You Represent Atheism

If you are an atheist, you represent atheism. Recently I've been in quite a few discussions on how atheists behave on the internet, and among those discussions there are different opinions as to how we can improve our interactions with believers. There is a disturbing view held by some atheists that a single person doesn't represent the movement, so if that single person behaves poorly it's totally okay and we should just move on and let it go.

Please see exhibit A

If you haven't seen it, please watch it through to the end. Now consider this. This guy represents you as an atheist. You may think "he doesn't represent atheism" and formally that is correct. It's also correct that people shouldn't look at this guy and make a generalization about atheists. But we live in reality where people make fallacious conclusions, so when someone who knows little about atheists sees this, they use this guy as a template for what atheists are like. Even though the guy is clearly behaving like a huge asshole we will never be able to live this one down because whether we like it or not, people generalize from seeing this.

Do you need evidence? Just read some of the comments:

Hah. 'Militant' Atheists. They complain about irrational people and bigots, but are bigots and irrational themselves. Any smart person would just ignore the preacher of any religion and move on with their day.
Typical atheist youtube commenter in real life
That's how i imagine most of the atheists on the internet. Crazy
here you see an atheist in the wild
that foul soul is the embodiment of atheism.. excluding the greasy brown hair, neckbeard, fedora and cheetoes fat
Now to be fair lots of people were pointing out the fact that this guy is not representative, and lots of people expressed understanding. But that is not the point. The people we should be trying to reach, the people who are victims of simplistic thinking, are the ones that get a bad impression from this guy. Is that really an image we want to cultivate?

Lots of atheists expressed their distaste at this guy's behaviour. But this guy is an extreme case. There are many atheists around the web that do exactly what this guy is doing in text form and atheist YouTubers behaving badly in video form. These channels have thousands of subscribers. I don't want to drag any specific channel into this though, because it distracts from the point. What do you want atheism to look like to outsiders? If you support these channels you are sending a message that it's okay for atheism to look like that. And we can say these people don't represent us, but here is a particularly bad one speaking to that point himself: say I don't represent atheism, I seem to have several thousand people behind me. How many do you have? That is pretty clear indication that my thoughts and beliefs are hitting home and well grounded. Supported in full by thousands of total strangers.
They know they have support. They know that calling believers childish names gets subscribers, and they love the attention. We constantly go on about how Westboro Baptist Church is wrong, but we support the equivalent in our atheist communities. The person who made the comment above made a comment on a believer's YouTube page calling him a c***. People who think that is witty and incisive need their heads checked. The fans of this channel defended this guy. Fellow atheists, thinking it's totally okay to behave this way. This is an example of how those people respond:
I don't see myself as being a part of some cult where we have guidelines or doctrines that tell us how we should act and what we should say and how we should say it. In fact I think the worst impression of atheism you can give is the one I'd get from someone like you who comes off as some type of religious authority figure.
Other responses included calling me boring, accusing me of whining and thinking I am a killjoy and think that we should treat believers with kid gloves. I believe that mockery and firm statements have their place, but that common decency should be a given.  Telling someone not to go around calling people childish names is telling them to be decent members of society. 

Aggression is the worst way to resolve intellectual disputes, and attempting to shame and insult others never changes their mind. So when people do this they work against their own goals of a better society. But some of these people who do this don't have our best interests at heart. They are just in it for themselves. For example:
Hmmm, my exponential subscriber growth doesn't impress you......vs your 0 count. Wow. I'm hurt. The money I make off my videos just won't feel the same now that you aren't impressed.
This is the caliber of atheist that represents you, me and every other atheist in the minds of the people that see how they behave. Thankfully, the person who posted this loses subscribers quite often, but amidst new growth, it's hard to see an end to the problem. 

So when you talk to believers, when you reshare a post or make a video, keep in mind that you are representing a position we all share. If you do it poorly you act against the goal of changing peoples' minds. By just subscribing or liking something, you have a minor effect on the course of history. Everyone sees what you do on the internet. Every comment is the past equivalent of a published letter. 

