Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dissent Will Not be Tolerated

Silencing dissent or attempting to silence dissent is something I consider to be a telling characteristic of fascist and authoritarian values.  It is truly a pernicious quality that some people possess.

It also has been and is employed regularly by religions to prevent critical examination of the doctrinal beliefs.  Sometimes it is used simply for the purpose of exerting control so that would-be dissenters think twice before expressing anything but utter deference to existing norms and authority.

Just recently, secular organizations at British universities in London had displayed a completely innocuous cartoon from the jesusandmo webcomic on their Facebook pages:

Does this offend you?  Then go fuck yourself.

Besides the fact that its a freaking cartoon of two guys at a bar, it doesn't convey any message that could be controversial at all.  You have to be a special kind of nutbag to find this in any way offensive.

So of course, there are a bunch of nutbags that are terribly upset, and the student unions are bowing to the pressure by some Muslims and ordering the secular organizations to remove the image.

Even if the image had some message that was critical of Christiantiy and/or Islam, that would not be sufficient reason to demand that the image be removed.  Why?  Its called free speech.  In the U.S. it is a First Amendment Right.  But more critically, it is a central principal of a free and open democracy.  Without generally accepted free speech groups have an incentive to claim offense by any arbitrary statement or expression by a group that they may see as a threat to their values.

In a democracy, the principal of a meritocracy of ideas should be the standard.  If an idea or proposal is of sound logic and reasoning, one should not be afraid of or offended by criticism; in fact one should welcome such criticism.  And welcome it not just for the sake of free speech (worthy enough in and of itself), but also to refine the idea and make it even more powerful.  Without constructive and critical scrutiny of ideas, progress cannot take place.

Another concept that some people - and it always seems that it is those people with the stupidest ideas that want to simply silence criticism rather than argue out the points - fail to understand is that you don't have the right to not be offended.  Just because you are offended by something I might say, does not give you the right to silence my speech.  For two reasons:
  1.  As mentioned above, if everyone had the right to silence speech or expression they found offensive, that right would inevitably lead to not just silencing, but complete silence until no one could possibly say anything that didn't offend someone (see The Heckler's Veto); 
  2.  It is antithetical to the principle of free speech.  If you don't like what I have to say, you are free to argue back.  You are free to call me names (libel laws notwithstanding).  You are free to completely ignore me.  You are not free to unilaterally revoke my democratic rights.
Finally, the implication of trying to silence opposing points of view is that you have no legitimate counter-argument.  Silencing tactics are the white flag in the war of ideas.  Its an admission of failure and cowardice.  I can't back up my beliefs with reason, evidence and logic, so the only alternative is to make sure you can't express yourself.  No one who takes this tact should be taken seriously - they are cowards.


All of which brings us to the Sandusky/Penn State scandal and the fallout that ensued with Joe Paterno.  The reaction to Paterno's firing by Penn State alumni has been intense, to say the least, with those that continue to support Paterno, apparently despite him passing the buck up the nominal chain of command, vociferously expressing their disdain of the decision to fire Paterno.

While I personally find such a reaction to be an embarrassment to Penn State and its alumni, I have no problem with the expression of dissent over the decision that was made.  See above - the merits of their respective arguments should be the standard of validity.

Yet that sentiment does not seem to be shared by some, if not many Penn Staters in the wake of Paterno's death:

I would never have the audacity to criticize where people draw on inspiration from - it is a very personal thing.  If you don't like that a vast majority of your friends finds [sic] inspiration from a humble football coach then don't sign on to Facebook for awhile.
There seems to be a misunderstanding of what it means to be private, regarding the first sentence: if you publicly declare what gives you inspiration, then it is fair game to be criticized.  If it is so damn personal to you, then keep it private.  You can't just expect the world to respect your crazy inspiration when the emporer has no clothes.  You don't want criticism, keep it private.  Its that easy.

There are two implications of the second sentence that require parsing, yet it is unclear which or both of the implications the author intends.
  • The first implication is simply, if you don't want to expose yourself to something that you find uncomfortable, then look away - and don't try to silence me.  Cool.  Agreed.  I wouldn't think of it.
  • The second implication arises by the fact that Facebook is not just a content consumption vehicle.  In addition, it is also a content creation vehicle.  So by telling others to get off FB if they don't like what they see, there is an implicit demand that they not freely express themselves in response to content they find objectionable.  
I strongly suspect that the author indents to imply that content shouldn't be consumed or created in reaction to something they find objectionable.

Which, if that is the case, is a despicable endorsement of the tyranny of the majority and intellectual cowardice.  I am at a loss that a college educated person would write this.

And then we have this doozy:

Agreed, [OP] - I actually defriended people due to their criticism and likely will continue.

You weakminded fool.  Can you not withstand the pixels that might suggest that someone in the world might disagree with you?  Are you so ignorant of history and the long list of tyrants that have sought to squelch dissent that you are actually willing to admit to such a petty tactic to protect your feeble mind?  And who are the two solitary imbeciles that actually 'liked' this response.

 I hope to sweet baby ceiling cat, that I would never actually be so intellectually insecure as to embark on the trivial and futile act of de-friending someone and then to boast to the world of my own ignorance and cowardice.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Random Bible Verse of the Day - The Sermon on the Mount

Cheers! ...wait, where'd my beer go?
Well, this one probably wont seem too random since its so well known.  But such is the nature of true randomness.

Random Bible Verse of the Day: Matthew 5:3-12- "The Sermon on the Mount"

 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  [not sure what this is supposed to mean - spirit as in 'belief'?  That would seem to contradict the purpose of religion.  Or spirit as in morale?  Why would they be better off than those with a good morale?]
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.  [does inherit the earth mean they will be politically powerful?  and on what basis?  why would you think this to be true?]
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.  [ok finally one I can get behind; though the conclusion that they will be shown mercy seems spurious.  And is being merciful just for anticipated reciprocity that laudable?  Instead, how about 'blessed are the merciful, for they care about the well-being of other human beings' ?]
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.  [I'd like a definition of 'pure' and 'see'.  The vagueness is killing me!]
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,  [promoting peace...good stuff]
   for they will be called children of God.  [...but what the hell does that have to do with being a called child of god?  what does that even mean?  And who cares what one is called?]
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,  [it takes courage to maintain your ideals if you're being persecuted, but does this imply that the persecutors are doing the persecuted a favor by persecuting them?]
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  
   11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. [what an ego - what happened to all that talk about being 'meek'?]12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  
See the big problem with the Bible is that as an instructional document, it is really freaking ambiguous.  I guess you could take it as a poem or whatever, but its purpose clearly seems to be to give instructions to believers.  I think we can at least say this document didn't go through the Quality Control Department at corporate.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Religion & Morality Redux: Plato's Euthyphro

God said to go the Wrong Way.  Therefore, it must be moral!
In the last post I discussed two common arguments made by theists that religion is necessary for morality and why they are wrong.  However, I neglected to mention an argument on this question which comes from Plato's Euthyphro in which Socrates asks Euthyphro: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

This question has been re-framed in the time since Plato: Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

It is an interesting dilemma that more pithily encapsulates the two hypotheses I wrote about the other day.  Reading through the logical implications of these questions, it becomes clear that, logically, true morality cannot be dictated by a divine being; rather it must come from society's collective expectations.

 The First Horn
The "First Horn" as it is called, considers the former: Is what is morally good commanded by god because it is morally good?

In this case, it is quite clear that morality exists outside the purview of the divine being.  God is not declaring it good by fiat, but god is commanding it because it is morally good.  In other words, god is not deciding what is morally good, but commanding that what is morally good be done.  The implication of this is that god is powerless to change what is "good" and thus can only command that that which is good be done, thus calling into question god's omnipotence: he is reduced to a communicator of morality and cannot determine morality.

There are a couple of implications that this horn presents, but the most relevant to our discussion of morality (as opposed to the nature of god) is that if there are moral standards independent of God, then morality would retain its authority even if God did not exist.

The Second Horn
The Second Horn is concerned with the latter: Is something morally good because it is commanded by god?
This is quite different from the first proposition because it assumes the omnipotence of a god to declare that which is good. In this case, the only moral standards are those which god declares.  This situation does not require any criteria or methodology for determining what is morally good.  Indeed, such a morality could be completely arbitrary as long as it originates from god.

This proposition presents some very obvious problems if one were to accept it.  First, this would allow for a completely inconsistent code of morality.  God could declare that it is moral to not follow his own morality.  Obviously this would create an inescapable dilemma that cannot be followed, yet nevertheless valid as it is declared by god.  Wikipedia notes that Descartes subscribed to the second horn and even its implications for geometry where god could require that triangles have other than 180 internal degrees, a patently absurd notion.

Another obvious problem with this is that god could, at any time, change what civilization has long held to be moral.  For example, god could declare that it is a moral imperative to kill some subset of the population (leaving aside the fact that many have tried to justify murder or genocide as god's will).  Or god could declare that it is morally imperative that people over 5 feet tall must skip to work when the temperature exceeds 60 degrees on Mondays.  Again, patently absurd.

But the point is that to hold to the Second Horn, that whatever god declares as moral because it was declared by god, implies that there are no limits to the absurdity of a morality imposed by a god with such power.

Believers are very keen to argue that religion provides an objective morality for them to follow and rail against 'relativism'.  Yet this argument hilariously lacks self-awareness since the supposed supporters of 'objective morality' routinely reject or are willfully ignorant of many of the absurd and disgusting "objective moral standards" imposed by the voice of god in the bible.
  • The eating of fat is prohibited forever (Leviticus 3:17)
  • Stubborn children were to be stoned, and the stoning was to be instigated by their parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
  • People who have flat noses, or are blind or lame, cannot go to an altar of God (Leviticus 21:17-18)
  • Don't wear clothes made of more than one fabric (Leviticus 19:19)
  • Kill anyone with a different religion. (Deuteronomy 17:2-7)
Because of this clear fact that many of god's laws in the bible are subverted or have be 're-interpreted', it is obvious that society as a whole, and even Christian society, rejects, in practice if not in sentiment, the notion that a supposed god even has the ability to set moral standards.

Once you can recognize, even if you indeed believe in a god, that your morality does not come from him but from the ever evolving social norms of society, you are forced to admit that being religious does not confer moral authority over non-believers.  And perhaps, you will explore are more humanistic morality, which as the name implies focuses on human issues and values, to direct your behaviors, as opposed to a moral system that is littered with decrees and pronouncements that any reasonable person can see as barbaric.

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Religion & Morality

Religious folk, Christians in particular in the US, love to talk about how religion is necessary to maintain a sense of morality.  That without god and religion, everything would just go to shit.

Its an interesting hypothesis, one that I obviously reject, but interesting nonetheless.  There are actually two common interpretations of this generals sentiment that are employed by the believers depending on where you are in the argument with them.  So let's break it down.

Hypothesis #1: Without the construct of religion and the moral values it imposes, everything would go to shit.  That is to say, belief in and of itself is the primary force to keep everyone in check; without it, we would all be murderers and rapists.

This is simply a silly position, since atheists and agnostics exist in society and don't rape and murder any more than those that adhere to some religion.  While prison demographics are somewhat murky and their validity unclear, there isn't any evidence that atheists exist in prision in greater proportion to their non-incarcerated cohorts.  In fact, from the limited data that exists, Christians compose a greater proportion of prison population in the US than in free society.  On the face of it, this might lead one to conclude that Christians are more likely to commit crimes than non-believers.  But even assuming, for the moment, that these statistics are not representative, given the hypothesis that it is belief itself that imparts morality, one would expect that virtually all atheists exist in prison (assuming a fair justice system without bias against non-believers) and virtually no believers incarcerated.  Yet, religion is quite obviously pervasive in the prison system; just do a search for "prison bible ministry" and you will get some 32 million hits.  There certainly wouldn't be such a market for bible ministry in prison if there weren't any believers.

I once was having such a discussion with a friend about this hypothesis, and she worked herself into such a bind that she eventually came to the conclusion that any belief was better than no belief.  I asked if, in the light of the fact that the 9/11 terrorists clearly believed, to such point where they were willing to give their lives, if she found them more moral than atheists.  To my astonishment she replied, yes.  She had committed her argument so strongly to the idea that belief in a higher power is the lynchpin to morality, that even those that kill thousands in the name of their belief, are more moral than non-believers....simply because they believe.

This also brings up an obvious question that might be posed to someone that holds this position: If you could no longer believe in a divine being for whatever reason, would you then be compelled to go out an rape and murder?

At this point hypothesis #1 usually morphs into hypothesis #2: Regardless of one's belief system or lack thereof, they are moral because a supernatural power exists, thus justifying their belief and worship of such a being.

This argument is such a crock of shit that it really takes some convoluted mental gymnastics to justify it.  I say this for several reasons:

  1. You haven't established that a supernatural being exists
  2. Claiming that we couldn't be moral without a supernatural being begs the question: why?
  3. If your answer to #2 is that without a supernatural being and a threat of eternal damnation, then you're basically reverting back to hypothesis #1.
At this point, your argument has been reduced to: we must convince ourselves that a being exists that will punish us for all eternity if we don't act morally...whether or not that being actually exists so that we don't kill each other.

And this brings me to Tim Tebow: a sparkling example, and reflection of, the zeitgeist of Christianity in America: displays of piety are most important.

Of course, Tebow has made a name for himself, in part, due to his displays of faith.  Indeed, there is a site - - comprised solely of people in various places mimicking his on-the-field display.  For some reason, Tebow feels compelled to express his faith in front of millions of viewers.  His faith is clearly not a private matter.  If it was, it wouldn't be on such display.  

Religion has essentially become a proxy for the quality of one's character, however false such a proxy might be.  And the display of one's religion can engender trust and likability.  Conversely, anything criticizing religion is seen as an attack, not merely on one's beliefs, but on the community of believers.  When billboards go up around the country simply letting atheists know that they aren't alone, the religious outcry is deafening as if the mere existence of atheists made their blood boil.

And trying to remove a religious item from a publicly funded institution gets you threats of violence.  Take for example, a public school in Rhode Island which has the following display in the school:

Aside from being meaningless drivel, it is an endorsement of religion in a publicly funded school; a clear violation of the establishment clause.  So after gawd knows how may decades it had been up, a student noticed this violation.  She asked the school to take it down, and when they wouldn't took them to court.  The court has just ruled in her favor of the student and has ordered the prayer to be removed.

A great win for maintaining the separation of church and state.

Not surprisingly, Christians are none too happy.  Some are even making tacit, if not explicit, threats to the student that brought the case.

How about that for Christian morality.  Utterly disgusting vitriol.  Anyone who calls themselves Christian should be rebuking these assholes publicly.  Otherwise they're just hijacking the brand you're trying to convey as compassionate and loving and moral.

These reactions (and more that can be found here) seem to be a reflection of the fact that Christians, while claiming to be the pillars of society, are really most interested in displaying a facade of piousness.  Even the prayer that is to be taken down admonishes its students to "be good sports and smile when we lose".  The tweeters above, must have missed that part.

I could go on and get into the systematic raping of children by an entire religious institution or the specific examples therein, but I'll save that for another day.

Are Christians more moral than non-believers?  I'll let the evidence speak for itself.