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 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.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

This is Evil

I read this story today and could not think of any word to describe it other than evil.  You have to read the incredibly heartbreaking story to fully appreciate how evil it is.  And beware, if you don't feel like reading something very emotional and sad, then you might want to stay away.

The story is about a gay teen who was taken from her home and sent to a camp to "fix" her.  The people who run these camps can be called nothing other than evil and my book.  I think they should be locked up for the rest of their lives or potentially executed (and I'm not a fan of the death penalty).  The scale of damage that they cause to the teenagers they supposedly "help" is so off the charts that it is ridiculous.  This is the damage that blind faith that you are absolutely right that something is wrong does.

Any parent who sends her child to one of these camps should be have their children taken away from them so they can't potentially harm them.  It might also be reasonable to sterilize them so they can't have any more children that they can harm.  Any parent like this is a worthless piece of scum.  This is what extremely irrational beliefs do.  They make parents harm their children while thinking they are doing good.  It is despicable.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why Libraries Are Important

Public libraries are, in my opinion, a great example of the best parts of our country. When you step into a library, you are effectively equal as everyone else. You won't be denied service because of your race, gender, religion, or potential economic disadvantage. The public library gives everyone the opportunity to improve themselves without asking for much in return and nothing up front. And it doesn't matter why you use the public library. You can use it for entertainment, improving yourself, community meetings, or whatever. The library is a place for everyone and where everyone is equal.  And public libraries are also equalizers as well because they allow disadvantage people a place where they can go to accomplish tasks that they wouldn't normally have.  So please, go and support your local public library!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is What I See Groupthink?

I have to say that I'm really happy that I discovered the atheist blogosphere a few months ago.  There some blogs that I like more than others, but I enjoy reading most of them.  I'm particular fond of Rationally Speaking and Russell Blackford's Metamagician blog because they are usually the most well-reasoned and interesting blogs I read.  I am not as big a fan of PZ Myer's blog and Jerry Coyne's blog, but they often have some insightful things to say.  The main problem I have is that it seems that within the comment sections of these latter two blogs and some others, I often witness what I think are textbook examples of groupthink.  I have often noticed that if someone comes into the comments and disagrees with the author of the blog, everyone jumps on him and will often rip him to shreds with insults and the like.  This will occur even when someone presents a well-reasoned argument.  Sometimes the argument won't even get addressed once the sharks sense to blood in the water.  And often the victims of this are fellow atheists who merely disagree with the author.

This may be a symptom of the Internet and the ability to be anonymous.  But I expect more out of a community that is supposed to hold reason and evidence in high regard.  I expect people in this community to address the arguments without name-calling or any other childish stuff.  You don't necessarily have to be nice, but at least address the argument.  The argument can be right or wrong.  That doesn't matter to me.  I just want people to care about the argument first rather than attacking the person who disagrees with them.  And I don't think it's that hard either.

Maybe the Internet just brings out lowest common denominator out of every community.  It's probably true.  But I don't buy it as an excuse for bad behavior.  And I'm certainly not going to accept that it is just the way things are done.  What I am going to do is make sure that the people who do a good job on these blogs know that they're doing a good job and to keep up the work.  And I'm going to remember to not feed the trolls.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Reading Ethics Without God: Keeping the Wolf at Bay

I just finished reading the first chapter of Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen.  This chapter discusses the idea that we need religion and God to keep us from tearing each other apart, hence the "wolf."  Nielsen takes on some pretty easy arguments in first chapter, but I think he had to take them on because people continue to make them.  I think he does a good job of taking these arguments down although I can't give him too much credit for doing so, since they aren't very convincing arguments.

In this first chapter, he tackles arguments like the seeming decline of Christianity after World War I and the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism (which these arguments call godless ideologies) are the reason we find ourselves in such a horrible world now.  Another argument is simply that we need religion to keep it all together.  I think his demolition of the arguments is pretty complete.  For the first, he thinks that this is a misreading of history which I do agree with, but he also talks about how there are happy and moral secular nations.  The examples of nations that fit this description are the Scandinavian nations.  He also uses the case of the Scandinavian nations to argument against the second argument.  I'm not going to repeat every detail of his arguments here, but those details are some of the ones I remember.

In this chapter he also discusses the natural moral law tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and the neo-Thomists.  natural law theory is a religious moral argument that is a little different from the typical divine command theory.  I'm not going to go into detail about it here, but I will say that Nielsen does a good job of arguing against it.  He also talks about another variety of natural law theory that doesn't involve God at all.  He argues at length that this reformulation of natural law theory isn't really a natural law theory at all because it would not include natural law theorists like Aquinas but would include people who argument against natural law theory like J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham.  I thought that it was an interesting argument, and he made a good case.  That argument in particular made me think about some conclusions that I had come to about some different things.  We'll see where that leads.

Overall this was a good and interesting chapter, and I'm sorry that this entry didn't go into more detail.  It said some things that I think needed to be said.  This book isn't as accessible as other philosophy I've read.  Nielsen is a pretty good writer, but I think sometimes he can get bogged down a little too much in philosophical jargon.  I think that non-philosophy people would have a much harder time getting into the book.  And that's not a criticism of them either.  It's a common problem with philosophy texts.  But, nonetheless, I thought he did a pretty good job, and I'm looking forward to reading the next chapter.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Atheism and Theism Are Not Ideologies

I often hear talk about atheism as if it is an ideology.  People often think that atheism is the same thing as communism  and must be bad because of that.  I don't think this is the case.  I don't think either atheism or theism are ideologies.

Theism is simply the belief in god or gods.  And atheism is simply the lack or rejection of that belief.  Theists believe for many reasons, and atheists disbelieve for many reasons.  But there is nothing else that is, in my opinion, inherent in either of these positions.  What I mean is that someone being an atheist or a theist only tells you one thing about that person.  And that's their belief with respect to god or gods.  I don't want people to pack anything else into this position because I think it's dishonest and disrupts the integrity of already easily usable words.

Because atheism and theism can only tell you about one aspect belief system, I don't think either can be ideologies.  Ideologies are packed full of extra views and values about a great many things.  Ideologies can contain atheism and theism.  There is no question about that.  But they cannot be ideologies in and of themselves.  It seems silly to me to even make that claim.

Now I do think that religions are ideologies or, at the very least, a type of ideology.  Religions have a lot of values and beliefs about the world in there, and I think this is basically the same thing that ideologies have.  And because of this, I don't think that atheism can even be called a religion.  Atheism can be part of a religion sure.  There are religions like Jainism that are totally atheistic.  Jains might carry around a bunch of other metaphysical baggage around, but they don't carry any baggage called God.  And as we know, most religions are theistic.

There have been terrible ideologies and/or religion (however you care to think of it) that include either atheism or theism along with them.  Stalinism is a great example of a terrible ideology that included atheism as part of its inherent belief system.  And Inquisitional Catholicism is an example of a terrible ideology (or religion if you prefer) that carries around theism.  But the terribleness of both of these ideologies says nothing about atheism or theism.  Only the ideologies themselves are responsible for the crimes that are a consequence of that particular ideology and can be judged by those crimes.

The problem with with religions and ideologies is faith and certainty.  It's the lack of questioning and the ability to accept something on authority along regardless of what any evidence to the contrary may say.  Monolithic and unquestioned beliefs are the problem.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why I Love Doctor Who

In case any of you didn't know, I'm a gigantic Doctor Who fan.  I've been a Doctor Who fan since I was a child.  I was introduced to Doctor Who by my dad.  At first, I didn't care for it.  But soon I fell hopelessly in love with this quirky British science fiction television show.  My dad and I used to spend our Saturday mornings watching Doctor Who while my mom and sister occasionally went to church.  My dad had taped a bunch of episodes when it used to come on PBS, so had a decent amount of episodes to watch.  And we have some great episodes on tape.  We had every Doctor on tape except (this was before the New Series mind you) the First and Second Doctors.

The reason why I like Doctor Who so much is because of the Doctor himself.  The Doctor is my nearly perfect idea of a hero.  He is ultra smart and solves most problems using that intelligence instead of brute force.  There are times when he uses brute force, but those are usually last resorts.  He also uses his force of personality to solve problems and get people on his side.  If the Doctor doesn't know the answer to the problem, he'll figure it out.  The Doctor also is a force for good and has a strong moral sense.  He hates to see injustice and will almost always fight it.  But I also enjoy it when the Doctor acts like a cosmic chess player, moving pieces around the board to fight evil.  This comes up more in the Seventh Doctor novels, but it is really interested to read about.

I also like Doctor Who because it involves time travel which has always been one of my favorite sci-fi concepts.  The TARDIS is such a cool idea for an alien spacecraft.  I don't think I would have ever though of a ship that could travel through time and space and was also bigger on the inside than it was on the outside.  Only in the 1960's could someone have come up with that idea (well, not really, but it's fun to think that).

Well, that's it for now.  I might turn this into a series when new things come to my mind.  Good day!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reading Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen

My past with Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen has not been a successful one.  I have attempted to read the book a few times since I purchased the book from a Borders in Georgia so many years ago.  I'm not really sure the furthest I've read into the book, but I assume that it wasn't terribly far.  The last time I tried to read it was a couple of years ago.  Well,  I'm attempting to read it  again.  I'm more focused on reading philosophy than I have probably ever been.  I am going to try to accomplish this task in addition to my normal activities.  I want to read at least some of it each morning I don't have to read anything for class.

I will also attempt to write a post on here after I finish with each chapter about the contents of that chapter and what I thought about it.  The book is fairly well written, but it can get a little dry at times.  The ideas seem pretty sound, but I'll have to think about them more and probably reread a couple of pages if I don't understand exactly what he's saying the first time.  This book is about one of my favorite issues in philosophy, so I really want to read it all the way through.

Book: Being Good by Simon Blackburn

I know some of you have heard me talk about Being Good: A Introduction to Ethics by British philosopher Simon Blackburn before, but that's because it is a really introduction to ethics.  Being Good is a short (with the main part of the book being 135 pages) but comprehensive book about ethics and morality.  It covers many of the major topics in ethics in a very clear and informative way.  If I were going to teach an Introduction to Ethics class, I might consider using this book.

Being Good is separated into three parts.  The first part is "Seven Threats to Ethics" where Blackburn discussion at seven ideas that "destabilize us when we think about standards of choice and conduct" (p. 9).  This included in this part are ideas such as morality without god, relativism, determinism, and evolutionary theory.  These seven threats are clearly and fairly discussed for the most part.  The main issue I have with this is that Blackburn misrepresents Richard Dawkins' position in The Selfish Gene.  But it doesn't detract that much from the part as a whole.

The second part is called "Some Ethical Ideas." In this part, Blackburn discusses some ideas that are very important to ethics such as birth, death, desire, utilitarianism, and so on.  Blackburn discusses these ideas and brings up different arguments and objections to these arguments.  Blackburn addresses these ideas well.

Being Good's third part is called "Foundations."  Blackburn tackles various foundations for ethics such as the Categorical Imperative and their relationship to reason.  Once again, this section is handled well and Blackburn closes up the book on a positive note.

Sorry I didn't cover the last two sections in as much detail as I did the first one.  I read the book over the course of about four months, so my memory of  the entire book isn't as clear as I would like.  I do know that this is a book that I would recommend to everyone regardless of whether they are interested in philosophy or not.  I think books such as this are important and very accessible to people not involved in academics.  Books like this also challenge our ideas about morality and ethics which I think is very important.  Personally, I would require every high school student to read this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book: Against All Gods by A.C. Grayling

One of the things I'll be doing on this blog from time to time is writing about some of the books I read.  I recently  checked out a copy of Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness by the British Philosopher A.C. Grayling.  I've become very interested in A.C. Grayling recently after hearing him on some podcasts and hearing about his new book (which I want) called The Humanist Bible.

Against All Gods is a really fast read.  It's only 64 pages.  I read it in about two or three hours the other night while a big storm was terrorizing the area.  It's very well written and pretty easy to read.  But it is not for religious people who get offended very easily.  Grayling pulls no punches in this book.  As the subtitles suggest, there are seven essays altogether, and six of them are very critical of religion in general.  And that's putting it lightly.

Grayling tackles issues such as the respectability of religion, "fundamental atheism," definitions of terms, and humanism.  I think he does a fine job addressing all of these issues.  I don't know if I necessarily agree with all his arguments, but I think he presents them fairly well.  I do want to note that this book isn't meant to be an in-depth critique of religion.  He explicitly mentions in the introduction he has other books where he has done that.  This book is meant to be "brief and blunt."  And it accomplishes that task quite nicely.  I don't think this book will convince anyone who isn't already inclined to disbelief or skepticism, but I think it contains some nice decent arguments however brief.

One of my favorite things about this book is that talks about faith in basically the same way I have been thinking about it recently.  He talks about why, for Christians,
a deity impregnating a mortal woman who then gives birth to a heroic figure whose deeds earn him a place in heaven, is false when applied to Zeus and his many paramours,... but true as applied to God, Mary, and Jesus. (pp. 43-44)
He goes on to talk about how this kind of story has been around longer than the Greeks.  So why should we accept the account of the New Testament as true instead of the other mythologies?  His answer is:
Do not expect a rational reply; an appeal to faith will be enough, because with faith anything goes.
And this is exactly how I've been thinking about faith lately (which I will probably make a post about in the near future).  You can justify any idea with faith simply because it is immune to reason.  He thinks that this is a terrible way of thinking, and I'm inclined to agree.

One thing he mentions that I'm not sure that I entirely agree with (though for not explicitly rational reasons) is that atheists should stop calling themselves "atheists" and start calling themselves "naturalists."  He wishes this to happen because he thinks using the term "atheist" means that you meeting the theist on his terms.  He thinks that by using the term "atheist" you are giving the theist's belief in God a privileged position that hasn't been earned.  He gives the example that we don't call people who don't believe in fairies "a-fairyists," so why should we call people who don't believe in God atheists.  He presents the case much better in the book, and I think he has a point.  But I have a certain aesthetic affinity for the word atheist.  I actually like the way the word looks and have been using it for so long that I'd rather not switch.

Grayling ends the book with a wonderful and positive essay on Humanism and how to find a rich ethical outlook based on being human.  It's about being good not because there is a God waiting to punish you for your crimes but because they are humans and we should wish them well.  And I wish you well in your endeavors.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It Doesn't Matter What You Think, It Matters What She Says or Doesn't Say

About a month ago I attended the Take Back the Night march with one of my friends who has been three other times.  And even though we didn’t march because of inclement weather, we did go inside to hear some of the stories of some of the women there.  First, I have to say how strong I thought all of these women were for telling their personal stories of abuse and rape in front of a lot of people.  While it was incredibly heartbreaking to hear these stories, I’m glad that I heard them.  I needed to hear them.  I don’t think you really realize the extent of the problem until you hear about it first hand.  I wish there would have been more guys in attendance because men need to hear these stories as much as woman do.It was a very interesting and powerful experience that I will never forget.  I'm really glad that I ended up going.

I’m also glad that I went because it gave me another wake-up call about how our society treats rape.  Our society tends to make all kinds of excuses for the rapist and doesn’t often give the woman the benefit of the doubt.  We will say things like “Did you see what she was wearing?  She was asking for it” instead of “Why couldn’t that guy resist the temptation?  Does he go around humping advertisements?”  This kind of thing needs to stop.  I don’t care what she was wearing, how much she was flirting with you, or how much you thought she wanted it.  I don’t care what your religion or culture says about what women are supposed to wear or how they are supposed to act.  If she doesn’t explicitly tell that it’s okay for you to have sex with her, then IT’S NOT OKAY TO HAVE SEX WITH HER!!!!!  No means no.  Do I need to repeat myself?  How freakin’ hard is it to ask if she wants it?  I know, it’s not because I do every single time.  If you thought she wanted it even though she said no or didn't have the ability to say anything, then you are a rapist and scum.  When you rape someone, you don’t just assault them physically, you assault them emotionally.  You have just made their life one hundred times more difficult than it was before.  And for what?  An orgasm?  Go watch Jenna Jameson if you want one of those.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Parents and the "Rapture"

I learned about this whole rapture thing a few weeks ago from an article on NPR.  And the thing that immediately jumped out at me was that I felt extreme sorry for the children of some of the parents who wholeheartedly believe that the rapture is coming on May 21, 2011.  When I read things like:

Now they are in Orlando, in a rented house, passing out tracts and reading the Bible. Their daughter is 2 years old, and their second child is due in June. Joel says they're spending the last of their savings. They don't see a need for one more dollar.

"You know, you think about retirement and stuff like that," he says. "What's the point of having some money just sitting there?"

"We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won't have anything left," Adrienne adds.
It makes me very angry.  I don't really care if these two people mess up their lives because of some irrational belief, but it makes me angry that they would let their unreasonable certainty potentially make life even more difficult for their child.  They have a moral obligation to care for their child in the best way possible, and what they are doing does not constitute that.  What happens after May 21 comes and goes, and they are still here like everyone else?  They will have just wasted their money and a better life for their daughter because of something they never had any good reason to believe.  It's irresponsible and inexcusable.

Another example of this kind of behavior was brought to my attention in a New York Times article about the rapture.  Parents in this story have quit their jobs and started telling at least some of their children that they are going to hell.
“My mom has told me directly that I’m not going to get into heaven,” Grace Haddad, 16, said. “At first it was really upsetting, but it’s what she honestly believes.”
To have this kind of attitude towards their children is absolutely sickening.  Especially when the children didn't do anything to deserve it.  I cannot understand how anyone could possibly think this way.  But wait, it gets even better.
While Ms. Haddad Carson has quit her job, her husband still works as an engineer for the federal Energy Department. But the children worry that there may not be enough money for college.
So these kids don't just have to worry about their mom saying pretty terrible things to them for no good reason, but they also have to worry about not having enough money for college because their mother was irrational and irresponsible.  I'm not even a parent, and I know that there is something wrong with this situation.  You can't just abandon your responsibilities as a parent because you believe that the world is ending.  The situation is so bad that it's affecting the children.  One of them said:
“I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore,” he said, “because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”
If one of your children is saying something like this, then you are doing something wrong as a parent.  Shame on you Abby Haddad Carson.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Best Video Games: Top 5 of All Time

Final Fantasy Tactics is the best game of all time in my opinion. The game has an incredibly epic storyline that spans across a couple of years. The storyline is very politics and involves an incredible amount of double-dealing and backstabbing which appeals to my need for an interesting and complex storyline.. But the thing that makes really makes the game for me is the Job system which allows for a ridiculous amount of customization and makes the game incredibly replayable. I have never played through a game as many times as I have Final Fantasy Tactics, and every time I enjoy it as much as I did the first time. There is no better game available.

The battle for number two on this list was intense, but Super Metroid won out. Super Metroid is as close to perfect as a video game can get. It had great graphics, music, and sound for its time. It has superb gameplay and is challenging without being overly hard. Super Metroid won number two on the list because I always end up revisiting this game every few years and remember how awesome it is. The music in this game also made an incredible impression on me.

As a kid, I grew up liking both D&D and Doctor Who, and when I heard about a game that included both time travel and magic, I was sold. Chrono Trigger is a classic SNES game. It has a great and interesting story that includes a great and memorable set of characters. The gameplay, graphics, and music are all fantastic. And the fact that it has multiple endings and the New Game Plus option only enhances its status with giving much more replayability than other RPGs.

This was the first Final Fantasy game I ever played, and, to me, it's the best there ever has been (inside the numbered franchise). It has a great story with a fantastic set of characters. The story is my favorite part of this game by far. It's a story of redemption, love, and forgiveness. I'm still touched to this day when Cecil becomes a Paladin. The graphics are also good for its time and the soundtrack has some really memorable songs. The gameplay of this game is simple yet effective. Every Final Fantasy fan should play this game.

