Archive for September, 2013

A link to a moving and heart-warming story appeared in my Facebook feed the other day, along with an utterly inexplicable comment from a distant friend-of-a-friend.

It’s not that long a story behind that link, but in short, someone encountered a person who was rude and aggressive; and rather than responding with anger and effrontery in kind, she gave this person the benefit of the doubt and offered kindness and generosity in return. The aggressive person who’d been having a shitty day apologised and was chastened, and it ends with everyone feeling better and more connected to each other and knowing there’s more love in the world than they might otherwise have expected. It’s beautiful.

And here’s what the guy who posted it particularly enjoyed about it:

What’s so wonderful about this story, is that *God* showed up to shower her with empathy; she didn’t force herself or self-generate this deep compassion, but was a free (and freed!) recipient of God’s empathetic, sympathetic & consanguineous heart for this poor frazzled woman.

Now, as it happens, the person telling the story also gave it a religious interpretation. And that’s fine, on the face of it; anything that inspires people to act well and care for each other like this can’t be all bad. She prayed that God would help her to see other people “as He sees them, not as I see them”. If you define God as one who sees people with compassion and kindness and patience and love at all times, this is a fine and worthy aim.

But it goes a step further to declare that the God part – not the wonderful act of human kindness part – is what makes the story great.

Apparently, what makes it a great story is when you stop believing in the intrinsic goodness of people, in our own innate capacity to act well toward others and be caring and forgiving and loving and kind, and start trusting some external and unknowable force to inspire these things in us.

Apparently, it’s not nearly as wonderful to think that humanity might be able to raise itself up to such glorious heights and approach the zenith of all those values we hold most dear, as to presume that our only hope lies in our being granted these feelings of charity and compassion by someone else.

Apparently, we are not powerful, nor capable of overcoming our baser urges on our own; and if God isn’t going to help us, nobody else can, and we certainly can’t help ourselves.


And atheists get told that ours is the bleak and cynical worldview.

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Some people appear to truly believe that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. It doesn’t bother them if their communications are being monitored, or if the government can access the details of every phone call, email, or electronically communicated conversation any of us have ever had. After all, anyone doing something illegal in those communications should be caught – and so long as you’re not doing anything illegal, what’s there to worry about?


Some people have things they’ve said taken out of context, and protest that their words have been twisted in order to unfairly paint them as some sort of scoundrel. They’ve been misrepresented. Something they said as a joke got repeated around as if they’d really meant it. Someone just quoted the first bit of what they were saying, where they were just setting up the devastatingly satirical point that came later, and made them look like an idiot.

The point being:

I suspect that there is a significant crossover between the two aforementioned groups of people.

And that many of those in this intersection don’t realise how much the context issue undermines their position on privacy.

If you’ve ever been in a casual conversation where someone’s unfairly made you out to be some kind of villain, by unfairly twisting something you said or did and refusing to give you the benefit of the doubt, imagine how much worse it could get when there’s a centralised national authority with a monopoly on physical coercion which can do exactly that.

Maybe you’re not even in that second group, though. Maybe you reckon you’re just over on the left of the Venn diagram.

Maybe you aren’t bothered what the NSA knows about you, because you’ve never said anything in private which could ever possibly be misrepresented to embarrass or incriminate you.

Maybe you’ve never said anything unrepresentative of your true views in a moment of passion or exasperation. Maybe you’ve never made an off-colour joke which might seem racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive when stripped of the nuance, subtlety, and irony you obviously intended. Maybe you’ve never said anything on record which can’t be perfectly understood in isolation or could ever be seen to reflect poorly on you.

Maybe you’ve lead a really dull life, is what I’m saying.

In which case, that’s absolutely fine. I don’t mean to judge. It’s not my place to tell you there’s anything inappropriate about living with a level of caution and reservedness that suits you. So long as it’s working for you, knock yourself out. Be totally blameless. Never give anyone a chance to turn anything against you, no matter how tyrannical their efforts to use your own words to indict you. Go for it. I hope it makes you happy.

But that’s not for me. And a world where that’s the only option isn’t one I want to live in.

I want everyone to be able to make tasteless private jokes, offensive comments behind each other’s backs, and clandestine rendez-vouseses to commit acts of which someone somewhere might disapprove, without worrying about the black glove of Dominion suddenly clapping them on the shoulder.

I want creativity and personal autonomy to roam as free as humanly possible, so that every idea, however contemptible or misguided, has a chance to be talked about.

I want Chris Rock to be able to try some new material out, misfire, make some bad calls that don’t land, cause some offense, figure out what he did wrong, hone the routine until it becomes something that connects with people, and not risk being lambasted into oblivion because of an uncharitable and context-free interpretation of the ideas he had to stumble through on the way to somewhere great.

I want us not to have to constantly restrict ourselves to a narrow set of opinions known to be acceptable and uncontroversial, until we forget how to think differently altogether.

I want to have “nothing to fear”, even if I have done something wrong, because fear shouldn’t be the thing that keeps us from doing wrong, dammit.

I want privacy to be a thing.

I want some cheesecake.

Crap, I knew I’d get derailed from my original point eventually. What was I saying?

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Theists often like to set the bar unreasonably high when demanding that atheists rationally or empirically support their position.

One obvious example of this surrounds the whole “you can’t disprove God” thing. It’s sometimes claimed that we have to go a really, implausibly long way to show that their god doesn’t exist. Given the limits of human knowledge even about the planet we live on, let alone the entirety of creation, it is asserted to be the height of arrogance to assume the “perfect knowledge of the universe” necessary to deny the possibility of God’s existence.

This, clearly, doesn’t stand up. I don’t need to know the exact position of every particle of matter in my bedroom to forthrightly assert that there’s not an elephant in there. And most gods that have ever been described are purported to be much grander and more noticeable than an elephant. Is Jesus hiding on a rock on Titan that we haven’t looked under yet, waiting for the right moment for the Second Coming?

We’ve been up Mount Olympus, and we didn’t find Zeus. For the same reason that believers don’t give the Greek gods much thought these days, atheists are fine ignoring Yahweh until he bothers to actually show up either.

But there’s another way I’ve noticed some theists expect atheistic standards to be impossibly high: morality.

Atheists often act morally to other people, making large charitable donations and demonstrating love for their fellow humans. Meanwhile, Christians are quite capable of ignoring what they think God wants or failing to stick to the rules (otherwise why would they be asking forgiveness all the time?). Sometimes they rationalise selfish and harmful acts as being part of some “greater good”, or just ask forgiveness later. In other words, they can do bad things and decide that it “doesn’t count” for any of the myriad reasons that people regularly use when they’ve acted in contradiction to their image of themselves as a moral person.

Given the obvious truth that both atheists and believers are capable of tremendous good or terrible harm, why should an ultimate religious source of morality be important? And, in particular, if atheists want to do good, to value humanity, and to care for other people, why isn’t that enough? Sure, they often fail to meet their ideals, but they’re not alone in that, and generally they’re striving toward morality and compassion. Isn’t that as much as you can hope for?

Seriously, what more do you want?

A secular morality is based on doing good for goodness’ sake. It depends on compassion and love for others, on community and caring and kindness, and yes, to a degree, on social structures and restraints designed to reprimand or discourage behaviour that doesn’t line up with this moral ideal.

If that’s not good enough for you – if that’s not an admirable system of ethics, which commendably aims to promote happiness and harmony and well-being and to nurture the best parts of us and bring out our optimal glorious humanity – then what do you think morality means?

I hope we’re not back to the tedium of “just do what God says” again. Surely we’re above that by now.

No matter how much we try to explain the basic concept of humanism, it’s still sometimes asserted that we have no “basis” for morality; that there’s no fundamental ethical bedrock giving meaning to our morals, in the way that religious people have God to define good and evil.

This is widely believed, even in the absence of any reliable trend toward more moral behaviour by the religious. Atheists are a tiny fraction of a minority of the prison population, and some acts – honour killings, for instance – are driven by religious motivation, but are deemed morally repugnant despite the religious basis that condones them. Theists and atheists alike are often quite capable of telling right from wrong, regardless of what they think about God’s opinions. (Also genocide.)

But it’s apparently vital that atheists come up with a way to provide an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that anybody who doesn’t believe in God will always act without the slightest hint of selfishness or cruelty. Any time they can highlight an atheist doing something immoral, it becomes a demand that we infallibly ensure that we never cross the line of moral dubiousness ever again. The mindset keeping the ungodly on the straight and narrow is expected to be completely impermeable, and 100% successful at all times, or else it’s deemed a dismal failure proving the whole concept of godless ethics to be impossible.

The people making such claims, of course, show absolutely no interest in concocting a similar system for their fellow believers. Religious folk “sin” all the time, because we’re human and fallible, and no abstract belief system is ever going to be able to exert a total, unbreakable hold over your behaviour.

But at least they still have a solid “basis” for their morality, in a way that’s totally different from how atheists behave, and obviously superior, because… umm…

It’s not. People do good when they care about other people, and when they’re not strongly incentivised to act selfishly in a way that’s harmful. In some people, religious beliefs help nudge them toward compassion; in others, quite the opposite. At best, belief in God is unnecessary for any kind of moral behaviour.

I just want people to care about each other and be kind. The idea that atheists have any loftier expectations to meet than that, to simply be taken seriously as moral beings, is misguided and deeply biased.

And if you’ve got a system of ethics which you think reliably produces more good in the world than “care about each other and be kind”, I’d love to hear it.

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Cheesecake is the answer

In another attempted online discussion recently, I realised that not only was the theistic argument I was addressing familiar, but it also wasn’t the first time I’d used cheesecake to make my point.

The question was the usual one of what atheists have to live for if there’s “no purpose” to our creation, and we’re all here “by accident”. Personally, I still don’t understand why this confuses people so much; but, since it evidently does, trying to encourage them to understand is more likely to get us all somewhere than just being sarcastically infuriated about it (even if the latter is a more natural inclination).

In listing the things that I, as an atheist, live for, I threw cheesecake into the mix. And the fact that it’s something which might many people might (wrongly) label a relative triviality is what makes it such a useful comparison.

Cheesecake is so good, you guys. Really good cheesecake is just one of the greatest things. It’s not quite as good as love, maybe. But it’s better than most other stuff. Kittens can wait till I’m done eating. Sunsets can fuck off. There is so much joy to be found in a good slice of cheesecake.

And how, exactly, does any of that joy depend on the “purpose” to our existence? Why should it matter if my delicious dessert and I have come together “by accident”?

So there was no ultimate design behind it, no intelligent driving force which wanted this cheesecake to be in my mouth? I couldn’t give less of a fuck, just so long as it is in my mouth, because it tastes so good and I’m making myself hungry typing all this.

Never in my life have I ever thought: “This is so frustrating, if only God really existed, then this delicious cheesecake would have meaning and I could really enjoy it”. My tongue’s delight in sugary creamy goodness on a crumbly biscuit base are not the slightest bit diminished by such abstract philosophical concerns.

It just seems a weird thing to get distracted by.

I mean, yeah, I’m going to die someday. The heat death of the universe will eventually end all variation in the cosmos. Every emotion we experience is transient and fleeting and mortal.

But way more important than all that is that this cheesecake is so fucking delicious, you guys, seriously, you have to try this.

On a related note, if you love your child, but think to yourself “Just as well I believe God exists, because if I were an atheist there’d be no point to any of this and I would be completely indifferent to the concerns of my offspring,” you are doing it very, very wrong.

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So, Jules off of Brook had a thought about my latest video, where I was rather hard on a charity spokeseejit’s attitude to scientific testing of different charitable approaches:

Which is an eminently sensible thing to consider. I mean, I do think there was an element of ridiculous scaremongering in the interview that pissed me off, but even if you’re not patently doing Evil ScienceTM, a reasonable experimental protocol might still, at the least, involve withholding your intervention from some of the people you’re usually trying to help. Isn’t this something charities should be averse to, given that it’s exactly the opposite of their entire mission statement?

Yeah, I still don’t really buy it.

Having reservations about standing idly by while people suffer who you could be helping, I get. But sometimes the question of whether what you’re doing is even helpful at all is still at issue, and it’s your responsibility to help resolve it. Until there’s data definitively showing that withdrawing your intervention actually would be harmful, any claim that you can’t possibly make room amid your important work to gather data on its effectiveness seems pretty flimsy. Not least because any finitely resourced charity (i.e. all of them) is going to be constantly presented with a glut of people it doesn’t have the capacity to help anyway.

Especially when you consider the potentially limitless benefits that could accrue from improving your performance indefinitely into the future. If it turns out that a different way of allocating your resources is, say, 20% more efficient at solving the problem than what you’re currently doing, you’d be doing a much greater disservice to the people you’re trying to help by refusing to take the time to analyse your own processes and find this out. This is why anyone ever bothers to do scientific trials, rather than just charging ahead and doing stuff, at all.

Again, the homeopathy comparison is apt. Alternative medicine practitioners often claim that they don’t have time to take part in clinical trials or publish an analysis of their methods in any reputable scientific journals, because they’re too busy just treating people. But if you haven’t done the science, nobody knows if that latter part is true. It could be that you’re actually just distracting your patients from legitimate medical treatment with your worthless placebos. If you did take the time to do the experiments, then rather than callously refusing help to people who need it for the sake of some abstract notions of “science” or “experimentation”, you’d really be vastly improving the help you can give people in the future.

You don’t even need to totally neglect 50% of the individuals under your care in order to run a proper experiment. If there’s an established alternative protocol, maybe one which already has some evidence behind it, then you can do a comparison with that, rather than with a complete lack of intervention. New medical treatments are often tested against the best thing we can currently offer, rather than against no intervention at all. I didn’t really emphasise that point in my video, but an experiment could involve the two charity approaches going head to head, with simply a more systematic approach to examining who’s being helped, and how much, by each technique.

But judging by the one unscientific, reality-detached attitude on display in this infuriating interview, even that didn’t seem to be on the table. It’s a conversation worth having in a lot more detail, and with sympathy to the kind of squeamishness Jules is describing. But the tragically science-phobic approach I’d meant to aim my ranting at is utterly undeserving of a place in the debate.

It’s not always necessary or helpful to “do more science”. Good science can be expensive and time-consuming, and there often comes a point where it makes sense to say that the jury’s in, and any further testing of our ideas really would be a distraction. But charitable services are one area where there’s still a lot of work to be done.

(Incidentally, Brook do sexual health advice and resources and are definitely good folks, you should check them out.)

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My face is back. Press the button and hear it talk.

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