Monday, May 30, 2011

Religion, Atheism, and Altruism

When dealing with Christians, I am often confronted with the statement "Altruism in an atheist = mental disorder" or some similar offensive and silly remark. In fact, I have just encountered that silly accusation (passed incidentally not as a matter of religious conviction but as a scientifically sound fact) on a blog I follow. The foundational assumption that allows such a statement to be mad is as clear as it is flawed: Atheists all believe in evolution; scratch that: Atheists believe in Darwinism, which is all about selfishness, so any atheist who acts in an altruistic fashion is doing so in opposition to natural selfishness and is, to oversimplify, mentally ill. This is such a simplistic, incorrect, and demeaning view of atheists (and of the scientific theory of evolution) that I don't even know where to begin in rebutting it. In fact, it assumes so many wrong preconceived notions that I am not sure it is even worth trying to do it. So, on careful consideration, I have decided not to. Instead, I would like to ask the following questions:

Consider the following definitions:
  1. "Altruism is acting out of concern for others with no concern for oneself. As opposed to Egoism, which is to act only in ones own, rational, self-interest." (From The Arrogant Atheist Forum)
  2. Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. (Merriam-Webster, definition 1)
  3. Behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species. (Merriam-Webster, definition 2)

Which of the definitions above best approaches your view of altruism and its existence?

Also, when dealing with Christians I am often given examples of altruistic, why, completely selfless behavior that some Christians have been capable of, as if at that point my natural reaction should be "Really? Oh my! I am a believer now that I have been faced with such incontrovertible evidence of the existence of your god."

On a deeper level, though, I wonder if you can call an act that benefits others with no regard for the effects it may have on yourself an altruistic act, when such an act is performed under the conviction that it is what your god would want you to do to honor him, his desires, and his teachings. Not to mention that there could be horrific negative consequences for defying that god's wishes. I wonder if a Christian can be justified in acting as morally superior to an atheist, or in believing that he is acting in a healthy manner, as opposed to the "mentally defective" manner that he would attribute to an atheist performing the same act(s) of selflessness.

Notice that, in reality, both the Christian and the atheist can expect future benefits from the performance of an altruistic act: The Christian can combine his faith with good deeds to expect rewards in the afterlife that he takes as a given; the atheist in all likelihood will assume that, while selfless behavior may have dramatic consequences for him and his family, up to and including his own death, he will leave the world a better place, both by setting an example for others to follow, and by performing an act that, while detrimental to himself in the immediate, may yield a better future for the species.

It is my firm conviction that Christians who demand that altruism, moral order, and justice, among many positive societal values, should by necessity descend from divinity are guilty of denying those traits in human nature that have led to benefits for the human race as a whole throughout millenia. But why shouldn't Christians reason as they do? After all the believe in the fall of mankind from grace, and that alone requires that we should be saved in spite of ourselves.

Consider all the humans that lived before the Hebrew and Christian god decided, in his assumed infinite generosity and goodness, to reveal himself to a small subset of the human population, leaving all others at the mercy of missionaries and preachers for centuries. Were their lives doomed to selfishness, completely devoid of altruism? Of course not. Imagine this scenario: Members of different tribes come face to face with a deadly predator. The predator attacks a member of one tribe. While members of his own tribe stand frozen in fear, incapable of defending their fellow tribesman, members of the other tribe unite in attacking the predator, ultimately killing it. What motivated them to act in defense of the member of a competing tribe, an individual that on any other day they would have been glad to see die: Altruism? An overwhelming instinct for self-preservation? The expectation of a future potential benefit? Was the man who led the attack (an atheist, perhaps) affected by a mental defect? Most importantly, does any of it matter? Shouldn't the real question be: Was the performance of an act that would appear to be, to a large extent, selfless represent a step backward or a step forward for mankind?

The Christian will contend that my imaginary scenario has nothing to do with altruism in his sense of the word, because no moral judgment was necessary or present in the scenario I have given. Really? Whose morals? Christian morals? If we know anything about morals and moral judgement is that they are not written in stone. Why, we know that even from how Christians handle morality themselves. With the exception of a few biblical literalists and Christian fundamentalists, aren't Christians very flexible in their application and interpretation of morality and moral law? When was the last time you saw an adulteress stoned to death, for example? Oh, but my objection shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world changed with the first coming of Christ. And that's where I lose any interest in debating them or arguing with them. They can always have the last word, in any situation, in any conversation. It's a 3-letter word that ends all doubt, all debate, all honest attempt at advancing the understanding of human nature, behavior and interaction. And no, it's not ego.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Second This Thought

I read on an Italian blog that the only way the condition of the lower class is going to improve is if you tie a congressman's salary to the salary of the poorest person in the nation. You would quickly see the salaries of the poor rise.
(The other possibility is that congressmen would accept that condition because they could make money "on the side", if you know what I mean. But don't many of them already do?)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On The Folly of Mainstream Religion

Greta Christina has written a lenghty, irate, appropriately righteous piece about the complete folly easily discernible in William Lane Craig's defense of genocide and infanticide. Read the whole article, it's worth it.

To whet your appetite, here's my favorite passage:
[A]theists are commonly accused of moral relativism: of thinking that there are no fundamental moral principles, and that all morality can be adapted to suit the needs of the moment.

But it isn't atheists who are saying, "Well, sure, genocide seems wrong... but under some circumstances, it actually makes a certain amount of sense." It isn't atheists who are saying, "Well, sure, infanticide seems wrong... but looked at in a certain light, it really isn't all that bad." It isn't atheists who are prioritizing an attachment to an ancient ideology over the clearest moral principles one can imagine: the principle that entire races ought not to be systematically exterminated, and the principle that children ought not to be slaughtered.

I have just one question for William Lane Craig: how do you muster such sophistry that allows you to defend the sanctity of life and, at the same time, defend the extermination of innocents?

Friday, May 13, 2011

On the DOJ Ban on Online Poker in the USA

Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and a poker player to boot, has a post about Rep. Barney Frank's (D-MA) position on the DOJ's strike against online poker sites operating within the U.S.A. Frank ridicules the DOJ's effort with typical wit. One highlight: he mocks the DOJ for wanting to protect the public "from the scourge of inside straights." You can read Ed's post here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Liberal Media Meme Debunked, Once Again

You don't dispute right-wing bullshit with more bullshit. You do it with facts. And that's what Rachel Maddow does every day, including last night.

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Poor People and Fair Shares

Think Progress reports that Sen. Hatch (R-UT) thinks that the tax system is unfair because it doesn’t tax poor people enough.

Of all the Stupid, Horrible, Idiotic Things That Excrementous Republicans Say (which you can find under the label SHITTERS on this blog) this has to be one of the most horrible and offensive.

Poor people do not pay income tax for a reason: they have no money to pay income tax. In fact, income tax is the one tax they do not pay, but they do pay withholdings on their paycheck for Social Security and Medicare, not to mention sales tax on everything they buy. They may be too poor to buy health insurance but not poor enough to fall under Medicaid. They are paying near $4 a gallon for gas, they pay car registration and other fees as the richest among us, and they eat crap that will kill them more quickly because it's all they can afford.

So, yes, the poor have it made. Let's tax them a bit more, so we can continue subsidies for the oil companies and pass tax breaks for yacht owners. Because, as every good Republican knows, a rising tide lifts all boats, including the yachts owned by minimum wage earners.

Fuck you, Sen. Hatch. I mean it.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Pet Peeves: One or Two Spaces After a Period?

Could it be that I found the definitive article about the fact that it is wrong to use two spaces after after a period?

And this reply to "a marine" from the Chicago Manual of Style is pretty funny as well.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Irreparably Frivolous American Newsmedia

Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post, a news organization that in many ways defines frivolous, caught another news orgnization red-handed when it comes to senseless news and polls. It really is no surprise Americans are a duped bunch, when the supposedly serious alternative to Fox News wastes its time on such idiotic pursuits.

Photos Of OBL Not To Be Released

President Obama has announced that photos of dead Osama Bin Laden will not be released. Good for him.

If you believe the U.S. has killed Osama, good for you. If you do not, then no photo is ever going to convince you otherwise. You will claim that the photos have been doctored, that the men killed by the Navy SEALs was a lookalike or a human-clone. Whatever. If you are the Orly Taitz type who believed for years that the President is a Kenyan-born Muslim and still do, no matter what the evidence to the contrary is, no amount of visual evidence will convince you.

But in order to believe that OBL is still alive, you would have to also believe that the Navy SEALs are an incompetent bunch, and a lying one, too. So then don't go around calling yourself a patriot who supports our troops. Short of finding OBL yourself, nothing will convince you. So go ahead, go look for him in the caves of Tora Bora. And don't come back.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Juan Cole on the Death of OBL

You will be hard-pressed to find a better analysis of the life of Osama Bin Laden and of what his death means, or should lead to.

Monday, May 02, 2011

I Wonder

I am glad that Osama Bin Laden was killed. I would have been happier if he had been caught alive. I am sure he would have had some interesting things to say about his relationship with America, which started many years before 9/11, but I have always suspected that the "alive" part of "dead or alive" was just a formality.

But no matter how glad I am (I am not really relieved, since I do not think that the death of this man means an end to the resentment that many Muslim extremists feel about their treatment by the West) I am not taking to the streets to celebrate. There is a difference between being glad that justice has been meted out, however summarily, and showing enthusiasm that a man, however ill-intentioned and evil, has been killed. Perhaps I would feel different if I lived near Ground Zero. But I doubt it.

Over the years, Americans (Westerners in general, but Americans in particular) have been quick to exploit the images of flag-burning, animated Muslim crowds after successful attacks on the West and Israel, in order to incite animosity towards those "who hate hate us for our freedom", to show that it is right to hate "them" because we are different from them, we are better, we are human, and "they" are not. I wonder if today Arab televisions were showing images of Americans in the street of New York and in the seats of a baseball stadium exulting at the news of the death of their enemy.

The whole situation only goes to show that there are some things that appeal to the worst nature of people, regardless of their creed, their upbringing, and their education, and that we humans are an interesting mix of good and evil, but far from a perfect one. And if we spent more time focusing on our similarities rather than on our differences, on common interests instead of special ones, and on what makes us human, we would live in a much different world.

Obama Did Not Kill Osama, The Navy Seals Did. Yes, But...

Over his time in the White House, and even before as a candidate, President Obama has been accused by right-wing characters of dubious expertise on foreign matters of being an appeaser, of being sympathetic to terrorists, of not understanding the threat of terrorism; why, even of catering to terrorists.

Today, some are silent after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in an operation approved by the current Commander-in-Chief.

If and when they speak, they will give credit to President Bush for yesterday's success, and will diminish the import of what has been achieved under the Obama presidency. They will gloss over the fact that Obama made getting Bin Laden a priority, and Bush did not (in his own words, saying that he did not worry about him much, even though after 9/11 he had declared Osama Bin Laden was wanted "dead or alive.") Let them live with their silence. They were wrong, whether they will admit it or not.

So Very Predictable

It is so predictable I hesitate to take credit for it, but what the heck.

Yesterday I wrote: "Fox News will say George W. Bush was right for starting the Iraq War and deserves all the credit for the killing of Bin Laden, in spite of the fact that in a famous press conference then President Bush said, "you know, I don't think about Bin Laden much."

This morning Think Progress wrote (emphases added):
Now, Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise to capture the terrorist leader, so did Fox News give credit where is due? This morning, Fox and Friends approvingly played a clip of Bush from shortly after 9/11, saying, “President George W. Bush promised to the nation that Osama bin Laden would be caught any way possible.” “We did finally get him,” host Brian Kilmeade said after the clip.

In what is likely to become a chorus on the right, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s president wrote this morning that “Bin Laden’s elimination vindicates U.S. strategy in the region, started under President George W. Bush.”

In fact, the killing of Bin Laden vindicates nothing because U.S. strategy in the region included a war on a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and posed no threat to the United States. This last statement is in fact indicative of the dishonesty and the bias of The Heritage Foundation, which is consistently on the wrong side of history and supports interests that have nothing in common with those of the overwhelming majority of Americans, which is also why it qualifies for our new SHITTERS (Stupid, Horrible, Idiotic Things That Excrementous Republicans Say) category.

Why Didn't Barack Hussein Obama Show Us The Body (UPDATED)

If you don't know which body, you live in a cave, and if you don't know who will utter those words you have not been following the "birther controversy".
I also predict that Donald Trump will claim credit for the fact that Osama Bin Laden has "allegedly" killed, that Sarah "Hannity" Palin will say something like "people don't care about Osama Bin Laden, they want jobs", and that Fox News will say George W. Bush was right for starting the Iraq War and deserves all the credit for the killing of Bin Laden, in spite of the fact that in a famous press conference then President Bush said, "you know, I don't think about Bin Laden much."

Think Progress reports the following headline: Meet The Deathers: Andrew Breitbart Website Pushing Conspiracy Theory That Osama Might Not Be Dead. I can't say that Breitbart is idiot-in-chief, because there are so many on the right-side of the political spectrum, but he is certainly one of the most deceitful and disingenuous around, so it does not surprise me that his website should be (one of) the first to pursue this line of criticism.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Daily Kos on Osama Bin Laden's Death

Someone else already did the work for me, so I thought I wouldn't reinvent the wheel.
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