Archive for September, 2014

Atheist Perspective: Unexpected Visitors

September 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Saturday has been cleaning day at my apartment. It’s been a long road out of the darkness, as my wife and I aren’t summer people. While most people have problems keeping their places clean in the winter because of the cold for us it is the opposite. A new baby doesn’t help matters. We’ve been trying to rearrange our room, keep up with the general cleanliness, etc. and were doing a good job when the doorbell rang. For most people this probably wouldn’t be an odd thing, I’m sure the general population is quite used to this phenomenon. We aren’t. No one comes by, we aren’t anti-social but our friends tend to call or text when they are downstairs–and we always know when they are on their way.

So the doorbell rang. The only hitch was that I had recently sold a chair on craigslist and was wondering if the buyer had a problem. When I opened the door, I breathed a sigh of relief as it was not the person who had purchased the chair. It was two women one of which was holding a box and some kind of pamphlet. Right away, my Spidey Sense was tingling, I knew what it was before the brunette with rosacea opened her mouth. I was wearing a sweaty tee shirt and black jeans with nothing on my feet unprepared for any kind of conversation, “Hello.”

“Hi, we’re going door to door selling a magazine, this month’s issue is focusing on the environment,” she said. The other woman, a heavy set black woman stood mute.

I was a bit confused. Stereotypically the more fundamentalist a Christian the less likely they are an environmentalist. Maybe they were fundraisers for the Green Party, there had just been a large march regarding climate change so it fit. Yet all of the confusion vanished like a ghost when a lens is focused as I saw the title of the magazine “The Watchtower.” They were Jehova’s Witnesses (JWs from hereafter). Coincidentally I had just discussed JWs and blood transfusions so I was getting excited about having a discussion with them.

“So what about the environment?” I asked.

It was a leading question, a podcast I listen to “Skeptics with a K” touched on the issue at hand. The idea I had in my head was to see how long it would take before they dropped a bible reference. I don’t have much experience with the JWs and their church, only what I have read in ethical cases which put the autonomy of the patient versus their life, i.e. if you know they religiously refuse blood transfusion do you honor that at the expense of their life?

The brunette went on about pollution levels and climate change. It wasn’t very convincing and I’m sure a moderately informed climate denier could have ripped apart her statement–not that they’d be objectively correct to do so but she’s using some pretty general ideas. Maybe those are her opening lines and she’s got the information at hand, it doesn’t matter because this isn’t really about the environment. She finished with a question that was something regarding why I thought there was little movement on climate change and the environment from the government.

My response was that I lamented the fact there are members on various committees in the legislative branch of our government that believe climate change is impossible because god wouldn’t destroy the world with a flood twice. The woman blinked, hard. A quarter of a second later she grabbed her composure, “yes that’s true but do you think they environment is an important issue?”

It was an odd question, I mean if I seem this informed would it not be reasonable to assume that I think the environment is important?

It didn’t matter, her partner spoke up, “Do you think that the problem is man’s fault though or god’s?”

As I was planning to answer that question, the door behind me opened up. My six year old daughter popped her head out, “Daddy what’s going on?”

While i was ready to have the conversation with them, doing so in front of my kid would have been difficult. She likes to interrupt with questions of her own, sometimes they are on point sometimes they are just six year old questions. I turned to her, “they are trying to sell a magazine and want to talk about it?”

“What’s the magazine about?”

“It’s religious,” I asked, “go back inside, take this box.”

“What kind of magazine is it?” she asked wanting to know if it was something she could get.

“Sweetie I’m talking.”

“I want to hear.”

I turned to the women, “Sorry, I’m not interested, have a nice afternoon.”

It should have ended there, but the woman asked me about the person in the apartment below us. I asked if they saw a white car out front, to which they replied no, and I informed them that the person wasn’t home and walked inside.

The women were nice, but not creepy nice like the Mormon woman I met in Utah. It would have been interesting to hear their sales pitch because I want to know if it ever works. I know that I’m a bit different, but how does the pitch work? I see the bible tracts on the sidewalk being handed out by people with placards and ties. The question that I have, does it ever work? Is there a person that hears the pitch from the JW at their doorstep or looks at the fake hundred dollar bill full of bible quotes and says, “This is what I want to do.”

