Pack up again, head to the next place where we’ll make the same mistakes… On the Atheist 10 Commandments

Freedom From Religion Foundation

Freedom From Religion Foundation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There have been many attempts to rewrite the Ten Commandments for atheists.  Every pseudo-intellectual pop-atheist — up to and including Alain de Botton — has had a crack at it over the years, and now we are resorting to crowdsourcing this buffoonery:

Lex Bayer, an executive at AirBnB, and John Figdor, a humanist chaplain at Stanford University, delivered their own 10 “non-commandments” in a book they co-wrote: “Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind.” Bayer said the book forced him to clarify and articulate his own beliefs, and he thought others could benefit from doing the same.

“A lot of atheists’ books are about whether to believe in God or not,” he said. “We wanted to consider: OK, so you don’t believe in God, what’s next? And that’s actually a much harder question.”

Enter the “10 ‘Non-Commandments’ Contest,” in which atheists were asked to offer modern alternatives to the famous Decalogue. And, to sweeten the pot, the contest offered $10,000 in moolah to the winning would-be Moses. (If it helped boost atheists’ public image and drum up publicity for his book, all the better, Bayer said.)

The contest drew more than 2,800 submissions from 18 countries and 27 U.S. states, according to Bayer and Figdor. The proposed “non-commandments” ranged from the quizzical (“Don’t follow your nature”) to the quixotic (“Thriving in space is the ultimate goal”). [Source]

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Lousy lovers pick their prey but they never cry out loud… The patronising dullness of New #Atheism

Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine an...

Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at its launch in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Atheists have always been a confused lot.  To mock an idea that he didn’t like, Hobbes imagined a class of people who popped up out of the ground — like mushrooms — fully formed with the ability to engage in economic transactions.  This group of mushroom-men were devoid of culture, family, society, and (most importantly) history.  Of course, no such creatures can exist and we have to form our political views in response to an existing social framework.

That said, a lot of the rhetoric of New Atheists suggests that we might have found our mushroom-men.  Culture is something that happens to other people.  Their intuitions are the default rational ones.  Everybody should be a straight, white male or at least not talk about deviations from this norm.

It doesn’t strike any of them as odd that they just happen to share common views about things.  Enlightenment calculus just happened to direct them all to the same conclusions.  Rejection of religion was intuitively obvious.  Indeed, it would have been easier to just go along with the religious beliefs of their society!  They had to strive to be better.  They had to transcend the superstitious ways of the past in order to become Atheists.  Indeed, atheism is nothing more than merely the lack of belief in God, so therefore all of the common slogans, mantras, and orthodox pop-atheist rhetoric makes perfect sense.

New Atheists have been criticised for this inane bullcrap for the better part of a decade.  It doesn’t make any sense.  It’s incoherent and intellectually bankrupt.  It exists only because of market forces (pandering to the egos of adolescents turns out to be profitable; a lesson we’ve learnt from video games which allow you to bash to hooker to get your money back).

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Walking in the countryside it seems that the winds have stopped… Could you vote for the @SecularParty? #auspol

Secular Party of Australia

Secular Party of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the brouhaha of the weekend in which we discovered that no reasonable person could vote for Wikileaks or the Sex Party, it seems the next contender for the ‘Alternative Option’ vote is the Secular Party.

This could go one of two ways.  Either it could be a party really engaged with the deep questions of what a post-religious society could look like, or it could be a party trying to capitalise on the Dawkins-inspired derpfest of New Atheism.  I haven’t read their policies yet, so I’m hoping for the former.  Hoping.

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The Missing Review of Jane Caro’s ‘Oz Book of #Atheism’ Entry…

Andrei Rublev's Trinity, representing the Fath...

Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a similar manner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, I was reviewing the individual entries in the Australian Book of Atheism.  After I discovered that the essays were just making me grumpy due to the poor reasoning, wild assertions, and general awfulness of the tone, I gave up writing all these down.  But I still have my notes.  Oh, yes.  I still have my notes…

The latest in Australia’s pop-religious discussion is For God’s Sake — a ‘debate in book form’.  The book has four authors, one of whom wrote an entry in The Australian Book of Atheism, Jane Caro.  I’m no stranger to criticising Caro.  One of my biggest complaints is her presentation as an academic expert in the public education debate.

My criticism of her article in The Australian Book of Atheism, however, was so scathing that I refrained from uploading it to this blog.  As was fairly evident, I wasn’t the intended audience for the book in general.  Despite being an atheist and interested in the history of atheism, this was a book for the happy-clapper atheist.  The sort of atheist who happily repeats everything they’ve heard that conforms with their prejudices, biases, and intuitions.  The sort of atheist who describes religion as the source of all social evils in the world in one breath, then ignorantly attacks Islam and its adherents in the second.