If you see someone else behaving badly, don't just walk on by, tell them the effect of what they're doing. Let them know that they are self sabotaging, and by extension sabotaging all of us and society in general. We need to find ways to increase meaningful engagement on the internet and to make it clear that people who hold our position value decency and respect, and are willing to tackle differences on the basis of the facts and arguments, and not by screaming louder or calling people names. If we look like a bunch of juvenile internet trolls we won't achieve a damn thing, but if we behave like thoughtful, humble human beings we will get the audience of the people who most need this change, the victims of organized religion.

Theodicies Don't Work!

I wanted to put an example of suffering, but they are so horrible, I chose this instead.

For those who don't know what a theodicy is, it is a

Definition of THEODICY. : defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.[1]

Why would I make such a bold statement as the one I have in the title of this post. Quite simply theodicies don't do what many apologists think they do, and that especially counts for amateur internet apologists. As an example I will look at the free will theodicy. It is said roughly that without yahweh permitting some amount of evil, free will could not exist. This theodicy itself is very much up for debate. What is meant by free will for example can be annoying and lengthy as a discussion itself.

What this theodicy and most others attempt to do is to respond to the logical problem of evil, which is a position that it is logically impossible that evil could exist with a perfectly good god. Logical possibility is a strong term of exclusion. In philosophical terms logical impossibility means that the idea is not even worth considering, usually because it implies contradictions. Such is the logical problem of evil, and all that seems necessary to refute it is to show that there is some logical possibility under which both evil and the perfectly good deity can co-exist. 

Once again, very debatable, but the idea is that if you can make a theodicy coherent you have defeated the basic problem of evil. I understand that. 

However what a theodicy does not come close to doing is establishing that it is true. There is no evidence, physical or otherwise, that any theodicy is the actual explanation for the existence of evil. So even a working theodicy that establishes logical possibility still fails to be the actual explanation of why the apparent contradiction between a perfectly good god and evil exists. Even some apologists understand this problem, and they consequently adopt a position called sceptical theism. 

Sceptical theism entails the rejection of theodicies and the acceptance of the idea that even though we don't have the actual explanation for the apparent contradiction, that's totally okay. We can just say we don't know. It's the "god works in mysterious ways" approach[2]. Sceptical theists are great at demolishing theodicies. Don't find it surprising if you see a sceptical theist putting forward the same ideas I am here. I may have even borrowed the idea from them. 

So even though a theodicy can present a logical possibility in its best form, it remains problematic because it doesn't address the actual reason why the apparent contradiction should not be resolved by rejecting theism. It operates in the same way as someone making excuses for someone else who has apparently done something atrocious but is not present to answer to their own atrocities. "Jack would never do that, he is a good man". The apparent contradiction of the perceived character of the absent individual, in this case god, is resolved by making up excuses that may be plausible, but are not demonstrated as being actual. 

So where to now? You can still discuss theodicies with christian apologists, but I personally feel weary of doing that. What's the use in a hypothetical excuse that reconciles an apparent contradiction in the character of a being who does not consider humankind worthy of the real answers. Yahweh doesn't come down to explain and dissolve the problem, so why should we lend ourselves to speculation about it? The easier way to resolve the apparent contradiction is agnosticism. Either agnosticism on the goodness of god, which would create a whole new set of contradictions or agnosticism toward christian theism in the first place, which is harmonious and without the same problem. 

[2] Sceptical theists aren't good sceptics. Good sceptics don't pick a side, so don't confuse the title. A good sceptic will admit that because of the apparent contradiction one cannot make the conclusion that a good god exists while evil exists, but that it may be possible. A good sceptic will likely end up becoming an agnostic. 

Atheism & First Principles

In a previous post, I made the remark that most atheists "[...] don't sit down and reason from god not existing as some sort of first principle.". It was in response to an apologist's blog post. It was a passing remark but the underlying issue runs much deeper than that.

Religions are package deals. A religion helps to place you on various issues such as politics, ethics, science and philosophy. Religions have statements of faith or dogmatic first principles to which believers must adhere to be part of that particular sect or religious movement. A simpler way to express it would be to look at those old What Would Jesus Do armbands. Everything is supposed to be reasoned from it. Biff punched me, so what would Jesus do? Religion provides first principles from which to reason about the world.

