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Descriptive Norms, or Why Your Beliefs Affect Me August 11, 2013

Posted by wfenza in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.

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Scientific American has an article up discussing the difference between descriptive norms and prescriptive norms. The gist is that descriptive norms describe how things are and prescriptive norms describe how things ought to be. When it comes to affecting people’s behavior, descriptive norms tend to work much better:

In a classic study, Cialdini and colleagues manipulated the signs that were displayed in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, a site often plagued by tourists who end up grabbing some of the petrified wood to take home as a souvenir. In situations like this, the first inclination of well-meaning environmentalists might be to set a strong prescriptive norm — perhaps by saying something like, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest. This is bad, don’t do this.” The idea here would be to invoke a sense of shame and severity before asking visitors to refrain from taking the wood. But read that prescriptive message once again. Is there anything descriptive in there? Yes, of course there is. That message is not just telling you that you shouldn’t take the wood — it’s also telling you that most other people do. In fact, people were actually more likely to steal wood from the forest when they saw the sign telling them how many people tend to do it themselves, even though the very next sentence was asking them to refrain. But when the researchers simply tweaked the message to read that “the vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, helping to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” the thievery plummeted.

We don’t really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.

The article suggests that making your support of marriage equality public on Facebook may actually make more of a difference than a lot of people think. I agree. When we make our positions publicly known, often that can be more convincing than anything else we can do.

This relates to the main issue with moderate religion. There are a number of religions out there (and other faith traditions that may or may not be classified as “religions”) that do no real direct harm on society. I was raised by a Quaker mother, and attended meeting up until I was allowed to make choices for myself. I have Unitarian Universalist friends. I know several pagans, and other religious moderates who practice non-mainstream, non-coercive religions.

These religions aren’t causing any direct harm that can be easily identified. However, that does not mean that they are not causing harm. I live in a country positively saturated in religion. Religion pervades public life in America in ways that are unheard of in other developed countries, and it leads to all sorts of horrible outcomes.

All public expressions of faith exacerbate the issue through the power of descriptive norms. The more people who identify as religious, the more it encourages other people to be religious also. Even the most non-proselytizing expression of faith reinforces the cultural message that religion is normal, and a lack of religion is weird. Nobody wants to be weird! So people are encouraged to overlook their doubts about religion in order to fit in, even if nobody is explicitly sending that message.

American Cross

People often ask me why I care that people hold religious beliefs. This is often coupled with a spoken or unspoken assertion that their religious beliefs do not affect me in a negative way. Often, I will attempt to explain that beliefs inform actions, an in any society, and especially in a democracy, everyone’s actions affect everyone else. But there is also the problem of descriptive norms.

I believe that, all other things being equal,  a more secular society is a better society. Religion, even moderate, “harmless” religion, impedes that goal. Of course, moderate religion does less harm than fundamentalist religion, but it’s still making it more difficult for our society to move in a more secular direction. It still encourages the general population to value faith above reason. It still contributes to the social stigma of atheism.

This is, of course, not to justify being a dick about it.* The fact that moderate religion is a problem doesn’t mean that it’s ok to be rude. It doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t serve useful purposes in people’s lives. It doesn’t mean that people are justified in attempting to impose their lack of religion on other people. It just means that as an atheist, I have a stake in the beliefs of my fellow members of society. This is not meant to discuss tactics at all.

This is another reason why coming out is so important. When we proudly identify as atheist (or polyamorous for that matter), that declaration speaks louder than any argument we can make. When we create a society in which it’s no longer weird to be an atheist, then we create a society where there’s one less reason to turn to religion.

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*I sincerely wish that this disclaimer didn’t need to accompany every post discussing this topic, but such is life.

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An open letter to a Christian trope July 16, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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More specifically, this is an open letter to one Christian blogger who apparently ‘liked’ my post from earlier today and who wrote an open letter to doubters of god.  The letter I sent to him just a few minutes ago is quoted below.

[edited to fix formatting issues]

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So, through and email notification, I was informed that you liked a post of mine from today.  The notification linked me to this post of yours:

http://tworiversblog.com/2013/06/14/an-open-letter-to-those-who-doubt-or-deny-god/

As well as a couple others.  But I have only looked at this one, since it is, at least I think it’s intended to be, directed towards me (in part).
The reason I am writing to you is that you are making a common, but annoying, error here in your classification.  In order to try and educate you, I want to give you a brief run-down of who I am and what I (dis)believe.

Philosophically, I am a skeptic first.  Not in the tradition of radical skepticism from the ancient Greeks (although I appreciate that as well, to some degree) but as in the Skeptic movement, which is related (though there are tensions) to the atheist community.  Skepticism, in this sense, is the position whereby one accepts a proposition as true iff sufficient empirical and logical evidence has been demonstrated which supports said proposition.  In the case of theism a skeptic, if they are applying their skepticism, will hear the claim “god exists” and will ask for evidence, then iff evidence is presented (which should not be logically fallacious, is at least somewhat empirically demonstrated, and repeatable) then the skeptic can rationally accept the claim.  They should keep themselves open to new evidence always.

You don’t want to argue, so my point in the following is not to refute theism, per se, but rather to clearly explain my position.  I see no valid evidence for the existence of any gods. especially the ‘omnimax’ variety which tends to come from the Abrahamic religions.  I see YHWH/ALLAH/Jesus as a non-demonstrated proposed being, and I also see no evidence for any “philosophers’ god” or even a deism.  After many years of reading theology, religious apologetics, and criticisms of religion, I have concluded that no evidence for any gods exist.  If there are any gods, then I want to know.  So either none of the gods want me to know about them, the gods do not care, or there are no gods.  And if gods exist that don’t care whether I believe in them, then so what?
I am an agnostic-atheist.  That is, while I cannot, logically, disprove the general concept of god (specific gods which are logically impossible can be disproved, but not all gods are clearly defined enough for this), I lack belief because there is insufficient evidence.

In your post, you respond to agnostics and “militant atheists,” leaving out non-militant atheists.  In fact, I will point out that despite having been part of the atheist community for more than a decade, I have never met a militant atheist.  I’ve met some angry ones, and often their anger is justified (not always), but never a militant one.  In what way are atheists militant? Have we taken up arms? Have we been violent towards the religious (as a group; individual examples are anecdotal and do not address atheism per se.  Also, Hitler was a Catholic and Stalin/Mao/etc killed in the name of an absolutist political regimes, not atheism.  What person or group has done anything militant in the name of atheism?)?

I do not wish to eradicate religion.  I find that to be a fruitless goal.  My concern is with faith.  I see faith as a fundamental problem for human psychology, groups, and ultimately the progress towards greater understanding of the universe.  I’m using faith as it is defined in Hebrews, where it is belief in things not seen.  In other words, belief in things despite the lack of evidence.  This is a dangerous phenomenon.  Would you apply that methodology in any other aspect of your life besides religion or spiritual pursuits? Isn’t it fascinating that the more we understand the universe, the further away god is pushed into that gap of what we don’t know?  Compare the concept of god as it was understood hundreds, even thousands of years ago, and how modern theologians talk about god (the “ground of being” and such).  The more we can explain, the more vague and abstract gods become.

I find that fascinating–and telling!

But I don’t hate religion and want it gone merely because it does bad things. While I am very bothered by the many atrocities that people have committed in history, often in the name of some religion, god, or other type of doctrine, my larger concern is with the lack of critical thinking, skepticism, and willingness to transcend oneself towards a greater potential for humanity.  Skepticism, science, philosophy, and even humanism are what is needed, not superstition.
Your post does not seem to carry sufficient understanding of what an atheist is, what many of our goals are, and even what “militant” means.  So while I am not seeking to eradicate religion (I’d prefer people organically outgrew it, which I doubt will happen anytime soon), I am trying to eradicate poor comprehension of atheist arguments and tropes which perpetuate the othering of our community.  I have seen posts like this many times from Christian bloggers.  In fact, I looked at the date it was posted to make sure I had not read this post previously, since it was so predictable and trope-laden.

I suggest reading an atheist blog or two regularly.  Perhaps read a book by a former-Christian atheist, who can communicate that issue much better than I can.  I can refer you to some if you are interested, since there are many.  In fact, this one, by my friend Jerry DeWitt, was recently published and looks excellent (I have not read it yet).
But in general, keep up the conversation, so the next time you write a letter to agnostics and atheists, you at least have a better grasp of the relevant issues.  I wish you the best.

In reason,

Shaun

Ramadan at work July 15, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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Islam2So, I work for Muslims.

Some people I know would wonder how I could do so (especially since I wrote this), if they were all Islamophobic and such, but it does not bother me.  I really don’t mind working for this Muslim family any more than working for Christians, Jews, or Hindus would bother me.  They are just people, who are from Syria, and who practice Islam.  From my perspective, it’s not much different than working for people, from Italy, who practice Christianity.  They are both silly religions with checkered pasts.

In the several months I have worked there, only once or twice has the issue of religion come up, and never in a proselytizing way.  They are fairly non-political (they have not expressed any strong opinions about what is going on in Syria right now, except to say that America should not be involved, and rarely talk about it at all as far as I know), they seem to support the concept of the separation of religion and government (their comments about groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood seems to indicate that religion should be separate from political and business decisions), and their two sons seem just as American-acculturated as any kids in the neighborhood.  They are not unlike most America citizens; they came here, love it here, and they have a cultural background they brought with them.  It just happens that theirs is a minority culture and religious perspective in America.

Hell, so is mine.

They are relatively observant Muslims.  They pray at least a couple time a day, that I see, in the back office (Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, according to one of the five pillars of Islam).  They can be heard singing Arabic songs when in a good mood, they sometimes sit and read from the Koran when business is slower, and, well, recently it has become more obvious.

Ramadan feast

Ramadan feast

You see, recently Ramadan started and this has given me a peek into the reality that there is some cultural distance between us which was not as obvious before, but that distance has given me some perspective.  Watching them get more irritable as the day goes on (due to being hungry, thirsty, etc as they fast during daylight hours, which is longer during the summer) and watching the ritual of the sundown feast shows me, up close, how much these people are like everyone else I know from my mostly Christian family background.  Because while there is distance, culturally, between us, this distance is no so far as to make them alien.  In fact, they are so much like the Catholics on my father’s side of my family (many of whom dislike Islam greatly, for political reasons) in that the way they approach ritual and holy times is automatic and interwoven into their routine.

Have you even talked to a (moderately) practicing Catholic about why they do their daily or periodic rituals? Most of the Catholics I know don’t believe all the doctrines.  Hell, they likely don’t even know what most of the doctrine is, as I have had to explain concepts such as the Nicene Creed and other concepts to them, especially in historical context.  Ask a Catholic about the Council of Nicaea some time, and observe the blank stare you will probably get in return.  But when it comes to ritual, they’ve got it down.  There is a sort of sacred time and space and a set of behavior which provides order, meaning, and ‘right’ feelings at certain times.  When there is a baby, there is a baptism.  When they enter a church, they become serious and reverent where before they seem to not care about such reverence.  There is a seeming difference between everyday life and Catholic life, as observed from the outside.

What I have been observing recently is much the same at work.  Ramadan seems to be a sacred time, perhaps somewhat like how Lent is for Catholics, and it seemingly pulls them into a different space of awareness, because they have to fast during daylight which is a constant reminder.  I have not asked them much about it, mostly because they have been a little irritable (being hungry and all) but I suspect that following Ramadan for them is as natural as celebrating Christmas, baptizing one’s child, etc is for Christians.  I suspect that they don’t really think about why they do it, just like many Christians.  It’s just what you do, if you’re  Muslim.

There are other employees there who are Muslims as well.  When sundown comes, they eat with the family for the evening meal.  I have not been invited to join them.  Granted, I am not really hungry because I ate already, not being a practicing Muslim and all,  but I find it interesting that it does not even seem relevant to them.  They don’t even seem aware that this is happening.  As one of the few non-Muslims who works there, I am different.  I am an outsider.  I am kafir.  I don’t feel ostracized or discriminated against (that is, I don’t really care) but it highlights the role of cultural tradition and ritual to simultaneously pull together the in-group and to otherize the out-group.

Religion is not all bad.  However, one of its strengths, creating cultural bonds, has a complimentary function of clarifying cultural lines of division.  Religion fosters tribalism.  Thus, it’s only a strength to bring communities together for those in the community.

This is generally true, for all sorts of cultural traditions, rituals, or ideas.  Monogamy creates bonds within a coupling that others cannot be a part of, by definition.  There are levels of intimacy in all relationships, even in polyamory, which divide those inside and those outside the tribe, family, etc.  Pride of one’s national heritage, as in “I’m proud to be an American” serve the same function.  They pull together a group, but alienates at the same time.

Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.” Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”

Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.”
Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”

It’s quite unavoidable.  You can try to universalize the message, but this is only a temporary fix.  Define the in-group as humanity and if/when we make contact with alien sentient life, the other is them (I’ve been watching Babylon 5 again…).  It’s a tough knot to untie, and I am not sure there is a solution.  Because having groups of people who vary in importance to us, hierarchical or not, is a logistical and practical solution to only having so much time and energy to spend.  It’s nice to have people close to you, intimate with you, and who you can call family.  But the other side of this is the necessary alienation of others, especially those with whom we share few values.  Liberals, conservative; Democrats, Republicans; Capitalists, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, etc.  There are people who are, in some way, ‘other’ to you.  Religion, tradition, ritual, and nationalism all use this aspect of human behavior to its simultaneous advantage and disadvantage.

And yes, it will be an improvement if and when humanity outgrows religion, nationalism, etc.  But I doubt that will solve the fundamental problem.  Personally, I’m not sure there is a solution.  I’m not writing this to say we should try to give up the concept of culture, and to transcend culture, because that would just create a new culture.  I’m writing this because we should all be aware of this phenomenon.  And those others who will not understand it are just stupid and evil, or something.  But we, the enlightened, will understand it.  Or something.

As for my employers and this Ramadan thing, I will say that the evening feast usually looks quite delicious.  Perhaps they are trying to convert me with the promise of delicious food.  It’s not working, alas.  Well, if the promise of 72 virgins (or raisins, whatever) won’t do it, food won’t do it, then I guess they are just going to have to verify their claims rationally and empirically.  Yeah, somehow philosophy wins over food and sex for me.  Sorry, religion.

Re-reading oneself June 28, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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I just had a realization.

The more I (re-)read Nietzsche (although, how does one re-read anything, considering how much we change between readings?), the more I feel like I want to read those of whom he writes.  I want to read ChamfortMontesquieu, and more of Goethe.  But (and this was my realization) what I really want to do is keep reading Nietzsche!

Reading Nietzsche opens my mind to a world of concepts to which my every day life is alien, and what I realize is that this sense comes from the reading itself and not from the references or referents.  I’m inspired by the moment, and not necessarily by the potential or the ambition of that moment.  That ambition is not extensive, it is its own reward.  A

And yet….

And yet there is more ambition out there.

This is not unlike the realization, which I have from time to time, that it is the moment of beauty, and not the object of beauty, which is inspiring and awesome.  In a sense, art and our ability to appreciate it is a phenomenon of appreciating ourselves (both specifically and generally, as human beings).  Yes, it was the creativity and genius of the artist which is the efficient cause, but it is the commonality of interior architecture of our minds—the shared culture, language, and worldview of both observer and creator—which is the (metaphorical) location of the art.

Much like the blueness of an object is not contained within the object itself (and certainly not within some ultimate being, whether “god” or some Vedantic/Noumenal/Platonic reality), but within the relationship between our perceptual gear (our brain) and the actual material object which causes the light to exist in such a wavelength as it does.*  And the label, “blue”, a cultural construction used to identify the coherence and consistency of our shared experience (Assuming we are not color-blind), is mere convention of course.  We could learn new labels, but the material reality is not conventional.  It is real.

No, there is no inherent beauty, no inherent color, and no inherent meaning.  The world actually is—there is a reality and it is not an illusion—but there is no inherent perspective before we create it by perceiving.  There is no objective perspective, whether it be a “god” or some set of Platonic ideals.

Similarly, there is no inherent me, only the passing self that will change upon each re-reading.  In a very loose metaphorical sense, we are a book we are constantly re-reading.  And while the subject is unchanging and (perhaps) the words are the same, each time we look at it we come from a different point of view, we notice different parts of the narrative, and perhaps we remembered this or that part differently than we see on this reading.

Each time I re-read a book such as The Gay Science or The Catcher in the Rye I see it from a different point of view.  But the same basic phenomenon is the case each time I look into myself.  Depending on mood, memory, experience, etc I am a different person each moment, even if I know I’m holding the same ‘book’.

I still want to read some Chamfort, if only to make sure that the next time I re-read myself, there is some new perspective from which to read.  It is when we stop desiring new peaks to view the world from that we become bored–and boring!

*We never actually see the noumenal object not because the noumena is inaccessible to us, but because that concept is a category error.  The object does exist on its own, but the perception, including the color, shape, etc, are a simulation based on a physical relationships with the object.  The concept of noumena is an attempt to project that simulation onto reality, where that noumena is, in fact, merely an abstraction of the phenomena.  The noumena, in short, is a fabrication; an attempt to project our linguistic and cognitive constructs onto the world.  The noumena, therefore, is not inaccessible to us, since we create it.  This is precisely what many atheists, myself included, mean when we say that we create gods.  I’m an atheist, in part, because I recognize that we create the noumenal through projection of our own perception onto reality.  I don’t reject the supernatural because I am an atheist, I am an atheist because I reject the supernatural.

Also, I wanted to add this video here, not because it is (directly) related, but just because it’s amazing and beautiful.

Christians mocking themselves while unintentionally advertising for polyamory April 25, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion.
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Wait…have you seen this?

So, I found this today via the Friendly Atheist, and I really thought this was a parody.  I simply cannot believe that real people, trying to make a real point, could be so unaware.

Wait, yes I can.  But it hurts to think about it, because I really want to like our species, but find so many reasons not to.

So, a man admits his infidelity (his “adultery”) to his wife, with his accomplice at hand, and offers the argument that if she loves him, she has to love his adultery.  And she accepts it, even so far as to write up some placards to support this publicly.  Of course, the primary analogy is between accepting of the sin (of homosexuality/adultery) of the sinners we should love.  You know, “love the sinner hate the sin” and other hilariously stupid ideas derived from the absurdity of Christian theology.

But also, this video is hilarious (unintentionally) while simultaneously frustrating.  And, of course, the first thing I thought (when deciding whether it was a parody) was that this was a poly triad making a video mocking Christians.  But since this seems legit I’m just going to have to pose the question of whether poly people should take offense at this video or not.  I mean, this is clearly in the wheelhouse of the argument that homosexual marriage will lead to thing like group marriage, sex with alpacas, and whatever else Christians fantasize about when denying that their worldview is as crazy as a pack of rabid hyenas on coke.  But are the Christians who made this even aware of the overt similarity to polyamory here in this video? Is it making fun of us?

Perhaps, but I don’t think any offense should be taken, and I think what Hemant said in response to it is the reason why:

This is the sort of video you would expect an LGBT group to make to mock Christians’ narrow-minded thinking on the subject… Instead, the Christians here went ahead and did the work for them. They’re proving to the world how badly they don’t get it.

They are mocking themselves, without being aware of it.

See, what a video like this does is exposes the lack of self-awareness of people who make it.  Think of it this way; could we here at polyskeptic have made this exact video (with us in it, of course), and had it be a parody? Could we have written it much better to make the point of the absurdity of the conservative Christian worldview in relation to such issues as homosexuality? No, I don’t think so.

The nonchalance of the wife in this video, in reaction to her husband admitting adultery while holding hands with another woman is done for the sake of comedy.  The tension here is between an obviously not-acceptable situation of direct, in-your-face cheating along side the subsequent calm acceptance, tolerance, and ultimate capitulation to it.   Of course nobody is going to respond calmly to such a situation.  Of course these things are sinful and wrong. Of course this is comedy gold.  Just not for the reasons they intended.

The English idiom “of course” here is also telling.  It implies following the expected (mainstream) set of behaviors.  Except the “of course” used above is said mockingly, because that set of expectations only occurs within the rigid bounds of a monogamous (Christian, in this case) world.  My hope is that the fact that this video misses the point about homosexuality and the standard tropes about monogamy are equally understood by people.  I hope that this video is not just absurd because of the stupid analogy between “sins,” but because it teases itself where monogamy lies.

Because my worry is that for many people the calmness and acceptance of the quasi-polyamorous circumstance portrayed here will be missed.  That the effect of the joke will be at being offended by the effectiveness of the analogy.  The video is saying that just like the idea that your wife would calmly accept your “adultery” is absurd, so is the idea that we should accept homosexuality.  And the problem is that, for many people, this will land.  I am willing to bet that the producers of this video would be gobsmacked if they saw people who would accept what they would deem as “adultery” with calmness.  Granted, the actual act in the video is not polyamory, but the tension of the joke is embedded in the idea that no woman (or man, especially in a patriarchal system) would accept their spouse having another lover.  Without that “of course,” the joke cannot land, and we are left with the presentation of the equal acceptability of homosexuality and sexual non-exclusivity.

Sounds about right to me.

