The Time to Stop Debating Debate

matt_dilahuntyA while back I wrote an article called “Time to Stop Debating” that was published in American Atheists Magazine. I also posted a version in this blog (see here). In it I suggested that the Atheist Movement has moved into a phase in which it should focus on normalizing atheism, and that one important strategy to accomplish that is to  “stop debating.” Shortly after, atheist activist Matt Dillahunty (see here) posted a 25 minute rebuttal video (see here).

I thank Mr. Dillahunty for his sincere and thoughtful rebuttal in defense of continued debate. I felt that he did make a conscientious effort to be fair and even-handed while arguing that debate remains one of our most important strategies to win hearts and change minds. We do not disagree on that.

While he certainly presented a well-crafted argument, it is probably unsurprising that I do not feel he made his case and that his objections were overstated. One major problem is that he characterized my call to “stop debating” as tantamount to surrender and refusing to engage. He repeatedly paints a picture of a minority of atheists remaining silent and passive while refusing to engage in meaningful debate with a vigorous religious majority.

Clearly, I did not advocate any such complacency. I advocate engagement in all forms of discussion and persuasion. What I did say however, is that in those conversations we should take a stronger “no debate” stance on issues of belief and religion. That is, we should reject out-of-hand arguments based on faith, refuse to entertain them, and instead insist upon engaging on the basis of universal principles and evidence.

To illustrate this nuance, think of how we treat racism. We don’t “debate” racism anymore, even though a large number of people may still wish to do so. Yes, we still engage actively in social policy driven by or impeded by racist ideology. But we won’t seriously respond to discredited arguments like whether white men have superior brains. We engage in policy discussions and debate them vigorously, but we only give serious consideration to legitimate arguments. If white racists argue that they deserve special privileges purely because they are god’s chosen ones, we reject it out-of-hand without undeserved debate. To do so would “only” elevate that notion and distract from substantive debate. However, if those same white supremacists make fact-based arguments for the same policies, we should then engage honestly in that debate and be willing to be open-minded.

In public discourse, there are many topics that are “not up for debate.” We should likewise exclude religious fantasy from serious debate. If you argue that god exists or humans were created, we should dismiss those arguments as inherently invalid. If you invoke god or the Bible to justify a policy position, we should insist that you put forth legitimate arguments based upon universal principles. This should be particularly true in all government hearings and debates, but sadly it is not.

Therefore I am not advocating for refusing to engage at all. I am advocating for gradually extricating ourselves from the debate embrace that has enthralled us for millennia. It is unfair of Mr. Dillahunty to dismiss my argument by carrying it to an extreme; just as it would be unfair if I were to portray his position as advocating for the paralysis of the status quo. In the abortion debate and many others, as long as the religious Right can keep us debating on their terms, they are effectively neutralizing us. What we are willing to accept as legitimate debate is itself part of the debate and part of the persuasive process.

And as far as the persuadable middle is concerned, it is my perception that for every one person that someone like Mr. Dillahunty may rightly feel proud to have influenced for the better, there are many, many more whose uncertainty is reinforced by seemingly legitimate debate that makes it appear that “reasonable people disagree” and “there are good arguments on both sides.” Creating doubt through debate is exactly the horribly successful tactic that has been exploited by “The Merchants of Doubt” on a wide range of important issues to create intellectual and policy paralysis (see here).

Mr. Dillahunty makes some other earnest sounding arguments that are not particularly compelling. He argues that although debate has gone on essentially forever, we have new media today that could change the game in our favor. I see no historical evidence of that. Certainly the printing press did not fundamentally change the debate. In fact the Bible became the most widely printed book ever. Likewise it is not clear that the Internet will somehow make our traditional debate tactics more successful.

