I’m flabbergasted

It’s not every day something shocks me in a good way, but I was floored when I read this:

It’s typical bullshit. So I’m responding in my own way. Because, you see, I am a racist. I’m not proud of that fact – but growing up in a deeply racist and sexist culture, you can’t avoid absorbing racist and sexist messages and attitudes into your worldview. And the blogger who inspired this is, like me, a member of the privileged elite. The difference between us is that I at least try to notice the effects of my privilege.

Mark Chu-Caroll is a blogger and computer scientist for Google. I am subscribing to my own set of prejudicial stereotypes here, but I have known very few computer programmers who are so socially aware as to recognize what are fairly black-belt-level concepts like systemic racism and privilege. He lists 10 reasons why he calls himself a racist:

  1. I am a racist – because I never noticed all of the unearned privileges that are given to me until someone pointed them out.
  2. I am a racist – because even after learning about the unearned privileges that I recieve (sic), I still don’t notice them.
  3. I am a racist, because I have grown up in a culture that, at every turn, teaches me that to be white is to be better, and smarter, and I have absorbed that lesson.
  4. I am a racist, because I instinctively react to members of minorities with fear.
  5. I am a racist, because I live in a sunset town.
  6. I am a racist, because I believe that I deserve the success I have, even though I know people who are more smart, capable, and talented than I am never had the chances that I did to be successful, because of the color of their skin.
  7. I am a racist – because I am a white man who has directly benefited from the unfair preferences that have been directed towards me all of my life.
  8. I am a racist – because every day, I benefit from the denial of basic privileges to other people.
  9. I am a racist, because I do not notice the things that are denied to people who are different from me.
  10. I am a racist, because I do not notice the advantages that I have over others.
  11. I am a racist, because even when I do manage to notice what is denied to people of different races and backgrounds, I don’t speak up.

I’ve said this from essentially day 1, but we are all racists. We were born into a system (with global reach) that has racial prejudice built into it. Some of us benefit from this system; others are on the losing end. The “secret” to changing this pattern is to recognize it exists, and to stay constantly vigilant in attempting to reduce its influence.

Mark hits the nail on the head when he says:

“People like me think of ourselves as the default – as “normal” people. We consider the incredible advantages that we receive to be normal, unremarkable. We don’t notice just how much we benefit from that assumption of our own normality – the benefits we receive fade into invisibility. We don’t even notice that they exist. And then when someone who doesn’t get those benefits has trouble, we naturally blame them for not being as successful as we are.”

I encourage you to read the article in its entirety – it’s a raw, honest and heartfelt exploration of one white man’s experience of race and racial prejudice. I think more people should be willing to speak up and throw their own stories into the mix.

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What it means to ‘replace’ science

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the dichotomy between science and religion. His position was that we can’t rely on certainty in anything, since our understanding of the universe is constantly changing. Because of this, he reasoned, faith in the supernatural is just as valid as the use of scientific evidence. I had a similar conversation with another friend a few months later, who was trying to convince me that medical woo-woo might be validated someday because the nature of science was “constantly changing”.

This position is, at best, only trivially true if you consider all forms of change to be exactly the same. Even though I walk 5 km towards work every morning, I will never end up 10 km away from work. Even though my position is “constantly changing”, I’m not jumping all over the place at random, hoping eventually to land at my office. Our understanding of the universe and the processes that hold it together similarly does not fluctuate at random – it is modified by progressively better evidence. So while the statement “science is constantly changing” is true, it is true only in one specific way.

My first friend brought up our understanding of physics as an example of how things might be completely different in 25 years (this was after many drinks, so I’m going to go easy on him). His position was that while we “know” that F=ma today, we might have an entirely different understanding of the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration. He cited the re-orientation of the world once quantum physics was better understood as an example of how science can be replaced with newer understandings.

“Bullshit,” I replied. “Einstein didn’t ‘replace’ Newton; he showed where the limitation of Newton’s mathematics were, and provided a guide for how to overcome them.” In order for Einstein to ‘replace’ Newton, he would have to provide sufficient evidence of events or occurrences where F did not equal ma – in other words, there would have to be overwhelming evidence to show that F only coincidentally equals ma. What Einstein did was show that Newton is true within a specific range of phenomena. The fact is that Einstein’s equations had to continue to describe the phenomena that Newton’s did; the fact that they agree perfectly is a testament to Einstein’s genius.