There has to be some kind of success rate. The law of economy (if it is indeed a law) would say that they have to have some success or else the entire church would be wasting it’s time sending these people out (I would say that they were wasting their money but I doubt that these people are being paid). They weren’t pushy and seemed rather pleasant, leading me to the conclusion that the stories I’ve heard have been exaggerated or representative of some over aggressive “salesmen.”

It would have been more interesting to really have gotten into a discussion with them because my philosophical discussions regarding religion either happen with more mainstream sects of Christianity or with members of a philosophical group at my school.

Their problem this weekend was going to be that my neighborhood is overwhelmingly Jewish and it was Rosh Hashana this weekend, and a lot of people were at their temples. I hope they knew ahead of time because it was a ghost town.


Atheist Perspective: Driving Backward

September 23, 2014 3 comments

Aristotle opens the Metaphysics with the idea that what people desire most is to know. It is inherent in our nature to want to know what we do not. In seeking the answers to all of the questions we are not doing something novel or unique but fulfilling what is inherent to our very being. The quest for what is unknown can never truly be fulfilled but still the search is what makes it worth it. The search can only move forward if we do not have to start over each time we begin.

There are those people that claim to have the ultimate knowledge, perfect knowledge of all things. A claim like this should always be met with skepticism and a demand for evidence. We should always distrust those saying that they know the unknowable. As Cicero once put it, “for what is more unbecoming than ill-considered haste? and what is so ill-considered or so unworthy of the dignity and seriousness proper to a philosopher as to hold an opinion that is not true, or to maintain with uncertainty a proposition not based on adequate examination, comprehension and knowledge.” (De Natura Deorum I.16-21)

Cicero is putting forth the Academic position that we should only adopt positions that we have adequately examined, and to suspend all judgment until the threshold of knowledge had been passed.

Our knowledge of the world must be built on what came before. Banning the previously earned knowledge is tantamount to pushing civilization backward. Our knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physics is demonstrable, provable, and we don’t have to return to the beginning each time we want to move forward.

This is the opposite of religious knowledge. This type of knowledge is the kind that forbids questioning and cannot be demonstrated. We know it because it was told to us, the people who did this teaching only know it because they were taught it by someone else, and on and on…till we arrive at someone telling us, “ipse dixit”–“the master said so.”

This is the type of reasoning that motivates religious knowledge, someone tells someone else and that person isn’t allowed to question it. My child knows how to add, we’ve worked out how addition operates–if she doesn’t believe me she can work it out herself. It is at least possible for this to happen. Nothing that we ought to teach the young should be based on the idea that some unquestionable authority has dictated it.

In some parts of the world the masters have dictated that inquiries into science, philosophy, and history are forbidden. These places can only be detrimental to the progress of the world. While I understand that they may believe their knowledge to be sacrosanct why does an understanding of the natural world violate this claim? It’s because their masters have made scientific claims about the world that would show that what is said is no longer true. This is why fundamentalists in the US push Creationism and its monstrous progeny Intelligent Design, it is why ISIS seeks to deny those within its sphere access to Chemistry, and why a large portion of the Muslim world pushes Creationism. Forbidding questioning will only make the world less intelligent resorting only to knowledge from authority, which isn’t knowledge but rather regurgitated factoids.

Categories: atheism, current events Tags: ,

Atheist Perspective: The Prayer Discount and Why It’s not an Issue

September 16, 2014 6 comments

In case you missed it, back in August a restaurant in Winston-Salem NC gave a group of customers a fifteen percent discount on their meal for “Praying in Public” (as indicated on the receipt). According to the various news reports this was not a normal discount that the business offered, but the news of the occurrence spread around. The restaurant soon after the story spread made a public statement that they would no longer be offering the discount due to the threat of a lawsuit. The alleged threat came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which disputes the claim. They admit that they sent a communication to the Mary’s Diner, but deny that it was the threat of a lawsuit. Their claim was that they informed the restaurant that they had won lawsuits in the past of a similar nature.

The FRFF’s problem with the discount was that they felt that it was discriminatory against other people of different faiths. Thus the proprietors of the establishment cancelled the discount. Many questions get raised by this incident: was the discount illegal, was it discriminatory, or did the FRFF over step its bounds?

