with traits that are maladaptive.
Organisms with traits that promote survival and reproduction in their environments out-reproduce organisms without those traits, and therefore each successive generation has more instances of that trait.
Does that sound like a roll of the dice, with an equal probability of any outcome?
The majority of Americans are not taught about Natural Selection in schools, so this wrong, random-chance definition of the theory may be the only one they’ve ever heard.
Flavor 2: The God of the Gaps
In contrast to the folks who simply don’t understand natural selection, professional religious apologists actually tap into scientific literature in areas such as archeology and molecular biology.
They look for observations that have not yet been explained. A gap in our understanding, they propose, must be where god did things.
If they find a case where we’ve found a fossil for an ancient organism that is very similar to another species, but has key differences, they will point to the fact we do not yet posses a transitional fossil as evidence that god created the two species separately.
The subsequent discovery of the transitional fossils doesn’t result in abandonment of creationism, but rather results in moving on to the next fossil gap Sometimes it is claimed that two new gaps exist between the transitional fossil and the other two!
More sophisticated versions of the god of the gaps argument propose that organic structures with many interdependent parts such as the eye or a cell’s flagellum could not have evolved because only one of those parts could appear in an organism at any given time. This concept is called “irreducible complexity.”
Because any one part is useless without the rest of the assembly, it confers no evolutionary advantage. Therefore the entire apparatus must have appeared all at once, personally designed by a god.
Assuming the unlikelihood of spontaneous assembly, it is proposed that god makes the little flagella that bacteria use to swim around in our colons. (Unfortunately, we’re not making this stuff up, folks.)
As you can see, we’ve circled back to the airliner in the junkyard argument: It’s too complex to have appeared all at once.
The answer is: It didn’t. The Theory of Natural Selection requires change to occur in gradual, advantageous increments.
Irreducible Complexity Debunked
Regardless of the flavor of the god of the gaps argument, it has been debunked. First of all, it is largely based on a false characterization of the Theory of Natural Selection.
The tornado operates by random chance with only one step, whereas evolution operates according to a systematic process applied upon an uncountable number of organisms at any given moment and across eons of time.
Also, examples of transitional fossils are not at all rare. Indeed, all fossils are transitional – the concept of species is simply a human invention to categorize them.
Any interested person with either a textbook or access to the internet can see that the tree of life has essentially been mapped, using decades of evidence consistent with evolutionary theory. If you’re going to talk fossils, there’s no excuse for ignorance on this point.
Also, evolutionary pathways have been identified for many of the examples of supposed “irreducible complexity” cited by creationists.
For example, the bacterial flagellum we mentioned earlier – a spinning, whip-like motor and propeller built at the molecular level – has been shown to resemble an earlier and simpler structure built for secreting toxins into cells. Huge advances have also occurred in our understanding of the evolution of the eye.
The dominos keep falling for the god of the gaps argument as scientific knowledge expands. Curiously, though, creationist literature still features the debunked arguments.
Is this a failure of intellectual honesty? You decide.
02 Jan 2017
Should theology be taken seriously?
Just as you’re about to flex your open-mindedness and grant some ever-so-slight possibility to theological claims, you realize that hundreds of millions of people really, genuinely, honestly think god has a nut sack.
They don’t make it easy, do they?
God is most definitely male, according to the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah, and according to popular opinion in all but a few corners of the Abrahamic religions. The suggestion that a god wouldn’t need reproductive organs might just get you beheaded or crucified in Saudi Arabia (but if you’re reading this, you’re probably already eligible).
This is not a case of using the “he” pronoun by default, or the ignorant masses being uninformed about more sophisticated views or the actual content of their holy texts.
Let’s zoom in on Christianity.
Apparently, the bulk of Christianity’s professional theologians, ministers, and other religious apologists agree that god is a dude. They are engaged in a fierce debate with vocal minorities who think (a) god is a female who has girly parts, or (b) we should try to keep god language gender-neutral, or (c) the concept of god having a gender is wack.
That last position may sound the most reasonable to a freethinker, but if you are making up religion as you go, why not just give up religion entirely?
The Bible Says God’s a Bro
The Bible was written in an era when women were essentially the property of men and when physical violence and first-born male status determined the tribal hierarchy.
The concept of god as the highest-status being with the most power was intuitively understood as being male in such a culture. Perhaps it was also deemed safer not to potentially anger god by questioning “his” masculinity.
In any case, the Bible is crystal clear that god cannot have a menstrual cycle.
- First, the Bible consistently uses male pronouns and metaphors, such as “He”, “Him”, “Father”, “Son”, “King” and so on.
- Second, the book of Genesis describes Adam as being made by god on the sixth day “in His own image” in Genesis 1:27 and 2:7. Eve was created as something of an afterthought in Genesis 2:21-22, and only then as a companion for Adam.
- Third, Jesus was a dude. To the extent that Jesus matters as a deity in any particular flavor of Christianity, they’re praying to a dude.
- Fourth, the Virgin Mary was knocked up by god, presumably as a result of god producing sperm in his testes. Had god been a woman, presumably this sexual encounter would have occurred differently.
Although there are a few maternal or womanly metaphors in the bible, they are vastly outnumbered by male terminology.
Why An Omnipotent God Couldn’t Be Either
We posit that if an omnipotent god existed, it could not possibly be male or female.
Here’s why: In general, males cannot simultaneously be females, and females cannot simultaneously be males. If a god is omnipotent, there is nothing it cannot do. To pigeonhole god as male would be to claim that he couldn’t be female if he wanted to. Who’s going to tell god it can’t do something?
Thus, a male god would not be omnipotent, and neither would a female god. An omnipotent god could choose to switch its sex at will. However, it is presumed that omnipotence does not include the ability to defy logic by being both a thing and not a thing at once.
Let’s ignore cases of ambiguous genitalia, transgender people in transition, or Klinefelter syndrome for now, unless someone wants to propose a drag queen god. In that case, this whole argument falls apart.
