Archive for September, 2011

Lifery update

Hey, you know all that writing and posting and commentary I’ve not been doing lately? Well, you’re in for a bunch more of not that. I’m still moving in with my girlfriend, bit by bit, over the course of a month or so, and next week we’re going to be holidaying in the Hebrides.

I’m not dead and I’ve not given this blog up by any means, but the quietness is likely to continue for at least a little while yet. Once all my stuff’s here, not just most of it, I’ll be settling back into a more writeristic routine. For now, relax, and stay tuned to your RSS feed for further updates. I hope you’re all doing well.

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Atheists we might see as people like those who deny global warming. You might celebrate their right, and defend their freedom of speech, to deny global warming – but if they’re wrong, and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible, terrible disaster for a lot of people.

This is one conclusion that comedian Frank Skinner has reached, as revealed in a recent conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. I suppose I’m grateful he at least seems to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, even if he is lamely anti-secularist.

(By the way, I seem to have adopted this habit lately of block-quoting a contentious part of what I’m intending to discuss right at the start of an entry. Is that annoying, or is it a useful way of setting the scene?)

Although it may be a novel comparison, there’s actually nothing new in the point he’s making. It’s essentially Pascal’s Wager: the claim that atheists have more to lose (namely their immortal souls) if they’re wrong about God’s non-existence than believers do.

Of course, this makes a number of assumptions about God which are just as unfounded as the idea that he exists at all – that he’s self-obsessed enough to value uninformed reverence and blind faith over intelligence, for instance, and petty enough to condemn those who fail to adequately lick his boots to an eternity of suffering.

But it also entirely fails to support one particular God-claim over any other. If the God who Frank Skinner believes in will inflict “terrible, terrible disaster” on any atheists who deny his existence, then surely all the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and followers of every other religion that’s ever existed are equally analogous to the climate change denialists, and arguably dragging greater numbers of souls to Hell than the godless.

“At a time when secularism is a threat to the salvation of millions, believers should get together, find what we have in common, and sell that,” he also said. But what exactly is there which he expects to find in common with those of opposing faiths? Belief in a God who’ll punish you for not believing in him doesn’t really count as a shared value, if you’re all disagreeing on which God it is. (This is a point rather more neatly skewered by the Merseyside Skeptics.)

I’ve seen Frank get a bit of vitriol for this piece, but it hasn’t really dented my perception of him as a largely benevolent, often funny guy. (Far more offensive, in fact, was his argument that science isn’t fun. Seriously. He compared it to “maths in fancy dress”, and didn’t mean that as a compliment. Dick.) He read The God Delusion, and at least pays lip service to the importance of doubt, even if I’m not left entirely convinced by this interview that he understands what intellectually honest doubt actually entails.

Perhaps most interesting is his extended comparison between religion and football. Among its most passionate devotees, football is marked by a love for the game itself, and a tribalistic allegiance to one’s local team. People don’t support sports teams because they’ve decided that one is morally (or in any other way) superior to all the others. They support a team because it’s their team, often because it’s what they’ve grown up with and so this irrational loyalty is all they’ve known.

But he doesn’t note where the analogy falls down. In football, there are empirical measures of which teams play the best in any given season, with leaderboards and so forth; but no distinguishing factor can ever make supporting one team be a “more correct” thing to do than supporting a different one. Religions, on the other hand, do claim to be set apart from their competitors, that the reality of the situation favours them specifically – and there’s no central idea which all the tribes can rally behind in the same way. Football exists, and teams from all over the country, all over the world, are all playing the same game. There’s no similarly centralised and unambiguous deity to unite believers.

Even if I’m not much interested in either one, I’ll believe in sport over God any day.

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Two lives were taken by the government in the southern United States last night.

One, in Georgia, received a great deal of media attention, and has invoked those opposed to capital punishment to speak out in force and in great numbers. This was in part due to the serious doubts raised about Troy Davis’s guilt.

The other, in Texas, hasn’t been talked about quite so much.

There are reasons why the former may have more effectively brought out the humanist sentiment in many people. For one, Lawrence Brewer (the man executed in Texas) was a white man involved in an appalling racial assault; Troy Davis was black. Whatever influence this may have had on their respective juries, it’s likely to have worked in Davis’s favour since then in inspiring a campaign of support, and made it easier for him to be seen as a tragic victim.

Further, Brewer’s involvement in the attack isn’t really in any serious doubt, even by his own account; Davis always protested his innocence, there was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and many witnesses have recanted their testimony against him. While this didn’t help Davis one iota at any point during the workings of the justice system, it’s easier and far more comfortable for protestors to rally around the guy who probably didn’t even do it.

But of the people protesting Davis’s killing, many are citing his case as an example of the system failing, and why the fallibility of human judgment means the death penalty should never be enforced. Although this one particular injustice has attracted their focus, they’re acting as campaigners against capital punishment itself, across the board. At least, I think most of them are. If there’s been a large contingent declaring:

Troy Davis’s execution is wrong! The state should only take the lives of criminals it’s really sure are guilty, and this particular case just isn’t up to scratch!

…then it’s passed me by. Most people protesting this death say they don’t want to see any government ever taking the lives of its citizens.

Which means, perhaps inconveniently for some, that a racist murderer’s life is just as important to fight for as an innocent black man’s.

On Twitter this morning, Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning said, of Lawrence Brewer, “I find it hard to oppose this particular execution”.

For the record: I don’t.

(h/t Skepchick)

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If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

This line caused a bit of a stir lately after it appeared in an article written by Brian Thompson on the James Randi Educational Foundation website, a major interweb hub (interwub?) of skeptical activity. Ophelia Benson was one of several to find the inclusion of “religion” on a list of valued points of diversity among skeptics to be a tad incongruous.

It’s not like any skeptics are proposing that all religious people be banned from skeptical events like The Amaz!ng Meeting, and the JREF has made a point of not being an explicitly atheist organisation. But religious claims often come within its purview of critical thinking and science education, and you can understand why a skeptical crowd might see more relevance to a personal faith position than, say, a personal gender identity.

Personally, I think Brian may or may not be making a good and important point, depending on quite what’s meant by somebody feeling “unwelcome or excluded”, and quite how we should react against such a thing.

Will people inevitably feel unwelcome as a result of being a minority, amongst a crowd full of people who they know disagree with them? Active skepticism does tend to lead people to reject religious claims, and so any gathering of skeptics is likely to contain a large proportion of non-believers. Many empirical claims are regularly made by religious people with real influence in the world, and it’s important that these are on the table as topics for discussion in skeptical events.

In short, skeptics are going to bash religion a lot, for the same reasons they’re going to bash homeopathy and psychic powers. If any of these are beliefs close to your heart which it would hurt you to hear criticised, then a skeptical gathering might just not be the place for you.

But if the kind of unwelcomeness and exclusion that Brian’s talking about is to do with unfriendliness, unkindness, incivility, hostility, cruelty, and deliberate castigation by a crowd motivated to malice by their objection to your differing beliefs – then I wouldn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome at TAM, or at Skeptics in the Pub, or anywhere that the people I consider “my crowd” congregate. By this metric, I would want the most ardent Muslim chiropractor or astrally projecting UFO abductee to feel welcome anywhere they care to go, for at least as long as they’re not initiating any kind of incivility themselves.

Diversity among people is great, but holding diversity among ideas as a virtue in itself leads to the familiar problem of false balance. I’d want all people to feel comfortable at a skeptical event, but I wouldn’t hold back from criticism of unsound ideas to achieve it.

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But what of my religion? I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance. That is my religion, and every day I am sorely, grossly, heinously and deeply offended, wounded, mortified and injured by a thousand different blasphemies against it. When the fundamental canons of truth, honesty, compassion, and decency are hourly assaulted by fatuous bishops, pompous, illiberal and ignorant priests, politicians and prelates, sanctimonious censors, self-appointed moralists and busy-bodies, what recourse to ancient laws have I? None whatever. Nor would I ask for any. For unlike these blistering imbeciles my belief in my religion is strong and I know that lies will always fail and indecency and intolerance will always perish.

The above words were uttered on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, somewhere around the late 1980s, by Donald Trefusis, Professor of Philology at the University of Cambridge and Extraordinary Fellow of St Matthew’s College. The character of Donald Trefusis was regularly written and performed by Stephen Fry, and I read the above section today amidst a transcript of an essay on blasphemy, in a collection of Fry’s writings called Paperweight.

I’m quoting it here because I don’t think I’ve seen it put better in the years since.

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Troy Davis has been awaiting the death penalty since his conviction for murder in 1991.

There was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and no murder weapon was found. He was convicted largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony.

Of the nine non-police eyewitnesses who testified against Troy, seven have since taken it back, alleging police coercion and intimidation.

Still, he’s due to be killed in three days’ time.

This is all happening in Georgia. Meanwhile, Rick Perry’s home state of Texas is the place with the highest rate of criminal exoneration based on DNA testing in the country. Perry presides over one of the most thorough and persuasive bodies of empirical evidence that eyewitness testimony is dangerously unreliable and is sending innocent people to prison or to their deaths.

He’s not interested. It’s something he’s “never struggled with“. Nor, it seems, have the judiciary in the state of Georgia.

The attitude that develops among Perry and others in charge of states that mandate the death penalty seems to run something like this:

“The state has the right to murder people it deems guilty of unacceptable crimes; we’re going to take pride in these people’s deaths; and we’re going to deliberately forego procedures which are known to uncover mistakes in the system, and which would almost certainly demonstrate the innocence of men and women whose lives we intend to take.”

I’m not getting into the sticky theological issue today of exactly what “evil” is, but I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

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I’ve been finding more and more things about which to disagree with Penn Jillette, as I’ve been learning and making up my mind about libertarianism. He’s still a great guy, and a fantastic performer, and I have not a shred of doubt that his politics are consistently driven by compassion and humility, even when I think he has the wrong idea.

But I know just about enough now to have some kind of opinion about this recent Penn Point:



If a billionaire like Warren Buffett thinks he’s not being taxed enough, why doesn’t he give the government some cash? He clearly wants the government to have more of his money, and there are ways he can just make a donation. That should make him happy and feel like he’s doing good, right?

Penn knows why Warren Buffett doesn’t do this, obviously. Buffett’s smart enough to give a lot of his money to, for instance, Bill Gates, who might do something with it such as vaccinate children, rather than to the US government, who are more likely to use it to start another war. So why does Buffett talk like he wants the government to have more money?

This is where I think Penn’s missing the point. It’s not that Buffett wants the government to grow bigger and richer and stronger, and have more money in an absolute sense. But if it’s going to insist that it needs to raise funds to pay for all its shiny wars and such like, then someone like Buffett is best placed to take the hit.

If he knew that a donation from him would directly reduce the tax burden faced by all his countrymen in households earning below $20,000 a year, I think he might consider it. But that’s not how the government operates, so instead he’s acknowledging that the mega-rich are in a better position to take on an increased burden than the millions living below the poverty line. To the extent that taxes have to be collected, Warren Buffett is advocating shifting the balance so that slightly more of the burden rests with billionaires than is currently the case.

Of course, whether the government really needs to be collecting as much money through taxes as it plans to is another matter. Any possible savings on favoured governmental extravagances, like extended military actions and imprisoning people for victimless crimes, should be fully explored before we start deciding that money needs to be collected at all. I don’t know if Warren Buffett’s brought this up much, and maybe it’s something he should be putting more emphasis on.

But I don’t think it’s fair to conclude from his remarks that he’s a devout statist, or that he’s a hypocrite for not writing President Obama a cheque. “Let’s give the government more money” might be a deeply problematic rallying cry from any angle, but at least he understands the relative privilege of his position, and recognises the hardships of others, more than many of his class seem capable of.

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