Fuck you too, Syria

I haven’t commented much on Syria, despite the fact that its revolt is just as bloody and horrific as the one in Libya. President Assad, the ruler of Syria has been waging a constant campaign of terror and violence against his citizens for opposing his regime. One of the more heinous acts I’ve seen come out of this conflict is the savage beating of a political cartoonist:

One of the best-known cartoonists in the Arab world has been beaten up by Syrian security forces, activists say. Ali Ferzat, whose work is critical of the government, was forced from his car in Damascus and badly beaten. The attack comes after 11 civilians and eight soldiers were reportedly killed in different incidents across Syria. The UN says more than 2,200 people have been killed as security forces crack down on anti-government protests that began in mid-March.

The offending cartoon is as follows:

It depicts Moammar Gathafi (which is apparently how it’s spelled in English, according to his son’s passport) fleeing in a getaway car, with president Assad and some tiny guy with an ass for a face trying to hitch a ride. It was cartoons like this that apparently justified his being dragged out of his car and beaten nearly to death. Wikipedia tells me that Assad was educated in opthamology in Damascus and London. I guess he didn’t bother to study classical literature or political science or history or pretty much anything in the humanities. If he had, it would be clear to him that ideas cannot be beaten to death. They can only be countered by other ideas. Beating a person for having and/or expressing an idea does nothing to tamp those ideas down – in the best case scenario it simply prevents that one individual from expressing it.

Maybe Ali Ferzat’s cartoon, drawn as a response to his attackers, will express this idea in a way that even Assad can understand it:

Ali Ferzat – bad mother fucker.

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Religion and justice: the weird sisters

Religion, as a manifestation of the human impulse to attribute unexplained or unlikely occurrences to some kind of sentient external being, is arguably one of the most destructive forces plaguing our planet and our society. Personal or political differences between individuals or groups take on a whole new dimension of fucked-uppedness when religion gets thrown in the mix. It’s not always destructive though – I am willing to admit. Sometimes people do good things for explicitly religious reasons, although it’s far easier to find non-religious reasons to do good (pro-social) things than it is for evil things. Be that as it is, sometimes adding religion to things makes them better. Other times… it just makes them weird.

Fiji battles with Methodist church:

Fiji’s military government has ordered the cancellation of the Methodist Church’s annual conference, accusing the leadership of being too political. Senior members of the church were summoned by the military to hear the order, reports say. Soldiers attempted to detain 80-year-old former head of the church, Reverend Josateki Koroi, but he refused to go. “I told them, the only way to take me to camp now is bundle up my legs, tied up, and my hands, I will not go with you. That is the only way, you carry me to the camp or you bring your gun and shoot me and you carry my dead body to the camp to show to the commander,” he told New Zealand media.

In this case, it seems like the Methodists are on the side of the good guys, as the political leadership in Fiji has suspended democratic freedoms and clamped down on dissent. Not cool. There’s also legitimate religious persecution happening here, where religious practice is being curtailed due to political differences. This is quite distinct from, say, telling a church it may not publicly endorse a candidate during an election cycle or prohibiting open religious exercise by government-funded institutions. This is telling a group that it may not assemble because it is critical of the government – an obvious violation of the principle of free speech and freedom of conscience.

I suppose the weirdest part of this story is that I’m defending a religious institution. I’ve maintained all along that I don’t have a problem with religious people, but with the wacky ideas they believe. If the Fijian Methodist Church’s opposition to Commodore Bainimarama’s regime is based on the fact that Jesus totally hates his guts, then that’s a lousy criticism. The fact that valid ideas are sometimes present in churches doesn’t vindicate the weirdo things they believe in. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, and so I am giving their stance my support (you’re totally welcome, guys).

Shariah court forcibly separates Indonesian lesbian couple:

Islamic police in the Indonesian province of Aceh have forced two women to have their marriage annulled and sign an agreement to separate. The women had been legally married for a few months after one of them passed as a man in front of an Islamic cleric who presided over their wedding. But suspicious neighbours confronted the couple and reported them to police. The two women are now back with their families, forcibly separated and under surveillance by the Islamic police.

This is like a sideways version of the movie Mulan, or more historically (and fitting with the title of this post) As You Like It. In this case, however, instead of masquerading as a man to fool a would-be-suitor, the disguise was to fool everyone else into recognizing the validity of a relationship. And, instead of the star-cross’d lovers being united in the end, the religious authority is forcing them to annul their marriage and move apart from each other. Why? Because apparently everything is so peachy keen in Indonesia right now that the people don’t have anything better to spend their time worrying about. Like, for example, the brutalization of minorities. Or the lack of adequate health care. Or suppression of right to free speech.