Mr. Dillahunty also repeatedly asserts that my strategy would only work if we atheists were in the majority. He has no basis for certainty in that assertion. There are many examples of social norms of legitimate discourse that are effectively enforced by a relatively small minority. His argument arises from his assertion that fact-based thinkers have little sway or leverage in society. That is not my assessment; we have reality on our side and the religious zealots who engage in irrational debate are in fact a minority. Finally, if we do not drive this change, if we wait for patient, deferential debate to get us there, we never will. We will be hosting the same silly debates with a Ken Ham (see here) in another thousand years, if we had that luxury of time.

So let me once more sincerely thank Mr. Dillahunty for his stimulating rebuttal. Though I am not swayed, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. I have no doubt that his efforts to educate and inform are valuable and I’m not trying to put him out of business. Quite the opposite, we need talented debaters like Mr. Dillahunty to push us out of this quagmire of eternal debates about fantasy. We should not waste talent like his rebutting long-disproved arguments rather than helping to propel the secular movement into the normalization phase.

 

The Art of Technical Lying

bart-simpson-I-didntWe discover the fine art of technical lying at a young age. It might be more accurately described as technical truth-telling, but technical lying is catchier and more descriptive. It is the practice of lying by making false statements that are technically true or at least defensible. One example of technical lying might be when our parents demand to know whether you went to that unsupervised party at Kim’s house. With feigned affront you lie and insist you did not. When confronted with evidence you claim that you didn’t really lie because it wasn’t technically a party it was a “get-together,” and you didn’t go because technically you were “taken” by Josh on his bike, and in any case it wasn’t Kim’s house since technically her parents are the ones that own it.

We all spin the truth and try to mislead and misdirect through technical nuances when it serves us, but this becomes formalized in the legal sphere where lawyers are taught to exploit technical lying in depositions and court testimonies. They coach clients to answer questions with short answers, in part to leave open ways to later claim they did not perjure themselves using some technical rationale.

Fortunately, parents generally know when their kids are playing these games and usually don’t let them get away with it. Sometimes technical lying can help in legal situations, but lawyers, like our parents, are very good at exposing such obfuscation. In legal proceedings there is usually sufficient opportunity to follow-up with probing questions that trip up and expose technical lies. Lawyers are happy to play this game in court because when a pattern of technical lying is exposed thus, it generally backfires badly on the liar and harms their credibility resulting in a worse outcome for them.

But technical lying isn’t limited to family squabbles and court proceedings. It is rampant in the public sphere and in the semi-formal environment of Congressional hearings. In responding to questions from the Press, some people engage in serial technical lying. Even in testimony to Congress, these individuals engage in technical lying with seeming impunity.

Did the President offer you a pardon? He did not. No I did not lie because it wasn’t the President, it was his lawyer and it wasn’t an offer, it was a possible offer, and it wasn’t a pardon, it was “everything in his power.”

The reason this pattern of technical lying is so frustrating is because it can be quite effective. It can really frustrate and delay efforts to arrive at the truth in situations in which the follow-up questioning is limited and delayed. In these settings, to delay temporarily is to win. This is the case for public statements, media interviews, and to a large extent even Congressional hearings. These are disparate and enough time goes by between follow-up questions that the narrative can keep changing, the goal post keep moving, and impartial observers have difficulty recognizing the extent of gamesmanship being conducted over time.

In an age in which truth is under methodical attack using every possible form of deceit and deception, technical lying is rampant. It is particularly well-suited to frustrate efforts by society to arrive at truth outside of courtroom walls. Technical lying has grown into an art form celebrated by proud dissemblers like Roger Stone.

In this ridiculous era of Trump, we have had to become far more willing to call a lie a lie. This must include lies in all their forms, and for Trump and all those who lie incessantly for him, a technical truth is most likely just another type of lie.

 

Is it finally safe to discuss Socialism?

smaug

May I ask, oh great and powerful Smaug, when thy gold will begin to trickle down upon us?

I was once at a high school party where the prolonged silence became painfully awkward and uncomfortable. Suddenly one precocious girl blurted out, “So, what do you all think about premarital sex?” Just like that, the party got lively with everyone talking about a wide range of topics.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to break the ice and make it acceptable to discuss what were previously taboo topics. Bill Maher made it allowable to talk openly about atheism, and Bernie Sanders made it acceptable to speak honestly about Socialism.

