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.
03 Apr / 2017
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.
13 Feb / 2017
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?
02 Aug / 2016
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.
13 Mar / 2015
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (ASF) objects to SB939, introduced by Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow). The bill, as amended on Friday, would require the Secretary of State to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Arkansas state capitol.
“If this bill becomes law, there will definitely be a lawsuit against this purely religious monument,” said Anne Orsi, an attorney and spokesperson for the society. The bill states that the purpose of the monument is not to establish religion, but does not specify what secular purpose the monument might serve.
LeeWood Thomas, the group’s media liaison, said that ASF is skeptical that any secular purpose exists, “Sen. Rapert wants to legislate which of the multiple versions of the commandments the State of Arkansas will officially recognize. If that’s not establishment of religion, nothing is.”
SB939 cites Van Orden v. Perry, a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a monument with the Ten Commandments that had been donated to the state of Texas by a private organization four decades before was permitted. The same court held exactly the opposite, though, in McCreary County v. ACLU, a companion case decided the same day, in which the government had erected the monuments and there was no secular purpose.
As submitted, the bill provides that if anyone sues the state to have the law and the monument declared unconstitutional, the Attorney General could request that the Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal defense organization based in Texas and lost the McCreary case, to provide the state’s defense. Legal defense of state laws is the role of the Arkansas Attorney General, with other attorneys being hired only in unusual circumstances.
Two years ago attorney Matthew Campbell sued Secretary of State Mark Martin for improperly hiring outside attorneys rather than using the Attorney General’s office. Campbell said, “For over 80 years, the legislature has made clear that the decision whether to hire outside counsel lies with the Attorney General, and Arkansas law reflects this discretion to this day. Sen. Rapert, perhaps worried that the Attorney General will see his bill for the unconstitutional act that it is, has built in a provision to usurp the Attorney General’s role in determining when to hire outside counsel and which outside counsel to hire. In addition to being improper, this seems to illustrate that even Sen. Rapert knows that the bill is unconstitutional and would only be defended by a group as overly partisan as he is.”
The primary mission of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is to protect separation of church and state.
22 Oct / 2013
For Immediate Release
(Little Rock, Arkansas: October 22, 2013) Atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other secular people from all over Arkansas are traveling to Little Rock for the second annual Reason in the Rock conference. The two-day event will be held beginning at 9:00 a.m., Saturday, October 26 and Sunday, October 27, 2013, at the Riverfront Wyndham Hotel at #2 Riverfront Drive, in downtown North Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is hosting the conference. Local and nationally-known speakers will represent varied aspects of the secular movement, and will address matters of personal liberty, public policy, and science education. Chris Borecky, President of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, said, “Reason in the Rock will promote a healthy dose of skepticism, secularism, and of course, the separation of church and state.”
In 2012, Reason in the Rock was a one-day event, featuring nine respected and well-known leaders in the freethought and skeptic community. Reason in the Rock is the only conference of its kind in Little Rock, and it attracted people from all over Arkansas and from surrounding states.
“This year, Reason in the Rock will be a two-day event with twice as many respected speakers, more diverse topics, and more for the audience,” said Anne Orsi, the event’s lead organizer with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. “We want to reach out to Arkansans who value a secular government, humanist action, and good science education. The secularist voice is not as loud here as it is elsewhere. We want freethinkers in Arkansas to know they aren’t alone.”
The conference opens Saturday morning with the often-controversial president of American Atheists, David Silverman. Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience television broadcast from Austin, Texas, will speak Saturday afternoon. Saturday evening, the documentary “No Dinosaurs in Heaven” will be followed by a discussion with film maker and science education advocate Greta Schiller. Dan Barker, President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, will open Sunday’s programming, which closes Sunday with a presentation by author and former Pentecostal pastor Jerry DeWitt.
Among other notable speakers will be Zack Kopplin, a student activist known nationally for garnering the support of over 70 Nobel laureates to combat Louisiana’s law permitting the teaching of creationism in public school science classes. Dr. Jason Wiles of Syracuse University and Dr. Johnny Stine of North Coast Biologics in Seattle, WA, two biologists with Arkansas roots, will talk about their own experiences with science education in Arkansas. Phil Ferguson, a member of the national board of directors of the Secular Student Alliance will be discussing how young people explore and abandon religion. William A. Cash, Jr., the director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Little Rock, will address the intersection of religion and the workplace.
Rachel Johnson is one of two speakers addressing sexuality. The other is Dr. Darrel Ray, author of the bestselling book The God Virus, will discuss elements of his 2012 study and book Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality in his presentation when he asks, “Did Jesus Masturbate?” as he explores the sexual mythology of religious culture.
Programming includes a segment of the popular “Skeptics in the Pub” by Little Rock skeptics Kyle Sanders and Ben Bell. Sam Kooistra of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and former Rep. Dan Greenberg, president of the Advance Arkansas Institute, will participate in a moderated discussion about the death penalty. Lecia Brooks, Outreach Coordinator for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, will speak on “The State of Hate and Intolerance in America.”
This year, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers will again present the Randall “Doc” Fleck Common Sense Plus Award to recognize an individual who has contributed significantly to secularism. Dr. Fleck was one of the primary activists in the Arkansas secular movement and was instrumental in organizing a number of the secular movement’s groups around the state. He died in 2012 after a lengthy illness.
