Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Does the Bible Condone Rape?

            So there’s this Atheist and Theist debate page on Facebook that I’ve been following lately. I can’t say that I recommend this particular page to anyone; you have to wade through a lot of ignorance, vitriol, and insults from all sides to find even the tiniest nugget of something worth discussing in any depth. One subject that has come up on this page repeatedly is the question of whether or not the Bible condones rape. And I have to say that I find many of the Christian defenses against this accusation to be highly misleading, if not outright lies. Many are encapsulated in the dishonest little meme seen below, and I thought I might address them.


            We’ll start with the bit that the meme references as being the verse atheists use to make the accusation. Specifically, it’s Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 17-18, which reads:

            31:17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.”

            For context, these are the orders that Moses gave to the Israelites after discovering that they had spared the lives of some of the Midianites he had previously ordered them to kill (for the crime, bu the way, of accepting the Israelites into their community, intermarrying with them, and inviting them to their religious ceremonies). Aside from the explicit genocide, there are clear implications for what will happen to the virgin girls who the fighters are to “keep alive for yourselves,” but it’s not explicitly stated. This gives the Christian a bit of wiggle room to claim that this verse is not calling for rape. But, interestingly, it’s the very verses the meme calls in defense that clarify exactly what is going to happen to those young virgins.

            Let’s jump to the most relevant: Deuteronomy 21, verses 10-14:

            10:14 When you go out to war against your enemies, and Yahweh your god gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 and she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go into her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”

            The meme presents this as “the captive women are allowed a time to mourn before they marry,” which is clearly disingenuous. They are allowed a period of mourning before their captor rapes them, after which they may be kept as a wife or turned out of the house. Requiring a waiting period before raping a captive does not make it not a rape. Calling her a wife does not make it not a rape. This is clearly going to be the fate of the captive virgins from Numbers 31. At no point in any of this is it even remotely suggested that the woman’s consent is desired or required; they are captives. When people accuse the Bible of condoning rape, they aren’t “conveniently ignoring” this verse; it is part of the accusation.

            And what of the laws regarding rape in Deuteronomy 22 that the meme also claims we ignore? Are they clearly against rape, as the meme suggests? Let’s take a look at them, starting with Deuteronomy, Chapter 22, Verse 23, which is the first verse that appears to directly address rape.

            22:23 If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them out to the gate of the city and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

            So this is a very specific situation: the rape of a betrothed woman. Note that the offense with which the rapist is charged is not presented as being against the woman, but against her fiancé/husband. Note also that if the woman didn’t call for help, the sex is assumed to be consensual and she is therefore also put to death. Which means any woman who is sexually assaulted under these laws is in a terrible position: she can attempt to call for help and risk her attacker killing her, or she can stay silent in the hopes that her life will be spared and nobody else will find out. She is then forced into the position of having to collude with her rapist to keep the assault secret, because at that point her life is forfeit.

            Moving on to the very next verse:

            25 But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.”

            Again, this is specifically the rape of a betrothed woman. The rape itself is not the issue, it’s the violation of another man’s property. Also, it’s worth pointing out that elsewhere in the law it is specified that a man may not be put to death on anything less than the testimony of two witnesses. Given that this rape law very clearly specifies that it only applies when there are no witnesses around, how would it ever be prosecuted? It can only ever be one person’s word against another, and it seems impossible to see how this law could ever be justly applied.

            But the final rape law is the most damning, and it comes in the very next verse.

            28 If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.”

            Here we find out what happens to virgin women who are not betrothed or married. And again we see that the offense is not against the woman, but against the man who owns her: in this case, her father. All that is required is that the father be financially compensated for the loss of a marriageable daughter. The woman herself is handed over to her rapist to be assaulted at his leisure for the rest of his life. Again, nowhere is it implied that the woman’s consent is desired or required for any of this. If anything, this law incentivizes men to rape eligible women whom they are otherwise unable to convince to marry them.

            Incidentally, there is no law that says anything about raping non-virgin, unmarried women (which would include widows).

            I would contend that none of these laws are actually “against rape,” so much as being against violating the sexual property rights of the men who own the victims. When atheists say that the Bible condones rape, we don’t “conveniently ignore,” the verses this meme calls on to defend the Bible. Those verses are evidence for the accusation.

            I’m not bringing this up to score points against Christians. I sincerely believe that the vast majority of Christians are absolutely opposed to rape. I sincerely believe that the vast majority recognize that compelling a woman into a forced marriage before (or as a result of) raping her is still rape. If anything, the desperation with which such dishonest memes attempt to deny that these verses say what they so clearly say betrays how deeply their creators understand the monstrousness of these instructions. In order to think of their religion or their God as moral, the only recourse is to deny these instructions or pretend they don’t mean what they plainly say. Most religious folks are better people than their holy books would have them be.

            I’m bringing this up because these defenses are dishonest. It offends me to see people telling outright lies, especially when they are so easily checked. It derails conversation and inhibits understanding. I understand why they may feel the need to do it – why they may even be lying to themselves – but that doesn’t mean I think it’s excusable. What good is it to hold a faith, if holding it is based on a lie?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Do Atheist Atrocities Prove Atheists are Worse People?

            Theists who believe that their god is the foundation of all morality seem to love bringing up the atrocities committed by atheistic regimes of the twentieth century. It’s one of the most common arguments I see: the atrocities of the atheistic regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot prove that atheists (and atheism) are evil.

            It’s one of the most common arguments, and one of the most hypocritical.

            Mind you, there is a legitimate argument to be made there. But it isn’t that atheists are automatically evil or even that atheists are automatically worse people than theists. You can argue that these events prove that being an atheist does not, in and of itself, make you a good person. I’d even agree with that argument. There are some pretty shitty people who are also atheists. But you cannot argue that the atrocities of the above regimes demonstrate that atheism is evil. Or at least, if you follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, you can’t argue it without being a massive hypocrite.

            Why do I say that? Moses and Joshua, among others.

            Let’s have a little talk about Moses, the great hero of the Israelite Exodus. Everyone is familiar with the Exodus story, I think, up to Moses getting the Ten Commandments and the whole smashing the tablets after the golden calf episode. People seem to go a little vague on what happens after that point in the story, probably because preachers don’t seem to like bringing it up in sermons a lot. You see, according to the Bible Moses didn’t just smash his tablets after the golden calf thing. He also ordered the execution of three thousand Israelites over it. You can check it out in Exodus, Chapter 30.

            Later, as the Israelites were crossing through the wilderness, they tried to cross the lands of the kingdom Arad. The king sent out his army to stop them, and a battle ensued. In retaliation, Moses had his followers attack every city in Arad and murder every man, woman, and child. He then proceeded to do the same to the Amorites, Jazerites, and the kingdom of Og. This is all in Numbers, Chapters 20-21. Later in their wanderings, the Israelites settle for a time among the Midianites, who take them in and start intermarrying. But when Moses hears that some of the Israelites have started worshipping the Midianite gods, he gives orders to attack and kill all the Midianites. His people kill the Midianite men, but take the women and children captive; Moses was having none of that shit, and orders all the women and male children killed while the virgin girl children are to be kept as captives/slaves (and let’s not be naïve about what that entailed). That’s Numbers, Chapters 25-31.

            So to recap: according to the Bible, Moses is responsible for at least five separate genocides.

            How about Joshua? Well, you know that famous song we’re all taught in Sunday school? “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho?” That happy, upbeat piece of children’s fluff about blowing horns and knocking down walls? Do you know what happened to all the people inside those walls? The men, the women, and the children? Joshua ordered them all killed, of course. You know what horrible act of aggression the people of Jericho had committed against him before the battle that justified it? Nothing. They were living on land he thought his god had promised to him, so he slaughtered them all. That’s it. In fact, that’s pretty much the story of the entire invasion of Canaan: Joshua and his army of Israelites committing one genocide after another, while enslaving anyone they didn’t kill. See the Book of Joshua, Chapters… well, pretty much all of them.

            And if you think it’s a numbers game, that the atrocities of the twentieth century were worse because they involved more people, bear in mind that both of those men issued mandates to kill everyone. The only factor that limited the number of deaths was the number of people available to kill. There was no moral limit imposed.

            Now here’s where the rubber meets the road. I, as an atheist, will tell you unequivocally that I believe Stalin and Pol Pot to be monsters. It’s debatable whether Hitler was an atheist – publicly he was Catholic and used loads of Christian rhetoric in exhorting his followers to commit atrocities, but apparently he was privately contemptuous of mainstream Christianity. But regardless of what his religious views were, I’ll tell you he was a monster as well. These men are not atheist heroes. The only regard their roles in history should be given is to learn how to make sure men like them never wield the kind of power they did ever again.

            Can you tell me the same about Moses and Joshua?

            If you follow an Abrahamic faith, I don’t think you can. Because, you see, according to your holy books they were acting on God’s orders. They are presented as heroes, as being among the best men who have ever lived. They are held up as men who exhibit the kind of faith – the kind that perceives and carries out God’s wishes no matter what they are and how much they contradict our sense of what is good or right – to be the sort of faith all believers should aspire to.

            But if you’re honest with yourself, continuing to celebrate Moses and Joshua means you’re a hypocrite if you berate atheists for the fact that atheist regimes have committed genocides. Because you don’t actually disapprove of genocide. You’re fine with it. You excuse it. You laud it. You teach young children to sing nauseatingly sweet songs of praise for genocide and the people who commit it, so long as they do it for the right reasons. You don’t object to the atrocities committed by those regimes, you just disagree with their reasons for committing them.

            I won’t defend the atrocities committed by any atheist regime, nor will I defend their reasons for committing them. I don’t know a single atheist who would. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but it’s not the norm and I would oppose such people. Just because they were on “my team,” on the one singular issue of whether a god exists does not obligate me to their defense when they do that which I cannot abide.

            People don’t commit atrocities because of what they don’t believe in; they commit them because of what they do believe in. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, they did what they did because they believed their visions for society were greater than the human lives they would have to grind under in order to fulfill them. Moses, Joshua, Muhammad, they also believed they were serving something greater than the lives they had to destroy in that service. That’s something they all had in common with each other, not a feature that distinguishes them from each other. In that respect, they are very much the same. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

            Ultimately, it shouldn't be a blame game. We should all, atheists and theists alike, be trying together to make sure nobody does these kinds of things again.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Did You Know That I Know That God Exists?

            An argument I see all the time is that atheists really do know that God exists, and are merely rebelling against Him and/or suppressing that knowledge. It is especially common coming from Christians, as apparently this assertion is based on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Chapter 1, he writes “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

            I can sort of see why this might be a useful argument when talking to believers and trying to persuade them to ignore atheist arguments. It’s a way to poison the well up front, by telling your fellow religionists that the atheists are simply lying (or deluding themselves) about not believing. And since it comes out of the Bible, it lends scriptural weight to the assertion – especially amongst those who accept the Bible as infallibly true and authoritative in everything it says. So it doesn’t surprise me, really, that Christians would tell each other this.

            What does surprise me, though, is how often I see this assertion deployed directly against atheists in arguments: “You know that God exists; you’re just denying it.” It’s surprising because we don’t see the Bible as authoritative, and we’re pretty unlikely to prioritize it over our own experience on the subject of ourselves. So why say it? As far as I can tell, the only reasons for this would be because the person using it is either 1) saying it to try and reassure themselves, 2) saying it for the sake of any fellow believers who may be observing the argument, or 3) simply unable to grasp how the atheist viewpoint can differ so much from their own that the argument is worthless or even detrimental. On the chance that the third option is the case, or even that 1 and 2 are true but the Christian debater doesn’t want to undermine themselves in the argument in order to accomplish those goals, I thought I might give some discussion on why this is such a bad argument to use on an atheist.

            Quite simply, it’s wrong. Atheists don’t know that your god exists; that’s why they’re atheists. And even if you cannot be persuaded that I’m telling you the truth about that, or even if you are 100% convinced that the atheist is simply “suppressing the knowledge,” somehow, you have to understand that atheists will at least perceive the assertion as wrong. Which means it can only undermine you if your goal is to convince them of the truth of your religion.

            When someone says to me “you know that God exists; you’re just denying Him,” I know that the conversation is done. Because I know that there’s no point in talking to someone who will make that assertion. They aren’t listening. And because they are confidently asserting something about my own inner thoughts – something they cannot possibly know, but about which I know them to be wrong  – as if it were absolute truth, I also know that they are comfortable with lying in order to prop up their argument. They are comfortable with simply dismissing me as a liar, and so nothing further I have to say will even be considered.

            I know the counterpoint to this: that it isn’t the Christian saying it, but God via the Bible. So it’s not that the Christian is claiming to have access to my innermost thoughts. They’re claiming that God does, and has told them through his infallible word, the Bible, that I know He exists. It’s not that they’re comfortable lying about having access to my thoughts, it’s that they trust the Bible. And my response to this is, “so what?” Practically speaking, the result is the same; if the Christian is not going to listen to my sincere expression of my thoughts, having already dismissed them as lies, what’s the point in continuing to talk? I’ll move on to someone who seriously wishes to engage.

            It bears repeating: atheists don’t believe that God exists. As a consequence, we don’t believe that the Bible represents the infallible words of an omniscient being. So when Christians tell us that we must know God exists because the Bible says we know it, we aren’t thinking “Oh, well, if the Bible said so it must be true!” We’re thinking “You’ve just given me another reason to believe the Bible is wrong.”

            If your goal is to shut down conversation without changing any minds or reaching any understanding of other people’s viewpoints, I suppose it’s a worthwhile thing to say. From certain perspectives, it may even be honest insofar as your beliefs go. But if you want to have a meaningful conversation then it’s terrible. No matter how strongly you may disagree with someone else’s beliefs, if you can’t enter into conversation with them on the basis that they are at least sincere in holding them, then you might as well not talk about them at all.

            I think we’re all better off when we try to understand each other. So please, don’t shut down the process before it’s even begun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How Do You See the Progressive Tax?

            Definitely not an atheist issue, but I don’t really have anywhere else to rant about this. So it’s here.

            There’s this video making the rounds today purporting to describe how the Progressive Income Tax works. You can watch the video here. but the script goes like this:

Once upon a time, there were three brothers; triplets named Tom, Dick, and Harry Class. They were raised in the same home with the same parents, had the same IQ, same skills, and same opportunities. Each was married, and had two children. They were all carpenters making twenty-five dollars per hour.

While they were very similar in all these respects, they had different priorities. For example, Tom worked twenty hours per week, while his brother Dick worked forty hours, and Harry, sixty. It should also be noted that Harry’s wife worked full time as an office manager for a salary of $50,000. Dick’s wife sold real estate part time for 10 hours a week, and made $25,000 per year. Tom’s wife did not work. Tom and Dick spent all of their families’ income. Since they paid into Social Security, they figured they didn’t need to save for retirement. Harry and his wife, on the other hand, had over many years, put away money each month and invested it in stocks and bonds.

Here’s how it worked out: Tom made $25,000 a year, Dick and his wife made $75,000, and Harry and his wife: $150,000.

When a new housing development opened up in their community, the brothers decided to buy equally priced homes on the same street. One day, the brothers decided to pool their funds for the purpose of improving their street. Concerned about crime and safety, and wanting a more attractive setting for their homes, the three families decided to install a security gate at the street’s entrance, repave the street’s surface, and enhance the lighting and landscaping. The work was done for a total cost of $30,000.

Harry assumed they would divide the bill three ways, each brother paying $10,000. But Tom and Dick objected. “Why should we pay the same as you?” they said. “You make much more money than we do.”

Harry was puzzled. “What does that have to do with anything?” he asked. “My family makes more money because my wife and I work long hours, and because we have saved some of the money we earned to make additional money from investments. Why should we be penalized for that?”

“Harry, you can work and save all you like,” Tom countered, “but my wife and I want to enjoy ourselves now. Not 25 years from now.”

“Fine, Tom. Do what you want; it’s a free country. But why should I have to pay for that?”

“I can’t believe you’re being so… unbrotherly!” Tom argued. “You have a lot of money, and I don’t. I thought you’d be more generous.”

At this point Dick, the peacemaker in the family, entered the conversation. “I’ve got an idea,” Dick said. “Our combined income is $250,000, and $30,000 is 12% of that. Why don’t we each pay that percentage of our income? Under that formula, Tom would pay $3,000, I would pay $9,000, and Harry would pay $18,000.”

“I have a much better idea,” said Tom. “And one that’s fairer than what you’re proposing.” Dick and Harry turned to Tom. “Harry should pay $23,450. Dick, you should pay $6,550, and I will pay nothing.”

To Dick this sounded completely arbitrary, and not really fair, but it did have one big plus: his share would be $2,450 less under Tom’s formula than under his own. So he decided to be silent.

Harry, however, was stunned. “You want me to pay almost 80% of the bill despite the fact that each of us is receiving the exact same benefits? Where did you get such a crazy idea?”