The argument also falls apart if god is a plant rather than an animal. Many plants have both male and female parts. Pecan trees, for example, switch between being male and being female at different times of their reproductive season, with some cultivars being female first and other cultivars being male first, and with pollination of each other occurring in the overlap.
How in the world did this blog post turn to pecan tree cultivation?
Almost no one is proposing that god is a plant, a victim of genetic disease, or a trans entity. God (either the concept or a literally existing thing) cannot be male or female.
“It” Is The Proper Pronoun
If god is neither male nor female, we should use the same pronoun as we would use for a rock or a bacteria: “It”.
However, most religious folks would find the idea of praying to “It” revolting. “It” is not personal enough to represent an anthropomorphic or human-like god. We do not talk to Its. We do not even refer to our pets as Its. Not even the religious folks who deny the maleness of god go this far! But why not? It is more logical.
Here we find the marks of human manufacture all over the god concept. The limits of our imaginations, and the limits of our wishful thinking have become the limits of our imagined god. An “It” would be too inactive, emotionally distant, or unsympathetic to grant our wishes or sympathize with our suffering. Our prayers would be like a conversation with a rain cloud, a mushroom, or a pile of sand. Yet we are enamored by ideas of a powerful father or mother figure receiving our petitions, guiding us through life, and doing us favors.
Our own needs dictate that god must have a gender.
What if god’s gender is not the only such case of human needs designing god?
What if the right way to take theology seriously is to consider it the nexus of our psychological needs and limitations?
Or, what if god does occasionally rack himself while crossing his legs in tight pants?
26 Dec 2016
In the Star Trek movies and TV shows, the planet Vulcan is populated by a species who pursue logic and reason as virtues. They quickly disapprove when someone acts emotionally or engages in fallacious thinking.
The Vulcans are an interesting fictional device. They highlight the gap between human rationality and how we could be, for better or worse, if we were more rational.
In Star Trek: First Contact (1996), we learn that the technologically advanced Vulcans discovered planet Earth and the disorganized, recently-warring human species. Vulcan rationality must have played a role in their social and technological superiority.
Star Trek ‘s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was apparently unable to imagine the Vulcan vision in its entirety. Vulcan rationality tended to be a cheap veneer over struggles for political influence and social status.
Spock’s snide comments about human irrationality sound a lot like the way humans would jostle for influence, if pointing out logical fallacies was the way we did so.
Perhaps a transparently rational alien species would destroy the fiction. Perhaps their only possible behavior would be pointing out human irrationality, making us the bad guys. Perhaps they would just be annoying.
Doing Our Own Imagining
Let’s attempt to creatively imagine beyond what Roddenberry came up with.
Suppose rationality is a product of culture, rather than something that arises naturally. Certainly those college logic courses aren’t teaching something instinctive. (Have you ever met a toddler?)
From Star Trek, we learn that on Planet Vulcan, the young are guided away from emotionality and foolishness before their initiation as rational adults.
What if we changed our culture to work this way? What if human children were taught not to make or fall for fallacious arguments through education, counseling, parental guidance, exercises, and deep commitment to the virtue of reason?
Would our presidential debates and political advertisements be as ridiculous as they are now, or would this new generation see through the fallacies?
Would obesity-causing sugar water be marketed with imagery of athletic, attractive people, or would that come across as ridiculous to a rational population?
Would people make better decisions, such as saving more or living healthier?
Since at least the era of the ancient Greek philosophers, Westerners have applied an adversarial model to resolve questions of truth. Philosophers take opposing positions and attempt to prove their claims or debunk the other’s.
This was a giant advance over the appeals to authority (civil, military, or religious) that characterized earlier attempts to discover truths. Compared to edicts from clerics or kings, a debate is more likely to produce a consensus, promote creativity, or uncover new evidence and arguments.
This basic model endures today.
- Our courts are a debate between the prosecution and the defense.
- Our elections often feature debates, or at least opposing views.
- Our academics and scientists write journal articles, which are criticized by peers.
- Scientific experiments are mini-debates between the null hypothesis and the alternate hypothesis. Statistics test whether the null hypothesis is unlikely.
Downsides of Arguing
Adversarial truth finding has served us well, but it comes with some baggage.
The definition of success is defeating one’s opponent by convincing the audience, the jury, or one’s peers that one side is right and the other side is wrong. This goal is only loosely connected with the discovery of truth.
Thus, our attorneys play tricks like overplaying the importance of unreliable eyewitness testimony.
Our stubborn politicians appeal to emotions and simplistic us-versus-them mentalities rather than explaining how their ideas – which are open to revision – will lead to the most good in a complex world.
Academics who should just change their minds instead engage in career-long defenses of falsified positions, so as not to “lose.”
The Next Frontier?
What if, on the other hand, pundits and the public began counting fallacies against politicians instead of calling them “zingers”?
What if we started granting extra respect and congratulations to academics, scientists, and politicians who changed their minds as a result of evidence and logic?
What if the appeals to emotion and ad hominem attacks that characterize our debates and political ads became too embarrassing to perpetrate?
What if reasoned debate was considered as important a topic in schools as math or history? What if it was used as the glue that ties together the other subjects into a coherent objective of the entire learning enterprise?
This could all be accomplished while maintaining an adversarial truth finding model. However, if we step back and look to the big picture, we can see our trajectory may point toward something new!
We progressed from authoritarian edicts to adversarial truth finding. Now we must wonder if adversarial truth finding was just an intermediate step in humanity’s progression towards a Vulcan-like culture.
What if the next step is to keep the logic, the evidence, the premise testing, and the statistics in our debates, but drop the concept of a winner and a loser? Participants in a truth finding exercise would focus on finding and documenting truths instead of beating each other.
Instead of an argument, it would be collaboration. Instead of taking sides, participants would embrace mutual skepticism.
There are certainly challenges to such an approach, such as a greater risk of groupthink. Also, if the short-term reward for doing the hard work of truth finding shifted from earning “winner” status to relieving uncertainty, a whole new set of fallacious thinking could emerge.
Yet, the potential benefits of such an innovation in human thinking might be comparable to the invention of science. Isn’t that worth exploring, even if the odds are long?
