Archive for January, 2015

Atheist Perspective: Believers are Gonna Believe

January 27, 2015 Leave a comment

The Kevin Smith movie “Dogma” had a scene in which Rufus (the 13th Apostle played by Chris Rock) railed against the concept of “belief.” He talked about how people will die for beliefs and how they will kill for beliefs. Instead, he suggested, people ought to just have ideas. Beliefs are tricky things, they have “lack of evidence” as a prerequisite. Despite what some of the more fundamenatlist of the religious want to claim, I don’t believe in scientific facts–I accept them when they are valid. Just as I don’t believe in historical events, I have opinions on them which can largely be counted as beliefs but the fact that an event happened or a thing existed, is not a belief. Facts are neutral, they are merely the states of the world that we live in.

The real believers in a religion are going to believe no matter what they are told. We are aware of the recent controversy over the 6 year old’s book about going to heaven. He recently admitted that he faked the whole thing for attention after his car accident. Which, in an adult, is a pretty terrible thing to do; but for a child it just makes sense. What was amazing to me is that the reason that his family and him are making it well known that it was faked was because what this book says is not accurate according to the bible. This book about meeting Jesus, wasn’t religious enough.

I’m not going to harp on the kid or the fraudulent book. The issue is that there are still going to be people who believe in these accounts despite the knowledge that the book is a fraud.

As I began my skepticism and conspiracy theory course I issued a survey for the class to take. It was supposed to gauge where they were on the conspiracy-belief spectrum giving me the topics for the later weeks in the course. Most of the questions were T/F covering four subjects: political, religious, historical, scientific. I do my best not to politicize my courses, so I threw in a smattering of left–right theories that the fringes hang on to. I asked if the students believed George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, but also whether or not GMO crops were proven to be harmful. Rarely will a Republican agree to the former but they are also more likely than Democrats to disagree with the latter. It’s a curious synergy that I will have to explore in the future.

In each of the four sections I tossed in a throwaway question. Something that I thought everyone would answer one way, I did this to make sure that the count was right. Under “scientific” I asked them to agree or disagree with the statement that the world was round. Now there is a flat earth society but I can’t tell whether the site is a joke or not. It’s full of non-sequitors and references to scientific buzz words (for instance they claim that Dark Energy is what propels the Earth without giving any kind of explanation as to how they know that). Two people in one class answered “false.”

False. In other words they didn’t believe that the Earth was round. One person, as near as I can tell, circled false because they knew that the Earth was a sphere. They misunderstood the question in a way that I didn’t think was too reasonable, I mean a sphere is round, but fine. The other person wasn’t there that day, I was hoping that they would be. Even a quick visit to the and their forums allows you to see the incredible leaps in logic that must be sustained for their conspiracy to work. It is, indeed, a conspiracy as well based on the number of necessary inventions of imagination they must posit if the world were indeed flat.

We come here not for my diatribes against conspiracy though, but for this atheist’s perspective on religion. The two have much in common. Especially if you are a religious literalist of the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) of a rather extreme, even for them, sort you could be a flat-earther. What’s amazingly common is that no amount of evidence is possible to shake this belief. A person far enough in the well to be a literalist isn’t going to be convinced with evidence, they have to be weened off of the belief and then shown the evidence. Perhaps then you could take part of the belief down from its pedestal.

As it stands though, I feel there is probably no hope for the extremist of any stripe. Too much of their identity is wrapped up in their beliefs that separating it would have to happen against their will. It would be more probably that an influx of new ideas would create the questioning that would be necessary, however, the extremists typically shun any kind of information that isn’t their primary source. Like the flat earther, if these extremists are not going to listen to basic knowledge they aren’t going to want to understand anything else either. Just like the aforementioned book, it didn’t follow the literal reading of the Bible and that’s why they confessed. It was about protecting their belief and not about confessing the lie. They believe in a literal truth without actually understanding the message.

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Atheist Perspective: Still Don’t Know What to Think About this Pope

January 20, 2015 Leave a comment

I am often asked by my Catholic friends what I think about Pope Francis. I am often asked by my fellow atheist friends what I think about Pope Francis. I will tell you one thing: this guy doesn’t make it easy. On the one hand he has spoken in support of the rational truth of scientific theory, and how that theory is not incompatible with the Christian faith. Essentially he was merely reiterating the Catholic church’s stance that evolution and the Big Bang are proven hypotheses (a position that Pope John Paul II held), he also allowed women in churches to breast feed their babies which apparently reverses a rule that I didn’t know was a rule, in general he seems to be taking the position that maybe people should dial back a bit on the zealotry.

It seems that I should at least like the guy. Yet, for every step forward we get steps backward, he blesses exorcists, censures nuns for ignoring social issues when they were focusing on the poor, and then joins the “but brigade” when commenting on the attacks in Paris. Pick a position my friend, I’m sick of having to switch sides every other month.

