Christian Doubt

This is a repost of an article from 2014. Usually I like to repost articles that are related to my recent topics, but this is unrelated and just for fun.

When I grew up in Catholicism, I was never taught to think that doubt was a bad thing.  In fact, doubt was a good thing, ennobling even.  Doubts were something that everyone experiences.  Why then, is it said that Christianity is all about faith, dogma, and purging all doubt?  Where does this image come from?

Let me tell you what happened next.  I started doubting Catholicism.  And even though I was never taught that doubting was bad, I knew that the particular way I was doing it was bad.

What I was doing was reading on some arguments against Catholic beliefs, comparing them to the arguments for it.  I knew that changing my mind on so many things all at once was impossible, so I considered each issue independently, one at a time.  I worried about the consequences of deciding one way or the other, but I tried not to let that affect my judgment.  Finally, I collected my many thoughts and tried to draw some overall conclusions on Catholicism and God.

In my mind, this is more or less the proper way to deal with doubt, so why did I know in my gut I was running afoul of some rule of my religious upbringing?  The truth is that doubt was accepted in the Catholicism I grew up in, but only if the doubt fit into a specific narrative.  Doubt was not an epistemological tool, but a personal struggle to be overcome.  This is a fundamentally negative depiction of doubt.

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Boghossian is no Sokal

Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (henceforth B&L) have an article titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies” on  The article describes a nonsense paper submitted, and accepted, to the journal Cogent Social Sciences.  The authors consider it an indictment of gender studies and pay-to-publish journals.

This being a Sokal-style hoax, it’s worth recapping some of the strengths and weaknesses of the original Sokal hoax.  First the weaknesses:

  • Sokal’s paper was accepted to The Social Text, which is a journal of only mediocre impact.
  • Peer review isn’t intended to weed out bad faith actors, but to enforce some minimum standard.  The real test is later, when the academic community cites (or ignores) the publication.
  • Sokal only had N=1. Distinguishing between good and bad papers is in general a difficult problem, and one expects that in the perfect balance, some good papers would be rejected, and bad papers accepted.

Now the strengths:

  • The Sokal hoax is immediately compelling to general public, even when people don’t look into the details.  There’s value in bringing the issue to popular attention.
  • When I did look into the details last year, I found the paper’s content to be a damning indictment of the entire field:

    It’s not simply that Sokal liberally salts his article with absurdities, it’s that he quotes plenty of postmodern academics doing the same damn thing.

    Even if Sokal’s paper were rejected, one would have to account for all the nonsense already published and respected within the field.

  • There was a clear way that The Social Text could have avoided being hoaxed, if anywhere in the review process they had asked someone in physics, biology, or math to glance at it.

B&L’s and  attempt at a hoax falls short of Sokal, having worse weaknesses, and missing important strengths.

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If you think there’s no atheist movement, tell me why

One of my pet peeves is when people say that there is no atheist movement. At many times, I’ve reacted angrily to the suggestion. I don’t understand how anyone could believe that, especially when I hear it from people who are involved in, or interact with atheist organizations.

Dear readers, help me understand. If you don’t believe there is an atheist movement, please explain your thinking in the comments. I will listen, and as long as you are polite to me I will be polite to you, setting pet peeves aside.

Here are some questions which you may use to guide your responses:

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Maybe literary fiction is just bad fiction

Earlier I mentioned this Gamasutra article which I disliked, and one thing I disliked about it was its discussion of literary fiction. According to the author, literary fiction was the epitome of cultural elitism, defining itself as simply better than “genre fiction”.

As someone who likes literary fiction and dislikes genre fiction, the discourse around literary fiction constantly annoys me. Hey, maybe I just like it because I like it, not because I think I’m better than you. Why does it always have to be about elitism? Why can’t it just be about differing tastes?

I am also complaining as an aspiring author of literary fiction. I do not consider myself to be very good at writing fiction. I have barely made it into writing the novel I started three years ago. I’ve encountered two obstacles: First, nobody I know likes to talk about literary fiction, so I don’t get the ideas I need. Second, there’s an expectation that literary fiction is “good” and that it’s hard to write. At this point I’m writing it for myself and don’t care if it’s good–why can’t I write “bad” literary fiction, what makes people think that’s a contradiction in terms?

But I realize that the elitist image of literary fiction often comes from lovers of literary fiction themselves. I wish to turn that on its head, by reframing literary fiction as bad fiction, bad fiction that I happen to like.

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Linkspam: May 12th, 2017

This is my monthly linkspam, which includes some articles I found interesting, and some brief commentary.

Video games are better without stories – Ian Bogost argues that video games just aren’t as good at storytelling as movies or literature.  Currently the best stories seem to be told through environmental storytelling, which falls quite short of the interactive storytelling often envisioned.  This is a point I’m sympathetic to, having played several games that were widely praised for their story, and being frankly disappointed at how poorly they compare to even mediocre literature.

As far as my personal calculations go, it’s not so much a question of what the medium of video games is capable of. To me, the question is, “Is it economically feasible for the medium to produce good stories that go beyond mainstream tastes?”  For me, movies fail this test because either they need to sell to a broad audience (which generally doesn’t include me), or they need to be poorly produced.  Video games are also in a bad position, but they may get better as development costs go down.

I found this link via Critical Distance, which paired Ian Bogost’s article with several critiques.  To be honest, I was really put off by that Gamasutra article, which started out by complaining that this whole debate had been dismissed by academics since 2005, and then immediately followed this with the complaint that Ian Bogost was being elitist.  Games critics, why are you bad?  Patrick Klepek makes good points though.

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Three views on social justice in atheism

Previously, I wrote a post framing social justice as a meta-movement, a movement which seeks to change how all other movements are run. Here I’ll talk about how that applies to atheism.

Why should the atheist community pay attention to social justice? The reasoning is quite elementary: The atheist community is a community. All communities should pay some attention to social justice. Therefore the atheist community should pay some attention to social justice.

Some atheists like to argue that social justice is beyond the scope of atheism. The argument goes that the community should take a neutral position, thus being inclusive of people with various relationships to social justice. However, this is missing the point. The “scope” of the community doesn’t really matter for the argument. All that matters is that it’s a community. As I said before, the same argument applies to the physics community, despite it being obvious that social justice is outside the scope of physics. The “neutral” position is not really neutral, but directly in opposition to the goals of social justice.

However, there are various degrees of “pay attention to social justice” which I describe below.

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Social justice as a meta-movement

What we think of as social justice advocacy today is a conglomeration of many groups and causes. The core groups are women, ethnic minorities, queer people, and people with disabilities. But there are also other groups that we don’t immediately think about, like polyamory or fat activism.

So, what’s the best way to think of the social justice movement? Is it a single movement with many facets, or is it an umbrella term for many distinct movements?

Here’s one way to think about it (not necessarily the only way or the best way). Social justice is a meta-movement, which seeks to change how social movements and communities work. According to common social justice standards, a feminist movement should pay attention to race. An anti-racist movement should pay attention to queer people. A queer movement should pay attention to disabilities, and so on.

There are a number of justifications for this, which I attempt to list:

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