Thursday, July 14, 2011

So much for having a place for non-believers to grieve...

In the comments to an earlier post, somebody pointed me to an exciting Facebook group called "Grief Beyond Belief". The purpose of the group should be obvious from the name.

Here's a couple posts from a thread there today, with some emphasis of my own added:

Little offensive calling them delusions, don't you think? I too am an Atheist, however....I do believe that we have souls. I don't believe in god, heaven, hell, or anything pertaining to religion. As I believe religion was nothing more but created by man to control people. But It has been proven that spirits do exist. I'm all about if it's been proven or not. It's well documented and caught on camera and such that spirits do exist. People have seen them, heard them, ect.. It's not religous nuts either, because they are usually against that kind of thinking. As they think the soul goes up to heaven and their loved ones are with "god". I very much believe that the spirits/souls of our loved ones are around us and can/do make contact or let their presence be known sometimes. Some aren't so lucky to experience it, or maybe we've over looked it? I don't know really. But I do believe it happens and don't discredit someone if they had a legit experience with it.

NO ONE has a clue about what happens after death, atheist or holier-than-thou. we can all have an opinion, but no one has the right to call another delusional. and jeff, unless you've been dead and brought back in the ambulance (like i was in '89), i'm guessing you have even less of a clue. i have no freakin idea what happens and no idea if there's any 'being' out there. i've had unexplainable occurrences after my husband's death of cancer just 10 wks after diagnosis in 2007. as recently as the eve of the 4th of july when i was sitting on my porch. i wasn't even thinking about him and yet when i looked at the other rocker, there was an outline of him in his jeans and boots. and frankly, i don't care if anyone believes it or not.

God fucking dammit.

I'm not comfortable criticizing someone while they are grieving, but the whole fucking point of this Facebook group is that I don't have to listen to people talking about, "Oh, mwah, nobody can KNOW what happens after death!" and "There's spirits all around us talking to us!" What the fuck. Fuck you.

I wrote a very nice guarded comment on the thread explaining why these statements made me very uncomfortable. Now on my blog I am venting. This is fucking bullshit. If you fucking believe in spirits all around us, you AREN'T a non-believer, you are a New Ager. And THIS GROUP IS NOT FOR YOU. If you are having trouble finding a group for you, let me help you with that. Goddamit...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

If relativity hadn't predicted the precession of Mercury, would skeptics be obligated to study Einstein's proofs in detail anyway?

A thought occurred to me while commenting over at Jerry Coyne's blog, and I just want to give a more concise version here.

The equations underlying the theory of relativity are quite elegant and beautiful. A friend of mine tells me of a modern physics class he was taking where the students burst into applause when the professor finished the derivation of E=mc2. So much complexity is summed up so simply and in such a cohesive theory.

This suggests that it might be true, but it's not evidence. One of the first solid pieces of evidence in favor of relativity was that it accurately predicted the precession of Mercury. And of course many more observations came later which confirmed the value of Einstein's theory over Newton's. One by one, the skeptics were forced to take Einstein's work seriously.

But let's imagine an alternate reality where relativity hadn't made this prediction, and in fact it's prediction for the orbits of all the other planets was somewhat less accurate than traditional Newtonian dynamics. Would a contemporary skeptic still have to take Einstein seriously? Would Einstein have been justified in saying, "You simply don't understand the math behind it. Look how elegant this equation is! Look how it unifies space and time in such a concise way! If you aren't convinced, I think you really need to read my book..."?

No he would not. And in a world where, it seems to me, the evidence against theism is overwhelming, we are under no compulsion to explore logical arguments for God. Arguments based on pure reason are often useful, but they ultimately carry very little to no evidential weight. I don't need to understand Aquinas' Five Ways in detail, or be able to point out the flaws in them, because I can just look around say, "Welp, no gods here. Must be some flaw in his reasoning or a concealed false assumption or something." Pure reason is valuable, but it has no power to convert the skeptic, nor should it. And that goes whether you are talking about science or theology.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Conundrum of Progressive Belief

Since I just read a Greta Christina article which touched on the controversy over whether or not liberal/progressive belief enables extremism, it is apropos that a (religious) friend of mine posted the following to Facebook today:

"Is it working? Your belief system, that is. Is it really working? God's intention all along has been for the believer's life to work." Beth Moore

(On a side note, this Beth Moore does not actually appear to be all that progressive of a believer -- though still progressive enough to piss off other evangelicals I guess -- and is strongly anti-gay among other nasty things.)

Anyway, this is an interesting little quote, because on the one hand it is all wrong from a logical/epistemologial perspective, and if taken literally it could even be potentially dangerous; while on the other hand, for the target audience I think the message is generally a positive one. That pretty much sums up the conundrum of progressive theism right there, so let's dissect this one.

First, the bad: For starters, there is a hidden circularity here which renders it somewhat of an empty statement. If your criteria for determining what you believe is, "Does it work for me?", then logically the only basis you have for asserting anything about "God's intention" is whether or not that belief works for you. It's a tautology. Moore is basically saying, "I believe whatever works for me, and that includes believing that you should believe whatever works for you." It's pretty hollow when you think about it.

Worse yet, there is at least a theoretical danger in any untethered epistemology. If we take this statement literally, I might say, "Well, I feel bad that I shoplifted, but it's nice to have this free stuff. Wait a minute... if I just tell myself that God wants me to shoplift, then I don't feel bad about it anymore. Works for me!"

That's perhaps an unrealistic example, but there could be others. For instance, the process of examining one's own unconscious prejudices can be a painful one, and if you can just get yourself to believe that God shares your prejudice, then you can go on comfortably ignoring it. How many people have short-circuited a logical examination of their reasons for opposing marriage equality by just hiding behind religious belief? That is starting to sound like more than just a theoretical problem.

On the other hand, the message the target audience is going to receive from this assertion is probably a positive one: If a particular piece of dogma is not working for you, if it just seems terribly wrong to you, well maybe you ought to discard it. Moore's justification is wrong and perhaps even dangerous, but the conclusion is right.

I think the following is probably a bad example, since from what I can find it appears Moore toes the Evangelical line on homosexuality, i.e. she is dead fucking wrong and screwing up people's lives, but it's the only example I can think of, so let's go with it: Imagine a gay Christian teen who is struggling to come to terms with the contradiction between her identity and her beliefs. While I, and presumably most readers of this blog, would much rather see her discard the bonds of theism altogether, that can be a supremely difficult thing for people to do, especially as they may be struggling with other deeply emotional issues. Furthermore, as Richard Wade has eloquently pointed out, many young people still living at home may find that the security of their most basic needs is tied to belief, or at least the facade of belief. Better than nothing is if this hypothetical teen were able to say to herself, "Hey, this silly dogma about homosexuality is just not working for me. God couldn't possibly want me to feel so awful in this way. That has to be a mistake, and I'm not going to believe that crap anymore."

Again, Moore unfortunately fails to take this philosophy all the way and still clings to Evangelical beliefs that are downright hateful. But the quote on its own has some merit for believers -- if they're going to stick with belief that is. And that's always the conundrum, isn't it?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Three reasons why gnus especially should temper their criticism of outspoken feminists

The catalyst for this post, of course, is the ongoing Rebecca Watson/Elevator Guy/Richard Dawkins debacle. I don't want to say much about that, beyond just that my position is similar to Ophelia Benson's, i.e. Dawkins was wrong but not that wrong. I'm hearing now that some people are upset more over how Watson treated McGraw than anything else, but I've already expended too much mental energy on this whole little blow-up to look into it any further.

I think the majority of gnu atheists would consider themselves feminists or pro-feminism -- after all, religion has historically been used as a tool of misogyny (or is it the other way around?) and so it's only natural that those who ardently oppose the negative effects of religion would also oppose misogyny. But there also seems to be a very large contingent who, despite being nominally in favor of gender equality, are deeply resentful of what they see as overly "strident" feminists. They complain that it was not "us" who caused all of this oppression, both historical and ongoing. They complain that they are being treated unfairly, perhaps even claiming to be the victims of misandry.

Well, gnus shouldn't be making that type of mistake. Gnus, of all people, should be sympathetic towards the most outspoken forms of feminism -- even if that position can be wrong at times. Now I'm not saying someone ought to adopt an incorrect opinion, but gnus should not be infuriated by it, and should understand the value of these "strident" voices. And here are three reasons why:

Gnus ought to know that when attempting to change the public conversation, being polite, even-handed, or fair is not always the most important thing. The phrase you hear bandied about often is the Overton window, though I've become less comfortable with that term over time simply because of Glenn Beck's stupid novel of the same name. The point is that for far too long women have been expected to shut up and take their proper subservient place. And make no mistake, it's still socially acceptable in far too many contexts to express that view. On the flip side, far too many people find it unseemly or rude for a woman to speak up about gender issues.

This ought to sound all too familiar to atheists. And as gnus, how have we chosen to tackle that problem? By refusing to stay silent about our views, even in situations where it is perceived as rude or inappropriate to air those views. Our criticisms of religion may not always be entirely fair, but goddamnit, it's high time somebody said those things anyway. Gnus ought to understand that the same thing goes for feminist viewpoints, which have historically been squelched. You don't fix that problem by asking politely if maybe it's your turn to talk now; you fix it by expressing your views openly, unapologetically, and even vociferously. Eventually it just becomes okay to talk about those sorts of things, and then the nice calm polite conversations take place.

We're still not at a point in our society where everyone can have that nice calm polite discussion, and that goes whether you are talking about religion or gender. As a result, I don't blame atheists for being loud, ardent, or even rude. And I don't blame feminists for it either.

Gnus ought to know that crowing about 'persecution' from a position of privilege is pretty unflattering. When Christians in America complain about being 'persecuted', boy does that make my blood boil. It's true that Christianity is sometimes ridiculed in the media, sometimes even unfairly. But by god, Christians can proudly say that every elected US president has shared their religious views; they can expect their faith to be perceived a a positive character trait by the vast majority of the population; there is no shortage of media catering directly to their religious tastes, including whole separate musical genres; and numerous points of Christian dogma are codified into law, with far too many legislators talking with a straight face about adding even more. Yeah, you're not being persecuted, STFU.

News flash: That's how feminists feel when men complain about misandry. Are men sometimes criticized unfairly? Oh sure. But uh... yeah, you and I have got it pretty good, bro. Every elected US president has been a man; men are perceived as more capable than women in a wide variety of tasks, to the point where we can just expect a higher salary without even trying; there is no shortage of media catering directly to men, including the fact that the vast majority of protagonists in popular media are men; and until very recently, numerous laws were explicitly beneficial towards us. (As a side note, it is true that alimony law requires reform in many states now that, you know, we're actually letting women have jobs and stuff... but this is a legacy artifact of historic misogyny, not a result of misandry. Get that straight please.) On top of all that, most of us men don't have to constantly worry about getting raped.

So yeah, you know... stop complaining. I think it's okay sometimes to point out ways in which men are screwed over by laws or societal mores or whatever (as evinced by my parenthetical remark about alimony reform) but as the privileged group, we need to approach that sort of thing with due humility. No whining.

Gnus ought to know that cultural criticism doesn't take place in a vacuum. This is sort of the reverse of the previous point. I am much harsher when criticizing American Christians, for example, than when criticizing American Muslims; and by the same token I am much harsher when criticizing Muslims living in Islamic countries than I am when criticizing American Muslims. American Muslims may at times be worthy of criticism, but they are also getting a whole lot of bigotry and prejudice thrown their way. I always try to check myself, to see if I'm really trying to follow a legitimate point, or if I'm getting bamboozled by what essentially amounts to racism and/or jingoism.

Those who are formulating a criticism of an outspoken feminist would be well-served to do the same sort of introspection. There may be valid criticisms, but is the perceived importance of those criticisms getting amplified by the continuing societal hostility towards feminism and towards women in general? Are you getting bamboozled by misogynists? It's worth reflecting on.

To sum up, when you are advocating in favor of a group that has historically been oppressed, silenced, discriminated against, and devalued, it's okay to be a little brazen, a little overly harsh, a little angry, and at times even a little unfair. For too long, religious belief and open misogyny have simply gone unquestioned, enjoying a privileged position where not only do those on the wrong side wield the power, but have manipulated the bounds of socially acceptable conversation to squelch any opposing voices. Now after all these centuries, atheists and feminists are speaking up, making their story part of the public consciousness. And those who, in the face of that history, would criticize these proud new voices for seeming a bit too shrill -- maybe they ought to reconsider that.