Questionable Motives

March 13, 2011

Why is suffering a fatal flaw for belief in a benevolent creator?

Most of us know of Epicurus’ succinct summation evil causes belief in a benevolent god:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The slippery term in this paradox for believers is ‘evil’. I think we can reveal the same fatal paradox without the metaphysical baggage that accompanies such a term by replacing it with the word ‘suffering’. I am certainly not the first to do so and I think it tears away the comforting veil of ignorance that infuses belief in a benevolent god when we look at how the world actually and factually operates.

Life and death on this planet has come about as we know it by the process of evolution, a system Lord Tennyson accurately describes as “red in tooth and claw.” Suffering by sentient beings is simply part and parcel of this mindless, unguided, undirected, indifferent biological mechanism. This is a problem for those who would prefer to believe in a benevolent creator. As blogger and ex Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald so eloquently describes the problem evolution creates for the believer this way:

If this is a consciously designed process (evolution by design as held by many notable people such as Francis Collins and those allied to the same notion endorsed by the rc church and many other denominations), as Christians must maintain — for, from the Christian point of view, god’s first priority is the creation of human beings and their redemption — then all the suffering is an intentional part of god’s purposes. And this is simply intolerable. It cannot stand a moment’s moral reflection, and certainly the doctrine of double effect won’t change the mind of a reasonable person on this matter, for you cannot not intend suffering if you create by means of natural selection.

From an academically and scientifically honest standpoint, evolution is fact that is fatal to the argument that a creator god is benevolent.

So what’s a believer in a benevolent creator to do? In England, an imam with the audacity to suggest evolution is compatible with islam if the Koran is interpreted just so, one must apologize and retract such a statement if one wishes to avoid being killed as an apostate. In the US, one must contend with repeated attempts by the religiously misguided to keep creationism from being inserted into the science classroom, spending untold millions  of taxpayer dollars to continue this separation intact. The latest attack against science is in Tennessee. The one is Kentucky has just died… for this session. The one is Texas is still going strong as it works its way towards approved legislation. Florida tries every year and this one is no different. Louisiana has already passed it’s anti-evolution bill as if this will magically improve the state’s dismal showing in student science knowledge. And so on, and so on, and so on, even after creationism has been soundly defeated in every federal court case brought against its insertion into the public school science curriculum. (The latest was in Dover in 2005.) Religious beliefs about a creator – no matter under what recent title it tries on for public acceptance – have no scientific credibility nor validity. This is not a preference or belief by people who would prefer this not to be so: it’s a fact… and a fact that far too many religious people seem unable and unwilling to grasp. When such facts are contrary to what is believed to be true by those who respect faith-based beliefs, then obviously the facts must be wrong! There’s nothing like a legislative act to set the facts on the path to redemption.

Good grief.

The world, however – and  no matter where we look at it – continues to offer up the brutal fact that creationism is not only a fairytale but that its supposed benevolence is identical in all meaningful ways to that of a delusion. For example, the latest and devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and China and  Japan is accompanied by undeniable indiscriminate death and much human suffering.  Tsunamis add their additional effects. Plate tectonics and the accompanying geological and hydrological effects are just as mindless, unguided, undirected, and indifferent a physical mechanism as biological evolution is and the resulting human suffering just as obvious. The physical evidence for mindless cause and effect of these mechanisms is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for benevolence versus the suffering these mechanisms cause?

No where.

Let us now turn to the pious who feel some level of compassion and empathy for the suffering of their fellow creatures in the wake of these disasters. A.C. Grayling offers us this glimpse into the reasoning that is avoided by those who decide to offer up their prayers to some benevolent creator for these distant folk suffering from calamity. Following the same reasoning of Epicurus’s paradox, he wonders about why anyone would show fealty to such an obvious metaphysical monster some think of as a benevolent creator:

For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.

Indeed it is.

This desire by the pious to believe in a literal Santa Claus-ian benevolent creator is not just foolishly childish and comforting as only a delusion can be; it is a faith-based belief that incessantly gives god-sanctioned motivation to those who directly attack both evidence-based fact as apostasy and intellectually honest reason as some kind of evil plot to undermine god. That some continue to insist that we can accommodate religion and science – allow respect for what some believe is true as well for what IS true – is foolhardy as well as intentionally dishonest. It is foolhardy because it interferes with folk who think there is a legitimate choice to be made between accepting what is factually true and faith-based beliefs as some kind of equivalent source for knowledge in spite of no evidence for this to be the case (and much evidence in stark contrast to this case), and dishonest because for these same folk it reduces  what is true to be conditional on some collection of faith-based beliefs they have chosen to accept as true first. Yet faith-based beliefs add nothing honest to our understanding of the world nor any true appreciation for the dependent role we suffer for our lives on it and much disinformation and misrepresentation of how the world actually is and how it actually works and how we actually cause effects in it.

March 6, 2011

What’s the problem with science/religious compatability?

I have been described as a bitter individual who thinks that there is only one way to view this world. You scream, verify, prove, facts, figures. Wow. You (sic) view is coloured by extremists who think their religions are right and you try just as hard to scream that your way is the only logical way. Well, I suspect it would not be wise to ask this person for a character reference any time soon.

Of course, I don’t see my views this way. I try to explain that it’s important that we – not just I – respect what’s true, what’s knowable, and hold great esteem for the method of inquiry that allows us to find these answers, that provides us with a foundation upon which to build not only practical technologies that work but a way of inquiring into every nook and cranny of the universe… including ourselves… on an equal footing independent of our perspectives and world views. I’m sorry if I screamed that too loudly, but let me reiterate: I respect what’s true and I don’t think that is an extremist position at all.

What never fails to amaze me is how people who hold their faith-based preferences to be equivalent with what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct see themselves and their attitude somehow removed from the ongoing problems resulting from this widespread generous allowance to respect faith-based beliefs, and assume that anyone who disagrees (and provides good evidence for that disagreement) is some kind of fundamentalist or extremist. I take issue with that absurd caricature and I do point out the effects such allowances have in the public domain of the real world and at the expense of real people. That – apparently – makes me not only strident but militantly so. How is it that respecting what is true and holding others to that same standard is so often considered unreasonable if it interferes with the preference for equivalency of faith-based beliefs to what is actually true? Well, I think the answer goes back to the assumption that faith-based beliefs are magically superior to human knowledge as long as it places god at the top of some knowledge hierarchy. In a nutshell, this is the heart of the probelm of asserting compatibility between science and religion.

An excellent example is how someone with knowledge is held in contempt for enunciating that knowledge and whose life is actually threatened by those who assume a faith-based belief is not just equivalent but superior to what the method of science reveals. God’s truth – whatever the hell that means – is superior in this belief system to what the human mind can understand is true based on honest inquiry, verification, and its practical validity. Surely this cannot be the case here at home in technologically advanced society that relies on this science for its functioning infrastructure, can it?

It can. And does.

What does this respect for faith-based beliefs look like in a secular western democracy? The examples are many – legion, in fact – but I shall select merely one.

From The Independent with bold added:

A prominent British imam has been forced to retract his claims that Islam is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution after receiving death threats from fundamentalists.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, was intending yesterday to return to Masjid al-Tawhid, a mosque in Leyton, East London, for the first time since he delivered a lecture there entitled “Islam and the theory of evolution”.

But according to his sister, police advised him not to attend after becoming concerned for his safety. Instead his father, Suhaib, head of the mosque’s committee of trustees, posted a notice on his behalf expressing regret over his comments. “I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused,” the statement read.

And what offence did Dr Hasan commit? What exactly was this mistake?

Masjid Tawhid is a prominent mosque which also runs one of the country’s largest sharia courts, the Islamic Sharia Council. In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture there detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible – a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds.

