Monthly Archives: November 2015



Free-will and determinism are concepts that religious and non-religious thinkers alike love to debate about. Unfortunately both exist largely in the realm of fantasy and any discussion of these concepts only serves to strengthen religion and mysticism. We atheists should be very careful about when and how we discuss these concepts.

First let’s consider free-will. Regardless of any non-religious discussions one might like to engage in about free-will, this term has become inextricably synonymous with religion. It was popularized largely by theologians to counter the problem of evil in the world. How can a good god allow evil? Well he gave us free-will of course! Since the universe cares not, God alone can define good and evil and give us the magical ability to choose between them. Free-will unavoidably suggests something outside of science, something divine, bestowed by god to humans only. Any discussion about free-will is to enter into a logical discussion about an illogical construction.

In direct opposition to free-will is determinism. Although it comes in many varieties, determinism is essentially the idea that we actually have no free-will at all. Everything in the universe is determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. You could predict every feeling and thought you are experiencing right now if you calculated forward correctly from the Big Bang. You may think you have a choice about what you do next, but that’s an illusion. Your every movement, thought, and choice was predetermined when the cosmic cue ball broke the table and the universe was set into motion.

Such discussions about determinism, while stimulating, only ultimately encourage religious thinking. If the universe is deterministic then there can be no good or evil, right or wrong. Most people refuse to accept such a universe or the idea that we have no choice. After all, we all feel something we perceive as choices between right and wrong. So any discussion of determinism quickly sends most people flocking in droves to the religious side. Their reasoning and their emotional reaction to determinism may be arguably flawed, but that is the result nevertheless. Secular philosophers may think they can logic our way out of this recoil into the arms of religion, but their logic is insufficient for most people.

Part of the problem here is that free-will and determinism are both extreme conceptual constructs, like positive and negative infinity. On one extreme, there is no right or wrong or choice. On the other extreme, right and wrong are defined by god and choice is bestowed by him and everyone is wholly responsible for everything they do. If good and evil and defined clearly by god, there can be no room for “situationalism.”

But reality is the continuum between these theoretical extremes. We live in the grey regions of choice and responsibility. We certainly perceive that we have choices and that we make choices. So choice is real to us at least. And regardless of whether those choices are ultimately predetermined in some sense, we as individuals and collectively as a society have no alternative but to judge and to respond to the choices we make.

To resolve the apparent contradiction between living in a “clockwork” universe that can only operate according to the mechanics of its particular gears and coils, and our perception of choice, consider randomness. One might argue that in a predetermined universe there is no such thing as a truly random number. You could in theory predict every random number in advance if you knew the state of the universe at any point in time and understood all the rules of physics sufficiently. However, according to every practical test we could perform and every objective purpose to which we could apply them, random numbers are demonstrably random to us. It would be silly to base our technology on the idea that there are actually no random numbers. And it is equally silly to base our beliefs or our society on the notion that choice does not exist.

But we should also recognize that in the grey area we live in, choice and responsibility are mitigated by a large number of deterministic factors. We recognize that if you look far enough back everyone is a victim of deterministic influences. At the same time, we must acknowledge that everything is to some extent a choice as well. We have to draw a line somewhere to decide when and how to hold people accountable for their actions. The extent to which people actually have a choice and the extent to which we hold them accountable for their choices is a judgment mitigated by many factors. These factors include age, state of mind, delusion or drug influence, intentions, ignorance, upbringing, circumstance, coercion, whether this behavior is treatable, how dangerous it is, and whether it is likely to repeat.

Clearly it’s not practical to consider everyone an innocent victim of the big bang and hold no one accountable for their actions. We have to hold people accountable for their choices. But it’s just as impractical to fail to consider the many physiological and social factors that determine behavior and effectively give people little or no choice in their choices. As individuals we have to draw our own lines and as a society we have to draw a collective line with treatment and help on one side and prevention and punishment on the other. Understanding, however, can span the entire spectrum. It is not inconsistent to understand the determinants of choice and still punish those who make those choices.