Perhaps a better illustration of this is the competing theories of evolution in vogue 160 years ago – those of Darwin and Lamarck. Darwin’s theory is familiar to us all – environmental changes favour the survival of certain individuals in a population to survive and breed. Lamarck’s theory was that environments imprinted changes on individuals, who passed traits on to their offspring – for instance, giraffes have long necks due to stretching to reach tall leaves. While it sounds ridiculous now, it certainly fit the available evidence (DNA or modern genetics were not understood, and heritability of traits was well-documented). Presented with two competing theories, biologists of the day looked to see which one matched the evidence best (Darwin, of course, had the advantage of basing his theory on years of carefully-collected evidence).

Since then, many developments have been made in biology. The discovery of the structure of DNA, for example, led to a greater understanding of where variation in species came from, and how mutations occur. Advances in technology have enabled us to measure climate changes and global events that happened millions of years in the past. The tree of life has been re-drawn (one of the few examples of a time when science has been completely re-understood, but the old tree of life wasn’t based on rigorous science, simply some guy looking at things and giving them names) to reflect new understandings in the common ancestry of all life. Changes have been made to Darwin’s original theory in light of evidence that wasn’t available to him at the time. None of this means that evolution has been replaced, any more than the 26 year-old version of me is going to “replace” the 25 year-old version of me on my birthday (which is coming up soon – please give me many presents). It is a development that refines and build upon the understandings of the past.

Hence my objection to the idea that science is “constantly changing”, and therefore is only selectively valid. This attitude comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what “science” is – one that I have talked about before. Science is not merely a list of facts in a dusty book on a shelf – it is a process that involves taking a bird’s eye view at a group of facts and organizing them into a central concept that can be tested for validity. Any change in scientific understanding must, at the very least, continue to explain those things which have already been observed to be true. It has to be able to explain all of those things that have observed to be true, not simply cherry-picking those facts that agree and neglecting all of the contradictory evidence.

This is why I am confident making statements like “God isn’t real” or “homeopathy doesn’t work” or “vaccines don’t cause autism.” Woo-woo supporters are quick to pipe up “you can’t know that for sure”, demanding the impossible proof of the negative. Claims about an intervening supernatural being, or the (selective) memory of water, or the supposed link between vaccination and developmental disability would require a completely new understanding of physics, physiology, biology, and a handful of other ‘-ologies’ that are based on a wealth of evidence. “Science is changing all the time,” they whine “so we just may not know how it works yet.” Once again, I say unto them “bullshit.” Not only is there insufficient evidence that reiki, or intercessory prayer, or cell phones causing brain cancer, are in any way factual, in order for them to be even plausible, we’d have to invalidate everything we have learned about reality so far.

So while developments can, have been, and will continue to be made in scientific fields, they work in a linear fashion as long as we continue to follow the evidence. It is because of this that I am satisfied to put my trust in this method, rather than one based on faith or magic.

TL/DR: New discoveries don’t “replace” older ones, they add to an always-growing body of evidence that help us to understand the world. Woo-woo theories require us to throw out the evidence, or at least pretend it isn’t there.


Movie Friday: Kavita Ramdas

Since I gave the stage to the ladies yesterday, I thought I’d keep the ball rolling with this excellent talk from Kavita Ramdas at TED:

Kavita masterfully separates cultural traditions from religious reasoning in this talk, in which she highlights three specific contributions that women have made – exploiting cultural expression to enact social change. It’s a sobering reminder to me that while I can rail against sexism and talk about equal rights until I am blue in the face (or, I guess, navy blue), there is another piece that is needed:

“…women make change, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. They have to negotiate; they have to subvert tradition that once silenced them in order to give voice to new aspirations. And they need allies from their community.”

I promise that I will continue to be as much an ally as I can, and I hope that you will join me in helping make positive change for all people, regardless of sex.

Sexism? Only if you… y’know… LOOK for it

A friend of mine sent me a newspaper article that made my heart hurt:

A young black woman working in the medical imaging department at Toronto Western Hospital was sexually harassed and the object of racial taunts in what a hospital investigation concluded was a “poisoned work environment.”

