Sunday, August 29, 2010

Atheist Chaplain

Just watched Jonathon Figdor's speech on humanist chaplains and the like. Very interesting, and I recommend watching it.

It seems to me that Figdor's point is complimentary to my post on the military. I do agree with Figdor that we need to fund and administer secular and humanist organizations at Universities, and - looking to the future - in hospitals and at end of life ministries. His point is well taken: No one wants to die alone, and no one wants to be proselytized to on their death beds. I'm not sure that chaplaincies are the best way to go about this, though. Certainly they couldn't hurt, but organizations like the CFI and SSA might be the best choice for the immediate future. They're established groups with some funding, and if they reach out to secular and humanist students, then hopefully those alumni might some day be able to support positions like humanist chaplaincies.

Here's the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy webpage, for those of you interested in it.

Converting the Religious

I care a lot about what religious people think. In fact, if you're going to try and get religious people to give up their views, it's pretty important to understand how many of them think. So this post won't be about getting people on your side or encouraging discussion (for how to find secularists and atheists and similar people, I recommend watching this little speech by Jen McCreight). I'm going to look at the religious, and the sorts of thoughts and feelings you can expect to find going on underneath their skin.

But first, a little about myself. I was a devout Catholic up until a few months ago (I know, right!?). This meant I engaged in apologetics, mostly with myself and other Christians, and I went to mass every Sunday and on the important Holy Days. Hell, I even went to confession once in the past four years, and what a tearful experience that was (though the Priest ended up weeping more than I did, more than I'm capable of, I suspect). Oh, what a grand old time that was. It's amazing what you'll do and say when you're engaged with holy fervor and zeal. So, following that confession, my year and a half journey to atheism probably seems pretty quick. Well, it wasn't, and it isn't an easy sort of thing to go through either. Most of the faithful are aware of the things that move us away from theistic beliefs, and they go through hoops and loops like you wouldn't believe to keep their faith firm (it's all bullocks too, and not firm bullocks, which I think we'd all prefer). So what I'm going to do is tell you a little about how to convert people like me.

You cannot convert people like I was. It's impossible. Anyone with a modicum of true faith will resist giving up their beliefs like your keys resist being discovered. Every impulse in their brain (or nearly every one of them) charges the mind with zeal and fervor, literally blinding them to rational arguments. This isn't total blindness, it's just the sort of thing that leads to a very narrow world view with certain axioms assumed to be true.

The first axiom you cannot change is that "God Exists." This axiom is literally unassailable. You will not convince a theist that his or her beliefs are wrong by saying "god doesn't exist," or pointing out contradictions and problems with this view. Hume argued that if things need a creator, then god needs a creator. If things don't need a creator, then we don't need god. This argument falls flat against faith because the religious will point out their belief in god stipulates that god is omnipotent and eternal, and does not require a creator, though the universe does. So any argument that god is not a necessary condition for the universe will fail. I say this only to illustrate a point: the religious person's arguments are observational and not conditional (they postulate that god exists and created the universe rather than the universe needs a creator). This is circular, but most axioms are, and pointing out the circuity of this beliefs won't get you anywhere.

Instead, insist that god is a superstition and point out the lack of evidence for belief in god (note that the universe doesn't need a god to exist from a logical standpoint, but don't insist on this as disproof of god - instead, it's a more elegant hypothesis).

So we've stopped trying to convince people that god doesn't exist. Don't worry, we're not giving up the gun. We don't want to lecture or instruct people in the belief that god doesn't exist. For one thing, as Dawkins points out about religious upbringing, there is something inherently abusive in such orthodoxy. As atheists and secularists (and, in my case, an instrumentalist and naturalist) it is much better to show the believer all the things that seem to contradict the necessity of god. They will do the rest of the work themselves.

This leads to apologetics. It is our duty to help the religious along the path to reason and truth. Feel free to disagree, but I see religion as dangerous cognitively and socially, and the less influential it is in general, the freer our societies will be of things that belong in the privacy of home or places of worship. How can we do this? Be friendly, engaging, and debate the opponent. Never stop insisting that god isn't real or isn't a reasonable belief (I think saying god isn't reasonable to believe in works better than saying god doesn't exist). The religious person will not debate the merits of those points directly (typically), instead he or she will engage in apologetics, to try and defend god from the perspective of their faith.