The conference is free and open to the public but there is limited seating. All interested in attending should register on the conference’s website at www.reasonintherock.org where they will find links to nearby lodging and opportunities to donate.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is a non-profit corporation belonging to a group of secular organizations within the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers promotes the secular, non-theistic, humanist viewpoint as a valid contribution to public discourse. It advocates the strict separation of church and state, and hosts weekly events geared to encourage and facilitate dialogue in matters of science, reason, critical thinking, and tolerance.
More information about the organization is available on its website at www.arfreethinkers.org.
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23 Feb / 2013
On the third Sunday of each month, we host a guest speaker for an afternoon lecture and discussion of an interesting topic. These speakers come from academia, other activist groups, and technological industries to share their insights and information with us. The guest speaks for about an hour and a question-and-answer session follows.
Recent speakers have included:
Dr. Laura Smoller, a UALR historian who taught us about the development of Christian apocalyptic thought; Lyndel Roe, a philosopher who engaged us in a lively discussion about the meaning of life; Glenn Hooks of the Sierra Club, who talked about the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign; a panel from the LBGTQ community that talked about the gay experience in Arkansas; Dr. Philip Frana of the Sociology Department at UCA’s Honors College, who told us about alcohol, religion, and Arkansas drinking culture; and Dr. Scott Austin, Director of the UCA Observatory, who debunked astronomical pseudoscience for us.
Some of our lectures are posted on the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers YouTube channel. Check them out!
23 Feb / 2013
Back before the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers united multiple similar organizations under a single name, the Central Arkansas Freethinkers adopted a mile of Highway 10 (Cantrell Road) in Little Rock to keep neat and tidy. Four times a year on a weekend morning we pick up litter to maintain this stretch of urban highway. Bring the kids and join us for an hour or so to show our civic pride and keep our city clean! Check the calendar on Meetup.com for dates and times.
23 Feb / 2013
There’s nothing like getting together with friends to watch a good movie or two. Sinner’s Cinema is not necessarily themed for freethinkers, but the movies are always good.
Documentaries, dramas, comedies, and Monty Python feature!
Sometimes we go to a theater, and sometimes we gather around someone’s television.
Check the calendar on Meetup.com for the next movie night.
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.
17 Feb / 2013
Need a Secular, Non-Religious Point of View?
We don’t want to miss an inquiry, so please phone to set up an interview, especially if you are on deadline. We would be pleased to try to answer your questions, or accommodate your request.
For non-urgent questions, please email us.
You can learn more about the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, our mission, our affiliations, and our leaders by clicking the “About” tab.
Our Media Representatives
LeeWood Thomas is one of the original members of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, and consistently has been active with the group since its start in 1996. He is a long-serving board member and has been the one of the primary voices of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers for several years. He has been instrumental in starting other secular clubs and organizations around Arkansas, most recently in Benton.
Anne Orsi has served on the board of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers since 2010 and is the organization’s Vice President. She is an attorney licensed to practice in Arkansas and often writes about law and secularism, separation of church and state, and the effects of religion on government in the United States and in other countries. Her weekly column about secularism and the law appears Thursdays on the What Would JT Do? blog on the Atheist Channel at Patheos.com.
17 Feb / 2013
Are you good without god? Hey, so are we!
Like anyone, we all benefit from a supportive community for friends, charity, and fostering a better understanding of secular values with our neighbors. Atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, non-religious, “nones,” lost tourists, and the confused are all welcome to join us!
It is often claimed that nonreligious people are rare, but according to a study released in 2012 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly 20% of our nation’s population – including about a third of all Americans under the age of 30 – have no religious affiliation. Still, non-religious people can feel isolated when the religious community is so organized and outspoken on issues.
We deserve to be heard. Building and participating in a community is the first step in giving ourselves that voice.
And the conversation here is great! Aside from friendly Meetups we also organize volunteer events, discussions, and support for science education. Ideas are always welcome.
- Unite as many Freethinkers in Arkansas as possible. Yes – we have a statewide reach!
- Enrich the community by hosting and developing informative activities and events, and by encouraging and facilitating dialog in matters of science, reason, ethics, and tolerance.
- Inform people of their First Amendment freedoms of and from religion, and monitor and promote awareness of local separation of church and state issues.
- Maintain a friendly, healthy relationship with other organizations and the community.
Find Our Events on Meetup.com
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is affiliated with local and national secularist organizations, including:
17 Feb / 2013
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers exists to promote the secular, non-theistic, humanist viewpoint as a valid contribution to public discourse. We strive to protect the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state and work in coalition with like-minded people and organizations where joint action is needed to maintain this separation. Our Society seeks to enrich the community by hosting and developing informative activities and events, and to encourage and facilitate public dialogue in matters of science, reason and tolerance. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers operates in an open manner, without discrimination as to gender, race, age, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, nationality, religion, or disability.
16 Feb / 2013
We are accepting donations for tornado relief victims of the storms of April, 2014. When you make your donation, please note that it is for tornado relief. Thank you for doing something to help your fellow Arkansans!
We are an all-volunteer, non-profit educational organization. Unlike most churches, no one running this organization receives a salary or any other payment, we have no tax-exempt buildings or plush offices, no vans or buses for ski trips, and we don’t receive any faith-based subsidy from the taxpayers. We rely on your generous donations to help us pay for displays, fliers, business cards, website hosting, venue rentals, etc.
