Religion as an axis of oppression

Earlier, when I was talking about the death of the New Atheist movement, and I mentioned the idea that New Atheism contained an implicit critique of social justice norms. In social justice, it is common to treat religion as just another axis of oppression, similar to race, gender, or orientation. Religious minorities, such as Muslims, are seen as an oppressed group. However, New Atheism problematized the social justice framing by pointing to the harm caused by religion. New Atheism wanted to make it socially acceptable to argue about religious beliefs.

So, I’m curious how this all rolled out, especially among readers who participated in New Atheism and then shifted towards social justice. How did you view religious minorities around five years ago? Have your views changed since then? If so, why?

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Atheist movement postmortems

PZ Myers recently linked to a postmortem of New Atheism written by a Jacob Hamburger, and offered his own postmortem. I looked around and it seems this is a bit of a genre, with articles appearing in The Stream, Slate Star Codex, and The New Republic.

I also wrote my own postmortem, when I finally quit atheist student groups in 2017. I would identify the problem as a lack of organization, and lack of ambition to do better. But perhaps that’s symptomatic of a movement that was simply failing to engage people, which could itself be symptomatic of even deeper problems.

I don’t think anyone really knows what caused the death of New Atheism, but it gives everybody an opportunity to raise their favorite grievances about the atheist movement, and pretend that’s why it really died. It’s fuuuuuun. Let’s look at what people are saying.

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Seeing Job from both sides

The interesting thing about the biblical story of Job is that it permits diametrically opposed interpretations. From an atheist point of view, it’s a terrible story about how terrible God is. From a Jewish or Christian point of view, they may have multiple ways of reading it, but they certainly wouldn’t see it as a terrible story about a terrible God.

But what I really want to talk about is A Serious Man, a 2009 black comedy by the Coen brothers.  A Serious Man is a retelling of Job, and just like Job it permits diametrically opposed interpretations.  But unlike the book of Job, people on both sides can enjoy A Serious Man.

The book of Job

The book of Job is about a man named Job who has had a very fortunate life.  Satan tells God that the only reason Job praises him, is because of Job’s good fortune and wealth. God accepts the challenge, and allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, his children, and his health. But Job still remains faithful to God. Thus proceeds a TL;DR dialogue between Job and his friends, where they argue that Job must have sinned, and should repent. At the end, God speaks to Job, and he doesn’t need to explain himself, he laid the foundations of the earth! In the end, Job is blessed with twice as much wealth as he started with, and with new children.

The book of Job is a popular target among atheists, because it’s just so easy. God is obviously a jerkass, allowing Job to be punished for a petty bet. God’s defense is like an abusive parent saying “Who was it that brought you into this world?” And the happy ending seems to brush aside Job’s dead children. I have to strain to see this story from the other side, but we’re gonna try.

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FTA part 4: Anthropic reasoning

This is the fourth and final part of a series discussing the Fine Tuning argument (FTA). The outline is here.

Mundane multiverses

A “multiverse” is a set of multiple sub-universes, which together comprise a single super-universe. The idea is that the universe that we know is a single sub-universe, and there are multiple other universes like ours. So we can imagine another sub-universe where everything is the same, except that ever coin flip comes up on the opposite side.  Or a sub-universe where everything is the same, but we’re all evil and have goatees. Or another sub-universe where

Typically, when physicists talk about parallel sub-universes, what they mean are non-interacting sub-universes. So, you can’t ever talk to the evil goatee’d version of yourself. Although, people sure like to imagine that sort of thing in sci-fi.  So let’s talk about the kind of parallel universe that we could, in principle, interact with. What if I told you that this kind of parallel universe is one we already know exists?

To travel to a parallel universe, just hop in a space ship, and travel 4 lightyears over to Proxima Centauri. You will find a universe exactly like ours, except that the sun is different, and the planets are different, and the constellations are different.

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FTA part 3: Ignorant hypotheses

This is the third part of a series discussing the Fine Tuning argument (FTA). The outline is here.

Uncertainty vs Ignorance

Earlier, I showed this plot showing probability distributions for three possible hypotheses of the universe. The FTA contends that the naturalism hypothesis predicts distribution A, and the God hypothesis predicts distribution B.

A graph showing three possible probability distributions. A is a very broad probability distribution. B is a sharp probability distribution centered at x_0. C is a sharp probability distribution centered away from x_0.

Three possible probability distributions. x0 marks the parameters of the universe that we have in the real world.

I will refer to a distinction that is commonly made between “uncertainty” and “ignorance”. “Uncertainty” refers to a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you at least have probabilities, a way to quantify how much you don’t know. “Ignorance” refers to a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t even know how much you don’t know. When we compare probability distributions in the FTA, the probability distributions are just cartoons.  We don’t have any real probabilities.  We’re operating from a state of ignorance, not uncertainty.

Or, in other words, we pulled these probability distributions out of our asses.

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FTA part 2: Prediction distributions and inflation

This is the second part of a series discussing the Fine Tuning argument (FTA). The outline is here.

Comparing Hypotheses

Previously, I explained how the Fine-Tuning argument assumes this kind of picture:

A graph showing the probability of life vs the parameters of the universe. The probability is sharply peaked at x_0.

The probability of life is sharply peaked. x0 marks the parameters of the universe that we have in the real world.

Does this graph mean that life is unlikely? No, not necessarily. It depends on the probability distribution of the parameters of the universe. For example, here are three possible probability distributions A, B, and C. Under probability distribution A, or C, life is very unlikely. Under probability distribution B, life is much more likely.

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The Fine-Tuning Argument: A walkthrough

The Fine-Tuning Argument (FTA) is one of those standard arguments for the existence of God. The argument goes that humans can only arise when the parameters of the universe are tuned exactly right. And while it’s possible that we just got lucky, the argument goes that it’s far more likely that God did the tuning.

The standard way to talk about the FTA is delve into a bunch of math equations.  Not that there’s anything wrong with math, but here I wanted to write an in-depth overview that doesn’t talk about the math.  There will, however, be a lot of physics.  The goal here is not to refute the FTA (although refutations will occur incidentally), but to explore it, and to understand how we test hypotheses about the universe.

Outline

(Links to be added later)

1. The Fine-Tuning Argument: A walkthrough
2. Prediction distributions and inflation
3. Ignorant hypotheses
4. Anthropic reasoning

Perma-link to entire series

The parameters of the universe

The core premise of the FTA is that the universe is fine-tuned. Which is to say, the probability of life looks like this:

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