No, apparently Allah can’t punish those lesbos all on his own (nothing escaped this disastrous economy – not even omnipotence), and needs the help of his busybody footsoldiers to make sure that one couple who wasn’t hurting anyone can’t continue their devious campaign of living together happily. I’m not a supporter of defrauding the legal authority, which is unquestionably what happened here, but the punishment is not proportionate to the ‘crime’. It could be far worse – in parts of Nigeria or South Africa these women would have probably been gang raped. Going to the trouble of separating them and annulling their marriage is just, well, weird.

Druid represents himself in court:

A druid who went to the High Court to try to stop researchers examining ancient human remains found at Stonehenge has failed in his legal bid. King Arthur Pendragon wanted the remains found in 2008 to be reburied immediately. He was fighting a Ministry of Justice decision allowing scientists at Sheffield University to analyse the samples for five more years. His bid was rejected at a High Court hearing in London.

Mr Justice Wyn Williams refused to give Mr Pendragon permission to launch a judicial review action, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to show that the Ministry of Justice might have acted unreasonably. Former soldier Mr Pendragon, 57, who changed his name by deed poll, was dressed in white druid robes and represented himself at the hearing.

Okay… I don’t have to explain why this one is weird, right?

This is why

Druids are weird. Being all precious and uptight about dead bodies is weird. Representing yourself at a High Court hearing is… well, it’s just a bad idea. I suppose Druidism is no more or less weird than First Nations animism here in North America, and certainly its more environmental and pacifistic tenets are worthy of some consideration. That doesn’t make it less weird.

Of course the take home message is that when religious beliefs collide with a secular justice system, there are some really strange outcomes. A system that is founded on principles of rationality and logic intersecting with a belief system that is based on the fundamental abdication of either of those is virtually guaranteed to produce some truly, spectacularly bizarre outcomes.

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A study in contrasts

A few weeks ago I opined on the riots in London, and contrasted the police reaction there to the one here in Vancouver following our own riots. That story is continuing:

Prime Minister David Cameron has defended courts for handing out “tough” sentences for those involved in the riots across England. The barrister told the BBC “ringleaders should receive very long sentences” but warned “there was an issue of proportionality” over the way people already before the courts had been treated. The PM said it was good that the courts were sending a “tough message”. Speaking in Warrington, he said: “It’s up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing, but they’ve decided to send a tough message and it’s very good that the courts feel able to do that.”

Meanwhile, in Vancouver:

Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu is defending the pace of criminal investigations into Vancouver rioters, saying investigators are moving slowly because authorities want to make sure they can secure convictions. “Even though we acknowledge the frustration of those who wish these suspects were already in jail, and we hear and share your frustration, there are many reasons why we must proceed at this pace,” Chu told reporters Wednesday at a news conference. His comments came as critics point to swift sentencing seen in Britain in the wake of a sweeping series of riots in recent weeks.

First of all, it’s important to state unequivocally that the Vancouver riots are not comparable to the London riots. The issues that underlie the widespread reckless smash and grab in the UK are not represented in the 5-hour orgy of violence that happened here following the Stanley Cup final. Looking for a common thread between what sparked the two separate occasions is probably a waste of time. My intention here is to contrast the response by law enforcement in the two situations that, from a surface perspective, appear similar (people rioting).

I was critical of David Cameron’s response to the riots – right-wing chest thumping might be psychologically satisfying, but it is not the kind of evidence-based response we need to see that justice is done and further riots do not happen. While I am still critical of his approach, he is not really the focus of this story. It is now the judicial system that is engaging in a dick-measuring contest to show how “tough” they can be. As I’ve opined before, being “tough” on crime doesn’t do anything but appease the masses thirsty for blood. It’s a short-sighted response that finds its origin in our lizard brains – they hurt us so let’s hurt them back. While understandable, it leads us to react disproportionately and emotionally, when reason and logic are at their most crucial:

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the sentences being handed out across the country for offences of dishonesty such as theft, burglary and receiving stolen goods, suggested there were disparities between courts. What the public was seeing may just be a “distorted version of the normal system”, our correspondent said. In another case, David Beswick, 31 from Salford was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods. Max Hill QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said it was not the job of judges “to deliver a political message on behalf of the government” when passing sentence but part of their role was to identify “serious aggravating features that elevate the crime beyond the ordinary”.

When the lawyers, intimately involved in the criminal justice system, are criticizing your policy, it might be a rebuke you want to take seriously. I said as much this morning.

In matters of criminal justice, it is far too easy to get swept up in the bloodlust of the crowd. Britain is certainly modeling such a reaction for the whole world to see. Vancouver’s response has been far more measured. They are concerned with making cases based on solid evidence, rather than appealing to cries for swift punishment. Why Jim Chu is choosing this route, and whether he will survive the next election cycle for his job, are open questions. I am happy and proud to live in a society where deliberate care is taken to avoid locking up the wrong people, or letting the right people get away on technicalities due to improper evidence.