For now, the path to planet Vulcan involves improving the quality of our adversarial truth finding model, in politics, law, and academe. We can start by calling out the irrationality around us, just as a Vulcan would do.
19 Dec 2016
Imagine becoming financially independent (FI) in your 30’s or 40’s. Imagine having enough money to live off the interest and dividends for the rest of your life, applying your time to your own interests and passions.
A growing community of bloggers is converting this fantasy into their reality. Dozens of people are blogging about their journeys to FI and millionaire status.
These bloggers became FI with only middle class incomes. They did it without help from rich uncles, inheritances, or CEO jobs. All they needed was a freethinking attitude about money.
Let me introduce you to three of these bloggers:
Mr. Tako Escapes is by an anonymous writer who attained FI in 2015 at age 38. “Tako” is Japanese for octopus, an animal known for its abilities to escape confinement. Mr. Tako writes to his two young boys, teaching them how he saved half his income and escaped the rat race with $2 million in the bank. Spoiler alert: he did it with long-term investing and frugality.
Early Retirement Extreme is by Jacob Fisker (retirement age: 30), and is one of the earliest blogs in the genre. Jacob is as extreme as his blog’s name advertises. His degree of ultra-minimalist frugality will have you saving about 50-80% of your income and becoming FI in about 5 years, as he did. If you can stand to give up many conveniences and status symbols and live on only a few thousand dollars per year, as he does, then you too will soon have 117 years of living expenses in the bank.
Mr. Money Mustache by Peter Adeney is the most successful and sophisticated of the FI blogs and forum communities. MMM skewers our “complainypants” habits that waste money and environmental resources, such as fake work trucks, 68 degree air conditioning, and long commutes. He optimistically demonstrates a more physically fit, skills-driven lifestyle that leads to wealth.
How They Do It: The Math and the Tactics
When your investments equal 25 times your annual expenses, you can generally live off the interest for life by withdrawing 4% per year.
In a post called “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement,” MMM applies the networthify.com early retirement calculator to show how your number of years to retirement depends entirely on your savings rate (savings/earnings).
|Percentage of Income Saved||Years to Retire|
The next questions are how to invest your savings and how to save that much of your income.
Mr. Adeney (Mr. Money Mustache) invests in the stock market, a rental property, and dabbles in personal lending sites. Mr. Fisker (Early Retirement Extreme) did not invest anything for the first 3 years of his 5 year journey to FI, and then bought a handful of stocks. Mr. Tako invests in the stock market, especially dividend stocks. All three bloggers are generally buy-and-hold investors, a time-proven strategy.
In other words, their investing strategies are utterly conventional. Their wealth comes from frugality.
All 3 bloggers describe frugal behaviors that save them thousands of dollars per year, but are outside the norms of American culture. All are adamant that you’ll never save enough money without committing to a frugal lifestyle.
Mr. Adeney and Mr. Fisker each ride a bike on all but the longest errands. Mr. Tako doesn’t drink and prevents restaurant bills by cooking his own delicious meals.
These and dozens of other frugal behaviors allow them to live middle-class lifestyles for tens of thousands of dollars less than most people.
They also focus on developing their skills. Mr. Tako refurbished the batteries in his rechargeable drill and replaced his own toilet. Mr. Adeney practically built his own house. Mr. Fisker also fixes everything he owns, rather than replace it.
Needless to say, these 30-something retirees generally do without new cars, big houses, restaurants, cable, and other financial burdens that most people shackle themselves to.
Mentality of a Financial Freethinker
These bloggers have unusual, yet fulfilling, ideas about happiness, having enough, risk, waste, and deserving.
To reduce their spending, each blogger developed the skill of tuning out the advertisements and assumptions around us. You don’t need a big truck to be a real man, and you don’t need diamonds or fashion labels to be a classy woman. Big houses with manicured lawns are liabilities, not assets, and fast food drive-throughs represent the triple-destruction of one’s money, health, and environment.
The FI bloggers don’t care if other people are impressed. They proudly shop at thrift stores, live in average houses, and ride their bikes instead of cars. They’ve migrated away from friends who are impressed by conspicuous consumption, and towards friends who accomplish things and have adventures. They think the standard financial advice, which is to save at least 5% of your income, should be more like 50%.
Of course, people object to the FI bloggers. Harassing email and critical comments come from those offended by the bloggers’ frugal lifestyles or, occasionally, math itself.
For some critics, life would not be worthwhile without cable, steak, leased SUVs, and the other “needs” that keep them financially dependent. Others are certain that financial success can’t be possible because that would contradict their political ideology.
To live as they wanted, the FI bloggers had to reject the assumptions of American popular culture, ignore the advertisements and media that immerse us all, defy social norms, think independently, choose a different path, and face criticism for it.
In other words, the FI bloggers took a path to escape the rat race that is eerily similar to the path many of us took to escape religion. For that, I say we can call them fellow freethinkers.
03 Nov 2016
Only 24 people in the entire history of humanity have travelled beyond low Earth orbit and beyond the protective blanket of our planet’s magnetic field. The 24 men accomplished this feat decades ago, as astronauts in NASA’s Apollo program. They left our planet in peak physical health, and at the time seemed to have returned none the worse for wear.
As these former astronauts reach old age, their health continues to be studied. Admittedly, the sample size is rather small to draw serious conclusions (7 of the 24 are deceased), but recent research suggests a troubling trend.
An article just published in Scientific Reports suggests that Apollo astronauts are dying from cardiovascular disease at a rate 4-5 times higher than other astronauts because the type of cosmic and solar radiation experienced outside the magnetosphere causes specific damage to the types of cells that form our blood vessels. The researchers then demonstrated how this damage occurs in mice.
Forty-three percent of now-deceased Apollo astronauts who flew to the moon died from cardiovascular disease. Compare that to just 11% of astronauts who flew in low earth orbit, and 27% in the similar U.S. population (As you can see, astronauts train to be much healthier than the rest of us, which makes this result all the more startling.).
Finally, consider that these astronauts only received a few days of this radiation dosage. Space excursions lasting weeks, months, or years might just be suicidal.
