Sunday, May 31, 2009

Another victory for the Sanctity of Life crowd


His clinic had been bombed, and he had been shot before. He was not pursued by just a single nutcase, but a community of people who felt he was violating God's law by providing pregnant women with the right to choose to terminate their pregnancies. So they finally got Dr. George Tiller. He was gunned down in his church--worshiping the same God as the murderer. Those who believe in the sanctity of life can breathe a sigh of relief now. Killers know that they will be punished by the righteous.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

President Obama is wrong to excuse torturers


I make no secret of the fact that I have been a strong supporter of Barack Obama, yet I have no sympathy whatsoever with his policy of excusing low level torturers. I understand political expediency. If we tell government servants that they have to question their orders, then that can make for some really difficult problems for those who try to implement policies. There have to be clear lines of authority and responsibility. That is precisely why all of the Nazis that the Allies prosecuted at Nuremburg should have been let go and had their pensions restored. Or did the victors make the right decision in prosecuting war crimes?

Forget the higher ups. It is precisely the foot soldiers--those who waterboarded and confined prisoners in boxes with insects and slammed prisoners against walls and forced prisoners to maintain painful postures for hours and all the rest--who ought to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Not Dick Cheney. His day in court will come eventually. Start with the little guys. Throw the book at them. They were precisely the ones who should have been questioning those orders and quitting their jobs. They were the people who stood to suffer for disobeying orders, and they were the people who should NOT be told that it was ok to do what they were told. If we don't get those guys to balk at authority, then there will always be people in authority who will not hesitate to use their complicity. They are individual human beings who are responsible for their behavior. Like anyone caught in a moral dilemma, they did not deserve to be put in the position of becoming a party to atrocious behavior. But they were caught in a train wreck that has happened all too often in human history. And, if history means anything, it is only the little people who can put a stop to the monsters that rule over them. I say throw the book at them. Show mercy when they turn state's evidence, but don't let them off the hook completely. We have to set a precedent that individuals are responsible for the choices they make, even if those choices are tough.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Saturday, February 7, 2009

In Defense of Robots


Theists sometimes argue free will theodicy--that God permits evil in order that we might choose to obey his will freely. There is a part of this argument that I have never fully understood, and it is that for God to intervene directly in our choices would make us all into "robots"--beings incapable of making free choices, let alone moral choices. I have a couple of serious problems with this argument:
  • Robots can be programmed to make free choices in principle.
  • Our choices already appear to be determined by physical events inside our brains. That is, we are essentially flesh-and-blood robots.
Mainly, though, I just don't understand why God's presence would somehow affect our ability to choose to disobey him any more than a child is robbed of free will by the presence of his or her parent. As we all know, kids can choose to disobey even when the parent is glaring at them and muttering angry noises.

As for robots and morality, I leave you with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In fact, Asimov worked out ways in which robots could violate #1. They can behave just like Christians who go to war and kill, even though God commands that they not kill. There is always the "greater good" to motivate evil.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why I fear religion-based morality

Religion-based morality is usually grounded in the authority of a god, although there can be a more dispersed basis for that authority, as there seems to be in some Eastern religious traditions. From a Christian perspective, right and wrong conduct is fully determined by God. Without God's authority to motivate conduct, people can misbehave in any conceivable way without fear of punishment or loss of reward for good behavior. God figures heavily in their calculation of the best course of action in the future.

When confronted with an atheist, people of religious faith are understandably concerned. They now face someone whose basis for morality is largely missing. Such a person would seem to pose a worse threat to society than someone who accepts the existence of a clear moral authority and just chooses to disobey. The atheist has no guide to correct behavior except, perhaps, an intuitive understanding of what God ordains, and that is just not enough. The atheist faces no threat from disobedience other than social condemnation.

Now let me explain my perspective on morality as an atheist. The threat I face for immoral conduct is not just social, but we all face the penalty of social condemnation. I also face a personal psychological threat that is roughly the same as for the religionist. Moral rules are more like ethical rules in the sense that they are based on convention and principle. It is possible that my instinctive feelings of guilt, often based largely on empathy for others, were designed into me by a deity, but I really doubt that. More likely, they derive from the evolutionary process that created human beings as social animals. I want others to like me, and that is a powerful check on behavior. I also feel pressure to conform to social norms, even though I cannot always make sense of them on the basis of empathy or principle (e.g. "Do unto others...") I recognize instinctively that moral conduct makes me safer because it strengthens the social bonds that I depend on for comfort and survival. So there is a rational basis for moral behavior. Even though a god is not going to destroy me for misbehaving, I could lose standing in my community and self-esteem.

Now I will explain my problem with religious morality--why it concerns me that people ground morality in the authority of a deity. Gods can be capricious. They do not always have the best interests of humanity as a whole in mind. For example, some believers believe their deity wants their religious doctrine to be valued above survival and comfort. Sometimes religious law is harsh and cruel, but it is thought justified on the basis of how the deity feels about the behavior in question. That disturbs me because I regard gods (and supernaturalism in general) as grounded in pure imagination, not reality. Whether or not there is any truth to supernaturalism, it seems that people's beliefs about the supernatural can vary arbitrarily. So the moral grounding of a religious person has an element of arbitrariness that frightens me. Divine authority trumps all other authority, and it can contravene social welfare in general.

So we come full circle. I understand why people of religious faith question the basis of my morality and why they consider atheism a threat to social safety. I also see religion-based morality as a potential threat to human safety, although usually it is the case that people imagine their gods to want the same thing they do--safety and comfort for the human race.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 'So Help Me God' Controversy

A number of groups advocating religious freedom have just instituted a lawsuit that would prevent the Chief Justice from using the words 'God' in the swearing-in ceremony for the President at the Inauguration. Naturally, this is being spun up by the press, since religious controversy is always a big draw. The plaintiffs admit that a President can insert the words in the ceremony, but the government official who swears him in cannot. Historically, the courts have taken the position that such words constitute "ceremonial deism" that serves a secular purpose.

Are the words "So help me God" valid in a secular government ceremony? Is this lawsuit a good tactic for secularists to pursue? As a staunch secularist, I have mixed feelings about it. I would rather try to persuade religious folks of the value of secular government, and I don't think that this controversy moves us in that direction.

On the other had, the "ceremonial deism" excuse strikes me as a transparent ruse to weaken the Constitutional requirement of a religion-neutral government. Deism is about belief in a God who doesn't intervene in human affairs. The term is misused here by theists, who feel that God will be more kindly disposed to us if we make every excuse to beg his help.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Solstice Sign--Good or Bad Tactic for Atheists?


I must confess to mixed feelings over the Freedom from Religion Foundation's sign in the Washington state Capitol Rotunda. Nobody detests the unconstitutional lack of separation between church and state more than I do. I understand the feelings and the passion behind it. Whenever a religion tries to use government property as a means of promoting their religious opinions, I am offended. So, if the state government is going to insist on sponsoring religious messages on government property--something that I vehemently oppose--then it only seems fair that an anti-religion group post their own message. The idea is to give Christians a taste of their own medicine, to show them the cost of using the public commons to shove their views down my throat.

Now, what is so bad about a secular sign that celebrates the Winter Solstice? This one was put up for those of us who do not want the government to be seen as pushing the idea that we ought to believe in any god, let alone the god of Christians. The problem in my mind is that most nativity scenes and other Christmas displays do not carry overt messages that one ought to believe in God. That message is somewhat more subtle. The very fact of a nativity scene on public property is a little bit of a victory dance for some Christian groups, and that is why they push for them. But this FFRF sign had the statement: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." Ouch. Yeah, I believe that, but I don't want to shove it in people's faces. Especially not in the holiday season. It doesn't make people stop and think "Well, gosh, I never realized how religious messages on public property must be like for nonbelievers!" It makes them stop and think "Well, gosh, I guess those atheists really are nasty, angry people!" Object lessons are designed to make the message giver feel better, not the message receiver.

That said, I have to admit that the FFRF sign has as much right to be in the Capitol Rotunda as religious symbols. I really do, although I would rather that there were no religious messages on public property. And I'm glad that they made an issue of putting something up. I just wish that they had thought of a message that was a little gentler, a little more in tune with the holiday spirit. After all, I want people to respect my beliefs, and that means I must try to respect theirs.