Tag: evil

How Atheism Can Make the World Better By Tearing Down Religious Irrationality

From Alternet, By Amanda Marcotte  

Atheism is not just about disproving religious belief; it’s also a burgeoning social justice movement intent on tearing down the social structures that perpetuate injustice.

Few groups are as vilified as atheists. They tend to be viewed as party poopers bent on dismantling the cherished beliefs of “people of faith.” While that element of the atheist community does exist–as is verified by the endless websites and books dedicated solely to tackling the logical flaws in religious claims–the reality is that the growing movement of outspoken atheists have far more on offer than winning arguments with people who believe in a god. Atheism is also a burgeoning social justice movement that looks to tear down the social structures that have perpetuated injustice for millennia.

Just as feminists take on the patriarchy, peace activists fight the ideology of war, civil rights activists and abolitionists dismantle the traditions of racism, and humanists erode authoritarian hierarchies, atheists are standing up and saying that the human race needs to evolve beyond religion. And it’s this social justice model that’s invigorating a new generation of atheists to move beyond just quietly disbelieving into openly challenging religious irrationality.

Blame the religious right for pushing atheists in this new, more political direction. The past couple of decades have seen an explosion in fundamentalist energy and power. The immediacy of the fundamentalist threat to science, education and human rights starkly demonstrates that the problem of religion extends beyond its inherent irrationality. Many atheists who find endless proofs against god tiring find themselves drawn to organized atheism as a weapon against this religious threat to liberty and free inquiry.

Even though many liberal religious people exist, at its base, the argument between god believers and atheists is roughly the same argument as that between conservatives and progressives. Liberalism is rooted in the humanist tradition, which demands that society and government prioritize human needs and desires, using the tools of rationality and evidence toward those goals. Conservativism values hierarchy and tradition and rejects evidence-based reasoning in favor of arguments from authority. The imaginary god provides the perfect conservative authority; a completely evidence-free, ultimate authority that can make pronouncements believers are expected to simply submit to. Submission and faith are built into even the most liberal Christian traditions, in direct contrast to the humanist philosophy of questioning and demanding evidence.

Humanism has given birth to progressivism by opening up space to question some of the oldest prejudices: the belief that men are better than women, that gays are “unnatural,” that different skin colors or ethnicities automatically means different roles and mental abilities, that people are wealthier because they’re more deserving, that kings rule by divine right. When you start asking hard questions of these other beliefs, you often discover that the rationale for all of them tends to circle back toward “God said so.” By questioning this most fundamental of beliefs, that there is a god and he’s making the rules, we can call into question the illogic of all these other beliefs.

Despite the atheist movement’s emphasis on proofs against supernatural claims, many, if not most people who join the atheist movement came to atheism because they were questioning other beliefs and traditions. Certainly this was my path. I never really “believed” in god growing up, but I didn’t identify as an atheist either. I just didn’t think about the issue much. Feminism compelled me to start looking harder at religious arguments against women’s equality, and in doing so, I realized that without a forceful response to religious irrationality, feminist progress would be stymied. And so I started engaging logical arguments supporting what seemed self-evident to me, that there couldn’t be any gods, and therefore no supernatural beings whose authority can be invoked when anti-feminists lack real-world evidence for their claims.

I’m far from alone in this. Last November, when I spoke on feminism and atheism at the annual atheist/skeptical conference in Springfield, MO, I met dozens of young and eager atheists. A solid majority of them had come to the movement after feeling oppressed by religion. Some people had grown up in fundamentalist communities whose backward beliefs about gender and sexuality drove them to start asking questions, while others had dealt with conflicts between their own love of science and the claims of religion. Still others had mostly dealt with moderate or even liberal churches, but were disappointed by the way even the most liberal religions discourage hard questions. In other words, these people began from a position of valuing progressive ideals, and those values led them to the atheist community.

Online atheist communities find their secular values make a sort of “pure” atheism that’s largely apolitical and impossible to maintain. The popular atheist/skeptic website Skepchick started mainly to highlight women who support atheism, rational inquiry and science, but over time the site made a turn toward the explicitly feminist, in part because of the constant drumbeat of fact-free claims about women’s roles being made by religious figures in the media. Links between atheism and progressivism have also been easy to make for proponents of gay rights and sexual liberation, as demonstrated by recent research showing that those who lose their faith and embrace atheism report an improved sex life.

But atheist progressives shouldn’t feel limited to arguments about gender and sexuality when linking their atheism to broader issues. There’s plenty of room for an atheist environmentalism — since there’s no afterlife, we should prioritize taking care of the one world we do have. Or an atheist economic liberalism — since there’s no such thing as “providence,” it’s our responsibility to care for the poor and the needy.

Atheists are only by limited by our imaginations in seeking ways to make our lack of faith as central to our view of a just world as religious people make their faith central to their worldviews.

Emphasis Mine

see:http://www.alternet.org/story/151501/how_atheism_can_make_the_world_better_by_tearing_down_religious_irrationality?akid=7207.123424.XFlFzK&rd=1&t=5

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Science vs. Religion, next round

From Alternet, by Victor Stenger

In my previous blog I claimed that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. To reiterate, the reason I gave was their differing epistemologies. Science relies only on what we observe with our senses, while religion claims an additional inner sense that reveals another world beyond.

Now let me take a look at some specific examples where these contrasting notions on the sources of knowledge lead to incompatibilities in their comprehension of the nature of reality.

1. The Transcendent

All religions, even Buddhism, teach that a reality exists that goes beyond — transcends — the world that presents itself to our senses and scientific instruments. While science is willing to consider any evidence that comes along, so far we have no empirical anomaly that requires us to introduce supernatural causes into our models.

In this regard, it is often claimed that science has nothing to say about the supernatural. But this is wrong. If the supernatural exists and has effects on the sensory world, then those effects would be observable and subject to scientific study. A God that plays such an important role in the universe and in human lives as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God should have been detected by now. The fact that he hasn’t forces us to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God with those attributes does not exist.

Let me take a moment to show why I can make such a claim. Even the most pious believer has to admit that there is no scientific evidence for God. If there were, it would be in the textbooks along with the evidence for neutrinos and DNA. But then, the believer will say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

While this may be true in general, it is not true when the evidence that is absent is evidence that should be there. The absence of evidence for elephants in Central Park (droppings, crushed bushes) can be taken as a good sign that there are none.

    • If the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God exists we should see evidence that he answers prayers. We do not.
    • If he reveals truths by extrasensory means, we should be able to verify those truths. We do not.
  • If God or the supernatural is glimpsed in religious experiences, we should be able to confirm it. We do not.

In short, the world looks just like it should look if there is no God with these attributes.  True that this does not rule out other gods, such a deist god that does not act in the universe. But we can rule out the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God to a high degree of probability (see God: The Failed Hypothesis).

2. The Origin of the Universe

Fundamental to most religions is the notion of divine creation. At one time it seemed impossible that the universe could have come into existence naturally. Christians saw the success of the big bang model as a further confirmation of the biblical creation story. At least it seemed to prove that the universe had a beginning and it followed, by their reasoning, that the cause of that beginning could only be a personal Creator God.

Modern cosmology has considerably dampened this hope. It has shown that the big bang need not have been the beginning of space and time and that the universe could be eternal. At least, theological claims that an eternal universe is mathematically impossible can be proven false. It now seems possible or even likely that our universe is just one of an unlimited number of other universes.

Several plausible scenarios for the natural origin of our universe have been published by reputable scholars. While we cannot say exactly how our universe came about, these scenarios, which are completely worked out mathematically and consistent with all existing knowledge, at least prove that a divine creation is not required.

3. Fine-Tuning

Many theologians and others have claimed that the parameters of physics are so delicately balanced that any slight changes in their values and life would not have been possible. Therefore they conclude that a creator must have fine-tuned these parameters so that we, and our form of life, would evolve.

This claim can be refuted on several fronts. The most popular explanation among most physicists and cosmologists is that many universes exist and we just happen to live in the one suited for us.

However, even if only our universe exists, adequate explanations within existing knowledge can be found for the values of the most crucial parameters. Others can be shown to have ranges that make some form of life probable (see The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning).

4. The Argument from Design

For centuries theologians have argued that the observed order we see around us is evidence for divine design in the universe. However, the universe does not look at all as if it were designed by a perfect, all-powerful, benevolent God. It is too imperfect, too filled with evil and suffering. And, as time has gone by, science has provided plausible explanations for the observed order.

Proponents of intelligent design creationism argue that complex structures require an architect and builder, and that natural processes cannot generate increasing complexity. They are wrong. The generation of complex systems from simpler systems can be seen in many physical situations, such as the phase transitions in which water goes naturally from gas to liquid to solid in the absence of external energy. In the physical and biological worlds, simplicity begets complexity.

The reason for much of the mistrust of science is the fundamental incompatibility of science and religion and the religious know that. At least evangelicals are honest about it. They recognize science as the enemy. Liberal and moderate believers, on the other hand, are fooling themselves if they think that can be both religious and scientific without being schizophrenic.

emphasis mine

see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/victor-stenger/why-science-and-religion-_2_b_887256.html

Is ‘Easter’ manifestly evil?

Easter is the Christian implementation of the Spring Equinox festival, celebrated by most cultures who happen to inhabit the Northern Hemisphere of our planet.  In the Christian instantiation, it is based on accepting the dogma that ‘god’ sacrificed his ‘son’ to suffer for the ‘sins’ of the entire human population.

Issues I have include:

o A completely pre modern, anthropomorphic religious view (son of god).

o Venerating the barbaric, superstitious  practice of seeking supernatural favors with the sacrifice of any living creature – let alone a Human being!

o Disconnecting Humans from responsibility for their own actions (died for our ‘sins’).

As Humans, we celebrate the spring as a manifestation of the rebirth of life, and perhaps as a fresh start: that alone is sufficient.

The Science of Morality

The issue is not whether we can achieve morality without religion, but rather could we achieve it with religion: the answers are found in science, not in foundation myths or supernaturalism.

In this post, Sam Harris examines utilizing science to establish a viable, global, civilization.

(See: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.harris.html)

“[SAM HARRIS:] What I intended to say today has been pushed around a little bit by what has already been said and by a couple of sidebar conversations. That is as it should be, no doubt. But if my remarks are less linear than you would hope, blame that — and the jet lag.

I think we should differentiate three projects that seem to me to be easily conflated, but which are distinct and independently worthy endeavors. The first project is to understand what people do in the name of “morality.” We can look at the world, witnessing all of the diverse behaviors, rules, cultural artifacts, and morally salient emotions like empathy and disgust, and we can study how these things play out in human communities, both in our time and throughout history. We can examine all these phenomena in as nonjudgmental a way as possible and seek to understand them. We can understand them in evolutionary terms, and we can understand them in psychological and neurobiological terms, as they arise in the present. And we can call the resulting data and the entire effort a “science of morality”. This would be a purely descriptive science of the sort that I hear Jonathan Haidt advocating.

For most scientists, this project seems to exhaust all that legitimate points of contact between science and morality — that is, between science and judgments of good and evil and right and wrong. But I think there are two other projects that we could concern ourselves with, which are arguably more important.

The second project would be to actually get clearer about what we mean, and should mean, by the term “morality,” Understanding how it relates to human well-being altogether, and to actually use this new discipline to think more intelligently about how to maximize human well-being. Of course, philosophers may think that this begs some of the important questions, and I’ll get back to that. But I think this is a distinct project, and it’s not purely descriptive. It’s a normative project. The question is, how can we think about moral truth in the context of science?

The third project is a project of persuasion: How can we persuade all of the people who are committed to silly and harmful things in the name of “morality” to change their commitments, to have different goals in life, and to lead better lives? I think that this third project is actually the most important project facing humanity at this point in time. It subsumes everything else we could care about — from arresting climate change, to stopping nuclear proliferation, to curing cancer, to saving the whales. Any effort that requires that we collectively get our priorities straight and marshal massive commitments of time and resources would fall within the scope of this project.Obviously the project of moral To build a viable global civilization we must begin on the same economic, political, and environmental goals. persuasion is very difficult — but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right and wrong about questions of morality or about questions of human values. Understanding right and wrong in universal terms is Project Two, and that’s what I’m focused on.

There are impediments to thinking about Project Two: the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people — certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists — have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil.

My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. The first thing I should point out is that, apart from being untrue, this view has consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

But, of course, it has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conception of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.

Definitions matter. And in science we are always in the business of framing conversations and making definitions. There is nothing about this process that condemns us to epistemological relativism or that nullifies truth claims. We define “physics” as, loosely speaking, our best effort to understand the behavior of matter and energy in the universe. The discipline is defined with respect to the goal of understanding how matter behaves.

Of course, anyone is free to define “physics” in some other way. A Creationist physicist could come into the room and say, “Well, that’s not my definition of physics. My physics is designed to match the Book of Genesis.” But we are free to respond to such a person by saying, “You know, you really don’t belong at this conference. That’s not ‘physics’ as we are interested in it. You’re using the word differently. You’re not playing our language game.” Such a gesture of exclusion is both legitimate and necessary. The fact that the discourse of physics is not sufficient to silence such a person, the fact that he cannot be brought into our conversation about physics, does not undermine physics as a domain of objective truth.

And yet, on the subject of morality, we seem to think that the possibility of differing opinions, the fact that someone can come forward and say that his morality has nothing to do with human flourishing — but depends upon following shariah law, for instance — the fact that such position can be articulated proves, in some sense, that there’s no such thing as moral truth. Morality, therefore, must be a human invention. The fact that it is possible to articulate a different position is considered a problem for the entire field. But this is a fallacy.

We have an intuitive physics, but much of our intuitive physics is wrong with respect to the goal of understanding how matter and energy behave in this universe. I am saying that we also have an intuitive morality, and much of our intuitive morality may be wrong with respect to the goal of maximizing human flourishing — and with reference to the facts that govern the well-being of conscious creatures, generally.

So I will argue, briefly, that the only sphere of legitimate moral concern is the well-being of conscious creatures. I’ll say a few words in defense of this assertion, but I think the idea that it has to be defended is the product of several fallacies and double standards that we’re not noticing. I don’t know that I will have time to expose all of them, but I’ll mention a few.

Thus far, I’ve introduced two things: the concept of consciousness and the concept of well-being. I am claiming that consciousness is the only context in which we can talk about morality and human values. Why is consciousness not an arbitrary starting point? Well, what’s the alternative? Just imagine someone coming forward claiming to have some other source of value that has nothing to do with the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. Whatever this is, it must be something that cannot affect the experience of anything in the universe, in this life or in any other.

If you put this imagined source of value in a box, I think what you would have in that box would be — by definition — the least interesting thing in the universe. It would be — again, by definition — something that cannot be cared about. Any other source of value will have some relationship to the experience of conscious beings. So I don’t think consciousness is an arbitrary starting point. When we’re talking about right and wrong, and good and evil, and about outcomes that matter, we are necessarily talking about actual or potential changes in conscious experience.

I would further add to that the concept of “well-being” captures everything we can care about in the moral sphere. The challenge is to have a definition of well-being that is truly open-ended and can absorb everything we care about. This is why I tend not to call myself a “consequentialist” or a “utilitarian,” because traditionally, these positions have bounded the notion of consequences in such a way as to make them seem very brittle and exclusive of other concerns — producing a kind of body count calculus that only someone with Asperger’s could adopt.

Consider the Trolley Problem: If there just is, in fact, a difference between pushing a person onto the tracks and flipping a switch — perhaps in terms of the emotional consequences of performing these actions — well, then this difference has to be taken into account. Or consider Peter Singer’s Shallow Pond problem: We all know that it would take a very different kind of person to walk past a child drowning in a shallow pond, out of concern for getting one’s suit wet, than it takes to ignore an appeal from UNICEF. It says much more about you if you can walk past that pond. If we were all this sort of person, there would be terrible ramifications as far as the eye can see. It seems to me, therefore, that the challenge is to get clear about what the actual consequences of an action are, about what changes in human experience are possible, and about which changes matter.

In thinking about a universal framework for morality, I now think in terms of what I call a “moral landscape.” Perhaps there is a place in hell for anyone who would repurpose a cliché in this way, but the phrase, “the moral landscape” actually captures what I’m after: I’m envisioning a space of peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to the heights of flourishing possible for any conscious system, and the valleys correspond to the deepest depths of misery.

To speak specifically of human beings for the moment: any change that can affect a change in human consciousness would lead to a translation across the moral landscape. So changes to our genome, and changes to our economic systems — and changes occurring on any level in between that can affect human well-being for good or for ill — would translate into movements within this hypothetical space of possible human experience.

A few interesting things drop out of this model: Clearly, it is possible, or even likely, that there are many peaks on the moral landscape. To speak specifically of human communities: perhaps there is a way to maximize human flourishing in which we follow Peter Singer as far as we can go, and somehow train ourselves to be truly dispassionate to friends and family, without weighting our children’s welfare more than the welfare of other children, and perhaps there’s another peak where we remain biased toward our own children, within certain limits, while correcting for this bias by creating a social system which is, in fact, fair. Perhaps there are a thousand different ways to tune the variable of selfishness versus altruism, to land us on a peak on the moral landscape.

However, there will be many more ways to not be on a peak. And it is clearly possible to be wrong about how to move from our present position to the nearest available peak. This follows directly from the observation that whatever conscious experiences are possible for us are a product of the way the universe is. Our conscious experience arises out of the laws of nature, the states of our brain, and our entanglement with the world. Therefore, there are right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing in any moment.

This becomes incredibly easy to see when we imagine there being only two people on earth: we can call them Adam and Eve. Ask yourself, are there right and wrong answers to the question of how Adam and Eve might maximize their well-being? Clearly there are. Wrong answer number one: they can smash each other in the face with a large rock. This will not be the best strategy to maximize their well-being.

Of course, there are zero sum games they could play. And yes, they could be psychopaths who might utterly fail to collaborate. But, clearly, the best responses to their circumstance will not be zero-sum. The prospects of their flourishing and finding deeper and more durable sources of satisfaction will only be exposed by some form of cooperation. And all the worries that people normally bring to these discussions — like deontological principles or a Rawlsian concern about fairness — can be considered in the context of our asking how Adam and Eve can navigate the space of possible experiences so as to find a genuine peak of human flourishing, regardless of whether it is the only peak. Once again, multiple, equivalent but incompatible peaks still allow for a realistic space in which there are right and wrong answers to moral questions.

One thing we must not get confused about is the difference between answers in practice and answers in principle. Needless to say, fully understanding the possible range of experiences available to Adam and Eve represents a fantastically complicated problem. And it gets more complicated when we add 6.7 billion to the experiment. But I would argue that it’s not a different problem; it just gets more complicated.

By analogy, consider economics: Is economics a science yet? Apparently not, judging from the last few years. Maybe economics will never get better than it is now. Perhaps we’ll be surprised every decade or so by something terrible, and we’ll be forced to concede that we’re blinded by the complexity of our situation. But to say that it is difficult or impossible to answer certain problems in practice does not even slightly suggest that there are no right and wrong answers to these problems in principle.

The complexity of economics would never tempt us to say that there are no right and wrong ways to design economic systems, or to respond to financial crises. Nobody will ever say that it’s a form of bigotry to criticize another country’s response to a banking failure. Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.

And yet that is exactly where we stand as an intellectual community on the most important questions in human life. I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery. We have convinced ourselves that somehow science is by definition a value-free space, and that we can’t make value judgments about beliefs and practices that needlessly derail our attempts to build happy and sane societies.

The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing, or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to the cut heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in of the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.”

Religion: Good or Evil?

Is religion:

a: evil

b: good

c: none of the above

d: a & b,  above

This classic question is answered ‘d’ by Robert Wright, in an interview – see: http://www.alternet.org/rights/141225

“Is religion a force for good or ill? This question has been more energetically debated over the last few years, globally, due to the West’s confrontation with radical Islam, and in the U.S., to the political emergence and activism of evangelical Christians. This was brought to a head with the misadventures of George W. Bush, from Teri Shiavo to Bagdhad.”

Mr. Wright – who has the audacity to use history as a basis – observes that religions have historically been either of these, depending on the time and the particular environment….According to Wright, “The moral of the story is simple: When people see their interests threatened by another group, this perception brings out the most belligerent parts of their religion. Such circumstances are good news for violent extremists and bad news for moderates. What Obama is trying to do — make Palestinians feel less threatened, and make Muslims generally feel more respected — may now, as it did in ancient times, bring out the tolerant side of a religion.”

For the whole story, click the above link.

Emphasis mine.