Initially I thought that that the FRFF did the right thing. I mean, why is it fair for one religion to be favored over all other beliefs to the tune of a fifteen percent discount. Then reality hit me: this is a private business, they can do whatever they want. As far as I am concerned if the owners of the diner want to give out free food to people just because they openly express their religious beliefs I don’t see the issue. I don’t like it, but I won’t go there. That’s the solution to the problem.

It is what we tell the religious when they object to content on the television, movies, or the radio. The simple message is: if you don’t like it don’t watch it. Similarly, if you don’t like the fact that a place of business offers discounts to people of a specific religion then don’t frequent the business just ignore it. It’s a small place in North Carolina, it’s not Apple and nothing they serve is anything necessary for survival. It’s not a school trying to shoe-horn in Christian Creationism in lieu of science, just a place that sells food.

It bothers me that the FRFF did this because it’s a foolish move for image reasons. Atheists and Atheist groups are slandered as being anti-Christian people who seek to outlaw people’s free expression and this kind of stunt plays exactly into that image. There’s nothing more that certain groups want than to appear to be the victims of oppression and this is exactly what it looks like.

If we as a group are going to be consistent, then we can’t use the law to stop people from doing things we don’t agree with. It’s not as though Mary’s was charging more for people who weren’t Christian via surcharge. It’s not like the segregation of the 1960’s where there was a legal practice of segregation just a 15% discount.

The solution is simple and worth repeating: don’t go there, anything else and you turn a discount into a crusade.

Atheist Perspective: Why I oppose the Voucher System and You Should Too

September 9, 2014 Leave a comment

In the current issue of the Catholic Courier (I would link to the article but they haven’t posted it yet) an editorial appeared which discussed New York City’s attempt to implement universal pre-K. One of the main problems of the plan is that the public schools seemingly don’t have the room to accommodate all of the students that were expected to attend. One of the solutions to the situation was to offer payment to private schools to take the students that at cost. The money however was not free, because the New York City public school system would be footing the bill, religious schools had to abide by certain rules in order to follow the Constitutional mandated separation of church. Religious schools would have to refrain from teaching religious classes.  

So far this makes sense. While the author of the editorial objects to this requirement, he’s going to have to eat that one. Even the tone of the author seems to admit this (I do understand that not linking the article make this assertion problematic) requirement has to be necessary. The author does bring up some salient points: for instance certain schools would have to hide their iconography if they exceeded a certain size: if a Star of David or a Crucifex was too large it would have be covered, but a smaller size could be displayed. The arbitrariness of the requirement makes it ridiculous, I agree. If this is going to be a requirement than the classroom ought to be sanitized but the hallways and building ought to remain as it were. This is the only fair way to apply the law and to remove any kind of undue burden on the host building. 

The author of the paper then offers his solution: just give the families the tuition it would cost otherwise and have them pick whatever school they want their children to go to. As long as every family gets the same amount, and no preference is given to any school it is, for my limited knowledge of Constitutional issues, legal. It seems also to solve the problem he raises: freedom of religion is preserved and the schools get to teach the children religion before the age where they can think for themselves. 

While I am loathe to just hand over large amounts of tax payer money to private institutions that have zero accountability, the idea has widespread appeal. Catholic schools have a decent educational program, I should know as a product of one, and sending kids to such places seems like a good idea. The Catholic schools like it because it’s a good stream of income as many of them struggle between attracting students and keeping down the tuition.

The problem is that this is the idea of the plan. Everyone thinks that the only schools will be accredited institutions such as those. Of course there will be corruption, a certain element will always arise to take advantage. That’s not the issue, my issue is what other kind of schools the money will be going to. While the idea of nice Jewish or Catholic school is presented as the type of place the students will attend, there are other religions out there. Before I even get to them, I just want to claim that I’m not baiting a prejudice against Islamic schools.Remember how upset everyone was over the very idea of an Islamic community center being built within three blocks of Ground Zero? I know some Catholics that would be aghast if they were funding an Islamic pre-school, even if it were accredited. Again though it’s not about playing that kind of prejudice, for me it doesn’t matter what religion the money would go to because it shouldn’t be any of them.

