Monday, April 25, 2011

Free speech, even for Jones

Pastor Terry Jones attempted another of his inane protests, this time in Dearborn, Michigan, where there is a sizable Muslim population. He got arrested for it. So now I find myself in the sickening position of defending that religious bigot.

I've been critical of Pastor Jones in this blog. For the record, I consider him to be an asshole. I hate the motivations he has for the things that he says and does in these protests. He is pretty much in a pissing contest with Muslims over who has the better imaginary friend. What an insufferable prick.

But he has the right to speak. He has a right to burn books he owns. He has a right to be offensive. He has those rights because free speech, especially unpopular speech, is protected. No one has to like a thing that ignorant fuck has to say. We can and should exercise our right to free speech to speak out against him. But I'm not comfortable with the government denying him his rights, even though he makes me angry.

A poor argument has been made that Pastor Jones will incite violence and murder if allowed to insult Muslims, which misapplies the blame. Does Jones promote harmony? No. But the incitement to violence that led to the murders of UN workers earlier this month was undertaken by imams in Afganistan who took advantage of Jones' idiocy to whip crowds into a murderous frenzy. I think Jones is foolishly playing with fire, but I'm not comfortable accusing him of inciting violence. At least not within the narrow confines of criminal incitement as a legal restriction on free speech. 

Ugh... I've in a way just defended the religious bigot Terry Jones. I feel dirty, but upholding the principle of free speech isn't about what feels good.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What if I'm wrong

By way of a thought experiment, what if I am wrong and the Christian god exists? What if I discover this in time to save myself from eternal damnation by worshipping this god?

If the Christian god exists and is more or less in alignment with Christian doctrines of salvation and damnation -- then this is a supremely malevolent being. Evil is too small and insignificant a term to fully grasp at the capricious sadism of a being that would use limitless power to make possible all the suffering in this world and not satisfied with that would go on to create unimaginable, eternal suffering as an afterlife for any who did not love him for it.

To conflate love with fear to such a degree that worshiping your tormentor becomes proper is submission to a form of slavery I can barely wrap my mind around and will never join so long as I possess a shred of decency or self respect.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Atheist on Judgement Day

An Atheist on Judgement Day
by Adrian Barnett

The line seemed to stretch back forever. Hundreds of millions of souls, waiting patiently for their turn before the throne. The date... Well, the day is Judgment Day, so you won't find it on any calendar. The queue of people winds its way down the mountain, through the valley and off into the far distance. Everybody in the queue can see the final destination at the mountain peak. A hundred miles away, they can see it perfectly clearly. And they wait, moving forward a couple of steps at a time. Towards God, and the Decision. 

At the head of the we find a young Christian, wearing an expression of awe and joy. Behind him, an atheist, looking slightly astonished, examining a leaf she has picked from a nearby bush, trying to decide if it is real or not. Heaven, she thinks, should be whiter, with more dry ice swirling about; not look like a Welsh hillside on a hot day.

The Christian steps forward for judgment.

"Hello Martin". God's voice is calm and gentle as He speaks.

"Erm.. Hello. Lord". Martin's voice is nervous, as a dozen emotions fight for room in his mind at once.

"This is it. This is where I decide what shall happen to you, Martin. In life, you were a Christian". It was a statement, not a question.

"I was, Lord. I still am. I have been all my life. I have dedicated myself to your service."

"Tell me, Martin. Why were you a Christian? Why did you believe in me?"

"Why? Well... Because you are God! I've always believed in you."

"That is not what I want to know. Why did you believe?"

"Because I knew it was true. You were always there for me. You helped me through the bad times. You answered my prayers. You gave me the strength and courage to get through life. I could feel your presence with me all the time."


"Pardon, Lord?"

"I said no, Martin. I have never helped you. You seemed to be doing perfectly alright by yourself. I heard your prayers, but never answered a single one. Your belief in me definitely helped you on occasion, but I have never intervened in your life. Certainly, you gave me credit for all the good times, but they were your own doing, not mine. You did not feel my presence, because it cannot be felt. The only actual proof you have that I exist at all is here and now. Again, tell me why you believed."

