Monday, June 30, 2008

Motivating Atheists

This post is long - the type of post that it is easy to skip past. Yet, I think it has some useful information for those who have asked a question or two about how to actually motivate atheists and secularists.

A member of the studio audience wrote to me expressing disappointment that so few people seemed interested in the Pledge Project in specific - or motivating atheists in general. He wondered why this was the case, and what can be done to change it.

In light of this question, I want to say some things about what Desire Utilitarianism has to say about motivation in general - how to get people to act in certain ways. For example, how do you motivate people to put some serious effort into countering the anti-atheist propaganda that is written into the national motto and national pledge?

We start with the proposition that people always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs.

[Note: If one is interested in a more technical description; people act in a way such that, if their beliefs were true and complete, then their action will produce a state of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of the most and strongest of their desires are true.]

So, how do you get people motivated to take on the pledge and the motto?

Answer: You make it the case that actions that take on the pledge and the motto will fulfill the most and strongest of the desires of those you are talking to - given their beliefs.

In other words, if the people you are writing to are not already acting so as to take on this task, then it is because the task does not fulfill their desires, given their beliefs. In motivating them, you must alter their beliefs, or their desires, or both, so that the task does fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs.


There is a moral issue here with respect to beliefs. This model suggests that one of the ways in which we can motivate people into choosing to act in a particular way is by lying to them. Since people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs, if we get them to (falsely) believe that a particular act will fulfill their desires, we can manipulate how they choose to act. With the right lie, we can get them to act in ways that they think will fulfill their desires, but which will fulfill our desires instead.

For just this reason we have many and strong reasons to promote a love of truth and an aversion to deception. We have reason to praise those who strive to make sure that others have true beliefs, and condemn those who attempt to manipulate others through false beliefs.

I have mentioned in an earlier posts that liars are parasites. They feed off of the intentional actions of others – manipulating others into thinking that an acti will fulfill the agent's own desires when, in fact, it will thwart the agent's desires and fulfill the desires of the liar instead. We have reason to view these parasites with great condempt, and become deserving of contempt ourselves if we take this route.

So, let's add the moral constraints that we are going to be concerned with true beliefs, and we are going to respect a person's interest in actually fulfilling the most and strongest of her own desires.

With this moral restriction to provide true and complete beliefs in place, then the task of manipulating others is limited to the task of providing them with information that they are missing that is currently preventing them from fulfilling the most and strongest of their own desires. Belief-centered persuasion here focuses on, "Here are some facts that you seem not to be aware of. With these facts in place, you can see that the most and strongest of your desires can be better fulfilled by doing act A." This, then, motivates the agent to perform act A.

Much of what I have written in the Pledge Project fits into this category of motivation. I have sought to bring into the light some moral facts about 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' that have been buried behind an excess of interest in legal facts

Namely, that 'under God' in the Pledge adds atheism and other non-monotheist beliefs to the list of great evils that no patriotic American will support – the others being rebellion (indivisible), tyranny (with liberty), and injustice (with justice for all). It is my hope that readers will have an aversion to being classified with those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice, and see stronger reason to oppose 'under God' in the Pledge.

Also, I sought to point out how "In God We Trust" translates into "We Trust in God" – which means, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not think of you as one of us." This, I argue, is morally comparable to a sign that says, "If you are not hite, then we do not think of you as being one of us," since not being white is as irrelevant to matters of patriotism and moral character as not trusting in God. My hope is that people will have a sufficient aversion to this type of injustice that they would be motivated to challenge the Pledge and the Motto.

However, I could be wrong. It may be the case that opposing the Pledge and the Motto fulfills (or prevents the thwarting) of the agent's most and strongest desires. To the degree that this is the case, the person seeking to motivate others has to look towards another set of motivations.

Reward and Punishment

The next option in motivating people is to create a situation where the actions one wants them to perform will fulfill their desires. That is, to use threats and rewards in order to create a state where, "If you perform these actions that I want you to perform, you will be rewarded - that is to say, I will see to the fulfillment of other desires of yours. If you do not perform these actions, then you will be punished. That is, I will see to the thwarting of certain desires of yours."

Of course, it takes a fair amount of power to do this. In the United States today, it is those who advocate in favor of the Pledge and the Motto who have this type of power. We have seen it at work in a number of cases regarding the Pledge over at "Atheist Ethicist Journal" - people who have been subject to threats in order to get them to support or endorse the Pledge in some way.

This actually presents us ith a Catch-22. The reason that atheists do not have power, is because they are not organized. This lack of organization is caused, in part, by a lack of motivation to challenge the Pledge and the Motto. Increasing motivation will increase power, yet, to some extent, increased power is required to increase motivation.

Altering Malleable Desires

Setting this problem aside for a moment, the next option for motivation is to alter the desires that agents have. If people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, if we can change their desires so that they have a strong aversion to any state that includes 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' as the motto, then they will be motivated to realize a state in which these do not exist.

Unfortunately, we have a situation where those who favor 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' have a virtual monopoly on the power to manipulate the desires of others – particularly young children. They have used this power to promote a desire to protect 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' – and to promote an aversion to any who would object to these practices. They use this power in particular on young children, where the aversions can be set deep and affect an individual long into adulthood.

We manipulate malleable desires through praise and condemnation. Those desires that we praise (particularly in children) tend to become stronger. Those desires that we condemn (particularly in children) tend to become weaker.

One of those hidden and unappreciated facts about the Pledge and the Motto is that they are instances of praise and condemnation. 'Under God' in the Pledge is a statement of praise for those who would support 'one nation under God' – just as it aims to praise those who would support union, and support liberty and justice for all.

"In God We Trust" is also a statement of praise for those who trust in God – claiming that such people deserve the honor of being included in the group known as "we"; while those who do not trust in God do not deserve membership.

When these emotional manipulators are applied to very young children, they created deep-seated desires and aversions. In this case, one of the aversions that it creates is an aversion to challenging 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' in the motto.

So, when I (and others) suggest that people challenge things like the Pledge and the Motto, we discover that such an act does not fulfill the desires of very many people. People, trained since early childhood to resist challenges to these practices, look on the instructions with a feeling of uneasiness – even dread. Following the suggestion thwarts basic desires planted in them at a very young age, and people will tend to avoid actions that go against their deepest aversions.

Theocratic Use of Three Tools of Motivation

In this, I want to point out how well the theocratic supporters of the current Pledge and Motto have used these three tools of motivation. They have manipulated beliefs so that people believe that support for the Pledge and the Motto fulfills desires that those agents already have. They have branded these acts of discrimination as acts of prejudice, and constantly assert that they show respect for all people who have fought for our rights.

They have power and they are willing to use it to make sure that others act so as to promote this Pledge and Motto. Let a politician dare to challenge the Pledge and Motto, and they summon their friends and neighbors to make sure that the perpetrator knows, "You will either support us on this, or you will suffer the political consequences."

Finally, they mold the desires – particularly of young children – by exposing them constantly to the idea that support for 'one nation under God' is praiseworthy, while failure to support 'one nation under God' is the same as insulting America and insulting all of those who have fought for our freedom. They expose children – and Americans in general – as much as possible to the praise of knowing that those who trust in God qualify as being one of 'us', and that those who do not trust in God are not to be counted as one of us.


Other groups that have faced discrimination have faced the same problem. Universally, it is recognized that one of the primary tasks in motivating people is to tackle these unproductive aversions that the culture has planted in people. Other groups recognize this problem as the problem of empowerment.

Gay-pride parades are not useful so much because of the effect that they have on others. They are useful for the effect that they have on those who march in the parade. This is an act of empowerment – a way of asserting oneself and overcoming the sense of shame and guilt that one has learned to associate with being gay at a very young age.

The women's rights movement instituted a ritual where women would burn their bras. What did this accomplish? What it accomplished was that it was an act of empowerment – a way of burning the psychological baggage that has been associated with a culture that has branded them as inferior and fit only to obey the rule of men.

Two rituals of empowerment have emerged in the atheist community to date. One of them was the Blasphemy Challenge. To make a video in which one denies the existence of God, and to post it on the internet, is an act of empowerment – just what is needed to throw off the yoke of aversions planted in us since childhood.

Another ritual of empowerment is Dawkins' Out Campaign. This campaign has promoted as a political act – an act grounded on the principle, "If they knew us, then they would not hate us." I have objected to this claim. History provides us with too many examples of groups easily identified yet still easily discriminated against.

However, if we take the same campaign and put it in a different context – if it were branded as an empowerment campaign, then it has merit. On this perspective, wearing the scarlet A is not a way of changing the world. It is a way of changing oneself. It is a way of taking power back from those who have claimed unjust power for themselves.

An act of empowerment is not a magic pill that instantly erases the effects of emotional manipulation through years of exposure to the Pledge and Motto as a child. It is, instead, a step. It weakens the effects of those practices, hopefully making it a little easier to perform another act of empowerment, which weakens those learned reactions even more.

Derived Lessons

Since they have effectively used these tools that secularists have ignored, we have the effect of living in a society where more people are motivated to defend these practices than to remove them.

How do we change this?

(1) Remove the Pledge (when it contains the words 'under God') and the Motto from as many places as possible – particularly from places where young children are involved. Recognize that these practices aim to manipulate the emotions (desires) of young children by praising support for 'one nation under God' and 'In God We Trust'.

(2) Engage in and promote acts of empowerment. So something to take back power from those who have been using these tools to take power for themselves for 50+ years. Wear an atheist t-shirt, attend an atheist gathering, attend a civic event just so that you can sit through the Pledge of Allegiance in full view of everybody, or just 'come out' to somebody you have not come out to before. These are all acts of empowerment. These are all acts that say, "This is my life and I am claiming it for myself. You do not have control over me any longer."

Of course, acts of empowerment are infectious. When a child sees somebody standing up to the Pledge and the Motto, the child is much less likely to see that these practices are unquestioned. She is much more likely to ask questions. "Is it the case that the Pledge unfairly brands atheists as un-American by putting them in the same category as those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice.

But it has to start somewhere.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Pledge Project: The Philosopher's God

I had some false assumptions on when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will be releasing its opinion on "under God" and "In God We Trust." However, I do not want the Pledge Project to fade away into darkness. For the reasons I stated earlier, I think that failure to take a vocal stand on these issues is a mistake. These practices do psychological harm by generating an 'out-group' psychology among atheists that make them (us) passive and obedient, willing to silently concede power to the dominant and aggressive ‘in group’.

Remember, you can keep up on news relevant to the Pledge Project at The Atheist Ethicist Journal.

When I listened to the oral arguments presented to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals they included an argument that the word “God” referred to what the speaker called “the philosopher’s God”. This is supposed to be some generic, vague, idea of a God that all people, even atheists (assumedly) can believe in. It means, at least according to this speaker, “a moral code that is external to the speaker.”

Of course I believe in an external code that is external to the speaker. Desire utilitarianism finds morality in the tendency that malleable desires have to fulfill or thwart other desires (thus giving us reason to promote or to inhibit them respectively). Those relationships are substantially independent of the speaker – since the speaker has only a small subset of the desires that exist.

However, I have never in my life heard this referred to using the term “God.”

As a writer, one fact that I know about writing is that its purpose is to communicate. In order to communicate, I choose my words so that they generate certain ideas in the listener. What a word or phrase means is whatever idea a person can reasonably predict will spring in the mind of the listener or reader when confronting that term in that context.

Whenever a writer uses a term outside of its normal meaning, he or she owes it to the listener or reader to make it clear that this is an unusual definition of the word. For example, the term 'argument' in logic means ‘two or more propositions where one proposition (called ‘the conclusion’) is said to follow from the other proposition(s) (called ‘the premises’).

If I were to then write that my neighbors had an argument last night, readers would instantly know that I am not talking about the 'philosopher's argument'. What I mean by the term 'argument' is what virtually any native speaker would take me to mean by the term 'argument' in that context. They will take me as meaning that my neighbors had a disagreement that resulted in some emotional language being exchanged between them – perhaps some shouting, but some expression of strong emotion in any sense.

If I meant to say that they had two or more propositions where one was said to follow from the others, I had better include some hint in my writing or speaking to indicate that this was the meaning that I had in mind. Otherwise, the native English speaker will be perfectly within his rights to assume that I meant the "shouting match" definition of 'argument' instead.

Ask any native speaker what the word 'God' means in the Pledge of Allegiance. They will tell you that it means the God of the Judeo-Christian religion, or something similar. They will deny that it means the "God" of the Muslim religion – that God is known by a different name, 'Allah'. Among competent English speakers, 'God' means Judeo-Christian god, 'Allah' means Muslim god, other gods are identified by some sort of qualifier (e.g., ancient Greek god, Egyptian god).

If we are speaking in a way that sets the context for our speech – that is to say, if we are speaking about ancient Greek culture or about religious practices in Iran – then we may drop the qualifier and use the term ‘God’. People know from the context which God the term refers to. This is true in the same way that I can tell my wife that my keys are on ‘the table’ and she knows which table I am talking about.

None of this changes the fact that the term 'God' outside of that context or in a different context has a different meaning – and that the God of the Pledge of Allegiance is the Judeo-Christian God.

Nobody . . . nobody, except, somebody who wants to pull the wool over the eyes of an Appeals court judge or a few gullible readers . . . uses the term 'God' in a sense that means 'external morality'. This simply is not a recognized use of the term.

Claiming that this is the meaning of the term is such an absurd proposition that we are within bounds in many cases to call it a lie. It’s the type of fabrication a person invents when he knows he has been caught doing something wrong but needs to come up with something – anything - to try to deflect blame (or to create a diversion from the real issue).

We can see the magnitude of the lie in the fact that the Pledge is taught to young children. Certainly we do not expect young children to be thinking of 'the philosopher's God' when they are told that there are four great evils that all loyal Americans oppose; one of them being 'a nation not under God'.

They think of the God of their Sunday school class, the God of Jewish or Christian scripture. This is exactly the God that those who put 'under God' in the Pledge wanted children to be thinking about. They certainly made no attempt to try to clarify the situation. They clearly did not express any worries that, "Somebody might misunderstand our statement and think we are talking about the Christian God when we are not – so we had better append some sort of explanation to the law."

Sometimes the person being lied to will accept the lie because it is convenient to do so. You catch your best friend in a lie about where she was at last night. She comes up with some phony excuse as to how she could have been at the movie theater with Brad. You do not believe her but, to avoid a fight, you accept the lie without question and move on.

There are a lot of people who are so intent on keeping 'under God' in the Pledge that they are willing to embrace anything that might give the act a sense of legitimacy. There are even many judges who fall into this category – who are inclined by their prejudices to accept any argument the defense might put to paper no matter how absurd, and to accept their argument in his decision. If any judge were to accept the ‘philosopher’s God’ argument, we can bet that this is what is going on.

It is the same thing as when judges turned a blind eye to the inequalities of 'separate but equal' when they valued segregation.

I would say that, if you encounter somebody in a discussion forum or a debate who tries to pull the 'philosopher's God' defense, that it would be acceptable to simply call him a liar. "You're saying that when people hear the term 'God' in the Pledge, the thought that pops into their head is not the Judeo-Christian God, but the Philosopher’s God? You, sir, know that to be false. This makes you a liar. I bet you can find only the smallest subset of the population of native English speakers – those that you haven't coached into repeating your lie – who will report thinking of this so-called 'philosopher's God' when he hears the Pledge of Allegiance."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Giles Frasier on Morality and Non-Belief

Giles Frasier wrote an article in Ekklesia on Moral practice and non-belief. In it, Fraier says that atheists can be moral, but adds:

My worry about the way many atheists describe the process of moral decision-making is that it seems to boil down to a sense of moral instinct, informed by a few formulas of general benevolence: i.e. do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Often, there is much talk about being a “good person”.

He objects that:

This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.

He compares this to Christian moral decision-making, which he describes as follows:

Christian moral decision-making begins with a strong sense that we often try to fool ourselves, and thus we need some external check. Going to church, regular prayer, reading from scripture, specific times to meet and challenge each other’s moral instincts: all these are forms of external practice which offer checks against the dominance of my own internal moral intuitions.

Except the Bible itself was written by people who were using the same moral system that Frasier complains about when talking about atheists. They did not get their morality from God. They got their morality by appealing to their own moral intuitions and desires – fully under the influence of their human capacity to deceive themselves into thinking they were doing the right thing, when they were simply doing what they wanted or what made them happy.

We can see evidence of the fact that the Bible was written by humans assigning their own beliefs and prejudices to God by the moral code that was written in the Bible. Naturally, church leaders would want everybody to owe them allegiance and to give allegiance to no other religion, so they began with, "Thou shalt have no other God before me." They approved of slavery, as long as they were not the ones being enslaved, so they approved a Bible that allowed the enslavement of people from other countries, but not the enslavement of their own people.

They naturally thought that rape was not a problem since nothing in the Bible explicitly condemns rape as a crime. In fact, the punishment handed out for rape in the Bible was that the rapist had to marry the victim. Certainly, this was useful for a father who had daughters that he needed to marry off – for whom a raped daughter was ‘damaged goods’.

They had a natural aversion to murder and theft so they had good reason to write in prohibitions on murder and theft. Since they wanted their wives and children to obey them unquestionably they wrote commandments and prohibitions into scripture that sais that the husband was the head of the household with a right to rule while others had a duty to obey.

The eating of shellfish is an abomination because – well, have you ever looked at a shellfish? They’re disgusting. My wife has a hard time with peel-and-eat shrimp. So, of course, eating those things must be considered an abomination.

Some of these prohibitions are likely grounded on pure superstition and prejudice. Perhaps past generations thought that planting two different types of crops next to each other meant bad luck. In a religious context, "bad luck" is easily translated into "God's disapproval." If written in modern times, a Bible might well have prohibitions on hotels having a 13th floor or special commandments against walking underneath a ladder.

Of course, once the Bible was written (by people appealing to their own prejudices), it became a standard that future generations can appeal to that is outside of their own prejudice. Yet, we clearly see that the Bible is not used this way.

People pick and choose which parts of the Bible they are going to obey and which they are going to ignore. How do people decide which parts of the Bible represent actual moral requirements and prohibitions, and which can be ignored? We can easily say of those who think that the Bible actually serves as an external moral standard that:

This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing [when deciding how to interpret biblical text or choosing which text to obey or ignore], when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.

Current bigotry against homosexuals is not something that people get out of the Bible – something that people disapprove of because the Bible calls it an abomination. If people got their morality out of the Bible then they would be just as intent on protesting the eating of shrimp as they would homosexual sex. Instead, anti-homosexual bigotry is a cultural prejudice that gets read into scripture. It is one of the prejudices that people appeal to in deciding which parts of the Bible they want to pretend to be the word of God, and which part they want to ignore.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I do believe in an ‘external moral standard’ in a sense. Morality has to do with which malleable desires people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit. The vast majority of the ‘people generally’ are external. So, determining facts about how certain desires will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires is generally an examination of facts outside of the agent – of external facts, and not something that can be answered by appeal to personal feelings.

I do not deny the power of self-deception or even blatant disregard for moral facts. These things clearly exist, and these are things that we need to combat. Desire utilitarianism, handles these problems to an extent because it is concerned with the manipulation of malleable desires. A person with good desires has nothing to deceive himself about. He gets to do what he likes and at the same time does what he should because moral institutions have brought the two into harmony.

Fraser makes another point about atheism and morality that is true, but he falsely thinks that it is a problem.

Of course, atheists are often part of other traditions — political ones, for instance — that can generate public checks against self-deception. But, simply as atheists, they have little to perform this task.

It is true that atheism itself does not provide any moral checks on behavior. This is also true of heliocentrism (the view that the sun is at the center of the solar system), Einstein's theory of relativity, the theory of plate tectonics, atomic theory, and evolution. None of these provide the person who believes them with moral guidance – because none of these are moral theories. They are purely descriptive theories about how the universe is (or isn't, as the case may be). None of these are theories about how the world should be.

The fact that plate tectonic theory does not provide us with moral guidance is hardly a problem with plate tectonic theory. It is not a reason to reject the theory and provide it with one that does provide moral guidance. Similarly, the fact that atheism is not a moral theory is not a reason to reject it in favor of some type of religious theory where morality comes from God. It is a theory that says that if we are going to find morality, we must look for it someplace other than in a God that does not exist. We need to find morality in something that does exist

Desires exist. Desires are reasons for action – so they lend themselves quite naturally to claims about what a person has reasons-for-action to do or to refrain from doing. That which fulfills desires are good, and that which thwarts desires are bad. Yet, on this model, desires themselves can also be good or bad. Desires that tend to fulfill other desires are good, and desires that tend to thwart other desires are bad. Furthermore, we can act so as to promote or inhibit certain malleable desires. So, we have reasons-for-action to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires.

People are mistaken when they try to find morality in God. What they are finding is not an external morality, but a set of prejudices and superstitions that primitive human beings (self-deceived and substantially ignorant of the world around them) made up in their own mind and assigned to God. Naturally, they assigned to God the moral values they liked, or that benefited them in some way.

In order to find morality we have to look for reasons for action that actually do exist – not those that primitive and superstitious people made up. Desires are reasons for action that exist. We find value in relationships between states of affairs and desires. And, finally, we find moral value in good and bad desires – in promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Standards for Determining Who Should Be Killed

Note: I am continuing the Pledge Project at Atheist Ethicist Journal. There, I am tracking political events relevant to 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' across the country. If you want to help do some preliminary work on the Pledge Project, waiting for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to give out their decision, please visit there.

Obama has come out against the Supreme Court's decision that the execution of somebody who rapes a child is cruel and unusual punishment (in violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution).

MSNBC reports in McCain, Obama disagree with child rape ruling:

"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes," Obama said at a news conference. "I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution."

For my part, I think that the best position to adopt is to be in opposition to all capital punishment. I am not firmly committed to this position. It is grounded on evidence that seems to suggest that a country that raises its children with a greater aversion to killing - an aversion strong enough that they disapprove of capital punishment - also raises fewer murderers. The hypothesis here is that the celebration of certain killings that we find in a society with capital punishment teaches at least some children the joy of killing, making it psychologically easier for them to commit murder.

My commitment to this position will depend on the degree to which empirical research confirms or falsifies this hypothesis.

However, my objection to Obama's position is not so much with his conclusion, but with the standards that he has used to reach this conclusion. He believes that the death penalty should be applied to “the most egregious of crimes”.

How do we determine what counts as "the most egregious of crimes"?

There are people who think that blasphemy is the most egregious of crime. Nothing that you can do to another human being is nearly as bad as insulting or denying God – the divine creator.

Some societies hold that apostasy (converting from one’s religion) is the most egregious of crime.

Some people think that teaching heathen beliefs to children, putting their immortal soul in danger, is the most egregious of crime.

If somebody goes to scripture to discover what the most egregious of crimes are – crimes that deserve the death penalty – then working on the Sabbath and eating shellfish are on the list of most egregious of crimes.

I think that we can safely assume that Obama does not share these standards. But, what standard does he apply?

"While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes — mass murder, the rape and murder of a child — so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment," he wrote in his book "The Audacity of Hope."

So, it seems that Obama's standard for determining who should live or die is whether one can muster enough outrage to want somebody killed. If somebody is sufficiently outraged by the sight of somebody else sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance, then the death penalty for sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance becomes justified. The very desire to want somebody killed is justification for killing him.

This is the type of standard that I worry about with respect to the relationship between capital punishment and murder. A society that teaches its children that the desire to want somebody killed justifies killing him is a society that will raise more murderers than one that teaches children that, no matter how great your outrage, you should not kill.

Anyway, perhaps Obama is not advocating that we measure the justification for killing people by our own desire to see them killed. Perhaps Obama is offering, instead, the Obama outrage test. "In order to determine if you are justified in killing somebody you should not look at whether you want that person killed. You should look at whether I want that person killed." The Obama-outrage standard would have the advantage of giving one standard to everybody. It has the disadvantage of having absolutely no reason or justification to back it up.

Yet, maybe the Obama standard is not as personal as we might believe at first. Perhaps rather than the Obama-Outrage Test, what Obama is really using is the Obama-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test. This test differs from the Obama Outrage test in that Obama does not look at his own sense of outrage to determine whether a particular policy is right or wrong. Instead, what he looks at are poll results and other pieces of data that suggest what impact his stated position on an issue will have on his campaign.

He is merely pretending to use some other standard – and is struggling to identify a standard he can pretend to have, a standard other than the Obama's-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test – that would yield the same results. Those standards are unreasonable, but it is not impossible for a fake but unreasonable standard to pass the Obama's-Chance-Of-Getting-Elected Test.

I am a realist about this last proposed standard. It follows as a matter of logic that elected offices will be filled by those who hold this standard more than any other. The candidate that allow public opinion to determine his position has a significant advantage over the candidate that bases his position on principle. So, we have no choice but to elect a candidate whose standard for morality is, "That which gets me elected is good; that which thwarts my election is bad."

Yet, I would love to hear a candidate declare what I would declare in this type of circumstance. "I believe that capital punishment is a mistake. I believe that it gets innocent people killed, and we can save innocent lives by raising our children to think that all killing is wrong. However, in running for public office, I am not running so that I can represent only myself. I represent you. Too many politicians run for office expecting that, after being elected, they have a constiuentcy of on - themself. Poll tell me that you support execution in this case. As your representative, I will carry out your wishes. Though, in this case, I think you are making a mistake, and innocent people will suffer as a result."

The MSNBC Article also mentions briefly how Michael Dukakis was defeated in part because of his stand on capital punishment. Dukakis was against capital punishment.

Dukakis was asked during a nationally televised debate with Republican George H. W. Bush whether he'd still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. His unemotional, dispassionate answer was ridiculed, and gave Republicans more material to paint him as an emotionless liberal.

With the advantage of hind sight, I could suggest a better answer to this question.

"If the institution and culture that are required to execute my wife's killer was one in which your wife would more likely to be killed as well, then I would forego the execution of my wife's killer for your wife’s sake. And for yours."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pandering on Energy

Reminder: You can continue to find Pledge Project updates at my other blog, Atheist Ethicist Journal

In other news, both Presidential candidates have decided to pander to an ignorant public on matters of energy policy, rather than educate the public on the real problem or to propose real solutions.

Both candidates are telling the American people that the problem, when it comes to energy, is the price of gasoline, and both candidates are offering proposals that have the explicit goal of lowering the price of gasoline. They then criticize each other’s proposal by pointing out how ineffective their opponents’ projects will be on effecting the price of gasoline.

The real problem is not the price of gasoline. The real problem is the cost of energy.

The difference between price and cost is determined by who pays the bill. If I go over to your place and buy a car from you for $1000, then the price of the car is $1000. The cost of the car includes the time and expense of getting to you. It also includes whatever I have to give up in order to spend the time and money getting the car. If, for example, I spend a weekend getting to you so that I can buy your car, and I could have spent that weekend hiking in the mountains, then a part of the cost of buying the car from you is the value of a trip hiking in the mountains.

My costs are not the only costs involved when we look at the transaction. The cost of my buying the car includes the costs inflected on others by my actions. If I fly to where you live to pick up the car, and I bump somebody else off of the flight, then his lost opportunity to take that flight is a part of the cost of my buying the car. If my getting the car from you mean that somebody else, who only has $900, loses the opportunity to buy the car. That is also a part of the overall social cost.

(Note that value of $900 in the hands of somebody who only has $1000 is a lot greater than the value o $1000 in the hands of somebody who has, let us say, $1 billion. The first person, in paying $900 for the car, has to give up a lot more than the second person in paying $1000. The ‘cost’ in this case cannot be measured in terms of dollars because the same dollar has different values for different people.)

The cost of burning a gallon of gasoline – which is what any moral person would be focused on rather than price - includes the contribution that burning gasoline makes to global warming and the costs that future generations will have to bear as a result. This could well include the widespread destruction of a great deal of coastal property through sea-level rise. I’m not just talking about the destruction of what was built on the property, but the loss of the property itself as what is now dry land becomes ocean floor.

Another cost of having America consume the oil that it has available domestically is that it has less of a reserve to draw upon in the case of an emergency. I know that this is a wild science-fiction like example that has absolutely no chance of happening in the real world, but assume that there is a significant outbreak of violence in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia and Iran that disrupts oil supplies.

If that happens, we will be in much better shape if we have resources off shore and in Alaska that we have not touched than we would be if we used these resources up. They are like a saving’s account that protect a worker from the possibility of getting fired. We have the Strategic Oil Reserve for these types of emergencies, but the Strategic Oil Reserve is meant to protect us from a short-term disruption. The larger and longer the disruption we are worried about, the more reserve we need to protect ourselves from it.

In other words, another part of the cost of opening up offshore drilling or ANWR is the cost of lower national security – the cost of having nothing to fall back on if events elsewhere block our access to foreign oil, if we have used up all of our domestic oil.

I want to note that, in speaking about what a moral person would be concerned with, one might think that politicians are excluded from this list. However, the politicians, in taking the stands they do are pandering to the public. If the public itself was made up of moral people – if the voters were concerned about the cost of gasoline rather than the price of gasoline, then politicians will only be able to pander to the public by doing the right thing. Politicians get to take the immoral option of speaking only about the price of gasoline because the voters are not living up to their moral obligation to be concerned with cost, rather than price.

There are two tremendous side effects of a high price of fossil fuels. One is that it provides an incentive to conserve. As people find way to consume fewer fossil fuels, they inflict less costs on future generations.

The other, more significant effect is that if the price of oil is high, and it stays high, it provides an economic incentive to invest in option that do not have the same costs. It provides an incentive for research in nuclear, wind, solar, tidal, biomass, and other forms of energy. Research in those fields of energy could very well lead to discoveries that will lower the overall cost of energy.

The factors that investors are going to use to determine if investment in an area of production is worthwhile includes more than the current price of competitive options. It considers the future price of competitive options. Even the threat that the government is going to play with the price of oil – that the government is going to push oil prices lower through artificial means – is enough to frighten investors away from options that will not be competitive at the lower price of oil.

I am talking here about artificially lower prices of oil – prices manipulated downwards by having the government force excessive production (generating a false economic sense of surplus).

Another cost of these policies is that, while the government is keeping the price of oil artificially low by forcing oil into the market (regardless of costs), it is encouraging people to use up the oil we have left that much more quickly while discouraging people from investing in substitutes (because they cannot compete against the artificially low price).

The combined result of these two effects is that future generations will more quickly come to an age in which there simply is not enough oil for them to use – where governments cannot force more into production because it does not exist. At the same time, they will discover that they have not been building up alternatives. They will find themselves facing an economic catastrophe at the same time that they find themselves confronting a global climate catastrophe.

For a person with good desires – desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others – this is definitely something to be avoided.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Immorality of Homosexual Marriage

I have moved discussion of the Pledge Project to my other blog, Atheist Ethicist Journal. That blog continues to track cases where the Pledge is used as a gate to keep atheists (or any who do not say the Pledge for any reason) out of public office and other moral offense. Atheist Ethicist Journal will continue to cover things that you can do to promote the moral case against 'under God' and 'In God We Trust'.

However, Sporkyy at Unscrewing the Inscrutable posted an endorsement of the E Pluribus Unim petition . The posting, 'Under God'/'In God We Trust' petition also contains a poster that demonstrates one of the moral problems with "In God We Trust" as the national motto. I would not mind seeing the poster in a few civic buildings and schoolhouse walls myself.

On to business as usual:

Since the California Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional to prohibit marriage among people of the same sex, I have noticed an important problem in the way people have talked about this issue.

The word 'morality' has been used almost exclusively by those who are opposed to the decision. They are writing that the Supreme Court decision is a defeat for morality, In some cases, they have argued that the Court is threatening to eliminate all moral constraints. If all things are now permissible, then murder, rape, and theft also become permissible.

Let's put the facts on the table. The California Supreme Court decision is a victory for morality because it protects the interests of innocent people from those who would harm those interests without justification. The Supreme Court's decision that permits homosexual marriage was no more of a defeat for morality than the 1st Amendment rights to freedom of the press and freedom of religion. These freedoms, too, were once branded as enemies of morality since people who were allowed to practice a different faith and not instructed in the One True Religion were at risk of adopting immoral practices.

This does not say that the Court's decision was an accurate interpretation of the law. There are unjust and immoral laws – such as laws that allow a person to marry somebody of a different gender while prohibiting marriage to somebody of the same gender. The Fugitive Slave Law in the 1850s, Jim Crow law, segregation, the Japanese Internment, and the like represent other immoral laws. There are a slew of questions to be asked whenever any court is asked to enforce injustice and immorality.

Yet, none of that is relevant to the point of this essay – that a society that permits homosexual marriage is more moral than a society that does not.\

It is a mistake not to put it in these terms, and to allow those who like morality to religion or to scripture to make their assertions unchallenged. In this sense, silence implies consent. In this case, refusing to challenge claims that link morality to scripture means that most people only hear that they are linked. If that is all they hear, then that is what they will believe, which will perpetuate the myth, much to our disadvantage.

As a matter of fact, the 'morality' that we find in scripture is a morality that was invented by man, and then assigned to God. It is a theory that is filled with error – just as ancient theories of astronomy, physics, and economics were filled with error. This is not to say that everything found in scripture is mistaken. Ancient peoples were able to get some of the more obvious moral facts right, just as they were able to get some of the more obvious scientific facts right. But this does not change the fact that there are whole areas filled with error.

Then, these man-made moral errors get assigned to God, creating a situation where injustices get carried far into the future – thousands of years into the future – where injustices thought moral by primitive man are still being inflicted on innocent people today.

One of those ancient moral superstitions – the moral equivalent of the scientific superstition that the Earth is the center of the universe – is the claim that there is something morally objectionable with homosexual relationships. This is an ancient prejudice – like the permissibility of enslaving those who are from another country – invented by man and assigned to God.

Those who are familiar with this story know that there is a measure on the California ballot that will amend the Constitution to bar homosexual marriage. In that fight, I once again see that those who support the amendment are allowed to have a near monopoly on the use of the term 'morality'. In that fight, I once again see a people willing to give consent (through their silence) to the idea that whatever violates scripture is immoral, and whatever is immoral should not be permitted.

I would like to start to read those who are opposed to this Amendment that the Amendment itself is a threat to morality. It is a threat to the moral principle that the state should protect the interests of its peaceful citizens, and that one of the key moral principles that hold any moral society together is equal respect for those who do no harm.

I would like to hear the fact that reported that those who wish to prohibit homosexual marriage and who defend it through scripture are no different in principle than those who wrote into the U.S. Constitution that black slavery was permissible and defended it with references to scripture.

I would like to hear some people use this opportunity to point out that while some things found in scripture correspond to morality, that others do not, and that we can create a more moral society by ignoring certain biblical prescriptions (as with slavery) than we can by obeying them.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Considering False Beliefs

I am still acutely embarrassed over my mistake regarding the expected release of the Pledge rulings. As a result of that mistake, my thoughts today are firmly fixated on considerations on the ethics of belief.

Note: Even though I got the timing wrong, I am still going to be using the Atheist Ethicist Journal to drum up as much support for the Pledge Project as I can before the decisions actually do come out.

It is a part of our human makeup that if, at some time, we go through a set of reasoning to determine the truth of a given conclusion, we will remember the conclusion, but not the reasons we had for believing it.

If it turns out that one of those premises happens to be false, we can then change our mind about the premise, and yet not change our mind about the conclusion that came from the original false beliefs.

If you think about it, a huge stock of your beliefs fit this description. One of my beliefs is that the Martian day is almost the same as the Earth day. I cannot tell you where I learned this. I certainly did not measure the length of the day on Mars myself - I trusted that others were right when they told me this. Yet, I am certain that it is true. Even though I might be mistaken.

I do not remember how I came to believe that the Courts of Appeals worked on the same calendar as the Supreme Court. Yet, I did reach that conclusion somehow, and I fastened a flag on it that gave it the status of near certainty. It had a certainty value around 9.8 on a scale from 1 to 10.

Rationalists never assign anything a certainty value of 10. Even a simple proposition like “parallel lines never meet” can be called into question by a different way of looking at the universe. Even the proposition that nothing should be assigned a certainty of 10 is not given a certainty of 10. It always waits around looking for the possible case in which it is false.

This is one difference between rationalist ways of thinking and some faith-based alternatives. Faith-based alternatives assign to some propositions a certainty of 10. There is no possibility that these propositions are false. If evidence appears to suggest that they are false, then this proves (to those who have faith in certain conclusion) that they do not understand the evidence. A proper understanding of the evidence can never contradict a belief with a certainty of 10.

Budget constraints (in terms of time and energy) do not allow us the opportunity to hold every belief up to the light of reason. We form some beliefs sloppily. We must. Can you imagine a young child of 3 years of age holding all of his beliefs up to the light of reason? And, when that child of 3 becomes a child of 13 and he holds his beliefs up to the light of reason, much of that reason will have to do with consistency with belies that he acquired at the age of 3. He will not remember how he formed those beliefs. He will simply know that he has them and they have a certain certainty value. He has no capacity to review every belief he has ever acquired.

So, we must pick and choose which beliefs we should actually take the time to examine more closely. One of the standards which we should use in evaluating whether to re-evaluate a belief is the cost of being wrong. Another criterion, strangely enough, is the certainty flag. Once a belief has been flagged as near certain, this tells the brain that there is little to be gained by re-examining that belief. Instead, one should focus one’s efforts on some other belief.

I was so certain of the belief that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ended its term on June 30th that I accepted very high costs without re-examining that belief. The certainty flag suggested that re-examining it would be a waste of time.

Yet, once other people became involved, those priorities changed. My certainty flag gives me reason not to re-evaluate a belief, where I alone suffer the consequences of error. However, a morally responsible person does not inflict costs on others based on his or her certainty flag. Obligations to others require extra diligence.

So it was the case that when others started to ask me how I could be so certain that the Court will release its opinion by June 30 that I went to the effort to actually find out the facts of the matter.

I knew what I would find. When I started the search, it was simply a matter of looking for an official statement that says that the Court term end s on June 30th. The search was not grounded on any doubt about the fact of the matter. It was grounded on the fact that I wanted to provide others with the same certainty that I had – and they could not have the same level of certainty unless their beliefs were grounded on something more solid than my certainty.

Of course, what I discovered is that my own belief was not true. My belief went from high certainty to a moderate certainty that the original belief was false over the course of a few agonizing hours.

This policy of re-examining one’s beliefs, even beliefs that a person holds to be certain, when one discovers its effects on others, is a moral obligation that many religious traditions deny. We hear it said that religion is the great foundation for all morality. Yet, here is a component of morality that most of those same religions not only ignore, but counsel against.

These are the simple moral lessons. In this context, these points seem clear and obvious. Yet, there is one clear and obvious case where these moral principles are ignored.

There are people who advocate that an individual can have a belief, can use that belief to ground behavior harmful to others, and yet have absolutely no moral obligation to check those beliefs to make sure that they are well grounded. The claim is that these beliefs may be held on faith and faith alone. The fact that the faith grounds behavior harmful to others gives the agent absolutely no obligation to go back and review the belief to make sure that it is justified.

The case is actually worse than saying that there is no obligation to review the harmful beliefs. The claim is actually made that morality obligates the agent to refrain from questioning those beliefs. It is not even permissible to reconsider such beliefs.

Many people argue that there is some strong and necessary link between morality and religion. In this one case, religion teaches immorality. When religion tells a person that they may engage in behavior harmful to others and yet are obligated to refrain from examining the beliefs that underlie that behavior to determine if it is justified, in this case religion is teaching people to behave immorally.

I must point out that this is not a criticism of all religion. There are religions that teach that we must examine our beliefs, yet hold that the belief that a God exists and places certain demands on us is justified. These religions do not suffer from the fault that I have identified above.

It is also the case that a person does not have to be religious to hold an unjustified belief that leads to behavior harmful to others. People can hold these types of beliefs about any number of subjects, and still, at the same time, believe that it is (almost) certainly the case that no God exists.

This is not a criticism that says that atheists are inherently better than theists. Instead, this is a criticism that is meant to focus on the wrong of not examining one’s beliefs when an error in beliefs might lead to conclusions that are harmful to others. This happens to be a belief that is very common among a number of religions. Where it happens in any religion (or outside of religion) – wherever a priest counsels individuals to refrain from examining beliefs that serve as a foundation for behavior harmful to others – that religion and that priest promote immorality. They are advising their followers to refrain from doing something that all moral people have an obligation to do.

The fact that there are religions who commit wrongs on a much greater magnitude then the mistake that I made with respect to the timing of the 9th Circuit Court opinion does not change the fact that I should have been more careful.


I must confess to an error.

I was absolutely certain that the Courts of Appeals had to release decisions before their term ended on June 30. I was so certain that I planned my time off around this fact. I cannot tell you how certain I was that this was true.

However, when others started asking me how I knew and started making plans based on my response, I had a moral obligation to verify (or falsify) what I knew.

This is one of the principles of the ethics of belief. We cannot always hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason and evidence, so we must pick and choose which to examine and which will go unexamined. One of the criteria for picking and choosing is the effect of asserting a proposition on others.

Anyway, I could find no confirmation that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ended its term on June 30.

That was bad enough. How was something that was so certain be so hard to verify?

Then I thought of a way to test my hypothesis - to look for decisions released in July and August (other than court business such as stays of execution that have no set time limit).

I found some.

Now, I believe that my original certain belief was wrong. We might not get an opinion on or before June 30th.

I feel horrible about this.

At the same time, there are a lot of people out there professing things to be true who do not feel a sense of obligation to double-check their reasons for believing it before they inflict costs on others. And certainty is no guarantee of truth.

Yet, the fact that a particular moral obligation is so widely ignored is not a defense of ignoring it oneself.

I offer my appologies to any who made plans based on incorrect information. I should have done this sooner.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Pledge Project: Current and Historical Events


As the expected time for the release of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision comes near, I am starting to get a bit nervous. I went in to double-check some things that I thought I was certain about, and I have some worries. While I found evidence that the Supreme Court clears its docket of all cases by June, I can't find evidence of what I was certain was true - that the Appeals Court works on the same calendar.

At least, I was never one of the people who has argued that it is always a moral crime to have an unfounded belief.

But, I needed to confess this possible error as quickly as possible. Along with my regrets, if it turn out that I am in error.

I have gotten some help from people that I would like to mention.

Hank Fox at Earthman's Notebook included my article The Pledge Project: Sound Bytes in The 94th Carnival of the Godless. He gave me the honor of picking that post out for special mention. For that, I offer my thanks.

I have exchanged some emails with Stuart Bechman from Atheist United. He is sending out an email warning its members of the upcoming decision and directing them to a couple of the Pledge Project posts (Table of Contents, Sound Bytes) in making responses.

Mattew Goldstein took the wording from my Letter to Candidates and turned it into an online petition: E Pluribus Unum petition. I know of the problems with online petitions. Still, if you support the ideas that are contained within the petition, I would appreciate it if you would say so by signing it.

Also, remember, I will be covering these types of items on my other blog, Atheist Ethicist Journal. Go there for further updates.

In the mean time, I have been reading through some documents my mother sent me. She is writing up the family history – and doing a fine job of writing in my opinion. She is starting with a branch of the family that lived in Massachusetts in the 1600s.

It is interesting to note that, 350 years ago, my ancestors seemed to be heavily involved in church-state issues as well, including some work on a pledge of allegiance. Only, back then, they were on the side trying to establish a theocracy in Massachusetts – one that had no tolerance for anybody who did not share the dominant religious beliefs of a society that demanded religious purity from all citizens. That was why they were called ‘puritans’.

No one could become a freeman unless he was a member of the church and if he wasn’t a freeman he couldn’t vote in any election, nor hold office or be on a jury. Strong efforts were made to bar immigrants belonging to other religions denominations. Puritans came to Massachusetts to develop religious liberty for themselves not to tolerate other religions. Whenever a non-church member was tried for a crime or offence he was tried by both the judge and a jury that belonged to the church and so had a strong prejudice against him. The Freeman’s Oath was the first paper printed in New England at Cambridge in 1639 using the words that were established in 1634.

I _______ being by God’s providence, an Inhabitant and Freeman within the Jurisdiction of this Commonwealth; do freely acknowledge myself to be subject to the Government thereof: And therefore do here swear by the great and dreadful Name of the Ever-living God, that I will be true and faithful to the same, and will accordingly yield assistance and support thereunto, with my person and estate, assign equity I am bound; and will also truly endeavor to maintain and preserve all the liberties and privileges thereof, submitting myself to the wholesome Laws and Orders made and established by the same. And further that I will not plot or practice any evil against it, or consent to any that shall do so; but will timely discover and reveal the same to the lawful authority now here established for the speedy preventing thereof.

Moreover, I do solemnly bind myself in sight of God that when I shall be called to give my voice touching any matter of this state in which Freemen are to deal, I will give my vote and suffrage as I shall judge in mine own conscience may best conduce and tend to the public will of the body. So help me God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I find it interesting that, in this society that was devoted to establishing a religious theocracy, their Pledge of Allegiance is actually less objectionable than the one that we are currently burdened with. The person taking the oath does so in the name of God, in the site of God, and with the help of God, but does not actually bind himself or his community ‘under God’. The person binds himself, not to God, but to the government of the commonwealth.

In short, if you read the text, the concept of ‘under God’ is absent.

In the history of the time, I do not think we would be wrong in assuming that ‘under God’ was assumed. It is not stated that the government of the commonwealth was a government ‘under God’, but everybody thought that it was or, at least, that it should be.

The Puritans firmly believed their simple way of holding a religious meeting and of organizing a congregation was the only correct way. They were bitterly unfriendly and hostile to newcomers to their settlements who proposed or tried to set up any form of worship that differed from their own. Strenuous efforts were made to bar immigrants belonging to other religious denominations. Dissenters and critics who appeared among the Puritans were frowned upon and could be severely punished, executed and exiled into the wilderness. Puritans came to Massachusetts to develop religious liberty for themselves, not to establish an ideal of toleration for all religions.

After all, the lack of religious liberty that Massachusetts colonists gave their residents was one of the reasons that the Massachusetts Bay Colony lost its charter in 1684.

in 1684 the Puritan controlled Massachusetts Bay Colony lost the royal charter that was given to them in 1629. In 1691, after agreeing to observe the king's rules, they received a new charter under which they governed until the Revolutionary War.

My mother informs me that, in the period when the Puritans were expelling people who did not share the religious views of the Puritans that controlled the colony, our ancestors were not those who were driven out of the state. Instead of being expelled, they were the ones who were doing the expelling. They were the ones who administered the Freeman’s Oath and made sure that nobody voted or had a say in the direction of the colony who did not belong to the church.

The advocates of ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance today, at least in this respect, have the same attitude towards religion and politics as the Puritans did. Though they are not yet kicking people out of the community who do not share their beliefs, they still insist that nobody sits in government who is not a ‘freeman’ in the Puritan sense – who has not have the approved set of religious beliefs.

We’ve been here before. We do not need to come here again.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Pledge Project: Objectives

As the Pledge Project picks up steam, one comment that I am hearing goes like this:

Why fight? All is lost. When the Supreme Court hears the case they will say that ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’ do not violate the Constitution. We will be defeated.

The Pledge Project would actually gain strength if the Supreme Court ruled ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’ to be constitutional – because the Pledge Project focuses on the moral arguments, not the legal arguments. An unfavorable ruling by the Supreme Court will chase secularists out from behind the robes of the judiciary, leaving them no option but to confront the issue in the public forum – which is where the arguments advanced in the Pledge Project are strongest.

As I see it, whether or not the Supreme Court hears the case, and what their decision happens to be, are beyond my control – and beyond yours. These are ‘facts of nature’ that we have to live with whether we like them or not – like the fact that chocolate is fattening and you have to pay $25 million to spend a week on the Space Station.

The goal that I have selected for myself – to leave the world better than it would have otherwise been if I had not existed in it – was very deliberately selected. I did not like the goal of ‘leaving the world a better place’ because a lot of circumstances beyond my could leave the world a worse place in spite of my greatest efforts.

Even if the world ends up being worse off while I am here, I can at least work to make it less worse off than it would have otherwise been. And even if people would have been better off in my absence, I can at least work to make them more better off than they would have been.

Now, allow me to apply this to a potential Supreme Court ruling that declares ‘under God’ to be Constitutional. Let’s assume that the Supreme Court does declare ‘under God’ to be constitutional. I can still ask what I can do to make the world better off than it would have otherwise been. In this, I see two options. The Supreme Court can render its decision in a culture that never questions the Pledge, allowing people to assume that no evil is done and promote it use accordingly. Or the Supreme Court can render its decision in a culture where many people recognize that the Pledge promote discrimination in the same way that a pledge to ‘our white community’ promote discrimination.

Of these two options, it is the second option that leaves the world better off than it would have otherwise been.

In order to be as successful as possible in getting thee arguments into the public mind, I hope to exploit the fact that, for about 7 days in the end of June and early July, much of the country’s attention will be fixed on this issue. I wish to take advantage of this situation to get the moral arguments out in front of people where they can read them and hear them. The more successful I am in presenting these arguments to people, the more we will hear people raising moral objections to ‘under God’ in the Pledge and ‘In God We Trust’ in government buildings and on government paper..

In order to get these moral arguments into the public consciousness, we must take advantage of a window of opportunity that will exist in the days after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals announces its decision. People will be discussing this issue. Our choice is to let the conversation be one-sided declaration of how anybody who opposes ‘under God’ is an enemy of free speech, freedom of religion, and the founding fathers, or to use this opportunity to insert whenever and wherever possible a string of moral arguments that will then serve as a context for any future Supreme Court decision.

At times in this blog I have drawn an analogy between these efforts in the realm of ethics and the laws of physics. No matter how massive an object is, and no matter how small the force that acts upon it, the force will have an effect on that object. You will not be able to fully explain or understand the movement of that object without mentioning that force. Similarly, society at large might be too massive for me to have much of a chance of moving it in any particular direction.

Those of us who will participate in this Pledge Project will have an effect. Even if we only reach a few dozen people, those few dozen people will have a better understanding of the moral objections to ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’ than they would have otherwise had. That better moral understanding will enable them to make better moral decisions. Even with the Supreme Court giving anti-atheist bigotry its seal of approval, we can have an effect on how much or how little anti-atheist bigotry actually takes place.

When one student who would have otherwise stood for the Pledge of Allegiance instead decides not to do so, and he explains his choice to those who asks as “I refuse to join the school in insulting many of those who fought and died for my freedom by saying that those who did not support ‘one nation under God’ deserve as much of our contempt as those who support ‘tyranny and injustice for all’,” then that will be our victory.

When a teacher stands before his class and says, “I will not lead you in the Pledge of Allegiance because no decent teacher will stand before a group of children and teach them bigotry,” then that will be our victory.

When a soldier stands before a group on a patriotic holiday and says, “I cannot lead you in the Pledge because I owe it to the people that I served with that did not believe in God not to insult them by saying that such a person is as despicable as a person who rejects liberty and justice for all, then that will be our victory.

When a city council votes to remove a sign that says, “In God We Trust” because, they say, it is as wrong to have a sign on our wall that says ‘We Trust In God” as it would be to post a sign that says “we are white”, then that will be our victory.

When a government body passes a resolution that says, “We condemn any statement that implicitly or explicitly denigrates the patriotism or the moral character of a person based solely on the person’s belief that no god exists for us to be under or for us to trust,” then we would have had a victory.

I do not know how many victories, if any, are to be found in the future. Perhaps there will be none.

We could, of course, guarantee no victories if this is what we want. We simply need to do nothing.

If the Supreme Court decides to do the right thing . . . if the Supreme Court were also to decide that the government should not tell people to condemn soldiers who do not believe in God, if the Supreme Court should agree that schools should not teach religious bigotry to children, if the Supreme Court should agree that there is something fundamentally undemocratic in allowing legislation that serves to block people from public office, then so much the better. In this case, the victory will be that much greater.

The best way to get these ideas into the minds of the Supreme Court justice is to get these ideas into the minds of the people, so the Justices themselves can hear people protest that they will not stand to have the government insult soldiers who fought in its defense without belief in God, and hear stories of people protesting the use of a Pledge and a motto to keep qualified candidates out of public office and positions of public trust, and hear teachers protest the teaching of bigotry in public schools – these are the best way to get the Supreme Court to consider these facts when it renders its decision.

How many of these victories can we credit to those who lie down and do nothing?

Even if this biggest victory is outside of our grasp, the other victories are still available to us. How many or how few of those smaller victories we can score depends on how much or how little we plan on working towards those victories.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Pledge Project: Table of Contents

In the near future, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gives its decision on “under God” and “In God We Trust”, This is one post that I must make available before that happens.

I have written this series of essays for you to use as a reference when they go out amongst the people and debate the issue. You’re going to need a way to easily get to the post that covers the issue you may be debating at any particular time. So, I want to provide this directory to Pledge Project articles.

1. Acting Against Anti-Atheist Bigotry: The introduction to the Pledge Project arguing that 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" as the national motto serve as a nearly impenetrable barrier keeping atheists and others who cannot pledge allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ out of public office.

2. The Atheist Burka: Compares the way atheists view the Pledge of Allegiance and National Motto in this country with the way women view the Burka in fundamentalist Islam cultures. By indoctrinating us starting when we were too young to question what we were being told, society has indoctrinated us into being comfortable with our own victimization.

3. Priorities: The Pledge Project is important because there are children who are (or will become) atheists who may also want to be elected officials or judges, serve in the military and be recognized for the quality of their actions, or just simply live among neighbors who have not been told by their government that no atheist can be a patriot and only those who ‘trust in God’ are to be thought of as ‘one of us’.

4. Offense: This answers the claim that others will make that atheists are merely ‘offended by every mention of God in the public square’. It proves that ‘under God’ in the Pledge and ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto are not about mentioning God in the public square, but about officially denouncing atheism. It presents an alternative way to mention God in the public square that does not denounce atheism.

5. House Resolution 5872: HR5872 is a government act to help raise money for the Boy Scouts. As such, it is a government act to help raise money to teach children that atheists are incapable of the best type o citizenship. It is as immoral as having the government itself hire a group of tutors to go to young children and teach them, “Citizens who do not believe in God are incapable of the best type of citizenship.”

6. Explaining Bigotry: This post uses a 2006 survey that showed that Americans identify atheists as the group that least shares their values as Americans, and the group that they would least like their children to marry (the sociologist’s best measure of prejudice). These results are easy to explain given that the Pledge of Allegiance says that American values include support for ‘one nation under God’ (which atheists do not share). This attitude is exactly the attitude that the government teaches people to have when it posts signs that say, “Do not think of those who lack trust in God as being one of us.”

7. Atheists are Untrustworty: Ron Lowe, an Mason in Idaho, explained in a news article that atheists are not allowed to be Masons because, "If you're an atheist . . . your word means nothing, so you have someone whose work cannot be trusted."

8. In God We Trust – America: In God We Trust – America is a group that is dedicated to having the national motto, "In God We Trust", posted in every government building and, in particular, in every city council.

9. Resolution Respecting Atheists: If you try to argue that the Pledge and Motto promote prejudice against atheists, some people are going to deny that it has this implication. This argues for having them prove this by supporting a resolution that any government agency can pass that condemns “any statement that explicitly or implicitly calls into question a person’s patriotism or moral character based solely on a lack of trust in God, or lack of support for ‘one nation under God’”.

10. A Memorial Day Dilemma: My father was one of those ‘atheists in foxholes’ who sought to make a career out of defending America and its freedoms. Yet, when the government introduced ‘under God’ into the Pledge it said that it does not care about the service of those who do not believe in God. My father argued that, when a person joins the military, he should be pledging allegiance to his country, not his church.

11. The Case of David Habecker: David Habecker was a city trustee in Estes Park, Colorado, who was recalled in a special election because he would not say the Pledge of Allegiance.

12. Sit Down and Shut Up: An advertisement from a Ford dealership in California said that those who oppose 'under God' in the Pledge and "In God We Trust' as the national motto should sit down and shut up.

13. Respect in Minnesota: A Minnesota school board is debating a rule that requires students to stand during the pledge “because all students should be required to show respect to the flag”. But why should a student show respect for the claim that 'Americans who do not support 'one nation under God' are as bad as those who do not support 'liberty and justice for all'?

14. Freedom of Speech: Some people will defend their right to have ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance or to post ‘In God We Trust’ as implied by the right to freedom of speech. This post argues that the right to freedom of speech does not imply a right to freedom from criticism. Even the Nazi and the KKK member has a right to freedom of speech. That right to freedom of speech includes the right to condemn what they say.

15. Apologies and Excuses: This post looks at the distinction between an apology and an excuse. It teaches how to recognize when somebody is apologizing for doing something wrong or merely offering an excuse for his behavior, and explains what we will find in a true apology for wrings committed against atheists (and others).

16. Three Related Stories: This post covers three news stories related to the Pledge Project: Philadelphia ending a subsidy for the Boy Scouts, a Zoning Board commissioner in New Hampshire who is refusing to say the Pledge, and a city trustee in Wisconsin who is refusing to say the pledge. It looks at the types of claims being made in these disputes.

17. A Military Response: When somebody defends the Pledge of Allegiance as a way of showing respect for those who fought for our freedoms, this post explains why somebody shows more respect for ALL OF THOSE who fought for our freedoms by refusing to say the Pledge. After all, some of those who fought for our freedoms did not believe in God, and we spit on their graves when we pledge to put them in the same category as those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all.

18. A Patriotic Exercise. If somebody argues that the Pledge is permissible because it is a patriotic exercise, ask them if it would be less patriotic if ‘under God’ were removed? If they say ‘yes’, then the words ‘under God’ cannot be defended in virtue of patriotism. IF they say ‘no’ then they are guilty of asserting that atheists cannot be patriots.

19. Why? I was asked why I was putting so much effort into this project. This post answers that question.

20. Prayers and Promises: The standard debate over ‘under God’ in the pledge is between one group who says that it is a prayer (and thus constitutionally prohibited), while another says that it is like reading the Declaration of Independence or singing a patriotic song, which is permissible. Both sides ignore the fact that a Pledge is a promise and, unlike any prayer or reading, puts the speaker under an obligation. In this case, we are talking about a government sponsored promise to put the nation ‘under God’.

21. Should There Be a Pledge? Some argue that it is wrong to have any pledge. However, the question of whether or not we have reason to promote a pledge depends on the effects of a pledge. If a pledge to liberty and justice for all actually promotes liberty and justice for all, then we have reason to support such a pledge.

22. Liberty and Justice for All. Some people refuse to say the words ‘liberty and justice for all’ in the Pledge because they note that we do not have liberty and justice for all. They miss the fact that the Pledge is not a description of what kind of nation we are. It is a prescription for what type of country we should strive to be. However, this further implies that ‘one nation under God’ is also a prescription. In other word, the government is recommending ‘one nation under God’ in the same way it is recommending liberty and justice for all.

23. Moral Chauvinism. One of the worst qualities that we find in most religions is a tendency to turn its member into moral chauvinists. “Those who belong to my church are morally superior to those who do not.” Moral chauvinism is a form of bigotry. We see this bigotry in action whenever anybody claims that failure to indoctrinate children into their religion leads to moral degeneration.

24. An Endorsement of Religious Beliefs. One Constitutional claim is that the government must not endorse a religious belief. In light of this, some people claim that the Pledge is not an endorsement of religious beliefs. Yet, this is as absurd as saying that the Pledge is not an endorsement of union or of liberty and justice for all.

25. Political Consequences. McCain is going to use the Pledge ruling (if it goes against ‘under God’ to solicit million of hours in volunteer labor and tens of million of dollars in cash from those who want to see conservative justices on the bench that will defend religious bigotry. Obama dares not challenge religious bigotry because this would throw the election to McCain. The only defense that will come to the 9th Circuit Court opinion if it is against ‘under God’ must come from us.

26. Audience Participation. This post is a request for readers to join me on the companion blog Atheist Ethicist Journal when the news breaks to organize a response to the arguments that will certainly be made in favor of ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’.

27. The Voluntary Argument. Some people will assert that no violation takes place by having ‘under God’ in the Pledge because saying it is voluntary. This posts asks the question, “If a community adopts a pledge of allegiance to ‘our white community’ will the fact that they did not require people to say it prove that it was not racist?”

28. Flag Burning: This post look at the distinction between respect for a symbol and a respect for the thing symbolized. It notes how those who are most interested in protecting the symbol of liberty and justice for all seem least interested in defending liberty and justice for all.

29. The Race Analogy. My arguments draw heavily on analogies to race. For example, I argue that it is as illegitimate for the government to post a sign that says, “We Trust in God” as it would be for the government to post a sign that says, “We Are a White Community.” This post defends the race analogy and explains exactly why it is sound.

30. Legitimate Response. This post compares the atheist response to anti-atheist bigotry to the response that blacks and Jews might give to racism and anti-Semitism. It argues that the only consistent position to hold is that atheists are entitled to react to a sign that says, “We Trust in God” the same way that black would be entitled to react to a sign that says, “We Are a White Community.”

31. The Guantanamo Ruling: Four judges on the Supreme Court argue that the judiciary should yield to the legislature because the legislature is tied to the will of the people. How does this argument stand up to a case where the legislature adopts a policy that aims to deny a segment of the population a political voice and make itself accountable to only a portion of the population?

32. Foreign Affairs. In this post I address foreign readers to explain that they have reason to oppose violation of the principle of fair treatment by one’ government wherever thoe violations occur. I also argue that the American political system puts them at risk of being the victims o American religious exports using resources that religious groups are able to get hold of in this country.

33. Sound Bytes: This post presents some of the arguments that have appeared in the previous essays in the form of relatively quick sound bytes. Sound bytes are necessary for making a point quickly and effectively.

Of course, I must also include the first part of my story, A Perspective on the Pledge.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Pledge Project: Sound Bytes

In the near future, the 9th Circuit Court opinion giving its decision on ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’.

And, a reminder, when the story break, I will begin tracking developments as they happen in my other blog, Atheist Ethicist Journal.

The purpose of the Pledge Project is to introduce a set of arguments against 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto that have been missing for the past 50 years – arguments other than the legal arguments we are all familiar with.

Moral arguments.

I have written a series of essays on the subject in this blog. (You can find a list of these essays at The Pledge Project: Table of Contents) Unfortunately, you will almost never have the opportunity to deliver a 15-minute speech or present a 1500 word essay on the immoral qualities of these practices.

All too often, you will have to make your point in 15 seconds or less – and even that might be generous.

Consequently, this post is dedicated to sound bytes – quick statements that deliver some of these missing moral considerations in a sentence or two that can be quickly thrown into a discussion.

For example.

'Under God' has never been about allowing God into the public square. It has always been about keeping atheists out of public office..

If you are given an opportunity to explain yourself you can start to bring out points from the 1500 word essay. 'Under God' was introduced in the 1950s to put atheist communists at a political disadvantage, but targeted all atheists. This sound byte has opened the door to that discussion. Yet, even if the recipient of the sound byte hears nothing else, she has heard something she had not heard before, and something for her to think about.

Here are some other sound bytes. Many of these are variations on a theme. The context in which the statement is used will determine which variation has the most relevance.

It is no more legitimate for the government to post a sign that says "We Trust in God" than it is to post a sign that says, "We Are A White Community,” or "We Are Not Jews".

If 'under God' is consistent with respect for people who do not believe in God, then 'with liberty and justice for all' is consistent with respect for tyranny and injustice.

This is how you intend to show respect for soldiers who do not believe in God, by saying that they are as bad as those who defend tyranny and injustice?

By adding 'under God' to the Pledge of Allegiance the government put atheism in the company of rebellion, tyranny, and injustice as the great evils that no patriotic American can accept and every patriotic American would oppose.

There is no better way to teach children that atheists cannot be patriots than to have a ritual of pledging allegiance from which atheists are conspicuously excluded.

To say that the Pledge of Allegiance is a patriotic exercise is to say that atheists cannot be patriots.

What's wrong with a pledge that shows respect for ALL OF THOSE who have fought for our freedom? What is right with a Pledge that compares some of those who defend our rights to the defenders of tyranny and injustice?

If you want to bring God into the public square, then do what the founding fathers did in writing the Constitution. They wrote an oath of office that did not mention God, allowing each individual to decide to add a phrase like, "so help me God" according to his or her private belief.

A good Christian would reject a sign the says "We Trust In God" for the same reasons a good Caucasian would reject a sign that says, "We Are a White Community."

Atheism is like race in that neither necessarily implies a lack of patriotism or moral character – and it is pure bigotry to assume otherwise.

The right to freedom of speech does not imply a right to freedom from criticism. Even the Nazi and the KKK member has a right to freedom of speech.

Psychologically segregating the nation between 'we' who 'trust in God' and 'they' who do not is as immoral as physically segregating the nation between 'we' who are white and 'they' who are colored.

Protesting 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance is anti-Christian in the same way that protesting segregation was anti-white or respecting the rights of women to vote was anti-male.

Moral chauvinism is the state of believing that the people who share your religion are inherently morally superior to those who do not.

There are as many ways to mention God in the public square that do not express bigotry as there are to mention race in the public square that are not bigoted. This is not one of them.

If you compare a sign on the currency or in public office that discriminate on the basis of religion with signs that discriminate on the basis of race, somebody will likely accuse you of equating religion with racism.

I am not equating religion with racism. I am equating signs and oaths that teach religious prejudice with signs and oaths that teach racial prejudice.

If a person denies that 'under God' or 'In God We Trust' denigrates the patriotism and moral character of those who do not believe in God, demand that they prove that they believe this.

I demand that the legislative body pass a resolution condemning any statement that explicitly or implicitly denigrates the patriotism or moral character of an American citizen based solely on the fact that the citizen does not believe that there is a God to trust or for the nation to be under.

I have given some of my ideas for sound bytes that might be useful. However, I might be suffering from a serious lack of imagination. I would like you, the reader, to think about this and come up with a few more.

I have some caveats.

I an looking for sound bytes that express moral concerns that have been missing over the last 50 years.

I am not looking for sound bytes that trash religion. This is not about being opposed to religion. This is about being opposed to injustice. As I wrote above – a Christian can oppose the psychological and social segregation of atheists in the same way that a Caucasian can oppose the physical segregation of blacks. It is not appropriate to answer anti-atheist bigotry with anti-theist bigotry; that would just make us hypocrites.

With these facts in mind, and with 33 essays from The Pledge Project at your fingertips, along with your own experiences, I would like to know what type of sound bytes you can provide to help arm those who will be debating 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' once the story breaks.

Sometime between now and June 30th, we will all have an opportunity to put those suggestions to work.