Really? This was the offense, the mistake, reiterating this knowledge. But the good news is that this statement of knowledge is not unusual with Islamic scholars who apparently are qualified to judge science, we are assured. Phew. What a relief that this scientific knowledge meets with religious approval. Compatibilists everywhere must be breathing easier, right? Not so fast…

Most Islamic scholars have little problem with evolution as long as Muslims accept the supremacy of God in the process. But in recent years a small number of orthodox scholars, mainly from Saudi Arabia – where many clerics still preach that the Sun revolves around the Earth – have ruled against evolution, declaring that belief in the concept goes against the Koran’s statement that Adam and Eve were the first humans.

These are folk qualified to judge, eh? And compatiblists are seemingly okay with this.

Ah yes, we can’t have knowledge – the ‘good’ kind, that is – without getting the order right: god-approved knowledge first, meaning whatever knowledge doesn’t compete with faith-based beliefs about that god, and all scientific knowledge second. And therein lies the explanation why science and religion are incompatible methods of inquiry:

What’s true, accurate, and correct is a secondary consideration in this compatiblist mind set. And that’s what makes faith-based beliefs that science and religion are compatible a bald-faced lie: we either respect what’s true and knowable first, or we respect what we believe must be true for our faith-based beliefs and preferences to remain unchallenged and supreme. Faith in the latter is a virtue but a failure in the former. These two positions are simply not compatible because of this and those who would like to pretend that they are are not only deluded but continue to grant intellectual respectability to those whose faith-based beliefs contrast honest knowledge. These are the people who need to be taken to task for this capitulation of intellectual integrity to respect that which deserves none: faith-based beliefs.

December 5, 2010

How do the religious undermine the Golden Rule?

I read many comments and articles by ‘moderate’ theists who suggest that, at their core, religious beliefs are really all the same, that what people are responding to with various kinds of religious faiths is recognizing the transcendent, honouring the spiritual, paying homage to a felt but never seen creative and loving force. It all sounds so… well, kumba ya-ish. And heart-warmingly lovely, mitigating the trivial differences that so easily separate us and acts like a special kind of blessed force (unseen by athiets, of course) that promotes the common good.

And then I read something like this and have to remind myself that the metaphorical holding of religious hands argued by different theists about life-enhancing nature of religious compatibility is nothing more than soothing lies we find in the daily practice of religious beliefs that inform how we behave towards others.

A 17 year old girl lived a hellish life and died a horrible death because of people acting on their religious convictions. More religion will never solve this ongoing and familiar tragedy played out in the lives of us little people who grant their religious convictions and the convictions of others a legitimate role in determining how to behave in ways that supposedly honour a god.

This is insane. And it’s insane because doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – some divine enhancement in the lives of humans – is not a rational nor reasonable expectation. Such a belief that a different result will occur is maintained in spite of contrary yet consistent evidence of harm caused by acting on religious convictions. When we choose to empower such beliefs with an assumption that they are legitimate because they involve some homage to a deity, then we have left the arena of what is rational, what is reasonable, what is probable, what is likely true, and entered the arena of what is is merely hoped for, what is wished, what is improbable, what is likely false. And this legitimizing of what is hoped for in spite of evidence to the contrary is not compatible with empowering respect and audience for what is true. Expecting more religious belief to magically find some way to stop the kind of human abuse people commit in the name of some god is crazy talk. It’s delusional. It’s dangerous and, in the case of Nurta Mohamed Farah, deadly.