"I.. I had faith, Lord. Since I was a child I have been to church, prayed and sang every Sunday. My faith in you never wavered. Even when my mother died, I had faith that it was your will, that it was a blessing from you that she passed peacefully. I was raised to believe in you, and as I grew I read the Bible for myself, and learnt of your miracles, and all the saints and martyrs, and the good done in your name. I read the works of great philosophers and they merely strengthened my faith. I knew it was true. "

"No, Martin. Your mother died of natural causes, and she died peacefully because of the actions of the hospital. I watched and saw, but that is all. As for the rest - the saints, martyrs and philosophers had similar reasons for their belief in me, just as dictators and murderers have had. People have done great good and great harm in my name, and in the names of a thousand false gods. The Bible was written about me, not by me, and was written by people who had similar reasons as you for their belief, just as a thousand other Holy Books have been written about the false gods, or different versions of myself. I ask for the third and final time. Why did you believe in me?"

Martin looked shocked and ashen, but pulled himself together. His Lord was testing him, and he had lived his entire life for this moment.

"I believed because I could feel in my heart it was true. You sent your son to die for us, and I gladly accepted Him as my saviour. I.. I just knew it was true, and now that I see you, my faith has been vindicated. I no longer need to believe - I can see for myself the truth and majesty of my religion."

Quietly, God spoke again. "Martin, you have impressed me". He paused.

"But... not enough. You believe because you were taught to believe. You believe because you mistakenly attribute to me anything positive that has happened in your life, and discount anything negative. You believe because it is comforting to believe, and because you are frightened of the consequences of my not existing. You believe because... you believe. I'm sorry, Martin, but there is no place for you here."

God gestured briefly with his fingers, and Martin vanished. His shadow lingered where he had stood, fading rapidly to nothingness.

The atheist, somewhat shaken by what she had just seen, stepped forward.

"Hello Eve. I like that name."

"Ah. Hello, God. Thanks", said Eve, not entirely sure how to address a being she had, until now, considered fictional.

"Yes, you may call me God. Eve, in life you were an atheist. You doubted my existence, even objecting to the very concept". Again, a statement, not a question.

"Yes, I did. Clearly, I was mistaken."

"Clearly. Tell me, are you still an atheist?"

"I suppose not. I'm not a Christian, Jew or anything else. I guess I'd have to be called an involuntary theist. Ah ha ha", Eve laughed nervously, hoping the very real and solid-looking deity before her had a good sense of humour.

"Mmm... Tell me, Eve. Why did you not believe in me?". God's voice was kind and gentle once more.

"At one point I did. I was raised as a Christian, and often went to church, and prayed every night before bed. When I was feeling down I would read the Bible. The act of reading it seemed to comfort me, even though the words themselves didn't seem much help. I think, like Martin, I believed because I believed."

"And then you lost your faith? You decided I did not exist, and you knew better than those around you? You knew better than your pastor and family?" The voice was losing its kindly edge a little.

"That is one way of looking at it, yes. What I believed did not seem to fit with other things I knew. The Bible clearly could not be literally true, word for word. I knew from biology and paleontology that humans had evolved like all other life, and were not special creations. How life or the universe began, I still don't know, but could not just merely accept 'God did it' as an explanation. I learned about other religions, and how they all claimed a monopoly on truth, happiness and morality. I saw the good done in your name, but I also saw the oppression, genocide and wars. I saw that if people were in need, it was up to us to deal with it, not to rely on heavenly aid.". Eve felt a little braver, but was expecting the traditional thunderbolt any moment. The people behind her, now at the head of the queue, were slowly moving backwards, trying not to draw attention to themselves.

"Yet here you are, before your God, on the final Day of Judgment. Why should I allow you in - a heretic, a disbeliever, an infidel - when your predecessor, devout and faithful, full of love for me, was consigned to Oblivion? Tell me why. Justify your entry to my Paradise."

Eve straightened up, looking God in the face. "Why should you let me in? Because I am better person than you."

If Eve had looked round, she would have seen the entire line of souls, perfectly still and wide-eyed, staring at her in shock.

"What did you say?", enquired God. His voice, though barely audible, caused tremors in the mountain.

Surprised at still being alive, her mouth dry, Eve continued. "I said, because I am a better person. You have shown it yourself already. You told Martin that you watched as his mother became ill and died. You destroyed him for believing for no good reason, when his whole life had been shaped by that belief. Your preachers on Earth encourage unquestioning faith, yet you do not tell us whether that is what you want. You give people no rational basis for belief, and then when they make up their own that is not good enough for you. You listen to our prayers, yet do not answer, leaving people to rationalise events for themselves. People kill and slaughter over trivial differences in doctrine, and you look on. In the churches and temples raised in your glory, children are mentally and physically abused - in your so-called House! All over the world, throughout history, people have murdered each other for believing the wrong thing about God, for believing in the wrong God, or for not believing in any God. The poorest and most helpless people are relentlessly targeted, being told to give what little they have now, for the promise of eternal bliss later. When a person is at his lowest ebb, that is when the smiling missionaries appear, knowing that his life will probably get better naturally and they can give you the credit. In your name, the ends justify the means as long as souls are saved". Eve paused for breath, and continued.

"And you? All-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing? You just sit here and you watch it all... Any person in this line, had they your power, would show greater compassion and morality. You may be God, but you are far from Godliness."

God smiled. "Are you finished? Good. Eve, you have impressed me". He paused. Eve held her breath, shoulders tensing.

"You have impressed me a great deal. You may have believed in me for all the wrong reasons, but you disbelieved for the right reasons. You led a good life, and used the intelligence I give to everybody in the correct way. Even though you came to a conclusion about me that was hopelessly wrong, you came to it in a way that cannot be faulted. You may pass into paradise, Eve, with my blessing."

Eve did not step forward. Instead, she spoke once more. "No, I will not".

"No? You refuse Heaven? You defy my will?" The smile had left God's face again.

"Do you think I would want to spend one more minute, let alone eternity, in your company? You allow people to suffer, sometimes for their entire lives, for no purpose, and then judge them on their reaction. You hide yourself from the world and allow your creations to persecute each other over differing interpretations of the lack of evidence. You see all the pain and ignorance caused in your name, and just sit there as this queue grows daily? And then you have the audacity to punish good people for believing in you 'for the wrong reasons'?"

"Eve. Enough of this. The gates to Paradise are open to you. Be silent now, and enter."

"No. If it is a choice between oblivion and an eternity with a monster like you, I gladly choose oblivion. I ask only one thing, before you destroy me."

"And what is that?" asked God, getting impatient.

"That, if you can, you look me in the eyes as you do it."

Shortly afterwards, the next person in the queue stepped towards the top of the mountain, and Judgment.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

For those who hate government

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US department of energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility.

After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the national weather service of the national oceanographic and atmospheric administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the national aeronautics and space administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of US department of agriculture inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined as safe by the food and drug administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issued by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

Then, after spending the day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the department of labor and the occupational safety and health administration, I drive back to my house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and the fire marshall's inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.

I then log onto the internet which was developed by the defense advanced research projects administration and post on freerepublic and fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can't do anything right.

[I didn't write this and have been unable to find out who did. I'd love to attribute this to a source, but I guess it is just an anonymous gem of internet cleverness.]

Friday, April 8, 2011

Deciding what to believe

How do you decide what to believe? Do you use different standards of plausibility depending on the topic? Are your beliefs informed by evidence or by preference? Do you think that where you live has influenced what you find believable?

If you were born and raised in the United States, odds are that you were raised Christian. Depending on how religious your family was, you might have been taught that the bible was the infallible world of God. You were probably taught that Jesus really lived and performed miracles. However, your views on these things were almost certainly influenced by accident of birth. For example if you had been born in India instead, odds are that you would have been raised Hindu and believe in many gods.

Knowing that more than one religion exists and that the doctrines of these religions are not only in disagreement, but are often mutually exclusive, one is presumed to have chosen among them. But that isn't really the case is it? People tend to believe what they were raised to believe, with exceptions of course, but there is no mass exodus of American Christians becoming Hindus or vice versa. So why is that?

I submit to you that the primary reason is that people apply very different standards of proof and evidence when it comes accepting religious claims that they want to believe. The key here is in what they want to believe, since adherents to a given faith are perfectly able to apply critical thinking about the claims of other religions. Hence Christians are willing to dismiss the religious claims of Hindus as unsupported by evidence and Hindus are willing to return the favor.

Perhaps this line of thought is uncomfortable, so let me provide a working example that is completely fictitious.

I have a strong personal conviction that there are unicorns in my fields. No, I cannot produce one of these unicorns to be studied or provide any incontrovertible proof of their presence in my fields. Perhaps they don't want to be studied. They must have supernatural powers that allow them to hide very effectively from skeptics and leave no testable trace of their existence. One must have faith as I have faith in them. Besides, no one can prove that there aren't unicorns in my fields. Do you believe me?

If I had claimed that there were dirt clods in my fields, that would be consistent with past experience and it would be no strain on credulity to accept my claim as true at least provisionally. Instead, my claim was about a mythological creature of which no verifiable evidence has ever been found. Most reasonable people would not be so gullible as to believe me. They would understand that it is not up to them to disprove my unicorns. Instead it would be up to me to provide proof given how outlandish my claim was.

To an outsider, religious claims are of that outlandish sort. Even the religious see it that way about other religions. And yet when asked to provide proof of their own religion's claims, the response is more often than not to be offended at the rudeness of such a request.

"That which can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." 
-Christopher Hitchens

"When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." 
-Stephen F Roberts

Tim Minchin's Storm

Tim has released the animated version of his poem, Storm.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Religion It Is

That idiotic, fundamentalist Christian preacher down in Florida who threatened to burn a Koran, Terry Jones, went through with it. When idiotic, fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan found out about it, they rioted. A mob of thousands formed, intent on finding an American to kill in retribution. Failing at that, they settled for killing foreigners working at the local United Nations office.

Burning a copy of the Muslim holy book as Terry Jones did was offensive to Muslims. It was disrespectful to Muslim traditions. It was likely to provoke a violent reaction among Muslims. Even a fundamentalist Christian bigot like Terry Jones should have shown more decency.

However, murdering people to take revenge for the burning of a book is not even close to being an acceptable reaction. Not even if they were murdering the people who actually burned the book. And most certainly not when they were murdering innocent people who had absolutely nothing to do with the burning of that book.

It is absurd that it ever crosses our minds that destroying a copy of a certain book is almost certainly going to get people elsewhere in the world killed. That it might spawn protests and strongly worded letters, I could understand that, but murder I simply cannot fathom.

Yet this is the power of religion in our world. It justifies fundamentalist Christian bigotry and foolishness. For fundamentalist Muslims it justifies the brutal murder of innocent people. A way of life that encourages the faithful to snuff out the life, hopes, and dreams of someone because someone else, half a world away, burned a book… this is a pathology of the mind that we would be better off without.

The idea for the text on this picture came from these advertisements.

"If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years." -Bertrand Russell

Friday, April 1, 2011

Worried about GMO foods?

Please keep in mind that humans have been conducting genetic engineering via selective breeding for thousands of years. All of the food most people eat is a result of being heavily modified from its original, undomesticated form. Those breeding techniques have turned wild grasses into wheat, teosinte into corn, and invented the banana which is unlike the wild fruit it is based on. Those same techniques have made drastic changes in domestic animals too like turning wolves into chihuahuas. And in each of those examples many unwanted, unpredictable, weirdly recessive traits popped up that had detrimental effects that could not be bred out for untold generations if at all.

With modern genetic engineering the changes made to the target DNA are in a very specific place and add a single very specific gene. Scientists aren't also randomly adding thousands of other genes with unknown effects or unknown recessive traits at the same time, which is what traditional breeding does. That isn't to say that an unexpected characteristic never happens, it can, it does. If undesirable, it can be removed or just not added in another lineage or inserted in a different place on the DNA which might fix the problem -- the point is that geneticists are usually only effecting one small part of the organism's genome and it doesn't take thousands of generations to correct errors.

There are more than 6 billion people on Earth right now. That number could be as high as 10 billion in twenty years, maybe sooner. Suitable agricultural land has been decreasing and will probably continue to decrease from urban expansion and fresh water unavailability. Productivity must improve and GMO crops will be a major part of what makes that possible.

None of this means to be credulous about food. If the idea of GMO foods makes someone uneasy, I can sympathize with that. Really I can. That can be a good motivation to continue looking into things and promote deeper understanding. Perhaps good studies will find serious previously unknown problems or uncover a corporation brushing bad data under a rug. Well, let's look into things and if we can put together good empirical data that suggests change is required, then let's make the needed changes. Evidence based reason will serve us better than hyperbole or ideological hysteria.