Update: Tristan has written a follow-up entitled Type II Cognitive Errors and Ignosticism: Why Belief in God is Meaningless.  It is also well worth the read!

In the recent conversations I have been having about agnosticism, atheism, etc in the last week or so, I have left out a very potent idea.  Ignosticism.

Over at Tristan D. Vick’s Advocatus Atheist, an analysis of this idea was posted today, and after reading it I just don’t know what to say besides, well,  read it yourself!  I have to say that I’m a bit humbled in that I might be starting to re-think my view on the place of agnosticism in this issue, but I will have to think more about it.

In any case, the post defines ignosticism thusly:

Ignosticism is the theological position that every other theological position assumes too much about the concept of God.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it?  Well, follow the thread there and see what you think.  he immediately follows the above definition with this:

Ignosticism holds two interrelated views about God. They are as follows:

1) The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed. [which I have been advocating in recent discussions]

2) If the definition provide is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.

Now, I had been on board with both of these points, but I have been insisting that despite this, uncertainty remains, and agnosticism is unavoidable.  Tristan discusses this as well, but in order to see how he surrounds this issue, I will insist that you read the rest yourself.

If this issue interests you, you will not regret doing so!

High Functioning Polyamory

Three years ago, before Wes and I were officially engaged (though we had been planning on getting married for most of the time we had been together), we went to an Outback Steakhouse and ended up having a very interesting conversation.

I always mention that we were at Outback when we had this conversation because I find it hilarious.  If these blogs start getting a lot of attention, I think we should pitch some sort of advertising campaign in collaboration with them.  Imagine it: It could be a campaign advertising that Outback is a great choice for date nights for couples of all types.  A person with a terrible Aussie accent would say, “G’Day! Are you looking to have a strange, possibly uncomfortable, possibly illuminatin’ conversation about your relationship?  Why not do it ovah a Bloomin’ Onion?  Want to have a date night with ALL your girlfriends and boyfriends? Walkabout right on ovah here to Outback Steakhouse!”  We’ll make millions.

The conversation resulted in both of us agreeing that logically and rationally, non-monogamy was a prudent choice for us.  It wasn’t that either of us had any outside relationship prospects at the time.  It was simply that we both wanted the healthiest, most rewarding relationship possible and for us this meant not wanting to impose limitations on each other’s happiness. 

I’ll fully admit that this was not easy for me when we actually started practicing a non-monogamous lifestyle.  As it turned out, I had a lot of jealous, possessive, and negative tendencies that bubbled up to the surface A LOT in the beginning (and still do from time to time, but not nearly as severely as before).  For the first year and a half of this relationship change, I did not date at all.  I spent the time working out a lot of personal issues that desperately needed to be gotten through.  There were times when I felt like I was getting an unfair end of the deal, simply because I wasn’t dating.  I wasn’t participating…but then I realized that I really was.  Every time I had a problem, I got through it because my ultimate goal was to be happy.  The non-monogamy was not the thing making me unhappy.  It was my irrationality, my insecurity, my bad habits, that were making me unhappy.  Non-monogamy does not cause problems that do not exist in monogamy.  It simply illuminates the issues that are already there.

When we first made this decision together, I had an undefined vision of a successful future.  In the beginning, the vision simply consisted of me being super well-adjusted and happy.  I figured that in several years, maybe I would be dating someone but that in the immediate future, I would just happy that Wes and I had so much freedom in general.  I hated the lousy attributes I mentioned above.  They stood squarely in the way of me being the person that I wanted to be.  In the beginning, I could only see a future in which my brain was fixed…without a lobotomy.  And I assumed that this was going to take an incredibly long time.

In October 2010, Wes met Jessie.  Jessie changed everything.  Before Jessie, we merely had an open relationship.  After Jessie, we had a polyamorous relationship.  The introduction of Jessie into our lives kickstarted a major time of change for me.  I could see pretty quickly that she and the relationship she would have with Wes was special and that it needed to be supported and embraced.  Again, this was not initially easy because of how I am wired, but it was important to get over it.  It was important to get over it not just for the sake of Wes and Jessie, but for my sake, because I really liked her.