There are three things you should know to put this story in context. The first is that Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in Canada, and one of the most in the world (more so than Miami, Los Angeles or New York City), having a black population of about 350,000 people (7% of the total metro population). The second is that members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented at the lower levels of health care hierarchy (orderlies, custodial workers, nursing assistants) but are underrepresented at the higher levels (doctors, RNs, managers). The third is that while women far and away receive more undergraduate degrees in health-related professions than men do, this trend all but disappears at the graduate and professional level (while this seems to be changing, it is depressingly going in the favour of the opposite gender gap, which is no better). This information is relevant because a black woman who had the education and drive to gain the training required to be a medical imaging technologist is both remarkable and significantly important to a hospital in Toronto.

Instead of recognizing this, Toronto Western Hospital subjected Stacey Walker to months of both racial and sexual harassment, then ignored her complaints for 16 months.

I am sensitive to the fact that there is a significant grey area when it comes to what is and is not acceptable banter in the workplace. I received a text message joke from a friend, and as I was sharing it with the guy I share my desk with, I realized how incredibly sexist it was. Most of the people I work with are women, and my voice isn’t exactly quiet. While it wasn’t an overt kind of sexism, it was still not cool (although it was pretty funny). It can be tough to know where the line is. It is for that reason that there are procedures in place at any workplace to report incidents of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity – they protect both the (hopefully naive) perpetrators and the victims. However, when such reports are ignored, it is strongly indicative of a systemic environment of sexism and racism. The managers may not do it, but they tolerate it.

Of course, the immediate reaction is to blame the victim:

According to the report, the senior technologist admitted to conduct the investigators deemed was sexual harassment. The technologist is quoted in the report describing Walker as a “very troubled, insecure individual” who has “mental issues.”

‘Well sure, I did it, but it was that bitch’s fault for being so crazy!’ It doesn’t matter if she has “mental issues” (read: a uterus) or not, you violated policy, ignored warnings, and behaved not only inappropriately, but in such a way as to compromise her job performance and the safety of her patients. The fact that this kind of effect isn’t obvious to this man is strongly indicative of the power imbalance present in the hospital – it is not just an isolated incident.

As I’ve said before, when a culture of racism (or sexism, in this case) is allowed to propagate by simply masking it and pretending it isn’t there, there will be periodic incidents that are indicative of the real underlying problem. You can’t substitute cologne for bathing, and you can’t substitute “I’m not racist” or “I’m not sexist” for actual progress.

There’s a group of women in India who seem to have the right idea:

Scores of young girls and women applaud the display, and then learn for themselves how to fight back against “eve-teasing” — the south Asian term for sexual harassment in public places. Women across India are often victims of provocative remarks, aggressive male posturing and even physical assaults such as groping on the street and in crowded buses and trains.

In an attempt to combat both the perpetrators of harassment and the underlying culture that seems to permit men to objectify and systematically exploit women, Radha Sharma is instructing women in self-defense. The offshoot of knowing how to fight back is that you internalize the idea that you can fight back, and that it is not all right to allow bullies to have their way. Considering a recent case in which the suicide of a Bangladeshi girl was directly linked to this “Eve teasing” (what a disgustingly euphemistic term for such a horrible practice), such an approach is timely. It’s somewhat more socially effective than a rape-deterring program in South Africa, in which women wear condoms with spiked teeth inside their vaginas (sort of like the “bait car” idea except it maims your penis).

The way to combat sexism and racism is exactly what these Indian women and Ms. Walker have done – talk about it. Don’t stop talking about it until changes are made. Don’t stop fighting until the problem is solved. Don’t simply go along with the crowd, or accept vague promises in lieu of action. Don’t buy the lie that since most people are good, we should pat ourselves on the back and pretend the problem isn’t there. It takes consistent and assertive action to make social changes, but it is definitely possible.

How NOT to do secularism

We secularists are in a tough spot. Religion has dominated the political and social landscape for so long that it is held by many to be an intrinsic value, and one that ought to be free from criticism. Of course this is nothing but special pleading – no ideas are sacred, criticism is the only way we figure out which ideas are good. That being said, there is a reality that the challenge of secular society must take into account that people do have an intrinsic right to belief and conscience, and we have to respect those rights. However, if the goal is to create a society that establishes equal rights for all people, the secular agenda will often come into conflict with the religious agenda. In cases like that, there is a right way to handle it, and an unbelievably stupid way to handle it.

