The Soft Landing

Although it's much too early to look forward to a world without religion, one thing we can be confident of is that the numbers and influence of atheists will continue to grow in the near future. Census figures over the last few decades have consistently shown the rise of the nonbelievers in the educated and industrialized nations of the First World - even in America, despite its high religiosity as compared to its cultural neighbors. We can expect this trend to continue, to the point where it's reasonable to predict that within twenty to fifty years, atheists will be a significant political lobby in their own right.

This is a hopeful vision, but there's a potential dark side to it that concerns me. My concern stems from this thought: At whose expense will the rise of atheism occur?

It's not likely to be from sheer population growth, considering that atheists most often come from the educated and relatively prosperous sectors of society that are correlated with smaller families. Nor do we subscribe to ideologies like Roman Catholicism or its Protestant equivalent, Quiverfull, that encourage us to raise as many children as possible. Instead, the growth of atheism will probably be through rhetoric and persuasion, winning believers over by the power of our ideas and convincing them to deconvert.

The question, then, is who will be deconverting. What types of believers will we have the most success at persuading? Who is most likely to pay heed to our arguments?

Ideally, what we want is a soft landing. We want the extravagantly supernatural faiths, those whose members believe in a world drenched with miracles and demon possessions and faith healings, to transition to a gentler, less extreme form of belief. Those more moderate churches, in turn, will fade to a more rationalist outlook that holds miracle stories to be only symbolic, similar to many Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists or secular Jews. Finally, these cultural institutions will become outright atheist. This is the blueprint for a peaceful and smooth transition to a more rational world.

But I fear it may not happen this way. What I worry about is that, instead, the moderate, mainstream religions will be the first to go. After all, their members inhabit a world similar to ours, with few outright miracles and little explicit supernaturalism. Our arguments will make the most sense to them. If that happens, what will be left behind is a world polarized between atheism and religious fundamentalism; those theists who remain will be the members of the most extremist, hardcore faiths, the ones that are separated from us by such a wide gulf in worldviews that we scarcely even agree on any basic principles with which to start talking. A world like that would likely see more outbreaks of violence, theocracy and destructive fundamentalism.

How can we avoid this outcome? Withdrawing from the field is not an option, for that would just give the extremist believers free rein to grow their own ranks. (For reasons I've set out elsewhere, I doubt that moderate religionists have the ability to effectively counter their fundamentalist brethren.) This could lead to an even worse outcome. We do need atheists to lobby and to speak out - but if we can't sap the power of militant and power-hungry religion, we're going to have a much tougher field to fight on.

For this reason, I think that atheists should team up with moderate believers - whenever and wherever they're willing to work with us - to oppose destructive fundamentalism. We each bring our own strengths to the fight: we have the passion and uncompromising rationalism that effectively strikes at the heart of fundamentalism; they supply a welcoming but still theistic alternative, for people who need that, and the credibility to counter apologetic assertions that atheists are anarchist radicals who only want to destroy.

January 31, 2009, 11:30 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink56 comments

On Cryonics

Last summer I wrote a post, "Why I'm Skeptical of the Singularity", which gave some reasons for doubting that godlike machine intelligences will ever come into being. Today I'll discuss another idea popular among enthusiasts of transhumanism, namely life extension through cryonics. Here, too, I intend to offer a qualified skepticism.

Overcoming Bias presents a strong case for cryonics, in a post which pleads with readers to sign up for the process. I'll use them as my foil. My own viewpoint, meanwhile, hasn't changed significantly since I first touched on the topic in "Life Is Fleeting":

While in the remote future it is a very real possibility that we will unlock the key to personal immortality, for the time being such rosy scenarios are more science fiction than science fact... The most advanced freezing technology in existence today still causes massive cellular damage, irreversible in all except the most fantastic scenarios of what future technology will be capable of. In essence, this is little more than a materialist version of Pascal's Wager.

I realize comparing cryonics to Pascal's Wager is likely to raise some hackles, but the comparison is unavoidable when advocates of cryonics so often defend the idea using Pascal's Wager-like logic: If you bet on cryonics and lose, you lose nothing, since you'd have died anyway; but if you win, you might wake up in a future where science has perfected immortality! Isn't this a potentially infinite payoff with zero risk?

But just as Pascal's argument overlooked the problem of choosing the wrong religion and ending up condemned, cryonics overlooks the possibility that the future, rather than being better, may be worse. What if the future is a 1984-style dictatorship or post-apocalyptic anarchy, or is run by malevolent superintelligences (like the vindictive supercomputer AM from Harlan Ellison's classic story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream) that take pleasure in tormenting us? What if the future revives cryonically frozen human beings only to put them on trial for the crimes of our era? (I find this last possibility the most plausible of the four.) The potential payoffs of cryonics, needless to say, become far more complicated if we do not assume that we can only wake up in a world far better than the one we left.

Second: Even disregarding this problem, why will the future want to revive us? Any plausible scheme for resurrecting frozen humans - nanotechnological repair, whole-brain uploading, cloning new bodies - is certain to be a difficult and resource-intensive process. What will they want us for? The future is not likely to be short of people, and even if it were, there are easier ways of producing new ones. And by the time revival is perfected, if it ever is, it's probable that the cryonically preserved will have no living relatives who feel any particular kinship for them.

For historical research? But if cryogenically frozen people survive into the distant future, then it's almost certain that the Internet and other records from our time will have survived as well; information is more easily preserved than entire people. The flood of news stories, blog entries, and other chronicles from our era will provide as much data as future historians could ever want and would make the existence of live people superfluous. It may be done the first few times for the sake of novelty, but I can't see it happening much beyond that, especially if there are thousands and thousands of frozen people.

Third: Even if the future is a benevolent one and is willing to revive us, will the person who's revived really be me? Even staunch cryonics advocates admit that the damage done to brain tissue by freezing is irreversible with any current technology. And the revival process, no matter how it works, is likely to cause additional damage.

To truly revive a person, it would be necessary to preserve the incredibly delicate, submicroscopic connections between neurons in exactly the same state as when the person was alive. If neurons die or their synapses are severed during recovery - even if only a small percentage suffer these side effects - the result would be massive brain damage. Even if future technology could repair this damage, it could only operate probabilistically in terms of restoring neural connections - after all, there's no map of the brain to tell which neurons are supposed to connect to which other neurons - with the result that the person revived might be missing memories, might have a drastically altered personality or character traits. Would it really be better to be revived in such a fragmented state? Would the person who's revived even be me, or would he more justly be considered a different person altogether?

Finally, it's worth asking whether investing on cryonics is the best use of our society's resources. While people alive today are still suffering and deprived of life's basic needs, it strikes me as selfish for a wealthy, privileged few who've already enjoyed long and happy lives to grasp after immortality. In my view, it's better to accept that we all get one chance at life, to live it to the fullest while we possess it, and when we're gone, to give away to others whatever we leave behind so that they can enjoy the same opportunity.

January 7, 2009, 8:32 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink44 comments

What I Want For Christmas

In 1897, Robert Ingersoll wrote "What I Want for Christmas". This short essay was a holiday wish list for humankind in the coming year, one that showcased both the great freethinker's wit and his compassion.

All well and good, but we can now look back at this piece from a century later and see how it's fared. Happily, some of Ingersoll's wishes have been fulfilled, but others are still awaiting fruition. This being so, I think it would be worthwhile to update Ingersoll's wish list, to highlight the areas where we've made progress and call attention to those where we still lag behind.

And so, without further ado, here's what I want for Christmas this year:

This year for Christmas, if I could have whatever I wanted, I would have a spirit of reason and tolerance take hold throughout the world.

I would have religious conservatives cease their bigotry and demagoguery against gays and lesbians, recognize that homosexuals are human beings deserving of the same legal protections as everyone else, and join us in supporting civil marriage and adoption rights for all adults, regardless of gender.

I would have churchgoers and theists everywhere abandon belief in angels and devils, witches and miracles, and all the other prodigies which cloud our sight and distract us from the things that are real and meaningful. I would have them recognize that there is only our natural world, and that religion is but myth and superstition which hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

I would have the churches and Sunday schools preach reason rather than faith, compassion rather than intolerance, and the recognition that we are all human beings alike in dignity, rather than dividing the world into the saved and the hellbound.

I would have the Pope admit that he was wrong to oppose family planning and abortion, wrong to exclude gays and women from the priesthood, and wrong to teach that he knows anything more about God's will or God's existence than anyone else. I would have him urge his flock to liberate their women, learn about and use contraception, and sell off his fabulous wealth and use the proceeds for the good of the poor throughout the world.

I would have the absolute rulers of the Islamic world close down their state-sponsored madrassahs, imprison their morality police, and then resign their thrones and teach their people about human rights and democracy. I would like to see a new flowering of science, art and culture among the Islamic people, a rebirth of the wonderful culture of tolerance and exuberant creativity they once enjoyed.

I would like to see the world's billionaires unite and form a massive nonprofit to fight poverty and disease everywhere. I would like to see the world's corporations agree that they will funnel their profits into this trust, rather than paying out further bonuses and dividends to the already wealthy.

I would like to see the nations of the world come together to safeguard the planet's remaining wilderness, agree on a comprehensive plan to stop global warming, and pour their wealth into developing new sources of clean energy.

I would like to see all politicians who have broken the law or abused the public trust resign or be impeached, and see them replaced with true public servants, men and women of honesty and integrity who will consider their offices a sacred trust, rather than an entitlement, and who will fight for reform and social progress.

I would like to see an end to belief in Hell, holy wars, promised lands, chosen people, and all the other dogmas that promote cruelty and sow division.

I would like to see the world's churches reopen as libraries and museums, institutions that teach reason and knowledge rather than faith.

I would like to see all sacred texts and divine commands replaced with a morality of compassion, one that promotes well-being and values human happiness as the highest good.

I would like to see the whole world free - free from injustice - free from superstition.

All this will suffice for this Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.

December 24, 2008, 2:31 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments

Why I'm Skeptical of the Singularity

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made a famous observation: that the speed of computer hardware (to be precise, the number of transistors that can be packed onto an integrated circuit) tends to double every two years. In the four decades since, Moore's law has held true with remarkable accuracy. The technology to fabricate ever-smaller logic elements has steadily improved, leading to astounding increases in computer speed. The memory, bandwidth, and processing power available today in even an ordinary desktop machine surpasses the most powerful computers used by the government and industry of yesterday.

Some sci-fi writers and futurists have foreseen a truly strange consequence of this progress. They anticipate that, assuming the trend of exponential growth continues, we will eventually - perhaps soon - reach the point where we can create machines with more computing power than a human brain. This innovation will lead to true artificial intelligence, machines with the same kind of self-consciousness as human beings. And reaching this point, it is believed, will trigger a technological explosion, as these intelligent machines design their own, even more intelligent successors just as we designed them. Those successors will in turn design yet more intelligent successors, and so on, in an explosive process of positive feedback that will result in the creation of truly godlike intelligences whose understanding far surpasses anything that ordinary human minds can even conceive of. This event is dubbed "the Singularity" by those who imagine it, for like the singularity of a black hole, it is a point where all current understanding breaks down. Some prognosticators, such as Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines) think the Singularity is not only inevitable, but will occur within our lifetimes.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, I'm not so optimistic. The Singularity, like more than a few other transhumanist ideas, has more than a whiff of religious faith about it: the messianic and the apocalyptic, made possible by technology. History has a way of foiling our expectations. The number of people who have confidently predicted the future and have been proven completely wrong is too great to count, and so far the only consistently true prediction about the future is that it won't be like anything that any of us have imagined.

The largest immediate obstacle I see to Singularity scenarios is that we don't yet understand the underlying basis of intelligence in anything close to the level of detail necessary to recreate it in silicon. Some of the more hopeful believers predict a Singularity within thirty years, but I think such forecasts are wildly over-optimistic. The brain is a vast and extremely intricate system, far more complex than anything else we have ever studied, and our understanding of how it functions is embryonic at best. Before we can reproduce consciousness, we need to reverse-engineer it, and that endeavor will dwarf any other scientific inquiry ever undertaken by humanity. So far we haven't even grasped the full scope of the problem, much less outlined the principles a solution would have to take. Depending on progress in the neurological sciences, I could see it happening in a hundred years - I doubt much before that.

But that, after all, is just an engineering problem. Even discounting it, there's a more profound reason I doubt a Singularity will ever occur. The largest unexamined assumption of Singularity believers is that faster hardware will necessarily lead to more intelligent machines, so that all that's required to create a godlike intelligence is to fit more and more transistors on a chip. In response, I ask a simple question: What makes you believe the mere accumulation of processing power will produce greater understanding of the world?

Fast thinking may be a great way to generate hypotheses, but that's the less important half of the scientific method. No matter how quickly it can think, no intelligence can truly learn anything about the world without empirical data to winnow and refine its hypotheses. And the process of collecting data about the world cannot be accelerated to arbitrary rates.

The pro-Singularity writings that I've read all contain the implicit and unexamined assumption that a machine intelligence with faster processors would be not just quantitatively but qualitatively better, able to deduce facts about the world through sheer mental processing power. Obviously, this is not the case. Even supercomputers like Blue Gene are only as good as the models they're programmed with, and those models depend upon our preexisting understanding of how the world works. The old computer programmer's maxim - "garbage in, garbage out" - succinctly sums up this problem. The fastest number-cruncher imaginable, if given faulty data, will produce nothing of meaningful application to the real world. And it follows that the dreamed-of Singularity machines will never exist, or at least will never be the godlike omnisciences they're envisioned as. Even they would have to engage in the same process of slow, painstaking investigation that mere human scientists carry out.