Anyone who thinks that religious belief has a legitimate and compatible role to play in helping anyone determine how to treat other human beings with dignity and respect is guilty of helping to legitimize the actions of people to do terrible things to other people for exactly the same reasons. By legitimizing the intentions of those who act to honour some god, we legitimize the basis of such assumptions that they are true, that they are accurate, that they are correct. Such assumptions help to legitimize delusion and insanity rather than what’s rational and reasonable and backed by consistent evidence. Those who assume that religious belief is equivalent to rational thinking have no evidence to insist the two are compatible methods of inquiry, compatible voices that need to be heard, compatible means to inform morality and ethical behaviour, compatible avenues to establishing respect not only for the rights and freedoms and dignity of other people but how to act in ways that achieve these results. The evidence does not support this assumption. What evidence there is shows that by legitimizing delusional thinking, we legitimize its failure to respect other people’s claim to equal rights, legitimize its failure to establish equal freedoms, legitimize its failure to support equal respect between people, and we see this failure played out in religious inspired tragedy after religious inspired tragedy.

Isn’t it high time in the 21st century to stop tolerating and legitimizing this failed voice offered up as a compatible way of achieving noble goals and Enlightenment values by the religiously deluded? The religious perspective has nothing to offer any of us but more failure to be reasonable and rational and consistent with the evidence in every area of human endeavor in which it is granted a fair hearing. Isn’t it time we recognized its failure? Isn’t it time that we gave full credence to the rational and reasonable voice  of a basic equality and dignity for all in shared rights and freedoms and reject the anti-rational voice of delusion? Is that not the least we can do on an individual basis if for no other reason than in memory of this one girl whose sad life was warped and twisted and ended by the deluded in the name of their religious beliefs? Isn’t a human life more important in and of itself to be treated as we ourselves wish to be treated – with the same level of dignity and respect – than simply as a piece of property of some god to be used and abused by the faithful who claim to be fulfilling god’s wishes?

We really do have to choose eventually because these different perspectives and antithetical methods of achieving our goals are not compatible. Agreeing at the very least to empower the Golden Rule seems to be a good starting point for everybody… unless you are deluded, in which case your opinions should not be invited to the grown-up’s table.

November 18, 2010

Do your beliefs about global warming make you a champion of ignorance?

