Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


This article is immensely sad: My boyfriend killed himself because his family couldn’t accept that he was gay.

Your friendly reminder that the Pope is still an awful human being, and that if you were hoping he’d reform the Catholic church and finally make it LGBT friendly, you are a gullible fool taken in by PR hucksters (remember: the Pope has a PR guru, just like every other major league celebrity and politician).

Pope Francis: spanking your children is okay (so long as you aren’t gay, obviously).

Pope Francis has endorsed a rather ghastly anti-gay campaign in Slovakia. His face now fills billboards asking people to vote to an amendment banning same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples and mandatory sex education.

Which is perfectly understandable: he heads a church that is institutionally anti-gay and he has repeatedly acted in opposition to gay rights. Despite all the many predictably craptastic things that Pope Francis has actually done, people will still continue to believe he is a breath of fresh air, a reformer, someone who was going to finally welcome the LGBT community into the church. The huge gap between the reality of the Pope’s actions and the wishful thinking of those who are enamoured with him is spectacular. Cognitive dissonance is a scarily powerful force.

Churches weigh in on mitochondrial replacement

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches are opposing mitochondrial replacement, a promising new development in embryology that could potentially prevent a variety of diseases by transferring the nucleus of the mother’s egg into a donor cell which has healthy mitochondria.

The Catholic Church’s position on this is ludicrous. In order to protect the “life” of poppy-seed sized embryos, it is willing to subject children to extravagant amount of pain and suffering. Why? Here’s their reasoning.

Many people are rightly concerned about the profound implications of Parliament passing regulations under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to licence the creation of human embryos using the DNA of three people.

Who are these “many people”? And how many of them aren’t middle-aged men in priestly drag? And that “DNA of three people” thing. The mitochondrial DNA from the third donor as a proportion of the total DNA in a human’s genome is absolutely tiny. But we are talking about people who put the rights of poppy-seed sized “babies” on a level of moral equivalence with beings that have actual rights, interests and concerns in the world.

No other country has allowed this procedure and the international scientific community is not convinced that the procedure is safe and effective.

There have been a number of reviews conducted of the proposed treatment which have failed to turn up any evidence that it is unsafe. As actual use in humans is not licensed, and no clinical trials can be conducted (partly because of of the massive ethical problems of doing a double-blind controlled study involving fertilisation), there won’t be a way to know if it is effective unless one actually goes ahead and tries it.

The document from the Catholic Church brings up the fact that the US FDA has not approved this treatment. That might be in part because during the time of President Bush, the government pushed through so many measures to prevent any of this sort of embryological research, guided by the advice of the President’s Council on Bioethics, a body replete with the medical and biological expertise of, oh, Charles Krauthammer, Francis Fukuyama and Robert P. George. Religious nutters take over the bioethical establishment in the US, pushes through an anti-scientific agenda that makes climate for research in these areas toxic, then argues for bans in other countries based on their successful takeover of the regulatory agenda across the Atlantic.

There are also serious ethical objections to this procedure which involves the destruction of human embryos as part of the process.

What “serious ethical objections”? Spell them out, my dear, otherwise they cannot be judged as serious or not. Because frankly the likelihood of the Catholic Church having a serious ethical objection rather than a ludicrously overheated pile of theological garbage is pretty low.

When embryologists start barging into arguments on soteriology and pneumatology, theologians will have the right to barge into arguments about human fertilisation. Given the pitiful track record of ethical interventions from the church in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics—which basically amounts to a noxious mixture of spreading fear-driven bullshit about every other in-vitro fertilisation technology ever proposed combined with their attempt at opposing every extension of rights to LGBT people—I’m not sure why anyone thinks that what they have to say is worth a damn. They have no useful contribution to make to this discussion, just pseudoscience and theologically-driven fear mongering. Their only notable contribution is to the pain and suffering of children born with rare mitochondrial diseases that could potentially be prevented by careful use of scientific innovation.

Professional moron and banana enthusiast Kirk Cameron has gone full Westboro:

God hates gay people. God hates fags, and you’re going to hell.

What it lacks in ‘love thy neighbour’ it makes up in honesty I guess. The whole “love the sinner hate the sin” thing has always been such disingenuous bollocks.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni calls on church leaders to support the government in its fight against homosexuality.

Further proof that until the scourge of religion is defeated, LGBT people shall never truly be free—and any freedom they do have can never be secure. And, yes, that’s the same Museveni that recently met and was blessed by the Pope.

In Idaho, kids are dying because of religion, and nothing will change because that’s their religious freedom. “Pro-life”, remember.

Hobby Lobby contra Aquinas

American lady-friends: do you work for nutty Christians who wish to deny you the ability to get access to birth control pills because the company has suddenly decided it has strongly-held moral beliefs (even though you’ve never seen the Corporate Person attend church)?

Politely explain to them that you are not taking the Pill for its contraceptive effect, but are instead using it for its cancer-reducing properties. Because you are pro-life, you believe in trying to extend your life by reducing your risk of endometrial and/or ovarian cancer, as well as reducing menstrual pain. The contraceptive effect is a foreseen but unintended consequence of the use of the Pill.

If they challenge this, point out to them that the Doctrine of Double Effect has been an important part of the Christian ethical tradition since St Thomas wrote the Summa Theologica, and you are surprised that given the Bearer of Corporate Personhood has such strong religious beliefs, it has never come across Aquinas…

Anglicanism: the loveless communion can't go on forever

Big news from the religion front. The Archbishop of Canterbury said some nice things to PinkNews including saying that it’s “great” that gay couples can now get married.

