Archive for April, 2013

When I get around to it, anyway. And after I’ve done enough housework and drunk all the tea that needs drinking. So, these questions you asked ages ago before I got lazy – or busy, let’s go with busy – again:

Internally, I self identify as agnostic, although socially, I tend to self identify as atheist in those settings in which I think someone would be more pissed off by atheism than by agnosticism. Are you of the view that agnostics are simply atheists in denial, or do you see us as a distinct flavor of unbelief?

I like your style in going for whatever will agitate people more. Outside of the capacity to be annoying, though, I think a lot of the debate over whether someone is “really” an atheist or an agnostic is pretty fruitless.

It’s not that there can’t be meaningfully different positions, or that there’s nothing worth debating and disagreeing on here. But when your language is starting to obscure the subjects it should be elucidating, or when your discussion is getting sidetracked into an argument about what words mean, or what they should mean, or what you mean by them never mind what anyone else means by them, then it may be time to change tack.

Let’s taboo the words “atheist”, “agnostic”, and any obvious derivatives for a couple of paragraphs. Now I can’t fixate on my own interpretation of those words and assume everyone else is just using them wrong. So, what do I actually believe?

Well, I believe it’s very unlikely that any god actually exists. It’s possible that some such being, by some reasonable standard of “god”, is actually real and part of the world, just like it’s possible that an elephant wandered into the garden a minute ago and is about to trample over our guinea pigs. I can’t offer an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that’s not the case, but for all practical purposes I can get so close that it’s not a situation I spare even a moment seriously considering.

Any particular named deity – Yahweh, Zeus, all the rest – I give about the same probability of being non-fictional as I do to Spiderman, to within a negligible degree. Does that make me a “strong atheist”? Could my position be summed up by positively asserting “I believe that God does not exist”? I think so.

You might argue that, unless I think God’s non-existence can be proven to 100% certainty, then that remaining shred of doubt makes me an agnostic, not an atheist – but if that’s the way you’re using words, I’d be amazed if the word “atheist” is ever remotely useful to you. It seems linguistically unhelpful to set the bar that high.

If I’m actually engaging in a discussion with someone, and they care to hear an explanation of my views longer than a single word, then I’ll explain something like the above, without simply relying on the tabooed words. They can decide whether they think I’m an atheist, or an agnostic, or something else – it doesn’t really matter how they use language, or what ideas they associate with those words, so long as they understand what I actually think.

But if I’m just looking for a succinct, approximate label – something to identify myself with as a shorthand, which doesn’t need to be nuanced or precise – then “atheist” is probably my best shot at giving the largest number of people the most accurate impression of what’s going on in my head. Many of them will still be way off, but that’ll always be the case in a conversation about something complicated where you rely on individual words with no single uncontroversial definition to carry a large amount of information.

Does that help? I sort of forgot the question for the last couple of hundred words and just kept typing.

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Why do atheists spend so much time attacking a god who they say doesn’t exist?

I wasn’t asked this one in the comments of my blog post soliciting questions a few days ago, but it came up in a Twitter discussion, and it is something a lot of theists seem to have trouble getting their head around. Just why do atheists care? If God’s not real, why do they get so angry with him, and go out of their way trying to prove he’s not there? If God isn’t real, how does he manage to bother them so much?

This is a very easy one. So easy that I’m baffled as to how any theist can keep asking it after hearing even the most cursory explanation, and yet they do seem to persist. I don’t imagine it’ll sink in for many of them with yet another iteration, but here goes anyway.

God doesn’t exist. Religion sure as hell does.

What many atheists oppose, and are angered by, isn’t God, but religion. It’s the massively popular worldwide belief systems, which require uncritical acceptance of implausible and unsupported claims, exacerbate and encourage failures of critical thinking, and relegate compassion and morality as secondary to obedience and monomaniacal worship.

The God of Islam doesn’t have to exist for the 9/11 hijackers to be motivated by thoughts of him, and to bring immense grief and suffering into the world as a direct result of their irrational beliefs. Whatever god you believe in probably has his fair share of crazy shit done in his name too, which has done real damage to real people in the world I live in.

I don’t hate God. I’m not angry with him. He’s just not there. But religion, I object to. The things that do exist and cause harm to people are worth fighting against, and the notion of God is often tied up in that.

I will admit that, if he existed, any god guilty of such dereliction of duty as to allow the kind of suffering evident in the world to continue unabated for millennia, without stepping in to help or offering any reason or excuse – let alone one that would permit such an infinite, unjustifiable evil as Hell – would unquestionably be my enemy. I would defy and despise such a being with all my strength, right up until the point where I started cowering in terror and doing every pitiful and obsequious thing I could not to piss the Supreme Fascist off and suffer the consequences. Which would probably be instantaneous, if I’m honest – I don’t imagine I’d have the courage of my convictions to actually stand up against an omnipotent tyrant of such casual malice.