But this new open talk of Socialism frightens a lot of people, especially older people and rich people – and older rich people most of all. To them, and most Americans, Capitalism is tantamount to a religion that requires unwavering faith despite any evidence to the contrary. Therefore, it is not surprising that they spew out a lot of hyperbolic fear-mongering and misinformation in hopes of nipping all this Socialist talk in the bud.

These Capitalist fanatics spread so much misinformation about Socialism that responding to it all in one overview article is nearly impossible. Therefore I’m not going to take the time here to discuss every point in detail. I’ll simply put forth what I feel are the ethical and empirically supported viewpoints. Feel free to investigate each one more thoroughly on your own.

First, let’s talk about what Socialism is today. Let’s not allow opponents to sucker us into explaining whatever Karl Marx had in his mind a century and a half ago nor into defending the aberrant government that emerged out of the Socialist transformation in China under Mao Zedong in 1949.

Modern Socialists do not want to destroy Capitalism. The difference between a modern Capitalist and a modern Socialist it is simply a matter of where the balance point should be between the governmental and private domains.

Capitalists believe that the government is useless and ineffectual and that virtually all problems should be left to the private sector to solve; all needs should be left to the private sector to meet; and that the private sector should not be restrained in any way. They lie routinely about how much social programs like universal healthcare would cost, by failing to subtract the savings from the frightening numbers they cite. 

Socialists believe that government can and must do good things and that some things like healthcare, public infrastructure, utilities, social services, food and drug safety, and education can be best handled by government, and further can only be handled effectively by the government or through a high degree of regulation and oversight.

Between the two sides, it is the Capitalist viewpoint that is far more extreme, dogmatic, and radical. Socialists still want mostly a vibrant Capitalist system, with only some exceptions and regulations as warranted to protect society at large. Capitalists want to extract profit from everywhere without exception and with minimal or no regulation that would ensure that the public good is considered.

The devotees of Capitalism point out that Capitalism made us great. That is not completely true. Yes it was important, but most of our important achievements like worker safety, environmental protections, and many others came about only through violent opposition to the forces of insatiable unbridled Capitalism. Major projects like our highway system were government funded. And even if we give Capitalism all the credit it deserves for bringing us to where we are, that does not make it the right approach – or even a viable approach – to carry us forward into a more sustainable economic model.

And let’s be clear. Unbridled Capitalism is not sustainable. As Marx predicted long ago, the inevitable outcome of unrestrained Capitalism is growing wealth inequality and instability as all wealth is scooped into the coffers of fewer and fewer individuals. You end up eventually with one Pharaoh and a multitude of economic slaves. That level of inequity cannot be maintained for long. But worse, our planet can no longer sustain a humanity driven by a religion of unbridled Capitalism.

Contrary to everything the devout Capitalists try to claim, trickle down economics is really nothing more than voodoo economics. Socialism is not evil, and Capitalism is not “the best system possible.” Grow or die is a lie. Competition does not really yield the best products for the lowest prices, and what is good for the stock market is usually bad for regular workers (see here). Economic Darwinism is not tough love. Intellectual property rights mostly just retard real innovation. In the real world, free-market competition often breaks down completely. Tax breaks to the wealthy do not create jobs or increase wages. Highly progressive taxation on wealth is necessary and essential. A minimum wage – and a maximum wage – are good economics. And you only need sufficient, not unlimited, wages to motivate and reward talent and work. Private corporations are not inherently more cost-effective than their government-run counterparts, especially since they must extract as much profit as possible.

Taxes, by the way, are not “giving away your money.” Taxes are how we agree to fund philanthropic and charitable causes and joint ventures for the essential public good. Taxes are what we pay for our roads, and police, and all the other services that our government provides for us. Make no mistake, under a Capitalist model, all those services would be far more expensive, if they were provided at all. If left to a purely Capitalist system, all our lives would be horribly diminished.

Capitalism simply has no mechanism to fund essential public services when there is too little profit in it. Even worse, in areas like healthcare, the profit motive is fundamentally and intractably in opposition to providing the best outcome. Capitalist fiduciary responsibility requires that healthcare providers provide the lowest level of care for the highest possible price to maximize profit for their shareholders (see here). Anything less would be antithetical to the Capitalist religion.

The kind of extreme Capitalism that many Americans have been convinced they would prefer is nothing more than “I got mine” economics in which every man (and woman) are out for themselves, and screw everyone else. The idea that good can come from selfishness and greed is a morally bankrupt tenet of our Capitalist religion.

Socialism, on the other hand, is simply how we do things together. It is how we pool our efforts for the good of all. Socialism is the “let’s work together” system of economics. Socialism does not inhibit or replace Capitalism. It merely acknowledges that there are some vitally important things that Capitalism cannot do well enough and it provides the model to work together to achieve those services that Capitalism simply cannot address.

So let’s continue to carry on this discussion that Bernie started and continue to work to find the healthy balance. But do start to question the Capitalist catechism that we have all been taught, and don’t let the fanatical Capitalists convince you that you are the extremist if you defend elements of Democratic Socialism.

Religion in Public Schools

The teaching of religion in public schools is a topic that stimulates a great deal of honest debate on all sides of the issue. Should religion be taught at all? And if so, what religions? Even well-meaning atheists might feel that religion should be taught, as long as all religions – and atheistic perspectives as well – are taught equally and fairly without bias.

That sounds laudable and enlightened in theory. However, many plans that sound great in theory inevitably turn out to be disastrous when put into practice. Teaching religion in public schools is one such example.

I have personal experience with this. While serving in the Peace Corps in South Africa, I worked for their Department of Education. The South African Constitution requires that all religions be treated equally. In order to comply with the spirit of their Constitution, the Department of Education has adopted a policy that all religions should be taught fairly and equally in the public schools.

Sounds great right? The trouble is that teachers, particularly rural teachers, do not know all religions and do not care to know all religions – let alone teach them fairly. At the point where lofty policies touch the students. all that this accomplishes is to give teachers cover to preach and proselytize their own religious views in the classroom and to misrepresent and disparage all other religions – and atheism is demonized most of all.

The problem of state sanctioned religious instruction is not merely a matter of the recruiting and training and monitoring of teachers. False even-handedness spills over into teaching materials as well. Science texts typically enumerate a long list of native creation myths as legitimate. In at least one science text, after describing the monkey myth, and the milk myth, and many others, it concluded with what was almost an obligatory footnote that said “and some scientists believe that the world was created by natural means and human beings evolved.”

This sort of false balance, not unlike giving equal deference to climate change deniers, is an almost inevitable consequence of a misguided and ill-fated attempt to be fair and inclusive with regard to the teaching of religion.

I came away from my experience in South Africa more convinced than ever that our American system of simply keeping religion out of our public schools is on balance the best, most practical system of fairness. There is no shortage of alternate venues where people can preach and teach religion as much as they wish. Therefore, there is no compelling need being met by including religion in public schools, that warrants the certain risk of abuse and unintended consequences.

Assiduously keeping religion out of our public schools is in fact the more fair, the more enlightened, and the more realistic policy position.

The Mortal Sin of GHW Bush

BushTimeCatholic mythology includes the concept of “mortal sin.” A mortal sin is such a grievous act that it condemns ones soul to eternal damnation – unless the sinner receives divine forgiveness. Although of course heaven and hell and god are all pure fantasy, the notion of mortal sin is based on real human ethics. It is the reality that a thousand good deeds cannot necessarily make up for one egregiously heinous act.

In his career GHW Bush certainly did a great many good things and a great many not so good things. So one could rightly view Bush as neither a sinner nor a saint, but as a typically flawed and complex human being with a mixed bag of achievements and failings.

Except for his great mortal sin.

In January of 1991 I watched, along with much of the world, as GHW Bush began what would become 42 consecutive days and nights of raining down nonstop aerial and naval bombardment upon Iraq followed by unparalleled human tragedy that still reverberates to this day. The official story is well-known. GHW Bush had to reluctantly order this massive invasion as the only way to counter reckless aggression by Saddam Hussein.

The historical record is correct of course, but it normally leaves out one crucial fact. On the first day of bombardment I was on the phone with an acquaintance who happened to be connected at the highest level in the government. He told me what he and his fellow high officials knew was happening at the time.

In February of 1989, GHW Bush had a shockingly low approval polling of 14%. He was widely seen as weak and mealy-mouthed – kind of a Barney Fife President. Bush desperately needed a war to bolster his image as a strong leader. So, ex-CIA director that he was, he looked around for an unwitting dupe to start a war with.

He found the perfect patsy in Saddam Hussein, the US-backed President of Iraq. Saddam had been vocally complaining about his neighbor Kuwait violating their oil production agreements and about their slant-drilling into his oil fields. GHW Bush sent back-channel messages to Saddam that were intended, and succeeded, in assuring him that the US would not interfere if he took action against Kuwait.

So he did. Saddam invaded Kuwait. And Bush followed up almost immediately by condemning Saddam and mustering a world-wide coalition to attack him. Is it any wonder that Saddam cursed Bush to his dying breath?

Americans reacted as they almost always do to war. Bush quickly became viewed as the strong leader he aspired to be. The rally effect skyrocketed his approval ratings to over 90% in polls conducted in March of 1991. In less than two years, Bush’s war gambit propelled his approval from 14% to 90%.

I suppose one could count this among Bush’s great successes.

And all that these fantastic poll numbers cost was an incalculable loss of life and property and the pounding of an entire region of the world into a chaotic “stone age” for generations to come.

Add to that the cost of the Second Iraq War that his son waged against Iraq, after having told by some estimates 33 distinct documented lies to justify his invasion. These were repeated by Bush Jr. and his aides over 900 times (see here). Like father, like son.

And one cannot rationalize away this war by saying that Saddam was a bad guy anyway and we cannot know what would have happened had he stayed in power. If one blows up a dam, one knows what will happen. One does not need a counterfactual in this case either. Saddam, dictator that he was, kept the region in a relatively peaceful and prosperous state. And most experts, even at the time, warned that his demise would destabilize the entire region.

Historians and analysts don’t usually include Bush’s full role in instigating this war when they discuss his legacy. Since my learning this story while talking to officials on the phone as the bombs fell, I have been dismissed every time I have tried to relate it. Only recently are some authors even alluding to it. A recent article in Politico mentions it only very mildly (see here).

As Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait, Bush sent the Iraqi strongman clear signals, through the American ambassador, that the United States had no interest in intra-Arab disputes—the exact opposite position of the one he took very shortly thereafter, in which he drew a “line in the sand.”

So I for one cannot take a “balanced” view of the life and legacy of GHW Bush. I for one cannot forgive his great mortal sin that has cost such unthinkable loss and inflicted such horrendous pain and suffering on a global scale. His self-serving war-making eclipses any good he has done by a hundredfold.

Only god can forgive a mortal sin on this scale, and god does not exist.

 

But My District Is Safe

ishouldvevotedstickerWe hear it quite often, especially from younger voters:

“I am not planning to vote but my district is safe.”

There are several problems with this position.

First, it may not actually be true that your district is really safe. Polls get it wrong. Sometimes all the polls get it all wrong, badly wrong. All too often, this false confidence leads to “shocking” upsets.

Second, if enough people adopt this “but my district is safe” attitude they will make it unsafe. At some point, if enough people think like you, the bad guy wins. That is why the bad guys work so very hard to suppress voting and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. The people you don’t want in office don’t want you to vote.

Third, there are the softer arguments that appeal to civic duty, tradition, and social responsibility. We hear all these arguments and admonitions often enough, but these are seldom enough to overcome the pragmatic rationalization of “but my district is safe.”