So now it’s time for another “Good Idea, Bad Idea”

Good idea: treating a church with the same respect that you would treat any other business in the conduct of a criminal investigation.

Bad idea: drilling holes in the tombs of dead people to find non-existent hidden documents:

As well as searching a couple of main Church offices and a cardinal’s home, [Belgian] police had drilled holes in two archbishops’ tombs, said the Church.

Personally, I don’t share our society’s taboo about death. Once you’re dead, that’s it. You’re beyond caring about what happens to your body after you die – “you” don’t exist anymore. You could dress up my dead body in a Klan robe if you wanted to… I’d be too dead to notice. However, the way we treat our dead does have consequences for those who are still alive. We respect the integrity of the dead person out of respect for those who knew him/her, and because it shocks the conscience to see a body’s resting place violated. There are occasions in which it is reasonable to violate this respect, if the consequences to the living warrant it. However, drilling holes in tombs to find allegedly secreted documents of sexual abuse is extreme, and doesn’t do our side any favours. Just because some priests have done horrible things does not in any way justify the mistreatment of priests in general. They have the same rights as any person, and should be treated with the respect we extend to anyone else. Bad job, Belgium. I prefer my Tomb Raiders to look like this:

Good idea: granting freedom of religion and freedom of conscience to people.

Bad idea: letting “freedom of religion” trump reason in the court of law:

In a decision handed down Friday, Justice Gérard Dugré agreed with Loyola’s opposition to teaching [a provincially-mandated course on ethics and morality] on the grounds of religious freedom. Loyola argued the course was redundant because the school already offers instruction on ethics and morality from a Catholic point of view.

As much as I hate to dictate interpretation of the Charter to a provincial judge, Justice Dugré has fundamentally misapplied the concept of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion means, at its essence, that individuals are free to believe and practice as they like. It does not grant special immunity to people from hearing ideas they don’t like, or that conflict with their prejudices set down in magic books. The province of Quebec mandated that all schools must provide instruction in ethics. I am not sure how easy it is to teach ethics to schoolchildren, since their brains are not sufficiently mature to reason abstractly, but surely people of any age can be taught not only what is right and wrong, but be at least introduced to the reasons why. That’s what ethics is – a branch of philosophy that deals in why things are good or bad, not simply a list of commandments.

I have received religious “moral” instruction. Catholic morality is based on the idea of the supremacy of Yahweh, in the teachings of His son Jesus of Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit of Yahweh that dwells within all people. According to Catholic teaching, the Holy Spirit reveals right and wrong to faithful believers, who may use doctrine and scripture (if you have to) to discern between the righteous voice of God and the evil temptations of the Devil.

Of course this is wildly impractical, since it doesn’t really help you work through what is good and what is bad in those situations where doctrine is ambiguous and scripture is contradictory. It also begs the question of how we know doctrine and/or scripture are correct. It’s basically just paternalism – “we know what’s right and wrong. If you get confused, blow this whistle and I’ll come help you.” Religious doctrine and scripture can equally be used for good or for evil.

Requiring students to learn about ethics and the religious teachings of other groups is a great way to instruct them on what processes are available to them to work through issues of right and wrong. If that process conflicts with their religious sensibilities (or, more accurately, those of their parents), then a frank discussion is required. That’s the way freedom of religion works – we can’t tell you what to think, but we can equip you with tools so you know how to think. Education is the purview of the provincial government, who passed a law requiring students to learn ethics. Unless you can demonstrate that the law violates the Charter, the government is free to pass it.

However, it is absolutely false to claim that requiring private schools to abide by the curriculum infringes on freedom of religion. It is no more true than it is to say that laws against murdering your children violate the religious freedom to conduct honour killings, or that laws requiring vaccinations to go to public school violate your religious freedom to stave off measles with a bag of dried chicken heads and a sharp stick. Justice Dugré has acquiesced to the special pleading of this Catholic school, that they should not have to teach their students anything that doesn’t agree with their Christian beliefs. Would we tolerate this same exception for Creationism instead of science, or scripture instead of literature, or prayer instead of phys-ed? I sincerely hope not.

Secular society has to respect the rights of religious people in the same way it has to respect the rights of irreligious people. No group should get special privileges by virtue of group membership, nor should they be unduly punished in the same token. Treat all people fairly under the law – that’s a good idea.