In June 2010, Wes and I got officially engaged.  We asked Jessie to be in our wedding party and then Jessie came to the beach for the last couple of days of our honeymoon.  I remember at the wedding reception, Jessie had mentioned that Wes invited her to come down on Thursday night instead of Friday during the day.  I had been unaware of this, but it was fine.  A friend heard her say this and said something like, “It’s their HONEYMOON, Jessie,” as though her presence was somehow inappropriate.  Well, as it turned out, the nights/day Jessie were there were by far the highlights of an already excellent trip.  The whole week Wes and I kept thinking of things to do (mostly “down the Shore” boardwalk silliness) and would say, “Ooh, we should do that on Friday with Jessie”.  A few weeks after that, I realized that I really wanted her to move in with us (another something that I hadn’t envisioned being not only ok with but honestly happy about happening for many years). And so she moved in! We have a wall by the front door (as many people do, unless you’re living in one of those houses that’s just a door…which is just weird) that I like to call the Trio Wall (to myself, and I should come up with a better name than that…).  It has our three masks from Halloween, an Old Timey photo of the three of us from the Boardwalk during our honeymoon and a picture of the three of us in steampunk outfits in Santa’s village.  We have a photo with us dressed up as pirates with Santa too, but that’s not hanging up yet.   (Jessie encourages us to eat lots of candy and dress up in silly costumes.  She does not have to twist our arms).  And finally, we have an ornament of the three of us that Ginny made us.  Every morning, I get to look at that wall when I leave the house and it makes me smile.  I just can’t see my life in any other way and still be as satisfying.

**EDIT** Wes and Jessie pointed out yesterday that I left out a relatively important part of this story.  I left out the part where I had my first boyfriend outside of the relationship.  I am amused that I left that out and that perhaps it speaks volumes about how that short lived relationship panned out, but they are correct in pointing out that the relationship itself was representative of a very important turning point in my life and in our path through poly.  In March of 2011, right around my 30th birthday I noticed that I had developed on a crush on a friend of mine. 

This was huge.  When I was initially working on my emotional issues, etc., I sincerely was not attracted to anyone.  For that year and a half I had no interest in anyone as a romantic partner.  I couldn’t conceive of dealing with jealousy/possessiveness issues with both Wes and some other person too.  It would have been a nightmare.  But, when I found myself attracted to this friend I realized that I had been successful in dealing with a lot of stuff, and it took me by surprise.  We dated for about a month.  It started out well, ended sort of stupidly, but I will be forever thankful that my initial experience was relatively positive because I think that experience helped me be ready when I met Shaun and Ginny. **End Edit**

We had met Shaun and Ginny in April 2011.  They had recently moved back to Philly from Atlanta.  Ginny messaged Wes on OKCupid and she came to karaoke. A few weeks later, she brought Shaun along and he met me.  Unfortunately, I was in a considerably foul mood.  Lucky for me there are second and third chances to make good impressions.  Exactly a week after we got married, Wes and Ginny started dating and about a week after that, Shaun and I were as well.  A couple of months later, I, too was dating Ginny and, well, here we are!  It sounds complicated, but these days it feels very simple.

I was taken by surprise by how immediately comfortable I was with them both.  I was surprised further by my own capacity to love and how much love I got in return.  It wasn’t always easy in the beginning, but it appears that we are all pretty comfortable with each other and see a real future as a wonderful family.  I will say again that this was not something I expected when I signed on for this whole polyamory thing.  But after Jessie, Shaun and Ginny came around, the future I envisioned was more defined and significantly more awesome than I could have ever imagined.

The other day I was chatting with Ginny and she announced that she and Shaun had figured out where they were going on their honeymoon.  She said they’d be gone for a week and I said that I was appreciative of having the advanced notice to sufficiently prepare for being without them (BARF…I know).  Then Ginny said, “You should come at the end of the week!” She’s going to be at a conference at the end of the week and thought it would be nice if I could keep Shaun company.

At first thought I wanted to accept the invitation immediately.  Why on Earth wouldn’t I want to go hang out with them in an awesome city to which I had never been?  Then the next thought was that there were various reasons why Wes wouldn’t go (vacation time he doesn’t necessarily have yet and the fact the Ginny was going to be tied up at the conference all day every day, so she wouldn’t have much time) and I felt crappy about that.  I talked to him about it and he said, “What, you don’t think I can make it 4 days without you???” followed by, “I won’t promise that I won’t feel left out, but that’s not a reason not to do something”.  Then I got all paranoid because I heard my friend’s voice in my head, “It’s their HONEYMOON, Gina”…and I was terrified that I would be a burden or intrusive or something.  So I talked to Shaun about it and he asked, “Did you feel that way about Jessie joining you on your honeymoon?” “Um, no…”I said, “She made it better”. “Exactly…”he said.  I asked Ginny and she reiterated that she wants me there, that me being there would allow her extra time to spend with colleagues at the conference and such.

So, what am I doing after all these conversations?  Well, I’m going to accept what everyone has said and I’m going to go.  I feel lucky and thankful.  As a thank you for Wes and Jessie being awesome, and because me being in Austin will give them a rare weekend alone together, I want to make whatever fabulous date night they want happen.  As for thanking Shaun and Ginny for being awesome, I’ll have to do that when I get there.  I will likely do it with booze and terrible jokes.

A couple of days ago, Shaun posted about how much he loves polyamory and that he hopes that having us all post on here will start to show the general public how functional and happy we are, how normal this life can become.  I suppose looking at all this, you wouldn’t really describe it as normal, but it is comfortable and amazing and oh, so very worth it.  If you had told me several years ago that I could ever be this happy, this healthy, this inspired, I would have assumed you were talking about me getting that lobotomy I mentioned earlier.  I didn’t think I was capable of it.  I had resigned myself to a life of being kind of alright.  I didn’t know that on that night, at Outback, when Wes and I had the first conversation that it would truly improve my life this much.

Well, here’s to happy little surprises.

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accommodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accommodationist.

Gnosis, pt 2

In my last post, I wrote about my own ups and downs with knowledge and belief about God, and the several-years-long transitional phase where I was truly neither a theist nor an atheist. Today I want to dig into what I think was going on with that.

I’m inclined to compare my transitional phase with the apparent beliefs of a lot of non-theists who nonetheless talk about things like “the universe,” “fate,” or “karma” on a regular basis.  There’s a kind of animistic habit of mind which seems very common to human nature, which insists on attributing intention and consciousness to everything. It’s this habit of mind that remained when my explicit God-belief had vanished from my brain; it’s this habit of mind that made me say “God took away my belief in God.”

On top of that animistic habit, I had a deep and thorough understanding of an internally consistent Christian worldview. Everything that I perceived in the world could be interpreted through the lens of Christianity in a way that made sense on its own terms. Even my loss of belief could be interpreted that way. It did not require mental effort or self-deception to come up with an interpretation of the world that was consistent with Christianity: having grown up Christian, it was easy, almost second nature. That meant that it was still possible to continue believing in (a form of) Christianity with full intellectual integrity; what had changed was that it was also possible not to.

I did some studying; I read The God Delusion and some other writings; and I came to the conclusion that an atheist worldview was also internally consistent. I had hoped that there would be features of reality that couldn’t adequately be explained without a deity, but in my search I found none. I found myself looking at two complete, coherent accounts of reality, both plausible to me, both accounts that I could accept with full intellectual integrity, and entirely incompatible with each other. At that time in my life, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that I was a theist or an atheist. I found both believable, and consequently couldn’t truly believe either.

I said before that I don’t like to use the word “know” in relation to questions of theism, because of its ambiguity. But if asked at that time in my life whether I believed in a god or not, all I could have honestly said was “I don’t know.” For a few years there, I’d say I was a true agnostic, an agnostic lacking both knowledge and belief.

Halfway through those transitional years I returned to Christianity, not because either my beliefs or my assessments of the truth had changed, but because I wanted it to be true. Not a strong reason, but it was all I had. If I’d had more unbelieving friends at that time, it probably wouldn’t have happened — I’d probably have continued in my agnostic paralysis until the unbelieving neural pathways clicked into place. (I just made that up, but it’s a terrific way of thinking about it… the whole thing was basically like a gear shift, and there was a long period there where the chain was suspended, adjusting over the gears, neither one thing nor the other.) But I was lonely, and all but one of my close friends and family were Christian, so I was looking for a way back in. I never thought that my desire for the Christian God to be real made it more likely that he was real; I just seized on desire as an acceptable stand-in for “faith,” since I didn’t have any of that. And I was backed up in that interpretation by some statements in the first few chapters of Introduction to Christianity, by Joseph Ratzinger, who did rather well in the ranks of his faith profession.

I’ll write more about my ins and outs with religion later; now I have to go rant about truth!

Bring on the Drum Circles!

Since I’ve gotten my daily quota of thinking and writing extensively about zombies out of the way, I thought I would write about something really crazy: The usefulness of protest.

When I was 15, I was in that phase that a lot of white children of Baby Boomers go through, the “Idolizing the late 60’s” phase.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  “Oh man, I wish I could have gone to Woodstock.” “Music was so much better then.  Monterey Pop?  Man!” “Protests are really awesome.  Look at what college was like back then.  Peace, man.  The will of the people!”  And so on and so forth.

One day there was some announcement that there were going to be big budget cuts for the Philadelphia public school system.  Big surprise, I know.  So someone somewhere organized a protest and students were encouraged to walk out during class to participate.  I decided to go with some friends because I figured it was time to put my non-existent money where my mouth was.  I took the “dreaded” unexcused absence because I’m a bad ass…apparently.  A bunch of students wussed out and got early dismissals so that the protest wouldn’t count against their PERMANENT RECORD.  Way to be committed, guys.

Anyway, I get there and found a bunch of people outside City Hall screaming incoherently, waving around signs that said things like “We are the future!” and “Abortion is wrong! Here is a photo of a bloody fetus!  This is totes relevant!”  Someone brought a paper mache Grim Reaper with no explanation of who was dying.  I’m assuming it was my chances at a better education or something.

Long story short, first I was extremely confused and then I was extremely disappointed.  I got the distinct impression that the organizers of the protest didn’t really have a useful plan.  They just wanted to yell and scream and not effectively tell the government where exactly they should get the extra money from.  Now, I’m not saying that it wasn’t likely true that there was money bleeding everywhere into useless crap, but the presenters at the protest did not educate anyone who attended.  I left knowing nothing more about the budget cuts than when I arrived, which was very little to begin with.  To make things worse, I’m fairly certain that they cut the budget.  It was hard to tell since we were always scraping for money anyway.  Needless to say, I came away from it with a view of protests that was pretty grim.

To me this seemed very different from something like the civil rights protests on the 60’s.  It seemed to me, from a hindsight perspective of course, that the purpose of those marches was pure visibility.  We are here.  We are strong.  We are organized.   We deserve to participate equally in society.  We are a threat because of our commitment and because of our numbers.  Perhaps it seemed useless because the vast majority of students attending were under 18.  We couldn’t vote.  We weren’t a threat to anyone.  The worst we could do was to not show up to school and I don’t know that this would hurt anyone other than ourselves.  I remember that contemporaries of mine were up at the podium “delivering speeches”.  But apparently they had not been given the memo that a speech is generally not a lot of yelling “It’s our money and we want it now!”  I was being represented by dolts who had clearly missed the point.  I think the organizers thought that if City Hall saw that students themselves were outraged that they would listen.  But they’re not going to listen if you’re acting your age and not saying anything.  In addition, perhaps the protest I attended lacked that sense of danger and sacrifice that has made other ones so much more meaningful.  Absolutely nothing was going to happen to us.  We weren’t going to get arrested (unless we turned violent, I suppose).  No one was going to come out and mow us down with water or gunfire.  We were just there being a pain in the ass for a while…but not a particularly notable pain in the ass.

So I figured I’d pack up my hippie skirts and love beads and never go to a rally or a protest again.

Recently though, especially after following the various Occupy movements, I began to think again about the role of protest and its usefulness.  I remember hearing a lot of comments about the movements pertaining to the fact that they didn’t really have a cohesive message/collective definitive goal.  I mentioned this to a friend and he said that he didn’t want them to decide on a message because when ultimate goals and uniform messages are chosen, they become divisive.  The power of the Occupy movements was the sheer number and diversity of people involved.  I saw the wisdom in what he was saying.  The general idea behind the Occupy movements was that most of the country is in the 99% and our interests should be served.  The interests of the 1% are irrelevant to the vast majority of the voting public, and yet you would not know that looking at public policy.

I started to understand.  Visibility is key.  In the beginning, you need enough organization to give people a reason to join you, but not so much that people get turned off.  When you want people to know you are here and you care that they see you, you want as many people of as many varying backgrounds as possible.  I think that perhaps the protest from way back when was a failure because there just weren’t enough voting adults there to show that these screaming kids are echoing what their parents want and what everyone should want for their population’s education.  Unification would only have been successful had it appeared that kids parents told them to walk out and were now walking along beside them.

As I mentioned before, in a few weeks, I, along with Wes, Shaun and Ginny, will be attending the first ever Reason Rally in Washington, DC.  I am really freaking excited and I think I’m excited because of this new understanding of the purpose of organizing just to be seen.  We are currently in a very strange time politically…or at least it seems rather new and peculiar to me (but that is likely because I am only now becoming really aware of things).  With Rick Santorum appearing to be a viable candidate for president, I find that I have a little seed of terror growing in my heart.  Our country is so very young and yet one of the main underlying ideals of its founding is being continually threatened.  A United States without separation of Church and State is a country that I would be unable to recognize.  And yet, it’s already happening as the open assault on women’s autonomy over their bodies is viciously attacked, as Constitutionally aware teens are being publically torn apart for wanting their public schools free from a faith they do not share, as politicians are chastised for not being Christian as if that has anything at all to do with the American government and what it was meant to be.  I look forward to this humongous gathering of atheists, humanists and secularists.  I want us to take the place by storm and point out definitively:

We are here.  We are strong.  We are organized.

And while I don’t hope for any kind of idiotic violence or ignorant displays, I do recognize that non-believers are threatening.  Not because we’re going to do anything to you but because we exist and many of exist morally, awesomely and well.  Many of us, if not most (I’m just admitting that I certainly don’t know every non-believer out there.  If the Awesome Atheist is any indication, there are definitely some of us who are Grade A Assholes…the A is for Assholes.  That’s how you know it’s real.) are normal, law abiding pleasant people.  All we want is a government that represents everyone’s interests and the only government that can do that effectively is a secular one.

Will you be joining us?  Here’s a bunch of great info to help make that possible from Blag Hag!

How much I love polyamory

Anyone who has seen me recently will attest that I am pretty happy with my life right now.  For a while, things were going pretty badly for me, but in the last year or two, things really turned out pretty well.  I can safely say that I would not use a time machine to avoid any of the bad times, just in case it were to prevent the good that I have found.

And a lot of this has to do with polyamory.  You see, being polyamorous has allowed me to maintain two very important and rewarding relationships in my life.  And for readers of this blog, you may have figured out that I am now willing to share them with readers here, at least insofar as their writing can provide a slice of their awesome-pie.

I am excited by the prospect of having more voices here at polyskeptic.com, whose perspectives differ from mine in some ways even if we agree on most things when it comes to polyamory and skepticism.  And I hope that you, whether you follow this blog, stop in now and then, or found us accidentally, will enjoy the perspectives and points of views that we all offer.

There is a lot that our culture does not understand about polyamory, but I think seeing it in action helps make it easier to comprehend.  I could blather on for pages (and I often do!) about why I think polyamory is a wonderful option for people, how it is in some ways more honest and authentic a lifestyle in comparison to monogamy, or how skepticism and polyamory should overlap more (there is a larger project I am working on, which I hope to publish soon-ish, which will address that very issue).

The people that post here, as of now, are my family.  They are my fiance (we will be married in less than 3 months!), my girlfriend, and possibly more to come.  I hope that aspects of our personal lives do seep through this blog in such a way that shows that we are pretty normal, in a lot of ways.

I mean, we are freaks in that we reject gods, monogamy, and some other social niceties, but in addition to that we function, day-to-day, like most people do.  We have dinner, drinks, watch movies or TV together, and sometimes we do awesome things like produce burlesque shows and so forth. OK, so that last one is not so normal.

Fine, our relationship structures are more complicated, but all that is about is more people sleeping with other people than any group of people who are friends and spend time with one-another.  Think of us like a group of people, like in a sitcom, who are more intertwined sexually and romantically than you are used to seeing in a sitcom.  There is funny shit, sometimes drama, and there are important moral lessons embedded in plot arcs which slowly erode the traditional concepts of love, sexual morality, and family.

In fact, we should write that sitcom.  (Ginny and Gina, are you taking notes? I want daily reports on the status of this project!).

In other words, the Religious Right hates us, the Left tends to marginalize us (because they don’t want the Right to think we are associated with them), and most of the center do not even know we exist.  Well, all parts of the spectrum share this ignorance, I suppose.  I hope to help change that.

So, in conclusion, I am very happy with my life right now.  I hope that happiness translates into an awesome blogging experience for years to come.  I hope you continue to read, and I hope that your feedback can help us better communicate our worldview to a larger world which is largely unaware of what polyamory (or skepticism, for that matter) is all about.


*Snicker* He Doesn’t Know About the Three Seashells

As I mentioned yesterday, while I am not new to considering myself an atheist, I most certainly am new to really thinking critically about it, reading and writing about it.  In the past, when I kept a LiveJournal, I would mention it here and there, but it wasn’t something that I particularly engaged people about.  Wes also has been an atheist forever and so there wasn’t really any debate about it at home.  We both thought the same and were comfortable in that.

When I met Shaun he was wearing one of many atheist themed t-shirts that he owns.  He was the first very out atheist I had ever met.  Not to say that Wes and I (or a few of our other atheist friends) were hiding it, but it wasn’t something that we actively advertised.  When the subject of religion came up, we would always announce our atheism immediately, without shame.  But we didn’t have t-shirts and buttons to show it.  I used to have a Crazy Eddie’s Electronics t-shirt that I really liked…but…that doesn’t seem to be relevant here.

It was around then that I started adding several prominent atheist/skeptic bloggers to my Google Reader.  I asked for suggestions of more and Shaun pointed me here.  What I found was, well, a lot of stuff that was over my head on first glance.  I would have to read sections of posts over and over again to understand them.  As I read and got to know Shaun more, I realized that it wasn’t that these things were over my head, but rather that Shaun (having earned an undergrad degree in religious anthropology and a Master’s degree in philosophy) simply had a breadth of knowledge that would take me an eternity to catch up on.  What I’m saying is, I read really slowly and don’t prioritize reading in my daily life.  I’ve been trying to finish The Stand for over a year.  It’s going to happen!  I BELIEVE IN MYSELF.  It’s not that I don’t see the value (far from it…I have started to change my bad reading habits this year.  I have started with keeping up with several blogs), it’s just that I have a lot going on, so I pick what is the best or most satisfying use of my time at any given moment.

So when Shaun asked me to start blogging here, I think I initially laughed at him.  Or, at least, I did so in my head.  I do that a lot.  I thought about it though and decided that it would be a good experience, and that it would encourage me to write more, both here and on my other blog.  He said that he wanted diverse points of view on here, which apparently meant his, Ginny’s point of view fueled by her past and her current master’s program, and my “hilarious” one.  OK, I’ll bite.  I can see the value in that.  I mean, who doesn’t enjoy hilarity?

I’ve written a couple of posts, and I’m happy with them.  But seeing them next to Shaun and Ginny’s both cracked me up and intimidated me.  Note that it isn’t stopping me, but there was something odd about seeing it in such stark contrast.  As I wrote my most recent post, I kept thinking, “Oy, I’m about to make some statement about religion…Do I even know what the hell I’m talking about?  Eh, probably not, but once I get into the part about the New Age, well…no one’s going to touch that with a ten foot aura.”

Can one measure auras in feet?  Can they be measured in metric, or is that too logical? Clearly they should stick with imperial units, but instead of feet, they should be measured in fathoms…or even better, hogsheads because…what the fuck do you use hogsheads for anyway and why is there a conversion for them in every composition book?  TELL ME!

Right, so, intelligent discourse. 

So as is the seeming tradition, I was having a morning text conversation with Shaun as I ate my cereal at my desk at work and he commuted to his job.  These conversations are an infinite source of entertainment for me as the subjects are never predictable.  Today I mentioned my insecurity about being the idiot writer on here and this is what ensued:

Me: Good morning! After reading through your and Ginny’s posts from the weekend, I am once again feeling like the dumb one.  But if my role is comic relief, then so be it!

Shaun: It’s not like we are actually smarter, it’s just that we tend to be less hilarious.

Me: I think seeing the posts next to each other showed me the stark contrast.  Not that I’m not writing things with depth, I am just aware of how little I actually know.

Shaun: Well, if we were posting on a blog about chemistry or toilets, the tables would be quite turned!

Me: Haha, awesome. I’m glad this is the legacy I have created for myself.

Shaun: Your arcane toilet knowledge is legendary!

Me: You know, it’s something I’ve worked really hard at.  Soon bathroom activities will be incomprehensible like in Demolition Man and people will yearn for a simpler time.  I will be able to tell those stories.  It’s called the Folk Process, or something.

Shaun: So, in the future we won’t take shits? That’s either awesome or disturbing, but either way it is fodder for science fiction.

Me: Dude, I don’t know how the three seashells work either.  I’d be screwed in that future.

So, as you can see, Shaun has invited a person who references Demolition Man in text message when it’s really not warranted to write here.  Here’s the promise I will make: I will continue to read and learn, and I will always try to back up my statements with evidence.  But really, there’s a whole lot I don’t know.  I realize everyone can (and should) say that, but I’m talking contextually to the rest of this blog.  I think that writing here will inspire me to go after more knowledge.  Sometimes gaining this knowledge will drive me nuts (I have been going through a period of growth recently where I keep getting disappointed in people and feeling hopeless about the world, but I think it will result in me feeling stronger), but ultimately, it’s always worth it.  Choosing ignorance never makes sense to me.  Why would you want to be in the dark when you don’t have to be?  Because it’s easier?  I suppose, but that never seemed easy to me because I always knew that the answers were there if you wanted them…and I always want them.

Stay tuned for a detailed critical essay of Judge Dredd.  Now that will be some fine literature!

My Warped History with Religion

I remember sitting in a World History class in highschool when we were doing a section about organized religion.  We were talking about the five major religion.

