Category Archives: Atheism

Humans are Inexplicable

brainWhether it be in science or business or politics or popular culture, we expend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to figure out why people do whatever people are doing. We seem to have more analysts than actors, all desperately trying to explain what motivates people, either by asking them directly or by making inferences about them. For the most part, this is not merely a colossal waste of time and effort and money in itself, but it stimulates even greater wastes of time and effort and money chasing wildly incomplete or erroneous conclusions about why we do what we do.

Asking people why they did what they did, or why they are doing what they are doing, or why they are going to do what they are going to do, generally yields useless and misleading information. It is not clear that people actually have distinct reasons they can recognize let alone articulate. It is quite likely in fact that most of the decisions we make are made unconsciously based upon a myriad of complex neural network associations. These associations need not be rational. These connections don’t need to be internally consistent to each other or related to the actual outcome in any way. But in our post-rationalizations and post-analyses we impose some logic to our decisions to make them feel sensible. Therefore, the reasons we come up with are almost completely made-up at every level to sound rational or at least sane to ourselves and to those we are communicating to.

The truth is, we can’t usually hope to understand our own incredibly complex neural networks, let alone the neural networks of others. Yes, sometimes we can identify a strong neural network association driving a behavior, but most determinative associations are far too diffuse across a huge number of seemingly unrelated associations.

The situation gets infinitely worse when we are trying to analyze and explain group behaviors. Most of our shared group behaviors emerge from the weak-interactions between all of our individual neural networks. The complexity of these interactions is virtually unfathomable. The challenge of understanding why a group does what it does collectively, let alone figuring out how to influence their behavior, is fantastic.

If you ask a bird why it is flying in a complex swirling pattern along with a million other birds, it will probably give you some reason, like “we are looking for food,” but in fact it is probably largely unaware that it is even flying in any particular pattern at all.

So why point all this out? Do we give up? Does this imply that a rational civilization is impossible, that all introspection or external analysis is folly?

Quite the contrary, we must continue to struggle to understand ourselves and truly appreciating our complexity is part of that effort. To do so we must abandon the constraints of logic that we impose upon our individual and group rationalizations and appreciate that we are driven by neural networks that are susceptible to all manner of illogical programming. We must take any self-reporting with the same skepticism we would to the statement “I am perfectly sane.” We should be careful of imposing our own flawed rationality upon the flawed rationality of others. Analysts should not assume undue rationality in explaining behaviors. And finally, we must appreciate that group behaviors can have little or no apparent relationship to any of the wants, needs, or expressed opinions of those individuals within that group.

In advanced AI neural networks, we humans cannot hope to understand why the computer has made a decision. Its decision is based upon far too many subtle factors for humans to recognize or articulate. But if all of the facts programmed in to the computer are accurate, we can probably trust the judgement of the computer.

Similarly with humans, it may be that our naive approach of asking or inferring reasons for feelings and behaviors and then trying to respond to each of those rationales is incredibly ineffective. It may be that the only thing that would truly improve individual and thus emergent thinking are more sanely programmed neural networks, ones that are not fundamentally flawed so as to comfortably rationalize religious and other specious thinking at the most basic level (see here). We must focus on basic fact-based thinking in our educational system and in our culture on the assumption that more logically and factually-trained human neural networks will yield more rational and effective individual and emergent behaviors.

 

But More Importantly…

climate-changeThose of you who follow my blog know that I’m virulently anti-gun. In fact, I’ll take any opportunity to slip my disdain for guns and the deplorable people who own them into any discussion. Which is why you should definitely go back and read this, and this, and even this.

But not now! Because more importantly… climate change.

As much as I loathe, hate, and despise guns, I fear climate change far worse. No matter what your issue, you are extremely foolish if you do not prioritize climate change far ahead of it. Humanity will survive gun violence, wars, poverty, hate, bigotry, diseases, despots, jobs, slavery, even genocides. But we may likely not survive climate change. Every other issue can be fixed, waited out, and overcome in the long term. Climate change is a death warrant for civilization, for mankind, and possibly for all life on Earth. It’s a terminal disease, game over, if not treated with every means we can muster and more.

So how can you ever rationally argue that efforts to curb climate change must wait because your issue, however important, is more urgent and existential? And no, we cannot “do both.” We must still prioritize. If we spend effort on your issue or even my issue then we are not doing enough to avert catastrophic climate change.

Most of my readers have to know that I’m an outspoken atheist activist. However, I cannot prioritize my atheist movement over climate change. Not even remotely. In fact, if atheists are indeed the more rational and sensible humanists that we think we are and claim to be, we should be taking a leading role in battling climate change. Sadly my atheist community as a whole is not showing such wisdom and leadership.

If there is one litmus test in the next Presidential election, it should be climate change. Not abortion, or gender equality, or a Wall, or fealty to Capitalism, or anything else… because more importantly, climate change.

In a recent interview Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg rattled off ten or so things he would prioritize as President. Not one was climate change. When asked about climate change, he made a dutiful perfunctory comment about it. This should disqualify him utterly. Even if he does make stronger comments about climate change later, I would have no confidence that he is sufficiently sincere.

In fact, at this time, the ONLY candidate we should be strongly considering is Washington State Governor Jay Inslee. He is the only candidate showing the intelligence, leadership, and long-term thinking that we literally cannot live without. Others might make progress on health care, or immigration, or jobs, or LGBTQ rights. But really, will any of that ultimately matter if we fail to mitigate the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change?

Here’s what you should do. Ask your candidates at all levels about what they will do about climate change and make it an unequivocal priority. Be willing to put aside your own issues in order to work together to make progress on climate change. Demand that the social and religious organizations that you affiliate with push for action on climate change.

And finally, in the signature line of your emails, add the line “But more importantly climate change.” This will remind both you and your recipients that while whatever we are discussing is important, it does not begin to compare with climate change.

 

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.

 

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.

Our Next Existential Battle

Right now most of us feel caught up in an existential battle against the Trumpian forces of corrupt dictatorship. With so much to deal with, it is natural to not even want to think about our next battle. Yet, assuming our democracy survives the reign of Trump, we need to prepare for the likely struggle to follow. Our next war will almost certainly be against Mike Pence and the forces of theocracy.

It is my theory of presidential succession that voters swing, pendulum-like, from one extreme to another as we recoil from and overcompensate for what we perceive as the flaws in our last president (see here). It is very likely that the disaster of Donald Trump is going to push our collective emotional pendulum right into the waiting arms of the Religious Right.

As the catastrophe that is Donald Trump unravels, Conservatives will argue that Trump was no “true” Christian, that he was rather a secular leader and that his abject moral failure as a person and as a president is proof that secular values is an oxymoron. What Donald Trump will prove is that we need a good Christian leader of high moral character to lead us. And make no mistake, many, many liberals and progressives will accept that argument.

HolyPenceMike Pence, or perhaps someone else, will eagerly assume the role of our new moral savior. Certainly Mike Pence is poised and waiting for his opportunity. In fact many Christian leaders explicitly proclaim that the Donald Trump presidency will pave their way to theocratic dominance (see here).

And as soon as the Religious Right gains even more legitimacy and power than they already have, they will proceed quickly and vigorously to impose their theocratic beliefs on everyone else. They will roll back many of the secular freedoms that we have achieved as a society through generations of blood and tears. They will impose religious tests in every public matter, further marginalize science and reason, and disadvantage anyone who does not share their particular faith.

It is certain that the Religious Right will leverage the moral and political failures of Donald Trump to push us as far toward their extreme as they can. We should not fall prey to this set-up for a disastrous pendulum swing. We should not accept any kind of false choice argument between vile Trumpian delusion and vile Religious delusion.

On the hopeful side, this is a battle we can win if we are smart. People often speculate on whether it would be a good thing to impeach Trump tomorrow if we could, and accept Pence as president. I say yes! Our democracy is frankly not well-equipped to deal with corrupt and crazy. However, we do have explicit Constitutional protections against religious extremism, provided we defend those protections.

Trump’s greatest historical impact will likely not be pulling us into a dictatorship as he intends, but rather pushing us into a theocracy as he does not intend. Protecting our separation of church and state and establishing strong secular leadership are more important than ever. If not because of Donald Trump specifically, then because of the even more consequential battle against theocracy that is almost certain to follow in his wake.

 

Privatizing Theocracy

privatizationThe strategy is clear. Privatize as much of the government as possible and exempt those privately run services from Constitutional protections.

If we do not wise up, we could gradually privatize our way to theocracy.

Conservatives love privatization. Regardless of where they lie on the not-so-wide spectrum from capitalist to libertarian, they all share a foundational belief that the private sector does everything better than publicly run counterparts. To them, it is self-serving economic dogma that a hard-nosed, self-interested, profit motive is somehow inherently superior to a sincere mission to serve the public good. Therefore everything that can be privatized should be privatized.

Of course, there is no actual proof of any such inherent superiority. Sure, some privately run companies can be more efficient than governmental programs. But many are not. For every inefficient, bureaucratic, slow-moving government agency, one can point to dozens of disastrous, failed, bankrupt, unresponsive, and socially irresponsible private companies with obscenely overpaid corporate leaders.

Moreover, the primary function of private businesses is not to serve their customers with the best possible goods and services, but to extract maximum profit for shareholders and executives. The idea that competition always optimizes to result in the best possible services at the lowest possible price is a convenient fiction. Private businesses actually optimize to extract the highest possible profit by providing the cheapest possible services. Their fiduciary obligation is not to serve the public good, but on the contrary it is to pass off as many of their harms and risks as possible onto the public sphere.

It is simple math. All else equal, a well-run private company simply cannot provide better services than a well-run governmental agency because the private company must extract maximum profits. And it is a lie that government agencies cannot be just as well-run. In fact, our Conservative leaders know this, which is why they work so hard to make the Post Office and other services fail so that they can justify privatizing them.

Further, there are some public functions that are simply incompatible with the profit motive, these include things like health care. I am not against all private business, but I am against private businesses running essential social services that fundamentally conflict with their profit motive. I wrote a blog on the conflict between profit and healthcare (see here). And we have all seen how well has privatization worked for prisons.