Now if only we’d apply that same work ethic to charging the financiers that did far more damage to the economy than all the looters in the world could hope to accomplish. Then we’d really be getting something done.

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Fighting fire with gasoline

Sometimes the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. Oftentimes things that seem like good ideas completely fail to improve the situation. In some cases, because we are fallible human creatures with flawed brains, we often devise solutions to problems that actually make those problems worse. Our politicians, in theory, should be less prone to making these types of mistakes than we lowly civilians – after all, they are selected because of their superior leadership and merit, right? It seems to be the cynical case that this is not a reasonable expectation of our leaders:

The country’s foremost legal organization has delivered a grim assessment of the Harper government’s get-tough-on-crime agenda, attacking mandatory minimum sentences and questioning Ottawa’s eagerness to put offenders behind bars. With a series of blunt statements and policy resolutions, the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference bristled at inaccessible courts, inappropriate jailing of mentally ill offenders and costly measures that threaten to pack prisons.

The Canadian Bar Association likely knows a thing or two about crime. After all, they are far more intimately familiar with the issues than the average Canadian. They see the way that people move through the justice system – both its successes and failures are the stuff of their professional lives. It is therefore a resounding condemnation of the upcoming omnibus crime bill to have such a sharp and public criticism from this sector.

“There are too many people who are mentally ill and should be dealt with in the health system as opposed to the criminal justice system,” [Nove Scotia prosecutor Dan] McRury said. “We need more sentencing options. One size does not fit all. “Being tough on the most vulnerable in our society is not humane,” Mr. McRury added. “Unfortunately, deinstitutionalizing our mental hospitals has meant that we have exchanged prison cells for hospital beds – but without having enough supports in the community.”

Another resolution passed by the 37,000-member organization called for governments to stop toughening laws without regard to the historic plight of aboriginal people and the over-representation of aboriginal offenders in prison.

If I had a magic policy wand and one item to use it on, it would definitely be to find better solutions for mental health care. So many broad social problems – crime, homelessness, health care spending, workplace productivity – all of these have strong links with undiagnosed and undertreated mental health issues. The CBA seems to recognize that fact. And yet, the new bill would have no provisions for providing mental health services to those in need, and would in fact mandate that they be put in jail instead of in hospitals where they could actually get some help. Even though it seems like creating harsher sentencing rules seems like it should result in less crime, the evidence suggests otherwise. Even purposeful rational thought (rather than appeals to ‘common sense’) reveals that factors besides legislation are responsible for crime, and can be manipulated to achieve the desired effect of reduction in crime rates.

Of course, that presumes that our political leaders are interested in either evidence or purposeful rational thought. There may be some hope for the system here in British Columbia:

The traditional risk factors for joining gangs — poverty, family dysfunction, a sense of alienation and lack of social supports — don’t appear to hold true for Vancouver gangs, a gang-prevention researcher says. As anti-gang experts work to head off retaliatory attacks for Sunday’s gang shooting in Kelowna that killed Red Scorpion Jonathan Bacon and wounded Hells Angel Larry Amero and three others, researcher Gira Bhatt is looking at ways to prevent kids from joining gangs in the first place.

Bhatt, a psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the gang demographics in B.C. are unique. “[For example,] if you look at the Bacon brothers, they come from a good family — a rich family — where the parents are very supportive of their kids,” Bhatt said. “We can’t borrow solutions from Toronto or Los Angeles and apply them here.”

Many people may not be familiar with the significant gang problem facing British Columbia. Because of how lucrative the drug trade is, gangs command a great deal of resources and influence. As Dr. Bhatt notes, there are factors unique to the region that make B.C. gangs different from gangs in other areas of the world. The proposed solutions must reflect this uniqueness:

“Police are asking for more resources, and yes, they need more resources. But if that’s all we do, the need for more and more police will simply grow over time,” Bhatt said.

[MLA, former solicitor-general and former West Vancouver police chief Kash] Heed called for a “comprehensive strategy” to combat gangs, including a universal anti-bullying program in schools, early-intervention programs for families and meaningful opportunities for kids to get involved in their community. “You are not going to arrest your way out of this gang situation that we have,” Heed said. “We’re just reacting to the problem. We’ve reacted to this problem since 1994 here in Vancouver. We still have this absolutely astounding display of public violence on our streets.”

Critics on both sides of the political divide (although primarily on the right) tend to decry ‘one size fits all’ solutions to social problems. I think there is merit to this position – each region must have some leeway to solve its own problems in its own way. However, despite being aligned with the right, the Republican North Party has taken the decidedly non-conservative step of giving the federal government the authority to take decision-making power out of the hands of the justice system. If it were a left-wing government proposing this kind of program, that would at least be consistent with the idea of government intervention in individual lives. Coming from a government that at least pretends to be conservative, it is a stark revelation of their own hypocrisy.