Brief Aside: Apologetics are unbelievably stupid and silly. Many of you will say, "god doesn't exist," and find yourself debating whether god is good, or good is consistent, or whatever. This is a debate of theology versus rationalism. You point out rational problems, they point out why a problem isn't a problem. I can't begin to count the number of times I have proposed that god doesn't exist and there is no evidence of it, and found myself discussing some biblical trivia (or, when I was devout, unconsciously guiding the debate to apologetics and justifications of god, rather than the discussion of god's existence).

But the good news is you CAN win apologetics debates without too much trouble. When you win a debate on apologetics, you aren't winning a final, lasting victory. Instead, you're goal should be casting doubt on some tenant of the faith.

As an example, say someone believes in original sin. Original Sin isn't mentioned anywhere in genesis, and the rest of the bible only really alludes to it. Some poor translations substitute original sin for different terms or ideas, and historical jews didn't believe in original sin. Moreover, St. Paul once wrote that nothing is sinful unless the sinner acts maliciously against god. So, arguably, people are born sinless and there is no such thing as sin, unless maliciously aimed against god (having an incidental orgy is fine, just make sure no married people participate and that you have the fee to pay for any female virgins who get deflowered!).

This is one interpretation of a few biblical passages. There are many possible readings, and the devout will try and debunk the rather unfamiliar notion that orgies are fine and people can't sin. You can also debate free will and sin similarly (it comes up frequently). The inconsistencies are glaring and the faithful will come up with incredibly clever apologetics to deal with it (the lack of sin is one such solution, another I've heard is that god lets us sin for his own glory when he forgives us, though that one implies that god created us knowing we would sin, so how can we sin if it was inevitable and glorifies god. It would make sense to sin more frequently, so as to glorify god more often, etc, etc). The more you confront the theist with holes and problems in their beliefs, the greater and more general their apologetics gradually become. You can literally take a christian fundamentalist (a thinking one who just wants to be a good christian) and guide them from fundamentalist to anglican (you know, barely christian - no offense to you anglicans ;p) given enough time and exposure. It's a long and difficult process. When contradiction arises, willful ignorance or accommodation are the only outcomes. If accommodation is their response, then you need only patiently and slowly point out contradictions and problems until the faithful person comes to the sudden realization that they don't need god and god probably doesn't exist.

Just remember, some people will resist conversion no matter what, and for most of us who were truly faithful, giving up our beliefs is a difficult and painful process. No faithful christian will toss aside their faith at the drop of a dime.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Military Needs Us

Read some of these articles to get a feel for what happens (apparently) too frequently in the military: Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Let's get this out there first: Soldiers have the right to worship or not worship whoever and whatever they like. The Military, and the nation as a whole, has a responsibility to look after the psychological well-being of the soldiers it employs. Our nation has no national faith, and our constitution does not endorse any religion (it does the opposite). The first duty of every soldier is to protect the state and the constitution that comprise it.

I haven't been able to find all the articles I've read about this - but in this instance I understand that the soldiers were forced to do the deep-cleaning busy-work that is normally reserved as a punishment (or encouragement) for those who underperform. I also believe that the general responsible for this program was reassigned to a minor post after all this came to light. And, as usual, I'll mention that the MRFF usually acts on behalf of christian soldiers who don't happen to be evangelical. But I'm sure that soldiers often must deal with all kinds of peer pressure with regards to their beliefs and personal preferences (say, involving drinking or sex).

So, why do I say that the military needs us? Because it damn well does. It seems that the military does not offer much (comparatively) for the atheists and agnostics or people who don't believe in mainstream religions. Anecdotes point to a military establishment that gets much of its public support and policy influence from the religious right (that small and potent group of evangelicals). At least 15% of the American public is faithless, and we should be doing our part to make sure the military, or any other public institution, isn't co-opted inappropriately, in a manner contrary to the principles of personal freedom and separation of church and state, by any organization - religious or otherwise.

If anyone reads this who could offer more information or numbers on these programs and behaviors (I'm looking through public budgets and the like, but I don't have a tremendous amount of time for deep research into the matter), I would love to hear from you. Also, anyone who could suggest things that secular soldiers might want would be appreciated (not sure how much I can do, but I can try to start the ball rolling).

Being Friendly

There's been a big debate going on lately about what it means to be friendly and courteous when dealing with people's faiths. I'm sure most atheists have experienced this. You tell someone you don't believe in their silly superstitions, then they ask why. Sometimes you answer with a reasonable statement, "Because there is zero evidence for your superstition," or "I just believe in one less god than you do. Why don't you believe in Vishnu?" Usually that prompts the religious twit to object with something along the lines of, "It's faith." - whatever that bullocks means. But sometimes it's just better to be rude. My personal preference tends to ridicule and blunt derision. The way I see it, if someone says to me that they believe in Jesus Christ, who will save us all and is the one true god (TM), that's a fairly blunt, inconsiderate statement. So I like to respond in kind. "Your belief in god is unsupported, insipid, dangerous and ultimately stupid," usually does it for me.

But the polite, considerate people out there don't really like this tact. So I'd like to take a moment and examine the discourse that surrounds atheism and religion, to try and ferret out the worst offenders (who, unremarkably, tend to be the stupidest offenders).

Let's look at a man who I consider a tremendous idiot - Dinesh D'Souza. Here he tries to blame atheism for the atrocities of the Soviets, Pol Pot (Saloth Sar), and the Nazis. D'Souza attempts to place communism as an anti-religious philosophy. "Opiate of the masses" and all that. Here is the full quote:

"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions." - Karl Marx

Marx's view on religion was nuanced. As for historical reality (something D'Souza is blithely unaware of), the Soviet regime did suppress religion and endorse secularism and atheism. In fact, these policies drove the Soviet sense of fairness. Many of you probably don't know, but aside from the genocides and Iron Curtain, the Soviet system helped modernize places like Central Asia, and guaranteed everyone employment and and education. It worked quite well from the 1940s until the early 1970s. Unfortunately for them, the US and European policies of containment effectively shut the Soviet economy into a small geographic region, and prevented them from exploiting the world at large. This was compounded by problems with the Chinese and other neighboring communist regimes (who were mostly controlled by cults of personality, quasi religious structures that probably resembled whatever cult the historical Jesus - if there was a historical Jesus - surrounded himself with.) because these regimes didn't cooperate as broadly as they should have.

On the other hand, the Soviets were very anti-Orthodox because the Orthodox church contributed to the preservation of an ancient system of serfdom that lasted until the last Czar was overthrown. This system was incredibly cruel. It disallowed upward mobility (for the most part), tied peasants to the land, and brutally suppressed progressive policies that could have prevented the Soviet revolution from ever happening! The land owners, strongly invested in the Orthodox church (because of its opiate-like affect on people) promoted the maintenance of the religious regime so that they would have one more tool of oppression (beyond soldiers and the legal system) with which to oppress the peasantry. In short, the elite estates of Russian Imperial society never went far enough with land or industrial reform to prevent their own demise, and religion certainly contributed to the collapse of the Imperial dynasty, and the rise of the Soviet system. This is to say nothing of Stalin's own quasi-religious cult of personality. D'Souza completely misses the point of what modern atheism is, but he does manage to throw in a nice personal attack against Richard Dawkins. Bravo.

What about Nazis? Hitler was Catholic, and the widely accepted roots of Germanic anti-Semitism are (drum roll please) medieval pogroms caused by short-sited Catholic policies (D'Souza's own precious church) around 1000 AD as the Church tried to standardize teachings across Europe. Don't get me wrong, the Catholics did considerable good with these efforts, particularly the massive construction projects which put churches in almost every town. But, in their zeal to eradicate dissent from catholic teachings and to consolidate the power of Rome, they galvanized anti-Jewish sentiment across Europe, particularly in Germany! These led to massive pogroms, and culminated in the Peasant's Crusades to rid the 'Holy Land' of Jews. (The entire history is quite interesting, and if you want to hear more, let me know and I'll describe it in greater detail or upload a timeline or something).

What was the other major factor? Martin Luther was about as anti-Semitic as you can possibly get, and his Lutherans inherited those traits. Really an admirable figure. Between these two things, Hitler had only to choose the Jews as skapegoats (intentionally or unintentionally) and then begin the religiously motivated and primed murders that we call the holocaust. Atheism didn't kill the jews, Christianity did.

Conclusions? D'Souza is pretty ignorant of history, and the apologists are attacking atheism with brutally rude, inconsiderate and sensational charges. At least, D'Souza is.

So, can we think of anyone else who is likewise engaged? The talking heads at Fox News come to mind. The Falwells occur to me, as does the Westboro Baptists (though, to be fair, they hate everyone). I can't even begin to count the number of Imams and religious leaders in the Middle East who accuse us of bringing the wrath of god down on everyone (I'm not even sure what wrath they're referring to. Earthquakes - woops, I mean boobquakes - maybe?).

But, to cap it all off - the religious are actively propagating falsehoods and lies. Which ones? How about the one where they say that some god or gods exist. Yeah, hate to break it to them, but we're the belched remains of stardust, coalesced over billions of years, and through happy chance become animate through natural processes. No god needed. And, when asked for it, we can provide evidence that points to these facts. The religious man, in all his boisterous bluster, can only offer anecdotes and myth, but never anything we could call evidence.

So, you'll have to excuse me if I observe that religion is full of shit, and religious superstitions are completely devoid of any redeeming quality, being - in fact - lies, and that you're probably not thinking straight if you believe in that sort of stupidity.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I read an interesting article in the New York Times today, by one of the principle proponents of memetics, Susan Blackmore. For those of you who don't know, memetics has its roots in Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, where he somewhat speculatively supposes that ideas might change and grow based on the same or similar principles as biological evolution. Since his initial memetion (haha, yeah, I'm not funny, I know) of this idea, it has taken on many forms. Most of them are utterly useless drivel and tripe.

Let's parce memetics down to its simplest possible stated form: "Ideas can change via transmission." I think of this as the telephone game. You whisper to your neighbor that you've just finished work on a neat new idea, and by the time word gets around to Lancashire, you're engaging in orgies with young goats. Memetic ideas aren't quite that trite, but the principle is the same. You take an idea, expose it to a new network of ideas via some method of transmission (like talking to someone), and this new person modifies the idea to suit his or her needs.

This is a load of cock and bull, so to speak. For starters, this isn't evolution, no more than saying that a new airplane design based on groundbreaking materials breakthroughs is the "evolution" of the airplane. Yes, things do change, but ideas rarely change in an evolutionary manner. When ideas are modified, we tend to modify them consciously. This is called design. That most recent rickroll video, say it replaces Rich Astley with the Muppets is an intentional change, not a random mutation.

We can see how natural selection still plays a role though: a good idea might stay popular for a while, though less popular things disappear pretty fast. Still, that's not sufficient to qualify for evolution.

Okay, so memetics doesn't look like evolution, but NDAtheist, you say, you can see the similarities between evolution and memetic change - look at how networks of ideas cross and interact in order to give rise to hybrids or new combinations! That rickroll was a perfect example of the crossing of the "Muppet" meme and the "Rickroll" meme.

I'll happily concede that point, though you'll have to grant me this: evolutionary mutations occur in specific swathes which affect (in general) alleles. So... what's the basic unit of an idea? At what point does an idea change from designed to evolved? This is the root of my objection to the memetic model. Much like how a few beans becomes a mound of beans at some uncertain point (5, 10, 23, 100 beans), when does natural evolution replace design? Moreover, don't other models describe cultural change more completely (some branches of semiotics, what about economic forces and historical forces)?

So... what is memetics good for? It describes ideas that spread rapidly very well. Memes, for instance, in all their internet glory, are well described. Many short lived popular ideas seem to fall nicely within the framework of memetics as well. Which leads to an observation:

Most things that operate memetically seem to have, at base, some anchor idea that is broader and more resistant to change. To use literary terms, memes are like the unique presentation of a broad theme in a particular book, while a broad theme is much slower to change. Popular music often goes on about romance and love, these being central interests to the songwriter, and very much resonant with us as consumers. I want to be loved. You probably want to be loved (maybe we should talk?), and most people have loved or love in some capacity or another. The romantic ideal of love is relatively static. It does change - the 18th century isn't much like today (or even the 60s) as far as specific presentations and understandings of love go. But the basic idea, driven in large part by biological and psychological needs, remains identifiably similar to the same ideas of virtually any other era within the current historical era (say the past 300 to 500 years).

On the other hand, music and poetry are in constant flux as writers and singers find different ways to express the same basic idea. The smaller and shorter lived idea we take, the increasingly applicable memetics is.

Edit: Clarification - There is considerable room for debate here, since ideas certainly seem to be subject to selection (of a sort, possibly similar to natural selection). But mutations in ideas don't necessarily arise from the pre-existing structure of the idea. The inclusion of muppets to rickroll isn't evolutionary. There is nothing in the rickroll that could be manipulated to give rise to muppets. Instead muppets are added in a manner identical (or closely similar) to the process of engineering. Hence the problem with describing memetics as evolutionary in a strict sense.