When it rains it pours

I am just in a great mood! I had such a wonderful weekend, and I want to share it with the world.

Being polyamorous with someone as wonderful as my dear Ginny is amazing in itself.  I feel very lucky to have someone who fits me so well, who is so beautiful inside and out, and who I can expect to spend a fun, nurturing, and challenging (in the good way) life.  But recently we met a couple who just got married, and since they are also polyamorous (and they are not exactly a couple; there is a third in there), we started to spend some time with them over the last couple of months or so.  And just this last few days it blossomed into a great situation where I find myself beginning what I hope will be another intimate and meaningful relationship.  Of course there is no way to know at this point whether it will be successful or not, but my instincts are good.  I am able to be objective enough to know that intense emotions can cloud judgment and foresight, but I have every reason to believe that all the ingredients are quality, the chemistry is right, and our desire to create something awesome is mutual.

In other words, I met someone I really like, and am feeling really positive about it.  (I have not asked her if I can use her name here, so for now she will remain nameless).  In fact, not only has my fortune been good, my fortune hit the jackpot and doubled.  In addition to the one nameless (girlfriend? Hmm, I guess we have not discussed titles yet) woman I just left less than an hour ago, I have also started to see another woman who I clicked with very easily.  Just yesterday (Saturday) I had a fantastic first date with someone I had met a couple of years ago (before my brief stint in Atlanta), but she recently discovered me on OKCupid (where all the awesome poly peeps are, apparently) and we went out and have a fantastic time.  That on top of seeing my new lady friend both Friday and tonight…I’m a little worn out, I have to say….

And on top of that, Ginny is having a great time with her new boy toy…ok, I don’t know what to call him either.  I suppose all that will work itself out in time.  We are just happy and evolving little poly family here, and I am loving every minute of it.

For those of you who think that this polyamory thing cannot work, that it is destructive and can only lead to hurting people, all I have to say is bullshit! I am happy to see Ginny happy and enjoying herself with another person, and she is happy to see me happy and enjoying myself with another person.  (This phenomenon is what is referred to as compersion, or sometimes as frubble.  Google is your friend).  We love each other, are affectionate and open with each other, and we have other people we care about and have sex with.  And, while ultimately I just want people to find what makes them happy, fulfills their desires, etc I think that many monogamous people who say that they could not do this are really missing out on something awesome.  But, again, I’m riding high on emotion and am, perhaps, not seeing it all clearly at the moment; I just know that right now I am feeling the poly high.

So, now that I am on the verge of finding a way to build three relationships (of varying significance and intensity), I find that I’m looking forward to it.  What more could a person want than more love, friendships, and hot, hot sex with sexy people?

Life is good.


Atheism over humanism: why we must philosophize with a hammer

[EDIT: I want to add a quick note to this article because of some confusion that became obvious to me in conversation.  I am not creating a dichotomy between atheists and humanists; I am commenting on the differences between people who prefer one title over the other.  In my experience, which term a person primarily identifies with tells you something about how they view the issue of how to deal with religion.  Do we take an oppositional stance or do we focus on our positive values which may overlap with religious values?]

Today, on facebook, I ran into this:

The ‘humanist’ label is a fine alternative to one of the hundreds of religious affiliations. It is certainly finer than ‘agnostic’ or ‘athiest’, as they define thenselves against something rather than for something….

Now, many people in the greater community of reason, of which I and the other atheists are a part, prefer the term humanist to atheist.  Others prefer freethinker, rationalist, or….Bright (I dislike that last one very much, as do many others I know).  I prefer atheist for a number of reasons.  Now, this does not mean that I’m not a freethinker, a rationalist, or that I’m not bright (Oh, please stab me with a spoon!), but it means I prefer the term over others such as humanist.

Hammer of the Gods?

But the technical fact is I am a humanist in many ways.  The humanist ideals and values are things I generally agree with.  The Humanist Manifesto, for example, demonstrates ideas that are largely similar to my own ideas, and where I might quibble or disagree it does not lead to a drastic difference of opinion.  For the most part, I find the manifesto to be pretty bland and uncontroversial; its liberal and progressive Christianity without the Jesus, Reform Judaism without YHWH, unitarians without…well, it’s sort of like them, actually.  My disuse of the term humanist is caused by the same basic reason that I don’t attend unitarian services; I simply have no need for it and I often feel like its just a little too much like theistic religion.  As Nietzche put it, it is really a matter of taste–to much stale air!

Therefore, I don’t think that the quote at the top of this post is sufficiently convincing to change my attitude towards the primacy of atheism over humanism in my self-reference.  The reason has everything to do with the quote above; I define myself as being against theism primarily.  It is a value of mine to be against this idea of supernaturalism, not as a mere rebellion, but as a matter of recognition that it has more reach than humanists give it credit for.  It has worked its tendrils into just about every concept, value, and sector of our culture in ways that make our attempts to be “for something” a difficult task if we value truly escaping the clutches of theistic thinking.

While I am not opposed to, and often support, the creation of new values and ways of life other than that created by our largely religion-infused western culture, the fact is that the predominance of that culture necessitates a defensive position in many cases.  That is, the ubiquity of religious ideas, even where there is no actual supernatural belief present, is so suffocating that new values become unwitting atavisms.  Humanist values, often thought of as being new or at least different, are usually mere secularized religious ideas, mostly due to the fact that religion usurped them millennia ago. But religion did not merely adopt these values in those ancient days, it changed them by infusing them with the anti-life message of sin, depravity, and shame.  The stain is old and hard to remove even by those humanists who seek to become reborn out of religion–an image surely evocative of something.

Wait, not THAT Hammer….