What’s my proposal? I say we decide policy on a case-by-case basis and look at what the evidence says. If the evidence says mandatory minimums work, then let’s do that. If the evidence says that coddling criminals works, then we do that. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us. Failing to make our policy responsive to observable reality, rather than a slave to our ideological prejudices, will only serve to exacerbate problems to the detriment of everyone.

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The least important question in the world

If you’ll permit me, I’d like to invite you to take a trip back in time with me. This is a journey to the moment I realized I was atheist. I say ‘realized’ because the process of becoming an atheist happened over an 8-year span that started in my early teens. It started with little things: the church’s position on abortion, the common practice of idolatry, the inconsistent claims made by various factions of Christianity (particularly those of my fundamentalist friends). These quickly grew more difficult to reconcile as I delved deep into where the answers were supposed to be. Taking a course on world religions certainly didn’t help things – every different group seems to think they have an exclusive claim to truth, which by necessity can’t be the case.

So picture me sitting in church on a Christmas morning, next to my parents, idly skimming over the sermon as it was being presented – more interested in breakfast than the haranguing coming from the pulpit. As my thoughts searched for something to connect with, one flitted across my conscious mind: this guy has no fucking idea what he’s talking about. This struck me as a rather significant revelation – after all, he was supposedly a ‘man of the cloth’ and representative of God’s church on Earth. If he didn’t understand what he was talking about, then how could we expect anyone to know what they were talking about when it came to the divine?

I sat on that thought for a split second and pondered its implications. God is supposed to be fundamentally unknowable, discernible only by faith. But there are many people of faith, and they don’t agree on the definition of what god is. If we can’t get a consistent definition, how can we be sure a god exists at all? We can believe as hard as we want, but how do we know whether or not it’s true? I had been told for years that the existence of God was one of the fundamental questions that mankind had to grapple with. Perhaps the single most important question ever asked. It had certainly been plaguing me for the past few years.

At a sudden stroke, I realized how fundamentally unimportant the question was. So unimportant as to be almost meaningless. I will explain. Suppose I tell you that I have a glomyx in my back yard. Your response would probably be “what the hell is a glomyx?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I’d say “but it’s very important to understand that they exist, and that I have one. My neighbour thinks he has one, but he has a false glomyx. Mine is the genuine article.”

“How do you know yours is real?”

“Well, because I believe it’s real. Isn’t that clear?”

“That’s stupid. Just because you believe something doesn’t make it true.”

“You’re awfully intolerant of glomyx owners. You must hate glomyxes.”

“How could I hate something I’ve never seen and don’t think exists?”

“But of course they exist! How could I have one in my back yard otherwise?’

And the conversation goes on and on in circles until your brain explodes. The problem here is not just my irrational belief in glomyxes, or my utterly empty attempts to justify my belief by casting aspersions at your motivations. The problem is that I never answered your original question – what is a glomyx?

To bring the allegory home, the problem with the question of “does a god exist?” is that it assumes that we have a reasonable (or at least consistent) definition of what a god is. It had been trivially easy for me to reject the description of Yahweh from the bible – it was a largely incoherent and inconsistent account of a Bronze Age war god who, despite repeated instances of evil actions, is praised as being “omnibenevolent”. I don’t think I had ever really believed in that god – I believed in one that was far more benign and merciful. The problem, of course, is that I had no reason to believe that the war god Yahweh was less realistic than my fuzzily-benevolent god. In fact, if I trusted the bible (I didn’t, but let’s pretend) then the war god was far more supported by scripture than mine was.

So the problem I faced wasn’t whether or not a god of some kind existed. That question was largely irrelevant. What mattered is, assuming that there is a god, what sort of god is it? How could we go about determining the nature of the god, if we just for a moment assumed that it existed? Well, we’d look at the claims about the various models for a god and see how they stack up against what we see in the universe. After all, that’s what we do when we have questions about other phenomena we can’t directly observe – electrons, tectonic plates, gravitation from distant galaxies – we look and see what kind of effects they have on things we can observe.

There are a number of claims made about the deity – too many to list exhaustively here. Suffice it to say that the central claims made about Yahweh obviously fail to reflect observed reality – prayer is ineffective, ‘miracles’ always occur under dubious circumstances, and we have explanations for the various other phenomena that were previously thought to be possible only by a supernatural being. Even a cursory view of the little we know about the universe rules out Yahweh, as well as any of his dopplegangers from Judaism’s sister religions. As little as I understood about the various other religions of the world, I knew that their god concepts were all as interventionalist as Yahweh – certainly not reflected in reality either.

The only concept of a god left to consider was one that either chooses not to intervene in human affairs, and therefore not interested in being worshipped; or unable to intervene in human affairs, in which case it is not worthy of worship. There was still no evidence to support the existence of either of these ideas, although obviously they could not be ruled out conclusively by the very nature of the hypotheses. They are therefore not even worth considering, since they can neither be confirmed nor denied.

Theistic critics of atheism often speculate that some sort of traumatic event leads people to ‘reject’ their loving god. While this may be true for some atheists, I’ve never met one. Most of the atheists I know simply followed the same logical path away from belief in the absence of evidence that I did. My ‘epiphany’ just so happened to occur on a bright Christmas morning, from my seat in a church pew.

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Movie Friday: Jamie Kilstein

Those of you who are regular readers may have noticed that my use of language fluctuates from post to post. Sometimes I am crude and direct, other times I am flowery and expressive. Some of this is organic – I am actively trying to improve my writing and I think that repeated daily practice is accomplishing that. Other times it is intentional – trying to match the tone of my words to the topic at hand to elicit emotional impact. Sometimes, I will confess, it is simple laziness on my part.

I love words. I can’t really draw or paint, and while I am a musician my creativity in that department is not exactly exceptional. Where I think my real strength lies in in my use of language. Words on a page, properly arranged, can change the world. While my own personal aspirations are somewhat more modest than global metamorphosis, I do put more than a little bit of conscious effort into these sentences you read here.

Sometimes I run into someone who can knock me on my ass with their use of language. Jamie Kilstein is one such person:

Audio is definitely NSFW, but you shouldn’t watch Youtube videos at work anyway.

Yes, I recognize it’s crude, but I challenge you to find fault in the phrase “fist you into a meth coma”.

I’ve run into these kinds of arguments against gay marriage and gay parenting before. They are, quite frankly, ridiculous. There are heterosexual parents who do a far worse job of raising kids than a gay couple could ever hope to. There are single parents who do do an outstanding job without another person around (I’d offer my own upbringing as evidence of that possibility). Suggesting that a mix-gendered environment is a necessary component of a healthy childhood is easily put to the lie by even the most casual of scrutiny. Suggesting further that every gay couple will do a worse job than every straight couple is an even greater height of absurdity.

Jamie Kilstein does a great job of skewering these arguments with a fast-paced, profanity-strewn and impeccably-delivered 3 minute monologue. Of course, being in front of a sympathetic audience certainly helps the delivery, but even without the accompanying laughter it’s quite something to see.

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The god of the glass

Back when I was in my younger teen years I used to love playing a game for Nintendo called Secret of Mana. Toward the end of the game, you have to battle against clones of your own character in order to complete a particular dungeon. This battle was always necessarily the most difficult in the game, because the clone of you had all of your abilities. It meant that unlike other enemies in the game, you couldn’t gain experience or items that would tip the scales in your favour if the fight was too difficult on first pass. The opponent was always your equal, meaning you had to rely on your superior abilities to carry the day. I wasn’t (and am still not) a very good gamer, so this part was always tough for me.

I was reminded of my frustration with this battle against one’s self when I saw this article:

People often reason egocentrically about others’ beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent’s beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people’s own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God’s beliefs than with estimates of other people’s beliefs (Studies 1–4).

In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God’s beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one’s own existing beliefs.

(I find HTML journal articles very difficult to read. A .pdf version is available here)

I hinted at this during last week’s Movie Friday, suggesting that when someone talks about their ‘personal relationship’ with whatever deity they happen to worship, there are always discrepant accounts of what that deity values. This is quite inconsistent with the idea that there is an actual entity out there, but fits exactly with the hypothesis that people have a ‘personal relationship’ with something within their own heads. I’ve made this more explicit in the phrase “Ask 100 people for a definition of god, get 200 answers” – referencing the fact that the gods people claim to believe in almost always turn into something much more mushy and deistic under direct scrutiny. The authors of this study have done the scientifically responsible thing and made fun of religious people on a blog actually conducted some research.

In the first study, the researchers asked people to report their own beliefs, those of a person they do not know personally, and those of their god. Keep in mind that if there were some external standard (god), the level of correlation between people’s own evaluations and that external standard would vary. After all, not everyone agrees with homosexuality or capital punishment or abortion, or any number of topics. What they found instead was that there was a consistently strong correlation between whatever the respondent happened to believe, and what they thought their god believed. Once again, surprising if you believe in a supernatural source of absolute morality that communicates with humans, completely expected if you recognize what it looks like when people talk to themselves.

The facile rejoinder to this would sound something like this:

True followers of YahwAlladdha spoke the truth about those topics, whereas those who are not real _______ only spoke what was in their own heads. What this study demonstrated is nothing more than the fact that some people are not sincere believers.

Luckily, there is a way to test this hypothesis too. If this was indeed the case, then the sincere believers would not change their minds, whereas the convictions of those who are just faking it (or worse, believing in the wrong version of YahwAlladdha) would shift to fit the circumstances. After all, the sincere believers have direct communication with the divine, who is unchanging and absolute. The scientists had participants read arguments for and against a policy (in this case, affirmative action) and rate how strong they felt the arguments were. Then they were asked to rate their opinion of the topic, as well as the fictitious people’s opinion, and then God’s.

