Friday, March 30, 2012

Media Distortions of the Reason Rally - Part 2

In our previous episode, I discussed a common misrepresentation of the Reason Rally. This involved the bigot's disposition to focus on anything bad that can be found at such a rally and amplify it, in order to paint all atheists with the stain of its "bottom 10%". This is how bigots work - identifying a target group, and trying to taint everybody in the group with the stain of its worse members.

There is always a bottom 10%. It would be absurd to argue that they must not exist. However, people who are unwilling to taint all Christians with the deplorable behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church or taint all Muslims with the behavior of its most violent members have responded to the Reason Rally with a lustful zeal to toss that standard aside when atheists are the target group.

That marks the person as a bigot - and a hypocritical bigot at that.

Now, let us look at the other distortion.

The Accusation

Another major distortion that came from the claim that Richard Dawkins called on atheists to ridicule believers.

My posting, like the last, references this article - but only as an example of many articles that came out:

Atheism's New Dogmatism.

Dawkins' address attracted most media attention. Reports afterwards claimed he had called on the crowd to ridicule religion and religious people....[I]f you watch the video clip of Dawkins's 16-minute address to the crowd, it appears he did indeed say exactly what he is accused of.

"When I first meet someone who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: I don't believe you, until you tell me, do you really believe - for example if they say they're Catholic - that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ?" he tells the crowd. "Are you seriously telling me that you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood? Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!" Religion contains specific claims about the world which need to be "ridiculed with contempt", he goes on to say, to loud cheering.

The Hypocrisy

Before going on with the analysis, I have to comment on the nonsensical hypocrisy of an article that ridicules the beliefs of others for the crime of ridiculing the beliefs of others. Why does the doctrine that all beliefs must be respected no matter how foolish one thinks they are not apply to the atheists?

Actually, it is a foolish doctrine to start with.

I will not demand that people refrain from criticizing atheism - and few (if any?) atheists would make such a demand. To a substantial degree, atheists tend to hold to the view, "Go ahead. Hit me with your best argument." Responding to criticism helps me to understand and strengthen my own position - and could help me to reject this view if it happens to be false.

This is significantly different from the demand we find among religious people, "Thou shalt not raise objections to or criticize or beliefs."

The Error

Recall that the accusation (made by people who - applying their own standards to their own behavior - are intolerant of atheist through public ridicule) is that atheists commit the crime of intolerance for advocating the ridicule of religious people.

The truth of the matter is contained even within the quote provided by the accuser. Read it again. Now, what is being ridiculed here?

The answer: Claims about the world.

I repeat:

Religion contains specific claims about the world which need to be "ridiculed with contempt". (emphasis added)

The Examples

We are talking here about claims like that with a few magic words one can literally change a cracker into the body of Christ and wine into its blood - even though a thorough chemical analysis shows that the cracker is still a cracker and the wine is still wine.

These beliefs go along with the belief that the earth is 6000 years old, that all human species appeared on the earth in their current form, that Noah actually fit all of the species of the Earth onto his arc, and Moses really did part the literal Red Sea to get the Jews out of Egypt (and God really did murder all first-born children using a biological weapon of mass destruction to accomplish this same end).

Living inside of a whale? Yeah. Right. Seriously? You are saying that really happened? Grow up. There is a real world out there and we need mature, responsible adults capable of understanding it as it is. This is not helping.

Somehow, I am not showing disrespect for a person if I dispute his claim that the mouse in his pocket is giving him financial advice, but I have some mysterious obligation to keep a straight face while he talks about a lady and a talking snake in the Garden of Eden as if it really happened.

My Focus

For my part, I do not spend much time writing about these silly but harmless beliefs. I think this is the first time I have mentioned them. I agree that they are laughable - and that those who laugh at them are not doing anything wrong. They simply are not my top concern.

My concerns have more to do with beliefs that are shortening people's lives, causing injury and illness, and motivating people to act in ways harmful to the interests and aspirations of their peaceful neighbors.

These include beliefs like:

A zygote has moral properties that forbid us from taking action to produce medical treatments that could save lives and treat any number of injuries and illnesses.

A person who draws a picture of Mohammed deserves death.

It is legitimate to respond to criticism of one's religion with deadly force, or to murder anybody who decides as a mature adult that the claims of the religion they were spoon fed as a child are false - or to put in prison any who say that there is no God.

A teenage girl who is raped deserves to be stoned to death for the crime of sex outside if marriage - or that holding hands is a capital offense.

A parent can remove a disease through prayer alone, or that there is some special spiritual value worthy of protection in denying a child simple life-saving medicine.

Good citizenship is compatible with ignorance of the real world in matters of chemistry, biology, and physics and that a responsible person can make responsible decisions on public policy when his beliefs on that subject are wrapped in pure fantasy.

Gays must be denied the benefits of marriage (in some parts of the world) or be killed outright (in other parts).

Toleration of homosexuals or failure to allow government-sponsored prayer in public schools influences the path of hurricanes or the destructive potential of tsunamis.

Only a person who believes in the absurdities listed above are qualified to make public policy, and those who claim that they are nonsense must be kept out of public office.

These are the types of beliefs I target.

I cannot call these beliefs "silly". They kill and maim people and deny their aspirations for the one and only life they will ever have. Calling them 'silly' denigrates and devalues the lives of those killed and maimed and denigrates their peaceful aspirations.

They not only lower the quality or unnecessary end the lives of innocent people, they waste the lives of believers as well. I suspect a great many of those believers would have preferred to spend their lives helping people and doing good - rather than harming people. The fact that they could not tell the difference between fantasy and reality thwarted those interests, and turned them into people doing harm rather than good. Certainly, they like to slap themselves on the back and celebrate the good they THINK they have done. However, reality does not change the fact that the real-world consequences of the actions they cheer and celebrate are to do harm.

For this, ridicule and mockery is not enough. What is actually deserved is moral condemnation. Live in a fantasy world if you want where your actions harm only yourself. But when your fantasies cause you to act in ways harmful to others - you don't deserve mockery. You deserve contempt. And I WILL condemn the person himself, and not just his beliefs.

P.S. There will be a Part 3 - discussing the objection that it is absurd for irrational atheists to hold a Reason Rally.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Media Distortions of the Reason Rally - Part 1

In the wake of the Reason Rally, atheists are experiencing some of the brute and unpleasant facts of living in a culture dominated by media where members of the press are so steeped in prejudice that they cannot see through it.

Much of the coverage of the Reason Rally contains distortions and misrepresentations.

Much of it is deliberate. We have bigots eager to paint their target group in the worst possible light. Unfortunately, this group controls whole networks of media and have direct access to large portions of the population whom they can infect directly with their bigotry. They can easily control the public attitude by being the first and the loudest with their interpretation of events.

That is a fact of the real world, and we are fools if we do not recognize this fact and act accordingly.

However, much of this bigotry is not so deliberate. These are distortions and misrepresentations created by people who have a habit of listening to the first group without question, and who have simply absorbed a culture's bigotry.

If you think about it, many of the people who cheered Hitler from 1930 to 1942 were average, decent people. Many of those who supported slavery before 1860 and in the halls of Congress and the press were otherwise decent people. Many of our founding fathers whom we view as heroes had many admirable qualities - but they could not even imagine giving women the right to vote. Many of these people were substantially indistinguishable from your best friend - except for the bigotry they absorbed from their culture.

I would like to draw your attention to an article, Atheism's New Dogmatism.

I am referring to this article to illustrate some of the elements that identify the author as an anti-atheist bigot. It is not the best or purist example of anti-atheist bigotry. It is, actually, the first one I came across this morning after having decided to write on this topic.

In this article, I am going to look at examples of bigotry, defined as making of derogatory generalizations across whole groups. (Note: In my next post, I will talk about another common distortion - interpreting Richard Dawkins as claiming that atheists should ridicule the religious.)

We find an example of derogatory overgeneralizations here:

This spirit of ridicule and contempt for religion was present in the crowd before Dawkins’ address. Photographs of the rally showed participants carrying placards saying “Not sure if Christian or just very stupid”, and “So many Christians, so few lions”.

I view the "Lions" comment as abhorrent. Ultimately, it is no different than walking around with a sign that says, "So many Jews, so few gas chambers." The latter sign, if it had shown up, would have been brought down immediately by popular demand - as it should have been. This sign should have met with a similar response. It is, for all practical purposes, the same concept applied to a different group.

Of course, my objections to that message - objections that I am sure that others share - do not count. They are not to be mentioned. The bigot cherry-picks his data, selecting those observations that support their bigotry while ignoring anything that seems in conflict with it. The sign supports that prejudice, so the bigot focuses on it as proof that his bigotry is well founded. My blog does not support that prejudice. Rather than refer to it as counter-evidence to the first group, its existence is ignored, so that atheists can be painted as consisting solely of people of that type.

An unfortunate fact of the real world is that the bigot will always find the evidence that supports his bigotry. There is always a "bottom 10 percent". If you get rid of the bottom 10 percent, you only create a new bottom 10 percent. You will always have a "worst set" that the bigot can focus on in order to paint the whole group in unflattering colors.

This is not to say that the bottom 10 percent cannot be condemned. They should be. However, the claim that, "You are to blame for the bigotry that we all suffer from" is not an appropriate condemnation. If not for them, the bigot will find somebody else to represent the poor qualities they want to assign to the whole group. In a sufficiently large group, they will be always that the bigot can fit into that role.

The sign that says that all Christians are "very stupid" also conflicts with the message that I persistently give in this blog. That message, just like this post here, consistently objects to derogatory overgeneralizations - even when the guilty person is an atheist. It is simply not true that all Christians are "very stupid". If we are going to be a group that ridicules absurd beliefs such as trans-substantiation, then we should also be ready and willing to ridicule beliefs such as the one expressed on that sign.

It is particularly ironic that the bigots make this move against the Reason Rally in light of the presence at the rally of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the famous group that claims that American soldiers deserve to die because they fight for a nation that shows more tolerance for gays than their interpretation of scripture permits.

The anti-atheist bigot has in this an immediate reminder of the moral wrong in painting a whole group with the brush of its least attractive members. However, in a display of pure hypocrisy, they conveniently ignore that lesson. Bigots do not like to follow lines of reasoning that call their bigotry into question.

Another distortion that found its way into the press was the claim that Richard Dawkins told the people to ridicule believers. Though many readers of this blog will already know the truth of the matter, I will put it in its moral context tomorrow.

As a final note, as somebody who knows how the bigot's mind works, I expected something like this. I think it would have been useful to have somebody on the stage anticipating the "nutpicking" remarks about to come out in the press. Perhaps a public participation event - a contest - in which people in the audience are invited to guess the various distortions and misrepresentations about to appear in the press the next time a similar gathering is planned - like "Rock Beyond Belief" at Fort Bragg. You know that similar distortions and misrepresentations will be made of that event.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Between "New Atheism" and "Accomodationism"

I have often wondered whether I am in the camp of the "new atheists", or if I am an "appeaser".

Or, what I think is probably more accurate, I am a mixture of the two.

On the "new atheist" side, I can write a post defending the conclusion that faith, when it concerns beliefs that affect the life, well-being, or aspirations of others, is a vice. It is intellectual recklessness - belonging in the same moral category as drunk driving. It does not matter that some people exercise faith without doing harm. Some people drive drunk without doing harm as well. However, the faith-based thinker on matters affecting the lives of others, and the drunk driver on the public roads, creates a morally irresponsible hazard for others.

At the same time, I do not blame religion. Intellectual recklessness is at fault, and atheists are just as prone to intellectual recklessness as theists. A lot of atheists hold intellectually reckless beliefs, and in doing so are a threat to the life, well-being, and aspirations of others. At the same time, many who believe in a God are quite intellectually responsible when it comes to matters that concern the life, well-being, and aspirations of others. While they assert the existence of a God, their attitudes on matters of policy and behavior are evidence-driven.

Being an opponent of intellectual recklessness, rather than being an opponent of religion, I am morally critical of intellectually reckless atheist and pass no judgment against the intellectually responsible theist.

That would put me in the "accomodationist" camp, would it not?

This identifies the points where I agree with the "new atheists" on the one hand or the "accomodationists" on the other.

I also hold that each is guilty of a significant error.

On the "accomodationist" side, there is a tendency to remain silent about evils for the purpose of securing a political alliance. "I will not criticize you for the damage you do - on the basis of your superstitious ideas - to the lives, well-being, and aspirations of others. I will avert my eyes to your foolishness and the harm it brings, so that I can be your friend. In exchange, I hope that you will help me on these political matters that are of concern to me."

I find that position morally objectionable.

The "new atheists" on the other hand frequently employ the Bigot's Fallacy and seem to actually have little interest in applying the principles of logic and reason in their condemnation of religion. Repeatedly, the make the wholly unwarranted leap from the wrongs of a subgroup of religious people to the conclusion that all religious people are evil. One religious person commits a crime or brings about a horrendous outcome, and they shout that all religion is to be despised.

This is bigotry - plain and simple. This is how the racist thinks about blacks, how the sexist thinks about women, and how religious bigots think about atheists. Consider the "Hitler and Stalin" argument. Notwithstanding the fact that with Hitler the claims are not true, only a bigot thinks that one can take the evil actions of "an atheist" and condemn all atheists. Yet, many atheists think they can take the actions of "a theist" and condemn all religion.

The former abandons morality and refuses to blame the guilty (and, in doing so, shares some of their guilt). The latter abandons reason for the sake of placing blame on all of religion, including the innocent.

There is a strong social incentive to seek admission into one of these two camps - or any camp, for that matter. By gaining acceptance, one gains an instant set of friends. One gains a community. Humans are tribal creatures. Those who obtain membership in a tribe obtain all of the benefits of membership. Other tribal members will think of you as a great person - so long as you abide by and promote the tribe's code of conduct. Deviate from the code - or, worse yet, question the code, and you are out.

We talk about the atheist "coming out" to his religious tribe. The same phenomena applies to the "new atheist" coming out as an accomodationist, or an accomodationist coming out as a "new atheist". You lose the fellowship obtained by membership in the original tribe - and that is a very difficult thing to give up. These psychological forces cause people to absorb the culture of their tribe without question - this is the price of acceptance.

People usually do not like to admit how much they are like the people they criticize.

There is a third option, by the way. It is not "new atheist" or "accomodationist".

This third option holds that we are going to limit our conclusions to those that actually follow from our premises, and yet not deny the conclusions that follow from those premises.

Opposition to the use of condoms is a barrier to programs that would be effective at saving lives and preventing suffering. This is true.

Furthermore, opposition to the use of condoms comes substantially from religious doctrine - from a set of epistemic behavior that properly earns the title "intellectually reckless".

The fault here is the intellectually reckless belief that there is something spiritually wrong with using a condom. This recklessness is an immorality compounded by the fact that those who are guilty of it insist on making this a matter of policy that effects the lives of others. The effect that it brings about is the spread of disease and early death. Their intellectual recklessness costs lives and promotes suffering. These people should be condemned for that recklessness.

However, it is not legitimate to jump from this to the conclusion that "religion" is to blame. Not only does that make no logical sense, it is a hypocritical example of the very type of intellectual recklessness one is criticizing.

Furthermore, it diverts attention from the fact that atheists can and often are intellectually reckless. In focusing the attention on religious intellectual recklessness, it diverts attention from atheist intellectual recklessness. This allows atheist intellectual recklessness to continue unchallenged - with its own threats to life and well-being.

This third option keeps the focus strictly on the belief that there is something spiritually wrong with using condoms. It does not leap out of this to blame "Catholics" or "Evangelicals" or "people who believe in God". It keeps its criticism strictly focused - at least in this example - on "Those who believe there is something spiritually wrong with using condoms." Catholics and evangelicals that can escape this morally reckless belief can free themselves of criticism, at least on this issue. It will not excuse them for intellectual wrecklessness they may commit elsewhere.

If somebody comes along and says, "But this is a central principle in my religion," the answer is simple. "YOUR religion is intellectually reckless. (Note: Not 'religion' - but 'your religion') It is a set of unsecured beliefs that is costing lives and promoting suffering."

When they protest, "You must respect my religion," an easy answer is available. "I must respect the life and well-being of others. If I must choose between respect for your religion and the lives lost as a result of your unfounded beliefs - or respect for your religion and their good health - I choose the latter. I have no respect those who cause death and suffering through intellectually reckless behavior."

If, on the other hand, somebody says, "My religion is comfortable with the use of condoms - and even makes them obligatory in situations where it can save lives and reduce suffering," there is an easy answer here, too. "Then I have nothing to say to you. I think that your religous beliefs are false. However, they are not costing lives or causing suffering. If you care to preserve life and reduce suffering, how about joining me in challenging these intellectually reckless ideas that are doing such harm?"

Remember, drunk driving is not a moral crime when one drives drunk on one's own 10,000 acre ranch on which there are no other people. It only becomes a moral crime when one gets out on the public roads and creates a morally irresponsible risk to the lives and well-being of others.

Another feature of this method is that it leaves one free, without hypocrisy, to also challenge the atheist who is being intellectually reckless. One is not confined to accepting the wrongs of members of the atheist tribe because one is blaming 'religion' and atheists are not religious.

It does have a drawback, however. It will not earn you membership in either the 'New Atheist' or the 'Accomodationist' tribes. The 'New Atheist' tribe will reject you because you target intellectual recklessness rather than religion.

The 'accomodationists' will reject you because you are willing to say - when it is true, based on being able to identify people actually harmed by the behavior motivated by that religion - "Then YOUR religion is morally reckless and undeserving of respect. For the sake of those harmed, it deserves no accommodation." This is true of a huge part of current religion.

However, I still think that it has a lot to recommend it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Militant Atheists" and "Uppity Niggers"

Both terms were invented and popularized as a derogatory term by those with social power to denigrate and marginalize a potential challenger. They serve as an inoculation in the brain against the messenger of change. The instant the messenger starts talking, these memes spring forth to shut down the brain from listening. "This is just another one of those damned uppity niggers/militant atheists who doesn't know his place."

What is needed to impliment this type of tactic is a dominant social group with an interest in preserving its status who read each others' work, and who have the ability to use a particular term over and over again before various audiences. We do not need anybody making a plan in a back room somewhere. One person uses the term. Others like it (because they feel that it will be effective in preserving their status), so they adopt it, and the term spreads.

An important feature in both of these terms is that they are both descriptive and prescriptive - or, more precisely, pejorative. They are used to generate in the agent an immediate emotional reaction - a feeling of contempt - for those members of the target group that dare to challenge the status quo.

These emotional associations are important. They help to control the thinking of those afflicted with these memes. they help to make the brain unreceptive to the challenger's message.

It also likely worked, at least in some cases. To intimidate blacks against standing up to the injustices of their day. These moral rituals not only generate a feeling of contempt in white people so that they could more easily swat aside calls for equality. They also infected the brains of African Americans - those who wanted to be seen as good people - praised and admired by their community. These are human interests - and they generate a certain amount of discomfort over any actions that might earn one the derogatory label, "uppity nigger" (or "militant atheist" in the parallel case).

Unfortunately, the human interest in social approval has its drawbacks when the society contains inequality and injustice. In those cases, one has to be a champion of inequality and injustice to acquire that praise and will be condemned for challenging it.

Indeed, we find in our history blacks who were just as adamant in criticizing the "uppity nigger" as the whites - using the same derogatory terms and, furthermore, using substantially the same types of arguments we hear today in the atheist community. You are the reason that they hate us. It's all your fault. If we could provide them with a kinder and gentler message, they will no longer see us as a threat. They will come to see us as good people and then happily gift to us political and social equality.

There are two problems with this argument.

First, justice is not to be asked for as a gift, it is to be demanded as a right. Treating it as a gift implies that others have a legitimate authority either to give it away, or to refuse to do so - as they please.

Second, in an unjust society, all strategies for ending that injustice, be they accomodationist or demanding, are a threat. They are a threat simply in virtue of the fact that they seek to end that status of privilege. If one of them appears less threatening than the other, it is probably in virtue of the fact that one accepts, rather than opposes, the current social order - so it is not a threat.

In the case of the "uppity nigger", this tactic has been effectively challenged - for the most part. We will hear about the "uppity nigger" and the "militant atheist" until the end of time. But the term will be endorsed in smaller and smaller communities.

The counter-tactic, as it turns out, was to speak the truth. The counter-tactic identified those who used the term as bigots prone to making unfounded derogatory accusations whose primary purpose was to preserve a culture of - to be honest - white supremacy. As this fact became more widely known, the use of the term faded and lost its social appeal.

I would suggest using a similar tactic against the "militant atheist" meme. It is, as I said above, a term invented by those with social power for the purpose of marginalizing and denigrating those who challenge their supremacy. The use of such a term (except in certain contexts by members of the target group themselves) identifies the user as a bigot seeking to preserve a system of injustice by promoting a social aversion to the members of the target group.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Faith Is a Vice

I have been looking over the comments that people have brought back with them from the Reason Rally. I wanted to know what was done, and what will be accomplished as a result. It was said to have been a "first step". A first step to where? And what is the second step?

As I have read these comments, I repeatedly heard a message (or the implications of a message) that – at least from the point of view of an ethicist – has struck me as particularly interesting and important.

It is the idea that faith is not a virtue.

In his speech at the rally, Nate Phelps referenced Christopher Hitchens’ answer to the question of what he would change if he could change one thing in the world. Hitchens would rid the world of the idea that faith is a virtue.

He would be right to do so.

A person of faith is an irresponsible person – a person who abdicates his responsibilities as a thinking human being to know and understand the world in which he lives, particularly on matters that concern the welfare and aspirations of others. A person who cares not to cause harm rakes precautions to prevent it. Those who do jot take precautions do not care.

The End of Faith – the apt title of Sam Harris’ first book – was the message that started this New Atheist movement. His book was an argument against the view that faith is a virtue. He did not mention atheism. He mentioned the idea that if you are going to do things that garm other oeopke, you have an obligation to do better than to assert that you had faith that you were doing the right thing.

Faith is irresponsible and reckless. It gets people killed and maimed. It is the reason many people act in ways that significantly subtract from the quality of life for others, and it is a constant obstruction to many advances - particularly in medicine - that could do a great deal of good.

Faith is a vice.

This has been one of the most persistent messages in this blog.

A long-time reader might not recognize this fact. In making my own criticism, I have not used the term "faith". I was trained in the study of moral philosophy – and "Faith" is not a term in that field. Instead, I spoke about "intellectual recklessness". "Recklessness" is a concept moral philosophers cover. It means that an agent did not try to cause harm, but did not try very hard to prevent it either.

I have repeatedly used an analogy where I have compared a person who has failed to secure their beliefs to a farmer who fails to secure a large and heavy load on his truck before heading to town. Rounding some corner, that unsecured load breaks loose, crashes into an oncoming car, killing some occupants and maiming others.

That farmer is morally responsible for the harms done.

It does not matter that the farmer did not intend to do any harm. We may assume that the farmer did not set out on the drive with any intention of killing or maiming family members in an oncoming car. The farmer still deserves to be morally condemned. He did not exercise the care that a morally responsible person would have exercised to prevent those harms. A good person would have recognized the dangers of an unsecured load and sought to make sure it was secure. A good person woukd have recognized the dangers of an unsecured belief and sought to make it secure.

The drunk driver is another person who does not care enough to orevent harm. He has faith that he can ake it home without killing anybody. He needs no evidence. He can dismiss all if the evidence showing that drunk drivers are dangerous drivers. In fact, he can just throw that evidence away. True faith can do that - and true faith is a virtue, or so we are told.

Chances are, like the global-warming denier only on a much smaller scale, the drunk driver convinced himself that no harm would come from his actions. He convinced himself he could get safely home and that nobody would be hurt. He has faith. His moral crime is that he should have known better - particularly given the huge amount of evidence against that claim.

The person who has faith is like the drunk driver. He is drunk on faith, and he is a threat to others. Faith that a prayer may cure a young child puts the child at risk of dying from an easily treatable disease. Faith that apostates must be killed is a direct threat. Faith that the end times are near and one does not have to make long-term plans will destroy lives in the long term. Faith maims, kills, and destroys lives.

The person who boasts about his faith should be looked at the same way we look at the person who brags that he constantly drives while drunk and hasn't killed anybody . . . yet. They display the same qualities, and deserve the same moral status.

When we hear a story of a drunk driver maiming or killing others (or themselves), we blame the driver. He can tell us stories of other drunk drivers who made it home safely. They do not matter. R esponsible people do not take the risk. They do not put others at risk.

Not all religion is intellectually reckless – though the vast majority of it is. Many religious people believe that science and logic are the tools by which we come to a better understanding of a universe that God created. Their conclusions on all things that matter are well founded and responsible. Their assumption that a god sits behind it s poorly supported but creates no threat.

Similarly, atheism is not proof of immunity to intellectual recklessness. A great many atheists are just as intellectually reckless as the worst theists – grabbing and holding on to favorite conclusions without the least bit of evidence.

Finally, we must admit that none of us can hold a perfectly well secured set of beliefs. We can only secure our beliefs by their reference to other beliefs, which themselves are only secured to still other beliefs.

None of us has the time or other resources to hold every one of our beliefs up to the light of reason for careful examination. All of us take shortcuts – we have to. We could never move otherwise.

Faced with this type of scarcity of resources, the responsible person would use the resources available to first examine the most important belief – the beliefs with the greatest implications concerning the lives, well-being, and aspirations of others. Beliefs that carry no real-world implications (including the belief that a god exists or does not exist – taken as an isolated fact) does not rank high on this list.

These are facts about our human existence. We are not going to change them by wishing things were different.

However, none of these caveats argues against the thesis that faith is a vice – that faith is morally irresponsible and that god people condemn the faithful for recklessness. Not all drivers who drink drive whike drunk. Not all who do not drink are safe drivers. Drunk driving is still worthy of condemnation. Grounding public policy on faith deserves codemnation as well.

The one main difference between members of the secular and atheist community in contrast to the faith-based community on this issue is that, even where atheists make unreasonable claims and engage in intellectual recklessness, they do not defend recklessness. Among those who shun faith, the charge of unreasonableness has a sting to it – as it should; a sting that the faithful waves away just as they wave away the costs of their intellectual recklessness on themselves and others. Reason- based thinkers at least have a grounding in the value of intellectual responsibility that faith-based thinkers do not have.

Faith . . . also known as "intellectual recklessness" . . . on matters that concern the life, well-being, and aspirations of others – is a vice. It is something no responible person would take part in.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Reason Rally: The Dream of Legislative Equality

One of the stated objectives of the Reason Rally is "Legislative Equality"

Legislative equality. Secular Americans can run for office and adequately represent theists, just as theists in office can represent their secular constituents proudly and openly. We deserve a seat at the table just like theists, and we hope this rally can put our values in the radar of American voters.

Well . . .

Imagine this. We have an atheist candidate on the stage with other political candidates. The debate moderator takes the stage and says, "Let's start with the Pledge of Allegiance."

If the atheist candidate says the Pledge, he is a hypocrite. If he does not, he is anti-American. If he changes the words then his pledge does not count. "What if he dropped the words with liberty and justice for all rather than under God - would that be okay? No!"

We are not going to see anything near legislative equality until we challenge those programs and practices that teach Americans - starting at the earliest ages mostly in public schools - that patriotism and being a good American requires belief in God.

They see it on the money - where they learn that "We" (good Americans - those who belong here) trust in God and, by implication, those who do not trust in God are not good Americans.

They experience it in the practice - which many are coerced into from the first day of school - that equates patriotism with supporting a nation "under God" and equates atheism and even secularism with secession, tyranny, and injustice.

More importantly, they . . . or, actually, we . . . learn this at an emotional level. It is not learned as a belief to be rejected as soon as the evidence shows it to be false. It is learned as a set if emotional attachments that stick with us and guide our actions independent of any evidence. Like a fear or an addiction, it does not vanish the instant one learns it is irrational or even counter-productive.

Through these practices, children, are taught to associate the comfort and security of belonging to the community with trust in God and supporting a nation "under God". We are taught to associate fear, shame, and alienation from the community with the denial of God. We are taught to associate the same emotions to a person who rejects a nation under God that we are taught to associate with those who reject a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This is one of the reason why so many atheists are "in the closet". It is because the national motto and the Pledge of Allegiance, taught to us as young children, has associated atheism with shame and embarrassment - with the fear of rejection and alienation. We do not like being seen as "them". We do not like being seen as anti-American. Consequently, we find a great degree of emotional discomfort in telling the world that we do not trust in God, and we do not support a nation under God - because there is no God to trust or for the nation to be under.

In fact, one of the things many of us discover is that many of us are trained to find it a lot more comfortable joining theistic Americans in attacking (fellow) atheists. This buys us acceptance in the political community. This buys us the favor of our neighbors and associates - those who have also learned the lesson that the only good American trusts in God and supports a nation "under God".

Here, we see two of the great currents that something like the Reason Rally must struggle against.

The first is the number of people who will not show up or offer support because they do not feel comfortable doing so. They don't want to let on to their friends that they view this "religion" thing to be fanciful, disconnected from reality, and a bit dangerous when myth and superstition becomes the basis of real-world laws and policies. Their question - to themselves - is, "Can I get there in a way that covers my tracks?" However, in most cases, it will be merely a feeling of discomfort and anxiety at the thought if attending such an event. They will not even understand the source of this anxiety, but it will determine their choices nonetheless.

The second is the number of people - even atheists and other members of the secular community - who feel more comfortable attacking and criticizing such an event than supporting it. This criticism buys them at least some measure of acceptance in a community that is taught to praise religion and condemn atheism. They have at least some opportunity to convince others, "Well, he may be a good atheist, but at least he is not the worst sort of atheist. He is, perhaps, the one-in-a-million exception to the atheist rule."

Once again, I am not talking about cold-hearted rational calculation of personal benefit. I am talking about people doing what human beings always do. We avoid that which makes us uncomfortable and do that which makes us comfortable. Only, in this case, we are responding to comforts and discomforts given to us as children - mostly in public schools and in our young economic lives as we handle money - and that we act on as adults.

It not only affects their attendance at the Reason Rally or their disposition to stand at the Pledge of Allegiance regardless of their beliefs. It affects how they feel about certain political candidates. "I am not prejudiced against atheists. But I don't have a good feeling about this guy."

At the same time that these practices are making future atheists uncomfortable with social expression, it us giving undeserved praise, self-confidence, and assertiveness to those who support a theocratic America. After all, they trust in God, so they belong here. They are fighting for the real America - an America under God. They are like the people supporting liberty and justice for all. It is easy for them to rally their supporters - the government motto and Pledge give them an official Government endorsement.

For those of you who are attending the Reason Rally, and those who are writing about it or otherwise discussing it, I would like you to give some thought to those who are not there. I would like you to devote some conversation time to the barriers that others face that keep them away, or that makes them feel more comfortable giving criticism than giving support. I would ask you to decide what you can do to tear down those walls.

While you have that discussion, I propose including a discussion of the Massachusetts pledge case. and preparing in advance of any announcement a decision how to defend the decision that these practices cast atheists as unpatriotic and poor citizens.

The topics are intimately related.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Reason Rally: The Costs of Unreason

Assume that you are a powerful person with a plan.

That plan will earn you and your backers billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, there is excellent evidence that it will also kill about 100 million people over the next few decades and bring great suffering to a few billion more. You suspect that this might result in some political opposition. What you need is a way to gum up the political machinery for a few years - long enough to harvest those billions of dollars and buy yourself a nice home far away before the death and suffering becomes too obvious to ignore.

Or, perhaps you have a plan that will allow you to harvest the life savings of a few tens of millions of people - draining them of their retirement funds, costing them their homes, and in many cases costing them their jobs. All of that wealth is then diverted into your accounts and those of your backers. Again, what you need to do is muddy the waters enough to keep these results hidden until after you have safely harvested the money and made your escape.

Fortunately, nature provides you with a resource that is tailor made to fit this need. And, as a business person, you are well versed in the art of exploiting labor, capital, and other resources so as to make a profit.

A large part of the population has been trained in faith. They have been trained to hate science, to hate evidence, to "listen to their gut" (which is excellent at telling people what they want to believe, but not so good at telling them what is true). These people are well suited to accept the claims you need them to accept to gum up the political machinery as long as you can feed it to them in a way that leaves them with a good feeling in their gut.

The financial industry has proved particularly adept at harvesting the wealth of these people. Not only did their financial scheme rob them of their retirement money, their homes, their investment income, and ultimately their jobs. They also managed to collect hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid (passed on to future generations as government debt). Now, rather than pay back a portion of that money through higher taxes, they are insisting that they keep that money and that the government must instead cut benefits to the very people harmed by their earlier actions.

We can see in this the business model for Fox News. "Here's my deal. I will provide a tool by which you can get your propaganda to the gullible properly mixed to appeal to their gut feelings so that they will accept it. In exchange, you can give us a cut of the billions of dollars you expect to harvest through your plan in the form of advertising revenue."

How does Fox News attract the gullible?

Mostly, it does so by telling them how great and wonderful they are, how virtuous their unreasoned faith is, and of how the snobs of reason and evidence look down on them and fail to give them the respect they deserve. They tell the unthinking what the unthinking want to hear - what "feels right" to them simply because they like to hear such things.

Once they have the eyes and the ears of those trained not to think, they can then feed those people the political propaganda of those whose business plans will have certain unfortunate (for others) side effects, summoning them to gum up the political machinery long enough to harvest the money and head for safety.

We can include in this set of examples the Iraq War - exploiting the national mood after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to harvest over a trillion dollars in no-bid government contracts that threw the government massively into debt just in time for the finance industry to rob people of their houses and their savings - and their jobs - by actions that enriched themselves but threw the nation as a whole into an economic depression.

In this case, we also have to add to the costs not only the money spent, but the people killed and maimed and otherwise made to suffer as a consequence of these plans. These, too, are the costs of thinking unconstrained by evidence or rationality.

Of course, the original plan was not to harvest a trillion dollars in no-bid contracts. The original plan was to harvest the oil revenue from oil-rich states by installing friendly governments. However, when that plan blew up (because it was run by idiots who were raised in a culture opposed to reason and evidence), it was time to go to Plan B.

If one looks at the reasoning that got us into the Iraq War, it was all of the, "Determine your conclusions first, and evaluate the evidence on the basis of its apparent support fir the desired conclusion," sort that is rampant in anti-science, anti-reason, "trust your gut" crowd.

Remember, these were the idiots who either thought that you could change the laws of nature by rewriting science reports, or, in doing so, were actively covering up the evidence that the actions of their clients risked hundreds of billions of lives and suffering for billions of others.

I am not into conspiracy theories - secret plans that involve thousands of co-conspirators where none step forward to break the code of silence. In fact, the conspiracy theory requires a great deal of intelligence and reasoning capability. The systems of unreason that I am writing about only requires a mixture of greed and power on the one hand, with a substantial population that shuns reason and evidence on the other.

Both of these elements are found in abundance, and they are often (and not accidentally) found together. Where they mix, they produce outcomes that are potentially catastrophic for huge numbers of people - but not for the people who can harvest the money to escape those results.

We can add these to the costs that suffer as a result of unreason.

I hope that the Reason Rally this weekend will begin to provide an answer to this folly, and actually start to work to apply the principles of reason and evidence to avoid some of these potentially catastrophic costs.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reason Rally Topic: Rational Sex Education

Unreasonableness costs lives and promotes suffering.

One of the places where we are seeing this is in the area of sex education.

I spend a lot of time listening to lectures by people who are involved in programs to fight diseases and other harms - particularly in poorer countries, but also in more developed nations. The scientific evidence substantially supports the conclusion that sex education reduces teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted disease.

We have decades worth of data available where different regions have tried different techniques, and in which organizations themselves have tried different techniques in various parts of the world and measured the effects of their programs. Ultimate, if you want to reduce disease and prevent early death, you provide sex education.

We have people in the field working to save lives, weaken the grip of disease, and increase the welfare of impoverished communities who have taken a great interest in discovering which techniques have the greatest real-world effect. They are telling us what works, and rational sex education is important.

Unfortunately, we have a number of faith traditions that object to this practice.

Last week, in a post supporting the Reason Rally, I used the image of a parent taking hold of her children's hands and stepping out onto some railroad tracks, faithfully denying the real possibility of a train coming down the tracks. Faith prevents this hypothetical parent from looking at real-world evidence, demanding that the individual simply accept certain beliefs independent of any evidence.

Unfortunately, reality does not respect these games that people play. Reality has no interest in our welfare. It has no conscience. It will splatter that family's remains down the tracks without a second thought or a twinge of regret.

That is exactly what is happening as a result of the reality-denying "faith" beliefs dominating the subject of sex education.

If these people harmed only themselves, a case can be made that we need to leave them alone to suffer the consequences of their own folly. Of course, many of them will come to us with requests for state services - particularly health care and state aid to take care of the unwanted children and children being raised in poverty that these policies will bring to the world in greater abundance. However, freedom is a virtue worth protecting - one that provides some benefits even though we can also identify some costs.

However, as I said above, they are coaxing others out onto these tracks - particularly teenagers. Science tells us that parts of the brain having to do with reasoned judgment do not fully form until near the age of 18. However, these reality-deniers want the liberty to coax and coerce others whose capacity to make reasoned judgments is diminished (as a matter of scientific fact) onto the tracks where science tells us they will be greater risk of pregnancy, disease, and early death.

Furthermore, they are demanding that state law - that state education standards - be designed so as to demand the teaching of this reality-denying "faith based" world view. Ironically, their view of "education" is forced ignorance - not only for themselves, but throughout the community, even where forced ignorance is a demonstrated cause of disease, early death, and raising children in impoverished households. In other words, they bring these harms to children who are not their own.

They would rather see more early death and suffering among young adults than admit that the privative goat herders that died 1300 or 2000 years ago that authored their moral guide simply did not know as much as we do now.

When the Roman Catholic church protested a proposed government requirement that they provide employees with health insurance that covered, among other things, birth control and related forms of health care, they protested that this violated their moral teachings.

First, these people not only think that it is a virtue to deny reality and step out onto the tracks as a demonstration of faith, they think it is a virtue to coerce others onto the tracks with them - with the expected (among those who respect reality) consequences in terms of more early death and suffering showing up in national statistics. This is the moral view that they are demanding respect for.

Note: These real and measurable harms that show up in national statistics are exactly what motivated the requirement to start with. The early death and suffering that come from denying reality provide a drain on national resources that the government cannot easily afford. The early death and suffering that will not be prevented as a result of "respecting" the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church on this issue is death and suffering they are responsible for bringing into the world.

Second, we should ask about the obligation of an employer to respect the beliefs of their employees. Certainly, among the employees of these institutions - particularly institutions that are asking for government funds - we can expect at least a few whose morality demands respecting reality. There are, hopefully, a few who think it is a moral crime to close one's ears and ignore evidence of the reality-train when it risks bringing early death and other harms to others. How about respecting their beliefs and providing them with health insurance options consistent with those views? Or is it only the Roman Catholic belief that is worthy of respect - while all others can be disregarded?

It is my hope that the Reason Rally this Saturday will provide some measure of a response to this habit of ignoring a reality that is substantially indifferent to our well being - and the early death and other harms that result from such a habit. It is my hope that it will take a small but important step towards respecting reality and the tools of reason and evidence that allow us to understand the world around us.

This is just one example of a case where real lives and well-being are at stake.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rationalization and Reason in the Atheist Community

Anybody who has debated religion has seen this tactic.

The person you are arguing with takes an objection, misinterprets it to create an objection he can answer, answers his own pretend objection, and then declared victory.

Well, this form of rationalization is not just a problem for those who believe in one or more gods. It is a human tendency - something we are all prone to do from time to time. We hear an objection. We do not like being wrong. Consequently, we give the objection an interpretation that would make it consistent with the proposition that we are not wrong.

None of us are immune.

You do not acquire an immunity to this form of irrationality just by declaring that one is an atheist. There is a tendency among some atheists to think, "I deny the existence of God. Therefore, I am super-rational. Therefore, I do not make mistakes of reason. Every conclusion I adopt is adopted based on the best evidence and valid inference."

The human brain does not work that way.

What brings up this topic is the American Atheist response to objections about the sign put up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - the one that showed an image of a slave and the text, "Slaves, obey your masters."

The criticism against this sign is that it was poorly designed. In order to understand what the sign was about one had to #1# take the time to read all of the text, and #2# be fully aware of the history that motivated putting up the sign.

Against #1# - drivers are supposed to be paying attention to the road, not reading the fine print on a billboard.

Against #2# - most people cannot even tell you the name of their representative - let alone tell you what bills were passed by the legislature that year.

Face it - the authors of the billboard understood what it said precisely because they brought all of the necessary history and background assumptions with them. However, a billboard is not an instrument for writing messages to oneself. It is a tool for communicating with others. To communicate with others one MUST design one's message in a way that pays attention to the background knowledge that the READER will bring.

This is an essential part of effective communication - and it is the part that tripped up the authors of this sign.

However, the American Atheist statement answering the criticism says the following:

AMERICAN ATHEISTS OFFICIAL STATEMENT: We want to thank everyone for sharing their opinions with us about the "Slaves, Obey Your Masters" billboard. While we certainly respect the opinions of those who disagree with our tactics, we respectfully disagree with that opinion. We are unapologetic about the billboard and stand behind it 100%. There will be no apology from American Atheists for saying what needed to be said: sometimes the truth is offensive.

Note that the statement does not address the criticism in any way. The statement concerns two things. The first is tactics #putting up a billboard that highlights statements in the Bible that call into question the claim that it the work of a morally perfect being#. The second is "what needed to be said."

I, for one, have no objections to either of these things.

Neither did anybody else that I am aware of who brought in objections from the atheist perspective.

The objections were that the sign was poorly constructed so that it did not communicate the message that the American Atheists wanted to communicate. While they are perfectly within their rights to stand behind what they wanted to say 100% - and I would stand with them on that. What they did say missed that goal by a good country mile.

It was a billboard telling blacks that, as slaves, they should obey their masters - an entirely outrageous statement for anybody to make. It came out that way because of the poor communication skills of those who made it - those who designed it. The authors thought it said one thing - when in fact it said something else entirely.

But, in order to preserve one's pride, refrain from admitting to a mistake, and declaring oneself too perfect to have ever done something that might call for an apology, the American Atheists sought to twist this criticism into criticism it could answer.

The main point I want to draw from this is that there is nothing in being an atheist that makes one immune to these types of mental gymnastics - particularly when those mental gymnastics are called into play to protect the ego or to shield valued beliefs. We might have avoided those pitfalls with respect to a belief in God, but they wait for us elsewhere.

It is particularly problematic when the atheist gets self-righteous over people for pulling the same type of logical games that the atheists themselves are guilty of. That is hypocrisy. That is not a virtue.

Some might think that this discussion is "accomodationist". However, that would be a mistake. I am not saying that we should forgive the theist because we make the same types of mistakes ourselves. Instead, I am saying we should condemn ourselves when we make these types of mistakes because they are just as bad when we make them as when those we criticize make them.

We owe it to ourselves and to others to do better than this - to recognize and avoid these mental gymnastics.

In this regard, I do have more hope that atheists will take steps to combat these habits than I expect from theists. Theists have embraced the idea of abandoning reason whenever it conflicts with the ego or challenges a cherished belief. Atheists - to a large degree - hold that reason should triumph over ego and cherished beliefs.

At least among atheists there is some hope of pointing to an error such as this and having a somewhat better chance that the atheist will say, "I promised to be rational and base my conclusions on reason and evidence - not make up evidence and distort reason to shield my cherished beliefs. I guess I should be watchful of those kinds of traps and make sure that I do not run into them."

This is not a call for accomodationism. This is a call for holding ourselves up to the same standards that we demand - in a non-accomodationist way - of others.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Taliban's Ignorance of Justice

Yesterday, I wrote on the components of a proper apology.

In writing that essay, I assumed a case in which an apology is actually owed. The second and third component of a proper apology requires that the agent (2) specify what he or she did that was wrong, and (3) explain why it is wrong.

Yet, often, people are called on to apologize when they have done nothing wrong.

In some cases, it will be necessary to comply with this demand. However, this is true in the same way that it may be necessary to turn over one's wallet to a thug with a gun who might otherwise do worse harm if one did not obey.

The scope of this blog is not concerned with the practical matters of going along with the demands of evil people with power. This blog is about ethics - right and wrong. In this case, it is about the relationship between the concepts relevant to a proper apology and the more general concepts of justice – concepts that people in some parts of the world obviously do not understand.

It is legitimate to demand an apology in a case where an agent has done something wrong - that the agent recognizes was wrong - and that the agent truly cares to make amends for and to prevent in the future.

These conditions also roughly describe a case in which it is permissible to harm someone as punishment for a crime. First, they must have done a crime. Second, one must be able to describe the reasons for which punishment is justified.

The range of cases in which an apology is appropriate is substantially the same as the range of cases in which the concept of justice is applicable. An apology is often appropriate in cases when it may be appropriate to condemn and, in severe cases, to punish an agent.

I can illustrate some of the concepts and relationships that I am referring to here by pointing to a group of tribal barbarians living Afghanistan and Pakistan who have demonstrated themselves to be masters of incoherence and injustice - known as the Taliban.

This is a hypothetical case. I do not know the actual motivation for the American soldier in this case. However, neither does the Taliban. It does not seem to matter to them. As a result, examining the case in light of this hypothetical motivation makes sense.

An American soldier sneaks out of camp, kills 16 Afghans, then returns to camp and surrenders to authorities. The Taliban, then, demand revenge against all Americans.

A proper understanding of justice would tell you that the guilty should be punished and the innocent should be left alone. However, these moral Neanderthals seem to think nothing of killing innocent people - rationalizing varnishing their moral crimes with the word "justice" (because "murderer" - though it would be more honest - carries something of a social stigma).

The person who it would be appropriate to punish is one who is in a position where they owe an apology. This means that the person is one for whom it is possible (rather they do so or not) to state that an action that they did that was wrong, and an explanation for why it is wrong.

However, the Taliban are not interested in confining their violence to the guilty. By their statements, they seem willing to kill just about anybody. Personal guilt or responsibility are irrelevant - or are assumed in spite of the fact that those who are to be killed performed no action for which an apology would otherwise be due.

In fact, these Taliban have proven themselves morally worse than the soldier that they condemn.

For the sake of illustrating a point, let us assume that the soldier thought he had the right to go out and kill innocent people - including children - who are not guilty of any wrongdoing. He may have acted to punish them because some other Afghans killed a friend of his.

Even where this is the case, this soldier still recognized that his actions were one that would require that he sneak out of his camp, and one in which he would have to surrender to authorities to answer for on his return. At least he recognized that his culture was one that condemned the killing of innocent people who had nothing to do with whomever might have caused his grief.

Whereas, in the case of the Taliban, we have a group of people who condemn this soldier for his actions – yet proudly support and defend the principle that one may go out and kill innocent people in response to some (perceived) crime. They condemn the person, while they praise and threaten to practice the principle that, in this case, the soldier may well have acted on.

In the case of the mass murderer - the American soldier - we fully recognize the need to confine and punish such a person.

Well, first we recognize that it is wrong to do harm to innocent people, which is why we require that his guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. These safeguards for protecting the innocent appear to be one of the principles of civilized society that the Taliban is having a hard time grasping.

However, once it has been determined that a person is guilty, then we recognize the right and the need to confine such a person, to condemn him, and to punish him - as a way of promoting an aversion to such actions in others. These are a part of the way that civilized society maintains itself.

Now, consider this: If we have good reason to confine, condemn, and punish the American mass murderer, what does this imply about the attitudes we should have towards Taliban leaders whose attitudes towards justice are actually worse than those of the soldier who committed this crime. What should we do about Taliban leaders who promise to do the very types of actions that, in the case of the soldier, we take to provide justification for condemnation, confinement, and punishment?

Ultimately, the pre-moral culture of the Taliban is one in which they simply are not given an understanding of the fundamental rules of justice, and where reason must be an utterly foreign concept.

I have mentioned my support for the Reason Rally. I am hoping that it will serve as a tool for saving lives and reducing suffering. One of the ways that I hope that it will do this is to organize people into providing an answer and promoting alternatives to the hypocritical, violent, revenge-driven murder of innocents that seems “justified” in certain primitive cultures.

We cannot have peace where mass murderers such as this American soldier go free and unchallenged. Things are worse when whole tribes proudly, incoherently, and hypocritically boast that they embrace principles that would support the very types of actions that this soldier performed.

You cannot have peace - and you cannot maintain a civilized society - where that society is filled with people who can so easily talk about killing innocent people. There will always be unnecessary death and suffering so long as those types of ideas go unchallenged and unanswered. One of the outcomes of the Reason Rally, I would hope, is the beginnings of an organization that will seek to find ways to end that suffering.

Of course, that answer would have to be consistent with the principles described here - the very principles that the Taliban leadership apparently fails to comprehend. This is that a person is to be assumed innocent until proven guilty and that guilt requires that some action has been performed - a type of action for which a proper apology would be possible even if it is not actually given.

Where these principles are in place and enforced, civilized society is a possibility.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Pennsylvania Atheists and the Makings of a Proper Apology

It appears that the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Atheists not only needs lessons in graphic design and marketing. They also need a moral lesson on the makings of a proper apology.

Hint: "I am sorry that you are all such idiots" is not an apology.

Their apology referred to a billboard they put up that showed a black slave and the Biblical command, "Slaves, obey your masters." The billboard was taken by many to be an offensive statement against blacks. In light of the controversy that followed,they offered this apology:

I want to say that I'm truly sorry that many people have misunderstood this billboard. It was never our intention to use race as our message itself.

(See: Atheist Billboard Controversy Stirs Racial Tensions in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)

This pretty much falls into the general category, "I am sorry that so many people misunderstood our message" fits in the category of, "I am sorry that there are so many idiots out there."

Here are the five elements of a proper apology illustrated with sample text:

(1) The apology itself.

I am truly sorry.

(2) A statement of personal responsibility. where the agent describes exactly what he or she did wrong.

We created a billboard that was so poorly designed that a casual observer could take it as an endorsement of black slavery when, in fact, it was meant to condemn slavery.

(3) An explanation as to why the action was wrong - demonstrating that the agent understands the nature of their mistake.

Slavery was a horrendous institution and the last thing we would want to do is give any impression that those horrors can be justified. That is actually why we decided to put up this sign. When the Pennsylvania legislature declared this the Year if the Bible, they effectively endorsed a book that contained this commandment to slaves, "Slave, obey your masters." They endorsed it. We opposed it.

For nearly the whole first century of this country's existence, Southern slave owners not only used this to justify slavery. They taught it to their slaves as a way of coercing those slaves into obedience even when their earthly masters were not looking. They told their slaves, "Even when I am not watching you, God is. When you do not fear me, fear Him."

We find it to be abhorrent that the Pennsylvania Legislature would make such an endorsement and sought to express our abhorrence with this sign.

However, we messed up. We messed up. We made a sign that, to somebody who encounters the sign without knowing its context, appears as an unpleasant reminder and a potential endorsement of the institution of slavery. It looks like a sign that some Southern plantation owner might have put up on the slave house wall. That is the last thing we wanted to do. That fact illustrates another fact that, in communication, context is important. We did not consider the fact that a lot of people who saw the sign would not know its context. I repeat, we messed up. I understand now - what I should have understood a month ago - how that sign might appear to somebody who saw it in a different context.

(4) A statement of the steps that will be taken to prevent similar events in the future.

We accept that it is our responsibility to make sure that our message is clearly understood. In the future, when we condemn those practices that contributed to and supported slavery - and we will continue to do so - we will make sure that we use a message that clearly condemns slavery. Unlike the Pennsylvania Legislature, we have no interest in even appearing to endorse those practices and institutions used in the defense of slavery. We will see to it that our future actions reflect that standard.

(5) A statement about how one intends to make up for the mistake.

In the light of these events, I am asking for a meeting with the leaders of the local NAACP and other leaders of the black community in order, first, to convey my apologies in person. And, second, to discuss how we may avoid similar mistakes in the future, and how we may better serve goals that are important to both of us - goals that include a fair and just treatment of all Americans regardless of race.

This is what a proper apology would look like.

Atheists are fallible human beings. We are not perfect. The practice of making an apology is well designed to reduce the damage that come from those imperfections and setting things quickly onto the right track again. When we make mistakes - as we certainly will - we should be quick to recognize them, and to put into practice those principles of apology that can quickly put things on the right track again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Reason Rally: Avoiding the Bigot's Fallacy

Those who are opposed to the Reason Rally have done a remarkable job of changing the subject whenever it gets uncomfortably close to talking about the costs of some of their policies in terms of human lives and well-being.

For example, they will come forth with a claim like, "But look at all of the good that religion has done," or "You have not looked at all of the religious views out there."

Some atheists and secularists try to respond directly to this type of comment.

However, I have a different response.

My response is:

Therefore . . . what?

Therefore . . . I should not protest the practice of stoning a young woman to death for the crime of being raped or for having sex outside of marriage – while she lays there as a bleeding pulp of flesh?

Therefore . . . I should not care about the child who dies from the lack of medical care because a simple procedure that could have saved his life was frowned on by his parent's religion?

"Therefore, I should not care about gangs going around torturing and killing teenagers who even look gay?"

"Therefore, I should be content to let hundreds of millions of people die an early death or endure prolonged suffering and disability who could have been helped by medical treatments that religious factions forbid?"

"Therefore, I should be happy that children are being taught to hate and fear science, where science gives us the best ability of predicting and, thus, avoiding future harms?"

"What are you driving at here? Why are you telling me this?"

If the answer is, "Well, I'm not talking about those things," my response is, "But I am!"

If the answer is, "Yes," then they should be made to say so. To stay in the conversation, they should say, "Yes, my arguments are meant to conclude that you should be content with these harms and injustices, just as I am."

However, these objections to the atheist claims are often - almost always - made without a thought as to their implications or relevance. What is worse is that, after the theist gives this irrelevant response, too many atheists go chasing after these red herrings and forget all about the need to save lives and reduce suffering.

To be honest, some secularists and atheists have made it easy for others to change the subject. They routinely make a specific logical error that leaves an opening for just this kind of move - and the consequence of changing the subject.

Yes, I am saying that some secularists are not the model of logical perfection that some want to believe themselves to be.

The mistake I am referring to involves making illogical and unwarranted leaps from premises that are true of "a religion" or "a set of religious beliefs", to conclusions about "religion" in general.

These are instances of the fallacy of hasty generalization - an informal logical fallacy that a lot of atheist leap right into.

This is a mistake for three reasons.

First, it is illogical. If we are going to hold that reasonable thinking is a virtue - which seems to be at least a part of the message of the Reason Rally - then we must shun and condemn violations of reason. These derogatory overgeneralizations are an example of that. Are we for reason and rationality? Or are we for unwarranted leaps of logic whenever they appear it gets us to a desired conclusion?

Second, this is how a bigoted mind thinks. It jumps from some wrong done by a subset of a group to derogatory generalizations about the whole group. When secularists and atheists make this mistake, they are showing themselves to be unreasoning bigots more interested in promoting dislike of a target group than rational discussion of relevant social issues. We do not need that type around here.

Third, it causes human suffering. It allows people to change the subject away from behavior that risks likes, promotes suffering, and allows religious interference with the peaceful lives of others. As a result, it provides a smoke screen behind which those practices can continue. Furthermore, it allows the manufacturers of this smoke screen to present the case that the atheist claims are logically invalid and morally hypocritical. As such, they are able to undermine everything else the speaker is trying to advance.

So, don't do it.

For example, if the subject of conversation is a set of beliefs that results in people denying life-saving medical care to children, then keep the conversation on that topic. Do not allow it to morph into a conversation about "religion". This is because some religions are not involved in denying life-saving medical care to children. That is a different subject.

If your opponent gives any answer like those I wrote about at the start of this post, or anything else that ultimately fails to address this issue, snap your fingers and say, "Over here. Focus. I am trying to save some lives here. We are talking about children dying or suffering permanent injury as a result of these bizarre beliefs. Are you interested in helping me save these children? Or do you think we should just let them die or continue to suffer while you go off on your tangent?"

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Speaking Up Against Irrational Policies

This week and next, I am writing in support if the Reason Rally.

I think it is important.

Imagine being in an airplane at 10,000 meters with two others who have decided, by means of a majority vote, that the three of you are going to jump - without parachutes. They claim that it is perfectly safe - the air will slow you down and you will all land safely.

You answer, "You'll hit the earth at approximately 175 kilometers per hour. That is terminal velocity. It is our lives that will get terminated."

They laugh. They say, "Approximately. See, you do not even know. Besides, listen to that emotion. You are really as bad as those religious fundamentalists - insisting that you must be right and utterly intolerant of any opinion that differs from your own. You are an arrogant bigot, Ms. Scientist. We have freedom of speech as well as freedom of religion on this airplane. This means that you must not say anything that questions or contradicts our faith. You must stay silent or, at least, give our soft-landing theory equal time along side of your terminal velocity theory which is, after all, just another theory. It's the only fair thing to do."

For centuries, we have been allowing these people to lead, politely deferring to them because - well, they have a habit of copping an attitude whenever somebody questions their judgment or beliefs. In some cases, they get violent. It is an effective defense mechanism. Our response has been to throw up our hands in surrender.

But this has gone on long enough. The time for giving a passive sigh and going along for the ride has ended. People are being killed and maimed. They are being made to suffer serious and long-term harms. They are being denied the opportunity to pursue the things they value by those whose primitive superstitious beliefs command them to stand in the way of the happiness of others.

It is time to put one's foot down.

"No! This has gone on long enough! Do the fracing math! My beliefs rest on a foundation that employs a method of making a constantly improving set of predictions about the effects of our actions. We ignore those facts at our peril."

They answer, "You have been wrong in the past. Even you admit that you can be wrong now."

Answer: "What part of 'constantly improving set of predictions' are you failing to understand? Yes, we scientists admit to the possibility of error. You cannot have a constantly improving set of beliefs without admitting that some old ones might be mistaken. You should try it."

The critic responds, "You can't prove that no God exists."

My answer to that is, "Don't change the subject. The subject is jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I can predict what will happen and it will not be pretty. Do you want to talk about God's existence? Land the plane and we'll discuss it."

They say, "There are other ways of knowing besides science."

Answer, "None of that is relevant to the prediction of what will happen if we jump out of this plane. Quit changing the subject."

It really is time to say, "Stop! This has gone on long enough!"

We really must live in a society in which everybody has a say. This is because we all gave different interests. Denying some group a say in how things are run almost inevitably turns those who do not have a say into the unwilling servants of those who do.

Furthermore, there are very good reasons to hold that the only legitimate response to words are words - and never violence. The only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign - a conflict of words and ideas rather than a conflict of bombs and bullets.

However, this civic right comes with a civic responsibility - a responsibility to think - to use one's head and the powers of reason to reach responsible conclusions. People who lead have an obligation to lead intelligently. People who vote have an obligation to vote intelligently. The people who will vote have an obligation to choose intelligent, thinking, reasonable and rational leaders.

It is not the case that the majority is always right. There is a real world out there that does not yield to our fantasies - no matter how large the majority that holds them. Convincing 300 other airplane passengers that it is safe to jump out of an airplane at 10,000 meters without a parachute will only change the number of people who die when they hit the earth.

If you are going to the Reason Rally, please take the time to think of this. You are on that airplane. You are surrounded by others whose actions - grounded on their faith - will have an effect on some that is quite literally the same as throwing them out of the airplane at altitude.

Isn't it time to say something?

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Reason Rally and the Crybaby Atheists

Are you going to the Reason Rally next weekend?

If you are undecided, I would like to offer a small shove in the direction of going.

I can't go - I have a job to attend to and live quite some distance away. However, for those who are on the fence, please consider climbing off the fence on the side of attending, and encouraging others to do the same. The greater the number of attendees, the greater the impact.

If you cannot go, I would still like to recommend that you support it socially (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, water-cooler conversation, comments).

I will be doing this – starting today.

I am going to have the audacity to suggest some things to focus on - and to avoid - with respect to the Reason Rally. It is wise to plan ahead. You know all of those things you wish you would have said or done but you didn't think of them at the time? Now is the time to work on avoiding that.

For example, political and social opponents of the Reason Rally are already at work defining the Reason Rally in their own terms. They will seek to minimize, trivialize, denigrate, and belittle the event. They have a political and social incentive to push secularists to the margins of society. Failure to recognize the fact that this gives them reason to act would be naive.

We are already seeing attempts to brand the Reason Rally as a bunch of cry-babies whining about how oppressed they are. Atheists are not being rounded up and herded into gas chambers, sold into slavery, lynched by bands of citizens in white sheets or hoods, or being beaten, tied to fence posts, and left for dead. So atheists should quit their whining and go home.


Now, here is a lesson in how to control another group's agenda. You offer a mass of complaints and protests that define the group in your own terms and assigns to them the identity you want to them to have. Human nature will entice them to respond to the criticisms directly. This is what they will do naturally – unless they are savvy enough to have prepared a different response. When they respond as predicted, you will have been effective at picking the subject of the conversation. In this case, the subject is that of a bunch of cry-baby atheists playing the oppressed card on the national mall thinking themselves the modern equivalent of the Civil Rights movement.

My first recommendation is to be aware of this form of political manipulation and prepare for it.

Have an idea of what you want to accomplish, and do not let your opponent take you off of your message and define the Rally in their own terms.

I would suggest that you go the Reason Rally with the intent of saving lives and reducing suffering that spring from actions founded on beliefs that are simply unreasonable.

This is for the people who suffer and die because they find themselves surrounded by people who accept primitive bigotries and superstitions and who act on them in ways that are harmful.

Yes, the atheists are among the victims - theists have hijacked the Pledge and the Motto and other social and political rituals to create a climate utterly hostile to atheist political candidates. In doing so, they act to reserve political power for themselves and fellow believers.

However, atheists are only one set of a long list of victims.

That list also includes the sick and injured - people suffering from any number of diseases and injuries for whom treatments are being blocked by unreasonable people wed to primitive superstitions. Worldwide, these people number in the hundreds of millions - and some of their suffering is extreme. If you attend the Reason Rally, or address it in your writings and conversations, do so with the intent to help clear the superstitions that keep these people from obtaining the medical treatment that would ease their suffering and save their lives.

Do you think that the person who spends her life in a wheelchair when she could be walking around because some evangelical demands that she stay in her chair is a whiner who has nothing to complain about?

Do you know somebody who fits this description? If so, you should see if you can get her to the Rally.

We are talking about honor killings and exorcisms to drive out demons, and parents withholding life-saving medical treatment from young children because they have fallen into some faith-healing cult that shuns science and modern medicine. Some of these children die. Others suffer permanent damage. Is this not worth complaining about?

We are talking about committed couples denied the legal and social means to form a life together for no reason other than people from a church they do not belong to think that their God values nothing more than denying these people a quality life. Many of these religiously motivated bigots shun all other discussion and all other issues, because nothing to them is more important than denying happiness to this group of people.

There is news today of religious gangs in Iraq hunting down, torturing, and killing teenagers who even appear gay. (See: CBS News: "Emo" and gay kids targeted, killed in Iraq

Let us not forget the young girls stoned to death for the crime of being raped.

Let us not forget the diseases spreading through Africa and other parts of the world, in part caused by religions that block attempts to promote the most useful methods of preventing the spread of disease because those methods conflict with their primitive mythologies.

We have children growing up ignorant of the real world because their parents want them to continue to accept the superstitions of the Dark Ages and have taught their children to hate and fear science. Because of this, they cannot understand, nor can they contribute to forming a sound social policy on real-world concerns.

Reality matters.

You can have all of the faith in the world that the train coming down the tracks is not real, but that will not prevent you and your children from getting splattered all over the tracks when you decide to go ahead and step onto the tracks.

Science gives us the ability to predict the future. It gives us the ability to see the trains that are heading our direction before they get here so that we – human civilization - can avoid being splattered all over the tracks. Having such a huge voting block that hates and fears science and denies its conclusions on faith will cost lives and cause suffering. Reality simply will not yield to their fantasies.

We have religious leaders who are seeking access to nuclear weapons who think that their god gives them permission to start lobbing them at infidels. We have other religious leaders who think that they can bring about the End of Days and the second coming of whatever Lord they believe in by bringing about their religion’s version of some great conflict between good and evil – who, of course, think that they are on the side of goodness.

This is only a partial list of issues that are worthy of our concern.

If you are going to the Reason Rally - or if you are writing about it - please do so with an eye firmly fixed on the goal of saving lives, easing suffering, giving people the liberty to pursue their one and only life in this universe untrammeled by primitive superstition. Make those objectives known. And do not let critics and opponents distract you from those worthy goals.

Do not let them change the subject.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Changing Definitions and Ending Civilization

Cardinal Keith O'Brien's protests against gay marriage are utterly silly and laughable if not for the fact that human beings use such a stupid argument to cause harm to others.

If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman? Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

(See: The Telegraph, We cannot afford to indulge this madness.

See, not long ago the American Astronomical Union changed the definition of "planet". Under the new definition, Pluto would not qualify. There were some protests and complaints about it - particularly from people who were sentimental about the idea of Pluto being called a planet. However, I can imagine that Cardinal O'Brien must have been entirely beside himself!

If this new definition of 'planet' were to become accepted by the International Astronomical Union, what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that 'planet' has always meant - and and has only ever meant – a large ball of rock or gas orbiting a sun that is naturally round. Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

Gad! The horrors of it all! The very essence of civilization and all of our human rights are bound up in the fact that the meanings of words cannot change! Allow the meaning of a word to change, and the next thing you know you have absolute tyranny! Never before, in all of human history, has a civilization been able to survive the re-definition of a term!

Well, we will ignore the fact that 'malaria' used to mean 'bad air' - and was used to refer to a disease that people simply assume was caused by . . . literally . . . bad air. Ancient caretakers of the sick would wear these long flowing robes with hoods that had long pointed snouts soaked in perfume to sweeten the air that the wearer breathed. It was assumed to keep those who wore them from breathing in this bad air and getting sick. However, one of those midevil doctors complained that the only thing these robes were good for was to keep the mosquitos off.

Then there was the time that chemists changed the definition of "atom". In its original meaning, "atom" meant "without parts". It was thought that matter was made up of a smallest particle that, itself, had no parts. After all, you couldn't split matter indefinitely into smaller and smaller parts. It had to have an end somewhere. The name they used for this smallest and unbreakable particle of matter was "atom".

Then some people came up with this absurd theory that the particles they had been calling atoms since the days of the ancient Greeks actually had parts. The new theory said that atoms had a nucleus made up of protons and (usually) neutrols, and was (usually) circled by one or more protons. Atoms could be split!

Now, as we well know, as soon as the definition of atom changed, this brought in a new era of tyranny and oppression. Freedoms were thrown out the world over as those who once used the term 'atom' to mean 'without parts' were forced to their knees to yield their very lives and freedom to those who said that hanceforth, atoms had parts.

That era of great tyranny is now known as . . .

. . . as . . .

Sorry, I can't think of it right now. I am sure it must have happened, just as Cardinal O'Brien says.

The ability of these primative superstitious beliefs to clog rational thought on matters where people do harm to others is amazing.

I would hold that a decent, moral person gives others the benefit of the doubt. I would hold that others be given the freedom to decide how to live their own lives as they see fit - that a presumption always be given in terms of liberty - and that liberty is only to be restricted when the evidence is such strength that it compels us to remove it.

The primative superstition of the Catholic Church has brought them to come up with the most absurd and irrational defense of denying others the life those others will choose for themselves. O'Brien writes that we are about to bring down civilization itself, merely because a word changes definition and people are given the liberty to harmlessly pursue a relationship they judge to be suitable to their nature.

It does not matter that the Catholic Church declares that gay marriage is not suitable to human nature. To the Catholic Church, It is not your life - and thus not your decision to make for others. Leave these people alone.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Hypothetical Atheist Candidate - The "Religion" Speech

Assume that there was an atheist candidate running for public office.

One of the things that candidate will have to do is give a speech on religion. Kennedy - the first Catholic President - had to do it. Romney had to give one as well -and he substantially blew his. People will have questions, and the candidate should be ready to answer them.

Well - in imagining such a speech, I imagine it going something like this.

I believe that there is no god. Some of you disagree with me on that point. The reason I am here is to talk about that disagreement in the context of my candidacy.

The first thing I want you to do is to turn to the person to your right or your left. It does not matter who that person is. It could be your spouse, your child, or your parent. It could be your best friend since the fourth grade, or the army buddy who saved your life and whose life you saved a dozen times. It could be your identical twin. It does not matter. I guarantee that there us some matter on which you and that person disagree.

If there is anybody who cannot get along with others with whom they disagree, that person is going to have a sad and lonely life. And, probably, a short life. Look at how many ways we depend on each other just to survive.

We all disagree with each other on something.

Here is another thing I can tell you with near certainty. If we make a list of the things on which we disagree, I guarantee you that there will be at least one item on that list where you are right and I am wrong. I guarantee it.

I do not know what those mystery facts are. If I knew, I would change my mind, and they would no longer be points of disagreement.

That is why it is important for me to listen.

This is why freedom of speech is so important. It is utter arrogance for anybody to say that they are so absolutely infallible that they have permission to use a gun, or a bomb, or the law, to silence those who disagree with them - or to force others to act as if they agree. I need to hear what others have to say. That is the only way that I can learn.

Freedom of speech requires a freedom to criticize. Some people seem to have gotten the idea that freedom of speech means a freedom FROM criticism. They address criticism by saying, "You have no right to question my beliefs. When you question my beliefs, you show me disrespect. Showing me disrespect is wrong. Therefore, you must not criticize."

I do not agree.

In fact, I think that the position I just described is absurd. How can anybody possibly come to the conclusion that the right to freedom of speech means that all critics must sit down and shut up. Criticism IS speech. The right to freedom of speech IS the right to criticize the beliefs of others. Taking away the right to criticize is not protecting freedom of speech - it is destroying freedom of speech.

So, between me and every one of you, we are bound to find a list of things over which we disagree. In some of those cases, inevitably, there is at least one in which you are right and I am wrong. The only way for me to know what those cases are is to listen to what you say. A person should never silence their critics. A person should never be so arrogant so as to say, "If you criticize my beliefs, then you disrespect me as a person; therefore, you must not criticize my beliefs."

The next question to ask, when there is a difference of opinion, is whether that difference is important . . . or, more to the point, whether that difference should be considered important.

I have a little story to tell that will explain my answer.

Let us assume that we were all in an airplane together. We are flying across the Pacific. We are off course. We crash on some island and there is no hope for an immediate rescue.

What are our priorities?

Priority number one: Come to universal agreement on whether a god exists and, if so, on the properties of that god.



Take care of the sick and injured, find water, find food, obtain shelter, and provide for our security. We need to protect ourselves and each other from nature itself - hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and freezing temperatures. We may need to protect ourselves and each other from hostile tribes. We definitely need to protect ourselves and each other from the predators and parasites among us.

It is best that we divide into teams and that jobs are assigned to those with the best skills and appropriate education. Those with medical experience start tending to the sick and injured, those who know plants can take a team to harvest plants, we can send out a hunting party, and send a team to capturing rainwater or collect water from a stream and boil it, or to dig a well.

A fire . . . Yes. That is important. We will need a source of energy - a source that will last, one that will not destroy our food and water supply or destroy our health.

Speaking more generally, one of the things we will need to do is to make sure that we will not run out of things we need. We will need to care for our environment to make sure we can continue to live off of it in the future.

We can debate God when our chores are done.

Well, there is seven billion of us crash-landed on this island in space called Earth. We need to take care of the sick and injured, obtain clean water, food, shelter - some more than others. We have not met any potentially hostile tribes - and, with luck, we never will. But it remains a possibility. However, we do need protection from nature, and we need protection from the predators and parasites among us.

As your candidate, these are my priorities. This is what I believe we should focus on.

You have a right to know how my beliefs will impact my decisions on how we obtain these goals.

Well, I will ask the scientists to look around us. I will ask them to tell us where we can find clean water or how we can make it. I will ask them to tell us which plants we can safely eat, and which will help us to care for the sick and injured. One of the things that scientists are great at is making predictions. I will ask them to establish systems to warn us when nature is about to strike, and when our actions have potential long-term costs. I will ask them where we can find sources of energy and how to use it efficiently. I will also ask them to tell me how we can identify predators and parasites among us, from DNA testing to polygraphs to psychological profiling.

And I will listen to what they have to say.

You have a right to know how my beliefs will affect my policies.

I believe that we live in a universe that does not care about our survival. It could wipe us out in an instant without a twinge of regret. We can destroy ourselves - there is no supernatural force protecting us from us. Some people claim that we can be reckless - as a species - because God will save us from the worst that could happen. No, that's not true. We must be careful. We must learn about the universe so that we can see these threats before they strike and so that we can prevent the harms - and harvest the benefits - they contain.

We can make mistakes. There is nothing out there that will save us from our own folly. We need to know and understand the real world. We need to discover the forces that threaten us while there is still time to prepare a response. We can make horrible mistakes - mistakes of commission, and mistakes of omission. We need to make sure that we avoid those mistakes.

You have a right to know how my beliefs will affect my policies.

I believe that markets work. Markets carry information - allowing people to react to more data faster than any political system could dream to match. Let us assume that a new technology is announced tomorrow at 9:00 AM eastern time that will double the efficiency of solar cells and halve their cost.

It will take the political system a considerable amount of time to respond to this new information - if ever. And the response will not necessarily be positive. There will be entrenched special interests with more of a desire to suppress this new technology than to support it.

However, if this technology were announced at 9:00, the market itself will start to respond by 9:00:01. What does it take to build these solar cells? The market will immediately start to bid those resources away from the least useful alternatives for those resources - which means identifying the least useful alternatives. It will immediately provide an incentive for people to go out and find more of those resources. It will immediately stop investment in more expensive alternatives - directing money and resources into producing the products that this new technology makes available.

Markets work, where they are allowed to operate.

But markets are not perfect. There are some problems with markets.

Sometimes, it is just too expensive to create a market and we have to live with the fact that some goods are public goods. The oceans, the air we breathe, and the climate are public goods - like it or not. We cannot divide the climate into chunks of private property and bid for them on the open market.

Also, markets allow those with a great deal of money to bid resources away from those with little money - even though the people with little money have a more highly valued use for those resources. A rich person can bid a bottle of water to use to shampoo her dog away from a poor person would have used it to care for her sick child. The rich person's willingness to spend $2000 for that bottle of water does not prove that the shampooed dog has more overall value than the relief of a sick child's thirst where the mother only has $2 to spend.

I believe that markets are vitally important in directing the use of resources. I believe they are not perfect. You have the right to know that.

Do I care that you pray or go to church?

There are more vital things to worry about.

On the question of whether or not some god exists, I disagree with what some of you believe. And you disagree with what I believe.

However, I hope that we can agree on the need to work together to provide clean water, good food, medical care, energy, security from the forces of nature, and security from human predators and parasites among us. I hope we can agree that solving these problems requires a right to freedom of speech that includes the right to freedom to criticize. It requires using the ability of free markets to transmit information and to respond to changes faster than any bureaucracy can hope to match, and the wisdom to know that, for some vital resources, we cannot efficiently set up markets and markets create a few problems we need to watch out for.