The Red Pill

(This is an old post I found sitting in my Drafts…)

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. — Morpheus from The Matrix

There is a minor war going on between the “new atheists” and the “new accommodationists”, the latter being namely Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the hot wonder twins of atheist bashing.

PZ doesn’t like them, Jerry Coyne doesn’t like them and, frankly, I don’t like them. I’ll let the other guys speak for themselves, ’cause they do it a lot, and just chime in with my own two little cents.

First of all, let me agree with them — framing is a no brainer. Anyone who wants to convince people needs to frame their argument. PZ demeans framing as accommodation but that is not the case — framing is a tactic used to get people to drop their guard enough to listen enough to be convinced.

Now the disagreement — atheism is the red pill. Once you open your eyes to it, you can no longer tolerate wild, unfounded speculation, regardless of the source. Religion is nonsense and people who believe it are suspending rationality in favor of mystical faith-based bullshit. I’m not saying they are stupid, I’m saying that they do not think about religion the way they think about everything else. They give it a free pass, usually because they were brainwashed as children to do so.

When you swallow the red pill you can’t go back to a world where you respect people’s religion. You can respect the person without respecting the philosophy.

So the discomfort that Dawkins and PZ create is necessary. Kindness can’t win this one. There are always casualties in revolutions. The notion that atheists are mean or intolerant is not true and is really beside the point. The bigger issue is: religion is indefensible and more and more people are waking up to it.

The Red Pill

Indistinguishable from fiction

When we see thinking that is wrong we have to say, in the kindest and most helpful tone possible, perhaps, that it is wrong. For example, the earth is roughly 4 billion years old. If someone wants to claim it is 10,000 years old, they need to be told they are wrong. The writings of superstitious Bronze Age mystics can’t be taken as credible evidence for such a theory given the overwhelming evidence for a very old earth. The two theories are unequal by a long shot.

When I dismiss the Bible as “the writings of superstitious Bronze Age mystics” I am not trying to be disrespectful, I’m trying to be accurate. A depiction of the authors of the Bible as holy men in direct contact with god is fanciful in any rational sense. The same is true with the notions of heaven, hell, original sin, divine conception, resurrection, Doom’s Day, and so on. They are indistinguishable from fiction. None of it meets any of the standards that we have for considering something “believable”. Every religion has as much direct evidence as the ancient Greeks and Romans had for Zeus and Venus. I’m not trying to be unkind, I’m stating an obvious fact.

But I recognize that this fact still befuddles many people. They believe in god and they believe in an afterlife and they are not at all ready to listen to what I’m saying. That’s fine. I’m not on a mission of conversion. I think it is important that people think rationally — religion is a corruption of the mind in this sense. It helps keep the door open to dogmatic, arbitrary and wholly unsupported thinking. Furthermore, such beliefs are considered to be “off the table”. Under the guise of respect we treat fanciful mythology as perfectly acceptable.

Why? The more you think about it the more it boggles the mind.

I must add my standard atheist disclaimer: I don’t know if there is a god or not and I don’t know what happens when you die. I’ve calculated the odds of each and found the likelihood vanishingly small. My calculation is subject to change. There is no faith in my position.

(This started as a comment.)

Indistinguishable from fiction

Fascinating debate

Two atheists, one, Sam Harris, a rather hardline but rational fellow and the other, Philip Ball, an “accommodationists” (at least in the view of PZ) are going at it and it is a pretty fascinating read.

Ball is arguing that it is folly to outright dismiss religious thinking as incompatible with science. He thinks that religion is here to stay and deeply ingrained and that we have to strive for peaceful coexistence. Harris on the other hand, similar to my last few blog posts, thinks that religion is a dangerous mindset that should be taken head-on.

I agree with them both. I agree more with Sam Harris but I am keenly aware of the difficulties surrounding (what appears to be) attacks on people’s sacred beliefs. Even though I think all of our beliefs are fair game, in a sense, many people feel they never have to defend their religious beliefs. So any “attack” (and by that I mean a debate of ideas) is seen as hostile. That undermines our argument if our goal is to convince people to open their minds to our ideas.

Each of these guys had a great quote (among others) that I thought was worth sharing. Sam Harris describes Christianity accurately but severely:

Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven”—where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and sceptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on Mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will (probably) be consigned to a fiery hell for all eternity.

On Mr. Ball’s account, there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts such convictions in an unfavorable light.

Ball, who I agree with in the sense I described above, is a bit desperate and outmatched, I think, but he does sum up a view of agnostics that is well said:

I share your view that many of the alleged ‘facts’ that comprise most religious belief – the existence of a deity (or deities), that deity’s capacity to intervene in the world in supernatural ways, the whole paraphernalia of miracles, afterlife, saints, sin, absolution, virgin births, resurrections – are not just outside of science but fundamentally incompatible with a scientific view of the world. And while some agnostics might insist that we cannot ‘know’ that a god does not exist, this does not compel us to give the ‘for’ and ‘against’ possibilities equal weight. We shouldn’t imagine things into being without good reason to do so.

Fascinating debate

Science is god

Yes, yes, yes! I’ve had a revelation of sorts. It’s based on one core concept: that the progress we’ve made in this world is based almost solely on science. Literally, and I mean that in the literal sense, everything we have and enjoy and cherish is given to us by science. 2/3 of your kids would be dead without science. We wouldn’t have the internet or medicine or mobile phones or DVDs to watch. We wouldn’t live in nice little neighborhoods with unlocked doors. Science has pulled us out of the muck and given us the chance to be civilized and socialized. It’s the most important thing in the world.

Yes, of course, science if flawed. It’s wrong a lot and it’s political and manned by humans so as fallible as all of us are. But it is science itself which finds and fixes the errors and scientists and their students who invent the things that become the life-enriching advances of the future. Science, as Carl Sagan said, is a candle in the dark.

And yet this most proven and successful enterprise in human history, that provides the very foundation of all that we do, giving us literally life itself, is the enemy to some! And to others it is merely just one other view, equal to all other views, including the uninformed ravings of astrologers and clergymen.

Science is under attack by people with an agenda that is mystical in nature. They are religious people, “New Age” people, “woo” medicine peddlers and other op-ed nut cases. They demean science and applaud quackery and they lead us away from the mindset which has given us everything we have.

Atheism is the natural worldview of the scientific mind. Oh, I know, many great scientists were theists. Religion is the last stand of mysticism and superstition in human psychology. But it’s not turtles all the way down, we are not special creatures destined to be cuddled by a friendly superbeing in heavenly comfort and nothing lasts forever, not even the universe. It is incredibly arrogant to think that we alone are eternal and happily reunited with our loved ones forever. It’s nonsense. There is no spoon. It is quite peaceful once you accept it.

Be here now.

Science is god

Why I'm happy you are an atheist

The reason I enjoy seeing the ranks of atheism grow is because I think there is still way too much superstition in the world. If you take all the religious activity and then add in ridiculous crap like astrology, psychics, Tarot, “woo”, pseudo-science, etc., etc., it adds up to a shit ton of wrong and dangerous thinking. The less of that the better. While atheists are no better and no worse than other people in other respects, when it comes to critical thinking, they outperform the average and then some.

Religion is a gateway drug to an arbitrary and dogmatic world view that tangibly hurts us day after day in countless issues from birth control to foreign policy.

The only reason we talk about atheism at all is because we are a society ridiculously soaked in religion. In many parts of the US it is just assumed that you not only believe in god but that you are a Christian. In many Muslim countries the state and the church are the same thing. It’s practically or literally illegal to be an atheist. So yes, of course we talk about atheism. It’s important.

Why I'm happy you are an atheist

Speaking of annoying

The Liberal Debutante posted Why Atheists Annoy Me. I’m sure she is a very nice, smart person but I find that article completely annoying because it repeats all the same, lame criticisms that atheists are constantly barraged with by theists. It gets even worse in the comments.

It’s annoying because the other side of this little debate is full of ridiculously self-righteous people who believe they are going to heaven and we are going to hell. They, in their weird little minds, literally have God on their side. If you take as your initial premise that your actions are sanctioned by God and those on the other side are damned by God, we are not going to have a real conversation. Thus, we don’t. Atheists do a great job of talking to other atheists and theists do a great job of talking to other theists. We virtually never really talk to each other. (I’ll point out as an exception my excellent interview with Ernan McMullin.)

So, to quickly run down her list, lectures are not annoying, conferences are not annoying, Dawkins is not annoying, intelligence should not even be on that list, atheists are probably the most open minded people on earth, to a degree that is shocking to many theists, atheists are positive and spirituality is a feeling that is always better explained with non-supernatural explanations.

Dear Katie, if your life is a monoculture of atheism, yes, you should be annoyed. If it’s not, please go back and delete this post! 🙂 It’s the equivalent of writing a post called “Why Women Annoy Me”. Some women are annoying. Some men are annoying. Some theists are annoying. Some atheists are annoying. The list goes on and nothing good comes from it.

Speaking of annoying

Framing: Duh

Over at scienceblogs there is a recurring argument debate about “framing”. My definition of framing is wording an argument in a manner that your audience is going to be most receptive to. It’s crafting an argument carefully with the goal of convincing people of its authenticity.

Using this definition its literally self-evident that if you want to convince people of something that you should approach your argument in a manner most likely to do so! That’s just obvious.

It’s a separate question whether you should have that goal or not. I.E. it would be a tedious world if everyone always spoke with utter care for maximum convincing power. I’m going to talk about religion differently if I’m with a bunch of atheists than I do if I’m at a funeral. Sometimes we preach to the choir and enjoy reveling in our superior views.

But, yes, if your goal is to convince, framing is a no-brainer.

Generally the framing debate at scienceblogs relates to the “new atheists” and the “battle of science and religion”. Dawkins and Myers alienate the people they are trying to convince, says one side. Dawkins and Myers respond: fuck you, we have every right to speak our opinions when and how we feel.

They are both right.

Dawkins and Myers do alienate the people they are trying to convince by focusing on the most radical and ridiculous examples of religion. That’s not all they do, by a long shot and I agree with them on literally almost everything. But they do alienate people. That’s a fact whether you like it or not. Religious moderates, who are an important political ally of secularists, are painted with the same broad brush as loonies like young earth creationists.

But on the other hand, and really more importantly, what Dawkins and Myers have done is say what they think. They used their best judgment. They have no responsibility to religious moderates, secularists or anyone else. Their words have been a very important part of the debate and we would be much poorer without them. We’re all grown ups and we should be able to handle it if it gets a little rough sometimes.

Framing: Duh