Questionable Motives

July 28, 2011

Atheism: What’s a man (of god) to do when he no longer believes?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Dennett — tildeb @ 5:13 pm

There an interesting podcast here about (and from) preachers who no longer believe in god. This is from Dan Dennett’s work (his study is here) and he is interviewed by CBC’s Mary Hynes on the hour long show Tapestry.

Religious belief: monsterous or the human comedy?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Critical Reasoning,Religion — tildeb @ 10:07 am

Let’s listen for 34 glorious minutes to what fifty big-brained and rational people who respect what’s true explain why they think what they do about religious beliefs:



(h/t to pharyngula)

July 13, 2011

What if there is only an atheist heaven?

Filed under: Atheism,Humour — tildeb @ 1:45 pm

Ah ha! A third option to Pascal’s Wager…


June 8, 2011

Is it true? How do we know?

Filed under: Atheism,authority,belief,methodological naturalism,Science — tildeb @ 10:36 am

These two simple questions sit atop the watershed dividing the claims of theists from the criticisms of atheists.

If the first question is to have any merit and respect independent of who attempts to answer it, then the second question matters a very great deal. It is here in the epistemology of informing an answer where one faces a stark choice: one can either accept that belief based on some self-proclaimed authority is somehow sufficient or it is not.

If it is sufficient, then the first question Is it true doesn’t matter; what matters is adhering to the belief, in the case of theism by submitting to authority. This is the epistemological basis of theism: faith-based belief, and it is this same engine that drives belief in all woo.

If it is not sufficient, then what is true must be revealed some other way, not by authority but by a trustworthy method where the consistency and reliability of the results are the measurement. This is the basis of good science:  methodological naturalism (MN), with four centuries of spectacular results.

The two positions cannot be accommodated because the epistemologies are in direct conflict. And this is revealed very clearly when claims of what’s true in nature based on religious authority conflicts with the findings from MN. One of them must yield, but which one?

In considering this choice – because it really is a choice to be made – I ask why should we pay any attention at all to the religious authority if we know ahead of time that its methodology does not value what IS true but merely BELIEVED to be true?

Many argue that pointing out this conflict is rude and that it detracts from slowly and carefully separating individuals from their fantastical beliefs, that it is counter-productive to challenge believers in such an uncompromising way. My response is that reality (what’s true) is a pretty harsh place to begin with and the sooner we come to terms with that fact, the better off we’ll be coping with what IS real (like rapid climate change due to human activities that increases global warming) rather than diverted by those who insist that reality is determined by what is BELIEVED to be true (global warming is all a hoax). In addition, I think that if one honestly cares about what’s true (Are we really screwing up our own climate?), then pointing this out is a very powerful tool of deconversion (See this week’s series on TVO about energy, power, and ecology – and the key question raised at the 27 minute mark by Robin Batterham about what it may take to get angry enough to actually force energy policy change).

Writer Paula Kirby agrees. In her latest article, she describes exactly this process she underwent decoupling her mind from the grip of belief to respecting what is true. And she simply asked that second question and attempted to answer it honestly.

June 7, 2011

Why are atheists so arrogant?

Filed under: Argument,Atheism — tildeb @ 7:18 am


April 28, 2011

What’s the problem with religious accommodation and why does it so annoy gnus?

Filed under: accommodation,Atheism,Criticism,Gnu Atheism — tildeb @ 9:45 am

Taken in parts directly from author Paul W. , comment#29, over at Butterflies and Wheels and an excellent overview of the issue why gnu atheists are so deeply annoyed at the accommodationist stance taken up and promoted by other atheists:

Gnu atheists think more people ought to regularly speak up critically about bad religious ideas, and that those bad religious ideas are common to “liberal” religion as well as, e.g., fundamentalism.

The reasons why gnus think there’s too little forthright criticism and accommodationists think there’s too much vary considerably.

Accommodationists typically think some or all of the following, in some mix:

0. Distinctively religious beliefs aren’t all false, or aren’t all inconsistent with science, or aren’t so importantly false as to be worth objecting to.

1. In terms of its effects on human well being, religion isn’t a bad thing overall. A lot of religion (e.g., fundamentalism) is bad, but a lot of religion (e.g., theologically moderate or liberal Christianity) is actually good for the world, on the whole, promoting civilized conceptions of morality, or at worst harmless. If we dispensed with religion, or just diminished the mindshare of religion across the board, we’d lose a lot of good along with the bad.

2. Liberal religion is our friend, because liberal religious people are our main allies in the fight against conservative religion. If we talk people out of being liberally religious, that won’t help anything much, and may hurt because it will weaken institutions that we should be strengthening, or leaving as they are. Liberal religion is a crucial part of the solution to the problem of bad religion.

3. You can argue against the worst sorts of religion effectively without arguing against the best sorts. Fundamentalism is he problem, not religion, and critiques of religion should generally focus on distinctive features of bad religion. We should argue against theological conservatism, as liberals, more often than we should argue against religion, as atheists.

4. Even to the extent that it might be advantageous to undermine religion across the board, it is strategically unwise to attempt to do so. It will mostly alienate potential allies and generate backlash, doing more harm than good. It is better to be very “civil,” and only gently criticize religion, and mostly focus criticism on especially bad religion. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Gnus, in contrast, tend to think at least some of the following to a greater extent than accommodationists:

0. Distinctively religious beliefs are generally false, are generally inconsistent with science, and are false enough to be worth objecting to, out of a more or less free-floating commitment to truth.

1. In terms of its effects on human well-being, religion is a bad thing overall. Some religion (e.g., very theologically liberal religion) isn’t especially harmful in its direct effects on people, and sometimes is even good, but most religion is a net negative, and religion as a whole could be dispensed with, and that would be a generally good thing, with lots of pluses and relatively few minuses.

2. Liberal religion is our friend in some senses, and not in others. On average, if we talk liberally religious people out of being liberally religious, that will be a good thing because they’ll be even better allies against religion, including especially conservative religion.

3. You can’t argue effectively against bad religion effectively without arguing against religion fairly broadly, because the most important features of bad religion—belief in God and souls and divinely or supernaturally inspired morality—are common to almost all religion. Once you grant those mistaken premises, or fail to challenge them, you’ve mostly given away the store, and are reduced to making the kind of lame-ass arguments that liberal religious people use so ineffectively against conservatively religious people. (E.g., justifying certain ways of picking and choosing religious beliefs—rather than explaining why it’s all a load of bollocks, for which there are much better more basic, and correct arguments.)

The root problem isn’t fundamentalism, but central premises of almost all religion, which are themselves stupid and dangerous ideas, acquiesence to which enables fundamentalism—and basic nonfundamentalist orthodoxy, which is a bigger problem than outright fundamentalism.

4. Criticizing religion does generate backlash and alienate some people, but fears of backlash are overrated, and it is important to challenge religious privilege and especially to shift the Overton window of public opinion. Being too afraid of short-term backlash—and too pessimistic about major shifts of popular opinion about religion—is a recipe for perpetuating religion’s privileged position and dominance. It is demonstrably untrue that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar—successful social movements generally require a spectrum of opinion, including relatively “extreme” views. Excessive moderation is a recipe for stasis, and you need both reformists and “radicals,” who more or less play good cop / bad cop.

What accommodationists say that sets gnus off is usually a criticism of gnus that implies that we’re wrong to be as “radical” as we are, and that we should sit down and shut up, or do something else instead, because our anti-religious fight

1) isn’t worth fighting in principle, because religion’s not so bad, or

2) isn’t winnable, to any particularly useful extent, so isn’t worth fighting in practice, or

3) isn’t winnable by our overt, backlash-generating means, so we should all be nice moderates like the accommodationists instead of being noisy troublemakers who undermine sound, centrist political triangulation strategy.

We generally think all those things are false, and get really tired of hearing them from people who don’t seriously address the issues of fact, of worthwhile goals, or of effective political strategy.

Every time we hear strategic advice that amounts to “you catch more flies with honey” by somebody telling us what to do, who is apparently entirely ignorant of Overton window strategies, it pisses us off.

We get really, really sick of people telling us what to do without addressing our very good reasons for doing what we’re doing, and actually showing that their reasons are better than our reasons.

One thing that does frequently bring deep emotions into play is the sense that accommodationists frequently advise us what to do as though they think we’re simplistic strategically naive zealots, as opposed to thoughtful people with well-thought-out positions, good arguments, and an arguably excellent strategic rationale that is almost never even mentioned, much less properly addressed, by people who proffer an “obviously better” strategy toward apparently different goals.

Until accommodationists are willing to talk very, very seriously about Overton issues, we’re going to dismiss their strategic advice as the shallow, platitudinous crap that we think it is. As long as they act like we don’t even have a strategy, and criticize us for not going along with theirs, we’re going to be seriously annoyed when they tell us to do what they want us to do, instead of what we’re doing.

Talking about us as though we’re simply strategically naive and gratuitously confrontational is straw-manning us, and we are sick as shit of it. Its been going on nonstop for years, and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

We do understand accommodationist arguments. Of course we do. We always have. It isn’t exactly rocket science. (Or even passable political science.) And we’ve always had good reasons for disagreeing with them, which are almost universally ignored by accommodationists, who continue to talk past us, and talk systematically misleading cartoonish smack about us.

That’s just seriously annoying, isn’t? Should we not be annoyed by that?

April 21, 2011

What do atheists hear when theology is debated?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Hell,theology — tildeb @ 9:34 am

Amanda Marcotte has a pretty funny take over on Pandagon on a Chris Matthews round table ‘discussion’ about what if there is no hell? His panelists are fellow catholics Andrew Sullivan, Norah O’Donnell,  and Betty Quick, joined by Joe Klein who is jewish. The clip is under four minutes and the interpretation by Amanda only a few paragraphs long but is especially accurate. Her thesis is pretty simple:

Debating whether or not there is a hell on national television is one of those things that makes me wonder if we, as a nation, are collectively five years old. Since this is a claim that can’t really be dealt with on evidence, all the arguments basically fall along the lines of, “I believe X because I want result Y.”

For the answer to her question go here to see and read for yourself. After reading her short yet pithy article, you too will understand why it is pretty obvious (when such a discussion is interpreted by the rational mind of a non believer) why her answer is yes. But of course her answer doesn’t satisfy many who do not understand the humour, so a follow-up article is here.

April 16, 2011

Why is mainstream moderate religious belief poisonous (updated)?

From a previous thread come these comments:

From misunderstoodranter:

“I am not an atheist because ‘other’ people are atheists – I am an atheist because I decided I was.”

From Zero1Ghost comes this reply:

“this implies that believers are theists because they are engaged in group think. i think this notion is partially true. they are afraid not to believe in God yet they live their lives like there isn’t one and the “church” has no impact on their lives aside from where they get married, baptize their children, and where their funeral is held.”

This is a very typical characterization of the mainstream religious believer from those theists who do not see what pernicious and ongoing effect the tireless promotion of religious ideology has on their society… motivated solely by religious ideology. These same theists tend to individualize religious belief as if it were a simple choice made only on the personal level so take any criticism about religion per se as inconsequential and often misguided. From this attribution, these theists then generally fail to account for how their own preferences for empowering their personal religious beliefs in any public way support the insertion of religious ideology into the lives and business of everyone else. This is a purposeful disconnect done with the intention of deflecting criticism from the issue of religious motivation to an issue of individual actions that may or may not be considered misguided. In this way, these theists never have to deal with the growing problem religious ideology brings to the whole population as they stand idly by while this happens… but are sure to call atheists and others who complain too loudly names. Forget that these same theists offer their tacit support of the inserted religious ideology into the public domain while deflecting criticism to be too ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ and ‘fundamentalist’ to be accurate. No siree: complainers of religious insertion into the public domain are just as extreme as those other religious folk. And you don’t want to be one of those people! You’re too reasonable to be such an extremist. And yet the religiously motivated intrusion continues unabated seeking preferential treatment by means of law.

In the United States, for example, I wonder if most religious believers appreciate just how common, conniving, and downright underhanded are those who attempt to cross the state/church wall of separation to insert theology where it doesn’t belong: specifically in science class. I have trouble finding anyone who supports this insertion directly, who supports those who work against the First Amendment; instead I am overwhelmed by those who pretend such insertions are only attempted by religious extremists and fundamentalists and so we can safely trust governments to withstand their misguided assaults. They are wrong.

So let’s consider the facts: in 2011 we have seven states considering nine bills to do just this.

The National Center for Science Education offers us what they call the Antievolution Legislative Scorecard here. It lists each bill and quotes the bill’s aims. This is creationism in action. This is religious ideology actively being recruited to achieve a specific outcome. Its motivation is to undermine the teaching of evolution as if there were some other legitimate science theories kicking about in biology when there are none. This is pure religious belief common to most religious believers who assume the role of creator somewhere in humanity’s history masquerading as some kind of alternative science. And every year creationism rears its ugly little head and people work tirelessly to alter science textbooks, alter school curriculum, alter education legislation with one aim in mind: replace real science with religious belief in the public domain… or at least make room for religious beliefs about creationism in the curriculum. So can we blame only religious extremists? Well, it is not being carried out by religious extremists. It is not being carried out by fundamentalists. It is being done by politicians who stand to gain public favour by undermining the teaching of science in the name of religious belief.

There’s the rub.

