Stop Giving Winter a Bad Name

Labels are useful.  Labels are shorthand that swiftly conveys one’s stances on various issues, from the delightfulness of Doctor Who to the importance of getting to make one’s own reproductive decisions.  They can also convey one’s affiliations, whether ethnic, occupational, or some other group to which one belongs that has an effect on one’s thinking.  Those uses don’t have to overlap, and the degree to which they don’t is often telling.  One can be a racist without being a Bircher, or a Whovian without belonging to the Doctor Who Society of Canada.  And indeed, most causes and fandoms and ethnic affiliations have far more people expressing interest and sympathy with them than enrolled as members of specific association devoted to those things.  The population of the United States with Amerindian heritage vastly exceeds the number of people that check the American Indian box on census forms.

And then there are people who refuse labels altogether.  Sometimes, this is because the existing popular discourse does not describe the kind of person they are, so none of the existing labels are accurate and new ones are, until they catch on, not effective.  Eventually, they can become better known, and enter the lexicon of at least particularly aware subcultures.  Once upon a time, “genderfluid,” “introvert,” “cis,” and “allistic” were nonsense words; now, they are useful identifiers, often self-ascribed, that enable conversations that would have been more difficult and time-consuming without them.

This essay is not about those people.

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Stop Giving Winter a Bad Name
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Plural Enemies

Religious pluralism is a strange ideal.  It’s a beautiful ideal, envisioning a world where people of dozens of creeds can function peacefully alongside each other.  It’s a fine practice, bringing massive benefits to societies as diverse as Poland, the United States, Lebanon, and India by calling in the dispossessed and unwanted from miles around.  It’s an intriguing intellectual event, forcing very different perspectives to achieve at least a superficial understanding of one another.
It’s also borderline incoherent, because religions do not get along.

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Plural Enemies

Why I am an Atheist – 3 of 3

It would turn out that I had overestimated the extent of the damage.  True, I had become a pariah from many of the people that had filled the social outings of the past few years and simply grown apart from many more.  But I still had friends (mostly from high school) I would have felt bad about losing.  It would be they that I would commit to seeing on my visits back to Miami.

In Ottawa, population 1 million, I could build myself anew.  The blogosphere became a close companion in my newfound solitude, and what had been intuitions and half-formed ideas grew into a far greater understanding.  I learned about the historical events surrounding the major religions.  I learned that Mormonism is, in fact, more overtly ridiculous than Catholicism, by a hair.  I learned about the psychological underpinnings of faith.  I learned just how little the average believer’s ideas relate to the Bible they claim is the foundation of their faith.  I learned about the gory zeal with which religions persecuted science that revealed religious teachings to be factually incorrect.  I learned about confirmation bias and how it convinces people they have psychic powers.  I learned why the sexual education regimen in my elementary school had to be split into sections at multiple locations: so that the segment on safe sex could be kept away from zealots’ eyes.  I finally understood the religious energy directed against the pure, visceral, primal joy that is sex, and into the authoritarian command to obey without question.  I learned about the seemingly boundless well of the Catholic Church’s crimes against humanity.  I learned about how Buddhist teachings encourage people to treat disabled people as monsters because their genetic disorders are a curse from karma for past lives’wrongdoing.  I saw that so, so, much of religion can only exist in a pluralistic, secular society when people do not live by it, that the litany of reforms that fill history classes occurred precisely because religions as originally formulated, as “God intended,” are utterly monstrous.  I saw that religious notions pervert our innate, empathetic moral sense until it is something inchoate and unrecognizable.

I saw that my parents and many of my friends and most of our leaders were in the grips of a vile and transmissible mind poison that told them their lives were worthless beneath the judgmental gaze of a cosmic entity whose plagues and marauding beasts we were supposed to take as expressions of “love.”  I saw that those same people paid regularly to hear someone tell them that this loving god would condemn one tenth or more of the human race to eternal torment based on who they loved, and that the best of them would merely disavow that notion without disavowing that church.  The worst of them would share that abuse out of “concern,” and drive a wedge through our family that makes me burn with sad, piteous rage.

I don’t remember when I listed myself as “Atheist” on OkCupid, but that designation was most emphatically in place when I changed my location to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  The lady I sought would not find this problematic, or would even look for it specifically.

I cultivated a different persona.  I did my reading, and recognized my desperation and my caution for the impediments they were.  I was now in a land where I could be the swarthy, exotic foreigner, where my American manners were fashionably impolite, and where my quiet, cerebral nature didn’t make me seem gutless and ineffectual to my ethnic kin and utterly invisible to anyone else.  In Miami, I was Solomon Vandi angrily listening to Johnny Archer shout at him, “Without me, you’re just another black man in Africa!”  In Ottawa, I could be who I wanted, and it would work.

In Ottawa, the zealots only come out to hold up their evil signs at Gay Pride parades and to show off their insultingly incorrect billboards about terminating pregnancy.  Canada isn’t as irreligious as paradises like Sweden or Estonia, but compared to the suffocating weight of Miami’s obsession with Spanish virgins, it was beatific.  Here, at long last, I could feel safe.  The political discourse here figured out that caring for one’s population and treating them fairly even when religious groups demand otherwise is the only way to run a modern country, while the United States still has to fight, over and over, people who want the government to enforce some specific version of Christianity on 320 million people.  Canada figured out the humanist notions of ethics that are the watchwords of the best atheists out there.  The United States belongs in another century by comparison.

And it was in Canada that I met a lady who thought clearly enough that she could see all of that, and did not despair.  A lady who, at long last, I would not have to placate with lies.  I met a lady who would not make me choose between loneliness and dishonesty.  A lady whose intelligence and understanding is matched only by her fiery commitment to making the world a better place and her mastery of Polish cuisine.  A lady who was everything I needed, and more.  I met Ania, and then we became co-bloggers.

Why I am an Atheist – 3 of 3

Why I am an Atheist – 2 of 3

Miami was an interesting transition.  Elizabeth, New Jersey was founded in 1665 and was once the capital of New Jersey.  It had stairs and pointed roofs and narrow streets and snow every other year and about 120,000 people.  Miami was founded in 1896, about 75 years after the United States acquired Florida, and hosts about 400,000 people in the city and ten times that in the surrounding metropolitan.  Everything in Miami is longer, flatter, wider, and hotter.  In a way that just isn’t true in the American Northeast, the wilderness is around every corner.  We found knight anoles in our mango trees and blue mangrove crabs under our cars.  I probably had more affection for our New Jersey life than any of us, and I found this new place lovely.
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Why I am an Atheist – 2 of 3

Possibilianism, or How I Learned to Not Think about Hard Questions

I recently encountered a philosophical movement that calls itself “Possibilianism,” after a term used by neuroscientist and novelist David Eagleman.  After hearing my thesis supervisor sing the idea’s praises (he’s an “apatheist” atheist), I had to look it up.

“Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”

Burkhard Bilger, interviewing Eagleman, for The New Yorker, had this to say about the concept:

“Science had taught him to be skeptical of cosmic certainties, [Eagleman] told me. From the unfathomed complexity of brain tissue—‘essentially an alien computational material’—to the mystery of dark matter, we know too little about our own minds and the universe around us to insist on strict atheism, he said. ‘And we know far too much to commit to a particular religious story.’ Why not revel in the alternatives? Why not imagine ourselves, as he did in Sum, as bits of networked hardware in a cosmic program, or as particles of some celestial organism, or any of a thousand other possibilities, and then test those ideas against the available evidence? ‘Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time,’ he said. ‘As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.’”

The false dichotomies are strong with this one!

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Possibilianism, or How I Learned to Not Think about Hard Questions

The Philosopher-Apologist

With this iteration of my catalogue of common, easily-typed anti-atheists, I would like to introduce the Philosopher-Apologist. In some ways a subclass of the Fellow Traveler, the Philosopher-Apologist is a hybrid between two separate philosophical stances, each more illogical than the other.

The first inchoate retreat of the Philosopher-Apologist is the concept of non-overlapping magisteria popularized by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould in 1997. To bolster the idea that religion is a reasonable worldview to have, he will insist that religion and science never, ever conflict because they answer different questions. Most often, he’ll explain that science answers the “how” questions of the world, whereas religion answers the “why” questions, or that science deals with testable claims while religion occupies a higher plane inaccessible to worldly processes. This view is particularly common among religious scientists.

The first problem with this otherwise intriguing idea is that religions make testable claims all the time. Earth at the center of the universe? Testable. The sky is a solid dome with all stars a fixed distance from the earth? Testable. Fossils were all laid down in a single flood event? Testable. The prophesied end times begin on December 21st? Testable. An immortal soul makes the brain do what it does? Testable. Immodest women cause earthquakes? Homosexuals choose this lifestyle of their own accord and could just as easily choose to be straight? Prayer has medical applications? Testable, testable, testable. And every time one of these ideas fails its test, it blows a hole in the “religion” theory underlying it, just as failed tests undid the spontaneous generation theory that preceded germ theory.

The Philosopher-Apologist approach to this fact is to quickly add another term to the failed idea, with hilarious results. Fossils were laid down in a single world flood in such a way that it looks exactly as if they were instead laid down over billions of years in numerous different environments. Prayer has medical applications as long as it’s within God’s plan. The prophesied end times began on December 21st, but it was an invisible judgment. What this kind of person is hoping their debate partner won’t notice is that most of these additions have no knowledge value whatsoever. All of them have built-in conditional branches that enable them to encompass literally any possible result. If the world ends on the 21st, I was right; if it doesn’t, I was also right. Once an idea takes this form, it has no predictive power, since literally any conceivable outcome fits within its framework. Taking such an idea to be true offers exactly no insight into any other aspect of the world, while offering the appearance of infinite insight. This is a technique of intellectual dishonesty specifically designed to inveigle passably intelligent passers-by into an explanation with no factual grounding. They are the logical equivalent of mathematically unsolvable “two equations, three unknowns” problems.

But the problem with non-overlapping magisteria is even more systemic than that. As the assorted testable claims that every religion makes show themselves to be false, the Philosopher-Apologist feints. He doubles down on his insistence that science and religion answer different questions, this time repeating the “how” / “why” false dichotomy. This one, too, falls away, though with more difficulty.

Leaving aside how there are many more kinds of questions than those, the only reason this dichotomy is even possible in the Philosopher-Apologist’s mind is because he has already assented to religion. Recall that this gambit usually appears after the Philosopher-Apologist has been confronted with the many testable claims that religions make, and how none of them ever work out in religion’s favor. The next step is to ask, simply, why religion’s answers to its favorite “why” questions—Why are we here, why should we behave ethically (more on this one in a bit), why do natural disasters happen—are to be trusted, when absolutely no reason has been provided to trust religion in this or any other matter, and when, in fact, religion has already shown itself to be a piss-poor guide to what is and isn’t true?

By now, the Philosopher-Apologist has retreated so far into non-falsifiable claims that the “religion” he is trying to promote is little more than “there’s a being out there that doesn’t do anything in the physical world but judges people based on how they live up to its standards.” He is correct in pointing out that, by defining his deity out of the physical universe, and removing from it even the smallest ability to affect or communicate with the physical world, he has indeed defined it out of the purview of science—but he has also defined it out of relevance, and made it utterly incompatible with the gods of any real-world religion. With this kind of deity, the only reason to even acknowledge it is Pascal’s Wager, itself a logical fallacy that can be invoked to defend every conceivable religion alongside this one.

This version of God, popular among Philosopher-Apologists and no one else, also brings up the questions of ethics that often fill dealings with Philosopher-Apologists. In defense of their insistence that there are questions religion answers better than science, Philosopher-Apologists often invoke the tired canard of religious morality being somehow superior to atheist morality. Some even go so far as to claim that religion is the sole source of morality in the world, and that if religion’s dominance in the majority’s minds were to fade, anarchy would result.

Aside from being a deeply insulting view of the human race, this contention is extremely naïve. Indeed, the fact that atheists and similar nonbelievers are approximately 10% of the United States’s population but less than 1% of its violent prisoners would suggest that religion has nowhere near a monopoly on ethical behavior—if anything, the evidence points to religion being just as bad a source of morality as it is a source of facts.  Indeed, the idea that religion is a necessary component of morality falls apart in every direction at once. The world’s anarchic hellscapes are not the largely atheist countries of China and Sweden, but extremely religious places such as Afghanistan and Somalia. Religion’s record as a motivator for acts of astounding violence includes the Crusades, Muhammad’s wars of conquest in Arabia, centuries of bloody infighting in England, and the modern monstrosities of Ireland’s famously understated Troubles, the Taliban, the Wahhabis, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Family International, Boko Haram, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (all sides), the Branch Davidians, and hundreds of burnt abortion clinics, while atheism can claim…one or two footnotes during the Cold War, if that.

This is where the Philosopher-Apologist really shines. With all of his might, he will insist that, because all of the above events and organizations are complex and human enough to be motivated by more than one thing, their religious motives are irrelevant. Like a Catholic physics professor I debated once, he will shout until he is blue in the face that the Crusades were about money and territory, never mind the name. He will ignore the exhortations to war that pepper the Quran and claim that the Caliphates were founded for purely secular reasons, at most using Islam as a tool. He will insist beyond all logic that every war that ended with the forced conversion of the losers was actually about territory or resources or politics. He will try with all of his might, in the face of all of the world’s history, the stated goals of dozens of evil organizations, and the rhetoric of all the most morally abhorrent modern politicians, to insist that religion does not in fact motivate horrible actions.

What he fails to realize is that, by taking this path, he has already conceded that religion does not in fact make people morally better, that it’s in fact extremely possible to be a devout adherent of any ideology and still be an unmitigated psychopath or led into evil by someone who shouts the right religious terms. From there, it’s quite obvious that whatever non-religious motivator for goodness exists must apply equally to nonbelievers, and the whole idea of religion being essential for morality disappears. One can also note the Philosopher-Apologist’s hypocrisy, since he will never, ever show that much zeal for the counter-claim of religion not motivating good actions.

All of this leaves aside the fact that the Philosopher-Apologist’s god is itself a psychopathic, abusive monster. By the Philosopher-Apologist’s own admission it offers no reason whatsoever for anyone to believe it exists and no communication of its capabilities or desires, yet it still condemns people to metaphysical punishment for failing to live up to its standards. This deity is a force of random metaphysical destruction and psychological torture, not goodness and truth. One can see the evidence of the concept’s iniquity in the evils that various believers call good, from the torturing-into-suicide of gay teenagers to forced births to the likening of nonbelievers to Nazis.

Ironically, for all his sophistication, the Philosopher-Apologist can be one of the easier opponents to deal with, partly because he’s so very predictable. More than that, though, he is one of the few opponents that one can expect to attempt to follow the rules of logic during a discussion, certainly more than a Bad Sorter or Militant Agnostic. Depending on his motives, he may also be less likely than a Baker or a Fellow Traveler to emotionally shut down when pressed and only realize the truth of the atheist position later in life. Still, the fact that not every atheist has the command of philosophy required to address a Philosopher-Apologist’s talking points can make this kind of opponent particularly vexing, and he may confuse a fair number of freethinkers with his sophistries before he is apprehended by one who does.
The Philosopher-Apologist