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Two Shootings

July 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In the United States, we seem to be having a rash of shootings. I’m not going to focus on gun control, or the many arguments about the causes of these events. Nor am I going to trash the culture that views ownership of a gun as some kind of holy right. The two mass shootings took place in recent weeks, one in a Charleston church and the other at a Marine recruiting site in Chatanooga. (I’m not going to repeat the names of the shooters: so I’ll just be referring to the locations of the crimes)

In the latter, it was an attack on the recruitment station by a person with motives that are so far unknown. And yes, I’m saying ‘unknown,’ because we actually don’t know the reason for the shooting. I prefer facts to assumptions and until there is at least a substantiated fact I’m not going to make any claims. Fox News, as of today, uses the phrase “Muslim gunman” in a report about the incident. Now, that phrase is true: he was a Muslim and he was a gunman. However it’s a loaded term because it carries with it the implication that he went on his murder spree because he was a Muslim, a fact which we simply don’t know.

The other shooting was done by a young man at a historic black church in Charleston. This person’s motive was clear: it was about race. We have evidence that he was racist, that he hated black people, and that he felt they were ruining his country. In the initial days of reporting on this shooting there was a hesitancy to speculate on this person’s motives even as it was becoming quite clear what it could be. An image of the person wearing the flag of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, yet the news was hesitant to speculate. I’m not attacking them for their hesitancy, but rather that in both of these two cases they seemed more hesitant than they did in the above shooting. Infamously, early Fox News reports tried to claim that it was an attack on Christianity since the shooting took place in a Christian church and the victims were all attending a Bible study session.

The question that I would like an answer to is this: why is the religion of the murderer (alleged) important in one case but not in the other? I’m not saying we should remove the “Muslim” from the Chattanooga shooter unless it turns out that his religious views had nothing to do with the shootings, but what I am saying is that if it’s always a factor in the one event then it’s a factor in the other. As of right now, all i know is that he was listed as a member of a Lutheran congregation and the Lutherans don’t have a significant history of racism. Perhaps we ought to rule out that religion had any role in motivating the attack on the church.

We know that religion played a role in 9/11 and the previous attack on the World Trade Center. Those individuals are rightly described as Islamic Terrorists, but religion isn’t factored in with Eric Rudolph who bombed an abortion clinic, a lesbian night club, and the Atlanta Olympics. We don’t refer to James Kopp, the murderer of Barnett Slepian, as a Christian murderer even though he was a member of a virulent Christian group known as the “Lambs of Christ.” Why is their a trepidation on calling these people religious terrorists when they are clearly religious terrorists?

I’m not a social justice warrior, I’m not outraged on the behalf of people who are offended that the label “Muslim” or “Islamic” gets attached to acts of terror. I have no problem with calling ISIS (or ISIL) an Islamic Fundamentalist group, they are operating according to what they believe are the fundamentals of their religion, that’s literally what they are. I just have a problem when we arbitrarily ascribe the labels, or in this case, when we selectively do so because it doesn’t seem that arbitrary. David Koresh may not have been in the mainstream of Christianity but he was a Christian who believed in the second coming of Jesus (and that he was the second coming).

The problem is that the media doesn’t seem to want to call these people religious terrorists at the risk of offending a declining majority of the population. We don’t even use the term “extremist” to describe home grown groups that oppose a scientific understanding of the world, seek to deny equality among the sexes and sexual orientation, and want to impose religious law on everyone even if they don’t believe in that particular religion. Why not? Those are the same things that groups like ISIS want but because they are Muslim and from a different country we don’t have any problem linking them with the label of “extremist” or “terrorist.”

Did religion motivate the shooting in Charleston? Probably not, but there are enough racist Christian groups in the country where it could have been a possibility. Did religion motivate the shooting in Tennessee? Maybe, we just don’t know and until we do know maybe we ought to lay off calling this person a “Muslim gunman” or else we should attach every person’s religion to the crime they commit.

The Cognitive Dissonance in Pascal’s Wager part II

July 13, 2015 Leave a comment

In part I we dealt the various problems inherent within Pascal’s Wager. Everything from the fact that you must actually already believe in order to buy into it to the problem of specificity of the god you are supposed to be avoiding the wrath of. In part two we are going to be dealing with a problem inherent in the people that use it.