I want to be absolutely clear, he condemned the attacks in very strong language. Describing them as “abhorrent” and the attackers to be enslaved by a twisted form of religion that allows for such attacks to occur. So far, he and I are in absolute agreement. Yet like a great deal of people who condemned the attack he went on to continue, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

Should we? Maybe. Must we? Probably not. Can we? Absolutely. I said it last week, but the problem isn’t that a magazine with a print run smaller than most villages made fun of a religion, the problem is that a group of murderers kicked in the door to their office and shot the place with AK-47s. Aren’t we all in agreement on this? Is not this so utterly obvious that it should not need to be said?

I would think so, especially from a person who heads a religion which teaches “turning the other cheek” and claims that those who suffer insults for the sake of Christ are blessed. It’s a matter which I fail to understand. What troubles me is that word “faith.” If someone has true faith, if they truly believe their religion despite whatever counter-evidence can be shown, then it should not matter if someone else makes fun of it, or someone else insults it. Is the fear here that an insult will usher in an age of deconversion? If so, then perhaps the faith is misplaced in that it gets so easily shaken by mere words.

What is the special quality that makes “faith” beyond reproach? It’s not the fact that people bind their identities to it. It can’t be because we are allowed to criticize, insult, and make fun of many things which make up a person’s identity. I have friends that are fiercely political, and can insult the core of their beliefs as well. I can call their favorite US president a liar, criminal, crook, corrupt, etc. They may feel that I am wrong or that I am just a member of a rival political ideology and that’s the only reason that I am saying it. We may have a debate on the subject, we may yell and scream about it; but at the end of the day we will both agree that our disagreement is a right. I have very conservative Republican friends and very liberal Democrat friends and no matter what their disagreements they all realize that we have a right to those differences no matter how heated the debate may get.

I can insult people’s hobbies and their interests, and still the reaction is nothing approaching the condemnation of insulting a person’s religion. I don’t see what the special quality is that makes “faith” something that is hands off to criticism.

Something does happen though. There is a change. If I tell a person that I believe in extra terrestrial beings who came to this planet and have an influence on our lives, that person will laugh at me. If I tell them that my religion tells me these things, they try to hide their laughter. If I mention that ghosts can make changes in world events I get looks, bad looks, that is until I say that my religion tells me that the spirits of the dead can help me with problems. Just adding that one word “religion” elevates one belief above another even when, nothing has changed about the belief.

The reverse is true as well. I can insult a person’s belief in ghosts and no one thinks twice; yet if that belief in ghosts is part of their religion, not only that person but other people who may not even share that belief will think I am wrong. This may be just a case of one religion sticking up for another, and if that is the case I don’t understand what everyone is so afraid of.

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Atheist Perspective: The But Brigade

January 13, 2015 Leave a comment

I planned on talking about France and the attack, but I had to cool off after it happened. It’s always better to wait for a day to write something if you are really emotional about it. That emotion for me wasn’t anger or sadness, but, and I’ll admit this reluctantly, a bit of smugness. It was just another in a long history of the world civilization that I could point toward and say, “See, this is why I’m against all of it; because of shit like this.” That idea would have worked really well because it would have led directly into my next post which would have been titled something like, “No I’m not a Racist and Here’s why Ben Affleck is Wrong.”

By the time I had the idea organized in my head and was ready to put pen to paper (literally, I like to hand write these), I had read too many articles and posts saying the exact same thing that I was going to. Couple that with a rather heated exchange on a facebook post and the whole thing had fizzled out. Then I saw something that fired me up and thanks for Bill Donohue’s continued idiocy throughout the weekend we have this post, about the apologists for the murders.

You can identify an apologist with their use of the word “but.” As in, “These crimes are horrific but…” Anything after that word makes them an apologist. They are excusing the crime to some small, maybe even infinitesimal degree, but they are still excusing it. Everything after the “but” is about how the cartoons were offensive, and they were purposefully so, and maybe the artists or the magazine should have been more respectful. No matter how it is phrased, it is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.

It doesn’t matter if the cartoon offended Islamic terrorists, mainstream Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, or whatever; what was done in response was inexcusable. The artists don’t have to tone it down, the violent perpetrators of the crime are the ones that have to tone it down. Someone will always be offended by something. We don’t have to worry about the offense. It’s a different story when you are made to look at something, but no one was making anyone look at those cartoons and by their normal circulation numbers: no one really was looking at those cartoons. Now, however, millions of people have seen them and will buy the next issue out of defiance for those people that would have offense be an excuse to commit murder.

It’s ironic that the response to this attack is so different than the response to the threats made about the Seth Rogan movie. There was no “but” when people discussed Sony’s movie. No one was saying that Sony has a right to make a movie “but” maybe they shouldn’t have picked the leader of North Korea. Yet in a nearly similar situation, for some reason offensive cartoons are worse than a full length movie. Why the difference? Perhaps because it’s easier to arm-chair quarterback Sony not releasing the movie than it is for Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoons. What would have happened if the reverse had happened?

Perhaps it’s about the loss of life. Maybe the stakes became too real, the likelihood of North Korea delivering on its “9/11 style” attack was extremely low. We’ve seen it before, with Theodore Van Gogh, the infamous Danish Cartoon, and Hebdo itself a few weeks prior to this attack, however the “but” wasn’t about the loss of life. It was about offense.