This isn't to say that artificial intelligence, if we ever create it, will be entirely useless. In virtual-reality software worlds, which are precisely defined and completely knowable, they might be able to create wonderful things. In the real world, I foresee them flourishing in the niche of expert systems, able to search and correlate all the data known on a topic and to suggest connections that might have escaped human beings. But I reject the notion that, as general-purpose intelligences, they will ever be able to far surpass the kind of understanding that any educated person already possesses.

July 7, 2008, 7:11 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink79 comments

On One-World Government

One of the recurring fantasies of Christian end-times believers is that, after the Rapture, the world will be united into a single government which will be presided over by the Antichrist. As such, these believers view any sign of increased global peace or cooperation as an ominous sign of growing Satanic influence. (Oddly, increased war is also taken to be a sign of the approaching Rapture - go figure.) Hence, Rapture Ready's Rapture Index tracks "Globalism" as one component of its prophetic stock market. The European Union was initially thought to be the first bellwether of one-world government (a different page explains, "Many prophecy students see the European Union as the prophesied kingdom of the Antichrist"), but most paranoid speculation has now shifted to the United Nations.

End-times Christians typically believe that this global hegemony, when it arrives, will be enthusiastically accepted by everyone except the believers who recognize its danger. Slacktivist, in one installment of his ongoing deconstruction of the Left Behind series, quotes how the characters in that book respond to this event:

"There is no guarantee, of course, that even member nations will unanimously go along with the move to destroy 90 percent of their military strength and turn over the remaining 10 percent to the U.N. But several ambassadors expressed their confidence 'in equipping and arming an international peacekeeping body with a thoroughgoing pacifist and committed disarmament activist as its head.'"

Another added, "...We're supposed to be objective and cynical, but how can you not like this? It'll take years to effect all this stuff, but someday, somewhere down the line, we're going to see world peace. No more weapons, no more wars, no more border disputes or bigotry based on language or religion. Whew! Who'd have believed it would come to this?"

As Slacktivist notes, the characters in LB are "Imaginary Liberals", downright eager to surrender their sovereignty at the first sign of a global dictatorship. End-times believers seem to think all us non-Christians are just itching for this to happen.

I'd like to disabuse them of this notion. To all theists who believe this, I say: Are you insane? A one-world government would be a horrible idea.

Until it was abolished in 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights included such well-known violators of human rights as Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Its replacement, the United Nations Human Rights Council, still counts as members rogue states and repressive dictatorships such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia (again), and still has refused to take even symbolic action against many brutal regimes worldwide.

This deplorable situation showcases a basic problem: there are still far too many places around the world that lack fundamental protection for human rights, and far too many people willing to accede to such. As long as situations like this persist, a global government would be a horrendous idea - it would simply allow devotees of tyranny and autocracy to outvote and overrule the defenders of liberty.

Granted, democracy is spreading. Between the Americas, Europe and India, we citizens of democracies certainly constitute a plurality, if not a majority, of the world's population. This bodes well for global cooperation in the future. But democracy alone is not a guarantee of human rights. Unless democracy is backed by strong legal protections for the rights of minorities - and more importantly, widespread understanding by the majority of why such protections are needed - then it can simply become tyranny of another form.

Examples abound. In countries like Canada and many European nations, free speech is still a conditional right, often contingent on the speaker's not offending any powerful identity group. Even the progressive, First World democracy of Australia has recently announced plans to censor the Internet. The U.S., too, has gotten in on the act. Even in these "advanced" nations, we have a long way to go.

I grant that it does seem irrational for human beings to be forever divided by artificial political boundaries. They correspond to nothing intrinsic about us, and perhaps in the far future we'll be able to safely remove them. But for the moment, they are necessary. While people's attitudes still exhibit such disturbing variation on basic issues of human rights and morality, we need separate nations to ensure that freedom thrives in at least some places. Trying to persuade the whole world at once to adopt a rational ethics would be an impossible task. By splitting the world up into distinct societies, we have the easier task of establishing human rights in some places to begin with, so that they can serve as examples for - and, where need be, redoubts against - the rest.

Once all human societies are brought up to a comparable level of stability, prosperity, and most importantly moral development and outlook, then it may be time to start thinking about dissolving political boundaries. But until that day, the question is scarcely worth contemplating. Are we ready for a one-world government now? Absolutely not! Will we ever be? It depends - ask me again in a few hundred years...

April 13, 2008, 9:08 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink33 comments

The Keyhole

For much of human history, information was a rare and precious commodity. In pre-literate societies, the collected wisdom of the tribe - when the rains come, when is the best time to plant crops, what plants are best for illness - was passed down in oral format, requiring much diligent work of recitation and memorization. If the only person who knew something died in an accident, that bit of information was lost.

When writing was invented, the situation improved somewhat. Now important facts could be written down in books, and information could be passed even between people who had never met. When a person died, their knowledge did not have to die with them. Even so, the intensive labor involved in copying books ensured that they remained rare, and mostly the property of the rich. In any case, with writing came censorship, as churches and secular authorities sought to forbid people from possessing or reading books deemed to be dangerous. The most infamous example was the Catholic church's Index of Forbidden Books, which was richly stocked with the writings of history's greatest poets, philosophers and essayists. A glimpse into one historical episode shows how far the church would go in suppressing anything suspected to lead to heresy:

Of the principals, four were condemned to imprisonment for life. Ten others, priests and clerics, who had obstinately refused to retract their errors, after being publicly degraded, were delivered to the secular authority and suffered the penalty of death by fire. Five years later (1215) the writings of Aristotle, which had been distorted by the sectaries in support of their heresy, were forbidden to be read either in public or in private.

(Even today, it's worth noting, the official Catholic position is that the Index "retains its moral force" - this according to the man who is currently pope.)

After the invention of writing, the next most significant invention was the printing press. By turning transcription into a rapid, exact process, it led to an explosion of readily accessible printed material - the first true means of mass communication. The effects on society were profound. Not only did the printing press play a major role in breaking down the censorship of the Catholic church - its role in the distribution of Martin Luther's writing was an important cause of the Protestant Reformation - but it also helped to give rise to the Scientific Revolution and the Renaissance, as natural philosophers for the first time could publish and share their work far and wide.

In our time, we have seen the rise of the Internet, the successor to Gutenberg's press. The Internet has made copying an even more rapid process - effortlessly creating thousands of copies in seconds - and has lowered the barriers to free speech even more, as any individual can now effectively broadcast a message to the entire world. Recognizing the danger they face from free speech, totalitarian states have sought to censor the Internet, but with little success. (As John Gilmore said, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.")

Throughout history, the technological trend has been toward faster, more accurate and more accessible copying of information. There can be no doubt that this trend will only accelerate, and that is a good thing. Fast, easy copying takes power away from the elites and distributes it among all people. On a global scale, it is no longer realistically possible to suppress any idea. We now truly have a democratic marketplace of ideas: anyone can speak their mind to the world, and if their ideas have merit, others will be able to adopt them and put them into practice.

There's just one thing I find lamentable in all this. Although the human capacity to create information has grown exponentially, our ability to absorb information has not. We still have no tools for uptake that were not also possessed by our Stone Age ancestors (with the possible exception of reading). As the amount of accessible information grows steadily, there's an ever-greater risk that the information important to us will be lost in the crush. There's a vast world of knowledge out there, but for all our ability to comprehend it, we might as well be peering at it through a keyhole.

A person who reads at the extraordinary pace of one book each week might be able to read three thousand books in a lifetime. By contrast, 375,000 new books were published in English in 2004 alone. And that's not even to consider all the journals, periodicals, and everything on the Internet.

There was a memorable scene in Carl Sagan's Cosmos set in the New York Public Library. In it, the camera pans around the interior of the library, showing the multitude of shelves full of books. Sagan, standing on an upper gallery, then walks the few steps from one end of one bookshelf to the other. That comparatively small shelf, he says, holds as many books as a person could read in a lifetime. Yet the library has so many more. Clearly, we have to know which are the right books to read.

The frustration caused by our inability to know everything is understandable. But while the crush makes it ever harder to find the right books, it also means that there are more good books to be found, ever more jewels in the rough that contain crucial insights about our world. Only a trickle of knowledge may flow through the keyhole - but if we know where to look, even that small trickle can enlighten us far more than any of our ancestors ever dreamed.

March 30, 2008, 9:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments

Poetry Sunday: Church Going

Today's edition of Poetry Sunday features the English poet and novelist Philip Larkin. Born in Coventry in 1922, Larkin received a degree in literature from Oxford in 1943. Though he worked for most of his life as a librarian at the University of Hull, he was well-known and widely acclaimed for his poetry and his work as a literary reviewer and jazz critic. He received numerous awards for his writing in his lifetime, including the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, the German Shakespeare Prize, an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and an honorary rank of Commander of the British Empire, one step below knighthood. He was also offered the title of England's Poet Laureate late in life, but declined the honor. Nevertheless, Larkin was recently voted England's best-loved poet of the last 50 years in a popular poll.

Larkin's poetry is skeptical, plainspoken, down-to-earth, occasionally bleak and pessimistic but sometimes idyllic and hopeful. A confirmed agnostic, his work was praised as being "free from both mystical and logical compulsions" and "empirical in its attitude to all that comes". Today's poem, "Church Going", comes from his 1955 book The Less Deceived. In it, the poet, standing in an empty church, looks forward to the dwindling and fading of religion and wonders what, if anything, human beings will take up in its place.

Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Other posts in this series:

November 18, 2007, 7:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink7 comments

Illuminated History

The further back we go in time, the more of human history recedes into the mists of ignorance. A scant few centuries ago, before the invention of the printing press, books were a rare and expensive luxury. Further back beyond that, we have only the word of a few chroniclers, passed down and recopied through the generations, and often of dubious reliability. Then even the era of named historians ends, and only fragments and scraps of documents remain to give us glimpses into the past, like peering into the world through a keyhole. Beyond that we must rely on archaeology and paleontology, the study of durable rubbish and bones that past civilizations have unwittingly left behind, from which we can only infer the events of prehistory.

But in more recent times, the rate at which humanity produces information has exploded, and is continuing to grow exponentially. We who are alive at this time should consider that future generations may know our history far better than we know the history of any who have come before us. And while I don't agree with the rapturous essayists who claim that the internet is poised to transform human society beyond all recognition, I think it will play a major role in this documentary process.

Of course, since the invention of mass media like television and newspapers, the events of history have been well documented and ample material is available for researchers of the past. But TV and newspapers have inherent limitations: their distribution is expensive and the space and time they have available to convey information is strictly limited, and as a result, only a privileged few can participate in these channels. They are excellent sources for chronicling the events of a time, but they cannot offer more than a narrow cross-section of what ordinary people were thinking and feeling. Letters and diaries from the past are better sources of this information, but they are inherently private and not always easily discoverable or accessible.

The internet, and especially the rise of weblogs, has changed all that. For the first time in human history, there is now a public forum for communication with no practical limits to capacity. Thriving communities can form, and have formed, made up not of societal elites but of ordinary people, discussing their views on the issues of the day. Different perspectives flourish and come into contact, freely exchanging information and opinions. And as our ability to search and catalogue this information only grows, future historians will find it far easier to study. I wonder sometimes, will academics a few hundred years from now be studying our blog posts and comments to get a sense for the spirit of our times? Will Ph.D. theses be written on, say, the shift in the American political landscape from 2000 to 2020 as reflected in the diaries of the Daily Kos community, or the American evolution vs. creationism struggle recorded in posts on the Panda's Thumb?

The internet's one great disadvantage is its fragility. Stone inscriptions weather, and libraries can burn, but no other record has the potential to vanish forever as easily and irretrievably as digital records can. The internet is often described as having an infallible collective memory, and on an individual scale this may be true. But we shouldn't overlook the possibility of some cataclysm that could overthrow our civilization, as past civilizations have been overthrown, and potentially destroy our records beyond recovery. Efforts like the Internet Archive are a worthy start at creating a more lasting record, but they are still only a start. For the sake of our descendants who will want to know about us, I wonder if it might not be worth the effort to create some type of publicly funded and publicly available repository, in a more durable format, that would preserve the output of our global digital community for posterity.

April 27, 2007, 6:57 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink9 comments

What Will Replace Religion?

One argument for theism that I have always found interesting is the argument that humans do not have desires for which there exists no corresponding object in the real world. For example, we desire water, and water exists; we desire food, and food exists; we desire love and friendship, and those things exist. Similarly, this reasoning goes, human beings innately desire fellowship with God, and this strongly suggests that God exists.

This argument is clever, but naive. A straightforward application of its logic would lead to the conclusion that there is a Santa Claus at the North Pole, pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, and lamp-dwelling genies that will grant the finder three wishes. After all, various groups of people have desired all these things to be true, and why would we have these desires if there existed no object that satisfied them?

The apologetic response would probably be that these examples are overly specific, and that we should instead consider the general objects of desire, and not the specific ways in which people hope to attain those desires. For example, rather than Santa Claus or leprechauns, the general trend is that people desire gifts and wealth, and it is possible to obtain both those things in the real world.

However, this reasoning can backfire on the apologist. How do they know, I would argue, that God is not the same kind of thing - an overly specific example of a general human desire which can be fulfilled, just in other ways?

Many of my fellow atheists, in their books and websites, focus on attacking religion and arguing for its elimination. This is understandable, given the harm that supernatural belief has wrought, but I believe there is an underlying point that needs to be addressed. Religion is extremely widespread and popular, and it could not have gotten that way unless it was filling some important human need. No attempt to overthrow religion is likely to be successful unless it addresses this need; it never works to take away from people something that is important to them and offer nothing in its place. Yet I have seen relatively few atheist works that attempt to envision our ultimate goal, a world without religion. I intend to do just that. In this post, I will cast my gaze over the horizon and imagine that all our goals have been achieved - that all varieties of superstition and unreason have faded away, that religion no longer tyrannizes the minds of humanity - and sketch a picture of what I think that world would ideally be like.

Although religion provides its members with some social services, that is not the only reason for its popularity. After all, there are many other community groups that also provide social services that do not have nearly as large a following as churches do. I believe the true reason for religion's popularity is that it inspires the sense of spirituality - it makes people feel as if they are involved in something larger and more significant than themselves. This is a basic human desire, and at the moment, religion has little competition when it comes to fulfilling it.

But there is no intrinsic reason why this need must be fulfilled by belief in supernatural beings. As many scientists and naturalists will testify, the intricate beauty of the natural world, truly understood, provides at least as powerful an inspiration to the sense of awe as any of the small, anthropocentric belief systems taught in churches. I can envision a world of groups that speak to this sense with genuine spirituality, rather than the packaged, mass-market version sold by religion - not churches in the religious sense, but places of humanist fellowship where people freely come together to fill their lives with meaning and to learn about the world they live in, the better to revere its beauty.

Imagine, if you will, a humanist church that met at night under the open sky, discussing the true nature of the planets and stars, and the incomprehensible vastness and majesty of the cosmos of which we are but a very small part. Imagine a humanist church that spent its Sundays not shut up in a musty building, but on nature walks and hikes, teaching its members to appreciate the beauty of the living world, to identify all the species they see and understand the magnificently complex web of their interactions. Imagine a church that chose sermon topics not from one ancient book, but from the writings of great philosophers and scientists throughout history, or one that did not even have a sermon as such but rather a discussion, with every member an equal, of the virtues of a particular book or essay.

This would not be a religious service. There would be no prayers, no sacred texts, and no rituals invested with beliefs in magic. However, there could well be rituals, in a secular sense and without extraneous supernaturalism, to commemorate and celebrate milestones in the lives of community members, such as a wedding or a coming of age. There could also be humanist holidays, premised not on deeds allegedly performed by past religious figures, but on dates of seasonal significance such as the solstices and equinoxes - again, as part of teaching the community to feel connected to the natural world and to understand the basis of that connection - or on important historical events. If there were tithes, they would go not to prop up a wealthy and unaccountable church hierarchy, but to be reinvested to aid worthy causes in the community and beyond.

These gatherings could have their own dedicated meeting hall, or - an idea that appeals to me - they could simply rotate through the homes of community members, eschewing formalism as much as possible in favor of the simple pleasures of warmth, light, fellowship, good company and good conversation. Instead of a hierarchy of obedience where one person always stands in the relationship of authority to every other congregant, this role could be filled on a weekly basis by different members of the community. After all, no one person has a deeper sense of spirituality than any other, nor does one person have all the answers to life's mysteries. We can always learn from each other.

Through these deep and meaningful interactions with our fellow human beings, our friends and loved ones, we can meet the human desires for spirituality and involvement and fill our lives with happiness and meaning. The invention of the term "God" is and has always been just a misguided attempt to produce this same feeling from an ethereal source (an "imaginary friend" in a very real sense), when in reality it must, by its nature, be grounded in the genuine love and friendship of people around us. Religious apologists who believe that desire to worship the supernatural is primary are confusing cause and effect.

November 12, 2006, 12:00 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink46 comments

Today's Crimes Tomorrow

In every age, there have been moral visionaries - great thinkers such as Robert Ingersoll or Tom Paine, who had the courage to stand against the majority and oppose widely accepted moral wrongs. Their courageous and steadfast opposition to then-prevalent practices such as monarchy, slavery, racism and sexism earned them great hatred and enmity during their lifetimes, and put them decades ahead of most of their contemporaries.

Today, we have made progress enough to recognize many of the evils of the past for what they are. Although these wrongs are not yet eliminated, we have made great strides toward eradicating them both in law and in public opinion, and their public advocacy is no longer acceptable as it once was. However, we have hardly made so much moral progress that we can safely say future generations will have nothing to condemn us for. What widely defended beliefs and practices of our society, I wonder, will our successors look back on with the same disgust with which we look back on slavery, divine-right rule and racial segregation laws?

No one can know in advance how the future will turn out. Nevertheless, assuming human civilization continues to follow the same course of gradual moral progress which it has been following for several centuries now, I think there will be an awakening to the immorality of other beliefs and practices that are currently widespread. And I can propose a few specific examples that I believe will rightfully earn this designation:

The wealth gap. The vast disparity in wealth and resources that currently exists between the industrialized and developing countries, not to mention between the rich and the poor within many individual countries, exceeds all justification. While anyone is suffering in poverty, lacking access to the basic necessities of life, there can be no excuse for anyone living in idle luxury. In the future, I believe, the drive toward philanthropy and service will become a societal universal, and the immorality of hoarding wealth while others are in need will be widely recognized.

The drug war. The draconian punishments which are currently levied against responsible adults in many countries, for freely choosing to take into their bodies chemical substances which make them happy, exceed all possibility of rational justification. This senseless and misnamed "war on drugs" has ruined thousands of lives with absurdly disproportionate sentences for non-violent, non-harmful offenders, has promoted the flourishing of violent criminal gangs that inevitably arise to sell products for which there is legitimate demand but no legitimate market, has encouraged police departments to adopt shockingly tyrannical and heavy-handed tactics that are frequently and tragically used against totally innocent people, has plunged countries around the world into chaos and civil war, and ironically, has produced no decrease whatsoever in the actual availability of illegal drugs.

The hypocrisy and irrationality of this program are made manifest by the fact that two of the most indisputably dangerous and harmful drugs in existence - alcohol and tobacco - are fully permitted and legal, whereas drugs that are far less harmful, and in many cases even have legitimate medical benefits to ease the suffering of the sick, are treated with a degree of harshness we would normally expect only for smuggled weapons of mass destruction. There is and can be no justification for this. A rational society would allow responsible, consenting adults to take into their bodies whatever euphoriants they desire, and would treat addiction as the medical problem it is and not a matter of criminal justice.

Opposition to gay marriage, as well as anti-gay discrimination more generally. This one is a no-brainer, considering the pervasive similarity both in tone and content between the rhetoric of the religious conservatives who oppose gay marriage today and the rhetoric of the religious conservatives who opposed interracial marriage yesterday. Our society has no business telling two rational, consenting adults that their love for each other is not legitimate, and accordingly there can be no justification for denying gay couples the same civil benefits we currently extend to heterosexual couples. Even the hatemongers of the religious right implicitly recognize this: though they have no shortage of hysterical proclamations about how it would be the end of civilization, they have yet to explain in any coherent way exactly how legalizing gay marriage would bring about such grave harm.

Bigotry in every generation wears a mask of respectability. After all, it is very often the admired and respected men, the ones in positions of power and influence, who carry down the prejudices of the past and act as their most fervent defenders. But once the social tide turns, its ugly heart is always recognized for what it is. The tireless efforts of gay people in the cause of equality are, in a sense, the strongest argument for society's recognizing their love as true and sincere, because only true love would refuse to back down in the face of such evil prejudice and ignorance.

Environmental destruction. I have no doubt that future generations will be appalled by the recklessness with which we wiped out species and ecosystems, polluted the water and air, and stripped the planet to provide for our own selfish wants with no thought for the future. Most of all, I have no doubt that they will be appalled by the selfish, lazy complacency and outright denial with which society in general responded to the prospect of global warming - one of the first truly global environmental crises, and one of the most serious.

There are already thriving movements promoting sustainability and conservation in our time, but we need to do more. We have been living as if we were separate from the natural world, as if our activities had no impact upon it, and it is this attitude which most needs to change. I am certain that in the future, the very ideas of consumption and waste - as if it were natural or normal to acquire as many possessions as we possibly can, use up as many resources as we can, and then pollute the world by throwing them away - will be dirty words; and rather than being a garbage generator, our society will be more like a mature ecosystem, where sustainability is paramount, everything is recycled and nothing is wasted.

Religion. Although I do not expect religion to disappear any time in the foreseeable future, I do think it will lose influence as the ranks of nonbelievers grow, and I think it will become increasingly unacceptable to justify one's actions solely by claiming that they are the will of God. Already, in our time, there is a noticeable divide between the fundamentalists who run their lives (and others') based on religious beliefs, and the secular human beings who conduct their lives by reason. I think this gap will widen, but rather than being a nearly equal battle as it now is, I think the forces of reason will begin to gain the upper hand. In the future, I am confident that the hateful and willfully ignorant fundamentalists will increasingly be viewed with the disdain they so richly deserve, and our descendants will be horrified that they ever exerted as much influence as they currently do. More, I think that being an atheist will not be nearly as unusual as it now is.

Are there any other likely candidates for future condemnation?

October 13, 2006, 11:37 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink35 comments

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