A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VII

Hello Quixote,

Considering your last letter to me was some time ago, I apologize for the lateness of my reply. To tell the truth, this was the hardest one for me to write. It's not that I couldn't think of anything to say. Much the opposite: If I had said everything I wanted to say, this post would have been too long! Cutting it down to a reasonable length was more of a struggle than writing it. I've endeavored to edit in a way that does justice to your points and to mine.

I also want to say at the outset that this will be my last reply. I've enjoyed our conversation these past few months; I think we've both had ample opportunity to speak our minds and I'm glad for that. If you'd like to offer some final thoughts in reply to this letter, you're welcome to do so.

While you good folk may connect these observances, and they are real world observances, with logical arguments or rationale for unbelief, most do not. In ministry, we engage believers and unbelievers continuously, and it's a rare bird that cites any of the philosophic staples in my first paragraph, or others like them. The ones who do generally do not exhibit even a serviceable grasp of the attendant issues. This is my overwhelming and consistent experience firsthand.

That may be one of those points where we'll have to differ. In my experience, most atheists, even if they aren't experts in theology, come to atheism because they've decided that something about religious belief doesn't rationally add up. This may, of course, be self-selection bias - it's likely that most of the people who visit Daylight Atheism come here because they like to give thought to these issues.

However, I maintain that since there isn't (yet!) a thriving, real-world atheist community in the same way that there are religious communities, very few people are going to become atheists just because it's the default option in their peer group. Most people who become atheists do so as the result of a conscious decision on their part and an intentional effort to seek out the advocates of that philosophy. Granted, if we're as successful as I'd hope, that may change in a few generations. Greta Christina wrote a very thoughtful post about this (link), about how every social movement needs must start with the most independently-minded, committed people, and how that inevitably diminishes as its goals are accomplished and it becomes a more widely accepted position.

An insulating factor actively laboring against this realization is immersion. I define immersion as a progressive group dynamic which isolates and subsequently reinforces cognitive structures, mores, and peculiar linguistics — and a host of other things — among individuals sharing (un)beliefs and community. We're all guilty of it, and I can't speak for y'all, but one thing accomplished by this dialogue is the weakening of this exclusive immersive web by the coupling of new strands to existing ones.

I couldn't agree more! Why do you think I wanted to do this in the first place?

Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I'd also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.

I don't accept that Western culture, particularly American culture, is steeped in secularism. On the contrary, I'd say that being an atheist where I live requires swimming upstream against an overwhelming tide of public opinion: opinion treating belief in God not just as the expected, but the only moral position. Look at the money in your wallet if you don't think that's true. There may be some places where your remark about our secularism-steeped culture has a degree of truth. But in vast swathes of this country, nonbelief in public life, or even in private life, is all but impossible unless carefully concealed.

I'll grant that living in this culture does make atheism possible - in the sense that, as god-saturated as our society is, we've still managed to carve out some breathing room between religion and government, creating a small space where nonbelief can exist. In many cultures of the past and the present, even that wouldn't have existed, and outspoken atheism would not be an option at all. In those cultures I'd have been imprisoned or worse for saying the kind of things I say nearly every day on this blog.

As for importing Judeo-Christian tenets into my atheism - I don't know, which tenets do you have in mind? There are many moral principles, like the Golden Rule, that find expression in every culture. In our culture, which is heavily influenced by Christian thinking, these universals naturally find expression in a Christian context. In that sense, I'll concede that my worldview has been influenced by these beliefs; it would be virtually impossible for anyone who grew up in 20th-century America to say otherwise. On the other hand, the Bible and historic Christianity have promoted many principles that are antithetical to my worldview, and many social reform movements to whose ideals I subscribe - separation of church and state, women's equality, secular public schools, birth control, GLBT rights - were and often still are viciously attacked for being anti-Christian.

I've never lived a moment without out it that I can recall. There's definitely times when it's stronger, though. After absorbing so much heat for this admission, I'm figuring I should just go ahead and claim it as an evidence for God — I've got nothing to lose! I'd enjoy hearing of your comparable experience...

Well, now you've asked me a hard question! Trying to do justice to experiences like this is like trying to describe the experience of listening to a symphony. But I'll give it my best shot.

This kind of experience tends to come upon me suddenly at my happiest moments, though it sometimes wells up for no apparent reason. (Maybe it's from a little trickle of current in my temporal lobes.) The most salient aspect is a sense of heightened awareness - a feeling that all the world has suddenly become much richer in detail, that everything has become immeasurably more significant. Always accompanying this is a sense of great affection, of love for all the beauty of the world and my fellow living things. And lastly, there's a feeling I can only describe as oceanic: like the boundaries of my self dissolving, being opened up to all the unimaginable vastness of the world, and experiencing it as a source of bliss. In those few perfect moments, it feels as if the world is full of magic, and I've only briefly gained the ability to see it.

I won't say that this state, this awareness, is present in my life every waking moment. But when it does emerge, it's like the sun breaking through clouds, and I wonder how anyone ever does without it.

When I read your commentary and essays, I sense that you consider some things to be right, and others wrong, in a manner that equates them with objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness. I'm not convinced yet that your and your commentator's actions match your beliefs. Where is my misstep here?

I do consider that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. However, I do not consider that this is mutually exclusive with the natural functioning of the cortex. I think these explanations are complementary: the existence of conscious, reasoning beings brings right and wrong into the world, just as it brings in a whole host of other abstract concepts - democracy, for example, or money, or science, or music. It wouldn't make sense to say that those things aren't "real", that they're just tricks of the cerebral cortex. We make them real by participating in them.

