Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unlike watches, easy to break beliefs have more value

A robust watch that "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" is better than a fragile watch.  A belief is unlike a watch in this respect.  A belief should be defeasible to have merit and warrant our support.  The easier it is to defeat a belief the more justified we are to hold that belief by virtue of a failure to defeat it.  When a belief attempts to claim the allegedly unbreakable status of a Timex watch that indicates that the belief is likely to be ill-defined and to lack value.  People who proudly assert that they adopt their most important beliefs on faith and actively resist the doubting of this faith, or who deliberately select their beliefs to be as inscrutable and invulnerable to defeat as possible, are making a fundamental mistake.  They are self-defining themselves as unreasonable ideologues.

To be properly justified our beliefs need to be derived from an honest effort to obtain a best fit with the available evidence.  Accordingly, we should hold those beliefs that are most consistent with the conclusions reached by a current consensus of the experts who carefully examine the empirical evidence and who adopt only those defeasible conclusions that withstand skeptical scrutiny.  Using this standard we are not restricted to adopting only those conclusions that are published in science textbooks, but we are confined to adopting only those beliefs that are the closest match with the conclusions published in science textbooks.  

The evidence favors, as best fit beliefs, that biology is chemistry is physics, that humans are primates that evolved from evolved fish that evolved from single celled organisms that emerged from chemistry and physics, that our universe has total energy in the vicinity of zero and that a stable initial condition of absolute nothingness is a fictional concept, that human cognition is flawed and biased and the very different religious beliefs among different people reflect our cognitive biases, and that libertarian free will is a fiction.  It thus becomes difficult to simultaneously hold traditional religious beliefs.  We should not be seeking a religious belief or any pre-determined belief, we should be seeking beliefs that are the best fit with the available evidence.

The Great Silence paradox

SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, has detected nothing.  This result gives us "the Great Silence" paradox, which can be stated thusly:  The size and age of our universe incline us to believe that many technologically advanced civilizations exist. However, this belief is in conflict with our failure to find observational evidence to support it. 

Maybe intelligent life requires more than physics and chemistry and exists only on earth because a creator god of some sort put us here.  Maybe technologically advanced intelligent life is rarer than we assumed.  Maybe our current observations are misdirected or our search methodologies are flawed.  It turns out that the last two explanations for this failure are both likely true.

Earth is located 27,000 light years from the center of our galaxy.  SETI researchers look towards the center of our galaxy because that is the direction where the largest concentration of nearby stars are found.  New evidence implies that long gamma ray bursts are more common in places where stars are more dense and also where elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are less common.  

Long gamma ray bursts function like a reset buttons, they destroy multi-cellular life.  Intelligent life, which we can define here as life that achieves an understanding of how stars give off light, is possible on earth because of our location on the outer periphery of a large galaxy where there are fewer nearby stars and where there is a significant quantity of heavier elements. Earth appears to have experienced a partial biological reset from a gamma ray burst resulting in the Ordovician extinction, a global cataclysm about 450 million years ago that wiped out 80% of Earth's species.

During the first 5 billion years after the Big Bang there were arguably too many long gamma ray bursts to make plausible the emergence of intelligent life.  Furthermore, most galaxies are smaller than our Milky Way galaxy, with densely packed stars and/or with fewer heavy elements.  It is estimated that about 10% of the observable galaxies are sufficiently large and with enough heavy elements to have planets in their outer regions with conditions amenable to the evolution of intelligent life.  10% of 100 billion is still 10 billion galaxies, but the large distances between galaxies reduces the probability of our finding evidence for intelligent life in other galaxies even when it exists.  

Thus the initial SETI results appear to be not so paradoxical after all.  Our chaotic universe provides a mostly harsh environment that is ill-suited for the evolution of intelligent life.  The search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be more effective if it focused on the outer regions of our galaxy and nearby large galaxies, but this constraint also makes it less likely that we will ever find them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marylanders: Request repeal of antiquated laws

The Secular Coalition for America recently sent out emails to their members in Maryland inviting them to send an email to their Delegate and Senator requesting that Articles 36 & 37 of the Declaration of Rights be amended to comply with a 1961 Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, that Article 37 violates the first amendment.  Articles 36 & 37 allow a religious test for qualifying to be a juror and a witness and to hold public office.  The first two links below quote the laws, the next link describes the issue, and the last link displays the SCA form to send the email.

As of this week, the Secular a Coalition for Maryland has given a Model Secular Policy Guide to 19 Senators and 28 Delegates.  Our goal is to give a copy of the Guide to most of the Senators and Delegates prior to the start of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Justice Scalia's alternative facts

According to Justice Scalia, the supernatural devil is "a real person" and demonic possession is less common today then it was in the past because today there are more atheists who function as enablers for the devil.  Scalia's views on the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause principles are unbalanced and unjust because they are rooted in facts about how the universe works that are false.  If there really is a devil who possesses people as depicted in C.S. Lewis' apologetic novel The Screwtape Letters, and atheists are favoring "the devil's desires", as Scalia asserts is a fact, then Scalia's refusal to apply EC and EPC protections to atheism and atheists would be perfectly ethical.

Our model of how the universe works is the foundation that our ethics are built on.  This is why it is so important to utilize reliable methods for obtaining our facts about how the universe functions.  Antonin Scalia talks like a person who is not entirely committed to reliably anchoring his factual beliefs on the solid ground of empiricism.  Instead, he anchors at least some of his factual beliefs in today's ongoing reiteration of 4th century Catholic dogma.  The Vatican makes no distinction between its theology and the facts, and therefore neither does Justice Scalia, who is proudly committed to being a good Catholic.  

Through considerable collective effort, with important contributions of a few intelligent individuals, between the 4th century and 1789 we acquired some additional knowledge about how the world functions.  This trend of acquiring knowledge has continued, at an accelerated pace, between 1789 and 2015.   Justice William J. Brennan somehow managed to live in the real world and profess Catholicism at the same time.  But Scalia's world view pathetically, and tragically, remains partially frozen somewhere between the 4th century and 1789 because he elevates Catholic faith to a valid epistemology with equal status, or maybe superior status, to empiricism. His pathological condition is all the more troubling given that he is an intelligent and powerful man who appears to be injecting his Catholic bias into his evaluation of civil rights protections.

The United States government spends billions of dollars every year to further research that continues to advance modern knowledge.  This money does not go to the Catholic Church because Catholic Church theology contributes nothing to our modern knowledge and never has.  If Justice Scalia had more integrity then he would acknowledge this and refrain from basing EC and EPC jurisprudence on his Catholic faith.

My response to WASH banquet comment

At the Phillips Seafood restaurant banquet that was co-sponsored with the American Humanist Association some months ago, I shared a table with several couples. That restaurant is good, I regret I arrived too late to take full advantage of the buffet downstairs. The first conversation was initiated by one of the two other guys at our table who declared that calling oneself an atheist is like calling oneself an aleprechaunist. Nobody calls them self an aleprechaunist, and no one should call themselves an atheist, he said.

A problem with this analogy is that almost no one calls themselves a leprechaunist either, and even those few people who may so label themselves are joking, or at least do not worship leprechauns. If it were otherwise, if 80-90% of the population called themselves leprechaunists and many of these people worshipped leprechauns, then we would be properly justified in calling ourselves aleprechaunists. That is one of the proper, valid, functions of labels, to identify significant differences in commonly held individual perspectives. Some atheists are married to theists and they do fine together. Yet this is a difference that can contribute to weakening a relationship and sometimes it does.

In addition to the social context, another context where the atheist label can have real significance is with laws and government practices. It is for this reason that arguments to stop using this label are inherently political. Labels enable debate over relevant government laws and practices. Our government, in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments, actively promotes theism and sometimes discriminates against atheists. It is more difficult to challenge this if we dispense with the atheist label. This is one of the reasons I keep using the atheist label and reject arguments against using this label. For similar reasons I keep referring to atheism as a belief even though some people mistakenly insist that atheism is never a belief. For people who, like me, positively believe there are no gods, our positive atheism is a belief.

No one who calls himself atheist is thereby denying that theists and atheists can, and often do, have a lot in common. Also, no one who calls them self an atheist is only an atheist. As with any label, the atheist label is an incomplete way of characterizing oneself. We can also be humanists, secularists, freethinkers, metaphysical or philosophical naturalists, rationalists, skeptics, empiricists, non-theists, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, etc.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Excellent letter from Americans United to the Department of Natural Resources

Now we know why it took Americans United for Separation of Church and State several months to write their letter to Joseph P. Gill, Maryland's Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources:  It was written by AU's senior attorneys like a court brief, heavy with citations of judicial decisions.  I count over 15 citations in a two page letter. The quote below contain the highlights of their clear and unequivocal November 25 letter.

"The Department cannot operate a program that restricts access to participants who are not religious or who deny the existence of God.... Likewise, the Department cannot legally enforce policies that would violate citizens rights to equal protection of the law.... For these reasons the Department must terminate its Charter Agreement with Boy Scouts of America and stop operating Venture Crew 202."

We are now waiting for a response from the DNR.  It is our commitment to the Establishment Clause and equal protection of the law that makes it happen.  Please go to the Secular Coalition for Maryland lobbying action page and send an email to the DNR.  If you are a resident of Maryland then send a second email to the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight to reinforce this message.  Or send them a letter and call them also.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

We cannot choose our conclusion

Our modern picture of the world counter-evidences the religious conviction that our universe has a transcendent aspect or purpose.  Epistemic humility mandates the conclusion that our picture is incomplete.  We all operate under conditions of irremediable uncertainty.  We are not following out a proof.  But when it is proposed that proteins fold into their three-dimensional configurations under the direction of ghostly beings, the proper reaction is to reject the proposed explanation.

We must reject interventions by ghostly beings because we do not need to know everything with certainty from proof to know enough to confidently conclude that our universe operates within the physical constraints of indifferent natural laws.  To reach this conclusion we need a commitment to truth and a recognition that the only reliable way to discover what is true about how our universe functions is to follow the empirical evidence.  We are compelled to the recognition that we are dependent on empiricism by tallying the historical success versus failure ratio of various methods of finding the truth.

Rain and war dances, prayer, meditation, incantations, voodoo, fasting, hallucinatory substances, exorcism, seance, astrology, tarot cards, tea leaves, crystal balls, worship, faith, intuition, imagination, divine revelation, are among the multitude of non-empirical methods that people have turned to resolve problems and obtain answers.  These methods have an unbroken track record of failure.  The only method of finding the truth about how our universe operates that has a consistent track record of success is a skeptical empiricism.  A nutritious meal, a sound sleep and a mid-day nap, some physical exercise, good music, meditation, maybe even a hallucinatory substance, etc., can all contribute, but only empiricism rejects what is fake and connects us to what is real.

The available empirical evidence is sufficient to speak decisively against our universe possessing transcendence or purpose.  Contrary to what agnosticism claims, the evidence is not silent on this question.  Every area of human inquiry that speaks on this question speaks consistently, unanimously telling us that our universe operates mechanically and is indifferent to our fate.  To continue to believe in a universal transcendence or purposefulness or higher power is to refuse to confront what the evidence says.

The unavoidable need for interpretation to get from the evidence to any given conclusion is sometimes cited as justification for accepting a wide range of conclusions.  However, skeptical empiricism connects the evidence to a particular conclusion by best fit.  Best fit discards unnecessary accouterments and attaches itself to the most economical conclusion.  Equality and pluralism are important and valuable social principles, but they are counterproductive as principles of rationality.