Which any intelligent, reasonable person would see as basically him trying to do some conciliation to the liberal wing of the CofE. The least drama-inducing way of interpreting his remark is that he’s happy that same-sex couples can get married, even though he’s opposed to same-sex marriage. Which is a nice enough sentiment.

But this is religion, not known for being an arena where intelligent and reasonable people dominate the dialogue. People are throwing a bit of a fit about it.

As an atheist who couldn’t give a flying fuck whether the Church of England approves of gay marriage or whether it prefers Marmite or jam on its toast or whatever else it gets steamed up about every week or so, the whole thing is tremendously entertaining to watch.

The Anglican Communion has become a loveless marriage. They are going to split up eventually. Watching them trying desperately to keep their shit show on the road is very entertaining if you are a particularly cynical person. Christ, it’s barely 11am in London and I already want to get drunk.

Coming Out Atheist: a review

An eleven year old boy is standing in his childhood bedroom while his seven year old brother lies on the wooden bunk bed. With very little thought, he just says something like “That God guy they talk about at school, I reckon he doesn’t exist.”

Some things are easier done as pre-teens and coming out as an atheist is definitely one of them. Of course, it helps that I lived in a family filled with agnostics and atheists, in a country that—David Cameron’s distinctly odd Dyno-Rod fantasies aside—is mostly secular, in an era that is mostly tolerant of disbelief. Residents of other regions of space-time have been less welcoming, as can be seen from instances of extreme religious bullying from the burning of Giordano Bruno to the policy of Disconnection enforced by the Church of Scientology on dissenting family members.

The eventual coming out as gay sixteen years later was slightly less nonchalant than my exit from the irreligious closet. In gay-land, there are some people who it is perfectly appropriate to say “were never closeted”. The closet just wasn’t a thing for them: perhaps through supreme self-confidence, they were out from the earliest moment of realisation. They never were “in” so never needed to come out.

Reading Greta Christina’s book Coming Out Atheist: How To Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why has been making me feel exceptionally lucky that I managed at the tender age of eleven to not only free myself from religion but also to deny myself the dubious comforts of a closet in which to keep my doubts. Since that age, I have always been out about being an atheist even if the sexuality closet was firmly glued shut for quite a while: I was out at school to friends, out at my Jesuit college, out online, out to anyone who wants to have a good old argument about this stuff. Being out as an atheist in central London—home of all those kale-eating metropolitan liberal elites who keep the UKIP voter down!—is refreshingly pain-free. Unless one is unlucky enough to be born in a family of daft fundamentalists, coming out in Britain as an atheist is a bit like coming out as straight. Here, atheists, agnostics and other secular types are the cultural majority—and not too many years from being the statistical majority.

Even if they may feign religious adherence for cultural reasons, most people in Britain are practically secular: only 10% of the population attend a weekly religious service. And the numbers are on our side. The number of people saying they are of “no religion” in the UK census has grown by ten percentage points between 2001 and 2011 (although there are legitimate complaints to be made about census methodology). Young people are less religious than ever. While it may still be a point of (usually fairly idiotic) debate whether Britain is currently a Christian country, the future of Britain’s religiosity is pretty surely one of rapid decline.

As someone who never experienced an atheistic closet and finds the idea that there is such a thing to be an utterly alien idea given my own society’s ever more overwhelming secularity, I’ve never quite gotten what exactly the deal is. To the very idea of the atheist closet, I’m a straight tourist. I picked up Greta Christina’s book precisely because if anyone is able to tackle the subject intelligently and humanely, she can.

The astounding thing about Greta’s book on the subject is how remarkably close the experience tracks with the LGBT coming out experience. As an openly bisexual woman and a writer of essays on sexuality as well as kinky fiction, Greta is excellently qualified to draw those connections.

If, like me, your stay in the atheism closet was exceptionally short and the checking out process was seamless and straight-forward, but one’s exit from the sexuality closet was rather longer and more drawn out, Greta’s book is worth reading to see the differences in experiences. Or rather, to see how for a lot of people, how eerily similar the two are.

And there is plenty to learn. The book describes how some atheists prefer to use what Greta describes as the “no big deal” method. When religion comes up, just drop the atheism in nonchalantly. There is, as the book says, problems with this approach. Namely, however calmly and non-dramatically you decide to announce your atheism, you’ll always have the odd weirdo who might blow up at you about it. This is one of the many wonderful things about being out as gay: you always have to have the mental armour on standby to deal with the occasional asshole. The same is true if you are a open atheist in an area with a noxious amount of religious nuttiness. So get building those mental shields.

The important part of the message is the affirmation that, yes, you bloody well ought to come out. Coming out, standing up and being counted has been the most effective weapon in the history of the gay rights movement. The whole reason homophobes spend so much time telling us to be quiet and “not make a big deal of” being gay is because the closet takes away our power and gives it to them. (Incidentally, in my opinion, the second most important weapon of the gay rights movement has been the hilarious stupidity of the opposition. I’ll leave you to decide whether the stupidity of religious advocates is an excellent tool for the atheists.)

