False Equivalence & Religion

It's very much in fashion, especially for newly minted atheists, to call everything they don't like a religion. Until you learn that dogma, orthodoxy, authoritarianism, schisms, cults of personality and all the other negative things we see in religion are not unique to supernatural beliefs.
I've even seen some religious believers engage atheists in this way. Apparently if they can convince an atheist that some belief they hold is a religion, the atheist must reject it out of hand simply because they don't believe in religion. The trouble is that this relies on a very skewed, vague and infinitely malleable definition of what religion is. To use words meaningfully we need to restrict them to be specific enough to make sense, and religion defined as a bad and wrong belief is not tenable because it isn't useful, and this is exactly the kind of thing that is happening here. 

The argument to me looks like this:

1. Dogs have ears, a tongue, two eyes and a nose
2. Humans have ears, a tongue, two eyes and a nose
3. By comparing things and finding similarities between them, we can declare them to be equivalent
4. Humans and dogs have similarities
5. Therefore humans and dogs are equivalent

That nasty little premise 3 is what drives the argument, and I see it in many atheist circles. 

The final blow is when you start to look for dissimilarities instead of similarities and they pile up to the point where you forgot why you thought the two things were similar in the first place. It takes only a tiny scratch beneath the surface of this type of argument to see how fallacious it is.  

In my opinion it's a lazy way to try and win an argument with an atheist, because all atheists accept that religion is false, so merely equating something to religion automatically wins the argument, because the atheist must reject all religion out of hand. It really is painful to read these types of arguments. I would call for an end to this argument, but it will probably fall on deaf ears. Gotcha arguments with little substance are too easy and too tempting. It has another rather nasty side effect. Some atheists place religious people in a category of unreasonable and dogmatic, and it can be dangerous to place people in that category regardless of whether they are actual believers or not, but spraying every belief you disagree with the colour of religion you can come to believe that the people that hold to that belief are also unreasonable and dogmatic.

Each idea deserves its own day in the court of reason, without desperate false equivalence coming into play. If we don't take the bait, and accept that there is a possibility that people hold different beliefs to us for what they perceive to be completely valid reasoning, maybe we can come to a better understanding of that belief system. By merely equating another person's belief with something you know to be false, you are just excusing yourself from the hard task of really thinking about it. 

A (no doubt incomplete) list of false claims to being "religions":
  • feminism
  • libertarianism 
  • statism 
  • capitalism 
  • patriotism
  • scientism
  • democracy
  • evolution
  • environmentalism
  • climate change
So either we are all irrational raging zealots, or perhaps the extension of religion to anything we disagree with is not a very good argument.

Does Ridicule Play a Role in Discourse?

This is a tough question that has been bothering me for quite some time. Is ridicule a valid way to disagree, or does it simply push others away from your positions?

I think that ridicule makes sense when we ridicule something and not someone. I don't think the difference is all that subtle. The image above was lifted from a religious blog, and it depicts something that seems instinctively wrong. Pointing and laughing at a person is something we perceive as being wrong, because we don't want people to do that to us. But it's perfectly reasonable to attack an idea or a thing.

That brings us to satire. Satire has a long relationship with humanity. It is meant to show something absurd about something we do or believe. It can be very effective when the thing it is making fun of is true. Satire takes that which is taboo or holy and slaughters it on the altar of reason. What we do when we ridicule ideas and institutions is that we remove their holiness. Their unassailable characteristics are the target of fun. Satire wears down outrage like the ocean wears down the pebbles into sand.

If everyone had drawn silly pictures of Muhammed every day, then there wouldn't be enough extremists to violently attack everyone. Christianity is so beaten down by jokesters and blasphemers that some christians have come to believe that god "surely has a sense of humour". Their predecessors however would have wanted to see heads roll if their god's name was taken in vain. This causes a shock arms race, with each new generation of funny person needing to push the envelope of insult. On a deeper level, we learn to detach ideas from our identities, because satire attacks ideas viciously, and in order to avoid the constant hurt and emotional upheavel from being offended, we emotionally distance ourselves from our ideas. From there we can take an outsider's perspective that we wouldn't have been able to take before.

But what about respect? I often talk about respect and how important it is, because it lays the foundation of a productive discussion on any topic. Ridicule can be respectful, given that it follows a few basic guidelines. Good ridicule is based on something that is factual. Even if it is exaggerated, the point bringing brought across needs to have its basis in fact. Making fun of someone or a group for what they are not is disrespectful, and therefore it breeds tension and mistrust instead of an environment that is healthy for disagreement. Good ridicule avoids low blows. Focussing solely on the superficial characteristics of those you disagree with is not only disrespectful, but the precursor to dehumanisation. Good ridicule needs to be defensible as an argument, when al l the exaggeration is stripped away. A thoughtful person who sees something they believe in being ridiculed should be able to think carefully and find some underlying argument thy can think about. Ridicule just for the sake of convincing ourselves that we are superior to others who are on our side is counter-productive. Finally, ridicule should not be the only way we communicate. If we ridicule a belief we should also be ready to refute it in an intellectual space.  Ridicule can be an easy route for people to feel that they are taking part in a debate, when in actual fact they are not.

In essence, ridicule is a tool like any other tool of discussion. It can be used for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. I think a sincere approach to ridicule is warranted. We should think of it as a way to get peoples' attention, to get them thinking about our arguments, and to wear down their knee-jerk reactions to the criticism of ideas that are considered holy. Singling people out to harm them with ridicule is usually a bad idea, but ridiculing ideas in general is good when used correctly. What you will learn if you try to avoid ridicule is that nobody listens to you. Sometimes you need a megaphone to be heard, and emotionally speaking ridicule is just that.  

Techno Utopianism

Techno Utopia. It is the place where technology has progressed so far that it has solved all our problems. There is no more hunger, thirst, cancer or want. Our lives are vastly better, stress free, marked by copious amounts of leisure. We've overcome the the daily grind. Isn't it great? Ahhhh sit back. Relax. 

It's a lovely vision, and every generation has that vision for the next. If machines do the work man won't have to, and we can have more leisure time. Every generation machines do more of the work, yet here we are still working a little less than before, but not a lot. So there is an obvious mismatch. It seems obvious to the current generation that if we make more efficient technology we will need to work less to produce the same amount of goods, but with each generation the drive to produce more is stronger than the drive to have more leisure time. Clearly technology doesn't track leisure. If you want to tell me it does because I get to watch DVDs on my home entertainment system, well my grandparents used their leisure time to go for walks under a starlit night sky. Are we really better off?

Techno Utopianism seems to be premised on the idea that technology will be used for good. Uber is the disruptive technology that will save us from the nasty taxi operators, or even render personal car ownership obsolete? But does it benefit the drivers? How does it vet drivers to ensure they are qualified to safely transport passengers? Is Uber the benevolent dictator of transport we need? Bitcoin, a deflationary currency that is uncontrolled, and biases early adopters to become wealthy. Really that good? Anonymous online currency? Good for drug and weapon traffickers, but optimists who promote the technology only see positive things coming out of it. People have a wealth of information at their fingertips, but search engines mercilessly deliver them to places that coddle their own beliefs and ideology. It's as if we revolutionized everything except ourselves.

Enough with the examples already! Are we doomed to invent new ways to make ourselves miserable? How do we measure the outcome of a new technology. It seems to me that many new technologies have a golden window. That is the time in which the new technology is praised and acts in a positive way. It is the time before someone finds a way to exploit it. It's like software. Each new release works securely until someone finds a way to exploit its flaws. The mistake that we shouldn't make is to look at this initial period of techno-benevolence and draw conclusions purely from that. 

But that is probably not even the most important issue, which is that beyond basic needs, technology has almost no effect. To people of the early 20th century, it gave them a better way to murder each other in masses. The techno utopia was more like a dystopian nightmare, culminating in the most vicious and unforgiving weapon ever deployed: the nuclear bomb. 

You can't blame technology however. The same people that praise technology for solving our social problems, are the kinds of people that place blame on technology for creating social problems. The truth as I see it is vastly simpler. Technology doesn't create the problem, and it won't solve it. If society was ready for more leisure time, we could have had it by now. If society was more interested in curing cancer than smart bombs we would have probably been some distance further in combating the disease.  Still, I see many people posting about technology as if it is a panacea. If only we moved a little further into the future, our social problems will be solved! Technology doesn't do that, social movement and activism does. Spanish inquisitors would have used the internet as a tool of oppression, so the vision of the internet as a great tool of social revolutions is misguided.