All conclusions are not equally good.  For those of us who are committed to responsibly matching our beliefs to the evidence, any religious belief, from the most literalist to the most metaphorical, has ceased to be a live option.  It would be otherwise only if our universe was different.  We did not choose the universe we were born into and therefore we cannot choose our conclusion.  Atheism is the best fit with the available evidence conclusion given our universe as it actually is and therefore we are atheists.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A motherlode of bad ideas

Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health by Ron Hubbard is a motherlode of bad ideas.  The Westboro Baptist church is a motherlode of bad ideas.  Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy is a motherlode of bad ideas.

Anyone angry at me yet? Most of us do not want other people to be angry with us.  We could avoid criticisms of all ideas, or confine our criticisms to generalities that no one self-identifies with.  Then we would be more likely to get closer to our goal of having no one be angry at us.  Yet that should not be our only goal.  We also have good reason to share our thoughts for the purpose of improving our collective thinking, and some of our thoughts are likely going to be critical of some of the ideas that other people self-identify with.

Fortunately for me, Scientologists, Westboro Baptists, and Christian Scientists are few in number and they are not provoked to acts of violence by public criticisms of the bad ideas that they subscribe to.  There will be no riots, I will receive no threats, and the people I interact with will not now become rude towards me.  But what happens when we criticize ideas that many people self-identify with and that some of those same people think should be defended by force?

In at least five countries, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan, a majority of people think that anyone who is born into an Islamic family must profess Islam.  They think there is no option to profess any competing belief and those that leave Islam are guilty of such a serious offense that they should be killed.  This may also be true in Saudi Arabia, but no polls are allowed in that country, and it also true in the Palestinian territories, according to a 2013 Pew forum poll.  Every Arab country that was polled had a majority that either supported a death penalty for apostasy, adultery, or both, except for Tunisia.  Under Shari'a law a Muslim can testify in court against a kafir, but a kafir may not testify against a Muslim and, more generally, there is not equality before the law for non-Muslims.  These are bad ideas and not moderate ideas.  Even among those articulate, well-groomed Muslims who are repeatedly cited by non-Muslims as being reassuring spokespeople for moderate Islam, there are those who endorse at least some of Islam's motherlode of bad ideas, like the notion that the entire contents of the deeply flawed Quran flawlessly communicates divine revelation.

There are apologists for religion who say bad behavior has nothing to with religion.  They say religion is about peace, harmony, justice, and love only.  They say Islamic State, and any other militants who claim they speak for Islam, actually have nothing to do with Islam.  They say that all bad behavior is a product of poverty, imperialism, colonialism, injustice and never a result of religion.  Do not believe them.  Religion is surely not the only factor, but when a religion promotes bad ideas it also promotes bad outcomes.  Religion sometimes does contribute to making things worse, even much worse, than they otherwise would be.  Religiously motivated, violence prone, illiberal extremists sincerely take their religious beliefs seriously.  They really believe that it is good to kill kafirs, and they are actually acting on their triumphalist religious belief when they behave badly.

More than a few liberals bend over backwards in an effort to convince the public that the threat from radical Islam is no more, or less, serious than the threat from radical Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion, or even from "militant" atheists. Indeed, radicals are a potential threat no matter what their ideology. Yet not all ideologies are, at any given time in history, equally threatening. Currently, more people are killing in the name of Islam than in the name of any other religion. Currently, illiberal ideas are more popular among Islamic populations than among Christian or Jewish populations and these illiberal ideas function as fertilizer for radical Islam. If we as liberals really favor liberal ideas then we should be willing to criticize illiberalism wherever it appears. We fail to do that when we selectively hold different people to different standards.  

So let's say it: The Hebrew Tanakh, the Christian Bible, and the Quran, are all motherlodes of bad ideas.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all motherlodes of bad ideas.  Chris Hayes, Ben Affleck, and other such liberal apologists for religion can bang their heads against the wall and say that we are being gross, bigoted, racists.  Their false ranting won't change the unpleasant facts and refusing to face the facts will not move us forward.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Unacceptable words and tone according to CBS

CBS rejected broadcasting the following Freedom From Religion Foundation advertisement with any of their TV shows on the grounds that the words and tone are unacceptable.  This video is 30 seconds, so take a look and see if you can detect the strident militancy and offensive disrespect in the FFRF's Ron Reagan ad. Is declaring oneself an atheist, or declaring oneself not in fear of spending an eternity in hell, or both, unacceptable, or is the problem elsewhere? Would the ad be acceptable to CBS if Ron Reagan, instead of appearing upbeat, appeared pained by existential angst?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Boy Scouts can deny/revoke membership at will

Since the Supreme Court declared that The Boy Scout of America organization is a strictly private organization it follows that BSA can deny or revoke any membership application at any time with no explanation. They can do this for no reason at all, or for any reason at all. This is the way it should be with strictly private organizations. BSA wanted this designation, they fought for it, they got it.

Rob Boston thinks that the law is murky as to whether or not government institutions can own and operate membership based units of such strictly private institutions. Unlike him I am not a lawyer. So I guess I look at this from a simple perspective. My simple perspective is that I do not see government institutions owning and operating church membership groups or any other such strictly private membership group. My simple perspective is that government institutions are prohibited from owning and operating such strictly private membership groups precisely because governments cannot prohibit strictly private organizations from discriminating.

Start with a clear civil rights violation, add sophistry, and the result is murky. BSA is very clear and direct about their membership policy. No atheists, no atheist leaning agnostics. Silly me, I believe there are no gods (on a weight of the overall available evidence basis) and I never consented to surrender any of my civil rights.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Dan Fincke on objectivity of morality

Advocates of religion often argue that religion is necessary to provide an objective grounding for morality. The obvious problem with this argument is that only something non-fictional can provide objective grounding for something else. Therefore religion fails to provide objective grounding for anything because religion is fiction. In other words, the horse pulls the cart, the cart does not pull the horse. So even if religion would provide an objective basis for morality if religion were true, the religion horse is fiction so it is incapable of pulling any cart of objectivity. People can pretend that religion is true and from there they can pretend that morality has objective grounding in their religion, but pretending objectivity is self-contradictory, it is disengenuity.

