ciphergoth: (skycow)
How Dare You Atheists Make Your Case, Round 2: Persuasion Equals Intolerance
Where does this idea come from that persuasion is a mean and bad thing to do?

[...] Of all the pieces of armor in religion's armory, this one is uniquely effective. [...] How do you make a case with someone who thinks that the very act of making a case makes you a bad person?

[...] I think that within this circle of ecumenical, "all religions are getting at the truth in their own way," "we're fine with people of different faiths as long as they're fine with our faith" believers, the main context they have for people outside that circle is intolerant fundamentalism and theocracy. The main context they have for people who criticize other people's religions and argue that they're mistaken is the religious right in America, and Islamic extremists in the Muslim world, and so on. They just don't have a context for people who think that other people's religions are mistaken... and are nevertheless passionate about the right to religious freedom. They just don't have a context for people who spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to convince others to change their religious beliefs... and are trying to do it, not by law, not by force, not by bribery or intimidation, but by reason and evidence and persuasion, in public forums devoted to debate, and in private conversations with people who have expressed an interest.

So atheists -- or at least atheist activists, atheists who make arguments against religion and try to persuade people that it's mistaken -- automatically get slotted into the "intolerant fundamentalists who want to force everyone to be just like them" camp. That's the only context the ecumenical New Agers have for people who strongly disagree with other people's religions. So that's the context we get stuck in.
Here's Round One.

It does give me real pause for thought that so many of my intelligent and thoughtful friends have quite a different view on this one, and on this as on so many things, I mean to be open to persuasion :-)
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There's a handful of bloggers whose links I propagate more rarely than I might, just because I would not be far off re-linking to everything they write, and so if you're interested in the sorts of things I'm interested in, you would be crazy not to read their blogs yourself. One of them is Greta Christina, who writes mainly about atheism, skepticism, politics, and sex. I'm finally moved to blog this after reading her insightful take on the crazy declaration from a Republican Oklahoma senator's chief of staff that "straight porn turns boys gay". But I don't think that's even a particularly stand-out article. Here's a bunch of mostly relatively recent ones:

There's more, but my laptop froze up and I lost where I was up to, so I'll stop there.

[ profile] greta_christina
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Twelve Virtues of Rationality

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, 2006
The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth. To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance. If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction. Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer. The glory of glorious mystery is to be solved, after which it ceases to be mystery. Be wary of those who speak of being open-minded and modestly confess their ignorance. There is a time to confess your ignorance and a time to relinquish your ignorance.

Read on...
I've been absolutely captivated by Yudkowsky's writing on rationality for ages now; it's given me a lot of new tools with which to think about and talk about the world, and shaken me out of a lot of comfortable assumptions about my own rationality. I'd love to know what people who read here think about it.
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Is self-deception always bad? Are there any beliefs so dear to you that, in a world where they weren't true, you would prefer to go on believing them?

Update: very interesting answers so far, I hope I get to hear from lots more of you!
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You are, I think, entitled to the right to hold and express any opinion without being shut down by the State for doing so; that is where the entitlement ends.

[Poll #1410915]
(edit: removed Harlan Ellison quote, which doesn't really express what I'm getting at here)
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You may have noticed that I'm drawing a lot of ideas from this sequence of 661 posts broadly about rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky on the Overcoming Bias blog. I thought it was an oversight that I'd never linked to this summary page before. If you read any of it, feel free to comment here and let me know what you think...
ciphergoth: (skycow)
Went to get [ profile] palmer1984 from the Internet cafe round the corner, and saw something that it took all my strength of will not to excitedly comment on right there. Two guys, black, late twenties/early thirties, leaning over one screen pointing at it and talking animatedly. The page they were looking at was an entry in the Talk.Origins archive - a huge collection of documents that, in accessible language and fascinating detail, refute the arguments for creationism that circulate world wide. Between the substantial Muslim presence and the various new evangelical churches, the area round us is probably full of creationists, so it's very pleasing to think of these guys looking up the counterarguments, and telling other people, and telling them about the website where they can find out for themselves. Hurrah!

ETA: I find myself playing with the idea of printing up and handing out leaflets about evolution and In large part because it could be fun and it would be interesting to see what reactions it gets!
ciphergoth: (skycow)
Johann Hari, The Independent, 2009-05-08

Dear God, stop brainwashing children

Why is worship forced on 99 per cent of children without their own consent or even asking what they think?
Let us now put our hands together and pray. O God, we gather here today to ask you to free our schoolchildren from being forced to go through this charade every day. As you know, O Lord, because You see all, British law requires every schoolchild to participate in "an act of collective worship" every 24 hours. Irrespective of what the child thinks or believes, they are shepherded into a hall, silenced, and forced to pray – or pretend to.

If they refuse to bow their heads to You, they are punished. This happened to me, because I protested that there is no evidence whatsoever that You exist, and plenty of proof that shows the texts describing You are filled with falsehoods. When I pointed this out, I was told to stop being "blasphemous" and threatened with detention. "Shut up and pray," a teacher told me on one occasion. Are you proud, O Lord?

[...] I am genuinely surprised that no moderate religious people have, to my knowledge, joined the campaign to stop this compelled prayer. What pleasure or pride can you possibly feel in knowing that children are compelled to worship your God? Why are you silent?

Are there prominent religious campaigners on this issue in particular or State secularism in general that he's not taking into account? Are they getting articles in the national press, or trying to? Pointers welcome!
ciphergoth: (skycow)
I've read all four of the recent books by the "four horsemen", and for the most part none have made me feel "yes, this is the book I want to press into the hands of believers". I would like there to be at least one book that I might be able to recommend, and having heard good things about this 1974 book, I ordered it from Amazon on a whim.

It certainly comes a *lot* closer than any of those four. It has a very dry style; there are no witty personal stories, few anecdotes, and only a smattering of historical background. But all four of the horsemen books seem somewhat scattershot in their approach, except perhaps Dennett, whose book seems like not so much an attack on religion as a hastily-repurposed discussion of religion originally intended for an atheist audience. This book is much more bulldozer than scattershot, and methodically dismantles the "sophisticated" defences of religion I actually hear from believers.

Its bulldozer-like nature may be seen in its chapter structure; first, clarify what atheism is and establish that the burden of proof lies with the theist; then tear down obfuscation as a means to confound rational discussion of the issue; demolish the idea that faith and revelation can supplement reason as guides to the truth (discussing and destroying a variety of attempts to defend the idea of faith). Only then are the traditional arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument, painstakingly taken apart; and only after that are the negative moral consequences of religion discussed.

There are a few problems. Smith is (or at least was) an Objectivist, and this leads to some sad errors; his defence of the idea of moral facts in Chapter 11 Section 2, for example, is just embarrassing. And it seems a shame to discuss the argument from design without even mentioning evolution; I can see that as a philosopher you want to show that the argument is *inherently* flawed, and of course it is, but it's evolution that robs it of its emotional impact. I still find myself thinking that I may have to write my ultimate book on the subject, but I have quite a few other books I'd have to read first to know if there was a gap in the market, and I can't afford quite that many whims :-)

No argument, no matter how good, can turn the head of someone who is prepared to say in terms that they intend to cling to an idea no matter how much they have to embrace irrationality in order to do so, as many sophisticated believers openly say. But still, when I read the four horsemen books, I felt I knew how believers were going to evade the conclusions they were pushing for, and I would love to know how a serious, philosophically knowledgable believer would go about avoiding the conclusions of this book.

Update: as usual, anonymous comments should be signed to be unscreened.
ciphergoth: (skycow)
I am extremely flattered that my favourite atheistic blogger, Greta Christina, has taken a comment I made in her journal and made a post about it. I'm not sure she's quite nailed it on how what she discusses is different from questions like the nature of abiogenesis, but all the same I like the post and am very happy to have played a part in bringing it about.
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In a discussion about religion in [ profile] wildeabandon's journal, [ profile] meihua writes: "this seems to have turned into me interrogating you. [...] Is there anything you'd like to challenge me on, instead?"

I think it's only fair enough to open up my own beliefs to the challenges of others, since I'm always keen to respond when theists invite me to give my perspective on some aspect of their beliefs as [ profile] wildeabandon has in a series of recent posts. So, is there anything you'd like me to respond to?

  • You don't have to read this thread. This post is an invitation, not a challenge; if you don't like to read me talking about this then feel free to skip this.
  • Be honest. Please don't advance arguments you don't personally buy, unless you're also an atheist and you want to discuss how best to counter it.
  • If you come to change your mind about the validity of an argument, think about how you can generalise the lesson learned so as not to misassess similar arguments in future.
  • Don't just match the politeness of what you reply to, but try to exceed it - see Postel's Law. Otherwise it is very easy to end up with a thread where each contributor thinks they are merely matching the snark level of the other, and yet the thread starts with the very slightest suggestion of rudeness and finishes with "please choke on a bucket of cocks".
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Does the right thing to do depend only on the consequences, or are some acts inherently right or wrong no matter what likely consequences follow?

From Wikipedia:
Deontological ethics or deontology (Greek: δέον (deon) meaning 'obligation' or 'duty') is an approach to ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions.

Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action.

Virtue theory is a branch of moral philosophy that emphasizes character, rather than rules or consequences, as the key element of ethical thinking.
Which of these best describes your position?

[Poll #1225625]
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Thanks for some interesting and surprising responses to the JFK question. At the risk of creating more heat than light, let me try another example, one that I think might be a little less comfortable to be neutral about.

It seems that many people believe that on the morning of September 11, 2001, four thousand or more Israelis who were working at the World Trade Center did not show up for work.

Are those people wrong?

(Update: amended as per [ profile] ajva's caveat)
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For the purposes of this post, I don't really care who shot JFK; it's just a convenient mystery with which I can ask a question about truth.

Alice believes that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. She believes that Lee Harvey Oswald was in the Texas Book Depository, aimed a loaded rifle and shot JFK, at which point his head visibly exploded as seen in the Zapruder video.

Bert disagrees; he doesn't know for sure who shot JFK, but the one thing he's sure of is that Lee Harvey Oswald was not pointing a loaded rifle out of the window of the Texas Book Depository at the President at the fateful moment.

What do I believe? As I say, I neither know nor care, but there's one thing I know for sure: one of Alice or Bert is wrong. In sufficiently weird conditions both of them might be wrong, but one of them is wrong for sure. We may never know which of them is wrong, but at least one of them is definitely wrong.

Does anyone disagree with this?


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Paul Crowley

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