Why I was wrong (and why it doesn’t matter)

It seems like only yesterday I was talking about how I would try my best to admit when something I’ve said is incorrect. Weeks ago, I attacked the idea that Canada is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, pointing out the number of ways the Charter diverges from both Jewish and Christian scripture. I gave credit to Enlightenment-era philosophers for the idea of separation between church and state – an idea which manifests itself in the statues enshrining freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

It appears that I was wrong.

While poking around the blogroll of another Vancouver blogger who posts comments here occasionally, and who I often find myself disagreeing with (though we do share some core ideas), I found a particularly brainless post by a Toronto-based theology professor named Chris Carter. Mr. Carter (I am purposefully withholding the honorific title of “Doctor” since his degree is in theology – Mr. Carter, you have a degree in baloney!) attempted to turn logic completely upside-down and claim that Christians are tolerant of the mean old gays, who are forcing good Christians to abandon their religious convictions and (gasp, horror) grant gay people equal rights under the law. I pointed out that not only was Mr. Carter’s assertion that Christianity is tolerant of gays completely factually inaccurate (we don’t have to look much further than ultra-Christian Malawi, Uganda or the United States to see that this isn’t the case), but that the tolerance gays have seen in more developed countries (ignoring the USA for a second) has been opposed by Christianity at every turn. I pointed out that religious involvement in the passage of laws stands opposed to the idea of separation of church and state, and that recognizing the prejudice of Christians stands opposed to the development of secular society.

All of this was true, but I mistakenly gave credit to the wrong people.

Mr. Carter correctly pointed out that the separation of Church and state seems to have its origin in the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms as proposed by Martin Luther (although he mistakenly gave credit to St. Augustine who had a similar idea but stated that the heavenly kingdom outranks the earthly kingdom). The doctrine basically posits that there are two authorities – one for civil “earthly” laws and one for supernatural “heavenly” laws. He stated in no uncertain terms that the two should be kept separate. Insofar as Luther used passages from the Bible (specifically the “render unto Caesar” bit) as justification for this doctrine, it is in fact an explicitly Christian idea to separate church from state. While this seems to stand at odds with CLS’s account of the evolution of religious tolerance in the West, I am willing to accede the point that freedom of religion is a Christian idea, the origin of which is explicitly rooted in a specific interpretation of the teachings of Jesus.

Luckily for me though, none of that matters.

Freedom of religion (and its corollary, freedom from religion) is a good idea even when you take Jesus and God out of the mix. The modern-day interpretation of the separation of church and state does not rely on the supremacy of the church in matters of the supernatural; rather, it is rooted in the idea that equal rights for all people is practical and good for the development of a just society. While the origin of the concept seems to be based on scripture, it doesn’t need scripture to work. Charity is another great example of this. Jesus had a great number of things to say about being charitable to the poor, but that doesn’t mean that you have to believe in Jesus to be charitable. The idea is good because it works, not because YahwAlladdha smiles upon it. Take the supernatural justification out of the picture and the whole idea remains just as intact as it was when it was religiously-justified.

Other ideas – such as the “unnatural nature” of homosexuality, or the sacredness of a fertilized embryo, or the immorality of premarital sex – do not hold up under irreligious scrutiny. These ideas only work if both sides agree that there is a God, and that he hates humans so much that he will damn them (and only them) to eternal torture for having certain kinds of sex or getting certain surgical procedures. Once one side says “yeah, but how do you know God exists?”, then the whole idea is forced to stand on its merits in the observable world.

The separation of church and state does stand up to irreligious scrutiny. When we take God out of the picture, we see that a society that is founded on equal rights and justice is best served when the personal myths of one particular group are not allowed to trump the observable consequences to any person or group of people. The fact that a Christian developed the idea is an interesting fact, but does not somehow grant legitimacy to other Christian ideas, particularly those that are deleterious to society or individuals.

So to you, readers, and to Mr. Carter, I offer a retraction of the statement that the separation of church and state had its origin in the Enlightenment. As far as I can tell it was developed by a Christian philosopher, with explicitly Christian justification. A good idea is a good idea, and I’m happy to give credit where it’s due. Luckily for me, and for the world, this does not matter at all – it’s a good idea that stands on its own even when Jesus is completely removed from the picture.

