Friday, October 31, 2008

Senator Dole's New Anti-Atheist Advertisement

If you have any interest in running for public office, then stay away from this blog.

Seriously, quit reading, put some type of internet block on this site so that you might not accidentally find yourself here, and eliminate all traces of having visited this blog from your computers.

After all, palling around with somebody who self-identifies as an atheist will render you unfit for public office.

Senator Elizabeth Dole has released a new advertisement that attempts to clarify the fact that the problem with her opponent, Kay Hagan, is that she accepted an invitation to a fundraising gathering hosted by an atheist. (See The Hill Dole attacks Democrat with second 'Godless' ad

This ad ends with the question, If Godless Americans threw a party in your honor, would you go?

This is pretty much a universal political message - no politician may meet with or associate with atheists. No politician is permitted to be somebody that an atheist like myself can respect or seek to honor.

Hagan's political crime is not that she is an atheist (a horrendous accusation that makes the accuser the lowest of all low-life scum to occupy the planet). Hagan’s problem is that she attended a gathering at an atheist’s home and accepted money from an atheist.

Which, apparently, is comparable to visiting the home of a KKK leader, an official from the American Nazi Party, or Al Qaeda representative.

If attending a dinner hosted by an atheist is comparable to these things, we can only conclude that browsing internet sites such as "Atheist Ethicist" is comparable to browsing white supremacist and Nazi Party web sites. If that information were to hit the presses, you can bet your political career would be over.

So, I advise you that if you have any political aspirations, it is no longer sufficient that you are not an atheist yourself. You cannot be caught communicating with atheists in any way. Atheists are political lepers – unclean and dangerous things that one cannot even be in the same room with and not be infected by a fatal political contagion.

A few days ago, I wrote a posting suggesting that it would be foolish to expect Obama to be a friend to secular values. Many of the comments to that blog suggested that people did not interpret my posting correctly. They thought that I had written that Obama did not share secular values or did not think of them as worth protecting.

However, that is not what I wrote. I wrote that if Obama was smart he would not protect secular values because doing so would put the whole rest of his political agenda at risk. Obama will need to decide which ground he wants to stand and hold, and which ground he might need to give up because it is strategically indefensible.

Another way of saying the same thing is that I hope that Obama is willing to sacrifice secular values to the wolves because if he does not, then the Republicans are going to sweep back into power by turning America’s anti-atheist bigotry against him – a bigotry that has more than enough power behind it to turn the tide of elections unless the target does out of his way to prove that he is as bigoted, if not more so, than his accusers.

This is simply a fact of American political life.

If Obama is smart, he knows that the Republicans would love a fight over secular values, and they would love to have it early in Obama's administration. As soon as this fight erupts, Obama is going to have to make a choice between sacrificing secular values so that he can focus on other concerns, or suffer such a political kneecapping on the part of anti-atheist bigots so as to be rendered politically impotent.

Such an event would parallel what happened to Bill Clinton after his election in 1992. Clinton was forced to discuss the issue of gays in the military. The Republicans were able to use this issue to stage such a powerful comeback that they were able to capture control of the House and Senate – and keep control through the next ten years.

We even have a readily made issue that the Republicans in an excellent position to exploit to their political advantage. Sooner or later the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will have to release its decision on whether it judges "under God" in the Pledge and "In God We Trust" as the national motto to be violations of the Constitution. Chances are that that the opinion will read that "under God" at least is a violation of the Constitution. This will then be the foundation for a Republican return to power – the tool they will use to kneecap the Obama presidency and shatter his approval ratings.

If Obama is smart and he wants to use his political capital to accomplish things in the area of economic reform, then he will have to decide not to invest political capital in a fight that is almost certainly doomed to fail anyway.

To disarm the Republican attempt to base a return to power on the promise of theocracy, Obama will need to condemn the 9th Circuit Court opinion (assuming the decision goes as I have suggested) in no uncertain terms, promise to put the whole weight of the Federal Government into the fight to overturn this decision, and promise to make the protection of "under God" a litmus test for any Supreme Court justices he might have the opportunity to appoint.

The Republicans, then, sufficiently disarmed, will simply have less power to interfere with Obama's other goals, while Obama preserves his popularity and, with this, his ability to throw his political weight around.

The fight against anti-atheist bigotry has to be our fight. The idea that we can hide behind politicians and judges forever while they do the dirty work (and pay the political price) for protecting us – while we do nothing in our own defense is as absurd as the belief that the Earth is only 6000 years old. It is a willful denial of political reality.

Even with this, there is one last question that needs to be answered.

Maybe secular values do not matter. Maybe a social prohibition (even if there is no actual legal statute) against atheists from holding political power or positions of public trust is actually . . . if not a good thing . . . at least trivially unimportant.

As for me, I think that our refusal to challenge anti-atheist bigotry is one of the major contributing factors behind the fact that we have suffered for eight years under President George Bush. Our refusal to fight this fight is what prevents children from learning about evolution, and prevents medical research companies and laboratories from studying medical stem cell research. We are the ones who are keeping homosexuals from enjoying the benefits of marriage, and we are the ones who are making sure that government policy decisions are based on myth and superstition rather than science and reason.

Because we do not do anything to challenge the idea that the atheist – the person who has no faith – is the lowest form of life in the country, comparable to the KKK member, Nazi Party leader, the traitor, the tyrant, the defender of injustice for all.

In fact, the evidence suggests that atheists are even lower than those who belong to these other groups. Kay Hagan merely goes to a meeting where somebody who does not support a nation "under God" is present and her entire political career is threatened. Sarah Palin is married to somebody who was a member of an organization where the idea of a nation “indivisible” was openly challenged – a secessionist party and she is still the model Vice President drawing huge crowds wherever she goes because she is the "True American."

We keep hiding behind other people – judges, Kay Hagan, Barak Obama – expecting them to do our work for us (so that we can get by with doing nothing). For a few decades, a number of dedicated judges were willing to do that. The result was the establishment of a new political power that saw to it that those judges were replaced, and that politicians who would support those judges (regardless of political party) would have the power to appoint judges. We have hidden behind others, until those we would hide behind have been removed.

There is nobody left but us.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Proposition 8: Decent People Doing Wrong

In a recent comment to a post on Proposition 8, an anonymous member of the studio audience linked to an article that contained the following quote:

It is apparently inconceivable to many of those who wish to change the definition of marriage that a decent person can want to retain the man-woman definition.

The fact is, I find it very easy to conceive of a case in which a person who is in all other ways a decent person, has adopted an attitude of prejudice towards some group and, as a result, denies them the decent treatment that they are willing to give others.

The way that I conceive it, most segregationists, and most of those who believed that the white race should not interbreed with the black race, were, in many respects, decent people. If you were to meet one in a context where race was not an issue – in an entirely Caucasian community where blacks were simply nowhere to be found – you would be hard pressed to identify any character fault in them at all.

The way that I conceive it, most of the German soldiers during World War II were decent people for the most part. They sought to care for and protect their children, they loved their spouses, they would help a neighbor who was in trouble (as long as the neighbor was not Jewish). They went to church, they donated to charity, and they were good Patriotic Germans who were willing to give their lives for their country.

The way that I conceive it, most West Coast Americans who supported the internment of the Japanese during World War II were, in many respects, decent people. That measure had the support of 80 percent of the population. It is difficult to imagine what California would have been like if those 80 percent did not have any good qualities. When it came to their treatment of other Americans (at least those of non-Japanese descent) there were some extraordinary people among them.

The way that I conceive it, most of those who defended slavery in the early 1800s, and most of those who took up arms and killed or tried to kill Union soldiers in order to protect the institution of slavery, were, in many respects, decent people. They wanted very much to do the right thing and to be good people. They taught their children the importance of being honest and trustworthy and placed great value on individual responsibility.

However, in all of these cases, their culture gave otherwise decent people a moral blind spot. These were not people who recognized that they were doing evil and went ahead and did it anyway. These were people raised with an inability to even recognize the evil that they were doing, where that blindness lead them to do evil that they would not have done if they had known better.

The attitudes that people have in opposition to gay marriage represents exactly the same sort of moral blindness. To them, their actions seem like a good idea – they seem to be something that a good person would support – so they do not suffer even the slightest twinge of conscience as they engage in behavior that, as a matter of fact, and quite independent of their perceptions, does great harm to others for no good reason.

Many of these morally blind people assert that it is a mistake to say that they suffer from hate. “I do not hate gays. I just think that marriage should be between a man and a woman. That’s not the same has hating gays.”

However, moral blindness is not a defect in reason. It is a defect in desire – a defect in emotion. It is a lack of an aversion to doing great harm to certain people, ultimately because one does not see them as entities that deserve the same type of decent respect that real people deserve.

In all of the examples that I listed above – the segregationist, the west coast patriot, the German soldier, the defender of slavery – otherwise decent people were made capable of doing great harm to others because their culture taught them to view those others as something less than full human beings. They were taught to view their victims as a lower form of life, so that, while they remained decent people when it came to their treatment of other persons, they also became morally blind when it came to their evil treatment of these non-persons.

