Monthly Archives: February 2013

Activism Opinion

On the Innocence of the Innocence of Muslims

The Innocence of Muslims is probably a contender for the worst possible art. If one is to challenge the establishment, one must at at the very least do it with a modicum more style than the establishment itself. Yet headless of my wise advice, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula soldiered on and, in his desperation to attract attention, thought he might provoke a response from the so far apathetic audience. Unfortunately, he got one. I’m not speaking of the typical response from sensitive Muslims everywhere, but the treatment this pathetic film got in the press. Its offensiveness is constantly invoked, implying a justification of the violence that killed ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi.

I am not alone in my indignation. President Obama said that “we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”* And in that same international tone I agree with him. The ignorance and immorality required to commit murder in the face of an insult is rivaled only by dick-measuring contests at the bar on Friday nights. Beliefs are the progenitor of actions, which is why I must ask how can someone believe in the sacredness of someone they’ve never met, never seen, and do not have reliable textual evidence regarding most of his life, so strongly that they are willing to kill unrelated civil servants?

Such arrogance can only be provided by faith, and that level of faith can only be seen within the intellectual confines of religion. The separation of good faith and bad faith cannot last. No meaningful difference between the faith that inspired Christopher Stevens’ murder, and the faith that merely makes Islam a religion of faith has ever been offered. And it cannot be offered. For faith to be used meaningfully, it must capable of advancing such misguided causes.

Dissenters have been defending the right to think aloud since at least Voltaire, and a reasonable counter-argument has not yet held water. Allowing the sensitive to control our media is no better than handing the great censor to the Queen.

Opinion Science

Evolution is *not* a philosophy, and, a semantic proposal

Hello all, Dave Muscato here again!

I live in Missouri, the Show-Me State. You’d think that means we’re a rather skeptical bunch, desirous of evidence and good reasons before we take a claim to heart. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen at the level of policy-making.

Right now in Missouri, a GOP representative, Rick Brattin, has introduced House Bill 291. This bill includes some outlandish policy changes: It seeks to define, officially, evolution as a “philosophy.” It also says that this philosophy “denies the operation of any intelligence, supernatural event, God or theistic figure in the initial or subsequent development of life” and that “[the] origin of life on earth is inferred to be the result of intelligence directed design and construction. There are no plausible mechanisms or present-day experiments to prove the naturalistic origin of the first independent living organism.”

This is ridiculous. But wait: It gets worse!

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a textbook, the textbook shall give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design.

What the what?! Didn’t we settle all of this already with the Dover case?

change-darwin

I have a proposal. Can we stop calling it the “theory of evolution”? Evolution is a fact. We have seen it happen under controlled conditions and entire fields of science depend on it. In the words of the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (who also happens to be a Russian Orthodox Christian), “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

I know that “the theory of evolution” is short for “the theory of evolution by means of natural selection,” and I understand why people shorten this to simply “evolution.” But this is incredibly misleading, and really does nothing but give ammunition to creationists, and confuse the scientifically ignorant.

What we really mean to say is, “the theory of natural selection”that is the theoretical part. There is no controversy (well, none among legitimate scientists) about whether or not evolution itself occurs. The “controversy” (which, again, is artificial) is about the mechanism responsible for these observed changes in the frequency of alleles within a population. The Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II acknowledged that evolution occurs, but the official stance was that this process was guided by God, rather than random mutations and non-random selection. This is of course unsubstantiated, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

I hope you will join me in taking care to watch ourselves in our language. When we must include the word “theory,” make sure you are talking about natural selection and not evolution. And if you live in Missouri (or even if you don’t), please write to, email, or call Rep. Brattin and tell him this bill has no place in our schools.

Until next time,

Dave

Opinion

‘The Faith Fallacy,’ and other fallacies

A few days ago one of my friends notified me of an op-ed publication in her university’s (Grand Valley State University’s) paper Lanthorn titled “The Faith Fallacy: Why belittling believers makes no sense.”  The piece of course attempts to defend faith, particularly religious faith, particularly by showing how everyone else has ‘faith’ in something else.  If everyone else has ‘faith,’ then religious people are at least safe in, maybe justified in, their faith.

Gee, haven’t heard the old “you do it too!” one before.  It’s a very difficult argument to construct well, and has to be premised on actions from non-believers that really do mirror religious faith in one critical aspect: lack of evidence for these beliefs.  In accordance with this argument’s tradition of throwing things at the wall until they stick, the action-flavor of the month is getting a college education:

“College, like religion, is an institution. […] In both cases believers in these institutions take a gamble, hoping their investment makes a return: most students believe they will leave college with a degree/career potential and most religious people believe when they leave this earth they will be rewarded for their faith.”

Before addressing this basic premise though, I would be amiss to not mention a following line that struck me as out of place (my emphasis):

“Believing in something, so long as it is not blind faith, should be commended– not chastised.”

That’s basically the whole point, the crux of one of the most important reasons why non-believers don’t believe in a god or in religion.  Right there is a written rejection of the ‘critical aspect’ of religious faith I mentioned earlier.  I would ask why this statement was put into an article that is trying to refute non-believer arguments against religious faith; it’s not clear from the rest of her article, however, that Christine Colleran has an understanding of what non-believers even mean by ‘blind faith.’  I think that a useful illustrative tool here would be contrast to something else we might believe in: college.

“Despite evidence proving that great success is attainable without college, we continue to have faith in the power of a degree.”

Christine’s cited evidence is a handful of (admittedly extremely) successful people: Mark Zuckerberg (who actually did attend college – Harvard no less! – but dropped out because he developed Facebook while in school), Richard Branson of Virginia Atlantic, and computer entrepreneurs Michael Dell and Steve Jobs.

oscar_reutersvard_impossible_13

I suppose that this technically is proof that success is possibly attainable without a college education.  I’m not really sure whoever said that you’re guaranteed to fail; I would bet money that Christine was told at one point that you’d be more likely to succeed with a college education.  Is there evidence that around 90% of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs have college degrees?  Is there evidence that unemployment rates for college graduates is lower than people without college education; that Master’s degree holders have lower unemployment still; that PhD graduates have even lower unemployment?  Why, yes there is.  It’s not proof that you’ll get a job – these rates are progressively lower, but none of them zero.  It’s a belief without total certainty, but a very justified belief to hold.

Since we’re contrasting, we might ask the same questions of religious claims: is there evidence that being religious gets you into heaven?  Is there evidence that a particular religion is correct?  Is there evidence that there’s even a deity to worship in the first place?  Why, no there is not.

Encompassed in the questions for religion is also a distinction that warrants its own mention: you can make judgments throughout your college career about whether or not it will actually be beneficial to you in the long run.  If you notice that your major’s unemployment rate is almost up to 20%, you can factor that into your decision to pursue your education.  Demand for jobs in particular industries is reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and there is research you can do in general to find if jobs are available.

The potential outcomes for religious beliefs, however, are only realized after death.  There is no indication while you are living of whether you’ll be successful, whether there’s something you should perhaps do differently that will cost you in the end.  Adherence to a belief system that has no evidence and no means of validating itself along the way is definitionally blind faith.

If a belief makes you a better person, then more power to you.  Worthwhile to consider, however, is if you even have reasons for believing in what you do.  It’s a good way to get people off your back who think that uncritical belief was, is, and/or will be a detriment to society; think of all of the help it would be in writing op-eds too!

 

Guest post by Alexander Coulter from the University of Michigan. Cross-posted with permission from U of M SSA’s blog: http://michiganssa.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-faith-fallacy-and-other-fallacies.html

Opinion Religion

Why not live and let live?

Hello everyone! Dave Muscato here.

This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve spent two days on this, actually. For most of my life, I’ve been natural inclined to be non-confrontational, and I think my friends and family would characterize me as a gentle person. It is not easy for me to say these things, but I feel like the time has come for me to take a stand.

I had lunch with a friend the other day and the subject of religion came up—I know, big surprise. My friend’s girlfriend had posed to him a question about the purpose of atheism activism:

“Why not live and let live?”

Aside from being intellectually wrong, what’s so bad about believing in a god? What’s the harm? Is it just academic?

Some background: His girlfriend is “not religious, but open-minded,” and teaches their 3 kids to be accepting of all different religions. He is an atheist and passionate about critical thinking and skepticism. He is concerned because he overheard one of their children praying before going to bed.

He asked me, “What can I tell her?”

Here’s my response:

Because they’re not letting us live and let live. Because, for no rational reason, gay people can’t get married in my state. Because they’re teaching the Genesis creation myth as fact in science classes. Because they’re teaching “abstinence-only” sex ed, which is demonstrably ineffective. Because, despite Roe v. Wade recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, we’re STILL fighting for abortion and birth-control access. Because priests are molesting children and nobody is getting in trouble for it. It’s been said before, but if an 80-member religious cult in Texas allowed some of their leaders to molest children, there would be a huge outcry. It would be front-page news. People would be up in arms! But when it’s the Catholic Church, we barely even notice. It’s gotten to the point where we’re not even surprised anymore—it’s barely even news anymore—when another molestation is uncovered. Like the saying goes, “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers.” Or worse, “One rape is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.”

