Friday, October 26, 2012

Atheism is not a thing: the stupidity of atheist infighting and the "atheism movement"

Atheism is not a thing.

Atheism is not a thing.

Atheism is not a thing!

Because of this, atheist infighting is embarrassingly stupid and damaging to the core causes of the "atheist movement," which are secularism and freedom from religion.

A few weeks ago, I wrote something about the reasons why I think infidels should stay above the fray of religious infighting, particularly noting that while certain factions of religious belief, like neo-Calvinism and fundamentalist anything, are certainly more dangerous than others, there's not a huge need for us to try to nitpick about which theology is more valid than which other. No religious theology is valid. Now I am going to turn my attention to the spats that have been all over the atheist blogosphere and point out that atheists don't need to be involved in atheist infighting either. It is, at it's core, stupid and antithetical to the objectives of the people doing it.

What infidels face at the center of what causes this kind of controversy is a fundamental issue frequently thrown at us by the religious: "atheism doesn't offer anything." That's almost correct. Atheism is a null position, so it doesn't offer much. As argued in the post linked to in quotes just now, though, what it does offer is substantial: freedom of thought. The religious can pretend that they have freedom of thought, but they do not. Their thoughts are shackled to their belief systems. Infidels do not suffer from this problem.

Because of this, we see atheists who want to be achieving something--after all, the "atheist movement" feels like a movement for a thing--stuck not knowing how to achieve it. Furthermore, we see them stuck because they cannot rally around a unifying cause because atheism is not a thing!

What we really have is a wing of two related movements that happens to be populated by atheists, very motivated and angry atheists. First, there is the secularist movement, which has the goal of defining clear boundaries between church and state, a major goal for nearly all atheists who suffer when any religion is promoted by the government. Second, there is the freedom from religion movement, which is centrally concerned with secularism but also focuses on reducing the amount of discrimination that atheists still face because of their lack of religious views. The vast majority of activist atheists, either explicitly or de facto, belong to both of these movements, and the wing formed by them is what is often mislabeled "the atheist movement."

There are terrible reasons to call it that, though, or to even think of it as that, so atheists are better off not doing so.

First, atheism is not a thing!

By calling this an "atheist movement," which I at times have even been guilty of doing, so alluring is the Siren song of the laziness of imprecise language here, the incorrect notion that atheism is some kind of thing gets reinforced. If we think the shitstorm of "atheism is a belief system too" that we face now is bad, keep at this kind of thing for another decade and see where it gets us. We are vastly smarter to focus on secularism, which is mostly legal (and seeing that it is enforced), and freedom from religion, i.e. that we are not discriminated against because we don't believe in God. This "atheism movement" crap is going to be the next major toehold for the religious fanatics if we don't toe the line of accuracy in language and intention here.

Second, atheism is not a thing!

Because atheism is not a thing, we end up trying to make things out of it so that we can be accomplishing the kinds of things it feels like we need to be accomplishing. This is where everything starts getting sociopolitical and wonky. On the one hand, we might look at Atheism+. I get what the point of this is, but look at all the fighting it's causing! Why? Since atheism is not a thing, it doesn't offer a central unifying banner to rally around. Other not-null positions do, though, and in particular, with Atheism+, we see a lot of liberal ideas (and ideology) getting tacked on. However noble these causes, and however much I or anyone else may agree with them, and however popular they are within "the atheist community," it's a really bad idea to start tacking ideology onto a null position because it gives the illusion that it is a thing!

Lots of atheists are liberals, and lots are conservatives. There is absolutely no requirement to espouse a particular position on social or economic issues simply because someone doesn't believe in any gods. Indeed, social liberalism may be more prevalent among atheists than social conservatism, but we have absolutely no reason to predict that people who do not believe in God will be more likely to espouse any particular position on economics. Consider the almost-cliché analogy: what socioeconomic positions might we predict from a person based upon the knowledge that they do not believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?

What happens when we start trying to define a movement, then, like with Atheism+? Not only do we get the illusion of a null being not null, we also get schisms that reinforce that illusion further, injure cohesion on our real mutual goals, and are very, very ugly press for the opportunistic loudmouths that want to denigrate atheists as much as they can. I get that there are social issues at atheism conferences and that many activist atheists are activists for causes other than secularism and freedom from religion, but there's no need to offically wrap those things together into a dangerously misleading package. Feminism, LBGT-equality, etc., are movements, they are things, but atheism is not a thing.

There are also the wonky effects. Remember Alain de Botton's "Atheism 2.0"? That's a movement of a different flavor born out of the same place--atheism, as it is not a thing, doesn't offer anything (and it shouldn't any more than does not believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy). The impluse, then, is to try to create something that fulfills the social and community functions of churches, and even to meet the "spiritual" needs of people, from a perspective that does not espouse belief in God. Okay, but these attempts are going to be just about as weird and effectively useless as the Esperanto language when directly manufactured as in Atheism 2.0. The problem at the center of these attempts? That's right: atheism is not a thing.

A vastly better solution would be to look at what the Universalist Unitarian Church is doing and essentially do exactly the same thing while leaving God out of the discussion. Sermons (or lectures--by qualified professionals would be nice!) on philosophy, ethics, science, community, and what-have-you would all have a place in these facilities. "Atheism" doesn't have to be preached at all--indeed, it couldn't be preached because atheism is not a thing!

So, fellow infidels, we've really got to get this idea into our heads before we unleash a monster that will actually frustrate the real goals were interested in. The two things that unify most atheists into a single "cause" are
  1. Secularism--a complete separation of church and state that is effectively maintained; and
  2. Freedom from religion--that people have a fundamental right not to be harassed or excluded because they don't subscribe to some religion.
These causes overlap, of course, but that's less material than is the fact that we should work hard to be abundantly clear about what we're working toward and why. That we're atheists doesn't (can't) motivate this; that we are human beings does. We owe it to ourselves and everyone else that we can help to get this straight and stop trying to force atheism into being some kind of a thing.


Edit: Please consider seeing a follow-up piece to this one here: Atheism still isn't a thing, even if Atheism+ is. I elaborate upon the various movements that many atheists are involved in, still probably not exhaustively, but better than I did here.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Letter to the Religious Right

Hello folks in the Religious Right,

My name is James, and I want to talk to you about your religion. You need to know from the outset that I'm not part of your religion. In fact, I'm an infidel, or what you would call an "atheist." I just want to get that out of the way so that we have it laid plainly on the table from the start, even though I know that many of you won't have even made it this far because of that statement. If that happened, you have already proved my point, so however unfortunate it is, thank you for that if you did it.

I want to make clear that I know you. I am a Southerner, so some of you are my friends, my neighbors, my colleagues, and my clients, and I've been watching and listening to you, usually more patiently than you deserve. As it turns out, many of you are making the news as well--though I should note that none of you that I know personally have--for the many utterly asinine things that too many of you are saying, which really are a properly honest portrait of the beliefs that you would have done better to keep closer to your chests. 

The main thrust of what I want to say to you is simple. Your religious beliefs are an unfortunate tool by which you have been made into monsters.

Like I said, though, I know many of you, and you're not really monsters. I want to make this point clearly too: it's not your religion that is making you into monsters. As much as I would urge you to re-examine Christianity on its own grounds, your religion itself is not to blame, even if the book at its center has a lot to do with it. Rather, the fact that Christianity is being used as a tool to bend you into something scarier and worse than you are. This is important because you're literally ruining the world, and you don't see it. It has to stop.