How can you prove that the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end?

Truthfully, I think that's the only defense a Christian could possibly offer, even as unsatisfactory as it is (a point you seem to agree with, if I read you correctly). For if God did not create evil as a means to some other end, there's only one other logically possible option: that God created evil as an end in itself. In other words, he created evil for its own sake. That's the definition of what an evil being is, and that creates an irreconcilable contradiction with the core tenet of Christianity that God is good.

If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action. As I think I'm on the side of reason here, I'll endure the Panglossian taunts happily.

I really doubt that very strongly. When you look out at this world, you can't think of any way it could be improved? We wouldn't stand to gain by making human beings more empathetic, less prone to resort to violence to settle their disagreements? We couldn't gain by making free agents who are more inclined to take the long view, less inclined to value immediate short-term gain? By making people who are more courageous and morally steadfast, less willing to compromise their principles for material benefit?

These are all contingent parameters of human behavior that could hypothetically be altered; a creator could twiddle those knobs without depriving us of free will. If you really think this world is unimprovable, that's your right. All I can say, though, is that if God turned things over to me, it wouldn't take long to draw up a list of fixes.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn't you trust in Him with regard to evil?

If I was convinced of the exact statement you gave, yes, I'd pretty much have to. However, that's because your conclusion is contained in your premise: if there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, it follows as a matter of logic that there can be no unnecessary evil in the world. But that's putting the cart before the horse. I see no rational way to draw such an inference, given the fact that unnecessary evil manifestly does exist. How anyone could look at this world and infer that supreme moral goodness intended it all to be this way, that's a conclusion I simply can't see any way to justify.

As I've said before, to infer moral goodness, one has to have at least some understanding of the actor's motives. But you say we should treat God's plan as a mystery, that we can't know he doesn't have good reasons of his own and therefore should trust him. Again, this is putting the cart before the horse. If God's motives are unknown to us, to be consistent, you'd have to say that his moral status, good or bad, is also an unknown quantity. Believing that God is absolutely good and that he has a motive for all the evil he causes is an argument that goes straight from premise to conclusion without any intervening steps.

August 30, 2009, 3:11 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink12 comments

Why the Religious Right Fears Empathy

In the days before Justice Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation, we witnessed a strange spectacle: religious-right Christian after religious-right Christian spoke out against her nomination on the grounds that she valued empathy, and that this was an undesirable quality for a judge to have.

Coming from a religion whose founder supposedly said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me," this is laughably absurd. Empathy is one of the founding moral teachings of Christianity, and here we see prominent Christians viciously attacking it. But in a deeper sense, I think this tells us something important. I don't believe attacks on empathy are a temporary position employed by the religious right for political advantage. I think that they're sincere when they claim to detest empathy, and that their abhorrence for it is an essential part of their worldview.

Let me refer again to Dave Schmelzer's Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Although Schmelzer's more willing than most to credit atheism for the good it's brought about, he still seems unable to avoid the atheists-are-angry-misanthropes invective that's ubiquitous in Christian apologetics books:

"[T]he tone... in the case of the 'nastiest' atheist writers, at least - does tend toward arrogance and sanctimony. I mean, do these authors seem happy to you? Is that worth noting?" [p.38]

and then there's this classic bit of propaganda, an exchange which he claims happened while he was speaking to an atheist students' club at a local university:

"In my presentation, I had told some inspiring (to me) stories about heroic, faith-driven responses to Hurricane Katrina, so I hazarded, 'To you, then, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is not so much that so many people were killed or driven away from their homes, families, and community. You're saying that that's no more tragic than, say, whatever damage was done to the coastline.' He agreed with that and pressed his point by saying, 'A person's death and a tree's death should have the same value in the big picture.'" [p.111]

Atheists think humans are no more valuable than trees! (Insert gasp of horror from Christian readers here.)

Call me a skeptic, but I just can't take this story seriously. I think I can say that I'm pretty familiar with what atheists tend to believe, and I've never met or heard of an atheist who believes anything remotely like this. I'm all but certain that Schmelzer has misreported this conversation. It may not have been intentional: knowing what we know about the fallibility of memory, he may have misremembered it in a way that fits with his conception of how atheists think.

What does this have to do with empathy? I'm coming around to that.

Having read countless deconversion stories, I've seen one element that reappears in many of them: the moment when a person, on the brink of losing their faith, begins to see atheism as a genuine possibility, as a live option, and is exhilarated by the thought:

For a few seconds, I was not a religious mind, viewing atheism from behind a plexiglass shield and handling it with industrial gloves, but a neutral mind, considering what the world looked like through both religious and atheistic eyes. For an ephemeral moment, I saw that the anomalies present in my religious perspective dissolved in the light of atheism. (source)

The more time that I spent reading essays by atheists, agnostics and freethinkers/humanists, the more I began to realize with a mixture of both fear and joy that I was thinking more like an unbeliever, similar to before I actually became a Christian approximately seventeen years earlier. I felt a certain kind of excitement building inside of me that was a very freeing experience. (source)

Perhaps more than any strictly intellectual argument, this is the factor that makes you most likely to convert to a given worldview: whether you truly empathize with the people who hold it, whether you can put yourself in their place and understand their reasoning.

The religious right, of course, has no interest in people coming to think this way about any worldview other than their own, which is why they disparage empathy in general. But they're especially terrified of people coming to think this way about atheism. This is why every presentation of atheism in their writing is carefully tailored to horrify ordinary Christians - to depict atheists as evil, immoral misanthropes (people no more important than trees!) whose views are so obviously beyond the pale that they can be dismissed without further reflection.

This is why, if you ask a theist why they think people become atheists, you rarely get an answer other than cartoonish stereotypes like, "They hate God and want to rebel against him." They can't give good answers to this question because they've never thought about it themselves. By design, they specifically steer away from thinking about it.

This is also why proselytizers so often spread the lie that atheists have no basis for morality, and try to blame us for every evil under the sun. I've attacked this falsehood often, but I've come to realize that it's more than a merely factual confusion. We can't just point out that apologists are wrong about this and expect them to stop saying it. They say it because they need to say it - because it's a crucial part of their worldview that atheism be blamed for everything bad that happens, in order to keep their followers safely away from it.

Although we need to keep speaking out against this tactic, it isn't a battle we can win by words alone. As I said, the religious right says this because they need to, because instilling fear of different viewpoints is a vital part of their strategy, and no correction we offer will convince them otherwise. What we need to do is to be visible - be outspoken, be loud and proud, and don't be afraid to introduce ourselves as atheists. The more people get to know us, the more they'll see that religious stereotypes about us have no basis in reality, and the more isolated and ineffectual the people who insist on pushing those stereotypes will become.

August 14, 2009, 6:57 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink33 comments

On the Morality of: Military Spending

I've been following, with some incredulity, a battle brewing in Congress over a military-spending bill and whether it will include money to buy more F-22 Raptors, a jet fighter used by the Air Force during the Cold War. Even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates insists that these planes are not needed, a contingent of Congresspeople are bent on putting that spending back into the budget - forcing the military to take these planes against their will!

Bizarre as this sounds, it's a classic example of how the military-industrial complex operates in America. Major military firms like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which make most of their profit from multibillion-dollar government contracts, deliberately spread out their operations over as many states as possible - ensuring that senators and representatives from those states will vote for their programs, to ensure the steady flow of government cash that creates jobs in their districts. This pork is like a drug, and Congress, for the most part, is hopelessly addicted.

Stories like this one explain why the amount of money that the U.S. spends on the military is so staggering. Our 2009 base military budget, plus supplementals to paay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is about $650 billion. When all military-related spending is counted, the total sum may be closer to $1 trillion. This is just about as much as every other country in the world spends, combined. (See also.)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, America has not had an adversary that poses us any realistic military threat. And in a world increasingly interconnected by trade, great-power conflicts like those of the 20th century seem less and less likely to happen again. The wars of the future are far more likely to be the kind we've seen in recent years - peacekeeping operations in failed states and asymmetric conflicts with non-state actors like al-Qaeda - for which large conventional weapons systems are useless. Even if we were expecting to fight more wars like those of the past, our spending vastly outstrips any plausible enemy. How, then, can we possibly give a moral justification for such massive, reckless spending on weapons that, in all likelihood, we will never need? (The F-22, for example, has never been used in combat.)

America needs to relearn the concept of opportunity cost. This idea has been ignored by posturing elected officials who huff that "no price is too high to pay for security". But this is obviously false: every dollar we spend on the military is a dollar we can't spend on something else. And there are countless actual, urgent issues our country is facing where that money could be spent to make a major positive difference right now, as opposed to the entirely theoretical possibility of a distant future war that might require these weapons.

Consider how much good that trillion dollars could do if spent in other areas. We could rebuild the entire nation's energy grid with clean alternative power, ending global warming and severing the dependence on foreign oil that poses a significant threat to our security in and of itself. We could enshrine universal healthcare and create an educational system that would make Americans the healthiest, best-educated, most secure people on the planet and an envy of the other nations. We could even apply it to areas of legitimate security concern, like inspecting more of the shipping and transit that passes through our ports - a plausible target of major terrorist attacks, and an area where our current precautions are woefully inadequate. Yet all these grand plans are viewed as too expensive, too "socialist", too unlikely to yield a benefit, by the same elected officials who think nothing of handing out hundreds of billions of dollars each year to well-connected lobbyists and corporations.

The easy excuse is to blame the politicians and assume that wealthy corporations have hopelessly rigged the system in their own favor. But this is too simplistic.

As debased as it is, America is still a democracy, and we still have the power to vote out any politician who offends us. The real problem is how we, the voters, evaluate risk and hold our government to account. Politicians assume, usually correctly, that any vote against the military budget will be used against them in attack ads. Wealthy lobbyists supply the cash needed to run expensive modern campaigns. And voters who would otherwise take their representatives to task for waste and corruption will cheer on almost any spending, no matter how frivolous, if it's justified by repeating the words "national security".

These attitudes create an environment that favors candidates who will vote for massive, wasteful military budgets instead of spending to address real needs. When the voters see the senselessness of this, when we're willing to vote for politicians who pledge to slash the military budget to only what is genuinely necessary for defense, we can dismantle the military-industrial complex and divert that spending into areas where it will truly benefit all of us.

Other posts in this series:

July 27, 2009, 6:45 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink42 comments

Benevolent Business

Back in 2007, I wrote a post on optimistic populism, or how free markets can be a force for good: by spurring efficiency and innovation, they increase the total amount of wealth in the world, making it possible to raise the standard of living for all people. I also noted the irony that libertarians, the fiercest defenders of the free market, so often misunderstand this. In their jeremiads against taxation, they're implicitly buying into the view that wealth cannot be created and that the economy is a zero-sum game where the only way to help some people is to harm others.

Today, I want to talk some more about how markets can be harnessed as a power for good. But first, consider the scope of the problem:

According to the CIA Factbook, the world's GDP was estimated at $69.5 trillion in 2008. If divided by the current world population of around 6.7 billion, that would yield a global per capita income of just over $10,300. This doesn't seem like much, but it would actually be a vast improvement - the World Bank estimates that in 2001, 2.7 billion people lived on less than $2 a day. (This number has undoubtedly gone down somewhat with the rise of China and India, but is still substantial.)

Of course, achieving this level of income equality would require pooling all the world's wealth and then redistributing it equally to every person - a proposal which is unlikely ever to be implemented, for a wide variety of reasons. But there's a bright side to this as well: the fact that billions of people eke out a living on so little means that total income equalization is not necessary. Even a small degree of redistribution would be enough to produce a drastic improvement in the standard of living for the world's poorest and most desperate.

"Redistribution" is a dirty word in the minds of libertarians and conservatives, who think of it solely as direct aid to developing nations funded by taxation. But that's an incomplete definition. Any program, public or private, that results in money flowing from the world's wealthy nations to the developing ones is a form of redistribution. Kiva is one example, a microfinance organization that makes loans to entrepreneurs and businesses in the developing world, which it funds with donations from citizens of wealthy nations.

Wealth-creating free markets have enormous potential to improve the lives of the world's poor. But billions of people who need those benefits most are unable to tap into them, because poverty is self-perpetuating. People in poor countries can't access the credit and lack the infrastructure that are needed to create successful businesses. Meanwhile, most of the wealth that's created in the industrialized world stays in that world, circulating among a small pool of rich stockholders and investors. The U.N.'s target for a meager 0.7% of GDP to be given as aid has been consistently missed by almost all rich nations. Private giving improves these numbers somewhat, but the amount that the rich nations give, compared to what we could give, is still pitifully small - and the wealth gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

To make real progress in ending poverty, we need a different vision of capitalism. We need businesses with a different mission: not to enrich the already wealthy, but to redistribute their profits in beneficial ways. I'm not talking about non-profit foundations that subsist on charity, but real businesses, making a profit by selling goods and services that people need, competing with each other for market share, just as we have now. These businesses would, however, make it a part of their charter to donate all or part of their profits to some worthy cause. Even pledging to donate as little as 10% or 20%, from a large corporation, could be a significant sum.

We already have exemplar companies, like Newman's Own, which donates all profits to charitable causes. But rather than just a few companies out of many doing this, it should be the norm. Why doesn't every business have a designated cause which they support? Why isn't philanthropy part of the core mission of every company, rather than a side pursuit engaged in mainly for the favorable publicity?

July 23, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink44 comments

Some Have Entertained Angels

In the New Testament book of Hebrews, there's an exhortation to believers reminding them to show hospitality to their guests:

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

—Hebrews 13:2

The implication is interesting: that Christians should be hospitable to visitors, not simply because they are fellow human beings who need food and shelter, but because some might be angels in disguise who would, presumably, grant blessings to any person who showed them kindness. (The ancient Greeks had similar legends about gods in disguise visiting human beings and richly rewarding the humble souls who treated them well.)

When religious proselytizers claim that only their faith provides a solid basis for morality, the usual atheist retort is that their religion doesn't actually teach people to be good - it only coerces them to commit certain deeds out of a desire for reward or a fear of punishment. In other words, it keeps people in line with appeals to greed and fear, rather than encouraging goodness for its own sake. And in this verse, the Bible confirms that this is the model of behavior it's trying to inculcate.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas offers another example of this belief that's truly incredible in its bluntness:

If results are what conservative evangelicals want... they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to 'love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,' not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating God's love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?

For Cal Thomas, doing good deeds is just a means to an end. He urges Christian evangelicals to do good for the needy and the downtrodden, not because they are human beings who need help and giving it is the right thing to do - that's the ideology of "liberals" - but because those poor, miserable people might be induced to convert to Christianity if Christians are the ones who help them out. (This passage speaks volumes about why conservative Christians try to slash government-run social programs while boosting handouts to churches that have free rein to proselytize.)

Presumably, Thomas and others like him would view their effort as wasted if the recipient of their aid chooses not to convert, and Christians who follow the admonition in Hebrews would be disappointed if their guests turned out not to be angels. That's the difference between them and us, as Robert Ingersoll wrote in an essay explaining the meaning of secularism:

Secularism means food and fireside, roof and raiment, reasonable work and reasonable leisure, the cultivation of the tastes, the acquisition of knowledge, the enjoyment of the arts, and it promises for the human race comfort, independence, intelligence, and above all liberty. It means the abolition of sectarian feuds, of theological hatreds. It means the cultivation of friendship and intellectual hospitality. It means the living for ourselves and each other; for the present instead of the past, for this world rather than for another.

Ingersoll's focus on this world and the good things it has to offer shows what our moral motivation should be. As atheists and humanists, we welcome guests because we want to bring ease and comfort to our fellow human beings, not because we secretly hope to flatter angels. We put fantasies aside in favor of what is real and meaningful, and live for this world, rather than dreaming of one to come.

May 19, 2009, 6:42 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink14 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Abner Kneeland

While some freethinkers have made contributions to science, the arts or the humanities, others are best known for exemplifying a sea change in human history - showing, by their lives, that one age was passing and another would soon dawn. Just so is today's post on the life of an American freethinker who has the unique distinction of being the last man imprisoned in America for blasphemy: a courageous reformer and patriot by the name of Abner Kneeland.

Kneeland was born in Massachusetts in 1774, the sixth of ten children and the son of a carpenter. In 1801, he became a convert to the Baptist church, underwent immersion baptism and began to preach. But he soon got embroiled in doctrinal clashes with fellow believers, and his flirtation with Baptism didn't last long. By 1803, he had decided he was no longer a Baptist, but a Universalist - an early liberal Christian denomination that didn't believe in Hell. He continued his work as a lay preacher, but now in the service of Universalism.

Kneeland continued as a traveling preacher for several years, but eventually settled down at a Universalist church in New Hampshire. He served as an officer of the New England Universalist General Convention and helped to compile a new hymnal, though some of his verses, like this one, met with a lukewarm reception:

As ancient bigots disagree,
The Stoic and the Pharisee,
So is the modern Christian world
In superstitious error hurl'd.

He moved around over the next several years, from Massachusetts to Philadelphia to New York, and though he continued his work as a Universalist minister, his skeptical side was beginning to assert itself. He read the writings of some of the era's most prominent religious skeptics, including the famous chemist Joseph Priestley and the Scottish utopian Robert Owen, and preached from the pulpit that he reserved the right to interpret the principles of Universalism in his own way. Slowly but surely, he began drifting away from Christianity entirely.

The last straw came in 1829 when Kneeland willingly loaned out his church as a platform for a controversial guest speaker, someone we've met before - the trailblazing freethinker and feminist Frances Wright. No one else in New York City would give Wright a place to speak, and the appearance of the "Red Harlot of Infidelity" in a church was too much even for the liberal Universalists. Kneeland was disfellowshipped by them and soon renounced Christianity altogether. He published a book that same year, A Review of the Evidences of Christianity, which made it clear just how far his theological position had shifted:

Like many others, I once thought that a belief in future existence was absolutely necessary to present happiness. I have discovered my mistake. Time, a thousand years hence, is no more to me now, than time a thousand years past. As no event could have harmed me, when I existed not, so no event can possibly harm me when I am no more. By anticipating and calculating too much on future felicity, and dreading, or at least fearing, future misery, man often loses sight of present enjoyments, and neglects present duties. When men shall discover that nothing can be known beyond this life, and that there is no rational ground for any such belief, they will begin to think more of improving the condition of the human species. Their whole thoughts will then be turned upon what man has done, and what he can still do, for the benefit of man.

In 1831 Kneeland moved to Boston, where he became a lecturer at the newly formed First Society of Free Enquirers and started his own newspaper, the Boston Investigator, whose motto was: "Truth, perseverence, union, justice - the means; happiness - the end. Hear all sides - then decide." His weekly lectures, which drew as many as two thousand people, denounced the influence of religion on society and advocated the full equality of women, arguing that they should be permitted to use birth control, obtain a divorce, be paid equally for equal work, and be allowed to vote. He also argued for the equality of the races and, most shockingly, in favor of interracial marriage.

He also made the acquaintance of some influential people, most notably the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison had just arrived in Boston and was searching for a church or hall to rent to deliver lectures against slavery, but as with Frances Wright, seemingly no one was willing to give him the space. Kneeland again came to the rescue, offering Garrison the use of Julien Hall, where he delivered his own lectures. Garrison would later write, "It was left for a society of avowed infidels to save the city from the shame of sealing all its doors against the slave's advocate."

But despite its political and philosophical ferment, Massachusetts in this era was no friend to freethinkers. A still-enforced anti-blasphemy law from 1782 outlawed "denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God", and it was under this law that Abner Kneeland was arrested and charged for making statements like this:

1. Universalists believe in a god which I do not: but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.
2. Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not: but believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and fiction, as that of the god Prometheus...
3. Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can either be accounted for on natural principles or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.
4. Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.

Kneeland argued, unsuccessfully, in court that he was not an atheist but a pantheist. The prosecuting attorney, meanwhile, argued that if he were not punished for his opinions, "marriages [will be] dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundations of society broken up". (See any parallels?) In 1838, he was found guilty and sentenced to sixty days in jail.

After serving his prison term, Kneeland moved to Iowa with the intent of forming a utopian community similar to Owen's and Wright's, but it did not survive after his own death in 1844. Nevertheless, his life had left its mark. The uproar in Boston over his conviction, including numerous newspaper editorials defending the First Amendment and a petition to the governor signed by over a hundred prominent citizens, made such an impact that never again, in Massachusetts or anywhere else in America, was a freethinker imprisoned for violating blasphemy laws. Although there were a few more sporadic trials (most notably the 1886 Reynolds trial defended by Robert Ingersoll), Abner Kneeland's greatest accomplishment was to show clearly that laws protecting religious feelings were archaic and incompatible with an increasingly modern and enlightened society.

Other posts in this series:

May 13, 2009, 6:43 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments

The Secular Case for Vegetarianism

Guest Post by Rob Schneider

[Editor's Note: In my third anniversary post, I mentioned that I wanted to have more guest essays on Daylight Atheism, as well as more posts exploring issues where atheists don't all agree. This post accomplishes both those aims. Please welcome Rob Schneider (not that Rob Schneider) and his first appearance on Daylight Atheism.]

Veganism and vegetarianism have a bad reputation in our society. Those who identify as vegan or vegetarian tend to receive odd looks and questions like, "doesn't that burger look good?" We get labeled as "tree-huggers" and "extremists." It's remarkably similar to being out as an Atheist. I hope to answer some common questions and present a secular case for vegetarianism as a sound ethical choice.

I'll start by clarifying my terms. Vegan means refraining from the consumption of anything that contains animal products, especially things that come from animals with nervous systems. Yeast is ok, but a Vegan will avoid eating any food containing dairy, eggs or meats, and will carefully check ingredient labels to avoid additives from animal sources, such as gelatin (from hooves) or certain enzymes. Vegans also avoid any products containing animal hide, bones or other bits. Most vegans will use life-saving medicines made from animal components. The Vegan Society has a comprehensive list of animal products commonly found in food here.

Vegetarian covers a broad range of consumption choices. Strict vegetarians will use the same food guidelines as vegans, but use non-food products made from animal parts, such as leather shoes. Ovo-lacto vegetarians will consume eggs and dairy, but not meat. Some people will use the term vegetarian to mean that they avoid red meat, so they will eat fish and sometimes chicken. For this post, vegetarianism means the removal of all chicken, beef and pork from the diet.

I myself am a vegan, although I will be defending vegetarianism in this post. Without going into the animal welfare issues (which are well-documented elsewhere), my argument will focus on the environmental disruption and social justice issues caused by most large-scale farming practices.

Large-scale farming, also known as factory farming, is by far (pdf) the source of most animal products consumed in the West. Factory farming emphasizes size and concentration by confining a large number of animals into a small space. This causes numerous problems with waste management, greenhouse gas emissions and diseases.

Factory farming is often criticized for waste-management issues. Feedlot waste has been shown to have negative effects on the environment. The standard factory farm uses waste lagoons and spreader fields to hold the large amount of urine and feces generated by the animals. As you can imagine, the stench from a small lake of poop is vile, and has adverse effects on those who live nearby. Several studies (pdf) have shown that the fumes from feedlots cause health problems for those living nearby. Ammonia, Hydrogen Sulfide, Volatile Organic Compounds such as Methane and particulate matter are commonly found in the fumes coming from feedlots.

The feedlot lagoons and spreader fields often lack adequate runoff controls, so heavy rainfall or snow melt can cause direct leakage of the feces and urine into natural bodies of water and potable water sources for humans. This most commonly results in fish kills, but has also been shown to cause a long-term issue with mutated fish in streams.

According to The New York Times, "an estimated 30 percent of the earth's ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world's greenhouse gases — more than transportation." The amount of fossil fuel needed to grow meat is also considerable; "...if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius." According to Ulf Sonesson of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, roughly half the diet-based greenhouse gasses come from meat production. Replacing 50% of the protein from meat with protein from soy in the western diet would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, "on the order of 70%."

In addition to the pollution issues, industrial animal farming is an incredibly inefficient food source. The grain fed to cattle in the USA alone would feed 800 million people. Livestock are also water-intensive sources of food. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, a kilogram of grain-fed beef needs at least 15 cubic meters of water.

Thus far I have primarily talked about the environmental problems with using meat as a food source. There are numerous social problems with our modern meat industry as well. The modern US slaughterhouse industry has a history of food and worker safety violations, with the now-closed plant in Postville, IA, being just one example. Other abuses are regularly uncovered. Workers in US slaughterhouses are expected to work nearly twice as fast as workers anywhere else in the world. According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, "...they [slaughterhouses] cut wages, they cut benefits, broke unions. And now it has one of the highest turnover rates of any industrial job." The modern US slaughterhouse has a turnover rate between 75% and 100% per year. The workers, mostly poor and many recent immigrants, are also working in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is the most dangerous job in America. Injuries are common due to the frantic pace of the work, the fact that power cutting tools are involved, and the amounts of blood and fat that end up on the floor while workers are moving around.

The modern industrial animal farm has many environmental and social costs that are not reflected on the in-store price tag. Our water and air are poisoned and our poor work in a dangerous job for little pay. While the modern steak is easier to buy than ever before, it is far more expensive than we as a society realize. We need to carefully re-think the true cost of our diet before we discover the bill is far more than we can afford.

April 26, 2009, 10:04 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink214 comments

The Case for a Creator: Paging Dr. Provine

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 1

At the close of the first chapter, Lee Strobel scales to an incredible height of lunacy:

I knew intuitively what prominent evolutionary biologist and historian William Provine of Cornell University would spell out explicitly in a debate years later. If Darwinism is true, he said, then there are five inescapable conclusions:

  • there's no evidence for God
  • there's no life after death
  • there's no absolute foundation for right and wrong
  • there's no ultimate meaning for life
  • people don't really have free will [p.16]

These incredible assertions are presented without any hint of supporting evidence or argument, other than to call them "inescapable" and to say that he "knew [them] intuitively".

Something worth noting here is that, despite the book's title - The Case for a Creator - which would imply that the book's contents contain a set of factual arguments and supporting evidence worthy of the description "case", Strobel here does nothing of the kind. In fact, what he's doing is exactly the same thing that his West Virginian interviewees were doing: trying to warn people away from accepting evolution by painting a frightening picture of its imagined consequences. Looked at in this light, it's no surprise that he doesn't attempt to cite supporting arguments for this staggering set of claims. Their sole purpose in being here is to evoke a gasp of horror from Strobel's Christian readers, and for that purpose, it's sufficient to cite just one scary-sounding atheist.

The obvious thing to do would be to e-mail Dr. Provine to find out if this quote really represents what he believes. I tried contacting him, but didn't get an answer. Instead, I'll respond to these five points myself, pointing out atheists who dissent from Strobel's "inescapable" conclusions along the way.

Evidence for God: Why on earth would the truth of evolution imply the nonexistence of God? The whole point of faith in God, as atheists often complain, is that it is unfalsifiable - consistent with any possible evidence, disproved by none. You may look and fail to confirm the existence of God, but no matter how closely you investigate, you can never rule out a sufficiently subtle deity. This is as true for evolutionary biology as it is for any other branch of science.

Of course, some versions of God have more empirical contact with the world than others. I grant that, if your religion requires belief in two human beings created 6,000 years ago from mud by a local deity in a garden somewhere in Mesopotamia, then evolution probably does contradict it. (In much the same way, people who believe that thunder and lightning emanate from Thor's almighty hammer have their beliefs contradicted by modern meteorology.) But that's a far cry from claiming, as Strobel does, that the truth of evolution logically implies that no evidence whatsoever for the existence of any god has ever been or ever will be discovered. As I said last time, as an atheist, I'd be greatly pleased if that were true. But it simply isn't the case.

Life after death: Although I don't believe in life after death, I see no reason why that belief would be incompatible with evolution. The obvious reconciliation would be to believe that God created life on Earth through evolutionary processes, but at some point instilled the ancestors of human beings with a soul that survives bodily death. Indeed, that is exactly the position of the Roman Catholic church, as well as many mainstream Christian denominations. That's over a billion Christian believers worldwide who hold to this theology - a rather large number for Strobel to sweep under the carpet!

Absolute right and wrong: The existence of right and wrong is a philosophical question that does not depend on any particular set of facts about the world. As atheists have noted ad nauseam, science deals only in questions of fact, what did or did not happen, while the job of moral philosophy is to evaluate whether those things should happen, and that is a separate question entirely. Therefore, the truth or falsehood of evolution has no bearing on whether there is such a thing as a universal moral standard.

Ultimate meaning for life: Assuming these are accurate quotes from Dr. Provine, I suspect that this point exploits a common apologist confusion of terms. Atheists do not believe in "ultimate" meaning for life, in the sense of a transcendent purpose handed down from above. But we do believe that there is meaning in life, which we choose to create for ourselves by participating in fulfilling actions. This point is made forcefully in atheist books like The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality or The Atheist's Way. The difference is largely one of semantics, and again, what this has to do with evolution is left unexplained.

Free will: Again, semantics are important. If you're referring to the libertarian, theistic version of free will - the one where people are possessed by a supernatural soul that has the magical power to make decisions that are completely without prior cause - then I agree that we don't have that, and I also agree that science disproves that. But the science in question isn't evolution, but rather neurology, which shows in increasingly greater detail how human decision-making originates from the structure of our neurons. Unless Strobel intends to devote his next book to arguing that human beings don't really have brains, he seems to have chosen the wrong target here.

On the other hand, if you're referring to compatibilist free will - that freedom means the ability to choose in accordance with our desires - then evolution not only allows for that view, it arguably requires it. That's the thesis of prominent atheist Daniel Dennett, whose book on the topic is titled - what else? - Freedom Evolves. Needless to say, this isn't a view explored by Strobel, who would evidently rather emphasize the one atheist view calculated to cause his audience the most shock and fright, as opposed to letting them know the true range of atheist thought on these topics.

Other posts in this series:

April 17, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink54 comments


My recent post encouraging readers to join the atheists' group on Kiva stirred some controversy in a comment thread on Reddit. One commenter, whose sentiments were echoed by several others, writes:

You should give because you believe in something - not just to prove a point and rig this like it's some kind of game.

With respect, I say that these are not mutually exclusive options. I believe that Kiva is an excellent idea; I wouldn't have recommended it if I didn't. But at the same time, our giving through Kiva does prove a point, and I see nothing wrong with that.

As a strategy, targeted microfinance is a brilliant idea. It can't replace charities that provide necessities like vaccinations, food or clean water for those in urgent need, but those types of charitable giving can at most sustain life. Kiva, meanwhile, is a way for people to improve their lives and add to the wealth of their community and their nation. In the long run, this is the only way to lift people up out of poverty and help developing nations join the industrialized world. And Kiva adds an additional innovation - the ability to see, on a personal level, the people whom your loan is helping - which gives donors a more personal connection to the recipient of their loan, and that can only make them more likely to participate again.

At the same time, lending through Kiva benefits us in a different way. As I wrote in my previous post, atheists are often accused of being selfish or lacking in charity, and our status as the largest group there provides strong evidence that this is not the case. This isn't just a matter of scoring points in a debate. Anything that we can do to push back against the false stereotypes that are spread about atheists will improve our public image and make people more likely to give our position more consideration. And that's not a small thing, not when the world is beset by warring fundamentalisms and badly needs a dose of cool reason. The more people listen to the atheist message and abandon the religions that cause them to tyrannize their neighbors, the better off we will all be. If our involvement on Kiva, or any other charity, is an opening that we can use, then it is all to the good.

Regardless of what motive moves you, I don't think giving money in support of a worthy cause is ever a bad thing. I didn't join Kiva, or recommend that my readers do likewise, because I want to "beat the Christians" - but if other people do feel that tinge of competitive envy, and if it spurs them to join and contribute when pure-minded appeals to altruism wouldn't have worked, then so much the better. I'd even be happy if a Christian site saw this post and urged their readers to join so that they could beat the atheists! Regardless of who "wins", the result of this competition is more money flowing through a worthy secular charity to help lift people up out of poverty.

This is another of those situations where atheists can't win. If we don't organize and give to charity in a visible way, we're accused of lacking generosity and compassion. If we do organize and make a show of being charitable, however, we'll be accused of being holier-than-thou, or doing it just because we want to impress people or show off. Clearly this isn't an argument we can win, so there's no reason even to try. My attitude is that we should ignore the perpetually disgruntled and do what we know is right. Donating our time and effort to charity, whether through Kiva or any other organization, and doing so as atheists, is a win-win situation: help for the needy and good publicity for our cause.

March 21, 2009, 10:09 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink12 comments

The Happiness Machine

As any regular reader of Daylight Atheism knows, the topic of morality is a major concern of mine. In essays on Ebon Musings, I've sketched out a secular moral theory I call universal utilitarianism. Here on this site, In the past, I've written about the roots of this morality and the virtues that can be derived from it, as well as musings on what UU has to say about some controversial moral topics. In 2009, I plan on taking these explorations in a new direction.

This year, I intend to write some posts further detailing universal utilitarianism and how it can respond to difficult ethical dilemmas - not the practical dilemmas that we encounter in daily life, but thought experiments specifically dreamed up to stretch moral philosophies to the breaking point. If UU can survive being tested in this way, then I think we'll have greater reason for confidence that it can cope with everyday issues. I've already written about one such problem, the "trolley problem", in "The Doctrine of Double Effect". Today I'll confront a different one.

Today's post concerns the Happiness Machine, a hypothetical invention that produces pure pleasure for the user in unlimited quantities - say, an electrical implant that stimulates the brain's pleasure centers, producing a feeling of bliss at the push of a button. It's undeniable that universal utilitarianism counsels us to seek happiness as the highest good. If we follow UU, then if this machine is invented, should our highest goal be to hook ourselves up to it for the rest of our lives?

Lynet, of Elliptica, has an answer in Challenging the Paramounce of Happiness:

I wouldn't. It would be like dying. Even with heaven included, I don't want to die.

I suspect many of my readers share this intuition, as I do myself. Intuitively, there's something deeply repellent about this scenario, but what is it, and can UU justify this intuition despite its promotion of happiness as the highest good?

The first thing to note is that the Happiness Machine is not an entirely hypothetical scenario. It strongly resembles a real-world phenomenon: the use of narcotic drugs for pleasure. And, if such a machine were ever invented, we can be fairly confident that users would end up in much the same way as addicts of these drugs.

First of all, what would keep users of this machine alive? If the Happiness Machine works as advertised - if it truly replaces all suffering with total contentment - then it will make you oblivious to your need for the necessities of life. We satisfy our bodily needs, in the end, because it causes suffering if we do not. If they cannot feel this suffering, users of the Happiness Machine will soon die of starvation and dehydration and miss out on all the further happiness they might have had in a longer life. Clearly, this is not a good outcome.

But if that problem could be solved, another would rapidly follow. Pure sensory pleasure will soon become insipid and unsatisfying. The human mind habituates: if you constantly experience a high level of pleasure, it does not remain equally pleasurable indefinitely. Rather, it soon becomes the base level against which new experiences are judged. The same stimulus produces a steadily diminishing reward. If you use the Happiness Machine often, soon it won't be a source of bliss, but something you'll need to use constantly just to function, and ordinary activities without it will become unbearable. Like any other drug addict, you'll experience a brief period of pleasure, but it will be followed by a much longer period of misery and dependency. In the long run, it will cause far more suffering than happiness, and might even permanently impair the brain's capacity to take pleasure in anything else.

And what about the potential loss of independence? If someone controls the master switch for all the Happiness Machines, or if they hold the patent and are the only ones who can repair it, they will have a population of slaves. The addiction which such a machine would produce would render its users utterly dependent on whoever can supply that continued jolt of pleasure. To anyone who values freedom and autonomy, the thought of being controlled by another in this way ought to be intolerable, and again, a sure pathway to a life of misery and servitude.

The only way to avoid habituation and dependency is to live a life with not just one source of pleasure, but a variety of meaningful pursuits. The most enduring and fulfilling kind of happiness is the kind that has this rich texture of knowledge and experience, the kind that only comes from interacting with the world. (If nothing else, the more you know about what's out there, the better a position you're in to appreciate the things you really like.) Running a wire into the pleasure neurons of the brain is a poor substitute.

Finally, excessive use of the Happiness Machine undermines the development of empathy that UU holds as the highest moral virtue. After all, UU does not counsel us to only seek pleasure for ourselves, but to live in the world and be the source of happiness for others, to work to defeat suffering and improve the lives of our fellow humans. Someone who is anesthetized by this machine, cocooned in a blissful coma and deaf to the cares of other people, is not acting in accord with the principles of UU but against them. Like a greedy millionaire who hoards his wealth and refuses to give to charity, addicts of the Happiness Machine are not doing good but merely indulging their own selfishness.

February 27, 2009, 7:40 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink50 comments

< Newer Posts Older Posts >

Now available from Big Think!


MUST-READ POSTS (view all)


SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)




see all >













SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize