Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pascal's Wager IS a risk . . . for the believers

Pascal's Wager is used too often by believers (especially of the Christian variety) to challenge non-believers, or warn them, or something. It's been dealt with numerous times in numerous places, and is always found wanting by the very people it's supposed convince. What I have realized though, is that it's also a problem (if indeed it is a problem) for the believers.

For those unfamiliar with it, Pascal's Wager (put forth by philosopher Blaise Pascal), was formulated with the Christian God in mind. It says that when attempting to determine whether to believe in God, it can be approached as a wager, heads or tails. God exists, or he doesn't. If you believe in God and follow his teachings and commandments in life, and you're wrong, you've lost very little -- a few fleshly pleasures perhaps, but not much of consequence. If you believe in God and do as he commands, and you're right, congrats, you get heaven. So it doesn't seem such a bad thing to believe in God. However, if you do not believe in God, and you're right, you gain little over the believer. If you do not believe in God, and you're wrong -- you get hell. Therefore, you potentially gain tremendously by believing, while potentially losing horrendously if you don't believe. The only reasonable wager then is to believe.

I'm not going to bother going through all the usual problems that are put forth with this wager, because it's been done so frequently. Go ahead and Google it,  you'll see. What I want to point out is the problem that I see for believers if they're wrong.

The wager says that there isn't much consequence if you're wrong, and you follow the commandments of God. Well, actually, there's a pretty big risk: the risk that you will cause or support needless suffering and immorality during your life. For example, homosexuality. If the believer follows the teachings that homosexuality is a sin, and uses that as an excuse to deny gay people a chance to love and be loved by their partners, but this is not in fact immoral, then the believer's wager has caused or supported suffering.

If you would like a more obvious example, then consider some of what is done under the auspices of the more fundamentalist Islam beliefs. If those believers are wrong, then things like honor killings, child marriages, female genital mutilation, and other abuses are all completely and utterly without a point. These horrible things will have been done to follow the commands of a non-existent God, causing suffering, misery, and potentially (even likely) caused the believer to miss out on some chances for positive, fulfilling relationships with the people s/he has harmed. I'd call that a huge risk.

Most of us don't like to be mistaken, and most of us don't like it when we make mistakes because of bad information. How much worse would it be to go against our empathetic and altruistic instincts because of a bad wager?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Marriage isn't about kids.

So, a Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote an opinion piece at He's not happy about the passage of same-sex marriage rights in New York. His argument is summed up with this:
It is destructive because we fail to view marriage in the context of a vocation: a calling to participate in the great enterprise of forming the next generation.

Marriage is reduced to an empty honor.
Actually, no. Marriage is not just for "forming the next generation." If a man and woman get married who are incapable of having children, their marriage is NOT an empty honor. It will still (ideally) be a relationship built on love, trust, and respect. It will still be a visible commitment to the world of that relationship. It will be an opportunity to deepen their love, trust and respect for each other. It will be many things, but it will not be empty. Children are not the be-all and end-all of marriage, they aren't even the most important part of it. Marriage is not a job, it is not a calling, it's a relationship.

If marriage is just a job for creating kids, then who cares if you commit adultery? Just make sure you don't have kids doing it. If marriage is just a job for creating kids, then why not arrange marriages with an eye toward breeding kids with the traits we want? You know, like horse breeding. Indeed, if marriage is just a job for creating kids, let's start having interviews, and deny you marriage if you don't pass. You can put forth your qualifications in a resume: "good at child discipline, and believe in strict bedtimes." Don't forget periodic reviews! "Your child disobeyed an average of 2 times per week last quarter. What do you plan on doing to correct this trend?"

Marriage is a relationship. Whether it is good or bad has nothing to do with the gender of those involved. So how about we start showing a little fairness?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Free will and God

Early in June I noticed that another blogger had quoted my first post on this site. "Learning to Live Free" is a site for those who have left the Apostolic Lutheran Church and its cousins, and discussion of that. I actually rather like what I see there for the most part. From what I can gather, most people are still Christian on that site, but at least they are no longer stuck in one of the most conservative and limiting traditions in the Lutheran landscape. I was pleased to see someone mentioning me, because I'm not immune to feelings of pride, however small.

Some of the commenters on that site decided to address me directly, and for the most part were very polite about it. There's at least one glaring exception who posted a copy-paste of some stuff from a Ray Comfort site, but you won't see that if you go there, as the site admin deleted all but the link to that site, saying that those who wanted to read it could go there themselves. Well, I've been pondering a few of the things that were said to me, and decided to respond here, as that site doesn't seem the place to comment on my atheism or why the arguments presented are convincing.

