Archive for September, 2012

A propos of nothing much:

We (as in, people with similar social and political views to myself) don’t tend to think too highly of people who are opposed to abortion in all instances.

It seems both uncaring, to insist that a woman forefeit her right to make decisions about her own body, and scientifically illiterate, to assert that a barely fertilised zygote is not significantly distinct from any other “human”.

When someone of this disposition is willing to make some allowances, though – for cases of rape, say – that tends to mollify us a little bit. They’re not wholly dogmatic about their ideas. They’re willing to give a little bit of ground.

But surely what we’re doing, when we encourage anti-abortionists to make this exception, is congratulating them for betraying their principles. Or, rather, we’re giving tacit support to an implied set of principles that’s even more obnoxious and inhumane.

Start with the basic concept that terminating a pregnancy is always, unequivocally immoral. This is a frankly uninformed and irrational idea when taken to the extreme positions that some people hold, given the nature of a barely fertilised embryo in the earliest stages of gestation. If a tiny cluster of cells carries the same moral weight to you as a fully developed infant, then what you value can’t be called “human life” in any way I would recognise the phrase. I am strongly against this position.

But there’s some consistency there. People with this view are opposed to what they see as murder of defenseless innocents. That part I can follow, even if the logic behind their classification of “defenseless innocents” is ideologically inane.

If you’re willing to allow for the possibility of abortion in cases of rape, though… what is the guiding principle behind your moral judgments?

A fetus is no more or less deserving of protection based on whether its mother was being physically assaulted against her will prior to its conception. So if abortion would be “murder” in normal circumstances, why should it be different here?

One obvious answer that might present itself involves compassion for the mother. Some anti-abortionists just can’t bring themselves to insist that a rape victim bear her rapist’s child against her will. It seems unconscionable to them, so they allow for an exception. On the face of it, this seems like human kindness breaking through an ideological wall.

But it’s not really. Here are some other circumstances which have no significance to the condition of an unborn child, but in which we’re told abortion is an unacceptable abomination:

  1. A woman has consensual sex without using contraception, and becomes pregnant.
  2. A woman has consensual sex, uses contraception, it doesn’t work, and she becomes pregnant.
  3. A woman gets drunk, has sex, regrets it soon after, and becomes pregnant.
  4. A girl hears from her friends at school that you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex, doesn’t have this misconception corrected in any kind of sex education class, has consensual sex with her boyfriend, and becomes pregnant.
  5. A woman has consensual sex with her husband who has had a vasectomy, but she becomes pregnant.

Of the many possible contexts to a woman becoming pregnant, rape is the only one in which some anti-abortionists are willing to make an exception… and also the only one in which it’s entirely out of the woman’s control.

People who are against abortion with no exceptions are at least consistent in their concern for the innocent human life they perceive to be at risk.

People in the “except for cases of rape” camp aren’t as concerned about the welfare of the child as they are about whether it’s the woman’s fault.

The implicit message is that, unless a woman was sexually assaulted against her wishes, the responsibility for the pregnancy lies squarely with her… and that’s what makes abortion immoral. If you were raped, then okay, you’re off the hook – but if you just weren’t careful, or you were stupid, or you’re the kind of slut who actually has sex willingly and enjoys it, then you deserve to be stuck with this.

The fetus’s welfare doesn’t come into it. The one determining factor is whether the woman deserves to be “punished” (which is effectively what it amounts to) for being insufficiently sexually puritan and abstinent.

If you asked them, they probably wouldn’t agree that they think this way. They probably don’t even think they do. But underlying, deeply engrained hang-ups and presumptions about sex are pernicious and ubiquitous, and are one of many things harmfully exacerbated by a religiously based sense of morality.

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One common point of discussion on the Facebook group for this experiment is just how we’re meant to be doing this prayer thing.

I can’t find the exact comment again now, but I think I read someone asking, essentially: “After saying, hi God, let me know if you’re there… what are we meant to do with the next 2-3 minutes?”

