Why not live and let live?

This article originally appeared on SkepticFreethought.com and is reposted here with permission.

Hello everyone! Dave Muscato here.

This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve spent two days on this, actually. For most of my life, I’ve been natural inclined to be non-confrontational, and I think my friends and family would characterize me as a gentle person. It is not easy for me to say these things, but I feel like the time has come for me to take a stand.

I had lunch with a friend the other day and the subject of religion came up—I know, big surprise. My friend’s girlfriend had posed to him a question about the purpose of atheism activism:

“Why not live and let live?”

Aside from being intellectually wrong, what’s so bad about believing in a god? What’s the harm? Is it just academic?

Some background: His girlfriend is “not religious, but open-minded,” and teaches their 3 kids to be accepting of all different religions. He is an atheist and passionate about critical thinking and skepticism. He is concerned because he overheard one of their children praying before going to bed.

He asked me, “What can I tell her?”

Here’s my response:

Because they’re not letting us live and let live. Because, for no rational reason, gay people can’t get married in my state. Because they’re teaching the Genesis creation myth as fact in science classes. Because they’re teaching “abstinence-only” sex ed, which is demonstrably ineffective. Because, despite Roe v. Wade recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, we’re STILL fighting for abortion and birth-control access. Because priests are molesting children and nobody is getting in trouble for it. It’s been said before, but if an 80-member religious cult in Texas allowed some of their leaders to molest children, there would be a huge outcry. It would be front-page news. People would be up in arms! But when it’s the Catholic Church, we barely even notice. It’s gotten to the point where we’re not even surprised anymore—it’s barely even news anymore—when another molestation is uncovered. Like the saying goes, “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers.” Or worse, “One rape is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.”

I brought up Greta Christina’s wonderful book, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless,” and told him to read it, and to ask his girlfriend to read it. Nothing would make me happier than to live and let live. I dream of a world where humanity spends its time solving “real” problems, doing medical research, exploring space, fixing the climate, making art and music, studying philosophy. I would love for there to be no need for atheism activism. But I can’t do that, because I have a conscience.

He agreed with me on these points, but wanted to know about the problem with liberal churches. What’s the harm of religion so long as it supports gay marriage, comprehensive sex-ed, etc?

First off, it’s important to distinguish between believing in a deity, and believing in God. If we’re talking about a deistic creator, a god who allegedly sparked the Big Bang and hasn’t interfered since, I don’t really see any harm in this, other than that it’s unscientific and vastly improbable. I’d call this harmlessly irrational, on par with crossing your fingers for good luck. It’s magical thinking, which I think should be avoided, but it doesn’t really hurt anything.

sistine-chapel

But once we start talking about Yahweh, the Abrahamic god, the god of the Bible, we get into some sticky stuff.  I’m not the first to say so but the reason moderate religion is bad, even dangerous, is that it opens the door for religious bigotry and worse. If a religious moderate believes the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God, who is he to fault a religious extremist for actually doing what it says to do?

If you use faith as your justification for moral decision-making, you cannot reasonably point at someone more committed than you doing the exact same thing and make the charge that they’re wrong. A religious moderate cannot call a religious extremist crazy without being hypocritical.

There is this idea among moderates that religious tolerance is an ideal condition. The whole “COEXIST” campaign is a prime example. There is this idea that all religions are somehow valid, despite contradicting one another. That no matter how much we disagree with someone, if it falls under the umbrella of religious tolerance, we should make every effort to find a way not to be offended.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is something we need to reconsider. Now.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to mutilate a little girl’s genitals.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to hinder the promotion of condom use in AIDS-ridden regions, because they believe wasting semen is a “sin.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to lie to children and tell them that they will see their dead relatives again, or give them nightmares about a made-up “Hell.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the absurd and unsubstantiated proposition that humans are somehow born bad or evil, that we need to be “saved.”

It is offensive to me that, in the year 2013, people still think intercessory prayer works. Every time I hear about some poor sick child who has died because her parents decided to pray instead of take her to a hospital, I am horribly offended. When religious moderates tell me—although they also believe in intercessory prayer—that they, too, are offended by this, I am appalled at the hypocrisy. We should know better by now than to believe in childish things like prayer.

I am so sick of this crap. There is a time and a place for being accommodating of differences of opinion. If you think tea is the best hot drink, and I think it’s coffee, fine. No one is harmed by this. Insofar as your beliefs don’t negatively affect others, I do not care if we agree or not. But, I contend, your right to believe whatever you want ends where my rights begin. Religious moderation is literally dangerous because it opens the gate wide for religious extremism. A moderate cannot point to a religious extremist and say, “You are wrong. You are dangerous. You must not be allowed to continue.” However, I can. To stand up to religious extremism, we must come from a place of rational thought, of freedom to criticize, of ethics that do not depend on revelation or arguments from authority.

I make no apology for asserting that secular humanism is the most reasonable, most ethical, and best way for us to live. It is more rational than superstitious faith. It is more productive and humane than any religion. It is the ethical choice. To quote Sam Harris, “There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

We must become more reasonable if we want to survive. Our planet is in trouble. There is no divine guarantee that the Earth will always be able to support us nor that we will always be here. There is no life after this. What matters is how we are remembered, and the contributions to society we make while we’re alive. I assert that there is nothing more important or more urgent than this: Atheists, I call upon you to stand up to absurdity. If you see something, say something. Start the conversation.

I know that it is difficult to make waves. I know that it can be intimidating, especially when you’re outnumbered. But the facts are on our side, and the stakes are high. We must not be afraid to call bullshit where we see it. We must not allow religions to dictate what is and is not moral. We must speak up in the face of wrongdoing. We must make ourselves known. It can be as simple as correcting someone for using the word “fag,” or mentioning that you are an atheist if the subject of religion comes up.

Ending the danger and oppression of religion will not be easy, but if we work toward it, we can make it happen.

Until next time,

Dave

dave_bio_pic4Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com

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Dave’s Mailbag: Atheism, defined

Yesterday, the Atheist Alliance tweeted:

What do you consider to be the exact definition of atheism?

There are many incorrect definitions of atheism floating around. It’s important for religious extremists, in their deliberate attempts to misinform (see my previous post about lying for Jesus), that atheism be depicted as nonsensical, demonic, or irrational. For example, this display:

atheism-defined

It says: “Atheism: This is the belief that there is no god. This is a very common belief of those who do not wish to be responsible for their actions, as if there is no god there is no judgment. This belief was started by Charles Darwin, but has very recently (within the last 30 years) become a popular religion.”

facepalm

I do a talk called “Atheism 101″ that covers the definition of atheism, among other things. In it, I discuss the difference between agnostic/gnostic and atheistic/theistic. The question should not be worded, “Are you an atheist or an agnostic?” but rather “Are you an atheist or a theist?” and independently, “Are you 100% certain that God does or does not exist (gnostic) or do you acknowledge a possibility that you are wrong (agnostic)?”

I tweeted back to the Atheist Alliance:

@atheistalliance Atheism can be defined precisely as “the lack of faith in the existence of a god or gods.”

I think this is the most precise and accurate definition I have come across. In my talk, I use this. For a thorough breakdown of the definition of atheism, with sources, I recommend this webpage.

Dictionary Series - Religion: atheism

This has been on my mind because I received the following message today:

Your professed “belief” in the religion of athiesm has everything to do with your selfish desire to continue in your favorite sins. You have a strong motive to hope that there isn’t a Holy God who will punish you for your sins. Those making a profession of faith in the religion of atheism hope that if they scream loud, long, and shrill enough, they will be able to convince themselves that God doesn’t exist. I don’t believe that your even an atheist Dave.

First off:

  1. Atheism is not a religion. The definition of a religion is arguable, but the one I use and agree with comes from anthropologists Drs. Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman in their excellent book, “Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion.” They define religion as “a communicated acceptance by individuals of another individual’s ‘supernatural’ claim, a claim whose accuracy is not verifiable by the senses.” They continue: “The distinctive property of such acceptance is that it communicates a willingness to accept the influence of the speaker nonskeptically. While supernatural claims are not demonstrably true, they are asserted to be true” (pg ix). Since atheism makes no supernatural claims—in fact many atheists are metaphysical naturalists—it definitively is not a religion.
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  2. My belief that atheism and science are the most likely contenders for an accurate description of the universe’s workings have nothing at all to do with sin. I don’t believe sin exists. I believe that some acts and behaviors are anti-social and, on ethical grounds, should not be committed. I believe that other acts and behaviors are pro-social and, on ethical grounds, should be encouraged. But I find the whole concept of sin—transgressions against divine law—to be ridiculous. I don’t believe there is any such thing as divine law, because I am an atheist.
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  3. This entire statement is just a bare assertion. In no way does the sender attempt to provide reasons for the claims he is making, or explain on what basis exactly he is claiming to know these things about me and other atheists.

I think the sender is unable to see atheism for what it really is because doing so would make him insecure in his faith. It’s necessary for him to misunderstand atheism because atheism, understood, is the more rational position. So he builds a straw-man and uses it as a human shield. It’s really quite pathetic, pitiable even.

straw-man

What’s really wrong with his message, though, is where he says “[atheists make] a profession of faith.” Atheists lack faith by definition. Faith comes from the Latin “fidere,” which means “to trust.” In the theological sense, this means trusting that God exists, or that God will provide, etc, even though the logical arguments and evidence are insufficient for belief in themselves.

I am proud to say that I do not have faith. I am a skeptic: I have an attitude of doubt, an inclination toward incredulity. I think faith is dangerous, irrational, archaic, and puerile. If you are a logical person, a good critical thinker, and you come across an argument that lacks evidentiary backing, contains fallacies, or is nonsensical, you do not [continue to] believe that argument. Faith is the admission that you are not being logical, that you are not a good critical thinker, continuing to believe something when the reasons you have to believe it aren’t good enough on their own. Saying you have faith is saying, “Here are the reasons I believe this. Here is the evidence supporting why I believe this. Oh, the reasons have logical problems? Oh, the evidence is not very strong? Well, I choose to believe it regardless.” Or even worse, sometimes people say, “I don’t need evidence. I don’t need logical arguments. I have faith.” Faith is the very model of a circular argument. As Mark Twain is credited with saying, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

I have never met a Christian who claims not to have faith. If you call yourself a Christian and do not have faith, I would really like to hear from you. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith, it is impossible to please God. Hebrews 11:1 says: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This is directly at odds with skepticism. It is my position that if you are a skeptic, and you also claim faith in a god or gods, you are doing one or the other incorrectly.

I think my favorite part of this, though, is where he says, “I don’t believe your [sic] even an atheist, Dave.”

This is my license plate:

license-plate2

(Atheos is Greek for atheist). If I’m not an atheist, I don’t know who is.

Thanks for reading. Until next time,

Dave


dave_bio_pic4
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com

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The Vatican is losing the war, and they know it

If you like this post, please upvote it on Reddit.

Hello all, Dave Muscato here again!

According to a Washington Post article published yesterday, the Vatican is holding a closed-door conference February 6-9 to discuss “emerging youth culture.” They are concerned that they risk losing future generations to nontheism if they don’t learn how to get with the times.

The internet is absolutely butchering religion. Religious belief necessarily depends on ignorance of science, logic, reason, history, philosophy, ethics, and competing mythologies. It becomes very difficult for a pastor to get away with lying for Jesus, when anyone—especially young people—can whip out a smartphone and find real answers on Wikipedia faster than you can say the Lord’s Prayer.

preacher

There was a time not so long ago when young people wholly depended on their parents, teachers, and pastors for information about the world. If a suitable bubble is maintained, it becomes nearly impossible to break free once the indoctrination is set into motion. This is why many Christians and other religious groups isolate their young from mainstream culture. They publish and use their own textbooks. They homeschool and attend their own schools and colleges. They have their own museums. They have their entire own Wikipedia. They have their own YouTube. They have their own television networks, radio shows, musical genres, you name it.

These parents do this, even if they can’t articulate why, because they understand that a few hours on Reddit or YouTube is potentially all it takes to spoil a child’s faith in their parents’ religion. For some children who haven’t been fully indoctrinated, just learning about the very concept of atheism for the first time is enough to break the spell. It is vital, therefore, that religious parents quarantine their children. When this is not enough, they vilify atheists, supply misinformation (that we are Satanists, that we are immoral/amoral, they we hate God, etc), or in some cases even deny that atheism exist (e.g. they claim that we know God exists but deny it).

We are winning. Unless parents are willing (able?) to keep their children away from Google, it is only a matter of time before the truth about religions—that they are manmade, that they are a substandard source of ethics, that they are factually incorrect—becomes mainstream. One in three—one in three!—Americans aged 18-29 report no religious affiliation. This is not to say they are all atheists, of course, but these people are informed about religion, science, history, and so on. This is a progress. This is a step in the right direction. And the Church knows it. And they are afraid.

Until next time,

Dave

P.S. I know that not all religious parents quarantine their children in this way. Some even go out of their way to expose their children to other points of view and other cultures. Those that do end up with children who have much more liberal beliefs, and this is no surprise. I maintain that if everyone waited until adulthood to pick up a Bible for the first time, people would consider it laughable that anyone actually believes it’s true. As the saying goes, like circumcision, if religion were only offered to adults, no one would be interested! Thanks for reading.


dave_bio_pic4
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com

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How to convert me: Part II

Hello everyone! Dave Muscato here again.

First off, a huge thank-you to everyone who upvoted, shared, and commented on Part I of this article. We got about 58,000 visitors, making it the second most-read article in the history of this blog (224 articles since April 2011). We’re very glad you enjoyed it.

We got such a huge response to the last one that I thought it would be helpful to address some of the things that came up in emails, on Twitter, in the comments, and so on. There was a LOT of excellent feedback and I’m very grateful to hear from all of you!

And so, for your reading pleasure, here is some MORE advice for evangelicals on how to convert me:

  1. Discuss, don’t preach. This is such an important point, I’m going to go into some detail about it. Discussion means listening, being willing to change your mind if you’re shown to be wrong about something, and understanding that no one has all the answers. Be ready, willing, and able to learn, as well as inform. When I go into a discussion, it is with an open mind, and I except the same from my conversation partner. I know it’s counterintuitive, but if your goal is to convert me, you are not going to get very far by preaching. I arrived at my conclusions after many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours poring over history and evidence, doing lots of reading, studying logical arguments, and reading the Bible and other holy books. Simply telling me “Jesus died for your sins” is not going to do anything at all to change my mind. I’ve read the Bible, too. The issue is not that I don’t know what it says; it’s that I don’t believe what it says.
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    Discussing religion with some other students on Mizzou's campus. I'm in the center with the black shirt and straw hat.

    Discussing atheism with some other students on Mizzou’s campus. I’m in the center with the black shirt and straw hat, with Brother Jed looking on (back right, in vest).

  2. Don’t just tell me what you believe. Tell me why you believe it. Remember that the point here is “I am not convinced your beliefs are true.” I know it’s easier to fall into the routine of retelling what you believe, but once we’ve covered it, tell me your story. The important part (to me) is not what you believe; it’s why.
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  3. Make an effort to learn the standard arguments. There are really only about 10 or 12 of them. As I said in my last article, I am always happy to go over these again and again if it helps someone see things differently, but it is a huge time-saver—not to mention that I will be impressed with you—if you know these at the outset, or at least are passingly familiar with them. Here and here are two excellent resources to help you get started. These are very familiar to atheists. I sometimes hear from believers that they are shocked at how knowledgeable many atheists are about such a wide variety of subjects, from evolutionary biology to geology to cosmology to ancient history. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: We’re not necessarily; it’s just that there really only are about a dozen of these rebuttals for us to learn ;)
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  4. When it comes to ethics, don’t make assumptions. Ask, listen, and learn. There is this idea circulated by Christians and other religionists that atheists are immoral, amoral, unethical, or all three. This is simply an attempt to demonize us and if you want to have any success discussing religion with me, you’re going to have to start by not thinking of me as evil. In fact, many atheists have spent a great deal of time and energy studying ethics, and many have a higher ethical standard than you yourself might. Since we do not rely on arguments from authority, many atheists have arrived at their conclusions on ethical principles by careful study of the philosophy of ethics, and we can often provide detailed analyses about why we believe what we do. Don’t assume that we’re somehow lacking ethically just because we don’t believe in your god, or heaven, or hell. In fact I can think of few things more important to me than living as ethically as I can.
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  5. Don’t end the discussion, especially prematurely, by saying “God bless” or “I’ll pray for you.” Many atheists, myself included, see this as the ultimate in arrogance and an attempt at one final dig before prancing away. I know that some of you actually mean it sincerely, but if you want to build rapport with me, please, just pray for me on your own some other time. My usual response to “I’ll pray for you” is “If you actually believe prayer works, for Pete’s sake, don’t waste your time on me. There are starving children in Africa.” If you absolutely must pray for me, I will respect you much more if you ask for my permission first. And don’t forget Matthew 6:5-6!

I hope that these are helpful for you, and I look forward to hearing how they work out in your own discussions! Have a great one. Until next time!

- Dave


dave_bio_pic4
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com

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How to convert me

If you like this article, please upvote it on Reddit. Feel free to subscribe to this blog, as well!
Part II of this article is here.

Hello all!

Dave Muscato here again! I hope you’re having a good day.

Right now, I’m in the middle of an ongoing internet back-and-forth with someone who is seemingly trying to convince me that a god exists. He (she?) posed this question:

First you say, “I don’t believe gods exist”; then you say, “I don’t think humans can be certain about whether gods exist or not.”

Can you be certain that God doesn’t exist?

man-thinking

These aren’t mutually exclusive. The first statement addresses the question of what I believe. The second statement address the question of whether the existence of god is within the epistemological grasp of humans.

The answer to his question, of course, is no. But I don’t need to be certain there is no god in order not to believe in one. Just like I don’t need to be certain there is no such thing as a unicorn in order not to believe in unicorns. I’m reasonably sure that all the stories, books, movies, legends, etc about unicorns are either intentionally or unintentionally fictional, and that’s the same way I feel about (all) gods.

Evangelical readers, if you want to convert me, you’re going to have to try harder than this. I know some of you really have taken the time to study the arguments for atheism, but honestly, most of the evangelicals who want to talk to me have not. It helps to understand the definitions of, for example, “atheist” and “agnostic.” I don’t mind going over the same arguments repeatedly if it helps someone to understand my point of view, but if you want to be more effective as an evangelist, here is some advice:

  1. Understand that as an atheist, I have a lot more experience debating my beliefs than you do. This is not just because I’m an atheist activist, but because I live in a country where atheists are the minority. I am accustomed to defending why I am an atheist and explaining the holes in the arguments for god(s) to people who have taken it upon themselves to try to convert me. I do this every day, and only sometimes because I want to. I try to keep my head up and not take it personally when an evangelist goes on the verbal offensive. I’m used to it, and I’ve heard it before. That’s not to say you could never change my mind; just understand that it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to present something I haven’t heard (and dismantled)—multiple times—before. I don’t say this to be arrogant; it’s just a fact of being an atheist where I live. People regularly try to convert me, and I encourage that. I will be the first to admit I’m wrong if you can convince me to believe in a god. But please, try to empathize. It will help you build rapport with me.
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  2. If you’ve never read the Bible (or whatever your holy book is) cover-to-cover, do so. A great number of atheists, including me, have done so. It’s the least you can do. I am constantly amazed at the number of evangelists I talk to who tell me that they believe the Bible is the most important book ever written—or even more laughably, their favorite book—and simultaneously, they’ve never even read it! If you know how to read and you’ve been a Christian for more than 6 months, I consider you without excuse for having not read your own book. You don’t have to have gone to seminary to engage me in a conversation about your religion, but make some effort to meet me halfway here, folks.
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  3. Understand that your personal experience is not going to convince me. There is no amount of insistence that you saw or experienced a miracle that is going to convince me that the laws of physics were suspended in your favor, rather than that you were simply mistaken. Even if I saw a miracle myself, I would be skeptical, as you should be, too. Human senses are quite fallible and the much-more likely explanation is that, lo and behold, there is a scientific/naturalistic explanation for the occurrence. See whywontgodhealamputees.com for more on this.
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  4. Don’t tell me what I believe. Ask me what I believe. I am not angry at your god. I did not have a bad experience with a church. I do not worship Satan, nor do I believe he exists (nor demons, nor angels, et al). I am not “refusing” your god. I don’t “know in my heart” that your god exists. I have no desire to go around raping and killing just because I don’t believe in hell. Further, you are not going to have any success scaring me into belief in your god by warning me about hell. That only works on people who believe hell is real. I don’t believe in your god because I have carefully examined the logical arguments and the historical evidence and find both unconvincing. That’s really all there is to it.
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  5. Don’t give up. If you think you have a good argument, and I offer you a reason I think it’s wrong, go research it and come back and talk to me some more. You are not going to convince me in a single conversation, and you shouldn’t go in with that expectation. That’s totally okay! Let’s build up a mutually-respectful friendship where we can have discussions like this whenever we want. If nothing else, it will help you have a better understanding of the reasons you believe.

_ThumbsUp_

If you want to convert me, all you have to do is be honest and talk to me. You may be surprised to find that your reasons for belief are not as solid as you thought—be prepared for that and take it into account. Conversely, If I find what you have to say convincing, I will change my mind. But please understand that I’ve done this a lot, and to be frank, nobody before you has succeeded. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try—I am always interested in respectful discussions about religion.

I hope this has been helpful. Have a great one!

Dave

Part II of this article is here.

dave_bio_pic4

Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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Dr. Michael Gazzaniga on Free Will and the Science of the Brain

Hello all!

Dave Muscato here again. Tonight, a group of us attended a public lecture from guest speaker Michael Gazzaniga, the renowned psychobiologist famous for his research on “split brain” patients: people who have had the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated from one another, in order to treat epilepsy.

He spoke tonight about free will: Do we have it? What does “free will” mean? What are some of the implications, specifically legal, if we do not?

In a sentence, he demonstrated that from a neuroscience (indeed, scientific) context, it is quite clear that we lack free will. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the concept of “free will” is nonsensical and should be disposed of: Free from what? The laws of physics? No, each cell of our brain follows predictable patterns of behavior, i.e. is soul-less and automated, and our brains are “merely” highly parallel and complex conglomerations of cells. No where in this equation arises a homunculus, a “mind” within our brain that makes decisions separate from itself, no matter how much we might wish for this to be so, or how much it feels to us like this is the case.

Here’s where I think he lost us: Gazzaniga went on to argue that, while our brains do not have free will, persons (in a society) do. I don’t think he justified this leap. His argument, as best as I could understand it, was that individual responsibility arises on the level of a society, rather than on the level of the individual. He gave the analogy of a car, versus traffic. Regardless of one’s mechanical understanding of the operation or construction of a car, you cannot extrapolate or understand traffic patterns by observing a car in isolation. Similarly, humans in isolation lack responsibility—a single human just follows patterns of behavior and isn’t responsible “to” anyone—but in the context of living in a society, we can hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

This seems to me to call for the application of the is/ought problem. I think Gazzaniga was trying to say that, descriptively, societies hold individuals responsible for their behavior, and that this is permissible because individuals should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. What I don’t understand is, where did that “should” come in? Is he making an ethical argument here? Because up until that point, he’d been speaking descriptively. I understand why societies would do good to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoings, but that doesn’t mean “persons have free will” just because they live in societies. Persons may be responsible for their individual wrongdoings—it’s not like anyone ELSE is responsible for a person’s actions—but I don’t understand why he argues this means that they magically have free will.

I’m considering writing a talk of my own about free will, based loosely on Sam Harris’s “Free Will,” the Free Will chapter in The Big Questions by Nils Rauhut, and some guided discussion questions of my own design. What do you guys think? Would SASHA be interested in that for December?

Take care!

- Dave

Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results

Hello all! Dave here.

This article is a response to Alex Papulis’s guest post called “The Problem of Induction – A Response,” which is itself a response to an earlier post of mine.

The title of today’s post refers to a disclaimer often found in investment literature—stock recommendations, investor prospectus documents, and so on.

I think this about sums up the problem of induction. I have previously claimed, paraphrasing Michael Shermer, that science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works. To be more precise, it’s the best tool for understanding how the world seems to have worked so far. There’s an important distinction: If Hume is correct, we really have no solid reason to believe that we can extrapolate what seems to have happened in the past into future predictions. Or even look at the past and have certainty about what happened then.

For example, Stephen Hawking has said with regard to the Big Bang, “We observe that distant galaxies are moving away from us. They must have been closer together in the past.”

The Big Bang (click to enlarge)

Oh really? While it’s tempting to say that this is true, really all we can say is that, unless nature is inconsistent, it makes sense that distant galaxies were once closer together.

But what basis do we really have for saying nature is consistent? It’s an assumption we have to make in order to do science, sure. And generally speaking—as far as we know—the fewer assumptions you have to make, the more likely you are to be right. So why assume that nature is consistent? Just because it usually seems to be… except when it doesn’t? Maybe that is what a miracle is: An inconsistency in nature. As good skeptics, we must admit the possibility. Although, if miracles can be, at least in theory, understood by natural science, then I think it’s just a semantic error to call them miracle. They’re more correctly things we can’t yet explain.

So what should we do? Abandon science and metaphysical naturalism in favor of global skepticism?

From a purely epistemological perspective, I think we have no other option. Global skepticism (with the single exception of self-existence a lá Descartes) seems to be the only bulletproof epistemic position. But here’s where Alex and I disagree: If the only defensible position is global skepticism, then it takes just as much faith to believe that evidence leads to truth as it does to believe in a deistic creator – or at least, both positions require faith (belief without real [non-circular] evidence). I think it takes more faith to believe in a deistic creator than it does to believe the that something came from nothing, merely because belief in a deistic creator begs the question, and the latter theory does not.

The only entity in a position to have 100% certainty of God’s existence is God. That actually goes for anyone. I am 100% certain that I exist: Not 95% confident, not 99% confident, not 99.9999% confident—I am certain. I know this because I could not be pondering such things if I didn’t exist.

That makes us all agnostics. (If you are certain a god exists, please let me know how you know this in the comments. Remember, to be certain about something, it means that it’s logically impossible that you’re wrong.) But what about belief? Which is more reasonable?

Occam’s Razor itself is an assumption, so it is circular to say “The belief with the fewest assumptions.” I would say that the default position, therefore, is to just say “I don’t believe.” There are an infinite number of things we could believe in but don’t, and the way that we have come to decide what’s believable and what’s not is based on what’s supported by evidence.

Is this wrong? Perhaps.

Does it work? Every day, in every field of scientific inquiry, throughout history, with the single exception of unsolved (I prefer to say not-yet-solved) miracle claims. It works in medicine, in agriculture, in cosmology, in every science you could care to name. And from where I stand, that’s really all I care about—what works. Considering the only entity I’m certain exists is me, what works in my favor seems to be something I’d be in favor of, right?

Epistemically, I think the jury is still out. I’m an agnostic atheist, but I’m dangerously close to believing in a deistic creator. I really don’t have any good reason for preferring not to believe other than that it seems to me to be more economical in its assumptions, and I prefer that. But is it true? I have no way of knowing. Do you?

Curious for your thoughts,

Until next time!

Dave

P.S. In a future post, I’ll tackle the ethical implications of such hardcore skepticism. Should be fun—stay tuned!

Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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Dave’s Mailbag: “A question about your skepticism…”

B writes:

I just watched your 2 hour debate video and really enjoyed it! I thought you made some very rational arguments and definitely made your arguments more credible by giving sources and such. Overall a very thorough and superb debate on your part.

How far you take your skepticism? The part of the video when the kid said there is more evidence of  the resurrection of Jesus than there is of Julius Caesar. You disagreed and argued that there are books written by Julius Caesar, so his existence is more credible. Would you be skeptic that the books were forged? I mean there would be no apparent reason as to why someone would forge the books, and a document in religion to promote an agenda would be more likely forged, but would you still be skeptical? At what point is it logical to say that something is true? How much and of what kind of evidence is needed?

Thanks for your time.

My response:

Hi B! Thanks for your message. I appreciate your comments.

It’s certainly possible that Julius Caesar’s books are forgeries, but it’s highly unlikely. We have no reason to suspect that they were, unlike, for example, the many irreconciliable contradictions in the New Testament about the details of Jesus’s alleged resurrection. Caesar’s books are, for the most part, lost to history—all we have today is his journals from war, which don’t make any unlikely or outrageous claims. Contrast this to the fact that a resurrection as alleged would contradict everything we know about biology, medicine, etc. The whole thing is just dripping with obviousness as mythology.

So in a technical sense, I am open to the idea that Caesar’s books are forgeries. Being skeptical means being open to the idea that you’re wrong, and never claiming 100% certainty in your conclusions. I feel comfortable saying that I believe to a very high degree of confidence that Caesar’s books are genuine, although I wouldn’t claim that zero editing has taken place, nor that I claiming certainty about these things. Hand-written copies of ancient documents have a tendency to change bit by bit, but that’s okay: Nobody is claiming that there is divine truth in Caesar’s books.

As far as the point it’s logical at which to say something is true, I’m not sure we can ever really say that with total certainty. In discussions of epistemology, I tend to side with this position:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism

in basically saying that any knowledge about the universe at large, or indeed anything outside one’s own mind, is by definition an uncertainty. It’s all subject to the filter of our senses, and it’s clear that those aren’t perfect, or magic shows would be no fun at all!

The one thing I’m absolutely certain about is the fact of my own existence. Everything else, if we’re going to be precise, is technically a belief. I believe that evidence and the scientific method are the most accurate approach to knowledge on the basis that they are the most consistent and logical approach to knowledge. I believe that faith, because it is inconsistent and unfalsifiable and by nature not bothered by things like lack of evidence, is really a fundamentally useless approach to finding out what’s true about the world. To quote Carl Sagan, “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.”

Science is the best tool ever discovered for drawing up a consistent and clear picture of the world around us, but it’s still a picture, not the world itself. The problem of induction will always stand in our way of reaching 100% certainty.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_induction

So to answer your final question, within the system of empiricism, no amount of evidence is ever sufficient to say that something is true with 100% total certainty. That’s just not how evidence works, unfortunately. The more evidence you have that suggests a certain conclusion, and the better quality evidence you have, the more confident you can be in saying that it’s probably correct. But, there is always the possibility that you will discover additional evidence and find out that you were wrong all along. You can approach 100% confidence in statistics… 90%, 95%, 99.99999%, but under the banner of empiricism, 100% certainty is just not possible. That only works under the umbrella of rationalism (mathematical proofs), which are deductive, rather than inductive, and under the banner of faith, which—if you ask me—is just plain incorrect, because it incorrectly equates belief (a prerequisite for knowledge) with knowledge itself.

This article may also be helpful:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology#Belief

I hope that this helps!

- Dave

Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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The SSA has met its $250,000 match challenge – with 11 days to spare!

The Secular Student Alliance, with whom I’m interning this summer, received a very generous challenge match offer from Jeff Hawkins (inventor of the Palm Pilot & Palm Treo) and Janet Strauss. We intended to meet this challenge by August 1st. As of 6:40 PM today, July 20th, a final donation of pushed us to $250,015.39, meaning the SSA will receive the $250,000 doubling!

I can’t begin to tell you what amazing news this is for skepticism and the secular movement as a whole. Some figures show that 1/3 of people under 30 doubt the existence of a god, and this is especially true for students. The SSA’s work in helping students find a sense of community, engage in activism, find a secular outlet for service & volunteer work, and a secular place to educate themselves and the public is second to none. I am so inspired every time I think of the SSA and the work they are doing.

If you’re not familiar with the SSA, please check out their website. Get to know the staff—they are AMAZING people—and like their Page on Facebook. Look at the services they offer to student groups—both high school and college—and the library of resources, as well. I speak from experience in saying that I know that our student group would not be nearly where it is without the SSA’s direct help in every step along the way.

The work the SSA are doing is so important. If you care about secularism and secular issues, become a supporter. As secular activists, this is where our attention should be, and I join the rest of us at the SSA in thanking you for being behind us.

Follow @secularstudents on Twitter for the latest updates! And if you’re not yet a member, join us!

Keep up the great work, everybody!

- Dave

Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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We are like birds

Hello all,

One of the questions we get asked often at our Ask an Atheist table is, “Why get together?”—Why have a group at all? So we all don’t believe in the same thing – so what? Why not get on with our lives and do something else with our time?

The answer, at least on some level, is that getting on with our lives means living our lives, and part of living, for humans, means being part of a group. It’s very important for us, as people, to know that we belong somewhere, that we have friends we can count on to understand us and be there for us.

We are social animals, just like dogs, just like elephants, just like birds. We need each other to be happy and be fulfilled. But even more fundamental than that, we need each other to live. Take birds as an example: Why do birds fly in formation?

Canadian geese flying in a V-formation

Research shows that, while evolutionarily unintentional, bird flight formations are not random: Flying in a formation of 25, each bird can increase its range by 71% (!) versus flying alone. This works because each bird (except the front one) flies in the upwash from the wingtip vortices of the bird ahead of it. Migrating birds rotate which bird takes the front position so that none are unfairly doing all the work of holding up the formation. Military aircraft also fly in formation because—aside from the advantage of maintaining visual contact—formations improve fuel efficiency.

As social animals ourselves, we get similar advantages by living in a group. Some animals, like cats, get along just fine living alone, hunting and finding shelter on their own. But we found a different evolutionary niche, and as a result, we’re able to accomplish so much more than cats. Cats will never walk on the moon unless we bring them there. Cats will never explore the bottom of the ocean, or know what stage fright is like before giving a talk in front of a group of their peers.

In his beautifully-written book “The Origins of Virtue,” which I highly recommend to anyone reading this, Matt Ridley tells us that evolutionary self-interest—survival of the fittest—and mutual aid are not at all incompatible.  As the publisher puts it, “Our cooperative instincts may have evolved as part of mankind’s natural selfish behavior–by exchanging favors we can benefit ourselves as well as others.” But this is not a cold and calculating process. Natural selection has favored authenticity as a virtue, and we are quite adept at recognizing and regulating those who seek to benefit by keeping too-close track of who owes what. Indeed, as Mizzou anthropologist Craig Palmer puts it, a virtuous act is nearly synonymous with a pro-social and selfless act, and an non-virtuous act with a selfish and antisocial act.

Milton Friedman, the famed Nobel Prize-winning economist, based on an essay by his friend Leonard Read, used a pencil a symbol of human cooperation—not just for the sake of taking handwritten notes, but for the sake of harmony and even world peace:

The reason that atheists get together is that we can accomplish more by doing so. Not just in terms of activism and education—although this is also true—but because, like birds, we need each other. Sometimes there is nothing more useful in the world than a hug, or just being in the presence of people whom you know won’t judge you for not believing in an imaginary friend. Sometimes all you need is a smile from someone who understands what you’re going through. And that is what SASHA is.

If you take away one thing from this post, let it be this: If you’re an “internet atheist,” know that Reddit is great, blogs are great, YouTube videos are great, philosophy books are great. But if you’re reading this, you’re human, and being part of a group is really where we shine our brightest. Join a local group. If you’ve been to a local group meeting and it wasn’t for you, tell the group or group leaders why. We want to be here for you. If you want a group with more women in it, say so. If you want a group with more people your age in it, say so. If you want a group that does different activities besides Skeptics in the Pub, say so. There are lots of types of groups and lots of varieties of groups, but the most important thing is to be part of one. There are benefits to you that you might only begin to realize if you’re not a regular member, most of them emotional, or to reclaim the word from the religious, spiritual.

If you need help finding a local group, you can leave a comment with your city and I’ll do my best to help you find one. The Secular Student Alliance has a list of groups here. American Atheists also maintains a list of over 1,000 groups here, and the Center for Inquiry has a database of centers in the US and around the world here.

I hope that you’re having a good day!

Until next time,

Dave

Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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