There is no question in my mind that Super Mario Brothers 3 is the best Mario game of all time. There are so many great things about this game that they are almost impossible to list. Mario 3 is the first Mario game to use the world map which became a standard for platformers for years. The worlds and levels were fun and challenging. There were enough secrets to always keep you busy searching for them. And this game just didn't add the ability to fly but also added the frog suit, the Tanooki suit, and the Hammer Brothers suit. I remember how excited I was when I finally got to play this game, and it definitely lived up to the hype.

It's Okay To Be Takei

It's always great when people are faced with bigotry and stupidity when they can make a totally joke out of it.  A Tennessee Senate Committee, in all its infinite wisdom, has passed a bill that would restrict teachers from "provid[ing] any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality."  Now I doubt there were really many, if any, teachers who were discussing sexual orientation at all with any of their students, but even if they were, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be able to.  Homosexuality is something that is part of reality whether anyone likes it or not.  And if it's part of reality, I don't see any good reason why it shouldn't come up in school.  Teachers don't have to make any value judgments about it to merely talk about its existence.  I think it would be a good thing to inform students that there are other kinds of sexualities in the world we live in.  But learning about something like homosexuality is too much for Tennessee legislators, and they had to stop it from happening.  Good job.

Now here's where the humor comes in.  Enter stage right George Takei.

I think this is the perfect way to deal with the stupidity like the "Don't Say Gay" bill.  Humor and ridicule can go a long way towards making people realize how ridiculous their position is.  There is no guarantee that this will actually change their minds or their course of action, but I think it's a great way to handle it.  Kudos to George Takei!  It's okay to be Takei!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Open Minds and Closed Minds

I have frequently noticed whenever someone criticizes religion or religious beliefs, they are considered closed minded. It seems that the only way to be open-minded in this day and age towards religion is to offer no criticism towards it at all. But what does it mean to be open minded and close minded? I think to be open minded it means that a person is going to listen to the argument presented, evaluate it based on the logic, reasoning, and evidence presented, and then respond accordingly. Closed-mindedness however means to either not listen to an argument, not evaluate it based on the criteria mentioned above, or base an entire argument on prejudice or bias. Therefore, it is not closed minded to reject an argument if the logic, reasoning, and/or evidence are not sound. For instance, it is not closed minded to reject the argument of a bigot about how some group of people are inherently worse than other groups of people.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Do You Have Any Metaphysical Baggage?

Most, if not all, religions carry around some form of metaphysical baggage. Metaphysical baggage is a “technical term” I use for all the supernatural, paranormal, and/or spiritual stuff that the various religions posit. Metaphysical baggage includes such things as souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, gods, karma, heaven, hell, and so on. However metaphysical baggage isn't solely the property of religion. Various philosophies, disciplines, and cultures have their own metaphysical baggage. I just don't think all of this stuff is necessary for anyone to believe. All of this stuff is usually offered as unprovable explanations for things that we do not understand or did not previously understand.. I haven't really heard a good argument for the existence of any of this baggage. And since I haven't heard an argument for the existence of any of the baggage, I'll just keep using my carry-on bag.

Two Names, One Person

Depending on who you ask, I'm either Laurence or Buster. Most of the people in Ohio that aren't family know me as Laurence. Most of my friends from Georgia know me as Buster. It's one of those things that happen when you are named after your dad and given a nickname when you are young. I made the decision to go by Laurence in both iterations of my college career to make things easier and not have to explain why I went by a different name. But in either case, I'm the same person.

In this blog I will cover topics ranging from philosophy, skepticism, politics, and whatever else comes to mind. I'm not going to apologize for my views and opinions. Whenever I attack an idea, do not mistake it for attacking people holding that idea. If you feel like you have been attacked by what I have said, then present me with a rational argument of how I have offended you and I might change my mind. I am perfectly open to changing my opinion on almost every issue, but my mind is not so open that my brain will fall out.