Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Intelligence and Character

Recent Facebook conversations have made me decide to lay out my thoughts about things like intelligence and (moral) character.  I have been of the opinion for a while now that things like intelligence and character are usually determined by more than one belief or stance.  For instance, someone can believe something incredibly irrational and immoral (like black people are inferior to white people) but still be an intelligent and good person.  This is because intelligence and character are fuzzy concepts that are composed of numerous qualities.  I think it would be a mistake to try to pin a person’s intelligence or character down to just one thing they believe or their stance on one issue.  This kind of thinking doesn’t account for the incredible complexity of people.

One consequence of this view is that things that are often considered insulting by people should not be considered insulting.  People tend to get offended when things they to believe get harshly criticized and called things like irrational, stupid, idiotic, bigoted, hateful, or any number of negative terms.  One reason for this offense is that people think that you are saying that they are irrational, stupid, an idiot, a bigot, hateful, ...etc.  The reasoning behind this is that only irrational, stupid, et al. people believe irrational, stupid, et al. things.  I don’t think this is a reasonable position to take.  I think it’s pretty obvious that intelligent and good people can have irrational and bigoted beliefs.  Many people hold bigoted beliefs against gay people for one reason or another, but the simple fact that they hold this belief may not make them a bad person.  That one aspect of their character might be bad, but it might be balanced out by their other extremely good qualities.

Creationism is something that is pretty obviously irrational.  There are no good reasons to accept creationism in favor of evolution.  There are many people in the world who believe in creationism, and there are quite a few of them who are obviously intelligent and many that could be considered rational.  The fact that they hold one, two, three, or even more beliefs that are not rational or intelligent does not necessarily mean that they are not intelligent or irrational.  Some may very well be, but there are other things that should be considered before this judgement is made by themselves or anyone else.

I think I’ve made a good case in this piece why people should not be offended when others used harsh and negative terms to describe (like stupid, irrational, or bigoted) beliefs or views they hold.  These qualities are not determined by one thing.  Good and smart people can hold irrational and bigoted beliefs.  People are incredibly complicated, and this is just one outcome of that fact..  

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

12 Things I Learned at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference

I went to the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Annual Conference this past weekend and had a great time even though I got very little sleep. I really enjoyed meeting new people and listening to the various speakers. I don’t think I’m going to be able to encapsulate the awesomeness of the weekend in one post, so there will probably be a second one about the weekend. This post will be a fun list of 10 things I learned while at the conference.

#1. Jessica Ahlquist is a smart, strong, and eloquent young women who is going places. I was really impressed by the speech that Jessica made at the SSA conference. JT Eberhard was right to say http://wwjtd.net/?p=1351 that when she speaks, people listen. It doesn’t matter that she’s still in high school. She got up on that stage and took the bull by the horns and delivered an incredible, inspirational speech. I’m glad to have had the chance to hear her speak and shake her hand.

#2. Greta Christina is a very terrific speaker in person and does a great job of getting across what she means. I really enjoyed her talk on why we arguing religion is not a waste of time. I thought she made some really good points, and I tend to agree with her. I love arguing and discussing things with people. She is also really easy to talk to. Once I introduced myself, I found myself just flowing into a conversation with her. The conversation wasn’t very long, but I found it very enjoyable. She is also a total badass.

#3. Transfaith is a much better word to describe what is now called Interfaith, and Firebrands don’t necessarily burn bridges by saying what they think. I never liked to term Interfaith because I think it give the inaccurate idea that atheism is a faith when it is nothing of the sort. Ed Clint of the Illini Secular Student Alliance did a great job explaining both of these things, and his talk ended up being my favorite talk of the entire weekend.  I also had a really great conversation with him on Saturday night that covered a lot of topics.  I learned that we're basically on the same page about a lot of things.  Ed also sports a beard which makes him cooler than the guys who don’t have beards. Just sayin’.

#4. Greg and Duncan Henderson are totally cool people. They were featured in the Nick News story “Freedom to Believe... or Not”which was incredibly well done and something that everyone should check out if they have a chance. After meeting them, I had the feeling that I had seen them somewhere before and finally got the courage to ask Greg if they were in the Nick News story. I’m glad I did because it was great to talk with him about it and hear about the experience. I didn’t get to talk with Duncan very much, but I had lunch with his dad Greg and he is such a nice person. I’m definitely going to make the trip down to Auburn to visit them whenever I move back to Georgia.

#5. Jennifer McCreight’s talk on diversity said just about everything that I’ve been thinking and talking about on this topic recently. It’s a topic that needs to broached. She did a fantastic job of explaining why diversity is important. I also love the fact that she said “don’t zerg rush the women” because I’m a huge fan of Starcraft and it brings amusing images to my head. She was also really fun to talk to and rage with at Buffalo Wild Wings on Saturday.

#6. Hemant Mehta has some really good ideas about teaching mathematics. I really liked his ideas about teaching students how to think mathematically instead of just teaching them how to plug and chug numbers. It would give our youth a greater appreciation for math and might make more young people interested in math. Math is important because it really is the language of the universe (thanks Lawrence Krauss). He also talked about how terrible standardized tests are for gauging how well a person understands math which I totally agree with. It is just one more thing that’s wrong with our education system. Hopefully one day someone like Hemant will gain a position of power to help determine the course of American’s education because the people who have been doing it for the last decade have been failing miserably.

#7. Katie Hartman has some good advice for fundraising and is perfectly capable of doing it on one leg. She laid out some very simple but understandably effective tips for helping your groups fundraising efforts. I would have never thought of doing some of the techniques she laid out, but it made so much sense after I thought about it. After talking with her, I have no doubts that Skepticon IV is going to be totally awesome. I really hope that I’m going to be able to go.

#8. President of American Atheists David Silverman is way more optimistic about the future than I think he should be, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. He’s also a pretty good speaker and has a great sense of humor. I really enjoyed the fact that he shamelessly used various iterations of the meme created on reddit from his appearance on O’Reily. I also think his breakdown of the other civil rights movements were flawed, but it was nice to see someone with so much optimism. I also liked that he was willing to listen to other people and take their criticisms even though he disagreed with them. A highlight of Friday night was his reaction to being asked about the terrible design of the American Atheists Scam and Myth billboards. He just kind of hung his head and shame.

#9. During Debbie Goddard’s talk about the The Center For Inquiry (CFI), I learned that the CFI has a library  that contains a great collection of skeptical and freethought books including many rare texts. Since I’m getting my Master’s in Library and Information Science, I was very excited to hear about this. Now I want to make my way up to Amherst, New York to visit the library. I also would like to one day work there in some capacity. I hope that I’m at least able to volunteer or intern there sometime. It has given me a new goal that I hope I can accomplish one day.

#10. Jamila Bey is a riot. I love how loud, opinionated, and proud she is. I really appreciate that she won’t back down from saying things that are considered controversial. I had lunch with her on Saturday, and it was awesome to be able to sit down and have a conversation with her. She said some things that I had never really considered which made me think about some things totally differently.

#11.  The Missouri chapter of American Atheists is in good hands.  The Missouri State Director of American Atheists is a gentleman by the name of Greg Lammers, and I probably talked with him more than anyone not from my group.  He is an awesome guy who was a lot of fun to talk to.  We had some really thoughtful conversations about a variety of topics.  I hope to be able to chat with him again in the future.

#12. There were so many good speakers that gave good advice for secular groups that it would be difficult to name them all. I hope that this year, our group uses this good advice and puts it to action. I’m really excited about being involved in my group in the Fall. I just hope I’m able to sustain this excitement throughout the rest of the summer and into the school year. I would like to thank all the speakers for making it an excellent and informative weekend.

Bonus #13. I need to get a smartphone of some sort so I can make use of Twitter while at conferences like this one. I was very jealous.

It was great hanging out with all my Kent State Freethinkers friends.  My friend Kay has a wonderful blog post about her thoughts on the conference.  You should definitely check it out.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Way Too Busy

Sorry I haven't posted any new material lately.  I have been extremely busy with school and haven't found the time or energy to write up any posts.  This is unfortunate because there have been several things that I have wanted to write about such as the Elevatorgate controversy in the atheist community.  To put things short and sweet, I'm on Rebecca Watson's side on this.  It is definitely creepy to proposition (and I don't care what you think, coffee means sex) a woman in an elevator at 4 AM after she has both expressed her desire to go to sleep and continuously stated that she didn't like to be hit on at conferences and conventions.  It seems pretty simple to me, but there are obviously a lot of guys out there who don't understand why this is the case.  I don't know if I can really explain it if you don't already get it.

Anyways, one of my classes is really kicking my ass, and I am looking forward to it being over.  I hope that once this class is over I will be able to write something up that is interesting and I'm happy with (I've had a problem lately of not being happy with what I write).  Maybe I'll even do a review of A Dance With Dragons.  It's a really good book.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Five Not Really Myths

There has been this article going around internet called “5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion” by Be Scofield that has caught a few people’s attention. A couple of my friends shared it on Facebook, and people like PZ Myers have written blog posts about it. Ever since reading the article, I’ve been wanting to respond to it because I feel that it is really lacking in substance. Here are the myths and my responses to them.

5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism

This idea is a complicated one which I don’t know if anyone has done any justice to; especially Be Scofield. I think that liberal and moderate religious believers can help justify what I consider religious extremism by claiming to be members of overarching religious institutions and tithing to those institutions. For example, a liberal Catholic who doesn’t believe in a lot of the Catholic church’s position on social issues such as homosexuality, birth control, and abortion but attends church and tithes justifies these extreme positions by adding to their numbers and financing them. Does this mean that these believers are terrible people? Of course not, but they are supporting an organization which holds extreme positions that often cause suffering across the world.

Scofield makes some bad analogies to prove that this is a myth and later makes an analogy to government to make his case. I didn’t think that this his analogies were very good, but Sastra in the comments of Pharyngula makes an analogy that I think is very apt. Sastra uses “absolute monarchy based on the divine right of kings” to illustrate how this myth might not be a myth. Sastra explains that people may try to use the fact that there are “good kings -- kings who were tolerant, virtuous, compassionate, and eager to listen to the will of the people” to justify the existence of absolute monarchies and say that “it's wrong to condemn absolute monarchies as if they were all the same.” But nobody is saying that there aren’t good kings, but the main problem is the system itself. And that’s the same problem with religion. The system of religion itself just isn’t that good. Read her full comment itself to clear up any confusion.

4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God

This may be a myth but it is a superficial myth. Sure, religion doesn’t technically require belief in a supernatural God, but I would argue that it requires belief in something supernatural to be called a religion. And for the sake of argument, let’s assume that religion doesn’t require the belief in anything supernatural. Would this change the fact that the majority of religions on the planet require belief in the supernatural and most religious people believe in the supernatural? No, it would not. Non-supernatural believing religions would such a tiny and insignificant minority that it would make sense to just assume that when people were talking about religion and religious believers, they are talking about the supernatural variety.

I think the main problem here is that Scofield is making the definition of religion incredibly wide that almost anything can fit within it. Was Thomas Jefferson really religious? Or did he just think that Jesus was an extraordinary person who provided us with some good moral insights? Can you say that is a person is religious if they do not subscribe to the party dogma of that religion? If so, then what is the difference between a religious person and a non-religious person. I think that a set of beliefs that involves dedication to a particular doctrine or dogma and includes the belief in some sort of supernatural entity or entities or metaphysics is a more coherent and gives us a clear indication between people who are religious or non-religious. Those who do not fit within this definition of religion belong to either an ideology or a philosophical tradition.

3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior

I don’t know if this qualifies as a myth because I don’t think there are really that many atheists that think that religion causes bad behavior. Because of this, I think this is really a strawman that Scofield is setting up to easily knock down. Perhaps most atheists think that religion contributes to bad behavior or gives excuse for bad behavior. Bad behavior is first and foremost a human problem, but religion can set up the stage to allow bad behavior to become something that is justified and even praised. I think this what atheists really mean when they criticize religion.