Okay, so it’s no surprise that I am a big fan of methodological naturalism and its epistemology. We call it the method of science. It’s trustworthy, practical, and yields knowledge that works. It’s what drives our technologies. Without knowledge, I don’t think we can understand, and without understanding I don’t think we can make good decisions. When we substitute belief for understanding, faith for knowledge, we are setting ourselves up to embrace ignorance and implement our questionable motives. Such motives are a disservice to others and intellectually dishonest. Hence, the name of the blog.
The latest and perhaps the most avoidable travesty of implementing policies based on such questionable motives has to do with a global problem that continues to be shuffled to the back of the room, the bottom of the agenda, behind other concerns. And that’s the issue of global warming and its effects on climate change within the halls of power… particularly in the US. This issue is an avid example of just how insidious and detrimental faith-based beliefs extended into the public domain can be, and how catastrophic might be the effects derived from such willful and malicious ignorance.
Not content to merely misunderstand and misrepresent why methodological naturalism yields knowledge that leads to understanding, which in turn empowers responsible and informed decisions, certain economic concerns and political forces have united to attack a vital source of our knowledge: the very workforce who toils on our collective behalf creating our knowledge:
For the past two decades, the United States has been officially committed to avoiding “dangerous” climate change. One Administration after another—Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama—has reaffirmed this commitment, even as they all have failed to live up to it. House Republicans and their Tea Party allies reject even the idea of concern. Not content merely to ignore the science, they have decided to go after the scientists. Before the election, congressional Republicans had talked of eliminating the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Why, after all, have a panel on energy independence and global warming if you don’t believe in either? Now James Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, who is likely to become the select committee’s chairman, is arguing that it should be preserved. His rationale? The panel provides an ideal platform for harassing the Environmental Protection Agency, which, in the absence of legislative action, is the only body with the power to regulate carbon emissions. At least one group of scientists is organizing a “rapid-response team” to counter climate misinformation, but, since the misinformation is now coming from the very people charged with solving the problem, that task seems a peculiarly thankless one. (Source)
It’s one thing to personally decide not to believe in gravity or germs. I will call you self-deluded if you choose to do so and suggest some honest self-testing to reveal why such a charge is fully justified. Step out a tenth story window or take a good whiff of ebola and let’s see where the evidence leads you. I’ll wait here. The choice, of course, is to submit your beliefs to personal verification and live with the personal consequences. That’s fine. I’m okay with that. More power to you for being honest enough to find out for yourself. That’s science in action.
But it’s another matter entirely for people wrapped up in the false certainties of the their faith-based beliefs to extend their delusions based on wishful and magical thinking into the public domain and subject the rest of us to the inevitable results of their chosen ignorance. Nothing good will come of it. Nothing good CAN come from it: the epistemology of faith-based beliefs is too biased to be of practical use beyond one’s self and more importantly, there is no way to know if one’s beliefs are wrong except in regards to facts. And either we’re back to science and back to relying on the methodology that empowers it or we delude ourselves to think our beliefs are equivalent because we prefer to view them this way.
The science that empowers so much evidence to be collected that yields knowledge that global warming is real, it’s a growing concern, it’s a problem that will continue to impose climatic changes at an increased rate, is as solid as any other scientific inquiry by tens of thousands of scientists around the world over decades that have produced available peer reviewed research. The science is ongoing yet for about three decades or more there has been a growing general consensus that today’s global warming is a man-made problem subject to man-made solutions… if we act sooner rather than later. We can be reasonably certain that all this science about climate change and its causes and influences has been carried out in a responsible manner and that the general conclusions reached are as valid as any other in the sciences. We know there is always quibbling about specifics in all scientific endeavors  and climate research will have its fair share. We will have some personalities we like, some we don’t, and that these kinds of discrepancies are not at all unusual for any human undertaking involving tens of thousands of people. But none of this disqualifies the science and the body of knowledge climate science has produced.
What we cannot do is simply choose to think that our personal beliefs are an equivalent and legitimate basis for coming to a different conclusion. Our beliefs are not equivalent. Our personal knowledge is not equivalent to the scientific consensus. Our cherry-picking of facts and points that favour only our contrary belief preferences without accounting for all those that do not support us is intellectually dishonest. Whether we wish to or not, we must respect the method of inquiry that yields knowledge – which we implicitly trust with our very lives in other areas like medicine and transportation and communication – in this matter of climate science if we wish to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. No matter how grudgingly we face the scientific consensus about global warming, we must respect its general conclusions  and if we wish to be responsible citizens within our various communities, we must begin to address our culpability to its root causes before we can address how we can begin to mitigate our effects on climate change through global warming.
I don’t for a minute think that we alone drive climate change or that global warming is solely the result of carbon emissions. But I respect the method of science enough to take heed when the consensus tells us that human activity is a major factor in these rapid environmental changes. Whether I want to believe it or not is not my call if I wish to continue to respect the method of science that informs the rest of my life. The results of climatic scientific research are what they are, and the science has built up a body of knowledge about the matter that I can understand. So can you. And we need to act on this understanding in a productive and positive way rather than allow the most ignorant and delusional among us to be voted into public office to then abuse the state’s public power to attack those who tell us something we believe we don’t need to hear.
If you support those who put all of us at such risk by such abusing the power of the state to undermine and attack and discredit by foul means those who produce knowledge, then I question your motives to present yourself as an intellectually honest person and someone worth listening to. As far as I can tell, if you support those who go after people whose job it is to create knowledge in the name of your beliefs, you are a danger to me, my family, my community, my nation, and my planet. You are a champion of ignorance. And that’s not something to be proud of.

October 22, 2010

What do people mean when they use the term ‘supernatural’ as it relates to religious belief?

Filed under: Argument,belief,Religion,Spirituality — tildeb @ 10:31 am

I have a busy week posting comments on various sites about accusations of scientism, that atheism is an ideology that will fail, that seeking and respecting what is true necessarily leads to god’s moral truths, and so. I found it quite refreshing, then, to come across a post over at Open Parachute that directly relates to everything I have been trying to express:

1: There is a special relationship between scientific knowledge and the real world. Scientific ideas are based on evidence from reality, they get tested and validated against reality. And they get tossed out if found wrong.

So it’s not surprising that scientific knowledge gets incorporated into things that are useful.

2: Just shows how silly all this talk of science being blinkered becuase it “excludes supernaturalism” is. If this term has any meaning in the real world it just means something that is counter-intuitive or hasn’t been explained.  Science is full of such ideas so it is dishonest to claim it is blinkered. What could be more weird or non-intuitive than “spooky action at a distance.”

No, when these proponents of “other ways of knowing” etc., attack science they are trying to remove the requirement of evidence and testing against reality. That’s what they mean by their code word “supernatural.”



August 5, 2010

What is a good day in legal judgements? When we drop the ‘gay’ from defining a marriage.

Filed under: Argument,civil rights,Gay Marriage,Law — tildeb @ 11:34 am

A good day is when a bad law is overturned and equal rights prevail. August 4, 2010 was just such a day.

I have long argued that marriage is a legal issue that involves civil rights and as such is a status available to all citizens at the age of majority. Any laws or prohibitions that exclude or deny access to gaining this legal status for some adults are therefore discriminatory. The denial of marriage for gays and lesbians has been a clear legal case in my mind of such discrimination. Equal rights, I have argued, are not to be determined or denied by majority votes unless one wishes to first endorse the legal notion of tyranny of the majority who gain special privileges with the establishment of unequal legal rights based on group membership. This notion is antithetical to the fundamental autonomy of the individual that shifts rights away from each citizen to membership in legally defined and politically privileged groups. 

It is with a great deal of satisfaction that I now read federal judge Vaughn Walker’s decision on overturning California’s Proposition 8, the recent plebiscite that rescinded the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. Judge Walker’s decision to overturn the 52% majority vote that denied gays and lesbians the civil right to marry was for exactly these reasons of discrimination on the sole basis of group membership – whether the genders of the spouses were the same or different. No evidence could be provided to show that this legal discrimination was based on anything other than this single discriminatory criteria that no other rational justification supported. Without going into the detail of the ruling, suffice it is to say that it completely dismantles the factual statements made in support of the proposition and makes clear that it is discriminatory solely on the basis of same or different gender of spouses without rational cause.

Well done, Judge Walker. May this case become the precedent. Step by enlightened step, may the bigotry supported by organizations like Focus on the Family and the mormon church and the catholic church (that to a large extent funded Proposition 8 ) be forced by secular law out of the public domain.

May 18, 2010

Dismantling creationism: how can this happen?

Over at Neurologica there is a wonderful post about a conversation between Novella and a creationist named Duane. It covers many of the standard creationist canards hostile to the science of evolution and clearly reveals how someone like Duane can pretend to respect logic and evidence and appear to be inquiring yet remain firm and steadfast in religiously inspired ignorance when those methods and the provided evidence counter some quacked-up theological beliefs. But half the fun of reading a calm and patient smack-down of hostile creationism is reading some of the comments. My favourite comment is from Weii, the tenth comment down (May 14th, 10:21 pm), who perceptively notes:

He is a typical believer who relies on his faith to answer his questions. Evidence doesn’t convince him as he will only seek evidence that confirms his belief and ignore it if it doesn’t, as we all will. A creationist that is also a scientist is an oxymoron, unless they are in a totally unrelated field. Creationists believe things and only see confirmation. Scientists make certain assumptions about the world and then test them. Someone who believes that toast always lands on the buttered side down, when faced with it landing buttered side up, will think that he buttered the wrong side.

And that is exactly what I have found as I venture through the blogosphere: those who insist that truth must be compatible with their theology have already made the decision to rank what is true to be less valuable than maintaining a religious belief, and will then bend, distort, excuse, and ignore the fruits of honest inquiry that run counter to these comforting beliefs in order to protect and promote religiously inspired ignorance. But with enough cognitive dissonance created by good reasoning about the overwhelming evidence counter to claims about special human creationism, then perhaps some will dismantle their walled religious beliefs one brick at a time and wake up one day to the beautiful dawn of an open mind and wonder “How did this happen?”