The mistake I have seen religious people often make is to conflate religion with atheism. They think that somehow the non-existence of a god is a first principle by which atheists such as myself reason. Of course the conclusion "god does not exist" would then be entirely circular. They are often guilty of this kind of circular reasoning themselves, but never mind that. Many atheists in fact become atheists through what is called an internal critique. That means that assuming the first principles of religion, does everything make sense in that framework? Given what it means to be perfect and jealous, can any being be both perfect and jealous? Given that a being is good, does commanding genocide reflect what we know as what good is?

Neither of those internal critiques require an assumption of non-existence as some believers think. It just requires an independent idea of what good means, or what perfect or jealous means. Some believers have circular definitions of those terms such as "something may be called good if god wills it", but to anyone who sees more in the concept of good such internal critiques are perfectly valid. In other words non-belief in god is the end result of certain beliefs, but certainly not the outcome of a first principle that a god does not exist.

So in the core of an atheist's typical beliefs there is no belief that god does not exist. That belief usually lies on the peripheries as a result of other beliefs. So there are many nonbelievers that come from different perspectives and reach the same conclusion. There are certain beliefs that tend to result in atheism, such as the idea that we need external evidence in order to rationally believe in something. These ideas are formed on the basis of their own arguments, but if accepted it is often hard for theism to survive. If any belief was a bacterium, then you could say that empiricism is a generally hostile environment for the theism bacterium. This is why so many people who are dedicated to the concepts of reason and physical evidence also tend to become atheists at one point.

So atheism does not have any dogmas. You are not automatically a nihilist, moral relativist, an existentialist, a postmodernist or a sceptic if you are an atheist. The reverse may be more likely, that being those things may drive atheism into being a more coherent position in your belief structure. The accusation that atheism is a first principle is not without reason. The accusation is levelled because of a unique problem that faces christians. The problem is that being both a modernist, which most western people are,  contradicts theism. Thus, holding to both beliefs creates contradictions when people think through it. One way to resolve the contradictions is to reject modernism and adopt christianity as a first principle, because if you assume as a first principle for example that the Bible is infallible, then the paleontological record won't bother you. So the accusation is levelled as a form of projection.

 Since apologists rely on first principles to shield their theism, they reason that atheists must do the same to shield their atheism. But this creates the scenario in which there can be no new apostates, because there are no internal critiques that could make theists change their minds. Your first principle, be it atheism or theism, is simply an arbitrary choice, or a position based on faith, convincing some apologists to make absurd statements like "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist", because they believe that because atheism is a first principle with a set of dogmas one must accept evolution, big bang theory and other accounts of things religion claims to explain. Atheism they believe, must be like religion in giving explanations for everything religion does, and offering prescriptive rules for behaviour and thought like religion does. The reason we accept those accounts is because we are atheists, and therefore those things are aspects of the religion of atheism. This is how misunderstood atheists are to religious apologists, who in turn fuel the misunderstandings of congregations who listen to them.

This is a subtle problem, which will likely be lost on apologists who need it explained to them, because in their mind everyone is like they are and all positions on religions are religions themselves because you must have first principles and because you must have answers to the questions of the meaning of life, the universe and everything. They will say that atheism has a lot of questions to answer, because it takes faith to believe "from the goo to you in the zoo to you" or "everything coming from nothing popping". The idea that one has to accept the propositions of science in order to become an atheist is absurd, because it simply takes a rational investigation of christian beliefs in order to cause their swift death in your mind, but it is immensely profitable for apologists to keep this severe misunderstanding, because they are awarded in monetary value for perpetuating it. Their audience is not a flock of severely eye-brow raising sceptics, but people who are eager to believe the central propositions of their faith on any grounds, no matter how absurd.

It's difficult to say that all apologists have this problem, but it permeates apologetics in an extreme way such as to make any apologists that realise the problem and avoid it inconsequential in the final assessment.  The atheism as a first principle, world view or religion is a standard apologetics talking point, and by excising it from their work they would be forced to engage with serious counter-apologetics. But this strategy is not a long term success. It has shown over the years not to reverse the tide of apostasy. That is because as soon as everyday believers realise that atheism is none of those things and requires no first principle of non-belief, apologists lose their credibility and sway. Some atheists have expressed that the more they read apologetics, the less convinced they were, and I think that fundamental, repeated errors like this one contribute to that.

Privilege & Blame

In modern discussion about social issues a recurring theme is privilege. RationalWiki has a fair definition of the term as used in the context of social issues:

Privilege is the benefits and advantages held by a group in power, or in a majority, that arise because of the oppression and suppression of minority groups. Often these benefits and advantages are not codified as legal rights and arise as secondary qualities to suppression (see the examples below). This causes them to become difficult to spot, and remain unseen or unrecognised. This aspect in particular is known as privilege blindness.[1]

I think that privilege as conceived here is a flawed concept and it shifts focus from what the real issues are supposed to be to an insidious form of blame and stereotyping that causes people who would usually be sympathetic to social issues to stand their ground and choose sides. If I am right then much of the work in addressing social issues is self defeating because making use of blame antagonizes the very people the original message is intended for. 

The idea of privilege itself is not wrong. It is not incorrect to state that some groups in society are born with silver spoons in their mouths while others fight an uphill battle, nor is it incorrect that these same social groups are often oblivious to the advantageous position they occupy. My purpose here is not to deny the existence of privilege. The idea I disagree with is that those who hold certain positions in society are blameworthy for the circumstances of others in society, and although this is not explicit in the statement of what privilege is, it is certainly implicit and it is how the concept is expressed and interpreted. People who say things like "I won't apologize for being male" are getting this end of the privilege mechanism. They are feeling guilt and blame placed on their shoulders for circumstances they themselves did not craft. Those who use privilege in commentary are often unaware that they are projecting blame. 

The end result is pushback. Those who want to see a fair society are appalled at the backfire effect that calling out privilege has. The guilt and blame they have inadvertently laid upon the doorstep of the privileged in society now comes flying back at them at a million miles an hour. Some recoil in despair while others believe that the privileged classes are not only aware of their privilege, but seek to maintain it. The stereotype of the privileged, that they are unrepentant hateful human beings who don't want to see fairness prevail in society, gets reinforced. The privileged are excluded from the discussions on the way forward because they are not privy to the deprivation felt outside their bubbles of privilege.

So what ever happened to empathy? Why is the focus on placing blame and not on extending empathy? Privilege focuses people internally on negative feelings of guilt and shame while simultaneously giving victims blame as a weapon. I feel as though some of the people who think that this is a positive cause or direction for society are just frustrated and trying to express their aggression and not truly trying to affect a real change in the world out there. Empathy works by showing and not by telling. It is about understanding circumstances no matter what they are. The proponents of the fight against privilege are ironically part of a privileged class that possesses the education necessary  to understand privilege, and step on those who don't by trying to force them to take a bitter pill of shame. They themselves do not exercise the empathy that they expect their target audience to acquire through the acceptance of blame.

Promoting empathy is about creating an environment of understanding, where people understand the circumstances of others and how different they are, along with the deprivation that those others suffer. Understanding the deprivation of another human being is more important than understanding your own privilege. To some people it might sound like I am just rewording privilege, but I am not. I am advocating for the shifting of focus to the actual problems in society instead of simply pointing out how much better one group has it than everyone else. Privilege wrongly shifts the focus from the actual victims of injustice in society to who we are going to blame for it. 

Her Movie Review

Or How Hipsters Took A Dump On The Porch Of Sci-Fi

** This review contains spoilers, but to be honest there is nothing much to spoil.

I really like Joaquin Phoenix. In this movie he is a sad hipster going through a divorce, who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system. He plays the part of a depressed hipster loser very well, so props to him for that. 
Thinking that this will be a score for me, a sci-fi fan and my wife, a romance fan, I picked this movie for us to watch. What I didn't expect was for the movie to fail so badly at doing both genres. Being the nice guy that I am, I watch the occasional romance movie with my wife, and some of them are pretty good. The Vow was a sad movie with hipsters bohemians that I really liked. The Rebound was a romantic comedy I couldn't help liking. 