Personally, I tend to make my prayer requests waffle on a bit. For instance, today I’m going with:

God, if you’re there, please give me some kind of sign that I should believe in you. If a personal divine revelation is all I can expect, please note that the usual warm fuzzy feelings aren’t quite going to cut it. If the greatest power you’re capable of exerting over my world is less than what I can achieve by stroking the cat or giving Kirsty a hug – or, as some people on Facebook suggest, if you’re going to continue being petty and hiding from me unless I pray in just the right way – then God, God, I don’t even wanna know you.

Some may consider it a little crass to ask whether you take requests, but arguably not as crass as letting thousands of children starve to death every day all over the planet. So, if you’re open to suggestions, but you don’t want to appear in person or do anything too flashy, providing a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture via divine inspiration would do very nicely.

I sometimes go on like this for a while, and end up in something of a back-and-forth in my own head, debating the relative merits of certain suggestions, considering possible religious responses or excuses as to why such-and-such doesn’t undermine their faith…

I can have some good conversations with myself. But it’s worth remembering that they are just with myself. I’m a long way from seeing any reason to believe that this semi-voluntary internal dialogue is a product of anything more than my own imagination.

Things are definitely going on in my head as a result of all this praying. Interesting things, which give me some idea why some people might get ideas about God speaking to them. But there are so many more unambiguous ways that any deity could make me aware of its existence. Goldbach’s conjecture is just the first example off the top of my head. If God can’t come up with something at least that good, and is sticking with vague sensations and slightly odd coincidences here and there, then he’s not really trying.

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In my last blog post about this, I said:

It’d be worrying if this experiment worked, I discovered God, and it turned out that he wanted me to become violently antisocial.

It was a flippant line, and it’s probably not something anyone’s seriously concerned about. But, if they think that some sort of god might exist, and the Atheist Prayer Experiment might be an effective way to find out about it… why aren’t they?

A lot of people, after all, have done truly sociopathic and terrible things to each other, believing that they were acting in direct accordance with God’s will. Being an atheist, I find their claims to divine righteousness just as convincing as those of anyone who thinks God only wants us to do nice things. So why should the notion of a supernatural psycho be dismissed out of hand?

This seems to fall under Eliezer Yudkowsky’s header of privileging the hypothesis. Here’s how he starts describing what he means:

Suppose that the police of Largeville, a town with a million inhabitants, are investigating a murder in which there are few or no clues — the victim was stabbed to death in an alley, and there are no fingerprints and no witnesses.

Then, one of the detectives says, “Well… we have no idea who did it… no particular evidence singling out any of the million people in this city… but let’s consider the hypothesis that this murder was committed by Mortimer Q. Snodgrass, who lives at 128 Ordinary Ln. It could have been him, after all.”

It could, just as easily as it could have been anyone else – but then why single poor Mortimer out for special attention? Why apply any greater scrutiny to this one case, even if you claim not to be assuming that it’s any more likely?

The experiment I’m taking part in is being organised by a Christian group, and it’d be surprising if they weren’t harbouring some hope that a few atheists might come to find their god specifically, even if they’re careful to try and keep things general. The guy behind it asked us today, in the Facebook group, whether any participants would be saying their prayer in church this morning. I said:

Not me. Wouldn’t want to put off any of the other gods who might be tempted to get in touch with me, but who wouldn’t feel entirely welcome in a building devoted to one of the competition.

As I write this, the other five commenters have all been similarly negative.

You can’t be surprised that Christians have their own preferences, but it’s important to remember that, to an atheist, this assumption of Christian normativity is completely arbitrary. The idea that the God of the Bible truly exists, and is responsible for all creation, is literally as credible as any similar claims about Thor, or Zeus, or L Ron Hubbard. There is no good reason to suppose that Christianity stands out, for me, as being somehow more worth following up on than any competing religious claims.

And yet, largely without any deliberate intent, our ideas of prayer (not just within this experiment) are largely tied up with particular religious traditions, even for people who don’t believe in any of those religions. In discussions about what “god” means, and how we should be praying, most of the suggestions (coming largely from Christians who are really trying not to promote their own religion above the rest) are steeped in Christian tradition. Things like how many gods there are, their benevolence, the extent of their power, their involvement with humanity, their ascribed gender… There’s so much scope for variance in these and many more factors, and it’s really hard to uncover all the assumptions you don’t even realise you’re making because that’s the only way you’ve ever thought about God.

Even the idea that it’s somehow our responsibility to reach out to a god, and start forming a “relationship” with them, is normatively Christian. Sure, it’s part of a familiar tradition to suggest that God is waiting for us to ask for his guidance and grace and whatnot – but for all I know, God’s a tetchy sod who doesn’t want us bothering him, and he prefers atheists to devoted Christians because we do far less pestering. Or, if I pray to the wrong god, or in the wrong way, I’ll be annoying him more than if I hadn’t bothered trying. Or maybe I’m damning myself right now by wearing the wrong colour socks.

It sounds like I’m being flippant again, but only because the idea of a benign, paternal God, who wants us to ask for his help, is far more pervasive throughout society than a deity preoccupied with chromatically appropriate footwear. Remember, as an atheist, I have no reason to believe that the former is more likely to actually exist than the latter.

So, we’re a week in, and I’m still not getting a lot out of the actual prayer part of the experience. It wasn’t that many years ago when I would do this sincerely anyway, and the sensations are mostly the same, and quite familiar. No particular insights yet, but I’ve got a few more things to say about the ideas behind the experiment and how it’s playing out. Stay tuned.

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Serious question.

This is about the whole 47% thing, obviously. And I genuinely want to know. His thoughts: what were they?

The picture he’s painting for his audience of $50,000-a-plate party-goers is, after all, a wildly inaccurate one. Nearly half of the entire country, he tells them, are “dependent on government”, don’t pay any income tax, think they’re “entitled” to things like food and healthcare, will never “take personal responsibility” for their lives, and will vote for Obama “no matter what”.

He doesn’t use the word “moochers”, or any term so overtly provocative, but it’s clear what he’s trying to communicate. The image is one of millions of slobs and layabouts, who can’t be bothered putting down their beer and getting off the couch to do an honest day’s work, and who expect you good, hard-working people to take care of them and pay for their pampered lifestyle, which the black guy’s going to make you do if we let him stay in office.

It’s clear simply from the tone of voice what we’re meant to think about people who feel “entitled” to anything (notwithstanding the incredibly narrow definition of “entitled” within which it’s assumed to be about the worst trait a human can possess). He doesn’t call them all feckless scum, because he doesn’t need to. (In fact, a Pennsylvania legislator – unconnected to the Romney campaign, as far as I know – did recently paraphrase his speech in rather more stark language.)

And yet, it’s bullshit.

For starters, even if the 47% statistic were meaningful, the judgment he leaps to from it is ideological and severely lacking in compassion. The idea that money is a useful measure of a person’s value, or of how much they deserve to be fed and clothed and treated when they’re sick, is comical enough already – but federal income tax? Jesus wept.

But I didn’t even need to do my usual bare minimum level of research, before the internet pointed out to me that most of the 47% do pay taxes in other forms, like payroll taxes, unless they’re retired or getting paid a pittance; that these payroll-tax-payers actually contribute a greater proportion of their income than Romney does; that people who don’t pay income tax actually tend to vote Republican; that the entities most “dependent on government” in history continue to be banks and corporations; and so on, and so on.

So… does Romney just not know any of this stuff?

I mean, I’m about as connected to American politics as he is to the administration of the pension schemes of London-based multinational law firms (whee, I have a job), but even I can get my head around the evidence suggesting that every second person in the United States isn’t a good-for-nothing scrounger being courted for their vote by a socialist President while the other half effectively wait on them hand and foot. Can Mitt Romney really not have picked up any of this information himself?

I know he’s a busy man, but the internet’s even drawn him a picture:

Does he really not know this stuff? It hardly seems plausible.

And yet, if he really has ever encountered these, y’know, facts, but still chooses to use this kind of manipulative language to dismiss any concern for the well-being of 150,000,000 people as “not his job”…

…then what is it that he’s thinking, when he talks like this?

Because it looks a lot like he’s thinking that he knows the crowd he’s playing to, and they don’t much care whatever happens to those poor people so long as their own interests are being looked after, and he’s okay with that.

He’s in a room full of other rich white guys, who all seem to think they made their fortunes entirely through their own personal merits, and it’s purely a coincidence that just about every one of them happens to be white and male and had rich, well connected parents. Assuming Romney’s not entirely ignorant of basic facts, it looks like he’s thinking that he wants to keep them happy and take their money more than he wants to engage in any kind of intellectual honesty about income inequality and the injustices of capitalism.

So either he’s deeply isolated in a bubble that’s non-permeable to significant portions of reality, or he thinks lying about half of the country that he wants to rule over is worth doing to meet his own goals.

When Mitt Romney says “47% of people aren’t contributing”… does he mean “47% of people are effectively contributing to a wealthy minority, by means of not being paid the full value of their labour in the first place”?

Does he mean “47% of people find my policies completely unappealing and wouldn’t be helped by them at all, suggesting that I might not be an ideal candidate to lead the entire country as I think I should be allowed to do”?

Does he mean “47% of people’s contributions – and, by extension, their lives – seem completely worthless to the people who want to run the country”?

This turned into more of a run-of-the-mill anti-Republican rant than I was hoping for. And Obama shills for cash just as shamelessly and has murdered a lot more foreigners than Romney, so maybe this isn’t even that big a deal. Just another familiar instance of a series of systemic problems that no mainstream politician even comes close to wanting to solve. I don’t know.

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Backstory is here, if you need it.

I’m still deeply an atheist, but I’ve spent the last few days praying.

The first couple of days, I was speaking silently into a void, asking someone who isn’t there if they’d talk to me.

Today, I got an answer.

It went like this:

Yeah, I’m God. Stop bowing your head like that you dozy prick, even the ones who believe in me look stupid when they do that. Now go and set fire to a neighbour’s dog.

I’m not being flippant. A voice in my head said that to me. For all I know, it sounds just like God.

Fortunately, it also sounds exactly like what’s going on in my mind when I’m coming up with dialogue for a story. This is a pretty familiar sensation to me, and is a far better explanation for the above urgings toward canine arson. It’d be worrying if this experiment worked, I discovered God, and it turned out that he wanted me to become violently antisocial.

It certainly sounds like the kind of thing my brain would come up with, to make some sort of a point. But that kind of creativity is something that goes on in my head without my making any conscious effort to be creative.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Is this unconscious/subconscious/whatever kind of creativity the sort of thing people might mistake for the voice of God?

I’m not claiming to have come up with an explanation for all of religion, here, but it’s hardly controversial to suggest that at least some “religious experiences” are entirely generated within people’s minds. And, given how complex and unintuitive human consciousness is, it’s no surprise that thoughts sometimes bubble up which don’t seem to be ours, which aren’t a direct result of any conscious decision-making.

If you’re sad, desperate, lonely, and really want to be reassured, then perhaps your imagination will come up with something to say – concocted from your own memories and hopes – which has the character of a benevolent external presence to it.

For many, the idea of an “inner critic” is more familiar, a persistent voice somewhere in your head which regularly undercuts and criticises everything you do. No matter how clearly you understand that this is a manifestation of your own self-doubt, it doesn’t feel like it’s really you saying these terrible things about yourself. The words and ideas appear in your head unbidden.

Creativity is not easy for us to intuitively understand, and much of the language of inspiration is shared with spirituality. Voices in your head, of one sort or another, are a part of what it means to be conscious. It’s the kind of thing people have turned to religion to explain in the past, and it can still trip us up today.

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Rick Santorum gave a speech recently in which he observed that conservatives would “never have… smart people on our side”.

It didn’t get a spontaneous round of applause, which I guess is something. But he’s someone a frightening number of people still take seriously, even now. He’s a prominent Republican politician. And he’s proudly defiant of the fact that people with intelligence actively distance themselves from him and his ideas.

A while ago, I’d have just sighed and expressed exasperation at the world, and probably declared that I give up on America as a country. The temptation to see it all as tragically futile is still strong.

I’m trying to move away from that these days. If there’s a way to actually engage with the kind of people who think this way, and bring some of them around to the idea that “smart people” – those guys who’ve studied things, learnt stuff, and have some idea what they’re talking about – might possibly be worth listening to, then I really think it’s worthwhile making the effort.

But I don’t know how to do it. At times like this, I don’t even know where to begin relating to other people’s opinions and feelings. If I had to try and guess what’s going on in their heads, I could waffle something about a resentment of intelligence and a skewed idea of what it means to be academic or intellectual being imbued from an early age somehow… and maybe something about being so committed to an idea and their familiar in-group that any cognitive dissonance about its value is resolved by rejecting outright any criticism…

…but none of this leaves me with any understanding of what the hell someone like Rick Santorum thinks he’s doing.

Here’s the rationale he gives for washing his hands of smart people:

They believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.

Except they don’t. No more than anyone else. Asserting authority over others is entirely orthogonal to intelligence.

You know what is a strong indicator of wanting the power to tell other people what to do and control their lives, Rick Santorum? Running for President.

Now that’s some megalomania right there.

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Why am I praying to stop being an atheist?

I mean, I guess that’s a fair enough description of what I’m doing. I’m going to be going through certain ritualistic motions, much as I did back when I used to believe in something worth praying to and do it sincerely, in a way that some Christian believers suggest might prompt God to come out of hiding and reveal himself to me.

No, after putting it quite like that, it doesn’t sound a particularly fruitful way to spend my time to me, either.

But I think there may be something to be got out of it. Not what the organisers of the project might be hoping for; the odds of God’s existence are as negligible as they ever were. But an intellectually honest, personally experienced response and description of what really happens when someone actually does what numerous Christians keep bugging us to, and “opens their hearts to Jesus” (insofar as a strong atheist is capable of such), might be a useful resource going forward.

Do I want to stop being an atheist? For most purposes, “No” is a perfectly good answer to that, but I’ll expand a little more here. (I don’t know how much that attitude would undermine an attempt to pray my way out of it, but them’s the breaks.)

What I want is for my beliefs to align with reality. For my brain’s map of the world to correspond with the territory as closely as possible, as unclouded by bias and irrationality as I can make it. If God exists, I desire to believe that God exists, and so forth. A devotion to truth is as much openness as you’re going to get out of my heart. Anything beyond that, and you’re expecting me to be gullible and/or have “faith” *shudders*.

What I also want is some context in which to examine the motives and assumptions behind an experiment like this. I want to expand on my limited awareness about the psychological effects that prayer can have on people, and maybe learn what people experience while talking to nobody, which they feel compelled put a religious explanation to – as well as exploring what more likely explanations there might be for whatever (if anything) happens to me.

The guidelines on what should constitute an atheist’s prayer are fairly loose; the main suggestion is to stay nearer to an “Is there anyone out there” theme than trying to attract, say, Yahweh’s attention in particular. Don’t ask for specific miracles, just that something be “revealed”. It should last 2-3 minutes a day, and the experiment runs for 40 days.

So, my technique (at least to start – feel free to suggest improvements) just involves sitting quietly, somewhere without too many distractions, closing my eyes for what feels like about the right length of time, and verbalising in my head a general request to any entity capable of detecting the message, that they make themselves a part of my life in some way. I’m not sticking to a particular script, just thinking through the suggestion and then pausing for a minute or two.

Day 1’s primary observations: It feels much the same doing this as it did back when I actually thought there was a super-being out there who can read my thoughts. The main difference now is the added bewilderment at how that idea didn’t used to creep me the fuck out.

The extra layer of quiet when my fingers aren’t tapping on the keyboard, and I’m not concentrating on anything in particular, is not unpleasant. It doesn’t come with the layer of reverence that commonly descends when you’re accompanied by a few hundred other people in a beautiful old building – which just supports the obvious fact that the psychology of expectations plays a huge role in how people experience something like prayer.

But I’m not looking for some mild, hard-to-describe feeling. I have those all the time. Often it’s wind. It’s never provably been God. So he’s going to have to try harder than that.

He’s got 39 days left.

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