Having dismissed religion, the question of objectivity remains.  Contrary to what some advocates of religion claim, objectivity is clearly not dependent on religion.  We are objectively better off seeking the assistance of medical doctors who are trained and licensed according to the principle of following the empirical evidence than we are going to religious faith healers with magic potions and dances and traditional rituals.  What about morality?  Is there an objective basis for morality?

Some atheists, such as Jerry Coyne, assert there is no objective morality.  Other atheists, such as Dan Fincke (and Sam Harris), argue that morality is empirically rooted in human flourishing and therefore, in the main, objective. I have read both sides of this argument and there is a winner: Dan Fincke is correct.  Take a look at Dan Fincke disputing Jerry Coyne on his blog Empowerment Ethics: “Can There Be Objective Morality When So Many People Disagree About Morality?” Human flourishing would arguably be enhanced if everyone who has more than the bare minimum that they need gave away everything non-essential that they owned to those who otherwise lack what they need to survive. Jerry Coyne has a fair point that almost no one does that or advocates that everyone do that.  But this lack of perfection in practice, as with the lack of perfect and complete empirical knowledge or the lack of universal agreement, does not defeat the successful argument that there is an objective basis for evaluating morality.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Americans United not acknowledging the evidence

About one month after I wrote to Americans United for Seperation of Church and State regarding the apparent sponsorship by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources of a Scouting program unit, I received a reply from a staff attorney. It began with a thank you followed by an apology for the delay. The AU staff attorney then wrote: ".... Despite the use of the word "sponsor" on the Venturing Crew's website, I can find no evidence that there is any formal sponsorship relationship between the two organizations. Instead, it appears that the Venturing Crew participates in certain volunteering initiatives offered by DNR. It is not unconstitutional for a religious organization to volunteer time and effort with a government agency. If there is evidence that DNR provides funding to the Venturing Crew, please send it to me and I will review it. Otherwise, this does not look like a violation." 

This reaction to my complaint from AU contrasts sharply with the FFRF reaction. FFRF reacted by writing a letter to the DNR requesting "any department records related to sponsorship of Venturing Crew 202." FFRF did not assume that there is no formal sponsorship absent proof one way or the other. Why is AU making the assumption there is no formal relationship given that the evidence suggests that there is such a formal relationship? The Crew 202 web site says that they have been sponsored by the DNR since 2000, when the unit first started, and the advisor of the unit has a DNR email address. And why is AU emphasizing funding? Even if the DNR gave no money to the unit, they are still operating a unit of a membership youth group that excludes atheists which by itself is illegal, as the FFRF staff attorney stated in his correspondence with me.

After calling more than a dozen times and getting an answering machine, I spoke to the registrar of the Baltimore Area Council of BSA.  She confirmed that the chartered organization (a.k.a. the sponsoring organization) of Crew 202 is the DNR and the advisor with the DNR email address is also the Chartered Organization Representative.  However, she refused to give me a copy of the charter agreement.  So I separately wrote to the AU and FFRF staff attorneys to alert them of this additional evidence.  I immediately received a response from the FFRF.  From AU I have so far received no response.

Although disappointed so far with AU, I cannot say I am surprised.  AU and the ACLU are very good organizations whose membership probably consists largely of liberal theists.  Many liberal theists have a strong commitment to civic equality and non-establishment of religion that becomes weak, or antagonistic, when it comes to atheists.  A country where more than 4/5 of the population are religious believers is a very different country when many such believers are liberal from a country where few such believers are liberal.  Liberal religious believers may object to my characterization of religion as inherently having a conservative orientation, but the fact is that the holy texts of the Abrahamic religions are often (very) conservative. And taking those ancient texts seriously in the 21st century is also conservative.  So let's celebrate the liberal religious believers, with their creative hermeneutics, for their central role in making our country as tolerant and free as it is.

Yet these same liberal theists are also hypocrites when it comes to atheists.  As with the ACLU, I will continue to wait for the AU to show me that I am wrong about liberal theists being civil rights hypocrites.  I want to be wrong. I want the AU and the ACLU to tell the world that they favor civic equality for atheists and non-establishment of theism.  They both have this opportunity here and if they take it then I will be happy to let you know on this blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Maryland ACLU too small to dispute no atheists club

I recently became aware that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is still sponsoring Venturing Crew 202 through the Baltimore Area Council of The Boy Scouts of America.  The Maryland DNR has been sponsoring this Venturing Crew since 2000.   I first heard about this some years ago, and I initially thought the sponsorship may have been short term, but it has proven to be long term.  I have been a card carrying member of the ACLU for many years and I faxed a complaint to the Maryland ACLU.

Four days later I called to verify that they received the fax.  I described my complaint as being about a state sponsored youth group that discriminates. I was told my complaint was not yet entered on their computers and I was asked to identify the target of the discrimination.  After I replied "atheists and agnostics" I was told that it could take months for the ACLU to decide if they would pursue my complaint.

I faxed another copy of the complaint the next week and, this time, when I again called them four days later, I was told they had a record of the complaint.  A mere two weeks later I received a letter from the ACLU explaining that their legal staff is small and they provide legal assistance for "a small number of cases each year."  They concluded they are "unable to assist" in this matter due to their "limited resources".  The Maryland ACLU claims to have "approximately 14,000 members statewide."

Fortunately, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims "more than 400" members in Maryland, is willing to assist.  They wrote "... we are concerned about the relationship between the Boy Scouts and the DNR. One principal concern we have is that all BSA organizations have to sign an “Annual Charter Agreement.” The general form has the sponsor agree to: “Conducting the Scouting program according to its own policies and guidelines as well as those of the Boy Scouts of America.” The Venturing Oath and Code are also a problem...."