Yet, we cannot strictly say that what these people suffered from was a mere lack of an aversion to do harm to others. I have no particular affection for the tools that I have at home. I certainly do not have any interest in treating them with the type of dignity and respect that I would accord to them if I viewed them as persons. Yet, this does not inspire me to spend millions of dollars or to take up arms or to hire the government to take up arms in my name to inflict great harm on those tools. In fact, insofar as they are useful, I seek to protect and care for those tools.

Homosexual neighbors are still useful as neighbors. If your house was on fire and your child needed rescuing, the homosexual neighbor might be in the best position to save her. Even if one viewed the homosexual neighbor as a mere tool, it is still useful to take care of the tool so that it will remain useful.

However, in the cases I mentioned above, the agents defended doing real-world harm to those they were taught to view as being undeserving of the respect given to persons. This harm cannot be traced back to the fact that it was useful to do this harm. In fact, those who inflicted the harm were generally made worse off as a result of what they did to their neighbors. This desire to do harm was something the agents came to value for its own sake.

When one devotes a great deal of energy to actions that harm others for its own sake – simply to realize the value that one finds in a state where others are harmed – then it is not unreasonable to say that this is ‘hate’. It certainly does not count as “love”, and it would be strange at best to say that somebody putting all of that energy into something harmful to others is suffering from “indifference”. It is, instead, the definition of “indifference” that one simply does not care to work either for or against that particular end. Calling this passionate devotion to realizing a state that is so harmful to the interests of other persons for no good reason “indifference” is about as absurd as calling a person on his honeymoon a “bachelor”.

So, if it is not love, and it is not indifference, then we are running out of options as to what we can call this sentiment that drives these people to work so hard to do so much harm to others.

Some might want to call it religious devotion – since they provide support for their attitudes in scripture.

However, these people need to explain why they are so devoted to enforcing scripture in the case of homosexuality, but ignore it in so many other areas. Why isn’t homosexuality on the ignore list like the charging of interest and working on the Sabbath? Any claim that takes the form “X -> P” (such as “God condemns it in the Bible; therefore, I condemn homosexuality”) can be refuted by examples of “X and not-P” (e.g., God condemns usury and working on the Sabbath, but I do not condemn these things.”.

Religion, in this case, Is being used as a smoke screen to hide a culturally learned bigoted blindness much like the blindness that allowed people to do harm to the interests of women, blacks, and Japanese Americans during World War II.

This is not a religious issue. This is very much a hate issue.

And history tells us that it extremely easy for somebody who is a “decent person” – whole societies filled with people who live the bulk of their lives being as good or better than you and I – can still have a moral blind spot that allows them to do truly horrendous things to others who do not show up on their moral radar.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kay Hagan: The Slanderous Accusation of Atheism

Apparently, we now have Democratic Senate candidate Kay Hagan’s response to her opponent’s charge that she pals around with atheists.

The North Carolina I was raised in would NEVER condone this kind of personal slander.

(See: American Chronicle, Dole Ad Attacking Hagan Christian Faith Called Fabricated, Pathetic)

In short, Hagan responded by saying that the accusation of palling around with atheist is so horrendous and awful that anybody who makes such an accusation (without proof) is guilty of slander - a wrong serious enough to be taken to court.

At their core, Americans aren´t Democrat or Republican, red or blue – they´re Americans, plain and simple. We ALL love our country, and we all value the role of faith in American life. Shame on anyone who says differently.

Consider reading Hagan's prepared statement, which can be found in the link above, and imagine Democratic Presidential Candidate Barak Obama giving the same speech in response to accusation that he is a Muslim. Imagine what such a statement would say about attitudes towards Muslims.

Hagan isn't making the claim that atheists are Americans too and have a right to present their views to perspective political candidates. She is not saying that the fault of Dole's advertisement is that Dole is lying and promoting bigotry and hatred. She, in effect, endorsed the hate and answered, "How dare you accuse me of not being just as bigoted against atheists as you are! You take that back!"

She is not making an ordinary political charge of wrongdoing, like the wrong of accusing Democratic President Obama of palling around with (domestic) terrorists. This is far, far worse. The accusation of palling around with atheists is, according to Hagan, more like the accusation that one molests children – something that deserves a response that is just as powerful as the accusation itself.

Why would she say something like this?

My guess is that the pollsters told her that Elizabeth Dole's accusations will be successful unless she made a forceful response such as this. Atheists are so hated that the people of North Carolina will certainly refuse to vote into office anybody who can be successfully labeled as a "friend of atheists"

Consequently, Hagen did not have the option of saying, "There is nothing wrong with meeting with atheists." That would be political suicide. The only option she had available was to treat the accusation of meeting with atheists to be an order of magnitude worse than an accusation of meeting with terrorists. In order to preserve her chance of winning the election, she opted to go before the cameras and give support to atheist bigotry by reinforcing the message that talking to atheists is one of the worst possible things a political candidate can do.

At least the people of North Carolina (and, in fact, the people across the nation) are getting the same message from this race. At least both Hagan and her Republican opponent and accuser Senator Elizabeth Dole are spending their campaign money promoting a common set of values – the view that atheists are worse than the lowest form of criminals on the political landscape.

I have written in past posts that it is unreasonable to expect people to form their beliefs entirely by appeals to reason – they do not have the time. Instead, it is human nature – part of the brain's programming – to look for (admittedly fallible) shortcuts that do not guarantee the truth of the conclusions, but are reliable enough to allow the agent to get by.

One of those shortcuts is to look at society and seek beliefs that are held almost without question by everybody. Even though people can be in near universal agreement on something that is mistaken, they still get buy. A vast majority of the beliefs a society holds in common are true, and good enough.

The message coming out of North Carolina is that atheists are such a despicable group of people that nobody – particularly nobody running for public office – should be caught in the same room as one.

One of the things that I have now learned about the event in which Hagan allegedly met with atheists is that this was a meeting among several advocates, one of which happened to be a member of the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. She did not go to this event specifically to meet with atheists. She went to a meeting in which one of the participants happened to have been an atheist.

You can well bet that, with this article now in the news, future politicians will be much more careful. If somebody wants to host any new events like the one that Hagan attended are going to be more careful about vetting the list of attendees, and to make sure that nobody associated with anything like a Godless American Political Action Committee is in the room. Failure to do so could cost the candidate the election.

Even if Hagan wins this election (particularly given the way that she has decided to respond to the accusation of meeting with atheists) the lesson will still be learned that one must exclude atheists from all future events.

At the time that the news first broke that Dole was going to appeal to anti-atheist bigotry, many of those who noted that fact decided to respond by contributing to the Hagan campaign. As it turns out, those people ended up funding a front page news campaign to cover North Carolina in specific, and ultimately the country, with a major news story that the accusation of atheism, or the accusation of meeting with atheists, is slanderous. This is the message that those contributions have ultimately funded.

Which brings me to a question that I have asked a couple of times now in recent posts.

Are you tired yet of being used as a club for attacking the very things that you claim to value?


Here is an editorial that appears in the Greensboro, North Carolina paper, News-Record: Dole's attack on Hagan's faith drives heated campaign lower

Dole's ad forced the political debate into the realm of religious beliefs. It exploits what now looks like a campaign misstep by Hagan -- attending a Boston fundraiser at the home of atheist activist Woody Kaplan, a founder of Godless Americans.

Note that it is now being counted as a "misstep" for a candidate for public office to attend a function in which a known atheist is present.

It is not just a misstep to go to a function hosted by atheists or to talk to atheists directly. It is a misstep to go to a political event in which one or more promiment atheists has also been invited to attend - unless the atheist is there is an adversarial role (e.g., a debate opponent perhaps).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Republican Reform

As the election draws near, and it looks increasingly like the Republican Party is in a world of political trouble, I have read some analysis of what the Republicans might do to increase their political power.

Unfortunately, these analyses have all drawn upon the assumption that the only thing that matters is winning elections – being politically successful. I have read very few who have given consideration to the question of the price of that success.

On this standard, we can view Hitler’s campaign to blame all of Germany’s problems on the Jews and to rouse up an “us’ versus “them” hatred of anything not sufficiently ‘German’ would have counted as effective. Hitler, after all, was elected and was a very popular leader for a period of time, because Hitler figured out how to be effective in getting votes and winning popular support.

However, one of the lessons we hopefully have learned from that era is that “effective” (in securing votes) is not the same thing as “right”.

I wonder how many people are now turning up their noses to the Republican Party because they have discovered what type of people they have been hanging around with.

One of the relatively unique aspects of this campaign, or so it appears to me, is a new type of attack campaign that does not target the opposing candidate, but that targets the people who support the opposing candidate.

We have seen or heard:

(1) Audience members at McCain and Palin events shouting death threats or racial slurs at campaigns.

(2) A man who walked around with a stuffed monkey on which he had placed an “Obama” bumper sticker.

(3) Interviews with people who were walking up to attend a McCain or Palin rally – or simply video of them walking by Obama supporters..

