What you missed this week: May 2nd-7th

If you weren’t paying attention this week, I:

Be sure to tune in this week when I:

  • Talk about why “colour blindness” is a very bad idea;
  • Break character for a moment to talk about something dear to my heart;
  • Talk about some things that make me happy;
  • Highlight the rising number of interracial marriages; and
  • Show you some cartoons!

So make sure you tune in, because you don’t want to miss all the good stuff!

Movie Friday: Dave Chappelle – Native Americans

Dave Chappelle is one of the most insightful comedians in the US. It’s sad that most people are forever going to know him only for his Rick James impression. Here’s a bit of his standup:

I see a lot of parallels between the black struggle for economic and political power in Canada and that of the First Nations. Obviously there are real differences – Native people have been here for generations and were supplanted by European settlers; black people were forcibly kidnapped and taken to North America as slave labour. There are real historical differences, but many of the after-effects are similar. Racialicious has many authors speaking from the Native perspective, and I am learning a lot. If the topic interests you at all, you should check them out.

Critical Mass of crazy

In physics, there is a term called ‘critical mass’ which describes the minimum possible amount of fissile material required to generate a self-powered nuclear chain reaction. If there is less than this critical mass available for the reaction, it will not happen.

This concept can be applied sociologically, partially to explain why the forces of stupid seem to be less prevalent here in Canada than we see in the States. The United States of America (population 307 million as of June, 2009) is nearly ten times larger than Canada (population 33.3 million). That means that for every person and personality you see here in Canada there are, demographically speaking, around 10 more like that in the USA. 75% of Canadians live along a long (nearly 9,000 km) strip of land, with cities spread out over many miles. As a result of this confluence of geography and population size, Canadians are relatively more spread out than our southern neighbours.

So when someone has a crazy idea (like immigrants are putting salsa in the water supply, or that the government is stealing their dreams), it’s much harder for them to find an audience for that idea in Canada. There’s simply fewer people around, and fewer still that are willing to listen. As a result, the ideas that take root in Canada will tend to be closer to the mainstream, simply due to the fact that the most bizarre ones won’t go very far.

However, in the United States, there are 10 times as many people around to hear the weirdo ideas. You are, therefore, 10 times more likely to have someone listen to and believe your theory that dental fillings are how secret Illuminati wizards are polluting your semen with atheism. You’re 10 times more likely to have the opportunity to gather like-minded people under your banner of insanity. Once an idea is represented by a group, it gathers credibility – much like a supercritical nuclear reaction increases in energy as it goes along. Soon, you’ve got a political lobby demanding sperm screening of all political candidates who have ever had a cavity.

There needs to be a sufficient number of people in relatively easy contact with each other to allow a dumb idea to gain enough speed to be self-fueled. Just like with a nuclear reaction, a bad idea (or even a good idea that’s before its time) will peter out when it lacks the numbers required to sustain it. The disparity we can see between the market for craziness, the government distrust and splinter groups we see in the USA may at least partially explained by this critical mass issue.

Of course you might be thinking “why doesn’t India or China have 30 times the crazy of Canada?” India is actually closer to ancient Greece – a collection of non-federated city-states that is nominally under the control of a centralized government. China on the other hand is completely under the control of its centralized government. If you aren’t allowed to speak your crazy ideas for fear of having the Glorious People’s Secret Police come knocking at your door, you’re probably not going to be forming any political parties or lobbies. The USA and Canada are nation-states with closely-held free speech laws.

Free speech is clearly one o’ them double-edged swords.

Almost as if on cue…

The day I post about religion, sex and hypocrisy, an anti-gay crusader gets busted for hiring a male prostitute to “carry his luggage” on an international trip. Again, they’re not even trying to make my job difficult.

I’d talk about it at length, but CLS over at Classically Liberal has done a great job already:

The young man to the left is looking for work: he is willing to trade value for value. Fair enough. His employment ad mentions his skills and sought after attributes. He offers “good times,” “escort for days” and is “uncut, versatile, nice ass.” He is “For a sensual meet or companionship” and promises to “do anything you say as long as you ask.” He says he is bisexual, has a “large” cock and has specialties: “Vanilla, Leather, Anal, Oral, Shaving, Spanking, Role Playing, Kissing, Toys, Feet.” He is also available for modeling, go-go dancing, stripping and massage. He is multi-talented clearly.

Apparently we are also supposed to believe his most sought after talent is carrying luggage.

Also be sure to check out CLS’s previous post on free speech and the religious double-standard. It’s good stuff.

Religion and sex

You might think it a bit strange that since I started blogging my anti-religious rage, I haven’t mentioned the huge sexual abuse scandal that’s rocking the Roman Catholic Church. You might think that I would be salivating at the chance to tear the RCC a new one, since it’s the most obvious and wide-spread target for my particular brand of smug, arrogant smack-down. Yet I have been strangely silent about the whole thing. Am I biased because I grew up Catholic? Am I picking on all religions except Christianity?

