Thursday, December 6, 2012

Faith vs Trust

There is an important distinction to make here. Trust is not the same thing as faith. For example, I place trust in science. That trust is always provisional, always conditional, and scales up or down based on the evidence presented and the confidence I have in it. That is not faith. It is not blind or absolute or unquestioning or unwavering. It is not strongest in the absence of evidence but instead would diminish.

Although not synonymous, faith and trust do nevertheless share something in common. They are both ways of establishing standards for deciding what to believe and how to evaluate claims about reality. They just go about this very differently, leaving faith to be little different from credulity and gullibility. As such, I do not value it or venerate it or respect it. I consider it potentially harmful, inherently misguided, and always inferior as an analytical tool.

Now that does not mean that I consider people of faith to be inferior. A person can have a bad way of doing something, that doesn’t automatically make the person bad. And just because I do not value faith does not mean I don’t value the person holding it. A person has intellect, feelings, dignity and is entitled to respect. Concepts, ideas, and beliefs do not and are not so entitled.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012


There are a multitude of questions about the nature of the universe that I do not know the answers to. I am not alone in this. In fact I suspect that humanity will never know every answer because as we learn, we uncover more questions. So there will forever be gaps in our knowledge, areas of ongoing research, or questions we do not yet have the technology to explore.

However our current inability to understand some facet of the universe does not cast the whole endeavor of verifiable, scalable, human understanding into doubt. Nor should the rest of us take seriously someone who chooses to fill those gaps with untestable fantasies or mythology, even if those ideas can't be definitely ruled out.

We can't rule out invisible pink unicorns. We can't rule out a tiny teapot in orbit around the Sun, between Earth and Mars. Belief in either proposition is unreasonable, silly even. Those ideas are unsupported by evidence and inconsistent with the knowledge we currently have. Not all ideas are created equal or should be treated as though they have the same chance of being correct.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Atheist or Agnostic

A video of one of my favorite science communicators, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, has hit the internet recently. In it he explains why he does not identify as an atheist or see much need for labels like that.

Here is a link to the video in question.

Dr. Tyson has gone out of his way to not adopt the atheist label for years. He is an educator who does science outreach to a very diverse audience, many of whom would not listen to him if he were identified as an activist atheist. If he is happy with a soft approach, then I'm happy to applaud his efforts. It can be a useful method of reaching people and I'm glad to have him in that role. He's good at it.

However, I do take issue with how he seemed to discount the need for the label or for organizations of atheists. Being able to be around like minded people is something humans crave. Being an atheist in most of the US means being a vilified minority. Being an atheist in other parts of the world can be a death sentence. Which is why his analogies break down, because as annoying as skiers might be to non-skiers, there is no need to organize non-skiers to stand up to discrimination, anti-science legislation, or the trampling of rights by skiers. We need educators like Dr. Tyson, but we need activists too.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

It isn't all that rare, Mr. Akin

“Akin’s belief that rape-related pregnancy is 'really rare', unfortunately, does not match the empirical evidence on the matter. In fact, results from Gottschall and Gottschall’s examination of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that the per-incident rape-related pregnancy rate is higher (6.42% to 7.98%) than the per-incident pregnancy rate of those engaging in consensual unprotected penile-vaginal sex (3.1%).”

-John Sakaluk

Just another wave of social conservatism

In light of the controversy surrounding Republican Representative and Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri, some Tea Party supporters have been trying to distance themselves from Akin. They insist that their brand of conservatism is fiscal and above the petty distinctions between the Democrats and the Republicans. Tea Party people, they tell me, are bipartisan with diverse opinions on social policy who are united only by their shared concern over runaway government spending.

I call bullshit on that. The Republicans elected in the wave of Tea Party support in 2010 are instead full bore conservatives, up to and including being extreme social conservatives. And that is exactly what their voting record shows. In the US Congress as well as many state governments, as soon as Tea Party Republicans got seated, they began to work on that hallmark of social conservative issues: anti-abortion legislation. They were very successful at it too.

In the first six months of 2011, state legislatures enacted 162 new provisions concerning reproductive health and rights. The majority Republican US House of Representatives passed federal restrictions on abortion and reproductive health care funding in the Protect Life Act which even included some now familiar redefinitions of rape to be only “forcible rape” in early drafts. Incidentally, every single House Republican voted to pass the Protect Life Act. All told, 2011 was a record year for laws restricting abortion and limiting reproductive rights for women.

Even if I did agree with Tea Party Republicans on their economic and fiscal ideas (I don’t by the way) I would still not vote for them, because of their social conservatism. That they lie about that facet of their political agenda makes them even more repellant to me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thirteen point one miles

Today my wife and I ran the Chicago Rock 'n Roll half marathon. That's 13.1 miles and that is the second time we've done it in the last two weeks. OK, in all fairness the first time was not an official event and we just ran on a local trail for the distance to see if we could. We did then and we did today, both times managing to finish in less than three hours. My official time today was 2:57:58. I'm pleased with my results, especially as someone who has only been running for a bit more than a year, just turned forty, and smoked for more than 20 years (quit again this Summer).

My number, etc. from the race

Trying in vain to write my info on the back of the plastic race bib

Here I am ready to start

My lovely wife, Liza

Map of the course

I snapped this at about mile 6
Willis Tower is in the distance

My official results

My lovely wife, Liza, has a blog post about the race too.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Wrong Side of History

There are a great many morally repugnant things that used to be the norm in our society: colored only bathrooms and drinking fountains, anti-miscegenation laws, sundown laws, and even slavery. We've done away with most such nonsense and our society is better for it. Because we've expanded who is rightfully entitled to the basic human dignities enshrined in our Constitution to include more and more people who when left to the tyranny of the local majority end up marginalized by unjust laws and customs.

The debate over same sex marriage is just the most recent battleground over the expansion of who else gets the rights most of us already enjoy. And just like the previous battles over civil rights, we as a society will expand the coverage of those rights to include people who might be different in some way from the majority but still ought to be entitled to the same basic protections and privileges of the law.

That has been the trajectory of our society and its relationship to civil rights. Moreover, far from being an unacceptably evil series of developments, this has been a morally good thing and a justifiable source of pride to later generations who get to live in a more just and fair society. And who if they consider something in all of this to be evil would apply that label to those who bafflingly (perhaps violently) stood in opposition to equal rights on the wrong side of history.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Religious freedom and contraception coverage

I am getting sick to death of the conservative whining that the new rules on universal insurance coverage for contraception are an affront to religious freedom.

Yes, employers are entitled to personal religious freedom. However that freedom does not extend to making religious choices for employees because those people have a right to religious freedom too. They might not be members of their employer's religion or subject to its prohibitions on, for example, contraception. It is unconscionable to permit an employer to force religious rules on employees in a country that enshrines freedom of religion for its citizens.

Nor is it permissible for religions, religiously administered public services, or religiously influenced businesses to simply claim a theological or moral objection to the laws of our country and thereafter be granted special exemption from those laws. The law is the same for all of us. That is why if a religion has a belief in human sacrifice, it would still be murder to practice that ritual. That is why if a religion had a moral opposition to the mixing of races, it would still be illegal for its hospitals to turn away employees or patients on the basis of race.

Remember, your religious freedom is real and protected, but it doesn't grant you or anyone else immunity from the law or a right to bully subordinates.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A wall of eternal separation

The letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists explaining the wall of separation between church and state.

To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and, in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State. Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.

[Jefferson first wrote: "confining myself therefore to the duties of my station, which are merely temporal, be assured that your religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine and that." These lines he crossed out and then wrote: "concurring with"; having crossed out these two words, he wrote: "Adhering to this great act of national legislation in behalf of the rights of conscience"; next he crossed out these words and wrote: "Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience I shall see with friendly dispositions the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced that he has no natural rights in opposition to his social duties."]

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & the Danbury Baptist your religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Skeptic. Not Cynic

I'm not a cynic. Sometimes I'm sad, but I am rarely bitter or pessimistic enough to be truly cynical. Skeptic? Sure, that's a better label. My skepticism flows from my optimistic belief that we can actually learn and discern the truth with a good enough toolkit.  I don't see that as cynical.