Archive for June, 2011

Extraordinary claims . . . you know the rest

I want to start off this post about the classic Carl Sagan quote “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” by thanking Dan, the commenter on my “Sufficient, but not necessary” post, for pointing out that knowledge need not mean absolute certainty, and, quite often, it doesn’t.

This will dovetail into what I’m getting at. Atheism, not being a belief system, but when given at least a little bit of thought, is a result of skepticism and critical thinking. The cornerstone of critical thinking is on how to evaluate claims, as well as the standards we should adhere to when making claims – including the standards we should expect of others when evaluating their claims.

It goes without saying that not every claim is equally incredible. The classic example given for the Sagan quote is “I had a ham sandwich for lunch today”. That’s a great example, but I prefer another one. Suppose I meet with my wife at the end of our work days and she tells me “I had a really shitty day at work”. That’s anything but an extraordinary, outlandish claim. If I demanded from her a battery of evidence to support what she told me, would that be an example of me being a good, skeptical, critical thinker? No! It would make me an asshole. There’s really no reason for me to grill her about it. She’s stating what she feels.

On the other hand, if I tell somebody “I have five naked sorority girls locked in my bedroom closet” with the expectation that people believe me, why should I expect people to take what I say at face value – no questions asked? That is an example of an extraordinary claim, and if I want people to take it seriously, I’d damn well better be able to back it up – with solid evidence.

This same rule should apply to claims people make about a God, whatever name that deity takes, and whatever attributes the claimant ascribes to it. Back to the naked girls scenario – people would dismiss me out of hand if I were to declare that they can’t dismiss my claim out of hand because “you don’t know for sure that I don’t have naked girls in my closet”. So why should claims about Gods, especially claims about Gods that we’d better worship or bad things will happen to us, be held to a different standard? Especially when believers themselves admit that this God can’t be detected using our senses. Something that is undetectable with our senses, even with the technology we have, is indistinguishable from something that doesn’t exist. So, as Dan pointed out in the comments on that earlier blog post, since evidence for a God is sorely lacking, we are more than justified in assuming such a being isn’t real.

The theme “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” doesn’t mean of course that evidence need to lead to absolute certainty. It does mean that for a claim that is, well, extraordinary, that evidence must be testable – that is, independently verifiable, and falsifiable, for starters. At the very least, a sound logical argument is needed to support it.

You expect us to believe THAT, Mr. Prosser? Really?

As some of you may already know, Wisconsin Supreme Court Associate Justice David Prosser is said to have grabbed fellow Associate Justice Ann Walsh Bradley by the neck – with both hands – in the middle of a heated exchange almost two weeks ago. According to some accounts, as the exchange got more heated, Bradley asked Prosser to leave her office. Then he grabbed her by the neck.

Prosser and Bradley each declined further comment until yesterday. First, from Prosser:

Once there’s a proper review of the matter and the facts surrounding it are made clear, the anonymous claim made to the media will be proven false. Until then I will refrain from further public comment.

Then, we get this, from the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

But another source told the Journal Sentinel that Bradley attacked Prosser.

“She charged him with fists raised,” the source said.

Prosser “put his hands in a defensive posture,” the source said. “He blocked her.”

In doing so, the source said, he made contact with Bradley’s neck.

Um . . .

Let me get this straight. The way to defend yourself against someone who charges you with fists flying is to grab that person by the neck? With both hands? Did Bradley’s neck land in between your hands, Mr. Prosser? Silly me. I thought all this time when someone charges me like that I’m supposed to duck or dodge, do whatever it takes to get out of the way.

This, from the man who some time ago called Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abramson a “bitch” and said he would “destroy” her. In the aftermath of that Prosser tried placing blame on the other party, stating she “prompted” him.

I probably overreacted, but I think it was entirely warranted. . . . They (Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley) are masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements. This is bullying and abuse of very, very long standing.

This is a classic case of what abusers do when called out on their behavior. Blame the victim. “I didn’t plan on hitting you, but you made me do it. I just couldn’t help myself”. Anthony Weiner was forced to resign over inappropriate pictures he sent and for trying to cover it up. In no way am I defending Weiner, but he did nothing violent, unlike Mr. Prosser. If nothing happens to Prosser, I will be pissed bey0nd all imagination. And if Prosser does skate this, the good people of Wisconsin should take to the streets, just like they did this last winter.

It doesn’t matter what one’s ideology is. It is never ok for a man to assault a woman like that. Hell, it’s never ok for a human being to do that to another. Prosser needs to be forced to step down, and charges should be pressed. It’s not just abusive workplace behavior. It’s criminal assault and battery.

Sufficient, but not necessary

This is my first post on the subject of atheism and theism. The first thing I want to get out of the way is to define the word atheism.

Once and for all, atheism, is, at minimum, the lack of belief in the existence of any deities or gods. It does not require that one believe that no god(s) exist, or that one assert certainty that no god(s) exist, despite many theists (usually evangelical Christians) assertions to the contrary. A few atheists will assert a belief in the non-existence of any god(s), or assert it with certainty, but they are few and very far between. Some theologians or apologetics teachers try to make this kind of argument look more clever. From Hank Hanegraaff:

Atheism positively affirms that there is no God. But can the atheist be certain of this claim? You see, to know that a transcendent God does not exist would require a perfect knowledge of all things (omniscience). To attain this knowledge you would have to have simultaneous access to all parts of the universe (omnipresence). Therefore, as an atheist, to be certain of this claim you would have to possess Godlike characteristics. Obviously, mankind’s limited nature precludes these special abilities. The atheist’s dogmatic claim is therefore clearly unjustifiable. The atheist is attempting to prove a universal negative. In terms of logic this is called a logical fallacy

Um, nice try, Hank. Atheism means this: a = without; theism = belief in God(s). Let’s consult the dictionary. Like many other words, atheism has more than one meaning.

  1. the doctrine or belief that there is no god
  2. disbelief  in the existence of a supreme being or beings (emphasis mine)

You see, for Hanegraaff’s assertion to carry any weight, the first definition would have to be the only definition of atheism. It would have to be true of all atheists. Many theists still insist on definition #1 applying universally to all atheists even after it has been pointed out that most atheist don’t frame their stance like that. Most atheists, if presented with compelling, independently verifiable evidence, would reevaluate their skepticism.

Atheism is the opposite of theism. The divide between theism and atheism is a question of what one believes,  not what one claims to know.  The question of what one claims to know is a question of whether one is gnostic (claiming knowledge) or agnostic (disclaiming any knowledge or certainty). An atheist who states he isn’t absolutely certain is an agnostic atheist. The small number of atheists who claim certainty are gnostic atheists. One can also be an agnostic theist (believing in a deity but not claiming any certainty), or a gnostic theist (claiming that a deity exists and that they are sure of it).

It is apparent to me that with some theists, particularly some evangelical Christians (not saying all), that there’s a vested interest on their part for the first definition of atheism described above apply universally to all atheists. They need it to be true so that they can more easily make atheism look unjustifiable. If they can’t rely on definition number one being the only definition, then they have a much harder time trying to shift the burden of proof on those who are skeptical.

The assumption is that belief in God is the default position, that God’s existence is self-evident, and therefore the onus is upon those who question that to prove their claims. This is probably because most people believe in some sort of deity, and in America, most believe in the Christian God. But Bertrand Russell put it so well a long time ago when he said

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time

To hold a doctrine that no god(s) exist is sufficient to be an atheist, but is not necessary. All atheist lack belief  in God(s). Not all assert that none of them exist. Those who don’t believe in Allah, or Vishnu, or Thor, do you feel the need to disprove the existence of those gods? If not, why do you insist the burden is on us to disprove yours?

New York, New York

I know the song is about the city, and not the state, which is now the largest to pass a marriage equality bill. But I still want to honor them by posting this Sinatra classic. Hooray for the Empire State!


Why I am a progressive

To put it simply, it’s three things. Number one, my own experiences – losing a couple of jobs and twice spending two months scrambling to find new employment – which, while not nearly as harsh as what many are going through, helped open my eyes. Those experiences made me see that I need to not be judgmental about those who go a good length of time without finding work. There are many reasons why that is possible. It showed me how important empathy is.

That empathy makes me want to see society work for everyone. Not just those who are wealthy and well-connected. I, like the vast, vast majority of progressives, do not advocate any kind of enforced equality of income. I’m all for hard work, ingenuity, initiative and creativity being rewarded, handsomely. What I object to is corporate CEOs making several hundreds of times more than those in their employ. I’m opposed to companies laying off people in order to increase short-term profitability. Especially when those layoffs happen in years of record profits.  Gross economic inequality goes hand-in-hand with gross political inequality. I watch sports, but real life should be nothing like a sporting contest or a game show, where “to the victor goes the spoils” and if you’re not the victor, too bad, so sad, it sucks to be you. To be a progressive is to believe that those who have the means to exploit the rest of us must be held in constant check, be they in government, or captains of industry.

People make mistakes in life regularly. All of us do. Should those mistakes, though, necessarily condemn us to living paycheck-to-paycheck, or even hand-to-mouth, for the rest of our days? Should those mistakes create for us artificial roadblocks or more onerous hoops to jump through to be able to make our way? I have a real problem with that. I’m not saying that nobody should face any consequences for the choices they make. I just question the need for making those consequences be like millstones hung around peoples’ necks for the rest of their lives.

We will never be able to 100% eradicate all suffering, but I believe in the adage “strive for perfection, and you will achieve excellence”. If you strive to end all suffering, you may not actually achieve that, but you increase your chances of drastically reducing it. As Martin Luther King put it:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring

And while I want society to work for all of us, for us to work together for the common good – the greatest good for us, I am a progressive because I believe individuals have value. Individualism is not a dirty word. It has just been corrupted by some to mean “I’ve got mine. If you don’t have yours it’s your own damn fault, so screw you.” Individualism done the right way means that we recognize everybody’s right to a space that is their own, that we respect differences among us. It’s none of our damn business whether someone is physically attracted to the opposite sex, the same sex, or both. It’s none of our business whether one believes in a god, or multiple gods, or doesn’t believe in any gods. It has no effect on us.  The greater good means that all of us have skin in the game, that all of us have something to contribute. Our personal religious beliefs, or sexual orientations, or our private sex lives, have absolutely nothing to do with it.

I’m also a progressive because of the way the word progress is defined. A key definition:

the development of an individual or society in a direction considered more beneficial than and superior to the previous level

The human condition can only be improved if we give ourselves the permission to question authority. That means questioning not only people in positions of authority, but the “authority” of conventional wisdom. Religious liberty would not have been possible if nobody had the courage to call into question the seemingly prevailing attitude that one’s personal religious beliefs were the state’s business. Would chattel slavery have been disposed of, at least when it did, had it not been for people willing to question the idea of treating anybody as property rather than as fully equal human beings? Would we have such things as the 40-hour work week, paid overtime, pensions, sick days, paid holidays, workplace safety standards, you name it, if nobody questioned the idea that if you work for somebody, your ass belongs to them and they can deal with you as they please?

So, to crystallize this, I see being progressive as consisting of three things:

  1. Do your part in making society work for everybody
  2. Respect individual differences
  3. Give yourself permission to question authority

What do I want from this blog?

I like to put my thoughts onto printed or screen form. I like discussing ideas, be they religious, political, about relationships, about sports, you name it. Here I will primarily focus on politics from a progressive point of view as well as atheism with a good focus on issues involving church-state separation.

I most certainly want people commenting on them. I want a vast readership with lots of vibrant conversation. So I will never delete a comment simply because I disagree with the viewpoint expressed in it. As long as everyone is on the whole respectful of one another, good conversation will happen. What will not be tolerated here, though, are:

  • trollish behavior will get you the boot
  • gratuitous personal insults of me, or of other commenters, will get you banned too. It’s one thing to state “your comment is ridiculous and idiotic” or “you’re an idiot for posting this” – as long as it has at least a modicum of substance to it, but a comment that’s nothing more than a personal attack will be swiftly removed upon discovery
  • slurs based on race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and the like, are not welcome. This is especially important since many of the topics in this blog will deal with atheism and church-state separation. Remember to understand the difference between critiquing a belief, which, as part of the marketplace of ideas, is fair game; and belittling people for holding said beliefs. This goes for people on all sides of those debates
  • People are entitled to respect. Beliefs themselves are not. Once you publicly state a belief, it’s not merely personal, it becomes part of the marketplace of ideas.  My blogs are, if nothing else, public statements about beliefs or opinions on certain matters and I should expect those to be challenged. That goes for anyone else who posts comments here.
  • You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Debunked claims will quickly be pointed out upon discovery. Not all opinions are of equal merit. Opinions from a KKK member on race will not be given serious consideration, other than as a form of hate speech. And I will not get into silly debates about whether President Obama is an American citizen, so don’t even try.

I’m new to blogging on Word Press so I will try to post these in an FAQ format or on a sidebar on the blog main page. Here’s to happy blogging and robust conversations.

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