Friday, February 24, 2012

Religious Bias in Public Schools

In going through Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy, I have reached the seventh of his policy objectives. Here, he calls for no religious bias in schools.

My response to this policy objective - that there should be no religious bias in the schools - is going to be the same as my response to Faircloth's first policy objective - that there should no religious bias in the military. Nobody accepts this. Nobody wants this. Not even Sean Faircloth.

(See: Universal Tolerance.)

Let somebody try to argue that they have found some gold tablets in their back yard (that have since mysteriously disappeared) that calls on teachers to be sexually involved with their students as a way of creating a more spiritual relationship between them. How much religious tolerance will we argue for then?

Or let somebody argue for a return to traditional Christian values - those that held that God created the black race to be the slaves of the white race, or that if somebody should ever try to argue in defense of some other god the Christian is duty-bound to kill that person without hesitation. Let us argue for the universal tolerance of these religious practices, while stocking the supply cabinets with condoms and body bags.

We are not going to have universal religious tolerance.

There is a line beyond which religion becomes intolerable. Furthermore, we cannot use the standards of any religion to determine whether or not is on the near side or the far side of that line. We must find and appeal to an outside standard - a standard outside of religion.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with this fact - that there is a standard outside of religion that determines which religions are tolerable and which are no. We have lived under this principle for a couple of centuries now, while at the same time we deny its existence and pretend to some sort of "universal tolerance" that utterly fails to account for our actual behavior.

Here is another politically inconvenient truth: Science classes that teach evolution, a 4.5 billion year old earth, and that the earth is not the center of the solar system, are NOT religiously neutral.

The politically convenient lie is that they are religiously neutral. That is why they do not violate the constitutional prohibition on separating church and state. A state government that teaches evolution is not favoring some religions over others - or so we say. The fact is that these claims made in a science class favors those theist and non-theist philosophies that are compatible with evolution, old-earth, and a heliocentric solar system over those that are not compatible. When the science teacher in a public school tells a student that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, she is a acting as an employee of the state telling children of parents who do not share that view: "Your parents, your priests, and your religion are mistaken on this matter."

It does not matter that some people hold religious beliefs that are compatible with an old earth and biological evolution. That doesn't change the fact that some do not. When somebody steps up to say, "I am a Christian, and I accept evolution," it is absolutely absurd to say, "See, this proves that evolution is religiously neutral." The honest, logically consistent response would be, "What does that matter? This means that we are not talking about you. We are talking about those other versions of Christianity that are NOT compatible.

Where did we get this idea that you can make a logical leap from, "There exists a religious belief compatible with P" to "Therefore, P is religiously neutral"? It is invalid on its face. Yet, many people - many secularists - assert it as a self-evident truth.

Actually, we get this idea from the fact that we need a rug under which we sweep the contradiction that public schools must actually educate students about the real world and, at the same time, remain religiously neutral, when some religions make absurd claims about the real world. We sweep the contradiction under the rug of this absurd implication, then we all pretend to ignore the elephant-sized lump under the carpet.

If we were being honest, we would say that evidence and reason support some conclusions more strongly than others. The purpose of public education is education - which means teaching students these facts, and the evidence and reason that support these facts. Some of these facts will not agree with certain religious teachings. When that happens, that is a problem for the church, not for the school.

For example, I would argue that creationism should be taught in the public school class room. We are graduating students who think that creationism is science. This means that the public school system is not educating them on what science is and what science is not. The public school science teacher should present the claims and arguments of creationists and refute them - this should be a part of science education. In fact, we should judge the competence of science teachers by their ability to do just this.

Similarly, a competent history teacher should be able to explain the value of the Bible as a source in doing history research. The Bible is a part of history, and tells us something about ancient (and modern) culture. The same can be said of the Iliad and the Odyssey - both of which I read parts of in school. A competent history teacher ought to be able to discuss the Bible as a historic document.

Because facts are not neutral with respect to religious belief, the only way to have a religiously neutral school system is by having a school system that refuses to educate. There is a serious conflict between religious neutrality in public schools and public education. Rather than sweeping it under the rug, we need to confront it honestly and directly.

I would not argue for a public school system that is free of religious bias. I would argue for a school system that presents the facts supported by evidence and, where that favors some religions over others, that is a problem for those religions to deal with, not a problem for the school. That is the secular policy I would argue for.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

End of Life Autonomy

In this post, I will discuss Policy 6 of Sean Faircloth’s new atheist strategy. This policy calls for autonomy in end-of-life decisions.

Specifically, this relates to questions of euthanasia - whether a person facing a life of extreme and prolonged suffering or a state in which the person effectively ceases to exist and only the body remains, should be permitted to choose death.

At this point, I want to warn against taking a list of ten policy objectives to be the equivalent of ten commandments - proposals that every true non-believer or believing secularist must accept as true or be branded a heretic. We must not follow the course if the political right and hold these up as a litmus test where acceptance, regardless of reasons, is a requirement for membership - and where debate and disagreement is deemed intolerable.

Nor should we adopt the attitude of the contrarian - that, if religious people are against it, we must be for it, and visa versa.

Rather, we need to constantly return to these policies with a critical eye in the light of new knowledge and fresh realizations and be willing to alter or to abandon them as the evidence suggests.

I bring this up here because I have two concerns about this policy.

I do not deny that as an abstract policy divorced from real-world considerations, it sounds wonderful. Nor do i deny that there are some real-world considerations that speak in its favor. The only value that exists is that which exists between states if affairs and desires, and there are clearly situations in which continued life will thwart more and stronger desires than death. These include situations where an agent is in excruciating pain or unable to act or think so as to realize these desires.

I abhor the thought that some day my money will go to somebody changing the diapers on this body that I now occupy, rather than having that money go to something I truly value - promoting understanding and appreciation of the real world. I would rather have my savings go to a museum than to a nursing home.

Finally, I want to stress that when it comes to forcing somebody to endure 6 months of agony they could otherwise avoid, the argument, "My god would be unhappy if you did not endure 6 months of agony" is not a good argument for forcing somebody to endure 6 months of agony.

However, I have two wholly secular objections against such a policy.

One of them is that insurance companies and family members will come to pressure people to end their lives for wholly selfish reasons.

Insurance companies will be able to significantly improve their bottom line by finding ways of encouraging patients to choose the less costly (to them) option of death over more costly forms of treatment. Using the power of their marketing departments, they will likely find ways to get their customers to choose what is, for the company, the least expensive form of care. Every company does this – from the hotel chain trying to get customers to purchase amenities to the restaurant trying to sell coffee and dessert the chocolate factory trying to find more ways to get more people to buy more chocolate at a higher price. This is an inherent and important part of doing business.

Where death is an option, the instant an insurance company realizes that – given the limited prospect for the patient paying future premiums and the cost of various treatment options - death is the least expensive option for the company, then this is the option they will market to the customer. The company that finds the most efficient way of identifying when death is the more profitable option and successfully gets patients to choose that option is the company that will have the best balance sheet and will draw the most investment. This, in turn, will force other companies to follow suit.

They will do this in the same way a restaurant tries to find ways to get customers to order the most profitable items on the menu.

A part of this marketing strategy will almost certainly involve getting the family involved in supporting the option. Their encouragement would likely be very helpful in successfully selling this option to the patient.

Now, I am not necessarily talking about people maliciously conspiring against the patient. As humans, we are subject to motivations we do not consciously acknowledge. It will just feel like the right thing to do, and people will find it easy to convince even themselves that it is in the best interest if the patient. Assert that they were motivated by money and convenience, and they will be genuinely upset - because they do not want to admit the truth even to themselves.

The second problem with end-of-life autonomy is that, in practice, it will require that we lower our aversion to killing. Where we lower the aversion to killing, other forms of killing may become psychologically easier for more people - and those consequences may be worth avoiding.

This is the same type of argument that I used against incest in my previous blog post. People act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. One of those desires that most people have is an aversion to killing. There are almost certainly cases in which this aversion to killing is what tips the balance – preventing a person who otherwise has a reason or a desire to kill from doing so. If we lower the aversion to killing to allow for end-of-life autonomy, we may find that we have more killing than is good for us.

This "aversion to killing" argument might sound to some a lot like the "sanctity of life" argument we get from certain right-wing, mostly religious sources.

Well, it is a lot like that argument. Yet, where is it written that somebody on the political or religious right must be 100 percent wrong about all things at all times?

There are a couple of differences between my use of the "aversion to killing" argument and the claims we get from the political right. I apply this argument consistently to the issue of capital punishment. I argue against capital punishment that society may be better off with a general aversion to killing so strong that is averse even to killing its worse criminals. Furthermore, I argue that killing in this sense applies to beings with interests, that a fetus without brain development has no desires, and thus no interests to consider in this respect. Nor do I argue for a moral absolute allowing for no exceptions. We have reason to promote an aversion to killing - but we have reason to promote a lot of other desires and aversions as well that may, in certain circumstances, outweigh the aversion to killing.

There is nothing in this argument that requires a god or intrinsic values or categorical imperatives or any of the various mythologies that plague moral philosophy. This argument only looks at the desire-fulfilling qualities of using social forces such as moral praise and condemnation to promote an overall aversion to killing.

Psychological and sociological research may well find ways around these objections. Perhaps we can avoid some of these problems by requiring an independent review board to determine that end-of-life choices are truly the unmanipulated will of the patient. Perhaps we can effectively promote an aversion to killing except as an act of mercy. In this latter case, please note that the question is not whether philosophers can make an intellectual distinction in some abstract sense, but whether we can effectively engineer our social institutions to bring about this effect in the real world of everyday action.

With these considerations added on, I tend to argue for a system of state’s rights on the question of end-of-life autonomy. Let different states establish their own practices and let us see what the results are. Let some practice an absolute prohibition, while others attempt to show mercy to those patients who are suffering by providing end of life options, and let us look at the effects of these different practices in different states.

With this evidence, we can then make an informed decision as to whether to require end-of-life autonomy. At this point, I do not think we have sufficient evidence to demand end-of-life autonomy. There are too many valid reasons to worry. Instead, we should call for giving states the liberty to choose for themselves, while insisting that, "My god demands that you spend the next six months in anguish" is NOT a good reason to require that a person spend the next six months in anguish.

Speaking more generally, we should not commit ourselves to any particular set of conclusions independent of an examination of these types of concerns. Nor should we commit ourselves to finding something wrong with every argument and piece of evidence or consideration merely because the political right thinks that it has merit. Sometimes, they actually do have merit.

We should be willing to take an honest look at legitimate concerns (where "my god wants you to suffer" is not a legitimate concern) and be ready to change or drop any policy objective based on the available evidence. Otherwise, we risk becoming the secular equivalent of the deaf and blind religious or political dogmatist.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Legalizing Incestuous and Polygamous Marriage

In this post, I am continuing to look at the fifth policy objective in Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy - marriage equality.

One of the arguments we hear against gay marriage goes like this:

If we accept these arguments in favor of gay marriage as valid, we must also permit incestuous and polygamous marriages that involve consenting adults. Obviously, legalized incestuous and polygamous marriage is unacceptable, so gay marriage must also be unacceptable. You must vote against gay marriage or find yourself surrounded by incestuous and polygamous marriage.

Now, I can interpret thus argument in one of two ways.

Interpretation 1: So, you are telling me that you believe legalized incestuous and polygamous marriage will significantly improve the quality of some lives and do no harm to anybody. Yet, we must prohibit it nonetheless and eagerly do violence to those who would practice it.

Why? This sounds like a policy of harming others simply because one has a gotten into the habit of or developed a fondness for that which harms others.

Interpretation 2: If we legalize gay marriage, we must legalize incestuous and polygamous marriage. However, these others come with all sorts if harms we must avoid. Therefore, we must not legalize gay marriage.

Against this, the question is: Why not use these harms as reasons to keep incestuous and polygamous marriages illegal? Nobody claims that the fact that homosexual marriage involves consenting adults is a sufficient reason to permit such marriage, only that it provides a relevant difference between gay marriage and marriage between adults and children or adults and animals.

On the issue of polygamous marriage, perhaps this should be legal. They have one significant advantage over the "traditional family."

With a traditional family - one breadwinner, one caregiver, and children (or elderly parents, or those for whom care is needed) - if anything happens to either the breadwinner or the caregiver the results are likely to be catastrophic - for the family. If we increase the number of breadwinners and caregivers, we can reduce the chance of a catastrophic result. There is always a "backup" caretaker or breadwinner to fall back on.

On the other hand, managing so many personalities may well be impossible. It may require an unhealthy level of submission to a ruling patriarch that robs the other members of their personality and autonomy, or it may disintegrate into factions. I will have to leave it up to experts to answer those questions.

On the issue of incestuous marriage, I would argue that we do have good reason for a prohibition - a reason that does not apply to gay marriage.

Before I go into this objection, I want to discuss two objections to incestuous marriage between consenting adults that fail.

The first is the genetic argument. This argument claims that a prohibition against incest is justified because it reduces the chance of genetically deformed or defective children. Incestuous reproduction increases the possibility if realizing recessive genetic traits. These are most often harmful. This is because it is more likely that a sibling shares a recessive trait with another sibling than a member of the population at large.

The problem is that we no longer need to rely on a prohibition on incest to reach this objective or reducing genetic defects. We now have much more effective ways to determine if couples risk producing offspring with genetic defects. If this is a valid argument, we should now give up the crude "incest" test and use more scientific genetic tests. We can require that couples undergo genetic screening, and prohibit sex between those who are judged genetically incompatible. Where these genetic tests determine that siblings share no recessive traits, then they can be allowed to marry. Whereas non-siblings that share recessive traits can be prohibited from marriage (or sex).

Furthermore, the genetic argument provides no objection to incestuous gay marriage or incestuous marriage among sterile family members.

The other failed argument against incestuous marriage says that evolution has given us a disposition to avoid incest that manifests itself culturally as an incest taboo - a set of social and legal prohibitions on incest.

However, an evolved disposition to avoid something is not an evolved disposition to do violence to those who do not avoid it. And an evolved disposition to do violence to those who do not avoid something is not a justification for doing violence to them.

The inference from, "I have evolved a disposition to do violence to people like you," to "You deserve to be treated violently" is wholly invalid - even if the first part happens to be true. In the case of an incest taboo, the first part itself has not been demonstrated, even if we have a natural aversion to incest.

So, these common objections to incest do not work.

However, there is an argument that does work.

Promoting a society-wide aversion to incest is almost certainly an effective tool for preventing the sexual abuse of children.

People act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. We know that manifestations of human desires cause a certain amount of childhood sexual abuse - we have observed physical evidence that this is the case.

Now, take our current set of human desires and remove from it the aversion to incest - holding all other desires constant.

A very likely result - in fact, I would say a certain result - of this would be an increase in incidents of child sexual abuse. Given our current manifestation of desires, the aversion to incest is preventing some incidents of child sexual abuse that would otherwise take place in its absence. A great deal of sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members, and a great deal of sexual abuse that does not occur may be attributed to an aversion to incest.

Our interest in preventing childhood sexual abuse gives us reason to promote an aversion to incest. In this respect, evolution may have given us the raw tools to work with, but evolution does not justify its use. Nor does eugenics. It is the prevention of childhood sexual abuse that justifies its use.

One of the social tools for promoting this aversion - as well as one of its effects - is a social intolerance of incestuous marriage. Permitting these marriages would require reducing the social aversion to incest - telling community members that it is okay and nothing to feel bad about. Whereas a prohibition communicates to society at large that it is something to feel bad about, which promotes this aversion, and reduces incidents of childhood sexual abuse.

