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Skepticism, Secularism, and Public Policy July 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Why “these beliefs work for me” is not enough October 6, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I get into a lot of arguments with people.  Sometimes, the argument gets ugly, and sometimes it is not.  I’m just one of those people that cares about what is true, and so when someone says something I find to be unjustified or that I  have reasons to disagree with, I often say something.

This often leads to me being called “closed minded,” arrogant, etc.

Just in the last couple of days I have had an email correspondence which started on a polyamory discussion list with someone who seems to consider himself spiritual, and who commented that he has become more serene since he stopped arguing with religious people (it was this and some other things I’ve been annoyed by that led to yesterdays blog about spiritual but not religious people).

I was offended by a comment he made, and tried to explain why I was offended, but it didn’t stick for him.

In any case, I wrote him back late last night, and thought some of the points I made would be relevant to people that might run into this blog.

With no further yapping on my part, here is the entire email:

I am quite aware that your email was not about me.  I was replying to the content that I disagreed with.  My offense at your comment needs some unpacking for you to understand why I was offended.  I’ll get to that at the end of this email.

First I want to say that I notice among many people, in fact this seems to be common wisdom, an unspoken assumption about beliefs.  There seems to be a notion that there is an automatic validity to a belief simply because it works for people, or simply because they have it.  Yes, people rely on things, but I don’t believe it is enough to say that they rely on it and therefore it’s not my place to judge it or even to comment on it.  After all, people have a right to their beliefs, right?

I believe this idea is wrong-headed.  And, more importantly, I don’t think it’s true just because I believe it.  This speaks to the unspoken assumption above.  I have this belief for reasons, not just because it works for me.  This is the crux of the issue for me; I think that people’s beliefs should be justified rationally, or they are not worthy of respect by anyone else.  Of course people have a right to their beliefs, but they don’t have the right to not have their ideas criticized.

An acquaintance and personal favorite leader in the atheist community has become known for asking “What do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  I think this is an important question, and I think that in the attempt to be tolerant, diverse, and respectful this question often gets left behind in the cultural maelstrom (especially in liberal circles).

You said:

Just because you “vehemently view spirituality as meaningless” doesn’t mean that it is. In fact its one of the biggest driving forces in the human experience for many. The fact that you got so offended may suggest that its not quite as meaningless to you as you say.

This, I believe, is a symptom of the problem.  It’s not merely that I believe this, I believe this for reasons.  I am not merely asserting it and saying that it’s true.  It’s not that this idea works for me, it’s that I think it can be defended rationally.  But you didn’t address the content of the claim at all.  I find that to be fascinating, because I would hope that a claim I make would not merely be swept aside with the broom of ad populum, but rather challenged.  Why wasn’t it challenged?

Your comment was not a challenge as to the merit of the proposition or to content therein, but rather to whether it was an idea that worked for people.  The fact that it is a driving force for people has absolutely nothing to do with its validity.  Truth is not determined by what ideas people like, and it is truth that I am interested in.  I am offended by the apparent shrugging off of pursuits of truth in the name of mere pragmatism.  These issues are questionable, investigatable, and conclusions can be drawn with good evidence.  The fact that people use these ideas in their lives does not make them immune to the criticism that can be provided.

I believe that they are physical events in the brain too but who’s to say that our brains weren’t wired like that in order to produce that spiritual experience by a creator? I believe that science and spirituality should be joined at the hip instead of being in opposition and I think fortunately things are headed in that direction.

I cannot [dis]prove that such a creator exists who created our brains such.  But I see no cause to believe it.  What if the world were created by an invisible pink unicorn, a flying spaghetti monster, or blue dwarfs that currently live in my closet?  I can’t disprove those ideas either, but why should I believe any of them?  The issue is not whether I can disprove the idea of such a creator, the question is what evidence is there for belief in such a thing?  What would compel me to believe it? My whims and what works for my life are not relevant here.

Until there is some reason to believe so, it is rational to not believe.  It’s called the null hypothesis.  Do you believe in the dwarfs in my closet?  if not, why not?  Who is to say they don’t exist? I’m betting you don’t believe in them, and I don’t consider it respectful to say “hey, whatever works for you.”  I find this condescending and disrespectful of my ability to think critically and take criticism.   If I believe something you find unjustified, why would you pretend otherwise and merely shrug it off? That’s how we treat children, not adults.  Our beliefs affect the decisions we make, and unjustified beliefs often lead to decisions that affect the world around us.

As for science and spirituality, they are not necessarily at odds.  The simple fact is that they are at odds through investigation, that is by accident of the beliefs of spiritual people not standing up to scrutiny.  And when they are not at odds with science, the thing stops being called spiritual but is then called part of the confirmations of science.  It is like the difference between medical science and alternative medicine; when it works, it’s simply called science and no longer is alternative.  The claims of spiritualism have been tested and have failed repeatedly.  There is no counter-example I have ever seen to this claim.  Look into James Randi’s million dollar challenge.  The fact that nobody has won it is telling.

And no, things are not headed in the direction of science and spirituality being reconcilable.  Despite what morons like Deepak Chopra and the other goons at HuffPo say, there is most definitely a distance between them.  Some, like the Templeton foundation, will seem to say otherwise, but the arguments are spurious.  If you are curious about ths issue, I suggest the JREF (linked above), the Paryngula blog, or the general skeptics community (say the skepchicks blog).

I’m not a religious scholar by a long shot. All I know is my own personal experience. And I know that I became a much more serene person when I stopped vehemently opposing religious people (still struggle with Fox news types). They aren’t all the same.

I am a student of the philosophy of religion.  In fact, that is what I have my MA in.  This does not make me right, but it implies I have spent considerable time thinking about these things. But that does not matter….  I have experiences too.  I used to wonder if they were spiritual in nature, but then I seriously investigated this question, and found that such an explanation is not rationally warranted.  It is not enough to say that you have a different conclusion, you need to demonstrate why or I have no reason to respect your ideas.

The fact that you became more serene person when you stopped opposing religious people says nothing for the validity of whatever spiritual ideas you took on since then.  When a person changes through experience with a new religion, spiritual tradition, etc it does not imply that the ideas they adopted did the changing or that those ideas are true.  That’s simply a tremendously bad argument.  And of course they are not all the same, although there are often common characteristics among them.

There are plenty of good, strong, intelligent people who believe in a higher power on this planet. To paint them all with the same broad stroke is as close minded as a fundamentalist is about non-fundamentalists.

I have never done this.  I am very aware that people who believe such things vary greatly, and I try as much as possible to try and address what they specifically claim and address those claims.  What I am saying is that insofar as a person accepts faith as a strength, I think that it points to a problem.  People use faith in many ways, for many beliefs, and with different temperaments.  But we have to step back and ask what faith is.  It is belief in something despite a lack of evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence.  If there were evidence, there would be no need for faith, because there would be reasons to believe.  personal, internal experiences are not enough for other people, and they do not provide evidence that you have not misinterpreted your experience and attributed it to something imaginary rather than a more mundane and material explanation.  Until someone gives reasons to believe in spiritual ideas, people have to rely on faith and problematic personal experiences.

This is incontrovertibly a weak position to be in intellectually and rationally.  If it isn’t, please explain why it isn’t.

My view is not closed minded, it is considered and measured.  I think that believing in things for which their is no, or at least poor, evidence is not an intellectual, personal, or social strength.  How is that closed minded?

Finally, why was I offended.  I was offended because we atheists are tired of hearing that things like morality, personal strength, and wisdom come from divine or spiritual sources.  It implies that those who don’t believe in such things cannot be moral, strong, or wise.  By associating spirituality with good attributes, you imply that people like me are not capable of it.  If I were to say that all the people I know who are strong, wise, and good were atheists and that atheism is the key to being like those people, would you not take offense at the implication inherent to this?

This is simple discrimination of people who don’t believe in the kinds of things you believe.  It is based on faulty assumptions and poor logical thinking, and it leads to real discrimination, demonization, and distrust of atheists.  Recent studies have shown atheists to be the least trusted group in America (even below Muslims).  I’m offended because you essentially claimed that an atheist cannot be a good person.  I doubt this was your intent, but it is the result nonetheless.  I’m just trying to give you a touch of consciousness-raising about discrimination against atheists and its unseen sources in common wisdom, as evidenced by your comment.  You are doing actual harm to real people, probably unintentionally, by promoting a meme that is simply false.

Please understand that I’m trying to communicate in good…faith.  I’m not attacking you, I’m trying to get you to understand where I’m coming from.

His reply was to say “You’re right” and then to sign off.  I can’t help but feel patronized with an intent to discontinue conversation.

Meh….

Atheism and Skepticism May 12, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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[edit: This issue continues to be relevant in the skeptical community.  I’ll link this.]

Within the skeptic community, there is a sort of fault, a split, that is often avoided because it is an issue of some contention.  And we know how much skeptics avoid contentious issues! I mean, to do that would be unfortunate–one might stir up some deep-held beliefs that people have.

I’m an atheist.  I’m also a skeptic.  And while I have participated in the atheist community longer than the skeptical community, I have been part of both for some time.  I listen to Skepticality regularly, will often refer to skepdic.com or snopes.com when looking up information.  And while I  have not yet gone to TAM (but would very much like to this year),  I have had the honor of meeting Randi himself once [and later again at DragonCon 2010, where I had dinner with him and Jamy Ian Swiss], who was very friendly in introducing himself with a joke during an Anti-Superstition party in Philadelphia a few years ago.  This coming weekend I am attending the Atlanta Skepticamp.  In general, I demand evidence for claims, as any good skeptic should.

That is what skepticism is all about, right? According to Skeptic.com’s about page,

“[s]kepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.”

A good start.  Like science, skepticism is not so much about what we conclude as being true (or at least supported by evidence) but the method by which we approach finding answers.  It is a disposition, perhaps, more than any set of conclusions.

To be skeptical is to demand evidence upon hearing a claim about the world. Of course, non-extraordinary claims may not be sufficient to demand evidence; claims such as “I had eggs for breakfast,” for example, may not get your skeptical dander up.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (said Carl Sagan).  The common usage of the term ‘skeptic’, however, is often to conflate it with the term “cynic” (which is itself a term that has diverged from it’s ancient roots), which implies a kind of dismissive attitude towards claims rather than a desire to seek evidence for the claims.  Skeptics are not, ideally, debunkers of beliefs so much as investigators of beliefs and seekers of evidence.  And when such evidence does not exist (or is dubious), the belief is not held by the skeptic.

Within the skeptical community you will hear talk of cryptozoology, UFOs, psychics, and astrology, for sure, but not too much discussion about religion or faith.  Why is that? Well, it is because many people who identify as skeptics are, nonetheless, religious.  That is, they believe things about the universe such as the existence of god(s), but apply their skepticism elsewhere.

OK, well, let’s step aside for the moment and take a look at atheism.  I’ve addressed my definition of atheism before (as well as whether it can be considered a religion), and so I won’t go on at length.  Essentially, my definition oft atheism is the position of not having any belief in any gods.  That is, if ‘theism’ means belief in god(s), then atheism is simply the negation-causing ‘a-‘ attached to that term, meaning the lack of such a belief in god(s).  It is not the belief that there are no gods, because that is a subtle but importantly different position to hold; there is a difference between saying that there are no gods and saying that I don’t currently believe that there are.  The former assertion brings with it the burden of proof, while the latter lack of belief does not bring any burden of proof into play.

My position, as an atheist, is that of a response; when someone says that they think there is a god or that god exists, I simply am saying “I don’t believe you.”  This is an essentially skeptical position.  I am saying that the evidence is not sufficient, from my point of view, to accept such a claim.  Any person who calls themselves a skeptic must hold this position unless they have evidence for the existence of god; evidence which I have not seen (or accepted as sufficient). If they believe by faith alone, then they are not applying their skepticism to their belief in god(s), and thus lose some skeptical street cred (see video below). Faith and skepticism are at odds here.

Matt Dillahunty, the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin, host of the Atheist Experience and the Non-Prophets (both of which I have been following for several years now), has come out strongly with essentially the same position as mine (I think), as can be heard in the following:

Matt and I corresponded a little while back concerning a post at skepchick.com that addressed this very issue.  And while it is true that none of us are completely rational about everything, the bottom line is that by ignoring such a large aspect of one’s life, such as the belief in a god (whether one is a deist or a Christian) is a hit against one’s skeptical credentials.  Simply admitting that one is not being rational about something does not excuse the lack of skepticism.  It would be sort of like an astrologer admitting that they are not being rational about their belief in astrology, but considering themselves a skeptic because they are skeptical about vaccinations causing autism and Bigfoot.

So, can one be a skeptic and be a believer in god(s))?

No, I don’t think so.

I contend that there is no good evidence for the existence of a god.  If there is, I have not seen it.  And if there is good evidence or reasons to believe in god(s), I want to see it.  But in my many years of having discussions, thinking about this issue, and writing about it, I have not yet been presented with good reason to believe.  Not even those skeptical theists have good reasons to believe, from what I have seen.  Thus, believing in a god, despite the lack of evidence for it’s existence is a non-rational position.  A skeptic is supposed to reserve belief for positions that are supported by evidence, not believed despite the lack of evidence (or evidence to the contrary).  A skeptic believing in a god despite the lack of evidence is no different than a skeptic believing in the Loch Ness Monster with similar scanty evidence.

And despite the fact that stating this may cause some rifts among certain ‘skeptical’ people, I think it is important to address because of one very important reason; it is true.  And if it is not true, then it must be argued to be so, not simply stated.  If it is possible to be a consistent skeptic and be a believer in god(s), then that implies that there is good reason to believe in such entities.  And if there is reason to believe in deities, then the issue between skeptics and atheists is that atheists are wrong to lack belief in gods because there is evidence out there that is sufficient for belief.

But if there is not sufficient evidence to believe in any gods, then to be a skeptic and a theist is a contradiction.  A skeptic, being consistent, will be an atheist.  They will not say there is no god, but they will join me in saying that they simply see no reason to believe there is a god.

I’ll leave you with some more video:

New Atheists, Skepticism, and the Golden Rule December 17, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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The Golden Rule, with its various incarnations, permeates religious thought.  And while it can be formulated in many ways, the most common way to express it essentially states that you should treat others as you would want to be treated.  It emits an attempt at fairness in action, making sure that one does not make a double-standard  by making exceptions for yourself that you don’t allow for others.

Fair enough.  And while I think that the Golden Rule is best said when it attempts to treat others as they wish to be treated, due to the fact that what I want is not necessarily what others want, I think that this is often problematic because we do not know what others want.  We could ask what people want, I suppose, but the practical application of this is insurmountable on a societal scale.

I think that the general idea is to act such that those actions create a world that is consistent with our desires, while keeping in mind the desires of others and their ideal worlds.   Thus, as a general rule, to act in such a way that would be consistent with a desired world which is created by those types of actions is a good place to start. Figuring out an ideal world that we can all agree on is probably the biggest problem.

And so what do we, the new atheists, do? (And yes, I still dislike the term).  Our criticisms are not always appreciated by other people, especially strongly religious ones.  We try to speak out in order to be able to gain acceptance in culture, to stop theocratic intrusions into government policies,  and to make sure that theology stays away from science so that we can continue the process of understanding unimpeded by silly mythology (i.e. creationism) and other superstitions.

But are new atheists following the Golden Rule?  Should we follow the Golden Rule?  Are faitheists and other critics of the new atheists following the Golden Rule?

Skepticism and Atheism

Not all atheists are skeptics, nor are all skeptics atheists.  I agree with people such as Matt Dillahunty, that to be a skeptic should lead a person to be an atheist.  Why? Because I don’t think there is any evidence to believe in any gods, and without evidence in such things, one has no cause for a belief in any gods.  Thus to be skeptical concerning the question of gods, without sufficient evidence to believe in them, must lead to atheism as the only reasonable conclusion.  As soon as there is evidence, then a skeptic has to address that evidence.  But there is no good evidence that I know of, and I have been looking.

Skeptics, at least “real skeptics” (I’m being playful, not trying to drag in a “true Scotsman”), encourage criticism of all kinds of beliefs.  Skeptics are all about the evidence, use of rationality to address that evidence, and accepting as true what the evidence points to.

As an implication of this, I think that skepticism would desire a world where open debate, conversation, and challenges to beliefs would be encouraged.  A world where all of the data is explored, all sacred cows inspected, and people are encouraged to have a real desire to know what is true and not just what is preferable or easy.  This is antithetical to faith, by definition, and is what the current public atheism is all about, at least concerning the questions of religion, gods, and faith.  The criticisms of religion are ancient, in many cases.  These ideas being promulgated is what is new, and religious people are not used to hearing these ideas.

Another, hopefully obvious, implication of being a skeptic is that a person should be open to have their own beliefs challenged.  Thus, when the superlatively respected skeptic James Randi wrote this piece the other day about Global Warming, he was appropriately challenged by various people in the skeptical and atheist community.   And while his point may be valid (or not), he is willing to accept the criticism and respond to them, rather than claim persecution as many Christians often do when criticized in the same way.  I would think that Randi  encourages the challenges in general, even if he may not have liked some of them specifically (As his follow-up seems to imply).  The bottom line is that when skeptics make claims, hold beliefs, or sign on to something, they should be willing to accept criticism when it comes their way.

These implications are an essential part of a skeptical worldview.  It is how we want to live, the kind of world we want to live in, and how we think one should act with other people.

Including theists.

Therefore, when the new atheists, insofar as they are also skeptics (and many of the leading atheist speakers and writers at least attempt skepticism), offer public criticism of religion, faith, etc, they are following the rule of treating others as they want to be treated.  They are acting in such a way that is consistent with creating a desired world that the actions they make will create.

I want a world where people’s beliefs are challenged when such criticism is warranted.  I want a world that is not simply based upon faith, but rather evidence, reason, and an attitude of curiosity.  I want to help create an environment where skeptical inquiry is supported by people rather than blind (or at least partially obscured) faith.  And I know that many of my fellow atheists share this desire, and so we are simply following what we think the right thing to do is, according to the very “Golden” rule that religions share.

So, if there is a problem with the actions of atheists these days, then the problem is with the rule itself, not with our actions.

But wait, didn’t I say that I liked the other formulation of the Golden Rule better?

I said, above, that I prefer the idea that one should treat others as they want to be treated, and not merely as how I want to be treated myself.  I said that the issue was that I didn’t know how others wanted to be treated all of the time, creating a practical problem with implementing the idea, not a problem with the idea itself.  I also stated that this will lead to inevitable conflicts of opinion about what kind of world we want to live in.

We know that many religious people tell atheists that they do not want us speaking out.  They don’t want our billboards, our books, or in many cases they don’t even want us (to exist).   Now, if they are willing to lay down their arms, then they might have a point.  And many religious groups do not proselytize, advertise, or otherwise bother the public.  But the simple fact is that religion is part of pur culture and public life, and so to demand that atheists keep quiet is a double standard, violating the very essence of the Golden Rule itself.  We have as much of a right to speak publicly about our lack of beliefs (as well as whatever actual beliefs we hold in addition to that lack) as theists do.  It does not even matter if the United States were a Christian nation (which it is not), because that would not take away our freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of opinion.

To simply capitulate to some religious people’s desires to not have us vocal, they further create a double standard when they don’t treat us as we want to be treated; to be allowed to speak publicly if we want to.  The result is the collapse of the rule.  They want to be left alone by us, we want to have a dialogue in the public square where they are, and both cannot be attained.  Some compromise must be reached.

Atheists do not, and should not, disrupt private worship.  Atheists do not, and should not, take god away from people’s lives, mostly because we could not possibly do so anyway.   And despite the mythology by many in the religious community, we are not taking their god out of the public square or schools.  We are only arguing and working towards government neutrality concerning religious ideas.  The government should be secular (which is not the same as atheistic).  Do what you want privately, just don’t expect the government or it employees to condone or lead those activities.

Religious groups should not tell atheists that they cannot advertise on billboards.  They have a right to be offended.  They should not claim that their faith is beyond criticism out of some misplaced desire for respect.  They have to keep in mind that if they do bring their beliefs to the public square, they have to accept the criticism along with the conversions.  If they want to recruit new members, they have to accept that potential new members might offer that very criticism.  And if they want to write books, then they have to accept that we will write books as well.

And, of course, most do except these rules, even if they do so unhappily.  That’s fine, because here we have the right to pursue happiness, not necessarily to be happy.

What I find fascinating is the idea that this criticism is itself is bad.  The idea that we should not criticize is worthy of criticism itself; why is criticism bad? Isn’t the idea that criticism is bad a kind of criticism? What if I am offended by that opinion? What if my strong belief is that criticism is good, and the accomodationist or faitheist  critic of my criticism is violating my rights and tastes? Perhaps they should shut up.  No, I don’t believe that.  They should, I think, re-examine their assumptions and reasoning, however.

I am doing unto others what I would want done unto me.  The believers who want us to shut up are just protecting their beliefs from scrutiny.  Those faitheists who say I should not criticize are not following this Golden Rule, violating it because they don’t want their own beliefs, the idea that people should not criticize certain things, to be criticized .  They might see some hurt feelings if we keep this up while making them look bad, while hiding beneath our shadow, to the rest of our culture.

No.  They are doing a good job of looking bad without our help.