May 14, 2010

What’s the point?

Filed under: Argument,Critical Reasoning — tildeb @ 4:49 pm

Theramin Trees explains…

May 5, 2010

What does it mean to be ‘intellectually honest’?

Filed under: Argument,belief,Skepticim — tildeb @ 3:23 pm

It’s not often I come across an article that tackles in a straightforward and easily understood way the central theme of Questionable Motives: why should we trust any kind of belief without compelling evidence? Is there some way we can differentiate between what we can know to be true rather than simply believe what’s probably true?

From Steve Novella over at Neurologica comes this criticism of an article posted on the Huffington Post from which I have extracted the parts I think relevant to describing intellectual honesty:

One of the challenges of trying to be scientific, and an honest intellectual, is that judgment is often required in assessing a claim or topic. The problem with relying upon one’s judgment is that it is fraught, even overwhelmed, with personal bias.

That’s a fundamental recognition: that we come predisposed to be biased.

The “default mode” of human behavior (which means most people do this most of the time) is to construct an elaborate rationalization for what we already believe, and want to believe. The more intelligent we are, the more sophisticated and elaborate our rationalizations – giving more confidence in our conclusions, but not necessarily deserved.

The problem is that if we want to know something, how can we try to remove or overcome or compensate for this natural tendency to be biased so that we can better know what’s true rather than what we believe is true?

The solution to this problem is to develop a specific intellectual skill set – knowledge of the many and various ways in which we bias our thinking and the constant application of this knowledge to our own beliefs. In other words, we need to be skeptical, especially of ourselves. But not just skeptical in attitude, systematically skeptical of the process of our own thought.

But since this is necessarily self-referential (we can bias our assessment of our biases) it is also necessary to check your beliefs and thinking against other people, people with different perspectives – from different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and cultures.

This approach is intellectually honest, which must include awareness of our biases inherent in our assertions and assumptions about what we think is true, and a healthy dose of skepticism. And if we aren’t skeptical?

The opposite of this approach is to be insular, to have a self-contained belief system that feeds on itself but which is completely disconnected from logic and reality. Humans seem to have an unfortunate penchant for falling into such self-contained belief systems, cults being the ultimate expression of this tendency.

This kind knowledge based on a self-contained belief system is therefore intellectually dishonest.

How we think, then, in large part determines what we think, or to use more specific language, our epistemology in a large part determines our ontology. How we think of issues and our ability to recognize our biases when we do requires a level of skepticism to be applied in order for us to be able to better trust our knowledge. If we fail to follow an informed epistemological approach and, instead, rely on our assumptions and assertions that inform beliefs to be enough of a guide to lead us to knowledge, then we quite rightly are wide open to the legitimate criticism that our ontology – what we think we know – is suspect. Belief without skepticism, belief without a recognition of our inherent biases – is a sure sign that we are not privy to what is true by means of intellectual honesty but merely what we think is true by means of intellectual dishonesty.

April 29, 2010

Why should feminism embrace reason and shun religion?

Because religious ideas harm women and restrict their lives on a daily basis.

There is a terrific article with rich resources by Amy Clare over at ButterfliesandWheels from which I have taken a few excerpts and indented below. I urge all readers to enjoy the well-argued and entire piece here titled Why feminism must embrace reason and shun religion.

This fact has been commented on before, and it should be well known among feminists; rather than waste space quoting verses, I will direct you to the website ‘The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible’, which contains lists of the verses relating to women in the Koran, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. More about Islam can be found at the blog of Kafir Girl, whose article ‘Swimmin’ in Women’ is an irreverent and detailed analysis of the behaviour of Islam’s prophet Mohammed towards women and girls. While there is simply not enough space to fully analyse each religion’s treatment of women, there is some information about the inconsistency of the Hindu texts in relation to women’s rights here, an analysis of misogyny and Buddhism here, and this page shows that even the non-violent Jains apparently can’t handle a little bit of menstrual blood. The only reason that on-demand abortion is not available to women worldwide is the prevalence of religious (most notably Catholic) beliefs that a fertilised egg is a human being. The rise of unwanted pregnancies and STDs including Aids in many countries can be directly blamed on religiously-funded abstinence programmes which are based on beliefs that contraception and sex before marriage are evil. Strong beliefs about the sanctity of a girl’s virginity and the wickedness of female sexual behaviour lead to predictable, sometimes appalling and horrific results, such as girls being buried alive, lashed and stoned to death. And even as women are being harmed by such religious beliefs, they are told that the originator of these ideas, God, loves them.

It is as though mainstream feminism has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to religion, but it is not alone in this. Religion has managed to carve itself a very nice niche in society whereby any questioning of religious faith is seen to be extremely bad form. Religion seems to have a monopoly on hurt feelings, entirely unfairly in my opinion. It seems to me that some feminists are afraid of a critical discussion about religious faith, because of the ever-looming label of ‘intolerant’, ‘prejudiced’, or, when it comes to any religion besides Christianity, ‘racist’.

Given all of the above, I anticipate in reaction: what business is it of yours what people believe? A person’s private religious faith is none of anyone’s business and you should tolerate it. You’ve got no right to tell people what to think! And so on. These are arguments atheists come across often. Indeed this seems to be the tack that many feminists take. It appears quite difficult to argue against, but here goes. First of all, as Sam Harris points out in his book ‘The End Of Faith’, belief almost always leads to action, therefore, beliefs are very rarely truly private. Believe that it’s going to rain, and you’ll take an umbrella out with you. Believe that a clump of cells is a sacred human life, and you will join a pro-life group and lobby the government to ban abortion; you may even be successful, in which case you will contribute to the suffering and even deaths of large numbers of women. As Harris says, “Some beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.” Indeed feminists do not tolerate every belief. We reject many commonly-held beliefs, most notably the belief that males are fundamentally different from, and superior to, females.

Also, people’s religious beliefs aren’t necessarily freely chosen. The vast majority of religious people are so because they have been brought up to be religious; it has been impressed upon them from an early age that there is a divine creator, and that he should be worshipped in the following ways, and so on. In this way, ‘telling people what to believe’ is really the preserve of religion. All atheists do, if anything, is ask people to question what they believe. If children were allowed to grow up without religious influence and then asked to evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves as adults if there is a god, then it would be a different matter entirely. But this doesn’t happen.

Even in the light of all of the above, there are some who will still insist that merely believing in a loving god – having ignored or ‘reinterpreted’ all the misogynist trappings of their faith – is harmless. I don’t agree. This belief is still based on blind faith, not on evidence, and such a mindset, while promoted by religions as a virtue, is in fact damaging to society. What is the difference between a person who simply ‘feels’ that there is a god, and a person who simply ‘feels’ that males are superior to females? Answer: nothing. Both ideas are uncontaminated by evidence. But the difference, for some feminists, seems to be that the latter view is to be fought against and the former to be tolerated and even praised.

Feminists can all perhaps agree on one thing: that the status quo in the majority (if not all) of the world’s societies is harmful in many ways towards women and girls. A large part of the harm is done by religion, both directly by influencing laws, attitudes and behaviour, and indirectly by promoting the idea that faith is a virtue and thus discouraging the questioning attitude that is so vital for debunking sexism and promoting equality. It is time for feminism to be brave and have a discussion about the real effects of religious faith on women’s place in societies worldwide, not placing the blame on a few extremists but critically examining the whole institution. Perhaps one day all feminists will end up at the same conclusion I came to many years ago: it is not just that the emperor has no clothes, it is that there is no emperor at all.

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