First up, we've got Hibernatus:

What Nathan-Lucien really is discussing is why God created free will if giving free will made it possible to choose evil instead of good. Wouldn't it have been better to create only restricted will so it would have been possible to choose only good and not evil? 

In the Orthodox church, we say God didn't want to create slaves but sons who cooperate with him out of their free will and not as machines that have been programmed to always cooperate with God. Man was created as God's image. Would it be possible to call a pre-programmed machine an image of God? 
If you haven't followed the links above, he's responding to my story about first questioning religion through the story of Adam and Eve eating that fruit that gave them knowledge of good and evil, which went against the only "thou shalt not" commandment they had been given. I said that there were various ways that God could have prevented that result, and gave some examples. In other words, omniscient, all-loving, omnipotent God set them up.

Well, I agree that I don't want my children (when I have some) being automatons. I'd like them to know their options and make their choices. I'd like them to be people, in other words. The problem with arguments that God is simply letting us follow our free will is that if we are going to make good choices, we need good information, and the ability to understand that information. Most parents know that you don't just tell a child "don't drink the bleach, it'll kill you." That's good information, but you also make sure they can't get at it until they're old enough to understand the danger.

In the story of Adam and Eve, God said that they would die if they ate the fruit. Funny thing, they didn't die right away, but they did suddenly have a sense of shame, a conscience, if you will. And that brings me to how God could allow free will, or choice, but make it a heck of a lot more effective than it is, and all without turning me into an automaton. He could persuade me.

When I debate with my wife, my friends, or random people on the internet, each person is trying to persuade the other of their point of view. As humans, we have a limited ability and access to information, which means that sometimes we aren't able to put forth the best points or rebuttals. But God . . . if God saw that I was going to do something that he considers unethical, he could step in and actually explain why it would be wrong, perhaps accelerating my perception of time so we could hash it out without interfering with the progression of events. He could use his omniscience to anticipate each and every rebuttal I might make, and demonstrate why those rebuttals fail. He could do this without threats or promises of reward. And then, he could let me choose. He could do this for everyone.

Some might say that this is what the conscience is: the "still small voice" of God. Except that while the conscience might get me to feel guilt or shame, it doesn't tell me why I should feel guilt or shame for a particular instance. God could do that, if he'd actually bother, if he actually cared (and if he was real). As it stands, everyone's conscience seems to disagree with everyone else's at some point. One cop feels guilty for shooting a man in the line of duty, another has no issue with it. This world contains liars, thieves, and abusers, and not all of them feel shame or guilt.

I mean that literally. There are people in this world who have no sense of right and wrong, no conscience, and never have, even as a child. They're called psychopaths. They lack empathy and compassion, key components of any human attempt to be good to one another. They lie with ease, because unlike most of us, it doesn't bother them. The very presence of such individuals in the world says that this whole idea of "God speaks to us through our conscience" is a bust.

I've got one more commenter to respond to, and I promise it won't take as long. Anonymous said:

[Lucien's] statements are immature, showing a huge lack of biblical understanding, and he has made the error of calling God a liar. Yes God created us with free will; yes God allowed sin to enter the world; yes people suffer, but there is a reason for it all. God has an amazing plan that has not been fully revealed to humanity. Who are we to tell God how things should have been done?
We are the ones who are suffering, and thus, we are the ones who have a right to know why. If God is real, and this is all part of his plan, we deserve an explanation, and I for one, demand an explanation.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hypocrisy revealed

So, over in New York the legislator is considering allowing gay marriage. There is still one lone Democrat, Ruben Diaz, Sr., who's against it. The Village Voice got to have a chat with Senator Diaz (at least until he hung up on them), and revealed a surprising hypocrisy. Apparently, Diaz thinks that divorce is wrong, morally wrong, because his religion says so (though he himself has been married twice). But he wouldn't say that divorce should be illegal. How odd. He thinks gay marriage should not be legal because it's morally wrong, but divorce, which is also morally wrong, is ok to have as a legal option.

So do you believe it is alright to be divorced?
No. Divorce is wrong. Gay marriage is wrong.
You think you are wrong, then?
When I got divorced, I was wrong, yes. Why are you asking me this?
But you believe that gay marriage is wrong and divorce is wrong, but that you should be allowed to get divorced and remarried, and gay people shouldn't be able to marry at all.
When I got divorced, it was wrong, but marriage is between a man and a woman.
So is being divorced OK with your religion?
No, it is not OK. Gay marriage is still wrong. This is what I believe.
At that point the interview goes into questions why Diaz once had his current wife and ex-wife working together at the same place, on the same payroll, and Diaz accuses the interviewer of just digging for dirt, and hangs up pretty quickly.

