Archive for the ‘humanism’ Category

Haiti relief

January 14, 2010

As many of you have already heard, there was a recent major earthquake in Haiti, January 12 at 5:00 measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. Some discussion can be found here and here. From the latter,

“It’s incredible,” Preval (the President –lt) told CNN. “A lot of houses destroyed, hospitals, schools, personal homes. A lot of people in the street dead. … I’m still looking to understand the magnitude of the event and how to manage.”

Preval said thousands of people were probably killed. Leading Sen. Youri Latortue told The Associated Press that 500,000 could be dead, but conceded that nobody really knows.

“Let’s say that it’s too early to give a number,” Preval said.

This is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, ill-equipped to handle a catastrophe of this magnitude. They need help. I’ve heard from a few charity organizations that instead of trying to give food, water, etc., the most effective help that they can use is money. One place to donate is The Red Cross. Under “Getting and Giving Involved” scroll to “Donate” and there’s several options on ways to donate. If you select “online”, choosing the “International Response Fund” is apparently the appropriate choice for Haiti relief.

Several other good secular options are listed at Highly Kaffeinated (nice name). Just for convenience (and raise their Google rankings), they include, Doctor’s Without Borders, Operation USA, Direct Relief International, and Humanist Charities. All good choices.

Let’s get some help out there.


District 9 review

September 8, 2009

Well, we finally went out and saw the movie District 9. For its intent, this movie was quite well done. In the extremely unlikely event aliens would ever come here, and if they were in the sad shape these aliens happened to be in, I would hope that the outcome would be different. Sadly, in this hypothetical situation, I can see this movie as being not too far off the mark. In the movie, the worst of humanity was put on display for our visitors. Humanity’s inhumanity to others who are different, to themselves, along with a healthy dose of greed and superstition. The reason this is somewhat plausible is because this is stuff we’ve seen before. With European colonization of the Americas, to apartheid in South Africa, to Nigerian witchhunts, to the genocide in Rwanda. The fact that people do notice these things and that there is moral outrage is a sign of progress, but it seems we have a significant ways to go to raise the bar.

Possible spoilers below the fold.

Dancing with the broom

June 6, 2009

Over at Evidence for God, one of those religious sites I check out once in a while, there is an intriguing article on human worth and what the Bible has to say about it. The sermonesque story begins on a cleaning person sweeping the floors of a laboratory and apologizing for getting in the way of “important” scientists, saying in effect that she was “dancing with the broom”. The author correctly points out as a society, we seem to place the lion’s share of importance on movie stars, athletes, politicians (and scientists too we hope!), and so on. The point is then made that in God’s eyes we are all equal and Jesus said that he himself came to serve. That the greatest is the least and least is the greatest and so on. That we should try to see our fellow humans in this light. This is similar to other interpretations about parables where Jesus tells his disciples that when they do things to others they do so to him. The relevant interpretation that I am thinking about is that we all have a Christ-like nature.

There is a tremendous amount wrong and even atrocious with most religions and Christianity specifically. However, there are a few gems that can be picked out of any religion, and with a little polishing, the idea of equality of human nature and helping others is one of them. It is a good moral instruction with which I believe most of us can agree. But here is a major difference. The writer of the afore-mentioned article writes:

The reason why we are to act without partiality is because God Himself does not show partiality towards individuals. So, the Christian is to serve others on the basis of the strength God supplies, so that all glory goes to Him. God values all human beings equally, since we are all created in His image. Even though we are created in the image of God, we have all strayed from His morally-perfect image, and so need a Savior to be declared Holy and acceptable to God by faith in Jesus Christ, in order to gain entrance into heaven. However, once we enter that state, our station in heaven will be based upon our record of service to others in this life. So, it seems likely that the famous people on earth might be the broom pushers in heaven, while the lowly are given the highest honors.

No, we do not need a God to justify acting towards others with impartiality. Why is it not enough to recognize each others basic humanity? To recognize our common shared heritage of several billion years of evolution and the shared progress of civilization. Why is it not sufficient to be self-aware enough to recognize our own imperfections and inabilities but to know our strengths and how they can be used to help others in this fantastic journey of humanity. To know that others too will also not be perfect but will have abilities that perhaps we lack? That each of us contributes to the human experience. Grow when we can, self correct, learn, move forward, ever onward. In the indifferent eyes of the cosmos, we are all the same and insignificant. We all stand humbled by the amazing (yet ever more comprehensible) complexity of life, power of shifting continents, power of the sun, and a cosmos stretching out billions of light years and containing billions of galaxies. In the face of all this and all there is yet to learn, what we have is each other. Each of us an amazing complex arrangement of star dust.

Learning compassion and human evolution

April 14, 2009

From NPR, I came across an interesting study from USC that looked at compassion linked to physical pain, contrasted with “learned compassion” related more to psychological pain. It is reasonable to expect that empathy (see one interesting detailed study here), linked to empathetic neural “mirror” circuits in the brain, was likely an adoptive survival trait. This is kind of a short circuit that could have helped to recognize when another in the social group is in pain and needing help, or for quickly learning things to avoid.

What the USC study showed is that empathy related to physical pain was much more quickly processed (hardwired) then nonphysical pain. Antonio Damasio, coauthor and David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at USC and the director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, says:

… early humans were probably more likely to survive if they could tell when a friend needed help or a foe was in pain.

“It probably took longer in evolution to get to a stage in which human beings could look at another human being, not see anything externally wrong with them, but imagine that there was something quite wrong in terms of their feelings, in terms of their mental pain,” he says.

Damasio says people still aren’t born with this sort of compassion. They have to learn it.

What I found interesting was that many of the same brain systems were involved in processing both the physical and psychological types of empathetic pain. But processing physical pain empathy was nearly instantaneous whereas to process more complex emotional pain took about 6 seconds longer. It seems as if the appropriate brain systems were co-opted via appropriate learning to give the same effect as an originally evolved function. There are possible implications for raising children.

That raises questions about the effects of news programs and video games in which a traumatic psychological event may flash by in a just a second or two, Damasio says.

He says that might not be long enough for children who are still learning compassion.

Possibly, if children are not learning the full range of compassion, they may not acquire these skills. As empathy and compassion are the foundation of our morality, this could be detrimental to society.

This is also consistent with the argument against the theistic argument that a god or religious thinking is necessary for morality. Morality emerges from the empathy and compassion built into our naturally evolved brains. That does not mean that we don’t need some early foundational training, or brain mapping, to handle more complex social issues.

Iowa impresses me

April 3, 2009

With a tip o’ the hat to PZ Myers, I just learned from Pharyngula that Iowa is allowing same-gendered marriages, that is, extending civil rights equality to all regardless of sexual orientation. Specifically, the Iowa Supreme Court has outlawed bans on same sex marriage as unconstitutional. From the source link:

“The decision strikes the language from Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman. It further directs that the remaining statutory language be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage,” the statement on the court’s Web site says.

The Iowa Supreme Court said it has the responsibility to determine if a law enacted by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch violates the Iowa Constitution. “The court reaffirmed that a statute inconsistent with the Iowa Constitution must be declared void, even though it may be supported by strong and deep-seated traditional beliefs and popular opinion,” the court said.

So, in an unexpected twist, Iowa has beaten my adopted state of California in terms of fair and progressive thinking, that protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Wow. Just wow. Again, I am totally embarrassed for my state. But congratulations to Iowa.

In spite of our tar pit of financial and environmental problems, California certainly has a lot going for it. Due to the smog problems, we are fighting to lead the way in reducing vehicle emissions. We helped Obama into the White House (More on that later. A mixed blessing, but still, I believe better than the alternative.). We are striving to make inroads into alternative and cleaner energies (check out that link if you are in California). We have a pretty good state university system. We are known for being a socially progressive state, at least in the more populated coastal areas of L.A. and San Francisco. But in an anti-progressive bigoted move (and under a media blitz from mainly religious institutions), California passed Proposition 8, effectively stripping away the rights of a certain segment of the population from getting married. Maybe someday California will join Iowa and put both feet in the 21st century.

Exploring the afterlife

January 13, 2009

I’ve discussed before how one of the consolations offered by many religions is the possibility of an afterlife. That after death you’ll have some real quality time with the guy (typically referred to in the male sense in Abrahamic religions anyway) you’ve been worshiping and be able to get reunited with all your loved ones (assuming you guessed the correct religion of course, which may not always be necessary for all religions). This state of affairs is often said to last for eternity.

I’ve seen comments from many of my fellow atheists elsewhere that living for eternity would be horrible. After doing everything you could every possibly want, what could possibly keep one interested in anything anymore after the first 50 billion years or so? A typical analogy is that of an eagle whose wing tip brushes off one grain of sand each day from a large mountain. Starting from the first day to when the disappearance of the mountain is like one day of eternity. Sounds like my commute to work. In fact, the situation is worse. Since eternity is, by definition, unbounded, the time for the mountain’s disappearance might as well count for a fraction of a second of eternity.

That being said, I don’t really mind the idea of having eternal life. But if I were designing an Eternal Life Package, I would probably include an opt out clause that would allow the eternal life participant to painlessly blink oneself out of existence when one has had enough. There are, after all, some interesting events to observe in the future. When the sun expands to engulf the current orbit of the earth in 3-5 billion years, it would be kind of cool to see the land melt and watch the planet possibly burn up. If you had any bets on that, that would be the time to collect. Although I hope our descendants will have figured out how to save the biosphere first. Speaking of descendants, it would be interesting to see what path evolution takes in regards to our species and others.

But let’s get back to reality.

Sunday Sermonette — Economics of religion

January 11, 2009

Recently the unemployment rate has hit 7.2%, the worst it has been since 1945. If I recall correctly, an IBMer not long ago told their employees that the key to survival in this global economy was not lifetime employment, but lifetime employability. It is important to keep the skills and knowledge sharp to be able to maintain your position or to easily move into better positions while taking advantage of opportunities. Small consolation when the layoff comes though. Having been there, I know that full well. Psychologically, it is tough because for many; the job comes with a sense of identity and a sense of belonging.

So it didn’t surprise me when I caught a snippet on NPR not too long ago when they had a story about religious organizations reaping the benefits from job loss and the uncertainty that environment entails. I’ve blogged about this before. One pastor, I believe it was, said, without apparent awareness of the irony, that churches are good for economic bad times because churches understand money. I think it is more to the point that churches provide a sense of certainty, a sense of identity, and a sense of belonging. No doubt some also feel that they are developing a personal relationship with some fictitious being, but I suspect the security and personal fellowship is really the stronger pull.

What is the humanist/free thinker/atheist response? Although true, it is probably not enough to say that putting trust in imaginary beings to make things alright simply doesn’t work. That doesn’t give one the sense of security or a feeling that somehow things are under control. If you are one of the unfortunate to get laid off, I would suggest keeping in mind that, as a human, you have in your possession one of the most powerful and complex instruments in the universe. Honed over millions of years of evolution, the brain, although very much susceptible to fooling itself, is nonetheless capable of much when used correctly. Use it. Analyze what happened. It may have been out of your control, but were there ways you could have been more secure? How can you build yourself so that you are stronger next time? Learn from this. One is never too old to learn new things. Perhaps now is the time to take some classes, if you can. Increase your skills and knowledge.

The time off may also provide opportunity to deepen your personal relationships with family and friends. You probably also have friends from your old place of work. Keep up and grow a network. Perhaps something like LinkedIn or maybe something more specific for your career. Talk with your old colleagues. Perhaps there may be a business idea you all could explore. By the time you’ve gone over it, put together a business plan, etc., the economy may have started on the road to recovery. Hopefully during this time you are getting unemployment. So, there’s a lot of things to do instead of giving up and counting on a fictitious being with a really poor track record of actually helping people.

For those of us fortunate enough to still be working, remember, there is a lot of hurt out there now. The official season of giving may be over, but the real season of giving never is. I and others have posted on charities before, but just in case, here’s here’s another list. There’s lots of good causes. If you are unemployed now and would like to donate time towards helping, there are probably quite a few organizations that would welcome your help. For example, another great organization, FeedAmerica, has a volunteer link to help in your local community. Another good group to which to contribute is Oxfam. I would be remiss to not mention the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Efforts (S.H.A.R.E.) organization. I highly recommend this one.

What about that sense of community offered by religious organizations? Compared to them, we free thinkers and atheists are fairly new at developing community. Check out Atheist Meetup Groups to see if there is a local group near you. If you want your group to become part of something even larger, you can also have it become part of Atheist Alliance International.

If you know of any other good ways to cope with the economic meltdown, good charities to which to contribute, or have any thoughts on community building, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Atheism is morally bankrupt

December 19, 2008

Over at, we have an interesting article by Ben Shapiro explaining why atheism is a morally bankrupt system.

There’s only one problem: without God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will.

That’s because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions—the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power—a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, “Although … I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined … [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it.”

The main gist of the article than goes on to say that without a soul we are inherently bound to completely deterministic biology and so there is no free will and without free will there are no morals. Hence, God exists. Atheism is bad. Q.E.D. First, of course, he presents absolutely no evidence that a soul or God even exists to be a foundation of morals. Shapiro provides no evidence that that things are not deterministic. He simply asserts that determinism is bad, we need morals, so atheism is bad. He is also unaware that he is constructing a strawman in that not every atheist (in fact very few) is arguing for determinism and the demise of free will, although we do know that genetics and environmental factors can influence a person’s decisions. Of course, he doesn’t see the strawman, but I’m sure he believes that he is simply drawing inferences from a materialistic conception of the world. The problem is the inferences are not necessarily correct. Indeed, at a fundamental level, it may very well that there is some measure of determinism, although at the fundamental level we do have to deal with the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. Of course, the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is fairly predictable. We might not be able to determine momentum and position simultaneously with infinite precision, but we know precisely what the fundamental relationship of the uncertainties of the 2 quantities are. Everything is not as ad hoc and free as some might want to think.

But one does have to take into account chaos. There are limits as to how well we can measure things, and the imprecision can make a significant difference in future outcomes. When it comes to individuals and society additionally, there are simply too many variables to predict with any reasonable precision what individual choices will be in all cases. So for all pragmatic purposes, we can not treat all choices as if one really has no free will. Responsibility does not require behavior to be uncaused, but, rather for individuals to recognize that actions have consequences. It is up to society to provide the framework in which that happens and from within which one may take actions that have desirable (for the benefit of all, think the Prisoners Dilemma) consequences for all as a whole and within which actions having deletirious effects are in some way discouraged. An excellent foundation for morality is given by Ebonmusing at his The Ineffable Carrot and Infinite Stick essay.

But what morality does religion encourage? In the Christian religion, God is the sum total of all good morals. The source of morality. In the Bible, children who disobey their parent (or who curse them, talk back to them, etc.) are to be stoned to death. This is by the order of God, whose moral sense is unchanging. In a famous scene, God orders a man’s death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Now there are those who argue that the purpose of the commandments was to simply show us how imperfect we are and in need of salvation. Let me repeat: according to the story, God orders death by stoning to a guy for picking up sticks on the sabbath. There are, of course, many more examples of God’s abhorrent moral behavior, but these two will suffice for this argument. There are also those who argue that Jesus abrogated the need for many of the rules. He let an adulteress free, for example, and said that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”. All well and good, but that doesn’t negate the fact that according to God’s unchanging morals, death is considered an appropriate moral punishment for talking back to your parents or trying to gather firewood to keep warm on a cold Saturday. Let’s say that you, dear reader, are a Christian parent. Do you think stoning to death your child for getting drunk and talking back to you is moral? If your answer is negative, you are more moral than the God you worship.

No, if we really want to lead moral and ethical lives, the last place we should look to for an example is any sort of god. Deterministic or chaotic, it is still up to us to determine what kind of society we live in and what sorts of decisions to make. We should look to compassion and a means to minimize suffering while maximizing the happiness of all.

Good times, bad times

December 15, 2008

you know I’ve had my share. Alright, this isn’t really about Led Zeppelin (although the economy is sinking like one). But apparently bad times in the economy translate into good times for evangelists. A recent article in the NY Times reports how evangelicals seem to be actually happy about this economic downturn as it means more addition to their flocks. From the article:

A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

So we may have a ratcheting effect causing the more evangelical (and possibly more fundamentalist) churches to grow possibly at the expense of more moderate churches. It is simple to figure out why, but I’ll let someone from the article explain it in his own words.

Frank O’Neill, 54, a manager who lost his job at Morgan Stanley this year, said the “humbling experience” of unemployment made him cast about for a more personal relationship with God than he was able to find in the Catholicism of his youth. In joining the Shelter Rock Church on Long Island, he said, he found a deeper sense of “God’s authority over everything — I feel him walking with me.”

Of course, we atheists realize that this reliance on a god gives only a false sense of security based on wishful thinking. We also realize that the market does have periodic ups and downs and so, in all likelihood, there will be an eventual recovery (though it may take a while in this case). We also know that there will be some who will likely see a “divine hand” in the recovery in spite of all the hardship and suffering preceding and that the recovery was likely anyway based on the evidence of history.

But simple logic and reason, for many people, does lack the emotional impact of having a special connection with the creator of the cosmos. To have a feeling that you are part of something bigger than all this and that this creator guy is watching out personally for you. It gives one a sense of hope in dark times. It is quite easy to defeat this spirituality with reason, but what constructive approach can we humanists and atheists offer as an emotionally positive alternative in times like this?

I don’t have any ready answers for this. I can see why saying “There is no god, rely on yourself and society.” may not seem like an emotionally satisfying alternative to someone like Frank O’Neill. But perhaps I can relate something from my own personal experience.

When I was laid off for a short time during the tech bubble crash, I saw this as an opportunity for growth. I took advantage of the time to learn new things, some of which turned out to be useful in the next step in my evolving career. One should be able to, amidst the ruin, evaluate and lay the foundation of a stronger structure, having learned from the experience. There was also time to further nurture personal relationships. To me, this seems much more useful than developing a “relationship” with something that doesn’t exist. One thing mentioned in the article was that people also are more able to contribute personal time to charitable functions, such as soup kitchens. I agree that is a worthwhile cause, and I’ve mentioned previously there are a number of notable secular charities and causes to which one can contribute as well. By doing so, we can do the groundwork for making a more progressive society where the needs of all can hopefully be met. I realize that the concept of humanity as a whole might, to some people, seem more abstract than some concrete cosmic entity looking out for everybody. But if we can help people to think at this higher level, I think society will be on a much more solid footing with more opportunity for success when the recovery finally takes effect.

I would be interested to see what anybody else thinks are positive things we, as humanists and atheists, can offer.

Creationist harm

December 14, 2008

I was recently asked in an email (not related to this blog) about the harm of creationism. This person tried to make the point that it is only fair to have both sides of the evolution story presented in science class. That this is in keeping with true American democracy and we should let children know that the matter is not settled. The person went further and asked that since most Americans accept creationism and our nation is in a position of scientific leadership, surely that demonstrates that it is o.k. to present creationism (or its insidious cousin, “intelligent design”) as a viable alternative theory. So, I figured I would work out some thoughts on the subject here on this blog. Feel free to add your own comments here.

Read on!