Atheist kindness

If there’s one particular argument over “who’s better and why” that I find disturbing, it’s the “theists do more/atheists do less to help the disadvantaged” trope. The PR associated with the “debate” over the issue has a way of making the vulnerable and disadvantaged, the very people who’s needs are supposed to be the purpose of the whole welfare venture, instrumental to other people’s self-image. Usually people who have more money than them.

Really, it seems quite selfish to me, this “we are kinder/just as kind”, kind of crap. You have these people who have a home, money and security, sponging off of the destitute for brownie points.

I’ve seen it in religious apologetics with the use of bad statistics, usually containing category errors which make unverifiable assumptions about those donating to charity. There are many avenues one can go by to help those in need, and most of them don’t discriminate against help on the basis of the life stance of the donor – hence they don’t exactly have a running census. You can’t just go and assume that all of World Vision’s work is the work of the religious – they seek donations from theist and atheist alike.

While I’m of the understanding that a number of church-based welfare agencies are pointedly non-proselytic (for example, it’s a violation of Centrecare’s code of ethics and social justice policy*), the same isn’t true of a number of religious aid initiatives. Let’s not mince words. Proselytism to the disadvantaged and vulnerable is predatory. It’s taking advantage of a lack of social justice to engage in coercion. Furthermore, it can get in the way of genuine relief efforts.

There are always resource bottlenecks in crisis situations. Even when infrastructure isn’t compromised, resources are finite and geared more closely to the supply and demand situation under normal circumstances. A large stochastic event drastically alters supply and demand in a way production isn’t geared to cope with. Take any of the serious Australian bushfires we’ve had in the past few years – we’re well equipped but in each relief effort you’ll hear words to the effect of “please no more clothes, just send food or donate directly to this fund”.

Storage space and transport are finite. Sending and storing things that aren’t needed doesn’t just not help – it can get in the way of relief efforts. A plane or truck carrying something that isn’t going to save a life could otherwise be used to transport something that could. In essence this is what John Stuart Mill called (and what economists call) opportunity cost.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that Haiti’s infrastructure was rubbish before the earthquake. It doesn’t take Einstein to tell that it’s even worse afterward. And it shouldn’t be beyond the average person off the street to be able to tell that a solar power bible isn’t going to pull anyone out of the rubble, or administer CPR, or set up a field hospital.

The easy answer to this is “ATHEIST CHARITY!!!” It’s an easy answer and like many easy answers, I don’t like it. For one, I prefer secular charity. There are two big, albeit not-necessary implications calling a charity “atheist” – either one of non-religious proselytism or exploitation for political ends: a response to the calculated stereotype that paints atheists as necessarily selfish (something the current Pope is guilty of spreading around).

It appears to be very easy for atheists to be baited into exploiting the beneficiaries of their charity, if only inadvertently. Take the recent “atheist giveaways“. Well meaning, no doubt. Needed, no doubt. And no signs of proselytism – that’s good.

But… Filming the needy at their most vulnerable – when they are asking for help – to produce a video showing how atheists can be nice, is not okay. It’s exploitative.

Sure, make a video arguing that atheists are nice people. Make a video promoting the cause of welfare. I don’t have a problem with either. There are however, right and wrong ways of going about it.

Helping people isn’t easy work, much less so when done properly. Just because the Vatican (and others) really has it in for atheists these days is no excuse to make great displays of kindness at any cost – including the cost of the dignity of the disadvantaged. This PR problem that has been foist upon us by others is the problem of said others – we shouldn’t be sabotaging our better inclinations just in order to respond.

Further to this. It should become apparent that in as far as the motives for helping people are concerned, I don’t think that the identity of the helper is particularly relevant. When I’ve done charity work, I haven’t, nor will I ever give a rat’s arse about who I do it with. At least in as far as religious affiliation is concerned.

Seriously, if you’re an atheist reading this, ask yourself “would I deny help from a theist in helping my fellow human?” If your answer is yes, then you’ve got problems. Sure, you probably don’t want to proselytise or be a party to proselytism directed at the poor – I can relate. But that doesn’t prevent you from working with religious people.

