I mentioned this essay on The Sci Phi Show and said that I'd put it back at the top of the site when the episode aired so the listeners could see the illustration, so here it is.

Imagine if transportation was defined as a device that uses horses or sails-- automobile drivers would be accused of denying the existence of transportation.

We're genetically programmed to see an Alpha Male in our primate pack as the source of truth and moral law. This explains the difficulty I have in communicating alternative models of truth and moral law to bible believers. It's not that they reject the model I present, it's that they literally don't know what I'm saying. It's a mental block. We take away the concept of the Alpha Male Monkey in the sky, and they think we've declared truth and morality to be nonexistent, because to them, "right" is defined as: "whatever the Alpha Male Monkey says." By definition. I put the discussion behind this link ...with drawings. ) Morality doesn't look like this:

It looks like this:
Read more... )
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
Carl Sagan died ten years ago today. An extended excerpt from the epilogue to Billions and Billions, written by his wife Ann Druyan, was posted to the web, and five or six years ago I read it while wandering in the collapsed shell of a faith that didn't work for me. Sagan's good death influenced my development for the better as much as did his good life. I wonder if that is why so many people are memorializing this anniversary as much as that of his birth?

To the bible-believer, the death of any humanist is a repudiation of what he or she stood for. Many a time I've heard it said of the death of one who was publicly irreligious that he or she "knows better now." Fear is a powerful influence on the ability to think clearly. I've often been asked "what if you're wrong? You would spend eternity in hell." This argument-by-threat is equivalent to a prosecution attorney telling a jury "There is no good reason to suppose the defendant is guilty of murder, but what if he is? He would sneak into your houses and kill your families. So you'd better convict him." The vivid imagery of hell actually makes that tactic work.

It's possible, as Sagan demonstrated on his deathbed, to be an atheist in a foxhole; to see the biblical mythology the same way that a bible-believing Christian would dismiss a threat from Allah or Hare Krishna; to not be cowed by the groundless fears of folklore. As Sagan famously said, "I don't want to believe, I want to know." This confidence makes it possible to do as he did, and stare one's own obliteration in the face with a level of coping skill few achieve even in adulthood. As Eric Hoffer wrote, "Faith, enthusiasm, and passionate intensity in general are substitutes for the self-confidence born of experience and the possession of skill." Sagan exemplified this distinction. Once I began to realize what it was like to go out and experience for one's self instead of taking someone's word for it-- to research and find out rather than to postulate convictions-- faith seemed a paltry stop-gap measure for knowledge, if not a symptom of downright insecurity.

Thank you, Carl Sagan. I wish I had not missed out on your life.

This has been part of the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon.
Edge.org brought my attention to responses in the letters column of the New York Times (quoted below the cut), by the three atheists most prominently cited in the resurgence of outspoken atheism-- Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They plead for the simplicity and gentleness of their positions, against the reputations they are acquiring from those who have only heard about them from their detractors. Those who take the time to actually read their books find out that far from over-reaching, cruelty, or arrogance, they gently point out obvious ennobling and enriching insights which it has been impolite to mention.

In a free society, most secularists are far more interested in ending the immunity which religious faith is granted than we are interested in the hopeless folly of attempting to end faith itself. Unfortunately, it seems that faith reacts badly to challenges to its sacred-cow status, resulting in the mischaracterizations of the New Atheists.

A frequent objection is made that Harris, Dawkins and Dennett mischaracterize religion. Exactly what religious adherents are those objectors looking at? It doesn't matter that the top 1% most sophisticated religious people are not as bad as all that. They aren't the 99% who are making problems for us. There is a No True Scotsman fallacy at work here.
Argument: "Religious faith isn't a problem."
Reply: "I'd be wealthy if I had a nickel for every example of family, friends and local leaders in the past couple of months making an appeal to credibility, where no attempt in the slightest has been made to establish that credibility, and any such attempt would be considered disloyal. They call that 'faith'."
Rebuttal: "Well, no true religious faith is a problem." The remaining rebuttal consists of the flavor-of-the-month redefinition of religion and faith to have nothing to do with the tactic we encounter in our lives from about 325 million users of the English word "faith".

Few of those who call the New Atheists "mean" notice the focus on beautiful, ennobling, enriching, and motivational answers offered by secular world views to traditionally religious questions ... even for traditionally religious purposes such as understanding your brain and genes well enough to seek how to be happy and find meaning! This New York Times article about a conference of scientists dealing with religious objections to their findings is typical in that it focuses on how many of them were combative, but in this social climate the article is remarkable that it notices their positive alternative offering at all.
Read more... )
The phrase "the Alpha Male Monkey" may be the most useful new explanatory tool I've encountered in years. [livejournal.com profile] paranthropus gave it to me in a recent LJ post about primate group psychology. It was an inspirational and motivational insight into the evolutionary biology of my psychology which has kept me up at night thinking of the implications. I wrote about it in this subsequent LJ post, but it occurred to me that this is valuable for explaining myself to bible-believing Christians.

We're genetically programmed to see an Alpha Male in our primate pack as the source of truth and moral law. This explains the difficulty I have in communicating alternative models of truth and moral law to bible believers. It's not that they reject the model I present, it's that they literally don't know what I'm saying. It's a mental block. We take away the concept of the Alpha Male Monkey in the sky, and they think we've declared truth and morality to be nonexistent, because to them, "right" is defined as: "whatever the Alpha Male Monkey says." By definition. I put the discussion behind this link ...with drawings. ) Morality doesn't look like this:

It looks like this:
Read more... )
I may write a book someday about my experiences with experiments with Un-churches. One of the chapters would concern Universism. For those who don't know, Universism is a "religion" like Unitarian Universalism except that instead of embracing all religious heritages, it rejects all of them in favor of "faith in reason, inspiration in nature, and hope in progress". The emphasis was "on the attitude and spirit in which you address religious questions, and the tools you use to do so, rather than focusing on any conclusions that you may arrive at". Those tools were personal experience and reason. Flaky new-agers did not find a very welcome home among us, despite their attraction to the idea of experimental religion, because they didn't enjoy our disapproval of blind faith, prophets, and gurus.

The movement gained worldwide attention, hosted live internet chats with John Horgan, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, and many appearances in radio, television and newspapers. Universist YouTube videos still circulate.

Today I found out how that chapter of the book ends. Many of you met Universism's founder, Ford Vox, when he visited me last year and accompanied me to the weekly gathering of fans at Tio's in Ann Arbor. He has replaced the Universism website with a retraction of the desire to present an opposing force to faith. Much of what he says is true and valuable, but no reason to back down. Read more... )
For those who may not know, EPCOT (formerly known as Epcot Center) is part of the Walt Disney World resort complex in Florida. The "giant golf ball", as it is sometimes known from its flagship globe, is the only permanent World's Fair of human knowledge, technology, art and travel. This was where I first saw computers, videophones, cell phones, hydroponics and Segways. Under the username "epkat" I've been posting a lot to EPCOT Central, a blog for fans of the Disney park to post their dissatisfaction with the management direction in the past ten years, and who have high hopes that John Lasseter of Pixar will fix it now that he's in charge of the parks.

EPCOT is still great, despite the efforts of the current management to strip it of all that it was ever meant to accomplish. The blog keeps reminding me of little details, like the way they artificially pumped a musty museum smell into the leg of the globe as the ride cars ascend the steep slope in darkness, traveling into the past. I recall the laser display projecting the map of the earth spinning on the exterior of the globe when the park closes.

It is a park for geeks. In the way that it's perceived in the culture, there is a sense there just aren't enough people interested in the wonders of science, technology, history and geography to sustain it. Supposedly the money is all to be found in thrill rides and cartoon characters, which is why Disney started replacing everything with that ever since the mid 90's. Read more... )
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
Followers of Christ did not get the label "Christian" until several decades after Christ. The term was coined by non-Christians in Asia Minor as a derisive term, meaning "little Christ ones." In a stroke of genius, the followers of Christ adopted the term as their name and it came to mean something good. I saw a similar opportunity in a newspaper editorial by Orson Scott Card. Mr. Card refers to the non-Heartland derisively as "Smartland." Don't you love that name? America's Smartland. Let's start using it. In fact, let's think of ways to spread it as a meme. I think I'll make a banner for people to post on their sites and blogs. Perhaps it will feature an image of Mr. Card with a word balloon saying, "This site a proud resident of America's Smartland."

The problem is that there is seriously a non-Smartland in America. Sane, responsible Christians and religious people who are members of Smartland are much better than American Christians and religious people who are not. This is often used as an excuse to not try to reach out to insane and irresponsible forms of religion in non-Smartland, and cut off one of its major weapons by proving God doesn't exist. For instance, Marshall Brain, who runs HowStuffWorks.com, recently put out a gentle and incisive online book that intends to help with that goal, and John Scalzi (an agnostic) wrote a blog post to lambaste it as a waste of time because we're hurting the feelings of Brother Guy Consolmagno and other religious residents of Smartland. Never mind that the book is not aimed at religous residents of Smartland. We are taking weapons out of the hands of those who abuse them. That's what matters.

John is correct when he says there is just as much of a problem with 20th-century secular dictators as there had been with the Inquisition, Crusades, and witch trials of earlier centuries. But nobody who thinks faith-based cultures are more virtuous and socially stable than secular cultures knows about the comparison with Sweden.

Sweden is the most atheistic country per-capita in the world, and yet somehow not only don't they descend into genocide, they have better rates on just about everything than do highly religious nations. More to the point, according to this article (which reports a systematic study that found current global statistics the exact opposite of religious assumptions), this and countless other recent comprehensive studies show dramatically that the less religious a nation is, the more virtuously its citizens act. The article says, Read more... )
The 2005 World Fair in Aichi Japan has a wonderful website. Check out the pavilions. This World Fair is incredibly robotized, by the way. I'm not talking about Disney's Audio-Animatronics. I mean white plastic robots that walk around and see their environment and interact with it, offering to guide visitors to their destination or just sweeping up the trash. I want one.

I really need to not look at this so much-- it's threatening to my finances. Last week I got out my gigantic Disney Imagineering coffee table book and looked at concept art of Epcot Center for hours. Do any of you love World Fairs (or "Global Expositions" as they are called now)? Do you know what I'm talking about? The apex of the technology, philosophy, and creativity of the human species come together in a meeting of cultures. With each expo, the confusion of tongues is defeated at the hands of mortals, and we glorify the successful completion of the Tower of Babel. This is secular humanism at its most beautiful expression, and I am grateful.
An audio file of Friday's Russ and Dee radio show is now online at:
Having listened to the show again, personally, I think I hit it out of the ballpark.
My call-in begins about a third of the way through the file and ends about half-way through. I'd like to extract that section into a separate audio file for the convenience of my friends, but I don't know how and I don't have the web space.
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
This morning two of my friends from Alabama in the Universism movement were guests on the Russ and Dee Show. After some Alabama listeners were discussing on Universism's "Faithless Community" chat room what they heard on the show, I called in and spent almost a half hour on the line with the host, my two friends, and a guest theologian. The Universists on the chat room were ecstatic about how I came off on the radio and responded to the theologian. I think it's been recorded and maybe I can eventually get it as a download for you.
The Universist Movement will host the famed Professor Richard Dawkins for a live guest discussion at The Faithless Community on Sunday March 20th at 4PM Eastern (9PM GMT).

Richard Dawkins' first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), in which he invented the concept of "memes," became an immediate international bestseller and was translated into all the major languages. Its sequel, The Extended Phenotype, followed in 1982. His other bestsellers include River Out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). Dawkins won both the Royal Society of Literature Award and the Los Angeles Times Literary Prize in 1987 for The Blind Watchmaker. The television film of the book, shown in the 'Horizon' series, won the Sci-Tech Prize for the Best Science Program of 1987. He has also won the 1989 Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London and the 1990 Royal Society Michael Faraday Award for the furtherance of the public understanding of science. In 1994 he won the Nakayama Prize for Human Science and in 1995 was awarded an Honorary D.Litt. by the University of St Andrews. Humanist of the Year Award 1996. Since 1996 has been Vice President of the British Humanist Association. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997. Winner of the 1997 (Fifth) International Cosmos Prize in Commemoration of Expo' 90. Recently he spearheaded an effort to introduce the word "bright" into the English language as an atheist analogue to the word "gay." Wired published an excellent biographical article on Dawkins in 1995 (read).
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
The SF author Orson Scott Card posted an essay to a Mormon website about why Mormonism is incompatible with being openly homosexual.

This may come as a surprise to him, but the argument on which Mr. Card bases his entire essay actually is ethical relativity. Let us take an example. Either raping a woman is wrong because of the suffering of the victim, or it is wrong just because god happened to arbitrarily roll some dice and decree it. Mr. Card is among the type who would say the latter. "Against thee and thee only have I sinned," wrote the Psalmist David addressing god. In other words the suffering of the victim is inconsequential. This is a form of ethical relativism. If wrong is only wrong because of the preferences of a deity, then that preference is arbitrary whim because there is no standard higher than god for a god to judge itself against. If instead, Mr. Card believes that god observes behavior and then conforms his own laws to the evidence based on the suffering of the victims, then he is holding his decisions to an exterior standard and is therefore not god. "Arbitrary" means "held to no exterior standard."

Mr. Card thinks god's will is loving, pure, just and good. This statement can have no meaning in a theistic framework, because what standard is he using to let himself stand as judge and jury over god to say that? Is god's will the standard against which god's will is measured? Then we have said nothing about god's goodness, but only that god's will is god's will. That becomes the arbitrary definition of "good." Then it's only immutable in the sense that it immutably defines morality by its whim from moment to moment. Every time it arbitrarily changes its mind, that change becomes the new definition of morality. If it stays the same forever, so what? It is held to one arbitrary roll of the dice, forever.

The Christian or LDS rules-based moral system cannot accomplish the objectivity which they claim they want from a moral system.

This is because it confuses mere rules with moral truths, and bases morality on a set of rules instead of the other way around. Objective moral truths do not change just because an authority changes a rule-- not even god. If Mr. Card believes they do, then he is a moral relativist, except even worse, because he extends it to a cosmic scale. Only rules are man-made or God-made. Objective morality, on the other hand, cannot be man-made or God-made, it's not made by anybody. 2 + 2 = 4 doesn't need to be decreed by royal fiat. Neither does the fact that unprovoked harm of another person is biased towards you and against them. Theism makes it impossible for moral truths to be objectively real. If there is a god, then, and only then, is morality subjective and relativistic.

However, Mr. Card is right about one thing:

"Those who are not willing or able to obey the rules should honestly admit the fact and withdraw from membership. ...the LDS church, which is founded on the idea that the word of God as revealed through his prophets should determine the behavior of the Saints, is under no obligation to protect some supposed "right" of those members who would like to persuade us that neither God nor the prophets has the authority to regulate them."

I would not stop to urinate on Mr. Card's supposed god and prophets if they were on fire. This is not specifically because I disagree with them on an issue, such as homosexuality, which is just one of many problematic issues with religion. It's because of authoritarianism. Just as we can't learn to do arithmetic by always looking it up on a chart, and refusing to countenance the idea that the chart is wrong -- so too we can't practice ethical reasoning by looking it up in a so-called holy book. Therefore there is nothing so evil in the holy books as the claim that we should unquestioningly get our rules for living from them, rather than from personal reason and observation. The specific errors such as the prohibition on harmless sexual quirks would be easily repaired if it weren't for their Stalinesque attitude toward authority.

Nevertheless, I can't help but agree with Mr. Card that there are no gay Mormons by definition. To claim that his view represents a mere misunderstanding of the book of Mormon, and that the book actually does not prohibit homosexuality, is as absurd as saying that chairman Mao really was a capitalist if you read between the lines, and therefore a capitalist can legitimately claim to be a Maoist.

It's time to draw the line in the sand and step firmly across to the ethical side. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, along with other scripture-following authoritarian religions, have abandoned their responsibilities to individually observe the data of lived experience with a mind to personally weigh the costs and benefits of behaviors.
Agnostics, deists, atheists, pantheists, transcendentalists and other freethinkers are meeting for the next local Universist meetup at Barnes and Noble Booksellers on Washtenaw Ave. in Ann Arbor at 8:00 p.m. Thursday, September 2. Those who are curious are invited to join us. Universism unites freethinkers by replacing the traditional concept of faith with reasoned credibility, inspiration in nature, and hope in progress.
Pardon me while I vent some steam about what I'm feeling right now. Read more... )
This is a review of Why Christianity Must Change or Die by the Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong. I suspected Bishop Spong was a theistic agnostic, and this turns out to be true. Spong is theistic because he believes in something labeled 'god,' agnostic because he insists we can't know anything about it.

One of the things I object to in the book is Bishop Spong's continued favorable use of emotion-packed words without their informational content. He says he believes in God, but that God is not supernatural, not male or any gender, not a person in any sense, lacks an independent existence in its own right, not an authority for truth or behavior, and performs no miracles or any other actions except through human good works. In short, he says Love is God. He describes it as the Ground of All Being.

Then he calls himself a Christian while flatly denying the atonement, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and all other miracles. He disagrees with teachings of the Jesus of the gospels on several points, calls the gospels legends, and denies that we have a reliable means of finding out any hard information about the historical Jesus behind them. Yet he says he can follow Jesus because he had a "Christ experience," whatever that is.

Then he says he prays but that prayer is not petition, praise or thanksgiving to any being. Rather he says prayer is doing good works.

He subtitled it, "A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile." There's another code word: when he says "believer" he means someone who still likes the beliefs on some basis other than their literal fact.

I strongly object to his his use of language as secret code instead of public participatory activity. Stripping words of their meaning makes them useless as commmunication tools. Putting a whole new meaning into them is confusing at best and misleading at worst. Bishop Spong insists he is not an atheist, for no other reason than the objectionable emotional connotations of the word "atheist." His world view is absent of the supernatural and his ethical statements are consistently humanistic. It is a mystery to me what motivates him to continue to adorn his talk with religious-sounding window dressing.

Because the reader has to struggle in every paragraph to decode this private code Bishop Spong has invented to talk in, his book is nothing more than a handbook for teaching you the code: substitute "love" when he says "god," "Christ experience" when he says "Jesus," and "good works" when he says "prayer." This is not intended to deceive since he is unapologetically open about it, but it still does more to obscure than to enlighten. Rather than breathe new life into Christianity, John Shelby Spong is harvesting organs from what he perceives to be its corpse.
nemorathwald: (me Matt)

I was looking forward so much to The Fellowship of Reason's 2003 conference on starting local branches, which was cancelled, that I've started discussions on the forums of the secularist groups I'm involved in, asking for volunteer workers to help me step up to the plate and organize this type of conference. It will be a congress of all moral communities that promote reason as primary, and do not require that we pretend to respect blind faith. The way I envision it, F.O.R., Universists, North Texas Church of Freethought, Houston Church of Freethought, Church of Virus, Brights Net, Reason's Fellowship, and the Center for Inquiry's new "Communities" program would be invited as delegations of equals. The purpose will be to network and plan how to promote this type of community. What I'm been saying to them is:
"if one of our organizations grows in our society, we all grow. Our differences are mostly allergic reactions to vocabulary, and are not as important as our common ground. We can make our shared goals work, if we all team together to share our brainstorming ideas!"Read more... )

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