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The Open Mind

August 24, 2015 1 comment

The Scathing Atheist podcast recently covered a blog post listing five ways that one can be a better Atheist. The list is a run down of the usual tired arguments against not being a Christian with an utterly disingenuous title. If the author was really interested in having that debate the list items would include entries like: “don’t be a dick about it,” “If you don’t try and shove your view down my throat I won’t do the same,” etc. Yet, it’s not that, in the author’s opinion a “better atheist” is just a “theist.” Which, fine, I get that position but there’s not reason that he should be pretending that his advice is anything other than that. If you don’t want me to be an atheist show me why I’m wrong without using rote arguments that were taught to me when I was ten and then were repeated until everyone in the thought bubble agrees with them.

The most frustrating point is the “Open mind” accusation. It runs very simply. I say I’m an atheist, and the theist replies that “I just don’t have an open mind.” The problem with that reply is that it is a) dismissive. It’s so close to an ad hominem argument that they can’t get married in most states. It’s also b) incorrect. It runs on a subtext which states that anyone who doesn’t agree is just a closed minded individual that brings all of their preconceived notions as a filter to outside ideas.

The CAM people (complimentary and alternative medicine) use this position as well. I’ve attacked various CAM practices (I won’t call them treatments) on my Twitter/Facebook and once in a great while I’ll get a response that accuses me of not having an open mind. For instance, when I say that Reiki simply doesn’t work because it’s nothing more than touch therapy with a Japanese sounding name (and therapeutic touch was debunked by a 9 year old Emily Rosa) I’ve gotten the response that I should keep more of an open mind about the possibilities. The problem isn’t that my mind isn’t opened, it’s that it’s not susceptible to incredible claims without any kind of evidence. I don’t believe that Reiki doesn’t work because it fails to gel with my worldview, I don’t believe it works because there is no evidence that it does. Until I see such evidence I’m going to stand by my assertion that it’s nothing more than wishful thinking.

The author offers up an interesting question: “You’re asking people to abandon one worldview with its beliefs and propositions for another worldview with a different set of beliefs and propositions. How is one open-minded and the other is not? In what way are atheists more “free” than theists?”

This is a fair question if you take away the assumptions that there are some sort of “atheist beliefs” and “atheist propositions.” I hear and read this a lot from theistic attacks on atheism and they rarely ever list these beliefs and propositions. The fundamentalists usually do but their idea of atheistic beliefs are those of evolution (which is endorsed by the Catholic church) and the Big Bang theory (not only endorsed by the Catholic Church but originally conceived by a Catholic Priest Georges Lemaitre). Other atheistic beliefs seem to be that homosexuals are deserving of equality, which I don’t understand why that’s controversial, and women’s rights including abortion (which I do understand the controversy I just don’t agree with it). However, since the author doesn’t give us one proposition we just have to assume that his proposition is solely limited to the one necessary component of being an atheist: that there is no evidence of a divine being.

This list entry takes a nosedive worthy of the HBO series OZ. Sure, as he claims, the atheist is not free to believe in god or the efficacy of prayer, but that’s an ontological definition of being an atheist. You can’t, by definition, believe in god and be an atheist because the law of non-contradiction attaches. The door cannot be both open and closed. William of Occam, of the famous razor, argued that the law of non-contradiction is the only law which binds god and it must certainly apply to all people. A Christian is not free to deny Jesus, that’s the whole deal. A Catholic is not free to deny the legitimacy of the Pope and a Muslim is not free to deny that Mohammed was Allah’s prophet. You can’t take the central definition of a thing and then say that definition is a weakness that must be shed in order to improve that thing because then the thing no longer exists. Kant would be throwing a fit right now with that kind of logic.