I know it’s not impossible because I’ve done it myself.

So what kind of “atheist charity” do you have if you have Christians and Muslims and fellow humans from various other religious affiliations at your side? You don’t have one. And if you aren’t church-based, and you don’t proselytise, what you have is a secular charity.

I’ve got a bit of a “faitheist” for a cousin, who likes to point out that there aren’t any atheist charities. Put simply, if you have a non-church-based charity that doesn’t proselytise and doesn’t care one hoot about who helps out, you’ve got as atheist a charity as many an atheist would ever want. Of course, these secular charities don’t stand out, but that’s not the point – they are numerous, but they’re there to help out, not to make a display.

Opportunity cost plays a part in this as well. Why waste energy on replicating welfare infrastructure that is already available to secular ends, even if the infrastructure just happens to church-based? Energy wasted on unnecessary replication of infrastructure is energy not spent on helping people.

That being said, atheists shouldn’t have their efforts frustrated either. There’s a lot of need in the world going unmet. So on the occasions that I’ve been made aware of secular not-for-profit initiatives aimed squarely at where need exists being discriminated against because of their non-religious status, I’m truly appalled. This comes down to opportunity cost as well.

A charity that serves X amount of utility, for Y amount of funding, displacing the utility provided by another contender (Z), where Xis being paid Y amount of funding to generate negative utility. Put more simply, they’re being paid to displace a better welfare agency and thus increase the need for welfare.

This can be put in even more sinister terms. Consider a thought experiment.

$1 million of funding is available to tender poverty relief. Using these funds, Charity A will alleviate $1.2 million of poverty; Charity B will alleviate $1.5 million of poverty. Due to denominational politics, Charity A gets the tender. The sinister aspect in this thought experiment is that the poor are paying $300,000 in opportunity costs so that Charity A can absorb $1 Million of funding into its infrastructure – along with all the political influence that buys – at the meagre cost of $200,000 (from tax-exempt income, of course).

This isn’t nearly as hypothetical as you may think. This, in various forms and with various sums, is essentially a lot of what happened with Job Network contracts under the Howard Government. Although the criteria for discrimination was more (albeit not entirely) secular – church-based institutions, along with more secular Job Network members, would be enticed carrot-and-stick to comply with new Job Network policy, attracting political influence at the price of giving political or religious validation to the Federal Government.

Concerns about what was best for the disadvantaged were pushed down the list of priorities as this religious-political horse trading was executed. Deserving, principled welfare groups (both church-based and secular) were themselves disadvantaged if they didn’t play along**. The needy being the end-recipient of this neglect.

The take-home message in all of this is that welfare agency, and not-for-profit attempts to better humanity’s lot in general, can be undermined when treated as political capital. Secular or not.

I am a big believer in secular welfare, and I think it the best way to bring about social justice – material needs being met with the best (albeit not infallible) guarantee of the preservation of human dignity. Not that I think for a moment that atheists have been selfish in the past, the renewed interest in welfare amongst the out-atheist community is to be welcomed. Just not as a PR exercise (why dignify anti-atheist propaganda with such a response anyway?)

In any undertaking of secular welfare however, we atheists need to keep in mind why we should be (not just why we are) going about it in the first place and let those justifications inform our strategies. We atheists are still quite capable of stuffing this up if we lose our way.

Perhaps instead of getting defensive in response to the fatuous “selfish atheist” charges, we just get on with the job and make explicit our expectations that our theist counterparts do the same. Appealing to them to join with us in opposing the treatment of welfare recipients as political currency.

~ Bruce

* Indeed, the policy goes beyond a “do not”, mandating that Centrecare workers take deliberate preventative steps against imposing their personal beliefs upon clients.

** This is all relative of course – even those that came through the process relatively unscathed weren’t at all happy about the horse trading for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the effect upon the provision of service.

Rob Smith: A Hymn For All Your Neglected Greyhounds

I’m currently plodding around the back-end of my Internet communications, consolidating accounts, redirecting subscriptions and so on in preparation for a better blogging experience. All the while, light shows are popping up in people’s yards around my neighbourhood and I’m too busy to blog about it at the moment. So in the Christmas spirit, Rob Smith makes his fourth guest appearance here at Thinkers’ Podium.

Rob here again folks. Look, I know I run a charity that sings hymns for neglected greyhounds, but this hymn is for the readers. Let’s not take the piss too far, eh?

It’s not like I sing to the greyhounds. I sing for them!

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Is this mainstream enough for you II?

Last week I blogged about how it’s the common conception that (with the exception of the US) bigotry against atheists is something that exists at the margins of religion in the developed west, and asked if a few examples of mainstream bigotry were mainstream enough.

Some of you may already be familiar with the story, but now ex-British PM and political father of the Faith School, Tony Blair, in much the same style as the Pope did with environmental issues, is blaming godlessness for what our PM, Kevin Rudd, calls “free market fundamentalism”, and for the subsequent World Financial Crisis.

Talking about materialistic individualism under the title ‘Without God’s Truth at its centre, no community can fulfil its potential‘, Blair tells us that…

“The danger is clear: that pursuit of pleasure becomes an end in itself. It is here that faith can step in, can show us a proper sense of duty to others, responsibility for the world around us, and can lead us to, as the Holy Father calls it, caritas in veritate.”

(Tony Blair, 2009)

For a start, he’s got his logic wrong. Blair starts out arguing for the logical necessity of his favoured cause, so asserting instances of how it can be the case isn’t enough. One needs to establish that alternatives are impossible (i.e. in “no community” is it possible without “God’s Truth“).

And it would help if exceptions to the alleged faculty of his favoured cause weren’t undermined by well established history. If only Tony Blair had used his relationship with George Bush Jr, so as to get him to more involve his religion in politics, Wall Street would be a-okay right now! Oh, wait!

theatheist

I is in your industries, winding back your economy.

Blair’s ill-thought-out polemic is nothing more than dog whistling to anti-atheist prejudice, with a halo.

And it’s directed largely towards mainstream religion, not the fringes. Nor is it delivered in such a denominationally specific manner as the Pope’s blaming atheists for environmental woes – it’s interfaith. By the terms of Blair’s argumentation, any God will do.

If you are of the interfaith persuasion and you buy Blair’s line, please spare me the pretense of tolerance. This rubbish has far too great a similarity to tales of greedy Jewish bankers ruining European economies.

But it’s not just economic woes as a result of atheistic, secular materialism (which for reasons of obvious convenience, always seem to get surreptitiously treated as synonymous with practical and/or philosophical naturalism). Blair brings out the old chestnut of Fascism/Sovietism/Maoism.

“After the experience of fascism, Soviet Communism or viewing life in North Korea or the cultural revolution in China, it is easier for us to grasp the dangers of a too-powerful state.”

(Tony Blair, 2009)

What has this to do with secular societies? Specifically, how is the totalitarian state a logically necessary outcome of secularism?

Hello! Denmark! While a secular nation like Denmark is capable of not being totalitarian, totalitarianism can not be a logically necessary outcome of secularism. Unless Blair is going to equivocate with a new definition of what a community/nation’s “full potential” is (which could have other, possibly more disturbing consequences than just poor logic) Denmark breaks Blair’s entire case! (While there is a national church, the populace – the community – is very godless as is the governance).

And just how is the theocracy in Iran treating its own religious communities? And how’s the supposedly reformed, and deeply religious Afghanistan going? Men can still legally beat their wives and misogyny is rife. Apostates can still be executed and the constitution prohibits the passing of any law contrary to the word of The Prophet. Which word of The Prophet of course depends entirely on which sect is in power at any given time.

Of course, only to a man like Blair with the blood of thousands on his hands, a public funded faith school legacy that discriminates on the basis of a student’s religion, and an uncanny ability for mental gymnastics, can examples of religious persecution like this not contradict his claims of categorical religious moral monopoly. Naturally he won’t see exceptions to his thesis – he won’t let himself.

Blair finishes of by praising the latest Papal encyclical, one that condemned atheism – painting atheists as necessarily environmentally irresponsible, and claiming that relativism and self-serving individualism were the only alternatives to God. Of course as has been typical with these childish Papal outbursts, Godless ethical systems such as preference utilitarianism, which are neither self-serving, nor relativistic, aren’t mentioned. Why mention the existence of something if it prohibits your claim of logical necessity, right?

The standard line is that it’s either God or self-interested nihilism. This is absurd. The mere existence of ethical philosophies such as that of John Stuart Mill (again, neither self-serving nor relativistic) show this standard line to be a false dichotomy. The fact that these secular ethical systems have been popular in philosophical thought since the 19th century, shows how mind-bendingly ignorant the standard line is. If you consider a godless categorical imperative (also not self-serving, nor relativistic), you can extend this willful ignorance back to the 18th century.

And what I’ve mentioned doesn’t exhaust the list of non-self-serving, non-relativistic Godless ethical systems anyway. (You only need one example of an exception to break alleged logical necessity, so I won’t expand the list further.)

Nobody is necessarily bound to ethical relativistic nihilism in the absence of God. This is basic philosophical history and the fact that Tony Blair and The Pope flunk it in order to prosecute a grudge against atheism is rather telling.

How telling is it then, when religious moderates take this tripe seriously? And how many moderates do you think are likely to take it seriously.

~ Bruce

Is this mainstream enough for you?

We’re often told that’s it’s only those whacky-at-the-fringes types that have the chip on their shoulder, and that any comparison between them and the mainstream is a straw man. It’s misrepresentation instrumental to intolerance.

Or at least, when the numbers of aggressive, bigoted, fundamentalist types are pointed out to be quite large, we are often told “but we aren’t like them!” It’s usually true. The bigots amongst the fundies tend not to have had the same education or (unless they are televangelist) economic opportunities as the more moderate theist.

This raises a question. Are the intolerant persuasions less persistent in the ranks of the moderately religious, or are they just more gentrified? Does this gentrification help us to underestimate the size of the underlying problem and is it only when the facade crumbles away that we get a look at what’s really going on?

A few mainstream examples of tolerance in action come to mind. Some more respected than others.

“Without God, everything is permitted.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I know I can’t start my day properly without burning a baby over an open fire. Mmmm. Crunchy, fatty baby crackling. There are people who would seriously give pause at me making this joke. They would seriously ask, failing to appreciate my humanity (and telling us something disturbing about their’s), “what if not God stops you from doing such things?”

Maybe Dostoyevsky is a bit old to be drawn against the modern mainstream.

“Though atheism, historically considered, has meant no more in the past than a critical or sceptical denial of the theology of those who have employed the term as one of reproach, and has consequently no one strict philosophical meaning; and though there is no one consistent system in the exposition of which it has a definite place; yet, if we consider it in its broad meaning as merely the opposite of theism, we will be able to frame such divisions as will make possible a grouping of definite systems under this head.”

(Francis Aveling, The Catholic Encycolpedia, Appleton, New York, 1907.)

Or in other words, “atheism isn’t what I’d like to represent it as, but if I characterise it as what I want to, I’m able to associate it with a heap of definite systems that otherwise I couldn’t.” What profound intellectual dishonesty!

Francis continues!

“One system of positive moral atheism, in which human actions would neither be right nor wrong, good nor evil, with reference to God, would naturally follow from the profession of positive theoretic atheism; and it is significant of those to whom such a form of theoretic atheism is sometimes attributed, that for the sanctions of moral actions they introduce such abstract ideas as those of duty, the social instinct, or humanity. There seems to be no particular reason why they should have recourse to such sanctions, since the morality of an action can hardly be derived from its performance as a duty, which in turn can be called and known as a “duty” only because it refers to an action that is morally good. Indeed an analysis of the idea of duty leads to a refutation of the principle in whose support it is invoked, and points to the necessity of a theistic interpretation of nature for its own justification.”

(Francis Aveling, The Catholic Encycolpedia, Appleton, New York, 1907.)

Or in other words, “Without God, everything is permitted.” Never mind that there’s no demonstration of how it is logically impossible to arive at ethical decision making without invoking theology – you would think that with so damning a judgement, the prosecutor would take his evidence a bit more seriously. But no. It’s just assumed. Pre-judged.