This objection does not apply to gay marriage because the relationship between gay sex and the sexual abuse of children is exactly the same as the relationship between heterosexual sex and the sexual abuse of children. There is no relevant difference between the two - and, thus, no moral difference stemming from this objection to incestuous relationships.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gay Marriage and The Bigot's Proof

In my examination of Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists, I have reached the fifth of his policy objectives, which he stated as "no bias in marriage law." It is a call for legalized gay marriage.

The argument is, "If your religion has objections to gay marriage, then don't enter into a marriage with somebody of the same gender. But your religious prejudices are your business and have no business becoming law. Some people have religious objections to eating pork, or having blood transfusions, or working on the Sabbath. That's fine - they can obey those restrictions to the point that they do not endanger others. But those religious prohibitions do not provide an argument for laws against eating of pork, getting a blood transfusion, or working on the Sabbath. Nor should we restrict homosexual marriage."

Looking at some of the arguments we have been seeing to justify imposing religious restrictions on everybody, we really should outlaw the whole pork industry. No doubt, those people who think that God prohibits pork are offended when they enter a restaurant and see "pork chops" or "bacon cheeseburger" on the menu. Having the butcher put pork ribs on display is nothing but a slap in the face of all those who adhere to a religion that condemns such activity. One might as well post a sign saying, "These pork-prohibiting religions are nonsense."

What is the difference, really, between selling hot dogs at a ball game or drawings of Mohammed on a web site? Both are prohibited by certain religions. Don't they both call for violence against the infidels that would offend the religion by these practices?

Or, perhaps we should form the judgment that neither of them justifies legal entanglements.

The same line of reasoning applies to gay marriage. A person’s prohibitions are their own business. We will not force somebody to violate their religious prohibition on marrying somebody of the same gender. The freedom of religion requires this – as does common human decency. However, such a person has no more of a right to call on a prohibition against others marrying somebody of the same gender than he has a right to call for a universal prohibition on the manufacture and sale of pork. Not without a good, solid, secular argument.

Unfortunately, one of the realities we must admit to and not sweep under any rugs is the fact that people with religious prejudices are great at coming up with fantastic secular arguments to defend their religious prejudices. Where they are not permitted to use religious arguments to condemn gay marriage, they invent secular arguments to take their place. They will tell us, for example, that all of civilization will start crumbling down if we allow a person to marry somebody of the same gender. Or we are told that there is no rational defense of gay marriage that does not also allow one to marry children or animals.

There is no evidence for the first claim other than the fact that people with certain religious prejudices like to imagine that it is true.

The "children or animals" argument assumes that there are no secular objections to be raised against these marriages. However, the counter-argument is really quite simple. Marriages represent a contract, and no person may be permitted to enter into a valid marriage that cannot enter into a valid contract. A child's lack of judgment disqualifies the child from entering into most contracts. In the United States, even young adults cannot enter into a valid contract to purchase alcohol. We can use the same secular arguments to prohibit children from entering into a marriage contract. They are just too young to make a wise decision on such matters.

With this in mind, our next question is, "Why do people embrace unfounded absurdities such as these?"

The problem that we are faced with is what I have called, "The Bigot's 'Proof'". It involves embracing a secular argument that is as fantastic and unreasonable as any religious claim merely because it appears to support a prejudice.

Bigotry strives to justify itself. It does so through a system of rationalizations. Bigots are masters at cherry-picking evidence, seeing only the things that conform to and confirm their bigotry, while dismissing any counter-evidence as "an anomaly". They are also masters at filtering what they see through the lens of their prejudice. A young black male trying to break into a car is a thief. A blonde female is stupid. A white male is having a bad day.

An era in history that always comes to my mind when I think about the bigot's proof is the way some Americans defended slavery in the early 1800s. They told us that the child-like mind of the Negros made them unfit for adult freedoms. Instead, they were to be cared for under the benevolent watch of a paternalistic "owner" who cared for the Negro like a child. Of course, even children were obligated to do some chores around the farm - those chores that were appropriate to the child's abilities.

Where did these nonsense ideas come from?

They came from the human disposition to embrace unreasoned fantasies that support a valued prejudice.

Jim Crow laws, "Separate but Equal," treating women as the property of their husbands or closest male relative, the Holocaust, all can find "justification" in secular arguments that are no less fantasy-driven than their religious justifications.

Furthermore, fantasy secular arguments and religious arguments go hand-in-hand. With many religious claims, we are already looking at a population inclined to believe fantastic claims without the least bit of evidence in a culture that shuns reason-based thinking and logic and holds "faith" (evidence-free belief) to be a paradigm virtue. This is a culture that is primed to accept not only religious claims, but fantastic and unfounded secular claims as well.

Furthermore, we must not underestimate the power of these prejudices. Look at the volumes of hard scientific evidence we have that supports evolution, that the Earth is more than 6000 years old, or that humans are contributing to global warming. Yet, these volumes of hard physical evidence - much stronger than anybody could provide in a court of law, for example - are swatted aside and dismissed by those who embrace a conclusion this evidence does not support.

People who can ignore so much hard evidence on matters such as these are going to prove completely immune to evidence on matters such as gay marriage. We are being foolish if we think that merely providing them with the reasoned evidence that they are wrong will have much of an effect.

Where does this leave us?

We need to recognize that "The Bigot's 'Proof'" is not just an intellectual failing.

It is a moral failing.

On issues where we are talking about denying freedom to others and doing harm to their interests, there is a moral obligation to begin with a presumption of innocence – a presumption of freedom. It is only when confronted with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that freedom must be curtailed that we may act against that liberty.

For example, we may give this presumption of liberty to the child molester. However, we clearly have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that such relationships pose unreasonable risks and, thus, any presumption is quickly overridden.

In the case of the homosexual adult seeking a committed relationship with another homosexual adult, no such evidence presents itself, we have no such evidence. More to the point, those who embrace unreasoned and unfounded arguments for doing harm demonstrate that they are neglecting their moral obligation to begin with a presumption of freedom. They are, instead, beginning with the presumption that harm is justified, and clutching at every straw within reach to try to keep the appearance that it is justified.

Before I close, I need to warn my readers that this is not only a problem for the religious. In fact, saying that this problem is limited to those who believe in God would be an example of the very type of Bigot's 'Proof' that I am warning against.

The disposition to embrace an argument because it supports a prejudice is a human failing. It is not a religious failing. It is a failing that both causes people to write their prejudices into their religion, and to accept fantasy secular arguments in defense of those same prejudices. Remember, religion did not come from God. It comes from the human mind - and reflects the moral failings of its authors. We cannot consistently say that no God exists, and then blame God, and not humans, for the moral failings we find in scripture – as if these moral failings would not exist if not for the instructions some god provided.

There is a very real possibility - I would call it a certainty - that many atheists will adopt a bigot's 'proof' on the harms and dangers of religion itself. They will embrace claims, not because those claims are founded on reason and evidence, but because they support a valued prejudice.

One must be watchful. One must take the time - even formally - to ask whether evidence and reason actually supports one's conclusions, or whether one simply sees it as doing so because one wants to. And the presumption should always be that we are being fooled by our own human nature. We should always give the benefit of the doubt to others.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Religious Relevance in Hiring

The fourth item on Sean Faircloth's list of policy objectives for his new atheist political strategy is, No religious discrimination in land use or employment.

In this posting, I am going to focus on the employment issue.

This policy means that a person's religious beliefs are not to be considered relevant when hiring a person for a job unless it is actually a part of the job qualifications.

An example where religion is relevant is reflected in the fact that a Catholic Church should not be required to hire a Jew as a priest, nor would the synagogue be forced to hire the Christian. There are certain positions in certain organizations that require that the person hold a particular faith.

There are also situations like those I described yesterday where religious beliefs (or non-religious secular philosophies) prevent a person from performing the duties associated with a job. Where this happens, religious beliefs are relevant and may be considered. Though, technically, religious belief is not the relevant issue here, but willingness to perform the duties of the job one is applying for. A paramedic who refuses to give blood transfusions at an accident site is disqualified, not because of his religion, but his refusal to give transfusions at an accident site. The reason does not matter. It is the refusal that matters.

