Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Blasphemy Challenge

Old Business

On the issue of the History Channel blaming the Dark Ages on Godlessness, please note the attached History Channel marquee, "600 Years of Degenerate, Godless, Inhuman Behavior"

See my original post on the subject, which includes contact information for The History Channel.

New Business

A blog called "The Blasphemy Challenge", which is specifically devoted to criticizing the Rational Response Squad's Blasphemy Challenge put a recent post of mine, “Theism as a Mental Illness or Child Abuse”, and posted it on their site under the heading, "Atheist Ethicist calls Blasphemy Challenge Unnecessarily Insulting."

I wrote to them informing them that they misinterpreted and misrepresented my article, and explained my position on The Blasphemy Challenge. In response, they made some slight edits to their blog entry and changed the title. The entry can now be found under the title, “Atheist Alonzo Fyfe on the blasphemy challenge.”

Just as an aside, I am curious as to why they could not have written, "Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe on the blasphemy challenge." After all, I have written 1 post on the existence of God and 500+ posts on ethics. So, I do not understand the decision to put more emphasis on my atheism than on my ethics.


The Blasphemy Challenge is an offer from The Rational Response Squad for people - particularly young people - to take a video of themselves stating their lack of belief in God and posting this video on YouTube.

I article that I wrote actually focused on a discussion of some comments made in association with The Blasphemy Challenge. Specifically, I wrote to deny the proposition that theism is a mental illness (because a proper functioning brain will pick up the dominant beliefs of the society it lives in), and to deny the proposition that labeling a child as being a member of a religious culture is “child abuse” (because “child abuse” presupposes a negligent or willful disregard for the welfare of the child that simply does not exist).

I never wrote anything about The Blasphemy Challenge itself. Yet, this site posted a blog entry saying that yet another atheist had condemned The Blasphemy Challenge.

As I mentioned above, I responded to this misuse and misinterpretation of my views by sending a correction. In response to my comment they changed the heading of the blog entry and edited the body slightly. They also included my clarification in the comments, all as part of a good faith attempt to correct their earlier mistake.

These efforts show at least some meager acknowledgements of the basic moral requirements of intellectual integrity. However, I still fail to see why the requirements of intellectual integrity were not strong enough to prevent them from misrepresenting my earlier post to start with.

Anyway, as I thought about this incident, I decided that I should give a specific moral assessment on The Blasphemy Challenge, to reduce the chance that somebody may misinterpret my position in the future.

Specifically, I think that The Blasphemy Challenge, in itself, is a very good idea in principle and I can see no reason not to support it. I do not think that everything the sponsors of the challenge say in association with The Blasphemy Challenge is fair or accurate, but these faults do not give us reason to condemn The Blasphemy Challenge itself.

Overall Assessment

Ultimately, the Blasphemy Challenge is an invitation to people to report a true statement about themselves. In a sense, it is little different than creating a post that says, “I believe that the Sun is the center of the solar system,” or “I believe that the Earth is round.” In this case, the person is stating, “I believe that the Holy Ghost does not exist.” There is nothing about an act that is morally objectionable.

This is not to say that a statement of one’s beliefs cannot invite moral condemnation. If a person were to say, “I believe that all of the Jews should be killed,” this statement would certainly (and justifiably) invite moral condemnation. However, the reason for this condemnation is because there is no evidence or reason to support such a statement. The fact that a person adopts such a belief in the absence of evidence tells us something about what that person desires, and his desires are not those that tend to fulfill the desires of others. Indeed, a desire to kill others is quite clearly the case of a desire that tends to thwart the desires of others.

The lack of a belief in the Holy Ghost, on the other hand, tells us nothing about what a person desires. The kindest and most caring person on the planet can consistently hold that, as a matter of fact, no holy ghost exists, and that the wellbeing of others depends entirely on our real-world actions. We will get no help from a spirit that does not exist.

So, the claim that there is no holy spirit is morally neutral, in itself. An invitation to somebody to do a morally neutral act is, itself, morally neutral. There is no basis here for any type of moral condemnation of The Blasphemy Challenge.

The Insult Argument

One argument offered against The Blasphemy Challenge is that it is an insult to religious belief.

Certainly, the statement, “No holy spirit exists,” implies that those who believe in a holy spirit have made a mistake. In other words, there is some shortcoming in their ability to determine what is true or false. This might be taken as an insult.

However, it would be absurd in the extreme to adopt the position that nobody may ever assert a proposition that might conflict with the beliefs of any listener. We would have to outlaw all spoken and written words expressed where others might encounter them.

More specifically, somebody who demands that we condemn the statement, "I believe no gods exist" because it insults the intelligence of those who believe in God needs to explain why “I believe in God” is not to be condemned for insulting the intelligence of those who believe that no God exists.

If a measure of a moral principle is to be found in applying it consistently to everybody, we can easily see that those who advance the “insult” argument against The Blasphemy Challenge are more familiar and comfortable with injustice over justice.

The Psychological Effect

I have a reason for favoring The Blasphemy Challenge based on the psychological effect that this type of event might have.

In America today, people who do not believe in God are often subjected to pervasive psychological abuse from the first days that they enter school. They are told that those who are not “under God” or who do not “trust God” are inferior to those who do. If they belong to a family who does not believe in God, or if they should come to doubt the existence of God themselves, public (and many private) schools quickly make the child aware of the fact that they are considered among the worst and the lowest of America’s citizens.

I have mentioned before that there is a reason why atheists are considered the ‘most hated’ (actually, the ‘least American’) of all citizens. This is because the Pledge of the Allegiance and the national motto were specifically instituted to teach this lesson to children, and it works. They learn this lesson well.

Those same children, when they enter Junior High School and High School, get to listen to a President declare that only a person who believes that our rights come from God is qualified to be judge. In the last couple of weeks, he has heard a Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, say that only a person who believes in God can lead America. These, too, are messages to young atheists asserting that they are morally and socially inferior to other Americans. When these people are cheered for their statements – when these types of statements give those who make them a political advantage over those who deny them, this reinforces the negative message reaching the young atheists.

There is an editorial being widely circulated across the country right now stating that, “There Are No True Atheists.” The author, Paul Campos, asserts that a person who denies the existence of God must give up ever using the word 'ought'. Any use of the word 'ought' is an acknowledgement of God. Since even atheists make 'ought' statements, they are not true (or, at least, not consistent) atheists. No atheist should be elected president, because no amoral person should be elected President.

The problem here is not just that the atheist learns that he may not hope to become President. It is that the atheists are told not to expect the trust of his neighbors, while his neighbors are told never to trust the athiest. It is the fact that these claims identify the atheist as inherent inferior to Christian neighbors – whether the atheist seeks to become President or not – that does the harm.

In the face of this, I think it is particularly important and useful to do something that will communicate a competing message to young atheists – that atheism is not, in fact, a source of shame.

The blasphemy challenge is similar to “coming out” in the homosexual community – an invitation to homosexuals to stand up and state publicly, “I am a homosexual, a human, with every right to the fair and equal treatment that should be given to all humans who are not a threat to their neighbors.”

Atheists who see others stepping up and announcing their atheism have the opportunity to shed some of the shame that the government and society has surrounded them with through twelve years of public education.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I include “atheist” in my blog name and why I openly state my beliefs – in the hopes that this might help a young atheist realize that the assertions that atheists are inherent amoral is hate-mongering propaganda, that tells us more about the poor moral character of those who make such claims than of their victims.


So, I am, in principle, very much in favor of The Blasphemy Challenge. I do wish that it would have been brought into the world in a context that showed more respect for the need for young atheists to see positive role models. It seems to have come with some baggage that I wish would have been left behind. Yet, still, if we sit around and wait for perfection, then nothing would get done. None of my objections are so strong that they would have lead me to the conclusion, “This should not have been done.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Lost Tomb of Jesus

An opportunity has come up to display a devotion to higher standards of proof than used by those we tend to criticize.

James Cameron, the director of Titanic, has produced a documentary called, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” where it is claimed that a burial site has been found that includes Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’ son.

Perhaps the claim is true. Yet, the issue is not to be decided by a documentary put together by a Hollywood producer. The issue is to be decided by articles in peer-reviewed publications and debates by experts in the field. If they should form a consensus that these claims are correct, an individual with a proper concern for proof over propaganda will have reason to accept those results. Until then, they (we) do not.

An Intellectually Responsible Conclusion

The promotions for the documentary assert that the documentary will provide the viewer with evidence and then the viewer can decide for himself or herself what to believe.

Yet, my contention is that there is no way that a documentary can provide an individual, in 45 minutes, with enough information to make more than a guess as to the conclusion – and that guess will inevitably follow the viewer’s own preconceived notions.

Being convinced by this documentary would be like being convinced of a suspect's guilt while sitting on a grand jury. A grand jury only hears the prosecutor's case - all expertly wrapped to make it look as pretty as possible. No doubt, the message in this documentary will be well packaged to make it look as attractive as possible, to get unthinking people to buy it.

In holding to this standard of knowledge, one is already holding to a higher moral respect for truth than most people who will be discussing this documentary will allow. Most fundamentalists will hold that the claims are false, precisely because their religion claims otherwise. They will assert a certainty that a person with a proper love of truth to know to be unwarranted.

At the same time there will be those who will wish to view this documentary as confounding Christians, who will assert that in 45 minutes they have become sufficiently knowledgeable in the science of archaeology to make a conclusion that PhD scientists in the field do not universally accept.

The difference here is not between those who are certain P is true and those who are certain P is false. It is between both of these groups and the intellectually responsible person who asserts that those who claim to know are intellectually reckless and show an insufficient moral regard for the value of the truth and good evidence. The lover of truth will see members of both camps blinded by a will to believe and an arrogant assumption of infallibility that has a habit of causing a great many more problems in the world than it solves.

The Possibility of Being Wrong

In saying that the documentary will not provide us with sufficient evidence to make an informed decision, I am not saying that Cameron’s conclusions have a 50% chance of being true. Actually, they are far more likely to be false. There is going to be a long list of possible explanations for this data. These odds alone give the Cameron explanation a very low chance of being true.

Consider a case in which you have a friend secretly draw a card out of a deck of cards. You know that the card he is holding is either the king of hearts or it is some other card. Yet, this hardly implies that there is a 50% chance that your friend is holding the king of hearts. Your claim, “You have drawn the king of hearts,” is almost certainly (98% chance) false. Cameron’s claims are almost certainly false.

Yet, those who hold that Cameron’s chances of being wrong are 100%, rather than some smaller number, because their religion will not tolerate him being right, are also mistaken. There is a very real non-zero chance that Cameron’s claims are accurate. The dogmatic Christian who says that Cameron cannot be right because the Bible says so is no lover of truth.

These conclusions speak to a certain amount of justified moral condemnation for James Cameron and his crew. If they are lovers of truth, then they would not be telling their audience, “In 45 minutes, we can give you enough information to make decisions that professional archaeologists do not feel qualified to make.” How wonderful it would be if one of us can get the equivalent of a PhD in archaeology just by watching one documentary. Consider the tons of information that cannot be presented in a forum such as this.

The Right to Freedom of Speech

Now, whenever somebody condemns somebody else for saying something, suggesting that it is something that ought not to be said (in this case, that a 45 minute documentary can give a person sufficient reason to accept or reject a set of propositions on Jesus), that this is censorship and is to be condemned. The assertion would be that I am an enemy of free speech if I assert that Cameron is to be condemned for this particular exercise of speech.

Consistent with this, I would expect some Christians to condemn this documentary, and that others will use eagerly use the opportunity to accuse those fundamentalists of being an enemy of “free speech”

These claims would be mistaken. In order to violate Cameron’s right to free speech, one would have to advocate violence or legal penalties against him. Criticism – even in the form of moral condemnation for making certain claims – is not a violation of free speech, if it is not backed by violence. The right to free speech only makes sense if it includes a right to criticize, and a right to morally condemn, others. These acts are also speech, and those who perform them must also be free.

In fact, this particular use of “the right to free speech” contradicts itself. Those who make this claim are effectively asserting, “No good person would ever make the claim that there are things that no good person would ever claim." The position is incoherent.

Cameron clearly has the right to be free from violence or punishment for producing this documentary. This does not remove his guilt that his documentary contains an invitation to intellectual recklessness and irresponsibility.

Going Against Christian Dogma

In reading a news account of this documentary, one of the statements that I ran across said that, “[S]everal scholars derided the claims made in a new documentary as unfounded and contradictory to basic Christian beliefs.”

Sorry, but a scholar would have no grounds for deriding a claim because it contradicts basic Christian beliefs. That objection would either require the assumption that all Christian beliefs are true, or that it even false Christian beliefs should never be contradicted. Both of these are violations of the fundamental ethics of scholarship.

This leaves only “unfounded” as being a legitimate objection to Cameron’s piece. When this objection comes from scholars, it has merit. However, when this objection comes from the church, it brings with it a touch of irony – that of a church official condemning a belief on the basis that there is not sufficient physical or material evidence to support it.


The General Tendency of Skeptics

In the article, a biblical scholar Stephen Pfann said, “[S]keptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear.”

This might actually be true of some ‘skeptics’. However, I would hope that the moral culture of the skeptics would suppress such tendencies. Instead, I hope that skeptics, in general, would be more concerned with whether a proposition is true or false and well supported by the evidence than whether the proposition is convenient or pleasant to entertain.

In fact, Pfann’s claim is an insult in that it attributes a mean spirited – a ‘love of having others suffer’ to skeptics. Apparently, the list of things that are entertaining to the average skeptic is the suffering of a person who has discovered that a cherished belief is probably false. I suspect that Pfann would scoff at the idea that there might be a skeptic who bits his tongue rather than poke holes in the cherished beliefs of an associate or family member, just because he does not want to cause such a person pain.

There are, of course, some skeptics for which this accusation is true. However, what should be true of skeptics “in general” (contrary to Pfann’s hate-filled bigotry) is that the love of truth itself is more important than the love of any given belief, such that the belief can be accepted or rejected based on the evidence. A certain amount of condemnation would be appropriate for any who love a belief more than they love truth.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Godless, Inhuman Dark Ages

I caught mention of this at Bligbi

The Dark Ages: 600 years of Godless Inhuman Behavior.

This is the tag line that the History Channel is using to promote a new show, as seen in its advertisement. Apparently, somebody got the idea that atheist barbarians were responsible for this period of intellectual stagnation.

I'm thinking that there might be a sequel.

"The Holocaust: A Jewish Crime against Humanity."

If one were to conduct a poll in Europe between 500 and 1100 AD, I wonder what percent of the population would announce that they were 'atheist' or even 'agnostic' or the ambiguous 'no religion'.

I am going to take a guess that the answer will be at or near zero percent.

Yet, for some reason, the History Channel has decided to blame this small and possibly non-existant group with all of the death and suffering, crime and disease of the Dark Ages.

Perhaps the show itself will explain how so few people (at or near zero), who could not even speak their beliefs in public without inviting torture and execution, acquired so much cultural influence that they were responsible for so much bad in the world.

This absurdity of blaming the dark ages on godlessness makes me wonder how this idea got into the minds of those who advertised it. What are the causes that lie behind this effect?

Possible theories may include a conscious conspiracy of hate-mongering and scapegoating. Yet, this seems highly contrived - like assuming that there must be an intelligent designer responsible for the human eye. If we had evidence of a conspiracy - some leaked memo or a string of public statements leading directly to such a conclusion, we would have evidence for an accusation. In the absence of such evidence, we should look at natural explanations.

Promotions are market-tested. There is a lot of money at stake, so it is standard practice to come up with several ideas for a promotion and test them formally and informally. One sensible market test is to call a focus group and ask them, "Which option would make you most likely to watch the show?"

We have surveys that show that atheists are the 'most hated' group in America. That attitude tells us something about the focus group. They are going to respond positively to ant claim that 'the godless' are responsible for anything bad. We do not need to postulate a conspiracy. We only need to postulate a popular attitude of hate, and we already have independent confirmation of that.

Of course, marketers play a role. A campaign such as this requires somebody with an imagination (and with no conscience) to come up with ideas to test before the focus group. Some marketer had to realize that "600 years of godless inhuman behavior" would have a shot at winning the focus group.

Anybody with a shred of intellectual integrity would have asked the question, "What percentage of the population would have called themselves Godless, and did they have positions of significant cultural influence?" They would have them realize that the statement was a historically inaccurate.

Anybody with a shred of moral integrity would have realized that this was not a victimless oversight. Instead, it was quite comparable to advertising a show called, "The Holocaust: A Jewish Crime against Humanity," if it were to pass the focus group test. Instead of, perhaps, using the fact that it won the test to conclude that the culture is moving in a dangerous and wholly immoral and unjust direction.

The next question to ask is: why does it matter? Is this not a trivial transgression of little moral significance in the grand scheme of things?

I think not.

This hatred of atheism is being used as a marketing tool to promote hatred for some very important values. It's hatred against evidence-based thinking. It's hatred against the idea that we live in a universe that cares nothing about human survival, so we must. It's hatred against a number of policies such as stem cell research that can reduce death and suffering.. It's hatred of those who would protest attempting to defend the country from hurricanes and terrorist strikes is to make an offering of homosexuals on some legislative altar to appease God.

It seriously is time to ask how important it is to give our children a better world than we received. It is time to ask how important it is that atheists grow up to have all of the opportunities that intelligent people of good moral character are entitled to, including opportunities to serve in government and to have the respect they deserve from their peers – to be judged by their own actions rather than to be judged as ‘godless, and therefore inhuman’.

The History Channel has a site for accepting comments on specific shows.

You can also participate in its forums.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mitt Romney: No Atheists in Government

I'm convinced that the nation . . . needs a person of faith to lead the country.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney made this statement to a heckler at once of his speeches who said, because Romney is a Mormon, that he is a pretender and he did not know the lord.

For this, he got a standing ovation.

He uttered almost exactly the same words on MSNBC.

In response, a few atheists and non-atheists who have the capacity to recognize religious bigotry made a few comments. The expected retort, “What would have been the reaction if he had said that we need a man in the White House, or a Caucasian in the White House, or a Christian in the White House?”

We know what the reaction would be.

Now, where would that reaction have come from?

It would have started with the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, or the Anti-Defamation League, respectively. It would have been started by the people who had been insulted by this remark. They would have continued to make noise, until somebody listened.

Atheists cower and say nothing. Because they say nothing, they give the press permission to move on to more important matters, such as the disposition of Anne Nichol Smith’s body or Brittany Spears’ choice of hair style. You know, things that really matter.

For a moment, I would like to invite you to put this event into the mind of a 16-year-old high school student, who has political aspirations, or who is just struggling for acceptance among his peers. He is an atheist. Now, he is in a society where a man can stand up and say, “No atheist is good enough to be President,” and for this he gets a standing ovation.

In some places, this happens in a school where, every day, the other students rise to say a pledge of allegiance to “one nation, under God”.

In some places, this happens in a school where the sign on the classroom wall says, “In God we trust,” and where every student at least knows that their money says this.

This happens in a school where there are students looking for any excuse to put down those among them, and there is no excuse better than the excuse that earns a standing ovation on television, the excuse that students pledge to uphold every day, the excuse advertised by the sign on the classroom wall and on the money.

What is the effect of this emotional abuse?

Head-bowed, eyes down, silent, submission.

Even while the next generation begins another year of being subjected to the same emotional battering in the schools, the last generation does nothing. The last generation is more interested in hiding the shame of their lack of belief, and hoping that nobody notices, than fighting for an environment where their children, nieces, nephews, the children of their friends, the children of those parents they know through internet discussions and bulletin boards, can go to a school free from the abusive and belittling statements that have been written into this nation’s laws and rituals.

I have pondered for the past week what could be done about Romney’s statement. Obviously, writing to him is out of the question. Nor is it reasonable to expect any fair and just treatment from the bulk of the people that will attend his speeches. Attending his appearances with signs of protest would not likely be effective; the bulk of the population will see this as reason to cheer him, rather than condemn him. After all, when they went to school, they too learned to pledge allegiance to bigotry. In promoting this bigotry, they are simply living up to the promise they made as a child.

So, what might actually communicate, to Romney, to the audience, and – most importantly – to the press, how despicable this culture of hatred is.

I would like to offer this:

That, if you have an opportunity to attend an event in which Romney is speaking, that you go with the intent of asking him a question, in public, and where the press can pick up his answer.

For example, bring your teenage child (or a teenage child you know) who is an atheist. Stand up with the child and say, “Governor Romney, you said that we need a person of faith to run the country. I would like you to tell my daughter here, who is an atheist, that no matter how kind she is, no matter how intelligent she becomes, no matter how much it pains her to see people suffer and how much she wants to make the world better, that the mere fact that she does not believe in God means that anybody else in the country who does believe in God is better qualified to be President.”

Or, ask, “If you had a child who was as intelligent as you, as concerned for the future of this country as you, and as committed to making the world a better place as you, who shared all of your features but one, that he did not believe in God, and he was running for President, would you endorse him or his opponent?”

Or, “If something should happen to you, the line of succession for the Presidency is first the Vice President, then Speaker of the House, then President pro tempore of the Senate, then Secretary of State, then Secretary of the Treasury, and so on. Since you hold that the nation must be led by a person of faith, do you consider it wrong to have an atheist in any of those positions that might end up being President?”

Or, “You state that the nation needs a person of faith to lead the country. The founding wrote into the Constitution that there shall be no religious test for public office. Do you think that this was a mistake on their part, and would you favor a Constitutional Amendment that barred atheists and agnostics from running for President?”

Or, “President Bush said, ‘I believe that it points up the fact that we need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench.’ This effectively states that atheists, for some reason, lack some essential capacity to serve as judges. Do you agree with this policy and would you continue it?”

Or, “You stated that the nation needs a person of faith to run the country. Are there other positions that you believe atheists are not qualified to hold. For example, can an atheist be a good governor? Senator? Teacher? Parent? What is the limit to what an atheist is qualified to do?”

Or, “If you had a daughter, and her boyfriend – let us say, a black man – asked for permission to marry your daughter – what would you say? What if he was an atheist?”

Or . . . make up your own question.

Remember, the most important point in making such a display is not to convince Romney not to be a bigot. The best one can hope for here is that Romney will do a better job of recognizing the bigotry of his statements than the audience he is trying to impress and be put in the uncomfortable position of trying to give an answer that is not blatantly bigoted without losing a substantial portion of his blatantly bigoted base.

The real purpose of this exercise is to educate the press – to get the press used to the idea of asking and seeking answers to these questions.

In fact, I would recommend asking questions like this of all political candidates, recording them, and posting those answers on YouTube or some similar platform.

Let’s see how many hours of bigotry we can collect between now and November, 2008.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Carolyn Porco: Awe and Wonder

The next in my series of posts on the presentations at Beyond Belief 2006 concerns the presentation by Carolyn Porco, Senior Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Dueling Stories

She was speaking in the part of the seminar that had to do with, “If not God, then what?”

In this, she asserted that science has come up with a story as interesting as any religion – a story that starts with the Big Bang, goes through the formation of galaxies, the formation of stars, the collection of organic molecules in clouds of rock and gas surrounding those stars, those molecules forming life, and, eventually, an “Armageddon” story of destruction when the sun explodes in a supernova.

She accompanied her story with a slide show of astronomical images, from deep-space images of galaxies billions of years old, to the formation of stars, to images of dust around other stars, to the death of stars.

Note: If we have descendents living in this solar system when our sun goes nova, it will not be the end of human civilization. Many of those descendents will move to colonies further away from the sun and designed to survive a nova. After that, our sun will still be a source of exceptional amounts of energy for billions of years as it cools. If there is an eventual end to civilization, it will not come from here. It will more likely come from our engineering our own extinction through ignorance.

Either way, I would assert that this story is far better than any religious story, precisely because we can look at empirical evidence and determine it is true – and our knowledge of this story is getting better over time. Imagine if we were to hold that the science of Ptolemy was unerring, and no future discover could force us to reconsider anything he had written. Imagine how impoverished science would be today.

It would be as impoverished as a system of morals whose practitioners insist can only be drawn from ‘infallible’ books written 1300, 2000, or more years ago, and that no discovery we make today can cause us to reconsider what was, in a more primitive era, considered to be right and wrong.

Awe and Wonder

Carolyn Porco was also asked to speak about awe and wonder in the universe. It is a topic easily illustrated by the images that Porco displayed during her presentation – galaxies, stars being born, stars exploding – all very awesome images.

As I see it, there are three attitudes that people can have relating atheism to awe and wonder.

(1) Awe and wonder do not exist. They are like angels, devils, and God himself, in that they do not exist and nobody has ever experienced such a thing. People have other experiences that they mistake for awe and wonder, but no genuine awe or wonder.

(2) Awe and wonder exist, like trees exist. Atheists and theists may disagree over where trees came from – one arguing for an intelligent designer and the other arguing for evolution. However, neither disputes the existence of trees. They may dispute the nature and origin of awe and wonder, but neither disputes the claim that certain events can be awesome or wonderful.

(3) Awe and wonder are mistakes, like a belief in angels and devils. Even the atheist knows that beliefs in angels and devils exist. Our understanding of the real world would be incomplete if it did not postulate beliefs in such things. However, those beliefs are false. Similarly, under this option, awe and wonder exist, but only for the theist – in the same way that belief in God exists only for the theist. The atheist has to do without (at least if he is a consistent atheist).

For the sake of space, I am going to dismiss option (1). I do not know of anybody who would argue this position. The real dispute is between (2) and (3), where the typical atheists will assert (2), while many theists would assert (3). To those theists, an atheist only experiences awe and wonder when he forgets for a moment that he is an atheist and allows himself to experience God.

Ultimately, any claim that an atheist cannot experience awe without opening himself up to God is as absurd as a claim that he cannot experience pain without opening himself up to God. Or, more generally, that all of his senses – touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste, would all cease to function if he were a consistent atheist.

There is no deep philosophical difference between pain and awe. An individual interacts with the environment, which sends a signal to the brain, which then interprets the event. Part of that processing involves attaching a value to that event or experience, whether it be the awfulness of pain, or the awesomeness of beauty.

Some theists may worry that they would lose their appreciation of certain things if they knew the underlying scientific facts. For example, there is something about knowing how rainbows work that would make rainbows uninteresting.

However, it is questionable that any scientific description of how pain works will make pain any less horrible – that will make the theist indifferent to pain. If somebody were to explain to him the collapsing electric potential across the cell membrane of a neuron that transmits signals along its length, the release of neural transmitters at the end of one neuron, and how those neural transmitters start another wave of cascading electric potential in the next neuron, I sincerely doubt that they would become indifferent to putting their hand in a bed of hot coals.

Science and Dewonderment

There is no reason to believe that knowledge of the scientific facts surrounding the experience of awe will make the object experienced any less awesome.

There is a way in which it is possible for a change of beliefs to have this type of effect. If a child is given an ornament where she is told, “Grandma wanted you to have this when she died,” it may acquire sentimental value. If she were to discover that her mother picked the ornament out of the garbage and made up the story, she may well lose her attachment to the ornament. This is because what she desires is that which connects her to her grandma. Once she finds out that the ornament does not have this property, then the ornament is no longer thought of as something special.

The same can apply to rainbows. A person may believe that a rainbow is a miracle created by God as a way of sending a greeting to the people. She may value the rainbow as a connection between herself and God. Once she finds out that rainbows are not messages from God, then she may cease to think of rainbows as in any way special.

Yet, on this model, we are talking about somebody who has a particular emotional attachment to messages from God. If, instead, we are talking about somebody who has a particular emotional attachment to objects of rare and exotic natural beauty, that person will continue to appreciate the rainbow whether God exists or not.

If a person would actually lose an appreciation for rainbows if she learned that they were not messages from God, she would be mistaken to assume that this must be true of everybody. This is as much of a mistake as assuming, from the fact that one prefers vanilla over strawberry, that everybody prefers vanilla over strawberry. As a matter of fact, people value different things. Some desire experiences that connect them to God, while others like rare and exotic experiences of natural beauty.

Personally, I like rainbows. I have always thought that they were interesting. Because of this, I have always been interested in the science of rainbows. Knowing that rainbows are caused by photons with different energy levels entering raindrops, which splits the light into its component colors, and reflects that light back on the observer, does not distract from the beauty of a rainbow one iota. Any more than my knowledge of how pain works makes pain any less painful.

The Advantage of Science

In fact, this knowledge gives me a bit of an advantage. With this knowledge, I get to experience more rainbows than I otherwise would have. I know that whenever there are rain clouds in one direction, and a bright sun coming from the other direction, in the morning or evening, I have a chance for a rainbow. I can be sitting at my computer while a rain storm goes through, see the beams of a setting sun several minutes later, and predict that I will probably see a rainbow if I were to look to the east. I can be so confident in my prediction that I can tell my wife to come with me, we go out to a bridge near our house where we have an excellent view, and expect to see a rainbow.

She likes rainbows, too.

And rainbows are even more awesome and wonderful when they are shared.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Discussion: Desires, Value, and Meaning

Welcome to my 5th weekend writing on the presentations given at Beyond Belief 2006. This posting covers about an hour of dialogue in Session 3 on the subject of religion and meaning.

In this period, Francisco Ayala, University of California, Irvine said,

People need to find meaning and purpose in life, and they find meaning and purpose in religion. . . . This allows the billions of people in the world to live a life which makes sense. They can put up with the difficulties in life, with the hunger and the sickness and the like, and I certainly do not want to take that away from them.

Richard Dawkins seemed to agree with this to an extent.

I can see and, of course acknowledge that a lot of people do get something from [religion] . . . I do agree with Professor Ayala that no doubt there are many people who need religion and far be it for me to pull the rug from under their feet.

Proposition. No person has ever found meaning in religion. Thus, no life has ever been robbed of meaning by demonstrating that religious propositions are false. Many people believe that they have found meaning and purpose in religion, but, like their belief in God, they are mistaken.

The Basics

Desires are the only reasons-as-ends (goals) that exist.

A desire is a propositional attitude. A person with a desire that 'P' for some proposition 'P' has the attitude that 'P' is to be made or kept true.

Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. If an agent has a desire that 'P', and 'P' is true in a state of affairs 'S', then that agent has a 'reason-as-ends' to bring about S. That is to say, S has value for that agent.

So, what about these people who find meaning in 'serving God'?

They have a desire that 'P' where 'P' = 'I am serving God'. This means that they have a reason-as-ends to bring about any state of affairs in which the proposition, 'I am serving God' is true. Those states of affairs have value to the agent. Bringing about those states of affairs is what gives that agent meaning or purpose.

However, there is no real-world state of affairs in which the proposition, “I am serving God” is true. Therefore, there is no real-world state of affairs that has value, meaning, or purpose for the agent whose key desire is a desire to serve God.

Consider the state of a parent who cares deeply for the well-being of his child. In fact, his child is suffering and dying. However, he has convinced himself that his child is well. His child being well is so important that he cannot stand the idea of his child being sick and dying. So, he refuses to believe it. He says that his life has meaning and purpose because he is caring for his child, ensuring that his child is healthy, while blocking out the fact that his child is sick and dying. He claims that he could not stand to live in a universe where his child was sick and dying, but that fortunately his child is healthy.

Is there any sense at all to saying that his life has meaning?

Also, I invite you to consider a case where an agent has a desire that ‘P’, where ‘P’ = ‘my only child is healthy and happy.’ Then the child gets blown up in a terrorist bombing. Now, there is no state of affairs in which that person’s desire that ‘P’ can be made true. From that point on, this person’s life is truly empty, with living itself hardly seeming worth the effort. It will remain that way until the person adopts a new desire – a ‘desire that Q’ where ‘Q’ = ‘that there be fewer terrorist bombers,’ for example, that will give the life a new purpose and renewed meaning.


This has two implications.

The first implication concerns the idea that convincing a person that God does not exist deprives their life of meaning and purpose. This is false. For the person who has a desire that, “I am serving God,” their life is already meaningless. They just do not know it yet.

Their life only has meaning in a state of affairs where, “I am serving God,” is true. This is never true, so their life can never have meaning or purpose. Nobody can take away from a person that which the person never had to start with.

This is not a matter of my forcing my (godless) values on those who value serving God. Those who desire to serve God also state that if there is no God, life would be meaningless. They themselves cannot see value in things that do not involve serving God. They, themselves, describe such a life as meaningless. They simply deny the claim that the description applies to them (though, in fact, it does).

This leads to the second implication. If a person has a desire ‘that I am serving God’ imagines a world without God, he will imagine a world that has no value – that is empty and meaningless. There is no state of affairs in the godless universe in which the proposition, “I am serving God” is true, so there is no object in the godless universe that interests him, has value for him, or fills provides him with meaning and purpose.

The Possibility of a Meaningful Life

However, it would be a mistake for the theist to argue that because he sees no value in such a universe, that nobody can find value in such a universe.

A person with a desire ‘that my children are healthy and happy’ will find the same value in a universe where the proposition ‘my children are healthy and happy’ is true, that the theist would find in a universe where the proposition, ‘I am serving God’ is true.

The meaning that a person with a desire ‘that my children are healthy and happy’ finds in her life is not qualitatively different from the meaning that a person with a desire ‘that I serve God’ would find. Only, the former person actually has a chance for a meaningful life – if she can create a universe where ‘my children are healthy and happy’ is true. The latter person has no chance; since she can never create a state where ‘I am serving God’ is true.

Now, the person with a desire ‘that my children are healthy and happy’ is not guaranteed a meaningful life. Some lives are tragic. They never obtain the things that are important to them.

In some cases, an individual might acquire a desire such as, ‘that I reduce the amount of terrorism in the world and make the people safer,’ only to discover that his actions have increased the amount of terrorism and made others far less safe. This person’s life would be particularly tragic.

Yet, as long as one has a desire that ‘P’, where ‘P’ has a chance of being true in the real world, then that individual has at least a chance for a meaningful life.


Would it be correct to say that only atheists can obtain meaning and purpose in their lives – since they can desire things like, “that my children are healthy and happy,” that can actually be made true?


A person with a desire “that I serve God” can also have a second desire, “that my children are healthy and happy” that can provide true meaning and purpose.

A theist can even have a belief that God exists with no desire to serve God – but a desire to care for the misfortunate. This person can have a fulfilling life. However, this person would not be upset over the prospect that no God exists because his desire to care for the misfortunate can be fulfilled regardless of whether God exists. “God exists” has no value for such a person.

Similarly, an atheist can still have desires for states of affairs that cannot be made real. He can desire to ‘maximize intrinsic value’ – which is as bad as desiring ‘that I serve God’ insofar as intrinsic value is no more real than God.

The atheist can even have a desire ‘that I serve God’ (perhaps learned during his prior life as a Christian). This agent’s belief that no God exists means that he will have to live with the angst of knowing that nothing he can do can fulfill his desire to serve God. He is like a paralyzed person who desires to walk, and who cannot convince himself that he is walking when, in fact, he is not.

A scientist can have a meaningful life because it is possible to make real-world discoveries. An engineer can have a meaningful life because he can build real-world structures. A teacher can have a meaningful life because he can help his students learn. There are a great many ways to have a meaningful life. All you need to do is to want to make or keep some proposition true that has a genuine chance of actually becoming or remaining true. All of these are possible regardless of whether the scientist, engineer, or teacher believes in God.

Though, the teacher cannot have a meaningful life if the things he “teaches” he students are not true. If he ends up making his students dumber by teaching them falsehoods and fictions, than his desire to educate has not been fulfilled. He is like the person who desires to keep his children safe and happy, only to act in ways that (unintentionally) kill those children instead.


So, what of the person who has evil desires, such as a desire ‘that all the Jews be eliminated’ or ‘that I am an evil overlord’? Can this person find meaning and purpose in his life?

Well, such a person will certainly find fulfillment in eliminating all of the Jews – this much is true by definition. However, there is another question to answer – whether it is a good thing that a person find fulfillment in killing all the Jews. The answer to that question would be clearly not. For the desire to kill all the Jews to have value, it must be a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A desire to kill all the Jews is not a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. Therefore, such a desire counts as evil. It is a desire that others – that good people = have reason to respond to with condemnation, contempt, and even violence if such a person should act on such a desire.

Indeed, the very essence of evil is a person who finds fulfillment in things that are harmful to others – more, more directly, finds fulfillment in harming others. To deny that people can find fulfillment in such activities is to deny that evil exists. To deny that others have reasons to respond with condemnation, punishment, and even violence is to deny that such people are evil.

This creates a potential problem with the idea of allowing people their religions. What if the religious finds meaning in what he thinks of as serving God, only he thinks that God wants him to do things that are harmful to others. Those options range from terrorist attacks and religious genocide to legislation outlawing important medical treatments and forcing people to live lives that the are contrary to the (harmless) nature of their victims? The unwillingness to pull the rug out from somebody who thinks (incorrectly) that he finds meaning in religion has to depend at least in part on the harms that person is inflicting.


This part of the conference was devoted to the subject of, “If not God, then what?”

The context of this discussion can be captured by, “If not a desire to serve God, then what?”

To give a person’s life meaning, give that person a desire that ‘P’ where ‘P’ is capable of being true in the real world.

To give a person virtue, give that person a desire that ‘P’ where the desire tends to fulfill other desires.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sam Harris Essay Contest

In a recent guest editorial called “Beyond the Believers” in Free Inquiry magazine, Sam Harris established something of an essay contest for those who wanted to come up with short answers to many claims made in defense of faith at the Beyond Belief seminar.

He identified four related sets of propositions, each of which he assumed to be false, and asked readers to provide a short (200 word maximum) retorts to each of these sets of claims with a small prize given to each winner – without actually defining what a “winner” is.

Obviously, it is a violation of my very nature to keep any of my writing short. Fortunately, I am covering the Beyond Belief series that Harris spoke about in my weekend posts, and that will give me the opportunity to provide more elaborate answers. In fact, tomorrow’s posting will cover the first of Harris’ sets of propositions. So, I’ll use this opportunity to see what I can accomplish in the “short essay” category.

1. Even though I’m an atheist, my friends are atheists, and we all get along fine without pretending to know that one of our books was written by the Creator of the universe, other people really do need religion. It is, therefore, wrong to criticize their faith.

Before I get to my response, I want to add some context from the Beyond Belief seminar to this context. The actual discussion (or, I think, the discussion that Harris was referring to, in the middle of Session 3) concerned “pulling the rug out from under” people who could not handle the struggles of everyday life without their religion.

My response:

“Other people” need religion like an alcoholic needs a drink.

It may be extremely difficult for an alcoholic to get through the day sober, but this does not imply that it would be bad for him to try.

If we are talking about somebody who 'needs' religion in this sense, we are talking about a psychological dependence. Specifically, we are talking about a psychological dependence in a faerie tail - like 'needing' to believe in Santa Clause.

It is also important to note that this is a learned dependence. There seem to be a lot of people who do not need such a thing and the factors that determine whether one acquires them appear to be environmental. This means that we can’t stop with just asking, “Do people have this need?” We must ask, “Should we be causing people to acquire this need?” What good does it do to make people psychologically dependent on a faerie tail?

I am more than happy to allow a person his harmless addictions. However, when an addiction causes people to harm others, we have reason to prevent people from acquiring such an addiction – to say they should not be caused to have this need.

2. People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

Do people do not pray? They do not attend church? Do they not make references to religious text? Do they not make these references in the belief that they will alter the behavior of others? Do they not quite reasonably think that those attempts are sometimes successful? What of those who refuse blood transfusions, or who sit in the chapel and pray while their child is in surgery?

We need a theory that best explains and predicts these intentional actions. The claim that religious beliefs have nothing to do with these actions is one of those extraordinary claims that will require extraordinary proof.

If we are forced to admit that religious beliefs are a part of the best explanation of some actions, then it is strange to exclude them when explaining political, economic, and social action.

Even if we take the initial assertion as true – that religion is being used as a rationale for political, economic, or social aims – and those political, economic, and social actions involve maiming and killing others, or writing laws that cost others life, limb, liberty, and fulfillment, we scarcely have an argument for holding religious beliefs to be irrelevant.

3. It is useless to argue against the veracity of religious doctrines, because religious people are not actually making claims about reality. Their claims are metaphorical or otherwise without real content. Hence, there is no conflict between religion and science.

To my understanding, metaphors have content. "A is like B" is true if and only if A is like B in the way specified. That content might not be very precise, but it is there.

Furthermore, those metaphors are being used to influence behavior. They are being used to draw lessons about how to act – lessons that do have content.

Some people hold that the lesson is to engage in behavior that is, in fact, harmful to others. That the agent denies that there is harm, or insists that the harm serves a greater good (where that greater good is as mythical as leprechauns), those conclusions have content.

And they have consequences.

To the degree that we have reason to avoid the worst of those consequences, we have reason to be concerned about their causes. It does not matter whether those causes are called ‘metaphors’ or ‘beliefs.’ The harm that they cause give us reason for concern.

4. Religion will always be with us. The idea that we might rid ourselves of it to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Dawkins and other strident opponents of religious faith are just wasting their time.

False beliefs will always be with is. The idea that we might rid ourselves of false beliefs to any significant degree is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Advocates of education are just wasting their time.

Or, if one prefers a moral response

Child abuse will always be with us. The idea that we can rid ourselves of child abuse is quixotic, bordering on delusional. Opponents of child abuse are wasting their time.

Those who are familiar with the rules of logic will recognize these as examples of a disproof by counter-example. They demonstrate that even if the premises are true, the inference to the conclusion is invalid. It simply states a false dichotomy to assert that we must either be totally successful or we are wasting our time. Progress is measured in degrees, not in absolutes.

If we add a taste of economic analysis we can see that the initial efforts can be aimed at harvesting the low-hanging fruit - the options with the best potential for positive gains. We can save the less efficient options for when we have more resources.


I want to make it clear that though the contest put the question in terms of a battle between faith and science, none of my answers follow that distinction. Those answers remain true to the principle that the only reasons for action that exist are desires, and that if a belief does no harm (thwarts no desires), we have no genuine reasons for action to be concerned about them. Any reasons for action we make up that are not tied to desires are just that – made up, and of no relevance in the real world.

Consequently, I am concerned only with (1) harmful addictions; (2) political, economic, and social actions involve maiming and killing others, or writing laws that cost others life, limb, liberty, and fulfillment; (3) avoiding the worst consequences; and (4) the best potential for positive gains.

When it comes to reasons for action, the question is not one of faith or no faith, but one of harm or no harm.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Running for Public Office

Sometimes, I have some thoughts of running for Congressman.

If I did run, it could not be as a Democrat or a Republican. I have dealt with partisan politics, and find political parties to be mostly private clubs who sell their services to the highest bidder. They do not adopt positions as a matter of personal conviction. Rather, they are mascots - like the AFLAC duck and the GEIKO gecko whose job is to sell a product for those who hire them.

These claims are exaggerated, but they are still too close to the truth for comfort.

So, I would have to run as an independent. This would require collecting 800 signatures in my district in about 50 days using only workers who are registered to vote in this congressional district.

Naturally, the established parties do enjoy making competition as illegal as they can make it without risking outright rebellion. This is just another measure of their true moral virtue and dedication to the principles of democracy.

Could I win such a race?

An unknown third-party atheist candidate.

In most parts of the country, I would say, "Certainly not." In Boulder County, Colorado, I would say, "Probably not."

However, I think I could embarrass both major parties into making some changes, and get some ideas out in the public that should be out in the public.

Like the ides that there can be an atheist ethicist.

“The Atheist Candidate?”

Actually, I would not run as an atheist.

When people ask a candidate about his religion, I think that they are truly interested in his values. They want some reliable indication that the candidate is a "good person". They false believe that religion is a reliable indicator, but that does change the fact that they use it that way.

My 'religion' in this sense is not 'atheism'. Atheism implies nothing about values (other than that values do not come from God and have not been unerringly written into scripture.)

My 'religion' in this sense is desire utilitarianism. This describes what I hold to be true about value. So, this is what I would put in the 'religion' box on my candidate profile.

When they try to relate my beliefs to Marxism and Nazi ideologies, I will simply answer that the relationship between my beliefs and those others is exactly like the relationship between Al-Queida and Catholicism.

The fact that some evil people are religious does not imply that all religious people are evil. Pretending that they are is bigotry.


Another philosophy that I believe in is that a representative's job is to represent the people of his district - ALL of the people - and not just represent himself.

He is to be like a movie star's agent. He represents his client for the sake of his client, but the client has final say.

There is a tendency to think that representatives should not listen to opinion poles. I think they should. The movie star's agent has no right to say to his client, "I thought you would be excellent in this role, so I committed you to a contract." No, the client gets to decide whether to accept or reject the contract. The representative executes the client's will.

I will have limits. One set of limits is defined in the bill of rights. I would vote against searches and seizures without a warrant, arrest without charges, conviction without a trial, cruel and unusual punishment. I will uphold and defend the Constitution to the best of my ability. Within those limits, I would represent the people of my district to the best of my ability.

However, this does not mean that I would lie. If my clients instruct me to vote against gay marriage, then I may vote against gay marriage. However, I will not pretend to be opposed to gay marriage myself. I will, instead, inform them that I think their instructions are unfair and prejudicial, and that they deny people a fulfilling life (the only life they will ever have) for no good reason. As an agent, I have an obligation to give my client my honest advice and my honest recommendations. However, if that client decides to ignore my advice and recommendations, then, as I said, I work for my client, not for myself.

Removing God from the Public Square

If anybody decides to make a fuss about my candidacy, one issue that they would almost certainly use is the claim that I would want to remove God from the public square.

“Actually, that’s not true. I am against “under God” in the Pledge and “One Nation Under God” as the national motto because they attempt to establish religious segregation in this country – to assert that those who trust in God are first-class citizens and those who do not are second-class citizens. Any public policy that names me as a second-class citizen is bigoted on its face and immoral in its content.

“If you want to bring God into the public square, you can do so in the same way that George Washington and the founding fathers did. When it came to an oath of office, they wrote an oath that does not mention God.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

“There was no mention of God. Yet, a citizen was free to add a trailing phrase such as, ‘So help me God’ if it pleased him to do so. I can find no objection to treat the Pledge of Allegiance the same way, to make it a pledge that all citizens can take, and to leave it open to any citizen to bring God into the public square by voluntarily adding, ‘So help me God’ at the end.”

“Those who say that atheists are attempting to remove God from the public square, that their goal is to prohibit religious speech, are liars. They are marketers of hate who use lies to sell their product to a gullible population. Sometimes I wonder if they believe in God themselves, or if they fake religious devotion to curry favor with the public. After all, the religion they claim to love has clear prohibitions against bearing false witness, yet they live their lives on the profits generated by bearing false witness as a way of marketing hate.”

Other Issues

Religious issues will likely attract the most attention and the most press, but it would not be my reason for running.

Why would I want to be a congressman?

Because I think that I am particularly well suited to help make sure that the best laws get passed. I realize that I cannot be an expert in all fields, but I know what an expert looks like and I can determine who to trust.

Because we need real-world solutions to real-world problems. The best scientific theories are those theories that best explain and predict real-world events. Explaining and predicting real-world events is how we make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. If we can explain and predict how bird flu operates, we can best protect ourselves from its effects. If we can explain and predict the effects of different social structures, we can best promote those social structures whose effects are to improve the life, health, and well-being of those who live within those structures.

When it comes to voting on a law, I would not be taking my orders from a party whip who has already sold my vote to the highest bidder in terms of party support. The people of my district will get a true representative who will be able to best serve their interests consistent with the moral limits on law that were written into the Constitution.

I think that this would be a wonderful honor to make that type of contribution to the wellbeing of others.

That would be my philosophy, if I were ever to run for public office.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Space Policy 2007

It’s strange that, if I were to prioritize the different issues that I write about in order of importance, that I do not spend much time on the issues that would be at the top of that list. These are (1) the continued existence of the human species (and its descendent species), and (2) preventing catastrophic harm on a global scale. Clearly, many of the issues we have to deal with pale in significance.

In this context, let me share some headlines with you from the last few days.

U.N. urged to take action on asteroid threat” A 460-foot long asteroid called Apophis (appropriately named, for Stargate SG1 fans) has a 1in 45,000 chance of hitting the earth on April 13, 2036. Several scientists want the UN to take responsibility for determining how to respond to this and similar threats.

Scientists to NASA: Study Earth” I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago in a post, “Evidence-Based Thinking about Earth’s Future” – about the fact that the Bush budget is seriously depleting NASA’s capacity to collect data on what people are doing to Earth. The less data we have, the more our policy decisions will be blinded by ignorance.

Moon ventures could bring in good money: Experts explore commercial spinoffs from lunar exploration.” . This is a look at ways in which private companies can make private profits associated with NASA’s plan to return to the moon by 2020.

NASA Studies Manned Asteroid Mission” . This is a plan to use the hardware that NASA is designing to return to the moon to send people to examine an asteroid as its orbit brings it near Earth.

Now, I am going to engage in some rather unrestrained dreaming. I realize that I have absolutely no power to make the changes that I describe below. However, that does not imply that these are not worthy of consideration.

Earth Monitoring

Of all of the tasks that NASA performs, those that actually produce dividends for the people of Earth should be its greatest priority. This means protecting the Earth from asteroids and other sources of harm, and in providing us with data that we need to make sound policy decisions. There is simply no reason to put a lunar base on the to-do list until those space activities that promise to pay dividends to the people of Earth have been taken care of.

So, let’s say that we eliminate this $104 billion lunar base plan, and put $500 million per year ($7 billion from now to 2020) into earth-monitoring satellites. This leaves $97 billion for other projects.


Those other projects include studying the asteroids.

In space, the best measure of distance is not in miles, but in what is called “delta-v” or “change in velocity”. This tells us how much energy is required to get from one place to another. Because of the moon’s gravity, it’s “delta-v” is actually quite high – it takes a lot of energy to get off of the surface. Asteroids have little or no gravity. We can go to and from many earth-crossing asteroids with less delta-v then going to and from the moon. Meaning, in an astronomical sense, those asteroids are “closer” than the moon.

As of February 6th, we knew of 600 asteroids that are “closer” than the moon in terms of delta-v requirements.

Plus, NASA has reason to study asteroids in a way that pays dividends for the people on Earth. Protecting the people of Earth from a collision is certainly an activity that pays dividends to the people of Earth. Asteroids also have resources that can be used in space – resources that can be harvested without cutting deeper scars into the living earth.

Priming the Pump

We have got a planet full of people wanting to get into space. In June, 2004, SpaceShipOne made the first privately funded space flight and, in October of that year, earned its builders the $10 million X-Prize for making two trips into space in a two-week period.

Since then, Richard Branson of British Airways is investing in a set of larger ships capable of taking paying passengers into space. Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace launched a test module for a private space station. He is now teaming up with Lockheed Martin to make Lockheed’s Atlas 5 rocket capable of taking humans into orbit. With the aid of a pair of development contracts, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler are developing their own rockets capable of carrying people to the Space Station.

We do not need the government to be running these programs. It seems that there are a lot of private individuals willing to do the same thing. They could certainly use some financial help. However, we would be better off having NASA buy services from these companies than building and launching its own projects.

Think of this as a way of turning $90 billion in taxpayer money into a $200 to $300 billion space program. If NASA offered this money as prices for the successful accomplishment of certain feats in space development, these companies would find it that much easier to come up with the rest of the money.

So, now, we have our earth-monitoring satellites, and we have doubled or tripled the size of America’s space program – without adding a single dime to the government’s budget.

Asteroid Development

Ultimately, President Bush’s declared purpose of his space initiative is to bring the rest of the solar system into Earth’s economic sphere. (Or, more accurately, into the economic sphere of the United States.) However, he is mistaken in believing that the moon offers the best economic resource. The best economic resources come from the asteroids.

One payoff that will come from asteroid development is, specifically, by avoiding the tremendous costs of an asteroid impact. The moon is not going to hit the Earth in any foreseeable future – we face no risk of catastrophic costs from that direction. We need to worry about asteroids, which means studying asteroids.

Also, because of the low delta-v requirements, asteroids are more useful. Some asteroids are thought to be extinct comets – chunks of ice covered with a think insulating layer of dirt and rocks. These could give us the water we are looking for to use in space.

By the way, the Japanese got some very interesting pictures of one of these asteroids. They can be found with the New Scientist article, “Hayabusa probe prepares to punch an asteroid” As you can see, this asteroid is not a solid rock. It is a collection of gravel flying in close formation – shattered by impacts then falling back in on itself.

If there is good money to be made on moon ventures, then private companies should be permitted to collect it. One of the possible uses mentioned for lunar resources is to provide a base for spacecraft going to other parts of the solar system. If, indeed, this is an advantage, we can expect companies to take advantage of this as they seek to collect the prizes that come from harvesting data and resources from near-earth asteroids.

Additional Considerations

There are a couple of additional points that deserve consideration.

(1) Asteroids are not the only threat that we face from space. One might get the wrong impression that once we know the orbits of the asteroids, and have taken pains to remove any threats, that the danger is over. There is another threat – long period comets. These are comets that show up every 20,000 years or so as their orbits carry them far from the sun. They come into the inner solar system at exceptionally high speeds, meaning that they pack a lot of energy, before heading back into deep space again. If one of these bodies is heading our way, we will not likely have years to respond to the threat. We may only have a couple of months.

(2) One thing that we can be sure of is a big-budget NASA project is going to put a lot of money into the pockets of organizations that hire the best lobbyists and make the biggest campaign contributions to the right candidates. On the other hand, a prize system will give the money to the people with the best engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs – people who can dream up ways to add to the revenue from a space mission on the private market. If we are to remain competitive on the global marketplace, we need scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs more than we need politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists.


Let’s return to Earth for a moment and look at the real-world, practical possibilities. We pretty much need this $500 million per year in earth-monitoring satellites. If anybody says that we do not have enough money to pay for them, that person should be told that the lack of information and “sailing blind” is likely to cost us a lot more than $500 million per year.

As for asteroids and comets, it is time to take that threat seriously – a lot more seriously than building a moon base. Really, I would hate to put all of this effort into making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, only to have it obliterated because of a lack of foresight. That’s almost as stupid as living in a city that sits below sea level without taking pains to make sure that the dikes could withstand a hurricane.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Theism as Mental Illness or Child Abuse

For the last couple of weeks there has been a debate on the efficacy and the ethics of “The Blasphemy Challenge” – a self-proclaimed publicity stunt from the Rational Response Squad whereby young people are encouraged to publicly declare their lack of believe in God (commit blasphemy) and post their statement on YouTube and are rewarded with a free DVD of “The God Who Wasn’t There.”

One of the main points of contention is whether the claims that surround The Blasphemy Challenge are insulting towards theists and, if so, whether this is likely to promote a false impression of atheism and generate a harsh backlash against atheists.

On Insult

I wish to begin with a statement about insult. There is nothing morally objectionable about insult (in common cases) where the claim made is true and the behavior worthy of condemnation. If there is evidence that a person believes that P, claims that not-P, makes this claim for the purpose of manipulating another person, and the manipulation is to the disadvantage of the victim (or others) and to the advantage of the speaker, it is fair to call that person a liar.

We can hardly think it is reasonable to defend oneself from such a charge simply by noting that the charge is insulting. It is as laughable as imagining a person on trial for rape claiming in his defense, “The prosecution is engaged in insulting and derogatory behavior in calling me a rapist. Anybody who submits another person to these types of insults should be ashamed of themselves and should immediately stop that behavior!”

Not if the accusations are true.

When insults are impermissible it is not because they are insults. It is because the insult was unfairly or unjustly launched at the victim. In other words, the inappropriate insult (in common cases) is either negligently unjustified or false.

So, we need to look at the claims made in conjunction with the blasphemy challenge and see if they can be criticized on these grounds.

Theism as a Mental Illness

A part of this discussion has focused on “Sapient’s” claim that theism is a mental illness, and that he would take his mother to a mental hospital to overcome her delusional beliefs if she was a Christian and mental hospitals treated theism.

James Lazarus says that this is inappropriately insulting.

In fact, Lazarus is right on this. It is an unjust characterization.

Sam Harris has made similar comments. Harris has said that if a person were to go to the breakfast table and claim that saying a few Latin words would turn his cereal into the literal body of Elvis, that we would call this person insane.

Indeed we would.

However, there is an important part of the context missing from both of these analogies.

Christians live in a community where the vast majority of the people reinforce these beliefs. This culture of common beliefs defines the difference between the man uttering Latin words over his cereal in the morning and the Priest conducting mass.

I have mentioned in the past that humans are not fully rational and, more importantly, we cannot be fully rational. We do not have the time to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny. Therefore, we (rationally) adopt rules of thumb – heuristics that allow us to get our beliefs mostly right even though they can lead to mistakes.

One of these heuristics is to listen to those around us. If the vast majority of the people around us (or, at least, those we come into contact with) assert ‘P’, then it is rational to adopt ‘P’. Notice that ‘P’ is not grounded on any type of evidence that directly infers the truth of ‘P’. ‘P’ has not been proved or even proved likely in an argument that has ‘P’ as the conclusion. Rather, agents adopt ‘P’ without any foundation, simply because so many people around him have adopted ‘P’.

Logicians recognize this as the bandwagon fallacy or argumentum ad populum. It is not, strictly speaking, rational and can easily lead to people adopting false beliefs.

It may not be a logically ideal way of acquiring beliefs, but it is practical. Given that we do not have time to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny, it is useful to simply grab some of the most common beliefs that others have accepted and hope that they know what they are talking about. It is not unreasonable to hold that those beliefs are generally good enough to live with . . . generally. In addition, this method helps people to get along and to communicate, like picking up a common language.

Building a Ship of Beliefs

In an earlier post, “Joan Roughgarden: Evolution and The Bible,” I borrowed an analogy I heard often in graduate school that compared a person’s set of beliefs to a ship at sea. That ship is in constant need of repair, refit, and, in some cases, redesign, but the owner cannot cast the ship aside and start over. He has to do repairs piecemeal, by attaching new systems of beliefs to those that already exist.

If we carry that analogy further, we can imagine a child as adrift at sea, surrounded by driftwood. From this, the child starts to build a raft. Then, his parents help him to build a framework for future beliefs. All future experiences and pieces of information can only be understood in terms of how it fits onto this framework. If it does not fit comfortably, then it will be warped and twisted and distorted until it does fit.

The child uses what he is given and puts it together as he has been taught. Even here, there is little opportunity for the agent to actually subject his beliefs to rational analysis. He scarcely knows the rules of rational analysis.

There are a lot of Christian beliefs floating around for a child to pick up. On the other hand, there are very few “speaking Latin to morning cereal will turn it literally into the body of Elvis” beliefs to pick up. There is good reason to count the latter beliefs – if one should adopt them – as signs of mental illness. However, adopting the former beliefs in the context of a society filled with Christian beliefs is simply proof that the mind is functioning normally.

The claim that such a person is mentally ill is an unjustified and unjust insult. It is not fair, and it betrays a certain amount of mean-spiritedness on the part of any who would make such a claim.

I am all in favor of being mean to people who deserve it. Indeed, desire utilitarianism demands condemnation and, in the worst cases, punishment as a way of promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desire. In many cases, I write that people are not mean enough. For example, by far we do not denigrate and condemn enough those who work to manufacture false beliefs - beliefs that can kill and maim millions. The problem is not that it is wrong to insult people. The problem is with insulting people who do not deserve it.

Faulty Structures

This analysis can also be applied to Richard Dawkins’ claim that labeling children Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or the ideology of his or her parents is “child abuse”.

In order for something to count as “child abuse”, the person who performs the action must betray either an intention to harm or a callous disregard for the possibility of harm to the welfare of the child. Even negligence (a form of child abuse) is understood in this way – as the absencce of a level of concern for a child’s welfare that would have motivated caution in a concerned individual.

I sincerely doubt that those who label a child “Christian” or “Muslim” have this type of disregard for the well-being of the child. In fact, quite the opposite is usually the case. The individual is very much concerned for the welfare of the child. He or she has simply made a mistake.

Women who took thalidomide while pregnant did significant harm to their children. Yet, this was not sufficient to charge them with "child abuse". This is because the behavior was motivated by a mistake, not by an absence of concern (or a desire to harm) the child. Calling thalidimide users "child abusers" for actions taken before the harmfulness of thalidimide was known is grossly inappropriate.

Of course, there are cases where a parent subjects a child to some exotic ritual that does harm to the child where we would call it abuse. We do say that the parent ought to have known better. However, this is the case where a concerned parent would have reasonably been expected to adopt a different set of beliefs. Here, too, there is a relevant moral difference between the parent who adopts a harmful belief that the bulk of society knows to be harmful, and one in which a parent adopts a belief that the bulk of society fails to see the harm. There is no "child abuse" in the second case.

And why use the term "child abuse?" The main motivation that I can think of for using a term like this is to make the targets of this term the subjects of the same hatred that is (justifiably) directed towards those who truly abuse children. This term is used to manufacture hate. Hate is fine, when the targets of hate deserve it. Yet, in this case, the goal is to manufacture hate where it is not deserved.

Morally concerned people will take more care in the use of these types of terms.

A Belief Framework

Claiming that the Christian framework, given to a child, does not qualify as “child abuse” does not imply that it is not harmful. The accidental poisoning of a child is not child abuse, but it is still harmful.

This framework has the problem in that it often instructs the child to take actions against dangers that are not real. At the same time, it often disarms the child against dangers that are real. More importantly, this framework encourages the child to put together a structure of beliefs that make the child a threat to the well-being of others; imposing legal sanctions that prohibit people from realizing certain goods while forcing upon them states that are not good. These false beliefs often get in the way of positive real-world change to the point that innocent people are maimed, killed, and otherwise harmed.

It is not fair to apply the terms “mental illness” or “child abuser” to such people. The former is an unjustly derogatory statement. The latter is an attempt to solicit hatred in the heart of the listener against people for whom hatred is not justified.

Using these terms loosely puts atheists in a bad light, not because it is wrong to insult people and they might get angry. It is wrong because the claims are simply false, and making them demonstrates that the speaker is more concerned with being angry and promoting hate than with being accurate and promoting truth.

There are real harms being inflicted that we should know about, but the moral condemnation and solicitation of hate should be saved for those who actually deserve it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Barring Creationists

I have another question from the studio audience.

Ed writes to ask, "Would it be ethical to dismiss or reject applicants to a graduate program in the biological sciences if it is found out that they are creationists?"

The Definition of Creationist

The first problem that I am going to run into with this question concerns what it means to be a ‘creationist’. Typically, in this context, it refers to somebody who intentionally stranded DNA in a particular way to get the various forms of life. In another sense, all God created was reality and the fundamental laws of physics that make up that reality.

It would not be too much of a stretch of the term to say that God created the universe and gave it the set of laws that he did because he knew that those rules working on the matter he created would result in the evolution of a human race.

So, there are even some definitions of ‘creationism’ that are compatible with evolution. These are simply versions that hold that God created a universe in which evolution can concur.

As such, there is no particular reason to refuse somebody employment or an appointment to graduate school based on the fact that he is a creationist. What matters is whether he is able to display a proper understanding of the rules of science and an ability to pass that knowledge o to others. Merely being a creationist is not a disqualification.

Presumption of Innocence

As a general rule, I advocate the principle of presuming a person innocent unless proven guilty. Being a creationist is not “proof” that the individual is guilty of anything. It does not prove his inability to contribute to biological research, or his ability to become a good teacher of biological fact.

The reason for the presumption of innocence is that we should all have an aversion to doing harm to others – an aversion that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the harm is necessary. To deny a person entry into his chosen profession is to do harm. It is up to the individual to make sure that the harm is inflicted for good reason. Thus, we have the presumption of innocence.

“Being a creationist” is not a proof of any type of wrongdoing. As such, it cannot override the presumption of innocence. One needs something more substantive in terms of evidence that the individual does not actually understand the material and is merely seeking some type of authority to “teach” claims that are not true and widely rejected within the profession.

Mistakes of Fact

However, the situation changes the instant the individual does something – commits some overt act – that experts in the field have reason to condemn.

We would certainly have reason to fire a math teacher who is caught teaching his students that 2 + 2 = 5. We would also be quick to dismiss the history teacher who told her students that the Holocaust never took place - that it was all a part of a cleaver plot by some Jewish cabal interested in world domination. And no university has reason to keep a teacher who fills his astronomy lectures with claims about how the planets influence our lives.

Certainly, there are going to be disputes within a discipline as to what the facts are. Yet, even these disputes have an affect on who gets hired and who gets fired – who passes and who gets held back. Students and teachers are required to defend their work and the selection committee has a right to refuse admittance to anybody who does not demonstrate a sufficient grasp of the subject under consideration.

If I were a part of such a selection committee, I would look for the best teacher available - that would be my job. This means that I want to hire a teacher (or accept a graduate student) who can display and who will teach an understanding of the facts.

Asking the Right Questions

The type of people Ed is worried about are those who memorize answers they do not agree with, but which biologists seem to accept as “the right answers”, in order to give all of the visible signs of understanding the material. They give those in the selection process no clear reason to reject them.

On this matter, I think it is quite reasonable for interviewers to make sure that they ask the right and relevant questions. In the realm of biology, an acceptable candidate for graduate school or a teaching post should know how to answer creationist assertions – be able to explain why they are not science or, at least, why they are not good science. He should be able to explain what science is and why it takes that particular structure. If a selection company is not asking these types of questions, they should not be surprised to discover that they have selected people who do not know the answers.

Of course, even here it would be possible for such a person to slip through the system. Here, we may add the condition that the organization has a right to periodically review the work of any student or teacher. The instant the student turns in a paper or any other document defending ideas held to be absurd among professionals in the field, those professors have reason to give a student a grade that represents his lack of knowledge, or to be rid of the teacher and replace her with somebody who actually understands the subject she is teaching. At that point it would be necessary to wait until the individual committed some infraction as a teacher or a student.

Other Objectives

There are those who want the credentials who do not have the slightest intention of entering into the field. Once they get the credentials, they then enter the public world to express their opinions in a way that others in the field cannot directly challenge them. They do not hold any traditional job as teacher or student within the industry.

The real question is whether an organization can permissibly deny giving them these credentials in order to minimize the harm that these types of people inflict on others.

Ultimately, again, I would argue that they do not unless and until they find some overt act that suggests that the teacher is teaching falsehoods or the student does not actually understand the material.

Without the overt act there is no proof of wrongdoing.


Ultimately, I hold that the answer is no, institutions cannot permissibly exclude others simply because those others have a different religion. There must be an overt act of teaching falsehoods that is strong enough to substantiate the accusation of wrongdoing. Those who cannot (or will not) teach the truth about the biological sciences have shown themselves contemptible.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Missing Religion

The Beyond Belief 2006 seminar that I have been writing about on the weekends did not have a set schedule. Rather, speakers were invited up to speak sometimes out of turn in order to generate what the organizers called a conversation on the issues. After Joan Roughgarden gave her presentation about describing evolution in biblical terms, Richard Dawkins was invited up to give a response.

Dawkins actually responded first to something that Steven Weinberg said at the end of Session 2. Just before the conference broke for (a very late) lunch. Weinberg was given an opportunity to introduce the next topic, which was supposed to be, “If not religion, then what?”

Prophets and their Books

In this short introduction, he expressed an important concern. Humans seem to have a strange attraction to prophets and their books. If we get rid of Jesus (or, actually, Paul) and The Bible, or Mohammed and The Koran, what enters the vacuum?

Marx and Das Kapital

Hitler and Mein Kampf

Mao and The Little Red Book

Some people would add:

Darwin and The Origin of Species: yet, this classification comes from those who are so locked in a mindset of “a prophet and his book” that he cannot imagine somebody living without a prophet and a book. They assume, falsely, that everybody must have a prophet and a book to live by and the ask, “If not The Bible, then what?

Another pairing that I could add to the list is:

Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged.

Now, some people may be offended by my putting this book in the same company as those above. Yet, the worshippers of any of these ideologies would find the company shameful, I imagine. Yet, they all do have a lot in common. I once was a libertarian who spent a lot of time among Randian Objectivists, and the distortions of reason and fact that they can subject themselves to would shame a Christian, in spite of the fact that they hold reason in high esteem.

Some may claim that I have done the same thing, blinding myself to facts and reason in defending desire utilitarianism. I will not deny the possibility. Furthermore, I hold that I am the least qualified to judge whether such a charge is true or false. I hope that it is false. I also hope that, if the charge is true, that others can see through those mistakes so that they do no harm.

In the mean time, let’s get back to the main point. If not religion, then what? One of these other non-religious prophets and their books? That sounds like a bad idea.

Is there a a reasonable alternative to prophets and their books?

The Mischievous Old Aunt

Weinberg ended up comparing religion to an old aunt. “She lies and causes mischief,” Weinberg says, “But she was beautiful once and we loved her.” In her old age, she has become quite a bother, and it is time for her to pass on, but we will still miss her, according to Weinberg.

Richard Dawkins stepped up to the microphone and said,

I wondered whether Steven Weinberg . . . was feeling the need to bend over backwards and be a little bit nice about religion. Scrape the barrel to find something nice to say about religion. So, we came up with this picture of the elderly aunt. We will all miss her when she goes. I won’t miss her at all. Not one scrap. Not one smidgen. I am utterly fed up with the respect that all of us, including the secular among us, have been bestowing upon religion.

What Is There to Miss?

Ultimately, if we are talking about missing religion, we are talking about missing false beliefs.

False beliefs are, as Weinberg says, ‘mischievous’ (to say the least). We seek to fulfill our desires. However, we act to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. False or incomplete beliefs stand in the way of us fulfilling our desires. The person who believes that a glass contains water and drinks it to quench her thirst tells us of the ‘mischievousness’ of false beliefs.

Some of these false beliefs provide an escape from a reality that can be difficult to handle, such as the possibility of death. Weinberg spoke of consoling a parent over the loss of a child with the false belief that the child is not really dead, but instead has moved on to another place where the child will know nothing but joy and the protection of an almighty and perfectly benevolent God. These false beliefs are the difference between pleasure and pain for a lot of people.

Yet, they are still false beliefs, and false beliefs are the barrier that gets in the way of our preventing harms to start with. A quite simple fact of the matter is that there will be far fewer children dying if we had a better handle on how to explain and predict the real world. We could then explain and predict those parts that tend to kill children, and make them far less common or far easier to avoid. Just as false beliefs can get in the way of our quenching our thirst, they can get in the way of our saving our children.

Comfort and Joy and the Meaning of Life

There are also those who would miss the comfort and joy that they claim to find in religion, and the meaning that their life has when they devote their life to God.

On this measure, I have had dreams in which some deep desire of mine has been fulfilled – or, at least, the dream has given me a belief that they were fulfilled, giving me great joy. I wake up, and find myself in the same house facing the same job so that I can pay the same bills. I wish that it had not been a dream – that the events had been real. In fact, that’s what it means to say that the dream fulfilled my desires. They caused me to have false beliefs that the state I was one where its propositions were those that I desired (wished) to be true.

Yet, it was still a dream.

What if I could stay in that dream state forever, falsely believing that the propositions I accepted in the dream were true in the real world? I would know great comfort and joy. I would think that my life had meaning and purpose. In fact, I would be a blob of protoplasm wasting away in a dream state until I finally died. Even if I was given an opportunity to remain in that dream state, with all of the comfort and joy it provides, I would prefer the real world, with its difficulties and disappointments. At least, in the real world, when I help somebody, there is somebody who actually benefits.

No person has ever found meaning and purpose in his life serving a God, because the time he spends serving God is like the time that I spend in a dream. It may generate great feelings, but those feelings have no anchor in the real world.

The one difference between permanently sleeping and living a dream life and religion is that the person living the dream life is harmless. He lays in his bed while his body rots, accomplishing nothing real but experiencing great joy and the pretense that he has done great things. He does not do any good, but he does not do any harm either.

Unfortunately, many of those who find meaning and purpose in religion find that meaning and purpose in doing things that are harmful to others. Notwithstanding the maiming and killing of others in the name of God, they seek legislation that deprives others of fulfilling lives and relationships, stand in the way of medical research, block scientific advance, erect barriers to freedom that do real-world harm but which serve no real-world purpose, and denigrate and belittle those who do no harm and tend to provide great benefit to the community in the name of defending the faith.

Besides, people also thought that they found meaning and purpose for their lives in the Nazi Party, the Communist Party, and the KKK as well. Sometimes we just have to ask, “How many people have to suffer and die for your life to have meaning?”


If not religion, then what?

Well, let’s put an end of the era of prophets and their books. Those who quote some author as if he were an infallible prophet can already trust that he does not know what he is talking about. Nobody is that good.

And even though false beliefs can bring comfort and joy, they also bring great misery and sorrow. Better abilities to explain and predict the real world are the best tools that we have to avoid the situations where we would need to be comforted, including the deaths of children, and our own deaths.

There is a real world out there. Anything worth doing, is worth doing for real.