I Hate You

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

In an internet café in downtown Rabat in Morocco, a middle-aged, middle-class Muslim woman told me that her fondest wish would be to have all of the Arab nations rise up as one and slaughter every Jew on the planet. A young and brilliant male Chinese engineer and co-worker at a small high-tech firm in the San Fernando Valley in California told me that the Japanese are vastly inferior to the Chinese, and that the Chinese are vastly superior to any other race on Earth, as evidenced by all of their technological and cultural achievements at a far earlier date than any other race. My Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues derided me for my Tiger birth year. As a woman, I could not have been born on a less auspicious year. Tigers are ferocious and proud and aggressive. Woe to the Tiger woman. She will certainly never marry. And, I never have.

A Pakistani taxi driver in New York City told me that he hits Muslim women who proposition him for sex as a show of respect. He then propositioned me for sex. A family of Polish immigrants told me that they wouldn't vote for Obama, because blacks are lazy and entitled, and Obama's victory would only render them more so. They also told me that they hate Jews and believe them to have been responsible for 9/11. A German tour guide on the Cote d'Azur told me that the French hate the Italians for being stupid, and the Italians hate the French for being snobs. As a young Jehovah's Witness girl, I relished my secure knowledge that I would survive to enjoy an eternity of earthly paradise while the rest of humanity would suffer horrifying and well-deserved deaths at Armageddon for having rejected Jehovah God. I looked forward to the spectacle with genocidal glee.

Christians have told me that they hate Muslims. Muslims have told me that they hate Jews. Whites have told me that they hate blacks. Florentines have told me that they hate Sardinians. Sunnis have told me that they hate Shi'as. Ethiopians have told me that the Amhara hate the Oromo who hate the Amhara, all of whom hate the Tigrays. But, they really hate the Somalis and the Eritreans. Everyone tells me that they hate gays. And, women. Well, for the most part, no one says that they hate women, but they certainly act like they do.

There seems to be something about me that elicits honesty and trust. People open up to me. They reveal their true feelings. They seem to trust that I will not judge them. And, I don't. They seem to feel that I will not condemn them. And, I don't. They seem to think that I understand the darker sides of their natures. And, I do.

Perhaps I betray that trust. Perhaps I manipulate them. Perhaps I lure them into a false sense of security. Perhaps there is no perhaps.

Maybe it's because they sense my utter lack of group allegiances. I claim no membership in any tribe. Of course, I must function in a world in which more than a handful of group memberships are imposed upon me by accident of my birth, but I feel no particular pride or obligation or prejudice as a result. No one can be outside of your group, if you don't have an in-group.

I was raised in an abusive, lower middle-class Jehovah's Witness home in suburban Minnesota by white parents of Northern European ancestry, and, if family lore is to be believed, a dash of Native American. Those are my ostensible tribal identities by birth. One of the few positive aspects of being raised as a Jehovah's Witness was the fact that I grew up in a racially integrated religious community, even if my residential and academic communities were anything but. Nonetheless, I walked away from all of my tribes at the moment I turned 18. I rejected everything I had been. I decided to recreate myself anew.

I turned myself into a human rights activist and writer, intent on raising public awareness of the atrocities human beings perpetrate against one another in the name of their respective tribal identities. I seek the truth, but I have no desire to victimize anyone. I seek to expose and dismantle institutions and cultures of tribalism and oppression, not individual lives. I would never reveal anyone's identity. I reveal their bigotries, their hatreds, their genocidal desires, their misogyny, their ethnocentrism, their fascism and their racism. I see them as victims too, not just perpetrators. They are also victims of indoctrination, of their divisive group ideologies, perpetuated by their respective tribes, be they defined by race, religion, creed, ethnicity, class, nationality, culture or what have you.

Tribalism seems to be the defining characteristic of humanity. The adulation of one's own group and its defining attributes while also condemning and demonizing all outsiders and their respective groups, including their allegedly contrasting attributes. We will either learn to overcome this vestigial proclivity or be overcome by it, like an infected and inflamed appendix. Evolutionary sepsis, if you will.

And, does it really need mentioning that all of these tribal identities that we hold so dear don't actually exist? They are arbitrary and illusory social constructs. Man made. Artificial. Fake.

Racial distinctions? Not real. National boundaries? Not real. Religious affiliations? Not real. Cultural distinctions are nebulous and amorphous, fleeting and evanescent. Cultures rise and fall and twist and turn like the unrelenting and dispassionate vicissitudes of the turbulent seas. Efforts to protect and maintain cultures and to grant groups rights invariably lead to the most egregious human rights violations.

Many of my colleagues would recoil at such a claim. This approach ignores the wrongs of biblical proportions, which have been perpetrated against human beings because of their group identities. How do you go about seeking justice for the countless persons who were murdered or tortured or dehumanized in genocidal campaigns without addressing the fact that these atrocities were committed because of the victims' tribal identities, social constructs or no. Real or illusory though they may be.

What is the alternative? Sometimes when you act as if the circumstances are as you wish them to be, you can effect positive change via a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may just have to resign ourselves, as a species, to letting go of our lust for retribution, in order to create a world in which we all may live. We may need to shed our tribal allegiances in order to survive.

So, what's a well-meaning human rights activist to do? It seems positively hopeless. Never-ending cycles of oppression and victimization based upon artificial divisions within humanity or wish fulfillment.

Tribalisms, including religion, probably served important evolutionary purposes at one point. But, times have changed. Circumstances have changed. Our well-honed ability to distinguish ourselves from one another based upon imaginary distinctions no longer serves the purpose of perpetuating ourselves as a species. We are too many. We are running out of water and land and oil and other resources. We are destroying what habitable geography we now possess. We are no longer served by trying to outbreed one another into submission. We are no longer served by keeping women as sex slaves to generate a ready source of slave child labor. And, our well-honed ability to invent illusory group divisions is matched only by our well-honed ability to invent very real methods for killing one another on a massive, even global scale.

To grant credence to these so-called differences and group characteristics is to divorce one's self from reality. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring one another. We no longer have the luxury of isolating ourselves geographically or otherwise. All of our divisions have been rendered meaningless except in the id dominated portions of our minds. Global transportation, migration, and communication have eradicated any notion of difference.

We must either accept our new reality as a single global family of individual human beings, or destroy one another. It is really that simple. Anyone who avers otherwise is not willing to see the stark and bleak future confronting us.

The problem is time. We don't have enough of it. Maybe if we had started the process of shedding our idiocies earlier, we wouldn't have found ourselves in such dire straits at the latest possible moment. Maybe if we had figured out a way to colonize other planets sooner, we could have established a Christian colony on Venus and a Muslim colony on Mars and a Jewish colony on Mercury. The Hindus could take Jupiter. No one would be able to keep Earth, as this would inspire far too much rancor over one or the other religious group being able to retain their earthly holy sites while the other groups would be forced to forego theirs. No doubt there would be much bickering over who gets which planet, over who has to share, and the astrological and theological implications of the assignments.

The problem is arrogance. We have too much of it. Arrogance and self-conceptions of victimization and persecution. Everyone thinks they are better than everyone else. And, everyone wants to be able to claim past grievances, past victimizations, which bestow upon them privileges not to be enjoyed by others. Here's the honest-to-god truth: You're shit. Not the shit. Just shit. And, so is everyone else. You're not better than anyone else. Your culture was not superior to anyone else's. If it were, it wouldn't have died. And, the current leaders will die out too. Your religion or prophets or whatever don't possess any truth that has been denied all others. You are human. You are nothing more and nothing less. You are just like everyone else.

But, being human is wonderful. Or, at least, it can be. It could be. And, it is enough. Or, at least, it should be. But, human beings seem to be too stupid to enjoy their extraordinary good fortunate to have won the cosmological super lotto. We exist. Woo hoo. We are here. Enjoy.

Is just getting rid of religion enough? The so-called New Atheists are often criticized for taking aim exclusively at religion. Attacks against religion as a divisive group ideology, which may lead to humanity's downfall, are derided as ignorant and facile. Opponents of the anti-theists claim political and territorial and national and military disputes as the real culprits.

In a sense, they are right. Religion is but one aspect of the greater problem. The problem is tribalism. Religion is a particularly virulent form of tribalism, because it also presupposes truths without evidence and demands uncritical devotion and impunity and immunity from criticism. The other tribalisms also have their respective dogmas. But, maybe not to the extent that religion does.

Sam Harris often says that he is not really attacking religion so much as dogma. He is attacking faith – belief without evidence. I would suggest a counterpoint to that position. I would suggest that we should broaden our attack to include all tribalisms, not just religion. We should attack all divisive group ideologies. This includes race, religion, class, creed, nationality, culture, ethnicity, etc., etc..

Even the relatively benign stuff disturbs me. The pride in artistic accomplishments or scientific feats of one's fellow in-group members. The riotous and bacchanalian celebrations over the sports victories of the team bearing the name of one's in-group, regardless of the actual origin of the players. The incessant retelling of military conquests by one's ancestors of long ago.

I am not suggesting that we destroy our cultural heritage or force everyone to conform to a homogenized and sanitized set of characteristics. Not in the least. I am arguing for the maximization of freedom. I am arguing for the maximization of anarchy. I am arguing for the maximization of individualism, including the individual choice to self-identify with whichever cultural norms one wishes. I am arguing against the absurd notion of group rights. I am arguing against the even more absurd notion of cultural rights. We cannot maintain or protect cultures. History, yes. But, cultures, no. Any attempts to protect or maintain groups or cultures or nations inevitably leads to oppression and human rights violations, especially of the most vulnerable members of any group, the women and children.

Groups wish to perpetuate themselves. A group is an entity, and, like any other entity, a group will seek out its own survival. Women and children are the means of perpetuating the group. Inevitably, the group leaders will seek to subjugate and control the women and children. Religion has been a particularly useful tool in realizing this aim.

In order for humanity to survive, the individual must rule. Only individual rights may have any political or legal currency. All group ideologies must enter the free global marketplace of ideas. No special privileges any longer for religion or nationality or race or culture. Sink or swim. The clergy and the other ideologues will have to win over their adherents like shop owners have to win over their customers, like intellectuals have to win over academia. An individual may choose or not choose to participate in whichever culture or religion or group, and, if it ceases to serve him or her, leave it just as easily without death threats and labels of apostasy.

But, in a sense, I am arguing for communitarianism, but only on a species-wide, global scale. Our in-group needs to include the entirety of humanity. Each and every single, individual human being is in our tribe.

A young Kazakh man I had met told me that he was really angry about a travel program he had seen on TV. The travel program described an ancient city in Uzbekistan, near the border with Kazakhstan, as an Uzbek city, not a Kazakh city. I asked him why this would bother him so much. He said that that particular city had always been a Kazakh city for millennia and millennia, and that the Uzbeks had stolen it from the Kazakhs about 1200 hundred years ago, and that it riles him each and every time he hears this city mentioned as an Uzbek city.

I suggested that it might be time to get over it.

April 2, 2010, 6:36 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink35 comments

Original Virtue

Central to nearly every branch of Christianity is the notion of original sin - the belief that humans in some sense start out corrupted, that sinfulness is our default state. The apostle Paul expresses this idea in verses like these from Romans:

"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned... Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation." (5:12,18)

Among Christian fundamentalists, original sin usually finds expression in the belief that Adam, the first human, was the "federal head" of the human race, such that the effect of his sin was inherited by all his descendants. But even in denominations that don't take Genesis so literally, belief in original sin is common, though they believe we came by it somewhat differently.

But regardless of the underlying interpretation, the most serious logical flaw in the doctrine is this: Why is it that this taint of badness affects the entire human race?

Neither the liberal nor the conservative interpretations of Christianity have a good answer to this. Many liberal theologians consider the source of original sin to be an event that occurred sometime in humanity's past, such as C.S. Lewis:

We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods...

But since Lewis regards the fall as a particularly individual sin, he's left with the unanswered question of how it came to affect every single human being. Shouldn't there have been some people who made the right choice? If humanity was made such that everyone fell prey to this sin, we may well question whether the decision to do so was free at all, or if it was the inexorable result of something God built into our character. A defect in one or a few products may occur by chance, but an identical defect in every single product suggests a design flaw on the part of the manufacturer.

The conservative view, meanwhile, fails to explain why it is that Adam and Eve's sin, however heinous it was, came to pollute not just them but all their descendants. Tortured apologetics about how we all sinned "in" Adam cannot change the simple facts that we did not exist, we were not there, and we certainly had no part in the decision. Why didn't Adam's children start out in the same state of unspoiled innocence as their forebears originally enjoyed? Why did his sin change our character? If the laws of inheritance work this way, there's only one person who could have set them up as such - and again, the conclusion is unavoidable that God intentionally arranged things so that the curse of sin would spread to the entire human race.

The Bible tells us that God wants all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9), and yet the unavoidable implication of the original sin doctrine is that this is a lie. If that was what God wanted, he could have made us so that our default state was good and we had to specifically choose evil, rather than creating people such that our default state was evil and we have to specifically choose good. In other words, instead of original sin, he could have given us original virtue. He could have set up the world so that every generation was born anew into the Garden of Eden, unspoiled by their parents' transgressions, and only those who specifically chose to eat from the forbidden tree would be cast out.

But according to Christianity, this is not what God chose to do. Instead, he deliberately introduces a taint of sin into the entire human race, blames us for that flaw which he himself gave to us, and then puts his own son through horrendous suffering in an attempt to fix it; an attempt which mostly fails, as he knew in advance that it would, and results in the majority of people being eternally condemned. This is either sheer insanity or deliberate malevolence.

September 3, 2009, 3:44 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink54 comments

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


Last month, in "Dreams of a Better World", I considered some of the immediate problems humanity could solve if we had the collective will to do so. I want to continue that theme in this post, but from a longer perspective.

Historically, humanity's knowledge has exceeded its wisdom. As soon as we invent a new technology, we begin adopting it on a wide scale, without asking whether we should or what the consequences might be. Many of our most pressing problems - multidrug-resistant diseases, global climate change, air and water pollution, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the ongoing extinctions of species and destruction of habitat - trace back to this impulse.

Our powers of reason have brought us amazing advances in understanding and controlling the world; but those rational faculties have not, as of yet, mastered the baser instincts of greed, xenophobia, violence and tribalism that underlie them. Instead, our reason is too often enslaved to that darker side of our nature, becoming the servant of our destructive passions rather than their master. Hence, we see absurdities such as Islamist fanatics, who reject every other scientific advance of the last several hundred years, struggling to create nuclear weapons. The only scientific knowledge they accept is that which they can use to destroy. Doubtless, if evolutionary theory offered the key to creating deadlier biological weapons, all the universities in Islamic theocracies would have top-notch biology departments as well, next door to the theology departments still repeating the narrow dogmas of a medieval desert nomad.

But it's not just on those easy targets that I want to pin the blame. Too often, we in the allegedly enlightened West have been guilty of similar deeds, selectively using the fruits of science that offer us the most immediate benefit rather than asking what is moral or sustainable in the long run.

We invent ever-more efficient fishing technologies to scour the ocean of the increasingly few remaining fish, refusing to recognize the downward spiral our actions have created. We fuel our economy with dirty, polluting, high-carbon coal and oil because it's cheap - at least by the usual accounting - and to get it, we think nothing of drilling oil wells in delicate habitat, or bulldozing whole mountains and dumping the rubble into nearby streams and watersheds. We drain rivers dry to build ever more lavish cities and communities in the middle of the desert. We run industrial agriculture on vast quantities of fertilizers and antibiotics, and let someone else pay the cost for poisoned groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and multidrug-resistant staph and tuberculosis.

To build a human society that can survive over the long term, we need to turn away from this. What we need, and what I hope, is that we'll begin asking ourselves not just whether we can do something, but whether we should - and if the answer is that we should not, that we will then collectively agree to forbear.

I don't mean to imply that there will be a single global authority dictating which technological avenues will or will not be pursued. That would be an abhorrent tyranny. I have in mind a different future: a world where people have as much as or more liberty than they do now, yet where the human race can come, freely and without coercion, to a universal consensus on which courses of action should be taken and which left alone.

This may strike you as an impossible dream. I admit that the evidence so far is against me: historically, if one person or group has been unwilling to cross a boundary, there's always another that will. But that's precisely the attitude that needs to change if humanity is to survive and prosper. As technology grows more and more powerful, smaller and smaller groups of people wield destructive potential that the entire human species didn't have even a hundred years ago. We need to make the transition to a world where this kind of power is used wisely by all who have access to it, and I believe we will.

How can the human race reach this level of unanimity? I answer that the things that hold us apart are mainly irrational impulses - racism, sexism, nationalism, religion - which encourage their followers to value one group, one land or one belief more than a rational accounting of its value would suggest. Thus, the answer is simple: Humanity will come together when we learn to overrule those superstitions and fully acknowledge - and live out - the supremacy of reason as a guiding principle. When that happens, we will be able to reach agreement on all the things that matter.

This isn't going to be a single event, nor will the world be transformed overnight. It may take centuries to complete. But I believe we're on the cusp of the transition, and we may even witness the beginning of it in our lifetimes. We'll begin to see consensus breaking out, unanimity gradually developing. By the time agreement finally arrives, it will doubtless seem so easy and natural, we'll wonder why it took us so long in the first place.

The literal meaning of the word "apotheosis" is "elevation to divine status" - and as I've previously said, I reject the idea that this should be our goal. The gods are petty, jealous, easily provoked creatures; they embody our worst traits, not our best, and we shouldn't be seeking to emulate them. But "apotheosis" has another, more fitting meaning: "the supreme or the best example", and that's a goal I can support without hesitation. We should all seek to become the best example of humanity, to unleash the potential for goodness inherent in every person. This state may seem to be impossibly far off, but if each of us does what we can to bring it into being, we may find it isn't as far as we think.

May 27, 2009, 6:46 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments

Dreams of a Better World

As I've written in the past, I'm an optimist when it comes to human progress: I'm confident that we can overcome the problems that beset us. This isn't to say that I think our triumph is inevitable, or even that optimism is the only possible position for a rational person to take. There are plenty of reasons to despair, for those who seek them out. Nevertheless, I think there's one major, counterbalancing reason for hope, and that reason is this.

Simply stated, our greatest dangers are not external hazards, things over which we have no control, but rather arise from the immorality or inaction of human beings. Just think of all the cases where our only enemy is each other: racism and sexism, secular tyranny and religious theocracy, pollution, war, terrorism, overpopulation, climate change, and environmental degradation. Evils like this are not natural forces that arise of their own accord; they persist because of the inertia of human society, our stubborn self-interest, and our valuing of dogma and superstition over the lives and well-being of our fellow people. Even many epidemic diseases, like AIDS, thrive only because of our actions. If people did not act - whether out of irresponsibility, malice, or simple ignorance - in ways that made their propagation possible, they would swiftly die out.

I won't deny that changing these harmful attitudes is tremendously difficult - moral progress always is - but it can be done. If our primary enemies were natural forces that could never be persuaded to relent, we would face a much grimmer and more difficult path. But as it stands, natural disasters like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes can destroy individuals and communities, but not humanity as a whole. The only global dangers, the only threats that truly menace the entire human community, are the ones that we have created for ourselves and perpetuate through our actions.

The truth of this statement can be discerned through a thought experiment. Imagine that all of humanity was united in purpose, that all people were willing to do whatever was necessary to put an end to these evils. Take this as a given, and then ask yourself: if this were so, what could we accomplish in just a single generation? The possibilities are almost limitless. We could eradicate AIDS and all the other diseases that depend on us for their propagation, as well as all the ones we have vaccines against. We could decarbonize our economy, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and create a green civilization powered by sun, wind and tides. We could end war and tyranny and establish peace, democracy and justice for every society on earth. We could redirect all the resources and energy that are currently wasted in superstition and sectarianism, instead using them for the common good of humanity. Ending poverty would take significant investments in infrastructure and education and would probably be a multi-generational process, but even that could be done relatively quickly if we had the will.

Of course, this is a limiting case. All of humanity will never be united in this way, at least not any time in the foreseeable future. There are too many squabbling political parties, too many stubborn religions and nationalisms, and too many rigid ideologies battling each other across the memetic landscape. We are too diverse and too opinionated for one cause to ever win everyone's allegiance. But, knowing what is possible if everyone were to cooperate, the next step should be to ask what is possible with less than that. Knowing that some percentage of humanity will always react with indifference or outright hostility, is it still possible to make moral progress? And any fair consideration of the historical record would have to answer this question with a resounding Yes!

In spite of everything - all the dogmatism, the stubbornness, the selfishness, the ignorance and hate - humanity's star has been rising, these past few centuries and more. So long as there's freedom to speak our views and to lobby for change, good causes have been able to win out time and again. As slow and difficult as it is to shift the monolithic block of human opinion, it can be done. That's why I'm an optimist, and that's why I dream of a better world. My reason for hope follows the lines of the famous saying attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

April 20, 2009, 6:38 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink31 comments

On Agent Causation

Among the band of philosophers who hold that free will is supernatural, one of the reigning ideas is called agent causation. This hypothesis states that volitional acts are a special category of event, one that is caused not by any other event but - in some deeply mysterious way - by the agent itself. Philosopher Roderick Chisholm describes this as follows:

If we are responsible... then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.

The consequence of agent causation is that free will is not a process but some sort of irreducible substance: one that spontaneously originates acts and decisions, unconnected to the causal chain that binds together all other causes and effects. The usual apologetic corollary is that even God cannot intervene in or influence this process short of destroying free will altogether. It's plain that this is just the religious doctrine of the soul, the supernatural "ghost in the machine", portrayed in technical philosophers' language.

Agent causation depicts human free will as a binary state - a quantity which can either be present or not present, but which has no internal structure and cannot be subdivided. However, this is obviously false, which makes this entire view unsustainable. Free will is not a mathematical point; free will is a complex bundle of contingent desires, habits, and predispositions, which can be added to, altered or removed.

You can determine this by empirical studies of human behavior. There are countless things that human beings could do that we do not do and do not feel any desire to do. On the other hand, the vast majority of us do experience desires to have sex with an attractive partner, to consume foods high in fat and sugar, or to form tight emotional bonds with parents and relatives. Human free will, then, is not just an irreducible point source that bubbles up actions at random; it operates within a defined set of parameters, giving rise to a predictable variety of behaviors (anthropologists call them cultural universals).

You can also determine it by the evidence of the human brain: it's well known that certain, specific kinds of brain damage alter desires and behavior in predictable ways. Dementias such as Alzheimer's disease often cause loss of interest in religion, while epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes can induce religious experiences. Damage to the frontal lobes leaves people unable to control their behavior or ignore sudden impulses; injuries localized to the left hemisphere often cause depression, while injuries to the right can leave people constantly and inappropriately euphoric. And of course, drugs and intoxicants also have reliable, predictable effects on behavior.

If free will was an irreducible, nonphysical substance, producing actions free from external causation, then we should not see brain damage affect desires or behavior - much less change them in the predictable ways that neurologists observe. That we do see this shows beyond a reasonable doubt that it is false that "nothing... causes us" to make the decisions we do. Our decisions manifestly are caused.

Of course, there are other varieties of supernatural dualism that are not as clumsy as agent causation. But what these other varieties have in common is that they must give up the line in the sand. They cannot declare, as agent causation does, that we are purely supernatural beings whose decisions ultimately arise from the soul and nowhere else. Instead, these other dualisms must acknowledge that we are, at least in part, material beings, and that changes to the physical composition of body and brain can affect and alter our selves. Whether they realize it or not, advocates of these beliefs are drawing closer to atheism, as they implicitly grant that we are not spirits whose choices arrive from outside the world, but physical beings whose acts are an inextricable part of the fabric of cause and effect.

January 20, 2009, 1:33 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink47 comments

On Storytelling

Back in November, Greta Christina wrote about how to overcome religious influence in politics, specifically in relation to Prop 8 and gay rights. At the time, I left some thoughts in a comment, which I think is worth developing into a full post.

I wrote back in 2006 about The Da Vinci Code, noting that although the movie was a bit of fantasy fluff that took major liberties with historical fact, it drew incensed reactions and paranoid denunciations from Christian religious leaders all around the world - a far larger backlash than most atheist critiques provoke. I offered an explanation for why this is:

Our society does not value critical thinking and skepticism highly, but rather steadfast faith and decisions based on emotion. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that rational arguments against Christianity or any other religion have made relatively little headway.

On the other hand, what can and does flourish in such an environment is another story, one that appeals to people on the same emotional level as Christianity and taps the same feelings: the emotional appeal of the triumphant underdog, the sense of being part of something greater than oneself, the idea of great and sacred mysteries that will be revealed to the initiate. The Da Vinci Code competes with Christianity on its own turf, so to speak...

This same dynamic was visible in California last year with Prop 8. If you look at what successful political campaigns have in common, the answer is almost always the narrative - their success at depicting the world in terms of a story that's favorable to their goals. Campaigns that have a strong, compelling narrative are usually the ones that triumph, and that's what most politics is about nowadays, the ability to tell a better story than your opponent. It needs to be a story that's simple, memorable, and speaks strongly to its listeners' hopes or fears (or both). It needs to be a story that people identify with, one that they can readily see themselves as participants in.

In the battle over Prop 8, it's widely agreed, advocates of marriage equality failed at this task. We let our opponents define the terms of the debate, spreading fear and misinformation about the consequences of the vote, and failed to put forward a strong narrative of our own that presented the case for equality in simple, persuasive terms. We should have blanketed the state with advertisements that showed gay couples as they are, going about their daily lives, explaining why they wanted to be married and what they stood to lose if Prop 8 passed.

This realization is the key to how freethinkers can outcompete the deleterious impacts of religious voting blocs on politics. Some apologists say that people are innately programmed to be believers, that religion's influence on humanity can never be overcome, but we should know better. What people respond to is not primarily logic and reason, but stories. We've always been storytellers and story-listeners, ever since we were hunter-gatherers sitting in the dark around our fires. Religion is a particularly grand and elaborate form of story - the story of why we're here, why the world is the way it is, and why we occupy this place in it - the story crafted to explain the biggest and most important questions that exist. Religion dominates because it's had millennia to practice and perfect its stories under the selective pressures of memetic evolution.

So, how do you defeat a story? Not with logic and reason. If you ask how the giant got up into the sky before the beanstalk was there, or why animals and weather hadn't destroyed the gingerbread house long ago, people will laugh and think you're missing the point. No, the way to defeat a story is with a better story.

This isn't an impossible task. We have the raw material we need: the fruits of several centuries of patient scientific exploration, which has yielded an impressive amount of detail about how the cosmos came to be and how we fit into it. And these details aren't dull and pedestrian, either, but awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the word. The only problem is that science is a relative newcomer to this game, and though its stories have the virtue of being true, the storytellers of science haven't perfected their ability to present an equally good narrative.

Here, too, we know what goes into crafting a compelling narrative. A good story will present a likable and sympathetic main character with whom the reader can emphasize; it will present the character with a dilemma which he has the ability to solve; it will explain the character's backstory and show how he got into that dilemma; and it will tie together established character traits with elements from his past to create an explanation for how he can triumph. These are the basic components of any narrative arc.

With these elements in hand, can we tell the story of atheism, and can we present it more compellingly than past efforts have done? An upcoming post will attempt to answer these questions.

January 4, 2009, 10:58 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink35 comments

Rebutting Reasonable Faith: Is There Non-Culpable Unbelief?

Early on in Daylight Atheism's tenure, I wrote several critical reviews of the CAP Alert site, but I later gave that up as providing insufficient sport. However, I've set my sights on a new and worthier target: the Christian apologist William Lane Craig and his weekly Q&A Archive from his Reasonable Faith website. I'll begin today with question #88:

I would like to know from you if I, as an atheist, am going to be punished by God for not believing in him. If I, after looking objectively at all the evidence, come to the conclusion that I have not arrived here as the result of a divine plan but merely as a consequence of merely materialistic processes, do I deserve to be denied the gift of eternal life? If when coming face to face with God after death, I reveal that this was a position that I honestly came to after much investigation and really trying to understand nature?

This is an excellent question, and Craig's answer is illuminative of his theology and the rational faults in it. He begins by claiming that we're all condemned by default, regardless of our honesty or lack thereof:

...biblical Christianity teaches that no one is good enough to merit heaven. To be judged on the basis of our deeds would be the worst possible thing that could happen to us, for none of us measures up to God's moral law (perfection).... Hence, salvation can only be received as a gift of God's grace; there's nothing we can do to earn it.

...I remember when as a non-Christian I first heard the Gospel. I was leading a pretty morally upright life—externally, at least—, and yet when I learned that according to the Bible, I was guilty before God and therefore on my way to hell, I had absolutely no problem believing that. When I looked into my own heart, I saw the blackness within, how everything I did was tainted by selfishness. I knew how wretched I was really was [sic].

The first point to observe here is how Christianity exaggerates the badness of human nature. Starting with the reasonable premise that everyone puts a foot wrong from time to time, theologians distort this almost beyond recognition into the belief that we are all completely depraved and vile and that everything we do stems from evil motives. As Craig's reply shows, this serves their evangelistic purpose by giving Christians a justification to say that everyone is deserving of damnation and therefore everyone needs their salvation. But the psychological harm and suffering caused by this vicious false belief is incalculable. A belief system which taught that human beings are capable of goodness would not only result in less individual misery, but would very likely give rise to more actual good in the world.

The second thing worth noting is that, by divorcing salvation from good deeds or even the intent to do good deeds, evangelical Christians have made getting to Heaven an entirely arbitrary reward. In essence, they believe that there's a secret password to heaven - one that's hidden among thousands of indistinguishable alternatives - and the only thing that matters about your time on Earth is whether you can discover it. Raising a family, falling in love, showing compassion to your fellow humans, creating beauty, working to advance the knowledge or the common good of humanity - all these activities, in Craig's worldview, are meaningless and merit nothing. Finding the hidden password is the only thing that matters, and if you fail to find it, you're consigned to eternal torment. This view reduces our existence to the level of a lab rat running the experimenter's maze.

Against the self-evident and appalling injustice of this theology, Craig falls back on his second assertion. Incredibly, he claims that there is no such thing as honest unbelief: that all human beings are aware not just of the existence of God but of the truth of his specific set of religious doctrines. Here's how he puts it:

My view is that, ultimately speaking, there is no such thing as non-culpable unbelief. For, first, there is good evidence for theism which is readily accessible to all, such as I share in Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.), and no comparably good argument for atheism...

Second, and more importantly, God has not abandoned us to work out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not He exists. Rather His Holy Spirit speaks to the heart of every man, convicting him of sin and drawing him to God.

Craig's claim that there is "no comparably good argument" for atheism is obviously just rhetorical cheerleading. Even he's acknowledged the strength of atheist arguments on other occasions, such as when he called the problem of evil a "killer argument" for atheism (see reference).

But as he admits, in his theology rational arguments are irrelevant. No matter what the evidence shows or what conclusion reason supports, Craig maintains that all human beings know the truth of his form of Christianity and only deliberate rebellion causes any of us to deny this. Is this not an astoundingly arrogant claim?

This culminating absurdity does give Craig a response to the argument from religious confusion, but only at the cost of adding a wholly new and far more irrational belief to his faith: the belief that every single person in the world who is not an evangelical Christian is lying about what they know and what they believe. This view requires him to impute deliberate dishonesty and malevolence to the vast majority of his fellow human beings. And this is what he calls "reasonable faith"?

We atheists know full well that our conclusions are sincere, our position honestly arrived at and based on our best evaluation of the evidence. Of course, we can never prove that to Craig and other apologists who are driven to claim that we are all liars in deliberate rebellion, so that they may avoid having to face the unjust implications of their theology. It may well imply that William Lane Craig lacks confidence in his own beliefs, if he cannot abide the idea of sincere dissent and must instead assert that we all secretly agree with him, whether we admit it or not.

Other posts in this series:

January 1, 2009, 5:32 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink62 comments

How to Think Critically: Testimonials

The testimonial is the favorite tool of pseudoscientists everywhere. Search the internet far and wide, and you'll have trouble finding a cancer-curing scam machine, thermodynamically impossible engine-conversion kit, or obscure psychic website that doesn't feature glowing testimonials from true believers. Eshu of Bridging Schisms gives many more examples, in his post "Testimonials and Research", like this gem from a satisfied client singing the praises of a psychic claimant:

"I came to Philena when I was in a very dark place. Through her patience, guidance and gentleness, I genuinely left feeling hopeful. She held me together emotionally and spiritually throughout this time. She lit the candle in my mind and let my spirit guide me to light. She has a wonderful personality and in my heart I know our paths were meant to cross."

And when the testimonial is given by a celebrity, people are especially susceptible. Often, the name of a famous person will attract consumers in droves to whatever product is being peddled, even if the celebrity endorser has no relevant knowledge that would allow them to evaluate the product with any more expertise than an ordinary person.

The influence of celebrity testimonials, and our infatuation with celebrities generally, probably have their roots in humanity's evolutionary heritage. The earliest human societies, like those of our ape-like ancestors, were small hunter-gatherer bands where individuals could rise or fall in status depending on their ability to sway the group. Although the rewards of being the group leader sowed the seeds of ambition in all of us, the tribe had to have stability for the sake of all its members' survival, which is why humans also have an inbuilt instinct to respect the authority of the alpha male or alpha female.

In modern society, where our social networks are vastly farther-ranging, celebrities have stepped into the role of alphas. We look up to them because, in a sense, we're programmed to do so. This is a predisposition that can be resisted through reason, but not if we're not aware of it.

The key thing to keep in mind about all testimonials is that, at best, they are anecdotal evidence. When it comes to alternative medicine, for instance, most diseases and injuries heal on their own. But if you just happen to be taking some dubious remedy when you begin feeling better, most people will credit their recovery to the treatment. Even a treatment that actually helps some people may be ineffective in others for any of a wide variety of reasons. And people who've already been persuaded of the efficacy of a treatment are much more likely to report positive results, and disregard any negative outcome that doesn't fit with their expectations.

For all these reasons, isolated anecdotes are of no value in judging the usefulness of any dubious claim. At most, they may be an indicator of which avenues might reward further exploration. At worst, they are outright deceptive, leading naive people to expect outcomes that are extremely unlikely. To truly judge the worth of a claim, we need statistical evidence that gives a genuine measure of likelihood that it will work. Thus, it's good news that the FTC is mulling requiring advertisers to report the average person's benefit from their product, rather than relying on "results not typical" testimonials. Marketers may howl, but in the long run it will help people make informed decisions and move the market as a whole in a more rational direction.

Other posts in this series:

December 26, 2008, 3:26 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments

Noises in the Night

In the first chapter of her autobiography Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts some of the Somali folktales her grandmother taught her when she was a child. One was a story of a nomad, searching for a home for his wife and child, who mysteriously finds an oasis with a fine grass hut already built in the middle of the desert, and a smiling, friendly stranger who invites them to live there. Alas for the trusting nomad, the stranger was really "He Who Rubs Himself with a Stick," a monstrous werewolf-like being who stalks the desert in the shape of a hyena, and who returns that night while they lie sleeping and devours their infant son. Another example:

There were stories about an ugly old witch woman whose name was People Slayer or People Butcher, who had the power to transform herself, to adopt the face of someone you liked and respected, and who at the last minute lunged at you, laughing in your face, HAHAHAHAHA, before she slaughtered you with a long sharp knife that she had been hiding under the folds of her robe all along and then ate you up.

Every culture has stories like this, of course, stories of the monsters that lurk at the fringes of civilization and fall upon those who stray from the prescribed rules of conduct. There's almost always a moral lesson to be drawn from these bloody folktales: whether to be chaste, or pious, or suspicious of strangers, or obedient to one's parents, the main character almost always transgresses in some way that leads to disaster.

In all likelihood, these cautionary tales are as old as humanity itself. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world full of very real dangers, and it's no surprise that they gave some of them a supernatural gloss. Natural disasters like drought and flood became the handiwork of angry nature spirits. Members of other, possibly hostile, rival tribes became shape-changing demons, utterly other, utterly alien, ready to drop their guise and strike at any moment. And our fellow predators, those who hunted the night beyond the light of our huddled fires, became monsters of every description. Fanciful though they were, these imaginings served a real purpose - giving our predecessors a way to deal with their fear, by constructing elaborate rituals intended to ward off misfortune. Like all religions, they imparted a sense of security and control in a hostile and uncaring cosmos.

With the passage of time, as our societies became more complex and the borders of our knowledge advanced, our myths and our monsters became more abstract. Nevertheless, their basic purpose stayed very much the same. Take a more recent example from human cultural history, William Blake's poem "Auguries of Innocence":

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne'er get out.
He who respects the Infant's Faith
Triumphs over Hell and Death.

This clumsy, unsubtle threat delivers the same fundamental message as Ayaan Hirsi Ali's childhood folktales: stay within the bounds of your culture, believe your elders, or suffer a terrible fate. With the Somali folktales, it's more obvious where they originate - the childhood fears we felt on moonless nights, when we heard monsters roaring beyond the light of our fires. But both they and Blake's poem are descendants of that same ancient, superstitious terror. Both paint pictures of unseen evils waiting to strike down those who stray from the straight and narrow path.

Ironically, these primitive fears still guide our steps, even though we have long since acquired enough knowledge to tell that they are substanceless. Our ancestors cowered from noises in the night, but we no longer need to. We have a better option: just go and look. More than enough brave thinkers have gone before us to make it abundantly clear that there are no supernatural dangers lurking in the dark, no monsters hiding in the bushes. We do have dangers to confront, but we can respond to them more proportionately and effectively if we cease embellishing them with fanciful mythology.

July 21, 2008, 7:47 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink12 comments

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