Humanist Symposium #51

Humanist SymposiumWelcome to the 51st Humanist Symposium, coming to you on a truly auspicious day on which we celebrate two unarguably excellent things.

Firstly, over here in the UK it’s Mother’s Day. Not to be confused with Mothering Sunday, which is a deprecated Christian festival that just happens to coincide with Mother’s Day in Europe – but not in the US. It gets confusing. Mothers, though! I think we can all agree they’re pretty great. Secondly, over there in the US it’s Pi Day. 3.14. Without pi we wouldn’t have the hula-hoop, Stargate or Quidditch, and wedding rings wouldn’t work, so it’s obviously important. Over here we celebrate Pi Day on 22/7, which is more accurate, but we humanists are beyond such petty nationalism (plus the US probably have to convert it into imperial or something anyway).

Such a confluence of events happens only rarely, so it’s pretty much a moral duty to combine the two. So: go phone your mother1, if you’re in a position to do so – don’t worry, we’ll wait – then get some pie2 and settle down to the best humanist writing of the last two weeks.

Are you done? Pie at hand? Excellent. Let’s begin. And let’s start with a properly big subject: free will. Does it exist? In a remarkably clear examination of a difficult topic – and in the process considering heat-seeking missiles, omnipotent vending machines and the ramifications of non-deterministic quantum theory – E.M. Cadwaladr argues that it doesn’t:

One might say […] “I could not make up my mind so I chose the cheese crackers.” This answer admits to no known cause on the part of the chooser, and might be explained in either of two ways. The choice is either genuinely random, or it is the result of some process of which the chooser is simply unaware. If a choice is genuinely random in some quantum statistical sense, then it can hardly be considered an act of free will. On the other hand, if a decision is the result of subconscious motivations (or something of that sort) then it is still the product of an antecedent cause, so the decision cannot be a first cause in itself. There is no more reason to ascribe special causal powers to the subconscious than to the conscious, and even if there were, the possession of extraphysical subconscious powers is clearly not what we mean when we postulate free will.

I think the article makes a compelling case, though I’m glad of the illusion. The big questions of the universe are also raised by Secular Guy, who looks at the issues raised by cosmological investigations, concluding with the largest:

Through experiments that simulate the Big Bang, cosmology is bringing us closer to understanding the details of how universe began. But will it ever be able to explain the reason that out of what had been eternal nothingness, in a split second came the the beginning of everything that ever has been or ever will exist?

I’d raise a couple of points on the science, but the final point stands3. Similarly philosophical, Godlessons considers the relationship between belief and reality, asking why a God would care if you believe in it, and what could possibly motivate a God to create a world identical to one in which they don’t exist:

If I were an all powerful being, I wouldn’t even need to show myself in person.  I could do things like consistently heal people that are prayed for.  I could heal them in ways that couldn’t happen on their own, like make their amputated limbs regrow.  In that sense, I wouldn’t even need to do it every time someone was prayed for, just occasionally.  People could see that when people weren’t prayed for, they absolutely never regrew a limb, but when they were, at least occasionally they would regrow a limb.

These are not things that God does though.  God instead acts in a way that we would expect from a man made fabrication.

When humanists raise such questions we’re often accused of being perpetually negative. This is unfair, and in fact many humanists describe themselves as optimists (I once found myself describing humanism as ‘the positive wing of atheism’). This optimism comes in many different forms, and Peter Frauenglass here explains his perspective:

I have no faith in institutions or organizations, however good their intention – their very nature makes it impossible for them to implement real change. I have no faith in philosophy – people mouth whatever words they’re told, and continue to act exactly the same. I have no faith in God – we’re on our own here, with no benevolent or malevolent force to interfere. But I have faith in individuals.

But wait – did he say ‘faith’? Humanists don’t have faith, do they? As ever, it depends upon your definition – ‘faith’ is a fuzzy concept. The same is true of ‘spirituality’, but it’s nonetheless a tricky word to bring up in skeptical circles. Over at Mind on Fire, John gives his take on ‘spiritual atheism’:

Above all else, I am deeply interested in “an experience of connectedness with a larger reality: a more comprehensive self; other individuals or the human community; nature or the cosmos.” As a skeptic, I don’t believe there is solid evidence for the Gods conceived by the major Western monotheisms, for an immortal soul, for reincarnation, or for any kind of universal karmic moral laws or any purpose to the universe. But I can and have felt this deep sense of connection to others and the pursuit of this connection is important to me.

