Wednesday, 23 November 2011

General cogitations...

This'll probably be a long post, and one more speculative than factual or empirical.  For several months now, I've found myself more and more inclined to suspect that actually - despite appearances and in defiance of the polls - very few people believe in gods.

I know, I know; don't atheists like to spend all their time whining about being an oppressed minority?

While few of us would let the term "whine" go unchallenged - and without sidetracking now to debate the reality or otherwise of our perceived persecution - it seems reasonable to suggest that there are atheists out there who found a large part of their identity on being the minority, the problem child, the difficult one too smart to buy into the propaganda they've been fed by "the man". I don't pretend to be above feeling a pang of defiant pride every time I correct someone who's assumed a British white bird must be a christian; I still enjoy the moment of shock almost everyone betrays when I openly state my position (while acknowledging it to be slightly depressing that acknowledging a disbelief in gods still creates waves where a stated disbelief in astrology or Death Eaters would be considered innocuous or even completely superfluous).

And yet here I am saying that most people don't believe - so what am I saying here, that religion is just the largest-scale and most coordinated troll campaign in history?

Oddly enough, it was a troll who crystallised this notion for me a couple of months ago (the subject of my October 2011 post "A note about Poes" DID turn out to be a troll, and a good one). But before I caught on, there were vast swathes of facebook conversation about sin, and the troll - I shall call him "Jim" - invited criticism for apparently being a devout christian and yet having two children born out of wedlock.  He made the usual theist arguments about not being perfect etc. etc., but still claimed to know that the bible was fact, that all Jahweh's rules were real and all that; to which my response at the time was "I know gravity is a fact, therefore I don't step off tall buildings. You claim to know Jahweh will send you to hell for having sex before you're married, yet you clearly do it. Some knowledge."

Now, I have no doubt that many believers reading this will be throwing up their hands and saying "well obviously Jim didn't believe in God, he was a Poe!".  Actually, as it turns out Jim is a loose sort of deist rather than an atheist, but that's not the point; in pretending to be a christian for the purposes of winding people up, Jim was imitating many statements of belief made by christians, which don't become any less untenable when made by an actual believer - THAT is the point.

I need at this stage to dip briefly into the issue of cognitive dissonance, because we all experience it and I want to make it clear that I'm not using a psychological feature common to all humanity to arbitrarily lay into religious belief. We all experience CD; an example in  my own case is my ability to simultaneously know that I am a vanishingly insignificant blob of chemical compounds that will blip in and out of a universe that will never know nor care that I existed, while also knowing that because that same insignificant blob is also my only method of experiencing the universe I am also - subjectively at least - the most important entity in that universe. From the point of view of my awareness, the universe could no more exist without me than I could without it. Another example of CD is the very common habit of deploring - for example - the plight of starving children in Somalia, and managing to empathise deeply with them while doing very little to help.  The degree of sacrifice necessary to appease our consciences and allow us to live with this particular form of CD varies hugely, from one person who does literally nothing to another who might sack off their job and go out there to help; but one way or another, we all manage it.

All this being acknowledged, perhaps it seems unfair for me to try and say that because a believer fails to live according to one rule of their book they must not really believe in any of it. Perhaps it is unfair; I'm not sure, as I said this is all speculative.  After all, there are parts of holy scripture (any holy scripture now, I'm not restricting myself to christianity here) that are literally impossible to believe to the letter; parts that contradict each other, and parts that have been shown to be factually not true. How, for example, does one mentally reconcile the Qur'anic command to slaughter unbelievers with its simultaneous command to respect the laws and culture of other lands?

There are literal impossibilities in believing parts of scripture, I accept that and am not trying to suggest that religious people should be able to do the impossible by believing two mutually exclusive things at once (although many of them seem to make a brave effort at it! God is wise, merciful and all-loving but will punish you for all eternity for being gay as he made you, for example...). But more subtly (some might say more adaptively) we also see religious people - almost all religious people - accepting a CD arising from the contradiction between scriptural command and modern values. Now I'm not objecting to this by any means - I'm quite happy not to have been murdered for having sex with my boyfriend or for any one of dozens of other infractions against scripture - but I do find the way in which so many people compromise without really thinking about it what they would claim if asked to be sacred, inviolable articles of faith is... well, odd at the very least.

Let's go back to my earlier analogy of gravity; I know about gravity, I understand its influence on my everyday existence, and I know that it makes no exceptions; therefore I don't step off tall buildings - I know what the result will be!  To me - and to most atheists, I suspect - belief and knowledge are two very different things; in fact, some of us (myself included) would make the case that they're mutually exclusive since there is no requirement to believe something you know to be a fact - I don't believe in gravity, I just acknowledge its existence.  But many believers blur this distinction, and prefer to assert that they know God X exists and that s/he makes demands of us as detailed in Holy Text Y - a misapprehension betrayed by many in their claim that nonbelievers simply choose (for whatever reason) to ignore, defy or deny their god (although they never tell us we're "denying" any other gods, ever notice that?).  In fact, many of them are so certain that what they've been taught about God X is face that they want to instruct the rest of us about it for our own good; when you step back and look at that, the level of assurance is breathtaking! We're talking - from the believer's point of view - about cosmic matters of the soul, of eternity and the struggle between good and evil. From their perspective the souls and eternal lives of every person on the planet is the stake, the forfeit to be paid by each person who chooses the wrong belief, who bets on the wrong horse of all the millions available... THIS is the cost, this is the stake, and yet so many believers are so certain that they've got it right they're prepared to gamble not only their own eternal soul but also to recruit and bet with the souls of other people too. Can you imagine how secure you'd have to be in your faith to take on - actively invite! - a responsibility like that?! In fairness to the believers, if I were to hand my soul over in the manner so many of them would like me to I'd want to be told that what they were telling me was fact, too - when you consider the stakes, "belief" suddenly looks a bit pithy and insubstantial!

Now, keep all of the above in mind... and then consider that this same person who's so sure that their god exists according to Holy Book X

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Power at a point - it's not always about force of numbers

Much has been made over the last couple of days about the actions of a bloke called Andy in the USA, who owns and runs a gelato store.  The story is explained and linked here:

Hemant - the friendly atheist - seems inclined to give Andy the benefit of the doubt and accept his apology; PZ Myers has been vociferous in his refusal to do so, both on Twitter and his Pharyngula blog.

Personally I'm undecided about the apology; I'm not sure there hasn't been a bit of a false dichotomy set up here, forcing people to choose between thinking he's sincerely sorry for causing offense and thinking he doesn't mean a word of it and is just worried about the beating his business has taken (can't it be both?). But the story's drawn attention to the power of the geek - the poster was apparently only in place for a few minutes before Andy calmed down and removed it, but that was long enough for his admittedly fairly vicious act of illegal discrimination to make it online and go viral. Within twenty-four hours Gelato Mio's ratings on Google etc. had plummeted, and he was answering incensed emails from all over the world.  We know that atheists are typically younger, more educated and more tech-savvy than the population average, and this is just the latest example of of the way in which atheists all over the world are using these advantages to communicate and coordinate action against discrimination like this; for another example, look at the backlash Bastrop High School received after a teacher publicly trashed student Damon Fowler for privately objecting to the unconstitutional inclusion of a christian prayer in his graduation ceremony.

The wish to exclude non-believers seems distressingly prevalent in the USA, from Bush Sr.'s now infamous (and as yet unretracted) comment "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God" to endless polls showing atheists to be the most untrusted minority in the country through to Andy, the owner of Gelato Mio, deciding in the heat of the moment that he will not serve atheists in his store.

But what would happen if the more conservative US christians got their way, the ones who would see atheists banished from the Land of the Free? Polls have shown that around 93% of members of the National Academy of Science are atheist, and extrapolating from general trends we can guess that many medical doctors, teachers, authors and other educated professionals would be lost. Meanwhile, other studies suggest that almost none of the prison population would go, and similarly much of the migrant population these same conservatives seem to spend their time complaining about would remain. Fortunately someone who is better at internetting than I am has already put this together in a rather nice youtube video, which I have linked below for your enjoyment.

By excluding a superficially insignificant minority group from his store, Andy of Gelato Mio suffered a potentially devastating blow to his public image; he also lost a lot of money on the night, and might well continue to lose it as word spreads about his actions. This might be seen as a microcosm of what will happen to the USA if the fundies get their way and atheists are marginalised even more than they are at present.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Sometimes atheism bites hard.

A very dear friend of mine lost her mother last week to a very painful and undignified disease. My friend - I shall call her "Celia" - had been caring for her mother for several months, and I suppose it's natural that she should be more relieved than grieved now that it's finally all over.

Celia and I talked for half an hour in private this morning, and I learned more about her mother's awful illness, which lingered for months and then took her quite suddenly at the end. I've never enquired about Celia's religious views, but I know she's not a regular church-goer or anything like that; if I'd had to guess, I'd've said she was probably a vague sort of fuzzy deist, like most people in the UK. I did already know she harbours some beliefs I would describe as irrational, such as the belief that the brother who died very young and her father who died many years ago watch over her and guide her actions - I learned more about these beliefs this morning, and found it extremely uncomfortable.

Celia knew the evening before her mother died that she didn't have long left, and she woke up at 5am the next morning with a strong feeling that she needed to get to the hospice right away. She ignored it for a bit telling herself that the nurses had her number, and that her sister had been there all night and would call if anything urgent happened. She says she got a resurgence of the same feeling at about 8am, and this time she listened to it; with the result that she got to the hospice and into her mum's room about a minute before she died. She took her mum's hand and told her she was there and that it was time to go; and her mother took one last breath and left. Celia holds that her mother held on until she knew Celia was there, and that she herself was guided by the spirit of her deceased father and that's how she knew to go.

Now, I have no way of knowing how much of this is accurate and how much is down to my friend remembering what confirmed what she wanted to believe - and frankly, it's not even remotely my place to form a judgment on the matter. Celia believes that her mother is now with her son - Celia's brother - and her husband, Celia's father, and that she's happy - what purpose would be served by rational opposition on this point, and in what way would it be MY place to make it?

There are times when being rational to a fault sucks. In talking to Celia, I couldn't avoid recalling the death of my own maternal grandmother, who actually died in quite a similar manner almost two years ago.  I wasn't there when my gran died; although she too died of advanced cancer, hers wasn't spotted at all until the day before she died, when she was taken into hospital for what they thought was a blocked bowel. My mother, one of her sisters and one of her brothers were there; the rest lived too far away to make it to Glasgow in time.

Although I was sad to lose my gran, I was more sad about the way she'd died that about the fact that she was gone - after all, I have no beliefs suggesting to me that she knows anything about it. I never had the slightest impulse to believe she was still around us at the funeral, and although I'm sure her final moments were calmed by her belief that she was going to be reunited with my grandfather - who died before I was born - I consider that belief to be a positive thing for her in its own right, without the slightest inclination to think it was correct. At the funeral, I was sad for my mother and my uncles and aunts, not for my gran.

The one aspect of losing religion that I still struggle with - emotionally, not intellectually - is the loss of belief in an afterlife.  The idea that after death we are reunited with our loved ones was presented to me when I was a child as simple fact, as something that was categorically known to be reality.  I've long since forgiven my teachers for threatening me with hell, for making me feel intrinsically inadequate, scared and guilty at all times, for warping my developing morality... but I've never been able to forgive them for giving me belief in eternal life, because it still hurts to have lost that and I believe it would have been better for me never to have had it - you can't miss what you've never had after all. The idea that someone who has died is simply gone, lost to me forever, makes perfect sense intellectually, academically and logically, and I don't think I even have it in me to fool myself into letting what I want to be true override what I know to be fact - but knowing I can do nothing about it doesn't stop it being the scariest and most upsetting concept I have ever had to contemplate.  Everything else about my christian upbringing can be forgiven and forgotten, but that belief in an afterlife has left a wound that - after ten years or more of atheism - I begin to think is simply never going to heal.

I listened to Celia without saying much, and what I did say was along the lines of "she's out of pain now" and "she's at peace" and "she died knowing she was loved". I can never bring myself to profess belief I don't have in these matters, because it would be not only dishonest but actually very condescending to the person in question - but there are still things like the above that can be said, and people have a fortunate habit of taking silence on matters such as spirits and psychic abilities as assent to their statements. Listening to Celia talk this morning about her belief that her mother is now reunited with Celia's father and brother has left me raw in a way she hasn't realised, and touched on the one single, solitary aspect of religion that can - on rare occasion - make me wish I still had it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Another christian who wants to have her cake and eat it...

I've just been having a couple of entertaining and actually relatively intelligent discussions with several believers on facebook, but as is so often the case a rather less reasonable individual has wedged herself in and provided an excellent example of a religious (non)argument I personally find really irritating.

The conversation began with a believer wanting to ask other christians why they felt that "the personal truths of spirituality can be proven matters of universal fact?", and at the same time to ask atheists why they "demand proof of something that cannot be proven in a physical, scientific manner?".  I didn't see an answer to the question addressed to christians, but for what it's worth here's the answer I gave to the part addressed to atheists (much of which had already been said by other atheists):

"[W]hy is it that you demand proof of something that cannot be proven in a physical, scientific manner?" I'm going to answer this in three parts.

1: Science is the closest thing we have to an objective method of assessment and understanding. It's not perfect, but the scientific method has built into it as many safeguards against confirmation bias, false positives/negatives etc etc as we can reasonably manage, and study methods improve all the time.

2: As others have said, the only reason I demand evidence is that people who have these beliefs don't seem willing just to keep them to themselves and let the rest of us get on with it. If I believed there was an invisible dragon in my garage and I did nothing with that belief, imposing it on nobody, it would do no harm to anyone (except possibly me, I suppose). But if I wanted to tell other people what to do and legitimise my demands by referring them to said invisible dragon, people would have every right to demand proof that the dragon existed - particularly if some of the actions I was telling them the dragon demanded were morally abhorrent to them.

3: Your phrasing in this question betrays a trait in believers that - bluntly - I personally find intensely irritating (this is not a personal attack, it's a criticism of a particular style of religious thought). "[T]hat cannot be proven in a physical, scientific manner" is the key phrase. In recent centuries, much of what used to be attributed to gods has been shown to have natural causes. The extent of this knowledge is such at this point that it is increasingly difficult to find room for any deity within this physical universe or conforming to known physical laws... so more and more, religious people have decided their "god" exists in a different realm, or a different dimension, or is so far beyond our comprehension as humans that we cannot hope to seek him/her/it (which is always funny coming from people who reckon they know what God X thinks of gay people, for example).

Over the last few decades, "god" has morphed and changed and adapted so much that the word now has no reliable meaning; when they're telling us what to do, a christian means Jahweh as described in the bible. When they're defending their deity against rational thought, logic and science, a christian frequently resorts to an ineffable, unknowable, undetectable and inscrutable god of the fuzzy amorphous "beyond our ken" variety.

The only reason "God" cannot be proven (or disproven) by scientific methods is that the definition of "God" changes every time you look too closely at it."

There were many of perfectly sensible responses to this, but in amongst them was this (and the person she was claiming to paraphrase was ME!):

"To paraphrase...she explains that science restricts itself to natural cause. It only explains the natural world. The reason why is because the essance of science is testing ideas against the natural world, to hold constant certain variables. If there is an omnipotent force in the universe you cannot hold its actions constant. You cannot test explinations involving supernatural cause because you can't test statements about Gods actions"

And then, in a second comment:

"Lucy, this is the reason why God cannot be proven by scientific methods ^^ "

 Now, I didn't even bother making the point that omnipotence is logically impossible (the ol' "microwaved burrito" argument) and I won't here, but at this point another believer - a christian I already knew from other discussions and posts in the group - weighed in with:

 "Lucy, this is how one dictionary defines the Christian God (since this is what seems to be up for debate) "the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit : infinite Mind" Incorporeal: "Not composed of matter." How can God be a spirit and still be bound by matter? How can God be eternal and still be bound by time? This doesn't make sense. God is the creator of the laws themselves, God is not bound by them. And the Bible clearly tells us that "God is a spirit" living in a spiritual dimension called "heaven." God is not bound by laws and does not dwell in this world. The reason God cannot be proven or disproven by the scientific method is because the scientific method is the study of the natural world, which God isn't a part of. We cannot hold God's actions constant. We can't scientifically study God. We can't put God in a test tube."

... and, I confess, I started to take the piss:

"I love this. In order to make room for god to exist, he/she/it's now got to have no physical mass, no physical properties, exist in a separate dimension and outside of time, and be utterly undetectable within our universe... except by people who "just feel him/her/it", conveniently. This is the perfect example of my point 3 above; carefully adapting the attributes of "god" so as to make him/her/it intrinsically invulnerable to disproof. At what point do you give up and accept that a being with no physical presence in our universe (leaving aside the "god is everywhere" thing, by the way, as well as the "made in his image" bit), no physical properties and no influence on anything we see just isn't there? (If you're struggling with this, by the way, substitute "purple jelly monster" for "god" in my second sentence, and see if it still sounds reasonable to you).

Actually, scrap that - if your argument is that god is undetectable, unknowable and incomprehensible, I'll settle for an agreement from believers to just stop telling the rest of us what to do and how to think - since you're the ones claiming god is categorically beyond our capabilities to understand."

The point I was trying to make with the title of this entry is that this is a perfect example of a religious person making two mutually exclusive arguments, failing to spot the problem and thus putting forward an argument they would never accept from a believer of any other faith (to demonstrate the spuriousness of this reasoning, I recounted a true story about a conversation I had some time ago with a "medium" who - when I tried to devise an experiment to demonstrate the validity of his belief that the spirits of dead people talked to him - presented precisely the same excuses as justification for the fact that the ghosts he claimed to talk to could not be detected by science).

This person is a christian, who believes - at a minimum - that Yeshua was the son of (and/or a part of) the god Jahweh, a deity whose opinions and demands on various topics are laid out in the bible. This person claims to know that a specific god exists, and that he has various attributes. So far, so normal... but now line that up next to the argument she's making above.

Most of the time, this person professes belief in Yahweh, with all his likes and dislikes and known "history" - and, furthermore, she professes this to be a valid belief. In the above discussion, however, she argues that "God" is systematically and intrinsically unknowable, an entity existing outside of our physical universe and beyond our comprehension.  Why do I argue with these people?! This one's just told me that her own belief in the god of the Bible is invalid!

(Add to which, of course, the additional contradiction in her claim to know that an undetectable and unknowable being is there despite the fact that he's... you know, unknowable.)

Just another example of the double-think to which religious people must submit in order to maintain their faith in the face of fact...