But here is an argument that amazingly I have never heard articulated by a voting advocate. And that is simply… margins matter. Even if you are correct and your district is perfectly safe, the margin by which your side wins is immensely important.

If a candidate wins by only a slim margin, partly because you stayed home, they have less political capital to spend once in office. They do not have a clear and strong mandate to push through the kind of legislation you hope for. They are seen as vulnerable and attacked more aggressively next time around. Therefore, they feel far less secure and are less likely to support the kind of bold initiatives you want to see happen.

On the other hand, if by voting all you have done is increase your candidates margin of victory by one more vote, you have done something very helpful, substantive, and important. You have given your candidate more leverage and security to advance the agenda you want to see championed. By increasing their margin of victory, you secure support for them and for their agenda while demoralizing and discouraging would-be opponents and challengers.

So next time you think about skipping out on the voting process because you feel that yours would be a superfluous, wasted vote… think of margins. Think of your vote as adding one more coin on the scales in favor of all the things you care about. Think of it as a measurable data point to disillusion and discourage those on the wrong side of the issues. Think, margins matter!

 

They Didn’t Really Hold Their Noses

Portrait of a young woman holding her nose because of a bad smel“The Religious Right held their noses and voted for Trump.”

You know this line all too well. Unless you live in a sensory deprivation tank, you probably hear it many times a day from pretty much every expert analyst. You’ve heard it so many times that you probably believe it without even thinking to question it.

But it is simply baseless nonsense.

The Religious Right did not in fact hold their noses and vote for Trump. They enthusiastically embraced Trump AND all of his vile, disgusting behaviors and rhetoric.  And even after nearly two years of incessent exposure to his lies and indictments and mean-spirited policies, these supposed nose-holders still support Trump without significant reservation or qualification. At this point it is fair to ask whether they support him precisely because of all his vile, disgusting behaviors and rhetoric.

You can reality-check this for yourself. Simply tune in any talk show that accepts calls from the Religious Right. The overwhelming number of these callers not only still support Trump, but they support him passionately and vehemently. You won’t detect any nose-holding from them.

The next time you hear an analyst repeat this meme, notice that they never provide any evidence or data to support it. In fact, this narrative of the mythological nose-holding, morally conflicted religious right voter is definitively disproven by impartial analysis of the facts. In a study of voting data, political science professor Paul J. Djupe at Denison University concluded that:

“To the central claim: noseholding is not disproportionately common (or uncommon for that matter) among white evangelicals (see here).”

Professor Djupe goes on to point out that:

“I understand why the claim of noseholding is attractive. It suggests that you and your group are better, more pure than a political candidate, that your support is temporary and subject to revocation. It is a claim of both independence and moral superiority.”

So any such claim of moral angst in a Trump voter is a false claim. Rather, it is a strong indicator of moral deficiency. It is analogous to my admitting to my wife that I had an affair with a seedy prostitute, but that I had to “hold my nose” to do it. And this moral failure is not only evident in their support of Trump, but in their wholehearted support of a Conservative Congress that engages in similarly egregious behaviors that are in direct conflict with their espoused moral values.

It is clear why the elite on the religious right like to push this narrative to make themselves look and feel better, particularly while they support politicians who engage in blatant behavior that is antithetical to everything they falsely claim to stand for.

But this nose-holding meme is also repeated without legitimate skepticism by mainstream analysts. I suspect this is partly because they themselves would be conflicted in such a situation. Perhaps they genuinely held their nose and voted for Hillary when their heart was with Bernie. It is natural then that they would naively project their own angst into those on the religious right.

But do not make the mistake of giving the Religious Right too much credit for basic human decency and morality. Do not underestimate their capacity to rationalize terrible behaviors as somehow moral and justifiable. I previously wrote about their support for torture as one example (see here). In the case of Trump, they did not, and still do not, even have the rudimentary decency to actually hold their noses while they fervently embrace both him and all his enablers.