Questionable Motives

May 3, 2010

What does freedom of expression look like?

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April 4, 2010

Why should we marginalise ideas based on religious legitimacy?

Russell Blackford explains why in this post from which I taken some excerpts and added bold face:

Some ideas do merit marginalisation, and some opponents do lack intellectual legitimacy. That isn’t to say that these ideas and opponents should be censored. There are many reasons why it is best to allow people to speak their minds. But the political freedom to speak your mind does not entail a right to be taken seriously or given deference, or even to be accorded intellectual legitimacy. Indeed, there are plenty of ideas that people should be free to advocate, but which are so clearly foolish or even repugnant that they will, quite rightly, be ignored or treated with derision. Often, ideas that are treated with respect in one generation come to fall in this category in later generations.

For example, a contemporary defence of slavery would fall on deaf ears. Or it might, depending on its context and the way it was expressed, provoke nervous laughter, scorn, repugnance, or even fear. It would not receive a respectful hearing, and anyone who put this idea forward would instantly lose all intellectual credibility (at least in Australia!).

Furthermore, to take less troubling matters, it is unlikely that anyone advocating public policy by telling us that her proposals are in accordance with the will of Aphrodite or Zeus or Odin would receive a respectful hearing in 21st-century Australia. She should be allowed to put her case, can try to persuade us that it is not so outrageous, that it deserves a respectful hearing, and so on. However, the playing field is tilted against her speech, and again quite properly. The onus is on her to explain why not. Prima facie, the will of Zeus is a very poor reason for public policy, and anyone claiming otherwise will, quite properly, be marginalised in serious policy debates.

Of course, we should not censor someone who wants to defend slavery. They should have that freedom. They can plug away with their arguments and try to persuade us to take them seriously. But the playing field is strongly tilted against them, and quite properly so. The onus is on them to explain why it shouldn’t be. Likewise for someone who advocates torture or suicide bombing or female genital mutilation or forced abortions.

But some ideas, though not censored, should be given only a marginal place in our society. In every generation, we continue to debate which those are. I am hopeful that future generations will include not only the examples I’ve given, such as the ideas of reinstituting slavery or punishing homosexuals, but also such examples as the ludicrous idea that the Earth is only 6000 years old (contrary to all conclusions from rational investigation). Likewise for the idea that there is something even “sinful” about (as opposed to grounds for banning) consenting homosexual conduct between sufficiently mature people, or that “sin” attaches to the use of contraceptives or to masturbation. Like the advocacy of slavery, these foolish ideas no longer deserve a level playing field in our society. Let them be freely derided, ridiculed, and driven to the margins. The sooner, the better.

March 21, 2010

What kind of moral guide is the bible?

Filed under: belief,Bible,Ethics,Morality,Philosophy,Religion — tildeb @ 10:03 am

An incoherent one, but we often are told in no uncertain terms by the faithful that morality comes only from god through the holy texts like the bible. .

Robert G. Ingersoll has gone looking for this moral message in the bible and describes his thoughts about the moral codes he has found in this article, from which I have extracted these few paragraphs:

On the whole, the Old Testament cannot be considered a moral guide. Jehovah was not a moral God. He had all the vices, and he lacked all the virtues. He generally carried out his threats, but he never faithfully kept a promise.  At the same time, we must remember that the Old Testament is a natural production, that it was written by savages who were slowly crawling toward the light. We must give them credit for the noble things they said, and we must be charitable enough to excuse their faults and even their crimes.

I know that many Christians regard the Old Testament as the foundation and the New as the superstructure, and while many admit that there are faults and mistakes in the Old Testament, they insist that the New is the flower and perfect fruit. I admit that there are many good things in the New Testament, and if we take from that book the dogmas of eternal pain, of infinite revenge, of the atonement, of human sacrifice, of the necessity of shedding blood; if we throw away the doctrine of non-resistance, of loving enemies, the idea that prosperity is the result of wickedness, that poverty is a preparation for Paradise, if we throw all these away and take the good, sensible passages, applicable to conduct, then we can make a fairly good moral guide,—narrow, but moral.