The issue at hand is that certain religious sects are distinctly anti-education. Sending children to these schools isn’t going to give the students a leg up, it’s going to dig them into a hole. While pre-school isn’t that educationally intensive, there are certain basic fundamentals that they are taught regarding the way the world works and there are religions out there that would turn those ideas on their head in order to indoctrinate their specific religion. 

The world is round, the moon is a giant reflector, etc. yet certain religious interpretations would teach this in opposition. They would teach that certain people are bad just because they believe different things. Is this kind of school that we want to fund? If the Westboro Baptist Church had a pre-school in the New York City area they would also be legally entitled to the voucher system provided that they met whatever facility requirement was necessary. Perhaps a Scientology school would want a fresh crop of initiates to learn about unclean minds. If the voucher system is adopted these three schools with their anti-science and anti-tolerance attitudes would have to be included and on the queue to receive our tax payer money. That is why the voucher system has to be opposed. 

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Atheist’s Perspective: Near Death Experience

September 2, 2014 Leave a comment

I was listening to a debate the other day on NPR’s Intelligence Squared over whether or not death was permanent. It’s one of those questions that seems to have an obvious “yes” answer. Even for the religious, the answer is yes because our definitions of death are not coherent. The theist can answer yes, as long as by “death,” you mean the ending of this worldly life. To question this alleged fact of our existence is almost absurd. We are born and then we fill in the middle part for a bit, then we die. It is inevitable. 

The debate however extended beyond this obvious construction of our existence and into whether or not there is some kind of life after death. This obviously, is the real question being asked. Death, in this life, is inevitable; but that does not necessarily mean the destruction of the self or the identity of the individual. Perhaps you might want to throw a soul into that mix as well. Claiming that you are a soul and the body is a vehicle for that soul is a common metaphor. It raises a host of other questions, it over-complicates things in a way that I find distasteful in my almost blind adherence to Ockham’s Razor. Do souls exist? I don’t know, I see no evidence for a soul but I am open to the possibility. 

Yet the question being asked is not, “do souls exist?” but rather is there life after death. In concerning ourselves with terms as we like to do, we must define the words being used. The main point is that tricky definition of the word death. Now there are several conceptions of death that are the realm of argument in matters legal, moral, and scientific. I will simplify it for this post by saying the end of the body’s life. Far past the point where we want to describe lower versus higher brain function, brain versus heart, etc. I mean not the point where we want to say that a person has just died, but that everyone agrees that the body is a corpse. 

As a materialist, it’s hard for me to accept that there is anything more than just our bodies. Therefore when the body is dead the person is dead along with it. Yet some would claim that the person lives on, in more than just our memories but that there is an afterlife and that is where a new life begins. In the debate, Dr. Eben Alexander and Dr. Raymond Moody (the latter being the person that coined the term “near death experience) were using the existence of the phenomenon of near death experiences as evidence that there is some kind of life after death. Dr. Alexander himself spent seven days in a coma in which he described having journeyed to the other side and then returned to this life. His experience, and others like it, are used to prove that there is some kind of existence after this life. 

I disagree. I want to be clear though, I don’t think that people like Dr. Alexander are necessarily lying. He was in a coma and had some kind of experience. However it seems to be that those people who have the experiences always fit them into a description that was present in the culture that they lived in. In other words if a Christian has an one of these experiences they see Jesus, if a Hindu goes through it they see Hindu deities, a Muslim sees Allah or Mohammed, etc. If people all over the world were having these and bringing back descriptions that generally matched, I would be more open to them. 

The so-called tunnel of light, is usually explained by brain asphyxiation, and the drug ketamine has been known to have the effect of inducing one of these experiences that the person in question swears is true. 

Those explanations aside, one of the issues is that these people didn’t die. Now some may have been declared clinically dead for a couple minutes, but that doesn’t mean dead dead, because some function of the body is still operating. They may have some kind of faint lower brain function, their blood may still be flowing, etc. They don’t come back because they haven’t gone anywhere. To use these experiences as anything other than anecdotal evidence is incorrect. While I don’t dispute that personal belief of the person that they had an experience, I will contest any claim that their belief represents the objective reality of the world. 


Categories: philosophy