I’m not aware of the scholarship on why non-theists are called “Free thinkers” the oldest I’ve encountered the phrase was in the writings of Robert Ingersoll. The reason, and this is my hypothesis, we call ourselves that is not simply because we don’t believe in the gods but because we are free to change. With a religion’s moral being bound up in a book written long before the advent of our knowledge regarding physics, astronomy, medicine, biology, chemistry, zoology my worldview can change. The theist’s cannot without making some intellectual gymnastics which justify how the book was right all along. For example, in Genesis god is claimed to have put two lamps in the sky (the sun and the moon) but we know that the moon is not a metaphorical lamp, it’s a metaphorical mirror. It’s wrong and the literal interpretation here should be assumed to be metaphorical, ok fine. But that means that the book isn’t entirely literally true and the parts that are wrong are all assumed to be metaphorical, yet the theist is bound by the writings of the book. Whereas I can go outside of any one particular work/author to find the truth. I’m free in the respect that if I think slavery is wrong, I don’t have to find a way to reinterpret some god’s endorsement of slavery as a condemnation of it. I can ignore Aristotle’s recommendation on how to treat slaves and just come to the just conclusion that slavery is wrong.

Finally his last point is utterly absurd. The claim is that because atheism is naturalistic that “In the real world, when something happens that cannot be explained, the atheist, unlike the theist, is not able to claim a miracle. You have to be closed-minded. You cannot truly examine all the evidence and follow it where it leads. If it leads to the miraculous (as the resurrection of Christ may), you’re out of luck.”

That’s not how close mindedness works. If something I can’t explain happens it’s not intellectually stunting to refuse the explanation, “god did it.” Those three words are the end of all inquiry and investigation. I can examine all of the evidence because in order to find the explanation that’s precisely what I would be forced to do. What the author is proposing is that the unexplained is explained by a god of the gaps argument: because I don’t know it must be a miracle. How is that more intellectually liberating? The only evidence we have of these alleged miracles is that someone, a very long time ago, saw something they couldn’t explain and then filled in the explanation with whatever they could. We haven’t seen medical miracles since we’ve been keeping medical records, just as reports of UFOs vanished right around the time everyone started carrying a camera in their pocket. I’m not denying the existence of a deity because I’m closed minded, I’m denying it because I have seen no evidence of it.

Finally, even if we admit the supernatural, there’s still work on the theistic side that needs to be done. If a miracle did occur that wouldn’t prove the existence of God, it wouldn’t even prove the existence of gods. It would just show that sometimes the unexplained happens. That wouldn’t be enough to make me believe in Jesus, Allah, Brahman, or whoever; that would just make admit that there is something outside of the realm of science…maybe, because science isn’t a belief it’s a method. We still don’t understand why tornadoes move the way they do but no one considers them a miracle. It’s just unexplained for now. I have an open mind for any evidence that is brought before me, my atheism is based on that. My mind is closed to accepting ideas based on the lack of evidence or as you call it “faith.”

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Why aren’t Psychics our Priests?

August 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Before I even get going, I do realize that psychics do fill the role of priest for some people. However, I’m not talking about those people, I’m talking about the public writ large. If we take the three largest religions in the world: Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam (I’m skipping the “nones” because that’s not a religion and we’ll be back to them in a second anyway) and really boil down their theology, I mean boil it down to the point where we left the stove on overnight and now we have to scrape the burnt crap off with a wire brush what do we really have? We have the promise of a better world after this one.

Sure, there’s a lot more to it than that but at the base level they have that in common at least. Everything else is how we get there. It’s the reason why people attend services, don’t eat certain foods, or murder apostates for the simple crime of writing a blog. Whatever gods are out there all want obedience to a certain creed and in exchange for spending our life in this plane adhering to that creed we get eternal bliss or another chance to do even better depending on what creed it is that you adhere to. Mostly, it’s about surviving death and avoiding whatever possible punishment exists.