You are a victim of manufactured religious outrage bent to political purposes.

I want to tell you about something Salman Rushdie recently pointed out about people you hate. Salman Rushdie is a very smart, very relevant, very talented writer that you're unlikely to have ever heard of. I really suggest you look him up. It's worth your time, although you're unlikely to like him much either. See, you've been trained not to like vast classes of people you don't even know on the basis that they don't agree with you, but we'll get back to that.

What Salman Rushdie said recently that is so poignant is that radical Islam, which you rightly hate, is a politically manufactured movement that is ruining a huge chunk of the world and causing big problems for essentially the rest of it. This forces us to distinguish radical Islam from all of Islam, much of which is not radicalized, a point many of you seem to miss because of your hard-right Christianity. Radical Islam is the hard right, the Religious Right, of Islam, just like you are in Christianity, and the majority of radical Muslims are political tools of angry, controlling, and dangerous men, just like you are.

Radical Islam, or Religious Right Islam, is a manipulation of people for political ends. It works upon their fears and hatreds to whip them into a politically useful frenzy by playing up the most uncompromising and most exclusionary notes in the Islamic religious beliefs. That, of course, is the same thing that the (Christian, American) Religious Right is doing to you, making you uncompromising, exclusionary, and dangerous, just like the terrorists that you think are America's biggest enemies. It's a good time to look in the mirror, my friends.

While these despots run the Islamic world into the ground by playing upon the most brutal and hateful aspects of the Islamic religion, the Religious Right in America has been force-feeding you a manufactured Jesus, one designed to make you distrust, if not hate outright, essentially everyone that doesn't think the same way as you do. If you keep letting these power-hungry and greedy men control you like this, then you will break America and probably the world. This is not hyperbolic or hysteric, as we will see shortly.

Incidentally, many of these men that are manipulating you are merely playing opportunistically on your religious beliefs, which they don't actually share. One good example is Mitt Romney, who you are unwisely about to try to elect as president of the United States. Mitt Romney is not a Religious Right Christian. He is a Mormon. That difference is not trivial and might prove consequential, but if you believe his religious beliefs and yours are aligned, it's only because he, with his political party (the Republican Party) has worked very hard to manipulate your thinking on the matter, knowing exactly what to say and how to say it to make it happen. This is particularly true since Mitt Romney doesn't even share your religious beliefs or your Taliban-like religiously based political agenda; Mitt Romney is a corporatist. (It is possible that he is also what you think you want, a theocrat, but if he is, you're going to be pretty damned sorry about it when you actually realize that he's a Mormon and Mormonism isn't actually the same thing that you believe.)

Stop trying to break science before you ruin the world!

Mitt Romney does have a particular view that he shares with many of you on the Religious Right, as well as with the Taliban. This view regards science, and it is of the highest importance. Now, I can't indicate that Mitt Romney is anti-science, though, because in a big sense, he's not. Mitt Romney and his party, though, are opportunists that are playing you like a fiddle on this point since you, generally, are anti-science, which has been cultivated in you by your religion more than by your politicians--just like we see with the Taliban.

Particularly, Mitt Romney's friends in the fossil fuel industry will benefit hugely from a denial of one particular science, that showing us the reality of global climate change (or global warming, if you rather). Have you ever stopped to wonder why you have oddly adopted climate change denial as part of your theology? It is a rather substantive bit of evidence, if not outright proof, that you are being manipulated since you, as hard-right Christians, have no real religious interest in climate science being true or false.

As it turns out, you have other anti-scientific agendas, particularly related to evolutionary biology and, to a lesser degree, cosmology. Your religion has taught you these agendas specifically because the theory of evolution unsettles issues too core to your theology for comfort, which shakes the entire house of cards that holds up your belief structure, which is very important to you for easily explained reasons. The future of medicine in this world depends upon people knowing and understanding evolutionary biology, though, and so your anti-scientific agenda in this arena puts the future of the human race on this planet in a rather rickety balance. Stem cell research, which many of you reject on religious grounds, does the same thing. This is a huge problem that your theology is spinning, and because of the general anti-science note required to play this tune, climate change denialists can easily harmonize upon it to get you whipped up against that as well, and they have, very effectively.

Climate change has bigger consequences than evolution, though, at least for now. Whatever damage future diseases will cause and whatever hindrances we have on finding cures to other problems like cancer, Alzheimer's disease, paralysis, blindness, and many, many others, nothing at present compares to the disaster we face when global warming gets beyond a certain point--a point that might literally be only a single presidential term away, although we probably have two. The current estimates for the economic damage that global warming will do to our world exceeds 180 trillion dollars, more than enough to cause a real global economic collapse that will literally ruin your children's lives if we don't change things soon. The economic catastrophe that President Bush caused that you wrongly blame President Obama for is a drop in the bucket compared with what climate change is likely to do to us by as soon as 2030 or 2035. Mitt Romney is absolutely on the wrong side of this issue so some of his wealthy friends can benefit now, and he's using your religious distrust of science to fool you into ignoring it.

Here, we literally are talking about the fate of the world being in the balance, and you're being worked up on the wrong side of the biggest problem in the world simply because it's politically useful to do so and because it's so damned easy to do it to you. While you play a few loud notes of science denialism against evolution, stem cell research, and reproductive science, climate change is an easy, if cacophonous, chord to strike. This isn't a game anymore, though. You're going to end the world, at least as we need it to live in as we know how. If you won't, your children will pay a very heavy price because your religious beliefs are being manipulated this way.

Get on the right side of history with social issues, or at least stop getting played by them.

You're being played like a fiddle not just on science denial, though, but also on social issues. To be completely frank, you are being taught to hate: you hate gays, hate independent women, hate freethinkers, hate people of different religions, and even still hate other races. You are also taught doublethink on your hate with clever but essentially meaningless platitudes like "don't hate the sinner; hate the sin." You are literally being taught to hate these people, though, to discriminate against them, to oppress them, to refuse them their rights, to attempt to take away their rights, to silence them, to control them, and to fail to extend the one thing your God commands above all other things that you extend to them: love. You do this while you wave a flag and yell "freedom." You have been taught by a useful manipulation of your religious beliefs to mistake your hard-won freedom of speech for a platform to judge, to oppress, and to hate.

This is all very useful indeed politically, at least by evil men and women, and your socially conservative religious beliefs make you ripe and ready to be molded to their reckless political goals--just like organizations like the Taliban do to Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the rest of the radicalized Muslim world. You are taught to hate, and that division is used to split you from people whose political interests you actually should share. Economically, it makes absolutely no sense that you would vote for rich people to do better while you are left to do worse. But you do, and you do it in droves marching in a maniacal lockstep that threatens to break the fallacy implied by Godwin's law.

This is why we've seen members of your ranks repeatedly say absolutely unacceptable things about women, contraception, the LBGT community, science, slavery, and especially rape over the past four or five years. Almost all of these people, incidentally, represent the Republican Party (which happens to be the one that is manipulating you, in case you haven't realized it yet), especially the Tea Party wing that many of you form. Until only a few years ago, no person could say those things in public in the United States and retain their relevance. They'd rightly be shamed out of the spotlight after a forced apology, and their careers would be completely over, particularly in politics. Many of you look at President Obama and say things like "our country is not on the right path." You are right, but you're looking at the wrong person. We're on the wrong path because of men like "legitimate rape" Todd Akin, "science is lies from the pit of hell" Paul Broun, "gift of God rape" Richard Mourdock, "Sandra Fluke is a slut" Rush Limbaugh, and so many others like them--almost all on the hard-right. We're on the wrong path because you have been taught through your religion to support those men, something that can only be justified by hating the ones they demonize.

