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The Saints of Atheism: Introduction

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

This is a new series for this blog. Since I have focused on Atheism in my writings we have so far covered my journey into Atheism, some of the various religious arguments, my personal reflections on being an Atheist in a country that is overwhelmingly religious, and some other oddities. I am an academic by trade…hopefully anyway. Being an academic means that in order to accept things I need a convincing argument to believe something, feelings and blind faith will simply not do. My hope is that I have made that clear in the long breadth of this new focus.

Yet, just simply not believing, is a new concept in our world. Religion, in various manner, has dominated the history of world civilizations since, well, there have been civilizations. Religion has been used to control populations usually by justifying leadership. From the Egyptians and Babylonians for whom kings were the descendants of gods and usually were literal gods themselves to the present day, where in my country one cannot accept the burden of leadership without having to place their hand on a religious text. It is rare for a society to be completely void of religion and where the spiritual has been discarded as threat to a despotic ruler’s legitimacy, the state often becomes the godhead. The devotion is the same, just the focus is different.

In the present day we see a change in the winds. If someone wants to declare themselves religious, in the present day, that is an option not a demand. According to recent poll around 25% of Americans now question their religious devotion. Not to say that they are Atheists, but rather that they don’t subscribe to a particular religious doctrine. They would be called “Agnostic” at best. It would be wrong for any Atheist to assume that these are people that agree with us, they don’t. They believe in a god-like figure just remaining unsure on what exactly that is—I have not tackled the Agnostic question yet, that will be a future post. The number of avowed Atheists is approaching 5%, which makes us a significant group in American culture presently. We outnumber actual Buddhists now (and yes, Buddhism is a religion). So how did we get to 5% in one of the most religious countries in the world?

That’s a good question, but that’s not the right question. The right question to ask is how we exist at all. It’s been a process, and those numbers are only going to increase from here. How is it that in the civilized world a person can go about and claim that, ‘there is no god,’ without suffering official penalties? Despite what Pat Robertson would desire, I can do this and am currently doing this, right now. Charles Taylor wrote a book titled “A Secular Age” in which he tried to tackle this question, I’m not going to rehash that book as it is incredibly long and much longer than he needed to make his point (plus it’s got a couple of errors in it that really detract from his point).

This series is going to be about how we got here. How we got the point where we, in the words of Mitt Romney in 2008, we have the freedom to believe whatever we want and to add to his speech we also have the freedom to not believe. We got here because a variety of people put forth ideas that were accepted and those ideas questioned the tyranny of the established order, the status quo, and put forth a new manner of thinking. Not that these were Kuhnian paradigm shifts, but they chipped away at a dogma that has persisted through 6 millennia. Some of these people, indeed most of them, are not Atheists. They are people that merely questioned what was being fed to them since childhood. If we assume that the religion that you are is a product of the accidental location and family of your birth then these are those that questioned how they were raised. No matter what you think about Atheism, Atheists, or even myself you have to admit the courage it takes to do so.

Many of these people will be philosophers, for a couple of reasons: the first is that I have more familiarity with philosophy and philosophers given that is the subject in which I am pursuing my doctorate. This is not to say they were academics themselves, most of them had other professions and are now considered philosophers by the discipline. People like Marcus Tullius Cicero—who gave us the Design Argument, was a Roman Senator/priest/lawyer. Niccolo Machiavelli, who gave Nietzsche his criticism of Christianity, was a politician and playwright. Plato was a wrestler, Aristotle a doctor, Thomas Jefferson a politician, Thomas Paine a writer, Baruch Spinoza made eye glasses, these were all people who had other professions and still sought to undermine the stranglehold religious dogmatism had on the population.

We will begin though on the small island of Miletus, with the one person who is credited with being the first Greek Philosopher: Thales.

Stay tuned.

