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?