Of course, many important things would be left out. You would have nothing about human rights, nothing in favor of the family, nothing for education, nothing for investigation, for thought and reason, but still you would have a fairly good moral guide. On the other hand, if you would take the foolish passages, the extreme ones, you could make a creed that would satisfy an insane asylum. If you take the cruel passages, the verses that inculcate eternal hatred, verses that writhe and hiss like serpents, you can make a creed that would shock the heart of a hyena. It may be that no book contains better passages than the New Testament, but certainly no book contains worse. Below the blossom of love you find the thorn of hatred; on the lips that kiss, you find the poison of the cobra. The Bible is not a moral guide. Any man who follows faithfully all its teachings is an enemy of society and will probably end his days in a prison or an asylum.

These facts in general, these histories in outline, the results reached, the conclusions formed, the principles evolved, taken together, would form the best conceivable moral guide. We cannot depend on what are called “inspired books,” or the religions of the world. These religions are based on the supernatural, and according to them we are under obligation to worship and obey some supernatural being, or beings. All these religions are inconsistent with intellectual liberty. They are the enemies of thought, of investigation, of mental honesty. They destroy the manliness of man. They promise eternal rewards for belief, for credulity, for what they call faith. This is not only absurd, but it is immoral.

These religions teach the slave virtues. They make inanimate things holy, and falsehoods sacred. They create artificial crimes. To eat meat on Friday, to enjoy yourself on Sunday, to eat on fast-days, to be happy in Lent, to dispute a priest, to ask for evidence, to deny a creed, to express your sincere thought, all these acts are sins, crimes against some god, To give your honest opinion about Jehovah, Mohammed or Christ, is far worse than to maliciously slander your neighbor. To question or doubt miracles. is far worse than to deny known facts. Only the obedient, the credulous, the cringers, the kneelers, the meek, the unquestioning, the true believers, are regarded as moral, as virtuous. It is not enough to be honest, generous and useful; not enough to be governed by evidence, by facts. In addition to this, you must believe. These things are the foes of morality. They subvert all natural conceptions of virtue.

February 10, 2010

When is a paradigm shift not a shift at all?

Filed under: Evolution,Faith,God,Philosophy,Physics,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 4:57 pm

From Jesus and Mo

January 28, 2010

Is atheism fundamentally a Straw Man argument?

There is a reprehensible opinion piece posted online at the New York Times by Ross Douthat that supposedly offers us an “illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

Specifically, Douthat criticizes Dawkins for using Pat Roberston and his diatribe of god-sanctioned blame for the devastation suffered by Haiti as an example of a ‘real’ christian (read my previous comment on Dawkins’ article and why he argues as much). This is a failure of critical thinking by Douthat. By asserting that atheism requires a Straw Man approach, Douthat fails to comprehend Dawkins’ central argument: that a willingness by today’s theological apologists to grant any credence to a religious interpretation of some holy text that focuses on what is meek and mild without accounting for the parts that are vicious and genocidal is intellectually dishonest.

Douthat’s counter argument that quotes New Testament passages to negate Robertson’s interpretation is exactly Dawkins’ point: one biblical reference is not any closer to being true or accurate than the other. The only difference is that Robertson’s interpretation takes into account the capriciousness and violence of the christian god, making such an opinion based on biblical interpretation more ‘real’ in a christian vein than one like Douthat’s which simply ignores the Old Testament’s accounts of a god that is unconscionably cruel and immoral in favour of specific passages that casts Jesus as benevolent and forgiving. Let us all remember, however, that it is from Jesus we first gain a biblical account for eternal damnation… hardly one that enhances the CV of hope and love people so often attribute to Jesus’ message.

I have read repeated criticisms of Dawkins and other New Atheists as creating a Straw Man religious argument, that is to say, that these atheists create a Robertson-ian god as the one that defines the christian god and then tear it down by revealing its obvious malevolence. But the god worshiped by most christians, this argument points out,  is not this god – the one believed in by some fringe and/or extreme fundamentalists as the one so vehemently opposed by ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ atheists – but one that is actually benevolent and wise and compassionate. The faulty conclusion then held by so many moderate religious apologists is that Dawkins and his cohorts aren’t criticizing their religious beliefs but merely the ones held by hard core fundamentalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