I grew up near Fabric Row in Philadelphia.  Historically this part of town is very Jewish.  In the early days of the 20th century, Fabric Row was part of a very large marketplace that was primarily run by Jewish families.  Today there is still a highly concentrated Jewish population there.  When I started school at 5, I was introduced to  the kids of the neighborhood…who were mostly Jewish.  As I got older, this didn’t particularly change.  I was among them.  My mother’s entire family is Russian Jew.  My father, I suppose, would be Catholic if only because his father was 100% Italian and in his words, “When you’re Italian, you’re just Roman Catholic…it doesn’t really mean anything”.  So, I’m half Jewish, but the “right” half to become a citizen of Israel, if I so desired…and also to avoid “Shiksa” status, if you care about such things.  This was basically the case with all of my friends.  In addition, very few of the Jews I knew were particularly religious.  They participated in rituals and went through their bar/batmitvahs, but no one seemed to actually care about “God” itself.  None of them prayed as far as I knew.  The most I heard anyone talk about religion is when they were whining about having to eat matzo during Passover.

Meanwhile, while my mother liked the idea of the cultural side of Judaism, she didn’t believe in any of it.  Instead, she was into astrology and the New Age.  My parents were both in EST (a New Age group that was very popular in the 70’s and 80’s)…

Side note: So, I totally went to look up a page on EST so that I link information about it here and all I found was that the founder used to be a used car dealer and is now on the run from the law.  HOT!

Anyway, my parents eventually rejected EST because, while a lot of the ideas that they were teaching were good (personal control and responsibility), it turned out that they were full of crap.  But, my mom still thinks about astrology and numerology and things like that.  This was very prevalent in my life when I was very young.  Also prevalent was the idea that organized religion was a pox on the world.

When I was five years old, my dad took me out walking around on South Street.  A middle aged man came up to me standing with my dad and spoke to me directly.  He  went to hand me a lollipop but before he let me take it, he asked, “Do you take Jesus to be your Lord and Savior?”

Without skipping a beat, I looked the guy in the eye and said, “I’m not really into Jesus.  I’ll take the lollipop though.”  My dad was astounded.  And looking back, I mark this as my first point of consciousness about my atheism.

So, for those following along, my perspective on religion/atheism at the time was that the biggest religion in the world was Judaism but that it was pretty meaningless because everyone was an atheist anyway.  I honestly believed that atheists were the majority.  Even more hilarious, I thought atheist Jews were the majority.  In addition, what I did know of spirituality in my own home was a spirituality centered around the stars, the spiritual significance of numbers and possibly crystals and past lives.  I was raised that the Universe will give you the things you want if you ask for it.  It was magic and I liked the idea of it…but I don’t think I ever really believed in it.  Needless to say, I had a peculiar and incorrect view of the world.

So I’m sitting in this class and it is revealed to me the Judaism is the smallest religion of the “big five”.  I was surprised.  Part one of my peculiar world view gone.  Then I got older and when I was a senior in highschool I was suddenly made aware that really very people I knew were atheists and that they found atheists utterly insulting.

I wrote an essay in for English about how I didn’t see why anyone needed prayer to be officially sanctioned in school.  It was in response to an article I read about a group of teens that formed a prayer group that would meet before school everyday.    The teens started the group because they felt deprived not being able to pray during class time.

I didn’t get it.  I mean, couldn’t you just pray to yourself during math class or something?  So…I wrote about it and the essay was handed out to the entire class (without my name) to be workshopped as a piece of writing.

Oy…it was a poorly written piece in my opinion.  But, of course, no one was getting on my case about the syntax or bad structure.  They were all up in arms about my disrespect for religion.  Suddenly I looked around the room (no one knowing that it was me who wrote it) and saw room full of people completely offended and hateful about the fact that I didn’t see prayer in school as appropriate.

I graduated and then went to Drexel and met Wes.  At the time, I was identifying as an atheist, but I still had the remains of liking the idea of the stars dictating my destiny and getting what I wanted from “The Universe”.  I don’t really remember how it happened that I lost the last of this, but I don’t remember it being cathartic.  It was just another thing that I got rid of when I thought about it rationally.

I am happy to be more aware now, to finally be joining in the “New Atheist” party.  I sort of regret that I am so late to it, but better late than never, right?  As I have started reading many atheist bloggers, I finally feel a sense of community in that aspect of my life.  Next month, just after I turn 31, I will be attending the Reason Rally and I have to tell you that I am really quite excited about it.  Before now, I don’t know that I ever defined atheism as an important thing about me to myself, but as I see the country inching towards theocracy I find that it is highly important.

Like I said, better late than never.

You can be 100% certain, and yet 100% wrong

Apparently, Ginny was writing about this issue while I was also writing this post, but beat me to publishing.  I have not read hers yet, but here it is.

Also, see the A-Unicornist’s thoughts on the issue.