Clearly FFRF understands the problem, and furthermore it appears that the FFRF is more efficient at deploying their limited resources in contexts like this than the ACLU.  Assuming that the DNR rejects the complaint and continues sponsoring their no atheists youth group, I would not be surprised if the now reluctant ACLU reverses course and decides they are able to devote some of their resources to this matter once the complaint is scheduled for a hearing before a judge.  Meanwhile, if you are one of the 14,000 members of the Maryland ACLU, please considering calling or writing to ask them to reconsider their decision not to pursue the ACLU file number 3470 claim against the Maryland Department of Natural Resources sponsorship of Venturing Crew 202.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Study: Impact of religion on childrens ability to recognize fiction

Are children innately inclined to believe that fantastical stories are true?  Or is the widespread tendency of children to believe that fantastical stories are true a result of their being taught by adults to so believe?  Kathleen H. Corriveau from the School of Education, Boston University, Eva E. Chen from the Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Paul L. Harris from the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, carried out an experiment to answer these questions and the results have been published in Cognitive Science.

They divided 5-6 year old children into four groups based on whether they attended religious or secular school and whether they went to church or not.  They worded the same stories three different ways: Realistic, religious miracle, non-religious magical.  Some stories featured a well known fictional or historical character (e.g. Goldilocks or Thomas Edison), other stories featured a stranger.  They asked the children to evaluate if the story was real or pretend and asked them why they reached their conclusion.  They subsequential further varied the fantastical stories four ways according to whether the event was biblical or not and was described with the word "magic" or not.

When introduced to a character via a realistic story (none of the story events violated everyday causal constraints), all four groups of children categorized the character as real. Moreover, when justifying their categorization, they appealed to the reality-bound nature of the story events. All four groups of children were less inclined to categorize the protagonist as real when the story included an explicit reference to magic.  This indicates that young children realize that stories involving real people typically include events that could actually happen.

Very few of the no religion children (secular school and no religious worship) categorized the characters embedded in the religious stories as real. Among those that did, none justified that conclusion with a reference to God.  Indeed, whenever these no religion children did refer to religion—which they sometimes did in the context of the religious stories—it was to justify a decision that the character was pretend. By contrast, the other three groups of children frequently judged the characters in the religious stories to be real. Moreover, the three groups of religious children often made an appeal to religion to defend their conclusion that the story was true.

The no religion children also categorized the characters embedded in magical stories as pretend, and most of their justifications referred to the impossibility of a central event in the story. Religious children were less likely to judge the characters in the magical stories as pretend (about 50%) and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children.

These results suggest that children are not born believers with a belief instinct.  Young children raised without religion have little difficulty recognizing that fantastical stories are fairy tales.  Yet all young children, with their limited amount of first hand experience and knowledge, are inclined to value and accept what their parents and other adults tell them.  Exposure to religious teaching convinces young children that some agents have special power to override the causal regularities of everyday experience.  These children will then readily accept that such extraordinary powers are also wielded by agents presented to them in narratives.

Religion thus undermines the natural ability of children to distinguish fanciful fiction from constrained reality.  Unfortunately, it appears that some of this negative impact persists through adulthood and thus a cycle of religious belief and indoctrination repeats itself across generations. This dependency on childhood indoctrination also implies the perpetuation of religion is fragile and can be broken.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Root Differences Between Theism and Naturalism

Some of you may be acquainted with Tom W. Clark and his excellent web site. In 2007 Mr. Clark published an article titled When Worldviews Collide: Root Differences Between Theism and Naturalism which discusses his impression of a debate between theist philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro and atheist philosopher Andrew Melnyk. I do not have strong opinions on many controversies, particularly regarding questions that focus on technical questions requiring expertise that we non-experts do not possess, but with this debate I am unequivocally in agreement with the atheist side. One of the reasons I am so comfortable taking sides here is that the only expertise that is needed to evaluate this controversy, despite the academic rigor of the discussion, is a decent general education. 

I very much agree with Tom Clark's analysis that at the bottom of the disagreement between the theists and atheists (a.k.a. naturalists) is a different approach to evidence, or in the words of Tom Clark "....disagreements about the explanatory potential of dualism, about the epistemic status of intuitions and data, and about what counts as good explanation." 

As Tom Clark argues, "A striking methodological difference between the two sides, one that helps explain their differing takes on reality (dualist vs. monist), has to do with the status of what T&G call first person data. They put great stock in the validity of what they believe are widespread and commonsensical intuitions about metaphysical matters, intuitions deriving from personal experience.... But from a philo-scientific perspective, the claim that some intuitions or experiences wear truth on their sleeve and can’t be second-guessed is to let the tail of data wag the dog of theory.... We shouldn’t trust intuitions, however widely they might be shared, as direct apprehensions of what’s real since they are notoriously unreliable: mass delusion is possible.  Instead, we must test intuitions against objective evidence."

Mr Clark continues: "Transparency and reliability come from having specified and verified the existence of all entities, mechanisms, and events that participate in the explanation, such that there’s nothing mysterious or ad hoc involved.... A transparent explanation, at least for naturalists, can’t have gaping holes, filled with unexplained, ad hoc explainers. If some things currently escape explanation, so be it; that simply makes life more interesting." In other words, theists have an unfortunate tendency to mistake weak arguments for strong arguments as a result of applying a too lax standard regarding what qualifies as reliable supporting evidence. Or, as Mr Clark says "Yet their departures from good philo-scientific practice can best be explained, I think, as a function of putting the desideratum of a purposive reality above the desiderata of explanatory transparency, evidential reliability and cognitive coherence."

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Money for unions, but not for corporations, is compelled speech!?

The Supreme Court recently announced its latest decisions.  We now know that a conservative majority is giving priority to the religious free exercise claims of commercial and non-profit institutions and their owners over the freedom and health of employees and general applicability of religiously impartial, secular laws to all citizens.  They are also giving priority to the self-interests of employers over employees.

