Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sacrifice and Opportunity Costs

I am still catching up on questions and comments from the studio audience. Today, I would like to address a pair of comments to a statement that I made in the post called The Bibby Survey: Kindness. There, I wrote:

We would not say that a person who likes eating chocolate ice cream is making some sort of sacrifice when he eats chocolate ice cream. He is doing what he desires to do.

Doug S. wrote in response:

I disagree. The person who eats chocolate ice cream is sacrificing the ability to do something else with the resources (time, money, stomach capacity, etc.) used to eat that ice cream. He sacrifices some desires in order to fulfill others. (An economist would call this the "opportunity cost" of eating chocolate ice cream.)

This is true. However, there is an important difference between ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘sacrifice’. Opportunity costs are bi-directional. The person who gives $1000 to combating malaria in Africa suffers the ‘opportunity cost’ of not being able to spend $1000 on a luxurious long weekend with his wife. At the same time, the person who spends a luxurious long weekend with his wife suffers the ‘opportunity cost’ of not being able to give that $1000 to his favorite cause – fighting malaria in Africa.

Though both actions have an ‘opportunity cost’, it is not the case that we generally call both actions a ‘sacrifice’. It is the concept of ‘sacrifice’ that I was getting to above. The person who truly values fighting malaria in Africa in fact is not ‘sacrificing’ a weekend get-away in order to pursue this interest – not if his fond desire is to fight malaria in Africa, and weekend get-aways are nothing but an expensive waste of money.

The reason we get asymmetry with respect to ‘sacrifice’ that we do not get with ‘opportunity costs’ is primarily because ‘sacrifice’ is a moral concept, and ‘opportunity cost’ is not. The values that we have reason to cause people to pursue we do so in part by heaping praise on those who pursue them, and condemnation on those who do not. The person who makes the ‘noble sacrifice’ is the person who performs an act that we have reason (or think we have reason) to encourage people to do. We use the term as a flag – ‘This act deserves praise’. However, it does not imply that the agent actually cared about the things that he had to give up in order to perform this ‘sacrifice’.

This relates to the rest of Doug S.’s comment:

By the way you seem to be defining "desire" and "sacrifice", no act that a person willingly chooses to perform could ever be considered a sacrifice. Would you say that, say, a firefighter who dies in the line of duty didn't make a sacrifice because he desired the chance to save other lives more than he desired avoiding risk to his own life?

My original claim was intended to point out the fact that, when it comes to eating chocolate ice cream, even though the agent must give up something in order to eat the chocolate ice cream, we (competent English speakers) do not say that this involved some sort of sacrifice. If a person who, instead, gives his money to charity is, like the person who buys a chocolate ice cream, is doing what he wants most, then what sense is to be made of calling the other a sacrifice?

It is not sufficient to hold that we do, in fact, make this distinction. I wish to know the rationale for making it – a description of the difference that actually makes sense.

One rationale that I mentioned above is the moral distinction. We use the term ‘sacrifice’ as a moral flag to identify acts that we have reason (or believe we have reason) to encourage people to make.

However, the psychological distinction between the person who wishes to prevent malaria in Africa more than he wishes to spend a luxurious weekend with his wife is no different than the psychological distinction between the person who wishes to eat chocolate ice cream more than he wishes to eat vanilla ice cream. Any claim that there is a qualitative difference is false.

There are two factors compounding the case of the firefighter mentioned above.

First, the fire-fighter’s actions are those of sacrifice in the moral sense. They are actions that people generally have reason to flag and claim to be worthy of praise. Creating a society with people such as that is a way of securing our own safety and happiness and those of other people we care about – including those that the firefighter cares about.

Second, as Doug mentions the calculation involves risk. According to standard decision theory, the value of an action that involves risk is determined by the possibility of a particular result and the value of the result. A firefighter who risks his life in a situation where there is a 1% chance of death may not be willing to do so if the chance of death is 100%. So, if he gambles and loses, he has, in fact, thwarted the most and strongest of his own desires. We are talking here about a genuine gamble, and a genuine loss.

Both of these justify a use of the word ‘sacrifice’ without refuting the point that I was trying to make in my post. A person who chooses to be a firefighter, and who even chooses to go on a suicide mission (where the chance of death is 100%) is morally, though not psychologically, acting any different than the person who chooses chocolate over vanilla ice cream.

This leads to another comment to the same post that Eneasz made:

I understand how being generous when it is a strong desire of yours that you are fulfilling is self-rewarding, and thus definitionally not a sacrifice. However, money is what our society values above almost anything else. No matter how fulfilling such acts might be, they still feel like a sacrifice to the actor regardless, due to the lost income and corresponding social status.

To the degree that a person values social status over charity then, to that degree, giving up money to fight malaria in Africa would, in fact, feel like a sacrifice, even under the system that I described. This is a person who is facing two strong but mutually conflicting desires. One of them must give way to the other. Since both desires are strong, the desire left unfulfilled (if the agent believes it has gone unfulfilled) can be expected to generate feelings of frustration and regret. That is to say, this will qualify as a sacrifice in the psychological sense.

However, it is still the case that the person who does not value influence (or some other state that is in conflict with contributing to the fight against malaria in Africa will not feel this regret. This is the person who feely chooses charity over other options and would do so regardless of the other options that become available.

We are a culture that teaches people to value social status more than the eradication of disease. For that reason, those who contribute more to the fighting of disease cannot only be said to be making a sacrifice in the moral sense. They are also more likely to also be making a sacrifice in the psychological sense – because we, as a society, make it psychologically difficult for people to pursue those types of ends.

One of the ways of promoting generosity, I would argue, is to point out that the person who learns generosity without these conflicting desires will not suffer any of this anguish over his choices. He can, in fact, choose generosity as freely and with the same immunity from conflict as the person who chooses chocolate ice cream over vanilla. That is a good position to be in.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Interpreting "The Hateful Craig Problem"

I am continuing to respond to questions from the studio audience. Of these, one set of questions comes from a reader responding to a much earlier post, The Hateful Craig Problem. That post, in turn, was concerned with an audience question from Craig who asked, “If we assume that I hate everybody, what reason is there for me to fulfill the desires of others?”

This question comes from somebody asking me to clarify my answer. The reader provides some interpretations of what I had written, then asks me to comment on whether that interpretation is correct or incorrect.

1) An atheist has no metaphysical reason to respect anyone else's desires.

Actually, my post does not make any claims about atheism. Atheists cannot even agree on the definition of the term ‘atheist’, so I would not pretend to make any claim that is true of all atheists in general. As I use the term, an atheist is any person who believes that the proposition, “At least one god exists” is almost certainly false. However, this is compatible with a lot of other beliefs, including (but not limited to) those that I defend in my post.

I have placed my views under the name ‘desire utilitarianism’. Insofar as you are asking about that particular moral theory then you are asking me about desire utilitarianism, not atheism.

Desire utilitarianism is, of course, compatible with atheism. However, it is possible for somebody to believe that a god exists and that this god created the universe and still be a desire utilitarianism. This would simply be a person that believes that god created a universe in which the propositions that make up desire utilitarianism are true.

I hold that the propositions that make up desire utilitarianism are true. I am also an atheist. However, there is no necessary connection between these two. Their relationship is the same as the relationship between the fact that I am male, and the fact that I am over 6 feet tall. A person can be more than 6 feet tall and not be male. A person can be male without being over 6 feet tall. A person can e a desire utilitarian and not be an atheist. A person can be an atheist and not be a desire utilitarian. I happen to be both.

Next, I’m afraid that I do not fully know what you want to say when you use the term ‘metaphysical’ here.

Some people use the term to mean ‘supernatural’. On this, it is true that I do not believe that there are any supernatural reasons to do anything. I believe in only natural reasons for action. However, natural reasons for action (desires) do exist. It is a mistake to say that, because a person does not believe in supernatural reasons for action that he must believe there are no reasons for action. It is as much of a mistake as claiming that because somebody believes there is no supernatural original to human beings that he denies the existence of human beings.

Some people use the term ‘metaphysics’ to refer to the study of existence, also known as ‘ontology’. On this measure, many of the reasons for action that theists point to in advising others how to live their lives lack a metaphysical basis. This is simply another way of saying that many of the reasons for action that these theists assert in recommending certain actions are reasons for action that do not exist.

God’s creators were human, as corruptible, arrogant, and prone to error as any other human. They claimed to have perfect knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. In fact, they merely had their own opinions. Unfortunately, they were able to convince far too many people to accept their ignorant, biased, and corrupt opinions under a set of conditions that prohibited people from questioning those opinions.

As such, the opinions of a group of substantially ignorant and illiterate tribesmen become carved in stone to plague humanity for millennia.

It is also worth noting that few (if any) religions actually preach a respect for the desires of others. Instead, they teach a respect for the desires of only one entity, that entity being god. Of course, this god is an invention – a human creation, endowed with the desires of those who created it. So, while the religion says, “Thou shalt consider no desires but the desires of God,” in practice this is really nothing more than, “Thou shalt consider no desires but the desires of those who created God.”

2) For atheists, then, the coercive power of the state and social approbation determine what is "right" and "wrong".

The above statement about ‘atheists’ applies here as well.

Atheism has the same relationship to morality as heliocentrism (the view that the sun is at the center of the solar system) does. Heliocentrism does not imply anything about how we should live our lives – other than to say that a sound moral argument places the sun at the center of the solar system. Atheism does not say anything about how we should live our lives. It only says that sound moral arguments do not accept the proposition that a god exists is true.

Within desire utilitarianism, coercive power of the state and social approbation do not determine right and wrong. The relationship between malleable desires and other desires determines right and wrong. The coercive power of the state and social approbation are tools that can then be used to promote that which is right and inhibit that which is wrong. However, like all tools, they can also be misused.

A right act is, on this theory, the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is an act that a person with good desires would not perform. Good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Thus, good desires are malleable desires that others have reason to promote, and the tools that they would use to promote them are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. We discover these relationships between desires (as well as the degree to which they are malleable) the same way we discover other natural facts – by observation, by forming theories, and by testing those theories.

3) Things like wanting "people to have...a love for the truth and a dislike for deception and for careless reasoning" are not hard-wired into us and the world, but are social goods determined by society's thought leaders.

Actually, desire utilitarianism is not only compatible with the view that some desires are hard-wired into us through evolution, I hold that some desires are, in fact, hard wired into us through evolution. Other desires can be molded through social forces, but only within a prescribed range, and only in certain ways.

The fact that these desires are hard-wired does not make them good desires. That still depends on the relationship between those desires and other desires. Instead, this distinction defines the difference between whether a person is ‘sick’ on the one hand (has bad desires outside the influence of social forces) or ‘evil’ on the other (has desires that are within the realm that can be controlled through social forces).

In other words, hard-wired desires lie outside of the realm of morality. Morality is only concerned with soft-wired desires; desires that we can mold through social forces.

Though leaders do not have the power to determine what these relationships are. They have the power to influence what people believe to be the case about these relationships. They also have the power to influence whether people believe that other types of reasons for action exist and what they are. However, in both of these cases, there is a fact of the matter that might be quite different from what the thought leader claims those facts to be.

4) In a theoretical situation where a person lives beyond the influence of the state and social pressures, like Josef Stalin, there is no reason for that person to love truth or respect the desires of others.

Here, we need to distinguish between reasons that exist, and reasons that a particular person has.

The distinction here is the same distinction between the furniture that exists, and the furniture that a particular person has. A particular person has only a small subset of all of the furniture (reasons for action) that exists. However, the fact that a person does not have a particular piece of furniture (reason for action) does not imply that it does not exist.

Stalin, in this case, may not have a reason to love truth and respect the desires of others. However, there is a whole population full of reasons that exist for him to love truth and respect the desires of others.

In fact, this gap between what Stalin had reason to do, and what there existed reason for Stalin to do, is the gap that defines Stalin as evil. A good person has desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. In other words, a good person has reasons to do those things that there exists reason for that person to do. An evil person has reasons to do things that thwart the desires of others. In other words, he has reason to do things that people generally have reason to make it the case he not have reason to do.

That is the nature of Stalin’s evil. To call Stalin evil is to say that he had characteristics that people generally have reason to condemn. They have reason to organize their society to make it far less likely that somebody such as Stalin would even come into existence and, where such people do come into existence, that they remain impotent (preferably behind bars) rather than to have them given the reins of power. These reasons that exist do not need a god. They reside in all of the suffering and death that the victims of such a person have reason to avoid.

5) Further, should the State be run by genocidal maniacs, like Stalin's cadre, and the people thus be frightened and coerced by that State such that they are unlikely to enforce social pressures consistently, then there's little reason for any particular individual to act in a way respecting the rights of others, love truth, or be proactively compassionate.

If the state should be run by genocidal maniacs, then the fact that the people do not have the power to resist does not change the fact that they have reason to condemn such people and to organize society in such a way that they never gain power. Indeed, when such people gain power, it represents a moral failing on the part of the whole population – on the part of the leaders who get the power, and on the part of the people who did not arrange their society to prevent it from happening.

Desire utilitarianism is quite comfortable with the idea that, where a society descends into immorality, that the people suffer. I do deny that homosexual acts or allowing early-term abortion represents immorality. Instead, the type of immorality that a society is best warned not to descend into is a society that condones torture, unwarranted searches and seizures, arrest without charges, imprisonment without a trial, wars of aggression waged under false pretenses, and a unification of power in a single branch of government where a single body obtains the power to be judge, jury, and executioner of all who act contrary to his wishes.

As it turns out, the biggest supporters of this descent into immorality over the past six years – the biggest supporters of these very policies and powers that a man like Stalin would love to get his hands on, have been the religious right.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Birth Control Pills to Middle School Students

I have received two requests to discuss the issue of a middle school in Maine that has decided to make birth control pills available to students – ranging from ages 11 to 14. One of the two requests threw in the additional claim of “without parental notification”.

The Prima Facie Wrong of Withholding Information

I have written on the subject of parental notification previously in a post Parental Notification. Briefly, I hold that any activity involving a minor that contains the proposition, “Let’s not tell your parents about this. This is our little secret,” is a prima facie wrong. In order for a parent to raise a child, the parent needs information. People who act out of ignorance seldom act wisely. Withholding information from parents makes that job much more difficult.

There is a legitimate concern that the possibility of parental notification may cause a minor to refuse to seek out help when he or she needs it. Instead, they will try to deal with the issue on their own, and hope for the best. Being young, they may not make the wisest decision. Concern for the welfare of the minor, then, would speak for allowing them to seek help without parental notification – the idea being that help without parental notification is better than no help at all.

Here, I am not talking about the case where the parent finds out and then beats the minor. If there is any evidence that a parent has this disposition, then the minor should be removed from that household, not left there while we deal with her issues in secret. I am talking about the minor who is simply too embarrassed to deal with her parents on certain issues – sex naturally being one of those issues.


Ultimately, any policy that we consider should put the welfare of the children first. In putting the welfare of the children first, it is unwise to rely on the superstitious of a bunch of first century tribesmen. Instead, we have a useful tool that will allow us to determine intelligently and rationally which policy best promotes and protects the welfare of the children – the scientific method.

To use this method, we need to allow different regions to experiment, to some degree, with different policies. We then collect data on the effects of these policies. We use this data to form theories that explain the data that we collect from existing policies, and predict what effects we can expect from any changes to those policies. Policies that do not best protect the welfare of the minors should be thrown out.

Some argue that abstinence is the only safe form of behavior – that it has a 0 percent chance of leading to pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. However, we need a policy that works in the real world, not in some hypothetical world that exists only in the imagination.

The real world is one in which the desire for sex is strongly ingrained. If I estimate that my family tree goes back 100 million generations – back to the time when sex became the sole method of procreation – then the number of ancestors in that family tree is 2x10^100,000,000. This is a huge number. In fact, it is so huge that there must be a great deal of overlap. Some great^nth grandparent shows up on several different branches.

However many individuals that happens to be, I can tell you exactly how many of those ancestors died a virgin. That answer is ‘zero’, because I could not be descendent from any individual who did not have sex.

Given that track record, I suspect that any demand that minors today abstain from sex is merely wishful thinking. Short of surgery, mandatory chemical castration, or some other drastic action, minors will engage in sex. It is a remedy that will work on a fantasy land where the minors are not human, and have not had the same evolutionary history our species has had.

This, however, is a hypothesis. It needs to be tested. The best way to test it is to allow people the opportunity to choose different methods to raise children, and to test those methods. If this hypothesis is correct, it predicts that abstinence programs will show themselves to be unrealistic. They will not have much of an effect in reducing teenage sexual behavior. They might, however, have a great deal of influence on whether minors who teenagers who have sex do so in a way that protects their health and well-being.


One principle that I have repeated often in this blog is the principle of trusting to experts to decide issues. A reader would be unwise to come to me and ask my opinion as to whether a particular bridge design is structurally sound. My advice would be to consult somebody whose job it is to build bridges and to ask them.

I am going to give the same advice here. I have suggested some theoretical guidelines above. However, the smart (and morally responsible) thing to do is to ask experts on the issue of childhood health – people who have had time to study the research in detail. They have a far richer opportunity than I do to examine the evidence, form theories, and learn what options best promote the future safety and happiness of the largest number of teenagers.

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommend informative sex education that includes information about birth control. The research shows that teenagers are no more likely to have sex when they have this information, but that those who do are at less risk of pregnancy and disease that puts their future (and the future of others) at risk.

According to the best available evidence, other options put more children at risk. This means that whatever might motivate people to promote other options, it is not the best interests of the children. Indeed, they are willing to sacrifice the future safety and happiness of some children in order to obtain this other value, whatever it is. This causes me to ask, “What could be so important?”

The will, of course, insist that they do care about minors. They simply dispute the science that says that the health of children is better protected in a system that teaches about birth control and disease prevention.

But why do they believe it? They certainly do not believe it because best available evidence tells them that it is true. The best available evidence tells them that this is false. They have to ignore the best available evidence in order to embrace their conclusion. Yet, somebody who truly cares about the welfare of minors will loathe to throw out the best available evidence – evidence that directly shows, “If you pursue this option, more minors will suffer harm.”

The Maine Case

The points that I have raised above do not speak specifically to making birth control available to younger teens without parental consent. I do not know of any research that addresses that issue specifically. However, that research will determine how I judge the matter. I am not inclined to pull an answer out of the air and declare that it is ‘the right answer’ when I have no way of defending it one way or the other.

Where we are ignorant, that is where we need to collect data. We collect that data by allowing each community to do what they think is best and measure the results, then go with whatever result best protects the health and well-being of minors. There is no more moral option than this.

In the absence of information, the only morally responsible conclusion to draw is, “I don’t know.” To feign certainly in the absence of evidence is arrogant and presumptuous and, worse, in this case, it shows a disregard for the potential young victims of those who pretend to a level of certainty they cannot justify.


So, a prima facie right on the part of parents says that the burden of proof is on those who wish to override this presumption. Without good evidence that minors, on the whole, are better off there is no good reason to deny parents information that is useful in guiding their children. In general, professional pediatricians seem to agree that there is sufficient evidence in favor of sex education in general. However, there is no good information on the specific program of making birth control pills available to middle school students. So the presumption in favor of parental notification remains.

If some community wishes to participate in an experiment to determine the effectiveness of such a program, they should be permitted to do so. However, the experiment should be set up according to the best scientific practices to get useful information. For example, parents agree to participate without foreknowledge as to whether they will belong to the control group or study group, and are assigned randomly. This will help to ensure that the experiment collects the best and most useful information possible.

The reason for participating in such an experiment is that the information will better enable us to design programs that do the best job humanly possible of securing the future safety and well-being of teenagers.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Bibby Survey: Kindness

When I was asked to address Bibby’s survey that allegedly shows that people who believe in God had stronger devotion to certain key values such as generosity and kindness than theists, I saw it as an opportunity to examine a list of key values and assess just how valuable they are.

I did this with patience, which I said is an Aristotelian virtue. It is possible to have both too little (making unreasonable demands on self and others) and too much (allowing oneself to be used by others) patience.

I did this with honesty. I did not dispute the value of honesty. Instead, I asserted that we have a better way to examine how much a group of people value honesty other than by looking at how they respond to a survey. An individual acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. A person who is not acting to promote honesty cannot be said to value honesty. On this matter, the actions of theists suggest that they actually care very little about honesty. Useful dishonesty tends to draw more praise in virtue of being useful, than it draws condemnation in virtue of being dishonest.

The survey also lists a number of other virtues that I see as being so closely related, that the reasons for supporting any one of them are reasons for supporting all of them. These are the virtues of kindness (Theists 88%, Atheists: 75%), Courtesy (Theists 81%, Atheists 71%), Concern for others (Theists 82%, Atheists 63%), Politeness (Theists 77%, Atheists 65%), Friendliness (Theists 79%, Atheists 74%), and Generosity (Theists 67%, Atheists 37%).

One of the things that might be influencing this set of statistics is the fact that the category of ‘Atheists’ who are followers of the late Ayn Rand who argued that selfishness is a virtue. Though this group makes up a small percentage of the overall population, it makes up a large percentage of atheists. This would sufficiently skew the numbers. Bibby, and other agents of injustice who want to use these numbers to condemn all of atheism, are being unfair, unjust bigots to take the qualities of this one subgroup of atheists and branding the whole group in this way.

Desire utilitarian theory puts an extremely high value on all of these traits. Desire utilitarianism holds that a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill the desires of others. All of these traits – kindness, courtesy, generosity, etc., - are things that, those who desire them, tend to fulfill the desires of others.

A truly generous person – a person who likes being generous – sacrifices nothing in being generous.

We would not say that a person who likes eating chocolate ice cream is making some sort of sacrifice when he eats chocolate ice cream. He is doing what he desires to do. The money that he spends in buying chocolate ice cream is money well spent.

Similarly, the person who values being generous is not making any sort of sacrifice when he is being generous. He is doing what he desires to do. The money that he spends is money well spent, because it buys him what he thinks is worth buying – the better well-being of others.

The time and effort that I spend on this blog is time and effort well spent. I could be doing other things in the time that I spent writing this – watching television, playing computer games, etc. – but I see those things as being such a waste. This is truly what I desire to do and, in writing this blog, I am like the chocolate-loving kid eating chocolate ice cream.

We have reason to promote this type of desire in others in our community. After all, like I said, those who are generous, kind, and courteous are not sacrificing anything, they are adding to the quality of the lives of others. When generosity and kindness are done correctly, the agent not only fulfills his desire to be generous and kind, he has also helped to fulfill the desires of those he is generous or kind to.

Cruelty as Kindness

Kindness is a virtue. However, one of the ways that cruel people get their way is by disguising their acts of cruelty as kindness.

For example, when I was young, I was told that marrying somebody of a different race would be an act of cruelty – of child abuse, in fact. A kind person would not enter into a relationship and have a child that would then have to endure the suffering that would be imposed on having a half-breed. Some of these hate-mongering bigots were probably able to convince themselves that they were the model of human kindness because of their concern for these children. However, if they truly cared about the welfare of others, they would be devoting their time to fighting this bigotry, rather than promoting it.

Hitler packaged much of his euthanasia program as a kindness to the people he killed. This means that one of the ways that a person can get what they want is by packing

Another example concerns the burning of witches and other infidels alive at the stake during the Middle Ages. In order to give this most barbaric act a veneer of kindness, they claimed that the flames ‘purified’ the individual and gave him or her a chance to enter heaven.

The remarks that some Christians make concerning homosexual relationships are very much like the remarks I heard regarding interracial relationships. They express their hatred and bigotry in the form of a false ‘concern for others’. They like to portray themselves as trying to save homosexuals from wallowing in a degrading and self-denigrating lifestyle while, at the same time, they are the ones doing the degrading and denigrating.

Mistaken Kindness

Kindness requires true beliefs. Assume that you come across a person in the desert that is dying of thirst. You have two containers – one contains water, and the other contains a slow-acting but lethal poison. A kind person would want to give this poor lost individual a drink of water. However, in order to be kind – in order to feed him water instead of poison – the kind person has to know which is which. If he has false beliefs, then his attempts to be kind are at risk of being thwarted, and he will do harm instead.

The possibility of doing unintended harm tells kind and generous people that they need to constantly be checking their beliefs in order to make sure that the act that they are to perform is one of kindness or generosity. A truly kind person is always asking himself, “Am I really helping?” In fact, true beliefs are so important to acts of kindness and generosity that, if somebody does not seem to care whether his beliefs are true or false, we can conclude that he does not really care whether his act is an act of kindness or not.

We see this disregard for truth whenever one person tries to convince others to adopt his or her religion. This is portrayed as an act of kindness, since ‘my religion’ is thought to be the only way into heaven after death, and the only way to have a meaningful life. However, when the kind person asks, “Am I really doing the right thing?” the missionary runs into problem. There are (depending on the amount of detail one wants to go into) thousands to billions of different religious beliefs out there and no evidence at all to recommend one over the other. Even if we say that there are only thousands of different religions, the odds are still ‘thousands to one against’ the missionary converting people to the correct religious view.

Those types of odds would make a truly kind and generous person hesitate. “Maybe I am giving this person the poison, rather than the clean water? How can I tell? Why am I asserting that this container contains the clean water, if I cannot tell the difference?”

Whatever religion a person tries to convince another to adopt, we can guarantee that there are more people claiming that the adoptee is choosing hell over salvation than there are believing that he is choosing salvation over hell. If the population were divided equally among three religions, than adopting any given religion means that only one third believes the agent will be saved. The other two bring about a state in which the convert will be cursed to perpetual salvation. Yet, few missionaries ever seem to worry that they could be subjecting their subjects to perpetual suffering. This actually gives us reason to question how much kindness and concern for others these people actually possess.

Imaginary Kindness

Let’s return to our individual who finds somebody who has been lost in the desert and is severely dehydrated. Nearby, there is a well, full of water. However, our individual this time hands the desert survivor an empty glass and says, “Drink this instead.” If the survivor complains that it is empty, our ‘Good Samaritan’ protests that he simply lacks faith and that God insists that he drink from the cup, and not from the well.

This is not kindness either.

When somebody offers ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ to life in the form of religion, it is like offering our desert survivor an empty glass and saying, ‘drink this instead.’ The glass is empty. Even if our ‘good Samaritan’ is able to convince the desert survivor to have faith that the cup will quench his thirst, it will not. Even if he is so persuasive that he convinces the desert survivor that the survivor is no longer thirsty, the body is still dehydrated, and will deteriorate according to biological laws.

Our ‘good Samaritan’ in this case may also think that he is a kind and generous person. However, once again, false beliefs have actually thwarted his desire to help others.


Kindness is, concern for others, generosity, are all virtues in fact. They are qualities that we have reason to promote in others. However, we have reason to promote these virtues only to the degree that those we promote them in can tell the difference between real kindness and real generosity, and imaginary kindness and generosity. The latter can never produce any real good.

It also requires that we put some effort into making sure that people do not pass off their cruelty as kindness. In many cases, the ‘benefits’ that people attribute to their actions are not benefits at all, and a truly kind person would know better. They are merely rhetorical tricks that cruel people employ so that they can better fulfill their cruel desires.

A great many of these defects that afflict and distort the virtues of kindness and generosity come from false beliefs. The agent might have a desire to do good, but kindness and generosity also requires that the agent spend some effort trying to make sure that their actions are real goods, and not imaginary goods.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Bibby Survey: Internal and External Validity

Today, I want to return to survey conducted by Reginald Bibby that allegedly shows that people who believe in God have better values than those who do not.

I want to begin by stressing some elements of this presentation.

Just Evaluations

I am not going to argue that, “Of course, atheists must be better people than theists. Therefore, the survey must be flawed. I only need to discover the flaws.”

Atheism is a morally neutral theory about the makeup of the universe. It is just like heliocentrism in that it has absolutely no moral implications – other than the implications that follow from the fact that the proposition, “At least one God exists” is almost certainly false. Just as heliocentrists can be good or bad, atheists can be good or bad.

Furthermore, each of us has a right to be judged according to our own behavior. Bigotry consists, in essence, in creating a ‘group’ category and condemning or praising individuals in the virtue of their membership in that group, regardless of individual contributions. Because I am a male, I am in a category that is responsible for over 90% of the crime in the United States. Yet, this gives nobody the right to accuse me of being a violent criminal. There is nothing in ‘male’ that implies ‘violent criminal’ and I have a right to be presumed innocent unless and until there is evidence (beyond a reasonable doubt) of my guilt.

I extend the same principle to others. “At least one god exists” is, itself, a morally neutral principle that does not allow us to categorize one who believes it as good or bad. That depends (in part) on what else they believe in addition to their belief that at least one God exits.

Some of those religious people prove their immorality when they use a study such as Bibby’s to denigrate all atheists. When they do this, they violate the moral principle mentioned above of judging each person on his or her own merits. They become bigots, who use broad categories to condemn whole groups of people regardless of individual characteristics. Whenever we find a theist making these types of claims, we find a theist who is immoral – one who sees God inspiring him to do things that promote injustice in the real world. We can make this claim and justify it, but we cannot justify the implication that, ‘Therefore, some other theist who we know nothing else about, must also be a bigot.”

Internal and External Validity

Another issue that I wish to discuss is the internal and external validity of Bibby’s survey. I have already mentioned that there is a significant problem with the survey in that Bibby has not given any evidence of having acquired peer review. Peer review is the process by which experts in the field judge whether the conclusions that the author asserts actually follow from the evidence provided, and whether the conclusions can be extrapolated beyond the list of subjects involved in the survey.

Upon further consideration, I find that Bibby’s study lacks both internal and external validity.

On the matter of internal validity, the press release associated with the study states:

A new examination of Canadians who believe in God and those who do not has found that believers are more likely to place high value on traits such as kindness, politeness, and generosity.

The study does not support this conclusion at all. The study supports the conclusion that theists, more than atheists, are more likely to report having certain values. However, the fact that one has reported having a particular value is not proof that one actually has it. A great many criminals protest that they are innocent. The fact that they report innocence is not proof that they are, in fact, innocent.

If the paper had been subject to peer review, this flaw would have likely been caught.

The study also contains a flaw that concerns its external validity – any claim that the findings in this study reflects the general population.

The survey reports that Bibby questioned 1600 people, of which 7% were atheists. This means that his atheist population consists of only 112 people, plus or minus three.

Statisticians know that the accuracy of a poll is determined by it the size of the sample. The smaller the sample, the more likely it is that the population is skewed and does not represent the population at large. In fact, standard proactice is for any survey to mention the error range. You may have noticed that news anchors discussing presidential campaigns will report how a survey has an accuracy of, say, “Plus or minus three percentage points”. In this example, if one candidate has 45% of the vote, the other has 42%, and the error is 3%, the race would be considered a statistical dead heat. The error does not allow a researcher to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Bibby does not provide us with any error bars. In doing so, Bibby is not even living up to the minimum of his professional standards. This gives us little reason to trust his data.

I want to stress that it is not a valid argument to say, “Bibby’s survey lacks internal and external validity; therefore, atheists are better people than this survey reports.” Reality might go the other way. Bibby might have accidentally stumbled upon the only good atheists in all of Canada, and overstated their virtue. The flaws in Bibby’s study simply allow us to know that he has not, in fact, supported the conclusions that he claims to have supported. He has told us almost nothing about atheists in the real world. Only a bigot who does not care about these matters will think that the survey provides good reason to call atheists inferior based on this study.

Of course, Bibby might have been very much aware of the fact that a substantial portion of his audience will care nothing about internal and external validity. They want a reason to denigrate and smear all atheists, and will gladly overlook any flaws in a survey that appears to give them the ammunition they so strongly desire.

I have mentioned the virtue of intellectual responsibility in my previous posts. Part of that virtue is making sure that people do not use one’s research for evil purposes. We have no basis to assume that Bibby is guilty of intentionally feeding a stereotype and promoting hatred and bigotry. However, we do have enough evidence to suggest that he was negligent in trying to prevent it – in trying to prevent his research from being misused. He should have anticipated the evil that others would have done with his work and at least included a warning that said, “These findings are not subject to large error bars, do not prove that theists actually hold these values but only that they claim to hold these values, and cannot fairly and justly be used to condemn a whole group of people.”

Failure to do so is itself a moral failing, and shows that Bibby, at least, if he is Christian, seems to be lacking some of the virtues that his survey tries to attach to Christians generally.

A member of the studio audience has asked for my comment on a decision in Maine to give birth control pills to middle-school students.

I have not commented on this story to date because I do not know what to think about it just yet. A conclusion requires having knowledge that I do not have.

However, there are some related topics that I can write about.

One of those topics is that it is extremely important to experiment with different options and to collect data on the efficacy of those options, so that we can make better plans in the future. The very reason why I am uncertain about what to say on this issue is because I do not know what the effects will be, and I find it difficult to predict. I hope, for the sake of the kids, that the experiment will have a favorable outcome. I do not pretend to the level of arrogance required to know what that outcome will be.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The 9/11 Conspiracy

One theme that I have kept in this blog is that not all bad ideas are religious (and not all religious ideas are equally bad). If we focus too much on religious bad ideas, we give other bad ideas a pass that they do not deserve.

One bad idea that is getting a pass that it does not deserve is the conspiracy theory that the Bush Administration planned and executed the 9-11 attacks. It is quite reasonable for somebody to offer this as a hypothesis that best explains the observed data. It is quite another for people to become so infatuated with the idea that they would take up heckling on a live television show.

As a hypothesis explaining the events of 9-11, the conspiracy theory fails. It requires an explanation that is so elaborate and complex that it needs to be thrown out in favor of a simpler theory – 19 Jihadists hijacked 4 airplanes, flew 2 into the World Trade Center buildings, 1 into the Pentagon, and crashed 1 into a field in Pennsylvania.

One of the pieces of evidence is that Building 7 at the World Trade Center also collapsed. Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that this was due to a controlled explosion.

Okay, I can just imagine this going on at the planning session.

Planning Officer: Then, we rig Building 7 over here with controlled explosions so that it will collapse apparently on its own without any real cause several hours after the original attack.

Andy (one of the planners): Why?

PO: To make the attack even more dramatic!

Andy: Having the two World Trade Center towers collapse is not dramatic enough?

PO: No! No! Not at all. This will be better, you see.

Andy: But, we’re already allegedly rigging the two towers to collapse using controlled explosions. The idea is to bring them straight down. Then, all of the sudden, another building, with might not even get damaged in the original attack, is supposed to collapse. Don’t you think that this might look a bit suspicious?

P.O.: Okay, obviously we have to rig the Towers to do damage to Building 7, so that we can at least have something that we can blame the collapse on. Good job, Andy. I’ll tell the demolition team now.

Andy: But, sir, why go to all this work, adding layers of complexity and significantly increasing the chance of discovery? Why not just crash the airplanes into the buildings and let the concrete fall where it may.

PO: Because that is not how we do things around here. Even though the possibility of a leak or of people discovering our plans would be catastrophic, what we really need to do is to make this as complex as possible, involve more and more people, all of which must be sworn into secrecy.

Then there is the idea that the government (1) Hijacked an airplane, (2) Took it somewhere where it would not be found, (3) Destroyed it, and (4) Launched a missile at the Pentagon.

PO: Yes, Andy?

Andy: Look. We have an airplane. We need to get rid of it anyway. Why go to all of the extra effort of moving it somewhere, making sure we can hide where it went, destroy it without any trace, kill all of the passengers, and fire a missile at the Pentagon. Why not just crash the airplane into the Pentagon, when we don’t have to worry about destroying it.

PO: Because we have to use a missle.

Andy: Why?

PO: Because that’s the way we do things! Listen, Andy, do you want to be a part of this project or not? You can be replaced. Quit questioning things!

If it was an inside job, the planners would have wanted it to look just like it was an outside job. The simplest way to simulate a bunch of terrorists hijacking 4 airplanes and crashing them into 4 buildings is to take 19 people all willing to die for the greater glory of the Republican Party, hijack 4 airplanes, and crash them into 4 buildings. Adding even one complexity would have been insanely stupid. Adding the layers and layers of complexity and involving all of the people that the conspiracy theory needs carries insane stupidity to new heights.

When Hitler wanted something to increase his power by simulating a terrorist attack, he knew the virtue of keeping things simple and keeping the number of people who knew about it to a minimum. He aimed for the simple arson of the German parliament building. When he wanted an excuse to start World War II, he took some prisoners out near a radio station, shot them, broadcast a simple message, and launched the invasion of Poland. Neither plan required the help of more than a half dozen people, none of whom had to die in the process.

That is how you simulate an attack against the country.

Having said this, I have no doubt that the Bush Administration wanted a reason to start a war in the Middle East preferably through the invasion of Iraq. Feeding this desire into the principle that people always act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs, it follows that this desire would have affected their decisions. However, the most likely affect would have been a virtually subconscious decision to lower the priority of defending the United States from a terrorist attack. Because they did not really want to fight terrorism, when they had to set priorities for the day, ‘fighting terrorism’ simply slipped a couple of notches on the priority index. This increased the terrorist’s chance of success.

This doesn’t require a conspiracy theory. This does not even require making a plan.

What it requires is a group of people who have a lot of work to do who need to prioritize their daily tasks. In doing so, they look at their pile of work and move to the top of the list those that ‘feel’ like they are the most important. Fighting terrorism simply does not ‘feel’ that important, particularly when compared to rewarding those who invested in the campaign with tax cuts and banning abortion and homosexual marriage. If asked, these agents would probably say that terrorism does not feel important because they do not see it as much of a threat. In practice, it doesn’t feel important because the agent is acting so as to fulfill a desire to invade Iraq.

I am not saying that this agent is lying. I am saying that this agent is basing his conclusions on what to believe on his feelings, and he is giving his feelings the interpretation that is best for his ego. He does not want to see himself as somebody who would allow the deaths of thousands of people in order to find an excuse to invade Iraq, so he denies – to himself as much as to others, that his desire for such a war is what motivates him to set aside the ‘fight terrorism’ project.

I am not even saying that they did not have good intentions. They wanted a war in the Middle East so that the could sew a crop of democracy that would spread through the area like a weed and make the whole region safe for people in their oil-industry friends. I am only saying that desires affect the ‘level of urgency’ that one feels over certain external threats, and the neo-con desires made the prospect of a terrorist attack on American soil unworthy of serious consideration. Not without hard evidence.

The real problem here is not that there are people who believe this nonsense. The real fault is that the personality traits that allow people to adopt these foolish ideas allow them to adopt other foolish ideas. The fault is a culture that does not teach people how to reason and, in neglecting this skill, must continually endure the waste of people acting on foolish ideas.

We could be a better country if the people who are wasting their time, effort, and talent on conspiracy theories would instead invest them on things that actually made sense.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


This is a second post in a series that looks at the ‘values’ that can be found in a survey conducted by Reginald Bibby at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) that allegedly showed that atheist place less importance on a number of key values when compared to theists.

Today, I will look at the issue of honestly. Bibby’s survey reports that 95% of theists hold that honesty is very important, while only 89% of atheists hold this particular value.

The fact that 95% of theists report that they consider honesty very important simply proves how little they value honesty. One of my great frustrations in writing this blog has been in confronting the constant barrage of ‘disinformation’ that comes from theists. Now, one more piece of disinformation that I can add to the list is the disinformation that many of them give, that they actually value honesty.

Reason dictates that I cannot prove that theists do not have the level of respect for honesty reported in this survey by identifying a few instances of dishonesty. After all, I might just be drawing the examples of those who are in the 5% that do not value honesty. However, I can provide reason to dispute the claim made in this survey by showing that these ‘lovers of honesty’ certainly do not care enough about honesty to do anything about the liars and sophists that speak in defense of theism.

Bibby’s survey itself provides a case that illustrates the low regard for truth that we find among theists. I encountered news of this survey on the site Focus on the Family under the headline, Believers in God More Likely to Do Good. The report contained a link to a press release describing the survey. The press release contained the statement, “ That's not to say that God-believers always translate their values into action.”

So, Focus on the Family wrote an article in which they lied about the research they were reporting on. Yet, as I said above, evidence of a lie does not show that the whole religious culture has no respect for truth. Evidence of this further conclusion is, instead, found in the fact that the religious community on the whole does not care enough about lying to condemn or criticize those who lie. Lies are ignored, when one is lying in defense of The One True God. This takes more than a 5% that does not view honesty as ‘very important’. This requires that a substantial portion of the community views lying as unimportant or even as a positive good.

To say that a substantial portion of theists are, at best, indifferent towards honesty or actively supports dishonesty is not to say that every Christian is a liar. It is only to say that those who are honest lack the power to force honesty on their brethren, which suggests that they are too weak to actually enforce their values on others. Either it is not the case that 95% of theists value honesty, or the 5% minority is able to exercise some extraordinary powers over the alleged honest supermajority.

Another example of theistic dishonesty is found in the works of David Barton, who once filled society with a number of false claims about the words of the founding fathers. According to Barton’s quotes, the founding fathers wanted nothing more than to establish a nation ruled by a Christian version of the Taliban. Many of these quotes were later exposed to be made up or taken out of context to change their meanings.

People who actually love honesty and hate deceptionwould find this behavior contemptible. They would warn their fellow citizens of Barton’s dishonesty and condemn him for it, while at the same time condemning any co-religionist who repeats those lies. We do not see this type of behavior among theists, giving us reason to doubt that these theists have the dislike for deception that they claim to have.

Here, I want to point out that dishonesty comes in a number of stripes. Just as with other crimes, an individual can knowingly or intentionally carry out. There are also crimes that a person can carry out that represent negligence or recklessness.

If a person values not killing other people – if not killing other people is very important to him, it is not enough for the agent to show this by refusing to intentionally or even knowingly take somebody else’s life. A person also shows his love of life by making sure he does not take the life of another through accident or negligence. We can say of the reckless individual that he really does not care who gets hurt. We can say of the reckless speaker or writer that he cares as little about truth and honesty as the reckless driver.

Barton himself, and those who carelessly repeat them, are showing how little they care about honesty in the same way that a drunk driver shows that he really does not care about the lives and well-being of those he might hit. This indifference to the truth is not consistent with the claim that these people make that they truly love honesty. They only love claiming to love honestly – probably because pretending to be honest is useful.

More evidence of the way in which dishonesty permeates the theist culture can be found in their devotion to Fox News. Fox News recently won a lawsuit filed by two employees who claimed ‘wrongful termination’. According to the court records, these employees refused to insert false elements into a news segment. Fox News apparently felt that its audience was not overly concerned with whether its reports were true or not. Apparently, they were right. These people who claim that honesty is their most important value registered no objection to the Fox News decision to fight in court in the name of dishonesty.

Another example from Fox News is an incident in which Bill O’Reilly, the host of Fox News’ most highly rated show, was shown to have edited a film clip to distort the claims of Senator Joe Biden.

The report was a blatant lie. However, these lovers of honesty showed no offense at this deception. Lovers of honesty would have felt extremely betrayed by this activity, suggesting that at least those theists who are fans of Bill O’Reilly and Fox News are not, in fact, the lovers of honesty that they claim to be.

The O’Reilly event needs to be compared to Dan Rather’s report that documents showed that Bush obtained special treatment while serving in the National Guard. In this case, there was absolutely no evidence that Rather acted to distort Bush’s record. Instead, his crime was failure to verify the authenticity of the evidence provided by an outside source. For this, he issued an apology. These are the actions of somebody who holds that honesty is important or, at least, somebody who seeks to appeal to an audience that values honesty. This is not the type of audience that Bill O’Reilly speaks to, since they did not seem to care about his deception.

Also from Fox News, a survey in September 2003 showed that Fox News viewers were the least well informed of all news viewers on relevant facts concerning the attack on Iraq. If Fox News viewers were, in fact, interested in truth and honesty, this should have inspired them to switch to options that were giving people a more honest account of the invasion of Iraq. But, yet again, they showed that honesty is not one of their key concerns.

Another trait that we can expect from those who value honesty is that they would establish and support institutions whose job it is to keep people honest. The academic community has just such an institution in the form of peer-reviewed journals. In order to get published in a peer-reviewed journal, an author has to submit his article to reviewers whose job is to make sure that the author’s work is internally and externally valid. They remove not only dishonest claims, but reckless and unfounded assertions, allowing the author to claim only what the evidence actually supports.

Authors who write on subjects such as intelligent design, religious-based archaeology, and social science and medical research that aim to show the power of religion and prayer, are routinely unable to write documents that are capable of passing this type of review.

The list goes on.

A great many theists claim that inserting ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and adopting ‘One Nation Under God’ were, in no way, motivated by a desire to establish a religion, in violation of the First Amendment. Nothing is more absurd. All this shows is that the audacity of lying is so prevalent in the theistic community that they can all mutually agree, with scarcely a voice of dissent, to swear to statement that is so blatantly false. Let somebody try to claim that a pledge to ‘one nation under no God’ or a motto of “We Trust In No God’ is not religiously motivated, and they will suddenly discover truths that appear to conveniently escape their notice today.

I routinely hear from them the lie that atheists assert an absolute certain knowledge that no God exists and, in refuting this statement, claim to have refuted atheism. This lie comes in the face of the fact that atheists routinely use arguments that make reference to Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teakettle, the flying spaghetti monster, fairies in garden, the invisible pink unicorn, the Easter Bunny, and any of the tens of thousands of gods that even the Christian does not believe in. The argument is simple. “When you understand why you do not believe in these things, you will understand why we do not believe in your God.” None of these examples require absolute certainty. Yet, we continually hear the lie that ‘atheists assert with absolute certainty that there is no God.’

Recently, the more heavily religious side of the political spectrum treated us to the swift-boating of 10-year-old Graeme Frost and his family. When Graeme Frost appeared in a video criticizing Bush’s stand on a bill providing health insurance for children, a group of misleadingly dishonest claims about the family spread like wildfire among bloggers and pundits whose audience consists primarily of the type of people who claimed in Bibby’s survey to have such a love of honesty.

During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Bush constantly told his audiences that the Constitution forbids the President from spying on Americans without a warrant. He said this while the ink was not even dry on executive orders he signed authorizing the spying on Americans without a warrant.

Finally, I want to make it clear that these points cannot be answered by claiming that there are atheists guilty of the same offense. It is certainly true, and I have criticized some of them in this blog. Yet, if one has captured a thief in the commission of a crime, he cannot legitimately defend himself by saying that there are other thieves. And no rapist or murderer deserves to be let off the hook because they can honestly claim that they are not the only ones who have ever committed rape or murder. Regardless of how many atheist liars there might be, the evidence still proves that theists are not the lovers of honesty they claim to be.

In fact, if I could have one wish granted for the well-being of humanity, it would be worth it to wish that people generally had a greater respect for and love of truth than we currently find in our society. Nothing makes the job of trying to make the world a better place more difficult than dealing with the deafening noise of people who either recklessly or intentionally fill the air with false claims.

All it takes is for people to realize that there is, in fact, a great deal of value to be found in simply pausing for a second at the end of each sentence one writes or just before each sentence one intends to speak and ask, ‘Can I really defend that as being true?’

Monday, October 22, 2007

Intellectual Responsibility and Patience

One of the questions that I received from the studio audience asked me to comment on a survey conducted by Reginald Bibby at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) that allegedly showed that atheist place less importance on a number of key values when compared to theists. For example, according to this survey, 95% view as very important; whereas 89% of atheists view honesty as very important.

Standards of Evaluation

One of the things that I am not going to do in response to this survey is to assert that it is flawed merely because it draws conclusions that I do not like. This is the Bush Administration method of analyzing intelligence, where intelligence that does not support the Administration’s position on attacking Iraq is, by that fact alone, assumed to be bad intelligence. It is a system where scientific studies that show that humans are contributing to global warming is considered bad science because his its financial backers do not want to be held accountable for the harms that will result, and where any evidence that can be interpreted as a problem for evolution is instantly accepted because it, too, supports a favored position.

I am quite willing to examine this survey using the same standards of evidence that are applied to scientific surveys generally. To the degree that the survey is internally and externally valid, to that degree its findings should be incorporated into our understanding of the world.

Internal validity, by the way, has to do with the way in which the survey’s conclusions are supported by the data within the survey. For example, if the survey asks an individual whether they are pleased or displeased with Bush’s job in office, and concludes from a 71% disapproval rating that this percentage of respondents were liberals, this would be internally invalid. It is quite easy for a conservative to disapprove of Bush’s job in office.

Professional researchers know many ways to get research to appear to say what the author wants it to say. For example, if one wants to show a 'positive' answer rather than a 'negative' answer, a survey simply needs to provide more positive options than negative options. Professional researchers who submit their research to peer review have a difficult time getting their tricks past professionals who are aware of, and whose job it is to catch and reject, papers that have these types of flaws.

External validity has to do with the degree to which a survey can be extrapolated across the country at large. If a survey on Bush’s popularity was taken at a pro-Bush rally, even though it may be true that “88% of respondents approve of how Bush is handling his job in office,” this finding could not be extrapolated to say that the nation as a whole approves of Bush’s job in office.

Since I do not have time to examine every study that people might take, and I do not have time to keep up on every field that an individual might write on, I use proxy standards to determine whether a report is trustworthy or not. Specifically, I look for what whether individuals who are experts in the field and who have studied issues such as internal and external validity.

This is what the peer-review process in science is about.

A few months ago, a study came out that showed that less religious societies in Europe had fewer incidents of teenage pregnancy, suicide, drug use, murder, and similar socially destructive states than America did. This study obtained credibility by being subject to a peer-review process that required that the author restate certain conclusions so that they were consistent with the data. For example, the study did not show that high religiosity caused these harms – it only showed a correspondence between high religiosity and these harms among developed countries (Europe, North America, and Japan). That is what the paper ultimately claimed.

However, I have not found any evidence that this study has undergone any type of peer-review process. I could not find mention of the study being included in any peer-reviewed publication, or of any independent assessment of its methodology and conclusions. Until such a report has been issued, it is sensible to view the study with some measure of suspicion.

Of course, in the absence of peer review, it is just as much of mistake to assume that this study is flawed as it is to assume that the study is sound. In addition, the survey provides an excellent opportunity for an ethics writer to examine the values that were a part of the survey.

One open question that reports of the survey left untouched was a question of the degree to which people should hold a particular value as important.

A good example of this is ‘patience’. It is easy to see how a group of people who have been waiting for 2000 years for their savior to return, and who will likely have to wait for a few billion more years (or until the end of human civilization whenever that may come) will find patience to be a virtue. The same is true of people who are waiting for prayers to be answered when there is no being to answer them. The church, in this case, has good reason to preach that patience is a virtue because, without patience, most of their political and economic support would pack up and walk away.

However, a more rational view of patience would categorize it as an Aristotelian virtue. Aristotle argued that virtue rests in finding an appropriate level of moderation between two extremes. Courage, for example, lies somewhere between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. Temperance rests between abstinence and gluttony.

It is possible for a person to be over-demanding, insisting that things be delivered immediately that should not always be delivered immediately. A President who is impatient to receive an intelligence report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may rush the report and get a far lower quality product as a result.

At the same time, too much patience is also imprudent. For example, if information does not arrive in a timely manner, then it becomes useless. Also, a person who is trapped in a burning building should recognize the fact that he cannot afford to wait around all day, and insist on some measure of speed on the part of his would-be rescuers.

Too much patience has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging people to take advantage of others – namely, the infinitely patient. If there is no condemnation or negative consequences to making others wait, then individuals will have less of an opportunity to form aversion to making others wait. These people will tend to steal time from others and use it for their own projects. The remedy for this type of exploitation is to be a little less than totally patient, to be willing to say to such people, “You have taken enough of my time, now act, or get out of the way.”

Imagine two people, each with $10,000 in their bank accounts. One of them knows that this is the case – that he has $10,000, and when it is gone there will be no more. The other has $10,000, a debit card, and a false belief that he has an account without limit.

In most cases, we can expect the person with the false belief that he has an endless supply of money to squander what he has, wasting it on things that are of little value, and foregoing things that have real value in the false belief that he can get those things later. At the same time, the individual who understands exactly how much money he has will have a more accurate understanding of the true cost of things, and will be more willing to change his behavior when the cost gets too high.

The same can be expected when it comes to theists and atheists spending the ‘time’ accounts that they have available. Both of them only have this one life to live. However, the person who falsely believes that he is immortal and that the time he has available is endless can be expected to squander that time. He uses it to acquire things today that have little value, falsely believing that he can pick other things up at a later date. When somebody seeks to squander his time, he has no reason to protest – there is more where that came from (or so he thinks).

Asserting that atheists have a poorer sense of value because they place a greater value on time than the theist begs some very important questions. This is simply a case where the atheist appreciates how scarce a particular resource is, which allows him to realize how valuable it is, which will tend to make him upset with those who would insist that he waste it. This is not an example of greater Christian virtue. This is an example of greater Christian irrationality.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks I will be addressing some of the other values that showed up in that survey, and looking at what the differences in the findings say about the individuals who hold those values.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Teaching Sorcery

In this recent surge of questions from the studio audience I received a new type of question. This one asks for advice – “This happened to me, and I do not know how I should feel about it.”

The situation:

ET is an English teacher who has come up with a vocabulary exercise in which students were given a list of latin ‘word parts’ that they could use to construct ‘spells’ – like those that Rowling used in the Harry Potter series. They then used these spells in a ‘mock’ duel. However, a parent apparently complained to the school that ET was teaching witchcraft to the students.

In this context, ET wrote:

Now, I write to you about this situation because, while I am upset, I'm not quite certain to what degree I have the *right* to be upset. Nor am I sure about where my indignation should be directed.

Okay, ET, if you have read much of my blog you know that I forego short and oversimplified answers in favor of detailed answers. So, I am going to start with a couple of distinctions.

The first is a distinction between matters of practical decision making, matters of law, and matters of morality.

If someone were to describe a situation in which they had been hauled into an alley by somebody with a gun and demanding his money, I would of course write that the robber was behaving immorally. However, that should not be confused with practical advice that the victim should not turn over the money. The teacher threatened with the loss of a job can find himself in a situation like that of the person hauled into the alley by the robber, coerced into doing something that, morally, he ought not to be coerced into doing.

Also, I do not even pretend to offer legal advice. There is often a significant difference between what the law is and what the law ought to be. The question of obeying or disobeying an unjust law is sometimes a difficult question to answer. When the Nazi soldiers show up asking if you know of the location of any Jews, the decision to disobey the law and refuse to report the Jews hiding in a neighbor’s attic is not an easy decision to make.

I am also going to add a third caveat, simply because it is a point that a concerned reader or writer must consider. These types of questions are necessarily one-sided. They are like the prosecutor offering evidence to a grand jury – who has absolutely no opportunity to hear the other side. No fair and just verdict can be rendered under these circumstances. However, the case can be used to discuss the principles under which a fair and just (moral) verdict can be rendered by those who have more information.

With these caveats in mind, the direct answer to this question is that there is a reason to be upset over these events. Let us be honest about what has happened here.

A teacher has discovered a way to communicate certain ideas to students that would help those students in the art of communication. The understanding of Latin prefixes and suffixes makes it easier to determine the meanings of words and phrases that they have never heard before, by understanding the meanings of these parts. The very art of understanding the meanings of terms by understanding its parts is what this lesson aims to teach.

However, because of the foolish beliefs of some parents of some students, no student is permitted to obtain the benefit of this plan. There is no such thing as a magic spell, no consorting with demons, no way for the utterance of words to affect the world by altering the laws of physics. Words are powerful tools. However, their powers work according to the laws of physics allow one person to alter the physiological structure (usually brain structure) of another by promoting certain beliefs on the part of the listener or reader. None of this involves the use of supernatural powers.

Pandering to these types of idiotic beliefs directly violates the function of a school (and the objectives of a teacher) in two ways. The first is because it prevents the teacher using tools that effectively teach the relevant concepts to students. The second is that it panders to superstition – telling the students in effect that unfounded superstitious myth such as belief in magic spells is something that one has to take seriously. In both cases, students end up dumber than they would have otherwise been. This, as I said, runs contrary to the primary function of the teacher and the school in which he teaches, which is to make students smarter than they would have otherwise been.

In counter to this, it is sometimes argued that we need to respect other people’s beliefs. However, the idea that we should respect other beliefs also runs counter to the primary function of the school. Every time a teacher marks an answer as incorrect, and degrades (lowers the grade) of the student who gave that answer, he is showing a lack of respect for those who might hold that the answer is correct. Those who put down the answer marked wrong are, in some sense, of a lower grade than those who put down the correct answer.

If we take the idea of ‘respecting’ other answers too seriously, we have teachers giving ‘respect’ to the students who believe that 12 * 12 = 140 and who think that the sum of the angles in a triangle equals 212 degrees.

There have to be some wrong answers in an education system (or there is no need for or purpose to education) – and those answers must remain wrong even if there is a parent out there who thinks that it is correct. Parents who think that these answers are correct must recognize that there is a distinction between believing something and holding it to be something that should be integrated into a school’s task of educating children.

I hold that desire utilitarianism provides a better account of morality than any other theory. Yet, my believing this is not sufficient to demand that it be a part of the school curriculum. Making it a part of the school system requires that it adopt enough ‘street credibility’ that there is sufficient public backing to make it a part of the school system.

Until then, teachers are free to teach theories other than desire utilitarianism, giving each theory whatever measure of respect it has in the intellectual community.

In this, our government was written to make an exception for whatever is classified as ‘religion’. Our government is prohibited from passing laws that seek to promote the idea that a specific set of religious beliefs are ‘true’ and others are ‘false’.

Side note: Some individuals, proving themselves to be amazingly skilled at deception – including self deception – hold that a national Pledge to ‘one nation under God’ and a motto of ‘In God We Trust’ – does not violate this restriction. Yet, both presume that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true. So, both involve teaching children that the official government position is that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true.

Anyway, at least with the blatant exception of atheism which the government may coerce its citizens – including (as especially children) into pledging to reject – the government is not permitted to adopt policies that promote any religion over any other. The reason for this is because religious beliefs can neither be defended nor attacked through the force of reason. They can only be defended and attacked through the force of arms. To the degree that the government takes it upon itself to promote one religion over another, it puts itself at risk of creating a conflict of arms that, as our founding fathers knew particularly well (given the Catholic/Protestant wars of Europe for the last two hundred years) is detrimental to the well-being of any nation.

I can think of no clearer violation of this peace treaty among the different religions than for members of one religion to say, “You must send your children to our church, to say there 6+ hours per week, where they will be told that our religion is correct and yours is mistaken.” This is not a relationship among equals. These are the terms under which masters impose their will on subjects.

This agreement states that the parent who believes in a real Satan that one can negotiate with through magical powers that are triggered through the use of Latin prefixes and suffixes on words shall not be required to send their children to an institution that tells her children, “Your religious beliefs are a bunch of nonsense.”

So, yes, the terms of this peace treaty say that the proper ends of a school system (education) must be frustrated in some cases for the purpose of keeping the peace among religious factions. This means that education, in some areas, must be prohibited in government funded schools.

This does not imply that there is no reason to be frustrated or upset. It means that we need more out-of-school activities to make up for the forms of education that public schools are not permitted to give.

We need organizations outside of schools – a ‘private supplemental education system’ that will fill the education gap that this peace treaty among religions requires that we exclude from school curriculums. It is an outside system where a teacher such as this can volunteer some time to teach students without worrying about public-school restrictions on religion.

In the mean time, to the degree that religions that believe in witchcraft become less common, to that degree public schools and public school teachers can better do their job of educating students. However, the defeat of these religions must come outside of school, by the private confrontation of those who hold such absurd beliefs using peaceful methods of private words and private actions, until a sufficiently large number of people have abandoned this absurdity that it is no longer a threat.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Kant's Refutation of Atheism (per D'Souza)

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on an article in The Christian Science Monitor, in which Dinesh D'Souza attempted to use Kant to refute Dawkins' (and other empiricist) arguments against the existence of God. (What Atheists Kant Refute

Before doing this, I have a couple of caveats to expose.

First, this is a blog about ethics, not a blog about the existence of God. The proposition, "At least one god exists" and the proposition "It is not the case that at least one god exists" are both morally neutral. Neither has anything to say about how we should live our lives. We have to add other propositions to these in order to draw morally relevant conclusions. So, I feel that it is safe to ignore these propositions, and focus on the other propositions that have real moral implications.

Having said that, bigotry and prejudice against atheists is a moral issue, and one which is appropriate for this blog to address.

I also consider it to be important since many (though not all) of the false beliefs that cause good people to do real-world harm to real-world people are false beliefs supported by religious institutions. Preventing these harms means correcting the false beliefs that those agents are acting on.

Second, D'Sousa has repeatedly proved himself to be an epistemic hack who substantially makes things up as he goes along. I have learned long ago that he selects propositions to go into his articles without any consideration to whether they are true or false, but by considering only their utility. In this article, anything he says about Kant, I immediately conclude to be probably false. If it is true, it is only accidentally true, since the intersection between D'Sousa's writing and truth is, at best, entirely accidental.

This means that I have a couple of questions regarding this request. What am I actually being asked to do? Am I being asked to address whether Kant actually does have a response to Dawkins on the existence of God as D'Sousa claims? Or am I being asked to assess D'Sousa's arguments against Dawkins. allowing for the fact that any relationship to Kant's actual views would be purely coincidental?

In order to address the first question, I would have to be a Kant scholar. I am not. Of course, I took college courses on Kant and, as a moral philosopher, I spent a fair amount of time studying his, Metaphysics of morals. However, neither of these make me an expert on his Critique of Pure Reason.

So, I am going to have to pass on answering the question of whether Kant has an argument that effectively refutes Dawkins on the issue of God's existence.

However, my experience with D'Sousa suggests that if he had an ounce of integrity and a love of truth not completely overshadowed by a love of rhetoric, sophistry, and demagoguery, he probably should have passed as well.

I have my own reasons for my atheism - reasons that came to me at such a young age that I have never gone through any kind of 'deconversion'. History shows us that primitive cultures had a habit of adopting almost universal belief in a myth involving superbeings (gods), mystical monsters, sorcerers, and heroes. I see absolutely nothing that justifies distinguishing the myths of the ancient Greeks, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Norwegians, Native Americans, and others from contemporary Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or any other religion. If any think that it is no longer possible to persuade whole populations to adopt a myth, the success of the Mormons and the Scientologists (among others) testify against that.

For this reason, I place all religious scripture on the same shelf. The Iliad and the Odyssey share the shelf with the Torah and the Koran. L. Ron Hubbard's Dyanetics belongs in the same genre as his nobel Battlefield Earth. The Book of Mormon sits on the same shelf as the stories of Paul Bunyon and Pecos Bill.

This is not to say that one cannot draw some useful moral lessons from literature. I believe that Mark Twain did an excellent job in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn describing the way that a culture can cause a person to actuall feel that helping a slave to escape to freedom is wrong. Huckleberry Finn tried several times to do the right thing and return Jim to his rightful owner, but could not bring himself to do it, finally deciding that he must resign himself to the fact that he is a bad person. Yet, the usefulness of this story in describing the corrupting influence of culture does not incline me, in any way, to profess that every sentence that Mark Twain wrote is literally true. The story - and even the name of the author - is a work of fiction.

Okay, this is a lot of space to spend on caveats, but I thought that some perspective is in order.

So, let me spend at least some time answering the question I was asked.

D’Sousa’s claim basically boils down to this:

Reason and science, they contend, are the only proper foundations for forming opinions and understanding the universe. Those who believe in God, they insist, are falling for silly superstitions. This atheist attack is based on a fallacy – the Fallacy of the Enlightenment. It was pointed out by the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant erected a sturdy intellectual bulwark against atheism that hasn't been breached since.

There are two claims here. One is that the atheist attack is based on the premise that reason and science are the only proper foundations for understanding the universe. The second is that this premise is false.

As I said, I am not a Kant scholar, and I will not attempt to report what Kant would really say against this. However, I do know of an important refutation of this premise. This refutation is that, “Reason and science cannot prove that reason and science are the only proper foundation for understanding the universe.” If we appeal only to reason and science to establish this foundation, our arguments are viciously circular. If we go outside of reason and science, our premise is false.

However, there is a difference between saying that reason and science are not omnipotent, and that there are things that can refute the claims of reason and science. For example, reason tells us that the sum of the angles inside of a triangle equals 180 degrees. If somebody wants to claim that he has a special way of knowing, that’s fine. However, if he claims that his special way of knowing tells him that the sum of the angles inside of a triangle is equal to 150 degrees, then the reasonable conclusion to draw is that his special way of knowing is deeply flawed.

So, a ‘way of knowing’ that says that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, when all of the evidence available to reason and science suggests 4.5 billion, suggests that this ‘special way of knowing’ is critically flawed. A ‘special way of knowing’ that says, ‘the contents of this conclusion are literally true’ – when this ‘special way of knowing’ has supported such a wide variety of mutually conflicting and contradictory myths, suggests that this ‘special way of knowing’ is not all that reliable. Far too many people who have relied upon it have gotten far too many different conclusions for anybody to sensibly claim that it works.

This special way of knowing becomes particularly problematic when one wants to use to justify behavior that does harm to or even takes the life of others. It is one thing to be put to death because of crimes that one was proved guilty of performing in a court of law. It is quite another to be executed because, “I simply have a special way of knowing that you are guilty.”

This is the type of thinking that D’Sousa is defending – a way that says it is permissible to kill others on the basis of a special way of knowing they should die.

In fact, this ‘special way of knowing that religious people like to appeal to have given us a huge array of contradictory beliefs, from Ares to Xochopilli, from Amman-Ra to Zeus. This gives us reason to believe that this ‘special way of knowing’ is not latched on to any read knowledge at all, but to the imaginations of those who invent the theories.”

This is where my objection to religious claims come from – in the fact that so many people are actually claiming that their ‘special way of knowing’ justifies behaving in ways that cause real-world harm to real-world people. In most cases, this ‘special way of knowing’ is simply their own culturally derived prejudices that work the same way that Huckleberry Finn’s ‘special way of knowing’ told him that he should return Jim to his rightful owner.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Summary: A Perspective on Religion

As tends to be the case with random distributions, questions from the studio audience come in clumps. So, I have a few such questions to address at the moment. I hope to get to all of them.

The first set of questions that I would like to take the opportunity to address are those from Deep Thought, who commented on a couple of recent posts. One set of questions gives me an opportunity to summarize my views, which I think some new readers might find useful.

To start with, Deep Thought asked:

How *do* you form moral judgments?

I actually have a number of sources that I can use to answer that question.

There is, for example, the book, A Better Place: Selected Essays in Desire Utilitarianism, a self-published book that collects the most central aspects of the moral theory that I use in this blog.

A reader can search this blog for the phrase “desire utilitarianism” and come up with several posts that address that issue. Some of these compare desire utilitarianism to other theories such as act utilitarianism, egoism, moral subjectivism, and evolutionary ethical theories.

There is also my web site,

And, finally, there are a few podcasts such as This One in which I explain my answer to this question:

I deal with two common objections to this theory - the possibility of a large number of people who desire to do harm to a small number, and the question of why be moral, in my posts The 1000 Sadists Problem and The Hateful Craig Problem.

On a different issue, Deep Thought write:

I think you need to be more clear when you discuss the rather vague term 'faith-based harms'. This is, in my opinion, cadgey language. For example, I have neighbors who openly support Dawkins' statement that raising a child Catholic is a form of abuse - is this the sort of 'harm' you are discussing?

First, I object to the claim that raising a child according to a dominant religion for a particular society counts as ‘child abuse’ (see Religion as Child Abuse). The phrase ‘child abuse’ denotes malicious intent (a desire to harm to a child) or, at least, a malignant indifference to the welfare of a child. The claim that these qualities define all people who teach the dominant religion to their children is simply false.

In addition, I also argue that when a person makes a mistake – particularly a mistake that can be easily shown to be a mistake, we get to ask, “What caused him to make that mistake and not some other? What theory best explains this observation of the real world? (See: Bigotry and the Ethics of Belief)

When it comes to adopting unsupported beliefs, the typical answer to this question is that the unfounded belief somehow fulfills the agent’s desires, either directly or indirectly (or both). He has adopted a particular attitude, in spite of the evidence, because he finds the attitude pleasing or useful, regardless of its truth (or lack of it).

In this case, the motivation behind the ‘abuse’ claim is probably, in many cases, a desire to generate an emotional reaction on the part of the listener or reader. The listener or reader is being invited to take the natural hatred he or she feels towards ‘abusers of children’ and attach that hatred to those who teach their children to adopt a dominant religion. That hatred is, of course, premised on the fact that ‘abusers of children’ are people who, at worst, desire to do harm or, at best, are indifferent to the possibility of harm coming to children – exactly the quality that cannot be honestly attached to all people who teach the dominant religion to their children.

This is classic hate-mongering; promoting a falsehood because it is useful in promoting hatred of a target group.

I do not have one language of condemnation for theists who promote hatred of others and another softer, less accusatory language for atheists who do the same thing. I apply the same language to both. I lose a lot of readers because of this. However, that will not cause me to refute an argument that, as far as I can tell, are perfectly sound.

Having said this, I do hold that teaching religion to a child does count as doing harm to a child. This falls under the general heading of teaching false beliefs to a child. I argue that a good life requires a connection to the real world. (See: The Meaning of LIfe and Sam Harris: Morality and Religion). When a person lives a lie, that person is like a person who lives inside experience machine. This machine feeds the victim the false impressions of a meaningful life, while the agent actually does nothing but lay down and decay in a pod of goo.

I actually do not expect many theists to deny this claim – that a life lived according to false beliefs deprives a life of meaning. Where they would disagree is on which beliefs are false. There is some disagreement on this issue.

On the subject of this disagreement, I also hold to the principle that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign. This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, it helps to preserve the peace to limit the number of cases when people may respond to another through violence. Second, it is because if a society does not know and understand why a particular set of beliefs are false, forcing them to live as if those beliefs are false is somewhat empty.

So, while I agree that teaching religion to children is harmful, I assert that there is no right to use anything but words and private (peaceful) actions to persuade religious people to quit inflicting this harm on their children. (See: On Cartoons and Violence). This should not be forced on people through the law. What we have the right to demand of ‘the law’ is that it keeps its nose out of our disagreement, and let us settle it among ourselves. The law should not take sides. (See: Religious Liberty and Religious Culture).

DeepThought then asked:

Are you attempting to condense the rather complicated moral issues of embryonic stem cell research into the nebulous term 'harm'?

Actually, my criticism of religious interference in the science of medicine goes beyond stem-cell research. At the time of my writing I was thinking primarily of religious objections to ‘safe sex’ programs – in particular, the use of condoms – in Africa to reduce the spread of AIDS. I was also thinking of religion’s historical objections to the use of autopsies and dissection of cadavers as a way of learning about the human body and to immunizing children against disease since this was considered ‘playing God’.

These same policies promote overpopulation, which in turn put straings on the water and food supplies and the ability to provide sanitation. Contaminated water, poor food, and poor sanitation also, in turn, contribute to the spread of disease.

I was also thinking of contemporary resistance to medical practices such as the Christian Scientist reliance on prayer over all medicine, the Jehovah’s Witness refusal to accept blood transfusions, and the Scientologist’s objections to the science of psychiatry. (See Faith Hospital)

We can add to this the reliance on faith healers and other quack medical practices – spiritual surgery and new-age healing, which provide no medicinal benefit.

In all of these cases, not only are people persuaded against obtaining reasonable treatment for their own disease. Worse, they prevent children from obtaining the best cures and treatments for their injuries and illnesses.

Religious objections to stem-cell research certainly does fit in as one of the many areas in which religious institutions have come down on the side of sickness over health. On this issue, I deny that this moral issue is all that complicated. Zygotes do not have desires; thus, they cannot be wronged. (See Abortion and Infanticide Part I and Part II.) The fact that a lot of people do not like a particular issue does not imply that the issue is complicated. The label ‘complicated’ is simply a label that those who do not like the conclusion use to give themselves permission not to like it.

Ultimately, the issue of embryonic stem cell research is no more complicated than the issue of small-pox vaccines was 200 years ago. It is not complicated at all. It only appears complicated to those who have yet to reconcile the facts of medical science with their primitive religious beliefs.


are you attempting to claim that moral concepts have a 'shelf-life' after which they are harmful? Are you attempting to claim that a particular person's ignorance of, for example, quantum theory means that their concepts of civic governance or human rights are inherently flawed? If not, what *do* you mean?

I would not infer that ignorance of quantum theory implied ignorance of moral facts unless somebody could demonstrate that quantum theory had moral implications – that it provided information on how we should or should not behave.

However, I am a moral realist. (See: Who Gets to Decide) I hold that moral facts are a subset of scientific facts. It is a subset that primitive human cultures did not understand very well.

Another set of scientific facts that primitive cultures did not understand very well was the science of agriculture. However, this does not imply that they were unable, on the whole, to grow enough food to survive. Obviously, some of them were able to pull off this much with their primitive understanding or we would not be here. Similarly, they knew enough about organizing societies to have survived, though history tells us that they did not survive very well. In the realm of morality, as in the realm of agriculture, we can do better than they did, because we know more.

Correspondingly, turning the clock back on morality so that we return to the primitive standards that existed 2000 years ago would have disastrous effects similar to turning our understanding of agriculture back 2000 years. Such a move would kill most of us and leave most of the survivors wishing they were dead. It is as grave of a mistake for a person to hold up a book of ancient moral truths and say, “This is how we should live our lives,” as it would be to hold up a book on ancient farming practices and say, “We may not engage in the practice of farming in any way that deviates with the lessons given in this book.”

The concept of ‘human rights” that you are talking about did not even exist until the 1600s. Before that time, the idea of a ‘right’ did not exist. It certainly cannot be found in any scripture. I consider the discovery of ‘rights’ in the 1600s to be comparable to Newton’s discovery of the principles of motion in the same age. It is not a coincidence that they were discovered the same way – by people who believed that they could discover truth without appeal to scripture. This is not to deny that both Newton and Locke were very religious people – but their methods of investigation made no use of scripture or religion.

I am sorry, but as an outsider looking in this piece smacks a little bit of 'others = bad' and I would like some clarity, please.

Your comment is somewhat ambiguous. It is a necessary truth that if an agent believes that X is true, then he also believes that all people who believe that X is false are mistaken. A person who believes X and rejects not-X, while at the same time holding that believing not-X and rejecting X is just as plausible, is suffering from some type of epistemic dual personality disorder.

So, yes, when I assert that X is true, I also assert that everybody who believes not-X is mistaken. This is part of what it means to say X is true.

This does not mean that I refuse to accept the possibility of my own error. Of course, I cannot coherently believe that I am mistaken. If I believed that, I would have no choice but to change my mind. At the same time, I have often said, “In these writings, I have certainly made at least one mistake. I do not know where it is (because if I knew, I would change it), but I do not know what it is. I leave it up to my readers to discover what that mistake is (what those mistakes are).