So, as a follow-up from yesterday’s post about certainty and atheism, I want t say a few more things. Also, apparently I wrote about this last year.  I’m so ahead of the curve…or something….

First, I want to give a nod to Christina over at WWJTD because she had some very good things to say about the issue yesterday.  Many of the thoughts I composed for this post came after reading her post this morning.

For example, she says:

Part of understanding science is understanding that we should accept things provisionally, or probabilistically.

Right.  To accept something provisionally is to accept that we might be wrong.  Now in all fairness, I have not heard anyone who is claiming to be 100% certain about a god not existing say that they would not be willing to be proven wrong, nor even that they could not be wrong.  Certainty is not the same thing as proof, after all.

But more importantly, to accept something provisionally should mean that we should not maintain 100% certainty about it.  How do we justify absolute certainty in the face of a probabilistic proposition? I really don’t know.

Christina concludes her post by saying that

Science is probabilistic – which is one of the things that separates science from dogma. That’s good. That means science does not close itself off to new information or evidence. A scientist who says, “I don’t care if my data falsify my hypothesis, I am 100% certain my hypothesis is true” needs to hang up hir lab coat, as ze is not doing science. Someone approaching the world rationally is therefore agnostic about everything.


Now, here is where I think that the differences of opinion stem from.  For me, certainty is about recognizing our epistemic limitations.  It is about being provisional about all conclusions, even if the evidence is overwhelming. I am not merely hiding behind any sort of radical skepticism in saying that there is some non-zero possibility that I am wrong about any conclusion about the world.  I am simply being honest about my limitations, especially where I am not even sure what the thing being claimed is supposed to be in the first place (i.e. “god”).

See, here’s the thing.  If deities are scientific propositions (and I know that this has been a question of past blogosphere arguments), then any conclusions about them have to be provisional.  If the claim that a god exists is an empirically-testable one, then even after if is has not been demonstrated after hundreds or thousands of tests (assuming you have not proven it to be logically nonsensical), there is still a non-zero possibility that the proposition is true, even if believing it is completely non-rational.

Surely, you can have an extremely high certainty that it does not exist, and even more surely you are rationally justified in denying its existence, but the words “100% certainty” have to mean something, and what it means is absolute certainty.

Look, if this certainty is nothing but a mere rounding up to the nearest whole number…well fine, but make that clear. But what appears to be the claim is not merely a rounding up (at least in some case), but a finer logical error that I tried to dispel yesterday, but apparently was not able to.  So here we are again.


Noncognitivism and certainty

Even if I were to accept absolute certainty as a real and meaningful epistemological position, there is still the fact that the being in question (“god”) is not even defined.  What does that word mean? Theologians can’t agree on a definition, and that’s what they do academically and professionally.  Sure, the fact that they have no evidence, no body to dissect, is part of the reason why this is the case, but it’s not all of it.

Further, I am not even sure what the necessary criteria of ‘godness’ are to determine if a definition for ‘god’  is legitimate.  So, if I were to define god as my cat, then I can demonstrate god’s existence, right? But is this definition legitimate? And if not, why not? And if you have an answer why not, then what about Kim Jong Il? What about Q?

What are the boundaries of criteria for definitions of god?  And if those boundaries include definitions which are not in contradiction with known facts about the world, even if they are not demonstrated as real right now, then they are not disproved and therefore claiming absolute certainty about their non-existence is not a rational position.

The noncognitivist position makes this question that much more absurd.  The implication seems to be that not only do certain atheists know what the definition of god is (or at least the right criteria for definitions), but that they know that none of the referents for those definitions exists anywhere in the universe (someone alert Ray Comfort!*).

As I said yesterday, this is rational for specific concepts of god, but not for all concepts of god. Noncognitivism explodes the premises of any 100% certainty of a god’s non-existence by showing that because we cannot be sure what the term even means, we cannot say it does not exist.

In conclusion, the only way it is sensible to claim that one knows, or is absolutely certain, that gods do not exist is to start with a definition, or criteria-based set of definitions, of gods which allows one to do this.  But this move is not legitimate, because it is essentially begging the question.  All such a person can be 100% certain of, at most, is that the definition of ‘god’ they have in mind does not exist.

If these certain atheists** (see what I did there?) were to actually address real definitions of gods used by many real (“sophisticated”) theologians, they will find that those slippery sophists have created gods which survive logical scrutiny because they are designed to be non-disprovable.

And yet those sophisticated gods have still not been demonstrated.  Of that we can be absolutely certain.

*scroll down to “Why the Atheist doesn’t exist”

** certatheists? No? OK, fine…