The conservative majority concluded in Citizens v. United that corporations have a free expression right to use corporate profits in their general treasury for partisan political activism even when employees, or stock investors, disagree with content of the corporation's speech.  Investors and employees are thus compelled to finance partisan political speech that they disagree with.   After all, a significant portion of the money that corporations are spending on politics is financed by equity capital provided by pension funds — capital contributions employees finance with their paychecks without an option to select the individual companies.  This is currently considered to be constitutional.  Yet, if executives and shareholders could not use their corporation to advance political positions, nothing would prevent those people who are executives and shareholders from making any speech they want, or spending any of their own money to disseminate that speech.

When a majority of employees vote for union representation, the union is compelled to bargain on behalf of all the employees in the bargaining unit, including anti-union employees.  The employees can subsequently vote for different union leadership, to change unions, or to go without a union.  It logically follows that all bargaining unit employees can be compelled to pay a union a fee each year to cover the costs of this union representation.  Employees can voluntarily pay an additional union membership fee to qualify for optional union membership benefits or they can donate to a union affiliated PAC.  The union can then utilize this extra voluntary income to finance partisan political activity. But to compel employees to pay a union fee for collective bargaining still supports the functioning of the union, and unions, along with corporations, now have a right to engage in partisan political advocacy.  Accordingly, the conservative majority recently declared in Harris v. Quinn that compelled collective bargaining fees are unconstitutional compelled speech.  Unions must now depend on employees being self-sacrificing idealists for financing of their primary collective bargaining function.

So employees and investors are compelled to support the partisan political speech of corporations, unions are compelled to represent all of the bargaining unit employees, and employees cannot be compelled to pay the union for collective bargaining because unions can engage in partisan political speech.  Is this what the constitution says according to the conservative majority?  Do they really think this makes sense?  Can someone tell me that I am misunderstanding what the conservative majority is doing?  The way I see this, at a minimum, pension plans now need to ensure that employees are not compelled to indirectly finance corporate political speech by granting employees an opt out from investing their money in any companies that they disagree with.   Until they do, pension funds will be vulnerable to the challenge that they are violating the First Amendment. After they do, pension funds will incur additional expense to provide this opt-out.

If there are legitimate and principled reasons for heavily discounting the legitimacy of the political advocacy of organized labor while simultaneously exalting the legitimacy of the political advocacy of organized capital, then let's hear the conservative majority try to explain what they are. It would make much more sense to acknowledge that both corporations and unions have economic functions that need to be kept separate from their partisan political activities. Their secondary partisan political activity should be financed separately from their primary economic functions via a PAC. We should rely on a separate category of corporation for journalism companies that can engage in partisan advocacy but not engage in other types of commerce. The conservative majority is unnecessarily creating a big, complicated, mess by using a free speech rationale to combine the economic functions of corporations and unions with their partisan political activities.

Friday, July 04, 2014

2014 Maryland GA vote scorecard

This year the Maryland General Assembly unanimously approved state licensing of the mostly bogus "alternative medicine" practitioners who call themselves Naturopaths.  Fortunately, three bills that locally removed Sunday restrictions on particular commercial activities with titles "Dorchester County - Class B Beer and Light Wine Licenses - Sunday Sales", "Garrett County - Alcoholic Beverages - Sunday Sales for Off-Premises Consumption", and "Garrett County – Alcoholic Beverages – Sunday Sales for On–Premises" also passed unanimously.  With three exceptions, the other bills that addressed secularist concerns (as identified by the Secular Coalition for Maryland), including more bills that would have removed additional restrictions on local Sunday recreational and commercial activities, did not reach a floor vote.

Three bills addressing secularist concerns received a non-unanimous floor vote.  All three bills, which have been signed into law by the Governor, removed restrictions on Sunday activities.  They were HB0344 and SB0344 "Charles County - Sunday Car Sales Blue Law Exemption - Enabling Authority", HB0406 and SB0472 "Allegany County, Garrett County, and Washington County - Sunday Hunting", and HB0432 and SB0473 "Frederick County - Deer Hunting - Sundays". Twenty three Delegates voted at least once against at least one of these bills.  Four Senators also voted at least twice against at least two of these bills.

For those who plan to vote during the election later this year, below is a list of the naysaying lawmakers with the bill numbers they voted against.  If any of these incumbents are candidates in your election then you may want to try contact your lawmaker's office prior to the election to ask why he or she voted against these bills.  Washington Area Secular Humanists neither endorses nor opposes any candidates running for public office (regardless of how good or bad those candidates may or may not be). You can also view the complete spreadsheet SCMD General Assembly Votes 2014

Aumann, Susan L. M. Republican 42 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472
Barkley, Charles Democrat 39 Montgomery County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Bobo, Elizabeth Democrat 12B Howard County
SB0472 SB0473
Braveboy, Aisha N. Democrat 25 Prince George's County
SB0472 SB0473
Bromwell, Eric M. Democrat 8 Baltimore County
Burns, Emmett C., Jr. Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0344 HB0432
Cardin, Jon S. Democrat 11 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Frush, Barbara Democrat 21 Prince George's and Anne Arundel
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Howard, Carolyn J. B. Democrat 24 Prince George's County
Hubbard, James W. Democrat 23A Prince George's County
Jones, Adrienne A. Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0473
Kach, Wade Republican 5B Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
McDonough, Pat Republican 7 Baltimore and Harford Counties
Miller, Aruna Democrat 15 Montgomery County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Morhaim, Dan K. Democrat 11 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Murphy, Peter Democrat 28 Charles County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Nathan-Pulliam, Shirley Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0432 SB0473
Parrott, Neil Republican 2B Washington County
Pena-Melnyk, Joseline A. Democrat 21 Prince George's and Anne Arundel
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Robinson, Shane Democrat 39 Montgomery County
HB0406 SB0472 SB0473
Smigiel, Michael D., Sr. Republican 36 Kent, Queen Anne's, Cecil, Caroline
Stocksdale, Nancy R. Republican 5A Carroll County
Summers, Michael G. Democrat 47 Prince George's County

Benson, Joanne C. Democrat 24 Prince George's County
HB0406 HB0432
Jones-Rodwell, Verna L. Democrat 44 Baltimore City
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Miller, Thomas V. Mike, Jr. Democrat 27 Prince George's and Calvert
HB0406 HB0432
Ramirez, Victor R. Democrat 47 Prince George's County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Is it unethical to criticize bad epistemology?