For example, even a suicide bomber may ultimately have no real choice given the horrific situation that we have created in their country. If we had not bombed their home into the stone age and taken away every other course of action, they likely would never have strapped a bomb to their chest. We may actually be more responsible then them, and yet still we must prevent and punish their behavior. We can understand the causal factors that forced that behavior and to the extent that we can and change those conditions we should. Understanding that every decision is neither completely a choice nor completely excusable, is to live in the very messy real world lying somewhere between the theoretical extremes of free-will and determinism.






Deeply-Held Beliefs

Our society overall, and even we atheists, have largely bought a bill of goods sold to us by the religious community. It is the flimflam that deeply-held beliefs are more sincere, more legitimate, less crazy, and more irreproachable than any old “ordinary” beliefs. Often these are also marketed under the labels of sincere or cherished or even deeply-cherished™ beliefs.

We have all been manipulated into granting an undeserved level of respect and deference to beliefs when they are immunized by these adjectives. This deference is not only undeserved, but it excuses some of the most damaging practices by those espousing these deeply-held beliefs. We tend to push back on beliefs until someone proclaims that it is deeply-held, sincere, and cherished. Then suddenly it becomes taboo, insensitive, and disrespectful to criticize it. In fact, we often accept that such deeply-held beliefs should be exempted from or even protected by the law.

Well unless of course it’s a deeply-held, sincere, and cherished belief of Muslims. In that case it’s clearly crazy.

Take for instance the vehemence by which “deeply-held” beliefs are defended by Katie Geary from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (see here). According to Geary:

“Groups that insist on insulting others’ deeply cherished beliefs are the truly immature ones here. Little do they realize how juvenile they appear to the “fairy tale” believers they so ardently wish to cut down.”

That’s quite a dressing down, and this is only a small sample of her attack against any criticism of deeply-held beliefs. However, as the Humanists of Minnesota point out, it is often impossible to see any difference whatsoever between deeply-held beliefs and plain old bigotry (see here).

KimDavisIt was her deeply-held beliefs that inspired Kim Davis to refuse to grant marriage certificates to gay couples in defiance of the law. Just last week cherished beliefs led right-wing Conservative leader Kevin Swanson to publically call for the mass execution of gay people. Deeply-held beliefs resulted in the owners of Hobby Lobby claiming religious exemptions so that they are free to discriminate.

Likewise, deeply-held beliefs that abortion is murder led anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder to shoot Dr. George Tiller in the head. It was sincere beliefs that prompted John Salvi to bomb a Planned Parenthood clinic killing two and wounding others.

These are just a few extreme examples but such incidents are hardly rare. We could go on and on citing examples of harmful actions motivated and justified by claiming they are in accordance with deeply-held beliefs.

These are extreme examples, but that does not make them irrelevant to all of those “harmless” deeply-held beliefs that we ought to respect. Quite the opposite, these only point out the danger of ever letting ourselves get taken down this path. Any time we give any special deference to more benign beliefs, we necessarily make it that much more difficult to criticize and curtail any belief no matter how destructive. In a world that is fundamentally based in fantasy, logic offers little assistance in drawing such lines. Our deference to innocent little deeply-held beliefs leads directly to carve-outs that condone and institutionalize bigotry, prejudice, and violations of civil rights.

We don’t accept the notion that racism or terrorism or homophobia are any more legitimate if these beliefs are claimed to be deeply-held, sincere, or cherished. Similarly we should not be bamboozled into accepting this same justification for the acceptance of or favoritism toward religious beliefs.

Jefferson’s Grand Nightmare

ThomasJeffersonThomas Jefferson was our Einstein of social and political science. He had an uncanny ability to understand human behavior and to envision what would ultimately grow from the seeds being planted in his times. Because of his visionary insight he fought for many years with his contemporaries, including his protégé Madison, to convince them to adopt several key provisions into our new Constitution. In fact he threatened to dismantle the effort to build a new nation if they were not included. He was adamant that a nation without these essential protections would be worse than none at all.

