Monday, September 24, 2007

The problem with "respect"

I don't know how many of you have seen this, but it's done a very good job of setting my teeth on edge. A brief summary, for people too lazy to click on links: A community college professor, teaching a course on western civilization, told his class not to interpret the Bible literally. Students complained, threatened legal action, and he was subsequently fired. The college claims that the incident is not the cause of his firing, but has yet to give any sort of alternative explanation, and the professor himself cannot come up with another possible explanation.

Mind you, he didn't say Christianity was invalid. In fact, he thinks there's a lot of interesting symbolic meaning in many Old Testament stories, which is why he used them in his class. All he did was say that it shouldn't be interpreted literally. Which they shouldn't - obviously, I don't think there's any truth to them whatsoever, but I'm afraid that if you actually believe in a literal Adam and Eve, you're actively deluding yourself in a fairly extreme way. And yet, because of the absolutely ridiculous amount of 'respect' we give religious people in this country, he was fired. What's next, a science professor getting fired because he tells students "No, actually, the earth is not 6000 years old"?

Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers - they've all talked at length about this, and it's a huge problem. As long as people put it under the guise of their religion, we're not supposed to criticize it, lest they get offended. Some guy resurrected himself two thousand years ago? Some other guy ascended to heaven on a winged horse? Six thousand years ago, a talking snake caused us to be kicked out of a perfect garden somewhere in the Middle East? Sure, it's your religion, no matter how blatantly ludicrous it sounds!

On the other hand, if you make a perfectly reasonable sounding statement such as 'the size of our national debt is a problem', and you open yourself up to a massive amount of criticism, some of it quite vicious. And this is as it should be. We're adults. We live in a world where, I'm afraid to say, truth is more important than feelings. And healthy arguments can and should be encouraged - if your point of view can't stand up to heavy scrutiny, then you should probably change your mind. I'm reminded of a story - I think it was from Richard Dawkins - of a professor who went to a talk at which one of his pet theories was absolutely and conclusively disproved. At the end of the talk, he went up to the speaker, shook his hand, and said something along the lines of "I wish to thank you, sir! I have been wrong all these years!"

I think this story demonstrates exactly the level of discourse that we, as a society and a species, should aspire to. State your opinions loudly, defend them just as loudly, and when you've been proven wrong, admit it and change your mind.

Sure, it's very hard to do, especially in areas where the facts aren't as conclusive as they often are in science - but it can be done, and the mealy-mouthed 'respect' we give religion runs exactly counter to this ideal.

First, let's look at what the religious people are saying every time they play the 'disrespected' or 'offended' card. They're saying, effectively, that they're not willing to hear someone say that their beliefs are wrong. They're not willing to engage in any sort of dialog about it - they simply refuse, to the point of legal action (in the case of the article that prompted this entry) or violence (in the case of far too many incidents involving Islam) to hear it. And we've built such a shield around religion that the initial response of many otherwise reasonable people is to say "Oh, we're so sorry that you have to hear that" and go and condemn the people who said it - even if they're being threatened with legal action or death (think Rushdie), which is, in my book, a lot worse than being 'offended'.

Again, we are supposedly adults. We live in a world where just wishing things to be true does not make them so. And it is absurd - patently, blatantly absurd - that on this topic, and this topic only, we're not even allowed to say 'you're wrong' without people getting all up in a huff about it. If their beliefs can't stand up to that - if they feel so terribly offended that they feel the need to lash out rather than defend their views - they shouldn't hold them in the first place. And they shouldn't depend on the rest of us to protect them from the inadequacy of their own beliefs.

So shame on the students who threatened legal action over the fact that their western civilization teacher told them to interpret a book in a symbolic manner - a book no different from any other, except that certain people have a disproportional reverence for it. And shame on the administration, for bending over backwards to accommodate one of modern society's stupidest and most flawed conventions.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sports, God and Prayer

As many of you know, I am a die-hard New England sports fan. Much of the week, of course, has been taken up by Cameragate or Spygate or whatever other noun-gate combination you want to throw out there, culminating in the Patriots' thoroughly dominant trashing of the San Diego Chargers last night. Which was nice. But this is not a sports blog, so I will leave the Patriots talk elsewhere.

No, what I wanted to comment on was this little article, and the very irritating trend it represents.

To summarize, briefly: Jon Kitna was hit very hard in yesterday's Lions game, and suffered a nasty concussion. Despite this, he returned and led his team on a key drive, and is now apparently suffering basically no symptoms from his concussion. He attributes this to a 'miracle'.

Now, this isn't to jump on Jon Kitna personally - obviously, it's unusual to recover as quickly as he did from the kind of concussion he had, and I'm very impressed that he was able to get back in the game and perform the way he did. But his explanation is just one more in a long line of comments by athletes attributing their successes, achievements, and luck to God. And it drives me completely up the wall.

My big problem with this is that it is often portrayed as an example of humility. Really? Saying "God let me throw that touchdown pass" is humble? "God helped us win tonight" is humble? In fact, I find that a lot more arrogant than being truthful and saying "we worked our asses off, and it paid off, and we won" (luckily, many athletes do this as well).

Putting aside all concerns about the existence of God, what you're basically claiming when you say something like that is that the creator of the entire universe is deeply concerned about your personal achievements on the football field (or the basketball court, or the baseball field, or whatever). So concerned, in fact, that he ignored all of the prayers by the other team and helped you win instead. Notice how nobody ever talks about God when they lose? "Oh, I guess God wanted those other guys to win tonight instead of us. Shame." No, it's only something that gets brought out when after victories.

And this also ignores the fact that if God answered your prayers for football victory, then he did so while manifestly ignoring many, many worthier prayers from people dying of hunger, disease, natural disasters, or any number of other causes. Sports is a great thing, but even the most die-hard of sports fans (and I'm up there) will admit that there are many issues that are far more important than what team wins on a given night, no matter how much it feels otherwise at the time. There simply isn't any way to successfully argue that your sports-related prayers were answered without painting your God as a callous, arbitrary figure who is willing to ignore the massive amounts of suffering going on worldwide to point his attention - and power of intervention - at a contest involving men in uniforms and a ball.

Even thanking God for the genetic gifts that led you to play pro sports seems arrogant. If he specifically meddled with your genes so that you would turn out to be an athletic specimen, then what is he doing with all of those children who aren't special, or who suffer from crippling or fatal birth defects? Does he not care? You are not only making the (from my view, absurd and arrogant) statement that you are the personal recipient of the positive intervention of the creator of the entire universe, but you are claiming that you are somehow more deserving of this than everyone else, including many people which it would be extraordinarily hard to argue this point against.

If you make the case that God does answer prayers, you're standing on very shaky ground already if you want to continue painting him as a benevolent force - a quick examination of all of the horrors that have been perpetrated over the course of human history, and all of the natural disasters that have claimed millions of lives will show you that quite easily. Of course, people still claim he saves lives here and heals people there, and at least that kind of thing would be a positive miracle if such things existed (they don't). But to claim that he takes sides in a football game? Over all the other things he could be turning his attention to in the entire universe?

My advice to professional athletes, not that they'll listen to it, is this: Take a step back, be grateful you won the genetic lottery, be proud of the hard work you put into getting where you are, and stop pretending the creator of the universe is somehow personally involved with everything you do on the field.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Faith, Belief, and Evidence

In a comment on my first post, I was asked the following question by TDW: "What about the concept of belief? You appear to extend this disbelief towards religious ideals, but end it there. How does the concept of belief (to believe in something without sufficient or even moderately sufficient logical evidence) play out in your world view. The concept seems, from your post, to be used in a slightly hypocritical manner, or perhaps you've compartmentalized the use of the concept? Or perhaps it is simply something I have not considered, which is why I ask."

This brings up something that I was planning to post about anyway, so I will answer it in the context of this post.

I have an unfortunate tendency, as TDW points out, to use 'believe' for things that I think to be true because of evidence, in the same way that I use 'believe' for religious beliefs, and that leads to a lot of confusion. What I should really be using is "religious belief", or "faith", which carries with it the connotation of "belief without evidence". I will endeavor to make this distinction better in the future, although I may slip up from time to time; feel free to call me on this.

I consider the two types of belief to be fundamentally different. Many people do not. I cannot count the number of times I've heard a variation of the argument that "it takes just as much faith to believe there isn't a God" or "it takes just as much faith to believe in evolution" or something else along those lines.

No. It does not. In the case of evolution, or many other scientific theories, believing them is a matter of believing the evidence. I do not "have faith" in the theory of evolution; if, somehow, it were entirely disproved tomorrow I would not continue believing in it in the face of contradictory facts. Of course, I would want to hear how the facts supported whatever replaced it. I approach just about everything in my life this way as well; whatever I believe is generally whatever best fits the facts. When I say I don't believe in something, that means that either I see no evidence for it or I see evidence contradicting it.

Let me expand on this for a minute. It illustrates perfectly my problem with the statement "it takes just as much faith to believe there isn't a God" - it's not so much a positive belief on my part as a lack of one. I think pretty much every atheist is like this, although some express more certainty than others. In fact, I think the entire spectrum of agnosticism and atheism (and, ultimately, religious belief) is pretty much one big sliding scale of percentages - the percentage chance that person gives to the existence of God. The truly waffling agnostics put this chance at about fifty-fifty - those are the people who refuse to take a stand one way or the other. Atheism is just a matter of crossing the threshold to the point where the probability you assign the existence of God is so vanishingly small that religion isn't worth considering seriously. All atheists are (or should be) in this position - yes, we cannot absolutely disprove the existence of God, but we consider it so improbable that we effectively disbelieve it, in the same way we effectively disbelieve Bertrand Russell's teapot. This position does not require faith - it is, in fact, the opposite of faith.

Earlier, I referred to faith as "belief without evidence". Let me expand this definition a bit - I think there are in fact two distinct kinds of faith, one more dangerous than the other. The first is my original definition. Believing that some sort of supreme being created the Universe is belief without evidence - there is no evidence directly against this (at least until we start assigning the creator testable properties), but there is no reason to think that there was some sort of creator without evidence of some kind. While it is much better to believe things only if there is evidence for them, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - optimism, for example, is often a case of believing without evidence that things will turn out alright. It is, however, a spectacularly bad supporting argument - "I have faith that this is true" should not (and does not, in my case) convince anyone of anything. I therefore tend to see this kind of faith as mostly useless, and something to be avoided in any case where I can actually gather evidence for one point of view or another. A lot of the "wishful thinking" aspects of religion fall into this category.

The second, and much more dangerous kind of faith, is "belief in the face of evidence". It is in this category that the most egregious religious offenses against reason fall - creationism, for example, is one big exercise in this kind of faith, especially young Earth creationism. There is a mountain of evidence that tells us the Earth is billions of years old. To ignore this, and believe it is some 6000 years old instead, or to make similarly ridiculous claims, is something that needs to be actively discouraged.

"But Micah," you might ask, "isn't it the right of everyone to believe what they want as long as they keep it to themselves?"

Well, yes. But unless you're living in a cave somewhere, this kind of faith is extraordinarily hard to keep to yourself, because even if you don't go trying to do things like put it in science classrooms, it does crippling damage to your ability to think rationally, and someone without the ability to think rationally opens themselves up to all kinds of extremely dangerous things. First, if someone actively ignores factual evidence and ignores rational arguments, there simply isn't any way to convince them they're wrong if they hold extremely harmful beliefs. We see the results of this most clearly in Islamic fundamentalism - how do you argue with people like that? They reduce the scope of rational argument to interpreting the passages of an ancient book - and nothing outside that book is a valid counterargument. Effectively, they have removed themselves from the scope of rationality, and in doing so have become civilization's greatest threat.

Now, obviously, not everyone who believes completely irrational things in the face of evidence will end up as a suicide bomber. But it opens you up to that kind of extraordinarily harmful fundamentalism, because if someone can convince you that the source of authority on which you base your irrational faith also supports harmful things, or things that are just blatantly untrue, there simply isn't any other avenue to convince you that you're wrong. When people say things like "There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that would convince me I'm wrong about the existence of God", I cringe, because what else do they apply this impossible standard to?

Why, therefore, do we as a society speak of a “man of faith” as if this is a positive characteristic? As I see it, depending on the kind of faith, it ranges from a slightly to extremely negative characteristic – and yet there is nothing more necessary for a political candidate in today’s society, and we constantly invite professional “men of faith” to share their opinions as if they have significantly more moral authority than the rest of us. It is especially mindboggling because it is only seen as a virtue in the case of religion – ask an economist to support their point of view, and if they cannot give you data to back their theories up, you have every right to laugh them out of the room. In the case of the hard sciences, you cannot even get published without exhaustively backing up your theorems.

It is my opinion, and I do not think I am being unreasonable in the slightest here, that belief backed by evidence is superior to faith, and especially to faith that contradicts evidence. And no belief, or faith, should be immune to challenge.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My History as an Atheist

I have always been an atheist.

In this, I consider myself lucky. I know people – and I have read stories from people I do not know – who had to go through a long and agonizing process of doubt and reflection before they finally realized that there was nothing out there to believe in. I, on the other hand, have never believed in a higher power and remain to this day rather baffled by the idea.

It started, like most people’s views on religion, in childhood. I grew up in a household full of books – my parents are both elementary school teachers, and when she wasn’t teaching in the classroom, my mother ran the library at the small private school that I went to (she has since moved to the library full time). So I would spend a lot of time hanging out and reading in the library waiting for my mom to give me a ride home. In fact, I spent quite a lot of my time everywhere reading – I probably got into more trouble as a kid for reading too much than I did for anything else. And one of my favorite topics was science.

I loved science books. Everything about it was fascinating – biology was fascinating, geology was fascinating, and physics was especially fascinating. I loved reading about the universe and how it worked. In fact, in sixth grade I gave a report – to my classmates, most of whom had not the slightest idea what I was talking about – about quantum physics and general relativity, which I based off of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Science was cool. It still is, even though I’ve veered off into computer programming – I still seek out articles on the latest and greatest scientific advancements and theories.

But I digress. The point I am trying to make is that my first exposure to the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything came through the prism of science. Oh, I read mythology as well – I read everything I could get my hands on, really – but I never took any of it seriously. Christian mythology to me was on the same level as Greek mythology and Norse mythology, although (in my opinion) not as interesting. It was with no small degree of astonishment that I learned that people actually took it seriously. The universe seemed to me far too vast and complex to have come into existence just for us.

The only exposure I had to organized religion, and I use this term very loosely, was the Unitarian church in Northampton that my parents took my sister and me to for a number of years. They went because they liked Victoria, the minister, and so my sister and I, too young to be able to sit through an hour worth of talking and singing, were shuffled off to the youth groups.

Being a Unitarian church, this did precisely nothing to influence my young mind toward any sort of belief. Apparently – I don’t remember this myself, but I heard the story from a former youth group leader years later – I once brought in a book, eloquently titled The Universe, and made it very clear to the rest of my group that the universe had started with the Big Bang and this God fellow had nothing to do with it. Again, being a Unitarian church, I wasn’t even told I was wrong about this (good joke – What do you get if you cross a Unitarian and a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason). Eventually, Victoria left the church, and my parents stopped making us go. Being a kid who had things I would much rather spend my Sunday mornings doing than sitting in a church, I happily jumped at the opportunity, and that was the end of that.

Let me take a moment to thank my parents for this. Neither of them are particularly religious themselves – my dad is sort of culturally Jewish, having come from a Jewish family, and my mom rejected her Christian background long before I was born (I don’t even remember what type of Christian she was raised as). They’re both much more sympathetic to spirituality than I am, but they’ve pretty much allowed me to form my own views on the subject without any interference. While I think my nature is such that I would have ended up as an atheist eventually, no matter what my upbringing, the fact that they never pushed any sort of belief on me whatsoever made the whole process a lot easier – I got to start in the same position I ended up in. My parents are wonderful people.

Returning to the narrative, it was in middle school that I actually began to debate religion. A good friend of mine was a devout Mormon, and we would go back and forth for hours on the subject, each of us thoroughly baffled by the other’s point of view. His increasing devotion to his religion, and our inability to maintain a friendship focused on other things, would eventually drive us apart, but at the time it was a very entertaining way to pass the time, and it helped me develop my own position beyond “People actually believe this stuff? Seriously?”

I sum up my early views on religion as a sort of incredulous application of Occam’s Razor. The universe was amazing enough as it was, and the fact that it existed on such a scale – and that we were so tiny and insignificant compared to the rest of it – made it completely incomprehensible to me that the whole thing could have come into being just so we could be here. It seemed far more likely that the universe had just happened through some phenomenon we did not yet understand than that there was some creative force outside space and time that had put the whole thing in motion just so we could show up fifteen billion years down the road. I don’t think that our brains are even equipped to understand just how insignificant we are, or how little time we’ve really been here – I’ll get into this subject, and the thought experiments that help us make a little sense of it in another post. I know that for a lot of people, the astonishing majesty of the natural world and the universe is for them evidence for God – for me, it was and remains the exact opposite.

In high school, I graduated – and I use this term very loosely – to the land of internet argumentation. The Megatokyo forums gave me a venue to get into arguments with theists of varied sophistication, and exposed me to a number of the classic arguments for religion, from Aquinas’ “proofs” to Pascal’s idiotic wager. None of them were particularly convincing, especially since I now had a much broader spectrum of writings to draw from to bolster my points than my younger self’s science books and general bafflement. And, of course, I came to the inevitable conclusion, after banging my head against the same brick wall for the two hundred and forty-second time, that it simply wasn’t worth the effort. I was right, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And so I gave up, and stopped arguing religion (I stopped arguing politics for much the same reason).

After this, atheism took a back seat in my life for a few years. Oh, my views never wavered – I never once doubted I was right, or saw any evidence that would convince me otherwise. But I stopped arguing it, stopped thinking about it that much, and generally focused on other things for a while. It wasn’t until recently that atheism came to the forefront once more, thanks to a number of excellent books.

I refer, of course, to the Quartet of Reason – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. Although Harris was first, it was Dawkins’ The God Delusion that got me started – I would later discover Harris through Dawkins’ website. While their arguments for atheism were a joy to read, and bolstered my own position yet again, that was not the message that resonated with me the most. No, what I really took from those books was the message that this is an important issue, perhaps the most important issue facing us as human beings today. They did not convert me from a theist to an atheist, but they did convert me from a passive atheist to an active one (I find the term ‘militant’ silly, as much as it gets bandied about these days). I started to keep up on religion and atheism-related happenings around the world. I found Pharyngula and began reading it daily, often refreshing hourly to see if PZ has posted anything new. I read every article that gets posted on Dawkins' website. And I started to actively discuss atheism again, with people both religious and nonreligious, and to argue far more passionately about it than I had in years.

Which leads, inevitably, to this blog, which I have finally created as a place for me to marshal all of my thoughts and arguments. I hope that it will prove as interesting to read as it is to write.


Let me start by explaining why I chose this title for my blog.

Actually, if you’ve read the quote – which is placed conveniently on the right, if you haven’t – or are already familiar with it, you probably understand.

I decided I wanted to create this blog about a week ago, when I started composing a mental post in my head about atheism for perhaps the fiftieth time in response to some news article or other and realized that I should actually write them out somewhere other than the inside of my skull. I spent quite a long time trying to figure out a good name, harassed a number of my friends without really getting anywhere, and generally despaired of ever getting it off the ground because I cannot title things to save my life. Then, when I was rereading the Hitchhiker’s Guide series this afternoon, an obvious solution struck me – name it after a quote from Douglas Adams.