One thing that makes a romance succeed is if the characters have actual personalities. The sad panda protagonist seems to have a personality that makes us want to commit suicide on his behalf, and the OS he falls in love with, Samantha, is just too perfect in every way. The first thing this hyper intelligent AI wants to do when it is switched on is have a relationship with its owner. Pretty weird. Even weirder is that it never really shows how they fall in love. In the world of romance this is a big no no. The moment the couple falls in love is integral in the story. Way to screw that up Jonze. I guess expecting more from the writer of Jackass was a wrong thing to do. 

On to the sci-fi bit. The sci-fi in this movie is so utterly pathetic it made me want to cry. It is a fact that the occulus rift exists today. It is quite a wonder that the only solution that the lovers have to meet (and this was the hyper intelligent AI's idea) was to get some random chick off the internet to pretend to be her. You would think that by the time we can build AI capable of naming themselves we would be able to simulate touch in a virtual environment or at least be able to make a passable fembot. The movie pretends that robotics and virtual reality never existed to create an alternate hipster future where you are stuck with an even smaller screen in your awkward hipster shirt pocket where people are constantly mumbling to their computers on the bus. In fact the whole thing views like a hipster iPhone wank fantasy based on the Siri character. Besides falling in love, the only thing this AI seems to be able to do is send and sort e-mails, make tea and transcend known physics to leave you without an operating system on your computer. And we thought Windows was awful!

The movie in general is so full of the ideal hipster world, which should rightly be called a hellish dystopia of mid 20th century style mixed with people who seem depressed and bored with their lives, divorcing each other because of where you should put your shoes when you come into the house. I know where I want to put my shoe: right up Jonze's ass for writing such a shitty screenplay and torturing me with hipster dystopia for 122 minutes. 

Towards the end, and in no way am I ruining this movie for you, the AI suddenly decides to bugger off with its friends leaving our depressed meatbag alone. He and his recently divorced friend go up onto a rooftop, and a glimmer of hope twinkled in my eye when I thought that they would commit suicide because their operating systems left them. Unfortunately it just ends there. You don't end a romance movie with an unresolved question like "do the hipster losers hook up" and given that you have molested sci-fi and romance, the least you could do is offer a consolation prize of a kiss between the hipster losers. But nay. It just ends like that. 

The movie is a desperate attempt to offer social commentary and to be deep, but it even fails at that. There is no moral of the story, and there is no resolution to the protagonist's dilemma of being a lonely hipster with poor fashion sense. 

Pew Results And Christianity

The latest pew results are interesting. There is  sharp drop in mainline christianity in the US. How does this affect us non US citizens? Well it affects us quite a bit. If Catholicism lives in Rome, Protestantism lives in the US. The USA is where protestantism has its spiritual home. You can walk into a christian bookstore anywhere and you will find that much of the writing and music and video content there comes from the US, because the US is where the most money is spent on producing and promoting Christianity. Christianity requires a large contingent of scholars to prop it up because ultimately such an error prone belief system will come under criticism. Creating the right echo chambers where apologetics works takes a lot of money and hard work. Christians just think they win the arguments because almost everyone around them are still nodding their heads in agreement.

If Christianity loses the US it is going to be hard for it to maintain its legitimacy, because the US is really its last great bastion of dominance. That's not to say that the outcome of Christianity is already determined, but it doesn't look good. If it is a trend that continues at the present rate Christianity will dip below the 50% mark within about 21 years. To put that into perspective, a religion that has been dominant for more than a thousand years will decline significantly in a quarter of a century. Even if we double that to 50 years it is still a devastating loss.

Many Christians see positive growth of Christianity in China, Russia and Africa as a good thing, but it is largely irrelevant to Christians in the English speaking world. Speaking English means that you have access to thousands of resources on different religions and atheism through the internet. The ignorance of the third world won't last forever, and this is already evident with outspoken atheist groups showing up in these places. Christianity has never had to compete with that. They are no longer missionaries who only need to overcome tribal apologetics, they now have to contend with informed opinions and this is only going to get worse as this century plays out on the stage of history.

One thing seems to be pretty sure though, and that is that even if Christianity manages to get a new influx of converts (a revival), that they won't regain their former strength. To the Christians that think the end times are near, maybe they are right. They are wrong about it being the end for all of us. It seems like it may just be the end of Christianity. All religions die eventually.

An Apologist's Job

So I have speculated that the purpose of apologetics is to ease the cognitive dissonance of believers.

+Melissa Cain Travis is kind enough to confirm that in her blog post What an Apologist’s Job is NOT . When I say things like that, I always wish that I am wrong about it, but I am not it seems, not in this case anyway.

So what isn't an apologist's job?
"You are not a spoon-feeder. I have found that many folks, abrasive atheists/agnostics in particular, aren’t willing to undertake serious research on their own. They’re armed with a hundred pop-atheism talking points that have long been answered, which goes to show they haven’t investigated the opposing viewpoint at all."  (my emphasis)
What does she recommend?
"Pay attention to verbal cues and the attitude of the individual to determine whether or not they are sincerely interested in your answers"
I certainly agree with that.
"give them a sentence or two to chew on and then direct them to a book, article, or lecture by a reputable scholar. If they come back at a later date, having studied the sources, further dialogue is warranted, so long as they maintain a respectful tone. "
I don't usually swear on my blog, so you will have to excuse me this time. Holy shit! If I want to engage with apologists like her I would have to read entire books or watch entire lectures! I suspect though that what is really going on here is a version of the courtiers reply[1]. What's so wrong about teaching people about things? Aren't discussions a way to learn things after all?

When you engage with people online, you are going to get a wide variety of people with a wide range of knowledge. To engage with them you need to realise that they might have some piss poor points. This is usually no fault of their own. 
"If they simply dismiss your words and suggestions with poor logic, make snide comments about the scholars you recommend, or change the subject, cut off the conversation and stop wasting your time."
Poor logic is once again not usually the fault of the person who is trying it. If everyone had to dismiss everyone who used poor logic we would be limited to a small subset of people to talk to. Even experts make amateur mistakes sometimes. Logic is hard!
"Such a person is a distraction from ministry, not a legitimate beneficiary."
Such a shame not to receive the gift of apologetics. 
"Apologetics is about disseminating truth. The apologist is called to demonstrate the quality of the evidence for Christianity and provide substantial answers for objections. "
Scepticism is a search for truth. So should we presuppose a truth and then try to disseminate it or keep looking? You decide.
"As the atheist scholar, Dr. Thomas Nagel has so bluntly put it, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (The Last Word, 1997)"
Not many people like Nagel. At least we can agree on something right! It's odd that many christians espouse exactly the same thing in negated form, and apologetics is the butthurt cream to soothe any doubts:
" Apologetics ministry is not about “winning souls,” as the old-time evangelists would put it. Rather, our work is about removing true intellectual obstacles. For some believers, this removal brings great relief from doubt, for some seekers, it paves the way for a more serious investigation of Christianity. " (my emphasis)
People may wonder why I moan so much about apologetics, and Melissa is kind enough to spread apologetics to children. See her about page:
"She is the author of How Do We Know God is Really There? (Apologia Press, 2013) and How Do We Know God Created Life? (Apologia Press, 2014), the first two books in the Young Defenders series, illustrated storybooks that teach the fundamentals of Christian apologetics to young children (Spanish versions soon available). Her third book, How Do We Know Jesus is Alive? will debut in the spring of 2015."
I always try to read things with a maximum amount of charity, but the idea of presupposing truth and indoctrinating children is sickening. I'm not going to get all worked up about it but that is basically how I feel about it. Children should be free to pursue their own journey to truth and not be lead into accepting the conclusions of their parents. 

I totally think we should be nice to each other and try to be understanding and not reject peoples's sources without justification, but I do think that we need to take pains to teach people who are teachable and not just shove them away with a book title. I think that bringing removal from doubt for believers is doing them a disservice. If theism is so true and people are honestly looking for the truth, then surely there is nothing to panic about. Why is it that religion is taught to children? Why not do philosophy, history and theology lessons in church for adults? I mean I probably know why, not that it matters.