Awhile back I was sitting in a bar in Toledo, Ohio. The bartender, a friend of mine, slipped me a napkin and then rolled her eyes. Confused, I wrinkled my brow at her and she gestured with her face toward the napkin. Ok, I figured looking down and I noticed that she had written on it. I picked the napkin up, read the message, then pretended to wipe my face throwing it in the garbage bin behind the bar. On the napkin was written, “get ready to talk about Jesus.” A patron of the bar, not a regular, was approaching various people and talking about god with them. An unusual place to proselytize, for sure, but he was feeling sorry for himself about not having been born again. At some point in our conversation which I thought interesting at first, he asked me how I could deny that the Bible said that god exists.

What does that question have to do with Pascal’s Wager? Well there are lots of books that say alot of different things, but this book is part of a group that tells the reader if they don’t accept everything in it as true (or part of it, depending on who you ask) then you are going to punished in the most severe sense possible. I have several history books, science books, and geography books; and every one of those can be considered true for the most part. They are verified by other sources, the science books have experiments in them that have been repeated many times, and the satellites have given us a picture of the world from an outsider’s perspective to show us what the planet looks like. Yet, all of these books have people that think they are bullshit. Conspiracy theorists deny the history books,  science denialists take issue with my biology books, and flat earthers think that the Earth is still flat. There is no external punishment for denying these books, even if it were promised that something would happen, aside from being ignorant, is it better to be on the safe side entertaining the idea that they could be wrong? Or is it just the opposite? Should the deniers believe just because they could be wrong?

The person in the bar didn’t think at all about the implication of what he was trying to tell me. If you are going to apply Pascal’s Wager by latching on to the line about “he who believes in me will live forever” (John 11:25) because they don’t want to die, and worse, don’t want to serve eternity in Hell; must explain why it is that the wager only applies here. Why aren’t they checking their garden for gnomes, or the forest for pixies, or anything else that seems improbable? There are unicorns mentioned in the King James Version, as well as a sea monster known as the Leviathan, do we have to worry that these creatures exist as well?

I brought this up a while back when I reviewed the paper “Praying to Stop Being an Atheist” by T.J. Mawson, I didn’t realize it until now but he’s making an elaborate Pascal’s Wager argument. His claim is that if there are people that believe in the existence of a deity everyone has the obligation to at least check it out. This is because the denier could be wrong. We must consider though that belief in something doesn’t make it true so that it doesn’t matter if the entire planet minus one believed in something that one person has no more obligation to check than if he was the only believer and everyone else denied it. The person Wagering on Pascal though doesn’t see this, they see instead that one ought to apply the wager only to belief in their god and that’s where it ends. This is inconsistent and arbitrary.

Sure, it’s unlikely that faeries exist but it’s just as unlikely that there is a god that cares about our day to day lives. The only difference is that faeries aren’t said to get angry if we gay marry or do any of the other things that the Bible says we can’t. The faeries have less of a stake in our day to day lives, but this omnipotent being seems to be quite impotent. The person at the bar thought I was risking my soul when I wouldn’t believe out of fear however if that was his only reason for believing it seems strange to not apply that belief across the spectrum of his life.

I have no illusions. I know that this person, and most of the religious world, don’t buy this argument either. They only bring it out when confronting a doubter. This raises the question of why they think it will work. Which I would like to ask: has it ever? This is like the guy in the car honking at a pretty woman: has it ever gotten someone laid? It’s the last ditch attempt to justify their own beliefs, which says more about them then it does about the person they are talking to. It tells me that they doubt as well but are too frightened to pursue that doubt. A fear of “what if I’m wrong?” keeps them lock step with their previous beliefs afraid of fairy tales they were told when they were young and of the vivid tortures described to them as small children that await anyone who doubts.