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Being an Atheist XI: On the Existence of Faeries/Fairies/Faries

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

We’re back to the Mawson paper, and on another point regarding the idea of whether a person such as myself as an obligation to say a prayer to stop being an atheist. While in the previous post I described the foolishness of this prima facie obligation to even exist, I’ll summarize the point again: an atheist can’t pray to stop being an atheist because the prayer is not a truth directed statement. In other words, because the Atheist does not believe that the prayer is going anywhere, they really can’t make a sincere prayer. It would be like saying that a Christian has a prima facie obligation to pray to Vishnu, since the Christian doesn’t believe in Vishnu they can’t pray to it. They speak the words but praying is out. As Christopher Hitchens once said, they can make you go to church but they can’t make you pray. I would add that they can even make you say the words but they can’t make you pray.

We’re leaving that objection aside for right now. What we want to concentrate on is one of the objections that Mawson considers. As a good academic, he does realize that not everyone is going to consider his theory to be valid, and in doing so they will come up with counter arguments for the position. Now the objection he raises is the immediate one that came to my mind when I read the abstract. [I should mention that I would post the paper on this blog but copyright restrictions and the insufferable British Legal System are going to have a problem with it]

The objection he considers runs like this: Let’s say we have Alice who every morning has breakfast outside on her porch next to a garden. Is she obligated every morning to ask, then, whether or not there are faeries that live, unseen, in the garden? If this Alice, is the same Alice we used in the last post that walks past the dark room and has the obligation to check in the room whether or not there is the man in the room, and has the prima facie obligation to pray once in a while that she ought to cease being an atheist. Alice, it seems, has a lot of prima facie obligations but does she have the further obligation to check for faeries? Clearly this is a reductio ad absurdum argument. In first reading the paper, I again, thought to myself, ‘does everyone then, have the obligation to check for elves?’ Having just seen The Hobbit, elves were in my brain. Nevertheless, based on Mawson’s appraisal of the situation the person who is atheistic about the elves, would, have the prima facie obligation to check. Especially given that the type of checking that would be required would be to ask aloud, “are there any faeries here?” the cost of checking is so low that Alice could ask while eating breakfast. This seems like a pretty decent reduction to absurdity of Mawson’s position.

He replies to his own objection, concerning faeries, which it does not apply here because he doesn’t think that the existence of faeries in his garden is of any importance. We have to remember, that part of the original prima facie obligation is that it only applies to those atheists/agnostics who believe that the existence of god is a question whose answer possesses any importance. This first requirement entails everyone and anyone who has ever considered the existence of a deity. The reason is that it upsets the order of things entirely, no matter what the answer is. For instance, if it could be shown that a specific deity existed, it would render all of the religions of the world minus that particular one void of any truth or belief excepting those, of course, which coincidentally aligned with the precepts of the one true religion. Even people that hadn’t thought about it would be forced into accepting the one true religion.

Like discovering a specific deity, finding out that there is a race of gossamer like beings that reside in the garden would entirely upset Alice’s world, even if she hadn’t really considered it before. It would not only upset her world but ours as well given that the natural taxonomy of the animal kingdoms does not include miniature humanoid creatures who possess rationality and the ability to use what we would describe as “magic,” not to mention what it would do to our current theory of Evolution. To merely dismiss the existence of faeries as being unimportant can’t simply be justified. If Alice has to check the room for the old man, say a prayer to the deity that she is unconvinced existed, she has to—for matters of consistency—check to see whether or not there are faeries in the garden. This goes for any of the magical, mystical, or crypto zoological creatures that do not exist; if any of them did—the world’s history would be divided into the pre-discovery of faeires and post-discovery of faeries time.

If, by, “unimportant” we are to regard the question of existence as being the likelihood of an affirmative answer, then yes, Mawson may be right in assigning the label to the question of faeries. If this is the case, it is actually worse for his position because the atheist would be of the same mindset as Mawson himself with regard to the faeries. The “faeries example” counters successfully the claim being made here.

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Let’s Stop with the Red Dawn/Rambo fantasies and Have a Serious Discussion

January 9, 2013 Leave a comment

I didn’t want to comment on the gun control debate, only because it seems obvious that it is time to have a discussion and I have a tendency to go off the handle on important subjects. I also didn’t want to seem like I was exploiting the most recent mass shooting—this time with kids, in order to get blog hits. I decided that I would let other people take care of it for me. Both sides of the argument have their various nuts and all of them have been popping out of their shells to weigh in on what is becoming an increasingly wider divide with little to no hope of ever accomplishing anything (that sentence can be applied to a lot of things). The solution to me, seems obvious—create some national database of felons, mental handicapped, and disturbed individuals as a “do not sell list” for any type of gun. Require any person selling a gun at a gun show to run an instant back ground check on potential buyers, create an exact definition of ‘assault weapon’ (as Penn Jillette pointed out, two people can be talking about assault weapons and neither of them refer to the same thing) and ban those, then outlaw any detachable magazine with a capacity of greater than ten rounds from civilian use. There, I solved it, or at least I’ve offered a reasonable starting point for debate.

I suppose the most contentious point of what I have offered is defining the term “assault weapon.” It’s a tricky definition because just applying the phrase “military style…” doesn’t work. The military uses pistols which are fundamentally unchanged from the civilian versions, the standard issue M9 can be purchased without modification for civilian use. Any style of pump-action shotgun is, in one sense, a military style weapon (for various technical reasons the military does not use semi-automatic shotguns as a standard weapon). While weapons like an AR-15 or Ak-47 are clearly what most people mean by assault weapons the definition needs to be clear on what is and what isn’t classified as an assault weapon. Don’t come at me with the hunting exception, yes of course, any weapon can be used as a hunting weapon but when you’re stalking prey with a thirty round clip in a semi-automatic weapon you really begin to move past the “sport” part of hunting. Clearly the ontological issue of defining “assault weapon” is going to be the stickler.

Then, there is the crazy which seems to be dominating the news cycle. Notably, and what inspired me to make this post, was the conversation (if it can be called that) between Piers Morgan and Alex Jones. Whenever there are two sides to an issue, there are factions within those sides that do absolutely no good to their respective positions. For every atheist like myself, there are those that want to ban Christmas, and I have repeatedly tried to divorce myself from them; just as not every Christian is an anti-gay zealot there are those that are. Piers Morgan, himself, is a guy that likes to push buttons to generate controversy; he represents those that want a complete ban on all guns. I get that, it’s a position that he thinks is reasonable as it has relative success in his native country. However, this post isn’t about him or his position, it’s about Alex Jones and his extreme position.

Alex Jones is a conspiracist whose whole reason for being is to promote the idea that all that stands between civilization and tyranny is private ownership of guns. This is absolutely ridiculous. For some reason, despite every historical counterfactual, they think that one individual can topple a government. This is promoted not just by Alex Jones but also by Wayne La Pierre and the NRA, and is coddled by the Republican Party who fight against every perceived attack on the sovereignty of the US by the UN—it was in their campaign platform and for further evidence just look at the opposition to the UN Declaration on the rights of the disabled. Yes, Hitler confiscated guns and as long as we forget every other aspect of the third Reich it’s a valid argument against gun control. Jones and his ilk like to point to the 1776 American Revolution as evidence of what an armed citizenry against a Tyrannical government. Again, it ignores other facets of history to just make a point, it’s cherry picking at its finest, for instance, without French military aid there is a great likelihood that the colonists would have lost.

The idea that these people profess to be true is that there is a secret war against the freedoms of America or the citizens of the world, depending on who you ask. This war can only be stopped by an armed citizenry who is capable of toppling the otherwise superior forces of, whoever it is that is conducting the war. The problem with this idea is that history does not bear this out. Just ask the Syrian opposition how they are doing, even though their armament includes fully automatic rifles, or ask the Libyans, how they toppled Gadhafi before any other country got involved. You can’t because it didn’t happen. Libya’s freedom happened because a coalition decided that it would destroy any tank that moved on the rebellion. It’s why Syria needs some sort of external support (or a complete uprising by the entire population), or why the Mujahedeen needed the US to step in with anti-aircraft missiles.

The United States fields the most powerful military in the world which is apparently unable to fight against one loan person in their home armed with a civilian version of the weapon that every Infantryman is issued and trained with. This is the fantasy and it needs to stop if any serious conversation about guns is going to happen. If our government wants to impose fascism it’s not going to be overnight and the first amendment that gets thrown out isn’t going to be the Second it’s going to be the First. The branches of government would have to be eliminated one by one replaced by something new. In fact, this is the very thing that the founders of this country took care to prevent. If we remember history correctly, there were numerous attempts at peaceful negotiation before armed conflict occurred. In fact, without a random shot at Lexington there might not have even been a war. The founders of this country were quite aware of the possibility of tyranny and the Constitution is framed in such a way that to create a tyranny requires the destruction of the law.

Let’s say that improbable event happens and that the government decides to go house to house and kill its citizens for whatever reason that this would occur. Is the claim that the armed citizen can stop this tenable? Absolutely not.

Let me introduce you to the MQ-9 Reaper Drone, currently the scourge of Pakistan. It has a service ceiling above the B-2 bomber, and carries four AGM-114b Hellfire missiles designed to melt the insides of tanks. While their anti-tank role has taken a back seat to killing terrorists in foreign countries they would make short work of the average domicile. Since I’ve mentioned the B2, let’s talk about it. Service ceiling of 50,000 feet, range of 60,000 nm, armament capacity of 80 JDAMs, or one 30,000lb MOP; that is, of course, if they want to get close and personal because otherwise it could be outfitted with several Tomahawk cruise missiles. Let me be clear, this is a miniscule fraction of the airpower that the US government has at its disposal. I’m not counting all of the CAS aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog, AC-130u Spectres, or the flocks of fighter bombers that are currently in service. Does this mean that the average citizen ought to be able to purchase MIM-104 Patriots? Does the existence of the US Army’s M1A1 Abram tank with its 120mm main cannon necessitate an armed citizenry to be able to possess the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank weapon? At 80,000$ a pop it’s certainly cost-prohibitive but if the average citizen thinks that he is going to topple a fascist regime he’s going to need something that can bust a tank open, and it doesn’t matter how many rounds his AR-15 holds it is not going to do the job.

Any person who thinks that they are the line between civilization and some road-warrior future has more in common with Travis Bickle than they do with Rambo, which is funny because Rambo lost at the end of the first movie. The Wolverines of Red Dawn lost against the Russian Army. This paranoid delusion is dangerous to entertain and if Alex Jones wants to accuse Piers Morgan of being a tool of “them” I would like him to clearly explain who “they” are without referencing some chimerical “New World Order” or vague concoction of Illuminati, Free Masons, and whoever else it is that killed Kennedy and currently threatens the sovereignty of the United States.

The laws that I have proposed may not have stopped the massacre in Connecticut, but it would have in the theater massacre, Virginia Tech, Sen. Gifford. We have drunk driving laws that have no scientific basis but somehow preventing the mentally disturbed from getting handguns is a violation of common sense? Let’s stop coddling the crazy and pretending that 1980s movie fantasies have any basis in reality so we can sit down and have a constructive conversation.

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Being an Atheist X: An Obligation to Pray to Stop Being an Atheist

January 4, 2013 Leave a comment

Before we begin the actual body of this post I should note that this is a response to an article that appeared in the “International Journal of Philosophy of Religion” titled “Praying to Stop Being an Atheist” by T.J. Mawson published in June of 2010. I plan on writing a response article to it.

T.J. Mawson argues that for an atheist/agnostic, engaging in regular prayer to help them overcome their unbelief is an action of which they have at least a prima facie obligation to perform. In order to justify this he argues that if one were presented with a room in which an old wise man is said to reside but could not see him we would be quite reasonable in shouting out, ‘is anyone there?’ The room is described as being dark, but I would assume that it also offers no sensory input and that it prevents no such input, i.e. if there was an odor in the room we would be able to smell it. This seems at first to be quite a reasonable assertion. Being told someone was in there but not seeing or hearing them, we might want to know for sure. This seems, to be normal human curiosity.

Before entering the room however we must find out what our status of belief regarding the existence of the old man in the room to be. For every person pondering the question there are two things that would be true: first there is no logical impossibility either way. The man could be in the room or he could not be in the room. Secondly, that our belief in whether the man is in the room does not affect the reality of whether the man is actually in it. Whether we really want him to be in the room or whether we really don’t has no bearing on the objective reality of his residence. This second fact, the strength of our preconceived notion can affect our behavior regarding how much we search or what our standard of evidence may be, but we are assuming that anyone entering into the room is going to be honest about what they find. For instance, someone who fervently believes that the person is in the room may not actually ask whether he is in there just assuming the existence from what they were told earlier, and conversely an atheist with regard to the room may just walk in the room, shrug, and just walk out. Those two extremes are not yet our concern.

The argument is that upon entering the room, even those people that assign a negligible probability to the existence of the man in the room, have an obligation to ask. It’s also important that we understand that only those who regard the question as being somewhat important have this obligation. This second restriction, if it can even be called so, seems obvious to the point that questioning it seems to the epitome of quibbling on the issue. Although, it may be relevant if we understand that there are others who have an interest in whether or not the individual going in comes out with the “right” belief whether the man exists or not.

Our concern here is not with those that are theistic about the man in the room but with everyone else: the agnostics, atheists, and deists. Mawson’s argument suffers from a conflation between the terms “atheist” and “agnostic.” As Bertrand Russell pointed out, an atheist is one that positively denies the existence of a higher power. An agnostic is one that does not make this positive denial but has made no real claim on the position. It’s a minor complaint about the article but it’s worth pointing out because the Atheist is going into the room with a different mindset than the agnostic. For the beginning of the argument it doesn’t matter whether or not the individual is an agnostic or an atheist.

So we have three people, Alice, Bill, and Charlie who are an atheist, agnostic, and theist respectively. Alice walks into the room looks around and then asks, “Is anyone in here?” Upon receiving no answer she walks around the room briefly, then shrugs, and leaves the room. As long as Alice has, in her actions, earnestly tried to establish whether or not there is a person in the room there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for her to continue checking, or perhaps once per day popping her head in for five minutes to say, ‘I don’t have any evidence that there is someone in this room, please help me understand that there is someone here.’ Mawson’s argument rests entirely on the idea that the cost of checking is so low that, in all actuality, what’s the harm in doing so?

I agree there is no harm in checking. Just as there is no harm in praying for the sick or offering your ‘thoughts and prayers’—to use a news cliché, to the victims of a tragic event, however the gulf between something having no cost and a prima facie obligation to do something is wide. Let’s say Alice works at a school in which the dark room with or without the man resides, and let’s further say that Alice’s job places her in the room next door to it, and finally let’s say that despite her best efforts Alice is always ten minutes early to work and she spends that ten minutes counting down the minutes before her day starts. It’s still a leap to say that she ought to pop her head in the room to see if the man really exists or not.

Since the existence of the man is in doubt, as far as the objective viewer is concerned it is not compelling that there is any kind of duty other than to check once to see. If the atheist obtains a prima facie duty to ask that the man reveal himself it would then seem that the theist has the likewise but opposite duty to deny that the man exists. Otherwise it is mysterious why the one is forced into playing devil’s advocate for their own beliefs while the other escapes it.

What seems stranger is that the atheist is supposed to utter a reasonable prayer in the hopes that someone will answer, in fact the paper argues that they should use a specific prayer or at least some variant of it which is alleged to be truth-directed. If an atheist were to utter the prayer, with absolute sincerity, “I believe, help my unbelief,” they would either be, not an atheist or they would be merely uttering words. For someone who is a true atheist, viz. that they have no belief there exists a divine being, a prayer goes nowhere and is heard by no one. Continually checking for the existence of something one has established, for them, isn’t there; is a fool’s errand. For instance, if Alice is getting ready to go to work and can’t find her car keys it would be rather silly of her to check in the refrigerator. It is certainly possible that her keys could be in it, but it is extremely unlikely. Perhaps after searching her apartment thoroughly she finally does check under inside her refrigerator and finds that her keys are not inside it she has satisfied the requirement of exhausting the possibility. Yet, the argument here is that as long as she hasn’t found her keys she has a prima facie obligation to check inside the refrigerator (under the lettuce perhaps) until the keys turn up. Alice cannot be said to be reasonably searching for her keys if she is continually checking inside the refrigerator after she has empirically tested that the refrigerator is, in fact, void of any car keys.

From the standpoint of deist/atheist (maybe agnostic) if there is a man in the room, there ought to be some sort of way of establishing his existence. Otherwise the difference between an empty room and no way to find the person hiding in it is very slight. In either case the obligation to check is a chimera.

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