Monday, February 28, 2011

Gay Marriage and Definitions

I have a question from a member of the studio audience:

I'm a naturalist and I could not answer this objection to gay marriage. I think that marriage was a social construct, but he argued that since I believe that I can't confidently define marriage one way as anyone could define it. And if I can't define marriage I am not able to say there is any specific rights for it. Now, I still believe it to be a social construct, as that is obvious in itself. But how can I define it if it is one? How is my definition any more right than his?

Definitions do not matter in any sense that is relevant here.

Every definition within a language - without exception - gets its meaning as a product of social convention. There is no way to defend any definition of any term as 'the correct definition'. The only thing you can do is argue whether a particular definition fits the way that people generally use the term.

This is true of 'marriage'. It is also true of 'god', 'atom', 'planet', 'malaria', and 'social construct'.

It is very common, and very much a mistake, to take what is true of language and claim it is true of what the word refers to (if anything). There is no 'correct' definition of 'planet' - only the definition that a group of people decide to adopt. This does not imply that those huge rocks and gas balls flying through space are radically changing their properties each time astronomers change their definitions. Definitions concern what we are going to call things. It does not determine what they are.

Philosophers call this the use-mention distinction. There is a difference between using a term the way some group of people have decided to use it, and talking about (mentioning) the term itself. Planets are big balls of rock or gas (or both) flying through space. 'Planet' is a six letter word starting with the letter 'p'. Many of the things that are true of ‘planet’ are not true of planets, and many things that are true of the word ‘planet’ are not true of planets.

Often, philosophers show the distinction (as I did above) by putting inverted commas around a term when it is mentioned, but not when it is used. So, we can write, there is a difference between planet and 'planet', and a corresponding difference between marriage and 'marriage'.

Any talk of definitions is talk about the mention of a term, not its use. We can talk about the definition of 'marriage', or we can talk about marriage. Let us talk about marriage for a bit.

Marriage, as an institution, is a social invention. This means that it is a tool - like knives, computers, and cars – something that humans designed and built because it serves particular goals. We can tell how good or bad a tool is by determining how efficiently it accomplishes the goals that were our reason for inventing it. A bread knife is a knife invented for the purpose of slicing bread. A good bread knife cuts bread cleanly without tearing and is large enough to cut a whole slice at a time.

With respect to knives, it turns out that knives are useful for a lot of things. A knife useful for slicing bread is not so useful for spreading jelly. It works, but a different design will work better. It’s also not useful for skinning a dear or for cutting tile. Slightly different designs are best for those purposes. The result is that we end up with a lot of different types of knives that serve a lot of different purposes.

It would be absurd for anybody to argue that the slicing of bread is the only legitimate use for a knife and that nobody shall be permitted to use a knife (or to invent a type of knife) that serves any purpose other than the slicing of bread.

One could argue that knives are tools invented by humans to serve human purposes. However, this fact cannot in any way call into question the fact that different types of knives serve different human purposes, and that a knife well designed for one purpose may not fit the other purposes people might have for knives.

Now, so somebody might say that the term 'knife' is still limited to that which has a blade. You wouldn't call a hammer a 'knife' because it lacks those qualities that knives have.

This is true. At the same time, I have never heard anybody try to argue that the government should take a position opposed to the invention and use of hammers because they fail to meet the strict literal definition of 'knife'. That type of argument does not even make sense.

The institution of marriage, like the knife, is a tool that humans invented to serve human purposes. The type of marriage that works well for one use might not work as well elsewhere. In this case, it makes sense to design new tools that work elsewhere.

We can then argue whether ‘marriage’ is between a man and a woman the way a ‘knife’ has an edge. We can debate whether the relationship between ‘gay marriage’ and ‘marriage’ is the same as that between ‘butter knife’ and ‘knife’ or if it is more like the difference between ‘hammer’ and ‘knife’. Yet, absolutely nothing that we say in this debate is relevant to the question of whether gay marriage is a useful tool or whether it out to be permitted or prohibited?

More importantly, that debate is already over. ‘Gay marriage’ is already a part of our language. You can use the term in any number of places and people know what you mean. Pointing to an example of same-sex marriage and saying, “That is a kind of marriage” is a lot more like pointing at a butter knife and saying ‘that is a type of knife’ then like pointing to a hammer and saying ‘that is a kind of knife.’

So, the institution of marriage is a tool like every other tool. How good of a tool it is depends on how well it serves the interests of those who would use it. The design of this tool as it currently exists can be improved by making design changes that will serve the interests of homosexual couples.

Of course, many who are opposed to gay marriage will argue that the interests served by gay marriage are not legitimate interests. However, that is a different debate. It is not a debate that one can win (or lose) by noting the fact that all definitions are, in a sense, arbitrary or that the institution of marriage is a human invention where the quality of the design can be determined by the human interests it fulfills.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Censors and Thugs

An advertisement company has pulled an anti-abortion billboard that some people found offensive.

The advertisement showed a young African-American girl and contained the statement, "The most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb."

(See: Ad company pulls NYC anti-abortion billboard)

The reason that the advertisement was pulled?

A spokesman for Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising, Hal Kilshaw, said that while the company respects the right to freedom of expression, the decision to take down the billboard Thursday night was for "public safety." He said waiters and waitresses at a restaurant in the building where the billboard was placed had been harassed.

so, here's the lesson. If you want to control what people see and hear, the thing to do is to harass innocent people who have nothing to do with the message that you object to.

Certainly, this is not the type of behavior that we should be rewarding.

Which is exactly what this does. A group of people engage in the practice of harassing innocent people, and they are rewarded with giving them that which they desire. This, in turn, promises to not only encourage them to engage in this type of behavior in the future, but will encourage others to do so as well.

That's not going to make the world a better place.

I am not saying that there was no legitimate reason for criticism of the sign. The objection to the sign was that it "demonized black women". In a sense, this is true. It made the claim that the reason that these abortions were taking place was primarily due to the race of the person having the abortion - as opposed, say, to the income levels.

But, then, a sign saying that "the most dangerous place for a child of impoverished parents is in the womb" would not likely have had the desired effect. So, those who purchased the sign focused on race instead of income.

What I am saying is that legitimate criticism does include harassing the people who are working near the place where the message was displayed. that is not a member of the set "legitimate criticism".

In fact, it is a member of the ship "censorship".

If the actual intent of these thugs was to get the sign pulled down by their behavior, then they are censors. They have taken it upon themselves to use violence to determine what it is we may read.

Another possibility is that they were just thugs, lacking a common decency with respect to how they treat others, so, when they find something to protest, take their feelings out on the nearest person, innocent or guilty. This, in turn, happened to get the sign pulled.

Either way, we should not be catering to the desires of censors or thugs by rewarding their behavior. We do not need more censors and thugs (the effect that rewards bring), we need fewer. So, the proper response is to condemn the censors and thugs, not appease them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Psychology Today: Mommy, Don't We Love America?

Psychology Today has an posting on the Pledge that addresses factors that I have expressed concern with for quite a while.

(See Mommy, Don't We Love America?)

While many secularists have focused on the fact that it represents an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state, my argument is that a pledge of allegiance to a nation "under God" represents an act of praise of citizens of who believe in God and an act of condemnation of those who do not.

Specifically, it says that not supporting a nation "under God" is to be regarded the same as not supporting a nation "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It equates atheism and the like with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice.

As an act of praise for those who support a nation "under God" and condemnation of those who do not, the pledge creates in children not only a belief in God, but a desire to do so - an desire that reason alone cannot reach. It helps to generate the psychological discomfort some feel if they should start to question God, tends to give those who believe in God a sense of pride and superiority over those who do not, and tends to give those who do not a sense of shame and inferiority to those who do.

Also, as it says in the article:

Even more importantly, secular families feel that the burden of resiliency should not rest with the child, who simply comes to school expecting to be treated as an equal, but with the government, which has a duty to treat all children equally. "My child doesn't want to sit out while the rest of her class says the Pledge," argues Melissa, an Illinois mother of a junior high student. "No kid likes to be the odd one, the one who's different. She wants to participate like everyone else, but she doesn't want the government criticizing our family's religious beliefs."

It IS criticism of the parent's religious beliefs. But, more importantly as far as I am concerned, it is criticism of the child if the child should go along with the parent's religious beliefs. At the same time, it constitutes criticism of the child of religious parents who decide to question their parent's religious beliefs.

The option of participating, but secretly leaving out the words "under God" is no good either.

Most secular parents are not thrilled with such compromises, but realize that there are few better options. "By participating, even if you don't say 'under God,' you are validating the religious language, because nobody knows that you aren't saying the religious words," John says. "By standing and participating, you give the appearance of unanimity. It perpetuates the ridiculous idea that all patriotic people believe in God."

The message is still there. And those who participate, even if they leave out the words "under God" themselves, are sending a message to their classmates that they agree with the message. Their classmates see them as embracing, endorcing, and participating in the claim that all good Americans believe in God, an all Americans who do not believe in God are not good Americans.

I have argued that one of the reasons that atheists are so politically impotent in spite of their numbers is precisely because of the aversions to atheism that they learn as children, making them anxious, at best, about revealing this flaw to others. Like any blemish, they seek to cover it up - hide it as best they can - not because there is any risk of real harm (or, not solely for that reason), but just because they have learned the emotional lesson as children that atheists are lesser Americans.

Sitting through and not participating in the Pledge is no solution. It actually reinforces the message that those who do not believe in God are not good Americans, because they refuse to pledge their allegiance to the United States.

I would hope that, now that this subject has made its appearance in the public media, it will generate a more and deeper public discussion of these issues.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Scripture and Ways of Controlling Illness

Well, I've been suffering through a flu for the past few days.

It calls to mind what I consider one of the strongest pieces of evidence that religious scriptures are the work of mortal and ignorant humans, and not the word of a loving and all-knowing God.

A simple set of commandments that would have prevented huge amounts of unnecessary suffering.

Thou shalt boil a container of water for 30 minutes before drinking there from.

Thou shalt wash thy hands before preparing foods or when leaving or entering into the presence of somebody who suffers from disease.

Thou shalt thoroughly clean thy dishes and the locations on which thou prepares thy food with water that has been as hot as thou can stand.

Ah, but all of these have to do with the killing of bacteria . . . which, though an all-knowing and all-loving God may have created, no human could have known about unless the all-knowing God were to tell him about such things.

Yet, the Gods seemed to be as ignorant of these things as the people were. Perhaps, this is because a person who authors fiction cannot, in fact, create a character that is smarter than himself.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Accidentally Deleted Comments - In God We Trust

I am afraid that I accidentally deleted three comments. I hit "delete" instead of "publish" in the comments moderation screen, and I do not know how to get them back.

However, I have copies of their text, so let me post them here.

Mike Gantt

Because you infer more and different meaning in the words than most people do. Thus your outrage is fueled to some degree by meaning you have superimposed on the phrase. Others who read the words without the same inference won't have the same reaction.

Well, I at least have a theory. It takes a set of observations about the status of atheists. It explains it in part in terms of learned desires and aversions acquired through the praise and condemnation, which has it's greatest influence on young children. It identifies the Pledge and Motto as praising those who trust in God and who support a nation under God, while condemning as unAmerican those who do not.

One can question whether the Pledge and Motto can have these effects. However, that only causes me to ask where these effects are coming from. If you have a better theory, let's hear it, and decide from that theory how best to alter those effects.

Just consider what other facts would have to be true of a country where the majority of the people found a pledge of allegiance to "One white nation" to be unworthy of challenge. I suspect it would be a nation where a black person running for office would have to buck a substantial portion of the population saying, "People shouldn't be bating for you. You are not white."

Tell me why it must be considered wrongheaded to argue that a similar set of truths apply in a society that holds "one nation under God" to be unworthy of challenge.

Mike (A different Mike)

Not if accepting the fact that the motto means very little and the act of removal means a great deal. In a society in which "God" is used to describe everything from Jesus' dad, to an elephant with 6 limbs, to Eddie Van Halen, I'm not sure this is as big a deal as you seem to think. Working hard to take the motto off our currency would be a slap in the face to the majority and leaving it causes no real harm.

Obviously, adding 'In Jesus We Trust' would go down without the help of any group since it would be unconstitutional...even in a country with a HUGE Christian fact, it's interesting to me that, while the self-identification as 'Christian' continues to decline (about 70-75% now) support for the motto holds steady at 90%.

That tells me that very few hold the view that its inclusion is outrageous.

I live in a deeply red state and I have no problem telling strangers in a bar that I'm atheist. I've had people say they are concerned for my soul, not in a condescending way, the way you'd tell a person that you care about them. Their intent is only kindness. It doesn't matter if I think it's silly, they're trying to be nice.

As for comparing our beliefs to the holocaust, slavery and suffrage...oh boy. This country does a lot more stuff that actually hurts people and you're freaked out over something that really hurts nobody - and many find indispensable...this is why nobody takes us seriously. I used to think this blog was about the philosophy of ethics without fear of final judgment...I'm starting to see it as the atheist Glen Beck.

I've never been labeled by anyone as unpatriotic or un-American (even in TEXAS!). Maybe there's something else about you that's bothering the people you run in, perhaps, telling a black person you feel the sting of slavery since you are forced use currency featuring a choice of words you don't like.

Use a debit card. You can even put your own picture/phrase on many of them...

Yes, few hold the position that the current Pledge and Motto is outrageous. however, this is an ethics blog concerned with how things ought to be held, not a sociology blog concerned with how things are held. In fact, one of my arguments has been to note how frequently there has been a break between how various forms of discrimination are held versus how they should have been held, and to argue that attitudes testes the Pledge and the Motto represent just one more break.

As for the accusation that I am comparing "our beliefs to the Holocaust, slavery, and suffrage", this is a very common form of rhetoric, principally used to try to change the subject. If I were to say that a fusion bomb works like the sun, you can say, "comparing a fusion bomb to the sun! Oh boy! The sun is orders of magnitude more powerful than a fusion bomb!" Your statement would be true - and entirely irrelevant as it missed the point by a country mile.

As for your claim to have never been labeled unpatriotic un-American, run for public office. Polls show that a majority of people hold that Atheists least share American values - whether they have said it to your face or not.

If you want to show that these practices are socially impotent, then give me evidence. Show me a society in which the motto is to trust in God (or anything relevantly similar) where an atheist (or a member of the target group in general) has just as good a chance of getting elected into public office as a theist (or a member of the select group).

Show me a society with a pledge to one nation under God where the people do not use a willingness to say the Pledge as a defacto religious test for public office. Show me how, in spite of there being such a pledge, it is inconceivable that people will raise it as an objection to a person's candidacy that the candidate does not say the Pledge.


While I agree (very much) with your insightful comments, I resent your redirection of the thread back to an appropriate discussion of the relevant topic. How am I going to be able to successfully hijack a thread onto my favorite topic, namely me? I find this tactic of yours disrespectful and shrill. Typical atheistic ploy.


Humor aside, it is refreshing for me to find someone actually thinking seriously about the psychodynamics of atheism as a political movement - the topic seems to be anathema on other boards, with torches and pitchforks quickly assembled among cries of "Down with the framers!"

I think there is a form of Stockholm Syndrome in the atheist community, which seems in line to what you have said. I really do think we need our own beat cop on patrol much along the lines of Bill Donohue, except with integrity. And less foam. The successful strategy of cleaning up NYC by enforcing a zero tolerance policy for minor infringements comes to mind.

As I am currently unemployed, and noting that Mr. Donohue pulls in a a cool annual $300k for spearheading the efforts of a "League" that consists of himself, his laptop and a cat, I would be interested in the position as it seems I have real trouble pulling myself away from the keyboard as it is.

Friday, February 11, 2011

In God We Trust - The Outrage That It Deserves

Yes, I am going to belabor this point, because it is a point that deserves to be belabored.

Imagine the social reaction we would see to an attempt by Congress to adopt the motto, "If you are not white, you are not one of us," or even, "A person who has not accepted Jesus as his lord and savior is not a true American."

It would be considered outrageous.

And yet the motto, "If you do not trust in God, you are not one of us," has nearly universal assent, and even gets support from members of the group targeted as "not one of us".

Let's accept this one fact. "We trust in God" implies - and is meant to imply - "If you do not trust in God, then you are not one of us." It is meant to cast out - to exclude - those who do not trust in God.

With respect to the alternative proposals above, I suspect that if the Jesus alternative above were proposed (and there are some who would almost certainly propose it), we would be dependent on the Jews and the Muslims to see to its defeat. Atheists, in spite of their larger numbers, are too politically impotent to make a useful contribution.

We should ask, as a matter of intellectual curiosity if for no other reason, why this is the case.

In doing so, I would like to note that we see a number of similar cases in human history. Why did so few Jews resist the holocaust? How do you get such a large group of people to accept a status of 'slave' and obey masters they could clearly overpower? Why did women, for thousands of years (through the present, in some parts of the word), accept a position of second-class citizen?

I have heard many say, "If I had been a Jew in Nazi Germany, they would not have gotten me without a fight."

Actually, they probably would have.

If you had been a Jew, growing up in that time and having those experiences, it is quite probable that you would have, in fact, walked into the cattle car at the train station, walked into the concentration camp, and walked into the gas chamber. Perhaps you would not have. But, then, some Jews at the time did not do that either.

If you had been a black person captured in Africa and shipped to America, chances are that you would have worked you master's plantation for the rest of your life, or until the Union army had moved through and freed you.

As a black person in Birmingham in 1950 you would have almost certainly walked to the back of the bus. And, as the bus driver moved the sign that marked the line between "white" and "colored" seats to make room for more white passengers, you almost certainly would have given up your seat.

If you had been born a woman in 1700, you would not only have failed to feel burdened by your exclusion from politics, you would have likely protested any attempt to change the status quo.

If you had been born female into a conservative Muslim culture, you would likely not only accept your status as the virtual property of your husband or father, you would be outraged at your daughter if she showed any signs of rebellion.

And now, as an atheist in America, you find yourself unburdened by a nation that declares, not only as one of its principle but as its motto, "Since you do not trust in God, you are not one of us."

Because your lack of trust in God makes you "not one of us", you are virtually excluded from holding any elected office or office of public trust. Your unwillingness to say the Pledge of Allegiance to a nation "under God" is used as a de facto religious test for public office. Your status as atheist is widely equated with being "unpatriotic" or "immoral" to the degree that national polls identify atheists as the group that least shares the respondent's values as an American. Where you are denied custody of your children in custody disputes, which is only one symptom of a culture that equates "atheist" with "immoral" and "unpatriotic."

We have here an act that warrants as much outrage as a declaration that the national's motto be, "We are white people," or "You are not a true American unless you are Christian." Yet, it gets only a fraction of the outrage that it deserves.

Why is that?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

SCA vs House Resolution 13 - In God We Trust

The Secular Coalition for America has designed a letter to be sent to representatives to oppose House Resolution 13, which endorses the national motto, "In God We Trust".

(See: SCA's Letter to Members of the House Judiciary Committee -- Feb. 4, 2011)

I do not think that a team of the best marketing minds in America could have designed a more impotent and ineffective communication.

Let us be honest about the intent and effect of this legislation. The people who favor it do so because it constitutes an official message from the government of the United States to the people that citizens who trust in God are more acceptable than those who do not.

The message naturally appeals to those who trust in God. They relish being officially recognized by this government as its preferred citizens.

WE trust in God. Do you want to be one of us? Then trust in God. Do you not trust in God, then you are not one of us.

A rich history of discrimination does not provide an argument in its defense. The fact that I can find quotes from the Founding Fathers defending the inferiority if women and blacks would not serve as an argument in favor of discrimination against women and blacks. A law referring to these in a list of "Whereas" clauses would not yield the conclusion that continued discrimination is legitimate. Nor is the fact that the government itself participated in these practices a legitimate defense of the claim that it continue to do so.

As you know, the phrase, "all men are created equal" was approved by a body where a substantial portion of its members owned slaves. Many who did not own slaves still approved of the practice. Only a minority disapproved.

Certainly they held to very admirable ideals. Yet, they were human, and, in practice, often fell short of their own principles.

Consequently, when we look back on their accomplishments, we sometimes find that their principles and their practices take two different routes. When they do, we are forced to make a choice. Are we going to endorse their principles and choose a more consistent set of practices? Or are we going to follow their practices and abandon their principles?

In principle . . . in principle . . . is the message that the government finds those citizens who trust in God more acceptable than those who do not a mark of good government?

Remember, the Founding Fathers adopted its principles regarding church and state from what, to them, was recent history. They had learned from bitter experience that a government that endorses one religion over others leads to a nation soaked in blood and violence.

If a government can brand citizens as unacceptable based on a lack of belief in God - if we do not accept in principle that this is a bad idea - then the government may also, in principle, brand citizens as unacceptable if they do not accept Jesus as their lord and savior, or if they fail to recognize that there is only one God and Mohammed as His prophet.

Worse, this act endorses the claim that it is legitimate for a government to divide its citizens into two classes - a superior class that trusts in God and an inferior class that does not. It endorses the practice of raising this form of discrimination to the level of national motto. This says to the world, "Of all of the things we value - of all of the things that identify us as Americans - we hold the principle of dividing citizens into classes based on their religious beliefs to be the most important."

In principle . . . In principle . . . Does this mark America as a great society?

This motto, "In God We Trust", does not come from the founding fathers. They gave us a different motto. They gave us the motto, E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. From many states, one nation. From many people, from many cultures, one nation. From those who trust in God, and from those who do not, one great nation.

The founding fathers opted for a national motto that aimes to unite Americans. The legislature today prefers a motto that divides Americans.

Nothing could be clearer. Nothing could be more obvious. The intent of "In God We Trust" is right there on its face for all to see - to cleave the nation into two parts, "we" who trust in God, and "they" who do not. "We" divided from "They". Us versus "Them".

Can you truly believe that this is what the Founding Fathers, on their best days, if they were to fully embrace in practice the principles on which they sought to build our nation - would have wanted? One nation . . . divided between 'we' and 'they' on religious grounds, officially endorsed by the government as its greatest value?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Obligation to Obey the Majority

A member of the studio audience wrote in response to my objections to "under God" and " in God we trust" that....

Just as you see harm to children and adults if the words are kept, i see harm to children and adults if the words are dropped. Yet we live in a democracy. Are we not bound to live by the will of the majority, for good or for ill?"

I find that there are a lot of people who seem to think that living in a democracy means that it is somehow morally impermissible to say that the majority is wrong. Telling the majority, “You are acting unjustly,” or “You are making a mistake” is cast as “anti-democracy”.

Nowhere in my post did argue for violent opposition to the will of the majority. I argued for an active campaign to convince the majority that their position is both factually and morally objectionable.

Using “We live in a democracy” against these types of claims is saying, "the majority has a moral permission to ignore those arguments and practice business as usual."

Indeed, the commenter begins by noting that there is a difference of opinion, ignoring the fact that one of us has presented evidence for his opinion. The other seems to be writing from the perspective that all evidence is irrelevant and all opinion is equally well founded

Yet, if it is true that all opinion is equally well founded, then what justifies drawing any conclusion at all? Such a person says, in fact, "A is as likely as B; therefore A"

But shouldn't the inference be, "A is as likely as B; therefore, I withhold judgment?"

We live in a democracy. That means that, unless the majority gets so tyrannical that they vote the minority into slavery or death camps, we have an general obligation to peacefully obey the law. But this does not argue that the minority must not object to the law. It does not violate the principle of democracy for the minority to say to the majority, “Your rule is harmful or unjust, and you should change it.”

Nor does it argue that the majority has a moral permission to plug it's ears against such arguments and shout, "I refuse to listen to or respond directly to your objections. Our position of power gives us the right to dismiss, by that reason alone, any objections you may raise against our rules and decisions. We are the majority. We gave the power. Nothing else matters."

In fact, the answer, "Because we are the majority and we said so," not only violates the majority's obligation to provide good reason in defense of their decisions, it is condescending to the minority as well. Perhaps not intentionally condescending, but condescending nonetheless.

It is no different than a parent saying to a child, "Because I said so." The majority, even in exercising their power, still have an obligation to treat the minority with the respect due competent adults and not like children.

While some members of the majority my well adopt this attitude, among a population of generally fair and just individuals, it will be rare, this attitude will belong to a very small minority.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Real Athiest Worries

I am once again treated to the view that real atheists do not worry about such things as "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or "In God We Trust" posters in classrooms and on the money.

If true, it shows that real atheists are not as bright as they claim to be.

The function of these acts is to use praise and condemnation to create in children not just a belief in God, but a desire to believe in God and an aversion to the alternatives. It emotionally links belief in God with acceptance, membership in the community, and the corresponding sense of security that young children have evolved dispositions to crave.

The effects of an emotional belief in God include developing a belief resistant to reason, and a great deal of psychological trauma if one should ever come to question God. It is to create people who view atheists not only as having different view of the world, but to view them as a threat - on an emotional level. Atheism and atheist ideas are to make them feel uneasy and apprehensive. The mere existence of atheists sets off emotional alarms independent of all reason. They are "other" - outside of the community. They are not one of us. They are against us.

Would you deny that "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" is meant to promote an emotional attachment to Union, liberty, and justice - and aversions to rebellion, tyranny, and injustice?

One does not need to actually get these acts repealed to fight these effects. It is useful just to challenge them - particularly in the presence of children. Children who know that there are those who question the condemnation of those who do not support a nation 'under God' and who do not trust in God should have some effect on allowing them see that it is permissible to adopt these attitudes. The emotional link is weakened.

If, instead, you ignore these acts as trivial, you help to lock in the political and social impotence of atheists for yet another generation.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Is This a Terrorist?

Would you call this individual a "terrorist"?

This agent does not like to get his hands dirty. He does not blow things up himself. Instead, he turns on Fox News every day and waits for news that a terrorist act has taken place. An airplane blows up, a bomb goes of at a concert, a nuclear warhead goes off in a major city.

Instantly, he sends out a message claiming responsibility. "My organization's leaders ordered this attack. His followers executed it. Furthermore, if you do not meet my organization's demands we will do more of the same."

His message includes some vague threats that - that failure to meet these demands will result in some future bomb going off.

He is using terror as a political weapon. This sounds like a terrorist.

Well, what is the difference between this person and the religious leader who turns on the news, hears a report of some natural disaster, then releases a statement saying, "My boss God did this and, unless you meet our demands, he will do more of the same?"

The difference might be intent. Terrorist above knows that he is lying. But would he be less of a terrorist if he believed he served a boss who was responsible for those attacks? Would he be less of a terrorist if he really did serve such a boss?

No. He can find no escape in that direction.

Now, what if the terrorist boss gives a message to a random person saying, "I am going to cause some horrible thing to happen. When it happens, you release this message."

Well, that messenger is not, himself, a terrorist.

That is, not until the messenger declares himself a free and willing servant of the man who gave him the message. An attitude of shock and horror that somebody would use such tactics and the most reluctant cooperation would free him of the accusation. Loyal admiration and eager obedience does not.

These are the conclusions that follow if such a leader actually exists and gave a message to our agent. Nothing changes for the follower if the leader is imaginary. At best, the eager messenger can get off with a plea of "Not guilty by reason of insanity." at worst, his eagerness to serve such a boss, whether real or imaginary, leaves him, "Guilty as charged."

Remember, I am talking here of the willing and eager servant - a messenger - of a boss who would use weapons of mass destruction (earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, plague, floods, drought) as a political tool.

Would you call that messenger a terrorist?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Australia Prime Minister Gillard at Fault for Cyclone

Apparently, the fact that a category 5 cyclone (Australian for hurricane) has hit Australia is because the country has an atheist prime minister Julia Gillard.

(See: Cyclone no time for atheist PM)

This is not an innocent mistake. This is vicious and malicious hate-mongering. It's symptomatic of a group of people having so much hatred in them that they seek to blame others for major tragedies beyond the scope of a standard serial killer or arsonist.

Even if those who make such claims actually believe them, this provides no defense against these charges. We can still ask WHY they have decided to believe these things, particularly in the face of a total lack of evidence as support.

We can find the answer in the fact that people who make these types of claims WANT to believe them. They ACHE for these propositions to be true. So, without a shred of evidence, they adopt the position that these types of claims ARE true.

But this fact shows these people to be moved - even compelled - by deep hatred.

A person not so motivated by hate would give the accused the benefit of the doubt. He would say, "I am not going to believe this of them until driven to that conclusion by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." Because there is no evidence, a fair and just individual would not be driven to such a conclusion. Yet, the individual who goes that direction anyway - who embraces such a conclusion - must be somebody who loves the conclusion enough to embrace it so tightly.

We also have reason to ask not only how hateful and spiteful the speaker must be to adopt such a belief, but how hateful and spiteful that person's god must be to act the way the speaker describes.

What type of person is it who would destroy whole regions of the country - kill people, including young children - and drive others into poverty and suffering - because Australia has a prime minister.

There is no God that exists but that which comes out of the imagination of their believers. When an individual invents a God, this tells us more about the inventor than it does about God.

The person who invents a God who would impose so much suffering on people for such a petty reason is, himself, somebody who would would impose as much suffering on people for such a pretty reason. When he says, "God did this for the reasons I mention," he is saying, "If I were God, then I would do this for the reasons mentioned."

Many atheists will freely draw the conclusion that the God who would do such a thing is no saint. Yet, too many will stop short of the valid implication that the individual who would invent such a God - who would call such dispicable evil "good" and "just" - is just as evil as the God he invents. The inventor is endorsing such a vicious and petty God and claiming Him to be worthy of worship, meaning that the inventor - the worshipper - must be just as vicious and petty as the God he invents.

Yet, the inventor will often throw in the claim that such a creature is perfectly benevolent and just. In this, the inventor is saying, "Even though I - if I were God - would inflict this great death and suffering for such petty reasons, I am perfectly benevolent and just." Of course the inventor of a God would like to see himself in that light. This does not prevent it from being absurd - a mockery of the very morality the inventor is claiming to uphold and defend.

Like I said, the things people say about God tell us nothing about God. However, they tell us a great deal about the person making the claims. The people blaming Australia's Prime Minister Gillard for the cyclone that hit the country are, themselves, people who would inflict that suffering on their fellow Australians - if they were only given the power to do so.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Kepler Observatory Data Release

Today, NASA will hold a press conference discussing the most recent discoveries of the Kepler Observatoty.

The Kepler space telescope is watching 156,000 stars for signs of planets. When the planet crosses in front of the star (relative to the earth) it eclipses the starr andd the star dims a bit. Kepler can sense this.

When the planet goes behind the star then the star blocks the reflected light from the planet. Kepler can sense this.

Within the next three years, if Kepler continues to function, it will almost certainly discover a number of earth-sized planets in earth-type orbits around sun-like stars.

It can even tell if the planets have large moons.

By spectoscopic analysis of starlight passing through the planet's atmosphere, we can tell it's chemical composition.

Nitrogen and oxygen - with small amounts of carbon dioxide, water, and methane - that will tell us something.

A planet with life orbiting another star.

It could very well happen in the next three years.


So, the news is that Kepler has found 54 planet candidates in the habitable zones of their respective stars. Of these, 5 are earth-size, and many of the rest are capable of having moons that are earth-sized or, at least, large enough to have an atmosphere and liquid water.

Further research is required to confirm that these are planets and to determine more specifically their properties.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

PZ Myers: Types of Atheism

PZ Myers decided to get some atheists mad at him by mocking certain common atheist claims.

Why are you an atheist?

Among his criticisms.

Those who define atheism as somebody who lacks a belief in God.

Those who hold that babies can be atheists.

And, my favorite, those who hold that, for example, "Science flies you to the moon; religion flies you into buildings.

The second sentence is false. Religion does not turn you into a terrorist. The overwhelming majority of religious people have similar values to yours; my church-going grandmother would have been just as horrified at people using their faith to justify murdering people as the most hardened atheist, and there have been atheist individuals who also think they are justified in killing people for the cause. So stop saying this!

The Koch Retreat

A group of wealthy conservatives are meeting in Palm Springs to discuss how they are going to influence the next election - to put Republicans into office and the right Republicans at that.

Hundreds march outside Koch brothers' retreat .

This is the Koch Retreat, organized by David and Charles Koch, the head of Koch Enterprises - an energy company that brings in nearly $100 billion per year and which spends much of it deciding who gets elected and what they do when they get there.

It is a gathering that has a bit more significance today than in years past because the Supreme Court has ruled it an unconstitutional violation of free speech to prohibit people from spending money - even through secret contributions - promoting a cause.

For the record, there is nothing wrong with people gathering to determine how they are going to influence the course of politics, and a prohibition on people spending their money to speak about a cause is, in fact, a violation of the right of freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, in this case, these people are gathering to plot a strategy that will allow them to pursue even more money for themselves through policies that will force injury, illness, destruction of property, and death on hundreds of millions - probably billions - of other people. They want to preserve the right to disregard the interests others have in their own life, health,and property in their own pursuit of a few more dollars.

For example, according to the Los Angeles Times, Koch Industries spend $1 million against California's law on greenhouse gas emissions. (Billionaire Koch brothers back suspension of California climate law ).

Mostly, this conclusion comes from their joint opposition to any policy that suggests that people who actually use carbon fuels pay for the harms that they cause to others. They want carbon-fuel users to continue to use carbon fuels - to continue to harm the lives, health, and property of others in doing so - without compensating the victims or taking any action to mitigate those costs.

Many of them likely do not BELIEVE that their actions will cause this type of harm. Yet, the fact remains that they do not care to find out. They have every reason to suspect that they are prone to believing that they want to believe, and to look at the evidence through glasses that allow them to see what they want to see. They should recognize an obligation to take a more objective look at the data to make sure that they will not be destroying the lives, health, and property of others.

But, they are too selfish for that.

Instead, they through up rationalizations - such as the self-deception of claiming that the protest is over "billionaires spending their money to influence elections" as opposed to "billionaires spending their money to preserve the power to pursue profits through activities that kill, main, and sicken other people.

So, through their denial, they will in fact organize to pursue projects that threaten to lead to the destruction of the lives, health, and property of countless people. They will not consider the harms they risk for others because it does not profit them to do so. They do not care enough to take an honest look at the evidence. They only care enough to try to find ways to bury the evidence so that they can continue to kill, injure, and sicken others and destroy their property in the pursuit of profits with impunity.

A final note: The standard disclaimers apply. The right to freedom of speech prohibits violence as a response to words alone, and prohibits anything other than a political campaign in response to a political campaign.