Then there are the psychological effects. The Apollo astronauts reported seeing flashes of light, an effect of cosmic rays interacting with the retina of the eye. This was just a preview of the possibly-permanent cognitive degeneration that would occur on a trip to Mars, which would include forgetfulness, confusion, and slowing response times.
Imagine your neurons being shredded by a machine-gun spray of high-speed particles. That’s basically the state of the universe a few thousand miles beyond earth’s atmosphere.
Can We Shield Astronauts?
According to the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, a “massive material shield,” or extra-thick spacecraft hulls, would not work because they are “too massive to be practical and will likely produce showers of secondary radiation that could be more harmful than the GCRs [galactic cosmic rays] themselves.”
Therefore, much of the current research explores the possibility of generating a magnetic shield like the Earth’s magnetosphere. However, the engineering challenge is to produce a field “strong enough to deflect GCR particles but weak enough to not harm astronauts.”
Maybe engineering breakthroughs will occur on magnetic shielding. It is also possible we’ve reached the practical limit. As one NASA website says, “Currently, these [electrical or magnetic] fields would take a prohibitive amount of power and structural material to create on a large scale, so more work is needed for them to be feasible.”
To summarize: Maybe our engineers can figure out a practical way to deflect protons, neutrons, ions, and other particles, some of which are accelerated to near the speed of light, but maybe they never will. If a solution is not found, humanity will never be physically able to visit another planet.
Implications of Being Stuck Here
It’s a depressing thought, but a few decades from now, humanity may be done with space exploration.
Without a solution to the radiation problem, space could be considered a place solely for unmanned probes, satellites, and other robots. The human spaceflights of the past would be considered impractical stunts. Our fantasies about spaceships and the exploration of other planets might be too hard for better-informed people to fathom, much like it is hard for us to imagine the physics-defying transportation devices imagined in the fiction of long ago.
As disappointing as this result would be, it might at least focus our attention in productive ways.
Earth’s environment seems much more important if there will never be lifeboats in the future. Similarly, we might begin to think of technology beyond the narrow paradigms of electronics and transportation. We might begin to think of new ways – technologies – to get humans to cooperate instead of fighting wars and committing crimes.
Being stuck on Earth might force us to face certain challenges we’ve swept under the rug. What if we lost our escapist attitudes and faith in the inevitability of humanity’s progress towards a Star Trek future, only to gain a new, more practically valuable, vision?
Maybe our grandchildren’s science fiction will be about a future world where racism, superstition, groupthink, cognitive biases, cynicism and other plagues of the human mind have been eradicated, or where breakthroughs in medicine or education produce humans with double their grandparents’ intelligence?
What if children someday dreamed of tackling the meta-problems, rather than flying a space ship with lasers that hurt other people while making “pew pew” sounds in the vacuum of space?
An Earth-bound future could still be quite interesting after all.
29 Aug 2016
Government corruption is a fact of life in many countries around the world.
Excess payments are required to get permits, driver’s licenses, business licenses, passports, safe passage, or even information.
So why don’t the people in these countries revolt? Tolerating corruption means living in poverty, amid crime, disease, and war.
Yet, people rarely revolt in a constructive way.
When they do fight back, the revolt is usually violent in nature, led by despots who promise their supporters yet more cronyism, looting, and extortion opportunities in exchange for their support, rather than transparent democracy and an end to corruption.
To many disillusioned citizens of our world, the idea of a low-corruption country with checks and balances and peaceful democratic transfers of power is a utopian fantasy.
Only a naïve fool would tell them they could organize and end the culture of corruption and create a peaceful, prosperous society. Power and money are zero-sum games, they’d respond, and the regime is too powerful.
Yet, a few hours’ plane ride from Angola (Transparency International rank = 163) are the peaceful democracies of western Europe, where corruption is a headline-making exception, not the rule. At some point, these people managed to end their own cultures of corruption.
One person’s utopian fantasy is another person’s reality.
Perhaps the difference is cynicism – a lack of confidence in the virtue and motives of our fellow human beings.
So who is correct? The cynics or the optimists?
Logically, the optimists are correct: Because some people have succeeded at creating cultures of low-corruption democracy, it is possible for others.
The low expectations of the cynics keep the bribes flowing. Where there is enough cynicism, there is space for the corrupt.
What about the United States? Is our culture becoming cynical? Are we setting ourselves up for failure?
Is your favorite news source conservative or liberal? That question would have baffled people a few decades ago. They’d be outraged to discover someone was slanting their news. To them, the news was supposed to be as objective as possible so people’s opinions would be consistent with the facts.
Today, journalistic objectivity is passé, and many would say it is naïve to think such a thing was ever possible. People who watch Fox News or read the Drudge Report live in a different informational reality than people who read the Huffington Post or Salon.com.
Does the campaign for president of the United States inspire us? If not, this attitude might have surprised earlier generations of Americans. Why would any campaign focus on discouraging the other’s voters? Wouldn’t the voters gravitate toward the candidate with a vision to make everything better, rather than the professional critic?
Today’s cynical voters consider optimism to be inauthentic – a sales pitch. Today’s debates are about which potty grown adults should use, not how soon we want to put an astronaut on Mars or how to address income inequality.
All this negativity makes us want to plop in front of the TV or watch a movie. But in The Walking Dead, every organization formed by the survivors of a zombie apocalypse crumbles, apparently due to an underlying sickness of the mind that dooms humanity’s efforts.
House of Cards imagines a level of corruption, selfishness, and crime in government that many viewers consider non-fictional.
In the 1960’s, Star Trek offered a vision of a united Earth whose diverse inhabitants explored the galaxy on a desegregated spaceship with alien friends. Today, the franchise is more about the casual destruction of entire planets and less about imagining a future in which we’ve resolved our deepest challenges.
We are immersed in a culture of cynicism, and we don’t even realize it.
Questioning The Conventional Wisdom
Should freethinkers just accept cynical cultural assumptions? Is it really true that ALL of our politicians are corrupt, our democracy is a farce, most people are fools, and individuals cannot improve their situations due to the interference of others?
