Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Intellectual arrogance?

Recently, in some FB 'discussions' I was subjected to some scathing accusations of intellectual arrogance.  According to my detractors, I was wrongly criticizing and even ridiculing certain people - those who claim supernatural 'explanations' for ordinary events.  The crux of my intent in the thread was to indicate that defaulting immediately to a supernatural 'explanation' comes readily to certain (initially unnamed) folks.  An unstated but still justifiably implied aspect of this is that many folks who accept supernatural 'explanations' are not very intelligent. Of course, FB discussions are characterized by ignorance on all sides of who and what one's 'opponent' really is.  This is unfortunate, as people become alienated by a single post or comment in a 'discussion'.  But moving on ...

The whole domain of "intelligence" is a minefield.  Just what precisely does one mean when discussing the topic of intelligence?  There are many different types of intelligence - in a recent scientific paper, the authors defined intelligence, for their purposes, to be the "ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience".  Other definitions are possible.  The authors used the intelligence quotient (IQ) as the metric.  Yes, there are issues with IQ, including knowing just precisely what it actually measures, but I'm in no position to enter into such discussions.  The paper was published in a refereed journal, which gives it some credibility but is not an absolute guarantee that the work is flawless.  Pursuant to that, the authors went to some length to summarize ther perceived limitations on the work, as any good scientific paper should do.  No single scientific paper can ever provide absolute proof of anything, nor can a single paper provide perfectly accurate, comprehensive understanding of the topic.  This manuscript simply provides evidence in support of the hypothesis that a negative relationship exists between intelligence and "religiosity" - according to the authors

The religiosity measures included belief scales that assessed various themes related to religiosity (e.g., belief in God and/or the importance of church). In addition, we included studies that measured frequency of religious behaviors (e.g., church attendance, prayer), participation in religious
organizations, and membership in denominations.

At least as defined by the metrics used in the study, the more religious the person, the lower the intelligence, on average.  The reason I'm spending this much effort with this recent scientific publication should be clear.  There's scientific evidence to back up my implication that defaulting to a supernatural 'explanation' for something is an indicator of lower intelligence than what would be implied when a rational evidence-based explanation is sought for something.

Note that the relationship between intelligence and religiosity is not a perfect one-for-one relationship.  I know many people who are undeniably intelligent and yet maintain strong religious beliefs.  Although I find such a position to be untenable and inexplicable by logic and evidence, I must accept the reality that religious believers are not inevitably low down on the IQ scale.  But believers are much less common in, say, the scientific community wherein intelligence tends to be much higher (on the average) than in the general population.

I've also been accused by these detractors as "arrogant" and "narcissistic" when I question the beliefs of people who seek comfort in supernatural beliefs.  Why should I deny those people the comfort they derive from their beliefs?  Who gave me the right to say their beliefs are wrong or stupid?  My detractors fail to see the arrogance and narcissim implied in their questions - they're claiming for themselves the right to tell me I'm wrong and they're confident in their superiority to me when they call me narcissistic.  In other words, my detractors are projecting their own flaws onto me, which is one indicator of narcissism (i.e., "Problems distinguishing the self from others") - what they see in me is what exists within themselves.  When confronted with that possibility (that they themselves are guilty of the accusations leveled at me), of course they denied it vehemently.  One even denied that calling me a narcissist was name-calling!  Evidently, by this pitiful logic, calling someone a name is not name-calling when you believe the name has been applied correctly to the recipient.  I rest my case, in this example.

As for the putative right to say someone's reasoning is right or wrong - no one had to give it to me at all.  Like my detractors, I have no moral or legal restriction in the USA on what I can say about someone's reasoning.  Someone's beliefs are not morally or Constitutionally-protected from criticism or even ridicule.  I see no reason to withhold my questions and criticisms about someone's beliefs - there's also no Constitutional protection from being offended by free speech.  I certainly don't ask for any restrictions on someone's right to question my reasoning or even to ridicule my atheism - but I'd prefer it be done with some modicum of logic and/or evidence, so that I might actually learn something from it!

The reason I challenge the beliefs of the religious (and other supernatural elements such as UFO mythology) is that we're living in dangerous times.  It might be comforting to delude yourself about such things as the afterlife, but those beliefs come with a high price.  Carl Sagan has said "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."  To choose voluntarily to eschew the use of rationality and instead to promote the notion of accepting doctrine on faith alone is to encourage what I see as a sort of modern insanity, whereby ordinary people become fanatics - terrorists, bombers, arsonists, or mass murderers - all in the name of a belief in the supernatural.  This was barbaric even in the times when the Abrahamic religious 'sacred' texts were written, but it's intolerable in the present.  Such irrationality endangers us all.  Consider the belief held by many christians that when the "rapture" comes, all the believers will be "saved" and live forever in paradise.  Do you want someone who seriously accepts that doctrine to be at the controls of a thermonuclear war?  In their irrational view, they have only gain to anticipate in their afterlife ... that should bother people!  Same for the suicide bombers and their supposed 72 virgins - we have direct evidence of what those believers are willing to do in the name of religion.

Yes, I know that not every religious believer is a terrorist - many so-called 'moderates' deny any violent intentions and I'm sure most of them never will commit violent deeds.  But when those moderates fail to stand up in opposition to violence and evils such as bigotry sanctioned by their religions, they implicitly sanction those acts.   By the way, atheism has no doctrine, no 'sacred' texts approving of murder, genocide, misogyny, slavery, abuse and selling of children, etc.  Atheism has no clergy or prophets or sacred authority figures to urge atheists to say or do anything.  There are no examples I know about of atheist violence in the name of atheism (Please don't waste time telling me about communist atrocities)!

Monday, August 12, 2013

What is the "new atheism" about?

Recently, the famous Noam Chomsky has taken on the famous Richard Dawkins, a person widely recognized to be a leader of the aggressive 'new atheism' - here is an excerpt from Chomsky on this topic:

...  I haven't been thrilled by the atheist movement. First, who is the audience? Is it religious extremists? Say right-wing evangelical Christians like George Bush (as you rightly point out)? Or is it very prominent Rabbis in Israel who call for visiting the judgment of Amalek on all Palestinians (total destruction, down to their animals)? Or is it the radical Islamic fundamentalists who have been Washington's most valued allies in the Middle East for 75 years (note that Bush's current trip to the Middle East celebrates two events: the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 75th anniversary of establishment of US-Saudi relations, each of which merits more comment)? If those are the intended audiences, the effort is plainly a waste of time. Is the audience atheists? Again a waste of time. Is it the grieving mother who consoles herself by thinking that she will see her dying child again in heaven? If so, only the most morally depraved will deliver solemn lectures to her about the falsity of her beliefs. Is it those who have religious affiliations and beliefs, but don't have to be reminded of what they knew as teenagers about the genocidal character of the Bible, the fact that biblical accounts are not literal truths, or that religion has often been the banner under which hideous crimes were carried out (the Crusades, for example)? Plainly not.

" The message is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds. Who, in fact, is the audience?

" Furthermore, if it is to be even minimally serious, the "new atheism" should focus its concerns on the ***virulent secular religions of state worship***, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq, or cannot comprehend why they might have some concern when their own state, with their support, carries out some of its minor peccadilloes, like killing probably tens of thousands of poor Africans by destroying their main source of pharmaceutical supplies on a whim -- arguably more morally depraved than intentional killing, for reasons I've discussed elsewhere. In brief, to be minimally serious the "new atheism" should begin by looking in the mirror.

Without going on, I haven't found it thrilling, though condemnation of dangerous beliefs and great crimes is always in order.

So what exactly is the new atheism about?  I certainly can't speak for Richard Dawkins and, while I like many (not all) of the things he says, I have no intention of defending him here.  He can take care of himself.  There are no real leaders of atheism, because atheists as a group are inherently incapable of being lead.  Atheists, for the most part, are freethinkers and don't have anything remotely resembling a unified agenda.  The only thing they all agree on is their shared disbelief in a deity.  Because they form their own ideas and question even the prominent atheists, like Dawkins, they resist being told what to think and what to do.  At least not in the sense of blindly following some authority figure.  When a group of atheists gets together, you can count on constant bickering, back-stabbing, ad hominem insults, and hateful remarks directed at each other.  A herd of cats is docile and subservient compared with a group of atheists.  It's a handicap in defending ourselves that we get along so poorly, I suppose.

Chomsky apparently thinks, like many believers, that atheists are mostly trying to convert others to atheism.  The challenge facing the 'new atheism' is not to convert believers to atheism, at least not for all atheists.  What we confront collectively is an aggressive move by many religions to merge government and religion - to create a theocracy.  Despite revisionist historical claims by christians, the US is not a christian nation - it was established as a secular nation, with a wall of separation between church and state.  The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution because it was deemed important by the founders to prevent tyranny of the majority (If two wolves and a lamb are together, guess which one gets voted to be dinner!), including the majority christians. 
Atheists are widely despised in the US, as several recent polls have shown.  There's a lot about atheism that's not understood by the believer majority - there are many myths that perpetuate discrimination against atheists.  In the US today, it's easier to come out of the homosexual closet than it is to come out as an atheist (e.g., Barney Frank).  Families and friends turn their backs on you, you could be fired from your job, you're essentially unelectable as a public official, you can receive death threats, various forms of discrimination, etc.

We atheists are asked often "Why are you so aggressive?  Why not just let people practice whatever religion they wish and keep your ideas to yourself?"   I think most atheists would be just fine with that ... if believers would stop their aggressive proselytizing and pushing their agenda into local, state, and federal government. 
If you find comfort in your beliefs, we have no issue with that, even though we see it as a form of the placebo effect - if it works for you, great!  However, the christian majority has gone so far as to claim we're inhibiting their religious freedom when we protest their intrusion into politics, legislation, and public education!  The only 'freedom' we atheists are inhibiting is the nonexistent 'right' to impose your religious ideas on everyone!

'Aggressive' atheists frequently are accused of intellectual snobbery, because they criticize believers for not being rational in their beliefs, or because they ridicule those beliefs.  Believer claims can be so absurd, it's difficult not to make fun of them.  And there does indeed seem to be a strong correlation between IQ and an absence of belief in a deity (For instance, unlike the general population of the US, only a minority of scientists are religious.).  But the ridicule and the criticism from atheists is aimed at the beliefs, not the people.  I realize that for many believers, their beliefs are inextricably linked to who they think themselves to be, so I can understand that criticizing their beliefs can be offensive to them.  But there's no legal or moral protection for one's beliefs - they're all open to criticism, parody, satire, and other forms of ridicule.  If you're offended by that, that's your choice and your problem, because there's no constitutional right to not be offended.  Constitutional freedom of speech is not limited to that speech you find to be non-offensive.  We'll shut up when believers do.

Many atheists, including me, are aggressive in supporting freedom and liberty for all, not just the majority.  We're fine if you want to accept as reality some dusty old myths from the late Bronze Age.  We're fine if you want to buy into fairy tales told by some guy who had figured out a way to parlay religion into an endless supply of women for himself.  We think you have the right to believe entirely as you wish ... provided you don't push your beliefs on us, either by proselytizing or by enacting legislation that establishes your beliefs on everyone, and especially not at the threat of violence.  Do those things and we'll push back appropriately.  Many of us are committed to not letting you force your beliefs on us, and so we fight such things aggressively.  And I'm not about to apologize to anyone about that.
We don't understand how otherwise intelligent people accept mythology as reality, with no credible evidence to support those myths.  People who allow themselves to accept doctrine solely on faith (in the absence of credible evidence) are a bit scary to us.  After all, religious persecution of agnostics and atheists has a long, bloody history.  When 'moderates' fail to protest, in the strongest possible terms, violence committed in the name of religion, that's a worrisome issue for us.  I hope you can understand that.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Power of Racial Epithets

When I was a boy, my cousin learned that I really disliked a name my father had given me:  Charley-boy.  Surely my father had no malicious intent with what was simply a term of endearment, but it really bothered me, as often happens between children and parents.  So of course, my cousin picked up on its effect over me, and used it as a way to tease me.  The more I reacted to it, the more he used it.

Eventually, I found a way to stop the teasing.  I would pretend that it no longer bothered me, and any anger I felt over the use of "Charley-boy" I kept strictly to myself.  I had to learn how to show indifference with no trace of any concern in my words or in my body language.  And it worked!  After a while, he stopped using it because it no longer had any effect on me (that he could detect).  And even more interesting, the name eventually lost its power over my emotional responses.  I didn't have to pretend anymore because the name actually no longer bothered me.  I can tell the story and everyone on the planet can call me that, if they wish, and it simply wouldn't have any effect on me, apart from losing the use of my chosen nickname, Chuck, which I prefer.

The point of this bit of nostalgia in the context of this blog is simply this:  the use of ethnic slurs (spick, wop, nigger, kike, mick, raghead, camel jock, blanket-ass, frog, kraut, elephant jock, chink, jap, limey) can engender an emotional response from its targets only if they choose to grant a simple word that sort of power over them.  It's strictly voluntary!  The people who would use a racial epithet intending it as an insult take advantage of that power you have granted to the word in order to create an emotional response from you.  Words have no inherent power - they have only whatever power that we give them.  Otherwise, they're nothing more than arbitrary sounds and arbitrary letters in arbitrary combinations.  Are you insulted by 'cusquet'?  Seems unlikely - to the best of my knowledge it's not even a word that means anything.  It's just another arbitrary combination of English letters.  What inherent power could it possibly have?

Clearly, the historical abuses of bigotry, including demeaning words as ethnic insults, can't simply be wiped away.  But we can choose to render them impotent in the future.  We've tried to legislate against the use of such words, considering them to be indicators of hate and bigotry.  Perhaps they are indicators of that, but the use of, say, 'nigger' among African-Americans is clear evidence that it's not the word itself that is the problem.  It's the perceived intent.  Racial slurs have become politically incorrect and public figures who are caught using them are castigated as racists solely on the basis of using a word (as in the "Paula Dean affair").  I see this as a pointless tactic - real racists have no qualms about being politically incorrect, and non-racists are already mostly censoring themselves.  By creating sanctions for using such words, we actually are reinforcing their power over their targets.  Bigots use those words precisely because of the effect they have on the target, after all!

What I would like to see happen is that the whole set of words originally used to reflect contempt and bigotry simply become powerless.  If the words have power over your emotions, you have the capability to rescind that power.  The word that bothered you would cease to have any value to bigots because it would no longer have the effect it once did.

Feel free to use any racial epithet for white people in my presence - it never bothered me and never will, even if its use is intended to be mean-spirited.  I learned from experience that you can truly become immune to such things and defeat the intent.  Relax and let the ugly intent dissipate uselessly in the air.  If the user has bad intentions, you've defeated them by simply not allowing the emotional response.  If the user has no such bad intentions, then there was no problem in the first place.