What does it all mean?

I started writing short stories when I was a little kid – most of them were blatant rip-offs of movies or video games (or sometimes other books). As I got older, I became more interested in writing scripts for movies or (because I was involved in drama) plays. This interest matured into allegorical social commentary in my later years of high school. One of my favourite scripts (that I have since lost since my computer was stolen a couple years ago) was a pseudo-absurdist comedy based largely on Waiting For Godot and Clerks, in which the taboos of our attitudes towards male homosexuality were explored and derided. I was also occasionally featured on a now-defunct website called Flatplanet.net, which has since turned into a pro-Israeli personal blog.

Throughout the first few years of university, I partnered with an online friend to write Porocrom’s Crappaper, in which Poromenos and I highlighted and mocked social conventions and marketing. We had a decent 2-year run, in which I later expanded to do a little music criticism. About a year after we stopped contributing to Porocrom, I started chronicling the various vacations and things that I did on Facebook. When a news article caught my attention, or I had some particular issue or another on my mind, I’d dash off a quick essay about it.

Why is this relevant?

I started this blog back in February, and got into it seriously in March. I didn’t really have an overall theme for what I’d be writing about at the time. It was basically going to be a continuation of the essays I had written about various things, in an effort to consolidate my various personal interests and thoughts about issues into one coherent narrative. I looked at other blogs, and the ones I liked the most were the ones that are based around one central idea, with a handful of topics related to that idea making frequent appearances. I tried to adopt this idea, to talk about a few things that I thought were important: free speech, religion, and race. Because I am a proud Canadian, I wanted to highlight these things from a Canadian perspective.

So I have established my sub-topics, but my central idea seems somewhat more elusive. While I have tried before to tie the themes of race, religion and free speech together, there is much more overlap between religion and free speech than there is between race and anything else. More and more I’ve been bringing in issues of sex and gender, particularly related to gay men and the rights of women. Neither of these things are intrinsically linked to free speech, religion or race, but they seem to be coming up again and again.

What’s the theme here?

The very first post of this blog was called the Foundations of the Manifesto, in which I tried to define what I would be writing about as well as railing against. Not having the benefit of being able to look back on the past 4 months and see what seems to be important to me these days (a process called ‘revealed preference’ in economics) the post was pretty vague. The virtue of putting my ideas out in public is that it forces me to defend them against people who disagree with me. I’ve crossed swords with religious folks, conservative folks, and folks who apparently just plain don’t like me. In some of those cases I’ve had to retreat from a position; in some of those cases I’ve been able to successfully demonstrate my position. As this process continues, I’m sure I’ll have to write many more retractions or clarifications.

As my ideas become more refined and polished, a theme will become much more clear. As it is right now, I can point vaguely to the glimmer of a coherent central idea for this blog. Contrary to much propaganda, democracy is absolutely not the best political system for ensuring the long-term prosperity of a society. Democracy is, ostensibly, founded upon the idea that all people should have equal say in how decisions are made. By its very nature, democratic systems are slaves to the will of the majority. This wouldn’t be a problem if the majority was consistently correct; however, what history shows us again and again is that the majority  often makes horrendously evil decisions that benefit members of the majority, but cause undue suffering among the minority. I’m thinking specifically of slavery here, but it could equally apply to genocide, the treatment of women, or the exploitation of developing countries by colonial powers. The will of the largest group of people is not necessarily what is best, and most of the social victories we’ve achieved in North America over the past couple of hundred years have been when the will of the majority was flouted by a strong minority.

The “best” political system is one in which the right decision will always be made for the people in general. This is sometimes referred to as a “benign dictatorship”, in which one person has absolute power to enact laws for the betterment of society. Of course this is a completely impractical fiction. Every dictatorship we’ve ever seen has resulted in corruption and the exploitation of people. It is impossible to put any one person (or group of people) in absolute control – there will always be flaws and corruption that will ultimately result in suffering. However, we have established a system that attempts to approximate this benign dictatorship; we place authority in the courts to overturn the will of the majority if the will violates the spirit of the law. In that sense the will of the people is limited by the constraints of the law, such that it doesn’t matter how popular a thing might be, the laws must be made for the right reasons, reasons that are founded in logic and evidence.

