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Division

January 1, 2010 Comments off

Division Isn't Just Happening in Maths Class

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Categories: atheism Tags: , ,

The “all Christians are…” fallacy

November 27, 2009 Comments off

This post may cause trouble. There’s an issue that’s been bothering me since before I began to self-identify as an atheist (among other labels that we pigeonholers of a people like to place upon ourselves and others) that bothered me then, but does so even more now.

I have a problem with atheists who denigrate people of faith just because they hold a faith. There, I’ve said it.

My mother’s uncle turns 80 in January and he’s a Methodist lay-minister, hobbyist philosopher, critical thinker with many interests, and is a lovely man with whom I get on famously. Or did, until Easter when he saw the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker on the back of my car. His immediate, unthinking reaction was to turn to me and utter, “Oh, so you’re one of those?” By “those” I assumed he meant an atheist, so I said yes. No big deal, asked and answered simply and matter-of-factly, like “Do you like grapes?” and “Yes.” It’s now almost December and we’ve only just recently managed to establish dialogue that doesn’t include preloaded assumptions. It’s not that he wouldn’t talk to me anymore, but rather that everything he said, did and thought regarding me was now coloured with negative expectation: a shit-coloured filter.

As it was, this evening’s conversation started with his enquiry about me attending Christmas lunch with them, as I’ve done most years since moving to England. For some reason his expectation was that now I am the A-word I’d not participate in “Christian festivals” and even be antagonistic towards them. After pointing out that on one hand nearly all Christian festivals were pagan festivals long before the Catholic church came along and usurped them, and on the other hand I recognise that it’s human nature to participate in ceremonies and rituals of the passage of time, seasons and events, and such things possibly pre-date religion. He’s mollified, and Christmas is back on. Yay, status quo.

This brings me to the point of this post. The reality-based community with which I identify are more likely to use — and use successfully — logic, reason and critical thinking in arguments against everything ranging from philosophy to religion. And it’s wonderful. I mean it.

But there a section of this community that not only antagonises people of faith (I can intellectually understand this, if not agree entirely with) and often does so by using logical fallacies and cognitive biases, some of which include straw man, ad hominem, false dichotomy, sampling bias, and bias blind spot. (You’ll probably find unintended examples of these throughout this blog). I doubt you’ll find many atheists who won’t challenge religious fundamentalism and zealotry with gusto, facts, science and logic. And rightly so. But to extend that a little, a number of atheists cannot understand how any otherwise rational and intelligent people could possibly also have religious faith — particularly if they work in a science profession — so they must clearly be deluded or poor thinkers.

And then this argument often rears its head: the religious moderate is as bad, if not worse, than the fundamentalist. The rationale for this often being that moderation allows the presentation of an acceptable face of a brutal, primitive set of dogmas, or facilitates that faith’s entry through an otherwise closed door. As if, somehow, they’re all as bad as each other. To anyone who’s thought about this seriously for a moment, this is clearly not true. Yes, there are monsters in positions of power in any religion, just as there is throughout the general laity, but to caricature every member of a faith in that way is disgusting. It makes a mockery of the critical thinking and logical arguments that person holds to be valuable and worthwhile, because that person has exercised none of it.

My great-uncle has reacted and behaved the way he has with me because of the public face of modern atheism, with its often total disregard for the feelings and sensibilities of the average person — despite the fact he’s never seen any of those negative, judgemental or intolerant qualities in me. In its zeal to slap down the worst of faith and try to stem the tide of stupid overtaking the world, that form of atheistic expression is harming normal people. Those may be people who simply have not yet reached a point in their lives where they’re able to objectively reflect upon the inconsistencies and logic problems of their own faith when compared to the world around them.

There is something of which I am unequivocally certain: this perceived New Atheist “all guns blazing” approach isn’t going to work.

It’s the argumentative, brow-beating equivalent of the outlawing of religion in China and the former USSR. How can it possibly work against faiths that get excited about martyrdom? And I’m not just talking about Islam here: most major religions revel in the chance to play the oppressed, downtrodden and beaten servant of their god. They simply say, “I will practise my faith regardless, and any punishment I may receive will be my sacrifice to <insert deity here>, which will reap me rewards in <insert afterlife here>!”

Yes, it’s awful that in the 21st century billions of the world’s population are still slaves to Bronze Age superstitions. But no, screeching like a banshee at your neighbour isn’t going to make them suddenly say, “You know what… you’ve been insulting everything I’ve ever valued for years now, but I see it now: you’re right!” Just because something may be provably wrong, it doesn’t mean that an otherwise intelligent person will see it that way — you’re staring in the face of cognitive dissonance.

So am I advocating appeasement? Certainly not. But a large number of worldwide scientific community do not consider themselves atheists. Are they to be excluded from scientific endeavour? Again, certainly not. The same is true of the average member of the public. Religions and superstitions may be laughable and ridiculous, but they kill thousands of people every day and are not to be underestimated in terms of their importance to the people that hold them. And some of those people may love you and be hurt deeply whenever, by inference, you call them imbeciles.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is — or even if there is one, at least that doesn’t involve totalitarianism — but I am certain that the lumping of people like my great-uncle in the same basket as a religious terrorist is wrong. And yet I see it every day in the atheist blogs I read, and in the other atheistic and even new media I consume: the deliberate misrepresentation of members of a faith as if they’re all as bad as the worst public figure in that faith. It’s wrong and it has to stop.

NOMA and cognitive dissonance

August 23, 2009 Comments off

Charles Darwin is demonised by many religious people for his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, and for contributing to the discovery that all life on earth is essentially a huge family tree and subject to natural selection — concepts that have stood the test of time and been confirmed with DNA analysis. Theists who consider it their “duty” to conduct ad hominem attacks on those who threaten their fragile worldview are often unaware that this knowledge created a dilemma for Darwin himself, particularly as even while on his historic journey on the Beagle (1831-1836) he was a religious man studying to become a church minister who saw adaptation of the species as proof of God’s design. But to him the truth was more important than wishful thinking.

My suspicion is that those who vilify Darwin not only have never read a single word he wrote, nor understand the magnitude and relevance of what that work has given us, but assume that it was his life’s ambition to be an iconoclast. While in a sane world such patently ignorant people would not rise to the surface and require scraping off, our world is one of vox populi, inadequate or ideologically-manipulated education, idealised and politically-aligned news and media, and what much of the service industry call “80/20 people”: 20% of people cause you 80% of the grief. The vocal minority.

The late biologist, historian and science populariser, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) which referred to his philosophy on science and religion, developed during his many dealings with Young Earth Creationists of which he says:

Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history — a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

Young Earth Creationism is clearly the lunatic fringe by anyone’s rational measure, but there are other forms of Creationism that can’t be dismissed as easily, so tend to fall into the same category as whether there is a god(s).

Gould’s view was that religion and science are two realms that are logical and ethically unable to comment on one another, in the same way that a food chemist is unqualified to comment on matters of architecture. It seems to be a form of cognitive dissonance, separating faith from the world around us in a positive context. The inference being that it’s possible to believe in a god and be a scientist, and never have the two concepts collide in your own head.

I have a good friend who is a PhD scientist and a devout Wiccan: cognitive dissonance and NOMA allow both of those things to exist in her head without clashing. Of course I hope she understands what I’m trying to convey here, and doesn’t take offence! :)

Mainstream social taboos

August 10, 2009 Comments off

While reading a recent post on the always excellent Friendly Atheist blog, I was interested to see a guest blogger writing about the polyamory lifestyle. The article opens as follows:

As atheists, many of us have faced some level of negative reaction from those around us, on account of our deviation from our culture’s expected norms. I’ve found that atheists, in general, tend to support GLBT rights and other civil rights issues despite opposition by an offended religious majority. After all, atheists have no religious inhibitions that lead them to view certain deviations from the norm as anything immoral or harmful to society. Atheists know what it’s like to be demonized and hated by those who fear us for our differences. I’d like to call your attention to another group of people — a group even deeper in the “closet” than atheists — who could use your support: polyamorists.

The rest of the article can be found here: In Defense of Polyamory

Part of what interested me about this article was that I was unaware polyamory was a lifestyle movement outside religion (e.g. Muslims or Mormons) and hedonistic stereotypes (bored marriages, bohemian students or artists, etc). Another interesting point was the author’s comments about deviations from cultural and social norms, which I suspect is most likely the crux of religious and conservative problems with those who don’t fit into the God-fearing, husband & wife, missionary position, change-is-bad, tradition-is-to-be-trusted, meat & 2 veg pigeonhole.

It seems that most old law-giving religions were borne from tribal groups where certain laws and behaviours were established to keep the (relatively small) tribe fit and healthy, with transgression being met with brutal punishment as the survival of the tribe was at stake. (We still do the same thing: consider the penalty for treason in your country). Hence, non-procreative sexual activity was distrusted and, when it let to same-sex relationships, the tribe had lost two potentially viable sources of children and mates for two other people. No more children means no more tribe, and we recognise that concept today in our perfectly correct “children are our future” mindset. It doesn’t matter that the argument is a false dichotomy.

It’s not inconceivable that the tribal prohibition against same-sex relationships could have, as the law gradually became more conservative over time, been extended to include other relationships outside the “proven to work” formula (choose a mate or have one chosen, betrothal and binding, breeding and offspring; rinse and repeat). This simple linear progression has worked since Prehistory but, when enshrined in law or even cultural expectation, it doesn’t allow for what engineers call a corner case: people who don’t fit into the expected behaviours. We see this in both animals and humans, so it’s not people just “choosing to be different.”

However, what struck me the most about the article was that although I have reassessed my opinion on homosexuality — which has naturally expanded to include the LGBT umbrella — polyamory and polygamy are two concepts that I had not yet reassessed. By reassess I mean the thoughts and opinions that we all gather over time, initially as children through young adulthood and into mental and emotional maturity. Some people are constantly re-evaluating their perspective on things as they encounter them, some reach old age without adjusting many opinions formed in childhood, and I suspect the majority fall somewhere in between — perhaps leaning one way or the other based upon our liberalism and conservatism. But especially pronounced if we are religious.

As I’ve blogged about previously, I had minimal formal religious instruction (though various notable influences) until I was 17, then a few years of intensive fundagelicalism during which everything I knew about just about anything was re-forged and realigned into a specific way of thinking — a kind of mental aquaduct designed to funnel everything along a certain route to a certain outcome. When I was eventually spat out of that homogenous situation, every opinion I had was filtered through that lens and my rational self knew almost none of it could be trusted. These opinions were not mine and they had not been formed through critical analysis; they had been overlaid to match the party line. Deconstructing one’s own mind is no trivial undertaking.

So this article has got me thinking about two aspects of life that I haven’t had cause to reassess in 17 years or more. That’s not to say that I will automatically find a way to accomodate acceptance of it, as that is not the application of critical thinking. The way I have managed the deconstruction of my mind is to treat just about every contentious topic as a blank canvas — I have no opinion on many things, allowing me to consider and think about them properly before forming my own opinions.

Those opinions may turn out to be wrong, but they’re mine. From there it’s relatively straightforward and clear sailing…