The Cognitive Dissonance in Using Pascal’s Wager part I

July 7, 2015 1 comment

Blaise Pascal came up with one of the most infuriatingly inane arguments for the belief in god. Specifically he was talking about the Christian god which is kind of ironic, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. The first thing we should note is that it is called Pascal’s “wager” not his argument, not his proof, but his bet. Further, we should also note that the wager only affects the actions of the individual, not necessarily their beliefs. This is because of the wager itself. The wager states that a betting person would act as though there was a god because if there is and that person didn’t they would find divine wrath to be more detrimental than not acting like a believer. It’s mathematical, to him, a person who believes and is granted eternal reward gains infinity, but if the believer is wrong they lose the same thing as everyone else: existence, so it’s all the same. The core of the argument is in the afterlife, and whether or not you are willing to make the risk involved. If there is eternal punishment, the non-believer (me in this case), is up for an infinite amount of trouble once they die. Pascal thinks that if you rationally weigh the cost/benefit, it trends in favor of belief.

There are numerous problems with this bit of wordplay. The first is that it is inherently unconvincing. Sure, it makes sense from the most mathematical point of view if you refrain from noticing that the entire thing is based on assumptions. Any kind of proof of anything has to have a foundational element that can be agreed upon by everyone. The design argument, for instance, rests on the idea that the universe appears to operate in an ordered fashion. If you don’t agree with that, which I would think it impossible to do, the argument is going to fail (I find the conclusion to be an illogical follow up to that first idea, but I’ve covered that in detail before), but with Pascal’s Wager you have to buy every aspect of a specific religious tradition to even begin to think that the argument is plausible. It’s one of the most widely accepted forms of question begging that I know of.

In order to admit of the Wager you have to make accept as true the following assumptions: there is a god, that god is involved/cares about human activity, this god is also wrathful, there is a heaven and hell, there are specific methods of behavior that will either damn you or raise you to paradise. The argument doesn’t lend itself to convincing the non-believer of anything because if the non-believer denies any one of the those propositions then the whole thing collapses. That’s the weaknesses of using it against a non-believer, a believer on the other hand has a much different issue.

If a person is a believer because of this argument, they are a believer in only the dimmest sense of the word but there reasoning for belief is based on fear. It’s not a positive belief system it only exists out of the fear of punishment. It’s belief with a gun to the head of the believer. Any kind of devotion would be hollow, worse than the type of person who only attends religious service out of habit. If someone performs an action because they are threatened with violence we don’t think that individual wanted to do that action. We think that they wanted to avoid being hurt or killed. Why wouldn’t this conclusion be applied to people who are faithful because of Pascal’s Wager? It’s the same thing, only if we apply the Wager’s math to it’s infinitely more dangerous to tell the person no when they can torture you for eternity.

The second issue with this Wager is that it neglects to inform the individual exactly how one goes about avoiding the Divine wrath. Sure, if belief is all it takes, then we can skip this problem but there are very few religious traditions where the only thing required for afterlife reward is simple belief. Usually, and I mean most of the time, you have to do something more than just believe in order to gain that kind of reward. This requires its own wager as diving into one set of rules can often run in contradiction to another set of rules. Each civilization has made the gods in its own image so the rules that get set up are often very specific for a particular group of people in order to separate them out from another group of people. I could give a run down of various rules that fly in contradiction between religions, or even within certain specific religious traditions; but that would be unnecessary and rote. The only thing that we need to ask is “which god am I supposed to believe in?”

All these gods and divine powers have names. Almost all of these beings also have the rule that they are number one, and the big three monotheistic religions also have the rule that no other gods can be worshiped or even admitted as existing. This leaves us with the uncomfortable position of having to pick one over the others and just hoping that we are right. If we return again to the Wager, it means that believing in a god if there is a chance that it’s the wrong one is actually just as bad as not believing, and in some cases worse. Some of these gods regard apostasy as being a greater crime than heresy. It’s why ISIS is more focused on killing the “wrong” kind of Muslims than they are the Christians that live within their borders.

The betting individual would almost have to be a Deist in order to just maintain the requirement of belief, but that alone isn’t enough for heavenly reward if the rest of the religious traditions are to be believed (apologies to the Unitarians). The religions usually require a bit more than just flat belief and anything beyond that just risks pissing off the deity if you’ve dropped your dime on the wrong horse.

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