Archive for August, 2009

Cosmic Calendar: Solar System forms

2009/08/31

That season is upon us again.

I’m talking, of course, of the busiest months in the Cosmic Calendar. For those who don’t know what the Cosmic Calendar is, please see my earlier posts on the topic (starting here).

I’ve added a list of upcoming Cosmic Calendar events to the (increasingly busy) sidebar on the right.

Today (4.6 billion years ago), the Solar System begins to form. In a day or two, the Earth will have formed (4.5 billion years ago). I apologize for not having more to say right now – this kind of snuck up on me, and I still have limited Internet access outside of work. Check out last year’s post for a little more background on today’s anniversary.

(Also see last year’s post on Earth’s birthday. If anyone has any insight into the bizarre claim made in the comments, please let me know. It still baffles me. I don’t know if I could have responded more constructively.)

Religious rights: free speech and hate speech

2009/08/27

A couple of news items flagged up by Hemant, the Friendly Atheist, the other day have me thinking about “religious freedom”. What should the relationship be between laws protecting freedom of religion and the rest of the laws in a society?

One is this report of a bus driver in Iowa refusing to drive a bus with an ad on it promoting a local atheist group. The message on the ad is: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”, and includes the group’s name (Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers) and their URL (iowaatheists.org). The bus driver was suspended for refusing to do her job. She’s now back at work, but the issue is probably not over. Her employers said she can keep her job so long as she doesn’t do it again; she says that if she’s given another bus with the ad, she will again refuse to drive it.

The other is this story (which I could only find reported at the Telegraph) of street preachers John and Miguel Hayworth being told off by police for allegedly reading homophobic and racist passages from the Bible to passersby. They feel that their right to religious practice is being infringed. Others feel that their actions amount to hate speech.

In the case of the bus driver, I really don’t think there’s much room for reasonable dissent. The ad is in no way inflammatory. It doesn’t say anything that could reasonably be considered offensive. It is even milder than the surprisingly controversial UK bus ads, which go so far as to say that “There’s probably no god”. I can’t see how the driver could argue that driving the bus would violate any sensible ethic. Her reaction reflects a general tendency among humans to exaggerate the offensiveness of statements they disagree with.

The case of the street preachers raises a more interesting and difficult issue to resolve. On the one hand, free speech is a fundamentally important right. It supersedes people’s desire not to be offended (for example, by inflammatory passages of scripture). On the other hand, incitement to violence is dangerous and should be prevented – if someone is actively promoting hatred and violence against a group, then society (through the police and the courts) is right to stop them.

So the question is, where is the line between protected free speech and prohibited hate speech? As Hemant points out, there are several passages in the Bible that simply and straightforwardly promote death for certain acts. Here are a couple of examples:

Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

(For more examples, see this essay at Religious Tolerance.)

I’m not saying these verses in particular were used by the Hayworths – they are not among those mentioned in the Telegraph article. But they are from the Bible, and thus might be claimed as protected by religious evangelists.

If someone were to stand on the Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh and start saying we should kill all the Wiccans, or all the practicing homosexual men, that person would (I hope) be arrested. Nobody has a right to encourage violence like that.

And yet, the passages I mention above say exactly that: kill witches; kill men who have sex with men.

So here are the crucial questions:

Would it ameliorate the crime at all if the exhortation to violence is based on (or directly read from) a religious text? Should religious expression trump hate speech laws?

On both counts, my answer is a firm no. No idea deserves any special protection just because someone claims it as a religious idea, no matter how old or widespread the idea is.

Despite occasional cries to the contrary, applying the same rules to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs is not discrimination. It is the opposite. Discrimination would be applying different rules (extending either privilege or persecution) based solely on religious belief (or lack of it).

So, if the Hayworths were reciting passages that promote hatred and violence against others, then police interference was justified. If they were just reciting passages that are offensive to others’ feelings (and there are plenty to choose from), then they should have been allowed to continue.