It is the wider public made up of religious moderates and liberals, apologists and accommodationists, who are to blame for this travesty… including the NCSE itself that states “[t]he Bible is a record of one particular people’s developing moral relationship with God, and enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation […]! Without the support of so many religious accommodationist of all stripes- tacit or actual – no politician would dare undermine the First and expect to curry public favour. For that to happen, the mainstream must accept the promotion of religious ideology in the public domain as legitimate.  And that’s why every religious believer must be challenged who dares to suggest that their religious beliefs beyond the merely personal are either innocuous or good. They’re not. They are just as likely to be poisonous.

March 21, 2011

What is Atheist Week all about?

Filed under: Atheism,Facebook — tildeb @ 9:40 am

‘A’ week is a Facebook event (and Twitter) “to raise awareness of how many people are good without god and don’t need religion to influence their lives.”

As Kyle Brady expresses so well,

Much like various other campaigns that use colors, events, or symbols to raise awareness, Atheist Week is simply trying to prove that being intelligent, behaving ethically, and generally being a good person are not the results of a religious indoctrination.  With a change of profile picture and a link, the hope is that some people will be curious enough to ask questions of the near 10,000 individuals currently participating in this endeavor, perhaps resulting in a greater understanding of who, and what, atheists truly are.

In an age of growing secularism amongst younger generations, ludicrous political bipartisanship, and ever more worrisome events tied directly to religion, it’s important to demonstrate to the uninitiated that atheism is not about doctrine or the disdain of others:  quite simply, atheists are individuals that choose to think rationally for themselves and apply their intellect towards a better understanding of reality.  The future may very well be one of religious tolerance, to include those without religion, but for those remiss of belief, intolerance, discrimination, and judgment can be a regular event at the hands of those that feel it is their everlasting duty to convert all nonbelievers to their specific religious flavor in order to reach some flimsy end goal – not exactly the picture of tolerance or religious freedom.

Until this utopian future arrives, it must be shown, repeatedly, that ethics are absolutely, unequivocally, divergent from religion.

February 16, 2011

What is the role of New Atheism?

I simply have to re-post a comment because it is so articulately expressed by thephilosophicalprimate that I think nails the role of New Atheism. It involves a responding to a couple of posts by Eric MacDonald over at Choice in Dying – a wonderful new blog that is rich in good writing, interesting commentary, and important topics in need of our consideration – that deal with what’s missing from the New Atheist’s contribution to the world today and responds well to the issues Eric raises:

Here is where I think our prior discussion about the values at the heart of New Atheism has more potential than has yet been explored. New Atheists don’t just agree on a set of conclusions, but on a set of common underlying epistemological values, the norms which both motivate and structurally determine the arguments which we make in support of those conclusions. When I brought this up before, I mentioned in parentheses that I don’t think epistemological values and moral values are entirely separable. What you are talking about in this post, Eric, starts to touch on the territory where I think they intersect and overlap.

So what are those shared values? To rehash a bit: Atheists, for the most part, care a great deal about attempting to discover the truth rather than assuming that we already know it (i.e. fallibilism), and we reject anyone’s insistence that some claims can be or should be off-limits to rigorously applied critical thinking. Atheists care about evidence and reasoning, and think that claims ought to be accepted as true only to the extent that they can be justified. But why do we prize fallibilism and genuine truth-seeking justification so highly, and reject the opposite — faith — so thoroughly?

One answer is pragmatic: These are the epistemic norms that work! That is, consistently following such norms gives us the sort of reliable knowledge that we can use to accomplish our aims in the world, whatever those may be. And that’s fine as far as it goes.

However, a deeper answer points towards core moral values, not just instrumental/pragmatic values. Ultimately, faith almost always consists in relying on or accepting some authority: the authority of a holy book; the authority of the writers of such books who claim to speak for a still higher, divine authority (evidence for which is nonexistent); or, most commonly, the authority of those who claim the right to interpret the meaning of holy books and the wills of gods (but again, offer no evidence to back that claim to authority). Rejecting faith not only manifests epistemic values that treasure authentic truth-seeking over comforting or self-serving delusions, it manifests moral values that treasure human freedom and self-determination over bowing to illegitimate authority*. New Atheists value both intellectual and practical liberty, both freedom of thought (within the limits of legitimate concessions to the universe itself, i.e. epistemic norms such as fallibilism and evidence-driven reasoning) and freedom of action (within the limits of legitimate concessions to the similar freedom enjoyed by others). And when I say “New Atheists value” such and such, I am suggesting both that the extant New Atheists I’ve read and engaged with do in fact demonstrate that they embrace such moral values, but also that these moral values are logically connected to the epistemological values which drive the movement: A New Atheist who rejected such values (if there were such a creature) would be inconsistent in doing so.