This is mainstream stuff. Or at least it was in its time.

Moving on…

Skipping past the practical and pseudo-atheist (an exercise in manipulating terms to yield palatable conclusions), Jacques Maritain wrote.

“Finally there are absolute atheists, who really do deny the existence of the very God in Whom the believers believe — God the Creator, Savior and Father, Whose name is infinitely over and above any name we can utter. Those absolute atheists stand committed to change their entire system of values and to destroy in themselves everything that could possibly suggest the name they have rejected; they have chosen to stake their all against divine Transcendence and any vestige of Transcendence whatsoever.”

(Jacques Maritain, 1953)

Charming stuff. And this from a chap who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I guess seeing an outgroup as set out to destroy in themselves, things that you value, or perhaps misinterpret, needn’t be reconciled with the purpose of the UDHR. That humans can hold irreconcilable ideas to be true at the same time is uncontroversial.

If Maritain sparks your interest, go check out his version of “critical” versus the likes of Kant or Hume (the phrase “prejudice” comes to mind). He’s well published and liked by Catholic philosophers so you should be able to find something around the libraries. At the very least you can see his prejudice if you follow the link in the above citation, where he alleges a “dual inconsistency” in atheism that is entirely a product of the rigged terms he’s himself decided to use.

Perhaps something a little more contemporary?

What about Francis Collins’ assertion that a capacity for ethical reasoning (not an evolved “do or don’t list” for those contemplating using the popular straw man that “evolution determines what is moral”) is not possible as a product of the combination of evolved altruism and evolved reasoning. That God had to do it.

Aside from the very real problem this scientific prejudice (and it is a prejudice – there is no evidence to support Collins’ position) presents, can you not see how it feeds into the “atheists are denying their God given morality” dogma? Atheists need God to be good. Atheists don’t have God, or are going to lose his blessing. Collins may not believe that atheists are incapable of being moral (or he may – really, I don’t know), but he’s clearly an enabler.

One has to wonder how much people have invested in this trope. Ken Miller, famous opponent and critic of Intelligent Design, and star witness, saw fit to flatly lie about the content of Sam Harris’ criticism of Collins’ prejudice when the latter was appointed as director of the NIH (under which research said prejudice is particularly relevant to, i.e. mental health.) That’s a big about face in terms of positions on religious interference in science – one is left wondering if there was any other motivation other than Collins’ views being less repugnant to Miller than the theology of Intelligent Design.

What’s Miller’s interest in the ideology of God being necessary for ethics, and why’s he willing to look the other way for Collins but not others? And why so dishonestly? Could the slings and arrows hint at some kind of projection going on?

Let’s move on shall we?

Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where his existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the “final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.”

(Pope Benedict, 2009)

Yep. Without God, a feverish race to possess the most possible is permitted. Which if Ratzinger’s shoes and accommodation is anything to go by, is also permitted by God. I’m not seeing much in the way of a moral monopoly going on here. “Go forth and multiply”, anyone?

Perhaps Ratzinger thinks his urges for the splurges would be worse without God, but he doesn’t need to project his flaws onto the rest of us. I’m an atheist and I’m happy living in my low-cost, ex-public housing home in a working class suburb, thank you very much. Oh, and my shoes are cheap as well.

One could make the case that the current Pope is hopelessly out of touch with his flock and completely upstaged by his predecessor. Fair enough. One could infer that he’s not necessarily the best indicator of the mainstream, or at least the mainstream for Catholics in the developed west. That would be a bit more of a stretch.

Still, there’s plenty more atheist hate floating around the mainstream. Take Steve Harvey. Successful comedian. Star of his own Warner Bros. sitcom. He has a nationally syndicated radio show that’s kicking out radio staples from their time slots. He’s the 2007 syndicated personality of the year, beating out has-beens like John Tesh.

He’s in touch with the people. He’s also a bit of a dickhead.

Here he is chanelling Dostoyevsky, albeit without the gentrification.

Spot the self-contradiction. (1:12)

He starts out saying that he doesn’t believe that atheists can’t be moral, like he knows it’s wrong, then once he gets going… It’s like his cognitive biases are playing ping-pong with the peanut in his skull.

But maybe I’ve strayed to far. Maybe unlike all the other alleged moderates (I guess there’s always going to be disagreement as to what constitutes one), Steve Harvey is probably a bit too born-again.

Still, you have to wonder. What would the moderates look like with the gentrification stripped away?

~ Bruce

Rob Smith on ‘Worship at the temple of Onan’

Young men and women, have you ever felt guilty for your need to pleasure yourself? Have you ever felt guilty because of need arising before marriage? It could just be that you’ve been misled as to what The Bible alludes to. Rob Smith spills the beans in his second guest appearance at Thinkers’ Podium.

Hi everyone. I’m Rob, as you probably guessed from the introduction. Between work and running my unregistered charity, Hymns for Neglected Greyhounds, I pitch in as a youth group elder at the Uniting Way Church of The Blessed Tree. I’m also a part-time external student studying theology at the Sydney Theology of Faith University (STFU).

Obviously I’m not a theologian yet, but I do get quite a lot of young adults coming to me and asking if it’s okay to masturbate, or engage in pre-marital sex. So as Bruce says, I’ll spill the beans. (And to keep Bruce and Tipper happy, I’ll put all the smut over the fold.)

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Rob Smith’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame

It seems that Rob Smith’s first post to this blog was quite well received. My blog stats for the weekend are usually quite low, even when I post on the weekend – my usual readers apparently having more of a life than I do.

Within the first few hours of the statistical day clicking over, Rob had around a couple of hundred hits, thanks mostly to being discovered by someone using StumbleUpon (Rob says “thanks”, K-ady.) I bet if I didn’t shamelessly promote Rob’s post over at this thread at Pharyngula, it never would’ve happened. *Grumble, grumble, teeth-grind*

I didn’t think Rob’s post was quite that good!

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My 15 minutes beats your confected envy, poor atheist…

At any rate, in the interests of traffic, I’ve secured a promise from Rob that he’ll write again for this blog. Indeed, he’s already got a topic in mind and further to that, he’s noticed that Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2004) has sat on my bookshelf, as yet unread.

The idea has got into his head that he could fill in as a guest book reviewer for when I’m too busy to read anything other than that which could turn out to be a waste of time. I guess that also includes Ken Ham’s The Lie: Evolution (1987), which made it onto my shelf for the princely chimney-sweeply price of ten cents.

But I digress. If Rob is or isn’t to write book reviews in the future, it’s very much up to him. What he has promised to do, in his own words, is to write a post…

“…refut[ing] the straw-men put about by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, on the topic of Christian positions on pre-marital sex and masturbation.”

(Rob Smith, last night.)

By “Christian positions”, one hopes that he doesn’t mean “missionary.”

Between Rob’s apparent popularity and that of the topic of sex on the Internet, I can feel my own posts being eclipsed already.

~ Bruce

How to talk to an arrogant New Atheist – Rob’s First Post!

Ever wondered just how to deal with that arrogant, intolerant New Atheist that heckles you so? Maybe you have one for a neighbour, or sadly, one of your family. Maybe you chat around the blogs and forums and keep running into them.

They can be very frustrating, these New Atheists. What with their mocking and what not.

Hi. I’m Rob. I’ve been allowed to use Bruce’s WordPress account to write this post.

I’m not a theologian, but I do like to read a bit of liberal theology from time to time. I love Jim Wallis and I think Obama marks a defining moment in the history of religion. I’ve been an on-and-off again elder at youth group and in my spare time I organise the unregistered charity, Hymns for Neglected Greyhounds.

I’m not a blogger, otherwise I’d have written this somewhere else. (Gee am I glad that Bruce is just an ordinary atheist and not a New Atheist, otherwise I’d never have gotten around to posting this. Perhaps I can coax his defection to liberal theism at a later point. Kidding!)

On with my first post!

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‘Liberated’, my foot!

It now appears as if it is going to be legal for husbands to rape their wives in Afghanistan.

Thanks to the Shia Family Act. (Thanks for the link, R.)

Note to future administrations bent on toppling theocracies that harbour militants who don’t like you so much…

1) Install separation of Church and State in their new constitution.

2) Accept submissions to a constitutional convention from the locals, but ditch them if they can’t be reconciled with secular democracy – it’s stuff like that that got them in a mess in the first place.

3) Install recognition of separation of church and state (and other rights protecting values) in a suitably minimal oath of allegiance (unlike the arbitrary crap Australia puts in the test it expects immigrants to sit.)

4) Give citizenship to those taking the oath and second class status to those that don’t* (if they don’t prefer secular democracy, don’t foist it upon them!)

5) Don’t call it a liberation if it isn’t.

And get this stuff properly planned before going to war or don’t go to war in the first place. It’s not that hard and it’s not as if every Muslim on the face of the Earth can’t operate within a secular democracy anyway (weren’t the hawkish neo-cons the ones accusing the anti-war left of patronising the middle east by claiming it can’t handle democracy? What happened? Why is this religious oppression able to be passed into law?)

~ Bruce

* Not meaning without rights altogether – just without associative and voting rights. Access to food and water, shelter and a life free from torture and the like should still obviously be values recognised by the occupant nation(s).

Virtuous hedonism

If I were the kind of guy to worship a God, I’d worship Bacchus. Sundays wouldn’t be spent drinking the communion wine, just wine-wine.

I spent a dollar or two on wine in the second half of the nineties, when my hedonistic streak hit in 1996. More wine that I’ve drunk since the nineties.

I also like a good beer. Brewed more in the nineties than I have since the nineties as well.

Now I average less than a standard drink a day and I don’t think I’ve passed four in a day more than five times in the last ten years. But this isn’t some creeping conservatism on my part. No.

I genuinely don’t enjoy getting plastered. What I enjoy is the slightest, initial hint of alcohol in the system and what the beverage can bring to a social or gastronomic event.

Well considered hedonism wasn’t something I really had at the time. Ad hoc, faux-considered hedonism was. I reached the conclusion first and then engaged in some pretty superficial, instrumental reasoning to distract my executive functions from cock-blocking me.

However, persistent critical faculties and an increase in the myelin sheathing in my frontal lobe (something that finishes developing in the mid-twenties) gradually put an end to this self-deception. There was more to hedonism that just screwing everything in sight and drinking yourself into a stupor and if I wanted to get my head around it, I’d have to start conserving a few braincells.

You’ve been lucky, or living on another planet, or both, if you haven’t noticed that quite a large number of religious people frown on this kind of behaviour. In as far as rampant hedonism can cause harm, I’m sympathetic. The categorical objections, hellfire and brimstone however can go and take a flying leap.

I’ve never been an egoist, it should be said. It’s usually at this point in the discussion, that you’ll (if you are an atheist) have the occasional religionist associate your ethics with that of Ayn Rand. Even if you have more in common with say, John Stuart Mill (a utilitarian and dare I say, an actual philosopher.)

Whenever my pleasure, or the pleasure of my group has been at the expense of others, it’s been as a result of thoughtlessness. This was more a problem in my youth than it is now. That harmful externalities (loud noise past the neighbour’s bedtime and the like) weren’t good things wasn’t in dispute – they just went un-noticed. I suspect that this is the case for a lot of young yahoos.

I’m not selfish with my pleasure. I cook for people, for example. I share creativity in general with the aim of maximising pleasure. Nowadays, I do so with the aim of first avoiding the afore mentioned harmful externalities.

I think a few of Nietzsche’s assessments of the human condition are flawed in these respects. The things that he asserted were life-affirming on a primal level, I’ve never found life-affirming. And I think I’ve been a tad more primal that Nietzsche.

I don’t gain pleasure in subjugating people. I don’t see pleasure in others in being subjugated and I have a visceral objection to seeing other people subjugated – it’s not just slave morality that sees me looking out for others. Not that I deny what Nietzsche felt, rationally I object to it and the animal in me objects to it.

What I think Nietzsche’s error was, was to generalize his own imperatives the way Freud generalized his own sexual peculiarities to the entire human condition. The primal imperatives of the human condition are far more diverse, subjective and elusive than that.

Sexuality is a great example. Some people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, others to people of the same sex and some people aren’t particularly sexual beings at all. And within these divisions (and others) there are a multitude of other preferences for various sources of pleasure. A virtuous hedonism, as opposed to a self-deluded one, takes all of this into account.

When I worked at a deli in Norwood during the early years of this decade, there was this repeat customer who really got on my nerves. She was the stereotypical pretty girl that supposedly all the guys like. While she was in some respects a nice young lady (she was also at times a very noisy neighbour) and capable of eliciting quite a bit of sympathy from me, I actually found her quite sexually repugnant.

Aside from not being attracted to her that way (I find living stereotypes of all sorts rather unappealing), she quite unwittingly had the body language of someone who took entitlement (to men) for granted – cornering me rather aggressively a few times and otherwise not giving me my space, this annoying, incessant crotch-staring habit and the occasional but rather obvious barging in between me and other females. So when eventually I objected (which in terms of workplace sexual harassment I felt I was rather entitled to do – the crotch-staring was a bit much), she couldn’t quite get her head around the notion that I didn’t find her attractive and had to (self-deludedly) contort things to fit her narrative of men finding her attractive.

Suffice to say it ended with acrimony*. Reminds me of how Ayn Rand went off the deep end when she found out that her lover Nathaniel Branden, found the younger Patrecia Scott more attractive.

Sometimes people just don’t find you sufficiently attractive. It doesn’t matter to them that you find you attractive.

It’s like that with food and drink, music and the visual arts (and more.) A virtuous hedonism is permissive of peculiarity while seeing suffering as the only true perversion of the human condition.

Unaffected atheists clearly have an advantage over theists in accessing this virtuous hedonism, not carrying the same metaphysical baggage (i.e. sin.) Not that a theist necessarily can’t, nor do so easily – at best they fall superficially short of the same ease atheists can achieve the more superficial the differences in ethics become.

The same may not be true for a number of ex-fundamentalist theist, atheists. Not that I’ve ever had the experience of a religious enculturation, but I’m convinced by the tales of people who are still influenced by the spectre of hell even after refuting its existence.

All I’ve ever been able to rebel against in religion is the socio-political privilege it seeks and often attains (which I suspect is more obvious the less your religious enculturation), religion has never had that kind of control over me. I suspect though, that rebellion is still the answer.

Conservative Catholicism is particularly guilty of reducing atheism to rebellion against God, while at the same time finding their imaginary hell insufficiently harmful, venturing to create it on Earth through all sorts of insane sexual restrictions. Atheism isn’t rebellion, but rebellion against religiously motivated suffering is probably quite healthy behaviour for affected ex-theist atheists (and probably for newly moderate theists as well.)

Really, you are coming from a pretty sick place if you can find fault in people wanting to keep the Pope’s (or anyone else’s) liver-spotted hands off their genitals.

A virtuous, life-affirming quest to find and give pleasure is one of those things I think atheists need to give serious consideration before they check out of this fleeting existence.

~ Bruce

* In all fairness though, I think through my creative, generous and then mutating bakkheia, more than a couple of women (and at least one guy) got the impression that I was attracted to them when I wasn’t. This and a fair amount of beating around the bush not wanting to tell people the straight-out awful truth that I don’t actually like them that much, probably served to confuse the situation.

Creationist crankery flashback: Richard Dawkins stumped?

Recently, I saw a clip on YouTube that uncharacteristically, twinged a feeling of de ja vu but not an actual recollection (uncharacteristic for me; I can usually recall something if I have a memory of it). It was an interview with Richard Dawkins.

Suffice to say, I couldn’t recall the background so I was left to form opinions based on what knowledge I had at hand at the time. I was going to blog about it and point out some mistakes in the implicit message as well as in the triumphalism of the creationist response.

I’ve recently come across accounts of what happened (the missing background information) so the penny has really dropped (add to that there now seems to be a mass YouTube response pointing out the fraud). However, I’ll post the video, then my previous thoughts, before dumping the background story on you.

Continue reading “Creationist crankery flashback: Richard Dawkins stumped?”