Atheism and Uncertainty

Uncertainty

How important to atheism is the difference between absolute confidence and a fragment of uncertainty?

How important is the difference between the statement, “I think some gods are hypothetically possible, but I think they’re wildly implausible and there’s no good reason to think they exist, and unless I see some better evidence I’m going to conclude that they don’t exist”… and the statement, “I am 100% convinced that there is no God or gods”?

As regular readers know, I’ve been doing an Atheist Meme of the Day project on Facebook. (BTW, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!) Yesterday I posted the following meme:

We can acknowledge that something is hypothetically possible, and still reject it in any practical sense if it’s implausible, unsupported by any good evidence, and inconsistent with what we know about the world. Including God or the supernatural.

And it sparked a debate with an atheist who insisted that no god was even hypothetically possible, and that she was 100% certain of the non-existence of any god. A position I found myself opposing almost as passionately and stubbornly as I oppose religious beliefs.

Why?

Why do I think this difference is important? Why do I think it’s important for atheists to acknowledge that — as wildly implausible as it is, as utterly unsupported as it is by any good evidence, as thoroughly inconsistent as it is with everything we know about how the world works — at least some God hypotheses are hypothetically possible? Is there any practical difference between being 99.9999% sure that there is no God… and being 100% sure?

I think there is.

Here’s why.

For one thing: When atheists claim they can be 100% sure God does not exist, it gives theists — especially progressive and moderate theists — a big piece of ammunition. “See!” they can say. “Atheists are just as dogmatic as hard-core believers! They claim to have 100% certainty about something we can never be certain about! Atheism is just as much an article of faith as religion!”

More importantly: I think “We can’t be 100% sure that there is no God, but we can be sure enough” is a much, much stronger argument than “I am 100% sure that there is no God.”

God failed hypothesis

“We can’t be 100% sure, but we can be sure enough” puts the God hypotheses squarely into the category of any other hypothesis that’s theoretically possible but wildly implausible. It removes the question of God’s existence or lack thereof from a simple matter of opinion or faith, and projects it into the realm of real-world hypotheses: hypotheses that are always provisional, always subject to change if new evidence appears, but that we’re nevertheless willing to accept if the evidence supports them — and willing to reject if the evidence doesn’t.

In other words: It nudges believers into seeing their belief as just one more hypothesis about the world… one that, when you look carefully, isn’t very likely. It lifts the ridiculous burden of proving that atheism is 100% definitely right from atheists… and puts the burden of showing why religious belief is probably right onto believers. It pushes religious belief out of the lofty realm of “You can’t prove this, you shouldn’t expect to prove this, this is special and beyond our powers to comprehend, that’s why we need faith”… and into the down-to-earth realm of “This is a claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is — what reasons do we have to think it’s probably true?”

A realm where it doesn’t stand a chance.

And that is hugely powerful. Much, much more powerful than expressing atheism as simply one more opinion in a sea of opinions. The more we can get people to see religion as simply another hypothesis about the world, the more rapidly it’s going to dwindle.

Finally — and maybe most importantly of all –

I heart truth

I think it’s true.

I think it’s true that we can’t be 100% absolutely certain that there is no God.

Yes, there are some specific God hypotheses that are logically contradictory, and therefore impossible. (I’d argue that the all- knowing, all-powerful, all-good God who nonetheless causes great suffering and permits evil to flourish is one of them.) But many religious beliefs are textbook cases of unfalsifiable hypotheses: hypotheses that can’t be proven or disproven one way or the other. Invisible visions, inaudible voices, intangible beings, a final proof that happens after people die… all of that adds up to a big fat set of moving goalposts, beliefs that we have no evidence for but that, by their very nature, can’t be disproven with absolute certainty.

And yes, I agree that, in any useful or interesting or important sense, the possiblity that God might exist is so remote as to be… well, useless and uninteresting and unimportant. In any practical sense, I feel entirely confident in rejecting religious belief. This debate about whether atheism is 99.9999% probably true or 100% definitely true is entirely theoretical. But sometimes theory matters. And given the 99.9999% probability that we’re right, I don’t see any reason to insist on a 100% theoretical certainty that we can’t have.

Flying_Spaghetti_Monster

I mean, it is hypothetically possible that there is a God who communicates through imprecise prophets and will punish or reward us in an invisible world after we die based on how well we followed his vague, contradictory instructions. It is hypothetically possible that the fossil record was placed there by the Devil to tempt us (or by God to test our faith). It is hypothetically possible that gravity is caused by the Flying Spaghetti Monster holding us down with His invisible noodly appendages. It is hypothetically possible that we’re living in the Matrix, and everything we experience is a maliciously induced hallucination. We have absolutely no reason to think any of that is the case… but we can’t disprove it with absolute 100% certainty. That’s true.

And I care about what’s true.

The whole reason I became an atheist is that I care about what’s true. The whole reason I became an atheist is that I think reality trumps everything. Reality, by definition, is far more important than any of our opinions about it. And it’s a lot more interesting to boot. I became an atheist because I cared about reality, more than I cared about being comforted by my spiritual beliefs… or about being right.

I became an atheist because I care about what’s true.

And if we can be models for caring about what’s true more than we care about absolute certainty that our opinion is right, then I think we’re far more likely to make atheism a force to be reckoned with.

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Coincidences Happen

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I’m doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through. If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, make some of your own.

Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

“That can’t be a coincidence! It must have had a supernatural cause!” isn’t a good argument for God or the supernatural. Our minds evolved to see patterns, even where none exist; and our intuitive understanding of probability is not very good. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get through.

Simple Pleasures: A Review of “First Time”

This review originally appeared on Carnal Nation.

First_time-cover

Simple Pleasures:
First Time

Interesting scenarios about sex, simply and skillfully executed, with an eye for both the excitingly hot side of sex and the human side.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Of course, that’s harder to accomplish than it might seem…

First Time, a collection of erotic comics all drawn by different artists and written by the same author, fell into my lap a couple of weeks ago. (Conflict of interest alert: I work for a company, Last Gasp, that sells the book, which is how it fell into my lap.) When you’ve worked around porn for a long time, sometimes you can just smell when something is special. Within fifteen seconds of opening First Time, I knew I was going to love it; within three minutes of flipping through it, I knew I was going to be raving about it.

And yet, it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly makes the book so special.

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The art is good on all ten of the stories. It’s excellent on many of them: beautiful, strong, drawing you into the scenes and offering sensual pleasure purely from the ink on the page. And yet, because all ten stories are drawn by different comic artists, I’m hesitant to say that the art is what makes it special. The art varies from good to kick-ass… but it’s not what holds the book together.

What holds the book together, what makes it so special, is the writing.

But the writing isn’t lavishly beautiful, or wickedly perverse, or anything as obvious as that. What makes the writing so special is how human it is. The stories — by Sybilline, a French woman I’d never heard of before seeing this book — are deceptively simple, setting up erotic scenes in a few frames, and fleshing them out in clean language that gives the characters room to breathe. And the characters are… well, they’re characters. These aren’t the kind of erotic comics that try to turn you on by showing you hot characters with luscious bodies and voracious appetites. These are the kind of erotic comics that try to turn you on by showing you how the characters feel about the sex they’re having. Yes, the characters here are tasty and desirable… but the comics don’t get to you by making you want them. They get to you by getting you inside their desires, inside their sensations, inside their skin.

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All the stories are about first times: the first time having sex, the first time having a three-way, the first time going to a sex party, the first time buying a vibrator. And that definitely adds, not only to the humanity of the stories, but to their erotic tension. Because the comics are all about first times, every sex act in them is a sexual adventure — from submission and spanking and men getting pegged in the ass, to simple, garden-variety fucking. And unlike sexual adventures in a lot of mediocre porn, where everything moves forward with implausible plastic grace, the stories here have room for imperfection. They have room for anxiety and awkwardness, for doubt and absurdity, for mis-steps and miscommunication… for all the things that make sexual adventures actually feel thrilling and new and adventurous. The two women in the “2 + 1″ three-way story are both insecure about how they’re dressed; the woman buying the vibrator in “Sex Shop” feels self- conscious about walking into the store, and overwhelmed by too many options. All of which makes their eventual pleasure and delight feel that much more real, that much easier to identify with… and that much more triumphant. (Even the story about the sex doll — told from the doll’s point of view — gets you feeling what she’s feeling… making the story one of the most kinkily unsettling, and erotically compelling, in the book.)

I won’t say that the book is consistently brilliant. It’s always at least good; but there are definitely higher points and less- high points. Some of the artwork is stronger than others; some of the pages are more fluid, while others are a bit choppy; some of the stories are more evocative than others. Example: Olivier Vatine’s art on “Club,” the sex party story, is lush and rich, conveying the sense of infinite possibility every bit as much as the story itself. The art by Dave McKean on “X-Rated,” on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment… especially since, as a frequent Neil Gaiman collaborator, he’s probably the biggest name in the book. It’s fine, and well- executed, but it’s a bit too experimental and surreal for a book whose strength lies in its immediacy and reality. The book is lovely, it’s enticing and arousing, it’s good for a quick porny wank and for a lingering repeated read — and it’s extremely promising, I can’t wait to see what this author does next — but I’m not going to say that it’s a tour de force.

First_time-cover

What I will say is this: If you care about erotica — stories or art — then First Time should definitely be on your radar.

And if you care about erotic comics, First Time is a must-have.

First Time. Hardcover comics collection. Written by Sibylline; drawn by various artists. Published by Eurotica/NBM. Translated into English. ISBN 978-1-56163-549-8. $19.95.

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Hypothetically Possible But Implausible

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I’m doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through. If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, make some of your own.

Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

We can acknowledge that something is hypothetically possible, and still reject it in any practical sense if it’s implausible, unsupported by any good evidence, and inconsistent with what we know about the world. Including God or the supernatural. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get through.

Atheism and History: A Grandiose Thought

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I was thinking about the atheist movement the other day, and I had what I freely admit is a very grandiose thought. I’m actually a little embarrassed to say it in public: but I’ve been finding it inspiring and sustaining as well as grandiose, and it seemed like a thought my readers might be interested in, so I decided to get over my embarrassment and just say it out loud. (Some of you may already have reached this conclusion, btw, in which case I’ll be even more embarrassed for being late to the party… but oh, well. Part of writing fearlessly means saying what I have to say without fear of making an ass of myself.)

The thought is this.

If the atheist movement succeeds?

If those of us who are trying to persuade people out of religion, those of us who are offering atheism as an alternative, eventually succeed?

If current trends continue, and the number of people who don’t believe in God continues to grow larger and larger, until eventually everybody (or almost everybody) abandons the idea entirely?

It will be one of the most important developments in human history.

Zeus_Louvre_G204

Think about it. For the entirety of human history, our thinking about the world has included religion, as a crucial, even central, part of our world view. As far as we can tell, human beings have believed in gods, spirits, and supernatural entities for as long as we’ve been human beings. And these beliefs have been a powerful force in shaping how we think and act. They’ve shaped the broadest sweeps of political history, and they’ve shaped the most intimate and important personal choices of individuals. For thousands upon thousands of years.

If atheists — or those atheists (like me) who are working to persuade people out of religion and welcome them into atheism — are eventually successful?

Historians History of the World

It will be one of the most important developments in human history. It will be like the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. It will be the sort of thing historians write about. People will see human history as divided into two eras: When We Believed In Gods, and When We Stopped Believing In Gods.

I told you this was a grandiose thought.

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to bring this thought up. But ever since it occurred to me, I’ve been finding it comforting, and sustaining. Inspiring, even. When I’m up against one of the 37 Terrible Arguments for Religion for the five hundredth time? When I’m butting my head against one of the many pieces of armor that religion has built to protect itself from any sort of questioning or criticism? When I’m debating people who think I’m a bad person just for trying to make my case? I’ve been finding it comforting, and sustaining, and inspiring, to remember what a huge struggle we’re involved in, and what a massive impact it could have an human history.

It’s a sustaining thought for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it helps me have empathy with the believers I’m debating and trying to persuade. It reminds me that when we ask people to consider giving up their religion, we’re actually asking a lot. I don’t think what we’re asking is unreasonable, or unfair, or wrong… but it’s a lot. We’re not simply asking people to give up a major foundation of their life, a major component of their sense of meaning and their place in the world. We’re asking them to participate in a massive, serious shift in human thought. It’s kind of a big deal.

Patience

It’s also helping to give me patience. Realizing what a tremendous societal shift we’re trying to create… it reminds me that this is going to be a long struggle, one that I almost certainly won’t see achieved in my lifetime. It helps me be patient in my one- on- one debates and engagements; and it helps me be patient with the molasses- like change that’s happening in the broader political and legal and social arenas. When I feel like I’m banging my head against a rock, it helps to remember that major social change is slow in coming, and the effect is rarely sudden. It’s more like water on stone.

And maybe most importantly:

It helps me feel like this fight is worth fighting.

When I get frustrated and discouraged, when I start to wonder whether this particular rock is one that’s worth banging my head against… I remember how big and important the thing is that we’re trying to do. Even the remote possibility that I might be part of one of the major sweeping changes in human history? Even the remote possibility that I might be a small footnote in one of the more obscure histories written about this movement 200 years from now? Even the remote possibility that, out of the billions of minds we hope to eventually change, I’ll have been partially responsible for changing one thousandth of one percent? That’s enough to sustain me through a whole lot of dark nights of the soul. (Or, more accurately, the soulless.)

Utopia

Now, before I go totally off into the grandiose deep end, I do feel compelled to add some caveats. First, and very importantly: I don’t think this change will bring about a utopia, or anything resembling a utopia. I do think it will be an improvement: I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, I think on the whole it does more harm than good, and I think humanity would be better off without it. But I’m not naive enough to think letting go of religion will bring an end to all wars, all bigotries, all hatreds, all frauds, all shoddy excuses for bad behavior, all manipulations of the weak by the powerful. I’m a dreamer, but I’m not totally high.

We also might not be successful. It may be that the impulse towards religion, and the human psychological wiring that leads to it, are so strong that humanity as a whole will simply never let go of it. It may be that the most atheists will ever achieve is an increase in our numbers, and an increase in tolerance and acceptance by non-atheists, and a better separation of church and state. Worthwhile goals, to be sure, and significant in their own right… but not quite as grand as bringing about the Post- God Era of Humanity.

Plus, we have to last long enough as a species for this change to make any difference. If we don’t get global warming and clean water supplies and nuclear disarmament and whatnot handled, we may not stick around long enough to see this change take place… or for it to matter.

Galaxies

And, of course, we’re still only one big rock circling one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies. And in a couple billion years that one star will have become so hot that all life on Earth will be obliterated… thus rendering the whole question moot. (Whenever I start to get grandiose about my importance in the scheme of things, these brute facts usually drag me back into perspective.)

I get all that.

I’m just saying:

What we’re doing has potential to be, within the limited perspective of humanity, huge. What we’re doing has potential to be one of the most important developments in human history.

And if it helps us be patient; if it helps us be empathetic; if it helps us stay strong and resilient in the face of frustrations and setbacks… then let’s remember that.

Blog Carnivals!

Carnival

Blog carnivals!

For those of you who don’t understand this whole Blog Carnival thing: A blog carnival is a roundup of blog posts on a particular topic. If you’re looking for good blog posts about liberal politics or humanist philosophy or knitting or whatever, it’s a good way of finding them. And it’s a good way of branching out and finding good new bloggers who you might not have been aware of. Check them out! They’re nifty! (And if you’re looking for ways to boost your traffic and draw some new eyes to your blog, you might consider hosting one. Carnival organizers are always looking for new hosts.)

Here are some that I think are particularly neat, and that I participate in often.

Humanist Symposium #43, at Prior Perceptions. A carnival of positive godless blogging: atheist blogging devoted, not to criticizing religion (or not solely to it), but to offering positive humanist philosophies and strategies. Probably my favorite blog carnival of all.

Carnival of the Godless #126, at An Apostate’s Chapel. A carnival of atheist blogging… that isn’t necessarily positive, and that does sometimes criticize religion and bring the snark. Good times.

Skeptic’s Circle #120, at Pro-Science. Blogging about skeptical, reason-based approaches to religion, science, medicine, and just life in general.

Carnival of the Liberals #97, at BroadSnark. Liberal pinko bleeding heart blogging. I’ll be hosting the next edition, appropriately enough on Halloween. Please send your liberal pinko bleeding heart blog posts through the blog carnival hosting site.

Share and enjoy!

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Natural Explanations

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I’m doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through.
If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, make some of your own.

Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

In human history, natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones many thousands of times. Supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never. So how likely is it that any currently unexplained phenomenon is supernatural? Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get through.

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Debate is Not Dogma

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I’m doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through.

If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, make some of your own.

Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

Saying “I think I’m probably right, and here are my reasons why” is not intolerant, narrow- minded, dogmatic, or superior. It’s the marketplace of ideas. And that’s just as true about atheism as it is about anything else. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get through.

Part 2 of “When Lacy LeTush Went Blue, Blue, Blue!”, Now on Fishnet

Fishnet logo

I know. I’m such a tease. Yesterday I promised you a nice dirty story… but all you got was Part 1. But now Part 2 is up! The conclusion of “When Lacy LeTush Went Blue, Blue, Blue!” by Thomas S. Roche is now up on Fishnet, the online erotic fiction magazine that I edit. Here’s the teaser:

Lacy was down on her hands and knees wearing nothing but fishnet stockings and marabou-fluffed heels. She spun onto her back, scissored up and writhed her way to the chair. Never got used to the smooth look, eh? Here, pal, get a faceful.

To read more, read the rest of the story’s conclusion. And if you missed Part 1, here it is. (Not for anyone under 18.) Enjoy!

Atheist Memes on Facebook: Atheists Have Morality

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I’m doing a project on my Facebook page: The Atheist Meme of the Day. Every weekday, I’m going post a short, pithy, Facebook-ready atheist meme… in the hopes that people will spread them, and that eventually, the ideas will get through.

If you want to play, please feel free to pass these on through your own Facebook page, or whatever forum or social networking site you like. Or if you don’t like mine, make some of your own.

Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day:

Atheists have morality, as much as religious believers. We just don’t think our moral compass is planted in us by God or supernatural forces, and we don’t think fear of God’s punishment is necessary to be a good person. We base our morality in this life: our empathy with others, and our observations about what causes suffering and happiness. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get through.