Please donate to the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers today using the PayPal link below, or mail your check to:Arkansas Society of Freethinkers P.O. Box 4135 Little Rock, AR 72214
16 Feb / 2013
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is a state registered nonprofit organization that is very active in the Little Rock area. (We are in the process of applying for status as a charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.)
Annual membership is only $20, and $10 for anyone 18 years of age or older who has a valid student ID. The membership period runs concurrently with the calendar year. Paying anytime during a year entitles you to vote and run in the annual election in December, as well to have a voice in other necessary measures throughout the year.
Fill out our Membership Form, and either mail it, email it, or bring it along to any event along with cash or check. If you email the form (don’t forget to send a copy of your student ID if you’re paying the student rate), you can pay your membership dues with PayPal:
Forms and a donation jar will be available at most of our events.
We have a board of directors, officers, committees, and a lot of volunteer positions for anyone who wants to help with our cause. Only voting members may hold certain leadership positions.
16 Feb / 2013
Volunteering is a great way to make new friends and support a cause you care about. Helping us helps you, too! Want to develop your technical, leadership, and organizational skills? With the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, you can accomplish amazing things.
Most importantly, volunteering to help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is fun!
We always need help on committees, and we always need help making our events happen!
- Bring a snack to a potluck
- Keep Arkansas Beautiful during out quarterly Adopt-a-Highway cleanup
- Volunteer for Reason in the Rock
- Find speakers for our lecture series
- Take part in the holiday parade
- Erect and take down our Winter Solstice Display
- Host a “Sinner’s Cinema” movie night
- Coordinate a bike ride
- Host a party
- Coordinate a charity drive
Do you have a great idea for an event or activity? Let’s hear it!
Contact us today to discuss volunteer opportunities.
16 Feb / 2013
Are you ready to join, explore, or get more information about the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers?
Great! The first thing you’ll want to do is connect with our various communication channels. Use these links to get in the loop:
We post announcements here, along with updates of activities and current issues of special interest to secular Arkansans. “Like” our Facebook Page and you’ll see pertinent updates in your Facebook News Feed.
When life in the Bible Belt wears you down, go here to take a sanity break. Converse, laugh, share stories, and relate to your fellow freethinkers. (If your freethinking is done in the closet, please note that the Facebook group is not private and your posts can be seen by anyone in your Facebook friends list, depending on your privacy settings.)
Find our calendar of events here, browse and share photos, find friends, and more. Meetup is our main event planning tool. We recommend adding a feed to your personal calendar so that when we post events on Meetup, your Outlook, Google, or iCal calendar is automatically updated. If you use Google’s calendar, for example, you can simply add a calendar with the following URL: webcal://www.meetup.com/ARfreethinkers/events/ical/Arkansas+Society+of+Freethinkers/ .
Reason in the Rock is a regional conference organized by the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. We bring the movers and shakers of secularism and skepticism to our notch in the Bible Belt, and great things happen! Plan to attend the last weekend in October. Updates and speaker announcements are posted on the Reason in the Rock site.
Watch videos from our monthly lecture series, see the presentations by nationally known speakers at Reason in the Rock, plus see selected videos from other sources. Subscribe for updates.
16 Feb / 2013
David Bentley currently serves as Vice President of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and chairs the Public Relations Committee. Dave discovered the organization in 2007, after his retirement from 20 years in the Air Force at the rank of Major, and has been an active member ever since. He worked to create the Winter Solstice display in 2009 and has assisted every holiday season since then to set it up on the state capitol lawn. Dave served as President during ASF’s transitional year, 2011-2012, overseeing the largest membership increase in the organization’s history. Simultaneously he spearheaded a second federal lawsuit that preserved the freedom of speech for non-theists in Little Rock. He is the webmaster for the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason. He is a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists.
Tod Billings is the founder of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He served as its leader, chairman, president, advocate and primary activist until 2011, shepherding the group through a major federal lawsuit that required the Arkansas Secretary of State to allow seasonal displays on the capitol lawn that represented non-religious reasons for the winter holiday season. Under his leadership, multiple organizations joined together under the mantle of the nonprofit Arkansas Society of Freethinkers that he had incorporated in 1996.
Chris Borecky, President of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and member of the board, began his freethinking journey as a child in Catholic school where none of the teachers could answer questions such as, “Why doesn’t God show itself?” and “How can a just God send people to hell for being born into other cultures?” Chris spent his college years studying the psychology of beliefs, then earned an MBA in 2010. He discovered ASF in 2008 and acted as the group’s first Fundraising Committee chair. Chris believes freethinkers should develop innovative social networks that provide a variety of valuable benefits and generate genuine enthusiasm. He is active on the Facebook Group and can be seen at many of our events.
Lisa Brents is a board member and serves as chair of the Programs Committee, ensuring that our Lecture Series and educational events are top-notch and appealing to a variety of interests. Born and raised in the Bible Belt, she realized and accepted her disbelief in deities as a college senior, but remained wholly closeted for 5 years until finding ASF in March 2012. Lisa, who is passionate about science, recently graduated from UAMS with a doctorate in Toxicology and currently studies the neuroscience of human addiction. She is excited to be part of a group that serves as a much-needed secular voice in Arkansas; one that advocates science, education, critical thinking, humanism, the separation of church and state and, most importantly, the freedom to seek truth by questioning and having respectful open discussions with others who are also earnestly seeking answers.
Jane Doe is the Registrar of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. The fact that she holds this position proves that not only can closeted non-believers benefit from and contribute to ASF, their anonymity can be protected while they take advantage of a friendly, supportive, secularist community. Jane lives in a small rural Arkansas community over an hour away from Little Rock, so she also proves that being in central Arkansas is not a prerequisite for involvement in ASF.
Susan Heffington is a board member and is a past president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. Currently, she chairs the Membership Committee. In 2005, she founded Central Arkansas Freethinkers, one of several secularist groups that came under ASF’s umbrella in 2011. She served as a council member for Atheist Alliance International. She has been an RN for 28 years, and as an nontraditional student working on her B.S. in nursing, was active in the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She helped organize the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Arkansas, and has helped organize many of the secularist groups that currently exist in Arkansas. Her tireless efforts and unflagging positive attitude get things done with a cheerful smile.
Aaron Kelton is the Ombudsman for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, serving as a direct conduit between membership and the board. He is passionate about communication and leadership, and is an active member and promoter of Toastmasters. He discovered ASF after dating Christian women, only to find himself embracing his honest disposition of disbelief. He is currently married to a fellow freethinker and believes one ought to question everything, seeking the truth and understanding regardless of the outcome. Aaron earned a bachelors in chemical engineering and currently works as a business analyst. Follow @AaronKelton on Twitter.
Mark Love is a board member and serves as Treasurer of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He is committed to science education and has a master’s degree in instrumental science, a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and worked as an electronic engineer for 20 years, designing both hardware and software. He helped to create the Winter Solstice Display that graces the state capitol lawn every December, as well as the ASF holiday float used in Little Rock’s Big Jingle Jubilee holiday parade. He chairs the Leadership Development Committee. As the primary videographer of the lecture series and Reason in the Rock, he manages the YouTube Channel for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He is a strong atheist and skeptic who, in almost any situation, challenges delusional thinking directly. He claims he actually looks forward to Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to his house, just for the stimulating debate.
Laney Pierce is an ASF board member. As chair of the Social Committee, she works to creating a safe and welcoming environment for all nonreligious people, and especially to those who are still “in the closet” or are getting their first taste of living without deities. Laney is a founder of Arkansans for Equality, a non-profit organization dedicated to achieving equality for all Arkansans. Feel free to add her to your friends on Facebook, as she is always excited to grow her circle of freethinking friends and help welcome all newcomers to the community. Laney is always looking for new ways for members to have fun and get to know each other better, so she welcomes all ideas and suggestions for new events and get-togethers.
Anne Orsi is a board member and chairs the Leadership Development Committee. She acts as one of the designated spokespersons for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, and is a co-organizer of Reason in the Rock. She is an attorney and writer. Her weekly column on Secularism and the Law appears Thursdays on the What Would JT Do? blog on Patheos.com. She is a member of the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way, American Atheists, the American Humanists Association, the Skeptics Society, the Foundation Beyond Belief, and the Brights Network.
Robert Schafer is a board member. He founded Arkansas Atheists, one of several groups that came under the ASF umbrella in 2011. He established the popular First Tuesday meetings, when freethinking Arkansans gather over food and drink at local restaurants. He has a master’s degree in social work and travels internationally as much as possible.
LeeWood Thomas is a board member and chairs the Activism Committee. He is a devout Pastafarian. He has been a freethinker most of his life. He is the primary spokesperson for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason; in addition to making statements to local media, he appears on radio talk shows, podcasts, and anywhere else someone might be listening. He co-hosts the Pink Atheist Podcast on Blog Talk Radio. He volunteers with other community organizations, too: as vice president of his neighborhood association and as media contact and stage manager for the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He co-founded the newest Arkansas freethought group, Benton Atheist & Skeptic Society (BASS). LeeWood has been along for the ride since the very beginning of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers in 1996, and usually can be found in the thick middle of things with a grin on his face. Add him to your friends on Facebook – LeeWood is always looking to grow his network of freethinkers.
Interested in a leadership position with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers? Contact us!
16 Feb / 2013
In 1996, Tod Billings filed documents with the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office incorporating a new non-profit organization: the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He and LeeWood Thomas were its original incorporators. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers initially existed for purposes of organizing secular activism – specifically promoting separation of church and state.
In 2005, Robert Higgins decided to start a secularist discussion group. He wrote the Freedom From Religion Foundation and asked for help finding other freethinkers in Arkansas. Dina Hartsell and Sybil Smith responded, and the three of them started the Central Arkansas Freethinkers as a Meetup group. They began meeting in Hot Springs. The group grew to about 100 members with the help of a website through MSN. Each month, at least 10-15 people participated in the library discussion group. Eventually, the meetings moved to Little Rock’s main library.
Robert Schafer started the Arkansas Atheists Meetup group in 2007. Arkansas Atheists met the first Tuesday of every month for beer and pizza at Vino’s in Little Rock. Members of the Central Arkansas Freethinkers learned of the Arkansas Atheists gathering and joined in.
As the Central Arkansas Freethinkers and Arkansas Atheists did more and more together, they decided to combine their websites and start an online discussion forum. As the groups became more active in 2008, they decided to create a display about the winter solstice for the state capitol grounds as a counterbalance to the Nativity Scene, which had been displayed alone there for decades. They needed a bank account, which meant incorporating.
Tod Billings and LeeWood Thomas were active with the Central Arkansas Freethinkers, and had kept their nonprofit Arkansas Society of Freethinkers alive. Because of the need for a bank account, the winter solstice display was created under the legal auspices of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers filed suit to enforce the First Amendment rights of non-Christians to the public forum on the state capitol grounds, and won.
Because it was already acting as an umbrella for Central Arkansas Freethinkers and Arkansas Atheists, in 2010 the various secularist groups decided to coalesce under the single name of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. Now the nonprofit acts as umbrella for other freethinker groups in Arkansas, and helps to start local secularist groups around the state.
First Tuesdays are still a social tradition for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, although the location has changed. Robert Schafer and LeeWood Thomas still serve on the board. Online discussions are still lively and active. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers still uses Meetup’s calendar as an easy way for secular Arkansans to find like-minded friends. And a group of freethinkers still meets in Hot Springs.
16 Feb / 2013
Want to meet lots of friendly, like-minded folks and catch up on all the latest Arkansas Freethinker happenings? Kick off your month of freethinking with ASF’s First Tuesday gathering. There is no end to the fascinating things that you might hear, especially from our “old timers” who never seem to RSVP on Meetup! Conversations range from books to science to politics to local news and current events, and can be deep and stimulating or light and hilarious. Everything from philosophy to gossip and all points in between – there are no taboos!
We meet around 7:00 for drinks and dinner. The hosts and a few others will be there early, and plenty of us stay until long after the table has been cleared.
This is an excellent gathering for your first encounter with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. Children are welcome. Check the calendar on Meetup.com for the location.
07 Dec / 2012
In November 2012, one of the board members of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers was approached by the mother of a public elementary school student. Her child had come home with a permission form requesting that she be allowed to attend a performance of “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” at a local evangelical church. This play is based on the cartoon special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that we’ve all grown up with. The mother was dismayed because, while she didn’t want to disappoint her child, she strongly objected to using public school time to have the kids see a play with religious content at a church. At the climax of the story Linus recites a long passage from the Gospel of Luke to explain the “real” meaning of Christmas.
The mother asked what ASF could do. She was adamant about remaining anonymous. She didn’t want her child singled out as “different” and she certainly don’t want to expose the child to potential bullying. Since the child’s teacher actually had a role in the performance, she don’t want to subject that child to possible disfavor from the teacher due to the teacher’s resentment. The mother did not want her child to have religious exposure during public school class time, and she objected to her child being sent to another classroom to spend idle time during the public school day while the rest of her classmates went to church.
We gave a local TV reporter a copy of the letter sent home about the play. Although the mother agreed to speak with a reporter by phone as long as she was not being recorded, she refused to speak on camera even if her identity were obscured. The reporter interviewed ASF spokesperson Anne Orsi on camera. He attempted to get a statement from the church and from the school, but no one from either the church nor the school would speak to him.
Everyone loves Charlie Brown. Every kid enjoys Christmas. This is not a war on Christmas, and it is certainly not a war on Charlie Brown. It is a war on public school children being pressured to go to a play with religious content at a large evangelical church. Taking public school children to a church to see a play with significant religious content doesn’t just blur the line between church and state, it oversteps it entirely. The “opt out” provision is for the children to go to another classroom to idly wait for their classmates to return. If the parents do not compromise their own religious beliefs and allow the school to send their children to a religious program, their children will be singled out as “different.” Because the religious content is sugar-coated with Charlie Brown, even the children want to go to the play. Children tend to like going on field trips no matter what they are because field trips are a welcome break from the classroom routine.
Non-Christian parents have a tough time in a predominately-Christian society when it comes to teaching their children their own religious perspective. That is why separation of church and state is so vitally important. The point of separation of religion and public school is not to hurt Christians, but keep religion a personal matter, not a state-sponsored one.
This event was free to the public. Any and all of these children can go with their parents outside of school hours. This would not be news if the teacher involved with the play had simply distributed the flyer for her class to take home and for the parents to bring their children or not as they wished.
There are children of faiths other than Christianity in our public schools, and children of no faith at all. There are even families of certain Christian denominations that may object to the content of the play for other reasons. Parents are reluctant to speak out because their children want special time away from the classroom, and because they don’t want their children labeled as “different.” A special trip away from the classroom is something no child wants to miss, but when that trip includes significant religious content, parents who are not of that religion find themselves in a difficult position. They can let their children go to the religious event and subject them to indoctrination in someone else’s religion, or they can refuse permission and let their children be singled out and possibly bullied for being “different.”
If the point of the trip was to expose public school children to live theater, there were and are other choices. The Arkansas Rep does a great job, as does the Arkansas Arts Center with its Children’s Theater, and other plays throughout the year are performed by non-religious organizations at non-religious locations students can attend.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers will intervene for these parents to the extent we can so that they and their children can retain their privacy and anonymity.
The local news story was picked up by a CBS station in Atlanta. It was picked up by Todd Starnes of the Fox News Network, and the comments on the blog and on his Facebook post linking to the blog were predictably hateful and intolerant. They exemplify why these parents want to remain anonymous and why they don’t want their children singled out.
They also exemplify how the point of the objection is completely disregarded: no one hates Christmas, and no one hates Charlie Brown. What we object to is having public school time devoted to religious activities.
21 Nov / 2012
For Immediate Release
(Little Rock, Arkansas: November 21, 2012.) The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers today rejected the claim that it is making war on Christmas. The group came under fire this week when it championed concerns voiced by parents of a local elementary school child. The child’s school had organized a field trip to a church to see a play with religious themes, and the parents felt this was a violation of the separation of church and state that put them and their child in an awkward situation.
“Those who stand up for the rights of children to be free from coercion aren’t making war either on religion or Christmas,” said ASF spokesperson LeeWood Thomas. “Rather, this is a case of a church forming an alliance with local government to violate religious freedom. So we in the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers feel compelled to take a stand on behalf of the parents under the U.S. Constitution.”
The ASF is a Little Rock-based secular group which, in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, acts as a watchdog for violations of the separation of church and state.
The controversy began when Terry Elementary School notified parents of a field trip to see “Merry Christmas Charlie Brown,” a live theatrical production at a Little Rock evangelical church. The notice said, “This production will expose your child to the amazing world of theater productions and enhance your child’s creative imagination in the area of dramatic arts. . . . This production does expose your child to Christianity through some of the songs and scenes. (If you prefer your child to not attend the program they may stay at school and be allowed to sit in another classroom. Please let your teacher know if your child will not be attending).”
The parents in question, who wish to remain anonymous, felt they were being forced to choose between maintaining their family religious beliefs versus their child being singled out and possibly ostracized or bullied. So they contacted the ASF last week for help.
“Merely allowing a child to opt out of a school-sponsored religious activity during the winter holidays is no solution,” said Anne Orsi, a Little Rock attorney and ASF vice president. “Such a situation exposes the children of minority faiths and outlooks to majority pressure and victimization. Thus the religious rights of children are being violated along with their right to privacy.”
The Charlie Brown play is scheduled for the weekend of December 14-16, and a charity drive is associated with it.
“There are plenty of non-religious theatrical productions at secular venues in Little Rock,” LeeWood Thomas added. “There is no need to mingle religion with public education. Public schools shouldn’t take children to churches to see plays with religious content during regular classroom instructional time.”
Anne Orsi spoke to a local television reporter on the matter earlier this week, after which the story was picked up by news networks and bloggers across the country. Comments then began appearing online accusing her group of waging war on Christmas and on Charlie Brown.
“This isn’t about Charlie Brown or Christmas,” Orsi said today. “It’s about the separation of church and state. Public schools educate children of every faith tradition. We must be sensitive to that and never allow public schools to promote one brand of religion over any other.”
Those familiar with “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the annual animated television special on which the play is based, have noted that the story has significant New Testament content. “Not every religion accepts the New Testament as holy,” Thomas said. “Therefore, such a sectarian religious bias in a school-sponsored event excludes Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many others, including the non-religious.”
“This puts non-Christian parents in a quandary,” Orsi added. “Their children want to attend a play with beloved characters rather than be warehoused in another classroom. If the parents deny their child permission to attend the play on religious grounds, their child will be singled out as being different from the majority of her or his classmates. And this awkward situation is unacceptable.”
The parents who originally raised this issue chose to remain anonymous to protect their children from potential bullying as well as possible backlash from their child’s teacher, who has a role in the production. With the matter having gone public, angry and threatening comments seen on blog posts and news sites have reinforced their concerns. Thus the parents, together with the ASF, are asking that all Little Rock public schools respect the law requiring the separation of church and state.
# # #
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers ( http://arfreethinkers.org/ ) is part of the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason (http://www.CentralArkansasCoR.org). Both advocate freedom of and from religion, as well as separation of church and state.
For more information contact:
Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and
Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason
Arkansas Society of Freethinkers
Arkansas Society of Freethinkers
05 Sep / 2011
Frostcall is a blog out of Austin, TX, hosted by an ex-Christian couple that are now atheists. They contacted our media rep, LeeWood Thomas, about doing an interview. LeeWood talks about what our group has done in the community in the past and ideas for the future, and also about our recent bus ad campaign.
31 Aug / 2011
The godless find a voice.
by Doug Smith
It’s said there are no atheists in foxholes, and that’s baloney, according to a military man we’ll call “Brad.” At an atheists’ social gathering in Little Rock, Brad told a reporter that as an Air Force pilot, he’d been in situations where his life was in danger, and on those occasions, the farthest thing from his mind was seeking assistance from an omnipotent Santa Claus.
“In an emergency, you do what you’ve been trained to do,” he said. “If you’re praying, you’re not doing the very thing you need to be doing, your job.”
Brad recalled that when the airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger was asked if he’d prayed while facing great hazard during a memorable incident over New York in 2009, Sullenberger had replied that passengers were probably taking care of the praying; he personally had been too busy setting his airplane down safely in the Hudson River.
(August 12, 2011) Godless bus ads will now roll in Little Rock. On Thursday, federal Judge Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled in favor of the United Coalition of Reason (UnitedCoR), and against the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) and its advertising agent, On the Move Advertising (OTM), for declining to run $5,260.00 worth of bus ads aimed at attracting local atheists and agnostics in Central Arkansas. The queen-sized ads, that were to be placed on the sides of 18 buses serving Little Rock’s Riverfest, would have said: “Are you good without God? Millions are.” A blue sky with clouds was to be the background behind the words.
12 Aug / 2011
Refusing group violates speech rights, judge rules
Linda Satter – Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Aug 12, 2011
If Central Arkansas Transit Authority is going to give some groups a forum by allowing them to advertise on the sides of its buses, it can’t refuse others, a federal judge said Thursday, finding that the system violated a non-theist group’s First Amendment rights in refusing its ads questioning the existence of God.
11 Aug / 2011
By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark | Thu Aug 11, 2011 9:06pm EDT
(Reuters) – A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the free speech of a coalition of atheists had been violated when Little Rock’s public bus line denied them the right to place $5,000 worth of ads on city buses.
DATE: August 9, 2011
09 Jun / 2011
By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark | Reuters
The Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason alleged in a lawsuit that the Central Arkansas Transit Authority and its advertising agency are discriminating against the group because they’re being required to pay tens of thousands of dollars to put $5,000 worth of ads on 18 buses.
08 Jun / 2011
Are you good with the Central Arkansas Transit Authority? I’m not.
by Max Brantley, Arkansas Times
It’s real simple. The bus company, heavily subsidized by local tax money, turned down more than $5,000 in bus advertising because its designated ad agency didn’t like the religious content of the message shown here. The United Coalition for Reason wanted to run it, as a tame statement that atheists and agnostics are not bad people.
06 Jun / 2011
Posted: Jun 01, 2011 9:50 PM CDT
An Atheist group is taking a local transit authority to court.
The United Coalition of Reason (United COR) filed a federal lawsuit today against the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) along with their advertising agency On the Move advertising claiming their First Amendment speech was violated after trying to advertise which stated “Are you good without God? Millions are.”
United COR wanted the buses to have these bulletins by Riverfest.
Gerry Schulze said he’s a member of United COR and he’s also the attorney representing them in this lawsuit. “Once they throw their advertising space open, it should be open without discrimination,” said Schulze.
He said On the Move Advertising charged them $5,000. On top of that total, On the Move asked for an insurance deposit incase any bus suffered damage because of the ad’s message. Shulze said in the nearly 40 cities where this ad is already running, if there’s vandalism it’s graffiti.
“Here, we’re being told well we want you to put up $36,000 dollars plus provide us a million dollar insurance policy because we’re afraid someone will through a Molotov cocktail at the bus,” said Shulze.
CATA’s attorney, Jess Sweere said they never refused the advertisement.
“In order to protect themselves, they felt it was appropriate to request a refundable damage deposit,” said Sweere. He said United COR was the first to be asked to provide a deposit, but there’s a reason for it.
“We’ve never received information from any of the other advertisers that their ads were subject to receiving vandalism,” said Sweere.
He said they’re willing to work through negotiations even without a deposit.
“It appeared that they were more interested in getting free publicity by filing a lawsuit than paying for the ads,” said Sweere.
Shulze said it is absolutely not for just publicity.
“We wouldn’t have paid for advertisements in 36 different jurisdictions, if all we really wanted to do was file a lawsuit.” CATA has used churches as advertisers in the past.
It will be in Judge Jay Moody’s court.
02 Jun / 2011
By Jake Sandlin
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Thursday, June 2, 2011
LITTLE ROCK — A national organization filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Central Arkansas Transit Authority and its advertising agent over bus ads the group said CATA rejected because the signs promoted atheism.
The advertisements, set against a background of blue sky and clouds, would have read: “Are you good without God? Millions are.” It would also have included a website address.
The lawsuit, filed by the United Coalition of Reason, alleges that CATA refused the advertisements, originally proposed in February, by wanting to “impose burdensome requirements” on the coalition by requiring a liability deposit up to $36,000 against potential damages to buses because of the advertisements’ nontheistic message.
|Updated: 6/01/2011 6:03 pm||Published: 6/01/2011 9:17 am|
United Coalition of Reason says it wanted their ad to run on buses going to and from Riverfest last weekend. It didn’t happen. And they say that’s because CAT singled them out.
The ad reads “Are you good without god? Millions are.”
But the Coalition of Reason says it isn’t good with the publicly funded Central Arkansas Transit Authority refusing to run the ad without special requirements. So the group is taking CAT to federal court.
“It’s really unfortunate because we have very little tax money to go around as it is,” LeeWood Thomas says. “The last thing I want to do is spend more of it on what should be plain as anybody should see, come on, its free speech.”
The lawsuit claims cat required the atheist group to spend more than $30,000 in insurance because of fears the ad could lead to vandalism.
But Thomas says the group has had no problem with its winter solstice display on the capital grounds or the “adopt a highway” sign on La Harpe in downtown Little Rock.
“We’ve not seen any vandalism,” Thomas says. “There’s no reason to believe the bus ads would be vandalized either.”
COR says it is not asking for anything unprecedented, citing faith based advertisements already on the side of Central Arkansas Transit buses”
CAT isn’t talking about the case on-camera Wednesday but its riders are.
“Its up to the provider,” rider Don Jackson says. “CAT has a right to express who gets to advertise on their buses since they go everywhere.”
“That would be fine with me, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” rider Ron Flakes says. “If the taxpayer is paying for it, you got to go with it.”
But right now the “good without god” ad isn’t going anywhere.
Lawyers for CAT say they approved the advertisement artwork in March and that the problem now is between the atheist group and the transportation providers ad agency “On The Move”, which is a for-profit venture.
Attorney Jess Wweere adding that allegations that CAT conspired to censor any group is false and that the atheist group’s main objective is publicity.
01 Jun / 2011
For Immediate Release
(Little Rock, Arkansas, June 1, 2011) A federal lawsuit was filed today against the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) and its advertising agent, On the Move Advertising, for declining to run $5,260.00 worth of bus ads aimed at attracting local atheists and agnostics. The queen-sized ads, to be placed on the sides of 18 buses serving Riverfest, would have said: “Are you good without God? Millions are.” A blue sky with clouds was to be the background behind the words.
The Complaint and a motion for a preliminary injunction were filed at [time] at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, 500 West Capitol Avenue, Little Rock, AR 72201, by the United Coalition of Reason (UnitedCoR). UnitedCoR is a national organization, headquartered in Washington DC, which focuses on organizing local atheist and agnostic groups into coalitions and funding their bus and billboard ad campaigns. Legal services were donated by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association, also headquartered in Washington DC. The attorney of record is J.G. Schulze of Baker Schulze & Murphy of Little Rock.
22 Apr / 2011
Greetings fellow Freethinkers,
The annual membership meeting and elections concluded yesterday. Congratulations to all of our new board members and re-elected VP, Susan! Most clubs have to beg members to fill leadership positions. It’s great that we have so many dedicated volunteers who want to step forward and make a difference. Unfortunately, of the 12 outstanding board nominees we could only select 7. We look forward to our board runner-ups and regular members serving on some of our newly forming committees. There’s plenty of work to go around!
We’re looking forward to an exciting year ahead. The new board will be meeting formally withing the next few weeks. Our first order of business will be to fill the remaining Officer positions and Committee chairs. The bylaws define the various duties of the committees. Take a look, and see how you can help. We’ve got big plans for expanded educational and social events, and we’ll be looking for your inputs and help to make them happen. It’s going to be a great new year of growth, learning. and fun!
Finally, I’d like to recognize and extend our gratitude to our past president and founder, Tod Billings. Tod started this organization back in 1994, and kept it going during lean times. In 2008 the group merged with the Central Arkansas Freethinkers and Arkansas Atheists, and Tod was elected President, forming the group we know today. Tod was instrumental in the legal battle to get our Winter Solstice Display on the state capitol lawn. He’s also well known for his knowledgeable lectures on evolutionary biology, and his biblical knowledge in his scathing take-no-prisoners debates with theists. Tod now takes the honorary ExOfficio advisory position to the Board for this upcoming term.
16 Dec / 2009
Reported by: David Goins
|Updated: 12/17/2009 8:35 am||Published: 12/16/2009 3:35 pm|
“We feel great about it, we’re ecstatic that we could get this up,” Tod Billings with the Free-Thinkers said.
There’s a little more to see at the state Capitol this holiday season. The Arkansas Society of Free-Thinkers putting up a winter solstice kiosk just feet from a nativity scene. “I am very proud to see the two of them standing side by side,” Billings said.
14 Dec / 2009
By JILL ZEMAN BLEED Associated Press Writer
14 December 2009
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – A secular display celebrating the winter solstice and “freethinkers” such as Albert Einstein and Bill Gates can be placed at the state Capitol alongside a traditional Christian nativity scene, a federal judge said Monday.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers sued last week after Secretary of State Charlie Daniels rejected its proposal, saying it wasn’t consistent with the Capitol’s other decorations and displays. The group asked for a quick hearing before the winter solstice, which is Dec. 21.
|Updated: 12/11/2009 8:42 am||Published: 12/10/2009 9:46 pm|
An Arkansas group is suing Secretary of State Charlie Daniels. Group members claim Daniels violated their first amendment rights by denying them access to put up a display at the state capitol.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is a non-profit group that doesn’t believe in any god. The group seeks to promote its ideals, such as the winter solstice holiday. The Freethinkers submitted paperwork two years in a row to promote their message at the capitol and were denied each time.
10 Dec / 2009
For Immediate Release
10 December 2009
LITTLE ROCK, AR –The ACLU of Arkansas filed a federal lawsuit today charging Arkansas Secretary ofState Charlie Daniels with violating the free speech rights of The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers by barring them from erecting a temporary Winter Solstice display on the grounds of the state Capitol. An application by the Freethinkers to erect a display was rejected despite the fact that the proposed display meets the requirements of the state capitol display policy and despite the presence of another display on the grounds.
23 Dec / 2008
By John Lyon
Arkansas News Bureau
23 December 2008
LITTLE ROCK — A nativity scene on the grounds of the state Capitol has again drawn the attention of groups who say the display violates the separation of church and state.
The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers have posted a billboard in North Little Rock in response to the nativity scene and what they claim is the state’s refusal to allow a display offering an alternative viewpoint.
The billboard is designed to resemble a stained-glass window and includes the words “Beware of Dogma” and the foundation’s name and Web address. The sign went up last week beside a bridge connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock.