Questionable Motives

December 9, 2010

How does the long arm of American evangelical beliefs threaten people’s lives in Uganda?

Ignorance in action so often aided and abetted by religious conviction continues to cause unnecessary suffering. This is especially true regarding the treatment in law of homosexuals and the active advocacy of religious organizations to promote bigotry and misogyny in the name of god.

From HuffPo:

Rachel Maddow devoted almost half of her Wednesday show to a lengthy interview with David Bahati, author of the infamous bill in the Ugandan Parliament that calls for gay people to face life imprisonment or, in some cases, execution if they are convicted of having practiced homosexuality.

Bahati is also a member of The Family, the religious organization that carries substantial power on Capitol Hill (ever heard of the yearly National Prayer Breakfast?) .

Maddow asked him how gays living openly in Uganda harmed children. “It hurts my family when my child goes to school and is converted into gay…when the purpose of procreation is undermined,” Bahati said.

He also said that he was concerned about following “God’s law.” Maddow pressed him on this point, finally getting him to acknowledge that, in his view, the “appropriate punishment” for violating God’s law is death. “We need to turn to God,” he said.

Watch the entire interview (in two parts) here.

November 25, 2010

What are the consequences of gay marriage?

Filed under: belief,Bias,Bigotry,Gay Marriage — tildeb @ 12:03 pm

(Hat tip to Ken)

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.

November 5, 2010

How should we write about gnu atheists?

Filed under: accommodation,Bias,New Atheists,Religion,Skepticim — tildeb @ 11:38 pm

Well, there are the standard canards. One of my favourites and perhaps the most common is the one that puts forth the proposition that non belief is another kind of religious belief, albeit of the fundamentalist and dogmatic kind. And those who believe in it are the militant, strident, and arrogant atheists who dare not only to question the god hypothesis but who reach a conclusion of non belief as the evidence now stands. It seems to be a nice way to balance the whack jobs on both sides while appearing reasonable. Of course, it’s no such thing: it is the religious equivalent of racial apartheid: separate but equal. That’s what accommodation is all about.

So what are the rules to denigrate atheists successfully? Is there some kind of accommodation-friendly argumentative path to follow that would allow otherwise reasonable people to pretend that the god hypothesis is really a problem for atheists rather than the faithful, an approach that seems reasonable enough to fool the majority of people who would prefer to dismiss atheists without having to really think about the issues and questions they raise?

From Salty Current comes this satisfying guide to all those who wish to write and complain about the New Atheists. I have extracted a few paragraphs as a teaser but the short guide is a fast an enjoyable read.

Gnu atheists should be presented as uncivil, strident, aggressive, arrogant proselytizers and rigid fundamentalists. Don’t worry about finding concrete examples to support these generalizations. If you absolutely must quote from a gnu, keep it short and divorced from the complex background and context which would only confuse the reader. You’re firmly within the consensus, so you’re on solid ground. At the same time, whenever possible – as when discussing large-scale surveys showing declining rates of belief – present nonbelievers as merely having “doubts” about God. This is perfectly consistent.

Similarly, gnu atheism shouldn’t be presented as an intellectual position. Repeatedly emphasize their hostility to organized religion as the source of their disbelief. It helps if you acknowledge that there are some legitimate reasons for this hostility – shows you to be fair and balanced while leaving aside those pesky ontological matters.

You’re also safe presenting gnu atheists as cold, hyper-rational, solitary automatons who lack an appreciation of beauty or sense of wonder. Pay no attention to those who are artists, writers, or musicians, or to any of their works describing the wonder of scientific understanding and the sense of cosmic connectedness that follows from this deeper empirical knowledge. Leave aside the enormous spectrum of atheist writing on any number of ethical issues. And no need to discuss gnu atheists as people with families, friends, and communities. There’s nothing dishonest about this. You’re writing about that one dimension that is the guiding focus of their lives: rejecting religion.

Enjoy the entire guide and comments here.

(h/t to WEIT)

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

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.

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?”

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.

April 6, 2010

How deep is the bias against atheists?

Filed under: ACLU,American Humanist Association,Atheism,Bias — tildeb @ 11:16 am

How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

When the American Civil Liberties Union won’t take $20,000 of your money, you know the bias runs deep. Read about the case here. Although the ACLU later apologized by letter for its unethical stance of refusing the money outright, it still stipulated that the money could be donated ‘anonymously!’

With that letter it seemed that the American Humanist Association may have earned the distinction of being the first organization to be too controversial for the ACLU. Yet humanists and freethinkers have a history of speaking up for the rights of all. The AHA, for example, was among the first to support civil rights, equal pay for equal work and the right of same-sex couples to marry. Recently the AHA launched the LGBT Humanist Council to advance equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families. So this conditional position by the ACLU raises the legitimate question how can atheists alter the mistaken perception that one cannot be good without god if one is not allowed to do good because of this entrenched bias against atheists?

“There’s no reason that our humanism should be treated as something to be hidden,” responded Speckhardt. “We’re always proud to be standing on the side of love and acceptance, instead of fear and prejudice. This could be another example of how we can be good without God.” said Speckhardt.

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