Another recurring theme in the book that neatly parallels the gay experience is the mad lengths some people will go to in order to deny the obvious facts staring them in the face. Just as straight people found an enormous reservoir of cognitive dissonance to explain away the overwhelming campy gayness of everyone from Liberace to Kenneth Williams—and every gay relationship they encountered as being “roommates” and so on, Greta’s book documents numerous instances of religious parents who—unable to grasp the fairly clear statements of disbelief from their children, continue to act in ever more absurd self-denial. (Cognitive dissonance and denial of obvious facts from people who constantly praise the supposed virtues of faith—quelle surprise, non?)

Greta gives an important piece of advice for any closet leavers:

Be clear. Don’t drop hints or leave a trail of clues. If you think it’ll go over better, you can soften the ground first—but eventually, you’ll need to spell it out. Even if you think your hints are pretty obvious, people’s ability to ignore what they don’t want to see is pretty close to infinite.

The other obvious analogy between the case of gay people and atheists with closets and coming out is the strange and persistent belief amongst those unable to come to grips with either obvious hints or even more obvious and clear statements of the fact—that somehow if they force the person to practice as if it were not true, this will somehow change anything. Greta’s book makes mention of people who seem to think that if they just force their religiosity on their offspring with a little more vigour, that’s going to somehow make atheists un-know what they have come to know.

The attentive gay reader will find plenty more such parallels, some amusing, some sad.

The book does not just limit its counsel to those unfortunate souls who find themselves in the social grip of hardcore conservative religiosity and theocracy. Liberal religion—home of piously postmodern interfaith types contemplating the connection between Buddhism and Bultmann—can, despite their stated tolerance, be unwelcoming to the newly deconverted, apparently. More potent than this is the situations mostly outlined by Greta’s African-American correspondents who describe the issues faced when religion is considered foundational by many for their sense of communal identity. The broadly “intersectional” aspects of atheist identity are discussed, with advice on how to deal with how to come out as a female atheist, as an atheist person of colour, or an LGBT atheist. The book is blissfully free of the myopic assumption that atheist activism is complete when one has fully represented the issues as they present themselves to white, straight, cisgender, economically advantaged men in the Western world. Atheism must be for all or it shall be politically dead.

Greta’s advice seems eminently sensible throughout—I did not reach any point where I said “oh, no, she shouldn’t be telling the reader to do that!” The counsel given in the book advises some contextual lenience when it comes to time and place, and pushes the reader to follow a wise path of very selective silence in those situations where outing oneself would bring either no benefit or, worse, cause significant losses.

If you are an atheist who is already open and out about it—or slightly bemused by the idea that people ought to be out—it is worth reading Greta’s book for the stories of how other people came out and the sort of challenges they faced.

If you aren’t out: whatever on earth are you waiting for? Public honesty cripples the attempts by religious cranks and political opportunists to stereotype and demonize us. Coming out—whether as non-religious or as LGBT—makes the world a better place and makes those coming out into happier, more liberated people. You have nothing to lose but your closet.

Tinker Bell II: Francis appoints an anti-gay bigot edition

Cardinal Fernando Sebastián has lots of nice things to say about gay people, like: “Homosexuality is a defective manner of expressing sexuality, because [sex] has a structure and a purpose, which is procreation. A homosexual who can’t achieve this is failing. Our bodies have many defects. I have high blood pressure.” Sebastián also said it is “possible to recover and become normal with the right treatment”.

The idea that homosexuality is treatable is a view that every mainstream psychological organisation rejects as being both scientifically inaccurate and harmful.

The Cardinal has been appointed by Pope Francis, a man who—if you believe his press—is a hippy-dippy queer-loving atheist-respecting reformer. As I’ve said before: Tinker Bell only exists if you continue to believe in her. Idiots seem willing to continue believing that Francis is a progressive in spite of the ghastly things he seems to be doing.

Congratulations to Scientology on its elevation to the status of officially recognised religion. Amongst the child molesters, child molester coverer-uppers, homophobes, misogynists, genital mutilators, anti-science nutters, fanatical anti-sex freaks, fundamentalist morons, pietistic opponents of free speech and authoritarian family values crusaders who put the lives of unborn bundles of cells over the welfare of living, breathing people, I’m sure you’ll fit right in.

Evangelical apologist Josh McDowell is a thicko who can't do arithmetic

Have a gander at Josh McDowell’s latest rant. It’s quite amusing and shows him to be as clueless as you expect evangelical apologists to be. Let’s ignore his (intellectually and morally) dubious assertion that anal and oral sex are a gateway drug to homosexuality, and that then leads to bestiality and child molestation and check out this hilarious morsel about the Internet.

The respected apologist also says the Internet’s “exploding information” plays a major factor in challenging the way young people view culture, the church and their moral views. According to his research, millions of youths take in about 34GB of Internet data each day, which is equivalent to the amount of lyrics found in 8,160 songs.

(If McDowell is a “respected apologist”, I’d like to see a shit one.)

Anyway, 34GB. Let’s put that number into perspective. I changed my mobile data contract last week. I use it a lot and have an unlimited data contract: in five days, I’ve used about 1GB of data. I work in technology and deal with a lot of data for work. I work on databases that weigh in the terabytes and have had days where I’ve processed 100GB of data on my laptop. But between my mobile and home use of the Internet, I probably use in a month what Josh McDowell reckons that young people use in a day. A compressed text download of all of English Wikipedia (without images) is about 10GB.

Josh McDowell thinks that young people are consuming 3.4 Wikipedias worth of data every day.

Now, of course, gigabytes are not necessarily a useful measure because plain text is dramatically smaller than, say, audio or video. 34GB of plain text is a bit of a stretch, but 34GB of video might be reasonable. 1080p video is about 2-3GB an hour, so McDowell’s hypothetical young downloaders might be watching 12–19 hours of video a day. How they find time to fit all that in amongst all the anal sex, twerking, bestiality and other moral depravity (or indeed sleeping, eating, sitting on the lavatory, work or school) is quite mysterious

McDowell also says that the 34GB is equivalent to the lyrics in 8,160 songs. Not so. I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. I pinched the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “LoveGame” off one of the lyrics sites and ran them through wc which says they are 1,146 bytes long. 1,146 bytes times 8,160 songs gets you 9,351,360, which is 8.91 megabytes (remember, 1024 bytes in a kilobyte and so on).

Using the numbers above, 34GB is enough space for 31,856,214 song lyrics.

Josh McDowell is wrong by a factor of 3,903. Which is amusing if not exactly surprising.

If such a “respected apologist” is unable to do simple arithmetic, perhaps one should be somewhat more sceptical when he tells you that you need to believe what he says about what you are allowed to do with your genitalia and/or your destination in the afterlife.

Keep your identity, even if it makes Paul Graham think you are dumb

Recently, I saw that Paul Graham’s post from 2009, Keep Your Identity Small, got linked on Hacker News again. It is an interesting post but I think Graham is wrong.

Graham starts by saying that he thinks that both politics and religion lead to “uniquely useless discussions”, because the participants in them need only have “strongly held beliefs” rather than expertise or knowledge.

No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone’s an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

I’d question this. Firstly, it depends on context. If you are in a political philosophy seminar or a theology or philosophy of religion seminar in a university, then the fact that other people are basing their arguments on knowledge that you do not share may get you to shut up. Certainly, if a political argument depends heavily on some distinction that is only apparent to an expert versed in, say, the details of John Rawls’ work, I may not have a particularly good chance of answering it unless I can summon up the time and energy to plough through Rawls’ arguments. If you don’t know the details of Rawls’ argument, you’ll just look like a fool.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there’s no back pressure on people’s opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn’t true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost.

I think Graham is right to argue that the argument that there are no right answers in politics or religion is wrong, but I think the argument he gives for that conclusion is pretty weak. Yes, there is a right answer to the question of the fiscal impact of a particular government policy. But that doesn’t actually solve the particular moral or indeed political aspect of the question.

I’ll illustrate why I think Graham has got it wrong with this example. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service spends a certain amount of public money each year on health services including pharmaceutical drugs. They do this by following the recommendations of the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), who evaluate drugs and other interventions on a cost-benefit analysis: roughly, how much do they cost for each quality-adjusted life year (QALY)? A new and experimental cancer medication that extends someone’s life by a maximum of about a year but costs £50,000 will be a harder sale than an infant vaccination that costs a few pounds and saves, say, 10% of infants from developing a life-threatening illness, because overall, the number of QALYs that are purchased with a cheap vaccination far exceeds the number of QALYs that an expensive cancer medication buys.

If you were to contact NICE, or check their website, I’m sure that you can get detailed costings for all the various drugs they evaluate. There are facts here, and Graham’s argument applies. People can be wrong about the factual matters that NICE evaluate. A newspaper might say that a particular cancer treatment was rejected by NICE when it wasn’t. Or they might over- or under-state the cost-per-QALY evaluation.

Those are factual errors. But that’s not particularly interesting. People can and will make those kinds of factual mistakes regardless of their political beliefs. The fervent opponent of NICE-style cost-benefit analysis-based health service provision may make a typo when they copy a figure from the NICE website into an article. That means they’ve made a factual mistake. It is a fallacy to say that their political opinion is invalidated because they made a minor, typo-caused factual error.

No, I think the reason that Graham is right to reject the thesis that “no answers in politics/religion are wrong” is simply because of logic. If someone accepts some fundamental assumption about, say, the values they think drive politics, but their lower-level beliefs are inconsistent with their higher-level ideological preferences, they are “wrong” in some important way. If you have an ideological preference for a certain form of individual liberty that you place above all other values, but you then make an argument for some grossly tyrannical policy of government intrusion, you are failing to adhere to your most basic values. I can’t tell you that your basic values are wrong, but I can tell you that you fail to adhere to them in practice.

Wilfrid Sellars said that “[t]he aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term”. Those things include values. We can criticise how people’s stated values fail to coherently “hang together”.

I know the value of this because other people pointed out that my political views didn’t “hang together” well because my basic beliefs were in conflict with specific policies I thought vital to the flourishing of a just society. My basic beliefs were leading me to absurd conclusions, so I changed my basic beliefs. Because of this measure of how well one’s beliefs hang together, answers can be righter and wronger, even if they aren’t necessarily right or wrong.

I’ll be the first to admit that this doesn’t always work out quite so well in practice as in theory. Most political conversations do not go much beyond the abusive shouting stage, but some do. And the same is true with religious conversations: I studied philosophy and religion as an undergraduate and did have respectful, productive and interesting conversations about religion with people whose religious beliefs I fundamentally disagreed with.

Graham ignores a reason why both religious and political questions are things which most people feel entitled to have an opinion on: because they both affect everybody. Almost everybody lives in a society. Everybody who lives in a society will be governed under some political system. The political system they live under will affect some aspect of their lives—financial, social or personal. Ergo, most people have a pretty good reason to care about politics. You can opt-out of caring about politics, but you can’t opt-out of the effects of politics.

And the same is true for religion: many religions make a universal claim on humanity. If the evangelicals are right—and I don’t think they are—then I am bound to go to hell as a filthy atheist sodomite who neither believes in Christ nor follows the rules of the Bible. I am not particularly concerned about this possibility, but it is what many people believe seriously and in earnest. The content of their beliefs applies to everybody, regardless of whether you share said beliefs. If you are going to tell me what I have to believe (and the exact details of what I am and am not allowed to do with my genitals in the company of other consenting adults), I have a right to critically evaluate those claims and dissent from them if I find them wanting.

Politics and religion affect people in the world whether said people choose to participate in the political system or the religious communities: there is a pretty simple reason why people might have opinions about things that affect them.

But Graham has a theory about why politics and religion are such disagreeable topics for people: identity. It is worth quoting Graham at some length here.

But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones. I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity.

By definition they’re partisan. Which topics engage people’s identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn’t. No one would know what side to be on. So it’s not politics that’s the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people’s identities.

Because the point at which this happens depends on the people rather than the topic, it’s a mistake to conclude that because a question tends to provoke religious wars, it must have no answer. For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable” that all languages are equally good. Obviously that’s false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people.

And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn’t safely talk about with others. The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

As I said above, I don’t think that having a stake in the game makes it impossible for you to discuss things rationally with people. Socratic questioning is one way that we can learn from each other. When I meet someone who, say, opposes gay marriage, I’ll try and draw out their reasons for doing so in a Socratic manner and question them to see if there are inconsistencies in their position. I don’t think I’m ever going to agree with their position (opposing my own right to get married is a bit of a stretch) but I do learn interesting things about why they are motivated to hold a particular position. The point is that to do that kind of Socratic questioning, you need to be able to set aside your own point of view and just look at their position on its own terms and see if it makes sense.

I also think that Graham’s prescription is deeply wrong. I am a 28-year-old man who works in London, and commutes in from suburbia every day. I’m white, I’ve got a BA and MA in Philosophy, I’m British, I’m a software developer, I’m gay, I’m a vegetarian, I’m cisgendered, I’m a Wikipedia administrator. Notice: all of these are just simple statements of fact. If Paul Graham’s statement is correct—that the more labels one has, the dumber they make you—then presumably, dropping a few of those labels would make me less dumb. But which ones? I mean, most of those have some kind of complementing set of other options. If I were not a vegetarian, I’d have some other dietary preference: a vegan, perhaps, or an omnivore. If I weren’t British, I would be some other nationality. If I weren’t gay, I’d have some other sexual orientation.

We are thrown into this world with a stack of attributes we didn’t really choose. Once the dice have been rolled, it’s not like you can change quite a few of them. I can’t change the country of my birth; I can change the country of my citizenship. I can’t change my sexuality (others have tried with little success). I can’t just wake up and decide that the historical circumstances I find myself in do not apply to me. You can’t opt-out of history.

The idea that the only way to not be “dumb” is to have no identity runs flat into the practice of actually being a living, breathing human being. We can’t escape our identities quite so easily. If you happen to be in a majority group, it’s a lot easier to not care about one’s identity than if you are in an oppressed or minority group. If you’ve never been the target of racial discrimination, then you could conclude (a) that race isn’t an important factor in life and how people see you, or that (b) you’ve just happened to luck out and been born into a privileged group, but others haven’t. Yeah, being white isn’t a big deal, because you don’t end up being Trayvon Martin if you are white. Nobody tries to deny you voting rights or marriage rights.

And if you happen to want to take one of those maligned labels and reclaim it, to defend it as good and beautiful and something to be proud of. Well, fuck you, dumbo. That just proves you are stupid for buying into labels.

Because your labels make you stupid. Because only by explicitly disclaiming any part of your identity that might make you “biased” will you not be “dumb”.

Never mind that being in a persecuted or minority group might give you some experiential knowledge of what it’s like to be separate from mainstream society. No, let’s just dismiss that as some kind of postmodernist claptrap.

The problem with Graham’s prescription is that it says to anyone who has an identity such that their identity might actually be an issue in society that they are unable to think rationally about that aspect of their self. Back when women were trying to get the vote, people were saying exactly the same thing. How can women think clearly about whether or not they should be allowed to vote—they are just women, after all. And they can’t really think clearly like us dudes, and so if they are asking for the right to vote, they are obviously biased by their self-interest. But us guys, we aren’t biased. So, ladies, don’t worry your silly little heads off about voting, and don’t apply any labels to yourself, because that’ll just make you stupid.

Graham’s idea of being smart, having good ideas, whatever one wishes to call it (the opposite of the “dumb” which he refers to) is some kind of disinterested neutrality. Good luck finding that in reality: we all have backgrounds, we all have histories, we all have identities. We bring with us a “pre-understanding” of the world shaped by our own backgrounds and circumstances; we line up this background pre-understanding with the world and a conversation plays out between the two. There isn’t a “view from nowhere”. We are not our labels, but our labels serve a purpose—to build a shared community, to fight for justice and equality. We give that up, and for what? To get us an unattainable view from nowhere? No thanks.

I’ll continue being myself, labels and all, even if it makes Paul Graham think that I’m dumb. Trying to be the human equivalent of a database row full of NULL values seems both impractical and undesirable to me.

There’s lots of fun going on in philosophyland over Thomas Nagel’s new book and various things related to it. As a recovering Plantingan, I feel a certain duty to point to it. A little reading list:

I’m very glad that I do not have to have an opinion on this kind of thing anymore. Not that I don’t have one.

Disestablishment now

Looks like they are choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I hope that it isn’t some hardline homophobic evangelical nutjob like John Sentamu.

But at the same time, it might almost be worth having Sentamu or another hardliner precisely to shake people out of their complacency and into realising that the Anglican church does actually contain mean, vicious, hateful bigots who are actually a lot more dangerous than the Rowan Atkinson stereotype of the Church of England. It might actually prod the Great British Public into rethinking whether we need this antiquated and ridiculous institution.

I mean, the sheer hilarity of senior C-of-E-ers complaining about gay rights campaigners wanting to “redefine marriage” given the whole reason the C-of-E exists was to enable a certain Tudor king to get a divorce so he could get his leg over a few more wives…

Thomas Nagel has a review of Alvin Plantinga’s new book. If you wish to understand what I was working on before leaving my Ph.D programme, I recommend it.

On what James Wood doesn't know

Truths and falsehoods alike can be both interesting and uninteresting. It is true that I have milk in my fridge, but so what? That spiders kill their male partners during reproduction is much, much more interesting than how much skimmed milk there is in my kitchen, even though both such matters can be turned into simple, literal assertions of fact. The same is true of falsehoods: if some dastardly thief has stolen the milk from the fridge in my house, my previous assertion of there being milk in my fridge is now sadly false. Again, unless it really was a dastardly thief, the lack of milk in my fridge is still rather dull. The same cannot be said for something like homeopathy which is profoundly wrong about the world, but as crazy pseudoscientific medical systems go, quite amusing and interesting.

True doesn’t equal interesting, false doesn’t equal boring. The two are quite separate properties. I point out this profoundly elementary distinction because it is almost guaranteed that when you hear someone write about “New Atheism”, they will conflate these two very different properties. And often enough they’ll throw in niceness: it’s not enough for something to be true, it also has to be interesting and said by a nice person, otherwise the truth of said assertion becomes highly suspect. Again, being nice has nothing to do with being right: to quote The Dude from The Big Lebowski, “You’re not wrong Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

It is with that philosophical preamble that we should approach James Wood’s piece in the Guardian. It’s filled with so much egregious erring, I don’t know where to start.

First up, there’s the old Subtleties and Oriental argument:

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights.

No, what atheists oppose is theism. It’s there in the name. If you oppose theism, you will end up in by dint of simple deductive reasoning opposing people who hold to theism. If your God is either nonexistent or very hand-wavy, you’ll end up not being the target of atheistic critique in the same way that if you don’t oppose the right to have an abortion, the people who want the right to have an abortion don’t tend to have much of a problem with you.

Yeah, the first problem with atheists apparently is that they are atheists.

Along with this curious parochialism about the varieties of religious belief comes a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the son of God”, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die”, and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice (“Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray”).

I’m sure that the same is true of political movements: the reason people become, say, white supremacists, isn’t necessarily because they have a stack of beliefs about the supremacy of white people but because it fills some kind of political niche, gives them a sense of positive self-identity in hating others, whatever.1

But it doesn’t matter. If a belief is wrong, the cause of that belief, or accompanying or directly related psychological states may be interesting but can’t be wheeled out as some kind of response to refutations of those beliefs. I don’t particularly care whether or not prayer is an important unconscious daily practice that forms an important part of your identity, just as I’m not interested in psychoanalysing the white supremacist or the person who posts urban legends on Facebook. The fact that there is non-propositional content to a belief doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to the propositional content of the belief, and if it’s false, perhaps do something radical like… not believe it.

Fortunately, Wood seems to realise this:

This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one’s mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider’s rational critique. Wittgenstein was obviously right, though this appeal to practice over proposition can also become a rather lazy way, for people like the Catholic Eagleton, of defending orthodox beliefs via the back door

Damn straight.

Now watch as Wood does exactly that.

Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.

Why is it the job of philosophers and scientists to give reasons why people believe falsehoods? There are crazy people on the Internet who spend every waking moment trying to teach the world that the Bush administration flew a missile into the Pentagon in order to give them a reason to, uh, invade Iraq and topple a fairly low-rent dictator, and if only the population wakes up and watches Loose Change, they’ll storm the palaces of power and demand an end to the war in Iraq. Now, if you are a structural engineer and you, say, write an article debunking said belief by pointing out fallacious arguments put forward to support that belief, you don’t have to play amateur shrink for Mr Avery and his pals for that critique to be understood as valid. Either it was a plane or it was a missile, either way the psychology of the believer is irrelevant to the factual question at hand.

Sure, the 9/11 Truthers won’t stop being nutcases, and religious people aren’t going to just stop believing in God, but that’s not the responsibility of the person providing a reasoned critique.

If philosophers (and, well, if you are writing about why God doesn’t exist, you are taking on the role of philosopher even if that isn’t what it says on your business card) fail to satisfy your need for psychological explanation, why is that the fault of the philosopher? If you want psychological explanation for religious belief, try a psychologist. There’s this whole field called psychology of religion which inquires into such subjects. Criticising atheists because they aren’t psychologists of religion is an oft-repeated but utterly pointless exercise.

Another analogy: it’s a common trope of discussions on the Internet and elsewhere that one “cannot prove a negative”. It’s bullshit, of course. We prove negatives all the time. If I prove or, let’s slice away that frequently misunderstood word “prove”, show beyond reasonable doubt that there is a cat sitting on my armchair, I have also proven the accompanying negative, namely that the statement “there is not a cat on my armchair” is false. If you can prove a positive, you can prove a negative. If you think that it is a law of logic that you can’t prove a negative, you don’t understand logic. I can show you very easily that if you can prove a positive, you can also prove a negative. It’s true and trivially so. You may reject my demonstration and continue to believe this falsehood, but it’s not my responsibility to show you why you believe that falsehood. And I can’t. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a mindreader, I’m not you, and, frankly, I don’t give a shit. If you want to carry on believing that you can’t prove a negative, all I can do is to sit back and hope you one day have a sudden burst of inspiration and decide to go read a logic textbook and that I never have to be a defendant with you in the jury.

Where does Wood go now?

But people’s beliefs are often fluctuating and changing – it is why people lose their faith, or convert to faith in God.

Okay. Yes. People’s beliefs change. Big news. Sometimes they even change their beliefs based on reasoned argument. Hence why it’s kind of a good idea to have reasoned argument even if it turns out to be useless for many.

Wood then goes on to tell of a conversation with some believers. One turns out to not be a believer in heaven and hell:

When I, who was raised in a strongly and conventionally religious home, expressed surprise and suggested that once one stops believing in heaven one might as well stop believing in God, he said, more vehemently: “It’s exactly the opposite: not believing in heaven and hell is a prerequisite for serious Christian belief.” Trapped in the childhood literalism of my background, I had not entertained the possibility of Christian belief separated from the great lure and threat of heaven and hell.

Again, logic fail here. God can exist without heaven and hell. That’s fairly obvious. I’m not sure if heaven and hell could exist without God: that’s a bit harder to unpack. But given that I believe in neither of them, it’s not something I worry about too much. Anyway, if heaven and hell depends on the existence of God, then not believing in heaven and hell doesn’t mean that you cannot or should not believe in God. If you’ve got good reason to believe in God and then you find reasons to not believe in heaven and hell, to conclude form that there is no God is a case of denying the antecedent.

The New Atheism is locked into a similar kind of literalism. It parasitically lives off its enemy.

What he’s comparing New Atheism with isn’t literalism, that’s just shitty logic. There is a difference.

“Parasitically lives off its enemy”? Yeah, so does feminism. If there weren’t any misogyny and discrimination against women and there was complete equality, there would be no need for feminism. Responses to arguments are dependent on those arguments existing. Terming that “parasitism” might be a bit strong. But, again, how is this a big deal? Pointing out the wrongness in religious arguments when there aren’t religious arguments is impossible. But… religious arguments do exist.

Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a “personal God”, so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism.

Err, no, it isn’t. Who says that “combatting” scriptural literalism is the goal of atheism, new or musty? If you spend your time speaking in tongues and rolling around the floor in the name of Jesus, fine. I can’t speak for all atheists, but just for myself, I think that religious beliefs are epistemically unjustified. Is this literalism? What am I being “literal” to? What text exactly? The collected works of Richard Dawkins? No, personally, I prefer something with a bit more philosophical meat like Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. But I’m not going to quote chapter and verse of that because… that’s a bloody stupid thing to do. This “rival literalism” thing is bollocks.

Since militant atheism interprets religious faith, again on the evangelical or Islamist model, as blind – a blind leap of faith that hurls the believer into an infinite idiocy – so no understanding or even interest can be extended to why or how people believe the religious narratives they follow, and how often those narratives are invaded by doubt, reversal, interruption and banality.

How does “militant atheism” interpret religious faith? There’s no interpretation about it. I see fellow citizens, some have crazy beliefs, others don’t. I challenge the people with the crazy beliefs and leave the people with the more moderate beliefs alone. No interpretation at all. I fully accept that there are mild religious people, as do Dawkins and the rest of them. If you are opposed to religion, you’ve got to pick your targets, just as you do if you are, say, a feminist. Back in the early days of feminism, getting the right to vote and the right to work is more important than correcting people who say “love”. If you are fighting for gay rights, being able to get married is nice, but it plays second fiddle to not being murdered. To say that atheists in general think that all religion is exemplified by fundamentalist Christians is crazy. I know tons of atheists and none of them think that: with one or two exceptions, we’re pretty much happy to accept that religion is a wide label.

But there’s still a problem here. Yes, I’d rather have more Jainists and Quakers in the world than fundamentalist wackaloons shooting doctors who perform abortions and forcing schools to teach creationism or whatever the stupid shit of the week the crazy lobby are up to. But however nice I think plenty of liberal religious people are,2 I still think they are wrong on this whole God thing.

Wood goes on to criticise Dawkins…

There is a telling moment in The God Delusion when Dawkins speculates on why countless generations of people believed in God. How could belief in an illusion have persisted for so long? Dawkins suggests that we have evolved an HADD, a “hyperactive agent detection device”: “we hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent.” His example of this elementary mistake comes from the episode of Fawlty Towers in which John Cleese’s car breaks down. Cleese gets out and starts hitting the car. This is an example of HADD, and by extension, of mankind’s belief in God. Now, do you really think that offering a minute from Fawlty Towers is an adequate analogy for millennia of religious belief? This is not about whether one believes in God or not. One can be an unbeliever and find this a bit feeble.

Wood here is confusing analogy with explanation. The explanation is that humans have evolved to detect agency, and the Fawlty Towers example is just that: an example. Dawkins isn’t saying that religious belief is as trivial as a sitcom, he’s saying you can see this as an example of agency detection in miniature, and things like conspiracy theories and religion are agency detection writ large. It’s a pretty well-selected example.

Confusing analogy with argument and then getting all huffy about the analogy is something I’ve seen countless times before, and I’m bored to tears with it. Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote a paper back in 1971 called A Defense of Abortion. Imagine, if you will, a literary critic reading said paper. He’s a bit crap at the whole logic thing, but gets caught up with the analogies, then skips the argumentation between the analogies. He comes away rather frustrated and writes a piece that berates Thomson for “comparing abortion to…” and then lists the various hypothetical scenarios and analogies she used. Now put yourself back in the position of Thomson (or any philosopher, really) and imagine the response on reading said argument.

“Of course,” Thomson would say regretfully, “I wasn’t saying that abortion is exactly like being kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers who use your kidneys to keep a famous violinist alive. And of course I don’t think abortion is exactly like being trapped with a rapidly-growing baby in a house with no windows. And of course getting pregnant is not like having a ‘babyseed’ come and land in your carpet. What kind of looney reads these analogies and fails to understand that they are analogies?”

So it would be for Thomson and so it is for the atheist reading the pontifications of literary types on the writings of the New Atheists.3

Marx said that the study of religion was the most serious project an intellectual could have. If I told you that the history of warfare, say, could be “explained” by some recent discovery of a particular receptor in the brain, that Agincourt and Austerlitz, Antietam and the Ardennes were all essentially the same thing, because produced by a universal delusion, what would I have told you about the nature of warfare, of politics, of statecraft, of the enormous mass mobilisations that Tolstoy characterised as “the swarm-like life of mankind”?

Sigh. Another straw man. How many times do I have to repeat this? It’s not the job of atheists New or Old to explain religion any more than it’s the job of vegetarians and vegans to explain meat-eating. Again, psychologists and sociologists exist. Go ask them. I’m not interested in why religion exists. I’m not uninterested exactly: if we come up with a good explanation that fits all the evidence, it’d be interesting to find out. But it’s not my primary concern.

One good place to study that “swarm-like life”, and to see religious belief seriously represented and seriously examined, is the modern novel – from, say, Melville and Flaubert in the 1850s to the present day. Melville, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Beckett, Camus – and in our own time José Saramago, Marilynne Robinson and JM Coetzee – have all shown sustained interest in questions of belief and unbelief; many of them have struggled with the departure of God.

That presumes that religious belief needs to be “seriously examined”. If the fundamental basis of it is false, why bother with serious examination? Do we need “serious examination” of the Loch Ness Monster? But, you know, I’m not a philistine, I’m not opposed to serious examination of falsehoods. And I’m open to the idea that falsehoods can lead to us learning interesting and useful things about humanity and the world. But, again, there’s the conflation of true with interesting going on here. Religious belief may be interesting, and, sure, Camus and Flaubert and so on: they are interesting. But how does that change the thing that the philosophers care about: is it true?

Is it true? is the question we care about. Things can be true and interesting, true and uninteresting, false and interesting or like Wood’s column, false and uninteresting.

One last thing.

Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection.

Dawkins is dead to metaphor? This is the guy who gave the world giant robots controlled by selfish genes, ideas spreading as memes, evolution softening away at “mount improbable”, and so on. Dawkins is one of the few scientific writers who turns a bloody good metaphor.

Sigh again.

  1. Cue boring, tired and fallacious moaning about how I’m comparing religious people to white supremacists. Yes, I’m comparing religious people to white supremacists. I’m not saying that religious people are white supremacists. I’ll compare strawberries to Bill Clinton if you like. Or perhaps I’ll compare the termination of life support for people with persistent vegetative states to flipping a switch in a trolley-cart thought experiment. If you’ve got a problem with people making comparisons, please, go read up on the value of thought experiments. Without being able to make comparisons and distinctions, all intellectual inquiry goes up in a puff of stupid rhetorical pussyfooting.

  2. I’m not joking here. I’m glad that there are religious people who are warm, friendly, congenial, tolerant, gay-affirming and who stand for justice, freedom and human rights. And ceteris paribus, I’d rather there were more Greenbelt and less Bible Belt.

  3. Again, I’m not totally sure what makes the New Atheists different from the old, lower-case atheists or upon what criteria one categorises someone as a New rather than an old. But then I’m not a Wizened Literary Critic, just a guy with a philosophy degree.

Despite my recent visit to Israel, I find myself militantly neutral on everything related to Israel and Palestine. Both countries have crazy religious looneys fucking things up for the sane people; peace in the Middle East would be a darn sight easier if there were less crazy people with fervent beliefs that God is on their side. It is in that context that Glenn Beck speaking in Jerusalem makes me even more conflicted: because fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians haven’t screwed up the Middle East enough, let’s add wackadoodle Mormons to the mix? Sigh.