This is not what we see now, though. We see you, again waving that bullshit banner of perverted "freedom," supporting these unconscionable and embarrassing statements and then electing the unqualified and dangerous buffoons. They've made sure to use your religion to get us to a point where they are no longer afraid of paying the just social price for saying these kinds of things aloud. Worse, they have used your religion to make you hate your fellow Americans that speak up as well, teaching you wrongly to associate the concept of evil with the word "liberal." How can you not see how they teach you to hate and use your religion of "love" to do it? Has hate blinded you that much already?

In the process, these people have used you to manufacture and to protect what can only be called an obscene shitstorm of oppression--mostly of women, gays, and minorities, although I might mention infidels here too. Your religion is at the center of most of this, and it's unacceptable. You surely know that "war on Christmas" we keep hearing about, and you are equally surely aware of all of the attempts by "the liberals" and "atheists" to remove and/or destroy Christianity in America. This is all a big load of horseshit manufactured to keep you on-edge about your religious values, to keep you angry about them so that you will zealously and fanatically defend anything and anyone that appears to be supporting them. This is one way they play you, and they play you so hard that the rest of us would feel sorry for you if you weren't using it to fuck everything up, just like your masters want you to.

If you really need a clear piece of evidence that you're essentially the American Taliban, you need to look at what you are doing with rape up on the public stage, which you obviously must support. You have allowed, and partly forced, one of the major national political parties to say something overwhelmingly embarrassing about rape, rape, almost on a weekly basis--a rate that seems to be accelerating with time. We have "easy rape," "legitimate rape," "gift from God rape," "forced rape," "true rape (of a virgin)," and all kinds of idiocy flying around one of the easiest questions we now face: RAPE IS RAPE, AND RAPE IS BAD.

Why? It's partly because you have your heads too far up your own asses about abortions, which suddenly become very hard to deny justifiability when the pregnancy resulted from a rape. That's actually only a tiny bit of the reason, though--and it's a huge one on its own and endemic of the big one. The big reason you have your heads completely wrong about rape is because your entire party has all of its heads completely wrong about women in exactly the same way the Taliban does.

These questions about rape (and contraception, and abortion) all come down to a fundamental belief that women are essentially the properties of their husbands, vessels through which to produce progeny, and otherwise too diabolical to be trusted (if you ask the female head of the Tea Party in Central Mississippi, Janis Lane). Just like the Taliban, you think of women in a completely and utterly wrongheaded and oppressive way, and this one we can actually pin directly on your hard-right interpretation of Christianity. As you can see, politicians are quick to play you on this too and attempt to make legislation that seriously limits the civil liberties (something you're supposed to be all about, remember?) of half of the population. Not to beat a dead horse, but do you know who else does this? The Taliban does!

You are, for the most part, better and smarter people than this. I know you, so I know it's true. You just have hard-right radicalized ideas pushing your hate on a scale unmatched by any significant modern group other than the hard-right Islamists that you hate so much--the ones that flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001.

You're pushing people away from your Jesus by being so hateful!

Of course, all this political pronouncements are very obvious to the rest of us. We notice. Indeed, you might should know, the reason I am an atheist today is largely because of you supporting and promoting these monstrous, obsolete ideas on the public stage. These outrages against modernity were what forced me to carefully evaluate the religions themselves, which resulted in my abject rejection of them. They are also what made me first start speaking out against religion. You should take note of that, since you claim to be working primarily to win souls to your God. Your bullshit is pushing them away in record numbers, particularly your children and grandchildren. You are arguably more effective at making people into atheists than all the atheists, scientists, and liberals combined!

The biggest reason young people are turning away from religions like Christianity is because of the fact that you hard-right Christians are actually more and more identifiable with being hate groups. It works because you're so politically mobilized as you are by power-hungry people who hardly care about your religion (you might call them antichrists if you weren't too busy waving banners to support them).

If you really believe your religion, it's a good time to turn it down and realize the monsters it's making you--again, as a political tool of men who have dreams of a lot of power, just like the hard-right Islamists like the Taliban.

This brings us back to radical Islam, then.

I'm stunned, honestly, by the number of you that I've talked to that don't realize that the word "Allah" simply means "God" in Arabic. For an analogy, the word "Dios" means "God" in Spanish. Observe, though, that when a Spanish speaker (most of whom many of you hate for political, but not personal, reasons) says "Dios," you don't hate him for worshipping a false God. You do accuse Muslims of of it for praying to Allah, though.

This, then, is unlikely to land on you as squarely as it needs to. While Islam is a different religion from Christianity (in a more substantial way than Catholicism is different from Protestantism, or than that Mormonism is different from both of those), the God they call "Allah" is the same God you pray to, thank, worship, and use as an excuse to hate everyone that you decide or are taught not to like. This God is called the Abrahamic God because it is the God that the Bible says made a covenant with Abram (who was renamed Abraham). This is the same God of the hard-right radical Islamists, like the Taliban, who frighteningly and ironically (since you both call him the "One True God") was changed less by Islam than He was by Christianity. You are both worshipping the same God and using that belief to hate each other for it, among other mostly politically manufactured ills.

These Muslims you have so much in common with, as much as you hate to hear that, are the recipients of a number of hateful things that pass your lips and sometimes occupy your thoughts. The same is true of many, many Muslims who aren't hard-right Islamists and have something more significant in common with you, being human beings that are trying to do good work and find some measure of happiness and comfort in a hard life. Meanwhile, if we're real about it, you indiscriminately and hatefully call them all by a variety of discriminating  and hateful names like Muzzies, muck-mucks, camel-jockeys, towel-heads, and sand niggers. As it turns out, it is common among you that you want to bring war to them, kill them, wipe them and their religion from the planet, and, very generally, hate them, which is why you're trained to hate them so much, which your religion is very, very good at doing to you. That's politically useful, and your masters in the pulpits, on Religious Right television programming, and in the emerging Tea Party and Republican leadership all know it well.

But I know you're not bad people. I mean, really, I know you.

The thing is that you're not really monsters, not most of you. I know enough of you to know that firsthand. Most of you are better than that, either raised better or having outgrown your raising, and I see you getting played. It cannot be denied, though. You in the Religious Right, the hard-right Christians in America, are really the American Taliban.

Wake up. We all need you to.

With kindness and sincerity,
James


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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Heaven would be hell. Why? Infinity

Infinity is not an intuitive concept. For reasons that I think I detail rather well in God Doesn't; We Do (rather an arms-race of memes), the religious really like to use, which almost universally means to misuse, this non-intuitive and yet tantalizing concept in their formulations:
  • God is infinite (nonsense);
  • God's love is infinite (what does that mean, and how is it measured?);
  • God is infinitely powerful (how?);
  • God is infinitely knowledgeable and wise (how?);
  • ...that he who believes in him will have eternal (read: infinitely long) life (in the kingdom of heaven).
This last bit is what I want to focus on here. The afterlife in heaven is supposed to be eternal, meaning infinitely long? That means it will be hell, even without the multitude of other reasons that it would be (like having to manage forever knowing that your loved ones that didn't make it are being tortured beyond endurance and there's literally nothing you can do about it).

To get why forever, wherever, would be a hell, we've got to understand infinity a little bit better. I covered this in pretty good detail in chapters five and six in God Doesn't; We Do, but I'll elaborate here a little for those without a copy of the book. In particular, we need to understand "how big" infinity is. A good way to approach the idea is to notice that every number is smaller than most.

