Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Inability to empathise

Even in the face of global pressure.  The Pope used his Christmas message to the world this year to claim that back in the 70s the sexual abuse of children was considered perfectly normal, acceptable and was generally condoned by society as not being absolutely evil.  Children agreed with this opinion too, he says:

In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorised as something fully in conformity with man and even with children.

The 70s I grew up in was very different.  In the UK, it was a time of particular – if largely misdirected – fear of paedophilia.  There were numerous TV adverts warning children not to talk to strangers or to get into their cars.  There was a long-lasting national campaign.  I don’t remember anyone condoning child rape, least of all children. 

That last sentiment is a terrifying one.  How could anyone imagine that a child would wish to be abused or even to be sanguine about it?  Well, I think they’d have to be a psychopath. They’d need to be entirely incapable of empathising with the plight of a small child having frightening and often painful things done to it in an environment of secrecy and threat.

To his credit, the Pope regrets the widespread abuse carried out by his church:

The Pope said abuse revelations in 2010 reached “an unimaginable dimension” which brought “humiliation” on the Church.

In other words, he regrets it.  He regrets the humiliation of the church.  He’s still not concerned about the victims.

Barbara Blaine is the head of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and makes an excellent response:

The Pope insists on talking about a vague ‘broader context' he can't control, while ignoring the clear ‘broader context' he can influence — the long-standing and unhealthy culture of a rigid, secretive, all-male Church hierarchy fixated on self-preservation at all costs. This is the ‘context’ that matters.

But in any case, this is all beside the point.  The Pope’s argument boils down to “well everyone else was doing it”.  I hardly need point out the intellectual and moral paucity of this argument. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Religion has no substance, that’s why you can’t hide behind it

But it doesn’t stop people trying.  Religion is no more of an excuse for bigoted discrimination than is any other variety of mania.  To discriminate against someone is to devalue them based on an arbitrary attribute such as skin colour, sex or sexual orientation.  This is a great evil: treating people as less than people opens the door for cruel treatment and consequent suffering. 

This is why we have anti-discrimination laws: you don’t get to cause suffering just because you believe you’re entitled to.  But religions and the religious persist in acting as though they are entitled.

I’ve tried long and hard to understand in what ways a Bed & Breakfast proprietor suffers when forced not to discriminate against homosexual couples and I’m afraid I just can’t come up with anything.  How is she harmed?  Is her body harmed?  Only if she self-flagellates to drive the sin out of her house.  Is her faith harmed?  Can’t see why: isn’t it an opportunity for her faith to be strengthened? Isn’t this what religious people claim suffering is about anyway?  Might she suffer because she believes it will harm her chances of eternal life?  Well perhaps, but then the Bible doesn’t say homosexuals should be banned from cheap accommodation, it says they should be killed.  And it holds fashion disasters, progressive farming methods and picking up sticks on the Sabbath in the same contempt.  A person who feels harmed in this way wouldn’t seem to be reading from the authorised version.  It would be easy to avoid the concern, too: can’t she just extend the excuse she uses for not killing homosexuals or adulterers to cover not turning them away from the inn?

It’s transparently obvious that this is not about religion but about bigotry in religion’s clothing.  The only way that B&B operator could be harmed is by a slight feeling of ick caused by her own prejudices.  She can try to hide behind religion but there’s nothing there on any level: the book doesn’t say what she says it says and even if it did, there’s no reason for anyone – including her – to believe it’s true anyway.

Perhaps this is one of these unsophisticated analyses of religion I keep hearing about, but I’m still waiting to hear about the harm that stems from having to treat humans as humans.

The Bishop of Windsor should be able to tell us, especially if he writes an article about it, right?  Well let’s have a look:

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, warned that the death of “religious literacy” among those who made and administered the law had created an imbalance in the way in which those with faith were treated compared to sexual minorities.

I wonder if Michael realises how petulant he sounds. NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME!!!  Michael, this has nothing to do with understanding the particular nonsenses of your religion or its other adherents.  It’s about treating people as people. 

