Questionable Motives

June 29, 2010

What is the Declaration on Religion in Public Life?

Filed under: Atheism,Religion — tildeb @ 5:01 pm

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:

  • We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
  • We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
  • We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
  • We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
  • We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
  • We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
  • We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
  • We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
  • We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
  • We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
  • We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Adopted by the conference, Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.

June 22, 2010

Why should we care about what’s true?

Filed under: Greta Christina,Truth — tildeb @ 7:15 pm

For me, caring about what is true is central to how I inform my perspective about the world. If what I think is true turns out to be false, then my perspective by necessity must be skewed. The more falsehoods I empower, the greater is my skewed perspective until what I think is true and what is actually true finds me caught between incompatibilities. I cannot feel enabled to offer what I can to function well and help solve real world issues if what I have to offer is, to put it bluntly, wrong. My actions would add to rather than reduce the very problems I was hoping to mitigate by my actions. So what is true truly matters.

From one of my favourite atheist writers, Greta Christina, comes this thought-provoking article asking the question Do you care whether the religious ideas you believe in are true or not? and explains in much greater detail and humour why we should.

She adds:

Perspective is more than an intellectual discipline. It’s a moral obligation. The willingness to step back from our experience, to examine our beliefs about the world and let go of them when the evidence contradicts them, is a huge part of how we gain the humility we need to see our true place in the world. Caring whether the things we believe are true is a crucial part of caring, period.

We need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it. If we believe things about reality that aren’t true, we’re going to make bad decisions. Understanding reality is how we know how to behave in it. Understanding cause and effect, which causes lead to what effects, is how we make better decisions — decisions that are more likely to lead to outcomes we’re hoping for. And if we’re going to understand reality, we have to care whether the things we believe are true.

And here’s the money quote:

Skepticism is a discipline. It does not come naturally to the human mind. The human mind is wired to believe what it already believes, and what it wants to believe. The habit of questioning whether the things we believe are true — and letting go of beliefs we’re attached to when the evidence contradicts them — takes practice.

And that’s the tough job each of us faces. But it starts with caring about what’s true.

June 18, 2010

Sorry to be a christian?

Filed under: Christianity,Poetry — tildeb @ 10:51 am

PoetrySlamVancouver – Chris Tse, winner 2009

(Tip to Project Reason)

June 15, 2010

Why are we willing to deceive ourselves?

Filed under: belief,Neuroscience,TED — tildeb @ 10:51 am

Michael Shermer talks about belief and how the brain prepares us for patterns and agency. The final few minutes has a very funny video.

TED video here

June 14, 2010

What is the goal of education?

Filed under: Critical Reasoning,Education — tildeb @ 11:03 am

Bard’s reasons for its summer reading program should be mandatory reading for any parent and public school board member. I have often lamented that the goal of the public education system is not clear but rather fractured depending on which ‘stakeholder’ you ask – from politician to business owner to parent – so curriculum and its delivery methods tend to reflect this confused struggle.

What too often happens is that public education manages to achieve the lowest common denominator of the various – sometimes conflictual – intentions of different stakeholders.  It is quite refreshing, then, to be reminded occasionally of what education is really all about: learning how to think well so that one may live life well. I have taken a few excerpts from the essay Message to Freshmen over at Minding the Campus that explains why a rigorous summer reading program before entering college helps to get the students’ minds ready to begin exactly this process:

Colleges must counter the experience of conventional high school education in the United States, where learning is little more than a standardized test-driven chore with utilitarian benefits. In college, students should discover that most of the important writings and discoveries they will study were not generated for their benefit, but rather came into being in order to illuminate and improve life. It is precisely the connection between learning and living that justifies the life of the mind and makes study and inquiry a treasured form of human activity and among the most rewarding.

This belief cannot be preached; it can only be experienced. What better mechanism to set this experience in motion than assigning common readings in the summer? Students who encounter vaguely familiar texts like The Metamorphosis or “Natural Selection” will discover on entering college, through the intervention of teaching and the exchange of ideas with peers, that there is so much more to learn than they had expected about texts and subjects with which they believed they were familiar. With this realization, they embark on a journey of discovery that will strengthen their confidence in themselves and the enterprise of serious learning.

Faith in human reason and its inherent link to liberty and justice is an eighteenth-century conviction held by the founders of this republic, who wished its citizens to be capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, truth and lies. The sooner the connection between education and liberty is strengthened on the level of higher education the better.

Our summer readings point our students to the habits of mind—analysis and argument, inquiry and inference, skepticism and belief—that will enable them to distinguish appearance from reality, sense from nonsense.

And therein lies the key to a successful and meaningful education: a habit of mind that pays dividends throughout life in highly meaningful ways. How we think determines what we think. Education that avoids or fails to address the importance of teaching how to think well is not an education that promotes a habit of mind that offers guidance on how to live well. Yet the two are inextricably entwined. And without that clear and concise habit-of-mind foundation prominently established in all local offerings of public education, then all the job training in the world, all the rote learning and focus on skills and collecting and regurgitating of facts necessary to do well on standardized testing, achieves little more than turning young minds into post-graduate wanderers in the wastelands… minds capable of retaining what to think but at best self-taught on how to think.

I think there is no greater risk to the freedoms and rights of the modern secular state than to have a solid majority of voters trained for years through public education ready, willing, and able to be told what to think… allowing others in positions of influence to define the terms of various issues for consideration without ever having to justify why those terms and not others should define the issues. Voters and tax payers need to know how to ask the right questions and understand why these questions are important enough to be answered if we wish to cut through the glib non-answers and empty rhetoric that defines today’s version of so many successful public office holders. But if voters don’t know how or don’t care to ask the right questions of those to whom they are about to empower with their vote, and instead are so easily swayed to accept what to think by the candidate who presents the simplest message with the best appearance and/or sound bytes, then is it any wonder that appearances and sound bytes don’t get anything done on behalf of all? What action that is done by such office holders is done on behalf of those closest to the seats of power, often by ignoring or thwarting or undermining any laws meant to protect all but inconveniently hinder partisan action.

I see the bulk of network talking heads and journalists not asking the right questions of public figures. I see the influence of media and religious personalities become based on the same kind of adoration offered to rock stars and other cult figures… but to millions addicted to their daily dose of the personality; the focus on political financing for harnessing the power of mass marketing of a crafted message to become the determining factor in election results; and so on. I see marketing reach into the lives of prepubescent children to successfully affect the spending of malleable parents, and I see these and other unjustified beliefs and opinions hold sway over people who simply don’t know how to wield the intellectual tools necessary to distinguish appearance from reality, sense from nonsense.

None of this is a success of a particular economic model or an evolution of political divides; this reality we face on a daily basis is a failure of our education system. It is a failure that all of us pay, and shall continue to compound that payment, as a collective price for this lack of education. And without a proper education on how to think well for all of us public ‘stake-holders’, we cannot have an informed, honest, and legitimate debate about important issues that affect the public, nor have the influence to affect the path chosen to address how to live well in a meaningful and lasting way.

June 12, 2010

What’s with the militant and strident tone of New Atheists?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,commentary,Dawkins,Dennett,Harris,Hitchens,Religion — tildeb @ 5:00 pm

I read this complaint all the time: that the New Atheists are militant and strident and should take the advice of religious apologists and change their tone if they wish to communicate more effectively.

“I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem.  Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with proselytizers” says Stephen Prothero over at Killing The Buddha.

Yes, atheism require some help to get its message out, and who better than religious apologists to explain to the likes of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens why their best-selling books and sold out speaking engagements need more tweaking to be really effective. Yes, it must be all about tone.

It is very frustrating to be told repeatedly that one’s tone is of such tremendous concern when it dares to criticize the central and unjustified motivation of flying of planes into buildings, inserting theology into the science classroom, and undermining human rights and freedoms. The false charges of militancy and stridency about the tone of the message from New Atheists by religious apologists of all stripes is about trying to avoid the very real issue of being called to account, of being held responsible for appeasing the insertion of unjustified and caustic religious belief into the public domain where it has no legitimate place. That’s the issue – one ignored by far too many, and certainly by those of us coddled in the West who should know better.

Rather than be so concerned about the New Atheist’s tone, more of us should give thanks to those willing to stand up and express their (if not our) commitment to respect what is true with intellectual integrity against the excreta spewed by those of us who wish to excuse religiously inspired bullying, intolerance, and ignorance, who stand by and allow a concerted attack by religiously inspired policies, laws, and practices to directly undermine secular enlightenment values, human rights, and the dignity of personhood in the name of piousness and cultural relativity. The practices of religious belief in the public domain need more – not less – public criticism and the undermining of secular rights and freedoms need more – not fewer – public defenders. And if the tone by which this must be done offends, then so be it; it’s high time the tables were turned on those whom, by comparison, seem so accepting of the tone of religious offenders.

June 11, 2010

Is there a social cost to atheism?

Filed under: Atheism,Bias,Bigotry,Morality,Religion — tildeb @ 9:53 am

Lauri Lebo has written an article over at Religion Dispatches that raises this question. Lauri is well known for having written the definitive book about the Dover trial in Pennsylvania (The Devil in Dover: Dogma vs Darwin in Small Town America).

The results of an online survey published in the latest issue of Skeptic Magazine show that atheists in America fear paying a high social price in coming out as a non-believer. “The Stigma of Being an Atheist: An Empirical Study on the New Atheist Movement and its Consequences,” written by Tom Arcaro, was based on the results of 8,200 people who identify as atheists or non-believers in God.

The survey, “Coming Out as an Atheist,” was posted live on the Atheist Nexus Web site for four months from September to December 2008. Respondents were asked various questions such as “In general, how stigmatized do you feel atheists are in your culture?” and “Do you feel that there would be any social repercussions if people in your [workplace/family/local community] found out the you were an atheist?”

By a wide margin, atheists in the U.S. were more likely to feel a sense of stigma, highest among those living in the south. For instance, 57 percent of U.S. respondents said they felt they would suffer at least minor social repercussions in the workplace if they came out as an atheist, compared to only 35 percent of respondents in Canada, 24 percent of Australians, 15 percent of residents of United Kingdom, and 12 percent of Western Europeans.

More than two-thirds of Americans said they would suffer stigma in their community and 61 percent said they would suffer stigma from their family.

But what do those numbers look like in someone’s life? Consider this comment:

It was not worth the trouble. My entire familiy , church, friends, wife, job… nothing left.. Nobody talks to me, nobody returns my emails, phone calls, nobodies says Hi…..At my fathers funeral, my mother had the pastor give a sermon about how the family will be reunited, except the son who will never see the father again.

I would have gotten a better reaction if I had announced I was communist Islamic Lesbian Satanic serial-raping Dark Lord of the Sith.

My advice is keep your atheism to yourself if you hate to be demonized and are surrounded by christian friends and family……christians cannot understand the truth of basic Reality, they certianly will never understand your Apostacy.
Christians will demonize their own mother into the devil to protect their fears.

I don’t agree with the advice; I think wider change for the better only happens when the bigotry over the false claims of atheist immorality is exposed for the lie it is. That exposure always carries a personal cost – sometimes sleight and covert, sometimes heavy and overt – but all we can do is push ahead and maintain our intellectual honesty in the face of the biased opinions and social shunning by unenlightened others.

June 9, 2010

How does the Vatican plan on dealing with its abuse of Irish children?

By blaming the godless secularists, who are the REAL reason priests in Ireland raped and abused Irish children. (And don’t you love this picture gracing the cover of a catholic magazine?)

Come on people: you don’t think it can blamed on the catholic church or anyone in position of leadership from the Holy See, do you? Nope. Clearly, Irish catholics are getting too uppity and assertive in their indignation of being victims of organized abuse and need a visit from the Vatican version of ‘Special Forces’ to re-establish proper order, necessary hierarchy, and renewed respect for their abusers. This clean up will begin with getting the Irish clergy whipped into theological – meaning ‘roman catholic’ – shape. Excerpts from the Independent:

VATICAN investigators to Ireland appointed by Pope Benedict XVI are to clamp down on liberal secular opinion in an intensive drive to re-impose traditional respect for clergy, according to informed sources in the Catholic Church.

The nine-member team led by two cardinals will be instructed by the Vatican to restore a traditional sense of reverence among ordinary Catholics for their priests, the Irish Independent has learned.

Priests will be told not to question in public official church teaching on controversial issues such as the papal ban on birth control or the admission of divorced Catholics living with new partners to the sacraments — especially Holy Communion.

Theologians will be expected to teach traditional doctrine by constantly preaching to lay Catholics of attendance at Mass and to return to the practice of regular confession, which has been largely abandoned by adults since the 1960s.

