Ironic Imaginary Conversations

Photo credit: leafar. via / CC BY-SA
Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports on research that shows how animosity toward nonbelievers can be reduced by the religious having an imaginary, positive conversation with an atheist. And most of the subjects said they didn’t know any atheists personally:

Those who engaged in the imagined conversation “expressed significantly less distrust toward atheists” than those who simply ruminated about the subject. The researchers conclude this more positive attitude was driven by “more comfort with atheists, and more willingness to engage with atheists.”

Moreover, a reduction in distrust, which the researchers call “the central component of anti-atheist prejudice,” was even found among religious fundamentalists. Perhaps they enjoyed the imaginary give-and-take.

This is encouraging, but just soak in the irony here.

Talking to an imaginary atheist makes a person who normally talks to an imaginary superbeing feel better about atheists.

We’ve been doing this all wrong this whole time. Think of all the social advancement we could have already made if we’d just been make-believe.

I’m Special to CNN

Last week, a contact of mine at CNN asked me to write an op-ed for the website on the recent Gallup poll showing an uptick in the number of Americans who would be okay with voting for an atheist for president (now at 58%). I was delighted to be asked, and not a little bit surprised. It had to be somewhat hastily written, but the response to the piece has been great, so here’s a chunk of it:

The conventional wisdom has long held that despite the constitutional guarantee of “no religious test” for public office, there could be no greater albatross for a would-be officeholder than to be identified as an atheist. …

[But] nonbelievers have finally moved up a rung. Now claiming the space at the bottom of this particular barrel are socialists, with half of all voters ruling them out entirely. Sen. Bernie Sanders will have his work cut out for him. …

When asked why Americans were so reluctant to back an atheist presidential candidate, the late Christopher Hitchens would say that there was a time before Ronald Reagan when no one thought a divorced, B-movie actor could be elected president, but such a candidate had to run to test the question.

So, before we can allow these poll numbers to fill the nonreligious with either hope or dread for our political prospects, we have to run the experiment.

We’ve seen a tiny smattering of atheist candidates and elected officials in the past handful of years, but we need to see more, and at a much higher and more visible level. The more atheist candidates run for office, whether they win or not, the more their atheism stops seeming to voters like an oddity or a novelty.

You can of course read the whole thing here. My favorite bit? The byline, of course, where it says I’m “special to CNN.” Aw, CNN, you’re special to me, too. Regardless of Don Lemon.

And a small bit of Paul-trivia: When I was an intern at ABC News’ Political Unit, David Chalian, Teddy Davis, and Ed O’Keefe were my supervisors and colleagues (each of whom I like and respect very much). Today, they’re all at CNN. Maybe I should intern for them again!

Why Not-Being in the Future Completely Sucks

Adam Frank at NPR’s 13.7 blog on why we shouldn’t be hung up about death, even though there’s no afterlife:

[E]ven though none of us existed 1,000 years ago, you don’t find many people worrying about their nonexistence during the Dark Ages. Our not-being in the past doesn’t worry us. So, why does our not-being in the future freak us out so much?

Oh pick me! I know!

Because we experience time linearly, in one single direction, so we’d have no reason to be concerned about not existing in the past. We’re incapable of ever having perceived that which came before us, but we are able to perceive the present as it unfolds into the future, and we are aware that at some point, for each of us, that present will stop unfolding. We don’t witness the past before our births, so we have no reason or frame of reference for concern. We do witness ourselves in the present moment and are cognizant of the fact that we will (or ought to) exist in future moments. And we are also aware that there will come a time when that existence, that awareness, will stop. For-fucking-ever.

Perhaps if we were the Wormhole Aliens of Deep Space Nine or part of the Q Continuum, and could watch time and all the other dimensions unfurl around us in dancing strings and infinite toroids, we might have a different perspective. But we are mere mortal bags of meat.

That’s why not-being in the future freaks us out. Okay?

And personally I’m god damn glad I missed the Dark Ages.

P.S. Here’s a post explaining more about my feelings about death. They are not good feelings.


Fear God or Fear the Police

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I don’t have a lot to say about this video by Clayton M. Christensen sent around by Troy University chancellor Jack Hawkins. We all know it’s a ridiculous notion that somehow democracy would crumble without religion.

But there was one part of the video that really did bother me. It was at the very end when Christensen says, “If you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”

Think about what an awful thing to say that is. And think about the awful and tone-deaf timing for Hawkins to spread this message around.

Think about the gut-wrenching tumult that has transpired in the past few months regarding our relationship to the police, to the racism that infects so much of our legal and policing systems, the astounding overuse of violence, the military-style siege on Ferguson, the New York City police union’s brazen contempt for a democratically elected leader, and not to mention countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where the police are tools of theocracy, not the keepers of order for the maintenance of democracy.

This, of all periods of modern human history, is not a time to say that people without religion, people who reject the status quo, or dissenters are the antithesis of democracy, and that the only option for containing them is either obedience to a cosmic overseer or “enough police.”

Imagine that mindset. It’s either fear the retribution of God, or fear the police. I’m so glad that that’s a fictional construct. I wish very much that so many people didn’t believe it to be real.

Of Muggles and Mutants: Sci-fi’s Concern for “Better” Humans

I’ve moments ago finished The Bone Season, a novel by Samantha Shannon that I quite enjoyed, about a near-future world in which “clairvoyants,” those born with an ability to interact with the spirit world, are considered riffraff at best and plague-carrying criminals at worst. The layers of the world are rather quickly shown to be numerous, with a number of possible answers to the question of who is really in control (and it does get complicated). For this post, I’m primarily interested in how an aspect of the book’s premise compares to that of some other fictional universes. So be warned, ahead be great spoilers.

(Not for nothin’, but I was very glad that the protagonist was an ass-kicking young woman, and not the standard “chosen one” male messiah we usually get. Paige Mahoney is powerful, but she’s not fulfilling any prophecies, just discovering, and struggling with, the extent of her considerable abilities.)

The idea of a special subgroup of humans being singled out by the less-special majority is not a new concept. The mind immediately jumps to X-Men, in which mutants with superpowers are mistrusted and feared, but there is still a semblance of struggle to integrate mutants with the rest of society. I think it’s safe to say that as the audience, though, we are generally expected to see the mutants as “better” than non-mutants. They are humans-plus.

Another version is the world of Harry Potter, where witches and wizards aren’t persecuted because they’re not known, other than to a handful of people. Magical folk, again, are presented as “better” than non-magical people who don’t get the benefit of amazing powers or insight into a universe beyond their graps. They even get a kid of abysmal name, “muggles.” Again, wizards and witches are humans-plus.

Unlike with X-Men or The Bone Season, we don’t get to see what might happen if the magical and muggle worlds were to try to integrate. But I think it’s not too hard to imagine that the non-magical world would be scared shitless to know that a race of superpowerful sorcerers who could defy the very laws of physics with magic wands were now part of society. Just as “normals” are afraid of mutants in X-Men, and afraid of clairvoyants in The Bone Season.

I don’t know enough about X-Men lore to say exactly how non-mutants are presented and treated generally, but Harry Potter’s good guys at least make a point of standing up for the right of muggles to live without the threat of Voldemort, and for the equality “half-bloods.” The wizards and witches are humans-plus, but they still care about us.

The characters of The Bone Season seem to care little for normals. Our only exposure to non-clairvoyants is negative, be they agents of the fascistic government or one of the few passerby characters who have little to say or do beyond being a threat. Once the main story gets moving, essentially all of the action takes place in the Rephaim’s cordoned-off city, so “muggles” become quickly irrelevant. Though treated like dirt by both pan-dimensional beings and regular old humans, the reader is expected to see the clairvoyants as, largely, superior to normals.

So why am I hung up on the presentation of normals in these worlds? Perhaps I have some kind of paranoia that the creators of these worlds see either themselves or some other group in the real world as being analogous to these humans-plus. There would be some subset of people in real society who have an ability or an insight that the masses do not possess, and are as a result either reviled and persecuted, or at least forced into total secrecy.

Who would that be? Intellectuals or academics? Certainly we have our “ivory tower” universities that are in a way analogous to the wizarding world, at least in as much that what goes on and is discussed in them seems weird and troubling to many on the outside. That almost makes it a good Harry Potter analogy, except that unlike Hogwarts, everyone knows that Harvard is there. This is more of akin to Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, in which an agreement is struck between the academic world and the rest of society that the academics should generally keep to themselves in their monasteries. So maybe it’s supposed to be artists and other creative types? Certainly the real world suffers through times and places in which academics and the arts are seen as too subversive and dangerous to be allowed to flourish.

People of particular religious worldviews could easily see themselves in the role of the humans-plus in these stories, for what is it to follow a religion but to suppose one has a special understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything that the rest of the heretics and infidels of the world do not? (Unless of course you’re a progressive religious believer, in which case you believe every faith is an equally valid path to God, etcetera, etcetera.)

Yes, atheists easily fit this mold, too, perhaps better than those of any supernatural worldview, for our stance – atheism itself – is based on the idea that everyone else is doing it wrong. (Which, it happens, is probably true.) And if my time as a professional skepto-atheist has shown me anything, it’s that our crowd is particularly adept at feeling superior to believers, so much so that we often have to turn that smugness on each other just to vent some of the excess pride.

But I honestly don’t know. If these stories were simply allegories to help us shed new light on how we treat those different from us, such as racial, religious, or other minorities, that would be one thing. But instead the persecuted (or secreted) minorities are born “better” than their persecutors. They are not just “different” by way of look or language or origin, but enhanced.

So the metaphor then becomes one focused on how society treats those who are in some form or other “superior” to the majority. That’s uncomfortable for me to say the least. And I’m frankly not too worried about how we might treat humans-plus. I think the way we treat “the least of these” is probably a more important story to tell.

I just don’t quite know how you make that into a compelling sci-fi adventure. But I’ll bet someone has.

Tech Pundit Andy Ihnatko’s Problem with Atheist Arguments

Did Andy Ihnatko know I was starting this tech-and-humanism blog? Almost certainly not, but look, he’s gone and given me some great blog fodder. Ihnatko is a brilliant, funny, and insightful technology pundit and commentator on geek culture that I’ve been a fan of for years. Occasionally he’ll use his personal blog to wade into other areas that spark his intellectual curiosity, and it’s almost always worth one’s time to read.

(Recommendations: His mauling of Family Guy and praising of Bob’s Burgers, and his appraisal of late night hosts in the wake of Letterman’s announced retirement.)

His latest is right in our wheelhouse, as he posts his reaction to a recent Greta Christina piece at AlterNet. I don’t agree with all of Ihnatko’s opinions here, as he’s a little too soft in his nontheism for my tastes, but as always he has some great lines.

For example, his piece principally takes issue with what he sees as a common atheist mischaracterization of how theism is actually conceived of by believers, as we often focus on what he calls the Touched by an Angel-model God, and says:

That’s definitely the iPhone of gods, here in America. But it’s by no means the whole range of Gods available. Even a Christian sect can’t stay in production for more than a hundred years before somebody forks the distro.

Love it.

And what does Andy believe?

I’m an agnostic. If you absolutely must pin me down, I suppose I’m an agnostic theist (I suspect that some kind of god is out there, and if there is, he/she/it is fundamentally unknowable).

Sounds like Montaigne. But I digress.

I absolutely insist that there’s an analog spectrum of belief. It’s more accurate just to say that I find the questions more interesting than the answers. As a nontheist, I (like Christina) don’t know how to justify a belief in an omnipowerful God for whom worldwide genocide is explained by a “You don’t have to be crazy to work here…but it helps!” poster in the Almighty’s breakroom.

Ihnatko says that the atheist vs. theist blog arguments (and I’d add atheist vs. atheist internecine battles) warp themselves from thoughtful discussions about disagreements into a “Monty Python And The Holy Grail-style chain of logic which has the cadence and the shape of rational argument, but is based on a whole series of questionable assumptions and is designed to trap their opponent in a corner.”

Anyway, I’m glad he wrote this. And boy would I love to see him bring it up with Leo Laporte (an atheist) and the guys on MacBreak Weekly.

Montaigne: A Skeptic and Secular Humanist Before It Was Cool

Montaigne is a huge influence on my writing, as he exemplifies what I love best about the form of the “essay,” where certitude about a subject is put aside for self-reflecting deliberation. He’s also the prime influence of Andrew Sullivan, who also inspires my writing, and Sullivan is currently hosting at his site a book club series on a truly wonderful book: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Of particular interest to folks around these parts of the blogosphere is how Sullivan and his readers keep returning to Montaigne’s apparent lack of religious feeling and his general skepticism. Indeed, it is often said in these posts in one form or another that skepticism was Montaigne’s key trait, the thing that differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries, and fueled the very creation of what we now know as an essay.

Here’s how Sullivan puts it in the introductory post, with my emphasis:

[Montaigne’s is] a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. …  This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. Andit is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”.

Now read on as what we began talking about as Montaigne’s skepticism begins to sound like something else:

[H]ere’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

And this is what I mean by secular humanism. (Not necessarily that truth is “beyond our grasp” — I would modify that to an acceptance that there may be things our meat-based cranial wetware can never quite process, but not that we know this to be so.) Life is finite, but in the time we are conscious and mobile we have an opportunity to investigate and make meaning as we will. To do that, you need to come to terms with mortality and, if not the non-existence, then at least the inaccessibility, of the supernatural.

For the record, though I have accepted the lack of a supernatural, coming to terms with mortality is a state of being that continues to prove elusive to me.

There’s more. As the conversation at Sullivan’s blog goes on, readers begin to clamor for a discussion that answers not just whether Montaigne was a skeptic, but whether he was an outright atheist. (Indeed, they really want to know if he qualifies as a “New Atheist,” which I think is a pointless question.) To try for an answer, they go to the authority, Sarah Bakewell:

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. … I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist … but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

That sounds right to me. Ascribing atheism to historical figures for whom such an outlook would have been extremely alienating I think is largely a fool’s errand. We do it with Jefferson, Lincoln, Shakespeare, and on and on, and while any or all of these individuals were certainly skeptical, contemplative, analytical, and prone to challenge outlandish notions, they lived in times when out-and-out atheism would have been quite a leap, and even if they were privately entirely atheistic, we’d likely never know. So too, I think, with Montaigne.

I went back into my notes from my first reading of the Essays to unearth some of his better skeptical passages, and I tell you my cup runneth over. Take away some of the more archaic structure of the 16th century prose, and you could read these passages in Skeptical Inquirer:

‘Tis very probable, that visions, enchantments, and all extraordinary effects of that nature, derive their credit principally from the power of imagination, working and making its chiefest impression upon vulgar and more easy souls, whose belief is so strangely imposed upon, as to think they see what they do not see.

Or how about this for a way to describe the latest flimflam artist or psychic:

These ape’s tricks are the main of the effect, our fancy being so far seduced as to believe that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some abstruse science: their very inanity gives them weight and reverence.

That’s awesome.

He also leaves clear room for the existence of God, even if he finds such a being wholly out of his ability to comprehend. But he does so seemingly as a hedge:

[R]eason has instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater. If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how many are continually presented before our eyes?

Some say God is responsible for this or that event, but Montaigne says that making such claims limits the potential power of said God, and leaves no room for actual discovery or investigation.

Thence it comes to pass, that nothing is so firmly believed, as what we least know; nor any people so confident, as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune-tellers, and physicians.

“God” is such a big idea, so open to interpretation and imagination, with so many ways it could be presumed to manifest, that it makes sense that Montaigne doesn’t tell us that such a thing absolutely doesn’t exist. But his experience in the real world allowed him to be keenly and unabashedly skeptical. And as he does not seem to have lived his life nor written his works in any explicitly Christian mode, we can also say, as Bakewell does, that he was indeed “profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.”

Friendly Substitute Atheist

Oh, hey.

Over the holiday, Hemant Mehta finally went on his honeymoon, and once again called upon me to run the Friendly Atheist site. So once again, I wrote a whole lot of articles and posts. Some of them I’m really quite proud of. Others, you know, sometimes you just gotta feed the beast.

To see what I’ve been doing over at Friendly Atheist, click this here hyperlink. You’ll be launched through the internets to my posts.

You know what? I had a lot of fun with it, and I felt like I actually got into something resembling a groove. Thanks, Hemant!


Atheists, Ever Shall You Blog

I have a longish piece up at Friendly Atheist today on the future prospects for blogs as a prime medium within the atheist movement. I am bullish on the form. A pinch:

Will skepto-atheists still be relying so heavily on blogs in ten years? I’m guessing yes. The main reason is that we are a movement and a community based largely on proving Some Big Point that most or far too many people still don’t agree with. To be extremely general, let’s say the Big Point is that magical thinking is wrong, and lots of times really bad. You can apply that to all sorts of things, from religion to alt-med to The Secret to UFO conspiracy theories and so on. And blogs are still the best way to make that Big Point.

And I go on. I’d really appreciate it if you gave the post a little Reddit love, keep it afloat and away from the jackals there.