Now, I do have one criticism of the questions. I wish the interviewer had flat out asked "Do you believe divorce should be illegal?" Because while it appears that Diaz would say no, the answer to that question would have avoided any ambiguity. If Diaz answered "Yes," then the only hypocrisy is in the fact that he's been divorced. Since we've all occasionally done things that go against our ethics, Diaz could then go the route of showing regret for that action. Or, he could claim that he didn't believe it was wrong at the time, but does now. Hypocrisy disappears with that reasoning. Diaz would still be wrong, but not hypocritical.

On the other hand, if he answered "No, divorce should not be illegal," the interviewer could have pressed him on the discrepancy between that stance, and his stance that gay marriage should be illegal. I think the interviewer may have gotten too caught up in trying to highlight the hypocrisy with other issues. Maybe.

h/t to the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta

Monday, June 20, 2011

Death and grief

Approximately one year ago one of my aunts died after a long and bravely fought battle with breast cancer. She went on chemo multiple times, and often it seemed she would beat it. Unfortunately, after being in remission, it returned, and spread throughout her body. Eventually, the doctors informed her and her family that it was terminal. She could fight it some more, and perhaps live a while longer . . . or not. She chose not. She felt better without treatment than she did with the treatment, and she didn't want her final days to be miserable. I cannot blame her at all, and might very well have made the same choice.

I was not able to be there at the end. I tried, but she died before I could get to her and the rest of my family. Still, she died with her closest brother and husband at her side, and my understanding is that she had a smile on her face, no pain, and went peacefully. She had accepted it.

I didn't know her well, but the days following still were not easy for me. I cried, a lot. I would be doing fine one moment, and the next I would remember something about her, and burst into tears. At one point, it just suddenly popped into my head that she was the first to ever use the phrase "29 forever" in my presence. I had asked her how old she was, because she seemed so young, and her response was "29 forever." I loved it. She told me her actual age after a moment, but I don't remember what it was, and don't care. I still sometimes use that phrase, now that I've passed my original 29th birthday more than once. Such a simple memory, but how could I not grieve at the loss of the one who gave it to me?

She was the joker in the family. I have other aunts and uncles, and all love to make each other laugh, but never was there so much laughter as when she was around. Whenever I saw her, she just seemed so vibrant, even with all her hair gone from the chemo. I miss her. I hardly ever saw her when she was alive, but now that I can never see her again, I miss her. Even now, I sometimes tear up when I think of her (such as right now).

Life moves on of course, and though there's still pain, it's a dull ache, no longer a crushing weight that makes breathing hard. Sometimes I don't want to remember, because it hurts, but that does nothing to honor her. And her memory deserves honoring. I miss you Naomi.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A little bit on faith

Over at Jerry Coyne's site, I found this little gem on the word "faith," as it's used in science and religion.

Let us once and for all make the distinction between the scientific and religious notions of faith—before they’ve become deliberately and permanently conflated by the faithful:
FaithSCIENCE :  Confidence, based on mountains of experience, that answers to questions about reality are best derived from a combination of evidence and reason.
FaithRELIGION : Confidence, based on no experience (indeed, even contrary to experience), that answers to questions about “reality” are best derived from personal revelation, authority, scripture, and dogma.
I agree entirely, but I wanted to say a bit more. I consider faith, of the religious variety, to be a delusion. More than that, I consider it to be a dangerous delusion. Why dangerous? Sure, plenty of fundamentalists have done horrible things in the name of faith, but there are also thousands of people who's faith has led and inspired them to do good and great things, such as fighting sexism. Well, yes, that's true. However, reaching a conclusion I (or anyone else) agree with based on a faulty premise is merely an accident -- beneficial perhaps, but not a good thing to encourage. Let me give you an example.

Here's an easy conclusion that most of us (I hope) will agree with: "It is wrong to rape a woman." Now, let's take two individuals, A and B, who both agree with the statement "It is wrong to rape a woman." Huzzah! A and B agree on this issue, and if so inclined, can work together to prevent people from raping women, and can work together to help women who have been raped, right? Great. Now let's consider the reasons that each has for believing "It is wrong to rape a woman."

A believes that a woman's body and sexuality belong to herself, and only herself. All rights and privileges pertaining to her body are hers, and hers alone. Rape is a use of her body that she has not in any way consented to, and therefore violates her rights. Thus, "It is wrong to rape a woman."

B believes that a woman's body and sexuality belong to her husband. All rights and privileges pertaining to her body are her husband's, and only her husband's. Rape is a use of her body that her husband has not in any way consented to, and therefore violates her husband's rights and property. Thus, "It is wrong to rape a woman."

