Wednesday, June 24, 2009

...And the Rest is History

The man walked into the tavern and scanned the room until he noticed a long table with 11 men sitting at it. He walked over and said, a bit hesitantly, "Hello, is this the A. J. meeting?"

The man at the head of the table said, "Yes it is, Atheists of Jerusalem! Welcome! So glad you found out about us! We can use all the members we can get. My name is John."

The newcomer told his name, and said, "So glad to meet you too! I heard rumors about this group, but up until now I've felt like the only atheist on earth. You don't know what it feels like to suddenly meet a whole bunch of them at once!"

John said, "On the contrary, all of us here know very well how it feels. We've spent our lives feeling like the crazy ones because we don't have all sorts of fantastical beliefs as almost everyone else does, when in fact we are the few sane ones. That's why we started this group, to be a haven from the rest of the world, where we can feel sane for the first time. And where we might even think of ways to talk other people into sanity."

The newcomer then introduced himself to each of the other members of the group, and said, "I can never get over the fact that, here it is, the year 50 A.D. already, in this great scientific and technological age, when great thinkers even hundreds of years ago already proved that matter must be made of atoms, proved that the earth is spherical and measured its size, measured the distance to the moon and its size, speculated that the earth goes around the sun, that the stars are other suns immensely far away, and that current forms of life must have evolved from previous common ancestors. Our greatest philosophers have proven that the existence of a god makes no sense. We've built monumental buildings, and great aqueducts and roads that have improved people's lives substantially. --And yet most people still believe that people can predict the future by reading the entrails of goats, and can change events for the better by offering animal sacrifices as gifts to the gods! If anything, there seems to be a resurgence in such beliefs lately, just when you'd think they'd be withering away."

John said, "Yes, all of us have noticed such a resurgence, unfortunately. Most of us think it is a backlash against that scientific and technological progress. We fear that such irrationality will take over again, and halt that progress. The Roman Empire may seem invincible, the world's only superpower, but if this keeps up, we're on the way out, I tell you! As for your amazement at the stupidity of most people, I'm afraid you're just preaching to the choir here! But one of the pleasures of being in this group is being among like-minded people, and some of the most intelligent people you are ever likely to meet, who are as up-to-date as can be on the latest scientific and technological advances. For instance, just last week we were talking about a new invention that Peter here heard of, called a 'steam engine'. It uses the expanding force of boiling water to move things. It's just a toy, but perhaps larger versions could be used to replace animal and human muscle power, and relieve people of ceaseless physical toil, even create more power than ever available before. Perhaps it could move chariots at tremendous speeds, faster than any horses could, and people could travel great distances in short amounts of time."

The newcomer said, "That is absolutely fascinating! I'd love to hear more about it."

Peter said, "Alas, that's all I know so far. I'll certainly tell all about it if find out more."

John then said, "So, let's resume where we left off last week, shall we? As I recall, Peter had just begun telling his idea of combatting religion with a silly parody religion he came up with."

Peter said, "That's right. We've tried reasoning with people, but that never seems to work. What better way to show people how silly their religions are than by parodying them with an equally silly religion, which they can easily see is silly, and then perhaps realize that their own religion is equally silly. I call the religion 'The Church of the Flying Bread Monster'. I picture an invisible being made out of a piece of bread, with olives for eyes, that flies around. Followers would bless each other by saying, "May his crusty appendage touch you."

John said, "That's very cute. I like it!"

The newcomer said, "It might be even more humorous if you call it 'The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster'. How about it having meat balls for eyes instead of olives?"

John whispered, "Remember, spaghetti won't be invented till more than a millennium from now, after Marco Polo visits China and gets the idea from their noodles. It's bad enough that you called this year '50 A.D.', when people won't start numbering years that way until centuries from now!"

The newcomer whispered back, "Oh, sorry, I forgot! Then bread it is!"

Peter then continued, "So as I was saying, I would like to follow priests around whereever they go, preaching this parody religion right next to them preaching their crazy religions, making the priests out to be complete laughing stocks."

John said, "I think that's an excellent idea. Why don't we meet next Saturday, at the main temple, and do just what you say. In the mean time, we ought to come up with all sorts of silly embellishments for that religion. We could all wear some sort of silly costume, for instance, and say it's part of the religion for some reason.

Someone else, named James, said, "Just be sure to make it ridiculous enough that no one will believe it! Remember, there are an awful lot of amazingly stupid people out there. You may think you're combatting religion, only to find that this plan has backfired and you've inadvertently started a new religion, even more ridiculous than the ones already in existence!

John said, laughing a bit, "A very good point. Yes, we'll have to be very careful."

The newcomer said, "I hesitate to bring this up, because you'll all think I'm just trying to claim your originality for my own ... but I actually came up with an idea somewhat along the same lines several months ago."

John said, "I've found atheists to be among the most honest people I've ever met. Or as Peter always says, 'If you can't trust an atheist, who can you trust?' We can't just undo past wrongs we've committed with some religious ritual absolving our guilt, as religious people can, so must live with our consciences. So don't worry, I don't think you're stealing someone else's idea. So ... what's your idea?"

The newcomer said, "Well, my idea wasn't overtly comical and silly, the way this bread monster idea is. It was just philosophically ridiculous. The idea was as follows:

The god of the Hebrew holy book is a nasty sonofabitch, from what I've heard, despite always claiming to be a loving god. He's a total psychopathic tyrant. But, this being the idea for a new religion, of course it wouldn't just say to forget the whole idea and not believe in that god. That's not the way religions work! Instead, it would add a new layer of idiocy on top of the previous idiocy, to try to explain away the previous idiocy. It would say that this god realized he wasn't being loving, and changed his mind! That is of course a ludicrous idea, because an omniscient god would never be wrong in the first place, and so would be incapable of changing (which I guess would make him not omnipotent, come to think of it, since he wouldn't have the power to change! But then again, if he's omnipotent, he wouldn't have the power to be not omnipotent, which would also make him not omnipotent! But I digress...) That holy book has their god blaming all of Adam and Eve's descendents for Eve eating that forbidden fruit, which of course is ridiculous, because their god is supposed to be perfectly just, and blaming people for what their ancestors did is the height of injustice. So their god just realizes one day that he was being unjust, and starts being nice forever after. There ought to be some crazy reason why, but I never went further with the idea."

John said, "Hmmmm.... That would be a great idea, except for one thing. There's a religion that already beat you to it, and it's the religion of most of the people in this region! And it hasn't made a difference; people still believe in the religion anyway! In the Hebrew holy book, it tells the story of their god creating a world-wide flood to kill everyone off but a single couple, to punish all of humanity for all of its bad deeds, and says that their god changed his mind afterwards and felt regret for killing everyone off, and said he'd never do it again. And yet despite that ludicrous idea, people still believe in that religion."

The newcomer said, astonished, "Really?? I of course heard about that flood story -- who hasn't? -- but not the part about their god changing his mind. I guess I should read that book, but I've never wanted to waste a single second of my life on religion."

John said, "Ironically, you'll likely never find a bunch of people who know that book as well as atheists do. A number of us here have read it cover to cover, including me, and can practically recite it by heart. It's the religious people who rarely know much about it -- otherwise they very likely would see how heinous and self-contradictory it is, and become atheists! All they know is the few good parts. As the sign says that I have on the back of my chariot, "Read the holy book -- become an atheist." You'll probably learn a lot about it as part of this group. Ironically, the fact that it is so badly written keeps people from reading it, so keeps up its credibility, for it is quite a challenge to slog through. One would think that a Supreme Being could have been a better writer."

Peter said, "Still, your idea has possibilities. How about this idea for why he suddenly decides to stop blaming everyone: because all of humanity offers him one giant human sacrifice as a gift, the human sacrifice to end all human sacrifices, that changes their god to nice for the rest of all time. Create some sort of mythical heroic figure who's the greatest most important person who's ever lived. Animal sacrifice may be barbaric enough -- our campaign for people to stop it has gotten nowhere, since this is too tiny a group to change things -- but at least peoples' attitudes have been shifting on human sacrifice lately. They're starting to think of it as barbaric, so they'd think of your religion idea as barbaric."

The newcomer said, "Might as well add cannibalism in there too! Have the followers symbolically eat the person after he's been sacrificed. But it would sure have to be some special person who's sacrificed, for that god to change his mind in such a big way! All of the human sacrifices so far sure haven't done it."

Peter said, "How about him being some mythical god born of a virgin? What religion doesn't have gods being born of virgins, after all? Either that or sacrificing virgins. Whatever it is, it's gotta have virgins in there somewhere. Sex sells. Have their god have sex with a virgin and have her give birth to a god, which would of course then be the son of their god."

John said, "That's good, although so many people wouldn't think of that as adding to the ridiculousness, because they already believe nonsense like that. It definitely needs some special twist to make it far more ridiculous, but I'm not sure what."

The newcomer said, "How about claiming that this sacrifice of the most monumental historical importance happened very recently, within the memory of many people still alive today, and then just ignore how no one remembers it, no chronicler of the times wrote about it? Claim that it happened around 20 years ago, let's say."

John said, "Another nice touch."

Peter said, "Also, keep emphasizing how he's that god's only son, to add to the pathos of him being sacrificed -- as if that god couldn't have as many sons as he wants! After all, he's supposed to be omnipotent! And as if that son, who's also a god, couldn't stop himself from being sacrificed in a long, painful, horrible way if he felt like it!"

The newcomer said, "And how about this: After claiming that the religion is all about morality (despite worshipping that heinous god), then completely contradict that by claiming that only people who believe in that religion go to heaven, regardless of whether they've been moral or not, while all people who don't believe in it go to hell, also regardless of whether they've been moral or not. Tell them that their god will only stop blaming them for Eve eating the forbidden fruit if they believe in the religion. Then, have the priests in that religion claim to forgo earthly wealth, yet live in the most opulent buildings that we are capable of building, paid for by the ordinary worshippers. Tell the worshippers that they not only have to believe in the religion, but they have to attend religious services in those opulent buildings. Tell them they can't just stop their god from blaming them for what Eve did by being moral, but that only the priests can, by chanting magic words at them, and they can't just do it once and be done with it, but the worshippers have to keep coming back every week for another "treatment". --Oh, and by the way, they have to keep giving the priests at least 10% of their earnings. Have the priests spend most of their time exhorting their followers to give them money -- despite that they claim that their god is all-powerful and grants their wishes that they say in prayers, so that they should be able to just pray for more money! That would make it obvious to even the most naive fool that the religion was just made up as a scam to trap people into it in order to give those priests money."

John said, "That's great! This idea definitely shows promise. But still, it needs something else. This still isn't a religion much more ridiculous than lots of religions people already believe."

The newcomer was deep in thought for much of the rest of the meeting. Then toward the end of the meeting, he suddenly said, startling everyone, "I've got it! John, you said my religion idea needed some special twist to make it extra ridiculous, and I just thought of one. Don't have all the HUMANS offer the son of that god as a sacrifice to that god. Have THAT GOD offer his own son as a sacrifice!"

For a second, John just stared at him, openmouthed. Then he stammered, "S-s-so let me get this straight. The idea of a sacrifice is to give a gift to a god so he will treat you better in exchange. So you're saying that that god has a son in order to offer him as a sacrifice TO HIMSELF, and he has to give that gift TO HIMSELF in order to have an excuse to be in a better mood and treat everyone nicely from then on???? How could someone give themself a gift? And he can't just DECIDE to be in a better mood, and then do it, but has to go through that crazy, bloody rigamarole????"

"Yes!", said the newcomer, with a broad smile.

John said, "That's the stupidest, most insane idea I've ever heard in my life! You'd have to have feces for brains to believe that! Perfect! Not only is that a great parody religion, but obviously there's no danger that anyone will ever mistake that for a serious religion, and start believing in it. I mean, there may be a lot of stupid people around, but surely no one is THAT stupid! Never mind the Flying Bread Monster, let the 12 of us go out to the religious places and start preaching that religion. It should make great comic theater.

The newcomer said, "Yes, let's do that! Only one thing. I'm afraid of being persecuted as an atheist, in this society, as I bet many of the rest of you are. I could lose my livelihood, be attacked, who knows what. So I'd rather not use my real name, while I'm participating in this group, in case anyone overhears it and finds out who I am.

John said, "Okay, fair enough. So what should we call you, Saul?

"Ummmm ... how about Paul, instead."


...And the rest, unfortunately, is history.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"But they're MY kids!" Why parents should not have the right to educate their kids however they want

“I myself don’t believe in evolution…so, if it were taught in school, I would definitely want the right to pull my child out of the classroom.”

To many people, a comment like this sounds reasonable. After all, it’s their child, right? And a parent should have the right to determine what their child can or cannot be taught?

I beg to differ. A child does not belong to anyone; a child is not the property of God, the property of the state, or the property of another person – not even their parents. Parents do not own their children, and we ought to vehemently oppose any notion that parents should be able to dictate, regardless of the consequences, how their child will be raised.

In the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins points out, rightly so, that young children are not capable of being adequately informed about a religion such that it is reasonable to ascribe to that child any particular religious label. It is nonsense, he asserts, to refer to a small child as a “Muslim child” or a “Christian child”. Rather, these children are the children of Muslim parents, or the children of Christian parents. The children themselves are too young to have decided for themselves what to believe.

Both of these religions regard freely coming to god as being of the utmost importance. How strange it is, then, that both find it absolutely necessary to thrust religion upon their children from day one. It seems to me that such people are overlooking a crucial point – children are inescapably gullible; while I give children the credit to recognize fact from fiction in many instances, religions have the unique advantage of being believed by wide numbers of people. A child growing up in Iran is surrounded by Muslims, and if all of them believe it, then the child, by the very nature of the human brain, is inclined to believe it, regardless of its actual merits. If you are a Christian, the fact that Muslims are doing this to their children - that is, exposing and thrusting beliefs upon folks who are essentially in the prime condition for being brainwashed – should concern you a great deal, as it means that, by allowing people of other religions to teach their children what to believe in, you are permitting them to be psychologically primed, against their better judgment, to reject your religion regardless of its merits.

On top of this, children growing up under the pall of a particular religious and ethnic identity come to see it as being a part of themselves, as an inescapable of aspect of their identity and a link to their family and friends. This makes it especially difficult to renounce a doctrine, even if, in better circumstances, one could readily admit it if it were false. Again, if another belief system is bad – and most people believe theirs to be superior at least to some extent, then by standing idly by while parents pack ideas into the heads of children is really a form of negligence, as you are allowing those children to be programmed in a way antithetical to that which you believe is best, and these children are nothing but helpless, innocent, and vulnerable individuals who cannot be reasonably expected to escape from their situations.

Thus, the very nature of raising children to be religious has a tendency to set that child’s beliefs in stone, forever coloring their view of the world. While people can and do change, most people fail to appreciate just how difficult such change is. They oversimplify the supposed role of choice in belief. Beliefs are not a matter of choice, and, even if they are, there are so many factors tugging and compelling us for emotional – and not rational – reasons, that for a God to expect a person to grow up and make the right choice regarding which doctrine is truly his is a remarkably na├»ve way of approaching belief and approaching human psychology. It’s an unrealistic and absurd expectation, and this is one of the many reasons that Islam and Christianity, both of which demand that one either accept their doctrine or be damned, make no sense: what one believes is not a simple matter of choice. One cannot wake up and opt to believe that they are, in fact, a carrot, or that the moon is made of jelly beans. They can no more do that than they can choose to believe god exists.

The whole notion of childhood indoctrination goes against every impulse we have of a genuine right to self-determination. Oddly, in a strange sort of backwards way of thinking, people are inclined to think that a parent has the freedom to raise their child as they wish – but what about the child’s freedom, their right, to be raised in a way that leaves all doors open, rather than, by having the particular biases and prejudices of their parents bestowed upon them as the absolute and unquestioning truth, have their beliefs molded to invariably reflect those of their parents? No, on the contrary, we should all recognize that a child’s mind is not like an adult’s. A child should be raised not to believe this or that belief system, but to be exposed to all belief systems, to be taught about their merits, and to be taught how to examine and critically analyze these views. Only when children are raised this way, can the actual truth shine forth; as long as we permit people to be taught Truth at an early age, rather than implanting in them a passion for its pursuit, we are forever crippling their ability to rationally distinguish fact from fiction.

And what could you do worse to a child than to forever blind them to reality? No form of pain or abuse can come close to forever locking a child within the tangled maze of a muddled mind from which they can never emerge to enjoy the breathtaking nature of reality.

Every time a person tells you that it’s their child, and they’ll raise them the way they want, I am asking you, begging you, on behalf of that child and children everywhere, to challenge that person, and say to them, “what do you mean, YOUR child? That child isn’t yours. That child is a person of their own, and you have a responsibility to equip them with a rational and open mind so that they can, when they are old enough, determine their beliefs for themselves." A child is a parent’s only with respect to the parents responsibility – a responsibility the rest of us have a right to revoke should the parent shirk in their duties – to raise that child as best as can be done. Some parents fail to do this, and the right of the child to as good an upbringing as possible, in every circumstance, trumps the parent’s supposed right to raise their child. This is a call for us to raise consciousness about this matter. When a person says a child is theirs, do not let them hide behind a wall of equivocation about what type of possession they have over that child – if they respond that they don’t literally mean they own the child, all the better; the more we force people to either admit that, and look like monsters for declaring another person property, or deny it, the more we will free children from the shackles of mental oppression.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The word "spirit" means absolutely nothing

Just what exactly is a spirit? Nobody knows. One way of critiquing the views of theists and supernaturalists is to take a non-cognitivistic stance. Often, people find this stance to be counterintuitive or to lie beyond the purview of the standard set of arguments leveled against nonsense, but nonetheless it is a substantial one and one worth the effort of people who wish hone their reason and equip themselves with arguments against the stupidity and ignorance so ubiquitous to the human race. If you're unfamiliar with non-cognitivism, I highly recommend looking it up and finding out for yourself what it is all about.

In a nutshell, non-cognitivism refers to the position that a particular sentence, or a particular language used in a certain discipline or field of thought, does not express propositions, that is, statements that may be evaluated as true or false. To translate this into everyday terms, what this means is that if you are a non-cognitivist about something, you believe that truth and falsity do not apply to it. Consider taste preferences. Would it make any sense at all to insist that certain foods, as a matter of absolute and overarching truth, genuinely taste better than another? Can strawberry ice cream be proven to taste better than chocolate ice cream? Perhaps anchovies are the epitome of tastiness? No, obviously, this is nonsense. Food preferences are subjective; that is, they are dependent upon the individual tasting the food. Thus, a statement like, "John thinks chocolate ice cream tastes best" would be a proposition. Why? Well, this statement could be evaluated as true or false. Maybe John really likes vanilla ice cream, or maybe it really is the case that he likes chocolate. Whatever the case may be, even if we couldn't find out, it is, in principle, possible to evaluate this statement as either true or false. But consider if we simply had the statement, "Chocolate ice cream tastes best". The whole concept of "tastes best" requires that it tastes best *to some subject*; and, since it is logically possible, and in this instance actually the case, that it does taste best to some but not to others, it is quite obvious to see here that whether or not a particular food tastes best is contingent upon the preference of a particular subject.

But consider mathematical truth. Could 2+2=4 be true to one person, but not to another? No; that is absurd. Likewise, a tree is exactly as tall as it is regardless of individual beliefs, preferences, or views governing it, and the same goes for any legitimate, cognitive statement about the world, such as "France is a nation in Europe" or "Jesus was born from a virgin". It may be that two individuals differ in the information available to them or the perceptions that they have about something. From far away, a tree may look to be a certain height, and it would be true to say, "That tree looks to be 5 meters tall", while up close it could be true to say, "This tree looks to me to be 10 meters tall". Nonetheless, how tall it actually is may be some other measurement entirely - but we can be reasonably confident that trees do in fact have a particular height, independent of individual perspectives. Reality is not subjective.

So how does this apply to spirits? Do which category do statements about spirits fall into? Well, consider how it is we come to present a statement as a proposition: it is related to how we come to know things and how we justify that knowledge. There is really only one process for justifying a position - reason. That's not to say we must come to know all things in the same way. Some knowledge can be ascertained deductively - mathematics, definitional truths, and so on. Such knowledge is derived from, in a sense, pure reason - we do not need to appeal to evidence to prove that 2+2=4, but to definitions of these terms from which their truth or falsity follows necessarily. The second method is by induction. This knowledge does not have the ring of necessity to it. Inductive knowledge is knowledge that depends upon our acquisition of information from the outside world. When we draw an inductive conclusion, it must bear some relationship to those proposed facts, which are intended to support it. The way we come to know how to treat cancer, or that gasoline is flammable, or generally any scientifically evaluable knowledge about the world, is derived through induction.

It is rather obvious that the existence, or the nature, of spirits cannot be demonstrated by an appeal to pure logic. One cannot conjure into existence beings on the basis of argument independent of an appeal to the outside world. If they can, I certainly haven't seen any compelling arguments, and, if you think there are some, I'd be interested in knowing about them. Leaving the rather dubious possibilities of presenting a logical argument for the existence or nature of spirits aside, that leaves only with inductive arguments for spirits - arguments that would incline us to think spirits probably exist or that we can have knowledge about them that depends upon our knowledge of the world around us. This could come in the form of hard physical evidence, like the remains of spirits; in the form of accounts or witness reports of spirits, it might even come in the form of indirect evidence - signs left that indicate the presence of spirits, or something to that effect. Essentially, if we are to believe that spirits exist and that there is something we can know about them, we must present REASONS to believe this. In the absence of reasons to support a belief, a belief is, by its very nature, unreasonable, which is just another way of saying it's irrational or absurd to believe whatever it is that's believed.

So what evidence, what knowledge do we possess about the nature of or the existence of spirits? I assert, unequivocally, that there is none. We know nothing about what a spirit is, and we have no credible evidence whatsoever that such things exist. Even if someone shows us a grainy video of some moving light in the darkness, why should we presume spirits give off light? Do they or don't they? Often, we are told, a spirit is an immaterial thing. But does this tell us anything about the nature of a spirit? No, it does not. Telling us something isn't material doesn't tell us what it is, it tells us what it isn't. If I told you I had an object, and that it was not round, does this inform you of what shape it actually is? No. That's not to say such information is meaningless, but there's a problem with my assertion that it is not round. In order to know what something isn't, one must know something about what it is. How can I know my object is not round unless I know something else, something positive, about its properties? The simple answer is that you can't. Thus, when we purport to offer knowledge of what spirits are not, we aren't even justified in that. Just how is it we know spirits aren't material? And if they're not, what are they? Nobody knows.

I assert that it's not simply the case that there isn't any evidence that spirits exist or not, but that people who speak of spirits, ghosts, and the like, literally have no idea what they are talking about. They are uttering incoherent gibberish. Without some coherent, definable characteristics which lend some content to the term "spirit", the meaning of the word is as ethereal as spirits are purported to be. The next time someone claims that a ghost or a spirit exists, before demanding evidence of their claim, demand that they explain what a spirit or ghost is, and how they know this. I, for one, doubt they would provide a satisfactory answer, and I won't hold my breath waiting for one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chiropractic is fake bullshit and should be made illegal

Simon Singh, an author of books on science, is being sued for libel for using the word "bogus" to describe the practices of the British Chiropractic Association.

If you haven't heard the story yet, please check out:,3925,Support-Simon-Singh,Richard-Dawkins

To the British Chiropractic Association: The pseudoscientific crap you do should be utterly illegal, and you should all be arrested for medical negligence. Chiropractic treatment is, for the most part, pseudoscientific garbage; it is not a legitimate field of medicine since it has not been subjected to the same rigorous criteria real, science-based medicine must abide by. The UK is absolutely rife with bullshit medicine. Even if it were a person's right to make ignorant and disastrous decisions about their own health, the legitimacy of such choices rests on the individual being adequately informed. It is not in the interest of the alternative medicine community to place their products in the open playing field of reality - they must not only actively misinform their victims, but stifle criticism of their practices, whether legitimate or not.

This is not something that can be tolerated. When scientists are sued for expressing a scientifically-backed conclusion about a branch of therapy that is not only legitimately the subject of scientific inquiry, but a matter of public concern on which the health and lives of individuals rests, what we create is an atmosphere that stifles the genuine pursuit of truth and puts all of us at risk. We will do nothing but put obstacles in the way of progress if scientists are cowed into not expressing their view because some hypersensitive, ignorant, or money-hungry person sees that person's view as a threat to their business.

I call on everyone, everywhere, who recognizes just how much of a threat and an outrage this is to publicly - in blogs, outside, in publications, in letters to newspapers or to chiropractic associations - tell them exactly what you think of them. It is the right of every person everywhere to express their honest view on the legitimacy of chiropractic, and if we do not stand up in a show of support for Simon Singh, and push back against litigation against the conclusions of science, then we are setting a terrible precedent that will encourage promoters of quackery - quackery which fleeces the money and harms the health of uninformed adults and their undeserving children - to use lawsuits as a way to stifle legitimate criticism.

People's lives are being lost, and progress which could help save and improve lives in the future is being held back, because of the unchallenged proliferation of bogus medicine. Stop sitting on your hands. This isn't a matter we can afford to be silent about.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Reality is, on it's own, beautifully complex and breathtakingly mysterious. It is a masterpiece, a collaborative magnum opus, the spectacular artistry of Time and Nature. Don't discredit their greatest work of art by inventing mysticism, religion, and superstition as the creator. Isn't reality interesting enough for you?

What's wrong with incest?

What’s wrong with incest?

Just the thought of having a sexual encounter with a close relative is sufficient to induce most people into paroxysms of disgust and outrage. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if many people feel shocked, outraged, and appalled that I even consider the topic of incest worthy of discussion.

Well, they better be prepared to be even more outraged. I am going to propose that not only is incest perfectly a worthy topic of discussion, but that not a single person can articulate a single coherent reason why incest, in and of itself, should be regarded as immoral.

First of all, it is necessary to specify exactly what I mean by incest. By incest, I mean any sexual activity between closely related people. This is not specific to parent-child instances or activity between adults and children, and thus is distinct from pedophilia. After all, two adult first cousins may have a sexual relationship, and this would certainly qualify as incest. Second, I am not referring to instances that necessarily require sexual exploitation. While it is undoubtedly the case that many instances of incest also include sexual exploitation, it is certainly also the case that there are many instances of sexual exploitation of minors that do not involve incest and instances of incestuous relationships that don’t involve sexual exploitation; indeed, on occasion people have had grown up, met someone, fell in love, and gotten engaged, only to discover that they are, in fact, siblings or close cousins. It would be absurd to insist that every single one of these situations involved sexual exploitation. Incest and sexual exploitation are thus mutually exclusive.

There are five principle reasons people oppose incest. The rest of this discussion will be geared towards showing how each of these reasons, in turn, utterly fails to demonstrate that incest is immoral.

1. Incest is wrong because it is illegal.
2. Incest is wrong because God/my religion say so.
3. Incest is wrong because it is unnatural, violates natural order, etc.
4. Incest is wrong because it is disgusting, or obviously wrong.
5. Incest is wrong because it leads to exploitation, emotional problems; i.e., incest is not wrong in and of itself but because it tends to lead towards consequences which are deleterious to the participants.
6. Incest is wrong because of the increased risk of birth defects and the increased social stigma on the progeny of incestuous relationships.

1. The claim that incest is wrong because it is illegal is so stupid I almost considered t not worth mentioning. But let me dispense with it and move on to arguments that aren’t quite as ridiculous: the mere fact that something is legal or illegal in a particular place or time has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not that thing is moral. None. At many points in time and in many places, it was legal to rape, murder, torture, and do all manner of horrid and abominable things. I doubt anyone would incest that in 1830 slavery was moral simply because it was legal, nor would they have maintain that interracial marriage was immoral because it was illegal.

2. Many people argue that the immorality of incest is a divine revelation from their god, that, in fact, all morals ultimately stem from god. There are dozens of problems with this, problems such as how this person knows there’s a god, and, if there is one, what it is they approve or disapprove of and why any of us should care. Religion is, to put it simply, unverified baloney that has no place serving as a moral foundation for anyone. But all that aside, even if we give religions like Christianity the benefit of the doubt and let them make their case, just what is their case? When God declares something immoral, is that thing immoral because god says it is, or does god simply inform us of which things are immoral independent of his personal whims?

This problem was recognized centuries ago, and articulated in one of Plato’s dialogues:

“Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

This problem is absolutely fatal for the religious. If it is the former, if what is moral is moral simply because it is the command of God, than the theist must concede that morality is in fact relative – relative to whatever God’s whims are; furthermore, it is entirely arbitrary, as God could, being omnipotent and all, have decided and may in the future decide on any set of morals, regardless of what the current set may be. Such people would be forced to concede that had God dictated that rape, murder, or genocide were good, that they would be, and that if kindness and compassion were sins, they would be.

A simple way to test whether or not a theist accepts this is to ask them whether or not they would commit an act of rape or murder – even murder of their own son or daughter - if God commanded it. Such people cannot easily weasel out of this question. They may try to insist that God would never command this; it is easy enough to point out to Judeo-Christian theists, though, that God did in fact command this of Abraham, to which they may reply that God never would have made Abraham go through with it. There are several problems with this. First of all, if they insist God would never accept a human sacrifice, they would be wrong. In Judges 11, God accepts the sacrifice of a human child. Second, if it is obvious Christian doctrine that God wouldn’t accept a child sacrifice, then this couldn’t possibly have been a legitimate test of Abraham’s faith: clearly, Abraham would know God wouldn’t make him do it, and if that were so, what would be the point of the whole charade, if it was obviously something God wouldn’t carry through?

They may also insist that god simply wouldn’t ask them to do such a thing anymore, regardless of what he did in the Bible. This is bogus for two reasons. First, they have no way of knowing this, regardless of what they may say, and if they insist they do, then simply point out to them that they are presuming to know the future will of God and presuming to speak on his behalf without justification. Second, if God *could not in principle ask them to do it*, then their god is not, in fact, omnipotent, since there is something he can’t actually do. If they argue that he could, in principle, but never would because he is perfectly good, then they are essentially maintaining that he is in fact bound by his own rules. Can he change them? If not, he’s not omnipotent and/or he must abide by those rules for some reason independent of his whim, or he can in fact change them in which case they can’t claim that it’s impossible. At any rate, all such responses really are are maneuvers to avoid answering the question; it is certainly conceivable, in principle, that the universe could have a being who had all the properties of god and chose a different set of morals than the ones we have now; if they deny this, they are, of course, denying god’s omnipotence because they are maintaining that he couldn’t have been any other way.

Now, if they say that it is not good simply because god says so, then this no longer stands as a sufficient reason for opposing incest because now god saying so is simply an intermediary point to the actual reason – whatever that reason may be, and thus this isn’t in itself the reason why incest is wrong. For instance, it may be the case that God says incest is wrong, but if it’s not because it’s his whim, it’s for some other reason, such as that the objective moral law of the universe states such, or it would violate the Categorical Imperative, etc.; if this is so, then the burden is on the person insisting incest is immoral to explain what that reason is, and not simply point out that God agrees with it.

3. That something could be wrong because it is unnatural or violates natural order is almost as ridiculous as the first reason. First of all, if by “natural order” one means the way we’re “supposed” to act, this whole argument falls flat on its face. We are evolved organisms that tend to exhibit behaviors adaptive to our environments. There is no moral imperative behind the way we happen, biologically, to be inclined. For instance, we are “naturally omnivorous”; this doesn’t mean we have a moral imperative to eat both plants and meat. Anyone who went around saying it violates natural order to be a vegetarian – after all, we are adapted to digest meat - would rightly be regarded as ridiculous. In any case, numerous things people do would “violate” the way we’re “supposed” to act, anyway.

Second, the notion that what is natural is good is patently absurd, anyway. Cyanide, cancer, and parasites are all natural, and nobody insists we let them ravage our bodies because to stop them would be to go against natural order. Earthquakes, hurricanes, viruses, and all manner of terrible things are natural. People don’t demand we refuse blood transmissions or not wear shoes because we’re violating our biological imperatives, nor do people typically insist that birth control is a terrible violation of our natural “drive to reproduce”. Furthermore, it’s simply nonsense to insist incest is somehow “unnatural” anyway. Many animals frequently engage in incest, in fact, it’s fairly common.

What exactly would it mean to say that it’s not “natural” for people to engage in incest? It’s certainly natural for other organisms, and last time I checked there wasn’t a rulebook for declaring which animals incest counts as “natural” or “not natural”. And another thing – what specifies what an organism’s characteristics will be are its genes; one could even claim that an organism is simply a manifestation of a particular set of genetic code – we are our DNA. Well, suppose in the vast majority of people, we are genetically hardwired to regard close family members as being sexually off limits. But suppose for a small group of people they either have a different gene, or lack this gene that does incline, or at least removes their inhibitions, against incest. Since an organisms’ behavioral proclivities are based on its genes, it simply would not make sense to insist that incest is “unnatural” for such people; the whole basis of what we use to claim something is natural, or part of an animal’s nature, is based on their genes and the resultant phenotypic expressions they manifest on the basis of them – and if incestuous people had incest-inducing genes, then, to put it simply, incest would be “natural” to them. That would have, of course, no bearing on whether or not it were moral or not. If the majority of people had genes that inclined them towards aggressive or sexually coercive behavior, that wouldn’t make it a bit more morally acceptable, and if you think it would, you are seriously morally imbalanced.

4. That incest is immoral because it is disgusting, or that it’s “just plain obvious” that it is is probably the most common reaction to incest, but is nonetheless one of the weaker ones. To insist that something is wrong simply because it is obvious that it is merely begs the question. Truth, or, as the case may be with morality, reasonable and justified opinions based on some sane set of moral guidelines or another, are not determined by bald assertion. To simply insist something is true because it is is not an argument; it is a concession that one has no reasons and, even worse, is not interested in providing reasons but merely in asserting their infallibility.

Disgust is also not a legitimate reason to label something immoral, in and of itself. Firstly, much of what we find disgusting is subjective enough that anyone could label anything they dislike or disapprove of disgusting, and if we were to declare anything anyone found disgusting immoral, we’d quickly find everything to be immoral. No, we must have some guidelines. Horrible scars or extreme obesity are disgusting to most people, yet we do not require people to hide their blubber or scars merely because we find them disgusting; we also don’t typically regard farting, the consumption of nasty-tasting food, etc. as immoral.

The mere fact that something is gross to you is not a legitimate reason to make it immoral. Nonetheless, there are instances where something might justly be called immoral because it is disgusting, but certain other criteria must also be met. If someone were to engage in disgusting sexual acts in the privacy of their home, it doesn’t seem reasonable that we should be able to tell that person they aren’t allowed to do it. If, however, they insisted on engaging in these acts publicly, we might legitimately prohibit them from doing so. That something be prohibited on the grounds that it be disgusting should require that it be pushed upon others without their consent in a manner they cannot reasonably avoid and that the grounds for it being regarded as disgust can be shown to be legitimate. If a single person insists that geckos are so disgusting that they cannot stand to drive their car down the road where a local Geico billboard is up, we may sympathize, but it would be unreasonable to insist that large portions of other people’s rights be denied on behalf of a single individual; the loss to others must be weighed against the benefit attained by the person offended by certain material.

Second, if the object of disgust is something that can be readily avoided or that one would have to make special effort to experience, a person does not have legitimate grounds for demanding that it be prohibited. Many people find certain forms of art or certain films disgusting, but they are not obligated to go to the art galleries or theaters where such images are displayed. It would be unreasonable for a person to demand that others be prohibited from experiencing something they personally find disgusting when they aren’t the ones who want to experience it.

This is just the case with incest. Nobody is obligated to engage in incestuous activity, and unless they know a couple is closely related, they wouldn’t even be able to tell if a couple were engaging in public incestuous activity. Furthermore, many, many people still regard affectionate activity between interracial couples, gay couples, senior couples, etc. as disgusting; consider trying to ban shows of affection among these groups and it becomes readily apparent why doing so is entirely unreasonable.

5. Some people argue that incest is wrong because it leads to other things which are wrong. It may turn out to be the case that incest usually arises in situations that involve sexual exploitation or some other unethical activities. Even if this were the case, all it would mean is that many unethical activities happen to also be cases of incest, not that incest itself is wrong. Something isn’t wrong simply because it normally occurs in the presence of other things which are immoral; after all, it doesn’t mean that it causes those things. Rape and sexual exploitation are wrong regardless of whether or not family members are the victims; family members are often simply easy targets since they are readily available, and thus cases of sexual exploitation victimizing family members shouldn’t be particularly surprising; but it is not the component of incest in them that makes them wrong, it’s everything else.

Something isn’t wrong simply because it is associated with other things that are; guilt-by-association is not a legitimate argument against the ethicality of something. Consider a case where a father molests his daughter. Is this wrong because it is a case of incest, or is it wrong because it is a case of rape?

Well, it is certainly wrong for being a case of rape, and it being incest may exacerbate the harm caused to the daughter, but this would only show that cases of rape that involve especially close relatives can be especially psychologically harmful to the victim, not that incest is wrong. How would such a claim have any bearing on cases of incest between consenting adults? Even if something often results in harmful outcomes, that doesn’t mean all instances of it are not immoral nor does it necessarily justify its prohibition. One might maintain that many cases of incest end badly largely due to the taboo over it. It would be patent bullshit for someone to insist that interracial relationships are wrong because they end badly, when they reason they usually end badly is because people oppose them; such a vicious, and ridiculous circle, is the very cause of the problem it cites.

And even if incestuous relationships often result in emotional or psychological problems, this simply makes them unfortunate situations, not necessarily immoral ones. It may be unwise to enter into an incestuous relationship because of the potential risk of a poor outcome, but, first of all, considering the poor outcome of most relationships, it seems dubious to me to insist that incestuous relationships are so much more harmful than ordinary relationships, but, secondly, most people would also acknowledge the right of adults to make informed decisions after assessing the risks for themselves; if society is so paternalistic that it starts to dictate who may have relationships with who, most people would probably object to this; why the exception for incest? No, this isn’t the real reason people oppose incest, and they know it.

6. This last argument is the best, and probably the one most consider the most powerful reason to oppose incest. The argument that incest is wrong because of the risk of genetic defects in children is one grounded in a reasonable moral position – that it is wrong to willingly engage in behavior that carries with it a higher than normal risk of resulting in offspring with genetic defects. There are several problems with this argument though. First of all, it completely fails to account for cases of incest where inbreeding is not a possibility. What about cases with infertile couples? An obvious case would be instances of incest between two men or two women. How could these possibly be wrong on the grounds that they could result in genetically defective offspring? A simple question to ask someone who says incest is wrong because of the risk of inbreeding is to ask whether or not gay incest is wrong. It couldn’t possibly be wrong.

Once again, what people who say incest is wrong because of this risk are actually saying is that intentionally having kids with a high chance of having a birth defect is wrong, and those cases of incest where this is a possibility are wrong for this reason. If this is in fact what someone is claiming, then it is a morally legitimate argument. It is wrong to intentionally induce a pregnancy knowing that there is a substantial risk that the offspring will suffer a genetic defect.

First, just a point – the actual chances of birth defects among close relatives are vastly overstated. It’s not as if birth defects are incredibly rare among unrelated couples but are almost guaranteed between cousins or siblings. They’re not. They’re relatively uncommon in ordinary pregnancies and somewhat more likely in incestuous relationships.

Be that as it may, if someone is opposed to incest for this reason, in order to be consistent, they must also oppose all other cases where someone opts for pregnancy knowing that they have a high chance of bestowing bad genes on their offspring. Consider a hypothetical scenario:

A) A pair of first cousins wants to have a child. Geneticists determine that the chance, if they have a random child, of substantial birth defects is 5%.

B) A second couple, with no known relation, opt to have a kid. Geneticists determine that the chance, if they have a random child, of substantial birth defects is 10%.

Someone cannot be rationally consistent if they maintain that incest is immoral because of an increased risk of birth defects but deny that instances that aren’t cases of incest and which carry an equal or greater chance of birth defects are immoral.

Finally, suppose in the future we design procedures to reduce or eliminate the risk of having birth defects entirely. Would incest still be wrong? Definitely not for this reason. In fact, one implication of this line of reasoning is that if we eventually become able to screen someone’s genes ahead of time and choose the best matches, that it could be possible for a brother and sister to have less of a chance of a birth defect than couples who aren’t related but don’t want to have the gene-screening procedure done; thus, it would be morally obligatory to go through gene screening if possible.

What people are actually supporting, without even knowing it, is eugenics, the science of improving the human genome through controlling human reproduction. I in fact support eugenics, and thus would agree that inbreeding, absent procedures for reducing the risks, is immoral. However, for the above stated reasons, this merely makes inbreeding immoral, not incest; they are not the same thing. I am morally consistent in that I maintain all instances of increased risk of genetic defects are wrong because children have a right to the best possible health; people who refuse to admit the implications of their opposition to incest on these grounds are simply being morally inconsistent.

Having exhausted the reasons people give to oppose incest, we are left with nothing - not a single reason to oppose incest in and of itself. The majority of the opposition to incest likely stems from social conditioning, an evolved sense of repulsion to it, and from confusing incest with inbreeding, which it is not. If someone opposes incest on the grounds that it leads to genetic defects, that person cannot apply this reason to cases of gay incest; and this fact unveils the truth: such people are actually, rightfully, in favor of eugenics, insofar as they oppose intentionally putting the health of future children at risk. But such people are, in fact, opposing unregulated conception, not incest.

Finally, just in case any reader wonders if anyone is really so thoughtless as to maintain that incest is immoral, I will provide a link demonstrating as much:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Technology, Science and Morality

Richard Dawkins is one of my favorite writers. I have read all of his books. There is only one thing he has ever written that disappointed me. In "The God Delusion", he wrote about how the "moral zeitgeist" (the standards of morality that are part of the spirit of the times over the centuries) has improved dramatically over the past two centuries or so. (By "morality", I mean true morality, of minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness in conscious beings, not the phony, often upside-down "morality" of religious fundamentalists, that often considers pleasure to be immoral and suffering "good for the soul".)

For the first time in history, slavery, genocide and raping and pillaging are almost universally considered beyond the pale. War is not generally looked upon as glorious anymore. Sexism and racism are widely considered beyond the pale. Women and minorities supposedly have been granted equal rights, and certainly have much more equal rights than they did in the past. Even in these relatively regressive times, we have not fully returned to the sort of economic harshness that Dickens wrote about, and debtors' prisons are a thing of the past. Aside from the U. S., all of the developed world and some of the developing world has instituted universal healthcare. In the advanced countries, the circle of who deserves rights, which finally expanded to include all humans, has even started expanding beyond humans to other conscious animals. I can remember in my childhood in the 1960s when westerns still portrayed our genocide of Native Americans as a good thing, and comedians made homophobic jokes on TV, and those things were not considered in any way controversial, but no longer.

There are exceptions, of course. This is only a trend, not absolute. Slavery, genocide and raping and pillaging still go on, but mainly in the non-developed world, which lags behind the developed world. Germany in the 1930s went back to barbarism, but notice that it did so after it was temporarily pushed backward into poverty by war reparations after World War 1 and then the Great Depression. The United States, never a paragon of virtue in the first place, despite what most Americans are led to believe, sank back into barbarism after Bush took power in 2001, and has tortured people and denied them basic rights, and started an unprovoked war. While most Americans have advanced morally, that did not stop a small number of depraved people from taking over our government. Few Americans know that even slavery still goes on in the United States, on our territory of Saipan in the Pacific Ocean. But those are just exceptions to the general improving trend. The general population's attitudes have kept advancing, even if our leaders' attitudes have not always.

Just the fact that this unprecedented improvement in the moral zeitgeist, after millennia of little or no improvement, happened at the same time as the unprecedented rise in technology since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, should make us wonder if there could be some connection. While it may be impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is easy to see why there might be such a connection. Desperate people who are starving and don't know where their next meal is coming from are likely to do anything it takes to make sure they have food. And since everyone is doing that, everyone is also likely to do anything it takes to defend themselves from all the other desperate people who are doing that. Satiated people with full stomachs are much less likely to be violent.

Here again, this is only a trend, not absolute. It's likely that the higher the economic level of people, the greater proportion of them will have higher moral standards. But for whatever reason, maybe genetics or upbringing, some people will continue to act desperate no matter how economically secure they are, no matter how much they have, in a form of mental illness. The billionaires and multimillionaires who have seized control of the United States, who always want more, more!!, MORE!!!!, and spend their time driving everyone else into poverty in order to get it, are the ones who drove this country back into barbarism. A likely reason for this exception is that when a whole society rises in affluence, people may feel more secure, but when just a few people rise in affluence far above everyone else, they feel less secure, knowing how precarious their extreme affluence is.

Some people, especially extreme leftists who are anti-technology and want to go back to an agrarian society, don't even buy the idea that the moral zeitgeist has improved, but think it has gotten worse. This topic could make for an essay in itself. Such people operate under a standard set of misconceptions.

They believe the myth of the Noble Savage, that primitive peoples were peaceful, and that this is the way humans are inherently. All one has to do is read the Bible to see the savagery of primitive tribes. In fact, anthropologists have yet to find a primitive tribe with a murder rate as low is in our worst inner cities. Anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea and the Amazon found murder rates of from 15 to 60% of males, a rate 20 times higher than that of the people who were killed in all the wars and genocides in the 20th Century. Just the opposite of what these people think, people in previous centuries used to kill and torture people and animals in sadistic, ingenious ways far worse than even Bush could have done, and think nothing of it.

They claim that the 20th Century was the worst in history, and cite the Holocaust, the tens of millions of people killed by Stalin, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many other events, as proof. They cite the fact that Stalin and Hitler killed more people than ever before in history, and others such as Pol Pot in Cambodia killed millions. But that is only because our population is so much greater than ever before. In per capita terms, violence went way down. In fact, the greatest genocide known, in terms of the proportion of the population killed, was by Genghis Khan, who wiped out 90% of the population of Persia, and 50% of the populations of China, Russia and Hungary. And he did it without advanced technology such as nuclear weapons. Just the opposite, the fact that we could easily wipe out everyone on earth with modern technology, and haven't, shows just how peaceful we've become. If we were still as violent as we used to be, you would have long ago been vaporized rather than reading these words.

They cite how bombing people from the air and using remote-controlled weapons makes it psychologically easier to kill people, and how video games and action movies desensitize people to violence. But people had no trouble at all being violent in past centuries, whereas modern technology turns most people into contented couch potatoes, and that more than makes up for the effects they cite.

They cite all the bad uses that technology has been put to, such as in warfare, and destroying the environment, and automating away workers' jobs. But technology is by itself neutral. It depends on what uses it is put to. Notice that all of these bad uses are caused by conservatism. Conservatives are the ones who are nationalistic, paranoid about foreigners and want to defend their "tribes", now nations, against all the other "tribes". Conservatives want corporations to make profits at any cost to the general welfare, such as destroying the environment. Conservatives want policies that enable only the rich to benefit from the increasing amount of stuff and leisure that comes from automation, instead of spreading the benefits to everyone. But such anti-technology leftists somehow get confused and blame technology rather than conservatism. Just the opposite of what they think, eliminating technology would bring us back to that past barbaric world, whereas advancing technology in conjunction with the leftism they advocate would bring us to the sort of gentle world they want. Technology could improve our lives much faster, but population increase undoes much of the improvement, and here again, conservatism is to blame. It is religious conservatives who push for "family values", which include encouraging and forcing women to have as many babies as possible.

I think the ultimate reason that such anti-technology leftists convince themselves of the upside-down lie that people are inherently good, and were so before technology supposedly made us increasingly violent, is because socialism has the problem of how people will have enough incentive to do the necessary work under socialism, despite everyone being paid more equally. Since they are anti-technology, they do not believe in solving the problem by automating away the work, so they can only insist instead that people are inherently good and will do the work voluntarily.

Technological improvement has been the only thing that has improved morality. We couldn't end slavery until we invented machines that took over the work that the slaves had done. Until we didn't have to worry where our next meal was coming from, we didn't have to luxury of worrying about the welfare of animals, much less humans. The moral zeitgeist didn't improve noticeably in the first 1800 years of Christianity, or from any other religion, only started improving after technology started advancing rapidly at the start of the Industrial Revolution, around the late 1700s. Even today, the most morally backward regions are the ones that are the most religious, such as the Bible Belt and the Middle East. Most Christians today want to forget the fact that while small groups of Christians were anti-slavery before the Civil War, the vast majority were pro-slavery, and the most pious people tended to be the most pro-slavery. That continues today, for the Bible Belt contains the most reactionary people who favor an economic system little different than slavery. The most religious countries, such as the United States, have the lowest social indicators, such as crime, divorce and poverty, and the Bible Belt has the lowest social indicators within the United States. And the highly-religious Middle East and backward regions of Africa are where the most mayhem in the world occurs.

Since technology depends on science, and since religion tends to stifle science, that means that, ironically, religion slows down moral progress, the exact opposite of what religious people claim. Just imagine where we would be now if ignorant Christian mobs hadn't burned down the Library of Alexandria, destroying most of the knowledge of the ancient world that had been painstakingly built up over centuries, and if Christianity hadn't imposed ignorance upon Europe during the Middle Ages. Christianity set back technological progress, and therefore moral progress, by 1500 years. If it hadn't, we would now have had the level of technology from the year 3500, whatever that will be. Ironically, when a major thing that drives people to religion is the fear of their own mortality, and the false hope of an afterlife that religion provides, we surely would have found a cure for the aging process by now, a REAL solution to the problem rather than that fictitious one.

So the improving moral zeitgeist is one of the best arguments against religion, and I expected Richard Dawkins to use it in "The God Delusion". Instead, to my bafflement and disappointment, after talking about how the moral zeitgeist has improved in the past 2 centuries, Dawkins then said that he has no idea why it improved! He blew a golden opportunity to present that argument.

In the future, I hope that science and technology continue to advance and increase the happiness and eliminate the suffering of all conscious beings. I want to see a cure for the disease of aging. Now that slavery has largely ended, I want to see automation bring about the end of wage slavery, so that people are not forced to spend their lives doing something they don't want to be doing. I want to see meat grown in vats so that we don't have to raise animals in order to kill and eat them, or hunt them. Environmentalists want to preserve the environment, but the natural world is a horrific place filled with suffering. I want to see the whole earth turned into a giant park, carefully managed by armies of robots, where lions do not kill antelopes, but chase realistic antelope robots to keep from getting bored, while antelopes live their lives peacefully. Where all mosquitos on earth have been driven to extinction by hordes of tiny flying robots, or some other technology. Where technology maintains this world park the way we maintain a garden, rather than from the horrific processes that maintain the ecological balance. None of that will happen until enough people wake up from the delusion of religion (and related delusions such as the work ethic), and such a world will wake up the rest.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Evolution Right Before My Eyes

I went diving today, and saw an amazing creature I'd never heard of before, called a guitarfish. Here is a picture of one, taken from wikipedia:

As you can see, it's like the missing link between sharks and rays, except it isn't missing. It looks like a shark that's starting to evolve into a ray. The back end looks like a shark, but the front end is somewhat flattened and spread out like a ray, but not as much as a ray. It swims along the bottom like a stingray. Like sharks and rays, it is a cartilaginous fish, which has cartilage instead of bones. For comparison, here are pictures of a shark (also from wikipedia), a guitarfish and a stingray (my picture).

(People get so many misconceptions about evolution, I should point out that it's not like one is currently evolving into the other. The initial cartilaginous fish was probably more shark-like rather than flattened, and the flattened shape evolved out of that. An intermediate form didn't go extinct, but survives today as guitarfish. There are even some skates (a type of ray) with tails intermediate in form between guitarfish and stingrays.

I should also point out that the reason this creature seems amazing to me is because I hadn't known of it before. If I'd never known about salamanders, I would have found them equally amazing, the link between fish and lizards. "They start out like a fish, and end up like a lizard -- wow!", I would have said.)

I'd love to take a religious fundamentalist and drag them down to the bottom to show a guitarfish to them. Preferably without them having any scuba gear on. So they would drown. Because I know they wouldn't change their mind no matter what I showed them, and it would be easier than strangling them. :-)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

There are no Christians, only Meta-Bibleists

No Christians actually follow Jesus. In fact, nobody even follows what the Bible "actually" says, since it doesn't actually have any specific, coherent, and determinable doctrine that can be unambiguously derived from it. My purpose here will be to elaborate on this contention, and to maintain that there are no real Christians; in fact, the whole concept of "real" Christians is utter nonsense. There are only people who worship and follow what they think the Bible says: Meta-Bibleists.

Nobody knows for sure whether or not Jesus Christ existed as an historical figure. While it is certainly possible there was someone upon which the mantle of the magic Jesus of the Bible was placed, the fact remains that little, if anything, of this person is known, and it is not completely out of the question that Jesus was, in his entirety, a manufactured myth.

None of us have any records whatsoever of his actual birth, or his death. The whereabouts of his body are unknown, and the only way we know about are from copies of collections of his sayings and stories about his life compiled by mostly unknown people who may have known some of his direct followers, along with a few mentions of what his followers believed about him in dubious histories that are likely to have had fraudulent insertions added to them by his followers. In other words, we have no direct historical evidence of his existence, only evidence that there are people who claimed he existed.

The Bible has gone through dozens of translations. We have no original copies of any of the original texts. Much of the Bible may not even be original texts – some of Paul’s letters are probably fraudulent insertions, and some of the synoptic gospels are likely composites of an original source text. Much the same is true of the Old Testament.

Furthermore, barely a third of the bible books we do have were included in the “official” canon, which sought to distill which books went together best according to internal consistency and according to their own beliefs (maybe it had something to do with their political agenda, that’s not relevant. The point is, it was regular, mortal, unguided-by-god people making these decisions, unless Christians want to continue to insert the heavy and direct hand of God in every process of the Bible’s formation. Perhaps God inspired the translators, too?), and, out of all of these, what percentage of Jesus’s actual teachings and recordings were written down, even if he did exist? Practically none, no doubt. We actually don’t have much in the way of information or teaching from Jesus at all. An embarrassingly small amount, in fact, and much of it is ambiguous, confusing, and even contradictory, as are the stories about his life. It is, at this point, next to impossible for us to untangle the truth about who the real Jesus was.

All we have to go by is the Bible, and, in fact, Christians simply use the Bible as their Truth, their guidebook for what’s right and wrong…sort of. Most of the Bible isn’t even about Jesus. You have vast portions of writings by Paul, Revelation, the Old Testament, various letters and stories that are outside of the Gospels, and so on. It is from this plethora of texts that Christians derive their doctrines, but, more to the point, only indirectly. Christians do not, as a whole, give a direct and literal reading of the Bible, and follow its teachings. Instead, they rely on interpretations, often ones they did not derive themselves, and on dubious and varied translations, on the preachings of pastors and ministers, who derive their “Christian” views from a synthesis of exegetical treatises and the accumulated ruminations of various Christian thinkers over the centuries.

One could also floor the argument that the specific doctrines of Christians have consistently morphed to suit the zeitgeist of the times, and are really just deformed reflections of local ethics derived extra-Biblically. The constant revisions and updates to “core” Christian beliefs are so dramatically different today than they were even 200 years ago, much less 1500 years ago, that the religions would be as unrecognizable as the same one to each other as English would be today to someone centuries ago. They are no longer the same religion. If the Bible is so malleable that we can still be convinced that our beliefs are derived from it even when the beliefs of different people in different times were also supposedly derived from it but which are completely different, then really what we have is a book that can mean next to anything, to anyone, and all that leaves us with is a book that really means nothing; it is simply amorphous enough to suit anyone’s needs and confirm anyone’s prior inclinations about what principles we ought to hold.

It is from this last fact that I argue that, not only do modern “Christians” not actually follow Jesus, since they don’t know what his actual teachings were and must rely entirely on the Bible, but the “truth” of the Bible is so ephemeral, so plastic, that nobody even knows what the Bible means. It has been said, not without justification, that the Bible doesn’t say much mean what you say it does, but it says you mean. In other words, it is not that you read something in the Bible, believe it to be true, and then go out and practice that, but that you believe something to be true, find a way for the Bible to confirm this, and then go out and practice what you wanted to anyway. Susan B. Anthony recognized this when she said,

“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
-- Susan B Anthony.

The point has been elsewhere, but it’s a rather powerful point against Christians: they do not derive their ethics from the Bible. Their ethics are derived from society, and then imposed on the Bible. Thus, not only do Christians not follow Jesus directly, they do not even follow him indirectly through the teachings he actually approves of in the Bible. What they actually follow is a menagerie of mismatched interpretations pooled from a variety of sources than foisted upon the Bible. They are Meta-Bibleists.

Christians may respond to this dismissively, saying, “I don’t follow the Bible! I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ himself, and it is the guidance and wisdom I receive through prayer, by directly communing with him that I derive the truth from.”

But isn’t it interesting that for each individual Christian, the Jesus they have a relationship with always shares the exact same interpretation of the Bible that they do? I’ve never once met a Christian who said, “I was convinced the Bible told me so and so, but when I spoke with Jesus about it, he said no, the Bible was wrong or my understanding of it was wrong, and instead to do something else”. No. Jesus ALWAYS says EXACTLY what they think the Bible says. Every single time; which is odd, since there are thousands of interpretations of the Bible between different Christians, all of whom insist Jesus directly informs them in their personal judgments concerning what it means. They cannot all be correct. In fact, most of them must be wrong. And what criteria do they attempt to use? Their interpretations of the Bible! What this all comes down is, in reality, they just follow whatever the particular views of the Bible they’ve been convinced Jesus approves of and, when they pray or ask Jesus for guidance, they are really just asking themselves, and, of course, they virtually always confirm their own beliefs, since the “Jesus” they have a relationship with is their own damn psyche.

Suppose this is not true. Suppose some really are communicating with Jesus. Which ones are, and which aren’t? And how can we tell? Throw the possibility that Satan is contacting individuals and convincing them he’s Jesus into the mix, or that Jesus was Satan to begin with, not to mention that they cannot provide any evidence whatsoever that any sort of communication is going on, and never mind that their claims are mutually exclusive and thus it’s logically impossible that any more than a fraction of them are actually communicating with Jesus. No, the personal relationship bid does not help the Christian; it only mires them in even more problems, problems from which they can never hope to escape because they can never provide any plausible evidence that could convince any reasonable person that they have a relationship with Jesus, nor do they really have any justification for believing so themselves.

Christians cannot escape this problem. In fact, Christian is really a bogus term entirely, since none of them actually follow Christ. They follow this or that metainterpretation of the Bible. There are no Christians, just meta-Bibleists.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

There are ONLY atheists in foxholes

(I don't plan to write much about this, but I'd like to get the meme out there that "there are ONLY atheists in foxholes". So if, after reading what I've written, you agree with what I've said, then please make sure to use it as a counter response any time you hear someone making the tired claim that there are no atheists in foxholes.)

I'm sure by this point that a lot of those involved with the new atheist movement are all too familiar with the phrase "there are no atheists in foxholes", the reasoning behind which is that no one in a desperate situation can possibly disbelieve in a god. - I couldn't disagree more though. I would argue that it's during those desperate times that everyone has doubt., that when one finds themselves in a "foxhole", so to speak, that it's actually a difficult task to continue believing in a god.

Let's explore the idea of a soldier literally in a foxhole. What would be going through a soldier's head in that situation? Would such a soldier be relaxed, confident that his god will shield him from all oncoming bullets and shrapnel? Or would he be overjoyed at the prospect of getting to go to heaven? - I've never been in a foxhole, but something tells me that that's not what they're like. I'd imagine that men who find themselves in foxholes are anything but relaxed or overjoyed. And indeed, that's the very idea behind the original saying that everyone in a foxhole suddenly finds themselves believing in a god.

So some of these soldiers might start to pray, but does that really mean that they're believing in a higher power at that moment? Or does it mean that they're just desperate? Someone who's grown up believing in a god, but suddenly finds themselves in a situation where they don't quite feel so protected, might start praying just because they think it's what they're supposed to do (or in some situations, because there's no other recourse of action), but that doesn't mean that there's any actually believing taking place. And as I mentioned earlier, the behavior of someone in such a situation would indicate that they would indeed be having a lot of trouble believing their own bullshit.

So it's not a shortage of atheists that we should expect to find in the trenches, but rather of theists. If one day someone can show me some evidence of a soldier in a foxhole who feels completely safe and/or excited about getting to go to heaven, then maybe i'll change my tune, but until then, I maintain that there are only atheists in foxholes.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Bible's Pro-Slavery! -- It's a Fact! -- Deal With it!

(A rebuttal to the essay Defending the Bible’s Position on Slavery)

Anyone who feels that the bible should be held in a high regard must eventually come to a difficult decision in regards to the bible's stance on slavery; either the bible is wrong and should not be followed (at least in this one respect), or there's nothing immoral about slavery (at least, the types of slavery condoned by the bible) because the bible says so. Since it's undeniable that the bible promotes slavery, these are really the only two possibilities. Many Christians, perhaps not surprisingly, will go to great lengths to avoid addressing this dilemma as to keep from committing to one side or the other, but it might come as a surprise to you to learn that buried deep within all its meandering, this essay does actually end up committing to a side. And if you think for a nanosecond that it ends up coming to the conclusion that the bible is in error about something, then you must not know sleazy Christian apologists very well. As awful as it is, the conclusion reached by this article is that the slavery in the bible is OK, and that the bible has done a good thing by giving instructions on how such slavery should be carried out. If you don't believe me, then scroll down and read the part labeled "conclusion" (paragraph 90), in which the essay says:

"The fact is, certain types of “slavery” not only are permissible, but sometimes necessary to the well-being of a society at large."

This sentence is of course accompanied by sentences that follow it in an attempt to justify it; sentences that I'm sure apologetic Christians would be quick to call me out on for not including, insisting that my leaving them out has resulted in the quote being taken out of context. So let me just go ahead and post the rest of the paragraph:

"...For the biblical stance on slavery to be condemned as unjust, it must be established that the specific regulations of slavery described in the text are immoral and unfair. However, when closely scrutinized, the biblical stance on slavery aligns itself with true justice. All regulations found therein were established for the just treatment of all parties involved. Many times, slavery as regulated in the Old Testament was a mutually beneficial relationship between servant and master, similar to an employee/employer relationship. Furthermore, slavery often was a substitute for the death penalty—which certain nations deserved. Debt accumulation caused many free persons to sell their labor and become slaves."

And now allow me to explore the justifications for such a conclusion and demonstrate how weak they are.

It isn't until paragraphs 11 and 12 that this conclusion that slavery is sometimes a good thing begins to rear its perplexing head.

"And, they [those who attack the bible] argue, since all slavery is morally wrong, the Bible must not be the product of a loving God. However, those who take such a position fail to consider that certain types of slavery are not morally wrong."

You're not hallucinating. This essay is trying to make the point that some types of slavery are morally acceptable. It goes on to elaborate upon this by saying that imprisonment and peonage (forcing people to work in order to pay off debt) are "technically" forms of slavery and that if they're OK, then it must be that not all slavery is bad. Without dwelling on the points however that imprisonment is NOT a type of slavery but in fact something entirely different and that many people would object to peonage as even being moral, there's a much bigger problem that the author of this essay faces, which is that EVEN IF such practices are morally acceptable, that doesn't mean that the types of slavery specifically promoted in the bible qualify as imprisonment, peonage, or any other type of "morally acceptable slavery". And a quick glance at a passage like Leviticus 25:44-46 proves that the bible is talking about something much different; namely, one man having the right to own another man (or woman or child) based on race or nationality.

"44 Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly."

Feel free to look up the surrounding quotes to see if they add some sort of missing context that could possibly make sense of such a barbaric mentality (I assure you, they don't). Then feel free to light your bible on fire and throw it in the toilet, because only a lunatic could deny how immoral this passage is. And the fact of the matter is, regardless of how necessary it is that we have ways to imprison criminals and deal with debt, the verses above have nothing to do with either of those. Rather, it's straight up race-based (or at best, nation-based) slavery.

So what does the essay mention about this sort of slavery, which is so prevalent throughout the bible? Well, as it happens, the essay does in fact address this verse (in paragraph 18), but only briefly, by saying "We must keep in mind that on occasion it was an alternative to the massacre of enemy populations in wartime and the starvation of the poor during famine".

Does this cut it for you though? Do you agree that it's OK to enslave people from other countries as long as they were going to be massacred or starve to death anyway? That doesn't really do it for me, and I can only imagine that you're left every bit as dissatisfied and sickened as I am. These are the depths though that Christian apologists must sink to in order to give the illusion that the bible's not so bad.

An especially aggravating conclusion reached by this sort of faulty logic can be found in paragraph 40:

"What about the children of those wicked men and women? Must they become slaves as well, suffering for their parents’ evil actions? First, let us acknowledge that, even today, children often suffer because of their parents’ poor decisions. Consider the sad and pitiful plight of a child whose father is an alcoholic or child abuser. That child will suffer physically, emotionally, and financially. Even in modern times, the children who are born in poverty or cruelty often remain slaves of those elements their entire lives."

The author is arguing that because some children are born to alcoholics or poor families, that that makes it OK to enslave children. That's what the above translates to. It is every bit a logically flawed as maintaining that some children are born handicapped, therefore it's OK for doctors to sever other children's spinal cords. -- I have trouble believing that anyone reading the essay could be taken in by such bad logic, which is why I think the author held off until paragraph 40 to say something so stupid, because he knew that hardly anyone would still be reading his indirect, meandering essay by that point.

It actually gets worse from there though. The paragraph goes on to say:

"Would it be better for that child to grow up in a country where the slave laws protected him or her, or would it be better for the child to have to “pass through the fire to Molech”?" (The phrase "pass through the fire of Molech" is a reference to human sacrifice.)


"When nations were conquered by the Israelites, what was to happen to the nations’ children who remained alive? They could be left to die on their own, or they could be given homes, food, and jobs. Which of the two options is more humane?"

Again, how could anyone's logic be this flawed? The author is arguing that it's OK to enslave children from nations that have been destroyed because enslaving them is better than allowing them to die on their own or be sacrificed. Has it seriously not occurred to him that it would be an even BETTER option for the Israelites just to take care of them, and not put them to work? I'm sure it did occur to him, but he's not in the business of offering good ideas, but rather, in the business of doing whatever he can to make his client (the bible) not look like a bad guy. This is what's so wrong with apologetics. It's essentially no better than twisting the facts in a court case to keep a murderer out of jail.

In addition to making light of enslaving children on the grounds that it's not as bad as sacrificing children, the author seems to also think it's OK to compare the bible to other ancient religions and point out that since those are worse, that the bible is good. An example of this can be seen in paragraph 65:

"The text states that the eyes and teeth of slaves should not be knocked out or destroyed. However, the nations around the Israelites did not adhere to any such standards."

and also in paragraph 61, in which the author comments on genesis 21:20-21 ("If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property."), saying that:

"This [genesis 21:20-21] was a protective right granted to slaves that they should not be beaten to death! If that seems like a small blessing to us, let it be remembered that under the system in vogue all over the pagan world of that era, and extending down even till apostolical times, the Roman Law, in force all over the world, provided as a penalty against slaves, even for trivial and unintentional violations, that shame of the whole pagan world “flagellis ad mortem” (beaten to death), a penalty usually inflicted in the presence of all the other slaves of a master."

If the wording is confusing, allow me to translate. The author is saying that because other nations and religions of the time punished their slaves by beating them to death and removing their eyes or teeth, that the bible is progressive for the time. And that may be true. Be that as it may though, it's not progressive enough to indicate that it was dictated by a god and it sure as hell isn't progressive enough to be used in modern day society. If these were really the words of a god, then that god would be less advanced and more barbaric than every single human being that I know.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. This essay's too long for me to be able to reply to every bad point that it makes, but let me attempt to tackle a few.

Paragraph 36
"Add to this the fact that kidnapping a man and selling him as a slave was a crime punishable by death, as noted in Exodus 21:16: “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.” Certainly, any parallel to slavery in early America can be easily refuted."

Part of the bible's charm, and what it no doubt owes a lot of its success to, is that it contradicts itself left and right. This makes it the perfect tool to justify any situation. If a society makes use of slavery, then it can justify its ways with bible quotes. Then, if later, it becomes a society that no longer practices slavery, it can justify its NEW ways with other bible quotes. Indeed, this is exactly what America has done over the past century and a half. And more precise ambiguity further allows it to bend and meet any nuances it needs to. For example, in the verse above, it says that he who kidnaps and sells a man will be put to death, but such a verse could easily be countered by a slave owner who doesn't recognize blacks or other races as actually being "men". And this is another major problem with the bible, that it's very unclear and easy to interpret in different ways. That's bad in and of itself. If a god really did dictate the bible, he didn't do a very good job at making it clear.

(To add a side note: After I first wrote this critique, it was pointed out to me that this verse doesn't actually contradict the other pro-slavery verses and is itself very pro-slavery. It's not against owning human beings, but simply against stealing human beings (who already belong to someone else). Since the bible treats slaves as property, it's not surprising that there would be laws against theft of that property.)

Paragraph 87
"Jesus and the apostles didn’t go on an anti-slavery crusade, because doing so would have been futile and a hindrance to their primary mission. The priority of Jesus was the provision of salvation. For the apostles it was the proclamation of the gospel. But both Jesus and the apostles undermined the basis for slavery by making it clear that God equally loves rich and poor, free and slave, male and female."

Allowing slaves to join a cult isn't anti-slavery, it's just a good way to help the cult grow. And there's nothing worthwhile about "salvation" because there's no such thing as heaven or hell. So what Jesus wasted his life doing (assuming he even actually existed) wasn't good. It would have been a much better mission for him and his apostles just to have focused on slavery or bettering the world in some other way. And this goes for modern day people to. We have real problems in our country and on the rest of the planet, and "spreading salvation" doesn't actually help anything.

Paragraph 13
"Who has the right to determine when slavery can be imposed on a certain person or group of people? The answer, of course, is God."

It's dangerous any time there's a person who thinks they're allowed to do anything as long as a voice in their head tells them it's OK, and it's easy to see how such logic has probably led to all sorts of bad things throughout history, but a more important I want to make is that morality is bigger than any god that might potentially exists. Slavery is immoral. End of story. If there's a god who says slavery is OK, then that doesn't actually mean that slavery is moral because the god says so, rather, it simply means that a god who says that is wrong. We need to get away from this idea that morals are dependent upon the whims of a god, and begin to wake up to the fact that morals are not negotiable. And I think that anybody who maintains that morals can be reduced to whatever a god dictates should be recognized as morally imbalanced.

As a final point, I'd like to explore the idea that just because a god instructs a slave owner on how to beat his slaves, that that doesn't mean that he necessarily condones it. This is of course utter bullshit, but the author tries to make this point in paragraph 84, attempting to distract from the issue of slavery with other less extreme examples:

"Furthermore, it is a false notion that God condones something just because He mentions it without an immediate condemnation of it in the surrounding verses. Skeptics point to verses like 1 Peter 2:8 and Ephesians 6:5, and then insist that God condones abusive slavery because He instructs servants to be obedient to their masters. But, let us analyze that line of thinking. In Matthew 5:39, Christ instructed His listeners: “Do not resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Because Jesus told His listeners to be kind and turn the other cheek, does that mean that He condones the actions of the one who did the slapping? Absolutely not! Or what about the fact that Paul, through divine inspiration, instructed his readers to be subject to civil governments and to pay taxes to those governments. Was Paul condoning all practices of all governments to whom his readers would be subject and pay taxes? Certainly not. God never has condoned such unjustified behavior on the part of any individual or group."

Should Jesus have instructed his listeners to be nice to evil people? And should Paul have instructed his readers to pay taxes to such governments? I can't really say, because I don't know enough of the details, but I DO know that it is immoral in itself to instruct someone to go along with immorality and that the only question we should be concerning ourselves with here is "should god be instructing people on how to beat their slaves?" (the answer to which is of course "No!").

To put this logic in perspective, imagine for a moment if god, or Jesus, or Paul had told the citizens of Nazi Germany not to protect or hide Jews and to go along with whatever the Nazi laws said. Would this be acceptable? Would that really be the sort of thing that it would be OK for a god to instruct citizens to go along with? I don't think so, and I'm sure you don't either. Similarly, it is unacceptable for a god to condone, promote, or give instructions in regard to slavery.

The bible is disgusting, and we owe it to ourselves to recognize it as such. If you are still on the fence about the moral value of the bible, please go beyond this essay and the rebuttal I've written and check out for yourself what the bible has to say. It is pretty much a guarantee that if the slavery doesn't turn you off, then the misogyny and bigotry will. So, if you haven't already committed yourself to this book like how others have, then it's not too late for you to keep from becoming a cornered apologist burdened with the unfavorable task of trying to pass the foulness of the bible off as insight. Now's your chance. Get out while you can!