The Digital Plague

It occurs to me that many of you may not be aware of a very serious epidemic that’s been silently ravaging the globe, so I’d like to take this time to talk with you about it. Before I begin, let me start with the obligatory disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist. I do not have a degree in virology or anything similar. What you are about to read may not be 100% medically accurate, and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Where I lack the medical jargon to deliver this information with clinical precision, I have instead substituted analogy. In the many places I am sure to deviate from good science, you are encouraged to take my words as the metaphor they are intended to be. Do not give in to the affliction I am soon to discuss. Engage your irony sensors before objecting. Let us now begin to discuss the digital plague—digititis, if you will.

Common symptoms include:

Headaches, vomiting, and nausea in one’s neighbors. Mental flatulence. Reflexive disagreement. Inflamed sense of self-importance. Uncontrollable urge to make everyone know how right one is. Inability to back down. Intermittent fusion of one’s cranium and buttocks.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, and some of the items need elaboration, so let’s begin, shall we?

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What’s in a Name? (a.k.a. on Atheism+)

Christian? Muslim? Pastafarian? Agnostic? Humanist? What does it mean to be one of these things? Most simply, to call yourself any of this indicates that you wish to be associated with those groups. It means you want to identify yourself with the beliefs associated with those groups. Perhaps just as importantly, it means you wish not to be associated with opposing groups.

What, for example, is a “Christian?” Is a Mormon a Christian? There are indeed some who say that Mormons are not Christians (I have addressed this fallacy previously)—this is, of course, absurd; Mormons affirm the divinity of Jesus, and this alone qualifies them to be considered “Christians.” They further believe the Bible is the word of Yahweh, even if they do add a third chapter to that book. How is it that some Christians feel justified in excluding Mormons from the circle of Christianity? To such a person, that distinction is, for whatever reason, important to their self-image. Regardless of whether the supposed difference is true, that person sees value in asserting “I am X, and they are not.” In the case of Mormonism, this separation is entirely without merit,* but there are certainly cases where such divisions are not only beneficial but necessary. Being a Christian means that a person cannot be a Muslim or a Buddhist, for these are contradictory belief systems.

What does it mean to be an atheist, though? Atheism is rife with ambiguity, so additional differentiation is necessary. The “dictionary definition” of an atheist is someone who does not hold a belief in god(s). As such, this leaves an almost infinite list of other things that atheism does not address. Atheism alone says nothing about a person’s morality, political affiliation, height, preference for chocolate, gardening ability, or almost anything else. Is a person, by nature of being an atheist, guaranteed to be more or less moral than anyone else? Not according to the dictionary. So if atheism does not contribute to the strength of a person’s moral character, can an atheist be a good person? Obviously, yes. The only problem is that one cannot say “atheists are predominantly good people as a consequence of their atheism.” How can this puzzle be solved?

The traditional  answer to this would likely have been humanism—a person who adheres to humanist principles would almost certainly qualify as a good person. At its core, Secular Humanism is about being good without reference to any sort of supernatural mumbo-jumbo as a motivating factor, and that’s great. Wearing this label has never been the only way to be both an atheist and a decent human being, of course, but donning the badge of humanism has been a convenient way of advertising one’s status as a non-douchebag. It’s not the only label that one can identify with if one wants to advertise one’s decent-human-being-ness, and it’s certainly not a requirement, but it has been one of the most convenient ways of doing so for some time.

One of the problems I’ve had with calling myself a humanist, however, is the non-confrontational nature of it. Religion is an actively harmful entity in the world at large. Christopher Hitchens got it right when he said it poisons everything. When we nonbelievers hide from the atheist label, it becomes easier for religious people to pretend we don’t exist; it also becomes harder for us to identify and support each other. (Incidentally, this is the same criticism I have of nonbelievers who insist on self-identifying with only the agnostic label.) That** is why I am excited about the idea of this new Atheism+ thing. It’s about a week old now, but it’s hitting the scene pretty hard, and I have it seen best summarized as “New Atheism plus Humanism,” two things I endorse separately, each made better through combination with the other.

A lot of really smart people have written some really insightful things about Atheism+. This is a sentiment that’s been boiling beneath the surface for at least a year, and it’s hard to imagine that I could express it any better than people like Jen McCreightAshley Miller, Greta ChristinaRichard CarrierRussell Glasser, and so many others.*** (Not to mention Jason Thibeault‘s helpful graphics!) Like everything on the internet, there’s even a reddit page for it now.

Given that this is a blog thus far dedicated largely to issues of morality (specifically, advocating secular morality), I couldn’t be happier to come back from vacation with a post wholeheartedly supporting the Atheism+ movement. I agree that discrimination has no place in a movement that advertises itself as primarily rational. Prejudices based on race, sex, sexuality, and other such states that have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s moral character (yes, even religion) simply have no room in a movement aiming for social justice. The only reasonable approach is to judge people based on their behavior, and those who refuse to accept others as equals based on these otherwise irrelevant factors should not be welcomed or accepted in this kind of movement. A group cannot be inclusive if that group welcomes bigots, and anyone who advocates discriminating against someone over these states is practicing bigotry. Thus, this new anti-douchebag atheist movement is just what we need to combat the rising tide of increasingly vocal irrationality that has infiltrated what should, by all rights, be the one of the most inclusive movements in recent history. As a badge, “atheism” is not a shield against unjustifiable aggression, but Atheism+ can be. Atheism+ can include positive goals that dictionary atheism cannot. Atheism+ can be the inclusive movement atheism cannot be. This is a step in the right direction.

Even if you don’t feel called to identify with the Atheism+ label yourself, the movement’s goals thus far are unquestionably good, and it deserves recognition for that. Not being part of this movement doesn’t make someone a bad person—this has not been suggested by any right-minded individual. Rather, the label serves as a helpful tool for illustrating an atheist’s preference for equality and social justice. In the same way that “vegetarian” is helpful shorthand for “doesn’t eat meat” without also necessarily communicating “people who eat meat are evil,” Atheism+ communicates “how we treat people matters.” And it does matter.

In sum, I support Atheism+, and unless you’re an ignorant asshole, you should too. Asshattery shall not be tolerated.

~

Addendum:  My thoughts on the subject of Atheism+ continue here.

*Christianity is not “a” religion but rather an umbrella term for a number of differing religions sharing belief in Jesus as a core tenet. Thus, Mormons surely aren’t Southern Baptists, but both groups are clearly Christian.
**… in addition to the “deep rifts” caused by misogynists, racists, and the like …
***Daniel Fincke prefers a diplomatic approach, expressing similar thoughts quite eloquently. I had originally included this link alongside the others, but it doesn’t really fit there because he doesn’t speak directly about Atheism+. I should probably avoid clicking “publish” late at night.

Morality: Let’s Compare, Shall We?

What is morality?

mo·ral·i·ty /məˈrælɪti, mɔ-/
Noun:
1. Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
2. Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

So we should conclude that a moral system effectively differentiates between right and wrong behavior in those circumstances where such distinctions are meaningful. Great. What makes a thing moral? If you’re a Christian, it’s generally adherence this list of ten rules:

  1. 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. 13 Thou shalt not kill.
  7. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. 15 Thou shalt not steal.
  9. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

I, on the other hand, adopt this* much more concise list:

  1. Harm is bad.
  2. Well-being is good.
  3. Intending to do harm is bad.
  4. Intending to cause well-being is good.
  5. In moral arithmetic, consequences matter more than intentions.
  6. All things being equal, harm done outweighs well-being caused.

Which principles better describe morality? Which list covers more territory, behavior-wise? Which standard forbids the abuse of children? Which construct includes commandments that do not actually pertain to “good and bad behavior?” Which model better values human life? Which option is more moral?

* This list may not be final. It is subject to revision upon further consideration. Like all things properly rational, it is not set in stone. If you have suggestions for revision, I am eager to engage them.

Secularism

I’ve written about secularism in the past, but Qualiasoup has a straightforward video explaining it, if that’s your preferred medium. I think the most important thing to stress is that there are both atheist and theist secularists. There are nothing but good reasons for both sides to come together in this, as a secular government protects the rights of all people, regardless of religious belief.

The opposite of secularism is theocracy. The problem with this, as I have said before, is that when anyone succeeds at implementing anti-secular legislation, it hurts everyone who is not specifically a member of the elevated religious sect. No matter what denomination of whatever religion you belong to (if any), the odds do not favor you in this (and the desire to have your personal beliefs held more sacred than every other position would make you an irredeemable asshole).

While I may be opposed to religion in the abstract, I wholeheartedly support the right of every individual to hold whatever supernatural beliefs they like, provided these beliefs do not cause harm to others or restrict anyone else’s rights. I find evangelism deeply annoying, but the right to free speech guarantees the freedom to discuss religion just as much as it assures the ability of the nonreligious to disagree.

In essence, believe whatever you like, but no one has the right to force their beliefs on anyone else. If you do feel obligated to spread your message of faith, you have no right to take offense when someone publicly contradicts you.

Secular Morality and the Foundations of Governance

Religious morality is anything but. When compared to evidence-based approaches, dogmatic adherence to scripture is less productive at best and more likely to be actively destructive. There is no good reason to prefer religious doctrine over scientific approaches. History overflows with examples where religious solutions to problems have succeeded only in making the situation worse, and knowingly perpetuating this pattern is indefensible. If there were any evidence for god claims or any good reason to believe one religion were true, this might not be the case. Thankfully, there is no such evidence, so we have no compelling reason to construct anything but secular models for society. (To the circular argument that says, “the Bible must be true because the Bible says the Bible was written by God, so God exists like the Bible says, so we have to obey God exactly how the Bible says,” I respond only with this.)

What would a society based on secular values look like? To paint that picture, we must first identify the foundational guiding ethic. Here’s my attempt at doing so:

  1. That which does no harm is not bad and must not be forbidden.
  2. That which contributes to the betterment of society is preferable to that which does not.
  3. That which causes harm must resisted and responded to in proportion to the harm done.

I can’t think of anything to add to this list, but there might still be ways to improve it. (I’ll update it as suggestions merit revision.)  These rules govern the relative morality of any given action or policy, and a society that sought to pursue them as core considerations of governance would be superior to one adhering to an alternate agenda.

What follows is a somewhat long-winded consideration of good governance. This might not be everyone else’s cup of tea, but I got into a somewhat lengthy discussion of politics earlier today, and I’d like to assemble my thoughts on the subject.

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