Monday, December 31, 2007

Claiming the moral high ground

There is an Observer article, linked at Richard Dawkin's page, called, "It is possible to be moral without God," by Bishop Harries.

Harries accepts Dawkins' idea that morality is part of our nature, but he still thinks that religious people do it better. He still wants to claim the moral high ground and he starts with this musical metaphor:

I do not believe that a society without a religious basis for its morality will always collapse. But I do think that the relationship between morality and religion is more complex than either Dawkins or religious believers usually allow. Take an analogy: someone hears a great piece of music and responds to it in itself. But someone else knows that the piece is part of a symphony and can be even more appreciated when heard as part of the whole in which it has a crucial place. As human beings we can recognize and respond to particular moral insights. But a religious believer claims to understand these as part of a much larger whole in which they have a vital place: in particular, there is a fount and origin of all our moral insights which is good, perfect good, all good, our true and everlasting good. For a Christian, this is above all shown in the willingness of God to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within.

As always there is this claim that he knows the whole symphony, or sees the bigger picture, even though this religious picture, from my viewpoint, looks smaller and blurrier and dead wrong. This claiming of the moral high ground has had some really nasty and bigoted affects in the past. For example, this Time Magazine article from the 1970s, "Can Atheists Be Parents?" where a judge denied some atheist parents the right to adopt a child because of their lack of belief in a Supreme Being.

When he says that "...someone else knows that the piece is part of a symphony and can be even more appreciated when heard as part of the whole in which it has a crucial place," he is claiming such extra knowledge. How did he get it? Did God tell him? Did he find it in the Bible?

If atheism is true then the moral symphony Harries hears is an illusion. If theism is true then the question of the nature of God and of the symphony still has to be answered to my satisfaction. Speculation about invisible spiritual realms and entities, absent any meaningful test to verify them, is a lousy basis for law and social policy. What role does God play in human moral reasoning? Where is the rest of the symphony? We have only his claim that it exists or that it's what he thinks it is. That part the theistic apologists' argument is always left out. They keep telling us they know more but when forced to describe it they resort to theological doublespeak that has little connection to the world I see.

And how will Bishop Harries explain this example of Christian morality, future toddler chopper Vox Day's blogpost on obeying God.

But the crisis of moral values is such that we should simply recognize and rejoice in the good wherever it is to be found, while continuing to converse about whether it has its place in a larger scheme of things.

But how do you recognize the good? If Catholic hospitals refuse to administer the morning after pill, as emergency contraception, upon request to women who have been raped, is that good? If George Bush vetoes a bill to fund research on embryonic stem cells because he thinks God injects a soul into the embryo on conception that is only good if you think there are souls, otherwise it's destructive superstition that costs needless lives.

That seems to be one of the problems at the heart of religion, it attributes morality to a "law giver" who I don't know and who can change his mind. If there is no cosmic law giver then our morality and our laws have to be based on pragmatic results and common human values, values often denied by religion.

...many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has been essentially built up by our Christian heritage as Charles Taylor has recently brought out in his magisterial study, A Secular Age. How far are we living on moral capital?

The above is only a distorted half truth. Yes, my morals were shaped by my parents and their morals by my grandparents. They are part of something larger, culture, and it would be correct, in some ways, to call this a "Christian culture." But we can also call our culture an "Enlightenment culture" because we're also a product of the Enlightenment's rebellion against religious rule.

We pick up on the rules for dealing with each other by watching the people around us, not just our parents. We get our morals through culture in many different ways, through friends, movies, novels, news and more. If we grew up in a different culture we would have inherited and learned different "morals," at least as far as they are not universal. Certainly a lot of rules seem arbitrary, like how much clothing we should wear. If I were raised in a Muslim country I might feel uncomfortable around women who expose as much flesh as the women around me do, no matter my beliefs, just because it was unfamiliar. Though, I have a hard time imagining that and I think I'd be okay with women exposing their breasts in public if that change came suddenly.

If I was raised as a Spartan, I'd probably have a Spartan morality -- ready to die in war, thinking weak babies should be thrown off a cliff... If I were raised as a Roman I probably would not object to gladiatorial combat and executions as entertainment (hell, our athletes are killing themselves with steroids and growth hormones already just to get the money rewards of entertaining us).

As society gets more atheistic, if it does get more atheistic, I would expect society to evolve a different set of mores, but slowly and gradually as it is in fact happening now. While no one can predict precisely what changes will evolve, because it will not be one man who chooses but society as a whole, we can still see how our basic values and principles are leading us. Yes, if we accept gay marriage, then we will probably later accept even more varied forms of domestic partnership like men with multiple wives and wives with multiple husbands. We may broaden the definition of family to include large communes where mates are shared.

There are two examples of so-called "atheist societies," China and Russia, that Christians try to present as examples, but they're not really all that atheistic and their histories are more repressive than their current states. And they certainly have a very different take on some moral issues than I do. I can't imagine we'd do what Russia did and prohibit the denial of Santa Claus.

The Russian government has rules for advertisers not to discredit parents and teachers. It seems to be one of those silly rules that protect religion.

China tells Tibet’s living Buddhas to obtain permission before they reincarnate. They can't reincarnation without permission from China’s leaders? How does one explain that kind of rule? It's beyond ridiculous. What a crazy attempt to assert Beijing’s authority over Tibet. The idea that an atheist society would even have a State Administration for Religious Affairs is evidence that so called atheists societies have not yet escaped from religious influences. Tibet’s exiled god-king, the Dalai Lama, is still a threat. They have to deal with the fact that the people cannot easily abandon religion and that they must control this powerful force in people's lives.

People are going to believe what they believe, or disbelieve, and pass those beliefs to their children whether governments like it or not. Such rules will further alienate the Tibetan people. At least the Russians are trying to win the hearts and minds of religious folk, respecting the ancient customs and traditions.

... there is a dark side to our nature that it is sentimental to ignore, one which is still wreaking such terrible havoc. As WH Auden put it: 'We have to love our crooked neighbour with our crooked heart.' This points to the need for both self-knowledge and grace. At the beginning of this new year, with the world so stricken with growing inequality, corruption, decadence and conflict, each of us, believer and unbeliever alike, need all the help we can get.

Sure, there's a "dark side" to our nature that we shouldn't ignore, but good and bad, dark or light, they are determined by your values. Even that "dark" side of humanity that drives some people toward war, crime and murder probably has as much of an evolutionary explanation as the altruism and empathy we've found to be natural in animals and ourselves. All the studies meant to challenge the widespread presumption of religious people that ethics and morals are imparted to humankind by some kind of divine overlord also have to account for our "dark side" too.

Now, who exactly is ignoring the dark side when it is the "Christian" George W. Bush who may have lied us into war, introduced more extreme forms of torture, is ready to put judges on the supreme court who will make laws to punish young girls and doctors for aborting babies, who wanted write an amendment to the constitution to deny gays the right to marry, etc. etc.. His very Christian party, Huckabee's GOP, still supports all this, a country where the president and vice president, like the Spanish Inquisition, have the power to grab an American citizen off of the street, send him to a secret prison, torture him, and detain him indefinitely without him ever hearing the charges against them.

We just might do better without religion in the realm of morality and ethics if this is what we can expect of our Christian leaders.

Bishop Harries isn't alone in wondering about morality in an atheistic society. Even Nietzsche worried about the collapse of morality after Christianity died.

In Nietzsche's view, modern science and secularization had already "killed" the Christian God, who had served as the basis for meaning and value in the West for more than a thousand years. It's one of the things that make Nietzsche the most mentioned atheist philosopher by Christian apologists. They've made Nietzsche more famous than he deserves to be.

Nietzsche said that the "death of God" would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective on things and along with it any coherent sense of objective moral truth. Instead we would have multiple, diverse, and fluid perspectives and no one would have a final say on things. Thus begins the half-truths of moral relativism and post-modernism.

Nietzsche was mostly on target when he criticized, but off target when constructive. He had trenchant critiques of Christianity and of philosophers like Plato and Kant. He called himself an immoralist but he did not really want to destroy morality, but rather to reconstruct a new, more naturalistic source of value in the vital impulses of life itself. I think he failed on that count.

Nietzsche wrote in "The Birth of Tragedy," that "Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in 'another' or 'better' life."