“From no less an authority than the US Government!” Tom responded as he pulled out a grey booklet. “It’s all right here in the IRS tax tables. This is the progressive tax system all US taxpayers live under, and I don’t see why we should be any different. In fact, I believe all future improvements should be paid in this way.”

“Works for me,” said Dick.

So, by a vote of 2 to 1, the cost of the street improvements was divided as Tom had proposed, even though they benefitted equally and even though the reason Harry had more money was that he and his wife had worked many more hours than his brothers and their wives, and had saved some of what they had earned instead of spending it all.

Tom and Dick lived happily ever after with their new arrangement. Harry grumbled a lot. But whenever he complained, his brothers called him greedy and selfish. The End.

            Now, obviously, the brothers here are meant to represent socioeconomic classes – the makers even went so far as to give the brothers the last name “Class” just in case the metaphor seemed too subtle to the viewers. I’ve seen my more conservative-minded friends posting this video on Facebook, praising how it makes such a brilliant explanation of how the progressive tax system works, and generally getting pissed off about it as I’m sure the video creators intended. It pissed me off, too. But in my case, I’m pissed at the makers of the video, because they’re either out-and-out liars or deluded to the point of psychosis.

            Firstly, I’ll say this much: they are correct that the progressive tax system requires higher income earners to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the lower income earners. That much is true. The rest of it is pure fabrication, based on three myths: 1) everyone has the same access to opportunity; 2) poor people are poor because they are lazy, irresponsible and immoral, while rich people are rich because they are hard-working, responsible, and just; 3) the benefits of society are shared equally across all economic classes. These glaringly false talking-points are inserted into the narrative, and used to manipulate the audience into seeing the progressive tax structure as inherently unjust and the rich as benighted victims of the greed of the lower classes.

            So, I thought I’d write a new script that bears a little more resemblance to the plights of the various classes involved in the story.

Once upon a time, there were three brothers named Tom, Dick, and Harry Class. Although they shared the same well-off parents, Harry was clearly the favorite. Harry was sent to an Ivy League college, where he was able to befriend the favored children of other rich parents – one of whom he married -  while acquiring a degree that automatically opened doors in the business and academic communities. Dick was able to get into a lesser college through token support from his parents combined with taking on student loans. He graduated with an engineering degree and tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Their father denied that Tom was even his son, and refused to give him a cent in support. With no one to vouch for his credit-worthiness, Tom was unable to continue his education beyond high school, but at least he had a few basic skills to rely on and few debts. All three brothers were married, and had two children. As the favorite, Harry inherited the family construction business when their father retired and hired his two brothers as employees.

Although they came from the same family, their lives proceeded on very different tracks.

Tom started out working 40 hours per week, but because Harry cut corners on material quality and safety equipment in order to increase profits, Tom suffered serious injuries when a building project collapsed. Harry refused to pay for the medical bills, and Tom was unable to afford a lawyer to sue for compensation. By the time he had recovered as much as he would be able to without specialized and expensive medical care that he would never be able to afford, Tom was disabled and unable to work more than twenty hours a week. Tom’s wife took a job to try and make up for the income, but because she was now part-time caregiver to a disabled adult as well as their two children, she could only manage to get part-time jobs on grueling off-shift schedules. Tom and his family spent all of their money on food, shelter, and increasingly unmanageable medical bills.

Dick, likewise, also started out working forty hour weeks. But Harry laid off the two other engineers at the family business without hiring any replacements. And, while Dick managed to find ways to work more efficiently, he was still putting in 60-80 hours a week. But because his job was salaried, that extra work did not translate to extra pay for Dick; just extra profits for Harry. Dick’s wife sold real estate part time for 10 hours a week because working any more hours would have required them to put their children in daycare, which would have cost more than she could earn by working extra hours. Dick looked into striking out on his own, but because of his existing school debt he couldn’t qualify for a loan to start up his own business. Dick hasn’t had a meaningful raise (one that exceeded inflation) in almost a decade.

Harry paid himself a nominal salary as head of the company, and his wife earned a similar amount thanks to the management position she got straight out of college because of their rich friends who also owned businesses. He was also able to supplement their income by combining their household expenses with business expenses.

This is how it worked out: Tom and his family earned $25,000 per year, all of which was eaten up in food, shelter, and medical bills while debts steadily mounted on necessities they couldn’t pay for; Dick and his family earned $75,000 per year, much of which went to paying off debts and what little savings they could build up were routinely wiped out by minor emergencies like the car breaking down or plumbing repairs. Harry and his wife nominally earned $150,000 per year, but found ways to combine household and business expenses such that they were able to live as if earning $500,000.

The three brothers had bought similar houses on the same street. The houses weren’t identical in price or condition, though. Tom’s house was the smallest to begin with, but after his injury he wasn’t able to keep up on maintenance and couldn’t afford to pay anyone to help out. As a result, his house had a number of structural and plumbing problems. Dick had a slightly larger house, which he managed to keep up but couldn’t afford to make any improvements to. Harry’s house was the largest, was maintained in perfect condition, and was routinely upgraded.

One day, the brothers decided to pool their funds for the purpose of improving their street. Concerned about crime and safety, and wanting a more attractive setting for their homes, the three families decided to install a security gate at the street’s entrance, contract private security and ambulance services, repave the street’s surface, and enhance the lighting and landscaping. The work was done for a total cost of $30,000.

Harry assumed the cost would be divided three ways, with each brother paying $10,000. But Tom and Dick objected.  “Why should we pay the same as you?” they said. “You make much more money than we do.”

Harry pretended to be puzzled. “What does that have to do with anything?” he asked. “My family makes more money because my wife and I work long hours,” he lied, “and because we have saved some of the money we earned to make additional money from investments. Why should we be penalized for that?”

“Actually,” Tom countered, “Dick works much harder than you do; you just pay him poorly. I can’t work any more than I do because of injuries I sustained for your profit, and I have no money because you refused to pay the medical bills for the accident you caused.”

Harry waved the objections aside. “That’s your bad luck. It could have happened to anyone; why should I have to pay for it?”

“Perhaps because you got to make all the decisions about what we’re buying in the first place. I only wanted my house repaired – which I’m not getting, by the way – and neither of us wanted landscaping or a gate. But you knew we couldn’t afford to get any of the things we did want without you and kept threatening to torpedo the deal altogether if it didn’t include everything you wanted.”

“Look,” said Harry, who had been watching Dick’s expression and was afraid he was going to lose the middle brother, “I’ve got another idea. Our combined income is $250,000, and $30,000 is 12% of that. Why don’t we each pay that percentage of our income? Under that formula, Tom would pay $3,000, Dick would pay $9,000, and I would pay $18,000.” Harry hoped that making this concession would get Dick on his side.

“I have a much better idea,” said Dick, finally stepping into the conversation. “And one that’s fairer than what you’re proposing.” Tom and Harry turned to Dick. “Harry should pay $23,450. I should pay $6,550, and Tom will pay nothing.”

Harry was stunned. “You want me to pay almost 80% of the bill despite the fact that each of us is receiving the exact same benefits?” Of course, even as he said it, all three brothers knew Harry was lying. Most of the benefits were the things Harry wanted and the other brothers didn’t, the security improvements benefitted him far more than the other two because his property was far more valuable, and the contracts with the security and ambulance companies were written to prioritize Harry and his property over the other two brothers. “Where did you get that idea?”

“Being in touch with reality,” replied Dick. “You were given every advantage from the start, and continued to take advantage at every opportunity since then. The fact is that Tom has no money to give no matter how you badger him, and it’s at least partly your fault that he’s in that position. I can afford to chip in something, and I will, but since you’re already profiting far more from my work than I am, you can at least pay some of it back in the form of picking up a larger share in this instance. You’re getting most of the benefits anyway.”

So, by a vote of 2 to 1, the cost of the street improvements was divided as Dick had proposed. The cost hardly made a dent in Harry’s finances, though he complained and moaned as if he’d been consigned to the poor house.

Tom and Dick lived marginally better with their new arrangement, though it still wasn’t easy. Harry hired a PR firm to make and distribute a dishonest video portraying his brothers as greedy, lazy leeches who took advantage of him. The End.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why Take the Risk?

            It’s a question that comes up all the time. Actually, for many Christians (and Muslims), it’s the go-to when conversing with atheists; considering you’re risking an eternity in hell, isn’t it safer to believe? Why would you risk that? You must be really sure!

            It’s also called Pascal’s Wager, and it’s possibly the surest way to make an atheist roll their eyes in frustration. And believe me, that’s not frustration born from it being some deeply insightful question without an answer. It comes from hearing it all the time, despite it being a really, really bad argument.

            The name “Pascal’s Wager” comes from the mathematician Blaise Pascal, who made the most famous form of the argument. The basic logic is that if God exists, then belief brings infinite reward and nonbelief brings infinite punishment. Whereas if God doesn’t exist, belief results in only finite loss and nonbelief results in only finite gain. Since infinite things are always greater than finite things, you’re always better off betting on belief.

            This is a crap argument.

            The first and most obvious problem is one that Pascal recognized himself: betting the odds is not really the same as believing. Pascal acknowledged this problem, and his solution was “fake it ‘til you make it.” He recommended that even if you don’t really believe it, you should go ahead and act as if you do as rigorously as possible for as long as it takes to develop a believer’s habits of thought, and perhaps sheer repetition turns the rote behavior into actual belief.

            Can you imagine a more cynical and dishonest approach to belief? Why would you worship a god that is fooled by it? I would think anyone who values truth at all would reject the argument, and even believers ought to find the idea kind of insulting. It implies that the belief has little or no truth value, and is simply a matter of will motivated by pure self-interest.

            But there are other problems that Pascal never addressed. One example is the false dichotomy. See, it’s not merely a question of whether you accept God or not. Humanity has worshipped literally thousands of gods in its history, and the Wager offers little guidance on which of them you ought to believe in. At best, Pascal’s Wager suggests that you ought to believe in the god whose religion threatens you with the worst punishment, which is obviously not a path the truth at all. What if your personal idea of what constitutes the “worst” is different from someone else’s? And what if the god you choose ends up being the wrong one, and you’re ensuring your damnation in the eyes of the real god? Everyone who believes in any god is taking that risk, whether they admit to the possibility or not. There’s no way to avoid it.

            I also disagree with the idea that what the believer gives up, if a god doesn’t exist, is finite and therefore trivial. This is the only life we know for certain we’re ever going to get. This life may well be literally everything we will ever have the chance to know or experience. As finite as it may be, to the individual experiencing it this life is everything. And, depending what version of a god you happen to believe in, your entire life may very well be what they demand. This idea - that giving up your everything in support of what appear to be unproven and unprovable impossibilities could possibly be a trivial demand - is absurd.

            But really, all dry philosophical stuff aside, maybe it would help to look at it this way. Do you really think you’re risking anything by going to bed every night without taking precautions against the monster under your bed? I mean, if you’re wrong, one of these nights you’re gonna be monster chow. Or your kids will be. Bed monsters love children, after all. Why take the risk? Even if you believe in God… what if your kids secretly don’t believe and the bed monsters get them before they come around? And don’t go thinking God will protect children from bed monsters; he doesn’t protect them from tigers, or bears, or childhood leukemia, so why make special dispensation for bed monsters? Letting your child go to sleep in a bed is risking not only their life, but their immortal soul!

            Well, not really. I’m guessing you don’t believe in the monster under the bed. There’s no reason to believe in it, and the idea that monsters really exist who magically appear in the dark space under the bed when you could clearly see they weren’t there in the light of day is just patently ridiculous. Neither you nor I think it’s worth spending one iota of effort protecting ourselves and our children from the monster under the bed, because it’s a fantasy made up of our own fears of the dark and the unknown. That’s how I feel about the risk that I’m going to be sent to hell for not believing in anyone’s god.

            I’m not saying this in an effort to insult anyone or their beliefs, or the seriousness with which they take them. I’m not comparing gods to monsters under the bed purely for the sake of dismissing anyone’s faith as childhood superstition. Rather, I offer the comparison as a window to why Pascal’s Wager is not convincing to myself or to many other atheists. It is a dodge – an end run around any effort to find or illuminate truth in order to appeal directly to fear – and we recognize it as such. Believers should too, and not resort to it.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Do You Ever Wish You Believed?

            Here’s a question that atheists occasionally get: “Do you ever wish you believed?”

            This is a question that is likely to provoke a wide variety of responses from different atheists. I’ve heard some atheists admit they wish they could believe in a god, and others brush the question aside with such dismissive responses as “I have no desire to become irrational.” There are others who give more complicated or nuanced answers that lie somewhere between those two extremes. And for me, personally, the answer would have to be a “no.”

            That’s not to say that I don’t ever feel awkward about my nonbelief in ways that I know would be alleviated if I did believe. But those situations are more about how I interact with other people than about my atheism. For example, when people experience a tragedy, it is very common for others to reach out to them with expressions of consolation that are couched in religious terms; especially if the recipient is known to be religious. That’s something I can’t do, and it occasionally makes me feel a bit hobbled in attempting to console believing friends. The things I find comforting, they wouldn’t, and so it feels like both an intrusion and an exercise in futility at such times to try and put that perspective forward. At the same time, I just can’t bring myself to offer words that both of us would know to be insincere (or perhaps worse, might be perceived as sincere). And so I find myself offering only the most vague and empty-sounding of platitudes to people I dearly wish to comfort.

            If only I believed, I think that I could speak to people in these situations in ways that might be more meaningfully supportive to them. Although, it should be said, I have known people who, despite being religious, have said they find the religious expressions often offered at these times to be empty platitudes as well. So maybe the idea that a shared religious belief would grant a comforting connection is wrong anyway (or at least not universally true).

            But that’s the only thing about religious belief that ever tempts me. And I hope that you can see why it’s not a reason to actually believe. After all, it has no bearing whatsoever on whether the belief would be true.

            In any other perspective, I think the question, “Do you wish you believed?’ is kind of silly. It seems odd to me that it’s treated as serious and important pretty much every time I’ve heard it asked, as if the desire to believe something is true ought to be separated from the desire for something to actually be true. I mean, why would anyone want to believe there’s a god, independently of wanting there to actually be a god?

            Let me see if I can clarify that with an example. I do not, at present, believe that faster-than-light travel is possible. I really, really want it to be possible. I love the idea of people being able to travel to distant solar systems and explore them within our lifetimes. I want that to be true. But I don’t want to believe that it’s true if it’s not. I don’t want to believe that it’s true if I don’t have a reason to think that it is. The idea just seems absurd to me, that I could want to believe something is true that isn’t (or at least that I don’t have good reason to believe). That’s like actively desiring to be delusional.

            So no, I don’t wish I believed in a god. I can’t even say that I wish that there actually is a god. After all, whether or not I would wish for a god to exist would depend a whole lot on what the nature of that god is, and I have yet to be presented with one that I would want. And of course, the actual existence of any god(s) and/or the form that it (or they) takes is independent of my desires anyway. So I will continue not to wish to believe. If I somehow come across a good reason to believe in one, then I will. And so long as I don’t, then I won’t. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Have You Thought About Your Karma?

            This is my fiftieth post. When putting up my last few posts on the social media sites I frequent, I accompanied them with requests for my readers to suggest topics for this post as kind of a way to mark the milestone. I got a few suggestions, and the one I decided to go with was the suggestion that I write about predestination and karma. I figured this would make in interesting change to my usual fare, which so far has focused very heavily on Western monotheisms. Besides, it gives me an excuse to do a little research on a subject to which I haven’t had much exposure. We use phrases related to karma all the time in everyday speech, but I never really looked into what it actually means in a religious sense.

            As it turns out, it’s not that easy to nail down. Karma is a concept that is used in various forms, occurring in many Eastern religions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) as well as a lot of New Age religions. And each of these religions, to say nothing of various schools within each, seems to have a slightly different idea about what karma is and how it behaves, particularly in regards to ideas like predestination and reincarnation.

            At its most basic level, karma is about consequences. The idea being that eventually you will reap what you sow. If you do “bad” things, you accumulate “bad karma,” and if you do “good” things, you accumulate “good karma.” In some versions intentionality plays a role, such that bad actions accompanied by bad intent incur a worse karma load than ones where no harm was intended. Somehow, the universe arranges circumstances so that an accumulation of bad karma results in some kind of later punishment or lesson that is supposed to discourage repetition of bad behaviors, and an accumulation of good karma results in some kind of reward or pleasant outcome.

            Basically, it reads like an effort to tie morality to the phenomenon of cause and effect. And in some ways, it makes sense. After all, it does seem that, in general, good and pleasant people get more enjoyment out of life compared to bad and unpleasant people (who also seem more likely to come to bad ends). Even if that doesn’t appear to always be the case, there is this human desire for justice that certainly makes us want that to be the case. And, of course, we also want to encourage people to behave in a good and just manner, and discourage them from cruel and unjust behavior. These desires are a running theme through a great number of religious and philosophical systems, and one of the many objections to atheism is outrage at the idea that people who led horrific lives (either giving or receiving said horror) might never get a measure of justice. That can be a tough pill to swallow. People just don’t like the idea that Joseph Stalin could kill tens of millions of people and sentence millions of others to lives of painful toil and torment, only to get off Scott free by dying instantly of a heart attack at the height of his power and influence. Or that a kindly family could live a life of drudgery, poverty, and disease only to be wiped out by a random tsunami. The concept of karma, particularly when combined with ideas of reincarnation, would seem to reassure us that even if we can’t see the results ourselves, somehow the balance will get redressed.

            The problem, though, is that it just doesn’t appear to be true. And that can have some real and problematic consequences.

            You see, even though the action of karma is frequently referred to as “the law of cause and effect,” there actually is not an observable link between causes and effects inherent in the idea. A person can “receive their bad karma,” years, or in some cases literal lifetimes, after the supposedly precipitating actions, with no way to know what the cause was supposed to be. We just have to accept that there was a cause for which they somehow deserved their fate, even if we can never see it. Or, as I’ve seen it described, the universe “knows” what people have done and why, and then somehow arranges events so that they will receive their lesson in just the right time and place to ensure that it is learned. But how have we demonstrated that the universe “knows,” anything at all? By what mechanisms does it arrange lessons? Where has anyone ever seen a conscious intervention by “the universe” in the lives of anyone that is demonstrably directed at teaching a specific lesson? For that matter, by what criteria has “the universe” decided which actions were good and which were bad, and why should we accept its judgments on these matters? Would we have a choice if we didn’t? What can be the actual, demonstrable link between an action performed in one lifetime and the consequence reaped in another, when one can’t even demonstrate that people live multiple lifetimes?

            The karma thing also poses some interesting questions regarding predestination, morality, and free will. For example, if you rob someone, did you behave immorally, or were you just an agent of karma punishing them for a past transgression? Did you really have any choice in the matter? If you feed a starving person, have you chosen to do something good or are you simply an agent of karma rewarding their past good behavior? Could you have chosen to do otherwise? If you choose to go rock climbing, fall, and break your leg, is that a result of your own free choice, or did your karma impose that choice upon you?

            It seems many schools have settled on the explanation that your free will and your karma interact and influence each other; your choices affect your karma, which in turn affects your future choices. But that seems a little too pat, and not free of further questions. After all, aren’t your current choices affected by your karma from your past choices as well? In what way is it then appropriate for you to be punished or rewarded for them later? Is it only the choices you made completely free of karma’s influence for which you will be held accountable? How on earth would you even know which choices those were? And if you can’t know, how do you figure out what lessons you’re supposed to be learning?

            The other day, I was listening to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God,” (highly recommend), and she described a period in her life when she was looking into Buddhism. She travelled in the East trying to learn about it, and in one story describes encountering a woman who was caring for a child crippled from birth. When she complimented the woman for caring for “that poor child,” the response she received was “Don’t call this ‘a poor child.’ He must have done something truly terrible in a past life to be born like this.” Which raises another problem of the idea of karma: victim blaming. It’s the flip side of the belief that your actions now will be rewarded or punished by the universe in the future. That necessarily implies that your present condition is the reward or punishment for your past actions. It gives rise to the idea that however awful and/or apparently undeserved a seemingly good person’s current suffering may be, somehow, for some unknown and unknowable sin, they actually do deserve it (e.g., babies who get cancer deserve to have cancer). Or that no matter how wonderful the life of a seemingly awful person may be, somehow they were saintly enough in the past to deserve their current great fortune. There are caste systems based on this very idea.

            And that last bit raises another question. Doesn’t the existence of people who seemingly gain every reward in life, yet behave awfully, suggest that karma is kind of a failure as a teaching tool? If they were good people before, which earned them this reward, and are now awful people, that would seem to represent regression.

            There are a lot of questions opened up by the idea of karma, and I doubt that I’ve come up with anywhere close to all of them on my own in this short space. There are a lot of proposed answers to these questions as well, and I don’t pretend to have those either. The problem I see is that karma as described is a largely unobservable mechanism. So many schools of thought propose many different possible answers, and people can be quite satisfied with whichever one seems to agree best with their own outlook on how the universe should operate. But because karma’s action is an unobservable mystery, there’s no way to know which (if any) of them represent the way the universe actually does operate. That holds true right up to including whether karma really is a thing.

            I guess this article has been mostly a series of questions. They represent the perspective of someone who has not really delved all that deeply into the topic, and I’m sure many of them have been asked and answered many times over by others in the past. Probably, this article has told you more about how my mind operates than about any seriously developed philosophies that hold karma as a central concept. My own research thus far has been top-level at best, and of course I didn’t grow up with constant exposure to any philosophies that treat karma with seriousness. I just hope it represents something worth thinking about.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Who Decides What Symbols Mean?

            This may be a slight departure from my usual subject matter of atheist and religious topics, but it’s something that I really can’t let pass without some commentary. And anyway, there are plenty of religious tie-ins for both the specific and general cases under discussion, so I don’t feel like this topic is wholly out of place here.

            So to jump right in, following the murder of nine African American people at the Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, there has been quite a storm of controversy over the symbolism of a Confederate flag flying over a war memorial on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

            Symbols, at their heart, are like language in that they are an abstract medium intended to convey ideas between people. Like language, any given configuration is essentially arbitrary, and has communication value only to the extent that people share an agreement on what they mean. For example, the word “river” only means “a natural stream of water of fairly large size flowing in a defined channel,” because we collectively agree that it means that. For that matter, all the words I used in that definition only mean what they mean because we agree that they mean it. A language – whether visual or auditory – is an emergence of agreed meaning for otherwise arbitrary symbols through usage and collective acceptance. Without that agreement, the ability to convey ideas through language is utterly lost.

            I think this is a helpful way to look at the argument over the meaning of the Confederate flag; as language. Imagine the following conversation between two people:

            Person A: I support racism.

            Person B: That’s awful!

            Person A: What do you mean?

            Person B: You can’t justify the claim that one race is superior to another, or that anyone is defined by their race.

            Person A: I’m not saying that.

            Person B: But you just said you support racism. That’s what racism is.

            Person A: Not at all! Where I come from, the word “racism” means “respect for our history and traditions.” In fact, most people back home have “I support racism” banners all over the place, and we even fly one from our courthouse.

            Person B: You know that nobody else uses it that way, right? And I’ve met people from your hometown – a lot of the people who fly that banner are, in fact, racist as the rest of us define it. And your court does have a history of selectively enforcing the laws to the benefit of your race and detriment of others.

            Person A: That’s true, but they’re misusing the word. Or, while they may be racist the way you mean it, that has nothing to do with their public display of the “I support racism,” banner, because that’s just not what it means around here.  I’m not racist in the sense you’re talking about. I just love my history, and we have a proud tradition of using the phrase “I support racism,” to signify that. That’s why I say it.

            Person B: That’s absurd! You realize that everyone you meet is going to assume you’re a racist because your keep saying you support racism, right? And even if you’re not racist yourself, your insistence on using the phrase this way only serves to give cover to the people who are!

            Person A: So what? You have no right to tell me what words mean, and it’s unfair of you to assume I’m a racist as you define it just because I say I support racism. That’s ridiculous!


            Obviously, these two people are having a serious difficulty communicating. And it’s because they refuse to come to agreement on what the words mean (or, possibly, because one is trying to obscure the meaning in order to hide their true sentiments). I’m using this example, though, for a couple of reasons. The first is that we have a pretty reasonable agreement on what the word “racism” means, and how people who explicitly express support for it are going to be perceived by the general public. Even many groups that are outright racist will try to avoid the label because they recognize that it’s perceived as a bad thing. So it helps to point out the barrier that insisting on trying to redefine it can create. The second reason is because I believe the phrase “I support racism,” is an adequate stand-in for the Confederate flag.

            “But Brian!” you may say, “What right do you have to tell us what the Confederate flag should mean?”

            To which I would say: I don’t have a right, any more than I have a right to tell you what words mean. The meaning is a collective agreement. But I do have an argument. It’s really pretty simple.


Premise 1: The Confederate flag represents the Confederacy.

Premise 2: The Confederacy was, officially, racist as all get-out.

Conclusion: The Confederate flag represents racism.


            So, in support of Premise 1. The flag we think of as the “Confederate flag,” wasn’t actually the official flag of the nation called the Confederacy. It was the flag of their armed forces, adopted because the actual flag of the Confederacy was similar enough to the US flag that it could create confusion in the chaos of battle. So it would probably be more properly termed the “Confederate battle flag.” But really, that’s a distinction without a difference. It was the flag that represented the military that protected and enforced of the ideals of the Confederacy. Premise 2 has to do with what those ideals were.

            So what were the ideals of the Confederacy? Not to put too fine a point on it, the defining ideal of the Confederacy was white supremacy and race-based slavery.

            Don’t believe me? Well here's a good resource. These are the official reasons the Southern states gave for their choice to secede from the United States. In other words, these represent the raison d’etre for the Confederacy. In case you didn’t read the link, here are some pertinent excerpts:

Georgia: While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen.”

Mississippi: Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world.”

Texas: We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

            South Carolina’s declaration avoids many of these overtly racist statements, but virtually every complaint it levies against the federal government and the Northern States is in regards to their movement towards the abolition of slavery. Virginia barely makes any complaints at all, citing only “oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Several of the secession documents go to the effort of pointing out that, if the original US Constitution hadn’t had protections for slavery (yes, it did, lest we forget), they never would have joined in the first place. And then there’s Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 4 of the Confederate Constitution, which reads “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed,” thereby expressly enshrining the racial nature of the slavery they practiced as a protected right of Confederate citizens. It is simply not possible to give an honest reading to these documents and not come to the conclusion that the major reason the Southern States seceded was their insistence that they must, under any circumstances, be permitted to keep owning black people.

            But please don’t just take my word for it. Follow the link. Read the documents. They are instructive on more than just this issue.

            So yes, I maintain that the Confederacy was founded on slavery and white supremacy. It was the central ideal behind the formation of the short-lived nation, as documented by their state and federal legislatures themselves. They loudly and proudly proclaimed this fact. That is why their flag stands for those ideas today, and that is why it has been adopted by so many white supremacist groups – they didn’t pick some random neutral symbol that they could corrupt, but rather adopted one already associated with the hateful ideals they wished to promote.

            It is, therefore, wholly appropriate for government institutions like state houses to refrain from flying the Confederate battle flag (or to take it down if they haven’t already). And not merely because it’s offensive, as much as its supporters like to claim that mere offense is all we’re talking about here. By flying the flag, by giving it a place of honor, they suggest to white supremacists that the state government really does support their position. It implies that discrimination, and even outright criminal acts, will be met with support (or at least indifference) from the legal establishment. It suggests to members of minority communities in that state that their participation in that government is discouraged, that they are officially unwelcome, and that without the federal government holding the state in check it would have them rounded up and re-enslaved if it could. It is, simply, corrosive to society for state governments to endorse the Confederacy by flying its flag.

            None of this is to suggest that I would ever endorse robbing individuals of their right to display the flag however they want. And I certainly wouldn’t be in favor of shutting down conversations around what it may mean to individuals. But I do think such conversations are equivalent to arguing over whether “I support racism” banners would be about racial oppression or respect for history; the association of the first meaning to the larger mass of society is too strong to be overcome by arguing for the second. No matter how strenuously you argue, you’ll still end up carrying the baggage for flying it whether you want to or not. I guess it’s just up to every individual to make that choice for themselves.