(4) A McCain supporter falsely claiming to have been attacked by a big black man who forced her to the ground and carved the letter “B” on her cheek.

(5) A pair of white supremacists recently arrested for planning to kill dozens of black people, including Obama.

(6) The widespread popularity of emails making false claims that Obama is a Muslim and that he does not say the Pledge of Allegiance as well as other lies too readily believed merely because people want to believe them. (And what type of person is so eager to believe and to pass along such lies?)

I think that this is a good thing. I have argued from the first days of this blog that it is not enough to hold Bush morally responsible for his own failings. It is also necessary to hold the Bush supporters responsible for their decisions. When a candidate deprives the people of basic civil rights, he has done something immoral. However, the people who cheer and support him are at the very least accomplices to that immorality. They have shown themselves to be as much a threat to the freedoms whose destruction they cheer as are the candidates who actually implement that destruction.

Too often we condemn the symptom of some public prejudice or widespread evil without condemning the source itself – the political or social base that has given that prejudice and widespread evil political life.

So, I am very much pleased to see so much effort into recording images of Republican supporters and saying to other Republicans, “These are the types of people you associate with. These are the types of people you call ‘friends’ and allies’. Do you really want to be associated with these types of people?”

Those same good Republicans, while they look around and ask these questions, they should notice that the Party leadership – the people who are up on the stage, who are writing and delivering the speeches and creating the advertisements, do not seem to be on the side of decent Republicans who abhor these practices. Instead, the Republican leadership has tended to hover between silent acceptance of this type of behavior, to subtle encouragement through the careful use of selected rhetoric – rhetoric that seems to say, “You know, those people are right, but I can’t actually say that in so many words.”

It is time for the good Republicans to see what they can do to take control of the Republican party and drive out those who should not find a home in any political party, and to create a better moral culture within their own party. They need to make it a party that decent people can be proud to be a member of, where decent people do not have to be ashamed of the associations they are drawn into.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Asymetric Beliefs about Good, Evil, and Religion

I made a response to a comment to my previous blog that I think deserves more development.

I argued that California’s Proposition 8, which would ban homosexual marriage, provided an example of people claiming to do harm to others because God told them to. Then, I was asked to look into the prospect that an atheist can also oppose Proposition 8, and be opposed to gay marriage completely. The answer points to an asymmetry in the way some atheists look at the relationship between morality and religion.

On the one hand, we hear that religion is the source of a lot of evil. From this, people draw the conclusion that if get rid of religion, we can get rid of this source of a great deal of evil.

On the other hand, we are told that religion is not the source of much good. The impulse to do good comes from another source (typically, I hear it argued, from our genes). Atheists also have access to this ‘other source’ of good, so it is not only possible but common that a person can be good without religion. If we get rid of religion, this will leave the amount of goodness in the world untouched

I do not see any basis for this asymmetry other than the fact that it has emotional appeal for somebody who already hates religion and is looking for an excuse to attack it.

The fact of the matter is that both good and evil come from other sources. Kindness, charity, parental affection, all come from other sources. Then they get written into the religion. Atheists have the same access to this source of kindness, charity, and parental affection as theists have, and are capable of being just as good as theists.

Similarly, hatred, bigotry, the disposition to divide the world into “we” and “they” and to attack ‘they’ groups violently also come from another source. They then get written into the religion. Atheists have the same access to these sources of hatred, bigory, and injustice as the theists have, and are capable of being just as evil as theists.

The point is easy enough to prove. Everything in religion is made up. It was created by humans from “another source” and then written into the religion. The forces that caused people to select “this religion” or “that religion” have no divine origin. They are natural human processes – at much at work in the brains of the atheist as in the brains of theists.

Otherwise, this evil would not have been invented and, as such, would never have found its way into scripture. It had to come from somewhere, and none of it – none of the good and none of the evil – ever came from God. It all came from some other source.

Which means that you can’t fight evil by fighting religion. The other source of evil will still exist, and will still drive evil, even without religion – just as it will continue to drive good, even without religion.

Having said this, one of the roles that religion plays in morality is as a way of rationalizing unjustifiable actions. It provides a way of giving an illusion of legitimacy to actions that cannot be justified outside of an appeal to religion.

This is different from saying that evil comes from religion. The evil does not come from religion – that evil comes from someplace else. However, insofar as these dispositions are evil, they seek some form of justification. An appeal to religion is a particularly useful form of justification (at least within our current culture) because an assertion that “God wants this” is not subject to any further proof or justification. We are supposed to take the word of the person who advocates something harmful on faith – without asking too many questions – without, in fact, asking any questions at all.

This role of giving something the appearance of legitimacy actually applies to good and evil both. Depending on the moral character of the person who is inventing any given religion, that person will often use religion to give legitimacy to anything he seeks to promote – regardless of whether he promotes good or evil. Good and evil people both can and do make appeals to religion as a way of convincing people that what they want is what God wants. The good person just happens to want what is right (and, consequently, so does his god). The evil person wants that which is wrong (and, consequently, so does his god).

However, only the evil person needs religion.

The good person can use the fact that he is promoting something that people generally have reason to promote to demonstrate the legitimacy of his morality outside of religion. The good person can defend honesty, charity, kindness, responsibility, liberty, and the like without appeal to religion. He may choose not to. He may not actually believe that he can do this. However, he can. The requirement for something to be good is that it be something that can be justified by appeal to the reasons that people have for promoting it, which does not depend on any religion.

The evil person, on the other hand, has no legitimate place to turn to justify what he seeks to promote. He needs the illusion of legitimacy, and religion provides a very useful illusion. Once he assigns his prejudice to religion, he can then stop anybody from asking any further questions about the legitimacy of his moral claims. He only needs to say, “God wants it this way; and that is something you must accept on faith, without asking any questions.”

It is a very useful way of arguing, if you can only get your audience to go along with it – to claim that the harms that others will suffer as a result of adopting the speaker’s moral attitudes needs no justification or defense – that it is to be taken on faith.

Yet, it is still the case that these prejudices and unjustified moral attitudes do not come from religion or god. Prejudices cause people to believe absurd things and to think them profound. Some people accept the absurdities of religion. Some people accept blatant contradictions like thinking that evil must come from religion and be reduced by reducing religion, while good must come from some other source and can live without religion.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

California Proposition 8 as a Moral Issue

PZ Myers of Pharyngula has gotten it right. Proposition 8 in California - the constitutional amendment against gay marriage - is a moral issue.

For a great example of narrow-minded wretched biblical rationalizations, listen to Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church. He comes out strongly for Prop. 8, calling it a "moral issue" (which it is — too bad he's fighting on the side of evil) . . .

(See Pharyngula, The Division on Proposition 8

Proposition 8 is very much a moral issue. It is a question about doing the right thing - about fairness and about justice. It is about kindness. It is about respect.

It is about refusing to do harm to innocent people - making their lives worse off than they need to be - without a good reason. And the fact that bigots 2000 years ago valued doing harm to certain people is not a good reason to be doing harm to those people today.

It is about the difference between right and wrong.

The typical way of approaching questions such as this has been to allow the anti-gay bigots to claim the word 'moral'. From polls to newspaper coverage, we have allowed them to claim the title of anti-gay legislation as 'morals legislation'. We have, for all practical purposes, allowed them to use without question the assumption that homosexual relationships are immoral.

We have, instead, spoken in other terms. We have used nonsense phrases in defense of homosexual relationships such as, "You should not be imposing your morals on other people." This phrase is absurd on its face, because it says, in effect, "I am going to force on you my moral standard that it is wrong to impose one's moral standards on others."

If a standard is not to be imposed on others, then it is not a moral standard. Prohibitions against murder, rape, theft, fraud, reckless endangerment, every violent crime written into statute is an example of forcing morality on others.

"You shall not do harm to others without a good reason for doing so," is a moral standard that may be imposed on others.

"Your faith is not a good reason," is a corollary to this. If we allow faith to justify harm to others then we might as well go ahead and permit all harm. There is nothing we can do against the person who claims that his actions were based on faith.

Kill your daughter for staying out to late? Sure, can't touch the father in this case. His faith says that it is okay.

Plan to fly a plane into a sky scraper . . . no problem there. After all, one of the things we must respect is a person's right to practice their religious beliefs.

But what if those religious beliefs include the belief that he must fly an airplane into a sky scraper, murder his daughter, or declare peaceful members of the community whose actions do no harm to others second-class citizens?

Proposition 8 requires that we take sides on a moral issue - to do that which is right, or to do that which is wrong. To allow people to harm others based on no better reason than, "My god told me to," or to protect people from being harmed by those who harm others in the name of God.

Even the decision not to vote (where one is eligible to do so) is a moral decision. A person hears screams in the alley, He looks out the window and sees a large man beating a child mercilessly. He closes the window and returns to his television.

He may not be as morally culpable as the person in the alley doing the beating, but he is not morally innocent either.

Proposition 8 is about morality. It is about allowing people to do harm to others for no reason better than, "My God told me to," the very same reason used by those who engage in terrorist bombings and other harms. Or it is about saying to people, "Your religious conviction that these people are to be harmed is not a good enough reason to have them harmed."