The first was Separation of Church and State, for without that protection he foresaw that our secular freedoms would inevitably be corrupted into a Theocracy. Jefferson would probably be relieved to see that we still do protect our wall of separation and that it offers some protections against Theocracy, but he would probably still be shocked and disappointed at the extent to which religion has succeeded in subverting or bypassing that wall.

The second thing he insisted upon was a ban against a standing army, for he feared that a standing army would only ensure perpetual war and war-profiteering. On this Jefferson would most certainly be horrified and most gravely disappointed. We do have a standing army that is only in principle under the command of a “civilian” President. In truth his worst fears in this regard have been realized with our huge standing army and the almost irresistible profit motive that ensures unending warfare.

The third thing Jefferson fought for was protections against corporations, for he saw that without very strong protections, our nation would inevitably be coopted into a Corporatocracy to serve the interests of corporate enterprises. He feared that these ravenous “wolves at the door” as he called them would eventually devour the government.

Jefferson did win this battle – for a while. The founders explicitly and deliberately never used the word “corporation” in the Constitution because they feared that merely by mentioning the word, corporations would be conferred with some status. For our first 100 years or so, most States had extremely stringent laws in place to prohibit any political action whatsoever by corporations. In fact, until as late as 1950 some states still had laws on the books forcing companies to disperse completely every 20-40 years to prevent them from amassing too much power and wealth that could corrupt the government.

When did the protections Jefferson put in place all fall apart? The root is the 1857 Dred-Scott decision that essentially said that people could be property. This resulted in the Civil War and the Civil War had the horrible side-effect of creating a monstrous gun industry (and a gun-culture) in America as the government cranked out untold numbers of guns that eventually ended up in the general population. The second corporate behemoth that was created by the Civil War was the rail industry as President Lincoln pumped huge amounts of money into rail to mobilize his war effort. These newly giant corporations helped win the war, but also became corporate monsters with new-found wealth and appetite for more.

Unsatisfied with accepting the corporate restrictions that had held corporate influence at bay since the Constitution, the rail industry started to direct its wealth into politics in an explicit effort to dismantle corporate restrictions on political influence. In the 1875 Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railway case, the claim was put forth that the 14th amendment protected companies as persons. The court explicitly ruled that “it made no ruling” on this assertion. However, in a published headnote the reporting journal “mistakenly” said that it did so. This was completely erroneous and absolutely non-binding, but yet law students to this day believe that personhood for corporations was actually part of the ruling.

It all went horribly wrong from there. A subsequent court cited this mistaken report as precedent and conferred rights upon companies as persons, even though no such precedent existed. By doing so, they set an actual binding precedent that impacted dozens of subsequent rulings leading right up to our most recent one which essentially gives corporations unlimited and unfettered power. Citizens United gives them such power that the dictates of corporate greed now arguably overwhelms any other institutional force working on behalf of the social good.

And the irony is that even the citation in the 14th Amendment used to justify this claim of personhood in Santa Clara County was false. Throughout that section, the authors of the Constitution refer to “natural persons” to explicitly exclude corporations. In only one little clause, they omitted the word “natural” totally by mistake, and this omission has served as the ultimate Constitutional basis for all of the rights of personhood that corporations have won.

Citizens United was a horrible, horrible decision based on a tragically comical sequence of false legal precedents. If Thomas Jefferson were here today he would most certainly be crushed to see that the wolves are no longer at the door, they have the run of the house.

There are only two Constitutional remedies for this corporate subversion of our government. The first is for the Supreme Court to reverse itself and all previous rulings. The second is for a Constitutional Amendment to simply insert the word “natural” into the Constitution where it was meant to be. That would perhaps force the Court to reverse itself.

I am glad to see Jefferson is not here to see his worst nightmares for our nation come true. But none of these alone are the Grand Nightmare I refer to. Jefferson’s grand nightmare would be the truly horrifying synergy of these three anti-democratic forces working together; religious zealotry fueled by corporate power and greed wielding the power of a huge standing army.