2. Atheists are Anti-Religious

I would say that this is a myth that religious people have about atheists rather than a myth that atheists have about religion. I don’t think I know any atheists who think that to be an atheist that you have to be anti-religious (whatever that means). I do think that the majority of atheists are against religious faith as something that should be used to justify a person’s positions. I also think that atheists, by definition, don’t think that any theistic religion is rationally justified. Atheists, of course, may be part of atheistic religions and believe them to be true.

While we’re talking about myths, the belief that atheists are people who “assert that god does not exist” is a pretty common myth that religious people have about atheists. Atheists are simply people who lack a belief in any gods. Or to put it in other words, an atheist is someone who answers “no” when asked whether or not he or she believes in god. There are many people out there who assert that the probability of god existing is very small, and I don’t think we should not include them as atheist simply because they don’t “assert that god does not exist.” This may be Scofield’s personal belief about what atheists are, but I don’t have any reason to accept his definition.

1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”

This myth comes from a Greta Christina article called “Are All Religion Equally Crazy?”  Greta Christina eventually answers that she thinks they are. And I disagree with Greta Christina on this one. First, I don’t like the use of the word “crazy” here because I don’t think it accurately conveys what she means (maybe does though, but it definitely doesn’t accurately convey what I mean). I prefer to use the term “implausible.” The main reason I don’t think they are equally implausible is because some religions build upon other ones and add even more assumptions and beliefs into the mix. For example, I would say that Mormonism is more implausible than Christianity because it adds a whole lot more assumptions and metaphysical baggage to what is already contained within Christianity. I think adding this extra layer of stuff makes it much more implausible than Christianity. If you take something that is already implausible and add even more implausible stuff to it, I think you have made it more implausible. This same argument can be used when comparing Judaism and Christianity. Christianity adds more implausible baggage to Judaism and, hence, is more implausible. I don’t think that this makes Judaism or Christianity even remotely plausible, but it does make them less implausible when compared to other religions in the same family.

But I don’t think Scofield’s position is correct either. Because at the end of the day, nearly all religions rely on the same irrational system to arrive at their beliefs, faith. And they all have beliefs that are equally implausible. The only variable is how many they have. And that numerical variable is what causes one religion to be more implausible than another one even though the beliefs themselves are equally implausible. These beliefs that are not justified on by logic, evidence, and reason. And this is the position that most atheists take issue with in regards to religion. Martin Luther King and Osama Bin Laden may have widely different views on God and religion, but they both justify their implausible beliefs by faith. This is what religions have in common. They both act on those beliefs in incredibly different ways, but that doesn’t change the fact that their religious beliefs are justified by the same method.


I’m not exactly sure what the purpose Scofield had in mind when writing this article, but if it was show most atheists that they were wrong about their position and beliefs about religion, I don’t think he made a very good case. I think his arguments are basically a bunch of strawmen that don’t accurately portray what most atheists actually believe about religion. At the end of the day, it seems like Scofield is projecting his beliefs about atheists onto atheists instead of exposing supposed myths that atheists hold about religion.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why Faith Should Not Be Lauded

I do not understand why faith is something that is so highly regarded around the world and especially in America.  The idea that faith, which is essentially belief without evidence, is something that something that is seen as a good thing is totally beyond my understanding.  Why is it acceptable to believe something is true when there is a complete lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary.  There are so many people in America who dismiss the wealth of evidence in favor of evolution in favor of Biblical creationism, for which there is no evidence.  And the belief that the Bible is inerrant goes right along with Biblical creationism.  We know that the Bible is not inerrant.  All you have to do is read the Bible to find the many glaring contradictions contained within it.  And it is pretty obvious that something that is inerrant cannot have contradictions.  But in spite of all the evidence against these two positions, people believe them anyways.  Because they have faith.  But that’s not good enough.

But if I were to apply the same idea of faith to something that is not socially acceptable, then I am sure I would be called crazy.  For example, if I were to say to a group of people that I had received a message from a group of inter-dimensional aliens that told me that I would be rewarded with infinite pleasure if I worshipped them and followed what they said, I would be thought of as crazy by those people; and rightfully so.  The reason for this is because I have no evidence to believe such an outlandish conviction.  This situation is not much different than the faith in the case of religion.  Instead of aliens, we have God and/or Jesus.

The other reason why faith shouldn’t be lauded or accepted is that faith can be used to justify any belief.  Faith is often used to justify racist, anti-gay, anti-woman, and xenophobic beliefs.  When someone has a belief that they are justifying using faith, there isn’t really any way to debate the issue.  Faith is typically used as a discussion stopper rather than a discussion raiser.  And I’m not saying that people who have faith are racist, anti-gay, anti-woman, and/or xenophobic, but simply that it is the same kind of faith that other people use.  Faith is not praiseworthy, and people shouldn’t be lauded for simply having faith.

So instead of using faith, what should we use?  I suggest that we should base our beliefs on reason, experience and evidence.  We should adopt the belief that we are fallible creatures that are capable of being wrong.  We should do our best to learn formal and informal logic.  We should try our best to not take things simply on people’s word and investigate a topic as much as we can.  We shouldn’t simply take things on faith.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Farscape: Second Best Science Fiction Television Show

As the title suggests, Farscape is my second favorite science fiction television show.  Farscape follows an American astronaut named John Crichton who gets shot through a wormhole while testing out a theory while orbiting the Earth.  Crichton eventually finds himself on a living spaceship with a variety of alien companions most of which are escaped convicts.  The living ship is named Moya and is operated by a pilot that is symbiotically linked to it.   The show follows their adventures on the run from a military named Crais who is after Crichton because Crichton accidentally killed his brother after exiting the wormhole.

Farscape ran for four seasons on SciFi before it was cancelled.  There a great deal of outrage at its cancellation because the show was incredibly popular and the last season ended in a cliffhanger.  Because of the outrage, SciFi produced a miniseries called The Peacekeeper Wars to wrap up the dangling plot elements and to appease angry fans.  Farscape was also known for its use of muppets.  And we all know that muppets are cool.

Farscape was, in my opinion, a character driven show.  Nearly all of the characters in this show were interesting, compelling, and complicated.  They all had their own stories and issues that were dealt with on the show.  The characters also grew and developed over the course of the show.  By the end of the series, all of the main characters had been changed by everything they had went through.  The show also had an interesting set of villains in the form of Crais and Scorpius.  In fact, Scorpius is one of my all-time favorite villains because he has interesting motivations behind his actions.  Crais is also an interesting character who changes much over the course of the show.

My favorite character in the show is John Crichton.  He possesses many of the qualities that I respect about human beings.  He is intelligent, brave, hopeful, and batshit crazy.  Well, maybe the last one isn't a quality that I respect, but it's damn entertaining to watch.  Over the course of the show, Crichton goes through so much shit it's crazy.

Farscape is not just a great science fiction television show.  It is a great television show.  If you have never watched it before, then you should find it and watch it.  And remember, it has muppets.

Friday, June 10, 2011

NBA Finals 2011

This year's NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat have been really awesome.  Every game has come down to the wire.  Dirk Nowitski has stepped in every game while LeBron James has been nonexistent in the 4th Quarter of every game in the finals.  Since I've always been supportive of Cleveland sports teams because of family here, I've been rooting against LeBron James and the Miami Heat all year.  And also I'm rooting for Dirk Nowitski because I have a soft spot for Germans since my family was originally from there, and I actually have a cousin that still lives there.  So the fact that the Mavericks are up 3 to 2 in the series makes me extremely happy.  Here's hoping that the Mavericks are able to win Game 6 on Sunday and take the series.

Bad Arguments are Bad Arguments

I ran across a story on The Friendly Atheist today that really irritated me.  A group of black atheists in Atlanta have a public access television show called the "Black Atheists of Atlanta."  On an episode that aired on May 23, 2011, they talked about homosexuality that was straight up wrong.

The first thing they talk about that is absolutely wrong is that homosexuality is selfish and is about "me me me."  I don't really understand where this line of thinking comes from.  How is being attracted to people of the same sex any more or less selfish than being attracted to people of the opposite sex?  They are just simply different.  There is no good reason to think that homosexuality is selfish.  Is it because homosexual relations cannot with assistance produce children?  If that is the case, then any heterosexual relationship that doesn't produce children is equally selfish.

The next thing that talk about that really pisses me off is that there is some scientific "Law of Reproduction" which seemingly means that all animals are being to reproduce, so homosexuality is solely based on custom and people aren't born that way.  I've never heard of a "Law of Reproduction."  I've heard that animals reproduce, but I've heard that animals engage in homosexual activities as well.  And if that is the case, then it seems that there is not a "Law of Reproduction."  And, for the sake of argument, even if there was a "Law of Reproduction," that tells us nothing about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality.  You can't take an "is" and turn it into an "ought."  So basically these guys are talking out of their asses on this.

Finally, they talk about how homosexuality is "sex-based" and not "family-based."  Once again, they are making a claim about homosexuality without any evidence to back it up.  Homosexuality is not any more sex-based than heterosexuality is.  And even if it were, is that a morally bad thing?  Also, this is insulting to all the homosexual men and women who are attempting to raise families in a country that is extremely unsupportive of them trying to do this.  I'm pretty sure that these homosexual couples are as family-based as any heterosexual couple.  Does this make them better than heterosexual relationships that are sex-based?  I don't think so.  This line of thinking is a holdover from religious thinking even though they are trying to justify it with science.  It's just plain and simple bigotry.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sorrowful Beauty

Eric MacDonald's blog Choice in Dying is quickly becoming one of my favorite skeptical blogs out there.  He was an Anglican priest who left religion chiefly because of it's opposition to assisted suicide.  And this topic hits very close to him because his wife was crippled by an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis.  It caused her great suffering and also paralyzed her.  She made the decision that she wanted to die, but she couldn't make that a reality in Canada (where they are from) because there were laws against it.  So she had to travel all the way to Switzerland to die.

Eric MacDonald wrote a beautiful piece about his wife and their journey to commemorate the fourth anniversary of her death (which is tomorrow).  The piece is incredibly powerful and made me almost tear up a few times.  He talks about love and loss, and it is just so beautiful.  I think that he shows quite well that you don't need God, religion, or any metaphysical baggage to experience love and compassion.  Our lives have meaning, beauty, and wonder without the need for anything inherent.  He also shows that religious dogma gets in the way of compassion by influencing laws that do not allow people to get the help they need to end their suffering.

Just read and experience the love that he obviously felt for his dear departed wife.  Experience the sorrowful beauty that it holds.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Answer Is Really Easy

The question is "Is there anything wrong or immoral about homosexuality?"  As the title of this blog post states, the answer to this question is incredibly easy.  The answer is no.  There is nothing wrong or immoral about homosexuality.  There is no good argument for the position that homosexuality is wrong or immoral.  And, no, because the Bible or Koran says that it is wrong, is not a good argument.  And there are plenty of good arguments against that position.

The only reason to accept that a religious text should be an authority on morality is faith that this text is telling us something important.  And faith is never a good reason.  And most of the people who use religious texts as their justification for their position against homosexuality never follow all the rules that those religious text require them to follow.  Their lack of consistency does not impress me, and it shouldn't impress anyone else.

One argument people offer against homosexuality is the argument that it is unnatural.  This argument is bad because "unnatural" is not really a coherent term.  And even if it were, that means that things like cars and medicine would also be immoral because they are unnatural.  And if you say that unnatural means "against god," then we're back to using a religious text or divine revelation to make a claim.  That's not rational.

James Rachels' Elements of Moral Philosophy has a really good chapter that takes all the arguments against homosexuality and mercilessly breaks them down and destroys them.  He does so in a very clear and concise way, and I highly recommend it.