This connection to – and concern for – others is certainly important to many humanists, but many argue that humanism lacks the built-in community features that help bring people together. Should humanism be trying to replicate the social aspects of religion? Chris Hallquist says no:

There are already all-kinds of non-religious groups that provide these things. I would have thought that obvious, though maybe I’m just lucky to have spent four years of my life in Madison, Wisconsin, a city with an incredible number of quirky subcultures for a city of its size, all with their own little rituals. Even if you don’t know how to find that in your city, if you wanted to start a group like that there are better bases for that sort of thing that “not believing in God.”

He goes on to question the idea of ‘atheist charities’. After all, there are plenty of secular charities already – creating specifically atheist charities seems to put promotion of atheism before helping people. But while this is a valid point, I think there’s room for atheist organisations to act as a go-between. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t all do the legwork to figure out which charities are appropriately secular. Daylight Atheism reports on the launch of the Foundation Beyond Belief, which seems to strike the right balance:

The Foundation is not itself a charity. Rather, it has a list of major issues it seeks to address – environment, poverty, education, child welfare, and so on. Each quarter, it picks an existing charitable group serving each of those issues, one that has a track record of effectiveness and that doesn’t proselytize. Foundation members’ donations are funneled to those charities, divided among them according to the individual member’s choice. You can choose to split your donation equally among all the charities, or give it all to a few or to one.

The Foundation’s business model answers both of the challenges I posed above. As an explicitly secular organization which only supports non-sectarian charities, it makes our donations visible in the same way that religious charities are visible. As Dale McGowan puts it, through the FBB, our donations become “a positive collective expression of our worldview”.

These kind of middleman schemes appeal to me, as we’re all guilty of flocking to the familiar sometimes. It’s a well established psychological bias that we instinctively look for people and ideas that confirm our beliefs, rather than challenging ourselves with those that don’t. We have to be on our guard for this, as was demonstrated by the reaction to a recent press release claiming a statistical link between intelligence and atheism. Various blogs gleefully promoted it, until others pointed out its myriad problems. But, as No Double Standards explains, this is actually a huge strength of the atheist community: we did in fact notice, and publicise, these flaws. They ask why theistic bloggers can’t behave similarly:

I repeatedly see theists make empirical claims about how religion benefits society when there is a wealth of empirical evidence, certainly of a correlative nature that contradicts these claims. It seems they can find no contrary equivalent evidence in their favour and so in response, if they just do not just happily ignore this evidence, promote a variety of dubious opinion survey based social psychology studies, which whenever investigated (at least the ones I have seen) are of poor methodological design such as low statistical significance, small sample size and/or with unbalanced questions formats which fails to control for biases.

Now I am, of course, only addressing this to those theists who do just jump on the bandwagon and uncritically promote these studies  or uncritically agree with them. Where are the theists who say “hang on a second, as much as we like the conclusions, the study being celebrated is highly questionable?”

Right, time for a break, some pie, and a godless LOLcat – for no other reason than it made me laugh:

Humorous Pictures

Back? Replete? Cool.

One of my favourite submissions to this Symposium is Greta Christina’s talk to the Secular Student Alliance, in which she asks what the atheist movement can learn from the gay movement. She describes the many parallels between the two, pointing out that the gay movement’s thirty year headstart enables atheists to draw upon its victories and mistakes. I highly encourage you to read the whole thing, but overall she makes three major points. Firstly, that the LGBT movement was rife with internal warfare between LGBT firebrands and diplomats over the most effective way to reach the public – sound familiar, much?

But when we look at those years in retrospect, it becomes clear that both methods together were far more effective than either method would have been alone. And the LGBT movement has learned — to some extent — to recognize this fact, and to deliberately strategize around it. Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice. And the “good cop/ bad cop” dynamic can be very effective. Again, in the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s, the street activists got attention, got on the news, raised general visibility and awareness. The polite negotiators could then raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the people they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of our issues. And when the street activists presented more hard-line demands, that made the polite negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line between an extremist position and a moderate one kept getting moved in our direction. We see this working today: the same-sex marriage debate has made supporting civil unions seem like the moderate position, even the conservative one — which wasn’t true ten years ago.

I think this is great, and is a message we should spread far and wide. She also shows how arguments over the definitions of gay/lesbian/bisexual parallel those over atheist/agnostic – suggesting, convincingly, that all such disagreements are a waste of time. Amen to that. Humanism and atheism have an Eternal September problem, so there’ll always be a certain amount of such discussion, but at some point we have to let it go.

Finally she talks about the under-recognised issue of diversity within atheist and humanism, which are dominated by white men. Yet the atheist and humanist movements are certainly not racist or sexist – quite the opposite. James at Cubik’s Rube considers the same issue and comes to the same conclusion regarding non-racists who take little notice of race issues:

This is not an entirely alien position to someone like me. But the point is that I still need to do some actual work in this area. I can’t slack off just because I’ve done the easy bit. Sure, so I think black people are great. That doesn’t mean I’m done. It doesn’t mean that I can disassociate myself from any bigotry or discrimination going on around me and declare myself apart from it, tell myself that it’s nothing to do with me, it’s all somebody else’s fault, racist people’s fault, because I’m not racist.

It’s a factor of everybody involved thinking that – since they’re not racist or sexist – there’s no problem to be fixed. But, as Greta says: “an atheist movement dominated by white men will focus on issues that largely affect white men — at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color.” She ends by saying this is something we need to fix right now, before the resentment and bitterness sets in (on both sides).

While race issues within the community might be problematic, humanists are certainly no slouches when it comes to opposing racism in society. This can turn up unexpectedly – Andrew at 360 Degree Skeptic looks at the claim that the US legal system favours the rich, and comes to a surprising, if depressing, conclusion:

The wealth isn’t the real issue. What is? Consider this research finding on a related aspect of the legal system by Scott Phillips, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver:

A defendant is much more likely to be sentenced to death if he or she kills a “high-status” victim. [source; bold mine]

It seems that jurors, juries, judges–and attorneys, too, no doubt–act with favoritism toward high status individuals. To some degree and with great variability among the groups. And in some circumstances more than others, of course. As a telling illustration of this, consider the contemporary practice of lawyers coaching low-status defendants to appear less low-status. Put on a suit, speak proper English, etc.

In other research by Phillips, he found further evidence that status matters:

[B]lack defendants were more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants in Houston. The racial disparities revealed in the prior paper become even more acute after accounting for victim social status – black defendants were more apt to be sentenced to death despite being less apt to kill high status victims.

Racism is also a common accusation levelled at Darwin, of all people. Creationists play the ad hominem card by claiming Darwin tried to justify black inferiority, and directly inspired social Darwinism. As an argumentative tactic this is just poisoning the well – it says nothing about the validity of evolution – but it’s not true either. The Primate Diaries examines the latter claim, using recent research into the proliferation of Darwin’s ideas around the Middle East, and shows how it was in fact Herbert Spencer’s horrific interpretations of Darwin that brought social Darwinism to prominence:

when discussing natural selection in Darwinian terms, the editors were very clear that evolution does “not require that all things progress.” However, when discussed in Spencerian terms evolution and progress were synonymous. It was only in this context that the terms “struggle for existence” or “survival of the fittest” were used in a social Darwinian context.

Godwin’s Law doesn’t only apply to Creationists, of course – it regularly turns up in generally anti-science commentators. You Made Me Say It takes on a particularly murky essay that decries technology in general, claiming it’s powerless against the vast darkness of human nature – Hitler – that only religion can redeem,or something:

Now this is indicative of this nonsense which Mr. Dreher is espousing, which is essentially that human nature is evil and we humans are wretched things. That’s a fairly common idea across multiple religions, this idea that you are wretched. Why? Well then you need help, “salvation” if you will. How do you get that? Ah, through the religion. Marketing 101 states that a product needs to satisfy a need, and in lieu of a need, create one. Every religion follows this, telling you you are wretched or by exploiting tragedies like the recent disasters in Chile and Haiti by serving up their product to people who clearly are in a wretched state. Anyway, the point Mr. Dreher is making is that because we’re so wretched, we can’t have technological advances because we’ll ONLY use them to do wretched things, but even the most cursory look at humanity’s history would show that that is not the case.