But reading Caro’s contribution to For God’s Sake made me remember the horribleness of her entry in The Australian Book of Atheism.  It seems obvious that terrible things happen when intelligent people say nothing.

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Back in the back of a Cadillac… Why do New Atheists hate Islam so much? #atheism

Dawkins: Debates Make us Look Bad

Dawkins: Debates Make us Look Bad (Photo credit: Templestream)

Following my post about Dawkins’ strange take on what constitutes racism, a friend asked me why Islam was a major target of New Atheists.  The answer is strangely complicated but, fortunately, overlaps with one of my projects to map out a history of New Atheism.

Before jumping to the complicated answer, we have to show why we should reject the simple answer: Islam is a major religion; New Atheists criticise all religions; so therefore New Atheists criticise Islam.

Of the four largest world religions, Islam and Christianity are the two which are routinely attacked by New Atheists.  The next two largest religions, Buddhism and Hinduism are rarely mentioned.  This isn’t an equal opportunity hosing down of religions.  There’s something else that is making Islam and Christianity the major targets.

Christianity is easiest to explain: historically, it is the religion which has attracted the opposition from atheists.  Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the centuries-long history of atheism without reference to Christianity.  (SPOILERS: By the end of this blog post, we’ll see that New Atheism isn’t actually engaged in this history.)

But Islam doesn’t have a similar history.  From the example of Christianity (the reasons are socio-political and historical), we should expect the reason for New Atheism’s response to Islam.

To uncover that reason, we need a solid understanding of what New Atheism is and how it works.  We can then see what features of Islam cause it to be of particular interest to New Atheists.

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When you’re high, you never want to come down… On @RichardDawkins and Race #atheism #racism

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists ...

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Working in an office one day, a conversation was taking place down the corridor.  A sharp difference of opinion was under discussion in which various people were advancing various viewpoints.  One of the participants left the conversation and walked up the corridor towards my desk.  Overhearing a bit more of the discussion behind him, he turned around and shouted clearly: ‘Yeah, but he’s such a poof!’

I was rather shocked at the outburst.  Prior to it, the conversation had been heated but on point.  This random homophobia came entirely out of left field and was entirely out of place.  How did the conversation get to this point?  How did this person think it was appropriate to make that comment?  What the hell is wrong with this person that they’d think this was an appropriate thing to say?

It would be a while before I was this thrown by out of place prejudice again (yay, privilege).  Fortunately, Richard Dawkins was on call to provide such an experience over Twitter.  This time, it was his weird and entirely unprovoked declaration that hatred towards Muslims isn’t racist.

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On default rational intuitions in pop #atheism

‘The burden of proof is on you to prove your claim!’

Just about every conversation about atheism ends up with somebody asserting the other person has the burden of proving their claim.  The most commonly asserted ‘rule’ is that the person making an assertion has the burden of proving the assertion true.  ‘After all,’ they say, ‘You can’t prove a negative!’

I have lost count of times I’ve had to patiently explain to the other person that it’s a bogus rule.  Oddly, instead of having anybody engage in the question of whether it’s a reasonable rule, I’m almost immediately dismissed as a theist (which is quite strange, given that I’m an atheist).

So I’ve written this entry so I can just link to it and call it a day.  Feel welcome to do the same.  Also: a shout out to BL who first encountered me when I was an insufferable atheist undergrad who could parrot all the standard pop-atheist lines and knocked them out of me.  Being an atheist who can defend their views is difficult work, something our current generation of megaphone atheists simply do not appreciate.

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I want to see you happy, I want to see you shine… Why #EvPsych is #atheist fantasy #atheism

Pop-atheists have a problem with mental content.

Mind! (Ha) I don’t mean to say that they have a problem with their particular mental content (which is, coincidentally, wrong-headed), rather that they have a problem with mental content in general.  They don’t like it.

Here’s the puzzle: although I know that red light is a particular wavelength of light that hits my eye, bounces on to the optic nerve, then sparks up various neurons in my brain or whatever, I can’t work out from the knowing of that red light what the experience (what we call ‘qualia‘) of seeing that red light is just from the data about the wavelength.  Similarly, I can’t look at a brain scan and, using that data alone, know what it’s like to experience that brain state.  There’s a gap between the material interaction of the world and the subjective experience of the world.

And this spooks pop-atheists.

Pop-atheists really want to say that mental states are identical to brain states, but there’s no evidence for it.  And there’s good evidence against it.

