Atheist Book Club: ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman

This summer the SASHA gang and Columbia Atheists are experimenting with a book club. We wanted more diversity in the types of meetings we offer, and it turns out that most of us like reading and discussing what we read.

We call it Atheist Book Club, because that is nice and ambiguous, and it has alphabetically sensible initials. It is ambiguous because it’s not clear whether we are a club that reads atheist books or a book club composed of atheists. If we were ever listed in the phone book, and if people still used phone books, we would be one of the first book clubs a person would see.

phonebooks

The death of a medium.

We chose Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as our first book. I’ve read the book before, but I’ve been blessed with a terrible long-term memory, so I am experiencing much of the book as if for the first time. So far, I’m really enjoying it.

americangods

The main character, Shadow, paroles from prison only to find his wife has died. A guy named Mr. Wednesday comes out of nowhere and offers him a job as a bodyguard of sorts. This kicks off the story.

In prison, Shadow passed the time by teaching himself magic, mainly coin tricks. To me, this is a big red flag that the author will be playing some sort of trick on me with the story. Gaiman even goes so far as to have Shadow explain the importance of misdirection. I’m skeptical of the story now, and looking closely for signs of misdirection. Ironically, this is the surest way to fall victim to misdirection, so I might be screwed anyway. Shamefully, I wasn’t able to see past the misdirection of The Prestige.

Viewer: Oh my gosh he's drowning! Save him, Christian Bale!

Viewer: Oh my gosh he’s drowning! Save him, Christian Bale!

 THE PRESTIGE!!!

[shink] THE PRESTIGE!!!

The universe of the story is one in which gods are real, so it is fiction. When the Vikings came to America back in the 1000s, they brought their Norse gods with them. Since then, though, things have been pretty shitty for the Norse gods of America. No one really worships them anymore, so they are kind of experiencing rough times. They deal with this by teaching inmates magic tricks and seducing hotel night managers.

Gaiman's pitch to HBO: "Yeah, it's like that. But less Hemsworth vibe, more Kilmer."

Gaiman’s pitch to HBO: “Yeah, it’s like that. But less Hemsworth-y.”

Gaiman: "Yeah, that's more like it."

Gaiman: “Yeah, that’s more like it.”

Noticeably lacking, as of Chapter 5, is Christian God. In fact, I find his absence distracting. Given the premise of the novel, Christian God should be all over the place, running shit, smiting the other gods’ worshipers, etc. But he never shows up. As of yet, there’s been no mention of Christian God or his archangels.

Instead, the dominant gods of the story’s America are what might be called false idols, representing technology, the media, and other such cool things that we more or less worship. I take Gaiman to be making a point about our culture’s obsession with materialistic and evanescent icons. Rather than being a Christian nation, as many take us to be, we are a nation of rampant consumers and gossipers who twist Christianity to meet the needs of our real religion. This is consistent with what we see on The Real Housewives of [American City], most of whom identify as Christian.

The Real Housewives of Orange County.

The Real Housewives of Orange County and their worship of materialism (and Christianity, supposedly).

Along similar lines, the “places of power” dotting the American landscape are not churches, as you might expect, but roadside attractions. Yes, the nexuses of supernatural power lie within the biggest balls of yarn, the biggest wheels of cheese, and houses randomly built on rocks. In England, they have Stonehenge. I’m certain this says something about America, but I can’t quite articulate it.

House on the Rock. A real roadside attraction in Wisconsin.

House on the Rock. A real roadside attraction in Wisconsin.

The religious power of roadside attractions might simply add to the notion that America’s religion really centers around consumerism and cheap novelty, and convey no deeper message. But drawing this conclusion makes me feel like I’ve fallen for some misdirection, and that I’ve missed something important. As I continue reading, I’ll look for clues that suggest a deeper meaning to America’s gods in the story.

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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and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

An Open Letter to our Members: Should you run for a SASHA officer position?

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So, you may have heard our current officers announce over the last few weeks at meetings that our annual officer elections are coming up for the 2012-2013 school year. You might be thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” I write today to answer this question.

I want to say to you, the person reading this: Consider running for an officer position. Yes, you. Really.

You might be thinking, “I’m not the ‘type’ to be a group officer,” or that you wouldn’t be good at it. Nonsense, I say.

I say to you, I myself never thought about running for an officer position either, until I was nudged into thinking about it. What I want to do right now, with this very blog post, is nudge you into thinking about it, too.

Take a moment. Think about SASHA, and what this group means to you, as you make your way through college. Take a moment to think about what this group can grow into over the next few years, that it is not already, with your help.

We are just going into our third year of being an active student group on campus, and we have barely scratched the surface. You can get in on the ground floor of this. When I started coming to SASHA, there were only about 5 of us regularly attending the meetings. We have easily quadrupled that now, and at our debate last April with Brother Jed, we drew over 200 people. And this is just the beginning! Here are some of the things we’re working on for next year:

  • SASHA Book Club (monthly)
  • SASHA Volunteer Day (each semester, monthly, or weekly)
  • Movie Night (monthly or weekly)
  • Game Night (monthly or weekly)
  • Field trips to the planetarium, guided tours to local museums or nature trails, and/or to the Science Center or Zoo in St Louis
  • Paint ball
  • SASHA BBQ
  • SASHA Lending Library
  • Having professors come and give TED-style talks to us about their research

and that’s not even all of it.

Getting involved with SASHA is one of the best things I have ever done. When I was starting to doubt my religion, when I was the most confused about The Big Questions, when I was searching for answers, when I was just starting to see the light in the distance of rational thinking, SASHA helped me. It helped me connect with other people who are doing the same thing, and who could help me, instead of feeling lost or guilty about asking these questions, feel like I had come home. SASHA has taught me how to be a better person and how to be more comfortable as the person I really am, and as the person I really want to be.

When I first started coming to SASHA meetings, it was a brand-new experience for me. I was still in the closet as an atheist, and no one knew about my atheism except for my girlfriend at the time. SASHA gave me the courage in numbers — and the factual ammunition — necessary to feel confident about why I didn’t believe in a god, about evolution & natural selection, the origin of the Universe, history, about LOTS of topics.

SASHA taught me how to think like a scientist thinks, how to ask questions, and how to be comfortable without always having the answer of “God did it.” But what SASHA also did was give me a place to do that, where I was not judged, where I was not scolded, where I did not have to be afraid of my curiosity about the world.

Whether you identify as a skeptic, an atheist, a secular humanist, an agnostic, or something else, if you go to Mizzou, and you value science, reason, and secular values, SASHA is not only here for you, but we want you to think of SASHA as home. We want SASHA to be where you feel the most comfortable, where you can come to be free from censorship, discrimination, oppression, and closed-mindedness — a place you can come for intellectual stimulation, for challenge, for friendship, for moral support, for camaraderie, to help you through hardship: a place where you can not only be yourself, but celebrate who you are.

Further, we want you to know that SASHA is your group as much as it is ours or anyone else’s. We are not like churches, with top-down, hierarchical dogmas about what you have to believe to be part of SASHA, or how we have to operate. Yes, we have officers who carry out these things, but as a group, we explicitly value rational inquiry and critical thinking. If you have an idea for a better way of doing things, or an idea for something you want our group to do in order to serve us all better, we want you to know that you have the power to help make this happen. If you have ideas for changes in this group, in the activities that we do, in the topics of our talks, in how we function, remember that this is your group, and we want you to get involved.

I think SASHA is a great thing. It’s been a major part of my life these past 3 years, from when I first started attending 3 years ago, to when I became the Co-Director of Public Relations last year, and on to becoming the Vice President this current school year.

SASHA is, in fact, responsible for me becoming interested in where I see my long-term plans and career heading, since I’ve become an atheist and I no longer can feel at home working as a worship musician. It is through SASHA that I got interested in activism, and started writing about skepticism & history, doing public debates, and doing public speaking, first here at Mizzou and now at other schools as well. And as I mentioned at the meeting tonight, this summer I have an internship where I will have an opportunity to do exactly what I’ve realized I love doing — writing and speaking about atheism topics and representing the secular, skeptical point of view to the world — at a non-profit that specializes in doing exactly that.

I feel like I am finally finding my place in the world, in a way that I haven’t felt since I stopped working for a church. Only the difference is, I no longer have this nagging feeling constantly in the back of my mind that everything I’m doing is rooted in a lie, the way I used to. I feel like what I’m doing now really matters, and that I can effect real change by doing it. I no longer feel like I’m living a lie, and it’s a great feeling, and it’s all because of SASHA.

I hope that you will consider running for an officer position. Positions open now are President, Vice President, Treasurer, and Director of Public Relations. Contact our current president, Tony Lakey, and he will tell you what’s next.

I look forward to working with you next year! Together, we can do great things!

- Dave

mail@davemuscato.com
(573) 424-0420 cell/text

—–

P.S.

If you have abilities that don’t fit into one of these, come and talk to us! We created the Director of Public Relations position because we realized we needed someone in charge of that, and we had someone interested in doing it. If you are a photographer — or are even just interested in photography, and want to get more experience by shooting SASHA events — come talk to us about making a new officer position to emphasize it. If you are a web designer, or want to learn, come talk to us. If you are want to be on the committee to help plan our Fall Conference, come talk to us. We are open to ideas, and want you along for the ride!

——

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward CurrentNonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

Oh, HELL no! I smell a lawsuit!

Welcome to the official MU SASHA daily blog!

First time here? Read this.

Click here to Like our Page on Facebook (or use the sidebar if you’re logged in).
Local to Columbia? Join the Facebook Group, too!

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This is outrageous. A new Oklahama bill seeks to squash atheists’ First-Amendment right to practice our religion in the traditional manner!

NPR link: State Bill Outlaws Use of [Human] Fetuses in Food Industry

Freedom From Religion Foundation, ACLU, anybody, can we move on this?

(Thanks to Terry Munger for the joke!)

See you guys tomorrow at 5:30 PM for the weekly SASHA meeting (click here for the Facebook event), at Reasonfest in Lawrence, Kansas on February 11/12, and at the Reason Rally on March 24!

- Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!

Gettier, Soccer (“Football” everywhere else), Epistemology

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(This was originally written as a Facebook note in Summer 2010.  Last night at our SASHA meeting we discussed Gettier problems, so I decided to repost it.)

Why you should study Epistemology

Traditionally, knowledge is defined as a justified true belief. This means that a person, Seth, knows something if and only if he believes something that is true and he believes it for a justified reason. A counter-example of this definition of knowledge presents a story that hits all of those conditions, and yet many think that the person in the story does not have knowledge. These types of stories are called Gettier Problems. Here’s an example from the world cup.

Suppose Monday I was listening to the radio, and I heard the broadcaster discussing the championship game. He is a reliable sports talk show host who has been a respected source of information for many years. On his show, he says that the Netherlands won the world cup, and from previous shows I know that the Netherlands had never before won the world cup. Hence, I form the belief that “the team who won the world cup this year had never won it before.” This belief, call it “p”, is justified because it is based on a reliable source of information, and it is true, but not because the Netherlands won. Spain had also never won the world cup before, and in fact Spain won the world cup this year.

Some evidence for the claim.

So here I have a justified belief that is true, but many would hesitate to call it knowledge. It seems like I only have a justified true belief on accident; it is just dumb luck that Spain had also never won the world cup before, and that is the fact that makes my belief true. There are two possibilities: 1) I knew prior to forming my belief “p” that Spain had never won the world cup before. 2) I did not know prior to forming my belief “p” that Spain had never won the world cup before. Would it make a difference which of these possibilities were actual?

If I knew that neither Spain nor the Netherlands had ever won the world cup before, and that they were the only possible teams to win this world cup, and that only one team would win, then it seems like I would have knowledge that “p”. In this case, however, it is not the radio host’s bad information that does the justifying, but rather my knowledge of the circumstances and simple deduction. In the second case, however, it does not seem right to say that I know “p”, because I did not know that Spain had never won the world cup before, I did not know that Spain won the world cup this year, and in fact deduced my belief from the false but justified belief that the Netherlands had won. So I think it is at least clear that in this second case, I have a justified true belief, but not knowledge.

If this counter-example is convincing, then you should ask yourself, what is wrong with that traditional definition? Does the belief have to be formed by some other reliable process? Should the belief be caused by something? Is it wrong to think of knowledge as a form of belief? What else would it be?

______________________________________________________________________________

Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers.  Feel free to contact Seth at SJK7v7@mail.missouri.edu with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current, NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick, Rationally Speaking.

Speaking tonight at KU in Lawrence, KS

Welcome to the official MU SASHA daily blog!
First time here? Read this.

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Local to Columbia? Join the Facebook Group, too!

Hello all!

Dave here. I’ll be speaking tonight at the University of Kansas in Lawrence for SOMA about the topic, “Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?” If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there. If you’re in Columbia and would like to carpool with me, please feel free to call or text me – my cell number is below. I’m leaving around 3:30 PM.

Have a great day everyone, and I’ll see you at the weekly SASHA meeting tomorrow at 5:30 PM in the Agriculture Building, room 2-16!

- Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

Follow Dave on Google+
Follow Dave on Twitter

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current,NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too! :)

The Value of Prayer

Welcome to the official MU SASHA daily blog!
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2011 SASHA Fall Conference this weekend! 7 Speakers – 2 Days – Free Admission: Visit SASHAconference.com for details.

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Hey all!  Seth Kurtenbach here.  This will be quick and painless and full of plugs (there is a sex pun somewhere in there, but I can’t figure it out).

In Columbia, Missouri, there is a church with a sign out front that reads something like, “Prayer + $1 dollar = food for the needy”.

In our SASHA meeting last night, we discussed how this sign illustrates a violation of the principle of parsimony.  Dave Muscato gave a great talk on speaking with theists, and one of his tips included becoming familiar with parsimony.  This is a good tip, for skeptics and theists alike (though the two are not necessarily exclusive).  The sign illustrates a violation of parsimony in the following way.  In order to explain the successful feeding of the needy, all we need to postulate is that a dollar was donated.  The additional postulation of prayer has no explanatory role, because the dollar explains everything.  Parsimony tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity, which means, ‘don’t postulate the existence of things if they are unnecessary for an explanation.’  Dave thinks parsimony is the single most important aspect of the scientific method, and many agree.  I think it is important, but it definitely has some problems.  Dave, you should write a post about why parsimony is so great.  I might troll about in the comments.

Anyway, I think there’s an interesting sense in which the church sign equation is true.  Before I explain this sense, let me lay out an assumption that I think is quite reasonable.  I think that money, rather than prayer, actually purchases the food.  I think the sum of the cost of the food is $1 dollar.  If prayer could be exchanged for food, I think the needy would be a lot less hungry, because prayer is something they have in no short supply; it is money (and food) that they lack.  However, an economist will quickly point out that a market based on prayer would quickly crumble due to outrageous inflation.  This only supports my assumption that it is the dollar that purchases the food, that in turn gets donated to the needy.  Side note: here’s a good experiment; try ordering some food from Chik-fil-A and offering to pay with prayer alone.  Chik-fil-A is owned and operated by some super religious zealots, who almost certainly believe in the efficacy of prayer, but good luck getting them to accept prayer as payment.  Although, there might be something to this, because supposedly the meek shall inherit the earth, or theirs is the kingdom of god, or something, so the poor and needy might offer the superwealthy some of that post-apocalyptic inheritance in exchange for some food/money now.  Prayer Credit Cards?  Moving on…

Here is some math skills:   a + b = c.

Subtract b from each side of the ‘=’, and you get a = c – b.

Let’s apply this formula to the church sign equation.  We get “Prayer = food for the needy – $1 dollar”.

Well, we assumed (reasonably) that the value of the food is fully explained and accounted for in the value of the dollar.

That is, the cost of the food = $1 dollar.

So, c = b.

But, that makes a = zero!  Indeed!

The church sign equation entails “Prayer = Nothing”.  Imagine Nathan Explosion saying it.

I’m happy to agree with that.  Way to go, church sign!  Isn’t it great when we can find common ground?  That’s the kind of accommodationism I really strive for!

Reminder:  Friday, 10/28, from 6 – 9 pm, is day one of the SASHA fall conference!  Then, Saturday, 10/29, from 10 am to 3 pm, is day two!  Show up or forever live in shame and regret…

Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers.  Feel free to contact Seth at SJK7v7@mail.missouri.edu with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current, NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick, Rationally Speaking.