As we can see from the graph, those that opposed the policy (the anti-policy group) felt that their god disapproved just as much. Those who had been manipulated to support the policy (keep in mind these were randomized groups, so their position before reading the arguments would have been the same) felt that their god did too. Interestingly, this effect was not seen in how participants thought the average person felt – suggesting that evaluations of the average person are not quite as egocentric as evaluations of YahwAlladdha. This effect was further explored by having people read speeches that either supported or opposed the position they held on the death penalty, which has the effect of polarizing agreement and moderating disagreement. Again, after being manipulated into a position, the participants’ expectation of what their god supports changed right alongside.

Finally, if that wasn’t enough evidence that the ‘personal relationship’ is about as personal as it could be (i.e., just a reflection of your own beliefs), the investigators hauled out a functional MRI (fMRI) scan. Brain activity when considering one’s own beliefs was different than when participants considered the beliefs of other people. However, as you might have expected from the above experiments, when people thought about what their god wanted the pattern of activity was the same as when thinking about themselves. Not only are the content of the beliefs identical, but so too is the method by which believers arrive at them.

None of this is proof that a god doesn’t exist – such a thing is logically impossible and wildly uninteresting (I will explain this on Monday). What it does prove, however, is that people do not get their morality from direct communication with the Holy Spirit or any other kind of supernatural entity. Moral attitudes come from a variety of sources, none of which point to non-material origin. While people may get their moral instruction from religion (in a “do this, don’t do that” kind of way), it is not because of an entity which embodies absolute morality and communicates said morality through prayer.

I am still curious how believers deal with things they disagree with, but which they are told are commanded by their god. Do anti-gay activists legitimately hate gay people, or are they just following the instructions from the pulpit? Are the religious teachings to blame for the evils committed by religious adherents, or are they just a smokescreen used to justify underlying organic hatred and spitefulness? Whatever the answer, those of us hoping to deal with those who believe their cause is divinely justified have to confront the truth that we are not just fighting against the concept a god – we are fighting against the concept of a god that takes shape in the mirror.

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The company you keep

I think that a lot can be said for a person by the company that she or he keeps. Part of my attempt at consistent self-criticism involves me trying to size up how I am doing generally as a person. I take great comfort in the fact that I can count people I admire, respect, and wish to emulate among my close friends. It means, at least in my eyes, that there is something about me that they also admire and respect. Maybe they’re all just really nice and take pity on me :P

In the same vein, when your friends and supporters are people with whom you fundamentally disagree, you’ve got to take a long hard look at yourself:

Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul, whose long-shot campaign has been gaining media attention in recent days, apparently has the support of an unusual constituency — the white supremacist movement. Stormfront.org, a white supremacy web site, as well as others, such as WhiteWorldNews.com, have actively supported Paul’s bid for the presidency, including directing donors to his campaign.  Stormfront has also endorsed Paul for president.

“Once in a great while a presidential candidate is presented to us. A candidate who not only speaks to us, but for us…I am supporting Ron Paul in his run for the presidency,” the Stormfront endorsement says. The endorsement praises Paul’s plans to reduce taxes, close the  borders and eliminate trade deals, such as NAFTA. “Whatever organization you belong to, remember first and foremost that you are a white nationalist,” the endorsement continues. “Put your differences with one and other aside and work together. Work together to strive to get someone in the Oval Office who agrees with much of what we want for our future. Look at the man. Look at the issues. Look at our future. Vote for Ron Paul 2008.”

Ron Paul’s supporters have a deserved reputation for being the most vehement scourers of the internet, and for being nearly indistinguishable in their defense of their champion. I therefore want to take great pains here to say that this is not evidence that Ron Paul is a white supremacist. I am not trying to imply a sort of guilt by association – the endorsement from Stormfront seems to be largely based on Ron Paul’s isolationist beliefs rather than any racist statements he’s made in the past. Which isn’t to say that Ron Paul’s positions on race aren’t suspect:

What bothers me the most about Ron Paul’s defense of liberty regarding the Civil Rights Act is that he glazes over the significance of the social and political culture at the time. However, I don’t think he’s a stupid man by any means. He is well educated and fully aware of the history of racial discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement. He is fully aware that allowing business owners to do whatever they wanted in their businesses during this period in history meant some business owners would deny service to individuals because of the color of their skin. He is fully aware that some business owners would take significant measures to remove black people from their businesses.

When pictures pass around the press of children having acid poured in their pool water, it is not just those black children who are being harmed. All black Americans were at the helm of potentially injurious acts of discrimination. This photo illustrates that real, violent threat.

This is my problem with Ron Paul specifically and libertarianism in general – while many of the ideas proposed have some merit, the absolute application of the principles they’re based on are wildly impractical. The Civil Rights Act absolutely infringed upon the liberty of some people. Anyone who denies this fact is either woefully ignorant or bizarrely entrenched in their own ideology. However, the Civil Rights Act, for all its infringement, was a step forward in recognizing the equality of all people. The free market approach to civil rights was not working – black people were on the receiving end of massive discrimination with no recourse or relief from a state that is ostensibly invested in defending the rights of its citizens. Libertarian policies of government non-intervention were failing, and a more direct approach was needed.

Which is not to say that Ron Paul is a Libertarian:

There are a lot of libertarians who still buy into the Ron Paul myth, I’m sad to say. Ron is no libertarian. He’s a paleoconservative and his voting record backs that up. In addition he has all the crazy shit he gets from the Birch Society and continues to spew out. But what I find surprising is how gullible some libertarians are regarding Ron’s excuses for all this. Take the newsletter that Ron edited and sold, during his stint out of office, between his LP presidential bid and his next Congressional race. Ron was listed as co-editor of the newsletter. There was a staff of four people, including his wife and daughter. So it was hardly a huge enterprise. It published some pretty bigoted remarks about blacks and gays and had the usual crazy Ron Paul shit about conspiracies.

I have talked about this kind of thing before, but when your support comes from people who hold positions you abhor, then you really need to take a hard look at why. I was quite taken with Ron Paul when I first learned of him. Ramping down foreign wars, eliminating the monstrously-wasteful war on drugs, support for individual rights – lots of great ideas. However, it’s mixed in with a lot of crazy stuff, including more than a little racism. It’s not at all a surprise to me that Stormfront sees him as their best hope of political legitimacy. That fact alone should give Paul supporters pause.

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Post Racial: Montana style

One of the more odious lies we tell ourselves when discussing race happens when we ascribe ourselves the label of “post-racial”. While we don’t tend to use it as part of our collective lexicon here in Canada, it gets a lot more traction in “Obama era” America. The general thrust of the phrase is that people these days don’t really ‘see’ race, and that the labels are thereby not useful. We can stop talking about race (or, more accurately, we don’t have to start) because it has no power as a sociological phenomenon anymore. Of course, the evidence is stacked miles high to suggest otherwise, but it is a comforting lie.

My contention has always been, and continues to be, that we have learned how to talk about race in code, and to obscure our own racist tendencies from nearly everyone – particularly ourselves. I occasionally speak of small groups of people who are not interested in even pretending to hide their racism, rather reveling in it. Another example has crossed my desk:

A new flag with an old message is flying in Montana. Montana Creativity Movement members bear as their standard a banner marked with a W for the white race. The W is topped by a crown symbolizing elite status and with a halo representing the sacredness of the race they worship. They count chapters in Billings, Laurel, Lockwood, Miles City, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Missoula, Park City and Shepherd. “We are your neighbors, your best friend, your co-workers, etc.,” organizer Westin Adams said. “The only difference is we are loyal to our racial family.”

There is a canard that comes from the more intellectual wing of the white supremacist movement (the phrase “world’s tallest midget” comes to mind…) is that if self-identification along racial lines is valid for people of colour (PoCs), then so too should it be for white people. There is nothing inherently wrong, they say, with celebrating ‘white pride’ or ‘white power’ – it is merely a celebration of the achievements of ones ethnic forbears. In a facile and pedantic sense, this argument does have some merit. There is nothing wrong with being proud of being white; conversely, there is no virtue in being ashamed of being white. Any statement of ‘white pride’ that is a reaction to being made to feel ashamed of one’s white ethnicity is entirely reasonable and defensible.

However, the terms ‘white power’ and more recently ‘white pride’ have connotative associations that are anything but reasonable and defensible. The ideals embraced by the Montana Creativity Movement (MCM, hereafter) are not a simple matter of being “loyal to (their) racial family”, as they would like to represent themselves. Their beliefs are inextricably wrapped up in doctrines of racial supremacy:

The group’s name stems from the idea that the white person is the “most creative, productive and intelligent creature Mother Nature has produced in … 2.3 billion years,” Klassen wrote in his autobiography. Creators shun marriage between those of different races, embrace anti-Semitism, reject Christianity and other religions (save worship of the race) and take as their motto “RaHoWa” (racial holy war).

At this point I have to walk back a bit from some of my more leading anti-theist statements and admit that people are capable of adopting monstrous beliefs that are entirely ancillary to theistic religion. Any idea that is inured from criticism and granted truth axiomatically can lead to this kind of abdication of humanistic principles. Faith – that willing suspension of rational thought – is not necessarily only centred on a deity. MCM’s belief system is clearly an exercise in a priori “backfilling” to justify an already-held conviction that white people are somehow more creative, productive and intelligent than their dusky brethren. This belief is non-religious, despite their invocation of the idea of a holy war. They should and must be thought of as distinct from, for example, the KKK – an explicitly Christian organization (although one that operates well outside of what would be considered the mainstream of Christian thought, to be sure).

That digression aside, it is important to note that while many of us are busy patting ourselves on the back for how ‘post-racial’ we are, there is quite another segment of society that is deeply invested in the concept of race. There are those in my camp, who think that a productive and open discussion of race is essential to making any progress on tackling the glaring inequalities that fall along racial lines. There are also those who wish to bring race into focus in order to use it as a weapon against those who are different. To carve into society a new version of the Great Chain of Being, with their own group at the top.

While I am usually quick to dismiss this kind of overtly-racist self-aggrandizing as the juvenile chest thumping of a pitiful group of backward people, such dismissal is perhaps doing my own argument a disservice. These are not ‘bad people’ in the colloquial sense – I am sure they are kind, caring and generous people who are otherwise upstanding citizens. However, their adoption of this collection of noxious and bizarre beliefs has led them to compartmentalize their otherwise moral instincts when it comes to issues of race and adopt a Hitlerian view of human subspeciation:

Klassen in “The White Man’s Bible” spelled out a scale of whiteness, with black people at the bottom as “barely human, but more correctly subhuman or humanoid,” white people as the “very top pinnacle” and “mud races” categorized between the two. “One of the beliefs Creators have is RaHoWa, racial holy war where creators believe there will be a worldwide ethnic cleansing that will leave only white people with everything on the planet,” McAdam said.

Add to that their agitation for political recognition and the fact that their expansion is speeding up and we are left to conclude that our conceit and posturing to this supposed ideal condition of “colour blindness” is anything but ‘post-racial’. The existence of these groups should be seen as a sign that we have not yet freed ourselves from our historical fascination with racial supremacy, and that more work, not less, is needed if we are to give ourselves a chance at a future that is more safe and more just.

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Woes of the Pharisees

Regular readers will know that I am not above my practice of occasionally quoting Christian scripture in the service of a point. While I’m sure I’ve mentioned this here and there, I don’t have any problem with using the Bible as a literary resource. I view the Old and New testaments in the same way I view Chaucer or Nabokov or Neruda – as a work of fiction from which interesting points can be gleaned. The only difference is that, unlike Chaucer, Nabokov and Neruda, I’ve actually read the Bible.

The title of this post is a reference to a sermon by the Jesus character in the Bible, in which he decries hypocrisy in a variety of forms. I enjoy this particular passage a great deal because of how unremittingly hypocritical religious adherents are when it comes to issues regarding their own beliefs. I explored that topic a bit this morning, but I failed to make an important point. While I am disgusted with the actions and arrogance of the Roman Catholic Church, and while I find their particular brand of hypocrisy to be the most blatant and offensive, I do not ascribe to them exclusive ownership of religious hypocrisy:

Rights groups have expressed outrage after an Indonesian court jailed a Muslim sect member for defending himself from a brutal mob attack. The court jailed Ahmadiyah member Deden Sudjana for six months, a heavier term than many of the attackers received. Three Ahmadiyah members were bludgeoned to death in an attack by a 1,000-strong mob of hardliners in February. No-one was charged with murder.

Sudjana was hit with a machete and almost had his hand severed during the attack, which pitted about 20 Ahmadiyah followers against more than 1,000 fanatics in the village of Cikeusik, west Java. But the court ruled that he had disobeyed a police order to leave the scene, and had been filmed punching another man.

Video footage of the attack shows crowds of hardliners beating a small group of Ahmadis as police watch. So far 12 of the attackers have been found guilty of minor offences and sentenced to between three and six months.

I first talked about the Ahmadiyah back in March, using their situation to make a point about what actual religious persecution looks like.  It’s something quite distinct from merely not having exceptions made for your bigotry because your religious beliefs make you an asshole. It is when the force of law is not only brought to bear to bar you from engaging in what would otherwise be legal activity, but also prevents you from realizing your legal rights. I also talked about this attack over at Canadian Atheist to illustrate why a secular state is to the benefit even of believers.

I honestly don’t know what makes the Venn diagram of ‘religion’ and ‘hypocrisy’ so tight, but it seems as though this tendency is not relegated to simply the Pope. The courts in Indonesia have given a big ol’ middle finger to the very concepts of fairness and equality under the law and have begun punishing people for being the victims of brutalization at the hands of a mob, simply because that mob believes in the ‘correct’ version of YahwAlladdha. The personal beliefs of the attackers, or how justified those who would assault non-combatant people may feel in perpetrating violence, is entirely immaterial when it comes to judging their actions. I would have the same contempt and outrage at a crowd of pro-science feminist atheists who physically attacked a white supremacist group as I would for the reverse. Violence is never an option in defense of ideology.

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