When I watched it all I saw was a hilarious pseudo-advertisement for polyamory via unintentional self-parody.  I saw the absurdity of having an issue with homosexuality compared to the absurdity of jealousy, exclusiveness, and monogamy.  And not only am I not offended but  I have a wry and mischievous smile on my face.  I love it when Christians do the work for me, I only wish they could understand it.

I never meta eulogy of an idea I didn’t like April 21, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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In dealing with periodic depression and even moments of feeling invincible, powerful, and brilliant (which I know I am not), I sometimes have this sensation of this overwhelming sense of certainty concerning the thoughts which inhabit my mind.  When I feel confident, I believe it.  When I feel powerless, I believe it.  And sometimes, not often but significantly, I have another kind of experience associated with a different kind of certainty; not of the nature of the world, but of my relationship to it.

It is a feeling of transcendence, being able to comprehend issues in a way which are barely articulate, but which my mind is able to dance with freely for a little while.  And then it goes away, and I am unable to describe it well in many cases.  Sometimes, these ideas turn into blog posts.  This is not an example.

In fact, the idea I did have earlier today, while at work, fizzled away as I had no time to jot down the mnemonic phrase which would have stored it for me for later.  This post is, in fact, started as an attempt to resurrect this idea, but is turning into a meta-idea about a dead idea.  A eulogy of sorts.

The ideas contained here are the neighbors of this idea, vaguely related by adjacency and possibly kinship, but missing it almost entirely.  Like the dead, I can now only speak of it in vague, impersonal terms.  I knew this idea, for a moment, but it is gone now perhaps to never be met again.  So, rather than merely despair at it’s loss, perhaps we should meet it’s family and perhaps a piece of it will shimmer through them.

There is a feeling that I have, sometimes, which I could call spiritual.  In fact, I used to think of it in this way (sort of), until I started to think about the concept of spirituality and found it to be an empty, meaningless term.  It simply does not point to anything.  It seems to point to something, and this seeming is tied to very powerful parts of our mind, and so this seeming is overwhelming and convincing.

I am not sure, but I think that this type of experience is what people refer to when they talk about having spiritual experiences.  I’ve had them all of my life, but never associated them with either god or anything else supernatural.  What association I used to have with them, while younger, would have been with some sort of Buddhist enlightenment, Taoist insight into the Dao, or perhaps even apprehending a part of Tillich’s Ground of Being.

But don’t worry, you have not lost me to any religious rebirth, or even a crisis of lack-of-faith.  In fact, I have been aware of such concepts, both intellectually and experientially, for many years.  I just never interpreted them as anything (much) more than my brain being weird.  In centuries past, I might have had little choice but to choose a religious life of sorts, having the proclivities to think about things in the ways that many mystics have in the past.  I’m glad I’m alive now.  This life is much more to my liking than that of a monk or strange religious hermit.

Yeah, I’m some sort of atheist mystic.  HA!  Saint ShaunPhilly, indeed.

This sensation usually leaves me with a strong feeling of community and connection to others.  I feel stronger emotional ties to people in my life after such experiences.  I have the sensation of being tied to people around me by some bond, almost tribal in nature, which is almost compelling enough to give the spiritual-but-not-religious some slack.

Almost.

But because I’m also very prone to self-challenging moments of skepticism (OK, cynicism too), I realize that this sensation is an illusion.  And so when I talk with people who get caught up in describing things this way, and tie it to some religious worldview, vague spirituality, etc I am both amused and annoyed.  In such moments I’m watching people rationalize a completely natural brain phenomenon (an interesting one, no doubt) as a spiritual experience, and they are interpreting it as some truth about the universe, and not just a truth about how consciousness often does NOT correlate with reality.

Yes, such experiences teach us things about ourselves, but usually mostly in the context of how the brain processes which make us up operate in relation to reality, and not about reality itself.  Self knowledge and perspective are important, but we do need to have a skeptical method (science) at hand to check our conclusions against.  We need to check our biases, as well as we can, to make sure that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions.

Because when we draw conclusions (which often occurs in a cultural context which is drenched in religious and theological baggage) without skeptical checks, we start to divide ourselves into doctrinal tribes via the similarity of our conclusions.  But we have to be careful to not think I’m talking about religion per se here, because this is a thing we all do (atheists included) and is not limited to religion.

The tribalism which religion utilizes in order to build community, but also to build walls, seems tied to this sense of connectedness which I was describing above.  Granted, for some this connectedness is associated with a human family (these tend to be liberals) rather than a nationalistic or truly tribal connectedness (conservatives).  This sense of tribalism is more fundamental than religion, but religion uses it well.

Religion is not the source of anything accept its own peculiar theological logic puzzles.  Religion is, rather, a strange combination of various cognitive, emotional, and social behaviors and processes.  Getting rid of religion would solve nothing.  Instead, we need to be focused on improving our awareness of how the basic parts of human behavior–emotional blind spots, cognitive biases, and social herd behavior–influence our worldviews and beliefs, so that we can be sure that those beliefs are rational.

In short, we need to be more aware of how our private experience leads to emergent properties in human behavior.  We only have control (limited though it is) of our own mind, and our influence of others will grow from this.

Have you ever been socially talking with a bunch of liberal-minded people about religion?  You know, the types who are not religious themselves (or only vaguely so), but who will speak very respectfully about religions and view criticism as some angry and irrational hatred of other people’s beliefs? They don’t believe any of it (or most of it, at least), but they will not tolerate criticism of people’s sacred cows.  You know, those shouting “Islamophobia” recently.

No?

Well, I have.  Hell, I graduated from  a Quaker school in liberal Philadelphia, so this was my upbringing.  What I learned, over the years is that in many cases what is happening in such encounters was that these spiritual thoughts, feelings, and experiences are somewhat common, especially among sensitive and educated liberals (remember, I’m a liberal in many ways myself, so this is in many ways an internal, and in some ways a self-,criticism).  To criticize the concept in general, and not just specific theological claims, is to criticize their own experience (and thus to criticize them).

And I hope I don’t need to tell you that while liberals are much better, at least where politics comes in, at maintaining a rational scientific literacy and understanding, they fail in many ways.  Profoundly.  Big Pharma, sophisticated theology, theistic evolution,  and…dare I say it…New Age….

This “spiritual” awareness it pretty ubiquitous, and pulling away the curtain to reveal the “wizard” behind it is pretty unsettling.  And when people are unsettled, they act tend to act poorly.  All people have qualities, deep inside and unchosen, which are good and bad.  The problem is that religion allows you to rationalize the bad ones, while giving you the sensation of having provided the good ones in the first place.  The sense of community of an idea, of connectedness and belonging, makes it feel acceptable to rationalize terrible thinking.  Because while most of us have the impulse to think certain things, having an organized group of people who call that idea the truth is a means of escape from thinking more about it.

Skeptics and atheists are not, qua skepticism or  atheism, mean or overly-critical people.  But without a doctrine to appeal to, a skeptic is forced to use reason (and hopefully they will do so) when faced with a challenge.  But those who are attached to the spiritual, the religious, and to theology have a bubble around them which keeps them further away from the skeptical tools they have access to.  They are capable of using those tools, but when emotions come into play, they seem to be too far away to get  hold of.

Here’s to more people abandoning that bubble.

And here’s to an idea, lost, but which was born within the family of these ideas and which may one day be raised again.

Maybe on the third day.  I do go back to work then, so it would make it most annoying for it to be then since I’ll likely forget it again.

I swear, if the universe is somehow conscious, it’s a total dick….

The Devil, Lies, and Atheism March 20, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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“The Biggest ruse of the devil is making us believe that he doesn’t exist,” said Baudelaire.  Except the devil does not exist.  The ruse here only makes sense within a very specific framework; Christian mythology.

H/T atheistcartoons.com

H/T atheistcartoons.com

There is a meme, a lie, really, within much of the Christian world that atheists are Satanic, or at least deceived in this Baudelairesque fashion.  According to this meme, the devil is a liar, thus atheism is a lie.  This idea is rooted in Christian scripture where Satan is seen as the father of lies:

43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. 44 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”

(John 8:43-47)

So, if you accept this mythology as true, or at least inspired by a god that tells the truth, then thinking of atheists as living a lie makes sense, right? Well, I suppose, but let’s look at it this way.  The devil is a character in a set of stories–the mythology which emerges from the biblical collection of books.  This character is, by definition, evil and wrong; the narrative of the story is such that he loses, eventually, and in the mean time his power in the universe is based upon deception and lies.  Those who do not believe the story of YHWH and his various acts through “history” are seen as, essentially, conspiracy theorists who do not accept the “truth.”

But this myth cannot be stretch onto the terrain of reality.  Christianity is simply not true, and to try and live it as real can only go so far before the fabric tears and reality pokes through.  But for those who are deluded in this strange and inhuman form or LARPing, those of us who are not playing by the rules of that universe will be pegged as a kind of “muggle” who has been projected as wearing a devil mask.

We can’t seriously despute the reality of the story, can we? We can’t really actually not believe that God exists and that Jesus is our savior, Mohammed is the seal of prophets, or whatever Mormons believe, right?  Because they are convinced of the truth of their worldview, when we enter their periphery we are forced into their role-playing and seen as playing characters which represent us in their narrative.

We are devils, liars, and we have been draped with a cloth of deception to make us fit into their worldview.

But from the atheist point of view, we are a bunch of people who wandered into their D&D, Harry Potter, or Christian universe where everyone within it is LARPing fully in character. So while we know it’s all pretend, from the point of view of the players we have to play the role of muggles or devils, otherwise they have to break character.

atheismExcept, in the real world, there are people who don’t know they are playing a character, they think that the role-playing is real.  And that’s religion. Atheism is simply being aware that the script(ure) is just pretend, and we cannot believe that so many people take it so seriously.  We simply want them to break character, and enjoy reality.

If you are interested in a great book about the history of the concept of the devil, see Gérald Messadié‘s wonderful book A History of the Devil.

Vote for Optimus! February 11, 2013

Posted by wfenza in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.

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The Pope is retiring. Paul Fidalgo is throwing his pointy hat into the ring:

Oh, and I’ll put an immediate end to the church’s tolerance and enabling of sexual assault; its treatment of women as second-class; its adherence to Bronze Age notions of morality; its hoarding of wealth for no purpose but its own aggrandizement (except for me, of course); its persecution of homosexuals; its intentional miseducation of developing nations ravaged by ignorance, overpopulation, superstition, starvation, and illness; and its utter failure to promote the ascension of robot-human hybrids.

Also, his Pope name will be Pope Optimus Prime I. I’m sold.

The Crommunist’s myth metaphor for the culture wars January 24, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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I have been thinking about the philosophical, emotional, and historical underpinnings of the culture wars in recent months.  I have been try to come up with a way to categorize it in such a way that will make sense to people who don’t understand that it  is a matter of different values, and I have not been particularly successful at it.  I did write this post last month, but it felt like an incomplete attempt to articulate my thoughts.

Ian Cromwell

Ian Cromwell

In the last few days, Ian Cromwell, over at The Crommunist (one of my favorite FtB blogs) has been writing a series of posts utilizing the concept of myth (which he defines here) in a quite interesting, and I think useful, way.  He continues with his next post to define, for this conversation, the concept of  fairness and justice–but in a way I have a subtle, but perhaps important disagreement with.  Briefly, I think that fairness is a concept which is objectively (or inter-subjectively) definable, but we don’t have access to all the relevant information at any given time, so what appears to be fair may not actually be fair.  Because we don’t have sufficient information, or we are under a delusion about the facts, we will not recognize the unfairness of the circumstance until we understand more.  I’ll leave that aside for now.

I also appreciated the disclaimer that Ian gave to who his intended audience is.  I have come to write for a similar audience recently, realizing that I don’t really care what the others think most of the time.  There does come a time when you simply have to ignore some potential readers as being irrelevant to what you are saying, although the irony here is that we are writing about how to think and talk about fundamental mythological and value differences.

On his fourth post in the series, he comes to the meat of his thought, which he calls The dueling myth postulate.  here is the gist:

I wish to postulate that it is useful to think of many disagreements as the collision of two opposing myths. The first myth, what I call the ‘fairness myth’ (and will heretofore refer to as f-myth) is very simply stated: the world is a fair place. You will undoubtedly have heard this described as the ‘just world theory’, ‘just world hypothesis’, or ‘just world fallacy’. I prefer the term ‘myth’ for the reasons I spelled out in yesterday’s post – it is a story that we tell about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Those things we have were obtained fairly, and our position is justified according to our understanding of moral axioms.

The countervailing myth is, of course, the ‘unfairness myth’ (u-myth) – that our position in the world is not in accordance with moral axioms, and that we (or others – more on that later) are being arbitrarily deprived of access to a state of harmonious existence.

In the past, I have described this as a clash of values, and while I still think that is true, I think that this approach has merit, and I will gladly steal it in the future, where I find it useful.  I don’t think he’ll mind, especially since I will credit him for the idea.

He then goes onto flesh out the idea some more, and comes up with the Ethical dimensions of the dueling myth postulate, which looks like this:

Morality within the Fair Myth framework

If one starts from a position that the world is fair, then any attempt to change the world would bring it into a state of unfairness. It is morally reprehensible, for example, to arbitrarily deprive someone of something that ze deserves. Indeed, it is highly morally reprehensible to take goods or status from one who has earned them and give those goods to someone who has not.

We saw an example of this when people believed that tax money was being used to bail out large banks and give bonuses to wealthy executives whose risky practices had caused a financial collapse. The taxpaying public (largely blameless for the economic troubles) were having their goods and services curtailed in order to reward a class of people who a) didn’t need the bonuses to live, and b) did not face any criminal charges for their malfeasance. It was monstrously unfair to redistribute wealth in a way that rewards irresponsibility and excess.

Indeed, in many cases it is morally laudable to fight to protect a fair system. In the last American election, when new laws were brought in that would disenfranchise voters, a public outcry went up to preserve the existing system (whatever its flaws might have been). The belief that the current system was fair, insofar as it allowed people to vote regardless of their skin colour or age (with the caveat that there is a legal voting age), motivated a strong resistance to change, fueled by a general agreement among proponents that people deserved to vote, and were threatened with having that status taken away from them for reasons that were seen as arbitrary.

Morality within the Unfair Myth framework

Conversely, there is a similar moral dimension to the u-myth. If one has the ability to intervene, it is morally reprehensible to allow an unfair system to persist. The u-myth invokes the image of the ‘Good Samaritan’ parable, where it is morally laudable to take action to either prevent an unfair thing from occurring, or to stop an unfair thing while it is happening.

For example, there are a number of people who believe that the state has a moral obligation to provide health care to its citizens. A state, with its wealth and power, is in a ready position to construct, administrate, and fund a system wherein all citizens receive at least some rudimentary level of care. Most industrialized nations, and many with different economic circumstances, recognize the duty of the state to ensure a level of basic health, and consider it a moral failing when a state does not. The fact that it also makes financial sense for the state is worthwhile including in a discussion of policy, but I wish to focus solely on the moral dimension.

As above, it is morally reprehensible to defend an unfair system. We have precious few people today who would jump to the defence of South Africa’s apartheid system (though there are many alive today who have defended it). We recognize the unfairness of a system that stratifies human beings by an arbitrary characteristic such as skin colour, and would roundly condemn anyone who argues that such a system was fair and/or necessary.

I think this is a pretty good set of frameworks to start with.  I am not sure that any one person will fit cleanly into either, and I’m sure we use both of these to some extent depending on the issue, but I think this a is a fair categorization of how many of these issues are, in fact, rhetorically spun.  In his four consecutive posts, Ian addresses this framework in terms of the issues of welfare, #IdleNoMore (a movement concerned with First Nation rights in Canada), religious persecution (or privilege), and then feminism.  I’ll quote a snippet from the post about religious persecution.

So let’s see if we can break down Mr. French’s [of WND] argument within a competing myth framework. I would identify it as springing from a f-myth belief, and will analyze it thus:

The world is fundamentally fair when it comes to the place of religion in public life (or at least has been up until recently). Overt displays of religiosity are protected free speech under the Constitution. The use of religious invocations, symbols, and practices are part of American history – a tradition that stretches back for generations.

Because the world is fundamentally fair, the attempts to change such a system are morally reprehensible. Conversely, it is morally laudable to resist the changes that threaten to remove religion from public life. Religious people should not have their rights taken from them in order to appease the growing chorus of anti-religious voices.

By opposing these changes to tradition and to American identity, the FRC’s actions/positions are morally laudable. By fighting to change a fundamentally fair system by abridging religious freedom, the actions of the ACLU and the U.S. government are morally reprehensible. By opposing the core of the American identity and long-standing tradition, the beliefs of the ACLU and the U.S. government are morally reprehensible.

For fun, we can also parse Ms. Feinberg’s argument in a u-myth framework:

The world is fundamentally unfair when it comes to the place of religion in public life. Overt displays of religiosity on behalf of state actors is specifically precluded by the Constitution. The use of religious symbols, while popular, is a reflection of an unfair system of religious hegemony and preference – a tradition that stretches back for generations.

Because the world is fundamentally unfair, the state has a duty to intervene and increase the amount of fairness. Fairness, in this context, looks like no religious preference for any group. Public schools are state entities, and as a result they must not be used for religious promotion. Any history of such promotion does not abrogate the duty of the state to ensure that it lives up to its obligation to be fair to all groups.

By acting to ensure that the Constitution is upheld, the actions of the NYCDE are morally laudable. By attempting to uphold or restore a fundamentally unfair system of religious privilege, the actions of the FRC are morally reprehensible. By asserting a right to preferential treatment that would propagate an unfair system, the beliefs of the FRC are morally reprehensible.

So we can see from the above analysis of the example that the specific statements of ‘both sides’ of the argument can be expressed as a function of an underlying myth about the fairness of the system in which the dispute is happening.

I have seen this type of argument between people on one side or the other concerning church/state separation over the last decade, and I think that this, in conjunction with Jon Haidt’s recent work (which I am not in complete agreement with, but I find his  Moral Foundations Theory extremely helpful) is a very good way to approach thinking about the culture wars, values, and the myths (or worldviews, as I might call them) we use to construct our concepts of the world.

So, in summary, I think this postulate of the dueling myth postulate, described in the recent series of posts by Ian Cromwell, is at least a useful, if not powerful, tool to use in talking about these types of issues.

In the future I will be thinking more about the relationship that this tool, this dueling myth postulate, has on the conversation about privilege.  For example, is privilege the circumstance of being stuck within the perspective of a “air myth framework,” at least in most cases? Do people who argue against shifting our behavior and views about what normal is, what is expected, and what efforts we should make to fix such things a function of feeling like the world is fundamentally fair, and by pointing out the effects of privilege we are trying to upset the apple cart?

In any case, a nod and a thanks to Ian Cromwell for thinking about this and sharing.

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I’ll add that Ian added, a few hours ago, a follow-up post entitled The usefulness of the dueling myth postulate, which I am about to read now.

American Politics, old and new. January 6, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Here is a quote from John Ferling’s Adams vs. Jefferson, page 153-154:

The Federalists also fixated on Jefferson’s religious beliefs, maligning him as an atheist.  This was grounded on what Jefferson had written in Notes on the State of Virginia, drafted in 1782 and first published in the United States in 1788.  Jefferson had lauded the Virginia Declaration of rights of 1776, which provided for religious toleration, but, wishing to go further—he hoped for a law that would separate church and state—Jefferson had dilated on the “rights of conscience,” about which individuals were “answerable [only] to…our God” and never to the state. He then added  that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.” These two sentences were reprinted endlessly in Federalist newspapers as proof of Jefferson’s impiety.  In addition, Federalist scribes cautioned that Jefferson viewed the clergy as “curses in a country.” Primarily, however, they depicted him as a “howling atheist” and “infidel.”  Filled with contempt for Christ, Jefferson supposedly embodied iniquities that would bring on the moral decline of the United States.  In New England people were told to hide their Bibles should Jefferson be elected, and the warning went out that his election would call down God’s vengeance on the United States.Though more from the pulpit than the press, lurid tales were told of bizarre worship services at Monticello at which Jefferson supposedly prayed to the Goddess of Reason and offered up dogs on a sacrificial altar.  One Federalist newspaper advised its readers to vote for “GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT or impiously declare for JEFFERSON–AND NO GOD.”

How many current cultural tropes did you notice there?

Thomas Jefferson, never self-identified as an atheist, as far as I know.  The conflation of religious tolerance and freedom with repression felt by the dominant religion was as real then as it is now.  We are not dealing with anything new, in talking about this religious privilege and the association with separation of church and state with impiety and even lack of patriotism.

There are simply some people, whether in 1800 or 2013, who simply cannot see that asking for religious neutrality from our government is a good idea.  Those that declare the United States to be a Christian nation have the precedence of idiots from the 18th century who did not grasp the importance of said separation then, and who wanted a Christian president rather than a supposedly godless president.  And those who see the legal foundations of the United States as secular, as its founding documents state, have the precedence of people like Jefferson and Madison on their side.  It’s not simply that we were a secular nation and people forgot, it’s that some people simply could not grasp it at the time, and that tradition seems to have run parallel to the actual law and history.

In short, there are always idiots in society, and it may be the case that they will never go away.  One of the weaknesses of democracy is that those idiots also get to vote, and thus we have Michel Bachmann and Rick Perry.