28 February 2012

I can relate to this

Daniel the ex-Mormon atheist from Perth (who explained why atheists are so rude) has a blog post in the form of a letter to a “New Age friend” who unfriended him on Facebook, presumably because said friend got ticked off by Daniel’s debunking of his/her woo-ish beliefs. I’ve had my own disagreements with friends who subscribe to that sort of mumbo-jumbo. One even questioned the truth of evolution, and has a rather hypocritical disdain for ‘Western’ civilisation and modernity. He’s the kind of relativist who rejects ideas like objective truth, critical thinking and the scientific method, who has a romantic view of ‘authentic’ (i.e. poor and underdeveloped) societies, and who idealises the ‘spiritual’ as being superior to the material, whatever ‘spiritual’ is supposed to mean. Our friendship is no longer as cordial as it used to be, since our philosophical views are so diametrically opposed.

In his letter, Daniel explains why he refuted his friend’s unfounded beliefs:

Why did I comment? Well, let's face it -- I'm kind of annoying. If someone says something wrong on the Internet, I like to get in there and set things straight, like that ever works.

But there's more. Deception pisses me off. I saw that you were getting tricked by phony psychics, buying “inspirational” books by screwy swamis, relying on astrology and numerology to guide your life. You're getting cheated, and I hated to see that happen to you. I think I was hoping that if I gave good information, something would happen and you'd start thinking a little more critically. Guess not.

I totally sympathise with Daniel. I too am incapable of letting a wrong or inaccurate view go unchallenged. When I attempt to correct a friend’s erroneous convictions, or to teach them a useful critical thinking skill, I don’t do it to flaunt my intellectual superiority (at least it’s not the main reason). I do it because I know that it’s going to benefit them. That it’s going to make them more knowledgeable and less gullible. But I admit that there are both effective and ineffective ways to persuade someone to change their views, no matter how wrong or misguided those views may be.

It is a commonly accepted maxim that telling people their beliefs are wrong is disrespectful, even if those beliefs are wrong. But it is simply foolish to think that all opinions deserve respect, regardless of their veracity. As Daniel points out:

It's a funny thing about respect: People whose views are the most tenuous seem to demand most vociferously that those views be respected. What you didn't seem to realise was that not all points of view deserve respect. Ideas deserve respect in proportion to the amount of evidence that supports them. As for me, I don't want my views to be respected. Slash away! If they're wrong, I'll change them, and I'll thank you for helping me.

Precisely! This is an important principle that sadly isn’t as widely embraced as it should be. Respect for one’s beliefs cannot be demanded as an a priori entitlement. It has to be earned by having those beliefs supported by evidence and sound reasoning, by having them conform to reality. And disrespecting someone’s beliefs doesn’t mean disrespecting that person. Yes, many people strongly identify with their beliefs, false or not, but it’s not the fault of the one criticising wrong or harmful beliefs if their holder chooses to take personal offense. Offense is as much taken as it is given – when no personal insult is intended by the person making a valid criticism, the onus lies with the one whose beliefs are being challenged to exercise maturity, and not be a thin-skinned child who throws a tantrum whenever someone has the audacity to tell him that he’s wrong.

Here’s Tim Minchin showing us how to disrespect a typical New Ager’s kooky beliefs with wit and rhyme.


26 February 2012

Wonder why atheists are so rude? Here’s why

University courses have resumed for the year, and unis have been holding their customary Orientation Day (or O-Day) for new undergrads. Daniel from Perth recently had this conversation at the O-Day for the University of Western Australia.

Incidentally, it’s not just religious folks who get their smallclothes in a twist over irreverent, straight-talking atheists. Even within the ranks of the godless, there are those who think that some atheists are unnecessarily antagonistic. I have expressed my views on the matter, which can be summed up thus: we need different approaches in the good fight against the pernicious aspects of religion. One person’s ‘rude’ can be another person’s ‘bluntly honest’.

But I would suggest to those atheists who prefer to play good cop that they don’t accuse the bad cop atheists of being ‘smug’, therefore implying some sort of moral superiority in being the nice guy. You want to take the softly-softly route, more power to you. But it’s kinda hypocritical to be smug about being unsmug, don’t you think?

HT: PZ Myers


21 February 2012

Harris and Hitchens tag team

These two videos of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are from a discussion organised last year by the Whizin Center for Continuing Education. The topic was about whether or not there was an afterlife (an unprovable speculation either way), with Harris and Hitchens squared off against two rabbis, David Wolpe and Bradley Artson Shavit. It seems like all four men gave a good showing, though I agree more with the atheists’ arguments.

Here’s Harris refuting the dualist idea of the mind, or soul, being somehow separate from the physical brain. We can confidently say that our increasing knowledge of the brain – and its connection to the mind – has discredited dualism. But this is a bitter pill for religious believers to swallow, because it negates one core tenet of their faith: the survival of the mind/soul after death. If human consciousness is entirely generated by the brain, then upon the brain’s destruction, that consciousness ends. Forever.

Harris makes clear the absurdity of the idea that our souls go to an afterlife when we die:

What we’re being asked to consider [by dualists] is that you damage one part of the brain and… something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, and yet if you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain, with all our faculties intact, recognising Grandma and speaking English.

And here we have Hitchens hitchslapping the creepy practice of religious believers trying to convert dying people.

This statement hits the nail on the head:

If Sam [Harris] and I were to form a corps of people to go around religious hospitals, which is what happens in reverse, and say to people who are lying in pain and say, “Did you say you were Catholic? Well look, you may only have a few days left, but you don’t have to live them as a serf, you know. Just recognise that was all bullshit, that the priests have been cheating you, and I guarantee you’ll feel better”, I don’t think that would be very ethical.

 Ah Hitch, you left us too soon.


20 February 2012

Human, all too human

I’ve just finished reading Michael Shermer’s illuminating book The Believing Brain (2011), where he shows that, contrary to the common assumption that people form beliefs after rationally thinking them through, the human brain is actually a “belief engine” that forms beliefs first, then tries to rationalise those beliefs second. This post hoc rationalising can be flawed, due to the brain’s tendency towards cognitive biases and faulty reasoning. No one is exempt from cognitive biases, not even those who consider themselves Spock-like in their (supposedly) cool rationality and logical, objective reasoning.

In chapter 12, ‘Confirmations of Belief’, Shermer describes cognitive biases in depth. Below is his alphabetically ordered summary of all the kinds of psychological blind spots that human beings are subject to. It’s enough to humble even the most obstinate Ayn Rand disciple.

13 February 2012

Spinoza would have criticised the Saudi government

Followers of atheist, humanist and secularist news will know of the Saudi and Malaysian travesty of justice involving Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari, who posted so-called blasphemous tweets that enraged notoriously thin-skinned Muslims. Kashgari’s harassment in Saudi Arabia, subsequent deportation from Malaysia after seeking asylum there, and current prosecution for apostasy add up to an all too familiar scenario where touchy religionists call for an obscenely disproportionate punishment for the ‘crime’ of mocking their superstitions.

The New York Times philosophy website, The Stone, has a timely piece by Steven Nadler on 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and his views on freedom of thought and expression (‘Spinoza’s Vision of Freedom, and Ours’). Nadler quotes Spinoza several times in a context I find relevant to Hamza Kashgari’s persecution by the Saudi state. Here’s one example:

It can be argued that the state’s tolerance of individual belief is not a difficult issue. As Spinoza points out, it is “impossible” for a person’s mind to be under another’s control, and this is a necessary reality that any government must accept. The more difficult case, the true test of a regime’s commitment to toleration, concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else of his time: “Utter failure,” he says, “will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions … The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.”

By Spinoza’s criteria, the Saudi theocracy is indeed a “most tyrannical government” – Saudi Arabia is the most socially conservative (ergo repressive) Muslim state, having laws and customs that even its fellow Muslim countries consider excessively restrictive. I’m only speculating here, but Kashgari may have fled to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, because he knew it was a comparatively moderate state. But this fact didn’t save him from being deported by the Malaysian authorities, who are complicit in whatever horrible fate awaits Kashgari back in Saudi Arabia.

Spinoza would have argued for freedom of thought and expression in Saudi Arabia because, apart from the obvious consideration of basic human rights, he believed this freedom to be in the state’s own interest. Nadler explains:

Spinoza has a number of compelling arguments for the freedom of expression. One is based both on the natural right (or natural power) of citizens to speak as they desire, as well as on the apparent fact that (as in the case of belief per se) it would be self-defeating for a government to try to restrain that freedom. No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe (because they can), only now they will do so in secret. The result of the suppression of freedom is, once again, resentment and a weakening of the bonds that unite subjects to their government. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition. The attempt to enforce them is a “great danger to the state.”

The Saudi theocracy may delude itself that there is a homogeneity of thought among the Saudi people, that there are no dissenters or critics of Islam among the country’s millions of pious citizens. But Kashgari is certainly not the only Saudi to have a less than deferential attitude towards Islam and its founder. His punishment may cow other Saudi dissenters, but it could also have the opposite effect of arousing anger and resentment against the state.

Spinoza also had a practical reason for governments to support freedom of expression. As Nadler writes:

Spinoza also argues for freedom of expression on utilitarian grounds — that it is necessary for the discovery of truth, economic progress and the growth of creativity. Without an open marketplace of ideas, science, philosophy and other disciplines are stifled in their development, to the technological, fiscal and even aesthetic detriment of society. As Spinoza puts it, “this freedom [of expressing one’s ideas] is of the first importance in fostering the sciences and the arts, for it is only those whose judgment is free and unbiased who can attain success in these fields.”

While it isn’t the only factor, religious extremism in Muslim countries has contributed to their scientific and technological stagnation. The cultures that once kept alive and improved on the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians and Chinese have lagged behind in the sciences for the last few centuries, especially when compared to the discoveries and advancements made in the West and Asia. As Spinoza presciently observed, when the freedom to express, criticise, debate and improve ideas is curtailed, there are practical consequences that can negatively impact a society in various ways.

UPDATE: There is a Facebook group and a petition calling for Hamza Kashgari’s release. Do join and sign in solidarity with him and defenders of free speech everywhere.


08 February 2012

Simon Blackburn on faith, religion and secularism

It’s always nice to see philosophy articles in magazines that aren’t specialist publications. I take it as a sign that philosophy is shedding its navel-gazing, ivory tower image - that its relevance to modern life is gaining recognition. Case in point: philosopher Simon Blackburn was interviewed by Tara Wheeler for Glass magazine’s winter 2011 issue, which carries the theme of ‘faith’. Glass belongs in that genus of culture magazines that cover art, design and fashion, having the common morphology of thick matte paper, stylised photography, clever graphic design and ubiquitous luxury brand ads. Given this, a philosophy article is a rather incongruous feature, much like antlers on a duck.

Since the winter issue’s theme is ‘faith’, and since you can’t mention faith without mentioning religion, Blackburn was asked for his views on faith, religion and secularism. I reproduce below his lengthy yet incisive responses to two questions, where he points out how religious believers cherry-pick their holy books (thus contradicting their supposedly infallible moral authority) and how moral values are not exclusive to any one religion, or to any at all. Essentially, Blackburn is arguing what humanists and atheists have always argued: you can be good without God.

The theme of this issue is Faith. How do you feel about faith in society today? Perhaps we could begin with looking at the decline of religion – do you think secularisation risks leaving society with a vacuum of moral infrastructure?

Well I think that we human beings stand on our own feet. We have to, even if we consider ourselves people of faith. The faith will be provided by a text or by authorities or our own conscience sometimes. So the idea that you’re holding hands with a deity has always struck me as a delusion. You’re holding hands with a tradition, a literature, a set of authorities, a church and with others in your congregation, which may be a very nice thing to do and I don’t deny the consolations of faith altogether, but as far as morality goes you’re still on your own. You have to decide which of the texts you’re going to listen to. If you read, for example, the Old Testament, it’s absolutely ghastly. God’s always calling for genocides. I think Steven Pinker in his recent book on the decline of violence says that there are 1.2 million killings in the Old Testament and that’s not even counting the flood. It’s just a story of murder and rape and carnage as the Israelites interpreted their own history, so that’s not a moral foundation for anyone. You could go on to things like mental illness as possession by devils, witchcraft and so on and so on, and in the New Testament too, all kinds of superstition and witchcraft. Of course the upstanding Christian says, ‘Oh no, I don’t listen to any of that stuff, I listen to the good stuff’ – fine but then you’re using your own judgement and what you’re going to come out with are things that humanists believe in too, things like be nice to one another, love your neighbour, try not to be too retaliatory, turn the other cheek, don’t sweat the small stuff and the usual kind of advice for living well. Well fine, it’s nice that it’s there in the Bible but it’s also nice that it’s there in Confucius or the Greek philosophers and other traditions. So it seems to me that the idea that it’s because God’s holding your hand that you can manage to be a good person is really just an illusion. And there are other values that Christianity is not so strong on too. For example, Daoism in China has enormous respect for nature, for animals, for the natural world and landscape, which Christianity is entirely silent about.

Would you be happy to see an entirely secular society?

Yes I would. I mean, I feel a slight aesthetic piety; I like the fact that England is cloaked in medieval churches. I enjoy visiting them, I get a sense of community and tradition from them, which I find very enjoyable and I’m sort of grateful to the Church of England for keeping them up and I don’t know what would substitute that because I don’t think David Cameron would do it very well, or perhaps I should say George Osborne. One side of me thinks that the Church of England is a nice little Labrador and I don’t want to put it down, but other churches are more like Rottweilers and I wouldn’t mind putting those down. So there is an ambiguity there but, by and large, I think we can do without the superstition, the hostility to outsiders, the exaggerated sense of righteousness of cause and all of the other bad things that come along with Church membership.

Grab a copy of Glass winter 2011 for the rest of the interview.


05 February 2012

So that’s why ACCESS Ministries wants to get into schools

This pie chart was posted on a Southern Nazarene University webpage titled ‘When Americans become Christian - Evangelism statistics: At what age is outreach most effective? How old are people when they get saved?’

More figures from the International Bible Society and the Barna Research Group:

Another survey -- by the International Bible Society -- indicated that 83% of all Christians make their commitment to Jesus between the ages of 4 and 14, that is, when they are children or early youth. The Barna Research Group surveys demonstrate that American children ages 5 to 13 have a 32% probability of accepting Christ, but youth or teens aged 14 to 18 have only a 4% probability of doing so. Adults age 19 and over have just a 6% probability of becoming Christians.

And here’s the disturbing bit:

This data illustrates the importance of influencing children to consider making a decision to follow Christ.

Because the 4-14 period slice of the pie is so large, many have started referring to the "4-14 Window." Many people serving as career cross-cultural missionaries have testified that they first felt God calling them to missionary service during that 4-14 age period.

The data may be America-centric, but it wouldn’t surprise me if evangelical Christians everywhere, including Australia, agree with its implications: to grow the body of Christ, you’ve got to get ‘em while they’re still young and haven’t developed their critical thinking skills.

It’s rank opportunism, pure and simple.

HT: PZ Myers


03 February 2012

“Our State Schools are not Church Playgrounds”

Victorians concerned about the erosion of secularism in state schools are running a campaign called Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS). The above graphic is from a FIRIS billboard put up in the suburb of Bulleen. FIRIS was launched in response to current government policy that allows religious volunteers to take up a part of the school day to proselytise their faith to schoolkids. Here are the campaign’s points of contention taken from the FIRIS website:

FIRIS is a parent run campaign that aims to change the way children experience religion in Victoria State schools.

Churches have no right to set school curriculum policy.

The current policy is designed to favor ACCESS Ministry, and only ACCESS Ministry. This group runs a Ministry with government authority and funding.

We support education about religion consistent with Australia’s multicultural character and believe that families can be trusted to attend to the religious formation of their children. The current school policy is a result of political intimidation by a small number of church activists.

This policy divides children and school communities by requiring families of minority religions, or of no religion to withdraw their children from school time.

Ah yes, ACCESS Ministries, that group of evangelical Christians who have no qualms about tearing down the wall separating religion from state for the sake of winning young converts to their One True Faith. Not surprisingly, those with a vested interest in promoting their particular brand of sky-fairyism are hostile towards the idea of secularism. Secularism constraints them – it limits their ability to impose their religious values on non-believers and indoctrinate a mass of impressionable minds, many of which are of school age.

The FIRIS campaign calls for the Victorian government to do the following:

1. Maintain an inclusive school curriculum that does not require any student to withdraw from class on account of different religious beliefs

2. Formally cease the practice of volunteer-run special religious instruction (SRI) during school hours

3. Follow an objective, fair and balanced comparative syllabus for education about religions and beliefs

4. Treat all religious organisations who wish to use the school facilities outside of the school day with transparent and equitable policies

Point number 3 serves to clarify that secularism isn’t about banning religion from the public sphere, but about ensuring that no specific religion is privileged over others. Not “teach no religion”, but “teach all religions” as different belief systems with no single one having a claim to ultimate truth or authority.

Parents and the organisers of FIRIS are taking their case to the Victorian Administrative and Civil Tribunal. FIRIS chairman Tim Heasley made this statement:

“We would like to see religion taught in a fair way that reflects Australia’s multi-cultural commitments and we’re asking our schools to do this in a way that does not violate the `secular principle’ of public education. This needs to be done by closing the door to activists from all religions who want to use our schools to get at kids”.

“Our State Schools are not Church Playgrounds and it is deeply concerning to me as an Australian and as a parent, that I should need to put up a billboard to make this case to the Minister of Education. The Minister could easily change this policy, and that is what we intend to see him do”.

While there has been some progress in the fight against religious encroachment into state education, campaigns like FIRIS are vital to remind the government and the wider public about the secular principles this nation was founded upon, principles that must be upheld if Australia is to remain a progressive, liberal, diverse country. Please show your support by liking the FIRIS Facebook page and spreading word of this important campaign.