Douglas Adams was a brilliant writer, one of the funniest human beings I have ever had the pleasure to read, and an atheist. The Salmon of Doubt, which is a collection of his writings on a number of non-Hitchhiker subjects (with a story about young Zaphod thrown in there for good measure), contains some of my favorite writing on atheism ever. Nobody, in my opinion, quite captures the absurdity of religion better than Douglas did. Which leads me to the quote on the right, and its application to modern humanity.

We are, for all intents and purposes, just such a puddle when it comes to the universe as a whole. We sit here, on our little ball of rock, orbiting a gigantic fusion reactor some ninety million miles away, and pretend that the whole shebang – a universe so vast that our tiny little brains are simply not equipped to comprehend its size, or even the timescale it operates on – was created with the sole purpose of harboring us. And we show a disturbing tendency to believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise, that the universe – or, more accurately, some incomprehensible thing outside of it, that we cannot by definition understand but who revealed his plans for us via badly-written books thousands of years ago – loves us and cares for us. And I am afraid that we will continue to believe this, stubbornly, until some accident of the universe – or far more likely, some accident of our own design – turns this little corner of the Milky Way lifeless once again.

No, I am not here to predict doomsday tomorrow, or even next decade. Despite all of our manifest flaws, I think that humanity has done rather well for itself, and has the potential to stick around for quite a long time. But I no longer think we can afford, in a day and age where we have at last acquired the technology necessary to bring ourselves to an abrupt end, to have religion hold the kind of sway it does in the minds of far too many people. The ideal of martyrdom has already killed thousands, and may yet kill millions more if its practitioners can acquire nuclear weapons. On the flip side, people with actual influence in the government of the United States of America are convinced that they must support Israel so that Armageddon can take place; incredible as it may seem, these people would view the destruction of the human race as a good thing.

I can hear the protestations starting now, just as they have for Dawkins, and Harris, and Hitchens, and Dennett, and PZ Myers, and everyone else who has had the temerity to say that religion is detrimental to humanity. I may lack the influence and the eloquence of that illustrious group, but my point, and their point, and the point of so many others like us, remains valid. The elevation of faith as a virtue, and most especially the view that this life is but a test and a preview of an eternity to come, can do nothing but serve us poorly both as a species and as individuals.

It is hard to write these words, much harder than it is to write about the idiocy of a political position, or the moral bankruptcy that results from rooting for the Yankees (may they miss the playoffs). Religion, above all else, is our society’s sacred cow. It is impolite, crass, simply uncivilized to criticize it. I, and many others like me, think this is absurd – and it is, on an intellectual level – but there is still a reflexive twinge inside me that wants to soften the words, to say “yes, but...”, to bend over backwards to avoid offending religious people, especially the ones I call friends. But that would be dishonest, and I think they deserve better from me than that – and I believe they are good enough people that what I write here will not cause them to end our friendship.

I run the risk, now, of going in too many different directions, rambling on about each new facet of the topic as it rises to the top of the (sadly disorganized) stack. There is much to cover, and I need to avoid getting ahead of myself. So I will conclude this first post by summarizing, briefly, the core of my position.

I do not believe in a god, be it Yahweh, Allah, or Zeus. I do not believe in the soul. I do not believe, in fact, in any sort of supernatural phenomenon whatsoever. I cannot conclusively disprove any of these things, but neither can I disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Russell’s teapot, or the invisible pink unicorn in my garage (to name some famous examples). I simply believe that the probabilities of any of these things are so vanishingly small that it is in my best interest to live my life as if they do not exist.

I do not believe that religion should be treated differently than any other topic, lest people get offended. I do not believe that faith in the face of evidence is a virtue – in fact, I believe that the damage this attitude does to reason itself is one of the biggest arguments for the detrimental nature of religion. I do not believe religion should be allowed in our government or our science classrooms.

I do believe in humanity. I believe that we have the capability to rise above our superstitions, enshrine reason as the greatest of virtues, and let go of the arrogant and fundamentally unsound idea that we are the end goal of the universe. I believe that we can, someday, recognize that this life is all we’ve got, and that we’d better make the best of it.

I believe that I have something to say. And I hope you’ll stick around to read it.