There’s also philosophical problems with it, for example when we engage in mental content which is not coextensive with some physical content (abstracts and universals, for example).  I can think of the number two without thinking of any specific instance of two things, for example.

But pop-atheists are having a red hot go of trying to tame the world of mental content.  One way they’ve tried to do this is through a concept called ‘evolutionary psychology’ which tries to explain behaviour (a related group of ideas to mental content).  According to evolutionary psychologists and people who sit up all night editing Wikipedia articles, evolutionary psychology argues that behaviour is a result of psychological mechanisms and that these psychological mechanisms are the result of natural selection.

There’s a lengthy history discussing whether or not behaviour is a result of psychological mechanisms.  For the purposes of being charitable, let’s say that it’s entirely non-contentious that your behaviour is a direct result from your mental content.  The second half should interest us more: the psychological processes that go on inside your head are the result of natural selection.

Over in the quagmire of stupid known as FreeThoughtBlogs, one blog manages to semi-regularly escape the echo chamber of pop-atheism: Jen McCreight’s BlagHag.  In a recent post, she noted the theory’s unfalsifiability:

My favorite example of this comes from the Evolutionary Psychology class I took in undergrad. Now, I was originally super excited about this class. As someone who was interested in human evolution, behavior, and sex, I thought that evolutionary psychology was my calling. That was until we got to a specific lecture on human sexuality. We were discussing a study that was investigating patterns of human promiscuity, and the professor asked us to come up evolutionary explanations to describe the data we could potentially see. Most people came up with something along the lines of “Female humans will not be promiscuous because pregnancy has more cost to them and they need a monogamous mate to help rear the child, where men will be very promiscuous  because they want to spread their seed as much as possible.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard that argument somewhere before. But I presented an alternative hypothesis: “Female humans have cryptic fertility – it’s hard to tell when they’re ovulating – so they will be equally promiscuous, because then no man will know if the child is theirs so they will all pitch in to help rear the child.” I presented this idea because evolutionary psychology often looks to primitive tribes for its hypotheses, and we see my scenario happening in many tribes of South America.

My professor nodded and said that was a good alternative explanation. I asked how we would be able to distinguish between the two hypotheses, but he didn’t seem to understand why that mattered. He saw evolutionary psychology as being able to explain either situation, so in his mind it only supported the field of evolutionary psychology because it was able to explain anything!

But the ability to come up with an explanation for anything is not what makes something scientific. Creationism can come up with an explanation for anything – “God did it” – and that is not scientific. To be scientific you need your predictions to be falsifiable, and unfortunately right now evolutionary psychology is closer to creationism than it is evolutionary biology. [Source: McCreight, ‘Paleofantasy: When people act like cavemen because they misunderstand evolution‘, BlagHag]

I have more than a few examples of people on websites making all kinds of outrageous claims — the worst of which was used as a way of arguing that rape really wasn’t as big a deal as everybody intuitively believes it is — but we don’t crack open an issue by looking at it’s most stupid claims.  That would be like pointing to the most extreme religious fundamentalists as a reason to dismiss theology, and we will not be having Dawkins-like arguments here in this blog.

In ‘Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology‘, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides set out five basic principles to the evolutionary psychology argument:

C-1: Each organ in the body evolved to serve a function: The intestines digest, the heart pumps blood, and the liver detoxifies poisons. The brain’s evolved function is to extract information from the environment and use that information to generate behavior and regulate physiology. Hence, the brain is not just like a computer. It is a computer—that is, a physical system that was designed to process information (Advance 1). Its programs were designed not by an engineer, but by natural selection, a causal process that retains and discards design features based on how well they solved adaptive problems in past environments (Advance 4).

The fact that the brain processes information is not an accidental side effect of some metabolic process. The brain was designed by natural selection to be a computer. Therefore, if you want to describe its operation in a way that captures its evolved function, you need to think of it as composed of programs that process information. The question then becomes: What programs are to be found in the human brain? What are the reliably developing, species-typical programs that, taken together, comprise the human mind?

C-2: Individual behavior is generated by this evolved computer, in response to information that it extracts from the internal and external environment (including the social environment, Advance 1). To understand an individual’s behavior, therefore, you need to know both the information that the person registered and the structure of the programs that generated his or her behavior.

C-3: The programs that comprise the human brain were sculpted over evolutionary time by the ancestral environments and selection pressures experienced by the hunter-gatherers from whom we are descended (Advances 2 and 4). Each evolved program exists because it produced behavior that promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors better than alternative programs that arose during human evolutionary history. Evolutionary psychologists emphasize hunter-gatherer life because the evolutionary process is slow—it takes thousands of generations to build a program of any complexity. The industrial revolution—even the agricultural revolution—is too brief a period to have selected for complex new cognitive programs.

C-4: Although the behavior our evolved programs generate would, on average, have been adaptive (reproduction promoting) in ancestral environments, there is no guarantee that it will be so now. Modern environments differ importantly from ancestral ones, particularly when it comes to social behavior. We no longer live in small, face-to-face societies, in seminomadic bands of 20 to 100 people, many of whom were close relatives. Yet, our cognitive programs were designed for that social world.

C-5: Perhaps most importantly, natural selection will ensure that the brain is composed of many different programs, many (or all) of which will be specialized for solving their own corresponding adaptive problems. That is, the evolutionary process will not produce a predominantly general-purpose, equipotential, domain-general architecture (Advance 3). [Source]

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on evolutionary psychology breaks this down a bit further:

1. The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment.
2. Individual human behavior is generated by this evolved computer in response to information it extracts from the environment. Understanding behavior requires articulating the cognitive programs that generate the behavior.
3. The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist because they produced behavior in our ancestors that enabled them to survive and reproduce.
4. The cognitive programs of the human brain may not be adaptive now; they were adaptive in ancestral environments.
5. Natural selection ensures that the brain is composed of many different special purpose programs and not a domain general architecture.
6. Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains “allows a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena” [Source]

But it’s based on a bigger claim:

Consequently, systems of complex, antientropic functional organization (adaptations) in organisms require explanation wherever they are found; their correct explanation (barring supernatural events or artificial intervention) always involves a specific history of selection in ancestral environments; and so the prediction, discovery, mapping, and understanding of the functional architecture of organisms can be greatly facilitated by analyzing the recurrent structure of a species’ ancestral world, in conjunction with the selection pressures that operated ancestrally. [Source]

There is a gap between ‘supernatural events or artificial intervention’ and ‘specific history of selection in ancestral environments’. Tooby and Cosmides jump from one extreme to the other because they’ve already decided that they’re not going to entertain the ‘blank slate’ theory of brains (where humans are born tabula rasa and their neural systems are conditioned and trained to work in a particular way as they grow up).  It is curious that evolutionary psychologists accuse critics of arguing strawmen when the evolutionary psychologists do it themselves…

Combining the two ideas, we become increasingly uneasy about what’s being argued.  Organs evolve to perform functions?  Brains are like computers (certainly not like today’s computers which process symbols)?  Brains retain and discard processes based on how well they functioned in the past?  And all of this is based on some specific history of selection in ancestral environments?

When you have to ignore a comprehensive body of literature proving that brains are not just like computers (as we understand them), you know you’re not off to a good start.

But, perhaps most importantly, there’s this: ‘The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations.‘  There’s no evidence for this and yet we have a lot of evidence suggesting that we adapt our behaviour based on lifespan events.  I react with fear, for example, due to a certain stimulus (I have phobias).  We think this was the result of a particular event in my childhood.  But that would mean that the ‘cognitive program’ wasn’t an adaptation, but a development I didn’t inherit.  Like an ape reaching five years old and then adapting straight into being a human.

The response from the evolutionary psychologists: ‘No, no.  We’re not talking about specific behaviour based on specific stimuli.  It’s your reaction of fear that’s adaptive.’  Yet my brother’s behaviour (the expression of the cognitive program) in response to fear is very different to my own.  It would be like a hen giving birth to a goat and a turtle.

Perhaps he just inherited a different adaptation of the cognitive program for a response to fear (just as he has hazel eyes and I have blue)…

And so it goes.  More than just specific examples being unfalsifiable, as Creight claims, the actual project of evolutionary psychology is unfalsifiable because the goalposts keep shifting.  Not only do we lack any evidence that behaviour is the result of ‘cognitive programs’, we have no idea how such cognitive programs could be adaptive.  I might respond to fear in one way, all of my kids might respond to fear in a completely different way, all of their kids might respond to fear in an entirely different way again, there’s no selection pressure keeping the system regular.

So why are there so many self diagnosed ‘evolutionary psychologists’?  I suspect it’s because some of them have heard of Stephen Pinker’s book How the Mind Works and — like newborn chicklets that attach to whatever they first see as their mother — were extremely impressionable.  They were programmed that way.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect is the way that the pseudo-science is coopted for particularly foul political positions.

But perhaps the most baffling aspect is the way people who’ve read about evolutionary psychology in pop-science books respond to criticism.  Like many aspects of the pop-atheist corpus, you can’t challenge evolutionary psychology without a bunch of com.sci dudebros flaming you with incoherent babble about why guys like sex more than women or something (I — with absolutely no evidence to back me up — suspect that they’re trying to normalise their sex lives: they want it but no woman wants to sleep with them).  You don’t get heated flamewars about, say, string theory.  What is it about evolutionary psychology that makes people go completely batshit insane?  What specific history of selection in ancestral environments created this cognitive program?

A shiny penny to the reader who comes up with the funniest (and, therefore, most correct) theory.

We’re gonna ride it ’til we just can’t ride it no more… What is #atheism?

Blog posts that start with ‘What is Atheism?’ are usually awful to read.  They are usually clownishly angry: ‘It just means a lack of belief in God!  That’s it!  Nothing more!  Whaaaarglegarble!’

Never believe anybody who is insists on claiming something is ‘just’ something innocuous.  Scientology is ‘just’ a group of people getting together to understand their emotions. The Catholic Church ‘just’ moved the priests to other jurisdictions without telling anybody.  All you have to do to stop irregular maritime arrivals is ‘just’ get the navy to turn their boats around.

I had an interesting discussion with a guy on Twitter, @CdrHBiscuitIII, who is usually a top bloke, but pulled the usual tropes about how atheism isn’t ideological, nor does it entail commitments to particular epistemic principles.  So let’s run through what atheism is in order to show why it’s a commitment to something stronger than ‘Just a lack of belief in God.’

Usual disclaimers: I’m an atheist but I don’t think people are being (necessarily) irrational or illogical when they believe in God.  Similarly, I don’t think people are necessarily being rational or logical when they don’t believe in God.

The Rules

In order to show why atheism is a richer body of thought, I need to set down a few rules.  We can discuss whether the rules are good ones but they seem to hold.  They’re not laws of logic or a priori whatever whatever.  They’re just me facilitating a sensible conversation.

1. People aren’t robots.  If somebody makes a claim, it isn’t a result of some mental ’10 PRINT “I LACK A BELIEF IN GOD” | 20 GOTO 10′.  They are saying it because they mean something by it.  They think their statement is justified.

2. If a statement only makes sense by reference to some another statement, then we should believe that the person is affirming both statements.  This is what I mean by ‘implication’ or ‘to imply’.  We could discuss whether this is really true.

Disproving the Rule: Atheism as ‘just’ a lack of belief

Let’s start with the claim and provide the counterexample.

There are a number of very loud atheists who claim that atheism is just a lack of belief.  Penn Jillette, for example, claims:

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

There might be a charge that I’m being unfair by choosing this example, but I really struggled to find an example of somebody affirming that ‘Atheism is just a lack of belief in God’ principle without immediately providing a justification for that lack of belief.  If anybody can provide an example of where somebody says: ‘Atheism is just a lack of belief’ and sticks rock hard to that spot, feel welcome to link to it in the comments.

People only lack a belief with regard to statements that they have not heard.  Until you hear a statement, you can’t assign to it some sort of truth value.

But atheists have heard the statement ‘There is a God’.  The moment they hear that statement, they begin a process of assigning it a truth value.

And this is where we get the problem of atheism being ‘just’ a lack of belief.  If somebody has heard the statement ‘There is a God’ but they ‘just’ lack a belief, then they think that they are justified in some way in resisting the truth of the claim.  In fact, there is no way of resisting claims about the truth of statements unless you have built up a system for deciding when statements are true (or, perhaps, when you are justified in believing statements).

In the above example, Jillette claims that not believing a statement is easy due to a rule ‘You can’t prove a negative’.  Forget that the rule is demonstrably incorrect and get down to the level of theory: why is this a rule?  Why should you believe it?

Why should you believe it in favour of other equally intuitively correct statements, such as ‘You should only believe tautologies (P V ~P) until one side of the disjunct proves more likely to be true than the other?’   Thus atheists would be people who asserted that either God exists or He does not.

And thus we’ve cracked open the problem: atheism is more than just the lack of belief.  It’s a richer system of justification.

The Actual Definition: ‘Atheism is the belief that a lack of belief in God is justifiable.’

By stating the definition correctly, we can have meaningful discussions with theists and other atheists alike.  Is it really true that a lack of belief in God is justifiable (yes, yes it is)?

Better yet, it allows for diversity within atheism.  Just as Christians are believers for a wide variety of reasons, atheists can think that their lack of belief is justified for a wide variety of reasons.  The role of outspoken atheists is to give language to why people might consider their lack of belief justifiable.

What is interesting about this definition is that it requires us to move away from naked assertions about what is or is not ‘default rational’ and into a discussion about how we, as very flawed human beings with limited faculties, are able to justify our beliefs (or lack of beliefs).

It’s in this space that we find more than enough room for feminist theory, gender theory, and other important philosophies which are regularly marginalised within the broader pop-atheist community.

Are mainstream pop-atheist beliefs justifiable?


More than that, we know that most of the outspoken atheists are simply incorrect.

Not to pick on the guy, but @CdrHBiscuitIII gave me the usual mantra in the one spot, so I’ll use his comment as an example of the mainstream position.

The most problematic idea is ‘evidence’.  What counts?  What we find in mainstream atheist thought is that only a very specific kind of evidence counts: evidence which is empirically verifiable.  This acceptance of only statements which can be verified empirically is called ‘positivism‘.

The most devastating thing about this position is that it is incoherent.  If only statements which can be verified empirically are permissible, then the statement ‘Only statements which can be empirically verified should be believed’ should be itself empirically verifiable.  It’s not.

So there’s this article of faith at the centre of mainstream atheism: we are positivists even though it’s not a coherent position.  Further, the mainstream atheist position is to ‘normalise’ these intuitions about empiricism being the best system.  We are back to Marx’ definition of ideology: ‘They don’t know it, but they do it.’  The (probably unconscious) point of all the atheist literature and blog posts is to make you feel that intuitions about positivism and empiricism are obviously true and don’t require examination.  Back to Twitter:

Of course, empiricism is not the best system for establishing the truth.  Although I have a lean towards rationalism, it’s hard to find any serious scholars who set up shop entirely in one camp or the other.  Outside of the academy, we have people asserting that empiricism obviously makes sense.  They don’t know it, but they do it.

The Secular Project: What does ‘secular’ mean anyway?

Most atheists, it turns out, aren’t really interested in the big meaty issue of metaphysics and ontology.  They’re really interested in a social project: working out how to tell religious people to keep to themselves and out of the public space.  This social project is called ‘secularism’ and it’s dumb.

The assertion is that this is easy: in order to create a secular society, all arguments which rely on religion are argumenta non grata.  Thus, you take out your big red texta and cross out all the arguments which are religious.

But how do you distinguish between religious and non religious arguments?  When I ask this question, I’m always told that it’s ‘obvious’ and you need only know what words mean in order to distinguish between the two.

What about negligence law?  Is that secular?  Really?

Here’s Lord Atkin in Donoghue v Stevenson:

At present I content myself with pointing out that in English law there must be and is some general conception of relations, giving rise to a duty of care, of which the particular cases found in the books are but instances. The liability for negligence whether you style it such or treat it as in other systems as a species of “culpa,” is no doubt based upon a general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing for which the offender must pay. But acts or omissions which any moral code would censure cannot in a practical world be treated so as to give a right to every person injured by them to demand relief. In this way rules of law arise which limit the range of complainants and the extent of their remedy. The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbour?” receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who then in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.

The two parts to note: ‘based upon a general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing for which the offender must pay’; ‘Who is my neighbour?

So is negligence law secular or religious?  It arises due to a general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing and found expression through religious argument (or, perhaps, the religious argument found expression in legal terms — the distinction doesn’t matter in this blog post).

There are two common responses.  The first is strange: the moral and religious sentiments were actually proto-legal sentiments in disguise.  Under this view, the sentiments which gave rise to negligence law were just hanging around in religious books and draped with religious language.  They are not themselves religious sentiments.  Similarly, the passages in the Old Testament which deal with property disputes are not religious but legal.

It’s strange because it seems like an argument by convenience.  The bits of religion that we want are not actually religious; the bits that we don’t want are religious.  The bits which developed our understanding of how to settle property disputes are not religious; the bits that developed our understanding of the role of a woman in society are religious.

The second response is to invoke magic: at some point in the development of negligence law, we transitioned from the religious sphere into the secular sphere.  Although we think transmogrification is stupid and mockworthy, we think it’s completely reasonable to believe that religious things magically turn into secular things.  This second approach is the ‘whitewashing’ approach.  When we think that our intuitions are default rational and value-neutral, we just remove all the inconvenient bits in order to make it so.  We see it a lot in discussions about multiculturalism: my current culture is value-neutral and you are trying to push your values when you refuse to assimilate.

This is a real problem in old school atheist circles.  This is what Nietzsche meant when he said: ‘God is dead: but considering the state the species Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown’.  The process of working out what’s religious and what is secular is difficult.  It’s probably impossible.


Atheism is sublime and beautiful.  It’s engaging with thousands of years of our best thinkers.  The intellectual development of theology has often been in response to those of us who were skeptical and who could articulate that skepticism.  It is a great disappointment that mainstream atheism (pop-atheism) has turned its back on that heritage in order to become the crass, barbarian rubbish that we get today.  Instead of the sublime and beautiful, we get people asserting their unchecked privilege as if they were laws of physics.

It’s thoroughly depressing.

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee… Why Dawkins is wrong on #abortion #atheism

Head.  Desk.

It must be really difficult to be Richard Dawkins.  Each morning, he wakes up absolutely certain of things.  He is absolutely certain that the world around him is real and that anything for which he cannot find empirical evidence is not.  He is absolutely certain that only verifiable statements have truth values (except, of course, for the statement: ‘Only verifiable statements have truth values’ but that would just be obscurantist philosophers being silly).  He is absolutely certain that there’s a thing called secularism and that you need only be a wealthy, white, straight male in order to distinguish the secular from the religious.  He is absolutely certain that there’s nothing racist about hating on Muslims, nothing misogynist about excluding female perspectives if they do not accord with ‘strict logic’, and nothing to be gained in exploring the social sciences of hard sciences.  You theists should only engage with the best available science, but if you ask Dawkins to engage with the best available theology, you are mocked.

Of course, all of this assumes that Dawkins is even aware of the intellectual quagmire into which he’s been sinking for the better part of a decade.

Increasingly, I wonder if I have given Dawkins too much of the benefit of the doubt.  He recently took to Twitter to mansplain abortion to everybody and, well…

It didn’t go so well.

As is usual, the appropriate opening: I am pro-death.  I think that women have complete control over their bodies all the way through the process and there is no legal justification in protecting the baby from the mother at any point.  Late term abortions?  Go for it.

I am very much wedded to virtue ethics, spiced with a bit of good old fashioned Kantianism.  Morality is objectively true.  &c., &c.

Now let’s get to Dawkins.

With respect to those meanings of “human” that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig.

Oh…  Okay…  Whut?!

This makes absolutely zero sense.  Part of this suggests that there’s a spectrum upon which something might be considered ‘human’ and, upon this spectrum, is an equivalent position where one would find an adult pig.  Which spectrum is this?  Where does one find a copy of this spectrum?

Any sensible person would say that a pig is not at all human, yet a foetus is at least something like a human.  ‘At least something like a human’ is more human than ‘not at all a human’.

Dawkins (as we will see in a moment) is playing obscurantist word games with the word ‘morality’.  The definition of ‘human’ in his tweet is not a biological definition, but a moral definition.  Is there a moral definition of ‘human’?  No.  There’s a moral definition of ‘person’, but that wouldn’t be as trolltastic and Dawkins is nothing if not an attention-seeker.

The other word to look at here is ‘any’.  Any foetus is less (morally) human than an adult pig.  Dawkins will quickly back away from this claim into a weirdly pro-life position.

“Human” features relevant to the morality of abortion include ability to feel pain, fear etc & to be mourned by others.

Remember the word ‘any’ in his first tweet?  We are fairly certain that late term foetus are capable of feeling pain and fear.  When they are miscarried, they are mourned.  So we know of some foetus who are ‘more human’ (seriously, what?) than an adult pig.

But from where is Dawkins pulling this definition?  Why are those features relevant to being ‘morally human’?

The answer: Dawkins has stacked the deck.  We know medical conditions where people are incapable of feeling pain (CIPA) or sensing fear (certain damage to the brain).  But Dawkins doesn’t want a free-for-all on those people with atypical neural processes, so he includes the backdoor argument of ‘to be mourned by others’.  What this does is connect the individual to the social community.  You are ‘morally human’ if somebody will mourn your death.

Crazily enough, this opens the door to all kinds of vegan weirdness.  ‘My cow can sense pain, fear, and will be mourned by me.  It’s unethical to eat cows.’

Dawkins starts to suspect he’s burying himself in crazy, so sends in more crazy trains as cover.  First, he tweets a strawman about miscarriage.  It’s a nonsense tweet.  Then he brings out the big gun:

Yes, anything can be mourned.  If you are going to mourn your fetus, you are free not to have an abortion.

Mansplained like a boss, yo.  ‘You are only free to have an abortion if you are not in any way emotionally connected to the foetus.’

There’s an obvious counter example.  I think it’s morally permissible to abort a foetus if the child is disabled.  I can imagine being in a horrible situation where my partner is faced with the choice of keeping a foetus to whom she has grown extremely fond and of aborting the foetus because she does not believe it’s ethically correct to give birth to a child who will suffer the disability.  Dawkins is telling her that she is not free to have an abortion if she’s going to mourn it.

We should stop here for a moment.  I think Dawkins has half understood a conversation he’s had with A.C. Grayling and is trying to repeat it.  Dawkins’ buffoonish attempt to construct an argument really does sound like an undergraduate at the pub trying to appropriate their lecturer’s words.  Dawkins has not presented even a remotely sane argument here.

Further, it says nothing about duty to protect which Dawkins himself has used on a number of occasions in his theodicy: ‘God could prevent a murder but He does nothing to stop it.  Therefore, God is not omnipotent or God is evil.  Therefore, God doesn’t exist.’  Dawkins can’t pull that munted rabbit out of the hat and then abort it the second it’s inconvenient.  What is the moral duty of the community to prevent murders?  If we know that a murder is going to happen, do we have an obligation to do something to prevent it?  This is a problem for Dawkins (and not for me) because Dawkins has said that preventing a murder when you can is intuitively a moral obligation but wants to turn the act of abortion into a private matter between a woman and her foetus.  If you are pro-life, you are not just pro-life for your own foetus; you are pro-life because you think that all foetus deserve protection.

Back to Dawkins’ tweets:

My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality.  Opponents follow absolutist morality.  Simple.

The opposite of ‘consequentialist’ is not ‘absolutist’.  Dawkins is attempting to smear opponents: ‘Oh, you’re just an absolutist.  My absolute nonsense is anti-absolutionism.’

Further, it’s not ‘standard consequentialist morality’.  If that denotes anything, it denotes ‘rule consequentialism‘ which Dawkins has not described.

First, ‘human’ is not a moral category so ‘my definition is standard consequentialist morality’ is completely nonsensical.  It’s like somebody saying: ‘My definition of “tennis” is standard quantum physics.’

Second, we’ve already seen why it wouldn’t be ‘standard’ consequentialist morality.  Although I think consequentialists are incorrect, I don’t think consequentialists are stupid.  Dawkins’ criteria are stupid.

Worse, a non-absolutist consequentialism can result in a pro-life stance.  Indeed, a lot of pro-life arguments are consequentialist, examining the overall utility and good in protecting defenseless foetus against being terminated.  We see this often: ‘Abortion stops the foetus from maximally enjoying their life.’  No absolutism needed.

Confusingly, Dawkins’ argument relies on an absolutist definition of ‘human’ (by which we should all think he means ‘person’).  A human is a creature which can feel pain, experience fear, and will be mourned by others.  Why are these the criteria?  Because Dawkins is using an absolutist definition of human/person.

The next dozen tweets or so are old man crazy ranting.  He returns to the land of coherency with this strange nugget:

Unlike many pro-choice friends, I think that fetal pain could outweigh woman’s right to control her own body.  But pig pain matters too.


Dawkins’ argument is contingent on our understanding of foetal pain not changing.  If we discover that you don’t need brains in order to feel pain — or, rather, if we discover that you don’t need a brain in order to feel pain on the same level as an adult pig… wtf — then Dawkins’ batshit argument leaves open the door for abortion to be morally impermissible.  Further, Dawkins’ argument explictly excludes the right of a woman to have a late term abortion, which is cray-cray.

A woman is eight months pregnant.  She is in a loving relationship with a man whom she intends to raise the child.  A freak accident results in his death and she has a severe mental breakdown.  It is flatly immoral to say to the woman that she cannot terminate the pregnancy just because Richard Dawkins thinks that the foetus’ ‘pain’ outweighs the mother’s quality of life.

Any good argument in favour of abortion will not be contingent on quirks.  We simply do not know how a pig experiences pain.  We don’t know what it’s like to be a pig.  We hazard a guess that the experience is similar to our own, but there’s no real evidence that it is.  You can’t see subjective experience on a brain scan.  An adult pig might experience fear and pain in ways far beyond our own capacity — it would be odd if Dawkins thought that this meant it was okay to start killing other people willy nilly.

In short, he doesn’t know.  He’s making it up.

But it sounds sort of sciencey.  Like ‘evolutionary psychology’, it has all the right words there to make you feel like this is a rational argument.  ‘Yeah, I’d eat pigs.  Pigs are less morally human than me.  Foetus are less morally human than pigs.  Abortions are great.’  But there’s no coherence to the argument.  How could something be ‘less morally human’?  Why do pain, fear, and ability to be mourned matter?  Why is it a private affair and not something which should concern the moral community?  Why do women lose control of their bodies?  Dawkins doesn’t have an answer to any of this because Dawkins hasn’t really thought about it.  This is him looking at the world and deciding that whatever he intuits must be factual.  You know, like a lay-theist does when they look at the world and see that it’s ‘designed’.

In conclusion, pop-atheists really need some new role models.