New Atheists care about what is true. They care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true. They care about coming to a better understanding of the natural world, of promoting honest intellectual and scientific inquiry. They also respect the rights and freedoms and dignity of individuals within a secular society. They are concerned about any influence that intentionally impedes any of these cares, and there is no greater single impediment than the false certainty of religious belief. But rather than criticize specific people’s beliefs, the New Atheists’ approach is to enter the public forum and expose unjustified beliefs – regardless whether the unjustified belief is religious, superstitious, supernatural, or just poor thinking. To do this, New Atheists point out why the unjustified foundational belief of a Robertson is no different in quality of belief than someone who insists on holding a Jesus is Love assumption. Nor is there any difference in the unjustified foundational beliefs upon which the complimentary and alternative medicine industry has been built. Belief in the supernatural, whether it be god or evil spirits or the memory of water, cannot be honest knowledge: because such ideas are beyond our ability to be examined in the natural world under natural conditions subject to natural forces and natural efficacy all which can be naturally measured, supernatural belief cannot be justified by any other measure other than more assumption and assertion. Assumption and assertion that cannot by definition undergo natural testing and rational criticism because it is supernatural is immune from honest critical inquiry. Asserted beliefs are assumed to be true because they are believed to be true. That is not a justification for the truth value of the belief but an excuse, an allowance, a willingness to suspend critical inquiry. So it doesn’t matter whether or not it is a Pat Robertson’s unjustified belief or an Ayatollah’s unjustified belief or a Pope Benedict XVI’s unjustified belief or a Sarah Palin’s unjustified belief – the common denominator pointed out by New Atheists like Dawkins is that supernatural beliefs in their entirety are equally unjustified.

When a Pat Robertson makes another disparaging public statement about suffering people deserving their suffering and backs it up with theology, it is an opportunity and not a requirement for atheists to once again point out that if not for the acceptance of the moderately religious, then the foundation of unjustified religious beliefs would be treated with the same scorn and disgust aimed at Robertson for his outrageous truth claims. Robertson and his ilk have an audience because there is widespread acceptance by religious apologists to excuse, allow, and suspend legitimate criticism in matters of religious belief. That’s a public problem and it requires a public solution.

Is unjustified belief in the supernatural and all its various promotions in the public domain in need of public criticism? My answer is an unequivocal Yes. The New Atheists like Dawkins don’t just say a meek and mild yes to this question in the privacy of their own minds; they DO something about it by bringing their arguments and expertise into the public domain to tackle the problem of a Robertson, an Ayatollah, a Pope, a Palin, head on.

So the answer to the title is No, atheism is not fundamentally a Straw Man argument but a call to action, a growing movement that will continue to challenge anyone who doesn’t care about what is true but what is unjustifiably believed to be true, and who would allow unjustified beliefs the right to take a place at any table in the public domain.

January 22, 2010

Does god hate women?

“The control of women is dual. The goal is to deny access to woman’s genitals to all men in the world minus one and to guarantee access to one.”

In the chapter of your book called Holy Groupthink, you explore the idea that religions “…often declare some kinds of people subordinate to other kinds of people, and they also often deny the right of humans to contradict such claims.” You then give an example of a UN meeting in 2008 where a delegate was giving a statement in regard to rights of women and was interrupted twenty seconds in by delegates from Egypt and Pakistan who insisted the delegate had no right to discuss Sharia law in the UN council and that “Islam would not be crucified” in such a manner. You go on to say that this sort of thing amounts to “protecting an abstraction, a particular religion,” and “specious protection for a social construct at the expense of real people.”

“Some people are reluctant to criticize Islam because Muslims in the West are a vulnerable minority. This is true, and well worth keeping in mind, but it’s short of a conversation-stopper. Just for one thing it falls foul of the blindness about groups mentioned above. ‘Muslims in the West’ are not just people who want to live by the most conservative possible versions of Islam, nor are they all men who want to impose the conservative versions on ‘their’ women. Some Muslims in the West are women and girls who want to get out from under those rules, so being all politely respectful of Islam no matter what is not automatically doing all Muslims in the West a favor.”

Maia Caron interviews one of my favourite atheists, Ophelia Benson, here.

January 10, 2010

Do atheists perform a public service criticizing religious belief?

Excerpts from Russell Blackford’s Hellfire and Metamagician post:

The trouble with religious explanations of the world is not so much that they are implausible, for their implausibility becomes apparent to many people only after a great deal of thought and against a background of accumulated scientific knowledge. Over the centuries, indeed, religious explanations have proved to be all-too-plausible for people who are attracted to them by their rhetoric, their association with wealth or power, or the comfort they provide … rather than by actual evidence. Conversely, it is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that anyone thinks of quantum theory or cosmological theories as plausible in themselves. On the contrary, these theories, taken in isolation, are difficult and highly counterintuitive.

The entire history of modern science, from Galileo, through Darwin, to the present day, has been one of replacing the common sense of medium-sized earthbound creatures such as us with explanatory theories that defy commonsense intuitions – but are superior in their explanatory reach and conformity to the evidence. Scientific evidence, of course, does not fall from the sky without labour, like so much manna; instead, it is gathered painstakingly and incrementally, year by year, drawing on the professional efforts of many highly-trained individuals. Eventually, some of the evidence converges so powerfully as to support highly successful bodies of theory. Some of these are never likely to be overthrown, such as the theoretical finding that human beings descended from apelike creatures, that the Earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the Sun (while rotating on its axis), that many diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, and so on. None of these claims, taken in isolation from the evidence and from the rest of science, is especially plausible.

Religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social and political power, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian (and now Muslim) moral concerns.

If religious leaders and their organisations were prepared to stay within the private sphere, worshipping their gods as they choose and performing works of charity, we would have no great problem with them – live and let live! Unfortunately, they tend to lobby for government actions that would impose their moral views on the rest of society – whether it be views about homosexuality, abortion, artistic freedom, end-of-life decisions, blasphemy and vilification laws, or a raft of other issues involving precious individual liberties.

Against that background, there is at least a loose, minimalist movement to challenge the authority of religion. Individual atheists within this unstructured feline community may have widely differing philosophies and priorities, but one thing we could almost all agree on is that religion continues to obtain far too much deference in government decision-making, including when the decisions involve coercion and police powers … and when they involve large sums of public money.

In a different world, without the many religious leaders, organisations, and lobby groups that claim moral authority and exert actual political influence, contemporary atheists would feel less need to be outspoken. However, we don’t find ourselves in that world. Instead, the religious sects, even those that give lip-service to a separation of Church and State (a concept which they self-servingly misinterpret), typically lobby for their specifically religious moralities to be imposed by the secular law. When the religious do that, it is only natural for us to reply by asking what moral authority they really have. Are their holy books and traditions really repositories of supernatural moral wisdom, dictated or inspired by a higher being, or are they all-too-human constructs, reflecting the limited moral visions of their times? Surely it is the latter, and surely we perform a public service when we point this out – supported, where necessary, with evidence and argument.

January 8, 2010

What percentage of philosophers are theists?

Filed under: Philosophy,Statistics,theism — tildeb @ 10:31 pm

David Bourget and David Chalmers have released the results of the largest survey of professional philosophers ever conducted. Some interesting results:

72.8% atheism
14.6% theism
12.5% other

49.8% naturalism
25.8% non-naturalism (but not necessarily supernaturalism)
24.2% other

Of course, quite what any of this shows re the truth of any of these beliefs, if anything, can be debated….

December 25, 2009

Why continue to post about unjustified beliefs and criticize them?

I have often been asked why I bother to post every day, why I take the time and effort to expose unjustified beliefs as stories and articles about them hit the media. Why cannot I leave them and their unjustified beliefs well enough alone?

The short answer is that I can’t because it is wrong to do nothing. Because I can do something, I feel that I must do my small part at the very least… hence my posting. Ignorance must be challenged and brought into the light of critical thinking to expose it for what is usually is: an expression of cancerous fear that is not worthy to be held respectable but owed our justified and published contempt.

The longer version of the answer I will borrow from a poster with whom I have the greatest respect: Calilasseia, who writes here

To those like myself who have followed a scientific academic career, such are the things of beauty that fill our intellectual realms; such are the fragrant blossoms of our requisite enchanted gardens. They speak of the way the world works, they allow us not only to marvel at that world, but to work within it and build upon it. From the world of biology, the butterfly that forms my avatar, Morpho rhetenor from Peru, is another scintillating marvel about which I can wax lyrical – did you know that its wing scales, when viewed under the electron microscope, possess structural features allowing them to act as light amplifiers for specific regions of the visible spectrum via constructive interference? Breathtaking as the butterfly is in life, and one day I hope to see it for myself in its natural habitat and experience the wonder of its flashes of blue iridescence as it flies upon those jewelled wings, the thought that its scintillating beauty has an explanation that can be deduced by the mind of Man should also be something we pause for a moment to gasp at.

But there are those whose eyes and whose minds are closed to such things. Not for them the joys of inquiry, of discovery, of learning: rather, they seek their sustenance not in the bright sunshine of free thought, but in the perennial darkness of doctrine. Worse still, these persons are not content with inhabiting those catacombs themselves – they seek to cage others within the darkness, shut them out from the light, deny them forever the fragrant blossoms of the enchanted gardens I have just described. To do so, they will resort to subterfuge and intrigue, eating away at the wonderful edifice of learning that, if they paused for a moment to consider, gives them too gifts in their lives for which they appear to show not one atom of gratitude.

They must be stopped.

It is indeed an imperative that they are, for if that magnificent, hard-won product of the Enlightenment is lost to us, the consequences will be disastrous. From an era in which we can sit at home, and at the touch of a button be connected with manned spaceflight in real time, or with thousands upon thousands of other people on different continents in media such as this forum, living lives free from the perils of famine and pestilence, we shall descend into a new Dark Age, in which those vanquished spectres will emerge wraith-like to claim more, and those who are left will be subject to arbitrary, Inquisitional terror.

If some, like myself, are inclined to be polemical about this, it because we know precisely what is at stake if the purveyors of ignorance and bigotry win – we know how much of a calamity it will be for our very species. We know intimately how precious those gifts of the Enlightenment are, and what will befall us if they are wrested from our hands. We know also that to perpetuate those gifts is something we cannot leave to chance, it must be worked for, the price that the rational man must pay for the wonders of free thought is eternal vigilance in the face of those forces that would destroy it. That is why I, for one, am not only prepared to launch polemically into the fray, but consider it my moral duty so to do, because the consequences of indolence, were they to result in the victory of the forces of ignorance and bigotry, would be worse than calamitous, they would be truly apocalyptic. And make no mistake, those who would replace the glories of free thought with the concentration camp of mysticism seek not only to destroy those glories, but from their own words have given a chilling insight into the pleasure they would derive from that destruction, and the pleasure they would derive from having people like us at their mercy.

What we have is far more beautiful, inspiring, and worthy of defending than any doctrine. Let the hordes come – my sword is at the ready.

December 8, 2009

The religious gambit: why should faith alone require an exemption from critical inquiry?

Greta Christina has a terrific article over at AlterNet asking religious believers to show her the evidence and telling us about the responses she receives.

In the marketplace of ideas, only religion gets a free ride in an armored tank.

What evidence do religious believers have for their beliefs?

And when they’re asked what evidence they have, how do believers respond?

In my conversations with religious believers, I’ll often ask, “Why do you think God or the supernatural exists? What makes you think this is true? What evidence do you have for this belief?” Partly I’m just curious; I want to know why people believe what they do. Plus, I think it’s a valid question: it’s certainly one I’d ask about any other claim or opinion. And if I’m wrong about my atheism — if there’s good evidence for religion that I haven’t seen yet — I want to know. I’m game. Show me the money.

But when I ask these questions, I almost never get a straight answer.

What I typically get is a startling assortment of conversational gambits deflecting the question.

I get excuses for why believers shouldn’t have to provide evidence. Vague references to other people who supposedly have evidence, without actually pointing to said evidence. Irrelevant tirades about mean atheists. Venomous anger at how disrespectful and intolerant I am to even ask the question.

Today, I want to chronicle some of these conversational gambits and point out their logical flaws. I want to point out the fiendishly clever ways that they armor religion against the expectation — a completely reasonable expectation, an expectation we have about every other kind of claim — that it back itself up with evidence.

And I want to talk about why believers resort to them.

Find out what these gambits are here. Enjoy.

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