Moreover, the pragmatic answer and the moral answer converge, at least by implication. Valuing sound epistemic norms because of their pragmatic value — they give us reliable knowledge useful for accomplishing our ends whatever those ends might be — directly implies that accomplishing our ends is, generally speaking, a good thing. (The “generally speaking” caveat is not trivial: Individually, we each consider accomplishing our own ends to be good, but the actual ends any given person is attempting to accomplish may or not be good in some universalizable moral sense.) However, the disconnection of pragmatic value from any particular end also implies, albeit indirectly, a live-and-let-live attitude towards choosing ones ends. In other words, valuing epistemic norms which let us accomplish our ends (whatever those ends might be) is integrally interrelated with valuing human freedom, for if the word “freedom” has any meaning at all, surely that meaning includes determining and pursuing one’s own ends.

So if you want to understand what moral values underlie New Atheism, I think you need look no further than John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. (Which, coincidentally, was published in 1859, the same year as another book of some considerable importance to New Atheist thought…)

That said, I’m not sure how far Mill’s very individualistic liberal political philosophy responds to the exact concerns you point towards here, which are all tied up with communal identity and activity. Then again, there is nothing in even the most individualistic liberalism which in any way undermines the value of communities and communal identities; it only demands that participation in such communities must always be wholly voluntary for all involved — which is exactly what New Atheists are fighting for. To elaborate a bit, for membership in any community or collective identity to be genuinely and wholly voluntary, no community or shared identity or set of beliefs (or institution formed by the like-minded) can occupy a place of special privilege or power above and beyond the basic freedom of its individual members. Guaranteeing voluntary participation in turn requires that the beliefs and commitments underlying any and every such community must be adopted or rejected by potential community members in a context where there is absolute freedom of thought and discussion, where no ideas or beliefs receive any special protection or privileged status that places them beyond question or criticism. Without freedom of thought and discussion, privileged positions or institutions (i.e. walling off religion from criticism) have an intellectually coercive power over citizens that undermines the very possibility of genuinely and wholly voluntary participation OR rejection of the position.

In other words, the fight New Atheists are already fighting springs from the same set of interrelated epistemic and moral values that I’ve been discussing here. The persistent and insistent claims that “something is missing” from the New Atheist world view is true; what is missing is the siren call of easy assent to illegitimate authority — the human instinct to blend in and concede our autonomy to parent-mimicking authorities who, unlike actual (good) parents, do not have our genuine best interests at heart. What is missing are some of the worse aspects of our human nature, not the better ones. Humanity is well and truly better off being rid of what is “missing” from the New Atheist value system, and I have yet to see any argument or evidence that the genuinely worthwhile value of community and collective identity are in any way excluded or undermined by our value system. Instead, serious commitment to human intellectual and practical freedom offers us the means to strip away the coercive and exclusive** components that make community and collective identity such a mixed blessing.

* What constitutes legitimate authority? I think the most basic answer — the conception of legitimate authority settled on by everyone who thinks seriously about it, and the one that appears to have risen to the top on the tide of history — is some form of democratic authority. Authority is legitimated by the consent of those governed by the authority, and authority in the absence of consent is illegitimate by its very nature. Genuine consent, of course, cannot be produced by force or deception — and faith is the ultimate form of deception, since the deceived are persuaded to actively deceive themselves for the most part. (Although religious authorities engage in lots and lots of plain old deception as well as encouraging self-deception; you don’t think those statues *really* weep by themselves, do you?) Therefore, the authority of religion is always and forever illegitimate authority. It is no coincidence that religious traditions which place the least emphasis on faith — Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism and other broadly ecumenical traditions — are also the least authoritarian, and vice versa. And notice that this discussion of illegitimate authority and the coercive nature of privileged positions connects very closely to the discussion of the role of freedom of thought and discussion above.

** By “exclusive components,” I mean all the potential for communities and communal identities to manifest ugly in-group/out-group, us/them dynamics that undermine basic respect for the rights and basic worth of those outside the group — the foundation of genocides, religious wars, and simple bigotry. How does attention to human freedom strip out the exclusive elements of community? Because it is rooted in the fundamental recognition of all other humans as beings with the right to think for themselves, to decide what they think is worthwhile and to pursue what is worthwhile with the greatest freedom consistent with a similar freedom for all. Such a live-and-let live, individualistic morality undermines bigotry in all its forms, whereas more authoritarian values actively encourage it.

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