Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Frightening Epidemic: America's Obsession With Religion and Unfounded Denial of Science (#I-HEART-BOOBQUAKE!)

I took this amazing shot on my iPhone of the gysers in Yellowstone National park and of the Thermophiles that change the collor of the water to blue, green, and orange.

On the flight over to America (from Japan) I felt bad for the guy sitting across the aisle to my right. He was stuck with two overly devout Christian missionaries who in short order found out he wasn't a believer in the Almighty Christ (TM). 

Before you knew it they had their tray tables down and their Bibles open. 

For the entirety of the jet being taxied onto the runway (approximately 27 minutes) and the takeoff (10 minutes) and the first couple of hours of the flight they preached and proselytized and professed their deepest felt beliefs. Again and again. And... again.

They hit him with every apologetic tactic they had, and as Evangelicals, the arguments were of course all outmoded, outdated, mostly irrelevant, canards that two seconds of thought could reveal as entirely invalid. 

The poor atheist said, "It's just not for me. I'm fine without religion. And I don't need to believe in a book riddled with errors to feel good about my life."

They took horrible offense at this and proclaimed that the Bible was the perfect word of God and had no detectable errors in it. 

My fellow atheist then admitted he didn't know all the historical details off the top of his head, but that he recollected the Bible getting a fair amount of historical details wrong. To which our prostrating missionaries, gun-ho for Jesus, hit him up with, "But did you know the Bible is the best attested book in history? It has more surviving copies then any other ancient manuscript too."

My eyes rolled so hard you could probably have heard them tearing our of their sockets. 

They went on like this for several more hours. 

It was exasperating.


Then it dawned on me. It wasn't just that they were recycling twice-baked order made apologetics without thinking about what they were saying that bothered me. It wasn't even what they professed to belief that bothered me. And although their rude encroachment on someones personal space just to share the "Word of God" with some stranger was certainly annoying, that wasn't even the worst part.

What really bothered me about them was their complacency with the questions they raised themselves. Not a single thought ran through their minds that wasn't already preprogrammed for them. 

The beliefs they had were not beliefs they had come to on their own via due diligence and long hours of investigating the issues of religious history and faith. Rather, they simply believed because they had reasons. Not their own mind you, but they had reasons nonetheless.

And that got under my skin.

I so badly wanted to chime in and demolish their arguments one by one and see them get flustered and hot under the collar as an atheist superior to them countered their arguments, put up road blocks to their beliefs, and littered their faith with a minefield of devastating questions ready to set off a daisy chain of intellectual explosions that would get them to think for, well, probably the first time in their lives.

But, alas, I bit my tongue. After all, it was a freaking eleven hour flight. I didn't want to start it off by making enemies. 

I did however feel bad for a fellow atheist. So I gave him reassuring nods as he valiantly tried to state his case amid sudden interruptions and nonsensical changes in subject. I gave him a thumbs up a couple of times and cheered him on. And after the blather of the missionaries died down and the headphones came out, I made a promise to myself to step into the ring and tag my friend out if they tried to double team him again with more senseless proselytizing. 

Luckily, however, it didn't come to that.

I'd only been back in America a week, and I already had found out that a large portion are Evolution deniers. 

I made the horrible mistake of asking a religious relative of mine what part of the science they didn’t feel was valid, and suddenly the conversation became an exasperated defense of his faith.

I realized I had inadvertently made him defensive by talking about the *verity of evolution, to which he didn't believe in.

I was handed the argument that my *belief in evolution took at least as much "faith" to believe as any religious belief they might hold.

Of course, I politely corrected myself and said, "Sorry, I misspoke. What I meant was, the evidence for the truth of evolution is undeniable, and I wanted to say I think that since all the evidence seems to support it that I would be really curious to see how one might falsify these scientific facts."

Suddenly, I got the 'carbon dating' defense and the statement that things evolving forms just didn't make sense.

But I get it. Evolution is hard to grasp when you have no scientific understanding and very little in the way of imagination.

But I didn't say this, obviously, because that would have been rude.

Instead, I mentioned the fact that antibiotic resistant bacteria (and here) are a prime example of evolution working in real time, I mentioned the yeast experiment genomics, I talked about the Drosophila (fruit fly) genomic studies of Jerry Coyne (I may have even dropped the name of his book Why Evolution is True), and as for the radiocarbon dating not being entirely reliable, I mentioned that there were other methods of radiometric dating, such as:

There are other methods of radiometric dating:

* argon-argon (Ar-Ar)

* fission track dating

* helium (He-He)

* iodine-xenon (I-Xe)

* lanthanum-barium (La-Ba)

* lead-lead (Pb-Pb)

* lutetium-hafnium (Lu-Hf)

* neon-neon (Ne-Ne)

* optically stimulated luminescence dating

* potassium-argon (K-Ar)

* radiocarbon dating

* rhenium-osmium (Re-Os)

* rubidium-strontium (Rb-Sr)

* samarium-neodymium (Sm-Nd)

* uranium-lead (U-Pb)

* uranium-lead-helium (U-Pb-He)

* uranium-thorium (U-Th)

* uranium-uranium (U-U)

Just to name a few. 

Actually, I only named uranium and rubidium dating in the moment, but I added a few here just to drive the point home for any of those that still think that carbon dating doesn't cut it because it doesn't always yield accurate results for anything 4,000 BP (before present). The simple fact of the matter is, it doesn't, which is why scientists don't use it for dating the really old stuff. They have other methods of radiometric dating better suited for the ages of really old object, whether it is a fossil or a rock layer.

All this is painfully obvious to anyone whose stayed awake during a college level Chemistry course, so this basic information shouldn’t even be contested, but for some reason people seem to be ignorant of it. I realized that perhaps some simply want to use science denail as a kind of like a way to segue back into talking about religion. I imagine the conversation might go something like this:

“I am religious. I don’t believe in science.” 

“What?! You don’t believe in science?” 

“No, now let’s talk more about religion.”

“Well, okay then. But… science is so much more interesting. *Sigh.”

At any rate, my relative gave me a nice compliment saying that with all this scientific knowledge I was spouting off from the top of my head, I probably should have become a science teacher. It was quite flattering, and I smiled and said thank you. But my deeper concern lied with the fact that he didn’t think he should be scientifically literate, he just didn’t think he really needed it, and perhaps worse was the fact that he was proud of his science denial. It gave him a reason to talk about religion whenever anyone mentioned science.

Then I realized something quite troubling about the whole situation in America.

There are people who would gldaly learn about science, talk about science, and who could be genuinely excited by it, if it wasn't for their religious beliefs making them think that science was problematic somehow, or that it wasn't reliable enough somehow, or because their religious beliefs weren't compatible with it somehow.

In other words, instead of wanting to learn about the world and how everything works, they want to maintain an archaic view of the world because it’s less challenging for them – requires less work to understand, and well, they don’t need to stress out over every new discovery since it all can be explained by God anyway. The entire notion of the scientific method, of observing, measuring, scrutinizing, and critically evaluating everything was just too much work. It’s easier to be religious. In religion everything can be answered by simply asserting “Because God.” It’s much harder to aspire to be scientific minded, whereby you have to work to earn your answers.

Then I thought again about those missionaries on the plane. They only knew what they had been told. They didn't know how to critically evaluate, skepticism was alien to them, and having to analyze their own beliefs--don't even think about it!

And I saw this same phenomenon happening in my family with regard to their feelings on science. They only know what they have been told about science. They don't know how to critically evaluate the scientific method let alone apply it, skepticism was a foreign concept and so they never had any real reason to invoke scientific concepts like falsification, things were taken at face value and this kind of faith lead them to be entirely lazy when it came to scientific ideas.

Instead of having to grapple with scientific ideas and concepts, they merely waved them off and held fast to their religious beliefs, beliefs which they hadn't come to on their own via due diligence and long hours of investigating the issues of science and the scientific method, but rather, they simply believed the information the received from those who reinforced these religious beliefs rather than challenged them on it.

Naturally, I couldn't help but feel horribly vexed by all this. This prevailing misapprehension of science, the hypersensitivity toward anyone who would question religious ideas or concepts, the general unthinking nature of religious faith, and the way in which this wide-scale scientific ignorance and unthinking acceptance of religion work in tandem to form a mind skeptical of everything but that which it should be skeptical of.

Welcome to America, folks. The land of religion and scientific ignorance.

All this weighs on my mind and on my conscience. It's not just that I think we need science, it's that I think we need to understand it too. Maybe not to the same degree as a well trained scientist, but like our reading, writing, and arithmetic, I do feel we should probably work toward developing a better scientific understanding in American culture and perhaps elsewhere as well.

I found the best way to expand people's scientific knowledge is to simply to challenge them to read popular science books in areas of science they may be interested in. Of course, this requires talking to them first and getting a feel about what interests they have which may have a scientific component. But once the recommendation is made, I let curiosity hand the rest.

I know I won't be able to change one person's mind, especially when that mind is settled by an ever growing wall of misconceptions. But if I can point out the easiest path, the best trajectory, that will take them over that wall, and the books I recommend are good enough, well written enough, and even entertaining enough then their inborn interest and curiosity will do the rest. 

But this requires I stay ahead of the curve. How can I hope to recommend any good science books to anyone if I haven't read any lately myself?

So the challenge to fix America's scientific ignorance epidemic is two-fold. We must not only challenge others but ourselves as well to become better acquainted with science.

It's that simple. 

But as with most things, I suppose, it's easier said than done.

My fear is that if something isn't done, and done soon, America will sink deeper into the quicksand of scientific ignorance while growing even more entrenched in the religious beliefs which smother their intellects and cause their minds to enter into an noncognizant slumber. 

This could only lead to a world as scientifically illiterate and science weary as many of the Islamic states in today's Middle East. I find that a terrifying concept. Pretty soon #Boobquake won't be a funny thing we laugh about at the expense of an ignorant Hojatoleslam several world's away, but rather the bleak future this trend points to, a trend of scientific ignorance taken to such extremes it trespasses into the realm of every imaginable absurdity, will be the norm for America too.

Let's not let that happen.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Economics of Going Vegan: A Personal Look at Why It's Easier Said than Done

Disclaimer: Next to religion, politics, and sex it seems to me that the next touchiest subject is probably dietary concerns--what we eat and don't eat. What is contained in this essay are my own personal struggles and experiences with my own diet. The opinions here are my own. If you have any comments or questions feel free to leave them in the comment's section down below. Thank you.

I have been considering going vegan for a while now. 

I've given it a lot of thought, and I even went two months on a vegan diet. The problem is that in the area I live it's just not yet economical enough to sustain indefinitely.

A vegan I know online said I should have no problem doing it, as long as there is a supermarket within distance of my home. 

And there are three. But it's not the distance or even the availability of the produce that is the problem. It's the cost. A 2007 study by Adam Drewnowski found that buying healthy food costs 10 times more on average than your typical McDonald's hamburger

A head of lettuce, you ask? It's nearly three times the amount you would pay in your own local supermarket across the pond, or even your smaller ma' and pa' owned grocers, for that matter. I make a meager living as a teacher and work two jobs just to support my family, so we're strapped as it is. Budget always comes to the forefront of any big decisions.

My vegan friend then said that wasn't a valid excuse. If it comes down to murdering someone (his words, not mine) or paying a little extra for a salad, well, the choice should be obvious, right?

Not so fast.

Apart from the fact that I don't like equating animals to people, since we're more than a little different, if I was single and living alone then, yes, I think I would be willing to pay a little extra  for a vegan meal instead of implicitly killing animals for my food consumption. But the fact of the matter is that it's not just me I have to feed. It's a family of seven, soon to be eight, plus two dogs, and soon to be cat.

That's a lot of mouths to feed. It's a ton of lettuce. And it takes lettuce to by lettuce, if you know what I mean? Let's not forget that a head of lettuce is practically three times more expensive where I live. Same with tomatoes. Soy beans. Broccoli. Spinach. Watermelons. Kiwis. Bananas. Etc. See my problem?

My vegan friend said I should grow my own garden. And on what limited land we have we certainly do. 

My wife's garden is small but quite generous. We have home grown organic tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli. We do strawberries in the off-season. We tried for some corn this year too, but our little patch of land is too narrow and dim. It's only as wide as your average sidewalk and only about three meters long at that. And, well, that's the entirety of our whole yard (one of the problems of living in the middle of a Japanese city--the lack of land). 

The good news is that there are community gardens where you can rent out a plot of land and grow whatever you'd like. But then there are land rental fees, maintenance fees, and you have to transport your own produce from some far off garden area to your home. The cost skyrockets fast. I calculated the cost of renting one for a couple of years and found that it would probably be cheaper to simply buy the land, considering I could afford to do so, which I currently cannot (currently, as of 2014 in Japan, in the Tokyo area it cost over $4,000 USD per squared meter. Not acre ... per meter! for land. I don't live in Tokyo, but I do happen to live in a metropolitan city, so you can grasp my situation).

My vegan friend said that I should move to a more affordable area. 

Since when has moving ever been affordable?

The last move I did cost me $2K--and we had to move in with my wife's family, because, well, Japan ain't cheap... especially for a lowly paid teacher.

Moving would be ideal, but I don't think he was getting the picture. It's not a realistic consideration.

I live in a metropolitan city of over a million people, and a super high population density (Japanese cities are super dense population wise). If I could live out of town a ways and be wealthy enough to have a small plot of land, then yeah, I could see veganism as sustainable for a family of seven, soon to be eight, plus two dogs, and soon to be cat. But as it is, it simply isn't economically viable. 

But don't mistake me, I'm not writing off the possibility.