Finally, Lamb Around says there’s certainly no need for Woman’s Day magazine to print Bible verses:

Are you kidding me, Woman’s Day? I’ve asked around and I’m not the only one who was under the impression that it’s not a religious magazine. If they want to be religious, they should just go all out and do it, rather than pretending to cater to all women while slyly sneaking in their beliefs.

The magazine also includes a tip on how to “cut a lemon in half, rub it on your armpits, and go out deodorant-free.” It doesn’t say whether you remove the lemons.

That’s it for this Symposium. I hope it’s been of interest! Thanks to Daylight Atheism for setting up and running such a interesting carnival. The next issue will be at Letters from a Broad… on April 4th. Thanks for reading!

  1. do, really – friends who’ve lost a parent have movingly stressed the importance of this to me []
  2. the Argument from Linguistic Coincidence is very annoying, but let’s exploit it this once – after all, pie! []
  3. my favourite answer is: the concept of nothing is invalid, and time is just our interpretation of a dimension. My mind pretty much melted when I heard that []

Happy Darwin Day

Today marks 200 years since the birth of the man who came up with the most subtly magnificent idea in history. Worth a celebration, I think.

Somewhat relatedly, last night I photographed the BHA’s Darwin Day lecture by Sir David King and chaired by Richard Dawkins. I had fun. First there were a few behind-the-scenes shots, then I wandered around the back of the audience – as quietly as I could – and took long range photos of the stage with my new 55-250IS lens (the image stabilization is astonishing, I pulled off 1/40s at 400mm, which with a standard lens would be an order of magnitude too slow). I’m happy with the results – at least for my first attempt at this kind of event. It was cool to meet the BHA staff, and I got to say hello to Professor Dawkins too.

Afterwards I met a great bunch of humanists from the Central London group, who were just fun to be around.

I’m off to the London twestival tonight. I really have no idea what to expect, and I’m nervous about going alone, but it should be a little adventure. I’ll try to tweet, if the networks aren’t overloaded.

(sorry if this is a little stilted, I’m writing on the train using the iPhone’s WordPress app, and I’m still getting used to the keyboard. I am already in love with this phone tho.)

The Genius of Darwin

Just a heads up for The Genius of Darwin, tomorrow at 2000 on C4. Presented by Richard Dawkins, and beginning the coverage up to Darwin’s 200th anniversary next year, it should be fascinating. There’s no discussion of creationism etc. until the third episode, by all accounts – until then it’s just the utter rockage of Charles Darwin (we atheists worship him, you know) and his theory of evolution. Charlie Brooker has a great intro, too.

Darwin Day

I discovered this week that this Sunday is International Darwin Day, in celebration of the great man’s birthday. Events are being held worldwide, so this afternoon I was hunting for something to attend.

First there’s a British Humanists’ Association lecture in London by Susan Blackmore, chaired by Richard Dawkins. I’d love to go to this but, sadly, it’s sold out.

Then I spotted was a symposium at Birmingham University. It’s actually happening tomorrow instead of Sunday, but the guest speaker is NCSE staff member Nick Matzke, who wrote the “case for evolution” in the recent US court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, where Intelligent Design advocates were sent packing by a hero judge. There are various other biological talks. This sounded cool, so I looked at the application form to find out when and where it was, and it turns out you needed to have applied by 31st January.

Then there’s the Darwin Day celebrations in Shrewsbury. This includes a lecture by Richard Dawkins, on Sunday. Cool! I eagerly tried to book tickets for this, but it’s sold out too.

There are a couple of events dedicated to the life of Darwin, but I was more interested in the evolution and science side than the man himself. Looks like I’ve left it all too late; I wish I’d found out about it earlier. Damn!