Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Embryonic Stem Cell: Bad Rulings vs. Bad Laws

I saw this article today:

Humanists Decry Stem Cell Research Ruling

(See: Humanists Decry Stem Cell Research Ruling)

I would like to know what they are decrying exactly. I am a major advocate of embryonic stem-cell research. However, I am also an advocate of judges reaching conclusions based on what the law says, not based on what this or that group wants the law to say.

The ruling that the Humanists are decrying in this case states that Obama's executive order allowing NIH funding for embryonic stem cell research violates a law prohibiting federal funding of research that results in the destruction of an embryo.

The ruling is an injunction against any use of federal money to fund embryonic stem cell research. It is not a ban on research. All existing research can continue as long as the funding comes from a source other than the federal government.

These humanists object that the ruling:

. . . is a step backwards for science, a likely disruption to important research, and this will cause real harm to many in need of medical innovation.

This may be true, if private contributors are not willing to step up to the plate.

However, it seems like these "humanists" arguing that judges should ignore those laws where enforcing them will have adverse effects.

If they are, then they are arguing a position that will substantially contribute to the end of the rule by law. To argue this is to argue for a situation where judges base their decisions on their beliefs about the law's merits - and it would be dangerous in the extreme to give judges that type of authority.

The types of arguments that would be relevant to decrying the ruling are arguments to the effect, "This is what the law says, and this is why these actions are not in violation of the law."

In this case, federal law prohibits the federal funding of research that results in the destruction of an embryo.

According to the judge:

[Embryonic Stem Cell] (ESC) research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed. To conduct ESC research, ESCs must be derived from an embryo. The process of deriving ESCs from an embryo results in the destruction of the embryo. Thus, ESC research necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo.

But that is not what the humanists give us. They give us political rhetoric that blames the judge - at least judging from the article itself - for the moral crime of doing his job.

The defense in tis case responded by saying that the term "research" in the original law is ambiguious.

The Judge reports that "research" within the law is defined as:

a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.

And that the work being done on embryonic stem cells is consistent with the core meaning of the term "research" consistent with the intention of the Congress.

In reading the opinion, the judge offered some good reasons for his conclusion. I would further argue that anybody who sought to defeat a law because its definitions are fuzzy around the edges would give us an argument for objecting not only to every law written, but every law that can be written. We will always have definitions that are fuzzy around the edges. If we are going to have any law at all we need a system where "fuzzy around the edges" is not a viable defense.

Like every law, this one violates the "fuzzy around the edges" test - but that is not a legitimate test. This law does not fail any test I know of that places reasonable and rational requirements on interpretation.

We are further told that:

The AHA is in support of any bill that seeks to strip the Dickey-Wicker Amendment of its prohibition against the use of stem cells for scientific research.

First, this is a lie. The law prohibits federal funding for this research, not the research itself.

Second, I agree, we should support attempts to remove bad laws that stand in the way of sick and injured people obtaining medical help that does no harm to any actual person.

However, this involves decrying the law on which the ruling is based, not decrying the ruling itself. The ruling, to me, seems quite sound and well-reasoned.

It's the law that sucks, not the ruling.

Or, if you are going to decry a ruling, let me know what the judge did wrong and that it is something OTHER than enforcing a law that the complainer does not like. It would be nice if the American Humanist Association could show enough intellectual acuity to tell the difference.

And, please, when a judge is doing his job, give the judge a break. Do not vilify judges for the crime of upholding the laws one disagrees with. Praise the judge, then change the law.

And while we're at it, let's see which of these research projects now need non-federal money and make sure that they get it.

Republican Candidate Michael Stopa's Anti-Atheist Bigotry Ignored.

One of the reasons why atheists are so politically impotent in America is because they allow statements like those of Republican candidate Michel Stopa go unchallenged.

(See: The Sun Chronical, It's a matter of faith

"I actually don't think Barack Obama is a Muslim. I think he is a nonbeliever," he said...."I have no specific evidence, but I think he's sympathetic to anybody who is opposed to America and American values."

So, all athiests are opposed to America and American values.

Imagine a candidate saying that all Jews are opposed to America and American values.

Or Muslims or . . . well, just about anybody.

That's it. Political career is over.

But atheists?

Atheists shrug and do nothing.

Doing nothing in the face of these types of claims is pretty much the equivalent of abdicating any type of political voice. There is a REASON why none of these other groups would tolerate a candidate making such a claim. Because they know the effects of this tpe of bigotry - they have tasted it - and they have learned to strike back whenever it appears.

There is only one legitimate response to this type of claim. It is time for Republican candidate Michel Stopa to step aside and leave the candidacy for whatever off ice he is seeking (Attleboro, Massachusetts) to a qualified political candidate.

And for any political party or organization he may be a member of to explicitly distance themselves from him and his brand of bigotry.

If you are looking for one thing useful to do today, it would be to make some sort of public statement - and by "public" I mean something that involves an audience of not just atheists - that any decent person would consider Michael Stopa's bigotry to disqualify him for any kind of public office.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Relevance of Studying Environmental Influence on Moral Judgments

Imagine that I present the following research proposal.

I am going to bring in people off of the street and pay them some small amount of money to participate in an experiment.

In this experiment, I am going to show them pictures of planets and asteroids and ask them, "What is the average surface temperature of that object?" And I am going to record their answers.

What makes this project interesting is that I am going to vary the temperature in the room, or the background music, or introduce some type of odor, and I am going to measure how their answer is affected by these variables.

For example, one hypthesis that I might test is that there will be a direct relationship between the answers that people give and the temperature in the room, or that music with a faster tempo will be associated with a higher estimate of the average surface temperature of the planet.

As another part of this research they perform brain scans on people while they conduct these tests. They want to see what parts of the brain light up when they are asked to report the surface temperature of a planet and see how changing the environment not only affects their answers but which parts of the brain are being used to provide those answers.

Here is the kicker: I am going to call myself an astronomer. I am going to report that I am involved in a detailed and important study of the planets that promises to yield important empircal findings relevant in the field of astronomy. Astronomy textbooks will have to be rewritten as a result of the scientific research I am going.

I suspect a few astronomers might protest, "Without commenting on how useful and important your findings are, you are not engaged in astronomy and you are not studying the planets. You are barking up the wrong academic tree if you want to call that research astronomy."

But I am going to ignore them. I'm not even going to try to offer a defense. I am simply going to continue on with my research and, whenever I report my findings, I am going to intruduce myself as an astronomer engaged in an emirical and scientific study of the planets and asteroids in our solar system.

Well, there are people who are doing this same thing when it comes to morality. They ask people to judge the morality of different actions and record the results. They measure how changes in the environment - from the presence of particular odors to the presence of chocolate - can affect their answers.

And they tell us that they are engaged in the scientific study of morality.

This is utter nonsense. These people are no more involved in the study of morality than the people in the first case were involved in the study of the planets.

If you want to study morality, you need to give me some way to answer the question of whether particular acts are really wrong or really right - not what people's guesses are under different types of conditions. If you are actually studying the planets then you are going to report the actual surface temperature. If you are actually studying morality then you are going to report on the actual rightness and wrongness of certain actions.

It's a simple argument to make. It is difficult to imagine a simpler argument. Yet, there is a group out there, made up mostly of scientists and atheists, who simply shut their ears to this argument because they are enraptured by the idea that they are engaged in the scientific study of morality itself.

With fingers in their ears, they shout, "La la la la. I can't hear you!"

Furthermore, in the same way that there is such a massive gap between how we determine the actual surface temperature of a planet and the effects of environmental influences on the guesses that people provide, we can expect a similar massive gap between how we determine the actual rightness or wrongness of an action and the environmental influences on the guesses that people provide.

We can expect the study of actual rightness and wrongness to be nothing at all like what these scientists are actually studying.

Of course, I am assuming that there is an actual rightness and wrongness to be studied. Actually, I deny that it is an "assumption". It is, instead, a rationally defensible fact. However, I do not need it to be the case that this is true to make my point.

If there is no actual rightness or wrongness to be reported, then any study of people's reports of rightness or wrongness is a study of optical illusions and self-deception. It is a study of how the brain causes people to adopt beliefs that have no correspondence with the real world - that are, in fact, false.

In this case, it may be interesting to study how our brain and senses deceive us into making these judgments, but when it comes to the actual rightness and wrongness of things, there is none.

Regardless of whether you believe that rightness and wrongness are real, there is still a huge gap between the study of the environmental influences on our reports of the rightness and wrongness of things, and its actual rightness and wrongness. One does not have to assume moral realism to make this distinction.

Furthermore, if there is no actual rightness and wrongness to study and report, then we still must recognize the fact that nature is giving us imaginary or illusionary justifications for killing, imprisoning, and otherwise harming each other. If there is no actual rightness or wrongness, then every exercise in "justice" is just another case like that of the mother who drowns her children to protect them from satan. We are killing, maiming, imprisoning, and otherwise harming each other for imaginary reasons - for reasons in the realm of "make-believe."

Or, rightness or wrongness are real.

But that's a different question. The question at issue here is whether people who measure the environmental influences on moral judgment are involved in the study of morality. The answer is to be found in the answer to the question, "Are people who study the environmental effects of guesses as to the surface temperature of a planet . . . are those people astronomers? Are they really studying the planets?"

Friday, August 20, 2010

Responsible Name-Calling

I have written in recent posts that some form of condemnation is legitimate. Somebody who makes harsh derogatory comments about the behavior of another is not necessarily "being a dick."

A lot of harsh and derogatory comments do not meet this standard, however. Some are bigoted or prejudicial. Others are meanness just for the sake of being mean.

Legitimate condemnation contains the following:

(1) The accuser begins with the assumption that the accused is innocent and that it is his obligation to prove guilt.

(2) The accuser defines the moral charges that make up the accusation. Whether he calls the accuser a murderer, rapist, child abuser, thief, liar, hate-monger, bigot, hypocrite, sophist, demagogue, manipulator, con-artist, or the like, he sets out the conditions that define that type of person.

(3) The definition of the moral charges being used must account for the implication that people who meet those conditions deserve moral condemnation - that people generally have real, many, and strong reasons to condemn such people.

(4) The accuser must then provide evidence that the accused fits the definition for the moral charge being made against him.

(5) From this the accuser can conclude that the accused deserves condemnation and, in fact, condemn the accused.

Another topic I have discussed recently is to call anybody who would be sensitive or hurt by the construction of mosque near the site of the former world trade center a bigot. Furthermore, I accuse those politicians, bloggers, and politicians who are expressing disapproval hate-mongering bigots.

It does not matter to me that polls show that over 65% of Americans are hate-mongering bigots. It would not be the first time in human history that bigotry in a community was found to be so wide-spread. The accusations still stick.

Step 1: I begin with the assumption that the accused are innocent and that I must prove guilt. Towards this end, I hereby present my evidence.

Step 2: I define the moral charges of bigotry and hate-mongering.

A bigot is somebody who engages in derogatory overgeneralizations across members of a group. He takes the wrongs or shortcomings (real or imagined) of a subset of a particular group and he tars the entire group with those crimes/failings. Holding all Muslims morally responsible for the 9/11 attacks is an example of making derogatory overgeneralizations.

A hate-monger is somebody who sells hate for profit. The profit can be in the form of cash contributions to a non-profit organization, readers to a blog, ratings for a cable news network television show, or votes or contributions for a political campaign. Regardless of the form that this profit takes, the agent seeks to obtain these benefits by selling hatred to a target audience from whom they can expect these types of profits or rewards.

Step 3: Our nation would be better off without hate-mongers and bigots. Both of these people waste community resources condemning or otherwise motivating people to behave in ways harmful to others. The members of the community being harmed certainly do not benefit from being harmed unjustly, and those doing the harming can certainly find better uses for the time and energy inflicting unjust harms on their victims.

Often, the harms that bigots and hate-mongers inflict on innocent people are quite excessive, making substantial portions of the population significantly worse off, as happened with the Holocaust, the genocide of the Native Americans, slavery, segregation, and civil war. Bigotry and hate-mongering should not be treated as moral misdemeaners.

Step 4: I actually demonstrated that people opposed to the community center are bigots by showing that it involves the gross overgeneralization of blaming all Muslims for the crimes of a few. Only a person, in whose mind "mosque" is associated with "9/11 attacks" in such a way that it is not possible for something to be a "mosque" and not be morally blameworthy for the 9/11 attacks could possibly be offended or hurt by having this recreation center near the World Trade Center.

It would make as much sense to say that the Catholic Church across the street from the World Trade Center should be closed because the people who flew the airplanes acted for religious reasons. We would consider it a gross overgeneralization to condemn all religious people for the 9/11 attacks and be hurt by the presence of a religious building - because, in fact, it is a gross overgeneralization.

We would not think it legitimate even blame the Catholics or the Amish if the World Trade Center were attacked by a rogue violent sect of Christianity.

When we blame all of Islam for the crimes of a rogue and violent subset of Muslims we are being just as irrationally bigoted as if we were to blame all Christians for the crimes of the KKK (which, as it turns out, is an extremely religious organization).

As for hate-mongering, there is clearly profit to be had in the form of public approval, applause, and even contributions in the form of cash and votes, going to those who oppose the construction of this recreation center. Where we see signs of profiting from making extravagant and exaggerated derogatory generalizations we have reason to at least make allegations of hate-mongering; hatred-for-profit.

Certainly, labeling somebody a bigot and a hate-monger qualifies as name-calling and criticism. It is not a nice thing to say to or about a person. However, the fact that a claim is unkind dos not imply that it is untrue.

Phil Plait: The Question Not Asked

A couple of posts ago, I suggested that Phil Plait, in his "Don't Be a Dick" speech, asked the wrong question for understanding the role of insult and condemnation.

(See: Phil Plait's "Don't Be a Dick" Speech)

The question that Phil Plait asked was, ""How many of you lost your faith because somebody called you an idiot?" He then went on to discuss the relevance of insult and condemnation when the object of criticism is a belief. In this, what he wrote was true and accurate.

I thought I should present the alternative question that he did not ask.

The other question I had in mind can be put in a form particularly relevant to this discussion. "Have you ever stopped being a dick because somebody told you to stop being a dick?"

From the responses I have seen to Phil Plait's speech, a lot of people would have to answer "Yes." They are reporting, in blogs and comments, that Phil Plait's speech had an effect on their behavior.

Over the course of my history, I can name any number of instances where praise and condemnation has affected my character. From ending a disposition to be a very poor sport when it comes to losing, to ending a habit of being late and thinking nothing of forcing others to spend portions of their life waiting for me, I can name specific instances where condemnation made a change in me. It did not affect my beliefs. Instead, it affected my attitude towards what I believed.

I actually remember one particular case of false praise I received when I was a young child. My father praised me for something in public that he knew I had not done. Yet, the result is that I acquired a love of that which I was once falsely praised for doing.

There is no mystery as to what happened here. My childhood self learned I could get genuine praise from my father for doing that which I was being falsely praised for doing - so I took up that form of behavior. That habit became a part of my character to the point that I now continue that behavior even though my father is dead.

To borrow a phrase from the 19th century philosopher John S. Mills, what began as a means to an end became an end in itself.

These tools of praise and condemnation allow us to influence the moral character of others, using praise and condemnation to promote affections for those things that are useful and pleasing to the self and others and promote aversions to that which is harmful and displeasing to self and others - to borrow a phrase from the 18th century philosopher David Hume.

In other words, there is a place in our social discourse praise and condemnation.

This does not mean that every act of condemnation is justified.

This is true in the same sense that the fact that a criminal penal system can be justified, it does not follow that all convictions and punishments are deserved.

This argument would not refute a claim that the amount of unjust criticism being put out by members of a particular group is growing. It would only refute the extreme claim that there is no place for condemnation at all - that all condemnation is unjustified and it should never occur.

So, in more general terms, the question that Phil Plait did not ask is, "Has your character ever been affected by an act of praise or condemnation?" The answer to that question would be a universal "Yes." And this would show that, even though it is true that a great many skeptics have gotten into the practice of illegitimate condemnation, there is a legitimate role for praise and condemnation.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"The Ground Zero Mosque": LYING hate-mongering bigots.

I have been avoiding the fact that the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is not a mosque but a community center with a basket ball court, swimming pool, cooking classes, and with the top two floors devoted to prayer.

I have done so on the grounds that I do not want to get into suggesting that an appropriate response is, "It's not a mosque, so then it's okay."

No. Even if it WERE a mosque, the protests against it amount to hate-mongering bigotry.

However, there is another relevant moral issue related to the fact that this is a community center and not a mosque.

It means that these hate-mongering bigots who use the term are lying.

They could not muster enough hate (and obtain sufficient political and economic contributions for themselves and their allies) by telling the truth, so they decided to lie.

They decided to package a community center as a mosque because this particular packaging - this false advertising - this "bearing false witness" - generates more hatred than the truth.

While I do not want to get into promoting the fallacy that, "It is a community center and not a mosque so that's okay."

I do think it is important to point out that, "The people we are protesting this are not only bigots, and the most public of them are hate-mongering bigots (people who sell hatred of a group for political or economic gain). A substantial portion of them are LYING hate-mongering bigots.

America deserves better citizens than this. Actually, everybody deserves better neighbors than this.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Phil Plait's "Don't Be a Dick" Speech

"How many of you lost your faith because somebody called you an idiot?"

Several atheist bloggers have embedded a talk by Phil Plait on how to promote rationalism where the question above played a key role in that presentation. Plait expects that most skeptics will say that they were not convinced of skepticism by being called an idiot and proposed that we quit using practices that do not work.

I suggest that Phil Plait is asking the wrong question.

The proper target of condemnation is desires, not beliefs. The fact that condemnation is ineffective against beliefs is not a surprise. Condemnation is not meant to be effective against beliefs.

The proper target of condemnation is desires. Praise and condemnation are used to affect what people like and dislike.

If the question is, "Should skeptics use praise and condemnation as an argument to try to convince others whether certain propositions are (probably) true or (probably) false?" . . .

Then the answer is "no". Actually, the answer is that this would be an absurd practice. Praise and condemnation do not provide any evidence that a particular proposition is true or false, thus they do not provide any good reason to adopt or reject that proposition.

In fact, using praise and condemnation to affect beliefs is itself immoral because it embraces the principle of unsound reasoning that people's beliefs should be affected by claims that have no relevance to the truth of falsity of those beliefs.

So, this is a practice worthy of our condemnation.

However, if the question is, "Should skeptics use praise and condemnation as a way of affecting desires - to promote aversions and affections that are useful and to inhibit aversions and affections that are harmful?" . . .

Then the answer is "yes".

In fact, there is nothing else to use.

In the same way that praise and condemnation absolutely fail to provide evidence that a proposition is true or false, pure factual propositions have no relevance to desires.

An evil person - a person who likes things that are harmful to others - who has true beliefs and sound reasoning - is simply going to be very efficient and effective evil person. Nothing that you can say to this person in the forms of altering his beliefs - in the forms of argument and evidence - will ever have any effect but to teach him more effective and efficient ways of doing evil.

If you wish him to be good, then the tools to use are not rational argument - they are praise and condemnation.

Now, it is important to pay attention as to what target you are going after.

I want to repeat that point because it is of crucial importance. It is vital to pay attention to what your target is - to what you want to accomplish. Because affecting beliefs requires a different set of tools than affecting desires.

If you are going after somebody's belief, then the thing to do is to present evidence and sound reasoning. Calling somebody an idiot does not provide him with a good reason to adopt or reject a particular belief.

However, when he shows a moral failing - a defect in desire - then it is time to cast aside evidence and sound reasoning and to bring out the tools of praise and condemnation.

Here are cases is which it is perfectly legitimate to bring out praise and condemnation in response to somebody else's behavior.

(1) When the person you are talking to lies.

You are having a public debate with somebody and he says something that is not only false, but you have good reason to believe that the other person knows to be false.

Go ahead, make the evidence available, and call him a liar.

It is not name-calling when you call somebody who murders somebody else a murderer, when you call somebody who forces sex on somebody without consent a rapist, when you talk to somebody who makes gross and derogatory overgeneralizations about all people of a particular race or gender a bigot, or when you call somebody who utters claims he knows to be false a liar.

(2) When the person asserts claims he has not checked and could have easily checked.

Let's say somebody claims that recession of the moon proves that the earth could not be billions of years old. Now, I am not talking about somebody asking a question. I am talking about somebody who is making an assertion.

This person is showing a moral failing. "Before you make these stupid assertions why don't you research them and find out what the facts are you intellectually reckless sophist?"

The problem you are addressing here is not being wrong, it is being lazy. Lazy people deserve to be called lazy and they deserve to be called lazy in public - and their laziness needs to be demonstrated.

"It would take you 15 seconds to find the answer to your question on the Internet. Why do you come here and assert that utter nonsense as if it is proved true when, if you had an iota of concern for the truth rather than pushing a myth, you could have found out the answer yourself?"

This is a perfectly legitimate response when a person shows a moral failing of laziness.

A lack of concern for the potential harmful consequences of one's errors - as demonstrated by a lack of motivation to check claims or reasoning supporting conclusions that have potentially harmful consequences is not a "belief" problem. It is a "desires" problem.

The fact is, there is no set of evidence you can provide - no sound syllogism of any form - that will provide a proper response to a lying, intellectually lazy hypocrit who does not care about the potentially harmful consequences of pushing nonsense as if it were truth.

Phil Plait asks the question, "What is your goal here?"

Sometimes the goal is to condemn lying, intellectual laziness, hypocrisy, and a lack of compassion over the potential harmful consequences of pushing nonsense. When it is, calling such a person a lying, intellectually lazy, hypocrite who cares nothing about others is not only true, it is perfectly legitimate.

I would like to close by calling the attention to the fact that the very title of Phil Plait's speech, which is taken from his closing argument, is an example of condemnation through name-calling. It is an example of the type of activity that I support, and which Plait - in a speech where he condemns its use - actually uses.

Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Taxpayer Funding of a Muslim Cultural Center

If there was ever a wrong solution to a non-problem, the Governor of New York has found it.

In order to prevent the construction of a Muslim cultural center and mosque to a "less emotionally charged location" he is proposing "providing state funds to help the center find another location."

(See MSNBC.com N.Y. governor may propose relocating Muslim center.)

While no just and fair-minded people has good reason to protest the construction of the cultural center near 9-11, every just and fair-minded person has good reason to object to being forced to pay for the construction of a Muslim cultural center no matter where it gets built.

It is the very essence of the principle of the First Amendment that citizens not be forced to contribute to the construction and maintenance of a church against their will. To use tax-payer money (money effectively extracted from people by force) for a religious project is to force people to make donations and contributions to that religion against their will.

The article reports U.S. Representative Peter King as saying,

[It is in the best interest of the Muslim community to do this] to show that they are serious about building bridges.

The only bridges to be built are bridges with bigots. A non-bigot has no objection to this cultural center and, as such, the cultural center as currently intended would be just as effective of a bridge as a cultural center built somewhere else because the non-bigot is not blaming all Muslims for 9/11 - only those who are guilty and those who cheered the ones who are guilty.

However, I would like to know how allowing Muslims to pay for a cultural center out of their own pockets is insulting and "opens old wounds", but forcing the victims of 9/11 to donate money to such a mosque is perfectly sensible.

Of course, we are talking about mindless, irrational bigotry here, so it would be fruitless to ask questions of the irrational bigot as if expecting him or her to make any sense.

Either way, it is not legitimate for the government to force citizens to contribute the construction of a cultural center from any religion. If citizens are so upset about this cultural center built near the World Trade Center, let them donate their own money to have it constructed elsewhere. Let them engage in whatever private agreement they, as free citizens, wish to negotiate.

It is also not legitimate for the government to put its hand into people's bank account to pay to prevent offense to a bunch of hateful bigots.

However, do not force others, who are not inclined to contribute to the construction of the Muslim cultural center, and not suffering from the bigotry that would make them offended by the construction of this cultural center near the former World Trade Center, to make contributions to religions and bigotries they do not share or support.

The Ground Zero Mosque: Exposing Bigotry

In order to demonstrate the bigotry inherent in the attacks on the proposed Muslim community center near the World Trade Center, I took the start of one of the pieces written in protest of this act and edited the text ever so slightly.

See: Pamela Geller: Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction

Now, let me know if you find anything wrong with the reasoning when we make a slight change that has no effect at all on the logic (or lack of it) in this article.

Let us imagine a Christian church being built 2 blocks from the World Trade Center, and somebody posting the following rant:

One might think that the religious community might be capable of some sensitivity, considering what a manically sensitive bunch they are about everything. Every time there is a religious attack (which is happening with increasing frequency), they start wailing on us infidels about religious sensitivities and anticipatory and imaginary affronts and insults.

What could be more insulting and humiliating than a church in the shadow of the World Trade Center buildings brought down by an attack done in the name of God?

Worse still, the design is a mockery of the World Trade Center building design. Religion took down those buildings when they attacked, destroyed and murdered 3,000 people in an act of conquest and religiously motivated hatred. What better way to mark your territory than to plant a giant church on the still-barren land of the World Trade Center? Sort of a giant victory lap. Any decent American, religious or otherwise, wouldn't dream of such an insult. It's a stab in eye of America. What's wrong with these people? Have they no heart? No soul?

We would, of course, and properly, have accused the author of making a gross and bigoted overgeneralization. Just because the World Trade Center was attacked by people who believe in God, this would not give just cause to condemn all people who believe in God of insensitivity for wanting a church near the World Trade Center.

Hate-filled bigots think in terms of these types of overgeneralization - either in writing such an article, or failing to see it for what it is and praising such an article.

The above, slightly edited rewrite is proof of that.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque

Let's imagine . . .

Well, many people are familiar with people who protest at funerals for American soldiers saying that each death is God's punishment for America's (rather limited) tolerance of homosexuals.

Let's assume that a group of people under the influence of those individuals takes things a step further. They manage to smuggle a large amount of explosives at some military event and end up killing 216 American soldiers and their families.

Now, 10 years have passed. Somebody wants to build a Christian church a couple of blocks from where this incident occurred.

However, a bunch of people - and politicians - are infuriated by this. They start protesting, any time they are near a microphone, about how insensitive those Christians are for wanting to build a church near such a traumatic event.

One politician says, "The First Amendment protects freedom of religion, but I think that the church should be built someplace else."

If any politician should stand up and say it is perfectly legitimate for Christians to build a church within 2 blocks of this event, they are accused of being insensitive and of "siding against the families of the victims" of this tragedy.

Immediately, we can see the bigotry that would have to lie at the root of these types of protests. The only people who could possibly have their sensitivities hurt in any way by a Christian church 2 blocks away from such a tragedy are bigots who think that everybody who shares the same general religion as the terrorist deserve blame for what happened.

When, instead, we speak to somebody who is a bit more civilized and less bigoted, that person is going to ask, "Why should the practitioners of this branch of Christianity be punished or held accountable in any way for something a fringe element of that branch of Christianity may have done." This person recognizes that moral condemnation belongs only to those who are actually guilty of a crime, and do not make derogatory overgeneralizations against a larger group that others apparently seek an excuse to hate.

We can see this bigotry in the fact that, if this fictitious story actually took place, a number of people would actually welcome a Christian church so close to the site of the attack. Not only would they refrain from making hateful comments about anybody wanting to build a Christian church near such a place, they would welcome it.

Well, that's because the church being built in this fictitious example is one in which the victims are prejudiced TOWARD rather than prejudiced AGAINST. That is the way bigotry works - creating double standards and imposing a standard on those that the bigot hates that are far higher than the standards that must be met by those that the bigot likes.

We can draw another analogy to these protests.

Imagine some Christians did want to build a Christian church so close to 9/11. Now, imagine a group of atheists getting on the air and complaining about how insensitive this is, that somebody would build a temple to God so close to the site of an atrocity committed by people who worshiped a God. Immediately, we would hear counter-protests against the bigotry of such a claim - against those who wish to brand all religious people with the moral crime of a small fringe subset of religious people.

We would hear this protest, and the protesters would be right. Any atheist who would make such a protest is, in fact, a bigot seeking to use an atrocity committed by a subset of people who believe in a God to promote hatred of all people who believe in God, without respecting the many ways in which their beliefs and attitudes differ.

In fact, we have seen these protests against the New Atheists who have tried to make this leap, and to condemn all religion for the moral atrocities of a few.

However, many of the people who so easily see bigotry when they are the victims have difficulty recognizing their own bigotry when it victimizes others. And this is a clear example.

The protests against the "Ground Zero Mosque" is the work of bigots, who want to over generalize the crimes of a few and use it to promote hatred of a much larger group - declaring all of them - every one of them (and their religion) unfit occupants of such a location.

The Shrillness of the New Atheists

I make a lot of criticisms of things I find in the writings of the so-called "new atheists".

However, one set of criticisms I find that I can give absolutely no merit to are those who condemn the "shrillness" of the "new atheist" claims.


In fact, it tells me something about the moral character of these individuals who make these kinds of claims. It tells me that these people do not care much about the victims of religious attrocities around the world - about real people killed, maimed and otherwise harmed, and forced to endure a lower quality of life for the one and only life they will ever have.

It suggests an attitude of, Don't concern yourself with the execution of an 18 year old because a Judge has decided, "He looks gay to me." Not at all. The real crime is this unspeakable evil of a "new atheist" being shrill in his protest of such actions.

Such a person may agree that executing an allegedly gay teenager or stoning a 13 year old girl should probably count as bad. However, it is the crime of shrilly condemning that execution that causes him to put finger to keypad. That's intolerable! We must speak up against such thing!

I have often wondered what these people thought of the act of shrilly protesting the shrillness of new atheist protests. By their shrillness they certainly show that shrill protests can sometimes be justified. What is interesting is the notion of what it is they think merits shrill protest, and what does not.

As I said, and as readers of this blog will confirm, I have some objections to some of the things that some "new atheists" have claimed. However, those objections have nothing at all to do with shrillness of their protests. In fact, I praise their shrillness. Shrillness is how we communicate the fact that we truly care about some state of affairs. And the harms that real people suffer as a result of certain religious beliefs are things we should care enough about to protest.

Imagine that are in the park. You witness an adult brutally attacking a child. At the same time, another adult shrilly protests the first adult's attack. Then a third person comes along and shrilly condemns the second person's condemnation of the attack.

First, I want to note that what this third person is saying by condemning the second person is that attacks on children are not serious enough to warrant protest.

Second, I want to point out the oddity of the third person's belief that it is worthwhile to condemn the second person's criticisms, but not the first person's attack on a child.

I would argue that the morally virtuous person would join in the condemnation of the attacker instead, rather than offer condemnation of one who condemns the attacker.

This is not a claim that one should remain silent when the "new atheist" makes a genuine mistake. Genuine mistakes deserve genuine criticism - but a genuine mistake is not criticized by attacking "shrillness".

For example, one "new atheist" claim I object to is the practice of making an entirely unjustified leap from premises about the moral crimes of "a religion" to the moral guilt of all who believe in a God. A sign, once popular among "new atheists" showing the World Trade Center buildings and the text "Imagine No Religion" provides just such an inference. However, I have only seen this image used once since I made my original complaints against it.

Some new atheists have taken to calling the act of teaching religion to a child "child abuse". I suspect that they like this term because of its emotional power. However, they neglect the fact that "abuse" requires a desire to harm children or a lack of concern as to their welfare. The woman who took thalidomide under a doctor's advice when she was pregnant and gave birth to a deformed child may have performed harmful acts, but cannot justifiably be condemned as an "abusive" parent.

A third problem concerns the tendency of some new atheists to ignore the fact that every atrocity built into scripture can be build into some moral theory or another that says nothing about the existence of a God. Sam Harris' argument in defense of torture in The End of Faith shows that a person does not have to appeal to a God to justify morally atrocious actions. Communism, Ayn Rand Objectivism, and moral relativism (or some of their more popular versions) are other examples where moral atrocities are defended without appeal to a God.

It is as much a sign of bigotry for the "new atheist" to focus only on the potential victims of sectarian irrationality (because it is sectarian) while ignoring the potential victims of secular irrationality (because it is secular), as it is for the religious bigot to ignore the victims of sectarian irrationality (because it is sectarian) and concern himself only with the victims of secular irrationality (because it is secular).

It might make some sense to say to the “new atheists” who make these mistakes that it is politically inexpedient of them to do so. However, I prefer to make the criticism that they are wrong to do so. The “political inexpedience” argument suggests that these are permissible errors when they are politically useful.

So, as I have shown. there are certainly things that appear in the writings and speeches of the new atheists that people can and should object to.

However, shrillness in defense of those being killed, maimed, and otherwise harmed by agents who give their actions religious justifications is not one of their faults. It is one of their virtues.

It is the lack of shrillness that deserves our moral condemnation in this case - and the condemnation of shrillness that deserves even harsher condemnation. Both of these options suggest a callous indifference to the victims of these moral atrocities.

The person who condemns shrillness on these matters is showing even more callous indifference than the person who remains silent.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

God Exists: Therefore, . . . What?

Since the New Atheists started publishing, there have been pundits patting themselves on the back as they challenge the thesis that there is no God, thus offering themselves as heroes to those who need their belief in God given some illusion of support and justification.

Whenever I read one of these articles that claim that God exists - or at least that the new atheists have not proven (using absurdly high standards of proof not required anywhere else in the real world) that no God exists – the question pops into my head:

God exists; Therefore . . . . what?

God exists; therefore all homosexuals must be put to death.

God exists; therefore no atheist is fit to hold public office.

God exists; so every mythology associated with the origins of Earth and all life on it must be given a status equal to that learned by science in school classrooms.

God exists; therefore the world is going to end in a couple of decades and we do not need to worry about the long-term consequences of our actions.

God exists; therefore there is no chance that an asteroid or gamma ray burst can destroy all life on Earth because God would not allow it, or God wants it to happen and there is no way for us to prevent it.

God exists; therefore women must live their lives in unquestioning obedience to their fathers/husbands and in a cloth prison over which he is the warden.

When I read these arguments I look for the author to tell me something of the implications of God’s existence and for them to demonstrate somehow that those implications are valid while the harmful and destructive implications are not.

Actually, what I am looking for are signs the author cares about the potentially destructive implications that others are known to attach to the proposition "God exists". I look for signs that, in knowing about these destructive implications people sometimes draw, the author shows some concern that they not be drawn.

Speaking only in terms of the logic involved and not about the character of individuals, implications of the form that we should be nice to people are no more nor less valid than those that advocate the types of destructions and harms we see around us every day associated with religious belief. No reason whatsoever can be offered for inferring anything good from the existence of God that does not also justify the inference of all of the harmful policies that are making people’s lives worse off.

In fact, the only sense of "God exists" that makes sense in those articles is one in which the God claim is one of the most trivial, worthless, empty, and insignificant claims imaginable - because it implies absolutely nothing.

Even the implication, "God exists; therefore we will live forever in an afterlife that God created for us," is an invalid inference. What is to prevent God from creating a universe without resurrection? Certainly it is not beyond God's power to create a universe where death is final.

On the other side of the coin, I have known atheists who hold that we are immortal - that our life energy cannot be destroyed and must go somewhere when we die. Some believe in reincarnation. Others believe in ghosts. One believed that future time travelers download our consciousness when we die and take it into the future where they do not know death.

So, God is not a necessary nor a sufficient condition for an afterlife.

Another invalid implication is: God exists; therefore, I am loved. Here, too, it might be the case that God exists who cares nothing about you. Instead, he laughs at the utter arrogance of those who assert; "There is a God, and He loves me." He laughs, sends another hurricane or plague to those who claim his love and then laughs again when his victims - like an abused child, comes crawling back on their knees and saying, "I'm sorry father for whatever I did that might have offended you."

Here is what I am looking for. I am looking for signs that the author cares about the harms and suffering that some will attempt to attach to the proposition "God exists" – a fact about the real world with real world consequences that any morally responsible author would be aware of.

If that author puts nothing in his article to address these concerns, others are justified in morally condemning the author for their lack of compassion – for their demonstrated disinterest in the welfare of those harmed by people who draw these implications from the premises they defend.

The morally responsible author would admit explicitly and up front, where no reader might be confused on the matter, that the "God" of his argument is a trivial, meaningless, empty and worthless God from which nothing of substance – not even the existence of an afterlife or the love of the worshipper – can be legitimately inferred so as to block any of the harmful inferences mentioned above. He would do this out of an interest in preventing those harms.

I read the articles and ask: What type of author am I dealing with this time?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To Know that God Does Not Exist

A member of the studio audience sent me the following question:

I would love to know how you manage to know that god and the supernatural don't exist. i am an atheist myself yet i believe(not claim) that god does not exist, but not claim that "god does not exist" is a fact. i am therefore an atheist agnostic and i would assume that you're a gnostic atheist?

I would love to know why, when conversations turn to God, people shift the meaning of the word "know" to something entirely at odds with the way the term is used everywhere else.

If I were to say, at work, that I know that the meeting will take more than an hour, I am not going to be jumped by co-workers asking me how I could possibly know that. Nobody is going to assert that, because of factors I have not considered or am not aware of, it is possible that the meeting will take less then an hour, so I am making a mistake in claiming to know that it will last more than an hour. Our regular everyday use of the word "know" is quite compatible with the possibility of error.

If it turns out that I am mistaken - that the meeting lasts 30 minutes because a key member has to catch a plane - then I have to retract my claim to have known that it would take more than an hour.

However, the point is that "know" claims in regular conversation are retractable claims. Whenever a person makes a knowledge claim in any conversation not having to do with God, it is with the understanding on the part of the speaker and the listener that the know claim might ultimately have to be retracted.

This seems not to be true when we talk about God. Here, when I say that I know that a God does not exist, I am accused of using the term "know" improperly unless it is an unretractable claim.

"You cannot justifiably claim to know that a God does not exist unless you are willing to assert no possibility of error that might force you to retract that claim."

Why is there this double standard?

"If I use the standard, retractable concept of 'know' when I talk about God, then the phrase 'I know that God does not exist' would be a true and sensible statement to make about myself. However, that would mean that I am an atheist. My friends and family would freak out if I were an atheist. In fact, all the time I was growing up I was taught to look down on atheists and view them as inferior who are beneath us good religious folks. I certainly do not want to apply this term 'atheist' to myself. Therefore, when it comes to claims about God, I am going to shift to a different definition in which 'know' claims are not retractable. Since it is not the case that I 'know' that God does not exist in the non-retractable sense (a sense that actually prohibits me from knowing anything at all, including my own name), I can avoid the label 'atheist'."

This description is not true of the person who sent the original question. However, it does explain why he has come to think that, when it comes to claims about God, we must use the non-retractable concept. It explains why he thinks it is proper to accuse me of claiming that I have non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist when I claim to know that God does not exist.

The other reason we have this non-retractable definition of "to know" when we speak about God is the theist reason.

The theist wants to believe in God. To do this, in light of what we see around us in the real world, she needs to set the evidence bar low enough that it is possible to get over it. In a universe with absolutely no evidence for the existence of God, one argument that a person can still use is to claim, "I am justified in claiming that God exists as long as non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist is impossible."

This form of argument is not logically valid, but it can be psychologically comforting. To the person who is afraid to let go of God, either for personal reasons or because this would lead to his being an outcast in his community of friends and family, this rationalization serves its purpose. This person can join his friends and family in looking down on those atheists who claim that God does not exist when they cannot possibly have non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist.

Of course, there are some theists who set the evidence bar even lower than this. For them, the evidence bar is not sitting on the floor, it IS the floor. These are the faith-peddlers, the people who claim that one can know that God exists without any evidence at all - that there is absolutely no bar to clear.

If these people were applying this standard only to beliefs that have no effect on others, then there would be little reason to complain about it. However, many of those who use the faith standard are using it to decide how they are going to treat other people, what laws they are going to vote for and against, and what politicians are worthy of holding power. In fact, many insist that the only politician worthy of holding power is one whose standard of evidence is as low as theirs - which provides a very dangerous foundation for public policy.

I am not saying that these are the conscious thoughts of individuals involved in these ways of thinking. In fact, as conscious thoughts they would fail. Rather, the way these arguments work in practice is in the form of beliefs grounded on emotion.

An individual experiences a learned aversion to the atheist label. Because of the discomfort of this learned aversion, he finds that he is more comfortable thinking that atheism requires a non-retractable definition of "to know". Because this non-retractable definition is comfortable, the agent adopts it.

The same is true of the person who is afraid to let go of God. She is more comfortable holding onto the belief, and finds that she is comfortable thinking that atheism requires this non-retractable concept of "to know". Because these beliefs are comfortable to her, she adopts them as being true.

For these reasons, we find ourselves in a culture that allows a retractable concept of "to know" everywhere other than when we talk about God, and a non-retractable concept when we talk about God. We are surrounded by such a culture because it helps people to avoid conclusions they do not like. It helps atheists avoid the stigma of thinking of themselves as atheists, and it helps theists hold onto a belief in God that they are desperate to hold onto.

I know that no God exists. I know it in the same sense that I know who my biological parents are and I know on what day I was born. It doesn't mean that there is no chance that I am wrong . . . only that I consider the chance of error to be remote.

The non-retractable sense of "know" we are supposed to use when we speak about God's existence has two major uses. It is used to escape the sigmatism that is attached to something that deserves no stigmatism worthy of escaping - the "atheist" label. And it is used as a foundation for unfounded beliefs that the harms and injustices one seeks to inflict on others is justified by faith - or something very near to it.

These are not good reasons to insist that people use such a definition.

They are not good reasons for much of anything at all.

The Sweet Smell of Bigotry

This morning among my usual visits I encountered a post on the Friendly Atheist site concerning a couple of people who visited the anti-Homosexual "Americans for Truth Academy".

(See: Friendly Atheist The AFTAH Anti-Gay-Rights Academy: From the Perspective of Two Who Attended, Day 1 of 3

In it, one of the attendees, Maria Pahl, wrote the following:

Quite honestly, I found that many of these people were not “hateful” in the sense that they don’t actively wish LGBT people harm.

I wanted to point out that this is common among various forms of bigotry.

The racist does not mean harm to the blacks. He simply believes that the races are not meant to live together. If only the black people and white people lead totally segregated lives that both would be better off. They truly believe that if homosexuals would only live the lifestyle and hold the beliefs they themselves hold, those homosexuals would go on to live richer, more fulfilling lives.

The sexist does not wish harm to women. He simply believes that if women stayed in the home and took care of the children and their husbands then those women would lead better and more fulfilling lives.

In extreme situations, having to live one's life wearing a hijab, never leaving the house except in the company of a male family member, denied any opportunity to pursue an interest or a profession outside the home, is all done for the benefit of the women. They are protected and cared for. In fact, this is billed as being the only way to show proper respect and concern for women.

The slave owner wishes no harm to come to the black person. The slave should realize that, in exchange for their labor, they get to live under a master who will take care of them and remove the trials and tribulations of living a life in which they would have to make decisions themselves.

Bigots need to preserve some sense of their own self-worth. To do this, they need to repackage their bigotry - to give it a look and a feel that would be comfortable with the bigot's image that "I am a good person." And bigots are quite skilled at this. Where a substantial portion of the population has adopted some form of bigotry (enough people to pass and maintain bigoted legislation), you have to expect that a great many of them have repackaged their bigotry in ways that fit in with the fact that they are regular every-day people.

There are lots of ways to cover up racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry - to wrap it in a pretty package and cover it with perfume so that one does not notice the stench of what is inside.

They are still bigots.

Oh, and atheists who are bigots are going to prove to be just as skilled at wrapping their bigotry in pretty packages as any other kind of bigot. There is a great deal of moral hazard involved in embracing the idea that, "If what I advocate falls short of forcing 'them' into the gas chambers, then I am not a bigot." The bar here is set far too low to fight most forms of bigotry.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Alan Lurie's Anatomy of an Angry Atheist

In Huffingtonpost, Alan Lurie has written a post on the Anatomy of an Angry Atheist..

In this condescending, arrogant, and ultimately bigoted piece of work, Lurie will present his theory on what makes an the nature of the angry atheist.

He begins with a meeting in which his stated objective was to defend the claim that

"It's important to realize that, in spite of the popular conception that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion - between, in particular, the theory evolution and the Bible account of creation - these two actually support each other, and can be easily reconciled." I said.

In making this claim, he reports that he was confronted by an angry atheist who insisted that:

The Bible was written by men, not some invisible super-being, and is simply a collection of superstitions and tribal stories, meant to control others.

We can leave Lurie at his word that there really was such a meeting with such a person and that this is not some character he invented in order to introduce his post (a technique that I abhor for its dishonesty but find all too common). The point remains that there is a fundamental philosophical problem with Lurie's conception.

It is not enough to show that A is compatible with or can be reconciled with B - because there are two ways that this can be done. One way is to claim that A is the same as B, while the other is to say that A has no content relevant to B.

One of the first implications of the first option is that if you claim that A has substantive content, and that substantive content is the same as B, then must also be saying that A is incompatible with not-B.

So, if the Bible has substantive content, and this substantive content can be reconciled with the theory of evolution, then the Bible must be unreconcilable with the theory of non-evolutionary creation. That is to say, it would be unreasonable to interpret scripture as saying, for example, the Earth was created in 6 days and that light came into existence after the Earth was created.

If, instead, you want to argue that scripture is compatible with and can be reconciled with that view, then you either have to give up the position that it is compatible with evolution, or you must hold that the Bible contains no relevant content on the subject matter.

The proposition "my car is red" can be reconciled both with the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism because it has no content relevant to that subject matter. However, any statement P that has relevant content must be taken to be incompatible with any statement that not-P. You cannot reconcile a proposition with its denial.

So, Mr. Lurie, are you saying that the Bible cannot be reconciled with the idea that the Earth was created in six days and that light came into existence after the formation of the Earth (which I hold is such an absurd claim it can only be defended by somebody who has completely abandoned reason and embraced utter nonsense).

Or are you saying that the Bible is void of relevant content on the matter, and that anybody who attempts to attribute relevant content to the statements made in the Bible is making a mistake?

Which is it?

In general, any time somebody makes the claim that the Bible is compatible with P, then ask them whether they are going to also claim that the Bible is incompatible with not-P, or if, instead, they are asserting that the Bible has no relevant content.

Because there is no sense to be made that the Bible has relevant content, that relevant content is reconcilable with P, AND, at the same time, that relevant content is reconcilable with not-P.

If we use Lurie's theory of reconciliation, we can reconcile any written text with any other written text. We can reconcile the Constitution with Marx's Communist Manifesto, or Charles' Dickens A Christmas Carol with Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. There is nothing said or written that cannot be reconciled with everything else said and written because Lurie's method of interpretation is fundamentally incoherent.

This is an ethics blog, which means that I have a moral interest to tie in with Lurie's irrationality. This rests with Lurie's decision to use this irrationality in a condescending, arrogant, and ultimately bigoted piece of writing against angry atheists.

It is arrogant because Lurie's posting is utterly dripping with an attitude of superiority over those atheists who simply refuse to recognize these simple ideas that Lurie has presented us with. "Those poor pathetic atheists simply cannot grasp that this incoherent babbling that I am engaging in is the ultimate in wisdom. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk."

If you are going to be arrogant and condescending then, please, accompany it with a sensible argument that is worthy of arrogance and condescension.

Ultimately, when Lurie gets to talking about what motivates these new atheists, he decides to present the thesis that they are ultimate childish and immature.

Like Jackson Pollack peeing in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace at a dinner party, or a little boy yelling "poop" in a classroom assembly, the New Atheists seem to want to think of themselves as bad boys...

Here's where the charge of bigotry comes in. Bigotry, as I have defined earlier, is the intellectual crime of making derogatory overgeneralizations in order to put down whole groups of people. That is to say, instead of writing that Lurie is arrogant and condescending, I decide to write instead that Christian compatibalists are arrogant and condescending, perhaps using Lurie's article as an example.

I do not make those types of claims because I hold that it is morally objectionable to make derogatory overgeneralizations. I have evidence that Lurie is arrogant, condescending, and bigoted and I address my conclusions to Lurie specifically, not Christian compatibalists in general. As far as I know there are Christian compatibalists who do not share Lurie's moral failings, and it would be unfair of me to assign these traits to them simply because there is at least one Christian compatibalist who is arrogant, condescending, and bigoted.

However, Lurie, it seems, has no moral qualms against making derogatory overgeneralizations. Instead of applying his claims specifically to those for which he has evidence, he decides to brand all "new atheists" - and to do so with smug assertions about his own moral and intellectual superiority.

This gives us all the evidence we need to also throw in the moral charge of hypocrisy. In the middle of an article in which Lurie condemns new atheists for lumping all theists together and and making derogatory claims about the whole group, he lumps all new atheists together and makes derogatory statements about the whole group.

If respecting individual differences is a virtue, and Lurie is such a great and noble individual, the why is not the case that Lurie is not respecting the possibility of individual differences among individuals.

I wish to state that some new atheists are guilty of these crimes. I have given examples myself and argued that they are representative of bigotry and hate-mongering. I have argued that being an atheist does not mean that one is more rational or morally superior to others. Convincing an evil person that God does not exist does not make him a good person - it makes him an evil person with one more true belief.

So, his bigotry is not to be found in condemning some of the things some new atheists have said. The bigotry comes from taking some identified wrongs and using them to denigrate a whole group of people as if they are all alike.

Lurie could try to escape this trap by saying, "By new atheists, I mean those mean-spirited atheists who make wildly inaccurate claims about theists."

Well, great. Then by "theists" I mean those people who hold entirely unfounded beliefs on the basis of "faith" and use it as a justification for social policies and private actions that do significant harm to others."

We still have a hypocrite here who allows himself to take certain liberties with definitions that he does not permit the people he criticizes to take.

Then, why are "new atheists" so angry?

Because the world is filled with people who are actively pursuing social policies with religious fervor that do a great deal of harm. And it is absurd and irresponsible to hide their immorality behind the mere presence of a handful of people who are not pursuing harmful social policies with religious fervor. What we need to do is end those harmful social policies pursued with religious fervor.

And it's not just strapping on bombs and flying airplanes into sky scrapers. It is teaching mythology in science classes, banning homosexual marriage, holding that no atheist is fit to hold public office, forcing women to wear full-body burlap sacks and forbidding them from truly living the one life they have, muddying the waters around issues such as climate change (exploiting the anti-science attitude that surrounds evolution), and the like.

But Lurie, it seems, would rather throw manufactured mud at new atheists than address these types of issues, and invent some other reason why the new atheists are angry that is easy for him to belittle and attack. Thus, actually, providing a convenient smoke-screen these other evils and harms.

That, I would wager, is why some new atheists are angry.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Signs of Life

Barring some tragic accident, I expect to see, in the next 6 years, a news broadcast announcing that scientists have discovered an earth-sized planet around another star with an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Meaning . . . the planet probably has an abundance of plants.

This doesn't mean forests and swamps and petunias. It could just be one-celled plants. However, the planet is chemically active in ways that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen on a large scale.

Within the next 6 years.

That's not a prediction, by the way. But it is not a guess either. I suspect scientists will turn their attention to the most likely planet candidates discovered in the next three years, and it will take another three years to collect and interpret the data.

In making this claim, I am referencing the work of the Kepler observatory - a floating infrared telescope build to detect planets around other stars. It is currently monitoring over 100,000 stars for some of the indicators of planets.

It looks for stars that "dim" on a regular basis as its planets pass between us and the star. In effect, the planet "eclipses" a small part of the star, causing the star to dim by a small but measurable amount.

The first 6 weeks of data from the Kepler Observatory has yielded over 700 planet candidates, of which nearly 150 are candidate earth-sized planets.

Some of these might not be planets. They might be sunspots - or, starspots. They might be just natural fluctuations in the brightness of the star. They might be extra-terrestrial pranksters playing tricks on us. There are other options.

On the other side of the equation, the methods that allow us to discover these planets also allows us to discover the possibility of earth-sized moons around some of the other planets. The planet might be too big to hold life, but the moons present other possibilities.

Of those that have planets, for them to have plants they also have to be the right distance from the parent star so as to be not to hot and not too cold. They have to be old enough for life to evolved. They have to have avoided the types of collisions with other proto-planets that could destroy life. It has to avoid evolving a species that would have turned the planet into a radioactive cinder.

But if they are planets or planet-sized moons, because those planets eclipse their parent starts, light passes through the planet's atmosphere to get to us. The gasses in the atmosphere will absorb some of that sunlight and, when we look at what reaches us, we should be able to tell if there is oxygen in that atmosphere.

Which means an announcement of the discovery of an earth-sized planet far enough from its parent star to have a comfortable temperature with an oxygen-rich atmosphere could be just around the corner.

Okay, maybe around two corners.

This, by the way, is the marvel of science. Try to look in a holy book or pray to some deity and discover whether there are planets orbiting around other stars - their size, their distance from the star, the chemical composition of their atmospheres. Some people like to say that science is a "faith". In fact, science is a reliable way of making accurate predictions of what is going to happen next. It works a lot better then entrails and the types of visions one gets when one has gone too long without food and water.

It also means one other thing.

If it is this easy for us to discover an oxygen-rich earth-sized planet floating around in space.

Then it is just as easy for them to discover us.

For quite a couple of billion years at least, Earth has been broadcasting a signal to the rest of the universe that flashes the sign, "Living Planet!", to anybody who can read the language of science.

Has anybody . . . anything . . . yet read the sign?