Clearly, though A and B agree on the conclusion, the views and arguments that led to that conclusion are very different, and in fact, mutually exclusive. The two worldviews represented seem likely to lead to very different conclusions in other instances. Can a woman choose her own clothes? Can a woman choose for herself what surgery to undergo? Can a woman say "no" when her husband wants sex? Can a woman choose birth control?

Religious faith has led to good conclusions in a variety of people that I, and many others, would agree with. Faith has led people to donate money to charities, to be polite, to show compassion, to volunteer in food drives, to help the elderly when they need it, and to try ending wars. Faith has led people to fight against slavery, to promote women's rights, and to battle for equal treatment for minority races. Faith has promoted good works and good intentions.

But religious faith has also led to bad conclusions that I, and many others, would never agree with. Faith has led to people being rude, and gleefully telling someone they will go to hell. It has led to wars being started. Faith has led people to promote slavery, to oppress women, and to attempts at discriminating against minority races. Faith has promoted bad works and bad intentions.

Religious faith is often contrary to evidence, and this can lead to very bad decisions. For example, many with religious faith refuse to accept the evidence for evolution, instead believing that all life was created as is. This can lead to bad decisions in medicine. Evolution explains why it's a bad idea to quit taking your antibiotics before the full treatment is done, even though you feel better (it's not just to make sure you don't relapse, though that's part of it). Evolution explains why obesity is so easy to achieve in today's society, and why weight loss is not. Such understanding can lead to beneficial prevention and treatment measures. I could go on.

As another example, religious faith has led some to reject the dangers of global warming and climate change, on the basis that God won't let that happen. This is in contrast to the evidence that climate change is very real, and rather risky. That's a very dangerous attitude, especially when it's a politician making such a claim.

Faith may often lead to good, but since it's so subjective, and based on something not supported by evidence, it often leads to horrors. And because it can be so powerful, and tends to form the basis of the faithful's worldview, it makes it very easy to use faith to justify something bad, even for someone generally good. Faith is dangerous.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Matthew 7: 1-5

Once again I'm going to select a passage from the Bible, consider it, and render my judgement of it. Today, with a wee sense of irony, I shall select Jesus's words from Matthew 7:1-5. Here's the text (King James Version):

 1Judge not, that ye be not judged.
 2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
 3And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
 4Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
 5Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

For comparison, here's the text of the New International Version:

1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
   3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. 
This one's a bit of a mixed bag, and could be read in two or three different ways it seems. In the first couple of verses, we've got an admonition to not judge, with a warning that if we do, we'll be judged as well. Then we have 3 verses cautioning against hypocrisy. So we have 1) Do not judge, 2) Don't be a hypocrite, or 3) Don't judge, because that makes you a hypocrite.

Let's deal with number one first. That first verse captures the essence, doesn't it? Well, bad essence. Apart from the fact that it's probably impossible to completely avoid judging someone, it's really a bad idea to even strive for that. We have a moral obligation to judge others. That's right: an obligation. If we refrain from judging others, then how are we to say that it's wrong for a priest to rape a child? Or a man to kill another for the money in his wallet? How can we say it's good for a person with money to spare to donate to the poor? Or a father to donate his time as a Little League coach? We must judge these things. Note that it's perfectly acceptable to judge something as morally neutral. Dancing to a song with a good beat? Getting a tattoo?  Morally neutral. And certainly there may be nuance to consider in various cases, but nonetheless, we must judge. To claim that beating one's wife for going outside the house without a male escort is okay because that's the culture, that we cannot judge the man because we are not in that culture? Wrong, so totally wrong. Of course we can judge him, and we must!

Nor should we consider the warning ("you too will be judged") to be a warning, but a promise, and a welcome one. If we're of good character, we should welcome it when our mistakes and immoral actions are pointed out to us, because then we have the opportunity to correct our mistakes and make amends for our actions -- or at least try.

That's interpretation one, let's deal with number two, "don't be a hypocrite." Sound advice, and a good policy to follow. It can't be judged moral to scold someone for stealing when you're cheating on your taxes.

Well, that was easy! On to number three, "don't judge, because that makes you a hypocrite." Um, no, it doesn't. True, if you're judging someone for stealing when you're cheating on taxes, you are a hypocrite, and that's bad. The person you're judging is fully justified in pointing out your own failings. However, this doesn't mean that either should avoid making the judgements, or excuse the first thief for thievery, it only means the hypocrite has more that he's doing wrong. Each should be dealt with accordingly.

So, here's my judgement of this passage:

Interpretation one: Immoral.

Interpretation two: Moral.

Interpretation three: Immoral and silly.