Are we propping ourselves up by thinking less of others? Is cynicism something like racism against the human race?
Cynicism vs. Facts
Steven Pinker provides a convincing rebuttal of cynicism in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”.
He claims that this the best time in history to be alive. Democracy is spreading. Violence is actually decreasing dramatically overall. People are becoming increasingly educated and ethical.
As Michael Shermer points out in “The Moral Arc,” our circle of moral concern has expanded over time to include women, children, people of different races and creeds, and even animals.
Cynicism = Losing
One effect of cynicism is a reluctance to join organizations, which in turn leads to underrepresentation in government. That should sound familiar if you are among the 55 million Americans whose religion is “none”. Not many freethinkers represent us in elected government offices.
We regularly hear the same excuses for not organizing as freethinkers.
Some say that any organization of freethinkers is destined to disintegrate into a religion – a lack of confidence in other freethinkers’ authenticity. Others are “against labels,” implying that they don’t trust their peers not to make a shared descriptor embarrassing.
The results of non-organizing are predictable. Freethinkers who don’t organize get less enjoyment from their community, virtually no political representation, not much of a voice in policy-making, and fewer personal growth or leadership development opportunities. To be a cynic is to disenfranchise oneself.
Refuse to Conform
Freethinkers don’t have to conform to the popular cynicism.
We can boldly pursue the improvement of our communities, the empowerment of secular people, and new organizational techniques.
We can work together to improve our planet in the areas of ethics, education, government, and culture.
We can confidently contribute to the dignity of humanity.
In our era of popular cynicism, we can find hope and inspiration in each other.
22 Aug 2016
Which of the following would you expect to be a reoccurring theme in freethought forums and Facebook group discussions?
- Free will versus determinism
- The intersection between big bang and string theory
- Keynesian versus monetarist economics
- Reviews of local restaurants and bars
- The definition of “freethinker”
Give it some thought.
Quit reading ahead and pick one!
OK, so here’s the big reveal: If you answered e) The definition of “freethinker”, you’ve been there and done that!
Facebook in particular is full of people arguing over whether they are freethinkers or not, or whether things or concepts are freethinker-ish.
What People On Social Media Say
Social media arguments about the true definition of “freethinker” occur between familiar sub-categories of the non-religious. Each faction seems to claim this positive term as their own – excluding the others – by tweaking their own definitions of the term. Here are the main characters, and their competing definitions:
- Philosophical materialists: A freethinker is an atheist who is not into pseudoscience and has no supernatural beliefs.
- Agnostics: A freethinker keeps an open mind and embraces uncertainty about the existence of god.
- The Spiritual But Not Religious: A freethinker is a person who opens their mind to all possibilities, even the unexpected, or unscientific ones.
The synopsis of all these positions is that if a freethinker is someone who uses reason to derive their attitudes, then a freethinker must be someone who used reason to arrive at my attitudes. Each faction claims to be the one using reason. The argument is about what outcomes reason can possibly produce.
The spiritualists sometimes accuse the materialists or science-minded agnostics of being dogmatic and simplistic.
To be frank, this debate resembles a bunch of baby birds trying to kick each other out of the nest.
We live in a world where children are literally starving to death because their towns are being besieged by a different religious faction than their own. Perhaps, given the unacceptable urgency of things, we could consider discussing actions rather than definitions. Let’s see if we can close out this argument.
What The Dictionary Says
You might be amazed that people have this argument in an age when you can find a dictionary definition within seconds just by typing the word into your browser. Yet, as we’ll see, the dictionaries might just be the root of the problem.
So here’s how the dictionaries define “freethinker”:
- Merriam-Webster: “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially: one who doubts or denies religious dogma”
- Dictionary.com: “a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition, especially a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief.”
- Oxford Dictionaries: “A person who rejects accepted opinions, especially those concerning religious belief.”
As you can see, our dictionaries are doing a horrible job of defining “freethinker.” To understand why, consider what it means to deny “religious dogma” or reject “accepted opinions.” Some cults or minority religions could claim to do these things. The mind recoils at the thought of the early People’s Temple led by Jim Jones fitting these sloppy dictionary definitions of “freethinker.”
Also consider the difficulty of measuring the level of “reason” applied by people to come up with different conclusions about immeasurable things. What evidence could the materialists possibly find that would sway the agnostics or spiritualists? How could the spiritualists possibly persuade a materialist or science-minded agnostic, to count as valid evidence things like meditative insights or emotions felt in response to perceiving nature?
If reason itself was easy to define or measure, we’d all agree on when people were using reason and when they weren’t. The dictionary is useless here too. Dictionary.com, for example, provides 19 usages for “reason,” none of which are helpful to discern when someone is or is not applying “sound judgment, good sense.”
How often have you heard someone say “Oh, you’re right. I was not using reason.”?
Me either. They’d have to agree on the definition of reason first.
Thus, we find ourselves in the frustrating position of giving up on dictionaries as a way to resolve an argument about definitions!
What Do The ASF Bylaws Say?
Perhaps it’s best to simply ask some freethinkers what they are!
The bylaws of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers are introduced by Article 1: Purpose and Mission. This passage describes a group of people who set out to accomplish the following:
- promote the secular, non-theistic, humanist viewpoint as a valid contribution to public discourse,
- protect the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state,
- enrich the community by hosting and developing informative activities and events, and
- encourage and facilitate public dialogue in matters of science, reason and tolerance.
Article 1 also states that ASF does not discriminate.
It’s that simple. If the above describes you, then you are a freethinker by our definition. And our definition is as valid as any, given the failure of the dictionaries!
Our definition is a lot more specific than the dictionary offers, but it’s still a big tent approach that accommodates the materialists, agnostics, and spiritual folks. ASF unites our motley community in support of the pragmatic goals we all agree on.
Now, with that thorny issue settled, why not join or support us today?!
15 Aug 2016
Objections to the theory of evolution, and more specifically to Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, tend to resemble one of the following:
- “It contradicts the Bible.”
- “Certain body parts are too complex to have developed by this process.”
- “It’s the theory that something randomly came from nothing.”
- “There’s no morality in Darwin’s theory.”
- “If we believe in evolution, we’ll be supporting eugenics next.”
- “My great-grandparents were not apes!”
- “There’s this fossil that was found, which has no obvious relatives among the other fossils people have found so far.”
Interestingly, NONE of the above actually attack the basic mechanisms that make up the theory of evolution, such as natural selection, mutation, or genetic drift. That’s right, none. They are all objections with real or imagined peripheral topics, or outright misunderstandings.
The theory of evolution is not the theory that the Bible is wrong, or that something randomly comes from nothing, or that we should engage in ethnic cleansing, or that a chimpanzee gave birth to the first human. It has nothing at all to do with morality. It doesn’t disregard the complexity of life. It doesn’t demand that the entire fossil record be laid out in a convenient flow chart.
It’s simply an explanation for why living things are the way they are now, and how they came to be that way.
Creationists like to pick on natural selection the most. The central concepts of natural selection are:
- Organisms struggle to survive in an environment; not all will survive or reproduce.
- Organisms vary, and they inherit their traits from their parent(s).
- Organisms with traits that favor survival in their environment will survive and reproduce at a higher frequency than organisms with traits that disfavor survival in their environment.
If someone wants to debunk natural selection, demand that they pick one. To disprove it, all they have to do is find the faulty part.
Certainly there are plenty of conclusions, ancillary topics, applications in specific cases, and implications that spin off of those three central concepts. There are also academic debates about particular processes and relationships between species. But again, these are applications of the theory, not the theory.
To illustrate the difference, consider the well-supported theory that tobacco smoke can cause cancer. Suppose someone says that theory is false because:
- “It contradicts my faith that tobacco use is safe.”
- “Tobacco is perfectly affordable.”
- “The tobacco industry employs hundreds of thousands of people.”
- “I crave and enjoy tobacco.”
- “If tobacco smoke caused cancer, it would be the smoker’s fault if they got cancer.”
Of course, none of these statements contradict the theory that tobacco smoke can cause cancer. These are side topics. To disprove the theory that tobacco smoke can cause cancer, you would need to produce evidence that tobacco smoke does not cause cancer.
There’s a reason creationists don’t attack natural selection and the theory of evolution head-on. They would have to (1) claim that all organisms have an equal chance of surviving and reproducing, (2) deny that traits are inherited, or (3) claim that, over time, the population of organisms with a trait would be unaffected by the fact that this trait makes reproduction more or less likely.
In other words, you can choose to deny that some organisms die without reproducing, deny Mendellian genetics and thousands of years of agricultural experience, or deny math itself.
Pick your approach, critics!
As for the rest of us, we must quit letting creationists drag us off topic!
The theory itself is the debate, and evolution’s critics should be made to address it directly rather than being allowed to falsely redefine it.
All too often I hear creationists put defenders of evolutionary theory on the defensive with a barrage of false claims or tangents, which then becomes the argument – all the while, no one ever explains what the theory of evolution actually is.
The next time someone objects to the theory of evolution, ask them which of its core concepts they disagree with. They will reply with what they understand evolution to be, which will usually be an inaccurate concept taught to them by a religious leader. After all, shockingly few students in the United States are taught evolutionary theory in high school:
“Only 28 percent of high-school biology teachers followed the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences recommendations on teaching evolution, which include citing evidence that evolution occurred and teaching evolution thematically, as a link between various biology topics.“
And now we come full circle:
Arguments that reflect ignorance of the theory are used to create political pressure to ban teaching of the theory. Teachers cave to the political pressure, resulting in ignorance of the theory, resulting in even fewer students being taught this basic concept that underpins all biological science.
This cycle will repeat until we insist upon debating on the actual, simple theory of evolution, rather than implications, slogans, or other distractions.
All we have to say is:
“That claim is not part of the theory of evolution, which is the topic we are talking about. Let’s start with the concept of natural selection, which has three parts…”
Then list the three parts. You did memorize them, right?
In 2015, the Arkansas state legislature passed a bill to install a Ten Commandments monument on the State Capital grounds. The bill even included a provision that allows the state to state to spend taxpayer money to hire a specifically hand-picked religious-right legal group when the legality of the monument is challenged. Because it will be challenged.
What a win-win for the religious right! Either the monument clutters the Capital Grounds until it is misinterpreted as some kind of tradition, or a private, partisan organization devoted to establishing theocracy gets handed a tens of thousands of Arkansans’ tax dollars! Double-ransom!
The underlying claim behind this legislation is that “the moral foundation of the laws and legal system” of the United States government was founded or in some way based on aspects of religion, such as the Ten Commandments. This claim has been debunked and debunked and debunked some more.
However, the many debunkings based on history, law, and quotes from the founders seem not to be taking hold among some people, so let’s imagine what our government would look like if it was, in fact, based on the Ten Commandments.
First, the Constitution of the United States of Theocracy would at least mention God, Yahweh, Jesus, or so on. After all, it is hard to imagine how a Constitution could be based on a religion without even mentioning it.
In reality, “the people” are mentioned dozens of times, while the words “religion” or “religious” are only used to ban “religious tests” from being used to disqualify people from office. The only other mention came in the First Amendment to the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, to ban the establishment of an official religion. So in our imaginary world, these statements would not be in the Constitution.
The focus of the Constitution would be on a particular god, rather than “the people.” And surely references to the specific religion or some iteration of it would be sprinkled throughout the Constitution, along with the deity supposedly directing this theocracy.
Second, religious dissent would be banned. It says so in the first couple of commandments of those ten or eleven listed in the Arkansas statute:
“Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me…”
There would be one national religious denomination authorized by government, and presumably all others would be outlawed. Federal agents would raid houses where people were suspected of worshiping in a different way. Imagine prisons filled with perfectly moral people of different religious sects – including but not limited to various versions of Christianity!
We also see that artwork, including “any likeness of any thing” on earth or in heaven would probably be prohibited in this imaginary constitutional theocracy. So much for our art schools and museums – they’d be illegal.
Third, the Ten Commandments-based constitution would outlaw “tak[ing] the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. This would be a serious federal crime in our alternative-universe America, although it is unclear if the command would be interpreted as forbidding the word “god damn” or comparing oneself to god.
Most Christians in our reality seem to follow the former interpretation, but the language as legally interpreted in courts might support the latter.
Fourth, attendance at the government church would be mandatory, and working on the Sabbath would be banned. The law might force everyone to live like Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox community, or some similar interpretation, depending how political battles over the definition of “work” and “holy” turned out.
Fifth, it is unclear how exactly a government would enforce the commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother”. Would parents sue their children for damages? Would people file copies of their Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards with their taxes? The government would have to do something if it was based on all ten of the commandments, right?
Killing, stealing, and perjury would be illegal in the United States of Theocracy just as they are in our reality. These activities would also remain illegal in majority-Muslim countries, majority-Hindu countries, and majority-atheist countries. How could that be? Because it’s the bare minimum of governance, that’s why. There’s no religious reason for these things; the purpose is entirely practical.
However, in the United States of Theocracy, the FBI would investigate accusations of adultery. To imagine the penalties, look to Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the areas controlled by the Islamic State. If that comparison sounds unfair to you, please read Leviticus 20:10. It requires the death penalty for such cases, so, yes, a United States of Theocracy would closely resemble today’s actual theocracies.
The last commandment or commandments, depending on interpretation, are thought crimes:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.
It is unclear how law enforcement could prove any of this, or what distinguishes coveting from needing or merely wanting. For example, if I look at a car on a new car lot and I’m willing pay thousands of dollars to get it, am I by definition coveting it? So much for capitalism!
Finally, the “manservant” and “maidservant” are slaves. A United States of Theocracy could never have outlawed slavery. That’s because the Bible is full of support and rules for slave owning. Although fellow Hebrews could be bought and sold as indentured servants or future brides, there are few protections in the Bible for non-Hebrews. Consider the brutality of Leviticus 25:44-46, or the sexual slavery of Deuteronomy 21:11-14, Numbers 31:9-11, or Numbers 31:32-35.
Lucky for us, we don’t live in this theocratic nightmare. Instead of ten commandments, our Constitution has ten amendments called the Bill of Rights – which are restrictions on the government instead of individuals. In that juxtaposition, freethinkers can see the bold conviction of the rebels who fought a Christian king to establish secular government.
26 Jul 2016
A recent fad among American police departments is to put “In God We Trust” bumper stickers on their vehicles. They justify this religious branding of public property by pointing to the current national motto, which has been in effect for the last 60 years. The revolutionaries who fought to establish this country chose a very different motto: “E Pluribus Unum” – Of Many, One.
The last place anyone should want to see bumper-sticker Christianity is on a law enforcement vehicle.
“In God We Trust” may seem like a harmless statement of faith, but what about people who don’t worship the same way as the apparent official position of the law enforcement agency? Would a Christian expect to receive impartial treatment from a government official who goes around declaring “Allahu Akbar” or “Praise Be to Lord Shiva”?
For millions of people around the world, police actually are religious police. Most notably in Islamic countries, religious police practice the doctrine of hisbah to enforce sharia. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, stacked the police and courts with fellow Sunnis often randomly rounded up, tortured, imprisoned and killed Shiite Iraqis. After Saddam’s fall, a majority-Shiite government turned the tables on the Sunni population. The continuing failure of the Iraqi state to provide evenhanded justice to its people regardless of their religion has been cited as one of the main factors leading to the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Why has the United States, which is filled with diverse Christian denominations, non-Christian sects, and nonreligious people, not experienced bitter conflicts over the state’s role in law enforcement? Because our secular government historically hasn’t sponsored religious police. Now, though, there is increasingly a push from evangelical leaders to impose religious-inspired laws in secular life – a fundamentalist Christian version of sharia.
When the government puts a religious statement on a police car, non-religious people read it as “Those Following the Favored Religion Receive Favorable Treatment.” We expect religious police to be easier on people who share their stated ideology.
Although “In God We Trust” may come across to Christians as a unifying statement, it is a divisive statement when made into government policy. It erodes trust by any religiously non-conforming person, and trust is essential for effective, fair community-based policing. That’s Criminology 101.
The “In God We Trust” motto was passed by conservative members of Congress in 1956 as a reaction to two things they opposed: communism and the civil rights movement. These were two sides of the same coin, as far as they were concerned.
“Of Many, One” was seen as encouraging America’s many racial groups to work together to build an undivided America rather than maintain the racially-segregated status quo. The motto change came just two years after Brown v. Board of Education made public school segregation illegal and one year after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. At the same time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was spearheading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “In God We Trust” was not an improvement on “E Pluribus Unum;” it was a repudiation of the 180-year-old motto and its hopeful vision of a melting pot democracy. We must remember that many police officers in the 1950’s and 1960’s were blatant white supremacists or were implicated in crimes against civil rights activists – which local governments refused to prosecute.
The ideological allies of these racist police officers in Congress implemented “In God We Trust” and now we see some of today’s police departments taking up this blighted banner. Is it any coincidence that the motto has been linked with police departments at a time when we actually have to remind people that “Black Lives Matter” too?
The biggest proponents of “In God We Trust” are far-right conservative Christians. Ignoring its relatively recent adoption, the motto is often cited by them as proof that the United States was founded to promote Christianity or was in some way based on Christian concepts. The motto is a lightning rod in a politicized debate about the essential identity of our country. The choice to post it on police cars is a choice of the primary peace-keepers of our nation to take sides in that debate.
We might as well attach bumper stickers aligning our police departments with a particular political party. Politically partisan police forces are not consistent with American values. The United States is not Russia or Iraq.
Furthermore, “In God We Trust” undermines professional competency. Do police use faith that God will solve crimes, as opposed to the professional application of modern criminology, forensics, and community relations? Why bother with any of that if faith is all we need? Faith in God cannot equate to detective work. “In God We Trust” implies that there is no need for education, work, diligence, skepticism, checks and balances, or internal affairs divisions.
Almost nobody believes that. Most law enforcement officers are dedicated professionals who have invested considerable effort in their education, training, and professional competence. So why slap on a bumper sticker that communicates “we just hope for the best”?
“To protect and serve” is a great police motto. It encourages victims and wary minority communities to engage with and cooperate with the police. It does not imply that some people get better protection and service than others. It is action-oriented and positive. It is heroic and uniting, rather than sectarian and divisive. It reminds police officers of the simple reasons why they do such a dangerous, stressful, and thankless job – to protect and serve.
“E Pluribus Unum” was great in the same way. Its thirteen letters cleverly represented all thirteen of the original colonies that united across the dividing lines of politics, religion and origin. In this modern era of protest and divisiveness, it is easy to think America has lost its ability to cohere as one nation. Politicized police forces seem to be just one more symptom of a government that has ceased to function.
We need not lose hope in the dream of becoming a united people. A simple solution might be found, written in Latin, on a very old coin or hidden on the back of a dollar bill.
19 Jul 2016
Book Review by Chris Borecky
In 2002, mega-church pastor Rick Warren published “The Purpose Driven Life,” a Christian daily devotional book. It sold 30 million copies, and if you figure the author made about $1 commission on each book sold, you have a grasp of how successful this nonprofit pastor has been at finding a purpose for people.
Warren’s book claims that human life is without purpose unless we are pursuing God’s purpose. Specifically, God’s purpose for us is to do five things:
- join a church,
- become like Christ,
- serve God,
- and convert others to Christianity.
Dan Barker has written an interesting rebuttal from an atheistic perspective.
Barker says that Rick Warren got it all backward. We do not live a “purpose driven life;” we have “life driven purpose.” For Barker, life and purpose are the same things.
Barker argues that only living minds can assign a purpose to things. A hammer obtains its purpose from the human who uses it as a tool to drive nails. To say that God must assign purpose to us is to assume that we too are dead tools. “Are you a hammer?” Barker asks.
Thus, to ask “what is the purpose of life” is begging the question. It assumes a purpose-giver, so there’s something wrong with the question. As Barker puts it, asking “If there is no God, what is the meaning of my life?” is like saying “If there is no master, whose slave will I be?”
If human life is without purpose unless God assigns it to us, then who assigned a purpose to God? Does God sit in heaven asking “Why am I here”?
In contrast, Barker says we are responsible for defining our own purpose. Just as we assign purpose to the tools and objects around us, we can assign purpose to our own lives. What purpose? The purpose we choose. End of story.
After talking about purpose, Barker dives into another question related to what we should do – morality.
Barker criticizes religion for promoting what he calls “cultural colorblindness”. Religion promotes binary thinking in terms of purpose and morality. This black-and-white approach makes us unable to detect nuances or apply situational ethics. Thus we have religious edicts proclaiming there is only one valid purpose in life, one valid sexual orientation, and one valid set of laws that apply in all cases regardless of circumstance.
Barker’s theory of morality has three parts: instinct, reason, and law. Reason controls our instinct and inspires our laws. Reason also informs us when laws should be broken – such as how it is acceptable to lie in order to save someone’s life. Barker summarizes all this in a saying he calls “mere morality.” He says: “Using instinct, law, and reason as guides, try to act with the intention of minimizing harm.”
Barker’s claims about morality sound reasonable. However, there are a few problems with Barker’s description of purpose.
First, Barker strays dangerously close to committing the naturalistic fallacy in a section where he talks about how meaningful it is to him that his ancestors survived and produced him. The fact that nature and history occurred the way it did does not inform us in any way about how it should have occurred or what we should do now.
Second, Barker’s definition of purpose as being the same thing as life seems to mean that any life has purpose. He even employs a metaphor about an ant whose entire colony is drowned in a flood and asks if the ant should simply give up or continue doing ant behaviors.
This metaphor is supposed to poke holes in the question of purpose, and to point out the role of reason. However, the metaphor also reminds us that if we use Barker’s schema, we cannot say that any life is without purpose.
If life is purpose, even mosquitos, bacteria, fungi, and algae have purpose. This is unsettling, but it’s also a problem for Barker’s theory. If you can’t tell me what a thing is not, can you really tell me what it is?
Third, like practically any book in this genre, Barker spends far too much time criticizing religion. He even goes off on tangents to do so. Although this criticism is thought provoking and entertaining, too much is left unsaid about his own theory. I wish he had used the space to better explain a few things, such as his thoughts on free will versus determinism in our self-definitions of purpose.
Finally, Barker’s definition of purpose is probably not satisfying enough for people who are shopping in the marketplace of ideas. Anyone who asks “what is the purpose of my life” has already ruled out many possible answers because they did not fit their criteria or expectations for what a purpose should do.
A satisfactory purpose does things for us, psychologically, such as reducing existential anxiety, improving self-esteem, or motivating us toward goals and away from distractions. Barker’s definition of purpose probably won’t catch on because it is more focused on being consistent with reality than being inspirational.
Despite some serious unanswered questions, the book is a step forward for non-religious people who are exploring ideas about purpose in life. It’s also a fun book, full of body-slam takedowns of religious notions, and many amusing autobiographical stories. Dan Barker’s “Life Driven Purpose” is an enjoyable, accessible book that is also available in audiobook format.
23 Feb 2013
The University of Central Arkansas in Conway opens their facilities to the public twice each month. ASF’s own Dr. Scott Austin, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics, and Director of Astronomical Facilities at UCA invites everyone to come learn more about the heavens (the REAL heavens)!
The 1st Wednesday of each month Dr. Austin invites us to the Planetarium where he simulates the night sky visible to the naked-eye onto a 30-foot diameter dome with a Spitz 512 projector. Arrive early for this event – after the doors close, there is no admittance.
On the 3rd Wednesday of the month, if the sky is mostly clear, the UCA Observatory will be open to the public for views of planets, stars, star clusters, and nebulae through the 14-inch aperture telescope.
Children are welcome! Check our calendar at Meetup.com for starting times.