Hardly. The reason I haven’t mentioned anything about the abuse cases is because everyone is talking about them. You don’t need me throwing my opinion into the fray like a drop in the ocean. The RCC has the longest and worst track record of any religious organization. They have so infiltrated the world that it’s impossible to pull their roots of influence out of daily life. The reason Christianity is entrenched so many places in the world is because the political wing of the church partnered with the military arm of the Roman empire and spread the disease of blind religious faith all over an unprepared world. At every turn, we can see examples of the Church standing in between mankind and philosophical and technological progress, demanding that we plug our ears and shut our eyes to the evidence simply because they don’t want to lose their political influence. I stopped believing in the Church years before I stopped believing in God.

One of the purposes of this blog is to highlight the fact that all religion is evil. The only way to derive good from religious belief is to ignore most of its teachings, and pay lip-service to the neutral ones (fasting, holidays, saints, church services, prayer, etc.). This type of lukewarm religious practice one step away from secularism that people (myself formerly included) are for some reason terrified to take. Well of course the reason is obvious: it’s been drummed into us since our great-grandparents were in the womb.

Religion tells us to turn off our critical mind and simply accept assertions as truth because a “holy” person says so. It puts knowledge of YahwAlladdah in the hands of priests or rabbis or imams or gurus or other men (it’s usually men), which imbues them with some kind of sacred authority. It exhorts us to implicitly trust those people because they are somehow more virtuous and wise than we poor sinner laypeople.

And then they use that trust to fuck us, both figuratively and literally:

Nithyananda Swami, a Hindu holy man, stepped down last month as head of a religious organization based in the southern city of Bangalore. His announcement came after a video apparently showing him engaging in sexual acts with two women.

It’s not an isolated incident (as the RCC clearly shows us) or peculiar to one religion. As the famous saying, known as “Lord Acton’s dictum” states:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” (emphasis mine)

No person is holy simply by virtue of their specialness. Mother Theresa was a bigot. Gandhi was a religious zealot whose teachings would have bankrupted and destroyed India. Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist. Christopher Hitchens is an alcoholic. Richard Dawkins probably has more than a couple of skeletons in his closet. We should not enshrine an individual person for their good ideas and then conveniently gloss over their bad ones. Ideas should be judged on their own merits, and the authors should not be equated with those ideas. We should no more accept the idea that the Pope is “holy” than we should suggest that Voltaire or Shakespeare or Mozart were “holy”.

Religion has a taboo about sex, which is famous all over the world. Sexual repression is a hallmark of any religion. So is sexual exploitation. The RCC’s crime isn’t that it raped and molested children (although that is absolutely a crime), it’s that it did so while preaching from a stance of superior morality. It told millions of Africans to keep it in their pants, whilst simultaneously covering the tracks of its own employees who failed to do so themselves. But as I’ve said and will continue to say: this is a problem of religion, not a problem of a religion. The things that are good about religion do not require religious faith of any kind, only the insightful actions of thoughtful people.

Belgian bid to ban book is bad… uh… bdecision

My alliteration has seen better days, it seems.

It’s tough sometimes to see how the disparate interests on this blog (religion, free speech, race and critical thinking) fit together into an overall picture. Religion and free speech are often at odds, so that’s an easy fit I suppose. Religion stands opposed to critical thinking, so again it’s not a major stretch to tie those two individual elements together. But where does race fit in? I often find myself scratching my head asking myself the same question: are my discussions on race simply an outlier to an otherwise pro-secularist blog? Does my ‘skeptic hat’ clash with my ‘black man waistcoat’?

Thankfully, sometimes I see things in the news that help tie the whole ball of wax together:

A Congolese man is trying to get a controversial Tintin book banned in the cartoon star’s home country of Belgium. A court is to rule on whether the book can be sold in Belgium and, if so, whether it should carry a warning.

The Tintin book in question concerns an incredibly-offensive depiction of African people as stupid and primitive, as the (white) main character does them a good turn by teaching them important things about the world. Of course, it’s the world from the point of view of the European colonizers, which brings up a whole host of auxiliary issues. This man, Bienvenu Mbutu, is seeking to have the book banned on grounds that it portrays an appallingly racist view of black Africans.

I was initially torn over this issue. As a victim of the negative portrayal of black people in popular media, I applaud any decision to ameliorate the damage done by such propaganda. However, while I am a black man, I am first and foremost a Canadian. One of the things that comes with the territory of living in an Enlightened democracy like Canada is defense of the right of free speech. Banning books is the infringement of free speech, which is wrong. It didn’t sit right with me, and the cognitive dissonance bothered me.

After giving it some serious thought, I arrived at a realization. Far from being a negative portrayal of black Africans (although it is that, too), this book is a shocking revelation about the history of white Europeans (I guess, in this case, Belgians). This is a real piece of history that shows how intellectually and morally bankrupt the paternalistic society of European colonial powers was. These types of images, which rightly shock and appall us today, were seen as either harmless entertainment (for children, no less) or as accurate depictions of reality. The colonial powers thought nothing of taking land from people who they saw as little more than human-like animals. The aftershocks of this perverse racist attitude are still felt today in Africa, parts of Asia, the Caribbean and South America (to say nothing of the United States and Canada).

Banning this book would only serve to attempt to mask history. These types of publication are emblematic of a time in our world where everyone believed the lie of white supremacy. Now that we are trying to extricate ourselves (and by ‘we’ I mean everyone, white people included) from the deep entrenchment of this false ideology, we need to examine our own past to see how it affects our present. Sweeping the nasty parts of our history under the rug of contrived ignorance will only serve to prolong the issues of race and racism. Furthermore, we will lose the opportunity to use artifacts from our (recent) history to learn from our mistakes.

I think the book should be allowed to be sold, but with an introduction that highlights the context in which the book was written. Talk about the predominant attitudes of the day, admit that work still needs to be done, but while you’re at it, make mention of the amount of progress that has been made in a relatively short time. It’s only by acknowledging our past and incorporating it into our present that we can reach the long-sought future of racial integration.

Why science is better than religion

There is a very stupid argument out there in the world of arguments. It goes something like this:

You have to believe in science, just like you have to believe in religion. Therefore, science is just another kind of religion.

On the surface, that appears to be a logical premise. It even managed to find its way into an episode of one of my favourite shows. However, that’s due to an unfortunate accident in the English language whereby “believe” has two meanings. I’m not going to go through the entire argument here, except to give a specific example. The statement “I believe in myself” means that you have confidence that you will be able to perform a task based on self-knowledge. It does not (or at least not usually) mean “I have faith that I exist as an entity” although Descartes would probably have a few things to say about that. At any rate, the word “believe” when it comes to reliance on facts and observation is quite distinct from “believe” when it comes to large, unfathomable concepts. I’ll let PZ Myers and xkcd talk about that for now, and perhaps come back to it later.

However, it doesn’t matter. Let’s, for the sake of argument, allow this line of reasoning. Let’s suspend logic in this particular case and grant that you have to believe in science in the same way you have to believe in religion (or God, or faeries, or gremlins, or whatever you believe in). Even if we make this concession, science is still far better than religion for one very important reason:

Science allows you to make predictions.

Religious belief of any kind (in Yahweh, or Zeus, or Allah who is really  just Yahweh in disguise) has its origins in looking at the world and attempting to explain what has happened. Our ancestors looked at a seemingly unimaginably complicated world and made some post-hoc rationalizations to explain things. This is entirely reasonable and there is apparently some evidence to suggest it’s hard-wired into our genes for us to perform this process. Science undeniably performs the same task – evolution is a prime example of using present-day observations to predict (post-dict?) what has happened in the past to explain the world we are in today.

However, religion stops there. Any claim that religion can make about what Yahweh/Allah/Buddha (YahwAlladdha) will or will not do is wrong as often as it is right (I’m being generous here). People who are prayed for, for example, do not consistently recover from terminal illness. Virtuous, God-fearing people still get murdered, have their houses blown over by winds, go financially bankrupt, the list goes on. Following the precepts of religion does not give you any protection against the events in life over which you cannot exert control. This phenomenon (also known in some theological circles as the Problem of Evil) is commonly explained by evoking the “Master Plan”:

God has a plan for us all. We cannot know the mind of God, as He is so far above us.

I call shenanigans. What this argument is essentially saying is that it is impossible to know with any certainty what YahwAlladdha will do. I’m going to repeat that for the sake of clarity: the Master Plan argument is a statement that nobody can know with any certainty what YahwAlladdha will do in the future. Since the Master Plan appears to all eyes to be effectively the same as random chance, in which sometimes good things happen to good people and other times they don’t, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that belief in YahwAlladdha is not useful when it comes to trying to predict the future.

If you’ve been keeping score, science and religion are tied in terms of being able to explain the past (although science is much better, we’ll round up). However, religion draws up a big goose egg when it comes to reliably predicting what will happen in the future.

So how about science? Does science do any better when it comes to making predictions? You bet your ass. The examples are legion: the moon landing, medicine, the very technology that allows you to read and me to write this stunningly brilliant post, again the list goes on. I’m going to pick one that is intuitively easy to grasp for the sake of specific illustration: the origin of lightning. There are two competing hypotheses in this example. The first is that lightning is caused by the discharge of electric potential energy borne by particles interacting in large weather systems. The second is that lightning is forged by the god Haephestus and hurled to Earth by a wrathful Zeus.  Ignoring for a moment the absurdity of the second hypothesis, let’s treat them both as equally plausible from the standpoint of a person who is naive to the evidence.

I need to back-track here for a moment to make a very important statement. That is, that science is a process. Science is not merely the facts and theories that have been generated by scientists; it is the method by which those facts and theories were developed. In that, science is a tool used to generate reliable knowledge and understanding about the world. The process involves proposing an explanation for a phenomenon and then testing that explanation while simultaneously ruling out other potential explanations. Science is the application of observation and reason to find suitable explanations for everyday events. Phrases like “scientific truth” or “science says X” are attempts to equate the process and the outcome. To someone who understands science, these statements are innocuous reference to the method behind the findings. However, to those who do not understand science, the statements are blind appeals to the authority of experts. The important thing to remember is that science is the process by which we test our understanding of the world, and allows us to distinguish and eliminate erroneous explanations.

So how does this apply to our example of lightning? Our naive individual has to decide between two competing explanations. She sees that lightning does indeed fall from the sky, which neither confirms nor denies either hypothesis (since everyone knows Zeus lives in the clouds). She observes that lightning is most often accompanied by rain and wind, two phenomena which are not explicitly within the domain of Zeus, but he could still be teased in as an explanation. She further observes that sparks, potentially a miniature form of lightning, can be generated through static electricity independently of the wrath of anything. She sees that lightning tends to strike most often at certain times of the year, independent of the actions of the people (who may or may not have done anything to provoke any wrath). She also sees that even the virtuous followers of Zeus are occasionally struck by lightning, with approximately the same frequency as the iniquitous. By this time, the Zeus hypothesis has been quite exploded. As our observer goes on to learn more about electricity, weather patterns, conductivity and other properties of matter, she will gradually come to accept the weather hypothesis as evidence-based fact.

The advantage to using this process – rather than slavishly adhering to a belief in Zeus – is that our observer can learn to predict when lightning will strike. She can also use her theory to anticipate methods of reducing the impact of lightning by building structures that ground electricity safely. If she had instead asserted that “the will of Zeus cannot be predicted“, then no such anticipatory steps could be taken. Our observer would go on worshiping Zeus until the day she is killed by a random lightning strike. It is interesting to note here that the validity of the weather hypothesis doesn’t necessarily completely rule out the Zeus hypothesis. One could argue that Zeus behaves exactly like random chance because of his ineffable will. However, if the unfathomable will of God Zeus looks exactly like random chance that can be explained and predicted through the scientific method, there is no value in adding Zeus to the equation. The point is that religious explanation that opposes scientific findings is wrong as often as it is right, and religious explanation that is in line with the science is essentially indistinguishable from science and does not contribute anything meaningful to the discussion.

I have chosen perhaps an absurd example – nobody has believed in Zeus in thousands of years. However, it should be noted that the identical line of “reasoning” is used in contemporary attempts to explain the natural world through God (specifically Yahweh). They are flimsy arguments that require you to believe (in a religious sense) in order to work. As I said previously: if you have to believe in it for it to work, it’s nothing but a placebo. True statements don’t require you to believe, they just require you to look at the data.

In order to forestall the argument that science can say nothing about moral matters whereas religion can, I will make a brief comment here (first, you should look at my previous post on this subject). Religion provides many assertions (in the form of prescripts or commandments) of what is “good.” Religious text is consistently short on justification for these assertions; the only support these texts can offer is that “God says it is so.” We are then all enjoined to believe not only in the existence of God (for which no evidence is offered) but the inerrant infallibility of the texts from which His edicts supposedly come (again, with no evidence to support this claim). Logical contemplation and observation, however, provides us with a great many moral assertions that are supported by more than hand-waving and invocations of an invisible Almighty. Many texts – from Socrates and Aristotle down through Kant, Hobbes, Mill, and Bentham up to Sartre, Pirsig, even Ayn Rand – provide us with discussions on what is moral and immoral that do not come from “God says it is so”, but descended from deontological first principles and founded in reason and observation. Religious belief fails to provide us with consistent and clear moral guidelines except insofar as it says that certain things are bad because God says they are. In this way, it fails even this exemption on moral grounds.

Even if we grant religious belief the same status as belief in the scientific method (and they are by no means the same type of belief), religious belief still fails to measure up to scientific beliefs. While both can be used to explain things that happened in the past, only the beliefs arrived by way of the scientific method can consistently provide us with the means to predict what will happen in the future. Religious invocation of a Master Plan is indistinguishable from random chance, and retards progress and understanding. Science can do as good or, more commonly, far more accurate a job at predicting events in the future and it does not need to invoke any unprovable religious concepts to do so. Science is distinct from religion and is in fact far better.