Highlighting the case Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor who was sacked by Relate for refusing to give sex therapy to a homosexual couple, he said that the judiciary now went out of its way to protect the rights of minorities.

Michael is objecting to the judicial system actively protecting the rights of minorities.  Isn’t that one of the main things the judiciary is for?  Instead it should fail to protect the rights of minorities?  Should it protect majorities in favour of minorities?  What is Michael saying here?

Gary McFarlane was not, of course, “sacked by Relate for refusing to give sex therapy to a homosexual couple” and if Michael actually said this, shame on him.  The circumstances were rather more complex.  His employers – the charity Relate – have an equal opportunities policy.  Since McFarlane’s religious convictions seemed to suggest that he might not be able to uphold this policy, he was asked to confirm in writing that he would comply with it.  He refused at first, so disciplinary proceedings were started.  He backed down and signed the agreement, so the proceedings were then stopped.  Later, he admitted to his supervisor that he had lied and had no intention of complying with the equal opportunities policy (that is, he intended to discriminate after promising he wouldn’t).  That’s what he was sacked for.

At the same time, for the first time in British history politicians and judges were largely ignorant of religion and so failed to appreciate the importance Christians placed on abiding by the scriptures rather than the politically correct values of the secular state.

Ah, the Big Picture gambit.  What you do is this: attack someone’s knowledge of the Big Picture (this is what we in the trade call ad hominem) and for the double whammy you shotgun accusations of intellectual and moral paucity on innocent bystanders (also, for the record, ad hominem).

Sorry Michael, the problem with the Big Picture gambit is that it is vulnerable to the Big Picture gambit.  Another problem with Michael’s particular application of this gambit is that it is entirely unsubstantiated.  He’s claiming that most British politicians and judges are ignorant of religion.  How can Michael possibly know this?  Oh, and there’s some faulty logic in there too for good measure: he says that ignorance of the specifics of religion implies ignorance of how important some things are to some people. And just to round things off, an irrelevancy: the importance Christians might or might not place on one thing or another has no bearing at all on whether the judicial system – the BLIND judicial system – should consider those same things important.

Bishop Scott-Joynt told the BBC’s World This Weekend: “The problem is that there is a really quite widespread perception among Christians that there is growing up something of an imbalance in the legal position with regard to the freedom of Christians and people of other faiths to pursue the calling of their faith in public life, in public service.

Oh I love it when people use phrases like “quite widespread”.  You know in those old cartoons where a character’s eyelids shoot up and it has dollar signs instead of pupils?  The same thing happens to me when I read phrases like this, except that instead of dollar signs, I get weasel silhouettes.

”The risk would be that there are increasingly professions where it could be difficult for people who are devoted believers to work in certain of the public services, indeed in Parliament.

Whoah!  We finally get close to the ‘harm’ question!  It would indeed be suffering if people didn’t get to pursue their chosen careers because of their religious beliefs….. But see above.  The Bible doesn’t call for general disapproval and employer-suing in cases of encountering homosexuals, it calls for STONING TO DEATH. You are already defying the word of God by allowing homosexuals to live.  Do you think God deals in half-measures?  Do you think he’ll be fooled if you don’t let them into your house or acknowledge their existence?  Sorry God, I didn’t kill all the bummers I found, but I denied them minor goods and services.  Talk about getting into heaven on a fucking scholarship.

Anybody who is part of the religious community believes that you don’t just hold views, you live them. Manifesting your faith is part of having it and not part of some optional bolt-on.

This is a bogus claim that religious beliefs trump others.  It’s quite the reverse, in practice.  I believe I’ll break my body to bits if I step out of my bedroom window so I don’t do it.  Most if not all religious people sin, despite believing they’ll go to hell if they do.  Oh, silly me, I forgot that you can say sorry.  Religious people live their beliefs only insofar as they can opt out when it matters.  Christians: kill some gays or adulterers and I’ll believe you’re living your views.  Writing letters to the Daily Mail probably doesn’t count.  NOTE: you’ve killed enough people, Christians, don’t kill any more on my account.

Judgement seemed to be following contemporary society, which seems to think that secularist views are statements of the obvious and religious views are notions in the mind. That is the culture in which we are living.

Perhaps, Michael, the judicial system should return to the biblical.  Is that what you want?  Or do you want to pick and choose and decide what’s called ‘biblical’?

The judges ought to be religiously literate enough to know that there is an argument behind all this, which can’t simply be settled by the nature of society as it is today.

Michael, you’re talking about a get out of jail free card.  Justice isn’t about religion.  Nor should it be.  It’s about protecting people who need to be protected.  It’s about preventing what suffering can be prevented.  Michael, explain why it “can’t simply be settled by the nature of society as it is today”.  Why can’t it?  How can’t it?  I’m champing at the bit.

But I aim this question at everyone who uses caricatures of cases to cry their fucking peepers out about how they’re not allowed to cattle-prod the people they personally hate and then accuse the people who don’t like being prod of attacking them: where’s the harm?  Let’s all air our dirty laundry.  Homosexuals: let’s hear about the harm of people denying you goods and services.  And service providers, let’s hear about the harm of you…..refusing…to…sell…things…to…customers.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cold reading is basically conversation

Over on Fledgeling Skeptic Maria makes a creative point.  She’s been thinking about a presentation to help people recognise and debunk psychic claims.  Along the way she came up with the idea of an un-psychic fair.  The name needs work (perhaps we could just call it a ‘fair’?) but I love the idea.  Perhaps you’d have skilled magicians and mentalists plying the psychic trade and then explaining how they did it.  Ideally it’d be interactive in the not banal sense of the word: punters could have a crack at cold reading each other in a spirit of derision.  I’d dust off my dubious cold reading skills of 20 years ago to put together an act for something like that.

Maria thinks it wouldn’t work, though, because almost all psychic claims are either the ideomotor effect or cold reading.

I’m going to do what I usually do by both agreeing and disagreeing with Maria on practically every point.

For the most part, I think she’s right.  It’s a great idea that might only work in a rose-tinted world.  But for interesting reasons.  And there are some psychic claims that aren’t closely related to the ideomotor effect or to cold-reading.  Let’s deal with those first. 

Conjuring tricks.  Geller has made a lifetime’s worth of inane programmes with this shtick. He pre-bends spoons, he has magnets strapped to every extremity, he has a mirror so he can see what people are drawing when his back is turned (why else turn your back and cover your eyes, Uri?) so he can triumphantly recreate the picture once it’s in an envelope.

There’s another thing that’s possibly not quite cold reading.  I’m not sure how else to describe it: Suckers Are Pre-Cooked.  Credulous idiots are credulous.  What the fuck are we doing at a psychic fair anyway unless we’ve failed to achieve adulthood?  We actually do need to be educated in critical thinking, we’re not very good at it otherwise.  And we’re not all that brilliant at it even if we are.  Which brings me to my main point.

Maria is right to say that almost all psychic claims are down to cold reading or the ideomotor effect.  In fact, I’d tend to count the latter as a possibly dubious example of the former.  This is because cold reading isn’t something that’s done to a person or even something that’s done by a person.  It’s an interaction between a performer and an audience.  Cold reading without audience participation reduces to random wild stabs in the dark.  As it happens, we’re all too ready to participate.  It’s actually an effort to restrain ourselves from filling in the gaps.  And it’s this kind of tendency that gives cold reading it’s power.

Let’s take – as I suggested in a comment on Maria’s blog – the psychic nonsense out of it.  How many of us know someone who seems unusually perceptive?  This person seems able to turn a mess into a dilemma and help us realise that we knew all along which horn we preferred.  It’s the same person who told us to visit the doctor when we had a suspicious mole which turned out to need surgery and suggested we go for it in a putative relationship which led to happiness. 

How do we treat this person?  We trust her advice.  We forget the misses and we remember the hits.  We actually seek out her advice even when we won’t ask anybody else.  We treat the person and her advice as legendary and we recommend her advice to our friends.

We can’t help it.  We play our part in conversations and pretend we don’t. Almost everything we do is cold reading and when we think we’re being perceptive, we’re probably fooling ourselves.

I think it’s really cool: conversation is cold reading and possible vice versa.

I’m debating Maria about accomodationism on her blog starting Monday, FUNTIME. Tune in.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A new hero

She seems awesome.  She’s right that the key to privacy is taking it back and that it begins with openness in government.  If you’re doing government right, you’re not scared that people will make unflattering mashups.  You welcome it and say duh.

Jennifer Stoddart sounds like a rare thing: a genuinely interesting commenter on the whole business of the Internet.  I’d love to meet her.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

Accomodation VS Confrontation: The Debate

I don’t know anything about debates, but I’m having one!  With the excellent Fledgeling Skeptic!  This is quite exciting.  There’s every single chance she’ll run rings around me so schadenfreude fans (and who isn’t?) should stay tuned.  It won’t be the first time I’ve either crashed or burned.  Literally and figuratively, now I come to think about it.

Anyway, the debate will be about accomodationism vs confrontationism, for want of better terms on both sides.  Actually, I hope it won’t end up being anything of the sort: I’m not so interested in a pissing contest as I am in explaining that confrontation might be a useful tool.  Or rather, I want to show that people don’t get to make up a fictional cause and then complain about random skeptics they view as not living up to it.

I’m confident I’ll learn something from this exciting opportunity and I hope someone else does too.

I’m excited.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Pratchett, Alzheimer's, God and dicks

PZ has a post about the author Terry Pratchett, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.  He quotes Pratchett himself on the arbitrariness of the disease and the sad fact that there’s surprisingly little funding into Alzheimer's research.  He also quotes from one of Pratchett’s books, Unseen Academicals which talks of the ‘natural evil’ of a family of otters devouring a ‘family’ of salmon.

And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built in to the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.

An excellent sentiment.  PZ concludes:

The casual cruelty of nature is one example of the absence of a benevolent overseer in the universe. For another, I'd add the fact that Pratchett has been afflicted with a disease with no cure, of a kind that will slowly destroy his mind. We're left with only two alternatives: that if there is a god, he's insane or evil and rules the world with wanton whimsy; or the most likely answer, that there is no such being and it's simple chance that leads to these daily haphazard catastrophes.

PZ’s right, of course.  There’s not a thing we can recognise as benevolence in any putative creator of the universe.  The best we can probably do is say that existing – even in torment - is better in some sense than not existing at all, but it’s a remarkably weak and circular argument.  You’d think it would be quite easy for a universe creator to arrange matters so that suffering doesn’t happen.  Animals could all be vegetarian.  Everything could reproduce in just the proportion that meant everything had enough to eat and drink and enough space to hang out in.  The world could be free of disease.  Humans could have greater proclivity to be nice to each other and to the world around them.  None of this seems particularly hard to arrange if you’re starting from scratch and the fact that various organisms prey on and cause suffering to others is evidence not only that there’s no benevolent creator, but that evolution is true.  It reminds me of the joke where a stranger stops in the countryside and asks a local for directions to the city.  “Well,” answers the local “I wouldn’t start from here.”  The natural world is the way it is because evolution is opportunistic.  There’s no feasible rationale for a god to arrange things this way if it was motivated by benevolence. 

That someone as vibrant and intellectual and brilliant as Pratchett could suffer arbitrarily from so cruel an affliction is evidence itself for the non-existence or non-benevolence of a god. 

But naturally, some people disagree.  Siriusknotts at comment #7 says this:

Re: The casual cruelty of nature is one example of the absence of a benevolent overseer in the universe.

Actually PZ, the Bible explains the casual cruelty of nature as an effect of Man's sin against God. The world God created was very good, perfect. Sin came by Adam and death by sin. So before you shake your fist at the heavens or thumb your nose at your Creator, remember it's not His fault - it's ours. Rebellion against truth, good, perfect and life itself (all attributes of your Creator) leaves us inevitably with falsehoods, evil, corruption and death.

The wages (deserved earnings) of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

-Rev Tony Breeden
aka Sirius Knott

There’s so much wrong with this argument that I hardly know where to begin.  First, since PZ’s argument is that a god, if one existed, is morally reprehensible, it seems odd to proclaim god’s goodness by invoking original sin.  Original sin – the idea that god sentenced every human ever to a life of suffering because of the actions of their first ancestor - is surely about the most morally repugnant notion conceivable.  God’s punishing me because I’m sinful.  But I’m sinful because I was born that way.  God made sure I was born that way, so I can’t really help it.  Why did he do this?  Because Adam ate an apple.  How this equates to the suffering of all humanity being partly my fault, regardless of my actions in life, I do not know.

And it wasn’t as though god didn’t set Adam and Eve up for the fall in the first place.  Why put the magic tree there in the first place?  Why have a talking snake?  Why imbue your creations with curiosity and free will and perversely self-destructive proclivities?  Talk about poking an elephant’s arse with a stick and pretending not to know what would happen.  These are not the actions of someone with benevolence in mind.  Besides, it’s all a bit confusing.  As I understand it, Adam and Eve didn’t know good and evil until they ate the apple.  Isn’t god punishing them for something they didn’t know was wrong until after they’d done it?  And let’s not forget that the things god punished them (and the rest of us) for are some of the most noble qualities found in humans.  Blind obedience is not noble.  The Nuremberg defense is not acceptable because unquestioning obedience can so easily and often lead to atrocity.  It’s noble to question.  It’s noble to disobey when you’re told to do evil.  Christians and Jews somehow contrive to consider Abraham noble when he prepares to murder his son because god told him to.  I do not.  I very much hope I would refuse to do it regardless of the consequences to me. 

A god who wants to accentuate the worst qualities in people and punish the best isn’t using the same definition of “benevolence” as I am.  And this might be the case.  We’re often told that God moves in mysterious ways, as if that explains away problems like this.  We’re told that god and his motivations are beyond our understanding, that we’re missing the big picture and can’t apply the same standards of morality to god as to humans.  Despite the fact that we’re somehow supposed to have been created in his image.  This just leaves us with the problem that god deliberately created us with an entirely different sense of morality to his.  Doesn’t this virtually guarantee suffering? 

The troll blunders on, but I’m bored of correcting him.  He leaves the thread with the following:

Thank you! Thank you! You've all been wonderful! And predictable at best!

You almost instantly degenerated to forthing mockery and outrageous ad hominem, just as I inevitably knew you must. It's not like your interpretation of the evidence is ironclad. Even darwin admitted [in Origins, no less] that every bit of evidence he proposed for magical microbes-to-man evolution could be interpreted differently.

Ah, If Only Evolutionists Were Smart...

It's no wonder mockstars like PZ Myers are terrified to debate Creation scientists, if these are the only tactics you evos have at your disposal.

He’s responding to some of the other comments, some of which are downright rude. 

For example:

Austinfilm: Please save your appalling, morally bankrupt and misanthropic fairy tales for those small-minded and childish enough to find them worthwhile.

Glen Davidson: And there's a talking snake in that story, too!  Pretty convincing...

great.american.satan: Oh my Whatevah... We did not just get jebusrolled by a reverend. Get out of town. That shits just made my day.

Kieranfoy, Faerie Godfather of Death, GMKSC, OED: People, please. Don't engage the troll. Don't help it crap all over a thread dedicated to the memory of a wonderful, amazing and brilliant writer. Please.

Some comments engage Siriusknotts’ ‘argument’, but of course he ignores every single one of those and focuses on tone.  He leaves smugly, his preconceptions satisfied.  By focusing on tone, he feels justified in ignoring the actual counterarguments.  No doubt he’ll tell his friends about how nasty and intolerant and dickish atheists are.

An accomodationist might say that these people are Not Helping.  But here is an example of what I’ve talked about at some length before.  These are atheists on their home ground reacting to an idiot who invades the thread with ludicrous stories about magical talking snakes.  It reminds us how imbecilic is the basis of the Abrahamic religions.  It reminds us how little respect people deserve for holding these views. 

This – it seems to me – is Helping.  It’s unlikely to convert a True Believer, but – and this is what accomodationists seem so reluctant to admit – there are other ways of helping.