Of the everyday Christian Nietzsche wrote, in "Human, all too Human," "If the Christian dogmas of a revengeful God, universal sinfulness, election by divine grace and the danger of eternal damnation were true, it would be a sign of weak-mindedness and lack of character not to become a priest, apostle or hermit and, in fear and trembling, to work solely on one's own salvation; it would be senseless to lose sight of ones eternal advantage for the sake of temporal comfort. If we may assume that these things are at any rate believed true, then the everyday Christian cuts a miserable figure; he is a man who really cannot count to three, and who precisely on account of his spiritual imbecility does not deserve to be punished so harshly as Christianity promises to punish him."

Nietzsche saw it in terms of a master-morality and a slave-morality. The master-morality was associated with Homeric Greece. Value arose as a contrast between what they saw as good and bad. Wealth, strength, health, and power were good. They were the traits found in Homer's heroes. The bad was associated with the poor, weak, sick, and pathetic, traits you supposedly find in Greek slaves.

Slave-morality was a response to master-morality. Nietzsche associated slave-morality with the Jewish and Christian traditions. Good for the slave was charity, piety, restraint, meekness, subservience and obedience. Evil was the cruel, selfish, wealthy, indulgent and aggressive. Nietzsche saw slave-morality as a ploy among the slaves and the weak to overturn the values of their masters and to gain value for themselves. Their religion explained and elevated their moral situation, and at the same time fixed them to a slave's life.

Nietzsche saw slave-morality as a sickness, a derivative and resentful value that worked by condemning others as evil. Nietzsche's approach to philosophy here was psychological, analyzing philosophical ideas not just by their logical form and results, but also by the kind of psychology that produced them. He called for the strong in the world to break their self-imposed chains and assert their own power, health, and vitality on the world. A sort of precursor to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Embrace the "Will to Power."

Nietzsche's "will to power" also looks back at Greek heroes who wanted more than mere survival and who often died young, risking their lives in battle to gain power, glory and greatness. They lead their lives in a strong and vital way.

This attempt at a more constructive philosophy was vague and error prone. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche's character, Zarathustra, says "I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment."

Nietzsche's Superman, or Overman, does not battle for truth, justice and the American way. Rather, Nietzsche's Superman has battled the Christian values of Nietzsche's day and overcome them. Nietzsche's Superman is not affected by "pity, suffering, or tolerance of the weak." Compassion is a weakness because it allows the weak to restrict the growth of the strong. He determines what is good and what is evil, not allowing religion or society to do it for him.

I disagree with what Nietzsche says in this particular case and his vague ideas will not work in the real world. Take something as simple as obeying the speed limit on the highway, I can not decide for myself what the speed limit is, I almost have to follow the rules of the road or follow the herd to avoid arrest and accidents. If I'm on a road where the speed limit is 50mph and almost everyone around me is going 70mph it might pay to follow the crowd, it certainly lowers my risk of arrest to be part of a group that's breaking the law, or I can decide I feel safer at 50mph and then everyone else becomes a risk to me as they try to get around me. If I do 70mph without the herd or the posted limits justifying it I take a more serious risk to myself and others.

Nietzsche seems to miss the whole point of morality. The plural, "supermen," never appears in Nietzsche's writings and morality is about the group, and more, it's about society and even the whole of humanity, not the individual. It's about how we treat others, how we live together and work together, and there is no one who is not weak when alone and faced by a group. To isolate yourself the way this Superman does will just weaken you. To be a member of any group you have to play by the traditional rules of the group, at least in public.

Why wouldn't Nietzsche's Superman decide to be a murderous criminal? Just to avoid punishment? Why should I trust Nietzsche's Superman in a business deal if he sees me only as member of a herd he doesn't belong to? A moral person has to see the bigger picture and his self interest has to be enlightened by an awareness of the fact that he is part of a society that he depends on. He has to know that the trust of others has value.

Nietzsche is not totally bogus. It encourages independent thinking by discouraging people from following "the herd" or accepting the values of society unquestionably. But what has to be questioned is the group, and it must be questioned in public by those who understand what is at stake and are solid members of the group who have earned our trust. We question morality by asking about the pragmatic results and which common human values are supported by the rules. It is on these grounds we challenge the priests who tell us gay marriage is wrong, abortion is wrong, etc..

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A pig-fucking ignorant blogger

A few posts ago I had written "The Blogosphere's most pathetic excuse for a human brain -- A contest." I thought I had found the most ignorant twit, the most delusional, lied to, pathetic excuse for a thinking human being in the blogosphere and it was Tristan J. Shuddery of the "STR : THE FREEDOM BLOG," at But it turned out to be a "satire," really a mimic who thinks they're doing satire.

Tristan J. Shuddery was not for real, even though he had fooled Conservapedia. It doesn't matter if Shuddery is a fake idiot because there is now someone even more stupid than Tristan J. Shuddery. It is the new blog, "ANSWER TO RICHARD DAWKINS THE CULTURAL CHRISTIAN," by someone calling themselves "Rafael."

In his post, "THE ATHEIST MENTAL DISORDER," the first sentence is:

We will look at the theories of evolution in their two main foundations: the expansion of the universe, and the quantum or microorganism.

Evolution doesn't have anything to do with the expansion of the universe or "the quantum," whatever he thinks he means by that. And "the quantum" isn't the same as microorganisms. These are the pretensions toward science of someone who is more pig-fucking ignorant than Sherri Shepherd. He then goes off to quote Bible passages and argue for theism in the most incoherent way and he never really returns to science again.

It's not worth arguing with because it is so obviously bat-shit crazy, no worse, it's crazier than Ann Coulter. One can only witness this insanity, shake their heads, and know that there must be some kind of relationship between religion and mental illness.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Who, exactly, is fighting the war against Christmas?

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. expressed mild surprise in this article at the idea that Sam Harris has a Christmas tree with ornaments and Richard Dawkins likes Christmas carols. Mohler wrote:

Presumably, these vigorous opponents of Christianity would treat the observance of Christmas like a disease and stay as far away as possible.

Normally I'd say that was an offensively ignorant and biggotted sentence and that this whole war on Christmas was a fraud supported by politicians pretending that they have "values" by jumping to the defence of something that isn't really under attack. However, I have just learned that, apparently, Christopher Hitchens actually does avoid Christmas like a disease and stay as far away as possible.

Hitchens is alone fighting a war on Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas and Groundhog day.

As for me, while I understand that the groundhog has never submitted his weather prediction abilities to James Randi's testing thus making the special day a celebration of superstition and primitive ignorance, I do have a lot of warm and nostalgic memories of Christmases past at this time of year in spite of similar foolish excuses for the holiday. I like to catch traditional Christmas movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Bad Santa" on TV and the whole family is gathering as I write. We share meals and play games like "Clue" and "Monopoly." Like Sam Harris I value giving gifts, celebrating the holiday with the family and enjoying all of the kitsch.

Lacking substantive material to write about (like me at the moment) Mohler wrote about Dawkins twice, there's another article called "Merry Christmas, Dear Atheist" where Mohler wonders which Christmas carols are Richard Dawkins' favorites and he writes this:

... sight of an avowed atheist joining in the Christmas chorus is a bit hard to imagine. At the same time, there is something comforting about the idea that even the world's most famous atheist will move his lips to the songs that celebrate Christ's birth. Perhaps those words will move from his lips to his head and his heart. We should pray that it might be so.

"Sight of an avowed atheist"? Does Albert think atheists can be recognized on sight? Does he think they look different than Christians? I imagine it would look like any other group singing. Why does he have a hard time imagining this?

Does Albert Mohler ever sing about Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer or Frosty the snowman? Perhaps one day those words will move from his lips to his head and his heart and one day he will believe that Santa, Frosty and Rudolf really exist because of it. Perhaps one day he will believe in the shiny nose that was so bright that Santa could guide his sleigh that night.

Perhaps one day dear Albert will stop hating Santa and his flying reindeer. Of course, Albert will say he doesn't hate Santa because to hate something you have to believe in it first. But how can anyone not believe in Santa when any child can go to any major department store and experience Santa for himself? How else can we explain Albert's disbelief in Santa when there is so much evidence that Santa exists? Albert just sincerely hates Santa. Maybe Albert hates Santa because he never got that Christmas present he asked for. The point is Albert hates Satan Claus and his flying reindeer, who are just and loving in their gift giving. In spite of that free gift of a coal lump that Albert did nothing for he hates Santa because he wants to do what gets him on Santa's naughty list.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christopher Hitchens is stupid

Yes, sometimes atheists are stupid and even a smart guy like Hitchens can be stupid about some things. I'm saying that because some people have been throwing the example of Christopher Hitchens around because of my post, "Are Republicans stupid."

I've been hearing things like, "Well, Hitchens is supporting Rudy Giuliani. Are you saying Hitchens is stupid?" Actually, yes, I am. And now I've even made it the title of this post. On this issue Hitchens has had a shocking lack of smarts. He was supporting the same candidate that Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson is.

Then there was this criticism from Jeremy who thought that attacking arogop with vitriol, by calling him stupid, wasn't the way to have a debate or discussion.

And that's Jeremy's first mistake. This isn't a debate or discussion, this is my blog. My blog is my thoughts, feelings and reactions to the news and other blogs I read when I have one of those I-must-express-this desires bubbling up within me. It is not a political tool to convince people, it's a recording of my thoughts and feelings on issues of the day. I am not running for any office. I am not endorsing any candidates -- yet, (though I am leaning toward Joe Biden as I'll explain later).

I am not here to give you a fair shake but you can write what you want in my comments section and I will probably not remove it (at least I haven't removed a single one yet) and I may respond to you. Or, I may ignore you.

Jeremy thinks that on the internet it's much more interesting to let someone talk. No, it's not. There's a shit load of stupid on the net and it's a waste of my time to even read it much less deal with it all. In the end you've all got the same problem I do, how do you get anyone to pay attention to your ideas and thoughts? I'm sure most people aren't bothering to read what I write and they have found other blogs that match their own tastes and interests. Asking nicely isn't going to cut it. You're going to have to grab my attention with something that doesn't sound blatantly stupid or boring.

I don't have time to ask rational and calm questions about everyone's beliefs, and then, without personal attack, explain what's wrong. This isn't about creating a more productive dialog because I'm not really interested in a dialog with the stupid or the uninteresting. However, I hope I offer some thinking aids to those who do wish to engage them.

When I call something "stupid" it means I think it's so obviously wrong I shouldn't have to explain why it's wrong. But when enough people say the same stupid things over and over again, then I am forced to explain why stupid is stupid. In my previous post I had complained about the Christianists that had taken over the GOP and I had called arogop "stupid" for being a straight ticket Republican with such poor reasons for being one. At the time Huckabee was rising in the polls and I was getting an overdose of PP, Political Piety, from the GOP candidates. It caused me to forget my real gripe with the GOP. Thus I screwed up and I want to correct that now.

In the case of Jeremy's GOP choice, Ron Paul, a radical Libertarian, and arogop's choice, Rudy Giuliani (which was recently Hitchens choice too, but I hope he was smart enough to change that), its not the Christianists that are the problem. No, it's a different and more dangerous level of stupid we must deal with now.

I kind of understand the appeal of Ron Paul, but he isn't worth voting for even as a protest. Protest votes are votes that are thrown away. The problem with Ron Paul is that he wants to fix things that most people don't think are broken. He wants to change the tax system, get back on the gold standard and such. A lot of "experts," real economists with knowledge that most of us don't have, are out there saying his fix would be a disaster. It won't fly with the public. Also Ron Paul isn't giving due consideration to what is broken, that system of checks and balances on executive power and the level of corruption, deceit and mendacity that the Bush administration has sunk to.

Rudy Giuliani is also ignoring the corruption problem and he also appears to be saddled with his own corruptions and abuses of power. Mitt Romney scolded Huckabee merely because Huckabee called the Bush administration arrogant and Huckabee back tracked. Not a one of these guys even acknowledges there is a problem except for Ron Paul.

In my opinion, if you're not Keith Olbermann special comments angry at the Bush administration then you haven't been paying enough attention to what is going on.

And it's been going on for years. Go back to John Dean's book, "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," which was a case for the investigation and possible prosecution of President George W. Bush for criminal conduct that was "worse than Watergate." Consider all the scandals that have been popping up that seem to support Dean's views still, years after the book was published.

If Bush and his loyal cronies walk away from this mess unscathed, then the temptations for the next kleptocrat will be too great.

I'm not going to spell all this out for anyone because better people than I have already done that. David Brin has blogged on it, here. That's a good place to start.

Ed Brayton has a post on his blog, "Ron Paul Rejects Evolution," with video. Either Paul will say anything which he thinks might get him elected or the man is pig-fucking ignorant.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Matthew Murray and the Blame Game

While looking into Matthew Murray and his beliefs at the "All Spin Zone," in the post "Matthew Murray -nghtmrchld26 in his own words" by Daniel DiRito, I came across another victim of the Blame Game in the comments section there.

Not atheism, not heavy metal rock music, not video games. The victim was antidepressants and psychopharmacology. Someone calling themselves ErnestR started arguing for the old Scientology position. ErnestR wrote:

It should be noted that virtually every one of these shooters like Matthew Murray were taking antidepressants or similar psychotropic drugs. This includes recent Omaha mall shooter Robert Hawkins, Finland school shooter Pekka-Eric Auvinen, Columbine shooter Eric Harris, Red Lake shooter Jeff Weise, Springfield Oregon’s Kip Kinkel, child killer Andrea Yates, Michigan’s Seth Privacky, Jason Hamilton, and hundreds more. Although all were troubled and depressed, often for years, they lived with their problems and didn’t become killers until after they started taking antidepressants.

It did seem that Matthew Murray had taken some sort of antidepressants, at least he wrote about it:

People then usually assume that I only tried prozac (or some other drug) for two days and got upset that it didn’t “work” and they say “oh well, you need to give it more than a couple of days to work”….I don’t know how 8 months is only a few days…but maybe you f***ers who can only come up with lame ass answers need a good ass kicking. These lamers will also say “well maybe try a different therapist?” or “just…….keep trying”

And I must confess that I did start to wonder if there was something to the claim that antidepressants might be part of the cause. But I still couldn't buy ErnestR's position, parts of it were down right quackish and nutty. I knew ErnestR was seriously misinformed when he wrote in the same comment:

They act too much like LSD, which was the treatment of choice for schizophrenia during the 1950’s.

LSD was never a "treatment of choice" for schizophrenia. His information got garbled somewhere in transmission. Researchers believed that the psychedelic state induced by LSD mimicked psychosis, it was called a psychomimetic. A researcher here or there may have given it to a schizophrenic to study the results, but it was, as far as I knew, never a “treatment.”

While the newer antidepressants may have destructive long term consequences no one has foreseen there are thousands upon thousands, probably millions, of people who feel they’ve been helped by them and who never go on suicidal shooting sprees.

However, I argued my case badly. I wasn't equipped with enough information to argue against this hypothesis. Seeing how other "facts" had gotten botched I challenged ErnestR on his claim that all the killers he had named, Robert Hawkins, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, Eric Harris, Jeff Weise, Kip Kinkel, Andrea Yates and others really used antidepressants and got hoist on my own petard.

It turns out that not only did all of them use antidepressants but that some of the people supporting the case were making predictions that in the future more such killers would be found to be using antidepressants too. Correlation may not be causation, but when antidepressant use among suicidal mass killers becomes downright predictable, could that not be a clue that the relationship is causal?

It may not be. That's certainly not how a causal relationship is established. There isn't sufficient data to jump to any conclusions yet. This is the kind of bad logic and reasoning so common with people like Vox Day (though he uses bad logic in combination with fake data) Tony Perkins and others I noted in my previous post.

Then why WOULD it seem that antidepressant users have a predilection for committing mass murder and suicide? Why DO antidepressant users commit mass murder and suicide at a much higher rate than nonusers? First, note that very few do. These events are rare. Part of the answer is that mentally ill people have more chance of "going postal" than mentally healthy ones and mentally ill people are the ones who seek out psychiatric drugs as help for their problems. In such a case there is correlation without cause, and in fact we might find that the antidepressants have indeed helped and prevented some people from striking out.

If you have a million people with emotional issues, with depression and all sorts of other mental problems that might get misdiagnosed as depression, some fraction of them are going to kill themselves regardless of medication, an even smaller fraction might commit mass murder and then suicide. To say that antidepressants caused it is a stretch. It would be like blaming aspirin for headaches because most people who take aspirin also have headaches. The causative agent in the relationship is more likely to be the mental illness, not the antidepressants that they use.

It's possible that out of the millions of people taking antidepressants a small portion are reacting with violent and suicidal fantasies that a few will act on. I can't rule out antidepressants as a possible causative agent, but I can say that it is unlikely to be one. Drug approvals are a numbers game. The reality of our drug approval process is that drugs are approved based upon a good outcome, not a perfect outcome. In fact, at drug trials some patients will do better on the dose that isn’t ultimately chosen because they select the dose that helps the most people.

It's not a perfect process, but what other alternative is there? The truth of the matter is that while we have made great advances in science, we have only scratched the surface on how drugs interact with our complicated natural body and brain chemistry. Mistakes, costly mistakes, could happen. However, blaming the antidepressants at this stage isn't warranted.

Most people who are playing the blame game have some kind of agenda and it works because too many of us are hungry for easy answers. And yet, like a broken clock that is right twice a day, sometimes someone with an agenda will get it right by pure accident even though their analysis and logic are faulty.

Having pointed out the dangers of having an agenda I'd like to point to this post by Dana at Principled Discovery, called "Fundamentalism, psychotropic drugs and mass murder" which looks at how certain Christian beliefs in the spiritual roots of disease can lead to a near denial that mental illness is real.

If you have more interest in Matthew Murray, Daniel DiRito has some posts on his blog, "Thought Theater." There does seem to be something of an agenda in this post, "Removing The Thin Veil Of Evangelical Eisegesis," in that DiRito is ready to blame, in part, Matthew Murray's evangelical upbringing. If you participate in any forums where someone like Matthew Murray might show up, you might want to read this, "Going To The Matt - Reach Out & Bring Them Back," and keep your eyes open.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The ugly and vile spin some Christianists put on the Colorado church shootings

First, please note the word "some" in that title. As I expected, as PZ Myers expected, as most atheist commentators seemed to expect, there was some ugly and vile anti-atheist spin put on reports of the tragic shooting at Ted Haggard's old megachurch.

But I'm rather pleasantly surprised at how light it has been. Fox News and ABC News have been emphasizing the fact that Matthew Murray, the killer, "hated Christians" and ignoring the fact that he was mentally ill, he was reported to have heard voices, and that he was kicked out of the missionary school he shot up in their short lead-in reports. They pick up the more important details later though. A WorldNetDaily article by Bob Unruh leaves out the fact that he was homeschooled.

The most ignorant and vile of the spin I've seen so far came from future toddler chopper Vox Day who is himself, in all probability, mentally ill and I suspect he will one day do something violent himself.

Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, tried to cast a little blame on “the secular media” and the nut jobs over at Uncommon Descent, as expected, tried to find a way to blame Richard Dawkins but it could have been worse. Remember when Falwell tried to get away with blaming abortionists, gays and the ACLU for the 911 terrorist attacks?

The reason it could have been worse is because there really is a lot of "atheist anger" out there these days. In fact, it's bad enough that many former fundamentalists face enough recovery issues that it requires psychological counseling to help them get over their fear and anger and get out of their churches. It's the kind of anger Richard Dawkins doesn't understand because he left a far more liberal British church and never had to deal with such issues himself.

I wrote about my own emotional conflicts in breaking with semi-fundy Christianity over a decade ago in my essays, Hope is the Bait and Fear is the Trap.

Also located here:

One could say that blaming atheists in these cases is akin to blaming the victim of any abuse for their vengeance, but that's not quite right. The details about Matthew Murray's mental state are important because no one in their right minds would do such a thing. All the shooters, whether shooting up schools, churches or malls, have turned out to have serious mental health problems. It is counter productive and very irrational to go on a suicidal killing spree. The killer did this because he was not in his right mind. You can't blame atheism for that. You can't blame his church for that. While both were possibly contributing environmental factors in the end it was a biologically sick mind that shot those people.

In the end, most people who escape from fundamentalist and evangelical upbringings are pretty non-violent.

Atheists, especially those coming out of a fundamentalist background, have a lot of legitimate reasons to be angry. They've essentially been lied too, emotionally manipulated and mindfucked for most their early lives, and that's in addition to the bigotry and lies that all atheists in America face when you do come out. There are theists like Vox Day working hard trying to “aggravate atheists.” I get angry when the religious right wing tries to dismantle our First Amendment separation of state and church. I get angry every time another Bush administration scandal is reported (I recall that it was the religious right who put that idiot in charge). I feel angry when theists try to dumb down education with creationism and Intelligent Design. I get angry when Christians want to make children pray in school (yes that still happens in Indiana). I get angry when women in some Muslim societies are beaten for not wearing a burka. I get angry at Mormon polygamists who marry off girls to adult family members and throw boys out of their homes because they are competition for men. I get angry about Islamic terrorists trying to establish a global faith-based caliphate. I get angry when medical progress like embryonic stem cell research is hindered because some theists think God injects souls into embryos. The Bible refers to us as fools and then there was also the murder of Atheist Larry Hooper in Michigan by Arthur Shelton, murdered because he didn’t believe in a god.

Aren’t you angry about those things?

It's not wrong to be angry. It's wrong to misuse your anger. The trick is to put your anger to constructive uses. Alas, that's not always going to happen because not everyone is in their right minds.

When I wrote this post it seemed that Matthew Murray, the killer, might have recently gone atheist before going on his suicidal shooting spree. He had been posting on an Ex Pentecostal Forum and talked about hating Christians. However, those quotes were edited into articles out of context. Others found posts by nghtmrchld26, Matthew Murray's online name at the "Azusa Street Survivors - Ex Pentecostal Forum," that could not have been the beliefs of an atheist. He wrote: "We can be Christians, we can be spiritual and believe in God/the Cosmic Divine WITHOUT their abusive lying pentecostal charismatic Jesus People movements, groups, false prophets, churches, and programs." He also wrote: "Thanks for listening and all ... even though even many of you ex-Pentecostals don't understand ......(sic) See you all on the other side, we're leaving this nightmare behind to a better place."

If you do a Google search on "church shootings" you'll find that they are disturbingly common, from Idaho to California. Vox Day had claimed these shooters are usually atheists, but checking out some random links puts the lie to that claim. Terry Ratzmann, 44, in suburban Milwaukee was a member of the church he shot in. Larry Ashbrook in Fort Worth, Texas had both religious and anti-religious literature in his home but the most obvious cause still seems to be mental illness. One was a white supremacist in Indiana.Some are just total mysteries.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Call for a Presidential Science Debate

Chris C. Mooney and friends are calling for a debate among the current presidential candidates that is solely devoted to issues in science and technology.

Here's a link to Mooney's blog.

If you agree with this statement:

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we, the undersigned, call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Medicine and Health, and Science and Technology Policy.

Check out Mooney's blog and visit:

Also, here's a related Seed Magazine article by Chris:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Romney's Faith In America speech

Every American Atheist needs to be aware of this horrible speech.

Here are the links for those who want to see the speech:

THE VIDEO of this speech here.

Here's the speech on Dawkins' site.
The original source for Dawkins site.

Another transcript.

Here a link to PZ's atheist commentary.

Here is Christopher Hitchens on the speech.

Cenk Uygur, in his Huffpost blog, "Mitt Romney's Ironic Speech on Religious Tolerance," summed up the speech perfectly in one sentence: "Don't hate me for my religion, hate atheists and agnostics for theirs!"

If I have time I'll have more to say later. As biting as the above commentary is, I don't think it goes far enough.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Huckabee and the Christianists

Look at the company Huckabee keeps:

Check the names out on the above "Pastor's Policy Briefing."

David Barton has been discovered to have flagrantly used fake "quotes" from our founding fathers in his attempt to rewrite history.

Tim LaHaye, a writer of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction.

And then there's one of Huckabee's sons who killed a dog.

"When you say 'radical right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye."
-- Barry Goldwater.


Monday, December 3, 2007

Are Republicans stupid?

Well, some obviously are, like Bible-boy, but so are some Democrats, like the Deepak Chopra followers. The question is whether stupidity is a general characteristic of today's Republicans. That's today's Republicans, not yesterday's Republicans like Barry Goldwater or Bob Dole or even the first George Bush.

Helping answer that question is a fellow who showed up on Richard Dawkins web site on a post called "Why Science Can't Save the Republican Party." He (or she? or it?) calls himself arogop and he wrote this:

I would like to point out that when we attack a label, like Republican, we tend lose that argument.

Not all Republicans are theists. Not all Republican oppose stem cell research. Not all Republicans fear Science and Reason. When you lump us all together you truly show ignorance.

Attack issues and ideas, not labels.

I am an atheist-Republican. I support science.

Can you imagine how stupid I would sound if I said that the members of this site are a bunch of Birkenstock wearing, narrow minded, left wing whackos! I would be wrong. (on the last two ;) )

I thought that was a pretty stupid comment. Saying "...when we attack a label, like Republican, we tend lose that argument" is about as sensible as saying "when we use language we tend to lose that argument." Labels are just part of language and the article being commented on fitted criticism of that "Republican" label to a T.

However, the really stupid part of the above comment is saying "Not all Republicans are theists. Not all Republican oppose stem cell research. Not all Republicans fear Science and Reason. When you lump us all together you truly show ignorance." While it's true; not all Republicans are theists and not all Republicans oppose stem cell research, such Republicans are obviously stupid to still be in the Republican party! If you're not a theist who opposes embryonic stem cell research the Republican party doesn't offer you much more than war, corruption and lies. It's no longer Barry Goldwater's party. The Republican party has been taken over by Christianists and there are no presidential candidates up there who are not pandering to the Christianists.

You no longer have a choice in the Republican party. So, I told arogop that he was even stupider than a theist. It might be okay to once have been a Republican, but it's not okay to be a Republican now. You can't say you support science and vote for George W. Bush twice. To do that is to lie.

The Republicans have betrayed every principal of old fashioned conservatism they once espoused. They're the ones driving up spending under Bush. Yea, Bush cut taxes, but he racked up trillions in debt.

Either you have a reasonable, intelligent reason to be a Republican today or you have a stupid reason to be one. I assume it's stupid because I can't imagine a good reason to be a Republican.

"Now is your chance to prove me wrong," I told him.

He tried with this:

In the two party system (I will assume you know what that means) those who vote for one issue and only one issue will usually be disappointed.

The groups of people I have listed understand this and vote Republican because it is the party that best represents their core beliefs. Their group label comes in play to show where they differ.

I have explained before and will review for you again. I am a Republican and tend to vote Republican because of the following beliefs. The higher the ranking the more important.

1. I support Capitalism and free markets. In my opinion, this is the fastest way to bring about advancement in technology and to improve the wealth effect for everyone. I do believe in some regulation of said "free markets". Pure Capitalism will not work. We are not Ferengy.

2. I believe that less Government is better. I prefer that the tax base for the federal government be only large enough to support the basic obligations of the Constitution.

3. I believe in preserving the greatest number of freedoms for individuals.

Yes, I believe that my party has strayed from my core beliefs, yet it still represents me better than the alternative. I do my political fighting in the primaries.

These days the biggest opponent inside of "my party" is the religious fundamentalist. It used to be that we could ignore them and "live and let live".

But of course you already know that since you are so much smarter than me.

So, there you have it: Stupid reasons that some people are still Republicans. Three mostly meaningless, ego-flattering platitudes that the Republican party pretends to stand for but doesn't. The new, Christianist Republican party is opposed to all three of those things. They want bigger, intrusive government, which is what you'll get if the individual freedom implied by Roe v. Wade is overturned. And who knows what other laws they'd like to put back on the books. They want corporate and church welfare too.

And even if they didn't want those things, in order to stand for them you have to be against someone who opposes them. So, the platitudes automatically imply that Hillary, Barack and Joe Biden are against Capitalism, free markets and individual freedom. I don't think they are. So, the platitudes are empty lies.

Still, stupidity is relative. At least arogop isn't as dumb as Sherri Shepherd.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

More evidence of Republican delusions and denial

According to the some Gallup Health and Healthcare polls Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats or independents to rate their mental health as excellent.

Wait?! How is that evidence of Republican delusions and denial? Isn't that evidence of the opposite? Well, let me explain why it's not.

Remember, this is all self-reported mental health status. Just because you think you're in excellent mental health doesn't mean that you are. This was not a doctor doing interviews and tests and deciding whether someone was in good mental health, this was just someone on the phone asking you what you think your own mental health status is.

Now, recall the young man that submitted this video question: "... how you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book?" The young man then waved around a Bible with a trembling hand saying, "...this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?" If you think a professional psychologist would rate that young man as being in excellent mental health, then you don't know psychology.

However, to be fair, no psychologist would really venture a diagnosis based on such scant evidence but the young man does not come off as sane to me.

What it really means is probably that Republicans aren't much for looking inside their own heads. It means that people like Bible-boy, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, Georgia State Rep. Ben Bridges of Cleveland and Texas State Rep. Warren Chisum would assure you that they are in excellent mental health. Just like Ted Haggard and Larry Craig will assure you that they are straight, heterosexual men.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rove's Frankenstein

According to Andrew Sullivan, Mike Huckabee's current rise among the GOP candidates is Rove's Frankenstein moment.

Huckabee, along with Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo, was one of the three who raised their hands during the debate where they were asked if they don't believe in evolution. As for what should be taught in public schools, Huckabee said he wants "schools to acknowledge that there are views that are different than evolution." And the polls show that more Americans believe in the devil than accept Darwin.

After the last debate Huckabee's poll numbers have been rising. Andrew even thinks that Huckabee is likely to be the most appealing candidate for the big-spending, evangelical, Southern Republican party.

Huckabee is turning out to be as slick as Slick Willy. He was on MSNBC's "Hardball" today (as I write this), the show hosted by Chris Matthews, and Matthews tried to nail Huckabee on his ads that feature the word "Christian," pointing out how Huckabee seemed to be saying he is "the Christian candidate -- like some of the other candidates are not Christian." Chris pretty much just let Huckabee get away with a bullshit answer with Huckabee saying he didn't mean to accuse others of not being Christian. Chris seems not to notice that Mitt Romney is being accused not being a "Christian" and that Rudy's religiosity is considered questionable by the evangelical right. In such an environment Huckabee gave a bullshit answer, his ad by default accuses the others.

During the debate a question about the death penalty came up in that "what would Jesus do" format and Huckabee slipped out of answering it, to audience applause, by saying "Jesus was far too smart to seek public office." Well, Jesus may not have sought public office, (like being King of the Jews or something), but he seemed to have something to say about the death penalty, something to do with only those who haven't sinned should be "casting the first stone."

When Chris brought up the question and the death penalty execution in Huckabee's state, Huckabee tried to say that "forgiveness" doesn't mean you don't punish people. The hell it doesn't! Forgiveness doesn't mean anything if you're still punishing the person you are "forgiving." Saying you are doing both is Orwellian bullshit. The New Testament has a kind of economic model, forgiving sins is like forgiving a debt. You can't make someone pay a debt and forgive the debt at the same time. Forgiveness is not about you not feeling angry when you end someone's life.

Huckabee resembles no Republican of the past more George W. Bush. And more than Bush, Huckabee resembles the real life Democratic populist, William Jennings Bryan, of the Scopes Monkey Trial fame.

But Huckabee isn't the real Frankenstein's monster here. No, the real monster is the Republican base that asks questions like "... how you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book?" Questioner waves around a Bible. "...this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?" The real monster is the one that represents the foul core of the Republican party.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How to end Islamic terrorism by engineering a violent revolution

Books can be dangerous things. They can be more mind altering than any illegal drug. Consider Thomas Paine and the most influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, Common Sense.

Now consider that a Turkish prosecutor has launched a probe into whether Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, is an attack on religious values. It could lead to the prosecution of the book's Turkish publisher and translator, Erol Karaaslan.

It's precisely this type of repression that inspires books like The God Delusion to be written in the first place and it highlights the very weakness of these Islamic states that attempt such repression by law and force. It means they find Dawkins' ideas and arguments threatening.

Would it be possible to print copies of the atheist books in all the common Muslim languages and smuggle them into places like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.. Perhaps Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Hitchens could waive copyright for all Muslim language editions of their books (or something similar to encourage black market printing and distribution in certain languages) and encourage black market smuggling of them.

Turkish law couldn't touch a publisher in England, Sweden, the U.S. or Canada.

However, if you're going to do something like that you might consider writing a new book that's especially written for Muslims, that addresses what is wrong with such laws, and maybe getting help from Ibn Warraq, Rushdie and others who know Islam better.

How far could you push that book? Could you suggest violent revolution against such laws?

But let's go farther. A guy like me, or even a guy like Dawkins, really can't know how effective their writing is without just putting it out there and seeing how people react. That is not what I mean by "engineering a violent revolution." Hollywood came up with a test so that they wouldn't spend millions marketing a movie that had a high probability of being a "Turkey." It's called "test screening."

Today there are a lot of out of work Muslims, from every Arab nation, all over Europe who could be hired as test readers and questioned afterwards. They could be used as test cases for various arguments. Once you start doing stuff like that, you're not just writing, you're engineering.

But go farther, Hollywood test screenings still dump dogs into the movie market. It's still more art than science -- and it's the worst kind of art, it's art by committee. There are other people who study religion, for example, there is the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal that publishes papers on such subjects. There are all kinds of psychologists who study religion who could help a writer get through the psychological blocks you will encounter.

When I write I can only base my arguments on those which were effective on me. Obviously, judging from the comments I sometimes get on this blog these arguments don't work on others -- some of the people posting comments here seem far more screwed up than I ever was (yes, I mean you Marian Paroo, mountain king, Amicus and you-know-who-you-are). It's also obvious that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens haven't turned the country into a bunch of atheists. In the end I think we all just recycle the guy who got to us, Bertrand Russel. And none of us were raised as Muslims.

Maybe it's time to look into the possibility of engineering arguments that can go beyond the ones that worked for us. Once done, we might have a revolutionary new tool.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007

No gays in Iran?

The New York Times had Live Blogging on Iranian leader, Ahmadinejad, speaking at Columbia University, (click here).

In response to a question about the treatment of homosexuals in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad started talking about the death penalty, which, he pointed out, exists in the United States, saying:
“People who violate the laws by using guns, creating insecurity selling guns, distributing guns at a high level are sentenced to execution in Iran. Very few of these punishments are carried out in the public eye.”

It seems like there may be radically different cultural concepts and translation problems going on when trying to talk about homosexuality. Ahmadinejad speaks Farsi, not English, and has to be translated. It sounds like "gay" got translated into something that means merely "sexual criminal" with the emphasis on the "criminal." Either that, or Mr. Ahmadinejad is seriously loony tunes.

When pressed on the subject about the "rights of gay men and lesbians" in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad said:
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country.”

What the fuck!? That's impossible. The audience, of course, booed, hissed and laughed. In spite of the audience reaction Ahmadinejad pressed on:
“In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you that we have it. But as for women, maybe you think that maybe being a woman is a crime. It’s not a crime to be a woman. Women are the best creatures created by God. They represent the kindness, the beauty that God instills in them. Women are respected in Iran.”

Let's check out Wikipedia for "LGBT_rights_in_Iran" to see how things are viewed in wikiality. There we find that since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 there has been an increasing lack of tolerance toward homosexuality. It's a crime under the country's theocratic Islamic government as is all types of sexual activity outside a heterosexual marriage. It certainly exists, and there have been news reports out of Iran about gays being executed.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the legal code has been based on a conservative interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law and consensual gay sex in any form is punishable by death in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Gays have been hanged in the city square of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, by orders of Court. The religious authorities sometimes charge gays with "rape" instead of the "crime" of homosexuality. Usually there is no legal distinction between consensual or non-consensual sexual activity.

Those charged with homosexuality are given a choice of four death styles: being hanged, stoned, halved by a sword, or dropped from the highest perch. If two men not related by blood are discovered naked under one cover without good reason, both will be punished at a judge's discretion. Teens are also punished at a judge's discretion. According to Iranian human rights campaigners, over 4000 lesbians and gay men have been executed since the Ayatollahs seized power in 1979.

It hasn't always been this way. There is a large amount of literature in Persian that explicitly illustrates the ancient existence of homosexuality among Iranians. There is Persian poetry, ghazals (love poems), and texts in Saadi's Bustan and Gulistan that are homoerotic. It was more tolerated before 1979, during the Shah's regime. Under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last monarch of the Pahlavi Dynasty, homosexuality was tolerated, even to the point of allowing news coverage of a same-sex wedding. Up until the revolution, there were some night clubs where gay behavior was tolerated.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Who wants $700 dollars from Jonathan Haidt?

If you go to this page: Moral Foundations Theory Homepage, you'll find that Jon Haidt says this:


The "rules" go like this:

Winning the prize will take two steps. First, you must make a good case, in writing, that some other set of concerns is a plausible candidate for foundationhood. Then, you must collect empirical evidence to show that this set of concerns is psychometrically distinct from the existing five foundations, or is otherwise incompatible with the existing five. The prize can be divided in two: whoever proposes a change to the theory will be given $300 if someone else can produce compelling evidence that the challenger was right (thereby earning the remaining $700). We in the consortium will be the judges, and we'll probably want to replicate anyone else's findings before changing our whole theory, but we have stated in print that the five foundations are the best starting points; they do not exhaust all of human morality. So we really are open to additional possibilities.


--John Jost (NYU) believes that the current formulation underestimates the full extent and variation of liberal morality. In particular, he proposes that concerns about equality and oppression are not part of the Fairness/Reciprocity foundation; they are a separate psychological system, perhaps related to the dynamics that Christopher Boehm describes in Hierarchy in the Forest, in which people in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies developed ways to band together to suppress bullying and limit authoritarianism. We are beginning to test the possiblity that there is a 6th foundation, provisionally labeled "Oppression/liberty." We will examine whether it is psychometrically distinct from Fairness/reciprocity and also from Harm/care.

--Elizabeth Shulman and Andrew Mastronarde at UC Irvine suggest that people may have an emotional response to waste, especially to throwing out food. This does not seem related to any of the 5 foundations (unless it always brings to mind the thought of hungry people, so that wasting food is a callous thing to do, and is primarily a moral issue for people who score high on Harm/care).

I like John Jost's idea that equality and oppression are not part of the Fairness/Reciprocity category and I, like Elizabeth Shulman, feel morally when seeing waste. However, while those might be incorporated into my scheme, the following 5 polar categories don't need them.

I would propose five new categories. I object to the claim that religious conservatives use all five moral foundations, but liberals only two. I think that we liberals have a different, more reasoned, set of moral foundations and my new categories are polar opposites of the ones Jon Haidt uses.

The original 5 are:
-- Secular:
1) Harm/Care
2) Fairness/Reciprocity
-- Theocratic:
3) Ingroup/Loyalty
4) Authority/Respect
5) Purity/Sanctity

The New polar categories are:
1) Punish/Judge (polar opposite of Harm/Care)
2) Privilege/Bully power (opposite of Fairness/Reciprocity)
3) Inclusive/Expansive (opposite of Ingroup/Loyalty)
4) Question authority (opposite of Authority/Respect)
5) Rights/Secular Freedom (opposite of Purity/Sanctity)

When I line them up into liberal/secular versus theocratic/conservative the columns look like this:

2)__Fairness/Reciprocity_____|________Privilege/Bully power
4)__Question authority_______|________Authority/Respect
5)__Rights/Secular Freedom___|________Purity/Sanctity

I think these new polar categories are needed to be fair to liberals. This arrangement isn't the whole story. Both the secular and theocratic polls are about benefiting the group, but we're not always concerned with the larger group, our even our in group, sometimes we're selfish and damn how the group feels. So, think of it this way:

In order for the values of a theocratic ingroup to hold sway, they have to have Bully power -- else even theocrats will be asking for, fighting for, secular values. Also, on many purity values Muslims and Christians might still agree, for example on sexual repression and on abortion were there is overlap and agreement.

If you want to talk about the culture wars in America you have to get beyond just how we feel about a moral question and consider how we act on it. Even though slave owners would claim they believed in fairness and reciprocity they still used the concept of "Privilege" to essentially bully people they deemed slaves and those who thought slaves were treated unfairly (like Thomas Paine). What's interesting is how they "reasoned" and justified the unfairness of slavery.

I think, but it might need revision, that "Privilege" covers the polar opposite of fairness. "Privilege" is the "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" aspect of Orwell's "Animal Farm."

"Priveledge" is "Authority" and it "Punishes," demands "Loyalty" and defines "Purity." Today we might question the "Priveledge" and "Authority" of inherited wealth, religion, government, law and other things. Priveledge thus incorporates the other polls by using Bully power. Other connections like that come out and start to define each end of the liberal/secular versus theocratic/conservative polls.

For another factor, Jonathan Haidt described a phenomenon he called “moral dumbfounding” and in one interview used a scenario where a brother and sister have sex. They use two different kinds of contraception and keep it a secret. No real harm probably happened. Yet even I, as most people, would "feel" it’s wrong, at least for me (I couldn't have sex with my sister based on a reasoned argument of no harm). I would start out justifying my feelings of wrongness, but what do I do about this knowledge of brother sister sex when that reason is stripped from me? After I've reached for another reason and come up empty-handed and entered that state of “moral dumbfounding” I would do nothing and keep their secret because I have no reason to act. However, I expect a theocrat would want to act, to punish brother and sister for their sex act and they could come up with the ultimate bullshit "reason" -- they know God doesn't like it. They know God's mind and it's made in their own image.

When a subject says: “I don’t know; I can’t explain it; it’s just wrong,” do they mean "it's wrong for me," or "it's wrong for everyone"? Do they think brother and sister should be punished? Is it something they think they should act on?

The variable called “need for cognition” applies to me only when I think I should act on information. If I don’t have a reason for my moral judgments, I'm not going to be particularly bothered when it comes to my own actions, but I would be bothered if some action seemed required.

Reason may not play a big causal role in how I decide to act, I'll go on my arational feelings, I'll let intuitions—fueled by my emotions, guide my actions, but when I arrive at moral judgments of others then reason is the authority, if it's not there, I can not condemn others. I will not tell someone something is wrong if I have no good reason. Thus my reason is a bit more than just the press secretary of my emotions, the ex post facto spin doctor, it's my judgment on others.

Just because there are cases where reason is not playing any causal role in how we arrive at moral judgments doesn't mean reason is not part of the more important process of deciding our laws. Haidt does credit reason, but he doesn't take this far enough to where he separates our inborn intuitions from our legal system and from how we react to others behavior.

What good is a moral judgment on others if you can't convince others to agree with you? Such judgments will have a negative effect. If you can't provide reason, then you are just bullying and claiming the authority of God.

Just because the press secretary’s job is to be a lawyer. To argue for a position, and just because he doesn’t need to consult with the president about what the real reasons were for the instituting the policy, doesn't mean our president can't be questioned and investigated when the press secretary fails to make a reasonable case. It may be irrelevant to our feelings, but it can't be irrelevant to our action within society.

When I “know” that something is morally wrong, but I can’t find reasons to justify my belief then how can I judge anyone but myself?

There are two kinds of moral judgments and while reason may never convince me I am free to sleep with my own sister, it must effect how I judge others who might do that. Judging others I cannot do without reason. I can't judge others according to my subjective feelings. I need reason. I might say “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong,” but I can only say that for myself.

Don't forget that lawyers arguing for positions are also trying to arrive at truth. They lie for selfish reasons, to hold onto bogus "Authority," but are considered honest if they can better the whole group, not just themselves.

In comparing moral and aesthetic judgments in how we don’t deliberate about them I would suggest that artists, who act artistically, do deliberate about aesthetic judgments. If moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment you have to consider how we act on both. It's only very theocratic minds that would outlaw certain forma of art. In our moral lives we only need to justify our judgment of others, and while I don’t generally ask others for justifications of aesthetic judgments I certainly think about it when I paint a picture, when I act on my aesthetic judgments. That doesn't mean that when it comes to judgments I make about other people's tastes I would never say, "no, you can't view that art." I will say, "no, you can't steal candy from that baby."

So, I find the link between moral and aesthetic judgment to be a dangerous half-truth. How I live and what art I view I will allow, must allow, to be guided by my irrational emotions -- but I can't force those views on others. That's what theocrats want to do. They force their moral and aesthetic judgments onto me. In order to justify that, they claim to know the mind of God -- a God made in their own image. This is why our Bibles and Korans are the most abused books, they're supposed to be a peek into God's mind.

Thus, secularists defer to the authority of reason while theocrats defer to the authority of bibles and priests with pretensions toward reason.

Also, on the "Purity and Pollution" spectrum -- that seems to be a bogus and outdated moral sense. Has anything good ever come from it? Hitler used it and believed in an ideology of racial purity. Nazi Germany saw it as the purging away from humanity of racial contamination and the inauguration of an era of racial purity. In discussing racial purity and "race-mixing" Hitler talks of it as a divinely holy mission:

"Historical experience offers countless proofs of this. It shows with terrifying clarity that in every mingling of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples the result was the end of the cultured people.... we can clearly and distinctly recognize the effect of racial mixture. The Germanic inhabitant of the American continent, who has remained racially pure and unmixed, rose to be master of the continent; he will remain the master as long as he does not fall a victim to defilement of the blood. The result of all racial crossing is therefore in brief always the following: To bring about such a development is, then, nothing else but to sin against the will of the Eternal Creator."

Also mixed marriages in America were once seen as impure.

This set up probably needs work, but even if I do that it means little if the second part of the challenge can't be met -- and on my own I can't meet it. So, if there are any researchers out there who like this idea and want $700 then you'll have to provide the second step of collecting empirical evidence to show that this set of concerns is psychometrically "distinct" from the existing five foundations. Is being a polar opposite "distinct"?

Friday, September 21, 2007


Two common examples of religious brain damage for my readers to check against my theories. Well, maybe not quite "theories," more like an initial, unrefined hypothesis about an emotional and ignorant Bayesian belief network working in the human brain.

My first example is a fellow who calls himself "revcort" and this thread, over at Richard Dawkins site, here is where you'll find his posts.

My second example is someone who emailed PZ and who believes that they once magically control which song came up the radio, who heard voices and who believes in biblical prophesy. Their story sounds like a twilight zone segment.

If you read PZ's emailer and enough of revcort's posts about gods glory, hell and what not the more terms like "mentally ill" and "delusional" seems appropriate.

I'm sure you guys can find more examples out there in cyberspace. If you do, drop me a comment with a link.

Thanks for your help.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How the religious mindfuck really works

In a reader comment (here) that I've already "ranted" on (here) Marian Paroo wrote: "If you don't believe-you don't believe." That's something else that's not right in the way Marian understands beliefs. It doesn't reflect the way the human brain really works. A belief is not something that gets turned on or off. Not believing only means you assign a low probability to basic religious claims. Our brains, in most of our beliefs, work more like a Bayesian belief network than a light switch.

In fact, our brains most probably do incorporate all sorts of Bayesian network-like arrangements of neurons. So, this is potentially more than a metaphor, it's a tool in artificial intelligence research.

Ignorant Belief Networks are one class of Bayesian Belief Networks that are able to reason on the basis of incomplete probabilistic information and to incrementally refine the precision of the inferred probabilities as more information is accumulated. This is what we are doing when we read and study atheistic books as well as Christian apologetics.

Instead of just acting on certain beliefs we really act on all the possibilities we can imagine when we don't have enough certainty, including conflicting improbable beliefs. It works as a kind of fail-safe and in extreme circumstances where no other action seems possible we will resort to the most improbable actions. For example, Steve McQueen, an actor who came across on screen as an intelligent, coolly rational and skeptical man, but who towards the end of his life, after being diagnosed with cancer, became a desperate and perhaps gullible man.

He had mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of the lungs and he apparently fell victim to some questionable medical practices. The medical profession derided him as a victim of fraud and friends warned him. However, with such a gloomy prognosis any skepticism McQueen may have had fell away and he became a desperate man willing to try anything because he saw no other options. What would you do in his situation? Hope trumps skepticism if there is no other price to pay.

As another more positive example, a fairly agnostic person may avoid doing a horrendous crime when the temptation is weak just because they imagine there might be a remote possibility of punishment in the afterlife for going too far over the line. They may not believe, but they try to do good just in case it is true.

Another example, I once let my brother's young kids watch a horror movie marathon one Halloween night. Early on during the films they were cracking jokes about how improbable werewolves, demons and zombies were but by the time the films were over they were so terrified of the simplest things I could make them jump just by shouting "Boo!" I eventually found them hiding under the bed with trembling flashlights in their hands. It didn't matter how skeptical they were, the movies had loaded their imaginations with all sorts of frightening possibilities and those imagined possibilities trumped their skepticism. Loading your imagination is exactly what religious proselytizers are doing. Have you ever had one accuse you of lacking imagination? I have and I'm a professional artist working in fantasy and science fiction who relies on my imagination.

We estimate probabilities and then plug in our fears and hopes. The real weights and numbers loaded into our Bayesian nodes and variables represent our fears and hopes and the estimated probabilities of encountering what we fear and/or hope for.

Religious propositions and claims we encounter in our mostly Christian culture generally have a low probability of being true. But religions like Christianity and Islam make up for their low probability by plugging into the most extreme hopes and fears that you can imagine. Those hopes and fears alter the way you estimate probabilities and how you collect data. Your imagination can be overloaded.

Christians also propose minimal, fail-safe, low cost actions, initially. They tell you to just study your Bible and then open your heart and ask God to come into it. No big sacrifice has to be made to get you started. The question you might be asking is why does this open your heart approach work on anybody if there is no god to come into your heart? I think it's a kind of hypnosis that works on an overloaded imagination, but I'll pick up on that in later essays.

There is never absolute certainty that can be had in regard to most religious questions. All that we atheists can do is argue against the probability of various claims about gods and religion. We can't really change the numbers in the fear and hope nodes. This is why atheism is something of an intellectual achievement and why it takes a bit of mental work. It's one reason why atheists tend to be scientifically informed and why fundamentalist Christians work against the accumulating scientific evidence of our modern age, denying evolution and neuroscience. You have to get to the point where you are satisfied that the probabilities are sufficiently low that you are as minimally effected by the hopes and fears religious proselytizers try to manipulate you with even if they don't understand what they are doing.

But I wrote about this over a decade ago and to end this post I'm going to quote a huge chunk of my over a decade old essay, HOPE IS THE BAIT:

The toxic hope offered by any kind of mysticism, be it Christian or New Age, is more than just the conquest of death, it's the desire for a supernatural realm beyond this comparatively dull and mundane reality. We all seem to have a profound yearning, a hope, for a magic method that will free us from realities that will not obey our wishes, from loneliness, from sorrow, from failure, from fears of the unknown, and from death itself, from our pain, and from our fragile human bodies that will rot in the earth after our dreaming souls have flown the coup. Because of our egocentricity we cannot accept the idea of death easily. We want to be free of nature's seemingly cruel dictates. It has been called the transcendental temptation, the siren call of mysticism, an escape from reality, and the theological seduction. It is a supernatural promise and it will not be kept.

Some Christians don't exactly know what kind of promise it is they have faith in, but they are sure it is better than rational despair. Yes, it would be nice if we could live forever in some paradise. It would be nice if there were a God watching over us and protecting us. But merely wanting and believing in these things is not enough to make them real. Hope and expectation is the bait that draws the seeker in, but the seeker is soon introduced to the fear of eternal damnation. What goes into the Bible reader's imagination, those highly emotional and secretly irrational processes within the subconscious, may just be objectively collected there at first as he tries to determine for himself what the truth is. The Bible reader tries to learn, but secretly wants to dream of a supernatural realm where his deepest desires might be fulfilled, and also where his darkest fears might come true. Fantasy may be a natural and healthy way to explore our desires and fears, and so discover their nature, and then develop realistic plans for getting what it is we desire and avoiding what we fear, but Christian fantasy is almost totally detached from any contact with reality. The desires and fears generated by the biblical texts are ambiguous, extreme, and unrealistic. The Bible, and especially New Testament, is bewildering, difficult, obscure, and confusing. The Bible creates an unhealthy uneasiness; it stimulates fear and hope with both subtle and direct threats and promises. The New Testament aims to turn the truth seeker inward and work on his subconscious mind. A seed is planted within the prospects subconscious. Any objective determination about the truth or falsity of Biblical claims is difficult for those who do not understand the psychology.

The Christian finds that he is dependent on priestly authority in order to understand his faith. The material that goes in to the mind, Biblical stories, rituals, impressive church structures, the herd instinct, mass media support, and peer pressure can be analyzed and so tell us something about this psychology and how the final effect is produced, and even something of the purposes that lay behind its design.

Supernatural fantasies are generated when the Bible reader speculates on the meaning of the text. And these fantasies are given implicit support by a media that tells us our politicians, presidents, generals, and celebrities are mostly Christian; a media that rarely contradicts the Christian assumptions of our culture. As the Bible reader reads of miracles, the promise of life everlasting, supernatural powers, angels, transcendent realms, and magical healings his desire and fantasy, his fears and hopes, will motivate, develop, and grow as he continues his studies. (One of the darkest aspects of religion's appeal to hope is its appeal to the desperate. To the terminally ill who seek to be healed.) Talk to any Christian and you'll find out that they've created a very personal vision, a private reality map that is uniquely their own. While different Christian groups with different labels, such as Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Charismatic, or Evangelical will advocate different interpretations of this supernatural fantasy each individual creates
his own particular vision out of the mix of possibilities.

For some people, once the Biblical seed of unreal hope and uncertain fear has been sown, a process of desire, expectation, and imagination begins in the hidden workings of the unconscious mind, in a secret world of mystical ideas, a world of ignorance and enormous possibility. The Bible reader begins to develop a murky image of his supernatural expectations and he seeks to clarify that image with further study. Instead of having his murky ideas clarified he is instead drawn further and further in to the trap. In time those things merely imagined, but still either feared or desired, may become part of our potential believer's reality map. The ideas are no longer just possibilities and speculations he entertains in his mind but are now 'real' to him. But 'real' only in the sense that they are emotionally loaded concepts that influence his desire and aversion behavior. The believer can no longer imagine, comfortably, a world view without his faith, his illusions. The emotion attached to these religious ideas is stronger than the emotion attached to the concepts and ideas in a more rational mind. While I have little experience with it, there seems to be a drug like emotional kick of joyous expectation associated with this process. At least this is what many Christians seem to claim when they talk about being 'born again.'

None of us use logic and reason alone to create our theories and reality maps, or even to solve problems. The ideas seem to just come to us, popping into our heads, or picked up out of books we've sought out, or welling up out of some dark and mysterious depth within our minds. Sometimes when this happens we want to scream 'Eureka!' because we have solved an important problem, as did Archimedes when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold. We use logic later, to check the work and put it in presentable order after the new ideas and insights have been attained. This does not invalidate the use of reason and logic as tools for understanding our world because the insights and ideas must survive the checking and ordering process which makes them valid, at the very least, if not demonstratably true.

A gestation process seems to be involved in genuine conversion. New insights, beliefs, concepts, and perspectives emerge days, weeks, perhaps even years after exposure to the information. The fuel for the Christian transformation is obviously those deep seated hopes and fears that biblical psychotechnology exploits. The computer programmer's jargon of "garbage in, garbage out" applies to the human mind as well. Cram your head full of scientific data about a problem that needs to be solved and you'll arrive at a technological solution to the problem. Cram your head full of Biblical mysticism and you'll find yourself with superstitious fears of damnation and a desperate quest for salvation. It's the checking and ordering process that is often not carried out when it comes to religion, or if it is, it's carried out improperly. In most cases, it's not even possible to carry out this checking process. Much of the information given to us by our trusted authority figures, our priests and politicians, goes unchecked, for checking is a hard and time consuming process. It's a lot harder to think for oneself than it is to just trust our culture's properly accredited experts, be they priests, politicians, or scientists. The Bible discourages this checking process and asks for faith, and that's one good clue to its false nature.