The message that we should be sending around the world is the latter message.

We will all be better off as a result.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

BB3: Roger Bingham: Opening Statement

This is the first in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

As I mentioned, I was invited to actually attend the Beyond Belief conference this year. In This video of Roger Bingham's opening remarks you will find me in the video as the audience member with the black vest and maroon shirt. What I was thinking, while I listened to each presentation, was, "What will I write about what person is saying?"

It is not an accident that I spent this week on my blog writing about the need for those opposed to anti-atheist bigotry to publicly respond to that bigotry – and how to respond. That is a thought that came to my mind as I listened to Bingham’s introduction to the series – with one minor change.

The Science Network set up "Candles in the Dark" to provide an opportunity for scientists to provide solutions to current problems. The presenters were asked to present some problem in their field of study or interest that science can help to provide an answer to. We will see that few presenters actually paid attention to that motto. However, it was still Bingham’s wish, as he expressed in his introduction.

He also lamented the fact that science does not get the respect it deserves in the public eye. He spoke about the Republican war on science – the idea that it makes any type of sense for a political operative to rewrite a scientific report so that the findings support the administration's policies. Some of us think that this is backwards – that when there is a conflict between policy and reality, that the policy be adjusted to conform to reality. The assumption that bureaucrats can rewrite reality to conform to policy is simply absurd.

He showed Oprah Winfrey's library, which she is very proud of, and lamented that there is not one book in the collection that has anything to do with science. He expressed a wish that public figures would use some of their power to promote a public interest in science. However, he expressed it merely as a dream, not as a plan of action.

My thought was that, if you have a product that you think has value, and you think that there is reason to sell it, then you should set up some sort of program whose job it is to sell that product.

We have, for example, a campaign that promotes milk (milk: It does a body good.). We have a campaign that promotes pork (the other white meat), beef (it's what's for dinner), Virginia (it’s for lovers), Las Vegas (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas).

I do not know of any campaign in existence, or anybody even working on a campaign, to sell science.

Of course, how do you get started with such a campaign? If one wanted to sell science, how does one begin?

This question explains why I decided to spend a couple of posts leading up to the Beyond Belief series discussing the response to anti-atheist bigotry, because the two problems are related.

What you do is you go out to people who have some money to spend who might recognize the value of promoting this particular project and you say, "We need some money to launch a campaign to market science."

They will then ask, "What will you do with the money?"

The answer is, "We will hire a marketing firm – somebody familiar with television, radio, web broadcasting, billboards, print advertising, mass mailings, and the like, and we will ask them to design and run a campaign for us. They will give us a proposal and a budget and, if we like the proposal, we will give them the money."

Of course, part of the campaign will be to raise more money. I see no sense in spending $50,000 to promote something unless the promotion brings $60,000 in additional contributions, which can then be spent on a project that brings in more contributions. Yet, the same firms that are useful in public relations are typically also trained in fundraising. After all, they want to be paid and they want to make things as easy on their customers as possible. I suspect that such an agency would be very helpful.

There are a couple of questions to be asked first. The first is, do we really have a sellable product?

Science is a product that keeps most of us alive. It gives us food to eat, provides us with energy, allows a simple person like me to communicate with people all around the world every day, allows us to visit places we would never otherwise see, cures and prevents disease, warns us of upcoming hurricanes and tsunamis and warns us as to whether the levees will hold if we are not so stupid as to ignore science. It allows us to build buildings that can withstand earthquakes, identify murderers and rapists, heats and cools our homes and warn us of global changes in time for us to actually take action to address them.

Science definitely has a lot of value. To the degree that anti-science is the norm, to that degree we suffer from our ignorance.

There is, as it turns out, a free rider problem associated with selling science. If I can get you to pay for promoting science, then I get the benefits without suffering any of the costs. The same is true of you. If I am busy promoting science, then you get the benefits of my actions without suffering any of the cost. The result is that nobody pays the cost, and the benefits are not realized.

However, the problem of free riders exists in a number of areas where people ask for contributions. In a political campaign, I am better off if my candidate wins the election and I contribute nothing to the campaign than I am if my candidate wins and I have contributed $1000. And the odds that my contribution is what will determine the outcome of the campaign is rather slight. Yet, in spite of this free rider problem, people contribute to political campaigns.

Professional fundraisers have had to deal with this problem for a long time. They have found ways to mitigate it. For example, they establish a system where contributors get personal, public recognition. Another method is that they give different levels of contributors different ranks, with special services and recognition given to those who have the highest rank. For example, heavy political contributors get invited to special dinners in which they are given access to the candidates and elected officials.

The point being that the professionals, in this case, have the knowhow to deal with these issues.

You would not construct a house by showing your plans to your friends and soliciting feedback. You would not perform brain surgery by reading about it on the internet. You should not organize a campaign without consulting experts in that field. Expertise will pay for itself in terms of greater efficiency – being able to do more with less money, and being able to raise more money.

I am a major fan of consulting with experts when you want to get something done. If the question is, “How do we increase the prestige that science has in the public mind,” my answer is, “Don’t ask me. Ask an expert in the field and get to work.”

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark - The Series

This is the official beginning of my annual series in which I discuss each presentation that takes place at the Beyond Belief conference in La Jolla, California.

This is the posting to bookmark if you want a shortcut to the table of contents that will eventually link to all of the other postings. As I write those other essays, I will return here to post a link to those write-ups. In the end, there will be at least one link here to each video posted from the conference.

Last year, I was asked if, on the introduction page, I would skip the essay and quickly get to the links – by somebody who hated scrolling down to find those links. So, I’ll limit myself to one quick statement before starting the Table of Contents:

The Science Network provides these videos for free. It is an excellent service. We need to praise and reward that which we have reason to nurture and grow. So, please, make a contribution to the Science Network.

Roger Bingham: Opening Statement: Roger Bingham introduces the series as one in which participants have been asked to deliver "a potential solution to a problem that they have identified in their area of expertise or informed passion. He then talked about his own perceived problem - that science and science education are not given the attention that such a useful tool to promote human welfare deserves.

AC Grayling: Happiness, Flourishing, and Fulfillment: I divided AC Grayling's discussion into two parts. In this part, I discuss Grayling's suggestion that flourishing (rather than happiness) is "the point" of human activity.

AC Grayling: Flourishing, Fulfillment, and Freedom of Choice: Grayling argues that his concept of "flourishing" argues in favor of freedom of choice - that there is value in choosing one's life rather than having somebody else choose it for you. I compare his Aristotilian defense of liberty with the Millian desire utilitarian defense.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: The Utility of Happiness: Sonja Lyubomirsky presents a brief opening argument that happiness is "the point" of activity, then devotes the bulk of her presentation to showing a wealth of empirical evidence that happiness is also quite useful.

Owen Flanagan: Eudemonia and Existentialism: Owen Flanagan discusses certain existential concerns we have, including the concern that we are mere animals. These concerns drive us towards or away from certain conclusions about the universe. I further ask, "Where do these concerns come from?"

Güven Güzeldere: Epistemological vs Social Atheism: Güven Güzeldere talkes about the existential concern that there is no such thing as "disembodied cognitition" and the relationship between epistemic atheism and social atheism.

George Koop: Addiction vs Flourishing George Koop looks at what happens in the brain that brings about drug addiction. He argues that there are mechanisms in the brain that exist because they prevent too much pleasure or happiness, where it would lead to destructive behavior.

Eudemonia Panel: Happiness. After the talks listed above on human flourishing, the speakers participated in a panel discussion. One of the topics that came up was the fact that happiness can be controlled, not by changing the world, but merely by changing expectations of the world. This post looks at the moral implications of managing expectations, in contrast to managing reality.

Naoimi Oreskes: Science vs Beliefs about Science. Naoimi Oreskes uses the history of global warming to illustrate a huge gap between science and people's beliefs about science. While scientists formed a consensus on global warming decades ago, a substantial portion of the population still believes that scientists are undecided. It is not that they do not know what scientists actually believe. It's that they have a belief about scientists that is entirely false.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum: The Political Voice of Science. This posting actually starts off a series of postings on the issues of promoting science. Mooney and Kirshenbaum, who tried to get a science debate inserted into the Presidential campaigns (where the candidates held around 30 debates, but none on science) illustrates the ways in which we can try to make science important to the electorate. This posting, and the rest of the postings for that week, discuss some of these ideas.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Media Coverage of Science. Ultimately, in this debate on promoting science, I argued that the project should be to use moral institution to promote a stronger demand for scientific understanding. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to put the cart before the horse. They argue for promoting the supply of science understanding in order to stimulate demand. Whereas I argue that if we promote a demand for scientific understanding, people will come along to fulfill that demand.

Tony Haymet: Non-Human Threats. Tony Haymet came with evidence of two severe threats that we face, in addition to increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. One is that this CO2 is being absorbed into the oceans and making it more acidic. A more acidic ocean would be fatal to such sea creatures as snails, clams, oysters, and coral. The other threat is the depopulation of the oceans. Haymet suggests that we have removed up to 90% of the biomass from the sea. In addition, while the government easily comes up with huge quantities of money to bail out businesses and fight wars, a few million dollars to study things that really will save the planet are hard to come by.

Panel Discussion The Energy War. In a panel discussion on science and politics the idea of an Energy War is discussed - an Apollo like project to render oil worthless. One if the issues discussed is whether we need to find a human enemy - an enemy that can be killed and tortured - in order to motivate people to participate in such a project.

Panel Discussion: Be Kind to Religion. In a panel discussion on science and politics, Chris Mooney suggested that we should be conciliatory towards evangelicals because they are now motivating people to be on the right side of the climate change issue. This posting asks the question of what form this conciliatory attitude should take.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Case Study: The Atheist Bus Sign Campaign

It is convenient that the week that I decide to write about the necessity of publicly responding to anti-atheist bigotry, a campaign is launched in England that reflects much of what I have been writing about.

The campaign was designed to respond to various claims from various religions that people who do not believe in God are doomed to an eternity in hell. They sought to raise money for a campaign that says, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Within two days of launching the fundraising portion of the campaign they had all the money they needed, and the money has continued to come in. The organizers of the campaign are now looking at how they can expand it.

The Good

This campaign has many of the elements that I have been writing about for the past few days. In this campaign, a group of people decided that they wanted to respond publicly to some common anti-atheist claims. They designed a campaign and figured out what would be required to run it. Then they put out a call for funds. They received their funds, and they are launching the campaign.

This campaign happens to be in response to the claim that atheists are doomed to an eternity in hell (so don’t become an atheist). I am arguing for responses to such things as the Kieffe and Sons advertisement that secularists should sit down and shut up, Monique Davis’ accusation that atheism is a philosophy of destruction, General Petreus’ endorsement of a book that claims that atheists make poor soldiers, and Elizabeth Dole’s campaign (later reinforced by the Republican National Committee) that no candidate for public office should listen to the concerns of godless Americans.

The fundamental structure is the same. A situation exists that warrants a response. This incident is used to raise money so that a public response can be made in condemnation of this incidence of anti-atheist bigotry.

Another campaign that follows the same model is the campaign to put up billboards that say, “Imagine No Religion.” Here, too, a campaign is designed. People interested in the campaign raise money. The campaign is then launched.

One of the particularly beneficial things about both of these projects is that they can provide an infrastructure for the type of campaigning that I have been writing about. With these projects we now have a cadre of people who have a certain amount of experience getting a campaign organized from conception to launch. This knowledge and experience is an extremely valuable resource. Yet, like any tool, its value depends a lot on how it is put to use.

If this campaign were taking place in the United States, there we would have another good effect. American atheists sufer from a form of out-group passifism that is best combated by anything that would suggest some element of ‘atheist pride’. These advertisements may have an effect of picking up the morale of atheists, so that they are more likely to stand up against the injustices imposed on them, rather than passively accept them. Anything that breaks the grip of out-group passivity would be good in this sense.

The Bad

The advertisements are not given any type of empirical testing as to their effect. If people are going to spend large sums of money on a project, there should be some effort going into making sure that the project is having a desired effect.

For example, consider the London bus campaign. The intent of the campaign is to give a light-hearted response to the assertion that “If you succumb to the atheist’s message, you risk eternal damnation.” This was the intent. But what will the actual effect be?

Sometimes, the real world is not as it appears to us. We need to objective research to determine if what we think to be true is true in fact. I can easily imagine a huge segment of the population reading the sign and suddenly getting a burst of anxiety and fear. “Here is somebody telling others to do whatever they please because there is no God. Rape. Murder. Theft. All sorts of evil are possible from this type of campaign.”

This type of emotional response would then likely contribute some of those who have that response to contribute more to the fight against atheism. In fact, this could well explain why some religious organizations have contributed to the atheist bus campaign. Because they see it as an excellent way of increasing the level of public anxiety about the bad consequences of atheism, and thus driving more people to religion.

I think that the “Imagine No Religion” campaign is a waste of time. The person who imagines no religion is going to take his or her own prejudices into that imaginary world. The theist will imagine a world of rampant crime and suffering, while the atheist will imagine a world of tremendous scientific progress and prosperity.

There are ways to find out what these effects may be. Simply pay a group of people $50 to come in off the street and answer a few questions, get their reaction to a few suggestions, and simply talk about the various possibilities. This work should be done with all of the scientific rigor that all experiments should be done with. For example, the people doing the work should not care what the results are (should have no vested interest in which campaign gets the better reaction).

Also, the type of advertising that I am talking about requires a much quicker response time. The response must hit while the item is still newsworthy. It would do no good today to launch a campaign against Kieffe and Sons or against Monique Davis (though it would pay to keep an eye on both targets). In two weeks it will do no good to respond to Elizabeth Dole (though, if she wins the election, it would be worthwhile to keep an eye on her as well).

This means having a reserve of money in an account that can be put to immediate use, and using the fundraising associated with a particular incident to rebuild that reserve.

An Alternative Campaign

I have little interest in atheist activism – promoting the belief that no god exists. My interest is in virtue activism. This is not an atheist blog – I make no attempt to defend atheism itself in these postings. This is an ethics blog, that happens to be written by an atheist.

This concern with virtue leads me to suggest another type of campaign compared to those discussed above. This is a campaign that would promote particular virtues, but then link those virtues to atheism. For example, it could consist of billboards with a value-laden word in large type, a short tag phrase, and the identity of the atheist sponsor.

Here are five examples of what could be put on such a billboard.

It pays to know what the world is really like.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

The only people we have to help us in times of trouble are each other.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

We have only one life. Nobody should spend it enslaved to another.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

Faith that somebody else is deserves to be harmed is not good enough.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

As I see it, these billboards would promote positive values, should not generate any type of anxiety, and would be difficult for the enemies of atheism to exploit for their own ends.

However, anybody can come up with an idea, and each is going to think that theirs is perfect. The test should be to collect these ideas and test them, to the best of our ability. As an advocate of empirical observation, I would not say that a suggestion of mine must necessarily be better than the suggestions of somebody else. If we are going to advertise, we should use empirical facts, not feelings and intuitions, to judge how best to spend that money.


I am, in general, pleased to see these types of campaigns spring up. They are laying an important groundwork for future efforts – efforts that should eventually have an effect in reducing anti-atheist bigotry in the United States. However, these projects should grow in the direction of providing some objective data on the effectiveness of the various projects and selecting those that have the best effect for the least amount of money.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Atheists to Blame for Economic Downturn

There is so much (unanswered) anti-atheist bigotry around the world that I am falling behind in my attempts to keep up with it.

At the same time that the story about Elizabeth Dole's and the Republican National Committee's anti-atheist bigotry campaign hit the news last week, there was another story circulating around that expressed a different type of bigotry.

Melanie Phillips decided that "militant" atheists are to be blamed for the financial meltdown. She decided to go to print with an article where she instructed the people that they should turn their fear and concern for their economic future into hatred of atheists. (See: The Culture War for the White House)

I see this financial breakdown, moreover, as being not merely a moral crisis but the monetary expression of the broader degradation of our values – the erosion of duty and responsibility to others in favour of instant gratification, unlimited demands repackaged as 'rights' and the loss of self-discipline. And the root cause of that erosion is 'militant atheism' which, in junking religion, has destroyed our sense of anything beyond our material selves and the here and now and, through such hyper-individualism, paved the way for the onslaught on bedrock moral values expressed through such things as family breakdown and mass fatherlessness, educational collapse, widespread incivility, unprecedented levels of near psychopathic violent crime, epidemic drunkenness and drug abuse, the repudiation of all authority, the moral inversion of victim culture, the destruction of truth and objectivity and a corresponding rise in credulousness in the face of lies and propaganda -- and intimidation and bullying to drive this agenda into public policy.

When the world entered the Great Depression in the 1930s, it became popular in America and, particularly, in Europe to blame the Jews for that economic collapse. People seeking political power for themselves named Jews as the culprit, either through the corruption of their influence and their values on (otherwise) 'good' Christians, or as a part of a conspiracy to take over the world – or, at least, the global economy.

That vilification of the Jews had some very ugly consequences.

Today, blaming the Jews for economic bad news is not as popular as it used to be. Consequently, bigots need to find a new target group – one that can be effectively blamed where the people might actually believe the hate-mongering that the writers engage in. Or, at least, where nobody would be foolish enough to actually stand up and defend the target group (and condemn those who did the targeting).

The vulnerable group in America today, of course, is those who do not believe in God. With a Pledge teaching children each day that a person who does not support a nation 'under God' is as unpatriotic – as downright evil – as one who does not support a nation 'indivisible, with liberty and justice for all', and with a motto that says, "Somebody who does not trust in God is not one of us," and without a word being raised in protest to those messages, the message that atheists are responsible for our economic problems is certainly going to go unchallenged.

This is not to say that we can expect atheists to be herded into gas chambers in this country within the next ten years. Hopefully, the world has had its fill of that type of moral monstrosity for a while and is now on the watch against it. However, that fact does not mitigate against the moral wrong of Phillips’ way of thinking.

We could argue about how a certain type of false accusation 50 years ago would have gotten the accused a death sentence, whereas now the same false accusation 'only' results in 20 years in prison. However, the fact that the harm suffered by those who are falsely accused has been reduced does not argue that it is now permissible to make false accusations.

It is still the case that Phillips' accusation that atheists are guilty of the economic problems we face today, and the accusations made 75 years ago that Jews were responsible for that economic downturn, are both morally outrageous examples of trying to promote hatred and bigotry of a target group.

Yet, nothing, other than the meek mumblings of atheists among themselves, is said against these types of claims. Phillips is not now fighting to keep her job. We will hear no apology. The people themselves will read that atheists are responsible for the loss of their jobs, the destruction of their 401(k) plan, and the foreclosure of their homes without hearing anybody say, "No they’re not." In this type of atmosphere, it would be absurd to believe that some of them will not actually come to share that opinion.

One of the ways that we learn that a statement is questionable is that we hear somebody actually question it. One of the ways that we learn that something is a 'received truth' is that we hear it, and nobody takes the effort to question it. This is one of the quick rules-of-thumb that permeate society because people do not have the time or the skill to apply the rigid rules of deductive logic to every sentence they may hear.

And, indeed, Phillips’ claim has gone unchallenged. At least, I have not heard a word of protest outside of a few atheist blogs claiming that this type of message is morally contemptible.

So, it becomes a part of the received view that disbelief in God is economically harmful, and faith is necessary for the economic well-being of the country.

We can add this to the growing list of examples in which the people at large get to hear anti-atheist rhetoric, without hearing anybody stand up and say, "Not only is that message mistaken, but the type of person who would deserve such a message deserves our contempt."

Melonie Phillips, at this point, should be fighting for her job, no less so than any other public figure who has let their bigotry show through in their writings during the past year.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Science of Persuasion

Twice now Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism has been used in Republican advertisements as a tool to keep a North Carolina Senate seat in the hands of an anti-atheist bigot. Specifically, the Elizabeth Dole campaign itself, and now the Republican National Committee, have decided that Ebonmuse is useful to them. They have decided to use him to get the people of North Carolina to keep Elizabeth Dole (who would be uncomfortable having an atheist to dinner) in the Senate.

For the most part, Ebomnuse's response (See: In Which I Am Attacked by a U.S. Political Party) is a good response. However, there are two important points that I would like to draw out of it.

Exploiting Anti-Atheist Bigotry

First, Ebonmuse describes himself in his title as having been attacked. Technically, this is not true. The advertisements say nothing about Ebonmuse himself – it only cites some things written in his blog. This is not an attack.

It is, however, a clear attempt to use (exploit, take advantage of) Ebonmuse for the purpose of promoting ends that Ebonmuse himself explicitly oppose. They found Ebonmuse to be a convenient resource – a convenient tool – that they could then use to construct the type of world that they desire, a world in which atheists are second-class citizens who find themselves explicitly excluded from meetings with their elected representatives.

More specifically, Elizabeth Dole and the Republican National Committee are exploiting the fact that anything that come into contact with an atheist is, in the minds of a majority of voters, tainted and corrupt. It is now impure and, like an infected neighbor, must be removed from society and quarantined until the corruption is somehow removed (if possible). They have selected Ebonmuse as the agent of corruption. That which Ebonmuse praises is thereby corrupted, because whatever an atheist praises is bad, and whatever is pure and good is that which an atheist would not praise.

They find this to be an effective tactic because, as a matter of observed fact, most people are prejudiced against atheists. They learn this prejudice, I have argued, from the moment they start school and learn that Americans who do not support 'one nation under God' are as contemptible as those who would support tyranny and injustice for all. They learn it from the money, and in more and more cases from the school room wall, that say, "A person who does not trust in God is not one of us."

This reality, where atheists are a contaminant and anything they are associated with must e rejected, is simply the reality that we live in.

That is the reality that we have helped to make.

The Science of Persuasion

The second point that I want to draw out of Ebonmuse’s posting explains how we have helped to create a world in which atheists are viewed as a contaminant – used to turn people off to anything that the atheist expresses positive value for.

Ebonmuse wrote:

I continue to be disappointed by the lackluster quality of these smear ads.

He then goes on to identify the things that he sees to be wrong with these advertisements.

However, this response fails to respect the way these advertisements are made. These types of advertisements have the best elements of the scientific method backing them up. Those who make these adds do not rely on 'feelings' of 'intuitions' to judge these advertisements. Instead, they cast feelings and intuitions aside and look instead at the observable, objective, fact of the matter. They invest in a great deal of research. If one's feelings or intuitions are 'disappointed' in the advertisements, then one’s feelings and intuitions are out of synch with objective fact.

These advertisements are backed by a great deal of research. Focus groups, surveys, questionnaires, all quality-checked by looking at their ability to yield predictable outcomes, lie behind these advertisements. Each day an army of researchers are at work looking at what will work on those voters who have an opportunity to turn an election from one candidate to another. "How Ebonmuse will view this advertisement" is not a standard that these researchers are at all interested in. "How effective this advertisement will be in causing people to vote for Elizabeth Dole as Senator, or at least to stay home and not vote for Kay Hagan" is the only standard that matters.

I find this to be extremely ironic. We live in a society where the enemies of science and reason put the best tools of the scientific method and objective measure to work defeating science and reason, while the defenders of science and reason think that feelings and intuitions are all we need to judge the effectiveness of an advertisement campaign.

One of the clichés of the last century came from communists who said, "They (the capitalists) will sell us the rope that we (the communists) will then use to hang them with." The irony today is that the proponents of science and reason have given their enemies the tools to effectively attack science and reason.

Responding to Bigotry

This situation needs to change.

We need is a non-profit organization that can collect donations and has a marketing public-relations firm on call so that the instant one of these major examples of anti-atheist bigotry show up, they can immediately launch two campaigns in response.

Fundraising and Coordination

The first campaign would be a campaign to raise money. This group, under the advice of public relations and marketing experts, would immediately put together a package whose purpose is to raise money – fundraising letters, media advertising, contacts with organizations who can pass along a message to their members, all aiming at raising money for a campaign to answer this bigotry.

If that organization existed today, it would immediately have gone to work soliciting contributions for a campaign to answer the bigotry we see in North Carolina. Using blogs, web-based advertising on sites that atheists tend to visit, phone trees, email lists, they would announce, "There is a campaign to promote anti-atheist bigotry and to use this to keep a bigot in the Senate," to as much of the secular community hat they can reach, to gain money for advertisements, to answer this campaign.

This fundraising campaign would be run by marketers with know-how and experience on how to get money. They will put their experience to work to measure the effectiveness of various campaigns and they will use that data to refine their fundraising accordingly.


The second campaign, and the reason for the money, would involve responding to this bigotry. The organization would immediately create web videos, television, radio, and print advertising and send that advertising out to the people who are being presented with anti-atheist bigotry in order to counter that bigotry.

The organization would create press releases, contact the press, and have a set of potential speakers ready to be interviewed on the topic in question. Those speakers would be ready to show up on any news channel – national or local – with talking points in hand ready to point out to listeners and readers what exactly is wrong with the campaign that the bigots have launched. The media company would, in this case, have talked to Ebonmuse and determined if he could effectively speak in his own defense. If so, they would start calling media outlets and arranging for Ebonmouse to speak to the press.

They would contact other bloggers and others who have contact with a relevant part of the intended audience and say, "Here is an issue that we are addressing. We would like you to join us by saying something on this matter." The invitation would be accompanied by a list of talking points.

Somebody like me might look through the talking points, find one or two I disagreed with, and make those the topic of my particular blog. I am not talking about blind obedience to a public relations leader. I would oppose that. However, there is nothing objectionable with a group of people who want to say X finding a way to do so more effectively – in a way that will reach more people and could potentially change more minds than the system we have now.

The Current Situation

The situation, as it exists today, makes me think of a trial in which the prosecutors go to great efforts to present their best possible case to the jury. At the same time, the defense sits at their defense table and mumbles among themselves about how poor this particular piece of evidence is and how that particular witness from the prosecution presents a poor image to the jury.

Yet, throughout the whole trial, they never ask any questions, they never raise any objections, they never call any witnesses of their own or engage in any public cross-examination in front of the jury, They simply assume that the jury, presented with only one side of the story, will see through all of the problems and come to the right decision on their own without anybody pointing out the flaws in the case that the prosecution is making.

Even though juries keep coming back again and again with verdicts of ‘guilty’ – still, the defense thinks that it is sufficient to do nothing but mumble among themselves about how good or how poor certain pieces of evidence is or how well it is presented, and justice will prevail.

Justice will not prevail until the defense team decides to actually put together a defense – which is something we do not currently have.

Will there be any advertisements broadcast in response to the anti-atheist bigotry we see in North Carolina?

There will not be.

The prosecution – the bigots – have full control of the court. In fact, they have the only team actually playing the game. When this happens, it is almost a sure bet that they will win – and keep winning – until an opposition team actually decides to start playing against them.

It is time for a change. It is time to realize that a public defense is very much necessary. It is time to realize that the bigotry exhibited in the campaigns of Elizabeth Dole and the Republican National Committee need to be met with a public response that respects the fact that there are experts in this field who know how to organize a public response – and a willingness to pay the costs that this type of campaign would require.

Either that or we, like Ebonmuse himself, choose to be tools to be exploited in the destruction of the things we claim to value – because we refuse to challenge those whose aim is to create a society in which anything an atheist values – anything an atheist is even associated with – is contaminated, unclean, and to be done away with.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Weak Response to Harsh Bigotry

Normally, I like the work that Hemant Mehta does at his site Friendly Atheist. On a recent posting, though, he gave a response to anti-atheist bigotry typical of those who . . . for all practical purposes . . . have come to accept the idea that they are an inferior people and that the bigotry is somehow justified, for the most part.

Elizabeth Dole's "Bigot or Senate" campaign now has the backing of the Republican National Committee, who has decided to join Dole in spending to promote anti-atheist bigotry in America. (See: Friendly Atheist: National Republican Senatorial Committee Puts Out Anti-Atheist Political Ad.)

Unfortunately, after presenting the advertisement, Mehta presents a response to it that has the tone and content of somebody who seems to feel ashamed that he is an atheist, who effectively endorses the condemnation of anybody who would dare to meet with leaders of atheist organization, and merely asks not to be judged like the rest of them.

Consider this statement:

Also, to quote two representatives from American Atheists — one organization and hardly the largest atheist group in the country — is misleading. Not all atheists agree with them. Most atheists could care less about those issues.

The first question that comes to my mind in reading this statement is, "Why is this important?" Why would it matter whether the American Atheists is not the largest atheist group in the country, or whether some atheists disagree with them?

It would matter only if there was something wrong with being a member of or agreeing with the American Atheists, and that as a result it is important to put some distance between Hagan and members of this group.

Later in the essay Mehta reinforces this view by equating a hypothetical association between Hagan and leaders of the American Atheists with an association between Obama and leaders of the Weather Underground.

To say that because she associated loosely with someone who might not share the values of most Americans, she must be stopped? That’s what John McCain was doing to Barack Obama with William Ayres. It implies a much closer connection than actually exists.

However, there are important differences between the American Atheists and the Weather Underground. To the best of my knowledge, the American Atheists have never sought to use bombs or other forms of violence to achieve their objectives. They have not advocated any form of harm be done to others. Yet, Mehta sees similarities between linking one politician to one group that uses mere words and private actions to present its views to the public, and another that used bombs and other weapons to do so.

Politically, I recognize that there may be some value between putting distance between Kay Hagan and those vile atheists. People are not going to lose their anti-atheist bigotry over night, so the best thing to do in two weeks is to admit that this bigotry exists and to argue that Hagan is not, in fact, somebody who would actually consider associating with those people. However, this is a question of political practicality. Not a question of morality.

I have written a few posts about how bigotry two major effects.

It has the effect of making members of the 'in' group dominant and assertive – capable of self-confidently going forth and asserting their superiority because they believe that they are superior and have a right to such things.

It also has the effect of making members of the 'out group' docile and apologetic. They avert their eyes, lower their gaze, sit back meekly and learn to do pretty much how they are told.

This is how it is possible for a dominant group to get millions of people of the target group into railway cars, concentration camps, and gas chambers. This is how it is possible for society to exist in which the slave population greatly outnumbers the master population. It is precisely because out-group membership makes one submissive and tolerant of abuse.

Mehta’s response shows the symptoms of the second effect. It implicitly assumes that the condemnation of atheists is somehow justified – that atheists are a lesser form of life and that there is something wrong with associating with them. This makes it important to challenge any claim that such an association exists – in order to keep the target (Hagan, in this case) uncontaminated.

Militant Atheists and Uncle Tom Atheists

I want to add that I am generally supportive of Mehta’s approach to the divide between theists and atheists. This is not an argument that there should not be a friendly atheist. That view comes from a false dichotomy that says that there are only two options, the “militant atheist” or an “Uncle Tom atheist”, and that one must choose to become one or the other.

There is a third option, an option that holds no hostility towards theists in general, but that is still willing and able to resist the view that atheists should be put into a subordinate position. It is a view that imagines atheists and theists getting equal respect, and that condemns any deviance from this standard in either direction.

Mehta, in this posting, missed the target of being the friendly atheist who holds, “Let us treat each other with the equal respect that both of us have a right to,” to being the submissive atheist who holds, “I know that we are undeserving of equal respect, but could you please see that some of us are not as bad as those other atheists out there and respect us a little?”

The reason, I hold, is because this is the type of behavior that bigotry teaches to members of the out group. He simply fell into the natural state for out-group members; the docile, submissive, compliance with the attitude that ‘you are inferior and unworthy’.

The proper response to the video from the Republican National Committee is not to condemn the advertisement for attempting to link Hagan to bad atheists - because, in fact, none of the people represented in the video are bad atheists. They are atheists – and, in the mind of the bigot, all atheists are bad atheists. We should not be assuming that this association between ‘atheist’ and ‘bad’ is necessarily or even often true.

In fact, this is the association that we should be challenging.

All that Needs to be Said

The Republican National Committee's video is no different than an advertisement that one might expect in the 1930s linking a candidate to Jews (particularly in Europe). It is no different than an advertisement that one might expect in the 1950s linking a candidate to blacks. It is a video that plays off of bigotry and prejudice. It is, in fact, an advertisement for bigotry – and endorsement of prejudice.

Certainly, if (when) bigots make associations that are worthy of contempt – such as when they link atheists such as myself to Stalin and Mao Tse Tung – it is legitimate to point out that these associations are illegitimate, and being used by bigot to sew fear and hatred. Here, it is important to argue that the associations do not stand – that there are a lot of atheists who do not agree with the policies of those leaders or their groups.

However, this response assumes that there is something worthy of condemnation in those people and those groups. Which, in the case of Stalin and Mao, happens to be true.

When Mehta made the arguments that he made, using the same arguments against the idea of an association with American Atheists and those who wish to see 'under God' removed from the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' removed as the national motto, this argument only has value under the assumption that 'American Atheists' and those opposed to 'under God' are like Stalin and Mao.

For all practical purposes, it assumes that comparisons between atheist leaders to Stalin and Mao, and between atheist organizations and the Weather Underground, are legitimate.

Which they are not. This is a legitimacy that should not be granted or assumed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Expect Obama to be No Friend to Secular Americans

If Obama is as smart as he seems to be, he will not be the secularist's friend during his term in the White House (assuming he has a term in the White House). He will either need to toss secularism to the wolves, or he will need to give up his office in four years to somebody else who will toss secularism to the wolves.

One of the observed facts of this campaign is the degree to which McCain's nomination of Sarah Palin galvanized the religious right to work for his campaign. It generated millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and millions of hours in volunteer labor, that he would not have otherwise had from the religious right.

It turns out that it had other ill effects. Palin's utter lack of experience, combined with her inability to form a coherent sentence on political policy, more than cancelled out the political advantages of her religious leanings. However, let us imagine for a moment that Palin was, in fact, capable of making intelligent statements about political policy – that she knew the Bush Doctrine, could cite numerous Supreme Court cases, was widely read, had travelled broadly as Governor of Alaska to set up trade deals with, for example, Japan, China, Russia, and the like.

There are a lot of religious conservatives that have these types of credentials. She happened not to be one of them. But that was a happy coincidence, not a law of nature.

I also want you to note the fact that the Obama campaign never attacked Palin's religious beliefs or her credentials. The criticism heaped on Palin came from forces outside of the campaign (or forces whose connection to the campaign were largely invisible). Obama does, in fact, seem smart enough to know that it would be political suicide to challenge the Religious Right – that his political future depends on his ability to appease them.

He will almost certainly continue to appease them through four years as President.

He will give them the Office of Faith Based Initiatives – making this a permanent part of the American political system. And he will, in all likelihood, increase funding – his way of paying to prevent the religious right from campaigning too heavily against him.

He will certainly condemn what I expect will be the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' opinion that 'under God' in the Pledge is unconstitutional. He will – probably with some politeness – assert in all likelihood that it is absurd to think that 'under God' in the Pledge is somehow oppressive. He will, by necessity, put his Justice Department to work defending "under God" and "In God We Trust" before the Supreme Court, as well as campaign publicly on what he is doing to protect these traditions. against us on this issue. And he will campaign against us hard enough so that the religious right will have little reason to doubt his sincerity, and thus have less of an incentive to close ranks and form a political army that will work against him.

[Note: Having a national pledge that equates one who does not favor 'one nation under God' with one who does not defend a nation 'indivisible, with liberty and justice for all' certainly goes a long way towards prejudicing the population against such a person, and there is a growing stack of evidence on how real and potent that prejudice is.]

So, I suspect that, in addition to giving the religious right the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, he will also give them the courts. He is going to choose his battles – and his battles will be on Roe v. Wade and forms of discrimination other than discrimination and the promotion of prejudice against atheists. He will toss the atheists to the wolves in order to save others who are more important to him.

The Religious Right will probably realize that if they keep the right to subject generation after generation of school children to the propaganda that atheism is as un-American as tyranny and injustice, that they will win on the other issues eventually.

I would like somebody to ask Obama the question – while there is still a chance to do so – "President Bush said that we need common-sense judges who believe that our rights come from God, and declared that these were the types of judges he would appoint. Do you share his view that a person who does not believe in God is, by that fact alone, unqualified to be a judge?"

As I said above, his personal views do not matter. What I am writing about here is the fine art of political manipulation. It has to do with being effective, versus being right, and a mindset that says that being effective goes a long way towards being right. He will console himself by telling himself about the good that he has accomplished. Though it was sad that he had to sacrifice some people (atheists, secularists) to realize these goods, the gains were important enough to justify the sacrifice.

So, what comes from all of this pessimism?

Well, actually, I think that we ought to live in the real world and make real-world plans that reflect the facts of the universe that surrounds us. What I have stated above is what I believe to be the political facts.

What I mean is that, if you believe in fact-based initiatives rather than faith-based initiatives, if you would prefer a society that did not teach prejudice that particularly targets young children, values science education, and would like to end the social barriers that keep atheists out of public office and positions of public trust, you need to take this message to the people themselves.

It is because our culture is the way it is that a politician like Obama will almost certainly need to sacrifice secular values in order to obtain other goods. It is because of the things that people are willing to invest their contributions of political time and money in that the politician who refuses to sacrifice seclar values will find himself replaced by one who does not refuse. It is only by changing the culture, from the ground up, that we can alter these political facts.

It means that it is time to stop thinking that the situation will magically correct itself. It means that it is necessary to contribute political time and political money to protesting the sacrifice of secular values.

Obama will almost certainly sacrifice secular values just to stay in office. Mumbling among ourselves will not accomplish anything.

Writing letters to Obama himself will be worth than useless. He will toss them aside and scoff, "Live in the real world, people. If I followed your suggestions I might as well simply resign and give my seat over to Huckabee or Palin because, by following your advice, I would give them an excellent chance of winning the next election."

The message has to be taken to the people themselves, and delivered in such a manner that even those who do not want to hear that message cannot ignore it.

Until we create a culture in which it is safe for a politician to support a secular government, we are self-deluded fools if we demand politicians to support secular government. Such a politician will simply be replaced with a different politician who does not have, or is smart enough not to let people know that he has, secular values.

We need to create a culture in which it is safe for politicians such as these to hold secular values, and we cannot do so by hiding our beliefs and praying that, without any effort on our part, a messiah will come along and do all of the hard work for us.

It is up to us to make the political and cultural environment safe for politicians with secular values.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Religion and "More Harm than Good"

Today, I want to spend some time on a point that I made in yesterdays post. It is a point that relates to something I read this morning – an article that suggests that the "New Atheism" argues that religion "does more harm than good".

This question – phrased this way – contains an assumption that is, itself, morally questionable. It suggests that the way we should evaluate something is to sum up all the good that it does, then sum up the harm it does, and accept everything where the good exceeds the harm.

However, this is a nonsensical way of doing moral calculus.

It suggests that if we have something that produces (to speak abstractly) 10 units of good, that it can then produce up to, but not more than 10 units of harm without any moral objections being raised against it. If it produces 10 units of good and 9 units of harm, then it still does not do “more harm than good” – which means that it is immune from criticism according to the standards listed above.

It is easy to see why an institution that does great harm would want us to use a standard like this. It is easy to see why an institution that does great harm, and great good, would want us to simply ignore the harm that it does in virtue of the fact that it does good. However, it is still the case that a competing institution that does a little less good, but also does significantly less harm, is a better institution. The fact that the first institution passes the “less harm than good” test does not save it from this type of criticism.

Yesterday, I wrote about Proposition 8 in California to remove the right of same-sex couples to get married. This is an example of an institution motivating people to behave in ways that are harmful to others. The claim that the religious institutions in this case do good in other areas is irrelevant. It is still the case that an institution that does just as much good as these religious institutions – but which does not contaminate the good that they do with harmful actions such as these – is a better institution than one that mixes good deeds with great harm.

On this, there is the related issue that faith is a good thing – that a person ‘with faith’ is somehow better off than a person 'without faith'. This, of course, is a prejudice. A person 'with faith' is like a person living his live in an experience machine – some type of machine that makes a person believe that she is living a wonderful life when, in fact, her life is a lie.

However, even independent of this consideration, we have to question the value of faith when it is faith that somebody else deserves to be harmed. The people who are most adamantly in favor of Proposition 8 – the people who put it on the ballot and contributed millions of dollars and countless labor hours to get it passed – are mostly people of great faith. However, the institutions they have faith in are institutions that are driving them to do harm to others.

The idea that we must respect another person's faith – when that faith causes them to come at innocent people with laws that do great harm – is absurd. The person who shall be harmed by an action has a right to demand that those who do them harm actually justify their actions. "I have faith that you should be made to suffer" simply is not good enough.

There is also the question – when we consider doing harm and doing good – of the difference between prevention and response. We typically see religious institutions responding in great numbers to those who are the victims of poverty, health problems, natural disasters, and the like. We often hear the claim made that atheists seem to contribute less to these types of efforts than theists (thus concluding that theists are 'better people' than atheists.

However, when we turn our attention from the realm of response to the realm of prevention, we see a huge difference between the contributions of atheists compared to the contributions of theists.

The theist recipe for prevention is to have prayer in schools, pass laws against abortions and gay marriage, and to prevent atheists from holding public office and positions of public trust. This, to them, is the model way to prevent every type of evil from terrorist attacks to plague to hurricanes.

Actually, this follows the pattern that ancient tribes used where, when they were faced with a anything unusual and potentially harmful – from famine to a solar eclipse – respond by identifying some segment of the population that needs to be sacrificed to the gods in order to win their favor.

If you listen to people talk, Proposition 8, and similar laws and amendments around the country, are the 21st century equivalent of identifying some group of people who need to be sacrificed to the gods, so that the gods will be pleased and grant our community good fortune. It is not as brutal and bloody as the silver dagger and the blood-stained altar, but it has the unfortunate effect of doing harm to far more people.

To make matters worse, they are using the government as an instrument to force this sacrifice on others. This is not a case of people sacrificing volunteers from their own religion to appease the gods and buy their favor. This is a case of people going to the government and getting a law passed telling others, "By law, you must submit yourself to being a human a human sacrifice to our God, who will not protect us from terrorists and earthquakes unless your well-being is offered up as a sacrifice to Him."

The atheist recipe for prevention, on the other hand, is to take measurements of nature, form a hypothesis of how nature operates that best explains those observations, use that hypothesis to make predictions, test those predictions, then keep the hypothesis that makes accurate predictions and throw out or modify the hypothesis that does not.

Then, using the power of prediction that they acquire from this method, decide what the results will be of particular actions and choose the actions that will produce the best results. The scientist predicts the direction that a hurricane will take, so that the reactive elements commonly associated with a local church simply has less to react to.

When we measure the ‘charity’ of theist and atheist organizations, we typically do not count the lives saved by the science that said, 'A hurricane will hit in three days.' We tend to count the polio victims who received aid on the side of the ledger, but we do not count the people who did not get polio because biologists (with a firm understanding of genetics and the theory of evolution) never got polio, or small pox, or (some day) malaria.

Malaria, for example, will not become a thing of the past by praying to a God to get rid of it. Malaria will become a thing of the past when people put into practice the things that scientists have learned about malaria through their detailed study of the physical world.

There are those who clearly believe that religion does do more harm than good. Rather than hold that religion might do 10 units of good and 9 units of harm, they would argue that it does 1 unit of good (perhaps) and 10 units of harm.

However, for the purposes of this posting, this dispute is of little consequence. However much or how little good comes from religion, we can do better if we can get rid of the harm. We can set the question of how much good remains once the harm is removed for another day.

Religious institutions that do harm certainly have a strong motivation to get us to adopt a “more good than harm” standard. It gives them a license to do harm, so long as they can assert that there is some good elsewhere being done.

However, we have no reason to accept this standard, and many strong reasons not to. Those strong reasons not to come from the unnecessary harms that those religions want a license to commit.

It does not matter whether a particular religion does more good than harm. California's Proposition 8 is an example of certain religions doing harm. Their "good to harm" ratio of a religion is probably going to be higher for a religion that does less harm than for a religion that does more harm. That is to say, the good to harm ratio is going to favor the religion that does not motivate others to support Proposition 8 than for the religion that does.

Morally, the question of "more harm than good" or "more good than harm" turns out to be substantially irrelevant. Regardless of the current ratio of good to harm, thta ratio would be better if only those religions associated with harm would simply cut back on the harm they do.