After the Danish cartoon attacks, world religious leaders while condemning the attacks also condemned the cartoons. Saying that if they knew they were offensive, then why did they publish them? They published them because they wanted to, that’s all that is necessary.

This is the West, we are the children of the Renaissance, the children of the Enlightenment. Our civilization is built on the backs of those people who have been burned, tortured, imprisoned, and exiled for believing that it is not our right to satirize, question, or outright insult but that in many cases it is our duty. This can be traced back to Socrates of Athens who was exiled for teaching the young to question the established norms of their society. Why should we abandon the principle of free speech in order to protect a small offended minority?

Especially in this case where this offended minority took an Ak-47 to a pen fight. This is the same type of minority that was offended by the very fact that Pakistani children were attending school. There is no “but” that ought to be tolerated, it ought not to matter what it is being offended. If those who are so, feel the need, they can protest, they can complain, they can take every legal recourse available and if all of that is exhausted they are free to ignore it as that is the easiest way to make it disappear.

I won’t pretend to admire the magazine, I’ve never read it and I’m sure there are references that only make sense in France and even then, probably only make sense in Paris. I will say this: they had courage to continue and they had every right to do so. All we have is the duty to protect that right.

Atheist Perspective: On Conspiracy Theories

January 6, 2015 1 comment

This coming semester I’ll be teaching a course of my own making. I’m rather excited for it, it’s a class I knew would be popular (and given the quickness by which it filled up I was absolutely right) and will be fun to teach. The course is titled “Skepticism, Critical Thinking, and Conspiracy Theories.” It is listed under the school’s general writing instruction seminar, a course which all first year students have to take within their first year. The general idea is that I have to teach them how to write college level papers and was given literally (and I mean literally, literally) carte blanche to pick the subject.

The most difficult aspect of teaching, usually, has been hiding my personal views from the course. I do this to facilitate an open discussion. My usual method is to conduct lectures from the point of view of the person asserting the argument, e.g. if I’m teaching Plato I argue as Plato even though I don’t agree with Plato. When I teach ethics and birth control, one lecture I’m for it and one lecture I’m against it. While this is difficult it seems to work. At the end of the semester I’ll open myself up to any kind of questions that would reveal my personal views. If I’ve done my job successfully, the students have no idea what I actually believe and my experience has thus far borne it out. I’ve been accused of being everything from a Republican-style libertarian to a left-wing Socialist to an anarchist. When I have taught Philosophy of Religion the students have typically thought of me as being a religious person to various degrees (it helps that the first five weeks cover pro-existence arguments). I don’t know if it truly has an effect, but I would like to err on the side of caution.

I’m a skeptic, but I didn’t use to be. I used to believe in conspiracy theories as much as I used to believe in the truth behind religion. It was, in truth, 9/11 that woke me up. The conspiracy theories were too quick. Within weeks of the attack I started seeing them online and then I realized that just about every conspiracy theory fit the same mold. In my youth the big theory was Oklahoma City and after 9/11 I saw that you could literally take the Oklahoma City conspiracy theories and replace every reference to the location with the appropriate New York City words to come up with a “new” theory. 9/11 spread faster because the internet was more common as well as footage being available where in 1995 you would have needed VHS tapes to make the equivalent videos. (the TWA 800 explosion was another one, but that French guy had the barest grip on reality with his theory, even the Fox Mulder in me couldn’t begin to swallow that one)

It’s easier now, and perhaps that is why they are no longer the domain of crazy zealots. These theories have to be taken on faith, they assume the truth before the evidence is present and if the facts don’t fit the theory they ditch the facts. Conspiracy theory has a lot in common with religion in that regard. The lack of hard concrete evidence is overcome by simple accusations of the non-believer being deceived. Not to say that only the gullible are religious, I usually maintain that a person’s religious belief is dictated by where they were born and who raised them.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, usually have to be sought out. It’s too bad that all of that mental brain power is wasted on trying to prove that the CIA killed Kennedy (a theory which was helped along by the KGB) or that flouride is a mind control plot (which we’ve been making fun of since the 1960s). I’ll give this much to the theorists as much as I do the theologists, they are incredible researchers and if they went in to their subjects trying to find the truth rather than confirming what they already thought was true so much would we all benefit.

In my opinion the real common feature between religious and conspiracy thinking is the idea of the narrative. Neither phenomenon will abide chance. The stories of the Old Testament are not stories of people overcoming obstacles, they are the stories of the divinely chosen overcoming the obstacles that the divine has placed in front of them. The conspiracists cannot offer a theory about lone nuts, incompetence, or random chance; all of history has been orchestrated by some nearly divine intelligence that not only moves history but also controls it. There is also an eschatological point that conspiracism universally reaches that has its patterns in the far right of religious thinking as well as the far left of socialism (conspiracies don’t just exist on the right wing). The difference between the two is only separated by the belief in the supernatural and in the case of those like David Icke, it’s just a different kind of supernatural.