(A point of curiosity: I wonder if the Hayworths would defend the atheist bus ads? After all, they are at least as innocuous a form of expression as reciting scripture to passersby. Conservative religious people seem often to be not only the ones crying foul when they don’t have all the religious privileges they would like; they also seem to be the most vocal critics of atheists who try to share their worldview with others.)

For Deena

2009/08/26

I have no pretty words to mark this occasion. I have no fanfare to set this day apart from all the other days of our life together.

I have only the same words I share with you every day. I love you.

I have only the same choice I make anew each day. I choose you.

Happy ninth anniversary.

– your everyday Tim

Can you spot the foreshadowing here?

What does Blanchard teach us? (5 of 5)

2009/08/24

This is the fifth and final part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I wrap up the discussion and try to derive a positive lesson from it all. The previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

Blanchard’s complete disregard for the other side of the story has completely turned me off. He doesn’t really try to understand evolution before attacking it. He doesn’t really try to understand humanism before attacking it. He gives only a cursory pass at each of the religions he dismisses as deeply flawed.

And so I have no interest in reading on to see why he thinks his own beliefs are so much better.

Blanchard uses his impressively extensive reading as a way to gather quotes around which to build straw men. I suspect that he generally doesn’t realize he’s doing this. He probably believes that folks like me really do hold the mickey-mouse philosophy he labels “humanism”. But that’s no excuse: it’s his job, as an author aiming to engage me, to actually know where I’m coming from. He doesn’t have to agree with me; I enjoy a couple of blogs by committed Christians who I often disagree with. But he does have to show some effort to understand where I’m coming from.

I (along with most atheists) am not certain there is no god. I have come across credible humanist approaches to the idea of “truth” in a largely material model of consciousness. I invite Blanchard to try reading any of the accessible introductions to Humanism that have appeared recently. Try On Humanism by Richard Norman (my own first exposure to the philosophy of Humanism). Try What’s it all about? by Julian Baggini. Heck, even try reading (really reading) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – even that has a more plausible and nuanced atheist perspective than the one Blanchard conjures up to attack.

What Blanchard teaches me is not that Christians, or religious people, are lazy thinkers. It’s not that humanists are superior to folks like him. We’re not.

The lesson is that humans are lazy thinkers. I have fallen prey to the same types of errors that I have criticized in Blanchard’s book, and I am bound to do so again. (See here for a recent example on this very blog.)

We (humans) like to give the benefit of the doubt to arguments whose conclusions we already agree with, and we like to see the worst in arguments that lead where we don’t want to follow. I’m more likely to double-check sources when I disagree with someone than when I agree with them. Hopefully, the knowledge that our critics are watching, combined with the conviction that we are fallible, will teach us all to be more careful in avoiding these errors.

Another reason for these posts is that, sometimes, I simply need to vent. Although I want to present as positive a face to the world as possible – to exhibit “exemplary behaviour”, as my parents always exhorted me growing up – I also want to present an honest face. I want you, my faithful reader, to know that I sometimes get pissed off. I get angry when someone trashes my beliefs.

But please also note that, when I get angry, I try to respond with reason and compassion. I have tried to give Blanchard the benefit of the doubt – though sometimes that means assuming he’s lazy rather than malicious. I have tried to produce coherent, logical arguments for my position, with pointers to good-quality references where relevant.

For some non-partisan discussion of some of the issues raised here – such as the nature of humanism, the religious implications of the evidence for our biological history (evolution), and details on other religions, I heartily recommend www.religioustolerance.org. It is run by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, a team of individuals with different religious beliefs, who seek to promote tolerance through understanding. Have a poke around there for more details.

And, as always, the comments are open. If I’m wrong in what I say above, tell me.

Right or obligation?

2009/08/20

I was hanging out with my friend Marc the other day, when he said something that I only half-noticed at the time:

In all you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your own hands. (Meditations, book 2, paragraph 11)

It came back to me, however, when I read of the death of Edward and Joan Downes.

I feel that they have done nothing evil; nor have those at Dignitas who helped them. From what statements are available, it sounds like the couple’s children agree with their decision.

I could spend post after post discussing and weighing the arguments presented by people who think that assisted suicide should be legal, and those who think it should not. But I honestly don’t think I’d come up with anything that hasn’t been said before.

I do have a question, though. Is life a right? Or is it an obligation? Should people be allowed to take their own lives? To help others do so? Should doctors expend their efforts on the possibility of extending someone’s pain-ridden life by a few days? Or is that simply a cowardly form of torture, accepted because of the fear we healthy people have of unwanted death?

As with so many real-world problems, the answer is not easy. But the story of Edward and Joan Downes forces us to wonder if the current state of affairs is appropriate.

As I understand it, British law criminalizes those who participate in assisted suicide overseas; but nobody gets prosecuted for it, possibly because such people always seem to be loving family members, as far from criminal as one can get, morally speaking.

[I have to apologize to my readers – somehow, I managed to post this without actually writing the last paragraph. Here it is.]

It is inexcusable for a legal system to prohibit an act but to systematically refrain from executing the prescribed sanctions. The law is an ass – but when carried out appropriately, it is at least a consistent ass. Those involved in this law (legislators, police, etc) should either repeal the law or enforce it as it stands. I think they should repeal it, but either solution would be better than the current state of affairs.

Does Blanchard understand other religions? (4 of 5)

2009/08/17

This is the fourth part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of religious beliefs which differ from his own. The previous posts are here, here, and here.

This entry in the series is very short. There are two reasons for this. One is that Blanchard himself doesn’t spend much time on the topic. The other is that not much needs to be said in response (from the humanist perspective at least – I imagine the Mormons or the Muslims might have more to say).

Blanchard spends very little time outlining the beliefs and practices of a number of non-Christian religions, as well as some Christian sects that he considers “atheistic” (remember his “everyone else” definition of atheism).

On the one hand, I tend to agree with him that there is very little reason to accept any of these religious beliefs as true. On the other hand, from what little I know of Mormonism and Islam (two of the groups on his list that I’ve had some contact with), he’s not terribly careful about presenting the beliefs as the believers understand them. (Sound familiar?)

It is illuminating to see other religions through Blanchard’s eyes. To him, their faults can be summed up as “not like what I believe”.

Which may illuminate why he defined atheists as “everyone else” to begin with. He’s not interested in how I, or my Mormon neighbours, or my Muslim neighbours, see the world. He’s interested in reinforcing his us-versus-them idea of Christianity.

Next up: What does Blanchard teach us?

AFK

2009/08/17

This is just a quick note to say that I have just moved house, and will be without Internet at home for the better part of a month as we get everything set up. Until then, I’ll keep an eye on comments during breaks at work.

I have already lined up several posts to carry the blog through my absence. After the final post on Blanchard’s book, I’ll return to a one-post-a-week schedule (plus tidbits).

On a more personal note, I’ve been feeling a little lonely here lately.

I’m happy to keep posting things into the ether. It’s a good exercise in refining my thoughts and meditating on interesting issues. But it would be nice to get some feedback – I know there are several people who read but never say anything.

Consider this post a general invitation (plea?) for input. What do people like or dislike about this blog and its content? Is there anything you’d like to see more of? Less of?

What sort of people read this blog? Who is out there watching, examining (even enjoying?) the offerings here? Parents? Students? Professionals? Bored data crunchers? Cosmopolitan-drinking socialites?

I look forward to getting to know you all.

Radiolab

2009/08/13

I just want to thank Dale McGowan for pointing me to the Radiolab podcast.

Deena and I are slowly working our way through the archived episodes – this is the most acoustically delicious learning experience I can remember having. I recommend it to anyone with a mote of curiosity about stuff in general.

So far we’ve learned about randomness, race, sperm, the placebo effect, zoos, mortality, and time; and we’ve also been treated to a fascinating investigation of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” panic.

Does Blanchard understand humanism? (3 of 5)

2009/08/10

This is the third part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of humanist thought. The previous posts are here and here.

I hoped that Blanchard’s knowledge of philosophy would be better than his understanding of biology. And why not? Many people who are experts in one are completely uninterested in the other.

But then, many people can’t be bothered with either good science or good philosophy – both of which require them to be open to the possibility that their preconceptions are wrong.

As early as the introduction, we get strong indications that Blanchard might not be speaking to atheists after all. In a bid to pin down terminology right from the start, he decides to define atheism in a way that would be unrecognizable to most people who call themselves atheists. First, he defines theism with a list of fourteen characteristics that add up to Christianity (p21). Fair enough.

Then he defines atheism as everything else.

What???

I challenge Blanchard to produce a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Mormon who is willing to self-identify as an atheist. I challenge him to produce a self-identified atheist who group their beliefs in common with Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons, but not with Christians.

If we define God in the way I have suggested, our second proposition, which says that most people in the world are atheists, comes into play. (p23)

So Blanchard is consciously setting up a Christians-against-the-world picture of religion and atheism.

Let’s set aside this staggering redefinition of terms, and look at what he says about humanism in particular.

Blanchard relates the tale of Galileo being forced by the Roman Catholic church to recant on the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. He correctly notes that it’s commonly repeated in atheist circles. Why do we rehearse this story so often?

This story is worth telling because it is sometimes used by humanists to argue that science gets rid of God. (p157)

No. Its most common (and entirely appropriate) use in humanist contexts is to demonstrate how belief in God has been used as an excuse to impede science and to deny or ignore the physical evidence. Another point of the Galilean drama is that science offers natural explanations for things that had previously been attributed to God. That is, it makes unbelief more plausible. It does not make unbelief necessary.

On to modern secular humanism …

In John Gerstner’s words, ‘secularism in simpler language is merely worldliness; or “this-worldliness” in contrast to “other-worldliness”. This one-world-at-a-time philosophy sees the future as an irrelevance, if not an impertinence. (p161)

Yes, secularism focuses on the world we experience rather than the world some imagine might come later. How does that bit about the future come in? I can only imagine that he’s referring to the afterlife. Well, the afterlife may be the most important part of the future to a theist, but to atheists there is still plenty of future that we are concerned about in this world, in this life.

It gets worse.

He goes through some of the articles from the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II. Now, as a humanist, I don’t necessarily agree with all of its statements (though I support the main themes). Blanchard seems to neglect the fact that, as a non-dogmatic worldview, humanism fosters a great variety among its adherents. The Manifesto is not a statement of faith – it is entirely unlike the 1910 statement of Five Fundamentals of Christian doctrine after which fundamentalists were originally named.

But setting that aside, what does Blanchard have to say about the content of the Manifesto?

He quotes the first article of the Manifesto:

We find insufficient evidence for the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of the survival and fulfilment of the human race.

Okay, I agree with that, though a negative statement is not what I would put first. I am not, as a humanist, primarily concerned with any of the myriad things I don’t believe; I’m more interested in testing and applying those things that I do believe and value. But god-belief is relevant in that many people do believe in the supernatural, so communicating our position invariably includes pointing out how and why we differ.

Note, also, that the first article of the Manifesto is four paragraphs long. His quote is picked from the middle of the second paragraph. How does this article begin, you might wonder?

In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals. The cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine “spiritual” experience and aspiration.

Such an olive branch contradicts Blanchard’s general theme of selfish and anti-religious humanists. Why might he ignore this important bit of text in one of his chosen sources on humanist attitudes?

Instead, he mentions Ludovic Kennedy, a humanist who, in 1997, was working on a book to “definitively disprove the existence of God”, and then declares, “The non-existence of God is not being floated as a possibility, or as a theory which is open to discussion or examination; it is being asserted as an article of faith.”

There are probably some humanists who, like Kennedy, are sure that there is no God. Not so many as Blanchard seems to assume, I think. Certainly, the Manifesto implies nothing of the sort. Even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, in his most polemic book, The God Delusion, declares himself only about a 6 on a scale from 1 (strong theist) to 7 (strong atheist): “I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.” (p51) Note also that, in that book, Dawkins does discuss and examine the hypothesis of a god’s existence, as have many writers before him. Contra Blanchard, it is a theory being subjected, by humanists, to empirical enquiry, and not an article of faith.

(Blanchard’s book came out several years before The God Delusion, so it would be unfair of me to criticize him for not noticing this particular comment of Dawkins. However, Dawkins’ declaration makes one wonder to what extent even the most vocal atheists fit Blanchard’s caricature of dogmatic unbelief. I mention Dawkins because he is a high-profile atheist, and thus the sort of person that even a haphazard researcher like Blanchard might come across when forming his opinions. Blanchard is clearly not talking about him. He is clearly not talking about me – I’m a 5 or 6 on Dawkins’ scale, for what it’s worth. I wonder what atheists he thinks he is talking about?)

What does Blanchard make of the second article in the Manifesto? Here is the bit he quotes:

As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.

Blanchard manages to reduce this statement to “humans are just machines”, which is a good metaphor when used responsibly, but is a gross distortion of what the Manifesto is saying here. Then he raises the observation that we have not created a machine that is very much like a human, as if that refutes the idea presented in the Manifesto (or his distortion of it). If the irrelevance of his observation is not crashingly obvious to you, please let me know in the comments and we can address it.

I could go on, but I think the whole line of irksome misunderstandings Blanchard commits can be summed up in one line. In this passage, he has just asserted that the idea of “truth” becomes meaningless if the mind contemplating it is “just a machine”.

No humanist has yet been able to produce a credible response to that.” (p168)

He seems to feel roughly the same about every major tenet of humanism that he comes across.

Here’s the problem: Blanchard hasn’t been trying to find humanists’ credible responses. Or at least, he’s not reporting them. Throughout this section (and the one on evolution), what we see is Blanchard reading a text with an eye always on finding the flaw in the humanist’s or the biologist’s perspective, but always failing to see what people – the evolutionary biologists or the humanists – actually believe (or even say).

Next up: Does Blanchard understand other religions?

My definition: atheist

2009/08/07

I’m a linguist by training, so I’ve decided to start posting working definitions of words that bear on the topics I talk about here.

Today I will give my definition of the word “atheist“.

I take to be an atheist anyone who lacks a belief in the existence of a god.

A religious friend once asked me, “Why are you not agnostic?” The implication was that one cannot be both an atheist and an agnostic. In fact, I consider myself both an atheist and an agnostic. I am an atheist because I do not have a belief in a god; I am an agnostic because I have no way to know for certain whether a god does or does not exist.

I decided to post this definition because many religious people seem to take atheist to mean one who is certain (or at least, positively believes) that no god exists. This doesn’t coincide with how most atheists define their beliefs.

In my experience, the definition I use above is the one most atheists would use to describe themselves. This is supported by the entry at Wiktionary. However, the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary only gives the more restricted definition of an atheist as “someone who believes that God or gods do not exist”. Dictionary.com follows the Cambridge definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which I generally take as a gold standard in lexicography, also limits its definition of atheist to one who rejects belief in gods, rather than simply one who lacks such belief. However, the OED bases its definitions on examples in a corpus of English texts, and the most recent text in which they note the use of the word atheist is from 1876. I suspect if they had a sample of 20th- and 21st-century writing by atheists, they would include the definition I (and most atheists) use.

The excellent website, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, which aims to discuss in as unbiased a way as possible all of the religious beliefs of the world, has a good article on the question of what atheism is. They back up my assertion that most atheists will use the “lack of belief in gods” definition, rather than the “belief in lack of gods” definition.

Let me end this first “definition” post with a standard linguist’s caveat. I am not trying to impose a meaning on people. I am not trying to authoritatively decree that this word means what I say it means, instead of what someone else might say it means. I am trying to describe the meaning of the word as I use it, and as most self-described atheists use it. (For further evidence, here are some atheists defining atheism: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)