Even among atheists, the acculturation of a religious ideas has infected the minds of people to such a degree that even when they reject the theology, they often still hold onto much of the structure of the morality and behavior.  Atheists may not believe that we were created by god to live such a way, yet they still often hold onto archaic sexual norms, conventions of respect for people’s personal beliefs, and cultural definitions of relationships (such as marriage as being between two people of opposite gender).   I have heard atheists who still suffer from discomfort with their own sexuality, try to shame me into not criticizing religion openly, or who actually argue against gay marriage or polyamory.  Only the stain of religious thinking can be responsible for this (at least I’ve heard no good arguments which are not based upon religious ideas, ultimately).  Thus, when people leave religion and create new ways to think, like secular humanists do, often their actual lives are not in any way truly new or revolutionary in any way.  They just drop the problematic metaphysics and declare that the rest of their values are their own.  I am somewhat cynical of this claim; I think their new values are often still pretty traditional and even conservative.  But at least its an improvement over pure theistic religion, in any case.

I don’t think enough people in our culture are prepared for new values yet.  I think too many people are incapable of conceiving of new values, and simply replace their old ones with new personas, while still the same deep down.  Many pagans, wiccans, and other alternative new age religions are guilty of this.  They hate or at least dislike their old religion, and so they replace the mythology with another, while keeping the scars of their religious foundations intact and very influential; they often don’t actually grow, they just change clothes.  And many people still value the words, and what they see as the personality, of Jesus Christ.  They don’t believe he is god, but they see his message as good.  This is the essential problem; Jesus’ words were often insane, non-pragmatic, and dangerous.  He is not the highest of moral teachers, he is a character of his time who idealizes for us bronze-age morality which we should have out-grown by now.  The whole and central moral message of Christianity is perverse and vile, and it is holding us as people, as a society, and as an influential culture, back from truly growing and transcending ourselves.  And while humanism is not trying to accomplish this atavism–or at least the slowing down–of our growth, it often achieves it anyway.

To truly create new values, we must do philosophy with a hammer (as Nietzsche suggests in his Twilight of the Idols).  We must utterly destroy the values which we have before us.  And if we find, after everything has been

Hmm, not really what I had in mind either…

smashed, that we create new values that look a little like those smashed idols, then so be it.  But we, the atheist community, are still trying to teach new people how to wield their own hammers.  And until all is questioned and all corners of our culture analyzed with the skeptical tools of science and logic and we are able to think more clearly about our history as a world of freethinkers, humanism will be a premature step for many people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I want the humanists to keep up their program.  I want those who have trashed their own cultural houses to keep building, but I want them to remember that there are many other people still smashing, as well as many more protecting their idols from those of us who want to hand them hammers.  So, humanists, while you are attempting to build values for yourselves and for others to adopt when they are ready, remember that you still may have missed an idol or two, probably in the attic, basement, or perhaps you didn’t notice that you were clutching it.  Also, remember that we new atheists are with you (in spirit), but someone needs to keep handing out hammers.  And the title for such a person must still be “atheist.”

Happy smashing!

Pastor Herb Swanson rationalizes his cowardice

In a post from earlier today (which, by the time this is published, will be tomorrow), I linked a three part response to an old post of mine about the truthiness of religion.  I tried to initiate a dialogue with Pastor Swanson about some of the errors in his analysis of my views in order to try and dispel common misunderstandings of (new) atheist views.   I think it’s important to keep open and honest dialogue with people of other beliefs in order to see if understanding is possible, even if agreement is not.  However, it was pretty obvious to me from his early responses that he was not taking me seriously and had no real interest in dialogue, but I went ahead in good…faith…and tried to articulate my thoughts to him via email.

But after some back-and-forth, I was not getting any of his thought back; no responses to my criticism at all.  Not completely perturbed, I decided to continue composing my thoughts concerning what I would like theist leaders,  like him, to understand about atheists.  I was generally curious if he understood what I had to say or if they would seem strange or interesting to him.  But rather than get any response of substance for day or so of email correspondence, he finally emailed me quoting what I said at the bottom of my earlier blog post, apparently ignoring the content of my emails altogether.  The entirety of his most recent email was the following:

To quote you regarding the Rev. Herb Swanson, “I will hope to get some actual dialogue going with him, because he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is all about.”  Serious dialogue requires trust, which does not begin with putting the dialogue partner in a box labeled, “just another theist.”  I’ve engaged in a fair amount of dialogue with people of other faiths, Buddhist mostly but with Muslims as well, and this is not the way its done.  I appreciate your desire to instruct me and will take to heart the point that there’s more for me to learn.  Actually, I knew that anyway.  But, all of this has only encouraged me to stay clear of the battle you new atheist guys are engaged in as I seek to make sense out of how scientific thought and developments in science can help me better understand and express my faith.  Evolutionary theology – not sure what it means yet, but that’s the sort of thing I’m really interested in – process theology stuff.
Well, any way, don’t see that this is going to work.  Too bad.  But, as I say my plate is really full anyway.  Gee whiz.  Just another theist.  Really?  My bad.  Peace, Herb Swanson

OK, I admit that the choice of words “he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is” may not have been ideal.  But what is really frustrating is that the content of my emails was ignored because of it.  Again, it’s about tone.  Just like the arguments between the accomodationists and us gnu atheists, there is no addressing the actual content.  It seems to be mere rationalization of not wanting to address any actual content; we are so fundamentalist, so angry, and so unworthy of their ecumenical and respectful character that they merely have to quote a seemingly disrespectful phrase and wash their hands of us.


So, for greater context, and put this in the public record, I want to publish my attempts to articulate my ideas to Pastor Swanson.  What will follow below are the emails which we both sent after some initial friendly correspondence between us.  After making some comments about how I was disappointed to see no comments were allowed on his blog and that his readers would not see my responses, he wrote me saying:

Hi Shaun,
I appreciate your concern.  Let’s see where this goes, if anywhere; and if our exchanges actually prove fruitful, one way or another your concerns will get shared with “my” readers (never thought of folks who read the blog that way, I guess).  We’ll see.  Herb

This was after the email, quoted in its entirety from earlier today (it’s actually yesterday as of now), in which I gave him a lot of substance to which to respond.  I assumed at the time that he had been busy, and that may actually have been the case.  So,with that assumption I wrote back to him the following:

I’ll share an oft-repeated truism which is popular amoung the atheist community, especually around discussions between atheists and theists.  When you debate (or discuss) a topic with someone with whom you disagree (or with whom you expect to disagree, at least), the points you make are not for the sake of the person with whom you dialogue, rather they are for the people listening or reading.

The running assumption behind this idea is that you are almost certainly not going to change the mind of one defending their position.  There is something about the structure of our brains which does not allow our opinions to be changed while in a discussion, or at least to make it extremely rare.  Being aware of this, I recognize that while we may learn things about the other’s perspective, which is valuable in itself, I have no expectation to convince you of anything.  At this point, I think my goal is to have you understand my position as a new/gnu atheist, and not for you to agree with me about anything.  This way, ideally, when you speak to your audience (whether it a congregation or your blog readers), you will have a more rounded perspective on what at least some atheists say.

I say that knowing you will almost certainly misunderstand essential elements of my worldview no matter how clearly I explain myself, as even porfessional apologists and debators still get so much wrong no matter how often they are corrected about the opinions of their debate opponent’s position.

I blog for the readers.  And those who read my blog are my readers, menaing that for the most part they tend to agree with me.  I’d bet that most of your repeat readers agree with you more often than not.  The down side of lack of comments means that they will see, by necessity, less dissent than they would otherwise.  They see one side of the argument, with no response.  Of course there will be trolls, assholes, and irrational people who say stupid and annoying things.  But I think that this is a fair price for free speech.

In any case, I will look forward to talking with you.

To which he responded, within a half-hour:

Hi Shaun,
OK.  So what is it you’d like to have me understand?  Herb

Ok, so now I have written two emails with considerable substance, and have gotten nothing back but meta-discussion about talking more…possibly…if it is fruitful.  A little frustrated by this, I decide to just bear down and articulate more thoughts, hoping he will keep in mind what I have already said.  here is the email I composed shortly after that one-line email above:

Well, I was hoping to get some response to my initial email.  I tried to correct some of the claims you made in your posts, and I was wondering what you thought of what I said.  But, ok, I’ll spell out some of the big issues for you.

Generally, I want you to understand that many of the people in the atheist community are people of genuine desire to understand the world around them.  Most of them are former theists, usually former Christians.  I’m an exemption to this rule, but I wanted to point that out.

Most atheists I have met do not make any absolute claims about the existence of any gods.  The definition of atheism is (And this is a little bit of a controversy, as some atheists have a different definition) someone who lacks beliefs in any gods.  Most atheists would be open to new evidence, others’ experiences, and would be very open to friendly discussion.  I, for example, have been having conversations with theists for many years, and consider myself very experienced in such conversations.

Many atheists, such as myself, primarily identify as skeptics (not to be confused with cynics).  Our epistemological view is one of saying that for something to be considered true, it has to be demonstrated empirically.  It is derived from the methodological naturalism necessary in science; science can only deal with physical things by definition.  The metaphysical naturalism that I hold as true I reach via philosophical argument, and is not an absolute conclusion.  I simply see no reason to believe anything non-physical exists; it does not explain anything, and the gaps in our knowledge cannot be logically filled with claims of supernaturalism without justification.  I simply don’t see such justification.

This skepticism is where the use of science and empiricism comes into play, and why I think many people assume (as you did) that we use the scientific method the same way that literalists use their (more absolute version of) faith.  As skeptics, we demand a higher criteria for belief in things.  We hold the idea that the more extravagant the claim, the more quality the evidence has to be.  And because we don’t see any method which [can] compete with that of empirical science, we use it primarily, perhaps exclusively.  We are, of course, wiling to consider new evidence, but the use of another method will have to be demonstrated as useful in some way before it can be taken seriously.

You should also understand that not all atheists are skeptics, and that many of them will have bad reasons and bad arguments for their lack of belief.  I am as critical of them, upon talking with them, as I am of anyone else.  We need to keep our own house clean.

Most atheists are not strictly logical; we are not Vulcan-like, eschewing emotional considerations because they are all delusions or anything like that.  While some atheists can be largely rational, sometimes seemingly too rational, it is because we appreciate reason-based conversations with people who challenge us intellectually.  We are often people who argue with each other about just about anything, because we are interested in the truth and don’t mind furious debates.  We are also often emotionally open, loving, compassionate, and generous.

We do not hate Christians or have any ill feelings for them, in general.  Now, we have ire for some Christians (say the Westboro Baptist Church), but our dislike is directed at the theology, not the people.  We “new atheists” are particularly concerned with the theology because we genuinely believe, upon reflection based upon experience, that many theological ideas [are] not only are harmful to many things we value, but seem simply untrue.  That is, even if religious ideas inspire people to be better and so forth, we realize that these personal growth and transcending experiences are possible without the theological baggage which we find lacking in moral and intellectual value.

That is, we know theology.  Not all of us went to seminary, but many of us did.  I, personally, have studied Christian history extensively and have read the Bible completely (much of it several times) and seek to understand different religious traditions as an anthropological exercise, among other reasons.  It is only after this experience with theology, Christian culture, and the philosophical arguments can we become confident (often seen as arrogance) in our atheism.  Quite simply, we are familiar with apologetics, usually have had hundreds of conversations with believers (whether family, friends, or otherwise), and get frustrated that they usually know less than we do about the religious tradition they follow.  Studies have shown that atheists have a better understanding of religious beliefs than the religious.  Thus we often feel, and often are, more educated and knowledgeable about religion in general.  And when we talk with the educated believers, we at least have a common share of information, even if we disagree about it.

Finally, and this is more specific to new atheists in particular, we view so-called “sophisticated theology” as often linguistic salad; postmodern meaninglessness.  As a philosopher, I am familiar with postmodern philosophy, and the modern theology I have read, whether it is process theology or otherwise, seems to be of the same caliber.  We are interested in the truth as it can be gleaned through the best intellectual methods we have developed.  We don’t respect faith, as even if it is not the absolutist faith of literalists, it still points to the abjuring of reason for the sake of belief.  As Aquinas said, faith precedes reason, and as Luther said, reason is a whore.

It is there where I think our worldviews differ the strongest.  Our strong words that look so absolutist and angry at this point in the conversation are due to the fact that criticism of each of our most important (“sacred”) values always looks more aggressive than they really are.  There simply is no way to say something critical of someone’s values while sounding nice, which means when we talk about this strongest of distinctions between worldviews emotions become more exposed. We are not trying to be offensive, we just can’t say what we really think without causing offense.  It’s unavoidable, but we have to be honest anyway because for us, respect means honesty.

And in response to that, I only get a complaint about an admittedly poor choice of words and the implication that there really is no point in continuing the dialogue (the first quoted response above).  Not even an attempt to respond to the content of my emails which I spent a little time working on.  It really, honestly, hurts my feelings a little. And so I responded with a short email of my own:


What is frustrating about that is that you focus on one line, taken in a context in which it was not meant, and ignore the vast content I tried to articulate.  It is not me that does not want to dialogue.  Rationalize it as you like.


Snarky, I know, but at this point it is obvious that this is not a person who wants to dialogue.  He will make noises about us being absolutist and like the literalists, and I’m sure he has many reasons…or something…for his faith, but I see none of it.  I only see the arrogance that we atheists are accused of.  I only see an up-turned nose at my direction, as I am simply not worthy to talk with.   I’m simply too rude, too harsh, to take seriously.  He’s “just some theist,” and so I’m just some atheist.  Too bad, indeed.

This is reminiscent of the charges by theologians who say that (for example) Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was insufficiently versed in sophisticated theology to be a serious criticism of theology.  Eric McDonald has been doing a series of posts about the reviews of Dawkin’s famous book (here is a recent example), and has pointed out that there really is no substance worth being versed in.  Jerry Coyne has been making the same kind of point for quite a while now, as well.  And having some familiarity with theology myself, I easily agree with this diagnosis of theology being unworthy of much attention.  I suppose that is how Pastor Swanson views me.  I suppose my sophisticated atheism is really mere postmodernist dribble, rationalizing my desire to be disobedient to god and to live in sin.  I suppose there is no real substance, no real subject at all, to my thoughts.  Because otherwise Pastor Herb Swanson is merely taking the easy road out of a situation he does not want wade into.  The atheist pool is unclean, distasteful, and vile.  Or, perhaps,  he is cowardly rationalizing a reason to ignore me and my ilk.

Yet, still, he will post a part 4 of his series in response to my elder post.  Still no comments allowed, and so still no dissent visible.

In other words, like just another theist.

And yes, this time I meant to be offensive.  I see no reason to be otherwise at this point.  Cowardice deserves no respect.

The truth of my truthiness

Way back in the stone ages, also known as 2009, I posted some thoughts about religion on this blog (I know, shocking!).  Riding the memetic wave of “truthiness” which was all the rage back then (ah, the good ol’ days…), I wrote a piece called Truthiness of Religion to rave reviews, mass popularity, and numerous awards…which I turned down and subsequently requested never to be publicized that I was offered such prestigious recognition…because I’m humble….   Also, that mass popularity has seemed to have been forgotten, almost as if it never actually happened.  Strange….

Let’s just let that subject drop, m’kay?

I had not forgotten about the piece, but I didn’t expect it to receive any attention either.  It was just one of hundreds of posts that sits in the archives of posts here, many of which are occasionally discovered by some internet surfer (I might be going to far into the stone age with that usage…).  But in the last few days, this particular post inspired not one, not two, but three responses!

OK, that’s an exaggeration.  In reality it was a three-part (and they are all short) response from one blogger; a Presbyterian pastor in New York by the name of Herb Swanson.  So, here are the three parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Now, I don’t want to respond in full yet.  The reason is that I have emailed Pastor Swanson and he has said he will get back to me.  I will quote my email to him in its entirety below, as I think all the salient points are hit upon there:

I discovered your post in response to mt comments about truthiness and religion.  I was interested in commenting because I think you got two essential facts wrong about my views, but you don’t seem to allow comments on your blog (which is unfortunate, because it does not allow for dialogue or genuine openness.  Much like a sermon; no questions or comments from the audience.)

You said, on part I:

The reason they are so angry at each other is because they are fighting over common territory, which they both agree is “the truth.”  They both think about truth in absolute terms.  The new atheists believe that there is only one truth, which is the truth of science.  For them science is an absolutely dependable method for discovering the truth.  The literalists posit their absolute truth in the “facts” of their faith.  There is no room for dialogue with either group.  We best leave them to their war.

This is not true.  I am not an absolutist in any way.  I recognize the slipperiness of truth (I’m a philosopher).  I believe that science, far from being absolute, is probabilistic and gives us tentative conclusions.  These tentative conclusions, called theories, become less tentative the longer they survive scrutiny.   Occasionally, with great effort and verification, our theories become better an better.  A classic example is the fact of gravity and its explanation.  Einstein’s improvement of our understanding, the theory of relativity, is better than Newton’s explanation.  Newtons observations are still pragmatically true for every-day uses, but it’s not “True.”  Quite possibly, Einstein’s general relativity will be improved upon, and so until then it is our best explanation and works for levels of description bordering on our current understanding.  One we have a better understanding of string theory and such, some new genius might add more fine detail to the theories explaining gravity and the other fundamental forces.  So General relativity is only “true” in the sense that it is the current best explanation which has been repeatedly verified.  No other explanation is better than it.  That’s what truth is, for me.  This is not an absolutist’s position at all.

Therefore, I do not claim any absolute truth but I do say that the claims of supernaturalism do not pass skeptical analysis.  The burden of proof is on the claimant (e.g. you), and I am not convinced so far, despite earnest attempts to understand. 

Also, you claim that we are not worth talking to.  The funny thing is that we are not generally interested in dialogue with the literalists because they are so different from us.  The canard that we are like them, just on the other side of the issue, is one we are getting tired of.  Not only are we not absolutists (which they tend to be), we share almost nothing with them other than the superficial similarity of the desire for truth; I say superficial because their methodology is terrible for attaining any.  Our methodologies for truth (our epistemology) are drastically different, hence our different conclusions.  They talk of truth a lot, but they don’t have any justification to back up that use.  You cannot say the same thing about science. And if you think you can, then you are falling prey to the postmodernist relativism of modern intellectual thought.  And no, relativism and absolutism are not the two dichotomies from which one can draw a false seed of my own demise.  In other words, if one is not an absolutist, they are not, therefore, a relativist.  That is sophomoric at best (just in case you had that thought….)

In part II, you say:

McGonigal then distinguishes between two states of mind, the first this creative one and the second a critical or analytical state of mind.  Only the second state leads to truth. 

This is also not true, at least not completely.  I recognize that good art has much to teach us, and we learn much through it.  Creativity is a source for truth, but it cannot, on its own, determine that something is true.  I think that distinction is essential here.  I only think that we need to verify the things we learn via skepticism when they make claims about the nature of reality.  Quite often, things learned from creative impulses are true without much need for verification, and other times even when this seems to be the case, it is due to some cognitive error due to our poorly evolved truth-detection machines in our head. 

But more importantly, I do not think we can make a clean distinction between creativity and reason.  The notion that we can is based upon an ancient idea derived from Plato, and recent neuroscience shows that the two attributes are linked in more ways than we are consciously aware.  This is true not only with moral thinking, but with so called “pure reason” (a fiction that even the great Kant was susceptible).  There is no pure reasoning, nor is there any pure feeling; that is too simplistic a categorization of what goes on in our heads.

Later in the same post, you say:

McGonigal believes that physical reality is reality.  Anything pertaining to the emotions or the a-rational is not real, not true.  Only physical realities can be true.

I want to clarify here.  I believe that emotions, in fact all experience, is a part of physical reality.  I just believe that sometimes what our body/brain come sup with in terms of experience is not always a mirror of any real thing outside of it, however.  That is, the experiences are real, but the simulations that are represented are not always simulations of real things.  We can simulate reality, but we also make grave errors in perceptions, whether via optical illusions or otherwise. Our brains are very easily fooled, as people such as James Randi and other magicians have taught us.

I could comment on more, but most of part III think you might guess what I would say.  Well, given how poorly you understand the “new atheist” position, based upon your comments in your posts, I will not make that assumption.  I will, nonetheless, leave it alone.  If you wish to discuss that we can do so.

The fact that you don’t leave these posts open to public comment, indicates that you are the one who does not want dialogue.  You think there is no talking to us, but you don’t even try.  You make assumptions about what we think rather than ask, and when you do make those assumptions, you do not allow a public forum for us to respond.

I’ve never seen an atheist blog that does not allow comments.  I’ve seen many Christian blogs that do as you do.  That speaks volumes about our relative interest in dialogue.

I will hope to get some actual dialogue going with him, because he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is all about.  I’m thinking that I will also have to alert him to my new project, which is intended for people like him and his congregation.  I will post any further developments about our correspondence in coming days.

(BTW, I’m still in correspondence with Dr. Robert Benne.  Right now, not much to report on, just having a discussion about epistemology at the moment.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is some linkage: one, two, and three)

Don’t say “polyamory”

So, yesterday I went to New York to do some upstart talk show by a former Catholic (and present Episcopalian) priest called Father Albert.  While we were prepping to go into the studio, the production staff, after asking many questions, interviewing us, and making a video introduction for the show, coached us to not use the word “polyamory” while on camera or in studio.  They wanted us to use the more commonly accepted term of “open relationship.”

Now, I understand their reasons.  For one, they had a guest who was formerly the 6th wife of a FLDS polygamist (who ended up having 10 wives), and people don’t understand (nor would they likely hear) a difference between the words polyamory and polygamy.  If we are being strictly technical, polygamy can be a sub-set of polyamory, except in most polygamist situations their is little to no love going around.  To distinguish between what Ginny and I are doing and what that women experienced in the environment of a talk show would be a herculean task.  The more general reason is that the term simply is not known widely enough to not be distracting from talking about what are relationship is like.

This is somewhat frustrating from the point of view of someone who is trying to educate people about responsible non-monogamy.  I agreed to not use the term because I realized that my time on the show would be short, and that I would likely be facing some hostility to the nature of my relationship with Ginny from an audience that is more likely to be conservative in their views about sex and relationships.  And that turned out to be a safe assumption, as they were pretty unfriendly to us in general.  I was glad to see one woman stand up and support us, even if she was likely the minority opinion there.

Father Albert himself, the host, was not supportive of us either.  He just didn’t get it, he said.  He talked about counseling couples towards a strong monogamous marriage, and that adding people to our relationship is only dangerous in terms of STDs (which is a real issue) and ultimately destructive to any real intimacy.  My retort was that we have rules of safety about safe sex, our intimacy is enhanced by true openness and honesty about everything, and also that fact that our relationship is constructive; “what can be more constructive than adding value and quality to our lives” (or something very similar to that).

Had we more time, I would have liked to make distinctions between polygamy of the kind that one of the other guests experienced and the polyamory–the loving, open, and honest relationship–that Ginny and I have.  The other people I have in my life that I am interested in pursuing some kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship (they are few, and I think they know who they are), are not being told that this is some divine command, they are not 15 years old, and I am not their superior.  We are equals; adults deciding to pursue relationships which mean something to us.

The bottom line, I think, is that our culture understands what monogamy is.  Even if it is serial monogamy, the idea is simple, feels comfortable, and is usually assumed by most of Americans.  Our culture is becoming more familiar with what polygamy is (at least in terms of the FLDS churches).  And even when they have a more positive model, say like in the show Big Love (which I have seen and like, to some extent), there are still problems such as the fact that it is always men with multiple women, and never the other way around.  Even when you have a Bill Henrickson who genuinely cares for his wives (Big Love), none of them are allowed other lovers.  This is an inequality borne of religious patriarchal thinking, not of genuine open-mindedness and desire to add love and joy to your life without social constraints which are ultimately based upon a relationship model borne out of a property relationship.  So, in our culture non-monogamy is probably associated with male domination of women, even if we can point out the occasional (even if only sometimes fictional) loving counter-example of such.

Polyamory is about treating all adults as, well, adults.  It is about deciding how you want to live your life, with whom, and being open and honest about our desires.  We, as a culture, are so far from understanding the implications of this that a term like “polyamory” just does not have a mental category in which to sit for most people.  Yes, if I had been given a 20 minute segment on the show to talk about polyamory, define it, and give examples and have other people, women and men, talk about the freedom, care, and rewards of living such a life then at least some people would begin to see what it is all about.  But that is not what happened yesterday.

When he introduced us, it was in terms of “here is a man who may want to get married, but he will still want to date other women.”  And not “here are two people who are in love, are committed to each other, have a healthy relationship, and who may have other lovers, boyfriends, and girlfriends.”  The former is based upon tropes common to our culture, the latter is not.

That idea is just too far removed from talk-show America.  And just like the term atheist, which is getting more press and is becoming more accepted (slowly), polyamory is a term that many think we just can’t use right now.  But with time, effort, and some patience (but not too much patience) that will change.

Going to New York to be on Father Oprah

So, apparently some Catholic priest by the name of Albert Cutie left the church to marry his girlfriend.  I vaguely remember this story from some news site a while back, and put it out of my mind; it didn’t seem that important or interesting.  I’m certainly not against people leaving the Catholic church.

But now he has a show.  It is being market-tested in New York and Los Angeles, on FOX, and it is essentially a talk show a la Oprah.  In fact, his media nickname is “Father Oprah,” and his show will be at least partially inspired by her show.  I just hope his staff is not as problematic as Oprah’s has been. In any case, here’s a blurb I found about it where you can get free tickets:

Father Albert Cutié. He helps guests solve dilemmas and resolve conflicts by drawing on methods honed from personal experience, extensive theological training, and thousands of hours spent hearing confessions and counseling couples.

So, what does this have to do with me? Well, I’m sure that the title gave a non-so-subtle hint; my girlfriend Ginny and I will be going up to New York today to do a show recording tomorrow.  They are doing an episode about relationships, and wanted someone to represent an alternative relationship style.  At least I hope that is why they want us there….

So, now the question is what should we expect? Will it be a hostile environment? Will Father Cutie (who is now an Episcopalian priest rather than Catholic) try and ‘help’ us with our ‘problem’?  I just don’t know.  I hope to be able to present an alternative lifestyle and perspective about relationships that will be useful to people.  I hope to not make an ass out of myself, too.

But mostly it will be awesome to get a trip to New York, travel and lodging paid for, and to have a great story to tell one way or the other.

Here’s an interview with Father Oprah that I found online.

This is what an atheist looks like!

I’m working on a new project.  It is just in the initial stages right now, but I have been giving it some thought over the last couple of weeks.  It will be very different than what I do here, and it is not geared towards the atheist community.  I want, eventually, to reach a very different audience than I am reaching for here.  It will require some shift in tone and tactics, but I welcome the challenge.  I’m sure that there will be a time of adjustment where my tone will vleed from what you see here to what it will be.

It will take time.

If it is something that interests you, then i invite you to follow.  If you think it may be something of interest to family, friends, or enemies, link them to it.  I hope to write daily, or at least nearly daily, about observations from an atheist point of view.  Things that would be less interesting here.


Experiencing John Dewey

I have not read much John Dewey.  Over the years, I have run into quotes, references, and the occasional summary of some idea of his by another writer.  But in my academic and personal reading, I have never dove in.  So a while back I was at a used book store and found an old clothbound copy of a collection of his work, edited by Joseph Ratner.  And while I bought it some time ago, it has since sat on my shelf unmolested, until today.

Over the last few days, after finishing one of my books about the Revolutionary War (I have been reading about that time period a lot in the last year or so), I looked through my library for a new book to read.  I started on another history book about the Revolutionary war, but within a few pages I knew something was not right.  I just was not in the mood for history.  I wanted some philosophy!  So after a short hiatus on philosophy-reading, I scanned my philosophy section and the John Dewey tome stuck out to me, so I reached for it and thumbed my way past the prologue and right to the meat.

It is an odd thing, trying to familiarize yourself with a thinker who is relatively unknown, both to me and society at large.  I remember how I felt first reading Nietzsche; it felt like walking into a room full of people I don’t know, speaking in an accent that I sometimes could not make out.  But the more I read, Nietzsche started to feel sort of like a nice summer home, not quite home but it became mine.  Now that I’m getting acquainted with John Dewey, I wonder if I will experience the same thing or if I might feel like I did upon becoming acquainted with Kant.  Kant, for me, feels like being in the home of someone who has plastic on their furniture.  Everything is in the right place, they are being good hosts, offering me a drink, but I just can’t relax.  The furniture is not comfortable (it might be, if it were not covered so), and so you can’t just let go and enjoy the time there.  It’s an effort to enjoy, not because the company does not have anything of value to offer, but just because they are trying so hard. It’s a little like that bit from Mr. Bean (it’s the one where he has a couple of guys over for New Year’s eve, if you are familiar with the show).

So far, Dewey not like Nietzsche or Kant.  It’s more like reading Spinoza, if I had to compare it to anyone, thus far.  The language is a little dated, the terms sometimes out of context, but you sort of get what he’s trying to say.  Also, like Spinoza, you can see that he’s trying to get you out of your head.  He’s trying to use the words we see every day to express an idea that is not thought every day (at least by people who are not John Dewey).  It’s like walking into a room full of people who speak your language, and well, but who have all lived in another part of the world for some time and are talking of things that you have to experience the context of over time in order to get the full picture.  I think, in fact, Dewey might have liked that analogy.

I don’t want to say much more myself.  I want to leave you with a “summary” of the introductory chapter, because it says some things that are pertinent to some of the issues I discuss on this blog, if only tangentially.  In any case, I’ll shut up and quote:

All philosophies employ empirical subject-matter, even the most transcendental; there is nothing else for them to go by.  But in ignoring the kind of empirical situation to which their themes pertain and in failing to supply directions for experimental pointing and searching they become non-empirical.  Hence it may be asserted that the final issue of empirical method is whether the guide and standard of beliefs and conduct lies within or without the shareable situations of life.  The ultimate accusation levelled against professedly non-empirical philosophies is that in casting aspersion upon the events and objects of experience, they deny the power of common life to develop its own regulative methods and to furnish from within itself adequate goals, ideals, and criteria.  Thus in effect they claim a private access to truth and deprive the things of common experience of the enlightenment and guidance that philosophy might otherwise derive from them.  The transcendentalist has conspired with his arch-enemy, the sensualist, to narrow the acknowledged subject-matter of experience and to lessen its potencies for a wider and directed reflective choice.  Respect for experience is respect for its possibilities in thought and knowledge as well as an enforced attention to its joys and sorrows.  Intellectual piety toward experience is a precondition of the direction of life and the tolerant and generous cooperation among men.  Respect for the things of experience alone brings with it such a respect for others, the centres of experience, as is free from patronage, domination and the will to impose.


I feel like he’s saying something here that is relevant to the recent discussions in the atheist community.  He is, of course, not necessarily talking about atheism at all, but about the relationship of empiricism, rationalism, and our ideas about the world.  I feel like I want to read more of his views to say much more more, however. I will point out that his comment that the “ultimate accusation levelled against professedly non-empirical philosophies is that in casting aspersion upon the events and objects of experience, they deny the power of common life to develop its own regulative methods and to furnish from within itself adequate goals, ideals, and criteria” is reminiscent of the issue about “sophisticated theology.”  It is a world that does indeed furnish itself with goals, ideals, and criteria, but I am not sure about the adjective “adequate” in that case.  Perhaps there are things to be learned within such realms, for such heathens as I.  Perhaps Dewey will give me reason to consider that more deeply.

What I can say now is that I find a mind, in Dewey, that has an insight that is interesting, borne of a curiosity and apparent honesty.  From what I have read, including the above, I cannot say if I agree with him more often than not, only that I want to read more.  To me, that is the higher criteria; do I want to hear more of what a person says, not whether I necessarily agree with it.  The sad truth is that I don’t, more often than not, want to read more.  “Sophisticated theology” comes to mind again.


Skepticism, Secularism, and Public Policy

Recent conversations (and subsequent private email correspondence I have not published) with Dr. Robert Benne have gotten me thinking about the relationship between skepticism, secularism, and public policy.  It is a subject of interest to me, and one I think will be interesting for the atheist community, and governments everywhere, in coming decades.

Today, I don’t want to try and address this issue in any detail, but I want to throw out a few questions I have been considering.

What is the relationship between skepticism and secularism? Does a skeptical analysis necessarily result in a secular worldview?  To me, this is a similar question to whether skepticism, especially when properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (I say yes).  So, does skepticism, when applied to how we make decisions for the public, result in a secular process necessarily? I am leaning towards yes, and  I think this is why I am so interested in the issue of Jeffersonian separation of church and state (or separation of religion and government, which might be a better phrasing) and the role of secular thinking in public affairs.

Further, skepticism is a set of methods which relies on scientific analysis in addition to logic.  If skepticism leads to people being secular, does that mean that if we are to ask those who create public policy to use skeptical analysis in their decision-making, we are asking them to be secular? I think the answer is yes.  I also think this is a good thing.  For too long have we tolerated Congressmen making arguments based upon scripture, personal belief, etc.

I don’t know how religious opinion can survive such an environment, and I don’t know how to reconcile the issue of religious liberty with this.  I am not interested in encroaching upon personal rights of belief.  However, when those personal beliefs are to be implemented as policy or effect policy, they have to be vetted.  I don’t want parochial views to be influential, without some secular support for them, upon public policy.  In other words, I want public policy to remain secular.  Allow people to choose how to live their lives, unhindered by scripture or parochial moral views which they do not subscribe to.

Those who try and argue that this is a Christian nation, or who want to apply sharia law to places like Britain, must demonstrate reasons why the ideas which emanate from their worldview should be prescribed to society at large.  I don’t envy them that task, because I think it is fruitless.  In the long-term, perhaps the very long-term, those religious opinions may disappear.  Until then, we need to make sure that those opinions don’t work their tendrils into the lives of the rest of us.


Robert Benne responds

A few weeks back, long before the events of this last weekend, I posted a response to Dr. Robert Benne’s article in a local paper.  I didn’t hear from him for a while, so i assumed I would not hear from him.  Today, he wrote back.

Today’s post is a response to the vast majority of what he wrote to me.

He starts, after some initial introductory comments, by complimenting my civility.  Wait, I thought I was one of those gnu atheists who are uncivil…

I appreciate your civility and attempt at fair-mindedness in your response.  Those virtues were not present in many of the vitriolic and contemptuous responses from what you call “the atheist community.”  I doubt if there is such a thing as an “atheist community” because there are atheists of all stripes, running from open-minded, classical liberals to those as dogmatic and nasty as any hide-bound fundamentalist Christian.  I received a lot of responses from the latter group, so I appreciate your reasonableness.

This is a problem that our community (and it is a community) is dealing with.  We argue amongst ourselves more than we argue with the religious world, I’d bet, over issues such as tone, accommodationism, new/gnu atheism, etc.  A recent issue with how to behave towards women has sparked an upsurge in conversations about feminism and the atheist community just in the last week.  We, as a community, only share a lack of belief in any gods.  Outside of that we disagree about any potential subject (including what to call ourselves, in many cases).  But we are a growing community, evidenced by the various groups, umbrella organizations, and online discussions which are interconnected.  We have a while to go before we are more solidified, assuming that will ever happen.


I think there is still a confusion in your response between the separation of church and state and the interaction of religion and politics, which was the main topic of my op ed.  When you inveigh against those Christians who want to exercise their religiously-based moral values in the political process—as in the restraint on abortion or resistance to gay marriage—you use separation of church and state language  (and suggest that the efforts are somehow illegitimate) when in fact it is an interaction between religion and politics.

One of the reasons for this is that for those of us fighting for the separation of church and state, the distinction between that and the separation between religion and politics is nonexistent, or at least insignificant.  And while the strict legal church/state (or religion/politics) fight is a little different than the issue of keeping parochial religious opinions out of public policy, they are part of the same basic concern.  For many of us, church/state and religion/politics (or government, more often) are interchangeable sets of terms.  This is one of the points of disagreement within our community, but many of us view the separation of parochial religious opinions and public policy to be paramount. Many of us,, in fact, are opposed to religious people imposing their religious views on public policy because there simply is no secular reason to support said views.  Where the courts and precedent will end up on this, I cannot say.  However I believe that trying to keep public policy based upon secular reasons as much as possible is the best way to go about this issue for the sake of everyone, including religious people.

I, for example, am strongly opposed to the government defining marriage based upon religious ideas.  For me, the definition of marriage (as an example) is NOT the union of ne man and one woman.  That definition is only accepted by many because religion has usurped the cultural phenomenon of legalized santioning of people merging their lives for reasons of property, financial advantage, love (that is a recent historical reason for marriage, and not traditional in any way) etc.  The conservative definition, ironically, is relatively new and culturally unsupported by actual practice in the world.

Christians, like others who have deeply held moral values, have every right to push for those values in the legislative and legal processes.  You may disagree with them and will have to contend with them in many ways—arguments, political organization, etc.   It will be in the rough and ready democratic process that these things will be worked out. That sort of democratic process is being worked out on the issues mentioned above. Sometimes it is also worked out in the judicial realm, though it is dangerous for judges to legislate and usurp the legislative process.  That is what has been happening too often, and that overreach makes the courts look too politicized.

I don’t want to address the issue of “activist judges” here, because that’s a rabbit hole too deep for this conversation at the moment.  I will ask you to consider this from another point of view; would you be comfortable with Muslim representatives implementing something like sharia law into our policy?  Are you paying attention to what is happening in Europe concerning this issue?  Is it sufficient that the majority may accept something to make it policy that effects the whole, especially when many are discriminated against as a result?



I agree that Christians should argue the case for their preferred public policies on as common ground as they can, but sometimes it may have to be on more particular religious grounds.  It is a question of prudence and effectiveness.  But as the Norwegian bishops put it when the Nazis tried to compel them to announce racist policies in their country, “we have to obey God rather than man in this case.”

But if there is no god, then the Norwegian bishops were just saying that they must obey their man-made laws over those of another set of men.  That is part of the problem with this issue from an atheist’s point of view.  There is no reason to appeal to God at all because we do have real reasons to reject such policies.  This leads me to the most important aspect of our disagreement here:

Actually, Shaun, there may not be universal rational grounds for anything.  Once reason was spelled with a capital R and purportedly could discern the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on autonomous grounds.  But postmodernism has pretty much finished that.  Reason is much tamed now, mainly being instrumental in character.

I am not a postmodernist.  I reject the postmodernist, relativist, “all-perspectives are valid” view.  I agree with Sam Harris, who in his most recent book tells us that science is the best (no, the only) tool that gives us real effective answers.  Postmodernism has put a hiccup in the liberal worldview that I hope it transcends soon, because it is philosophically sophomoric, politically problematic, and just plain incorrect.  Reason is not tamed; reason is tempered by the realization that we cannot have absolute certainty about our answers, and we must remember that all conclusions are tentative (even things like general relativity, the current explanation of gravity).  Science is a empirical and probabilistic enterprise, but it is effective and achieves results.  The skeptical methods utilized by science and rational thinkers is the best tool we have yet devised to determine truth.  Methods of revelation, pure insight, and even pure philosophy (my field) are all problematic and inferior to science in every way.  This is why I don’t want religious opinions being pushed towards public policy; it is based upon bad methodology, poor reasoning, and is not supported by skeptical inquiry.  When it is shown to the light, it dies.

Reason in this more modest sense draws upon cultural streams that have been dramatically shaped by religious traditions.  You are indebted to the Western Judeo-Christian tradition for your values.  Your “universal” rationality would not work so well in other societies—Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Communist.

No.  religion usurps our values and calls them their own, while at the same time adding an other-worldly orientation that not only de-values reality, but poisons our ability to think clearly about this world.  In fact, Eric MacDonald, a favorite blogger of mine, wrote about this subject just today.  Here’s the link: http://choiceindying.com/2011/07/07/on-the-web-and-forgetfulness-or-how-the-poison-of-religion-poisons-everything/.  I encourage you to read it, as it says with more eloquence what I would like to say in response to your above comment.

I am not claiming that we know or have some universal rationality necessarily, I’m claiming that if one is to be found, we must use skeptical analysis to find it.  Religion, and the vast majority of its conclusions, simply fail at this.  Therefore, we need to keep it away from public policy.  This is not precisely what Jefferson had in mind, and in defending church/state the argument is somewhat more nuanced, but as a rationalist, atheist, skeptic I am arguing that religion would be better to be grown out of.  The fact that so many representatives pander to religion tells me that either they are lying to us for sustained power or are not the pinnacle of intellectual and emotional maturity.  In other words, they are indeed representatives of our current society.

That concludes my reply.  I will be interested to see if this conversation continues, and what will come of it.  I still think it is good to keep open dialogue with people with whom we disagree.  I hope my civility was sufficient still.