In principle, though, I maintain my conviction that such a god would be an unimaginable bastard. But it’s much simpler, and hugely reassuring, to assume there’s no such bastard there. I’m no more angry with Yahweh than I am with Sauron.

And I think most people understand this, even those who keep asking the question, if they’d stop having fun scoring what feels like an easy point against atheists for long enough to actually think about it. Some of them have also decried terrorists acts by extremist Muslims, casting aspersions on the whole of the Islamic faith, even while the non-existence of Allah is just as obvious to them as it is to me.

I suspect, too, that there’s a non-trivial crossover between people who profess bemusement as to why atheists spend so much time attacking a god they don’t believe in, and people who are unconvinced by the argument of “If you don’t like abortions, don’t have one”. When it’s something you care about, it becomes obvious why your concern should stretch beyond your own immediate experience.

So, another brief and unhelpful rant accomplished. I’ve got a couple more brewing, at least one of which may be presented in an interestingly different format… Stay tuned.

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If you’re arrested in the USA, you’re entitled to certain rights.

Being arrested’s not the same as being formally found guilty, after all. Once you’ve been convicted, you become a convict; if they just suspect you’ve committed a crime, you’re a suspect.

I’m tempted to embark on an etymological tangent about how the noun forms of those two words both have the emphasis on the first syllable, but the verb forms place it on the second, but that’s beside my point.

Closer to my point: When the authorities are still trying to figure out whether there’s any evidence that you’ve done anything wrong, they can’t just start throwing you in jail for as long as they like, or treating you like inhuman terrorist scum. You’re still just a person who they suspect.

If you don’t want every suspect to have full access to all these basic rights until the point of conviction, then you’re granting the police and the criminal justice system a large amount of power over literally everyone. Being arrested isn’t just for the guilty. Even convictions are often overturned when it later becomes clear they got the wrong person; merely suspecting some totally innocent people is, even more regularly, a necessary step on the path to investigating a crime and finding a guilty party.

If you want to start taking away people’s rights as soon as they’re a suspect, before any due process has found them guilty, then you want to give police the power to arrest anyone they like, on suspicion of a crime, without having to prove that they’re guilty of anything, and start refusing them the rights specifically granted them under the law and the Constitution. You basically want a police state.

If you only want to save that kind of thing for the worst offenders, the terrorists who want to destroy your whole freedom-loving country (and maybe the child molesters too because they’re terrible and frightening and definitely not human), then you still want the police to be able to decide, before any kind of trial or impartial assessment, who those worst offenders are, and how guilty are the people they’ve taken into custody. You still want to give the unelected guys with guns and badges a police-state level of power to take other people’s rights away.

And that is not a good thing to do.

This really isn’t that hard. I get that finding deep compassion for people and understanding their humanity after you’ve confirmed with certainty that they’ve done terrible things is a bigger pill to swallow, but “don’t call down the lynch mob on the first guy you slap handcuffs on, before there’s been any kind of hearing or arraignment let alone a fucking trial” is Basic Humanity 101, people. This stuff almost comes in the same lesson as the thing about not throwing bricks through paediatrician’s windows.

Some of the reaction to the arrest of a suspect in the Boston bombings has made it hard not to start shouting “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT DUE PROCESS IS FUCKING FOR, YOU GODDAMN NUMBSKULLS”. So hard, in fact, that I couldn’t hold back from shouting exactly that, in the sentence immediately preceding this one. The whole point is to put systems in place that rein in those baser instincts in us that call for immediate, eye-for-an-eye vengeance when we are wronged. It’s about recognising that we’re all made of meat, and we all fuck shit up. It’s not about making a token gesture to the ideas of accountability and transparency and individual liberty, and then chucking even that out the window once you’ve got someone who you just know is really bad.

And it’s not just from easily ignored extremists, either. Lindsey Graham’s been in the Senate for a decade, and has declared that letting this particular suspect have his rights is the last thing we may want to do. So, there you go. You can trust the cops to know who’s guilty and doesn’t deserve rights. Hardly even seems worth the hassle of a trial.

Hi again, new followers. You may also notice that, as well as a devout atheist, I’m kind of a crazy libertarian. (And even more of a crazy socialist. But we’ll get to that later.)

Anyway, I’ll be back on atheism tomorrow, in response to some questions from my last post and some other recent Twitter interaction. This is just something that bugged me today.

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So, as even my new followers in this exciting post-Bieber era have probably noticed by now, I’m an atheist.

And there’s this thing called Ask An Atheist Day. It’s more of an occasion on certain campuses and stuff in the States, but it’s noted across the blogosphere too, so here I am.

I’m an atheist. Feel free to ask me stuff. About atheism. Or something else.

It doesn’t really need a special day for it, in my case. The comments section here and my Twitter are pretty much an open invitation to ask me stuff about anything, at any time, with no grammatical or common-sensical obligations. But it’s a handy excuse to not write anything substantial today. Which is good, because I don’t have time. I’ve got to go eat chicken kievs and watch some torture porn. My fiancée’s making me. It’s a hard life.

Have fun.

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Let’s play God for a moment.

You can take a while to get into character, if you like. Feel free to dress up, put on a fake beard, kill some children with bears, whatever helps.

Okay. So you’re God. You’ve got a brand new universe to play with, fresh out of the box. You’re starting small, but you’ve got big plans. You know everything there is to know and your power is unlimited. It’s good to be you.

You’re going to create some people. Other minds, living beings. Tiny and barely significant compared to you, of course, but valuable in their own way. They’ll all be your children, though in a different way from how these life-forms will rear their own offspring eventually. You love them powerfully. You want them to do well and be happy.

You can pretty much fill in the blanks for yourself from here. Plan your cosmos. Think about how you’d populate the natural and supernatural realms that you’re creating entirely so that these beings can live in them, and love you. Feel free to take inspiration from any real-life examples of a deity creating everything that is, was, and ever will be. If you happen to know of any.

Remember: the people you’re creating are living, conscious beings, with wills of their own, and you love every one of them, and want them to love you. This is important.

I won’t pry into the details of how you’d arrange things. This is mostly just a fun little mental exercise.

…I do have one question though. Just something I can’t help but idly speculate about. If you wouldn’t mind indulging my curiosity.

In this universe – the one you’ve created using your infinite power and infinite knowledge, specifically to express your boundless love for your children with every intention of encouraging them to thrive and love you and revel in your glory – among all the worlds and wonders you’ve created, the sights and sounds and smells you’ve put in place to delight the senses, the atoms and galaxies you’ve finely tuned just so – in all the cosmos and beyond, created by you, a god of infinite love…

…is there a bit somewhere in your creation where millions of your children end up in constant endless pain forever and ever with not a single shred of hope for escape or relief?

I’m not saying there should or there shouldn’t be. Don’t let my questions influence your judgment; it’s your universe, you can do what you like with it. I was just wondering.

It’s just… I mean, forgive me for editorialising, I certainly don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but… if I was all-powerful, and all-loving, and had millions of children bumbling imperfectly around, who I want to love me but who I also care for in their own right, above and beyond my own ego, and who I’m amply capable of looking after as an omnipotent being…

…then I probably wouldn’t make it so that there’s this big fiery pit which they might blindly stumble into and scream in anguish for the rest of eternity and which I could let them out from but I never ever will.

It seems like, with all those resources at my disposal, y’know, the omnipotence and all, I could probably – probably – come up with some better way of arranging things than that. Something that didn’t require a one-shot, irreversible turning point in the existence of all my beloved children – at the point of their death, say, or whatever – where, if they’ve let me down in some way, they get sent away into some kind of hellish… well, Hell, with no reprieve under any circumstances, no matter how much they beg and plead and repent for the next trillion years of suffering.

Seems like I could be less of a dick than that to these beings I apparently love so much.

I don’t want to tell you how to do your job. I’m just saying.

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An observation in the wake of happenings in Boston:

I mentioned in passing yesterday that some people immediately started completely making shit up about atheists being responsible for the explosions in Boston. Literally within minutes of the news, a cabal of tragic individuals started ranting and screeching about how all unbelievers are murderers and it’s all Richard Dawkins’ fault and on and on.

It all deserves nothing more than to be ignored. There is no sensible path available to us which disregards that advice. But in the times when I’ve failed to follow it, I’ve invariably found the delusions of these people more offensive, more personally galling, more viscerally disgusting, than the notional terrorist bombings themselves.

Slightly more offensive again, is the way my iPhone’s Twitter app kept crashing while I was trying to keep up with all the news.

Obviously this is insane. I mention it only as an example of the way my hind-brain’s priorities – the ones that arise automatically and emotionally, and which I feel before I’ve had a chance to determine what I think – are unbelievably screwed up. It’s concerning to think where they might take me if I lacked the wherewithal to realise how misleading they are.

It’s all about good ol’ metacognition again, y’see. Important stuff.

Oh, and a secondary observation: give blood. Not just now, in the immediate aftermath of a highly noticeable catastrophe. Whenever you can. There is always someone very close by who needs some of your blood and will die if they don’t get it. Current medical science is such that this is, sadly, literally true – but it is also such that you can save a life just by giving up a half-hour or so of your time and claiming some free biscuits. I started doing it, in part, because they set up a donation centre every few weeks in a hall I walk past every day on my way home from work. I saw one of the ambulances parked outside one day, found out what was going on, and booked myself in for a future visit (with some prompting from a friendly local nurse). Please, find out if there’s anything like that near where you live.

So there’s your pep talk for the day, folks. Save someone’s life, and continue to not feed the trolls.

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Well, this is exciting. I’ve had a whole swarm of new followers and passers-by after my Bieber-blog was some kind of featured Thing Of The Day on WordPress. Huzzah! You’re all very welcome. I appreciate all the feedback – the general opinion in the comments seems to be that I was too easy on Bieber for being self-centred, which is certainly valid, but absolutely nobody declared that I’m worse than Hitler-AIDS for thinking what I did. So that’s very encouraging.

That post was a bit of an outlier, though. I’ve barely mentioned Justin Bieber before, and I don’t expect he’ll come up again anytime soon. Today, I’m getting back to one of the more consistent themes of this place. Feel free to continue joining in, or to quietly wander off again once you’ve realised what I’m actually like.

So, let’s recap the story so far:

God does not exist.

There, that pretty much covers it.

And as well as posting articles about this on my blog, sporadically but at length, I’ve recently been cultivating a new hobby: tweeting at people who are wrong on the internet and being nice to them.

The results to date have been mixed.

I’ve had some long conversations, some short ones. Some have been fun and felt kinda fruitful, some have just been frustrating. Some have taught me that holy balls, going round and round in endless futile circles trying to explain what scientists mean by the word “theory” is a really excellent test of patience.

But none of them has involved shouting. None of them has degenerated into a series of abusive epithets in all-caps. None of them has deviated irretrievably from the point into irrelevant personal matters. None of them has become bitter and spiteful.

None of them has been typical of what can happen to even quite moderate discussions between intelligent people of like mind, in other words. Particularly when you’re trying to cram your own nuanced opinion into 140 characters and don’t go out of your way to give the benefit of the doubt to someone else struggling to do the same.

The reason it hasn’t gone that way is fairly simple: I am in total control of exactly 50% of the conversation. I don’t want meanness, sniping, tribalism, and point-scoring to play any part in that 50%. So they don’t.

It’s a sort of experiment, once I decided I trusted myself not to get carried away and tell people what I actually think of them. I go trawling the Twitterscape for mentions of #atheists, say, find some people with whose opinions I take issue, and send them a message. Something I think they might understand, and be able to respond to in turn.

I don’t want to make them feel bad for what they think. I don’t want to try forcing my correctness on them (even though some of them are really, truly, crashingly wrong). There’s no point attempting to browbeat someone like that when a) you’re hoping they might change their mind in your favour, and b) you’re a few impotent pixels of text on a screen on their phone, easily ignored and dismissed with a casual flick of a thumb. If I try being like that, they’ll probably just call me a dick, and they may not be wrong. So I try to find a way to make a point that they’ll be able to absorb.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I do a lot of swearing about how ridiculous these people are, but I do it in my brain and under my breath. Why would I also type it into the internet? We’re back to “me as total cock” territory there. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. It’s very often the latter. (I very briefly attempted to engage with some of the crowd of lunatics who, apparently within minutes of hearing about the horrific explosions in Boston today, decided that atheists were responsible and Richard Dawkins has blood on his hands. I quickly realised this to be a Serious Mistake, and shouldn’t even have needed reminding of what a pointless endeavour it was. Still, no caps, and no calling anybody a fucking shitsack, so a moral victory.)

Sometimes it does work. At least, as much as such an experiment can possibly work. Some people have said they’ve enjoyed talking to me, after I’ve spent a while strongly disagreeing with them about everything that matters. Some people have given the impression of having heard a new perspective, and being given something new to think about. I haven’t deconverted any Christians yet, but how often does that happen in the course of a single conversation? That’s not the aim. The overall tone of the global conversation has shifted in some small way toward the positive. Which is about all I can do.

And sometimes people are just so wrong – about, say, to pick a topic not remotely at random, the Christian notion of Hell – that it gives me material for another lengthy bloggish ramble. Coming soon to a browser near you. (Possibly tomorrow. Watch this space.)

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