What we have to understand is the scale of infinity, and as it turns out, the simple and naive understanding that most people have is sufficient for the job here. If we think only about the positive whole numbers, the numbers we count things with, the intuitive notion that the numbers never end is the functional concept we need. Now normally I have a real knee-jerk to this "never end" business because it unnecessarily and inaccurately introduces the notion of time into the enumeration of the numbers (with which we enumerate). It's a real problem, normally, to conceive of having this number now, the next number later, and the next one sometime after that. All of the numbers simply "exist," in the abstract sense of the word, and they "exist" now and always, again in the abstract sense of existence. Here, though, we're lucky. Since we're talking about an infinite scope of time, eternity, the naive one now, two later, three after that, and so on, construction actually helps make our argument, when we get to it.

So, if we look at the positive whole numbers, we know that they go off without end. We often write things like 1, 2, 3, ..., where the three dots (known as ellipsis) indicate "going off without end." If we think about it, though, we also realize that where we decide to place the dots is pretty arbitrary. For examples, we might write,
  • 1, 2, 3, ... 
  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ...
  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, ...
In principle, if we wanted to take the time to do it or to introduce some other notation to facilitate it, we could put the ellipsis after whatever number we want. This is how big infinity is, though! If we put the ellipsis after the number 3, we know there are infinitely many numbers after 3 (and only 3 up to 3). If we put it after 5, we know there are infinitely many numbers after 5 (and only 5 up to 5). If we put it after 12, we know there are infinitely many numbers after 12 (and only 12 up to 12). If we were to put it instead after one billion, we know there are infinitely many numbers after one billion (and only one billion up to one billion).

This point is huge and non-intuitive, at least once you see what it implies, so you might want to re-read it and let it sink in. When we talk about an infinite collection of numbers like this one, literally all of the weight is in the ellipsis. We can even show it more rigorously. Take the example above where we stick the ellipsis after the number 12. Imagine we decide to elaborate upon the ellipsis, to uncover what is there. Obviously, we all know it would be the numbers 13, 14, 15, .... Now imagine we decide to number the numbers masked by the ellipsis. Thirteen is first, so we number it 1, fourteen is second, so we number it 2, fifteen is third, so we number it 3, and so on. The result is that we get 1, 2, 3, ....

But that's... yeah, all of them.

Weird, huh? Mathematicians can easily construct a fully rigorous argument that is beyond argument that exactly the same number of positive whole numbers are tied up in the ellipsis as there are positive whole numbers entirely. In other words, the ones we lay out explicitly before the ellipsis constitute effectively nothing (and this is the foundation of that almost surely concept that sits firmly at the center of my argument that God doesn't exist, almost surely).

So, we arrive at the claim I laid out above, then: every number is smaller than most, since the infinitely many numbers larger than any given number is immeasurably bigger than the finitely many numbers up to that specific number.

Now back to the argument for time and the horribleness of eternity, even if that eternity is in "heaven." People who argue for heaven being great and eternal are simply proving that they don't "get" infinity. If they did, they'd never make such a stupid claim. Nothing could possibly entertain a consciousness, particularly a provincial little ape consciousness like ours, for an eternity. Imagine one number, then the next number, then the next number, and so on, but where no matter how many numbers you have been through, once you get to "and so on," you're effectively still at the beginning.

The thing these religious folks need to "get" about infinity is that every number is smaller than most, and in fact, every number is smaller than almost every number. In other words, if you're sent to heaven, however much time you've done, however long it's been, you haven't even started your sentence of eternity yet, and you never will.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why evolutionary biology (and cosmology) for atheists?

While reading an internet forum (the closest thing to the fiction we call hell) recently, one dedicated to atheism, a commenter decided to explode about his particular (mis)understanding of infidels in general. His straw man paints infidels as inexplicably interested in pop-sci presentations of "evolution" (read: evolutionary biology) and cosmology, inter alia. From this, I surmise that there might be some lack of understanding in the theist (or rather, anti-infidel) community about why so many atheists are interested in pop-science renderings of evolutionary biology (e.g. Richard Dawkins's fine The Greatest Show on Earth or Jerry Coyne's excellent Why Evolution is True, among other titles) and, to a lesser extent, cosmology.

The big answer is relevance!

Perhaps it is the case that theists are too busy making anti-evolution arguments or trying to use those to shoehorn creationism back into public schools in the United States to have noticed, but a lot of religious folks these days seem to like to argue on the behalf of their God by trying to disparage evolutionary biology. This is a bit funny, in that simultaneously disheartening kind of way, because disproving evolution wouldn't provide a drop of evidence for the existence of their almost surely imaginary God and is thus an endeavor without point--though not without consequences. Sick of it up to their eyeballs, mostly because of those consequences, infidels often feel compelled to brush up on their evolutionary biology, perhaps to fight the good fight with their faith-filled and uninformed neighbors and perhaps only to satisfy their own curiosities about the actually viable explanation for where we come from. Believe it or not, the question is actually more interesting when you get rid of "God did it!" as a pseudo-explanation.

This leads me to a second big reason: it's interesting. Our origins are fascinating. For those of us who are already familiar with evolutionary biology, we already know why. For those who are ignorant of the subject and curious, it's worth the read. For those of you who are obstinately opposed, honestly, you don't know what you're missing. Your non-explanation lacks in every conceivable way to what evolutionary biology is telling us. Incidentally, evolutionary biology is right here too, regardless of your beliefs, so if you resist it, you persist in being wrong--again, with pretty big consequences since this willful misunderstanding is so widespread.

Connected to that reason is the one that is going to separate the evolutionary biology from the cosmology here: tractability. Biology is a lovely science. It sits right at a cusp of academic efforts--challenging as it may be, biology rests rather at the tipping point between hard and soft sciences (this being defined in the amount of mathematical "hardness" they require). This makes biology, including evolutionary biology, a very approachable subject for a lay reader, presuming a good lay presentation of it. Cosmology, rather unfortunately, because it formally resides locked away somewhere beyond differential geometry and tensor calculus tends to lose some folks at times where biology connects a little more easily, however great the lay renditions of cosmological ideas happen to be (one thinks of Hawking and Krauss here, at the least). Cosmology, in quite the formal sense, is too hard for the kind of mass appeal that biology can command, particularly since it doesn't actually specialize in the kinds of pretty pictures that astronomy does.

There's another huge reason why evolutionary biology is hot with infidels, and it happens to be the one that keeps cosmology in the picture, even though the latter is so hard: it's about us. As it turns out theists aren't the only ones guilty of indulging in anthropocentrism, and these sciences that concern our ultimate origins therefore possess a visceral appeal for the scientifically literate and curious. That's pretty huge, actually, particularly when one spends enough time with these ideas to see how much patently better they do than creationist appeals (which are usually to ignorance and tradition).

There's actually another reason that's worth mentioning: it's still pretty new news, at least for a lot of us. Having been raised in the South, my high school biology classes were careful to stay away from the (religiously manufactured) controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution, and so these books that are written at the high school and collegiate level are a real treat for those of us who are filling in gaps in our high school educations that shouldn't have ever been there.

Oh, yeah, and because these subjects are genuinely interesting is another big reason.

Importantly, though, infidels are often fascinated by these topics, but they are also often not interested in them beyond a passing glance. A great many infidels are comparably scientifically illiterate and ignorant as are the theists trying to shoot down evolutionary biology (they usually can't do much with cosmology except to appeal to stupid philosophical arguments that the science has utterly dethroned). They also aren't typically part of the problem, referencing those huge consequences I've mentioned a couple of times. Still, I only mention this point because the caricature of the infidel as an angry, condescending, biology-lover is at least false in the last bit (and usually in the entirety). One doesn't have to understand scientific theories to reject claims about the reality of Santa Claus, and it is likewise with God.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I have an opinion, hear me roar

Opinion is a word that gets thrown around frequently, and incorrectly, in discussions about religion (and other ideologies, like politics). In the United States, at least, for whatever variety of reasons, no higher status seems possible to extend to an idea than that of opinion. This phenomenon, of course, is nothing short of dangerously ridiculous and sits at the foundation of Isaac Asimov's famous observation that in America an opinion apparently entitles one to roar about it:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural live, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'
I have no desire to attempt to untangle the reasons behind the elevation of opinion in American culture. There are a number of potential causes for it that probably, as Asimov implies, wind back to the prevailing culture in the prerevolutionary colonial times when Europeans first started settling on the American continents. They present quite the Gordian knot for an ambitious and talented historian to tackle: A History of Ignorance in the United States and the Veneration of Opinion. That is certainly a book I would like to read.

What is opinion?

Google defines opinion to mean "a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge." Opinions come in a variety of flavors, then, tucked into the ambiguity of what might be meant by "view or judgment" and, more importantly in the spectrum of meanings contained in the phrase "not necessarily based on fact or knowledge." Indeed, I recognize at least two categories of opinions and at least four categories of something else often wrongly labelled as opinions.

Kinds of opinions

I would argue that the kinds of opinions exist on a spectrum, from less weighty to more, and that there are at least two meaningful categories on this spectrum with a relatively fuzzy boundary in between. Those categories are uninformed opinion and informed opinion, and it is my hardly controversial contention that more informed opinions carry vastly more weight.

Uninformed opinions

These are the kinds of opinions that don't have good justifications behind them, ones that are not based upon very much fact or knowledge. The elevation of uninformed opinions to an equal status with informed opinions is exactly the thread that defines Asimov's "cult of ignorance." Some of these opinions, like that the moon gives off its own (visible) light or that God created the universe just as it is in six literal days less than ten thousand years ago, flatly defy contravening knowledge and are an embarrassment and a threat to our modern civilization. Others of these, like that black people are inherently worse in some way than white people, are another kind of serious threat altogether--while again completely defying the better understanding of the world. These opinions are indefensible.

There are other kinds of uninformed opinions that are enormously dangerous and indefensible, of course. Of note, we might mention the opinion that "alternative" healthcare approaches, like homeopathy, which has no basis in science or in logic, are just as good as conventional, proven medicine. I place these in a separate category because of their wider public acceptance than the outrages listed above, saying that fully aware that a good portion of the population of the United States is racist (and showing it shockingly openly in this year's presidential contest) and that nearly forty percent accept biblical creation as the literal truth. Homeopathic "remedies" are available in nearly every pharmacy and grocery store in the United States; they represent an enormously lucrative industry; and the typical American is as absolutely clueless about this form of obvious quackery as might be possible.

There are not-outrageous opinions as well, which are informed to a variety of degrees. Consider another medical example. A person might be experiencing a variety of health-related symptoms that include shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. Friends or coworkers might be of the opinion that the person is suffering from cardiac issues that are later determined by a cardiologist to merely be stress-induced muscle spasms in the intercostal muscles lining the ribs, ruling out heart problems. Here we see a direct conflict between uninformed and informed opinion, and anyone who has urged someone to consult a doctor about an apparent health issue understands this difference. On the other hand, few suffering from those kinds of symptoms are too likely to accept an uninformed opinion that discourages ruling out the scariest possibilities. Here we clearly see the difference between informed and uninformed opinions. (We might also see them in matters of financial advice, home repair or security, vehicle maintenance, and other matters of consequence that might require an expert's opinion.)

Another good example arises from the recent presidential and vice-presidential debates. Someone can be of the opinion that Vice President Joe Biden strongly won his debate against Representative Paul Ryan or that President Barack Obama came off sleepy and weak against former Governor Mitt Romney in his first debate, but not in his second. One could also be of the opinion that the president was working a serial debate strategy and throwing the first debate intentionally, trying to get his challenger to say a bit more than he should about things he'll struggle with later in the contest. Each of those opinions is very difficult to back with the kind of certainty we often call mathematical (or even scientific), and each can be argued--as has been done incessantly and loudly by just about everyone for the past few weeks.

Notably, considering the first presidential debate, someone that was merely reading the transcript of the debate, might be led to conclude that the president won on substance, even though the general consensus is that he lost that debate, particularly by those who watched him. Other people who watched might conclude that the president won based upon body language, again against the general consensus. All of these ideas have been presented in the media with some argumentation for them. Each represents a different level and sort of being informed, which brings us to a discussion of the informed-opinion category.

Informed opinions

The medical example above, perhaps best, illustrates that we understand that there are informed opinions that are of vastly more worth than their uninformed counterparts. A cardiologist's opinion about what is going on with our hearts is of vastly more worth than is some guy's from the gym (presuming said guy is not a cardiologist or other sort of physician). Here we see the value of experts, which we pretend to value in the United States or place value upon when there is some immediate threat to our person or property.

For some odd reason, though, Americans have a real issue with accepting the informed opinions of people acting outside of their professional setting, and I mean this in two ways. On the one hand, there is the often valid side of this phenomenon where we might not accept a cardiologist's opinion on economics, in which he may be inexpert. On the other hand, there is the less valid side of this phenomenon where the cardiologist at the gym is a guy at the gym because he's not in his lab coat in a hospital. This most often manifests, however, in over or undervaluing the level of education or intelligence held by someone. Smart and well-educated people can be wrong, but if they are studious, careful, and present academic integrity, they are wrong surprisingly less often than they are accused of being wrong.

Two huge arenas in which this arises are cosmology and evolutionary biology (apparently theists are surprised that so many atheists are interested in these subjects, which will be the topic of a future post--relevance to the currently ongoing religion-centered debate being the biggest, most obvious reason). Cosmologists and evolutionary biologists are cracking smart folks working in cracking hard fields. They are immensely qualified experts. Their opinions, and in many cases (particularly in cosmology) these are opinions, are highly informed, and yet somehow completely unqualified people feel as if their opinions are on a level with these folks'.

One important example to note here is the recent claim that "heaven is real" raised by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander after going into a coma from a bout of bacterial meningitis (which neuroscientist Sam Harris absolutely eviscerated). A common claim arising from the desperate is that this accomplished and qualified scientist (no comment on whether or not a surgeon constitutes a scientist any more than a mechanic constitutes an engineer), so his claim must be weighty. All Alexander has here, though, is an informed opinion of what his experience was for him, not that what he experienced is a reflection of some objective reality. He has an informed opinion on how brains are put together, and maybe even to some degree how they work, but as Harris notes, he seems not to be applying what knowledge he does have in this case.

That aside, many infidels have taken the time to be studious, though not professionally expert, in the fields of cosmology and evolutionary biology at an informed-layperson level. Their opinions on these fields are vastly more qualified than are many of the opinions of their detractors, which are more often than not completely unqualified in that they haven't even been informed by studying evolutionary biology or cosmology. On the other hand, many American infidels have spent their lives up to their necks in the theological ramblings that constitute the most significant (by volume, not weight) portion of the uninformed challenges to those fields. In short, those who have studied both fields carefully are more qualified than those who have studied only one, and those who have not studied the sciences, because of their very nature, are essentially unqualified to talk about them.

It is my contention that nearly anyone who grew up in American culture at present is more than qualified to talk about religious tropes because they are so overwhelmingly common--near ubiquity. It isn't even necessary to have this qualification to poop in the shoes of theology, though, because any one even reasonably informed about the scientific method has all the qualifications necessary: theology is not science, end of discussion.

The comparison against Alexander's case is notable here. Alexander's informed opinion about brain phenomena is being challenged by experts who are more trained in understanding brain phenomena than he is. In contrast, a creationist trying to argue against evolutionary biology by pointing to theological claims is not arguing against evolutionary biology on its own turf. Theists who study evolutionary biology honestly and seriously, like Ken Miller, do not argue against evolutionary biology (indeed, Miller is a prominent evolutionary biologist). If Alexander was arguing honestly and seriously from a position of neuroscience, he too would be dismissing his experience as an experience that occurred in his not-dead brain, however that managed to manifest. In other words, Alexander may be informed on some level on neuroscience, perhaps even incredibly informed, and yet he is suspending that to argue from a position of subjective experience (revelation) and theology, and possibly manipulating or misrepresenting the scientific knowledge he has to do so.

In general, though, informed opinions carry vastly more weight than uninformed ones. This is rather obvious, I hope. The hard question remains: how do we surmount the problem presented by people who selectively refuse to recognize this fact?

Before getting on to my categories of non-opinions that pose as opinions, let me address an important aside concerning opinions.

Are you entitled to your opinion?

Writing for the academic Australian website The Conversation, philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes at Deakin University argues "No, you are not entitled to your opinion" in a piece sure to change the thinking of many who read it. His essential argument is that you are only entitled to that which you can argue for, a position which he then goes on to argue convincingly. Opinions you cannot argue for, he claims, carry absolutely no weight. I am in complete agreement with this assessment. 


Not opinions: preferences, lies, facts/theories, and beliefs

Many kinds of ideas are not opinions and yet pose as them. Let me elaborate on four of them.

Preferences

Preferences are very opinion-like. Indeed, they are, in a sense, highly informed opinions, although they are entirely informed subjectively. Unlike opinions, properly, absolutely no objective data needs to exist to define or defend a preference, and so this disqualifies them from being proper opinions. As a result, they are the only kind that people need to respect, de facto.

If you prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream, literally no one has any grounds upon which to challenge that, and this is precisely because the justification is entirely subjective. Perhaps you prefer to take your steak with sauce, or without, or with compound butter, or perhaps you prefer to change between them depending on your mood. Guess what: not only are you not wrong for that, you cannot be wrong for that.

Lies

Lies are not opinions, they are deliberate falsehoods--including skewed statistics and lies of omission. It is not terribly often that I hear claims that outright lies are opinions except in one context. The very loud, very obnoxious cable news circuit, most notably the FOX News network, likes to claim that everything that it says that isn't backed by fact is opinion. One of FOX's taglines, in fact, is "we report, you decide." Lies aren't opinions, though. They're deliberate falsehoods.

Facts and theories

Facts and theories, in the scientific sense of the word, are not opinions either, or if they fall under the loose definition given earlier, they are immensely informed opinions that have literally withstood the challenging questions of many highly qualified challenges. If someone claims that human beings are a species of apes, for example, if it can even be considered an opinion, it is such an overwhelmingly informed opinion that it goes beyond challenge (particularly since grade-school biology curriculum at present really should cover this statement). Importantly, facts and theories are not presented merely by some sort of authority, they openly invite anyone to make the investigation for themselves.

Beliefs

Attention religious people: your beliefs are not opinions, they are beliefs. Some of the statements that come out of your beliefs, like that the world is less than ten thousand years old, may qualify as opinions, but those are very uninformed opinions as they get their information from a source that is literally thousands of years out-of-date scientifically. If you believe in God, that is a fact about you, and your belief that God exists is not an opinion. It is the acceptance of the opinion that a God exists, which is an opinion only informed by the insubstantial reasons of authority, revelation, and tradition. In short, beliefs are constructs that serve as the foundations for opinions, and so those opinions can only be as informed as their foundations. Religious beliefs are remarkably uninformed, and thus opinions arising from religious beliefs are also remarkably uninformed.
 
To close: Does anyone have to respect your opinion?

Just as plainly as Patrick Stokes says that you're only entitled to the opinions you can argue for, you are only entitled to respect for opinions that are respectable. For an opinion to be respectable, at the very least it will have to be both informed and morally defensible.

For example, we are now in a position societally to be able to say with little controversy that absolutely no one has to respect anyone's racist opinions. In fact, we say quite the opposite. Not only is this opinion hugely uninformed, it's morally indefensible. No one needs to respect racist opinions.

The opinion that the application of eugenics could potentially benefit all of humanity may, indeed, be an informed opinion. Intentional selective breeding of animals has produced very successful outcomes for particular working requirements, and as we too are animals, there is absolutely no reason to expect it is different with us. This position, though, has been widely denounced as morally indefensible, rightly so. Even though this opinion is informed, it is not ethical, and thus it deserves no respect, however many times disingenuous theists want to throw this straw man at infidels, as if it is a consequence of rejecting belief in God that we will violate this moral position (or as if it is a consequence of believing in God that eugenics is off the table--Hitler, a theist, was a big fan of the idea).

The opinion that there is a sense of cosmic retribution in the universe, a karma in the sense that the New Agers mean it, is an uninformed opinion that may actually be morally defensible. It does not automatically command respect, though, based upon that moral defensibility because it is uninformed.

Generally, we have absolutely no requirement placed upon us to respect uninformed opinions since they cannot be successfully argued for. This literally disqualifies the entire lot of opinions that arise out of religious beliefs (like the One True Faiths or New Age pantheism and panentheism) from commanding automatic respect. No one needs to respect an opinion that cannot be soundly argued for any more than they need to respect an opinion that is morally indefensible, however sound the arguments for it might be.

You may have an opinion, then, and we may hear you roar, but unless you can back it up morally and factually, expect no one to listen.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ask James--What about all the good religion does?

From time to time I'll use this to answer questions from those who have read or who are interested in reading God Doesn't; We Do. I'll post those questions with the answers I give to give a sense of how I think on my feet about these matters. I should note that I'm not normally in the habit of spending a great deal of time researching my responses to casual emails, so usually these responses will be pretty off-the-cuff. I'll reproduce them faithfully, only proofreading them for technical and grammatical points, although I reserve the right to add notes and addenda.

I got a good and common question in email today. It appears after a short exchange in which I was asked about what caused me to stop believing in God (answer: I studied the question carefully), in which I mentioned that I really broke from being able to accept any of the religions on September 11, 2001. I still believed in God for probably another 9-10 years after that, though, even if I rejected religions like Christianity. I shall not cover it in detail here, though, since I cover it in detail in the second chapter of God Doesn't; We Do.

The email I received reads:
I put the fault of 9/11 more on extremism rather than on the Muslim religion though. I know there are plenty of peaceful Muslims. But if you want to blame it all on religion, then shouldn't you also acknowledge all the good that religion does? All the charity? All the hope and peace and comfort it brings to so many people?
My response follows.


Let's be careful here. Religious extremism did 9/11. Without the religion, it's pretty unlikely it would have happened. Religions, I realized that day, are what Sam Harris articulated far better a few years later in End of Faith: the religions (and their scriptures) are virtual engines of extremism. You see it in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and even some sects of Buddhism as well. Extremists who take their ancient and rather barbaric scriptures altogether too seriously and do very bad things. The core of all of these ancient religions is that the scriptures that they are based upon are holy (and often the perfect word of a frightening god). That means that however much we want to blame specific people for the attacks on 9/11 (or others), the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc., we must lay some of the blame in the institutions that maintain the adherence to these "engines of extremism," the religious texts, dogmas, and doctrines that form the religions themselves.

This is something also to be very careful about. Laying the blame at the feet of Islam is not the same as laying the blame on any Muslim who wasn't involved in the attack, nor is it the same as laying the blame on Muslims in general. This is a point I feel that is often missed. Islam, the religion, can be at ultimate fault for atrocities like 9/11 without having to blame a single person other than the ones that carried out the attack. My attack, then, is on ideas (here: religions, generally: ideologies), not on people. In my book, I make a rather impassioned call to the people in those religions to change the destructive adherence to the ancient, barbarous texts and to revise their doctrines to stay current with philosophy and, more importantly, science. The only blame that extends beyond the specific individuals involved in extremism, then, lies with those who know the texts, doctrines, and dogmas are dangerous and yet do nothing (unless trying to cover it up).

I do acknowledge the good that religion does, and that religious people do. I don't think I, or anyone, needs religion to motivate them to charity, though, so when you add in the baggage that comes with religious belief, I don't think the argument from charity adds any weight to the religious cause. As for the hope, peace, and comfort it brings to so many people, I can't get behind that argument either. Again, it's a matter of understanding what is really being delivered. God doesn't exist. Therefore God doesn't provide hope, peace, or comfort to people. When you talk about hope, peace, and comfort that religion delivers to people, then, what you're really talking about (most of the time) is the wallpaper that religion puts over the reality that people will die. Maybe it makes some people feel better, and I wouldn't want to deny anyone hope or comfort, but of what noble use is this lie? I side with Bertrand Russell on this matter: "there can be no good reason for believing something that isn't true."

My essential claim, then, is that whatever [good] religion is doing in those regards, it can be done far better with far less damaging baggage without religion. Much of the comfort that religion brings, when not papering over reality, is in a sense of community support, but no one needs believe in any set of doctrines, dogmas, or imaginary beings in order to form a supportive community and be involved in it. Much of the hope it brings, when not papering over reality, is in preaching positive ideas, but "positive philosophical societies" could form to do just that (rather like the Universal Unitarians, only without the appeals to all the gods). Much of the personal peace it brings stem from those same things and from the peer counselling that many people get through their priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams. How could that not be done better by actual trained counsellors instead of religious people who have no formal training in the field?! What damage does it do instead that we allow these untrained people to act as professionals in a regard that they're not licensed to act in, simply because they've devoted their lives to the "study" and worship of an imaginary being and some Bronze-Age books? Mental health wasn't exactly a concept in the Bronze Age.

When you talk of peace that religion brings, you're talking of personal peace, right? Otherwise, surely you're joking!

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"The Rumble" in an Air Conditioned Auditorium with Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly and a comment about American mythology

Last night, the enormously famous Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart fame, and Bill "Can't Explain That" O'Reilly, of FOX News's The O'Reilly Factor, met for a debate. Slightly spoiling the event for those who haven't seen it yet, O'Reilly answers the last question last, getting the last word, while responding to an audience question that asks what advice the two figures have for young Americans. He says,
Alright, young pinheads, work hard, be honest, get off the Net, go outside, travel as much as you can, find your passion--everybody's good at something--find what you're good at--everybody, that's why I believe in God, everybody has a talent--find what you're good at and make money doing it.
Let me first say that I agree with a fair portion of O'Reilly's general advice: work hard, be honest, travel as much as you can, find your passion, find a balance of life that doesn't forget the real world for the virtual one. I agree with all of this. I don't agree with O'Reilly here, though, on his central point and see it as part of a far larger ideological problem that we might identify as "Americanism," or American mythology in general.

Now, the normal theme on this blog might bring me to attack O'Reilly's abysmally bad and incorrect reason for believing in God, but that point is small, easy, and inconsequential. An argument from talent hardly suggests even that there is a deity that is defined as being a "talent-giver," and it is much further from establishing that the deity laid out in any of the ancient scriptures is real.

The more consequential point that bears making from O'Reilly's commentary is one that is central to American mythology and, indeed, conservative ideology. "Find what you're good at and make money doing it." An episode of South Park uncovered the fallacy behind this notion brilliantly years ago when they introduced the "Underpants Gnomes," whose fundamental plan is:
  1. Collect underpants
  2. ????
  3. Profit.
This is precisely the recipe that O'Reilly recommends to America's "young pinheads":
  1. Find what you're good at
  2. ????
  3. Make money doing it.
The only way that ???? makes any sense under O'Reilly's conception is if part of "what you're good at" happens to be "monetizing what you do." This is a fundamental piece of American mythology, that anyone, literally anyone, should be able to find what he is good at and make money doing it, and it doesn't match reality in the least. For people who are enormously good at things and enormously bad at making money doing it, it just doesn't pan out.

Conservative ideology is built upon this concept, though, along with a handful of other ideas. The concept has the corollary that "if someone can't make money doing what they are good at, then they aren't working hard enough at it." This, however, is often untrue and leaves open the door to an enormous possibility for demonization, which is powerfully politically useful to just about everyone's detriment. Indeed, the entire construction is flawed at it's core.

People may be very good at and passionate about things that just aren't very marketable in and of themselves. Step one in O'Reilly's formulation, then, sounds better than it is. What it needs to say is "find something that you like doing, that you're good at, and that is able to be sold."

People may be good at and passionate about marketable things but not be able to put them into a context that is marketable or be unable to market them. So again we have to modify O'Reilly's formulation, which sounds better than it is. What it needs to say is "find something that you like doing, that you're good at, that is able to be sold, and that you are able to bring to market." We realize that that last point is, indeed, itself a skill that someone would have to be passionate about and good at in his self-made-person formulation, though, because of the existence of "marketer" as a career. Some people are just bad at marketing--as we should expect based purely on statistical inference--and this self-made-person conception ignores that reality.

Surely the American dream notes the economic law of comparative advantage, though, and points out that if someone is not good at marketing, then they should find someone who is and hire them to do that aspect of the job for them. This presumes the opportunity and ability to do that, which is usually measured in terms of available liquid capital, and that the passion at hand is actually marketable (and able to make it in a highly competitive market that has a vested interest in squashing competition as it arises, say, for example, like we might see from large energy corporations working against the development of alternative energy sources). So O'Reilly's conception here literally requires people to have access to the kind of capital required to market their passion and know-how. Again, his bootstraps look better than they are.

Speaking of bootstraps, that's where we get to O'Reilly's Step 2: ????. Of course, O'Reilly doesn't say that's what Step 2 is, but as he leaves it blank in his formulation, "find what you're good at and make money doing it," we can assume that he is not offering a prescription for how that is to be achieved. The American mythology that O'Reilly is presenting here is that being good at something and having a passion for it will lead to being able to make money doing it if you work hard enough. Luck, opportunity, connections, etc., are either all ignored or considered to be part of the "working hard enough." This simply isn't how things work, though.

The problem with this nugget of American--nay, capitalist--mythology is that it is presented most often as O'Reilly has presented it: as a feel-good abstraction that lacks in all of the necessary details while ignoring significant chunks of reality. Because it is a simple, feel-good abstraction, it has a lot of rhetorical appeal and is thus useful as part of the foundation of an ideology, which we might define functionally as a belief system that puts reality second to wish-thinking about how things actually are. That appeal has given the concept a lot of ideological weight with a significant portion of the American population who accepts at face value the premise that if someone is hard-working and works at what they are good at, then they can make money doing it, with the corollary notion that if that plan doesn't work out, the failure must be related to the person's work ethic. The problem, in reality, is the ideology promoting the idea, or rather that the ideology is not actually consistent with the realities of the economic system it is tied to.

We see this problem enormously in our culture right now, and I'm not going to point just at the lack of opportunity that presents itself to those with less privilege and luck than others, say those who are too busy working hard at something they hate just so their kids can eat to actually pursue their dreams, let alone how to market the fruits of those dreams. We see it most clearly, in fact, in the generation of kids who were sold this idea who are graduating college into the worst job market in generations with student loan debts that are likely to outlive them. Many of these folks have followed O'Reilly's advice for their entire two-decade existences: find what you're good at, ????, and make money doing it. No one ever filled in the ???? for them, and no one really ever told them that it had to be filled in. Here they are, then, saddled with debt from banks that bear no responsibility after being brought up on a notion that if they just chase their dreams then they can make a living doing it.

Of course, loud-mouthed and self-righteous pundits like O'Reilly are quick to displace the blame from themselves (probably somewhat fairly), from the culture that espouses those claims (unfairly), and from the refrains that they themselves repeat as a core principle (entirely unfairly). They point the finger at the English major who can't get a job, the psychology major who enters a swamped field, and the art history major who spent five or six years getting a master's degree in something that simply cannot be sold at a living wage. "You should have majored in engineering or architecture or journalism [or something that society values]" (not an actual quote) is the flavor of the blame-shift thrown, designed to protect the failed mythology that forms a core principle and to drown out the cognitive dissonance created where that principle clashes with reality. Really, O'Reilly? Really? "Find what you're good at and make money doing it." It's that simple, right? Until it doesn't work, it is, and then someone should have made better choices or worked hard to "find what they're good at" or to realize the prescription you offered them was an ideological crock of baloney in the first place. "Find what you're good at, as long as it is marketable and you know how to market it (or can afford to have someone market it for you), and make money doing it" is far more accurate a precept in our current economy.

People believe crazy things. I've said that before, and I say it again now. Many, many Americans believe that if they just find something they're good at and work hard at it, then they can make money doing it. This is not how reality works. Our present economy is based upon finding profitable niches and filling them, by being able to find places where people will give us money for our abilities and then taking advantage of those opportunities. In most cases--the vast majority of cases--this means finding something you can do that someone will pay you for, not finding what you're good at, and then making money doing it. Selling the dream would probably be an honorable thing if it wasn't used as such a tool by the successful and contempt to point a finger of blame instead of actually servicing the nightmare it creates.

Another problem with O'Reilly's construction, or really the conservative ideology that holds this capitalist notion of "make money doing it" at the center, is that what we do should be measured entirely in terms of money. "Find what you are good at and make money doing it." Not "find what you are good at and let it give meaning to your life," or "find what you are good at and use it to help other people live better lives," or "find what you are good at and simply enjoy it." No. None of that. "Find what you are good at and make money doing it." While it makes some sense to be able to monetize our talents and efforts, and it is entirely reasonable for people to be able to want to make a living off their efforts, it is part of the central problem of American mythology, nay capitalist mythology, that the central point of these talents and efforts is to capitalize them, i.e. to give them economic worth.

Besides being psychologically dissatisfying and dangerously misplaced thinking, this gives rise to the very entitlement attitude that folks like O'Reilly decry--people who feel that the purpose of effort is monetary gain and therefore feel entitled to it for their efforts. When people work hard and do not get the return their ideology has taught them that they should receive, they become disenfranchised with the system that has not met their expectations and become less invested in supporting the functioning of the entire system. "Mooching," as O'Reilly might call it, ceases to have the moral impact that it might have had otherwise, a certain more general conception of noblesse oblige. Conservative ideologies like O'Reilly's answers that with a posteriori punishments, and therefore threats, that don't always increase compliance, to say nothing of how they fail to address the underlying problem, which is a certain kind of societal motivation. It would seem that raising children with a particular set of expectations that don't match reality--or maintaining economic systems that don't match the cultural reality we want to have--is a stout recipe for disenfranchised disinterest in societal obligation. Need we even mention the conservative ideological notion of rugged individualism here, in terms of the impact on dissolving a conception of societal cohesion and social obligation? How about the notion that there is a real social hierarchy that should be preserved, be that defined economically, racially, or otherwise? [It turns out I don't... just after I finished this, I stumbled across this brilliant article to point from Cracked: "6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying." I recommend reading all of it.]

I spend almost all of the time in God Doesn't; We Do attacking religion, but in reality, ideology is the root of the problem. Religions are just huge, mostly damaging ideological systems that have grown into obsolescence. Americanism has it's own mythologies, though, and this Underpants Gnome myth of all-access bootstrapped profitability is a core one with dire consequences.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A challenge to Christian apologist William Lane Craig

Christian apologists love debates. The reasons for this are unclear, seeing as this modicum of discussion is a bit outdated and the entire affair is more of a rhetorical contest than a method of establishing proof or consensus about any particular topic. Then again, I guess, the reasons for this are not at all unclear--they're right up the religious alley.

In God Doesn't; We Do, I take a few decent swipes at various arguments presented by famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig, author of the book and website (of the same name) Reasonable Faith. Indeed, I'd say I go quite a bit further in God Doesn't since I devote a decent chunk of Chapter 7, "The Problem of a Silent God," to what I call the "Problem of Apologetics," which indicates that, as an oxymoron, "reasonable faith" is actually an argument against the existence of God, not for it.

In any case, I lay out a challenge, of a sort, in that same section of that chapter, directed at anyone willing to get up and do it, so I might as well extend the challenge formally to Dr. Craig or any other willing Christian apologist or theologian. They like debates (especially with infidels), and I'd love to give them the chance to debate me. Here's what I write in God Doesn't:
The main difference here, of course, is that such literary apologetics are fun simply because of the utter honesty involved: fiction is being itself instead of posing as a collection of purported absolute facts about the actual universe that we live in. As a matter of fact, it is a powerful testament to the advancement of literature in the past two thousand years, as well as to the value of this honesty, that the story of Harry Potter is leaps and bounds more believable than the fictions of the Bible or the Qur'an, without even trying to be and without the most influential and powerful agents in the world working for several centuries to invent arguments to back it up. I think, in fact, that it would be of particular interest to hear an accomplished apologist and skilled debate-artist like William Lane Craig, just for the fun of it, make his best case for the existence of Hogwarts, anti-muggle protection charms and all. Were any to be held on the matter, I would sincerely bet that if he put his heart and mind to the task, Craig could win a fair share of the debates against some intelligent amagicists. Can you prove, absolutely, that there is no Hogwarts? If not, then, well, expelliarmus!
So, this lays out the challenge to Dr. Craig, or any other willing Christian apologist. I'll debate with you the following topic, and only the following topic: "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry exists." I'll even be so kind as to let Dr. Craig, or whomever, choose which side of the debate he would like to be on, since I don't think it would be fair to presuppose that Dr. Craig would take up the side that Hogwarts really does exist.

So, Dr. Craig... what do you say? I say expelliarmus and await your reply.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.