When I was younger, and a believer, I was taught that we should pray for the souls of the dead. It was like I was some kind of character witness for the deceased. If enough people prayed for that individual they got some extra tokens or something in the afterlife. That however was all based on faith. The faith that the deceased were in a specific place, that intercession worked, and that their lot could improve. None of it was testable. No dead people ever spoke to my priest, or to anyone’s priest that I knew. Bishops didn’t perform necromancy and I think it’s literally in the bible that one should not consult with speakers of the dead (Lev. 19:31, 2 Kings 21:16, etc…. though 1 John 4:1 is interesting because it says that we should test the spirits, how are we supposed to do that?) but why not? What’s the harm in consulting the psychics?

Aside from the obvious reason that they cannot do what they are claiming to do. I’m an atheist, and I am also a skeptic. I don’t know if there is an afterlife because I’ve never seen evidence for it. I’ve never spoken to the dead and received a response, but here’s the thing: neither has anyone else. We know this for a number of reasons: the first is that the dead are dead and they can’t speak to us. The second is that these people claiming psychic people are notoriously vague people who give very little, if any, concrete information. Everything is general gleaned from rather clever techniques that elicit information from the mark, err, client. The third reason, and I think that this is the most telling: is that these people aren’t in charge.

Let’s assume that there is a person out there that could really do this as many of these people claim: then they ought to be the most famous, rich, and powerful individuals on the planet. Instead, they isolate themselves off in little communes like Lilydale, NY where the Fox sisters’ house is showcased despite the fact that they were an admitted fraud. A person that could speak to the dead would be an invaluable asset to the world. They would get set their price even just in academics. Take the French Pantheon where the remains of Voltaire, Hugo, and Rousseau are buried, our legitimate psychic could contact these people. They could authenticate remains and solve historical mysteries that have eluded us for generations. Imagine the benefit to society, but I’m told that they don’t work like that. Because of course they don’t.

That however is all academic and more of a skeptic’s argument than an atheist’s. Religiously though, these people if they were telling the truth, should be our priest class. They are claiming that they have knowledge of the afterlife and the supernatural–not interpretation or doctrine but first hand knowledge. Their claim, and it bears repeating, is that they speak to those that have left this mortal coil. They should know what constitutes a sin, what bears afterlife reward, because they can speak to the people are suffering/enjoying the fruits thereof so a simple question like “which day of the week, if any, are we supposed to keep holy?” would be answerable by the spirits.

Of course the will of god might remain hidden, as it always is, but we could at least be able to divine the answers to our questions from the legions of spirits that are already in the afterlife having presumably met this divine being. Yet it seems that the people who go to psychics and the people that are claiming these abilities always fail to ask the big questions. I think it’s more important to find out what constituted the worst infraction in a person’s life than whether or not a deceased relative really loved me. This way I could really stop myself from eternal punishment or a demerit or contributing against the weight of a feather or whatever tradition that you believe in.

It the psychic abilities are true, they are claiming to know what the religions of the world know, only they have that important direct line where religion has to settle for indirect knowledge taken from millenia old books and through the haze of translation. First hand knowledge is revealed truth as Thomas Paine mentioned in his polemic against religion, so even for him these people would have the truth. Yet, going to psychics is not seen as a religious experience, in fact, a lot of religions look down on it. Perhaps they do so as they see it being competition.

As far as I can tell the main difference is that the psychics charge per session but they also don’t make you adhere to a creed. Otherwise both groups are claiming, with different pomp and circumstance, the same thing.

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Searching for an Excuse

August 10, 2015 Leave a comment

A dying movement is reluctant to admit that any losses are the fault of the organization itself. The same goes with a movement, if a movement is leaving favor with the general public it is not the movement’s fault but rather something else. These are, of course excuses. Sometimes, especially with social change, the wind shifts and people wake up to the idea that maybe the previous idea was wrong. In order to provide a legitimate reason for the falling of a position an external threat will often be created. This threat can be an old enemy or perhaps a new one, but it must always present itself as real and somehow stronger than the movement that is failing. It’s the reason the Illuminati were blamed for the French Revolution, it couldn’t be that the people were tired of the monarchy, that as they became more and more educated they decided that the divine right of kings was just a bunch of superstitious nonsense…no it had to be a secret cabal of individuals who caused the famine that led to the revolution. The motive is not exactly clear, but that’s at least the method by which it occurs. In my numerous researches into the world of conspiracy theories I see this pattern over and over again with the group of people that journalist Jonathan Kay grouped as the survivors. These are the people that are shocked or otherwise affected by some event in the world and use the external as a coping mechanism.

This is also a pattern that we see among Christians regarding the recent Supreme Court decision which legalized gay marriage. They speak of a “gay agenda” as though there is some group of LGBT leaders issuing orders and secretly subverting the wills of judges and politicians. The Catholics especially have resurrected the old spectre (or just breathed new life into it) of Planned Parenthood as being responsible since sex without children or marriage apparently is the worst thing that has ever happened to society. What is utterly laughable is that they want us to think that PP and the LGBT community are not the underdogs but rather some kind of omnipotent oppressor that the brave Christians have to unite against as they slowly go down for the glorious death to be remembered as martyrs. It’s absurd. You’re not being oppressed because as long as you indoctrinate the children with your fairy tales there will always be more of you.

The enemy must be stronger because if it’s weaker then how can it be winning? Yet it won, the fight is over and homosexuals have the same right to a legally recognized marriage as the rest of the people. It’s over and the law, again, does not affect you if you aren’t gay. If you don’t want to marry a person of the same sex as you, the same right of refusal exists that existed when you didn’t want to marry a person of the opposite sex. Which is why I was delighted to read president of the Catholic University of America John Garvey’s op ed piece in the Catholic Courier titled “Same-sex Marriage is the legacy of the Pill.”

I went to Catholic school as long time readers will remember and I went through their version of sex “education.” It wasn’t completely useless, they, unlike some states in the country at least made us get the anatomy right. However, those anatomy lessons were accompanied by the evils of sex and masturbation, the idea that sex was strictly for procreation, and only between a married couple—the idea that marriage was between a man and a woman was so obvious that it didn’t need to be said. They always trotted out the dangers of contraception, dangers which have no medical basis, and the horrid evil of planned parenthood. I bought all of this hook, line, and sinker; so in reading Garvey’s article I could nod along easily predicting the path that he was going to take.

The problem is that “the pill” has nothing to do with homosexuality. The link between the two is so tenuous you might as well claim that it is made of unicorns and dragons. Garvey contends, “the fracturing of sexual contracts due to the pill has led us to reframe same-sex marriage as an issue of equality and discrimination, not of societal health.” I disagree, societal health has a great deal to do with equality and discrimination, when there is universal equality and no discrimination I would say that a society is very healthy. His contention is the opposite: societal health mandates that we not allow the legal recognition of same sex unions, but he never makes the case as to why this is. What is the harm? It’s been over a month and if his god were going to express his displeasure at the ruling he is certainly taking his damn time. He also fails to explain the harm in the pill, but it’s such a doctrine of Catholicism that it’s just taken as a brute fact that the thing is evil…even though the doctrine of double effect allows it and Jesus, in the gospels, fails to address the topic of birth control or homosexuality at all (and both certainly existed). The Catholic institution of marriage has not been affected one bit by the ruling. The Catholic church is perfectly within its rights to refuse to marry individuals within its doors just as they would have been within their rights to deny my marriage, but for some reason they didn’t.

The pill didn’t cause this, the recognition of a legal protection for all individuals is what did. I get what he’s trying (and failing) to argue: that if we didn’t free up our sexual mores 51% of the population wouldn’t regard homosexuality and homosexuals as anything worth tolerating. We’d all be losing our virginity on our wedding nights while clumsily trying to figure out how to have sex because then sex always leads to children. Which biologically is utterly untrue, but if we were going to nitpick all of the problems with his argument I’d easily have a month’s worth of material. The pill isn’t an evil I don’t care how often it is repeated like a mantra. The fact is, that if you are living in a first world industrialized nation, you are living in the safest possible place in all of history. This isn’t because of the pill but if people who think like Garvey were correct this should not be the case.

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