God-based Abortion Policy: FAIL (Open thread on episode 719)

I’m going to talk about abortion again this week. This time, I’m taking a completely different tactic. I’m going to apply my own personal moral principles to the problem and see how well I do against those of the religious right, supposedly backed by their god.

Guess which one will come out objectively better? Hopefully, this leaves the question of why an individual atheist is doing better than American Christendom backed by the Author of morality.

Feel free to treat this as an open thread on episode 719.

Postscript: I found out late that Greg Paul was to be a special guest caller on the show, so I wasn’t able to get to my topic. I’ll save it for next time.

Jesus F*cking Christ Contest

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a camp group in San Francisco had a contest this last Easter for the best Jesus Fucking Christ. Let you imagination roam a bit. Who would you choose? What image does that phrase bring to mind?

The winner and runner up are in the photo. The runner up was the built guy, presumably good for fucking. The winner is funnier, in my opinion. That Jesus is the guy on the right in the red robe. Christ, of course, is the one bent over.

I think I’ll always smile from now on when I hear that phrase with that visual locked into my mind.

About Last Weekend

The rumor is true.

I got married on May 1st. Wedded, actually. Texas doesn’t yet allow same-sex couples to be married, but it won’t be too long before that changes, I think.

I married my partner of almost 12 years, Elton. We are lucky to be together as we complement each-other well. I’m the practical techie guy. He has more of a people person with a big heart. He’s a believer, so we’ve had to work through some tension with my being such an atheist advocate. We are doing well, though, otherwise we wouldn’t be making a lifetime commitment.

We had a grand (mostly secular) wedding ceremony with vows, exchanging of rings, and an old African tradition of jumping the broom. We have so many friends that we had to make very painful cuts to the invitee list, so only a few AE and ACA folks were invited. I apologize to anyone that feels slighted. If I could, I would have invited the whole gang. Tracie Harris was one of my grooms maids and she looked stunning. More than a dozen people have told me it was the most beautiful wedding they’ve seen. Elton organized most of it, so it has been a real labor of love.

We did not have a show last weekend because I had a critical number of people at my wedding. Thank you for sharing them with me.

Some pictures have been posted on Facebook and we have received an amazing number of well-wishes. It’s humbling and very flattering to have so many people cheer us on as a couple. The gang of us that put on The Atheist Experience are very fortunate to have such loyal and devoted fans. Thank YOU!

I haven’t been particularly open about being gay or opening up my personal life on the show. It’s not that I’m closeted or anything. I used to run a gay and lesbian student group back in the ’80s. I’m so “out”, I don’t even think about it anymore. I don’t bring it up on the show because so much of it isn’t relevant to the content of the show. It can too easily be a distraction. With the wedding, it’s out in the open for all our fans. Let’s keep the show focused on atheism, though.

When things quiet down a little bit and the red lights stop going off every time I make a credit card purchase, we’ll take a vacation/honeymoon to Massachusetts and get legally married there. The marriage won’t be recognized in Texas until the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) falls. It’s just a matter of time, though, as challenges have already been made at the federal level.

Again, thanks for the warm wishes. Please don’t send gifts. Donations to the ACA would be very welcome, however, but don’t feel obliged.

I’m just happy to have so much support and love in my life.

Consanguineous bonds

Email question of the day:

“So I take it you have no argument against marriage between two consenting adults, even if these adults are, for example, brother and sister?”

It’s the question of the day because it sent me off to do a bit of research on incest in order to challenge/re-affirm my position. (Freedom won again…)

I also discovered a curious thing about Rhode Island law…they have an exception to incest laws that allows “any marriage which shall be solemnized among the Jewish people, within the degrees of affinity or consanguinity allowed by their religion”.

My response to the questioner:

While I personally find the concept of marrying a sibling, etc. rather “icky”, there are lots of things that I find “icky” that aren’t necessarily immoral and that society has no business restricting. My aversion is something that most of us experience and it’s known as the “Westermarck effect” but that’s not the case for everyone.

There are certainly biological reasons to avoid inbreeding, but marriage isn’t necessarily about procreation. There are also psychological issues that surround taboo relationships (both contributing psychological issues and psychological issues that result from such unions) but we have to be very careful to distinguish between issues caused by societal disdain for something (as was/is the case with inter-racial marriages) and psychological harm that is intrinsic to the relationship (a daughter raised segregated from societal influence in order to ‘brainwash’ an incestuous spouse).

I think there’s a compelling argument that we should generally discourage incestuous marriage in order to minimize the risk of birth defects and psychological trauma, but that we are probably not justified in prohibiting those unions as a matter of law. I’m also convinced that this issue isn’t compelling enough to spend much time on…as the percentage of the population interested in such a relationship is negligible.

Our ability to discern the moral evaluation of something like incestuous marriage is restricted — we just don’t have enough information and there are too many possible scenarios. It may be that the unions are, in and of themselves, detrimental to the couples and to society – or it may be the case that there’s no significant harm. I’m not convinced that we have enough information to make any such determination, but I haven’t spent any significant time studying the subject. Until such time as we have compelling evidence (and not just a visceral aversion), I’m not sure that I can support laws against such marriages — but I’m in favor of discouraging it by education and investigating such relationships to ensure that we have true, informed consent.

Finally, there are a number of scenarios where people meet, fall in love and later learn that they are siblings or otherwise closely related. I’m of the opinion that it would be more immoral to prevent their marriage that to allow it…and that colors the entire spectrum of possible incestuous relationships…especially when you consider that some people get married, lead happy lives and find out about their kinship years later.

It may be the case that this is quite often a morally neutral issue — along the lines of a victimless crime (a term I’m not fond of, but fits as we often criminalize things which are victimless). As a matter of personal freedom, unless someone can demonstrate clear harm, I don’t see a compelling reason to disallow it.

I’ve since done a bit more thinking and I’ll amend the above a bit…

Re-reading that, it looked like I was in favor of discouraging a loving relationship between people who happened to be related and that’s not the case. The education comment was intended to address the real risks and not be a pronouncement about whom you should/shouldn’t love or marry.

No Phones for next Sunday’s show

Many of you are probably aware that the phone system in the TV studio wasn’t working last Sunday and the crew did whatever they could to make a workable show out of the situation.

I’ve just been informed that the phone situation will not be resolved in time for next Sunday’s show. Tracie and I are scheduled to be on that show, and it’ll be the last show of the year. I don’t want to try to find a last-minute solution using Skype (though we’ll look at this for the future) and I’m not going to try to wade through the muck in the UStream chat to find something interesting..so here’s the plan:

I will pick out a few relevant news stories and a few interesting e-mails (Tracie is welcome to have a few of her own), and we’ll spend part of the show discussing these.

I’d also like to have a bit of fun, so I’ll keep thinking about this during the week and the entire plan may change before showtime….

10 best Christmas songs…

Greta Christina has a new post about a story she wrote for AlterNet…trying to list the 10 best Christmas songs for atheists.

I don’t like the rules of this particular meme…which is why I wasn’t happy with her list (this isn’t a knock on Greta who I really like and look forward to talking to at the American Atheists National convention in April, as we’re both on the speakers’ list…but screw the rules, let’s go for fun!).

So, in no particular order, here are my 10 favorite Christmas songs (or at least 10 that I really like)…irrespective of any rules:

1. Billy Squier – Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You.
(This was the intro music for Saturday’s Non-Prophets and it’s downloadable content in Rock Band…what’s not to love?)
2. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – Snowmeiser Heatmeiser
(This hip reworking of the Rankin/Bass classic is one I can listen to over and over and over and…)
3. The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
(This video includes decent audio and a geeky synchronized Xmas light show.)
4. John Lennon – Happy Christmas (War Is Over)
(What’s not to love?)
5. Robert Earl Keene – Merry Christmas from the Family
(If parts of this song seem mildly familiar — you might be a redneck)
6. Brenda Lee – Rockin Around the Christmas Tree
(How did this miss even an honorable mention on Greta’s list?)
7. Elmo and Patsy – Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
(Unfortunately, I was only able to find this and remixes and not the original version)
8. The Beach Boys – Little Saint Nick
(This was close…but from the opening notes, I just want to listen to it.)
9. Gene Autry – Here Comes Santa Claus
(Yes, it says “say your prayers” “thanks to the lord above” and I couldn’t care less…)
10. Dean Martin – Baby It’s Cold Outside
(Because it’s my list and there has to be some Deano…Sway isn’t sufficiently Christmas-y, but this counts. Winter Wonderland is nice, but this is better.)

Obviously, there are many other songs and covers that I could add or change. But it’s a quick list of songs I’m happy to listen to this season…

Mail…some days are better than others

“Hi name is not important. I have a comment. I saw your videos on youtube. I don’t like your attacks on the christian faith. I think your program is full of shit. The Atheist Experience just what the hell is that means. As for prove, you don’t need prove to believe or haven’t you figured that out. Let me tell you something. Atheist is the devils work. So go ahead bad mouth god. Your community will be blowen up as long with you garbage or what ever happens. The christian faith is not to brain wash people. That’s just you people spreading lies. Your community is dedicated to nothing and that how it’s going to be.
The man”

Fortunately, messages like this aren’t all that common. We obviously don’t think this represents the bulk of religious thought…but it does demonstrate the results of insular indoctrination and poor education. While this sort of thinking isn’t the norm, it’s not yet completely relegated to the cast-of-”Deliverance”-minority…but someday, it will be.

Theism is the default position?

Michael Ochoa posted a link to a video and asked me to debunk it. Normally, I’d skip requests like this, as I have too much on my plate…but sometimes I get in a mood and just go for it. Here’s the first (and only draft) of a response to the video:

P1 – In order to accept that our rational faculties are reliable, initial sensory experiences of the world must be accepted until proven incorrect. In other words, these experiences must be considered default positions.

This might be true for infants, who lack the wealth of knowledge with which to assess and evaluate the brains interpretation of sensory input, but it is not necessarily true for adults who are cognizant of the ability of our brains to misinterpret sensory data and who have a wealth of comparative experience with which to assess initial interpretations.

For example, we understand that what we see (or, more accurately, think we see) is not always accurate and that our initial assessment of other sensory data ultimately proves incorrect. Realizing this, we are only acting rationally if we tentatively proportion our belief to the quality and quantity of evidence.

In his example about a mirage, he has no reason to question the mirage until he’s given evidence that it might be false. That’s true and it’s the infant position. However, the instant one becomes aware that one can be mistaken, both in perception and in inferences based on those perceptions one is no longer rationally justified in accepting all initial perceptions at face value.

Premise 1, in simplest terms, is simply an assertion that we are justified in accepting our first impressions until they are proven wrong. This is demonstrably false and intellectually childish. Anyone who has ever witnessed a conjurer’s trick understands that the mental image their brain has compiled from the sensory data simply does not map to reality. The same is true for any number or other examples where we can understand that the brain simply doesn’t have enough information to accurately perceive events.

Only someone convinced that they could never be mistaken could hold this sort of view and remain intellectually honest. The rest of us should try to think like grown-ups and reserve belief for those things which are sufficiently supported by evidence (unless, of course, we don’t care whether or not our beliefs are true).

Premise 1 is simply a denial of rational skepticism (he even uses the ‘rigid skepticism’ dilemma to underscore this – but ignores the truth about rational skepticism) and is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of propping up the rest of the argument. Rational skepticism holds that acceptance of claims be apportioned to the evidence, whereas this premise ignores the complexities involved in rationally determining if a belief is justified and instead simply attempts to shift the burden of proof by proclaiming that one is justified in accepting one’s first impressions until they are proven wrong.

P2 – The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe is an initially sensed experience.

No, it isn’t. It is an inference that the brain makes by comparing the internal model of the sensed experienced to other things that the brain already holds to be true. It is, the conclusion of an argument by analogy – and it’s one that we understand may be flawed. It’s also one that can be tested by scientific exploration.

We’ve done this and identified many instances where one may perceive intelligent, purposeful design where no such inference is justified.
Attempting to call one’s inference of design “initially sensed experience” is a rather clumsy attempt to fabricate a predicate link to Premise 1.

P3 – Hence, the belief in a designed universe, which automatically infers a designer, is in fact the default position until proven otherwise.

This directly follows from the first two premises and (given the flaws in the first two) it is unsound. (Nullifying the rest of the argument…)

The fact that he thinks this is where he’ll get the most objections is rather silly. It is only when he asserts that the designer is an intentional, intelligent agent that he runs into trouble, but he doesn’t do that until P4. As this stands, it is a direct conclusion from the first two premises… hence, the “hence”.

P4 – The concept of God (a purposeful, intelligent agent outside the universe that cannot be detected by our senses) is the most tenable explanation for the identity of this designer.

There’s no need to continue until the first premises are fixed, but I’d like to point out how really bad this argument is, so we’ll keep going.
Premise 4 defines a particular god-concept and asserts – without demonstration – that this particular god-concept is the best explanation. Without a demonstration, this premise can simply be rejected.

Additionally, the definition given isn’t simply a theistic proposition. It goes further and without justification. A theistic god need not be “outside the universe” or undetectable and, indeed, many would hold that their god is detectable and operating within the universe.

And here, too, we run into another bit of cognitive dissonance in his argument: outside the universe.

By what right can anyone invoke a claim that any such thing exists? Do we have any direct experience of ‘outside the universe’? Do we have appearance of this? Do we have any initial sensory experience of this? By what right can people assert ‘outside the universe’ or ‘before time’?

C – Hence, Theism is the default position until proven otherwise.

This entire argument essentially reads as:

1. I’m justified in believing whatever my first perception is, until proven wrong.
2. My first perception is to infer design.
3. I am justified in believing the universe is designed until you prove me wrong.
4. I’m convinced that the best explanation for the design I perceive is God X.
C. Therefore, belief in God X is justified until proved wrong.

This argument is dishonest at virtually every point and it is nothing more than a denial of rational skepticism and a blatant shifting of the burden of proof. This isn’t fundamentally different than the obstinate theist who claims “You can’t prove me wrong!” – and thus it fails to all of the objections we would launch at that simplified argument.

The inability to disprove something doesn’t make it a justified default position. You can’t disprove the claim that there are clones of every one of us living on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy – but that doesn’t mean that we’re justified in accepting it as the default position.

It is trivial to demonstrate that our initial perceptions are often mistaken and we have a pretty good understanding of why some people see the appearance of design – and why their inference of intelligent design in nature is unsupported, at best, and incorrect, at worst.

And even if we didn’t already understand how so much of this was wrong, sticking your fingers in your ears and demanding that someone prove you wrong is a childish argument – no matter how you try to dress it up.