Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Dawkins in an elevator

Firstly, let me point out that Dawkins was NOT the person in the elevator!

There has been a recent kerfuffle in the atheist community regarding sexism, misogyny and all round bad behaviour by the so-called sceptics.  The biggest deal thus far has been a poor lady, Rebecca Watson, caught in the eye of a storm for a very minor point she made about being hit on in an elevator - alone at 4am, after apparently being asked not be hit on.  It has been blown out of all proportion by a comment made by Richard Dawkins where he trivialises the situation by comparing it to the caricatured (but all too common) suffering of a  Muslim woman in an Arab country.

So there are several points here: the girl has been vilified; Dawkins has been branded a misogynyst, many atheist women speaking in support of Rebecca have been branded feminazis and many men have been tarred as sexist pigs.

It's actually very simple.  Rebecca naturally, but not rationally (scepticism anyone?) felt threatened by the unwelcome advances at 4am, alone in an elevator.  There is actually sexism on both sides in this thing, the idea that only a woman can feel threatened in this situation has been thrown around by some (not by Rebecca as far as I'm aware) but this is plainly false, men can be physically threatened by women or other men or emotionally, legally or otherwise by both genders too, but this is a minor aside.  The risk of physical assault is infitesimal - sure, the fear is real, the feeling of powerlessness and victimhood can be all too real, but any actual assault is so rare as to be non-existent in any situation one finds oneself in in a western country - more so at a sceptics conference I would suggest.

So Rebecca is to blame?  Hardly.  She was in a situation with a stranger where the outcome was uncertain, the advance unwelcome and safety nowhere in sight.  Mathematically she was safe but her body was telling her otherwise.  So Elevator Guy was to blame?  Kind of, but not entirely.  His approach and location was inappropriate to say the least, but that was assuming Rebecca would a) rebuff him and b) act irrationally.  We have politeness and social etiquette to try and avoid this kind of thing.  So far, so nothing, Rebecca acted like a woman might often do and Elevator Guy acted like a social incompetent - and Rebecca's video was a reasonable request for guys (she should have added girls in here too) to think about what they do, where and when they do it and how it might be received.

Then the comments started.  Some quite horrible, some quite funny, and all due respect to Rebecca for leaving the nasty ones up there too.  Some bloggers decided to defend Rebecca, and all women at atheist/sceptical conferences by calling out the underlying misogyny of the proceedings - I haven't been to one so can't comment - leading to others to defend their own, as it were.  This kind of typical internet scuffle lasts a while then dies out.

Then the Godfather of atheists dips his oar in...  Richard Dawkins, Foundation for Reason, comments on Pharyngula that a woman being politely engaged in flirting in an elevator is not a sign of male boorishness, nor is it a fight worth having.  I am going to be generous and say his exasperation was not with the situation but with the fuss that had been kicked up over it.

Okay, Dawkins was massively OTT, he was, for want of a better word, a bit of a dick about it.  But he was, to all intents and purposes, right.  This is not to say that there aren't male idiots at conferences or that women aren't treated badly, but being placed in an uncomfortable situation isn't an example of it.

What is more sexist: to say a woman can't be asked back to a man's room for her irrationality will make her feel threatened; or to say that women are perfectly capable of being presented with a free choice and making their own minds up?

So, how would I handle that situation?
As Elevator guy I would have waited until I was getting out (or Rebecca was) so as to remove the confinement aspect and asked if she'd like to come to room 123 later to discuss it further, thus not putting any immediate pressure on an answer and leaving the proverbial door open.
As Rebecca I would have liked to think I'd have recognised the situation for what it was and reduced my body's natural fight or flight response and taken refuge in statistics and reason to know that I was probably more likely to be knocked down crossing the street the next day than to be assaulted by Elevator Guy.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Debate: Closing response on Christian Sexual Morality

I want to thank Justin for taking the time to have this debate.  Justin's closing is here.

I feel both cheated and cheating: cheating because I had both the first and last post, cheated because Justin has a slightly unconventional view of Christian Sexual Morality but, in his favour, he does try to defend the conventional view and never resorts to the argument from authority 'my God said it so it must be right.'

I have commented on Justin's individual posts to try to tease out what I think his central theme is and his views on certain aspects of standard Christian views.  I will try not to focus on too many of these but I think his views on homosexuality have to be examined.

Justin redefines traditional marriage to fit his argument: marriage is purely about the right/obligation to have children.  His arguments against homosexual marriage then goes on to cite dubious statistics from a single study which found that children
 were 70 to 100 times more likely to be killed by a stepfather than by their biological father.
A shocking finding to be sure, but two problems arise:
What are the actual rates, what is the actual cost benefit analysis of stopping adoption/step fathering, leaving kids in homes versus the benefit of allowing adoption?
The second problem is more troubling, not all homosexual couples want kids.  You are arguing against step-fathers not homosexual marriage.  The only way for you to justify this is to redefine marriage to include kids.  This is dishonest at best.  In the comments he goes on to say that he finds childless homosexuality immoral, but as he gives no justification this must come from authority, in this case religion.

Justin's central concept is to use evolution as a guide and show that living according to evolution is bad and Christian morality trumps it (non-rape vs. rape; monogamy vs. polygamy/promiscuity etc.)  However, he then argues against homosexual marriage using evolution in the opposite way:
It is a bad evolutionary strategy to take care of someone else’s children.
Can he not see the conflict in his position?

I think there is a fundamental difference of not only opinion but of morality.  Justin sees sex outside of marriage as 'ugly, and shameful', I see sex as a mutually enjoyable celebration of the freedom of two people to physically show their attraction for each other.  Justin's views on morality relate to trying to fit arguments into a pre-defined worldview based on Chritian values.  I take the view that we (almost) all have a basic morality that comes from evolution, then a social morality we learn as we grow, then (some of us) try to go beyond that using reason and logic.  This morality is defensible, can be debated and can be easily changed through logic and discussion.  It also supercedes other forms of morality, both intellectually and practically.  Justin is trying to engage this side of his morality, but keeps trying to force it to fit in with his Biblical teachings and this leads to problems in some of his arguments, e.g. using evolution as a bad thing while defending promiscuity, then using evolution as a good thing while attacking homosexuality.

The key quote is Justin's closing statement:
Rather, my goal is to directly challenge the idea that promiscuity is healthy and moral.
This argument, wrapped in a Christian flag, is justified by appealing to biology (if it happens in nature it must be unfair or wasteful) and fairness (every man should have access to a woman).

Even if I granted every one of Justin's arguments, which I don't, there are two main problems that Justin has to answer with regards to his position:
  1. Serial monogamy is immoral in your world view.  There are no arguments you have made, other than a religious one, that says there could be anything wrong with serial monogamy, yet you call it immoral.
  2. Freedom.  Who are you, or I, to say what autonomous, mentally competent, consenting adults can and can't do with each other?  If there is no harm to other individuals then a polyamorous relationship is none of your business.  If someone wishes to be celibate then that is their choice.  If someone wishes to be promiscuous then that is also their choice.
In conclusion, I would again like to thank Justin for his frank and open views and his willingness to engage in this debate.  I will not convince Justin using logic as even if I did point out flaws or inconsistencies in his worldview there is always the argument from authority to fall back on, but if I can chip away at any of the self-assurance that religion provides to people's morality then that is something.  The difference in our fundamental moral philosophy comes, I feel, from the starting point.  Justin starts from a Christian view and finds arguments that fit that view.  I start from a blank slate and try to find what is fair, what is just and what is intellectually honest.  Christianity had much to offer society in terms of morality but, like all inerrant books, people can cherry pick items to justify anything.  Christianity's day has passed, let's take what was good from it and try to build upon it, but let's also discard that which we fundamentally know as wrong: slavery, the death penalty (for misdemeanors at least), bronze age 'sexual morality' and homophobic discrimination.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Debate: Depravity, a response.

This is a response to Justin's opening salvo in our ongoing debate about Christian Sexual Morality.  My first post here.  Justin's blog here.

Justin opens with 2 main arguments in favour of the religious sexual morality: abstinance and marriage.
"I would like to focus on what I take to be the most important: abstinence and marriage"
My initial reaction is that even if I think that lifelong monogamy is a good thing (I will describe later examples when it isn't) that doesn't mean that marriage is necessary for monogamy.  People can live together as a couple, raise a family and never split up, all without getting married.  There is no need for the church, or the courts, to get together to introduce extra reasons (financial, social or legal) for two people who love each other to stay together and raise their children in a happy, loving home.  Yet, even if these extra bonds from marriage increased the chances of a couple making it all the way it in no way invalidates the couples that don't get married.  Which part of your morality or religion (the two are not synonymous, but that's another discussion) states that in a monogamous (but non-married), lifelong, child-brearing relationship "sex is ugly, and shameful"?  Is there anyone out there who can seriously think that two people who have been together and with no-one else for 10 years having sex is "ugly, and shameful"?  I'm sure they don't.

He then moves on to polygamy as an example why sex outside marriage is wrong, missing the point that polygamous people are married (he should really have chosen open relationships or promiscuous people.)  I agree with him here that most human cultures have been polygamous, mainly when resources are scarce and women are not seen as equals.  The biological reasons behind polygamy and the potentially violent and wasteful way it drives evolution, individuals and culture are completely irrelevant here as western culture, ouside of religion, has stopped viewing women as property or breeding stock and women are free to choose a man based on any criteria they choose.

Women do not select partners based on their genetic desires for good genes for their children.  Couples have to get along socially and they have to be physically attracted.  They do not, initially, care what this means for any potential offspring.  Partners are chosen for themselves rather than their genetic potential.  Wealth, stability, a sense of humour, a good body, nice eyes, kindness, a nice accent, beauty, intelligence, talent etc. these are all individual traits that make women fall in love with men, and vice-versa, and say very little about their genes.

The concept of an alpha male has been destroyed by our culture.  We also do not try to breed with as many women as possible, having the most offspring is not what most males want, and women are more worried about the suitability of a man as a father rather than how 'good' his alpha male genes are.  Also, the concept of alpha male spreading his genes is false, even the type of man that wants to sleep around generally has limits in terms of how good looking (or whatever his criteria is) a girl has to be, a true alpha male would be spreading his seed as wide as possible.
"Lifelong monogamy is an act of love."
Monogamy tends to be forced on a lot of couples, either from social (children/parents) or religious pressure, or a lack of options.  Also, still no mention of marriage.  Monogomy is possible without marriage.  To a casual reader this may seem pedantic, but this is abour Christian morals and the claim is that outside of a lifelong marriage "sex is ugly, and shameful."  Has the position changed here?  Is marriage not necessary, simply monogamy?  Or is he simply choosing the narrow definition of monogamy?  Either way I think this is completely wrong.

Lifelong monogamy within an unhappy marriage MUST be a bad thing.  Surely if a couple are unhappy they should be allowed to separate and try again with someone else.  Should an abused spouse be forced to stay with their abusive partner?  Of course not.  Lifelong monogamy inside an unhappy marriage is ONLY an act of love towards a particular religous view.

It is telling that Justin's opening statement was: "... what I take to be the most important: abstinence and marriage"  and he is yet to put forward any sort of argument against pre-marital sex other than
"[sex is good].. only within the context of lifelong marriage. Otherwise sex is ugly, and shameful."
Now, I don't know what kind of sex Justin is talking about but I have had many (not as many as I'd like!) consensual sexual encounters where neither partner felt dirty, ugly or shameful about what we'd just done.  I do not engage in one night stands, but I don't see why people shouldn't if both parties are happy with it.  Is it equally shameful if the couple are going to get married but want to see if they're sexually compatible before getting into legal and financial arrangements that are difficult to get out of?  Is it wrong for young adults to explore themselves sexually before they are self aware enough to know exactly what they want in a long term partner and can then be confident and knowledgable when they are married?  Is it wrong to engage in a mutually faithful relationship with someone for a while to see if you're meant to be together, including sexually, then split up if you're not fully compatible?  You can use protection during that period, so no children, have an STD check before and after the relationship so there are no diseases being transmitted to anyone, once that is done where's the harm?

I don't want to make Justin's argument for him, but the only 'good' side of abstinence before marriage is that once married, regardless of how things are, they have no knowledge that it could be better so stay together longer.  Ignorance is bliss, even when it's misery...

Monday, 9 November 2009

Christian Sexual (im)morality

This post is in response to a debate with Justin from http://www.thefaithheuristic.com regarding Christian Sexual Morality.

I am in an unenviable position right from the off as if you accept that Christianity is the one true religion then what Christianity defines as wrong is, by definition, immoral.  I also have the problem that I view morality as subjective and personal therefore I have the additional responsibility to show that there might be a sexual morality that most reasonable people would find unobjectionable without the Christian worldview.  To that end I require any readers to leave their unshakable, unquestioning Christian belief at the door and read what follows as an open-minded human being.

My atheistic worldview and rational thought are in agreement with the religious criticisms of atheism: I define morality as a personal, subjective beast.  A position I make clear in the post here.  I think there are common, human morality that most people would agree with.  It is important that people agree as morality often defines laws and laws have to be popular or they don't get passed.  I also think there are intellectually inconsistent morals within Christian doctrine and there are also things that are biologically self-evident that Christianity says are wrong and I will use these to show how Christian sexual morality is not only misguided but harmful.

Christianity takes a lot of its laws from the Old Testament some of which relate to sexual morality.  The monogamous nature of Christian doctrine is completely at odds with most of the Old Testament where polygamy was common, it is also at odds with the vast majority of human civilisations that have ever existed - not that that makes it right, simply an observation.

Perhaps the most egregious example of Old Testament Christian sexual immorality is the rule of not masturbating.  Taken from an unrelated tale of a man, Onan from who we derive the term onanism, who would not impregnate his dead brother's widow (more on that type of thing later!) and spilled his seed on the ground.  Ironically this is the Catholic Church's preferred birth control method rather than a barrier.  Advanced primates use masturbation in nature, it is a personal act that impacts no-one else.  How can this possibly be considered immoral?  Surely anyone without the disadvantages of a religious worldview can see that it is a perfectly healthy, perfectly natural voyage of self-discovery that enables people to become more competent and confident lovers.

Moving on from 'crimes' that harm no-one on to the Christian idea that sex can only take place within marriage.  Let's start with a really simple truth - sex is not a bad thing.  Moving on, sex between consenting adults is not a bad thing.  More importantly, sex between consenting adults is not my business, not your business and, unless you are god, not for you to judge.  Before humans had the concept of marriage was all sex wrong?  If so why did people, with their ability to see an 'objective' moral wrong, not refuse to do it?  Is it not more likely that it is a subjective wrong that certain worldviews brought to the community?  If I refuse to get married for whatever reason, and I have a few, does that mean you think it wrong for me ever to have sex?  My personal view of morally wrong involves another party experiencing harm or loss.  Explain to me where the 'wrong' is in two consenting adults engaging in a mutually pleasurable activity that impacts no-one else?

Let's move on to the most recently socially accepted, but not by many Christians, crime - homosexuality.  Homosexuality occurs in many species in nature, again that doesn't make it right, but it stops the old argument that it goes against nature.  Much like the argument above, who does it harm?  If there is no harm there is no moral wrong.  Christianity's outlawing of what two people get up to in private has led to many deaths, and many other crimes, for what appears to be a small offence in the Old Testament, similar to eating shellfish or wearing clothes made from two different cloths.  Quite a lot was an abomination unto the Lord in that book.  I am sorry to have such a short piece on homosexuality, but it all boils down to whatever two consenting adults choose to get up to in the bedroom is no business of mine.  That I feel uncomfortable when seeing two men kissing (but not two girls)  does not mean I have the right to call it wrong or to make it illegal.  I feel exactly the same about two ugly people kissing.

What follows is pretty much off the top of my head, and you are more than welcome to call it allegorical, but the morality tale within still requires explanation.  Adam and Eve were the only two humans alive.  They were as closely related as it is possible for two humans of different genders to be; she was made from Adam's rib.  They had children and that could be considered incest.  Their two sons had offspring, but as there was only one woman around that definitely was incest.  When Lot escaped from Sodom with his two daughters (after offering them up to a horny crowd to save two angels) they thought they were the last humans alive so got him drunk and tried to get pregnant by him.  Noah and his family went on the ark after the flood.  Again the only way to have kids in that scenario is incest, admittedly first cousins, but still...  And again back to Onan and similar tales, they paint a picture of a very male dominated society where women are good for little but breeding.  The rules also state that it is wrong to have sex (or any contact!) with a woman for a week after her period.  Can anyone in the 21st century western world still believe that?

Finally, my biggest problem with Christianity, thought crime.  Lust, for anyone other than your wife, is considered a sin in Christianity.
But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Sorry, but this is an evil doctrine.  What the base parts of my brain want are not under my control.  My actions are mostly under conscious control so I will take responsibility for those, but thoughts are a different level.  To say thinking about a beautiful woman (or man) is a sin is to deny the human psyche.  Where is the morality in punishing people for some random thought floating through their heads?  I have had thoughts of killing, raping and torturing people - I was writing a book - should I be punished for those?  What goes on in my head not what I should be judged on, judge me on deeds, judge me on the ideas I espouse, but do not judge me for my thoughts.  My thoughts are mine alone and no-one, no deity, no priest can claim dominion over them.  The 10 Commandments have two commandments relating to this, one is not to commit adultery and the other not to envy another man's wife.  Surely a commandment not to sleep with children could have replaced the envy one?

I look forward to your response, either a rip-roaring Christian epic on how Christian sexual morality can save us from the hell of a permissive and progressive, sexually relaxed secular culture, or a point by point destruction of my claims on the clashes between human nature and Christian sexual repression.  And I didn't even start on pornography, prostitution, adultery or divorce!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Religion encourages social growth?

Religious apologisers, especially the well-educated ones, say that religion (esp. Christianity) has been the driver for all the great civil rights movements from gender equality to the abolition of slavery.

You know what, fine, I'll give you that. It still doesn't make religion a good thing.

It is like saying as the Nazi's medical experiments (reducto ad hitlerum) allowed such great advances in medicine we should allow concentration camps.

The fact that you can cherry pick quotes from any of the religious texts that support an abolition of slavery in no way counterbalances the fact that there are passages that specifically allow nay, command, slavery. Oh wait, those ones are allegory. How silly of me, I'm glad no religious person would ever be confused between the allegorical stories and the ones you should take seriously.

Karen Armstrong, in her new book, states “Jews, Christians, and Muslims all knew that revealed truth was symbolic, that scripture could not be interpreted literally, and that sacred texts had multiple meanings, and could lead to entirely fresh insights,” great, please go tell the people in America who want to abolish the teaching of evolution. Go tell the people in the Middle East who are stoning adulterers and homosexuals to death. Go to Mecca and say that their book should not be interpreted literally. Once you have done that then you can come and discuss with me the deeper meanings that can be taken from these great works.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Free Will In Religion

The concept of free will is one that often disappears into a semantic debate on the meaning of various terms used rather than the idea that most people understand by the term. This is especially true of atheists.

Religious people do not have this problem at all. They understand that we are all individuals and God has given us the right to choose in any given circumstance, regardless of nature, nurture or situation and only God knows for sure what your choice will be.

The reason there is a difference is probably down to two things:
Religious people are usually more than happy to judge, blame and punish people for their actions as they 'know' it was done through choice.
Atheists want to believe they have free will but do not want to say anything that suggests a supernatural entity or explanation for the freedom from the laws of physics that they seek.

Actually, religious people should pick athiests up on this point in debates!

There are actually only 3 possible ways will in the universe works:

  1. We obey classical physics and so with enough information every aspect of our lives can be predicted accurately before we are even born until the point of death.  Free will is a myth.
  2. We obey a mix of quantum and classical physics so even though we do not know exactly what will happen to us we know probabilistically what will happen to us and what we will do at every point in our lives.  Free will is statistically predictable.
  3. We have an ability that transcends the laws of physics and so, by definition, free will is supernatural.
One of these three must be the case. A good atheist has to select 1 or 2 but the religious happily choose number 3.

The problem for most atheists, other than their wish to have free will, is what the impact of no free will means for society. How do you blame someone for committing a crime if you realise they had no choice. How can you justify punishing them? It plays along the lines of: without god all things are permitted.

This is absolute nonsense. When you have a puppy and it makes a mess on the carpet, it had no choice, no view on the moral rightness of its actions, yet you punish it anyway to stop it doing it again. The same s true of humans. Punishment and rewards are how we are pushed into acting.

Once we (society) decide an act is undesirable we make a punishment for it. Punishing an act has three fundamental parts:
  • Punishment as justice
  • Punishment as deterrent
  • Punishment as a solution
The punishment as justice argument is redundant as we have no free will.
However by making an act punishable we make it less likely to happen, the pleasure of the act (in some people or some situations) being outweighed by the fear/likelihood of punishment.
When it does happen we stop the perpetrator from being able to recommit the act by locking them up or removing certain rights from the person, e.g. a person who is cruel to animals can no longer keep animals.

It does not mean that we remove mitigating circumstances though, or diminished responsibility. Those are still valid once free will is removed.

From this we can see that the justice system will tick along nicely after we have removed the concept of free will.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Heaven For All?

Heaven is often described as a reward for living a good life with God in your heart, or following some set of rules and believing in God.

So I have a question about that, what if you are born and brought up in such a way that you want to abuse children. It is in your heart and it is your deepest, darkest desire. BUT, because of your religion you manage to live a good life, never touch a child and contribute to great humanitarian works.

When you die and go to heaven, as you presumably must, what is your reward in heaven?

Is it that God heals you of the terrible affliction that cursed you throughout your life? If so why didn't he heal you when you were alive on Earth? Does he give you plentiful supplies of children? Doesn't sound like heaven to me, not for the children anyway.