This fanatical push for privatizing everything from military service to social security in order to extract private profits has been bad enough. But now, with Citizen’s United and Hobby Lobby and the dominance of Church-friendly executives in public office, we should clearly see another terribly dark side of privatization – the synergy of privatization and religion.

As more and more government services, from social services to education and beyond are privatized, those new “public service” companies can then exert their growing independence to reject governmental policies and even Constitutional protections to inject religious beliefs into those services. Rather than serve the general public good, rather than adhere to restrictions put in place to ensure the public good, these newly privatized services can now exert their “religious freedom” to limit those services in accordance with their religious beliefs.

The Religious Right has been frustrated because they have been thwarted in their efforts introduce prayer and intelligent design in schools. Their new strategy is focused on privatizing education so that they can “teach” whatever they wish to larger numbers of children. By simultaneously asserting religious rights of conscience for these private companies, they can do an end-run around the Constitution.

As another case in point consider hospitals. We used to have a lot of public hospitals. But we have allowed private, for profit hospitals to take over without requiring them to provide the same level of service to underprivileged populations. Increasingly, churches are assimilating all of these private hospitals and refusing to offer essential services that they feel violate their religious beliefs. The New York Times recently highlighted this (see here).

Now duplicate this same strategy to privatize every government service with an ideological or profit interest. If the greedy and the religious can remove all such operations from governmental oversight, then the protections of our Constitution become moot. How can the Constitution protect us with nothing remaining under its jurisdiction? The Conservatives want less, not more of the regulations that would be required.

Make no mistake. This trend toward theocracy by privatization will continue to accelerate unless we understand the following:

  1. Private corporations do not really do everything better, and some essential public services are fundamentally undermined by a profit imperative.
  2. Private companies must not be allowed to claim personhood and religious liberty in order to abdicate ethical responsibilities and circumvent Constitutional protections.
  3. Political leaders must not be allowed to be complicit in this theocritization by intentionally destroying working public services and by putting in place governmental structures to assist in privatization and the expansion of religious exemptions.

For further reading I recommend a previous blog entitled Why Wall Street Loves Trump (see here).

Cloud Angels

CloudAngelA recent article in People Magazine was entitled Texas Driver Spots ‘Spectacular’ Cloud Shaped Like an Angel: ‘How Awesome Is That?’ (see here).

Although the question was rhetorical – well actually it was meant as more a statement than a question – I’ll answer it anyway.

Not very!

The reality is that at any given moment of any day from any point anywhere on Earth, there are clouds that we could imagine bear some resemblance to something other than a billowy mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere.

Some of these clouds might resemble boats, or alligators, or elephants, or pretty much anything really. The limit is our imaginations. So it is fun, but not particularly newsworthy, to take note of the wacky shapes that clouds happen upon. That is, unless the image is religious, and in that case it is apparently quite newsworthy.

The truth is that of all the clouds, or pieces of toast, or rotten peaches, or paint stains, that look like something, we don’t get really excited about these random resemblances unless they resemble an angel, or Jesus, or Mother Mary, or some vague Saint. All this random stuff is just random, unless it has a religious connotation. In that case, random stuff is inspiring, proof of gods hand in the world, miraculous, and fascinatingly newsworthy.

This all speaks to our powerful mental ability to create patterns that conform to our particular confirmation biases. Moreover it also speaks to our intense desire and interest in any confirmation of our religious bias in particular.

And I can see how a cloud pattern, or some lichen on a rock create powerful imagery. I had one such experience.

I was on the beach in Costa Rica watching baby tortoises dauntlessly plunge into the ocean only to be thrown back onto the sand over and over again by the uncaring waves. It was late afternoon and I glanced up, only to stare in wonder at the sky. Directly in front of me were the very gates of heaven. A glowing pathway lead up from directly before me to a shimmering cloud platform. Upon it stood two gleaming pearly gates, connected by a vibrant golden archway, highlighted by dramatic halos of light. Within the great arch, in the distance, was a glowing point of light so divine that it could only have been the glow of god almighty.

The sight was so photo-realistically detailed and delineated with vibrant color and perfect proportions that it made the Texas cloud angel look like a child’s watercolor. I gaped in wonder for a moment before I thought to reach for my camera. But by the time I fumbled to work it, the lines had begun to blur, the light to diminish, and the effect to become far more abstract. That singular moment was past. Within minutes the gates of heaven were once again just one more set of abstract cloud shapes.

Given that experience, I can understand how primitive people might be so inspired as to believe they had actually glimpsed a heavenly place revealed to them in the sky. I can understand how they might have taken this as proof of heaven. Or, perhaps, thousands of years ago someone glimpsed a sight very similar to my own and created our modern imagery of heaven based upon that one powerful awe-inspiring moment.

But what I cannot understand and cannot excuse is any modern person today believing that some vaguely angel-shaped cloud is particularly inspiring or reassuring, let alone believed to be a message from god. And I find it doubly disappointing that a news outlet, even one that is merely reporting human interest stories, would preferentially pick out these kind of “sightings” to report, thereby depositing yet another straw of religious delusion on the already straining back of the reason and rationality of our culture.