Thanks

I was planning to put this up on Thursday, but I was out of town for the long Thanksgiving weekend, and it turned out that I didn’t have wireless access and couldn’t connect my laptop to the Internet. Sorry for the late-itude. I’m home now, and will be back to my regular blogging schedule as soon as I get some sleep.

Cafe_gratitudeIt’s traditional, on or around Thanksgiving, for writers to write about the things they’re grateful for. Family and friends; happiness and comfort; health and home — these typically lead the pack.

Of course I’m deeply grateful for all that. But I don’t think I have anything very original or interesting to say about it. So I want to say this instead:

I’m grateful for the atheist blogosphere.

(Or, as I’ve been calling it lately, the atheosphere.)

Scarlet_aThe quote unquote “new atheist” movement, and in particular the atheist blogosphere, has given me the sense of being part of something bigger than myself. It’s given me the experience of participating in an important social movement that’s changing society in ways nobody can predict, and that’s touching people I will never meet or even know about. It makes me feel both powerful and humble… both in really cool, amazing ways.

BlogrollI haven’t felt this way since I was immersed in the dildo wars, the raging debate over porn and sex toys and bisexuality and SM in the feminist/ lesbian communities of the late ’80s and early ’90s. When I get emails or comments from people saying that I changed the way they think or live, that I helped them out of a suffocating religion or inspired them to write, it gives me that rare flush you get when the chatterbox in your head shuts up for ten seconds and you feel completely present in your skin, and in your world. It makes me feel alive, and connected, and like the meaning of my life is being fulfilled. Being part of the atheist blogosphere makes me feel like part of history; like I’m jumping into the river and helping to shape its direction, instead of just camping out on the riverbank watching it go by.

And it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

For all of that, I’m grateful.

Grateful_shirtGratitude can be a tricky emotion for the godless. When we feel grateful for good fortune that we didn’t particularly earn, we don’t always know who to thank for it. Sometimes there isn’t anyone to thank, and the gratitude just sort of floats out into the ether with no object to attach to, in a way that feels vaguely disconcerting.

But in this case, there are people to thank. And so I’m thanking them.

I’m not going to thank all my favorite atheist bloggers by name. I know I’d miss someone, and that wouldn’t be right. But I am inexpressibly grateful that, when I started to blog, the atheist blogosphere, and the contemporary atheist movement, was here for me to come home to. Y’all rock.

Atheist Limericks!

Over at Friendly Atheist they’re having a contest for who can write the best atheist limerick. I’ve submitted several of my own, and thought y’all might like to see them.

First, I just had to do a Nantucket one:

NantucketAn apologist man from Nantucket
Had excuses that started to suck it.
His mind twisted and turned
And he feared he would burn,
‘Til at last he decided, “Oh, fuck it.”

Then we have the one actually based on my own blog:

PreacherSaid the Reverend, “I know I’m too smart
To rely on just faith a la carte.
My belief isn’t treason
It has evidence and reason –
Like this warm fuzzy glow in my heart.”

Then there’s the one that I consider the best of the lot (although it does require some familiarity with standard atheist/ creationist debates):

FlagellaWhy reject our dear Lord’s great command
When the reasons for faith are so grand?
There’s the Bible so sweet
The flagellum so neat
And bananas fit right in your hand!

And finally, we have my sentimental favorite:

Harry_potter_half_blood_princeHarry Potter’s a sin? Quick! Escape!
From the Christians who’d whip me in shape!
But I’d join any church
Leave my pals in the lurch
If it meant I could do it with Snape.

If you want to pitch in with your own, please do. But do cross-post at Friendly Atheist, since that’s where the contest is, and some of the submissions are doozies.

True or False? Helpful or Harmful? The Two Different Arguments About Religion

ArgueThere’s something I’ve been noticing lately about the ongoing, increasingly-robust religion/ atheism debate. And that’s that it’s really two debates. Very different debates… which sometimes get confused and conflated.

By both believers and atheists.

God_failed_hypothesisThere’s the debate about whether religion is true or false. God, the immortal soul, mystical spiritual energy — do they exist, or do they not exist? Is religion an accurate hypothesis about the world, or is it a mistaken one?

Or, to be more accurate, since the God hypothesis can’t be definitely disproven: How plausible is it that God exists? Is it a reasonable hypothesis supported by evidence, or is it a self-contradictory myth that requires a metric shitload of circular defense mechanisms to support it?

God_is_not_greatAnd then there’s the debate about whether religion, on the whole, has a positive or negative influence on the world. Does it provide comfort, hope, social cohesion? Does it promote gullibility, intolerance, the rejection of reality in favor of dogma? If both, then which is more common, or more important? Can the good things done in the name of religion really be chalked up to religious belief itself, or would people have done them anyway, and religion just gave them the inspiration? What about the bad things done in the name of religion, ditto?

WorldofwarcraftnoobIn this debate, one side typically lines up Gandhi, Martin Luther King, charities and hospitals run by religious groups for centuries, etc. The other side lines up the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, witch burning, 9/11, and so on. And these avatars for religious evil and religious good all duke it out on the Internet, like some wild, absurdist multi-player computer game. (The Simpsons episode where Homer’s hallucinations and Mr. Burns’s hallucinations get into a battle in the ski cabin comes to mind…)

The thing is, these really are two different debates. Religion could theoretically be correct, but still overall be a harmful influence on human society. And it could theoretically be mistaken, but still overall have a beneficial effect. (Although… well, we’ll get to that in a moment.)

Martin_luther_king_jr_nywts_6_2Spanish_inquisition_monty_pythonBut I’ve noticed that these debates tend to slop over into each other. People will be arguing over whether some piece of religious doctrine is plausible… and then someone will start going on about Martin Luther King or the Inquisition.

Bible1God_delusionThe reverse also happens, of course. People will be debating whether religious charities and social movements outweigh religious atrocities and intolerances, or whether it’s the other way around… and then someone starts saying, “But it doesn’t matter, because my religion is the Truth, inspired by the True God, and all the religious atrocities in the world aren’t an argument for why it’s false.” Or they start saying, “But it doesn’t matter, because religion is a mistaken theory about how the world works, and all the charities in the world aren’t an argument for why it’s true.” The slopover happens from both sides.

Question_1_2Question_2And that makes for some very muddled, meandering, frustrating debates. It is worth remembering that each side could theoretically be right about one of these questions and wrong about the other. Again, religion could theoretically be correct, but still overall have a harmful influence on human society. And it could theoretically be mistaken, but still overall have a beneficial effect. These really are two separate arguments, and I think we might be better off keeping them separate.

Except…

See, here’s what makes this even more confusing. Here I am, arguing that these are two separate debates, and that in the interest of clarity we should try to keep them separate.

But I also think they’re connected.

Because if religion is mistaken — and I think that it is — then that makes it harmful.

By definition.

FishBasing your life on a false premise is going to lead to you bad decisions. It’s the old “garbage in, garbage out” saying about data processing. You can see this in very mundane, practical areas of life. If you think fish are poisonous and inedible, you’re more likely to starve and die out when you move to an island nation. If you think malaria is caused by unhealthy vapors in the atmosphere, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about public health policy. Etc.

With_god_on_our_sideOf course this applies to religious premises as well. Possibly even more so. If you believe in a rain god, you’re more likely to make bad decisions in times of drought. If you believe that God will be on your side in all battles because he wants your people to conquer the world, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about military strategy and foreign policy. If you believe the Apocalypse is coming in the next century, you’re more likely to make bad decisions about the need to prevent global warming.

And when the premise is not only a false one, but one that actively resists correction the way religion does — one that actually has an elaborate system of defenses against correction — the “garbage in, garbage out” problem is compounded.

JimandtammyfayeIn particular, the idea that religious faith (i.e., believing in something for which there is no hard evidence and can be no hard evidence) is in itself a virtue, something that makes you a good person… this idea leads both individuals and societies not only to a resistance to reality that contradicts their faith, but to a general gullibility. It makes people extra-vulnerable to faith healers, charlatans, frauds of all stripes, from Jim Bakker to Richard Roberts. And that’s harmful for very obvious, very pragmatic reasons.

So in other words:

Joan_of_arc_burning_at_stakeEven if there were no religious intolerance or oppression; no Spanish Inquisition or 9/11; nobody burned at the stake for being Protestant or Catholic or insisting that the earth moves around the sun… even if none of the awful shit that happens in religion’s name ever happened, or had ever happened in all of human history, I think religion would still, on the whole, have a harmful effect.

Simply because it is mistaken.

Breaking_the_spellWhat’s more, I agree with the point Daniel Dennett made in “Breaking the Spell.” He argues that, because religion isn’t based on actual reliable evidence but only on tradition and personal experience and other stuff people made up, and is in many cases flatly contradicted by both evidence and reason, this actually makes people cling to it harder, defend it more passionately… and behave more oppressively and intolerantly towards non-believers and infidels and others who put chinks in the armor.

IntoleranceObviously there are exceptions to this rule. There are individual people and individual faiths that are tolerant and ecumenical, towards people of different faiths and towards people with no faith at all. But alas, hostile intolerance toward those who don’t share the faith appears to be the rule in religion, not the exception… so much so that it seems to be, not a foundational cornerstone of religion exactly, but one of its most natural and common consequences. Intolerance towards doubters and outsiders is one of religion’s primary defense mechanisms, one of the main ways that it stays alive.

So back to the actual topic at hand:

I do still think that, as a general rule, the “true or false” and the “helpful or harmful” arguments are different arguments, and that the religion debates would be more productive if they were kept more separate.

But I also think it’s worth remembering this:

A mistaken idea is pretty much always a harmful idea.

Just by definition.

Evolution of the Blog

SpanishinqSpanish Inquisitor, I could kiss you.

I have to give an enormous grateful shout-out to Mr. Inquisitor. He tagged me with one of these “blog tag” memes, this one being “Pick out five blog posts that illustrate the evolution of your blog, link to them, and comment on them.”

ScreamSo I was going through my archives trying to pick out the five posts that summed up my blog’s development… and I thought, “You know, I’d really like for the last one to be that Atheists and Anger piece I keep wanting to write. That would sum up the evolution of my blog quite nicely. I should just get off my duff and do it.”

I’d been wanting to write that piece for ages. But I knew it would be painful to write, and I knew it would piss people off, so I kept procrastinating. When I got tagged with this meme, though, I knew I wanted Atheists and Anger to be the capper… and I finally got off the pot and wrote it.

The blog post that changed my life.

I owe you one, dude.

Origin_of_speciesAnyway, here’s the meme. The evolution of my blog, summed up in five posts. Except I’m expanding it to six. Okay, seven. Fine, if you’re going to be a fascist about it — eight. But I’m counting two of them as one, so it’s really seven.

So I’m breaking the rules. So sue me. I’m a rebel, and I’ll never, ever be any good.

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Godless is the New Black: Is Atheism Just a Trend?

Vogue“This atheism thing is just a trend.”

“I’m so bored with this atheism fad.”

“You’re just calling yourself an atheist because it’s cool right now, and everyone else is doing it.”

“Oh boy, another hanger-on to the (Dawkins/ Hitchens/ whoever) bandwagon.” (I was particularly entertained when a recent commenter in this blog accused me of parroting Hitchens — when I haven’t even read his damn book yet.)

“You’re just being trendy.”

Hula_hoopsI’m beginning to see this argument — if you can call it that — a fair amount lately. The newly visible, newly vocal atheist movement… it’s just people trying to be cool, jumping on the bandwagon, finding a new and exciting way to piss off their parents. Denying the existence of God, restructuring your life philosophy to a naturalistic worldview with no permanence and no intent behind it… it’s just a fad.

Like hula-hoops, or swallowing goldfish.

So I want to talk about the trendiness of the atheist movement.

And for the 4,626th time, I’m going to make an analogy to the gay rights movement.

PhiladelphiaThere was a period of the gay rights movement, right around the early ’90s, when “gay” suddenly became very trendy indeed. The news media was doing tons of stories on us; movies and TV shows were being made about us in droves; publishers were publishing our books; politicians were sucking up to us; advertisers were all over us like white on rice.

And then the trendiness passed. Fewer news stories, fewer movies and TV shows, fewer books being published just because they were about being queer. (I suppose I should be sad about this last one, but it’s hard to work up much grief over it, since a lot of those books were really, really bad.)

Now for today’s lesson.

Does any of that mean that the queer movement wasn’t important? That being queer and coming out was just a fad, a flash in the pan, something people did to be cool? That the queer movement was, and is, trivial?

No. Of course not.

Same_sex_weddingThe queer movement had been happening for decades before it became trendy. And it’s continued to carry on after the trendiness faded. It’s continued to have major social impact, has continued to shape culture and public policy. Our visibility continues to increase — not in an, “Oh, my goodness, gay people!” way, but in a “taking us for granted and just assuming we’re part of the picture” way. The trendiness came and went; the movement continues.

In fact, none of the trendiness had anything to do with the actual queer movement itself. Nothing had happened within the queer movement to make us trendy. We hadn’t all suddenly started dressing cool or something. (We’ve always dressed cool.)

What had happened was that our visibility had achieved a sufficient critical mass for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice.

Newsweek_lesbiansThe trendiness was not created by us. The trendiness was created by the mainstream world, the largely-straight world. We were willing to ride the wave and use it to our best advantage; but the wave was not of our own making, except insofar as our efforts towards greater visibility and recognition created the conditions in which it could happen.

So what does this have to do with atheism?

Borders_displayIt would be foolish to deny that atheism has a certain cachet right now. Atheism is trendy — in the sense that the mainstream world, the mostly-not-atheist world, is suddenly realizing that we’re here… and is finding us fascinating.

Does that mean that atheism is “just a trend”? That atheists are “just being trendy,” and when the fad passes most of us will move on to some other popular philosophy?

No. Of course not.

2000_years_of_disbeliefLike the queer movement, the atheist movement had been going on for some time before it suddenly became trendy. And it would surprise me a lot to see it just disappear. There is a world of difference between the realistic acknowledgment that atheism is somewhat trendy right now… and the dismissive attitude that it’s “just a trend,” or that atheists ourselves are doing it “just to be trendy.”

The fact that atheism is having a big rush of attention and prominence in the public discourse right now doesn’t mean that it’s “just a trend.” Quite the opposite. I think the trendiness phase is a natural side effect of any movement whose numbers and visibility have reached a certain critical mass.

Lindy_hopI’m sure there’ll come a point when there are fewer atheist books being published, fewer articles about atheism in the newspapers, fewer people gassing on about atheism on talk shows. But that won’t mean that atheism will just disappear into the invisible margins again. Again, I think it’ll be the opposite. Atheism won’t lose its trendiness when the “fad” passes, when everyone stops doing salsa and starts swing dancing instead. It’ll lose its trendiness when it starts being taken for granted. It’ll lose its trendiness when it becomes part of the cultural and political landscape.

Blaise_pascalBesides… do you really think people could become atheists just on a whim? Any more than people could become queer on a whim? They’re obviously not exactly parallel situations — I don’t think anyone is claiming that people are born atheist, the way people seem to be born queer — but belief isn’t subject to your wishes in that way. You can’t make yourself not believe in God when you really do… any more than you can make yourself believe in God when you really don’t. It’d be like Pascal’s Wager in reverse.

HipsterThe “atheism is just trendy” trope is essentially a way of trivializing atheism and the atheist movement… without actually taking the trouble to point out anything that’s wrong with it, or to engage in debate with people who are part of it.

It’s the cool, detached, hipster’s way of dismissing the movement without bothering to think about it.

And phooey on that.

MeangirlsIf you don’t want to engage with or think about the atheist movement, then don’t. Nobody’s making you. But if you don’t have anything to say about it, then don’t say anything about it. Don’t go into atheist blogs and forums, don’t get into conversations and debates about the atheist movement, if all you’re going to do is unthinkingly dismiss us by saying that our movement is “just a trend.” It’s insulting and trivializing to us… and it makes you look like a high school kid who thinks that not caring about anything makes you look cool.

Carnivals: Godless, Feminists, and Pozitivities

Blog carnivals!

CarnivalCarnival of the Godless #79 is up at Aardvarchaeology. My pieces this time: How Can You Have Meaning Without… ? and The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many. My favorite other posts in this Carnival: Why I Am an Optimist by Franklin, on why he finds atheism to be a more optimistic philosophy than theism; Religious Privilege: How Religion, Religious Groups, and Beliefs are Privileged from Austin Cline at About.com; and The Night I Stopped Believing by Susie Bright. This is, I believe, Susie’s first entry into the Carnival, so go say hi and make her feel welcome.

Carnival_1Carnival of Feminists #47 is up at Ornamenting Away. I don’t have any pieces in this carnival, but it still manages to be a good carnival nevertheless. My favorite piece: The Rule, by Natasha at Homo Academicus, on Alison Bechdel’s Movie Rule (“1. There must be two or more women in it; 2. Who talk to each other; 3. About something other than a man”) and how it applies to Pixar films.

Carnival_2And the International Carnival of Pozitivities is up at Slimconomy. This is the first time I’ve been in this carnival, a carnival devoted to HIV and AIDS, and I’m pleased and honored to be part of it with my piece Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance. My favorite other piece in this carnival: HIV/AIDS: The Brazilian Response at The AIDS Pandemic. Happy reading, everybody!

Macro-evolution” Vs. “Micro-evolution”: More Video Fun

Correction to this piece: I was apparently mistaken about the use of the terms “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution” by reputable biologists. My apologies. I still stand by the gist of this piece and the video it links to; but I regret the error and any confusion it may have caused.

And now, yet another video from my new science video hero, cdk007.

Transitional_fossilsThis one is on the supposed difference between “micro” and “macro” evolution. In case you’re not familiar: One of the arguments used by creationists is that, while of course “micro-evolution” (i.e., the evolution of small changes within a species) can be observed in the field and in the lab, “macro-evolution” (i.e., the evolution of one species to another) hasn’t been observed… and therefore it can’t happen by itself, and needs an intelligent designer to intervene and make it happen.

First, just so everyone’s clear: “Macro-evolution” and “micro-evolution” are made-up words concocted by creationists to make themselves sound scientific. Biologists don’t use them. They’re scientifically meaningless. They’re just different stages in the evolutionary process; “macro” is just “micro” over a longer period of time.

Also, “macro-evolution” (if people insist on calling it that) has been observed, both in the field and in the lab. Just so we’re clear.

So this video makes clear the absurdity of this argument, with a beautiful and elegant analogy. Video after the jump.

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“If he is infinitely good…”

Just got this in my Quotation of the Day email list, and thought I’d pass it on:

“If he is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him? If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future? If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him?”

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), from The Necessity of Atheism.

Damn. Leave it to a Regency poet to state the “Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent — pick two” paradox in such a beautiful, eloquent way.

Solipsism 101, Or, Why “What Is Reality?” Is Not An Argument Against Evolution, Or, Why Scott Adams Is An Idiot

I was having way too much fun at Friendly Atheist the other day, and Ingrid insisted that I share the joke with the rest of the class.

Warning: I have disabled my snark checker for this post.

Try_rebooting_yourselfSo via Friendly Atheist comes this story of Scott Adams — yes, of “Dilbert” fame — who is apparently some sort of anti-evolution Galileo fallacy crank. Except only sort of, and in this totally half-assed way. He said the following in an interview on the Freakonomics blog:

Q: What do you see as the actual flaws in the Darwin-esque explanations for evolution, and what possibilities can you see for alternate explanations of the phenomena and evidence?

A: Evolution passes all the tests of science to be treated as a fact. But if physicists someday demonstrate that our perception of reality has no connection to actual reality, which I consider likely, then evolution is just a point of view, albeit a useful one.

My main criticism of evolution has to do with the way it is presented to the public. And beyond that, I enjoy yanking the chain of people who think they believe things for actual reasons as opposed to taking a side.

Okay. Deep breath. Solipsism 101, for Scott Adams, the very slow student in the back:

EscherIf our perception of reality bears no connection to actual reality, then NOTHING we see or know or understand is true. NO theory of reality is better than any other. NO theory has more evidence to support it than any other theory — since all evidence is false.

Therefore.

We need to either discard the “our perception of reality bears no connection to actual reality” theory as both useless and highly unlikely (after all, how likely is it that our species would have survived if our perceptions bore no connection whatsoever to reality)…

…or STOP WASTING THE CLASS’S TIME WITH YOUR STUPID ARGUMENTS! If no theory is any better than any other, then why are you wasting all our time trying to convince us that yours is right?

ManusingmicroscopeNow, if your point is that our perception of reality distorts actual reality… like, duh. But that, in fact, is exactly why we have the scientific method — to screen out human error and bias and the distortions of our perception and understanding, as much as we possibly can.

And the theory of evolution is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific method, from every relevant scientific discipline there is.

In other words, that’s not an argument against evolution.

It’s an argument for it.

MatrixdvdI mean… “what is reality?” You’re really trying to argue “what is reality?” “What is reality?” is only interesting to college freshman. Maybe college sophomores, if they smoke too much weed. It’s an important point to understand… but it’s also an important point to move past already. As many commenters on F.A. pointed out — what, you think we’re living in the Matrix?

GalileoAnd as to the part about liking to yank people’s chains: Oh, for the love of Mike. Not the gadfly fallacy again. “Geniuses throughout history have gotten under people’s skin and made them angry. I get under people’s skin and make them angry. Therefore, I must be a genius.”

If that were true, then Bill O’Reilly would be freakin’ Einstein.

“What is reality.” Please. Grow up. As people in the F.A. comment thread pointed out, when your opponent starts saying, “Well, how do we know what’s real, anyway?” you know you’ve won the argument.

And on that note, I’d like to leave you with yet another video from cdk007, YouTube science video maker par excellence. Titled “All Ideas are NOT Created Equal,” it’s a very clear, very funny video explanation of why we don’t, in fact, have to give all ideas equal time and equal weight. Tagline: “Truth is not a democracy.” Video after the jump.

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