Let's say a person justifies adopting a set of factual beliefs on the grounds of wanting to participate in an ideological based social group.  Or on the grounds of self-committing to some ethical norms that are asserted to be related to that particular set of factual beliefs.  Or on the grounds that holding this set of factual beliefs is psychologically comforting because it provides purpose and meaning.  Or on the grounds that these factual beliefs are matters of personal preference or of faith and are thus self-justifying.  Professing this set of factual beliefs has thus become entangled with ongoing social and ethical commitments and activities and motivations.  Accordingly, this person claims a self-dependency on holding this set of factual beliefs.  

Given this context, is it now unethical for those us who disagree with that set of factual beliefs to publicly argue against them given that there is some risk that such a person could, partially or wholly as a result of exposure to those arguments, lose their beliefs?  Clearly, there is reason here to be cautious.  We do not want to harm anyone by isolating them socially, or by telling them they should give up on ethical commitments, or by telling them there is no meaning to their life or purpose for them to pursue. As secular humanists we are people focused, we oppose abandoning people.  We abandon transcendence, not ethics, nor meaning, nor purpose.

Some humanists argue that we should distinguish between people who respect everyone's civil rights and those who do not.  They say it is ethical to argue against the beliefs of those people who fall in the latter category only.  But is this distinction practical to implement?  Not if one of the goals is to challenge bad justifications for factual beliefs. The same faulty reasoning is common to both sets of people.  

Why focus on challenging bad justifications for factual beliefs?  Because, like it or not, it is not enough to have good ethical commitments.  Ethical commitments are important, but so is proper justification of factual beliefs. Arguably, the worst atrocities have historically been committed by ethical people with the best intentions.  What goes wrong?  Part of the answer is that these people tended to be undisciplined in how they justified their factual beliefs.  Religion in general is built upon, it depends on, and it encourages, promiscuous adoption of factual beliefs.  This is a problem with potential real world negative consequences, and it is not a problem confined to "bad" religion as opposed to "good" religion.

People who make themselves dependent, socially, psychologically, or otherwise, on a particular set of factual beliefs have thereby made a mistake.  This is a problem in and of itself as it interferes with good reasoning.  Furthermore, this is an unnecessary problem. This problem is a result of people turning themselves into ideologues and prioritizing ideology over reasoning.  Rather than perpetuating this problem by falsely declaring it ethically taboo to challenge dubious factual beliefs that are held without proper warrant, it is better in the long run to deal with adults as adults.  It is an elitist attitude to say that as non-religious non-believers we should unilaterally censure our speech to protect religious believers from themselves.  They can stand up for themselves also.  People who experienced a difficult transition from religious belief to non-belief often say that they are now glad that they made that transition. By speaking out publicly for non-belief, maybe we can contribute to making this transition less difficult for religious individuals.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The ultimate free lunch

By Mathew Goldstein

According to the theory of cosmic inflation, our universe started from almost nothing, borrowing the required positive energy from a growing, negative energy, gravitational field as a result of the large negative pressure of the tiny, initial, inflating substance.  In a fraction of a second (less than about 10^-35 seconds) our universe doubled in size about 260 times.  Then this period of "Big Bang" inflation ended.

One of the predictions of inflation is that the cosmic microwave background radiation will contain an imprint of gravitational waves.  This is because quantum fluctuations during inflation will generate gravitational waves. To celebrate the recent discovery of the predicted cosmic microwave background B-mode polarization (and to promote his new book), Max Tegmark has placed the inflation chapter of his new book,  Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, on the internet.  This is the up to date version of the first part of the first chapter of the obsolete book commonly referred to as the bible, with inflation now assuming the role formerly attributed to God, and it is free, so take a look.  It explains why the Big Bang only makes sense if inflation is true, that inflation makes multiple predictions which have been demonstrated to be true, and the implications of inflation for cosmology (inflation is eternal, therefore we live in a multiverse).

Adam Gopnick's errors on the nature of skepticism, rationalism, and humanism

The Barefoot Bum blog recently published a short article The nature of skepticism and humanism that accurately criticizes Adam Gopnick's "otherwise excellent piece, Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fade?, on the failings of many 'Sophisticated Theologians'" for its mistaken definition of rationalism and for its "insulting" depiction of humanism that is "without foundation." The Barefoot Bum's explanation for the role of intuition and how we all rely on intuition, but skeptical rationalists are more consistent in giving higher precedence to reason, and his characterization of humanists as people who dispense with transcendentalism, is very good. This is worth reading. 

 Jerry Coyne similarly criticizes Adam Gopnick for being "so eager to take the middle ground that he conflates the human emotions of atheists with the delusions of religious believers—and so sees a convergence of the twain" on his Why Evolution is True blog Adam Gopnik on atheism in the New Yorker. This strained "middle ground" journalism is common, particular when the topic is atheism versus theism. One common strategy is to argue that atheists are similar to religious fundamentalists and both are wrong for the same reasons. Adam Gopnick takes a more subtle approach to arguing that atheism is deficient, but his argument is no less rooted in false stereotype and conceptual confusion.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fake history from the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition

Reacting to the recent publication of an Air Force cadet handbook that omitted those words from the oath, the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition has sponsored a billboard near the entrance to the Air Force Academy that features the Mount Rushmore carvings of four presidents with this question and their response: "Are you free to say So help me God?  They did."  Chaplain (COL) Ron Crews, USAR Retired, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, one of the organizations in the coalition, is quoted as saying "The presidents Americans admire all solemnly uttered these words when they took their oaths of office. Our Air Force cadets should be encouraged to follow their example.”  There is a problem with this.  No one with personal integrity who is genuinely knowledgeable about presidential oath history can assert that all presidents added those words to their oaths of office.

Let's start with Theodore Roosevelt's second inauguration.  The Lowville, N.Y. Journal and Republican, March 9, 1905 (PDF), the Indiana Evening Gazette, March 4, 1905 , the Newark Advocate. March 4, 1905,Weekly Kentucky New Era, March 3, 1905 (March 4 revision), and others quote the oath recitation and details Roosevelt's immediate before and after actions with no mention of shmG.

First hand accounts of Theodore Roosevelt adding the phrase "And thus do I swear" during his first inauguration [September 14, 1901] can be found in The Illustrated Buffalo Express - Sunday, September 15, 1901, The Washington Post, September 15, 1901 (PDF), The Pittsburgh Press, September 15, 1901, The Last Days of President McKinley, by Walter Wellman published in The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Volume XXIV, New York, Review of Reviews, 1901, page 414-426, and Theodore Roosevelt, patriot and statesman the true story of an ideal American, by Robert Cornelius V Meyers, Philadelphia, Pa. and Chicago, Ill., P. W. Ziegler & co. [c1902], page 388. Roosevelt also did not use a bible during his first inauguration. Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-six president of the United States. A typical American, by Charles Eugene Banks and Leroy Armstrong; c1901, page 377 quotes the oath recitation without shmG as does American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward Stratemeyer, 1904, Lee and Shepard, Boston, Chapter XXV. The Executive Register of the United States, 1789-1902: A List of the Presidents ..., by Robert Brent Mosher, 1903, Friedenwald, Baltimore, MD, page 284, shows the certificate signed by the president with the words of oath as recited without shmG. The Authentic Life of William McKinley, by Alexander K McClure, New York : W.E. Scul, 1901, page 494 quotes the oath recitation without shmG. Executive Register of the United States: 1789-1902. Compiled by Robert Brent Mosher, Washington, DC. (Baltimore, MD: The Lord Baltimore Press (The Friedenwald Company); 1903), page 284 quotes the oath recitation as certified by "JOHN R. HAZEL, U. S. J."

Chapter XXXIV of A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay, 1904, The Century Co., New York quotes the oath recitation without "so help me God" for the first and second Lincoln inaugurations. Also quoting the oath for the second inauguration is Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, by T.B. Peterson, 1865, T.B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia, p. 192. Abraham Lincoln : the true story of a great life:, by William Osborn Stoddard, 1885, New York, Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, p. 448, says "The oath of office was administered by Chief-Justice Chase; the President looked out for a moment, silently, over the multitude, and then he addressed them ...." A similiar depiction is found in The every-day life of Abraham Lincoln; a biography from an entirely new standpoint,1886, by Francis F. (Francis Fisher) Browne, New York and St. Louis, N. D. Thompson Pub. Co., p. 680.

The Baltimore Sun, March 5, 1861, page 1 (PDF) shows Chief Justice Taney reciting the constitutional oath of office to Abraham Lincoln without shmG and then "Having administered the oath, Judge Taney congratulated Mr. Lincoln amidst the loud applause of the assembled spectators, and the stirring music of several bands." Similarly, the Weekly Standard, March 13, 1861 quotes the oath recited without shmG. Also, American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Inaugural Bible, 1861 quotes the recitation of just the constitutional oath. The Life of Abraham Lincoln; from His Birth to His Inauguration as President by Ward Hill Lamon, 1872, Boston, James R. Osgood and Company, page 536, quotes the 1861 oath recitation without shmG. Ward Lamon was one of Lincoln’s few close friends. An eyewiteness account of the oath recitation is provided by a lawyer, Wilder D. Wright, who campaigned for Lincoln. Immediately after the ceremony he wrote this in a letter to his father: "When the address closed, and the cheering subsided, Taney rose, and, almost as tall as Lincoln, he administered the oath, Lincoln repeating it ; and as the words, i preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution came ringing out, he bent and kissed the book." Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, By Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, page 33.

Christ the King, by Reverand James Mitchell Foster, 1894, James H. Earle, Boston, page 277 makes the following observation about Lincoln's inaugurations:
Every President, after George Washington and before RB Hayes, took the presidentail oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take tthe presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God's name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument.

The Gazette of the United States, March 10, 1801 (PDF) quotes Thomas Jefferson taking the oath without saying shmG as does the Connecticut Gazette, March 18, 1801, (PDF) and the Impartial Register, March 19, 1801, (PDF).

The Maryland Gazette, Thursday March 14, 1793, page 2 (PDF) provides a detailed account of the swearing in of George Washington during his second inauguration, including a quote of the oath recited without mention of shmG being spoken. An image of the same article from The Diary, March 7, 1793, page 3 (PDF) and the New York Daily Gazette, March 8, 1793, page 2 (PDF). The New Jersey Journal, March 13, 1793, (PDF), and The Vermont Gazette, March 15, 1793, (PDF), also quote the oath recitation.

William Ferraro, Assistant Professor and Assistant Editor of The Papers of George Washington, wrote (email January 25, 2008) "Like my much more experienced colleague at the Papers of George Washington, Senior Editor Phil Chase, I have come across no contemporary or eyewitness accounts of George Washington's first inauguration to support the tradition that he added the words "So help me God" to the presidential oath."

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation saw that the billboard was double sided and had a vacancy on the other side.  Their billboard asks "Are you free NOT to say So help me God? George Washington DIDN'T in his officer's oath."  The MRFF is an advocacy organization with integrity that knows American history.