Saturday, October 31, 2009

Atheist Blog Roll

Well, the blog has officially been added to The Atheist Blogroll!  It's a great community building service, provided free of charge, and uniting blogs about atheism in one place.  You can see the blogroll in my sidebar.  Check out some of the blogs.  And if you came here via the blogroll, welcome!

If you have a blog about atheism, and would like to join The Atheist Blogroll, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Douglas Wilson admits Christianity is appalling if God doesn't exist

The movie Collision is out on DVD, featuring a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson about whether religion is good for the world.  They discuss the film on FOX and Friends:

Think about what Wilson says:

If Jesus didn't come back from the dead, then Christianity is appalling.  It's an appalling fraud and a delusion, and every unbeliever ought to attack it.

If it's not objectively true, then I don't have any more use for it than Christopher does.

The beliefs and practices of Christianity are appalling based on strictly human judgement.  He admits this.  But because Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible supersedes our reasoning.

For anyone who believes that religion is good for the world even if god doesn't exist, this is what religion can do.  It can cause an otherwise rational person (which Pastor Wilson appears to be), who knows that their belief system is morally repugnant under the microscope of rational thought, to follow it anyway, all because of a 2000 year old book of mythology.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Deepak Chopra makes some good points, then completely blows it

Deepak Chopra has an article on CNN about giving to charity in a smart way, and I was surprised to see that a lot of his advice was very good, if you leave aside the supernatural nonsense.  Normally anything he says is complete nonsense, but most of his commentary and advice was useful and well thought out.  But he then makes a single comment that completely pisses me off.

First, the good.  The premise is that charity is a good thing, and that giving helps us improve as a person.  The problem is that it's important to make sure that what you give is used wisely.  Blindly giving money away leads to it being squandered, and not enough people follow up on where their money went.  I completely agree with all of this. 

He also had a few suggestions about how to make sure what you give really is used effectively.  Giving time first and money second is effective, since you control more of how you spend your time.  Demand accountability when you do give money.  An interesting suggestion is to give to people who have aspirations, rather than just those who are needy:

The most hopeless people in the world aren't the poorest; they're the ones who can never fulfill even a tiny dream.

I must say that this is excellent advice.  People with dreams usually also have plans, and a well thought out plan means you know how your money will be used, and that its more likely to be used effectively.  He mentions micro-loan agencies as an example of good places to look for this; places such as START Fund and (where the Atheist group has donated the most money and have the most loans of any group, by the way ;-).  Of course it's important to try and help others in need as well, but well-thought out plans, either by the recipients themselves or by a charity distributing money and goods to those in need, are a necessity if you want your money to be used effectively.

So far, this is an article that I think is very thoughtful and important for people to read.  The problem is that Chopra then goes on to make a ridiculously sexist statement:

As a group, women are the largest population of the helpless, so I look to help them any way I can.

What a ridiculous thing to say.  Of course there are women out there who are helpless and in need, and I'm not suggesting that sexism doesn't exist and that women are on completely level footing with men (although they should be).  But to suggest that somehow women as an overarching group are typically helpless reeks of arrogance and stupidity. 

Perhaps he meant something else, and his language choice was incredibly poor.  But you'd think he would have even the slightest ability to understand how others would construe this statement.  Either way, he needs to think about what he's saying.  By not doing so, he really cheapened what I thought was otherwise a very good article.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How many times can we say "Inquisition"?

The Correctional Court in Paris, France has convicted the church of Scientology of fraud.  It fined 6 members of the church a total of 600,000 euros (over $900,000 US), and gave up to 2 year prison sentences, although they were suspended.  The church was also ordered to publish the verdict in several magazines to warn people about what Scientology offers, and what was discovered at trial.  The court did not, however, ban the church from France.

The plantiffs in the case focused on the use of the electropsychometer, or E-Meter, described on the Scientology website.  After use, members were encouraged to buy vitamins and books, which according to the verdict amounted to fraud.

The E-meter is obviously complete nonsense, and their beliefs are generally bat-shit crazy,  but if this amounts to fraud, then what about other churches that encourage giving money?  According to some reports, Scientology is considered a cult, and not a religion, in France.  Others use the less derogatory term "sect."  Either way, the reports seem to imply that it is fine for religions to trick their followers into giving money, but less popular nonsense has to play by the rules.  I'm not familiar with French law, so I can only speculate from what was presented it the articles.  While I'm glad the court decided in this case that taking advantage of vulnerable people is not OK, perhaps they should come down on some other, more accepted, organizations fleecing they congregations as well.

While I'm not so sure about the ruling, the ridiculous comments made by Senior Paris Scientologist Eric Roux are what's most annoying:

"We think that this is really a modern Inquisition and that this is really dangerous for the freedom of religion in our country, and for sure we do not agree with that and we will go to appeal,"
"It's an empty case," Roux said. "It's run like an Inquisition, (as) if some people did not wake up from the Inquisition time."

Mr. Roux, the Inquisition involved coercion by torture to accept the views of the church.  It has nothing to do with your ability to peddle useless machines and vitamin pills to susceptible people.  Comparing this ruling to the Inquisition makes you sound ridiculous.  Then again, it's no surprise that a Scientologist would have trouble identifying ridiculous statements.

Monday, October 26, 2009

New Hate Crimes Legislation

A new hate crimes bill has been passed by the Senate and will be signed by President Obama, adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes of people protected by the hate crimes laws.  First, I must say that I am glad to see that gays are being equally protected under the law, as they should be.  If hate crime laws are on the books, then gays and lesbians should be protected.  But should hate crime laws be on the books in the first place?  Let's think about what these laws actually do.

The law comes into play when someone commits a crime against another due to their status as a member of a protected class (such as a particular race, religion, and now including sexual orientation).  The crimes include physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse or insults, or offensive graffiti or letters.  Note that all of these are already crimes, regardless of motive.  The law attempts to punish the motive of the crime additionally to the crime itself.

But note that the motive, in this case, is prejudice against a specific class of people.  While bigotry is the disease of the ignorant, we all have a right to hold biases as we wish.  For example, I feel that Fred Phelps and other members of Westboro Baptist Church are some of the most hateful, ignorant people on the planet, but I value our right to free speech, which has to include their right to hateful, wicked speech.  As long as no crime is committed, everyone has a right to their own thoughts, and expression fo those beliefs.

If a crime has been committed due to bigotry, then this crime should of course be prosecuted.  Attorneys are free to introduce prejudice as a motive to a crime, without hate crime laws.  But to increase the punishment for a crime because of this prejudice criminalizes freedom of speech and expression.

In some special cases, our speech can be restricted.  On argument made for hate crime legislation is that a hate crime is meant to intimidate a class of people, making it a more heinous crime than it would be in other circumstances.  While intimidation may be considered a more heinous motive, I can intimidate without appealing to a class of people protected by hate crime laws.  I could physically assault a lawyer, and make it clear that I will continue to attack lawyers, in order to intimidate.  Intimidation should be prosecuted equally, regardless of whether hate crime laws are applicable ore not.  

But what if hate crime legislation provides practical benefits, even if the logic behind them is flawed?  Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, puts it this way:
"Too many in our community have been devastated by hate violence," Solmonese said in a statement. "We now can begin the important steps to erasing hate in our country."
But is hate crime legislation really reducing hate?  The data is inconclusive, at best.  In 2006, 7,722 hate-crime incidents were reported to the FBI -- an 8 percent increase from 2005.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of what they define as "hate groups" has increased by 56% since 2000.  Of course this data isn't strong enough to definitively say that actual hate crimes have increased, but it certainly isn't clear that hate crime legislation has had a positive effect.

To me, Solmonese's statement is naïve.  Passing legislation has no chance of erasing, or even significantly reducing the number of hateful, ignorant people in this country.  The only way to reduce hate is to make hate less acceptable.  I don't know how we can effectively accomplish this.  I suspect that improved education would help, as well as being open and outspoken against prejudice and bigotry.  But hate crime legislation isn't the answer.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Responsible Article on Alternative Medicine

I must be dreaming.  There is a piece up on CNN's website extoling the scientific method and peer review, and explaining why promoting alternative medicine is dangerous. 

Dr. Otis Brawley, writing for CNN, wrote this piece on Suzanne Somers' advice to avoid conventional treatment for cancer, and instead embrace alternative medicine (i.e., quackery):

She is a wonderful actress, and I wish she would stick to her first chosen profession. I know some people will hear her message, follow her advice because of her celebrity status and be harmed. Her medical advice may even cause death.

Dr. Brawley goes on to explain why the peer review process in real scientific medicine is so important and effective:

Peer review is a central tenet of conventional medicine. In conventional medicine, one must allow experts in ones field to independently review one's data. The fact that a few patients give testimonial to a treatment is not adequate evidence of benefit. Because malignant disease can vary so widely from person to person, randomized controlled phase 3 trials comparing two treatments are often needed to demonstrate that a treatment works.

What's discouraging to me is that ideas like this so rarely get printed by the mainstream media.  There's nothing in this piece that is profound or particularly difficult to understand, and the dangers of foregoing real treatment are so obvious.  It is alarming that so many people don't seem to understand why testing our ideas objectively is so important.  I'm glad to see that a responsible piece like this one, but its also a reminder how rare it is to see responsible reporting and writing about science and medicine.  I am less than optimistic about this becoming a trend.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Emotions vs. Rationalism?

Mike Clawson, posting on Friendly Atheist (one of my favorite blogs), reported on a series of articles suggesting that women are more religious than men because they have been conditioned, by both evolution and culture, to be "more emotional or social, and therefore less rational."  The discussion going on at FA about what factors are causing the disparity between men and women are very interesting; more interesting, in fact, than what I could write on the issue myself.  However, I think the wording "more emotional or social, and therefore less rational" needs to be discussed, because it propagates a myth that because women are more emotional than men, it follows they they must be less rational.

In general, there is a general misconception that being rational means relying on "cold, hard logic" and completely disregarding other facets of our world, such as human emotions.  A good example of this is the Straw Vulcan trope television and movies use so often, where rational "geniuses" become dumbfounded by simple human emotions.  It is assumed that reason cannot coexist with emotional acuity.  This overused character trait seems to come from a mistaken view of rationality, and perpetuates this stereotype, creating a feedback loop of bad press for logic and reason.

This, of course, is a completely mistaken view of rational thought.  In many situations, emotional reactions play an important role in our decisions, particularly concerning ethics.  For example, I am a monogamous relationship with my fiancée, and would never cheat on her with another woman.  If emotional responses are left out of this, there doesn't appear to be a rational reason for this.  It doesn't physically hurt anyone if I were to sleep with someone else.*  I am still capable of holding the same relationship with my fiancée after the affair (assuming emotional responses don't factor into my abilities).  It doesn't seem to hold that having sex with another woman is inherently immoral.

But emotions are the key.  My fiancée would possibly be hurt, angry or jealous.  I would feel guilt and shame.  This is why we've agreed on a monogamous relationship in the first place.  These feelings are not desirable, and thus it is rational to avoid them.

Being more in-tune to others' emotional states, as well as one's own, helps us make better-informed decisions, which by definition are more rational, not less.  Although its unclear how true the stereotype that women are more emotionally capable than men is, it has no bearing on the ability of either to think critically.  This non-sequitur is a bad argument, and it propagates a sexist idea that women are less capable of being rational than men.

* One might argue that the risk of STDs or pregnancy is a valid consideration, but even if there were a way to guarantee these won't occur, most would argue its still irrational to think its OK to cheat, solely due to the emotional responses of those involved.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Good Morning Blogoshpere, The Earth Says Hello!

Welcome to my blog!  I'm looking forward to being part of the growing and vibrant atheist blogosphere (or is it a sub-blogoshpere?).  I'll be discussing a variety of issues affecting atheists, as well as anyone who holds rational thought and inquiry as important virtues.  But more importantly, I'm looking forward to comments and discussions coming about.  I'll try to present the reasoning process that lead to the opinions I express, and I hope that readers will comment and let me know what they think about my arguments, and introduce issues that I may not have thought of.   I'm always eager to discuss these issues, and learn not only what others believe, but why they believe it.  I hope we can all learn more about each other, and improve our reasoning abilities together.

To introduce myself, my real name is Jeff Satterley.  I am currently a computer science student at Northeastern University in Boston, working on my PhD.  My research currently has me processing text in a large corpus of biology and medical research articles, in order to extract useful information.  This blog isn't really about any of that, so I won't be talking much about computers and language, although it may come up tangentially. 

As for my atheist credentials: I was born a Catholic, although my family was pretty lax.  I don't remember going to many masses as a kid, other than when my grandparents would babysit my brother and I on a Sunday, and made us go with them.  I stopped going to religion classes shortly after making first communion because, from what I can remember, classes were extremely boring and cut into my video game time.  I realized Catholic dogma was pretty ridiculous almost immediately, and I over time I found that more and more of the god beliefs out there seemed pretty "out there."

I called myself an atheist in my teens, although I still had a lot of questions.  Throughout high school and college, I learned about biology, physics, philosophy and psychology, which helped me discover better explanations for the phenomena I previously had trouble explaining without a god.  One of the biggest questions I had was how to explain human consciousness.  As a young computer scientist, I got very interested in artificial intelligence, and read books like Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky, and Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter.  Although their theories aren't perfect, I am convinced that consciousness is compatible with a materialist world-view.  This insight probably gave me the most confidence in my belief that god is not a necessary hypothesis. 

I decided to become more outspoken and active as an atheist after reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins a few years ago.  I realized how much religion pervades most of our lives, and that its important to show people that there are those of us who don't believe in god, and that we are moral, productive, happy people.  I hope that this blog will help the cause.

So I hope you all enjoy the blog, and I look forward to hearing from you all!