This year I made the choice to cut my meat consumption by 90%. What does that mean? Well, it means I try *not to eat meat and that I've switched over to a mostly vegetarian diet. I ask for soy milk in my Star Buck lattes and frapuccino's and I try to avoid eating meat as much as possible.  

But why not go the full 100%, you ask? Besides the high cost and not having any land to till, that is. Well, it's mainly because I can't digest rice well. 

Bear with me, the explanation becomes clear in a moment.

Eating rice makes me horribly constipated not to mention horribly fat (too much information, I know). I can do one bowl a day, and even that's a struggle. My Japanese family can down four or five bowls of rice per day, and I don't know how they do it (actually, I do--Japanese people, as with many Asians, have an additional enzymes [CAZymes] and bacteria [Bacterioides plebeius] that assists with breaking down rice and seafood, such as seaweed, that are lacking in most Caucasians).

So, unable to eat large quantities of rice, I am stuck mainly with vegetables. Which is fine. But remember, they're overly expensive where I live (10 times on average, making it roughly 20 times more costly here where I live).

So I still eat wheat products and things made with eggs (pastas and breads). Which is why I say I've adopted a mostly vegetarian diet and not raw vegetarian or vegan diet.

Another factor in this economic pickle of mine is that my time is extremely limited. I am a guy with two full time jobs. I teach full time as a private ESL teacher in three different public schools and I am a full time writer with deadlines set by either my publisher or by me, and on top of all this I am raising a daughter (and soon a boy), two dogs and a soon to be cat, and with everything else I hardly have time for myself. 

I'm not complaining though. I'm just mentioning it so that my excuses don't come off as invalid rationalizations. They are very real concerns. 

Sure, I could drastically uproot my lifestyle, move back to America, and drag my family along with me just to be vegan, but that's rather selfish. I can't think just about myself here, and although it bothers me (and there is some considerable cognitive dissonance) with respect to animal's dying and suffering, my daughter, son, and family is still more important than my cat or dog. If they weren't, then there would be something seriously wrong with my psychology, and quite likely my biology, as we are naturally more nurturing of our own offspring. 

Needless to say, my daughter and I eat a lot of fruit. She's never liked meat or dairy all that much, although she loves ice cream as much as I do, which uses dairy in it (although soy based ice creams are just as delicious and far more nutritious--so we eat that whenever possible). 

So in a typical week we usually sustain ourselves on large mangoes, grapes, a watermelon, peaches, cherries, and plums, boiled soybeans which are lightly salted (known as edamame), broccoli, tomatoes, and miso soup with seaweed. A handful of nuts here and there. And that's normal for us.

Of course, I realize that out of site out of mind doesn't help fix the problem of killing animals for food consumption, which is the main concern of most vegan advocates, I feel. 

Although I agree with their concern, their vitriol for anyone who happens to consume meat is out of place because their concerns, although well meaning from a moral standpoint, are not wholly realistic (as they nearly always neglect the case by case economics that go into making a vegan diet sustainable) nor entirely logical (for the same reasons but also because they let their emotions cloud their thinking about potential ways to limit meat consumption instead of cutting it out entirely--which is a more reasonable first step). 

If the vegan community could find a way to give my entire school district a sustainable vegan meal plan for the same cost as the current one, then I'd definitely like to go in that direction. But I really don't think that's economically viable. Otherwise, I'm sure someone, somewhere, would have tried it by now. This just goes to illustrate that telling people to knock off the meat eating isn't reasonable because it neglects all the real world considerations one must factor into such a massive dietary restructuring, and then the economics of it all comes raging back for serious consideration.

My vegan friend asked me, "What's the matter, you can't pack a salad and take that as your lunch instead?"

I've considered making my own salads and packing them the night before work, but even that gets pretty outrageously expensive. I can't be spending $14 per salad everyday, which is technically what it would cost to buy the produce and make it myself for every meal (let alone my entire family which would more than double the cost--have you ever eaten a $28 salad? Daily?)--even if I mix it up with tofu and what not--there is always a cost to consider. 

But everyone is different. Some might be able to make the switch faster. But talking down to those who haven't, as so many vegan advocates seem to do, is just bad form. You have to have a better method than screaming at people that they're wrong, otherwise you just come off sounding like a raging fundamentalist. 

All considered, I've made deliberate advances toward a vegetarian diet and am eating healthier and improving my food choices considerably. I even started eating vegetarian (meatless) chili this year and found it just as tasty as regular chili. I am now looking for recipes I can use to cook my own vegetarian chili (if you know of any drop it in the comments section below, thanks in advance).

I will continue to limit my meat intake as much as possible in the foreseeable future, and if it should become economically viable for me (and my family) to cut meat out entirely from out diets, I'd be certainly willing to make the switch.

My vegan friend once stated that eating meat is a cultural habit just like drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. 

Sorry, but I strongly disagree with this analogy. Mainly because it's a bad analogy. People don't need to eat cigarettes and smoke in order to live, but eating is an entirely other matter. We eat to live, not live to eat. And although alcohol and cigarettes are certainly recreational, eating food wasn't traditionally strictly a recreational activity. 

Additionally, it seems that culture plays a large role in the types of food certain communities do or do not consume. Island cultures, such as Japan and any of the Mediterranean islands, consume seafood far more readily than landlocked areas. 

I would go as far to say that even if the analogy was sound, which it's not, that smoking and drinking are cultural habits, and that if meat eating is a cultural habit now, it certainly didn't begin as one. Which is an important distinction, because it demonstrates that the analogy is strained at best.

Until quite recently, Native Americans all across the Great Plains of North America are hunter gathers which survived on meat products to get them through the long, harsh North American winters when there was little in the way of farming that could be done. This was life for thousands of years, until white settlers came and disrupted everything. Eskimo societies, in Alaska for example, rely mainly on fish and seafood diets because there is not much you can grow on the tundra and in the cold. So it seems eating meat arose out of a cultural necessity for may societies, not merely a cultural recreational activity. It's only in today's modern world that going out for a bite has become a recreational activity of sorts.

As it is, I cannot afford to go all out vegan due to bad economics of the otherwise super healthy vegan lifestyle. But since a sustainable vegan diet must both be affordable and time efficient, I am stuck with the affordability of meat products, made cheap by the over-consumption of animal products and animal farming, regrettably, it seems I will continue to be part of the problem a little while longer.

It's a shame too, because I would love to switch over entirely if it was cost efficient and sustainable for my whole family (because they need to eat too, after all).

Now this brings me to my vegan friends criticism that eating animals is morally wrong in any situation, no matter what, period.

It seems that such idealism is only viable when we can afford to stop eating meat as a society in its entirety and when the vegan diet finally becomes sustainable for all people everywhere regardless of the economics, then that consideration will be one to take seriously. 

Until that time however, we have to remain realistic. 

Humans have adaptable diets, and meat has been a part of hunting and gathering cultures within human societies for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years (humans have been eating meat for approximately 2.5 million years to be exact)

When vegans say that humans are *not suited for eating meat and that we have not sufficiently adapted to meat eating they are not being entirely truthful and may be forgetting about things like meat adaptive genes, lactose tolerance, and the aforementioned Bacterioides plebeius (gained from eating sea foods, particularity fish) which are all part of our evolutionary journey involving meat consumption.  

It's only recently, with the advent of irrigation and farming technologies that we have been able to grow enough food to sustain ourselves as a species, especially as a rapidly growing species in danger or overpopulating. Stopping meat cold turkey, if you'll pardon the pun, is most assuredly easier said than done.

I think it boils down to how do we make such a change happen on a large scale, and, well, that requires better information, better planning, more affordable cost, and more economic access to vegan foods. It requires better patience and understanding on the part of vegan advocates who use the moral concern as an excuse to try and blackmail people who have been raised on meat eating diets. Even if eating meat was purely a psychological issue, which it certainly isn't, but even if it was it stems to reason that you cannot de-program an entire culture in a decade, probably not even a century, probably not even several centuries. Thus vegans must continue to be ambassadors of peace, good reason, and diplomacy--they have a case and I feel they should certainly make it, but with the caveat that the moment they make unrealistic demands their demands become unreasonable. 

Don't mistake me, it's not that the moral consideration here that is misguided, vegans have a genuine moral concern, but it's not compelling to most because, as I have tried to illustrate, it simply isn't realistic. It's idealistic. 

I'd like to go the whole nine yards someday, but until it becomes economically viable I am afraid I am stuck at this 90% grey area. It's not ideal, but it's the best I can do right now. 

In the future I might write a more detailed essay using real statistics which show why economic considerations really do impact whether or not a vegan diet is truly sustainable (if not me, hopefully someone else--it would be beneficial for vegans for targeting economic areas that can be most easily adapted to more sustainable and cost efficient means regarding vegan foods while showing them other areas where serious works needs to be done). 

Veganism may be sustainable and economically viable for some, but not for others, and that's my whole point. I for one am willing to work with vegans to make it truly sustainable so that their concerns will become realistic for all of us instead of simply the idealism of the vegan advocate.


Ozzy on Affirming the Consequent and Modal Logic

There is a YouTuber and an arm chair philosopher (literally not figuratively--he's literally a trained philosopher that talks about philosophy from the comfort of an armchair) by the name of Ozzymandias Ramses II that is as keen and sharp as they come.  

In this video he deals with a common objection raised by religious apologists who like to claim that science rests on the fallacy of Affirming the Consequent. I know that it doesn't, but it's hard to put it as succinctly and as beautifully clear as Ozzy does. 

His explanation also helps clear up the distinction between modus ponens and modus tollens, which is one of the first things I learned about when studying modal logic. 

So, I hope those who are concerned with rationality and being better critical thinkers will take a look at this video, because it's highly rational, informative, and helps clarify a few key concepts in philosophy that are beneficial for those of us who like to engage in the Great Debate(TM).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tropical Typhoons, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis... Oh, my!

Typhoon Neoguri is heading straight for Kyushu, Kumamoto (where I live in Japan). We've already closed the blast doors (amido) which cover all the windows of our house with slatted metal aluminum shields to deflect rain and debris. 

I've been following it close on the English page of the Japan Meteorological Agency (which you can find by clicking here). The island that gets slammed (in the above image) by the typhoon is the on I am on. Kumamoto is the Prefecture facing the oncoming storm.

I'll keep you posted on how we fare. But if you don't here from me again... I've probably been whisked off to the magical land of Oz.

A beautiful calm 24 hours before the storm.

Probability for duration and strength of tropical cyclone.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sam Harris, Morality and Some Thoughts on the Belief in an Afterlife

I saw this Sam Harris quote floating around and thought I'd share it here.

I find this quote extremely important for several reasons.

First, I think it shows that there is a real genuine concern with what we might call human morality, or ethics, as separate from other kinds of morality, animal morality for example. It highlights the fact that morality is mainly a concern for humans, with what humans do, to and among other humans.

Which brings me to the second reason I find this quote important, it helps to highlight the fact that without our ability to reason, our moral considerations would largely be meaningless, whether or not things like objective morality should exist.

Morality, whether subjective or objective, can only have meaning if we know how to think about moral considerations and have moral concerns. Morality can only have importance to us if we know how to think about our actions in ethical terms and are able to weigh, either through empathy or pure reason, the full weight of the moral consequences as a result should we choose this rather than that particular action.

Sam Harris asks us to pause and reflect upon the fact that everyone who is alive, or who has ever lived, looses everything they have ever valued or loved in life, including life itself. 

Regardless of what anybody may think about this life, there comes a time when the life we have will vanish--will cease to be. But what will happen once we shuffle off this mortal coil, as Shakespeare's Hamlet questioned, is anybody's guess.

Because of this Sam wants us to consider that if we all loose everything in the end, why would we want to compound the suffering of others in this life by making it more miserable for others full well knowing that this life may be the only chance they have at achieving any modicum of happiness. Who would be so cruel as to deliberately and willfully take that away from their fellow human beings? Obviously, those who do not feel that moral questions matter, or those who think it doesn't apply to them, for whatever reason.

My own analogy goes something like this. 

Suppose we're all sitting in a lifeboat together (it's a rather big, all encompassing lifeboat). To our collective dismay, the boat is discovered to have a leak in it and it's slowly, but surely, sinking. Some people believe, for strange and peculiar if not often strained reasons, that fathoms below the sinking boat is a submarine waiting for them. 

Now consider that some of these submarine believers, holding to this rather far-fetched belief in a hidden submarine ready to rescue them, decide it would be better to sink the boat faster and get aboard the submarine rather than suffer through a long bout of sea sickness.

Sam's question is a pertinent one. Why would we, or anyone else for that matter, want to make things worse by bringing water into the boat or rocking the boat so much that people start toppling out?

What purpose would that serve?

As Harris has pointed out numerous times before, for the religious mind which believes in an afterlife, it could serve a hastening of a new life--a heavenly life--just as the people in the boat who imagine a submarine waiting form them a few fathoms below the ocean surface feel that taking on water will get them to their heavenly submarine faster. 

Which is why Harris has stated, and quite rightly I might add, that religious radicals are most likely a serious threat to our collective well being. They have no moral conscience holding them back from prematurely sinking the boat and taking everyone with them because, quite to the contrary, it is their ardent belief that hastening the sinking of the boat is the best course of action. 

In other words, all their morality is tied up with whether or not their assumptions about the submarine waiting form them are in fact correct. And it doesn't necessarily matter if they are correct, because for all intents and purposes, they believe they are correct. That's enough to cause us to worry.

But for the secular person, indeed, for atheists and agnostics, we realize that our moral actions have very real consequences here and now, and if this is the only life we have, then we have to make sure our actions, words, and ideas matter and that we treat everything with the proper amount of responsibility and reflection lest we risk sinking the boat prematurely and find, that contrary to the beliefs of some, there was never any submarine there to begin with.

I suppose the real question is, for those who don't feel burdened by such a moral responsibility because they feel they'll get another chance to live a happier life, the question is, why wouldn't you want the life others have to be a happy one--especially knowing that a large portion of these people won't enjoy the happy afterlife you expect to find yourself in? 

Some religious believers claim that unbelievers are bound to hell. Well, I have a problem with this. It's a lot like saying that the person sitting in the sinking boat simply isn't going to make it because, as fate would have it, they can't swim. If that's truly the case, then teaching them to swim would be of tantamount importance, and I know some religious people think saving the nonbeliever is an important cause. But the question I keep coming back to, does that supply any moral reason to sink the boat any faster? I don't think so.

Also, what if you picked the wrong religion and you bet on the wrong God and Allah is the one true God, and you spent your life as a Christian, or vice-versa, so you're really not going to heaven, but hell? What if it's not a friendly submarine down there waiting to take us? What if it's the North Koreans? Why risk gambling so recklessly? Why throw away your life and the live's of others on one giant what if? Seems irresponsible, if you ask me.

And when I see things like this... 

Well, I think we all have concern to worry. Why? Because...

Both of these girls have magical beliefs in imagined submarines that may or may not be there for the rest of us. 

And when they start waving around their guns, well, their magical beliefs might just be insidious enough to convince them that blowing a hole wide open in our big lovely boat might just serve their best interests. 

And that's the point I'm trying to make here. It can't be about our  *individual best interests. It has to be about the interests of all of us, which is why Sam Harris expresses morality as any goal which strives toward bringing about human (and animal) flourishing. Anything that impedes human (or animal) flourishing would fall somewhere on the nasty side of the swamp end of the moral landscape. Anything that helps raise human flourishing to new echelons must reside somewhere on the grand peaks of that same moral landscape.

It's expressly because morality is a rational endeavor, and that we must reason through what is right and what is wrong that appeals to higher morality are rather meaningless. Regardless of whether there exists a morality outside of ourselves, it's how we go about in living moral lives that matters. It's the moral landscape we traverse daily, which concerns us. It's only here on this playing field that the moral game has lasting consequences and so every moral action counts.

Don't be Holly Fisher with her Bible and her overly big gun (for no reason) proud of her magical beliefs. Don't be the radical religious person who, in their zealousness, thinks they have the truth of it all. Don't go believing in hidden submarines that may or may not be there. Don't go chasing waterfalls, for that matter.

Let's be reasonable. Let's reason together.

Just because there might be a happier life after this (something we could never be sure about until, well, after the fact), and that's certainly a big what if, what justifiable reason could anyone have for spreading misery and making reckless decisions that could potentially harm others in this life?

As far as I'm concerned, there aren't any excuses--not even magical books, beliefs, or submarines can justify sinking the boat which everyone else has no choice but to be in alongside with you. Don't think that your desires, your thoughts, and your feelings trump the desires, thoughts, and feelings other people, as if you were the only person that mattered.

It's not just about you. It's about all of us.

What matters, I should hope, is each other

Which is why I think it is expressly important to pause to consider our moral actions and their consequences.

I just wish more people would take the time to think about these issues, because, regardless of what you may believe, the fact remains that we're all in this boat together.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Advocate (Promote) Atheism?

Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist just released a video explaining why he feels obliged to promote atheism. I thought it was a good topic to discuss, so following his lead I will offer my own reasons of why I am an advocate for atheism.

Atheism is actually more than just the non-belief in deities. Don't get me wrong, the definition of atheism is certainly a straight forward concept, but what we might highlight as cultural atheism, including but not limited to New Atheism, the atheist thinkers who came out of the Golden Age of Freethough, such as the Great Agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll, the atheist thinkers who came out of various enlightenments, whether it is Paul Thiry d'Holbach or David Hume, are all representative of a secular tradition that upholds atheism as, perhaps, something more than just the mere lack of belief in God or gods.

Cultural atheism, like cultural Christianity, is merely a byproduct of living in a secular culture and society which adopts a secular worldview. There's nothing controversial about it. But at the same time, I have found that secular ideals often require things like good critical thinking, skepticism, and reasoning skills in order to remain truly secular. The moment age-old superstition creeps in you lose the secular world view and it gets supplanted by religious myths and fancies.

This requires secularism to maintain a kind of equilibrium with the various cultures it co-exists alongside, and this equilibrium, as far as I can tell, is largely dependent on two factors: naturalism (which atheism is a consequence of) and being open minded and flexible, i.e. being able to change one's mind about things--something quite anemic to religious beliefs.

Because I value things like truth, not multiplying assumptions unnecessarily, of being intellectually honest, it seems that all this and more can be encompassed within cultural atheism. That is to say, a majority of the things I value can be contained in this form of atheism.

It's much harder to value these things and be religious, at least not without a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, I'd imagine.

As such, atheism allows one to maintain a clear mind, because there is less cognitive dissonance. As such, it allows one to focus their critical thinking skills on things that matter, with a clarity that I lacked when I was a believer.

I like to advance atheism because atheism has no doctrines or creeds to advance itself upon, unlike the theocratic policies of many world religions. That makes it doubly interesting to me, because those who adopt atheism will have a wide array of political beliefs and worldviews, and it becomes the burden of the atheist to figure out which is the best, or at least, most beneficial one.

Similarly, atheism is pretty wide open because it makes minimal assumptions. So anything else you may believe in addition to atheism must stand on its own merits, unlike religion which uses its own assumptions to buttress itself up all the time.

If you choose to become an atheist, there is no laziness about simply having beliefs (as with religion), since it is your burden to find valid reasons for holding those beliefs, and atheism surely isn't going to make that easy for you.

But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Atheism is for thinking people, because it gives rooms for the free exchange of ideas, without any interference. It lets you learn more about the world while not telling you how you ought to think or believe.

It's quite novel in that regard.

Atheism is compatible with naturalism, democracy, science, and secularism whereas religion has a great deal amount of friction with all of these things. As such, to be religious forces you into a position of defense anytime any of these things are brought up as a topic of discussion, but with atheism there is nothing to defend (quite literally).

Atheists, I have found, tend to be more rational minded than believers. This doesn't mean there aren't rational believers, because I know some extremely smart theists and deists, but what I have noticed is that many atheists begin with one set of belief propositions and, having given them a certain amount of thought, rationalize their way out of these rigid belief systems to atheism. Because of this, many atheists (not all, of course--but many) are quite rational minded.

I know many deists who prefer to befriend atheists rather than their religious theist counterparts, because atheists are less judgmental of other beliefs, because for the atheist, if there is a true belief out there when it comes to God--we'd like to know it!

After all, atheists have nothing to lose.

Also, atheists are highly curious.

Ideas, beliefs, worldviews... all these and more pique our curiosity, so we're willing to sit down an talk about these subjects with practically anyone!

Atheists are social. At least some of them.

Atheists take care of themselves and live life to the fullest, because according to their worldview, it's the only life they have.

This makes atheists heaps of fun, because they have so many interests which they want to engage in to make the best of their lives!

Atheists care. Atheists are sometimes anti-theists, because we can see and identify the dangerous elements of religion which negatively impact people, culture, and society. Atheists want the world to be a better place, not a worse place, so we will argue against those things which we perceive to be an imminent threat.

Atheists are highly moral, in part because many atheists are also humanists. But also because we realize this being the only life we have, we don't want to spend the only life we have suffering and we don't think anyone else should either.

It is often said that atheists have no purpose or reason to live. This is only a half truth, because in all truth we all can find a purpose or a reason to live. It's like Sylvester Stallone said in the fourth Rambo movie, "Die for something, or live for nothing." Which is another way of saying you have to live and die for something otherwise you've lived for nothing.

So atheists aren't without purpose to life. Our purpose for living is whatever we make it, and because we don't believe in an afterlife we must make our purpose a good one so that this one, precious life will have meaning.

If you believe in an afterlife, then there is less of an impetus to attach any meaning to your life or find any real purpose--you are free to float in limbo hoping fate will give you a meaningful life. But atheists are realistic--we don't feel comfortable hanging all our hopes on a pipe dream, on fate, or on God. Not when we have the power to make our lives have meaning here and now.

Atheists want to help others because the here and now matters to us. We want children to have good scientific educations and we don't want religion to interfere with the education of our children. Lots of times this sentiment comes from atheists who were raised up religious, or who had religious educations, and see how truly inferior a religious education is to a secular one. This isn't to say all religious educations are bad ones, but the ones which limit knowledge to only what that religion will accept can never truly be about the unabashed learning one can enjoy minus those religious restrictions.

I could go and ad nauseam of why I find atheism attractive and worth advocating, but needless to say, I'm not going to force my atheism down your throat.

Although I find it worth talking about, I am not going to dictate that you should become an atheist. Unlike many religions, there simply no reason for an atheist to expect you to think and believe exactly like they do.

All this and more makes atheism appealing to me personally, but I think some of these reasons may make atheism a little more attractive to you as well.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist