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Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The Pathology of Denial

The Give Up Blog has a post cataloging the tactics of denialists. Denialists are people who, for particular ideological reasons, dispute the consensus on certain subjects despite the overwhelming evidence that supports that consensus. Denialists come in many flavors: evolution deniers, HIV causes AIDS deniers, holocaust deniers, etc. Despite the particulars of what well-supported finding they deny across these groups, they all seem to draw from the same box of flawed reasoning and use of logical falacies to support their denial belief.

I've discussed this before with respect to a particular lesser-known denialist belief (Einstein denial), and Seth at Whiskey Before Breakfast has been ruminating on this with several posts trying to work out how and why this denial "memeplex" gets propagated.

As I commented on Seth's blog earlier, I think "denialism" can be adequately explained as a subset of credulous thinking. There's little difference between denying specific conclusions that are based on overwhelming evidence like evolution, AIDS, etc., and accepting pseudoscience like UFO abduction stories, astrology, and psychic phenomona with no supporting evidence. The latter enthusiasts of such credulous beliefs simply deny the overwhelming evidence that these things (UFO's, astrology, psychic powers) don't exist. And they use the same flawed reasoning and logical falacies to ignore all the evidence that points to more mundane explanations.

Still, it's illuminating to see all the common arguments laid bare for future profiling.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Ed Brayton is Reading My Mind

There's no other explanation. How else could he have written a post on his blog that so clearly echoes my own thoughts? He knew I was ruminating on the recent brouhaha going on at The Panda's Thumb regarding Ken Miller and PZ Myers (see his relevant blog posts here, here, here, here, and here), and that I was planning to comment on the whole thing. He just had to put his well-written post up before I got a chance to type those thoughts out on my own blog. What a jerk!

Or, it's all just a coincidence and we just reached the same conclusions from similar viewpoints about the futility of ideological battles. OK, so I was wrong about there being no other explanation, but I like my theory better (which probably means it's wrong).

Ed's post has generated a large amount of comments, and it seems some folks are misunderstanding Ed's arguments, at least as I see them. A few points that I would focus on had I actually gotten to write my essay on this topic:

You don't have to respect someone's religious beliefs, the religion they subscribe to, or even them as a person. You do have to (at least under the 1st Amendment in the US Constitution, but I think it's a good general rule for non-Americans as well) tolerate their right to hold a religious view (or any other view or opinion) and express it freely, just as they have to tolerate your right to call their belief ludicrous.

It's counterproductive to label people who may have differing religious views/opinions than yours, but the same views/opinions on liberty, freedom of thought and expression, science, and separation of church and state, as enemies that should be excluded, ostracized and ridiculed. Unfortunately creationists, theocrats, and neo-conservatives have largely learned this lesson and put it into action with their "big tent" strategy. Of course their goal is not to encourage freedom of thought but rather to limit everyone's civil liberties and force us all to adhere to their particular moral code and religious viewpoint. They frame their struggle as one of good religious folk versus the evil atheists/secularists to somewhat successful political and cultural gain, despite the fact that all those different religious sects disagree on lots of points. As long as you subscribe to any religion, you're with us, and you're against those bad atheists. When over 80% of the US population claims to be religious, this strategy can create real political power.

We need to reframe the struggle as one of those who believe in freedom, liberty, and fairness, regardless of religious views, versus those who seek to impose the authoritarian hierarchy of their particular doctrine on everyone else. I'd be willing to wager that if the battle lines were drawn this way, the folks on the side of liberty and freedom would be the vast majority.

So I think it's unhelpful when some atheists don't distinguish between making fun of religion or the religous, and painting all people with religious beliefs as the enemies of reason, or at best, stooges or patsies of the theocrats. So it's perfectly reasonable for PZ Myers to criticize Ken Miller's views on how he blends his religious beliefs with science and rationality, even to mock it and call it ridiculous. But I think it's a mistake for Myers to label Ken Miller as a creationist and a stooge of the religious right (Myers has since backed off from his original characterization of Miller's views; good for him!).

Conversely, it is also unhelpful for some liberals to admonish their liberal atheist allies to stop attacking religion on the grounds that it hurts their efforts to get other Christians to the accept liberal values and join our own version of the "big tent". Freedom of expression is a fundamental principal, not just a liberal talking point that can be expediently discarded for short-term political gain. Atheists (and everyone else) have a right to criticize, mock, and insult any idea or person they choose. And it's hardly atheists' penchant for pointing out the absurdity, contradictions, and harmful effects of religious belief that makes them the most reviled minority group in America. Unscrupulous religious and political leaders have been demonizing atheists, and the media has been dutifully echoing their attacks, for years. Atheists and "secularists" are evil, selfish people who want to destroy your religion, steal Christmas, and remove all restrictions of morality on human behavior. This false and dishonest rhetoric is the major cause of people's distrust of atheists, not the actual views of atheists themselves.

I realize people might read the two paragraphs above and conclude that I have just made a glaring self-contradiction. How can I simultaneously complain about atheists demonizing religious people and then turn around and chastize liberal Christians for complaining about the same thing? Well, here's where I see the fundamental difference:

My position is that atheists (and anyone else) have a right to freely express their criticisms and dislike for religious views and to call out religious people on the contradictions in their religious views, even to the point of outright mockery. However, it is counterproductive for some atheists to label religious people who agree with you on issues of freedom of thought and expression, liberty, and fairness as either enemies of reason, rationality, and liberty or the unwilling patsies of those enemies. To build a "big tent" we should focus on the common ground we share. We do not ignore the places where we have fundamental disagreements, nor do we shy away from expressing those disagreements. However, we recognize that those disagreements about religion are less important than our agreements on freedom and liberty.

The position I perceive some liberal Christians taking is that we should tell our liberal atheist colleagues to shut up about their dislike of religion, and stop attacking religious views and people, so we can molify the religious folk who may have some liberal views but are wary of joining us in the "big tent." Atheists merely expressing their opinions about religion is toxic, and they should be "seen but not heard" until the Democrats win the next few elections.

I think my position is a reasonable request for a modicum of civility (that applies equally towards atheists who demonize all religious believers as well as religious people who demonize all atheists) towards building a broad coalition, while the second position is an unreasonable demand on limiting one group's freedom of expression. The goal of building a coalition is the same, but the strategy is based on a faulty premise.

Having said all that, let be me clear in stating that the problem of a very few atheists demonizing reasonable people with religious views is infinitesimal compared to the widespread demonization of atheists by religious and political leaders and the general negative attitude towards atheists in the United States. Claiming that this negative view is derived from atheists being too "militant" in stating their views seems to me like blaming the victim.

Everyone who believes in liberty and freedom, regardless of whether you are religious or not, should be willing to avow that most atheists, like most any other group of human beings, are decent, honest, moral people who contribute to society like everyone else. Liberals who want to hide atheists away as their "dirty little secret," by showing how they are "ashamed" of the atheists who support them, tacitly accept the way the Religious Right has framed the struggle of religious (good) versus secular (bad).

We need to reject this framework entirely, and form our own "big tent" around the ideas of freedom of expression, liberty, fairness, and scietific integrity. The real struggle is between those who believe in these ideas, and those who would pay lip service to those ideas but would replace them with their authoritarian doctrine as soon as they gained enough power.

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Monday, September 11, 2006


Remembering 9/11

Today is the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Like many Americans, this was a defining moment for me and I can clearly remember exactly where I was and what I was doing as those horrible events unfolded that day. Orac has a post up that echos some of my own feelings and expresses them better than I could. Ed Brayton also recalls the reaction of such esteemed religious leaders as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (blame the liberals, what else?).

It's ironic that the politicians spouting rhetoric about "not letting the terrorists win" are the ones most guilty of using the fear of more terrorist attacks to goad Americans into voting for and re-electing them, and are also guilty of using 9/11 as a justification for reducing our civil liberties. Don't the terrorists "hate us for our freedom?" Isn't reducing that freedom letting the terrorists win? Why has dissent of the policies and actions of our current administration morphed into the strawman of wanting to "appease" the terrorists?

I think Benjamin Franklin said it best:
"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Remember and honor the victims of 9/11. Stand up against terrorism and extremism. But also stand up for liberty and freedom. Stand up for accountability not only for the extremists, but for our political leaders as well. Shouldn't we beware that we don't sacrifice the very freedoms we stand for, nor that we become like the terrorists themselves in fighting them?

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Sunday, September 10, 2006


Unsolicitizzle Opinizzle

Apparently Snoop Dogg has a search engine built just for him. Check out Gizoogle. Any page you search for will be translated into a Snoop-esque version of Jive (Wikipedia link for those unfamiliar with American culture and African American slang in particular). It's surprising how accurate the translation can be, and how little meaning is lost from the original text. As an example, you can see how my blog looks after it's been Gizoogled.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Old People are Really Nasty and Raunchy

Okay, maybe that's a bit of a generalization. But that's the impression I got from watching the Comedy Central roast of William Shatner. I used to watch the TV show Golden Girls when I was a kid in the 80's, and Betty White was one of the stars. She played, the sweet, but gullible (read: stupid) Rose and really projected the persona of a nice, sweet old lady. Imagine my surprise watching Betty White roast William Shatner with the most vile racial and homosexual jokes, complete with language that would make Richard Pryor blush. Oddly, she delivered all her jokes in the same sweet, old lady voice and tone I remembered from the Golden Girls. It was absolutely hilarious (see a clip here; *WARNING* it's not for sensitive viewers).

And she wasn't the only senior citizen on this show with a foul mouth. Star Trek co-stars Nichelle Nichols and George Takei were equally raunchy and funny, not to mention the guest of honor William Shatner himself at the end.

A roast is definitely not for the easily offended or thin-skinned. The jokes pull no punches and the roasters seem to take perverse delight in outdoing each other in vileness offensiveness and profanity. The humor comes from their reveling in the vileness and the absurd extremes to which they push the material.

I expected the raunchyness from the younger comics at the roast, but watching Betty White casually join in the fun was a treat of perverse comedy. I guess when you get older and wiser, you're less concerned about how other people see you and more interested in just getting the most out the time you're given on this Earth.

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