However, in cases where religious beliefs are not required to do the job and the job has no duties that the employee would refuse to carry out for religious reasons, then religion is not relevant to doing the job and shall not be relevant.

At this point, I would like to remind the reader that there are limits to religious tolerance. It is simply not the case that we can disregard all religious beliefs and tolerate all religious practices. A religion that practices the sacrifice of young virgins, or that demands the death of anybody of a different religion, or that claims that the wife must die with her husband, or that we must not suffer a witch to live, are just some possible examples of religious practices that nobody has a right to exercise nor do others have an obligation to tolerate.

Similarly, we must also find certain a-theistic philosophies intolerable. An example of this would be the view that we must exterminate the religion meme by euthanizing all who appear to be infected with it. Verbal persuasion is the only legitimate way to alter a person's views on such matters.

However, among peaceful religions (an a-theistic philosophies), where religion is not an integral part of the job, there is no need to consider those beliefs when making employment decisions. In the case of hiring the church leader, religious convictions are relevant. In terms of hiring a teacher in a school that provides state-funded education to children, it does not - as long as one is willing to teach the received academic theories regarding such things as the age of the earth, biological evolution, archaeology, and history.

In light of this, consider a case in which a church that decides to build a school. There are two main routes that the church may take.

One route us that it could be a church school designed to teach the beliefs of the church - a school for training would-be priests, for example. Here, religious belief would be relevant to employment and may be considered.

Or it could be a school whose purpose is to teach general knowledge to the public at large. Religious belief is not relevant to the job of providing children with a general education in history, math, science, geography, archaeology, and the like. Therefore, religious beliefs may not be used as an employment criterion. Doing so would be discriminatory and prejudicial - and these do not serve a legitimate interest.

The issue becomes more pronounced when state money is involved. The state has no business taxing all of its citizens to create employment or career opportunities only for those who meet certain religious qualifications. The state has no business taxing everybody yet creating jobs only for Christians, or only for those who believe in a god. State money may only be legitimately spent in ways that treat all citizens equally before the law - meaning that it does not consider qualifications other than those relevant to the job in question.

Going back to our hypothetical school, the church must rely on its own resources to fund a school that teaches its beliefs and doctrines - such as training priests or teaching its own version of history or biology. If it takes state money, then its teachings shall be those of received academic opinions, not those of their specific religion. Teaching received academic opinion requires no religious test, and none should be used.

If a church wishes to handle adoptions it may do so in its own way regarding children voluntarily given to their care by private individuals responsible for that care. An unwed mother who gives her child to such an agency would meet this criterion. However, if the agency takes state money, then they must use the state standards regarding who is qualified to adopt. It may lobby the state as to what those standards should be. However, when they act as agents of the state (taking state money), then they are to use the state standards.

If a church adopts the practice of accepting food donations and offering food to the poor, they may do so in the context of trying to convert the poor to their religion and use understanding of church doctrine as a qualification for employment in the kitchen. However, if it takes state money, its mission is to feed the hungry, not to convert people. This is a job for which religious beliefs are irrelevant and may not be considered a criterion of employment.

A part of the principle of freedom of religion is that religions stand or fall on their own. The fact that the church of Athena seems to have hit some hard times recently does not justify a state bailout providing the church with subsidies in order to rebuild that religion.

If the school or orphanage or soup kitchen cannot stay open without state aid, then so be it. The church has the option to end that service. If a church service is not viable without state funds, the state should not keep it running with government subsidies. Instead, the state should buy its services from a competing agency that is willing to sell the services that serve actual and legitimate state interests.

It is scarcely recognized that the Catholic Church is passing much of the cost of lawsuits against it for child sexual abuse of priests by passing those costs on to the taxpayers. It diverts money that would have otherwise gone to its schools, orphanages, and food banks - then demands that the state fund those operations instead. This is functionally no different than giving the taxpayer the bill for these lawsuits.

The principle behind this policy is that of equal standing before the law. Where the state is in a position to provide advantages and disadvantages - to grant or to deny opportunities - it must demonstrate a legitimate state reason in determining who gets those advantages or disadvantages. There is a legitimate state reason to discriminate between competent versus incompetent engineers when paying for the construction of a bridge. There is no legitimate state reason to discriminate between white versus black engineers, or female versus male engineers.

Nor is there a legitimate state interest served in distinguishing between theist versus atheist engineers - unless a person's religion is one that teaches that pi = 3, in which case the question of religious belief overlaps the question of engineering competence. In this case, the state may discriminate. However, this is still an example of discriminating in terms of competent engineering, not a case of discrimination against a religion per se.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Religious Beliefs and Professional Duties

In my discussion of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy, I am at the third of ten policy objectives - that pharmacists and doctors do their job and not use their religion as an excuse to do refuse legal medical help to others.

Faircloth has in mind the case of a rape victim. After enduring the rape, and reporting it to the police, and going through a rape exam, she gets a prescription for a "morning after pill." She goes to a local pharmacist - and he refuses to fill the prescription. Where this happens once, it can happen two or three times. In a more rural part of the country, once is enough.

Faircloth's policy objective is for the law to declare that these jobs come with certain duties and responsibilities, which includes filling legal prescriptions that customers may come in with.

If your religion prohibits you from doing the job, find a different job.

Imagine taking your child to the hospital with a severe bleeding wound and being told, "We do not do blood transfusions here. If you want a blood transfusion, you will have to go elsewhere." And the next nearest hospital is 60 miles away.

However, I do not think that this issue is quite as simple as some wish it to be.

Let's consider conscientious objector status. Here is a case of people who, for religious reasons, refuse to kill. Are we going to advocate putting a gun in their hand and forcing them to kill people? Or are we going to allow them to use their religion as a legitimate reason not to kill?

My next step will be to ask whether or not the pharmacist can use religion as a reason not to kill.

I hold that an fetus has to have a brain capable of having desires before it can have moral standing. You cannot violate the interests of a being that has no interests. And while the being has potential future interests, that only speaks to the possibility of potential future harm if and when those potential interests become actual interests. Therefore, I deny that abortion or the use of a morning-after pill violates any moral prescription. However, the question here is whether and to what degree I may impose those beliefs upon others.

The argument for freedom is substantially an argument against arrogance. It is an argument that says that we are going to allow each competent adult the opportunity to look around and decide his own place in the world. Each of us thinks we are right. However, we are going to require enough humility to require that we use words to convince others of the error of their ways - not guns. We will presume in favor of freedom and the power of non-violent forms of persuasion, and give up freedom only when the arguments for doing so are compelling.

When religion commands somebody to kill others, the argument for finding this freedom intolerable is compelling. When it tells somebody not to kill - as in the case of the conscientious objector - the weight of the argument remains with the presumption of freedom.

However, in the case of the conscientious objector, freedom means that we are not going to compel them to kill. We still leave it to them not to choose the profession of soldier, where killing is potentially required.

We say, Fine. If you do not wish to kill - which is one of the potential duties of a soldier - then do not enlist. Do not go through basic training, get assigned to a squad, get into a battle, and decide at that point not to pull the trigger because you have religious objections to killing. Make your decision before you sign up that this career opportunity is not for you. In addition, do not demand that you be able keep your job as the heavy weapons specialist after you have decided not to do perform the duties that this job requires - because removing you from that position violates your "freedom of religion". Your freedom of religion is exercised in the freedom to not be a soldier.

We can take the same position with respect to the pharmacist. If you object to handing out any legally prescribed drugs, stay out of the pharmacy business. Do not go into training, get yourself a job, take the Sunday shift, and then refuse to do your duty when a customer comes in with a valid prescription for a morning after pill. Make your decision before you start training. This career opportunity is not for you. Do not say that requiring you to sell a legal prescription drug violates your freedom of religion. Your freedom of religion is exercised in the freedom to not be a pharmacist.

Individuals are still given freedom of conscience. We are not going to force people into jobs that are not compatible with their religious beliefs.

We are not going to force the conscientious objector to become a soldier.

We are not going to force that devout Jew or Muslim to become a sausage taster.

We are not going to force the devout animal-rights advocate to become a rancher.

We are not going to require religious fundamentalists to become pharmacists.

We will trust them to take jobs that are compatible with their religious beliefs.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rick Santorum and the Selling of Hate and Fear

I will take it as point of favor in this series discussing Sean Faircloth's new atheist political strategy that it is showing itself relevant to current events.

Point 6 on Faircloth's strategy is that the secular and atheist communities need to reclaim moral language.

In my comments on that point, I argued that secular and atheist communities need to more effectively and emphatically counter the claim that without a god there is no foundation for morality.

(See: Atheist Ethicist Atheism and Lacking a Moral Foundation)

We treat this as if it is merely another false proposition. We ignore the fact that it is a false proposition with a purpose. It aims to socially promote or elevate one social group who hold it by selling hatred and fear of a target group.

We treat it like the false claim that the Earth is 6000 years old, when we should be treating it like the false claim that Jews are "Christ killers."

Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum gave a speech on Wednesday in which he said the following:

They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is the government that gives you right, what’s left are no unalienable rights, what’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re a long way from that, but if we do and follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.

(See: Santorum: Obama Putting America On ‘Path’ Of Executing Religious People)

There is no moral difference between standing in front of a crowd and giving this speech, then standing in front of a crowd and saying:

The Jews killed Jesus Christ. The murdered our savior. And if they could they would certainly murder your children as well. They will take your innocent children and murder them for their blood - so that they can use their blood in their religious services. We are a long ways from that now. However, if we follow our current path - if you do not hand the reigns of political power over to me - then we are headed down that road.

Both sets of claims are mistakes.

However, they are not mere mistakes. They are mistakes that serve a political and social function. They are mistakes that serve to promote one group by uniting them in fear and hatred if another.

Secularists and atheists have a habit of reacting to claims like those of Santorum as mere factual errors. They shake their heads and say, "Obviously he does not understand the philosophical points raised in Plato's Euthyphro argument, and he is perhaps unaware of the secular moral theories that have dominated the philosophical literature for the past 400 years."

This may be true.

It may be false. Santorum is an intelligent human being and I would actually be surprised to discover that he is not aware of these responses.

However, one of the things he definitely understands - perhaps as a conscious strategy, perhaps intuitively without much conscious thought - is the political power of hate. He understands the political effects of using hate and fear as a way of promoting himself and his political faction.

Santorum is a hate-monger. Buy my hate. Buy my hate and send your cash payments to Rick Santorum for President.

Like any good businessman, he sells his product to meet a current demand. There is more than enough survey and market data to show that there is a current demand to be met.

Also, like any good businessman, he seeks to grow that demand. He seeks to put his organization to work selling this hate to people who, at first, might be reluctant to buy - but also potentially willing to buy. Let us not pretend that the world consists solely of people who buy hate and those who never will. People are more varied than that.

The new atheist political strategy has to include an active campaign to fight this hate-mongering. Atheists have no more hope of having a political voice in a society sold on hatred of atheists have no moral foundation than Jews can expect in a society that embraces the charge of "Christ killer" and blood libel.

If it is to be challenged, this hate has to be recognized for what it is - and for what it is not. It is not just a mistake. It is a mistake with a social and political function - to politically and socially marginalize atheists while promoting the political and social standing of those who "have faith". It is an act of using hate and fear to obtain political and social goals.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Reproductive Health Based on Science

In another context, I have argued that treating scripture as the last word in morality is as stupid as treating Hippocrates as the last word in medicine.

(See: Atheist Ethicist: Scripture as a Source of Moral Knowledge)

(Also Relevant: Atheist Ethicist: Faith Hospital.)

Imagine having our entire health network claim that there are no medical facts that have not appeared in the writings of Hippocrates, and nothing written in Hippocrates that is not a medical fact.

In fact, it is even more foolish to hold that the bible is the last word in morality.

Hippocrates at least was at least the model for medical knowledge in his age, and a wise and compassionate individual. Whereas scripture was not so much about morality as it was about securing the social and political power of priests and kings by securing the faithful, unreasoned, and unquestioning obedience of their subjects. They claim that the command is to obey God.

However, there is no God. There is only the person who claims to be able to tell you what God says. Consequently, what is presented as, "Obey God without question or justification or suffer the consequences in this world or the next," is, in practice, "Obey me or suffer the consequences."

When I assert that making scripture the last word in morality is worse than making Hippocrates the last word in medicine, I assume that readers will see that making Hippocrates the last word in medicine is a bad thing.

That may be optimistic.

What we get from scripture - in particular concerning matters of reproductive health - very much fits the description of taking the word of people far less intelligent than Hippocrates as the final word in medicine. We are, in fact, prescriptive primitive pre-historic remedies for our social ills.

Even the social and political elite, who shaped religion for their benefit, had some reason to prefer to be the elite in a healthy and well-ordered society unmarred by petty jealousies, than one that was riddled with disease and violence. Some of their "Obey me . . . ahem . . . I mean . . . obey God or suffer the consequences" commandments were actually geared to help them rule over a healthy and prosperous society. To do this, their commandments contained within it the medical facts and fictions of their age.

When we use these same prescriptions we are, in effect, declaring them to be the last and best words in matters of medicine, biology, and psychology - which is actually worse than declaring Hippocrates the last word in medicine.

Again, I am not claiming that these people were engaged in a conscious campaign to deceive people. It is more likely that they believed that their god or gods existed and wondered what qualities those beings had.

Naturally, they would start by assigning to those deities the qualities they wanted those deities to have. Their assignments faced no reality check in terms of truth so they could not be disproved. The only reality check they did face was whether their assertions would survive - which was a measure of their usefulness to the elite.

In this case, we not only get the virtue of blind obedience already mentioned, but other elements that help to secure power. There is good reason to view the demand that women be baby-making machines in such a society as a way to secure power.

The elite needs soldiers and servants, and societies were organized to fulfill that need. The more children, the more effectively they can be raised to be capable soldiers and servants for the elite, the better off the elite become. Therefore, god commands women to stay home and have children and to raise them according to scripture to become soldiers and servants of the elite, donating their time and labor as the elite dictate.

Limiting sexual partners limits the spread of disease and limits the petty jealousies that reduce the quality of the society over which the elites rule. It makes medical sense to command people to have few sexual partners - particularly in a primitive society that knows so little about medicine, biology, and psychology. It was not a stupid move.

Similarly, many of the remedies that Hippocrates prescribed were not foolish. They were wrong, but not foolishly wrong. They may have been the best remedies for that time, but it does not imply that we should not use our current knowledge to replace it with something better.

When we accept the absurdity that these prescriptions came from a perfectly wise and benevolent god, rather than from a social elite using the knowledge of their age to secure their position at the head of their own societies, we are actually claiming that the tribesmen of that age had both perfect virtue and perfect knowledge of medicine, biology, and psychology. We are accepting an absurdity, and we are basing social policy on that absurdity.

Where we know have a great deal of knowledge about the relationships between sexual behavior, brain structure, biology, and evolution, the primitive inventors of scripture did not even know that those relationships existed. I have been spending my time going over Sean Faircloth’s new atheist strategy. It includes ten policy objectives for the secular and atheist community. The second of those ten policy objectives is for reproductive information to be based on science – not on myth.

This means that when we go to discover what is known about the medical, biological, and psychological facts relevant to reproduction and reproductive health, we are not going to go to the ignorant tribesman who knew almost nothing about the world in which he lived. Instead, we are going to go to those who have libraries full of peer-reviewed literature that tells them what the facts are.

We are going to do this for the same reason that if we go to build a bridge or a communications satellite, we are not going to ask the primitive tribesmen who does not even have the capacity to read and write to determine the best way to go about it. We are going to ask the people who have stacks of material at their disposal telling them the facts of materials science, chemistry, and physics relevant to doing the job competently.

It is utterly foolish to consider an ancient Greek, no matter how gifted he was in his time, to be the last word ever on all matters of medicine. It is more foolish to go to an illiterate tribesman to have him design a complex bridge or communications satellite. And it is an extreme form of foolishness to go to ancient tribesmen who have been dead for a few thousand years as the last word in matters of reproductive health.

As Faircloth says, the new atheist political strategy should have, as one of its objectives, reproductive information based on science, not based on the superstitions of illiterate tribesmen who have been dead for a few thousand years.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Censoring the Critics of Violent Idologies

I am interrupting my discussion of Sean Faircloth's new atheist political strategy.

Well, sort of.

I want to discuses something I read the other day. It has relevance to the series on political strategy, but it does break the flow of that series.

It concerns an article that announces that Google and Facebook are censoring material in India under penalty of law. A justification behind the law was given in the article as follows:

While civil rights groups have opposed the new laws, politicians say posting offensive images in a socially conservative country with a history of violence between religious groups presents a danger to the public.

(See The Guardian, Google and Facebook block content in India after court warns of crackdown)

I have read few things that are so utterly idiotic as this.

How about, "Religious groups with a history of violence present a danger to the public?"

You know . . . "history of violence" . . . "danger to the public" . . . They kinda go together.

Yet, (as if speaking to these “politicians”) you want to blame the peaceful victims.

Have you noticed, you are giving power to the advocates and practitioners of violence? That is NOT a safe move.

Seriously. In the name of peace, you intend to give the members of an admittedly violent ideology the power to dictate what people see, hear, and read? You intend to give them power over what people think?

And you expect them to use this power to promote a message of harmony, peace, and understanding?

We can already see how they plan on using this power. They plan to use it to ban all criticism of their violent ideology. They are using it to get the government to prohibit people from saying, ‘Maybe this violent ideology we have had around for hundreds of years isn’t such a good thing?”

"Do not criticize us. Do not dare say we are wrong. Do not contradict or condemn our violent ways and means - or we will kill innocent people. And we will blame you!"

They are going to use this power to grow their cult of violence.

And you have given them every incentive to do so.

Not only are you empowering the violent by attacking their victims and silencing their critics, you are empowering the violent because they are violent. That is what this excuse for these laws is saying. It is because the advocates and practitioners of violence are violent that you wish to give them power over what people say, see, read, hear, and think.

In doing so, you have announced that an eagerness to do violence is a shortcut to political and social power. Don't be surprised if they suddenly find a whole lot more things to get violently upset about. Don’t be surprised to discover that they are now going to start to get violently upset if the law does not favor them or their leaders in other ways – in economic contracts, in political appointments, in imposing their doctrine on others through legislation.

You have already said that you will grant political power and social advantage to those who threaten violence. Consequently, anybody who wants political power and social advantage now has an incentive to become an advocate and practitioner of the same sorts of violence.

At which point we can certainly count on you to tell us that it is not the fault of the advocates and practitioners of violence. Following the same logic used in the initial quote, I am certain you will announce that Condemning violence in a socially conservative country with a history of violence between religious groups presents a danger to the public. Or that Criticizing the social and political advantages given to the members of violent ideologies is a danger to the public. or Refusing total surrender to the advocates and practitioners of violence is a danger to the public.

THIS is your plan for peace? To give the practitioners of wonton violence everything they want - as if they and others will not see this as an incentive to threaten even more violence?

Are you insane?

If you want peace, do not empower the advocates and practitioners if violence. A better strategy would be to protect their victims, and empower their critics.

Of course, if you love violence, then go ahead. Continue to feed and reward violence and I am certain you will soon find yourself with an abundance of this crop you are so carefully harvesting.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Religious Reasons and Military Justifications

If you are in the US military today, one of your jobs is to help restore Israel to its borders as described in the Bible - in order to bring about (or because success will be evidence that the time is near for) the second coming of Christ.

This is not to say that this is an explicit part of our national foreign policy - which the military is charged with helping to enforce. It would be more accurate to say that this is in the back of the national mind in designing that policy. Those policies that have been made explicit have all been examined under the light of its effects on making it more likely or less likely that Israel will return to its original borders. This concern gets weighed against other matters - such as peace and justice - and can sometimes outweigh those other "secular" concerns.

A part of the reason why Israel can get away with some of the things it gets away with is because of the political influence of this religious faction that holds peace and justice to sometimes subordinate to religious prophesy.

However, let's not deny that this policy of "killing and injustice in the name of a god" is one-sided. On the other side, we also have a "killing and injustice in the name of a god" on the other side.

Unfortunately, when you have two groups of people, each of whom think their god grants them permission to do violence to the other, there is no hope for peace or justice.

This is why wise and civilized societies adopt the principle that religion is a poor reason to do violence. Either they re-interpret their religion as one that condemns such violence, or they abandon that religion. If they do not choose one of these two options, they are condemned to live in a society of violence, poverty, disease, with its resulting death and suffering.

Another way to state this, in a way that is relevant to this series of posts, is that religions reasons shall not color our military decisions at home or abroad. We will not condone, let alone commit, violence and injustice in the name of any god. Each person has a liberty to engage in their own religious practices, up to the point where that practice makes them advocates of violence against others.

I have been spending my time recently looking at Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists. Specifically, I have just started looking at his first policy objective:

Our military shall serve and include all Americans, religious and non-religious, with no hint of bias and with no hint of fundamentalist extremism coloring our military decisions at home or abroad.

I am proposing a slight modification - a stricter rule than Faircloth provides. It calls for "no hint of religious rationalization coloring our military decisions at home or abroad". This principle translates into a prohibition that says that our soldiers do not kill in the name of any god."

Last week I wrote about the first part if this policy objective. I argued that it is absurd to "include all Americans" and that some standards are needed to determine who is acceptable and who is unacceptable. In place of Faircloth's policy above, I suggested that all people are to be accepted for inclusion unless good reason can be provided to the contrary. Religion does not provide a good reason to the contrary. They do not justify blacklisting any person or group. In the absence of religious reasons, there is no justification for blacklisting atheists or gays - which is why they should be included.

In this post, I am looking at the second half of this policy. I am claiming that, in the same way that religion provides a poor reason for blacklisting any person or group, it provides a poor foundation for military decisions. The separation of church and state finds its greatest value in the call for the separation of religion and violence it implies. Killing in the name of a god is prohibited.

Imagine two groups, squabbling over some piece of land because "God gave it to us. It is ours by right."

God did not give that land to anybody. What has happened is that some tribe liked the idea of taking some plot of land from some other tribe. In order to neutralize any guilt they may feel over the fact they are about to become murderers and thieves they assure themselves that their god said it was okay. They will likely pray and perform some religious rituals, after which they will come to the surprising (not!) conclusion, "God says we can have that land." Then the stealing and murdering can commence without all that guilt and shame getting in the way.

You have heard it said that religion is the source of morality. Yet, it is all too common to find people rationalize immorality by saying, "God gave us permission. In fact, He insisted!" The very fact that god is an invention makes this easy.

It is no different than a young child asking imaginary parents if he can stay up late or have cookies for supper. Imaginary authority figures are as strict or as lenient as those who do the imagining want them to be. Usually, these imaginary authority figures are very lenient towards the one doing the asking, but gives the asker all sorts of rules and commandments to impose on others. Typically, the person talking to god will discover that god wants others to obey him (without question and without reason - as a matter of faith) - again, not surprisingly.

There is no defense against this "god said I could" argument. Anybody can assign to their god any attitudes they want their god to have. Nobody can prove that god did or did not say what the speaker said. There is no evidence available to determine the attitudes and actions of an imaginary being.

Try to demonstrate that I have not talked to god and learned that god has granted me and my followers all of the islands of the Hawaii chain, and granted us permission to use all means necessary to acquire that which is our god given us. You have no proof against it. The only tool you have are the instruments of violence - the military and courts - to use against me and my followers.

Do you want peace? Then you agree to the principle that religious reasons are not to be taken as justification for violence and injustice. Religious reasons will not color our military decisions at home or abroad. Those who do not accept this principle - are those who favor killing and injustice in the name of some god. Those prone to kill, maim, and inflict harms in the name of some god are a threat to the public.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Gays and Atheists as "Unacceptable"

So far this year, I have been spending my time in this blog going over the elements of Sean Faircloth’s new political strategy for atheists and the specific policy objectives he presents.

Currently, I am looking at Faircloth’s first policy objective, which he stated as:

Our military shall serve and include all Americans, religious and non-religious, with no hint of bias and with no hint of fundamentalist extremism coloring our military decisions at home or abroad.

I objected that it is absurd to have a policy that includes "all Americans". It would have to include the child rapist, the rabid racist, the apostate-murdering islamist, and the atheist attempting to remove religion from the meme pool by killing anybody who is infected with it.

Instead I suggested a policy in which (1) each individual and group has presumption in favor of inclusion - of being on the "accepted" list, (2) evidence beyond a reasonable doubt must be provided for removing any person or group from the "accepted" list, and (3) religious reasons do not provide good reason to move any individual or group to the "unacceptable" list. The types of reasons to be used is the same type that would be legitimate in declaring a person guilty of a crime in a court of law.

The reasons offered for finding gays service personnel "unacceptable", or for holding that atheists are only qualified to receive orders and never qualified to give them, are either (1) religious reasons, or (2) the "bigot’s proof" of absurd and fanciful non-religious reasons that some people embrace only because they offer support for a desired (in this case, religious) conclusion. I call this the "bigot's proof" because they are exemplified by the arguments in favor of slavery and Jim Crow laws as being a benefit to blacks.

On this point I want to look at how gays and atheists made it onto religious lists of "unacceptable" people or groups. What is really going on behind the scenes regarding the religious disapproval of gays and atheists?

Each group actually takes a different route onto that list.

The Situation for Gays

In the case of gays, I would suggest that the following explanation seems most likely:

The major religions were invented by substantially ignorant humans living in ancient primitive tribes. They had the human disposition to fear what they did not understand and to hate anything that was different. They were disposed - by what is normal human psychology - to view gays as demonic, sick, strange, unnatural creatures unfit for civilized society.

Then they invented gods.

When they invented these gods, they assigned these prejudices to their gods.

By this, I do not mean that they were consciously thinking, "I am going to invent a god and assign my prejudices to him." I am saying that they had no idea how to explain things around them in natural terms so they sought supernatural explanations. They invented or "hypothesized" gods. And they asked themselves, "What qualities do these gods have?" As a part of the process, they decided that no god worthy of the name could actually think these disgusting creatures who seek sex with members of the same sex should be treated as human. They are abominations. So, they wrote that their god viewed them as abominations.

They wanted these creatures put to death - to be eliminated from society - so they wrote that their Gods commanded them to kill these creatures.

Through scripture, these bigotries have been brought to the 21st century. People who should have been left to live their lives in peace when thinking humans shook off their ignorance and primitive superstitions are still made to suffer – or denied the full quality of life that they could otherwise have – because people today take the ignorant prejudices of a bunch of primitive tribesmen as the unerring word of a god.

The Situation for Atheists

Atheists took a different road onto the "unaccepted" list.

Here, we must recognize that religious institutions are social and political institutions – and the people at the head of those organizations have a human thirst for social and political power.

They get their power by being the spokesperson for God. They speak. Their congregation listens and obeys. It contributes to building the leader’s home and furnishing it, and providing the leader with political, economic, and social power.

A person can try to gain control over others by saying, "Do as I say or suffer the consequences." Of course, this only works on the person who actually thinks that disobeying actually has consequences. "What the tyrant does not know cannot hurt me." Plus, the tyrant needs power to actually inflict consequences.

Somewhere along the line, the wise tyrant got the idea of saying, "And I have an all-knowing, invisible friend who knows when you disobey who will make you suffer - if not in this lifetime, then for eternity in the next lifetime."

Seriously, the phrase, "Serve God" really translates into "Serve me," spoken by the person claiming to have a personal pipeline to God.

Of course, one of the things that the tyrant needs to worry about is having somebody in the community who dares to day, "Yeah, sure. You do not have an all-knowing invisible friend. You’re just making that stuff up."

That is to say, atheists are a significant threat to the social and political power of religious leaders. Therefore, the religious leader has a strong incentive to tell his congregation, "Atheism is unacceptable. Shun the atheist. He is a fool. He will bring you into ruin. He has no morals. He will destroy your lives and destroy your chance for a happy afterlife."

That is how atheists made it onto the "unacceptable" list.

Once again, I am not talking about religious leaders consciously plotting out the details of this system. Instead, the religious leader likes his power, he feels threatened by the atheist. This makes him uncomfortable. He gets a revelation (which he may well think is an actual revelation - even though it comes in fact from his fear and anxiety) that God does not like atheists, and that is what he tells his audience.

Furthermore, the religion that most effectively neutralizes its opponents is the one that gains power and control. It is to be expected - considering only natural forces - that the religions that dominate the world today have a strong anti-atheist prejudice.


We see then that gays and atheists have made their way onto religion's "unacceptable" list in two different ways.

Gays are on the list because primitive ancient tribesmen judged "different" as "evil" and sought to destroy what they did not understand. Now, today, they suffer from people foolish enough to think that the prejudices of a group of illiterate goat herders was the infallible word of God. The tragedy is that they are continuing to do real harm to real people.

Atheists are on the list because we threaten the social and political power of religious leaders. People who owe their position in society to the idea that those who disobey face the wrath of their all-knowing, all-powerful enforcer are threatened by those who say that there is no enforcer. They find the atheist presence intolerable. And (not surprisingly) so do the gods they invent.

This is what is really going on when religion puts gays and atheists on the "unacceptable" list. This is what people preserve when they defend these practices.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Gays and Atheists in the Military

Sean Faircloth recently presented a list of political objectives to be reached through his new political strategy for atheism. The first of these was described as:

Our military shall serve and include all Americans, religious and non-religious, with no hint of bias and with no hint of fundamentalist extremism coloring our military decisions at home or abroad.

I rejected the idea that we can have a military that serves and includes all Americans. It would include and serve the American who takes a number of child brides, the Ku Klux Klan member, and the atheist who thinks that the 'religion' meme should be exterminated by exterminating all of those who are infected with it.

Nobody actually accepts the proposition that we must accept everybody We going to have standards for determining who the military should include and who it should serve, and some people and groups will not meet those standards. We are not going to put the child rapist, the KKK racist, the apostate-murdering Islamist, or the atheist seeking to euthanize anybody infected with the 'religion' meme on the "accepted" list.

As an aside, I want to mention that this is not an "either/or" question. We are going to find that the situation is more complex than simply branding certain qualities as making people "acceptable" or "unacceptable". However, for the purposes of this discussion, we don’t need to worry about those details. We can paint the room and add bring in the furniture after the structure is built.

The fundamental structure has us asking, in a broad sense, "How we are going to determine the broad general category in which to put individuals and groups?"

The first principle that I would advance - which I may call the Presumption of Innocence - is this:

Everybody starts on the "accepted" list and only moves to the "unaccepted" list with evidence sufficient to override this presumption.

This is a version of the principle that people are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

It will never be the duty of any individual or group to prove that they deserve a place on the "accepted" list. It will always be the duty of those who would exclude people or groups to provide good reason for removing them - proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Failure to prove a need to remove an individual or group from the "accepted" group preserves their place in that group.

One way to understand the presumption of innocence is by answering this question. Can you prove you did not sneak out and kill a young jogger at 4:00 AM on August 23, 2008? Consider this, and you can see why people generally have reason to promote this presumption of innocence.

The second principle - what one might call The Secular Principle - is this:

Religious reasons are not good reasons to move people into the "Unaccepted" group.

As a model for "good reasons" we should have in mind the reasons that would be considered acceptable in a court of law.

We would consider it a mockery of justice for a prosecutor to call to the witness stand some soothsayer, who kills a chicken in front of the jury, examines its entrails, and proclaims the accused "guilty" or "innocent". Similarly, we would not allow the prosecutor to present as evidence the accused's horoscope on the day that the crime took place, unless the horoscope actually helps to establish the real-world motive of the accused.

Similarly, swearing in a priest who says, "I spoke to God this morning and he said that the accused is guilty" is out of the question.

The main reason for excluding these types of testimony us that none of them offer any kind of public evidence. If some other priest takes the stand and says, "Well, my God said that the accused is innocent," we have no way to determine who is right. What type of public evidence can our priests bring to the jury to show that they revealed the true word of God and the other priest does not?

Faith may be "good enough" for a number of things. However, those who would be harmed - or removed from the "accepted" group - have a right to require something more than this. When it comes to declaring that the accused is guilty, or that apostates deserve to be killed, faith is not "good enough".

On the other hand, real world suffering counts as public evidence. The pain one feels on sticking one's hand into a bed of hot coals requires no belief in God and transcends religion. It is represented in the science of biology. That science considers not only the chemical reactions involved in experiencing pain, but the ouchiness of pain. We do not have a complete real-world theory of pain that excludes any link between it and behavior. It must include the real-world fact that pain is something that those who experience it have reason to avoid, even though they sometimes also have strong reason not to.

These types of facts can be offered as public evidence - and as reason to move people into the category of "unaccepted".

There are those who claim that atheists cannot explain the wrongness of causing pain, for example - that we cannot explain this without God. However, this dispute is a side show. They would also say that atheists cannot explain the existence of trees. However, disputes over how trees got here do not necessarily translate into disputes over whether trees actually exist. And disputes over how the wrongness of pain got here do not necessarily translate into disputes over whether there is actually a wrongness to causing pain.

Note the fundamental difference between this presentation and Faircloth's presentation. Faircloth said that we are going to accept everybody - religious and non-religious. This is a claim that I have wagered even Faircloth does not actually accept.

I, on the other hand, have argued that we are not going to accept everybody. We are going to divide people into those on the "accepted" list and those on the "unaccepted" list. That people and groups are not to be moved off of the "accepted" list unless proof beyond a reasonable doubt can be provided for moving them off. That this proof requires public evidence. And that religious reasons do not provide public evidence for removing people from the "unaccepted" category.

There is no good public reason to remove gays or atheists from the "accepted" category to the "unaccepted" category. Though many religious people try to find public reasons that correspond to their religious motivation, these public reasons are nothing more than a set of secular myths and rationalizations that aim to support conclusions that some people have adopted for religious reasons.

Their rationalizations provide a bigot's proof that a target group deserves to be targeted, not rational public evidence beyond a reasonable doubt - the way some southern slave owners rationalized away slavery by claiming that there were good secular advantages to slavery, even for blacks.

One thing we can say about religion is that it does have a tendency to go hand-in-hand with a disposition to believe wild and fanciful stories that just happen to support a desired conclusion. Though non-religous people clearly are not immune from this.

Here, we have a framework that takes seriously the fact that we are not going to put everybody in the "accepted" group, gives everybody a presumption of membership on the "accepted" list, and requires public evidence for moving them out of the "accepted" group. Religious evidence is denied a role of "public" evidence in these matters just as it is in a court of law and for the same reasons. This leaves no good public reason to move gays and atheists out of the "accepted" group. It provides no good reason to boo a gay soldier serving his country, or to hold that atheist service personnel are only qualified to follow orders and never to give them.

Tomorrow, I am going to add to this an account of why it is that gays and atheists appear on religious "unaccepted" list. I will look at what is really going on when gays and atheists face discrimination for religious reasons.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Universal Tolerance

I am going through Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists. I have already covered his 6 principles for such a strategy. Now, I am ready to start looking at the 10 policy goals that this strategy is meant to achieve.

He expressed the first of these policy goals as follows:

Our military shall serve and include all Americans, religious and non-religious, with no hint of bias and with no hint of fundamentalist extremism coloring our military decisions at home or abroad.

Faircloth illustrated his point with the story of Stephen Hill, ". . . a gay serviceman who was booed at that Republican Tea-Party Debate"

I want to start by saying that there is nothing about being a serviceman that gives one an automatic immunity from criticism for one's words and behavior. Whether or not it was appropriate to boo this person has nothing at all to do with the fact that he was a serviceman.

Let us assume that somebody created a video to ask a question at a Republican debate in which he claimed to now have four under-age brides, or he claimed to be the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

We would have booed.

Well, I would have.

It would not have been, in any sense of the word, an "unpatriotic" act to have done so. In fact, I would consider booing such a person to be the more patriotic act. It communicates the view that American service personnel should meet a higher moral standard than this person represents. It says, "America is - or strives to be - or should strive to be - better than this."

It is not at all difficult to imagine that those who booed Stephen Hill were expressing just such an attitude.

Of course, an instant response likely to pop into the minds of most of my readers is, "How dare they say that Stephen Hill or atheists do not meet that standard?"

Indeed. How dare they? Doing so is objectionable.

The point of this post is to point out that this is where the discussion starts. This is the claim to be made.

A military that "serves and includes all Americans" does not even make sense. We would have to include the American who takes four underage brides, or who asserts freely his contempt for all "niggers". We would have to include the religious fundamentalist who holds that America should engage in a new crusade to drive the infidels out of the Holy Lands, and one that holds that all apostates are to be "fragged" at the first opportunity. It would include the truly militant atheist who holds that we should clean religion out of the meme pool by euthanizing anybody who shows even the slightest symptoms of being infected with this virus.

No sane person actually wants a military that serves and includes these kinds of people. Nobody is actually advocating that the military serve and include "all Americans".

I am confident (though I could be wrong) that not even Sean Faircloth would literally advocate such a policy.

Instead, each of us has a mental list of who we would include and who we would exclude - who we would boo and who we would cheer. None of us cheers everybody and boos nobody.

We understand that, whenever somebody speaks about tolerating everybody, they are really talking about tolerating the people on "our list" while excluding the people not on "our list". That is why we applaud - we are cheering "our list" of people to include or exclude.

The further away the speaker gets from mentioning any specifics as to who he would include or exclude, up to the point where he destroys the assumption that he is not literally talking about including everybody, the more freedom the listener has to insert his or her own list into the speech. Thus, the greater the political appeal that such a claim can have.

Even the religious fundamentalist can cheer such a statement. He will likely interpret the world as one in which his brand of religious fundamentalism us not being tolerated or included. People keep forcing him to treat atheist and gay service personnel with dignity and respect. What about treating the person whose religion teaches contempt for gays and atheists with dignity and respect? Where is your love of tolerance then?

So, Sean Faircloth's first policy objective meets our criterion of political utility. It is vague nearly to the point if meaninglessness, allowing each person to fill in the gaps with their own prejudices, allowing everybody to cheer, even though they have different and conflicting ideas of what they are cheering.

In truth, Faircloth's use of the principle is not entirely empty. While he speaks about including "all Americans", the context makes it clear that he is advocating that gays and atheists be put on the "approved" list. This is not empty, and some people might object.

In a different context, somebody advancing nearly the same claim could understood as including those who hold that gays are not fit to serve and atheists fit only to take orders and never to give orders are on "our list". He would be seen as advocating tolerance for such people.

Faircloth offers no real defense of his proposal. Technically, his argument is that everybody should be included, gays and atheists are a part of "everybody". Therefore, gays and atheists should be included. However, everybody knows - including Sean Faircloth, I wager - that nobody accepts the first premise as literally true. Therefore, Faircloth is not actually offering a defense of his claim that gays and atheists be put in the "included" group.

Tomorrow, I am going to look at the issue from a different angle. This angle will reject the idea of including "all Americans", and take seriously the idea that we need a list of who to include and who to exclude - who we may cheer, and who we may boo. It will put gays and atheists on the "accepted" list.

Unfortunately, this means that the principle will be more substantive, which means it will also be less useful in a political strategy.