Neither is democracy the best social system for the same reasons. The best social system is a meritocracy, in which the people who rise to power and prominence are those who, by virtue of hard work and natural talent are demonstrably higher achievers. Success in a meritocracy is predicated not on accidents of birth, or the affluence of your family group, but on an individual’s ability to produce and achieve. It is this kind of system that is modeled (albeit a bit overbearingly) in the writings of Ayn Rand; an author who, despite being reviled by pretty much everyone I know, actually had some excellent ideas. The heroes in Rand’s novels are people who have innate talent and drive to create and achieve, and who are set against a system that seems hell-bent on putting up roadblocks to progress (my point of divergence from Rand comes at this point, where she says that any attempt to level the playing field is evil).

What does this have to do with anything?

Similarly, my interest is in creating a system which prioritizes what is right over what is popular. 50 million Elvis fans can be wrong. An idea should be judged by its merits, not by how many people agree with it. Ditto for people. Advocating for the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of racial minorities… these are all intrinsically linked to this idea that a meritocracy is to be desired. One should not be born into handicap simply because they are female, or gay, or black. Our system of laws should treat all people equally, and attempts to do so are laudable. Such attempts are only possible when the free speech of all citizens is protected. I am uncomfortable with banning racists or Holocaust deniers from speaking because the justification is that their speech is unpopular. Martin Luther King wasn’t popular in his day either. Do I agree with racists? Absolutely not. But any time we allow the government to arbitrarily decide that one group isn’t allowed to speak based on the fact that the majority of people don’t like it, we open up the possibility that such restrictions are possible on any unpopular speech. One such unpopular type of speech is criticism of religion, which is a fundamentally bad system of ideas. Being able to discuss, debate, and refute religious ideology is only possible when all speech is protected (except, of course, that speech which directly results in demonstrable harm to individuals).

So there it is, all threads tied together. The point of this blog is to advocate the promotion of good ideas that are based on evidence and critical thinking rather than just whatever seems popular at the moment. The point of this blog is to advocate such promotion because it will lead to an egalitarian meritocracy that is founded on principles of justice for all people. When and if my positions can be demonstrated to be either partially or wholly false, I will always do my best to adapt them to reflect that (you’ll have to forgive me if it takes me a while, nobody likes to be proven wrong). I value those who disagree with my positions – although it’s always nice to hear from those of you who think I’m right on.


TL;DR: The central idea of this blog is still evolving, but seems to be approaching advocacy of a position that promotes critical thinking and equal rights as a method to achieve a merit- and justice-based society rather than one in which whatever is popular rules.

What you missed this week: June 28th – July 2nd

What kinds of shenanigans did I get up to this week?:

Cripes! That’s a lot of shenanigans! What’s next week?:

  • I’m going to try again to tie this whole thing together;
  • I have to backtrack a bit on something I’ve said before;
  • We’re going to see some pretty bad attempts to get secularism working;
  • A disgusting example of sexism; and
  • Another TED talk.

So make sure you’re keeping your face glued to the screen!

Movie Friday: Louis CK

More standup for you today. This time it’s from perhaps my all-time favourite comedian, Louis CK. He’s been on Parks and Recreation, and was in The Invention of Lying as well (movie with a great concept but poor execution). Listening to him is like hearing my own brain talk to me, but it’s way funnier than I am.

Here’s Louis on white privilege:

On the difference between girls and women:

And one of his perhaps best-known bits, on why everything is amazing, but nobody is happy:

I’m pumped that he’s finally getting another shot at getting his own show on FX. He had one on HBO, which was amazing, but got canceled because HBO doesn’t really like laugh-track comedies. If you ever want to know what I think about something, but you want it to be much funnier than I could ever make it, ask Louis.

When religion clashes with secular values

My views on religion are not well-liked by believers. Those of you who read the comments attached to my posts may have seen a back-and-forth I had with a Baltimore-based columnist named Rene over my invocation of Russel’s teapot. I like Rene – he’s a funny guy who shares my views on people who stubbornly refuse to accept reason or evidence when it comes to vaccinating their children. However, when I applied the same reason and evidence (or lack thereof) to belief in a deity, I found myself in a fight with him.