An emphasis will be placed on an evangelisation campaign to overcome the alienation of young people scandalised by the spate of sexual abuse of children and by later cover-ups of paedophile clerics by leaders of the institutional church.

A major thrust of the Vatican investigation will be to counteract materialistic and secularist attitudes, which Pope Benedict believes have led many Irish Catholics to ignore church disciplines and become lax in following devotional practices such as going on pilgrimages and doing penance.

Those damned secularists and materialists are everywhere… especially where pedophile priests have had free reign. Funny, that. What people who hold the church responsible need is a good dose of catholic discipline to fix everything.

Why is there a single catholic left in Ireland? Do they really think so little of themselves that they are willing to tolerate this colossal arrogance and disrespect from their religious leadership? How is it that catholic guilt runs so deeply in the laity but apparently not at all for real crimes at its highest leadership that caused so much suffering and so many victims… of children? What moral cowards, one and all.

Why is belief the enemy of knowledge?

Filed under: belief,Bias,Certainty,Knowledge,Science — tildeb @ 10:39 am

A terrific article over at Science-based Medicine by David Gorski about why our beliefs arm us against against acquiring knowledge counter to those beliefs. It is worth the read. But for the condensed version, I have selected a few excerpts and used bold to highlight what I think are some of the important points he raises.

If there’s a trait among humans that seems universal, it appears to be an unquenchable thirst for certainty. It is likely to be a major force that drives people into the arms of religion, even radical religions that have clearly irrational views, such as the idea that flying planes into large buildings and killing thousands of people is a one-way ticket to heaven. However, this craving for certainty isn’t expressed only by religiosity. As anyone who accepts science as the basis of medical therapy knows, there’s a lot of the same psychology going on in medicine as well. This should come as no surprise to those committed to science-based medicine because there is a profound conflict between our human desire for certainty and the uncertainty that is always inherent in so much of our medical knowledge. The reason is that the conclusions of science are always provisional, and those of science-based medicine arguably even more so than many other branches of science.

We see this phenomenon of craving certainty writ large and in bold letters in huge swaths of so-called “alternative” medicine. Indeed, a lot of quackery, if not most of it, involves substituting the certainty of belief for the provisional nature of science in science-based medicine, as well as the uncertainty in our ability to predict treatment outcomes, particularly in serious diseases with variable biology, like several types of cancer.

The simplicity of these concepts at their core makes them stubbornly resistant to evidence. Indeed, when scientific evidence meets a strong belief, the evidence usually loses. In some cases, it does more than just lose; the scientific evidence only hardens the position of believers. We see this very commonly in the anti-vaccine movement, where the more evidence is presented against a vaccine-autism link, seemingly the more deeply anti-vaccine activists dig their heels in to resist, cherry picking and twisting evidence, launching ad hominem attacks on their foes, and moving the goalposts faster than science can kick the evidence ball through the uprights. The same is true for any number of pseudoscientific beliefs. We see it all the time in quackery, where even failure of the tumor to shrink in response can lead patients to conclude that the tumor, although still there, still can’t hurt them. 9/11 Truthers, creationists, Holocaust deniers, moon hoaxers — they all engage in the same sort of desperate resistance to science.

(M)ost recommendations of science-based medicine are not “truth” per se; they are simply the best recommendations physicians can currently make based on current scientific evidence. Be that as it may, the problem with the “truth wins” viewpoint is that the “truth” often runs into a buzz saw known as a phenomenon that philosophers call naive realism. This phenomenon, boiled down to its essence is the belief that whatever one believes, one believes it simply because it’s true. In the service of naive realism, we all construct mental models that help us make sense of the world. When the “truth wins” assumption meets naive realism, guess what usually wins? It ain’t the truth.

Skepticism and science are hard in that they tend to go against some of the most deeply ingrained human traits there are, in particular the need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity. Also in play is our tendency to cling to our beliefs, no matter what, as though having to change our beliefs somehow devalues or dishonors us. Skepticism, critical thinking, and science can help us overcome these tendencies, but it’s difficult. Perhaps that’s the most important contribution of the scientific method. It creates a structure that allows us to change our beliefs about the world based on evidence and experimentation without the absolute necessity of taking being proven wrong personally.

June 8, 2010

Why are atheists morally bankrupt?

Filed under: Atheism,Jesus and Mo,Morality — tildeb @ 8:47 am

Thanks to Jesus and Mo

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