I brought up Greta Christina’s wonderful book, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless,” and told him to read it, and to ask his girlfriend to read it. Nothing would make me happier than to live and let live. I dream of a world where humanity spends its time solving “real” problems, doing medical research, exploring space, fixing the climate, making art and music, studying philosophy. I would love for there to be no need for atheism activism. But I can’t do that, because I have a conscience.

He agreed with me on these points, but wanted to know about the problem with liberal churches. What’s the harm of religion so long as it supports gay marriage, comprehensive sex-ed, etc?

First off, it’s important to distinguish between believing in a deity, and believing in God. If we’re talking about a deistic creator, a god who allegedly sparked the Big Bang and hasn’t interfered since, I don’t really see any harm in this, other than that it’s unscientific and vastly improbable. I’d call this harmlessly irrational, on par with crossing your fingers for good luck. It’s magical thinking, which I think should be avoided, but it doesn’t really hurt anything.

sistine-chapel

But once we start talking about Yahweh, the Abrahamic god, the god of the Bible, we get into some sticky stuff.  I’m not the first to say so but the reason moderate religion is bad, even dangerous, is that it opens the door for religious bigotry and worse. If a religious moderate believes the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God, who is he to fault a religious extremist for actually doing what it says to do?

If you use faith as your justification for moral decision-making, you cannot reasonably point at someone more committed than you doing the exact same thing and make the charge that they’re wrong. A religious moderate cannot call a religious extremist crazy without being hypocritical.

There is this idea among moderates that religious tolerance is an ideal condition. The whole “COEXIST” campaign is a prime example. There is this idea that all religions are somehow valid, despite contradicting one another. That no matter how much we disagree with someone, if it falls under the umbrella of religious tolerance, we should make every effort to find a way not to be offended.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is something we need to reconsider. Now.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to mutilate a little girl’s genitals.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to hinder the promotion of condom use in AIDS-ridden regions, because they believe wasting semen is a “sin.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to lie to children and tell them that they will see their dead relatives again, or give them nightmares about a made-up “Hell.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the absurd and unsubstantiated proposition that humans are somehow born bad or evil, that we need to be “saved.”

It is offensive to me that, in the year 2013, people still think intercessory prayer works. Every time I hear about some poor sick child who has died because her parents decided to pray instead of take her to a hospital, I am horribly offended. When religious moderates tell me—although they also believe in intercessory prayer—that they, too, are offended by this, I am appalled at the hypocrisy. We should know better by now than to believe in childish things like prayer.

I am so sick of this crap. There is a time and a place for being accommodating of differences of opinion. If you think tea is the best hot drink, and I think it’s coffee, fine. No one is harmed by this. Insofar as your beliefs don’t negatively affect others, I do not care if we agree or not. But, I contend, your right to believe whatever you want ends where my rights begin. Religious moderation is literally dangerous because it opens the gate wide for religious extremism. A moderate cannot point to a religious extremist and say, “You are wrong. You are dangerous. You must not be allowed to continue.” However, I can. To stand up to religious extremism, we must come from a place of rational thought, of freedom to criticize, of ethics that do not depend on revelation or arguments from authority.

I make no apology for asserting that secular humanism is the most reasonable, most ethical, and best way for us to live. It is more rational than superstitious faith. It is more productive and humane than any religion. It is the ethical choice. To quote Sam Harris, “There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

We must become more reasonable if we want to survive. Our planet is in trouble. There is no divine guarantee that the Earth will always be able to support us nor that we will always be here. There is no life after this. What matters is how we are remembered, and the contributions to society we make while we’re alive. I assert that there is nothing more important or more urgent than this: Atheists, I call upon you to stand up to absurdity. If you see something, say something. Start the conversation.

I know that it is difficult to make waves. I know that it can be intimidating, especially when you’re outnumbered. But the facts are on our side, and the stakes are high. We must not be afraid to call bullshit where we see it. We must not allow religions to dictate what is and is not moral. We must speak up in the face of wrongdoing. We must make ourselves known. It can be as simple as correcting someone for using the word “fag,” or mentioning that you are an atheist if the subject of religion comes up.

Ending the danger and oppression of religion will not be easy, but if we work toward it, we can make it happen.