Rene, and many of my friends who are believers, are paradoxically the best and worst kind of religious people. Best, because their religious beliefs are personal, and generally serve the purpose of helping them deal with ultimate questions of reality, or as a moral guide. Worst, because while they might deplore the things done in the name of religion, they always seem to make excuses as to why it’s okay to believe some religious things but others are clearly wrong. Worst of all, these are generally the kinds of people who don’t speak up when members of their faith do something deplorable with religious justification on their lips. “Those people aren’t real Christians/Muslims/Hindus/Sikhs/Rastafari/etc.” they say “that’s not what I believe, so there’s no need for me to say anything.” Of course this is simply trivial goal-post shifting – they believe all the same things you do, plus a bunch of stuff you don’t. If you call yourself a Christian, then it’s up to you to speak out against people who use Christianity to commit atrocities.

So today I thought I’d present a few conundrums, and ask those readers who are believers to try and explain them away.

Imagine you are an Israeli Jew, who believes that the Torah is the revealed word of God. You use scriptural guidance to make all of your decisions, particularly those that pertain to raising your children. However, a different group of Israeli Jews allow their children to watch TV and use the internet. They are full of sinful ideas, and you want to protect your children from their malevolent influence. The government says that you’re not allowed to segregate your children into their own schools. Which argument is the “correct” one – that you should be allowed to raise your children as you see fit, or that it’s in the best interest of your children not to be insulated from the outside world and remain walled off from any questioning of their parents’ religious beliefs?

Isn’t it nice to see different faiths coming together and agreeing on what’s really important in life – penises. Amazing the power that one organ can have to bring people together (but if it brings them together in the wrong way, that’s a sin). Both the Christian Bible and the Qu’ran are very clear that homosexuality is wrong (although the Bible is far more homophobic, explicitly counseling that homosexuals be killed). What are you to do as a believer when gay people are flocking to your country, fleeing persecution by your brethren? What is the reason why you can ignore some of what the Bible says (a woman should be killed if she fails to cry out while being raped), but not the other parts (homosexuals should be killed, just because)?

I seem to be picking on Kenya today… What do you do when you’re at church and your imam or priest says that a new government initiative to amend the constitution is expressly in contravention of your religious beliefs? What if the government wants to pass a law that says abortion is legal, or that doesn’t recognize the validity your religious courts, instead wanting to have one set of laws that apply to all people regardless of faith? What if they say that allying with the constitution will cause a religious war? Do you side with the creation of a secular standard of law and order, or do you follow your religious teachings?

I saved this one for you, Rene. What would you do if you were a good, God-fearing Christian who believed that God will heal the righteous, and will punish those who doubt his powers by attempting to intervene unnaturally (Matthew 9:22 – “But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.”)? Someone from the government comes and tells you that the sickness in your children, which is (like all sickness) caused by sin (John 5:14) can be prevented by the evil machinations of mankind? Do you have a responsibility to save your child’s life or their soul?

The answer from non-fundamentalist believers is that it’s okay to ignore some things in the Bible that are clearly wrong, or subject to misinterpretation. What separates misinterpretation from just regular interpretation? How do we know what’s the correct view of Biblical passages? Are we holding them to some standard of good and evil that are external to the Bible? What commandments should we follow, and which ones should we ignore? How do we know?

It’s all well and good to say “well everyone can make their own choice“, but that’s not what’s happening here. People are using their religious beliefs to justify making choices for other people. When your beliefs and my beliefs come into conflict, we have a way to resolve them that has nothing to do with faith in anything.

So I put the question to you, believers: what would you do if the government of the country you live in tried to pass a law that conflicted with your faith? What if, for whatever reason, you were forced to make a decision between your religious beliefs and a well-reasoned law that was for the good of society at large? Saying “it would never happen” is not a permissible answer to the question – it happens all the time. Laws are passed in my country and in yours that are in conflict with the Bible every day. If you were put in a corner and you had to make a decision, what would you do?

If the answer is that you would side with your faith, then you are no different (philosophically) than fundamentalists, it’s just a coincidence that your personal beliefs aren’t as strict as theirs.

If the answer is that you would side with a reasonable law, then your belief in logic and evidence is stronger than your belief in religious edicts, and I invite you to take the final step across the line and accept the fact that you don’t need religion to be a good person.

If you don’t know what you would do, or if you refuse to engage in a line of thought which causes your beliefs to come under scrutiny, then maybe you should re-examine how strong your faith is.