Tag Archives: Ethics

Why America is NOT a Christian nation in logic anyone can follow

The evidence that the constitution of the United States was crafted to keep religion out of politics is fairly straightforward. This fact however does not stop those in power who want to wedge their beliefs and preferences into public discourse and laws.

Religion is a powerful force in human affairs. It not only motivates individuals, it can move entire groups and nations to act in ways both good and bad.

It can also be divisive — subjugating the needs and rights of others for an interpretation of an ancient text which the adherent believes is the divine word of the creator of the universe.

So why am I addressing this issue? The tipping point for me was reading about how Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is trying to ban same-sex marriage in his state for purely theocratic reasons.

The lengths Conservative Christians and sympathizers will go in order to argue that they and their views deserve special privileges because they are Christians is astounding.

We could go back and look in depth at the history of the US, the founding documents and invoke all kinds of arguments. Ultimately though, the best arguments against such horrendous attempts to overhaul the United States are very simple.

So let’s dive straight into Roy Moore’s flawed reasoning and I’ll demonstrate, in terms everyone can verify and understand, why America is not a Christian nation in the legal sense of the word.

When asked “Are laws themselves superseded by God?” Chief Justice Moore said:

CLAIM ONE: “I think you’re correct in saying that,” he answered. “This is a Christian nation by the fact that 90% of the churches in America are Christian churches and it’s certainly founded upon Christian principles.

I’m sure most churches in America are Christian. That wasn’t the concern of the founding fathers. The establishment clause preventing the government from favoring or discriminating on the basis of religion was largely to prevent one religious group rising up above all the others.

Furthermore, the constitution guarantees equal treatment under the law regardless of religious affiliation. The appeal to a majority is just an attempt by Roy Moore to lend his arguments credibility that they don’t deserve. It’s also a form of bullying.

CLAIM TWO: “The supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States which recognizes many of those principles.”

Here’s the kicker — the Constitution is overtly non-religious (secular) and in a fatal way to Christianity.

Compare the very first of the Ten Commandments to the first amendment to the Constitution.

First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”
First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment (the very first issue the founding fathers felt they needed to address) directly contradicts the First Commandment, presumably the most important commandment to Yahweh.

CLAIM THREE: “Our freedom to believe what we want comes from God. When it comes from God, no man or no court, can take it away. That’s a God-given right under the Declaration of Independence, which is law itself.”

This is ignorance and wishful thinking in its extreme. Again, taking the First Commandment, God has clearly said you have freedom to believe in one god only. That’s not freedom,that’s coercion.

If history is a guide, the human species only attains freedom after fighting off the oppression of autocratic regimes. Multitudes of humans have met their demise bringing this fight. Christianity, as a monotheistic religion, has autocracy as a fundamental principle.

You can’t argue that freedom comes from God and then advance a book he supposedly inspired that is filled with punishments and inducements for disobeying his rules, especially when some of those rules fundamentally oppose basic human rights (such as self determination).

“Why must they continue to flog dead arguments?”

But despite all this obvious evidence, conservatives still try to bring religion to the table. Why? Because it gives them unchallenged power to control the populace. They can justify whatever backwards and regressive laws they like, no matter their real world consequences.

The ambiguity of religious texts means they’re able to pick and choose their interpretations and become righteously indignant to those who stand in their way. In many cases, this feeling of moral superiority and absolute certainty has led to genocide and war — both civil and with other nations.

The religious impulse to absolutism sows the seeds of dictatorship. Just listen to the likes of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. They explicitly want to force everyone else to comply with their beliefs. This is not the role of a public official who is in power to represent the people… ALL people.

Constitutional protection was established so that no one could use their own religious interpretations to enforce their own theocratic versions of the law.

The irony is, most conservatives who buy into this “Christian Nation” fallacy are highly critical of nations that employ the same ideology, but in a different religious background.

They must be envious of government officials in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nations where they can enforce theocratic law in ways that contravene most basic human rights.

CONCLUSION

What escapes these fundamentalists is that by saying freedom comes from God (the one they believe in) they’re ignoring their own rule book — the Ten Commandments, which categorically states you are free to believe in only one god — Yahweh.

This coercion is intrinsic in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where many passages point to the death of all who oppose the will of Yahweh.

Freedom makes no sense when it comes with strings attached as it does with monotheistic religion. God quite clearly states that their can only be one true deity. All others are strictly prohibited.

The founders of the US knew this and went on to make the very first amendment to the constitution in direct opposition to what the creator of the universe laid out in the first commandment.

Hence… America is not founded on any religion. The humanistic philosophy that underpins the founding documents strictly prohibits the state from religious  meddling.

Being products of the Enlightenment, they knew full well what religious tyranny look liked and realized the only true way to ensure everyone is equal under the law was to scribe a secular constitution that prevented such abuses.

Rethinking the role of pleasures in life

Many people don’t even consider the role of pleasure in creating a ‘good’ and ‘flourishing’ life.

In fact the word flourishing probably doesn’t factor in to any one person’s philosophy of life.

This is primarily a cultural thing — very few of us are ever presented with the idea of questioning the cultural norms and attitudes we are inculcated in. You’re a consumer, you consume and thereby participate in the great cultural experiment of no-limits capitalism.

It is my contention that life truly worth living requires some critical reflection on the relationship we have with pleasure and the external objects and events that we rely on for fulfillment.

To some, the idea that pleasure isn’t somehow connected to a valuable and worthwhile life is dumbfounding. This was certainly my realisation when I first discovered Stoicism and virtue ethics as a way of developing a personal code for living.

In fact, the pursuit of pleasure, despite being a tremendously self-centred preoccupation, often leads to discontentment or worse, addictions.

“It is self-discipline, above all, that causes pleasure.”
— Socrates

As it turns out, philosophers have been debating ideas around what constitutes a good life for at least 2500 years. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy been preoccupied with areas that are academically interesting, but bare little relevance to practical living.

Epicurus and the “pleasure garden”

Of the Hellenistic schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans held that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In fact, the Cyrenaic school only lasted a century — their project essentially carried on by the Epicureans.

Like most words pertaining to Greek philosophy that survive in modern English, ‘Epicurean’ distorts the original meaning of the word.

Epicurus did expound a hedonistic philosophy, but his take on pleasure was vastly different to that of the modern standard. His hedonistic ethics were aimed at the attainment of ataraxia — freedom from unnecessary pain while being content with simple pleasures.

Epicureans were not rampant pleasure seekers at all costs. Food, drink and sex were not objects of unusual desire for them. Instead, Epicurus and his ardent followers did all they could do maintain this blissful state including:

  • Withdrawing from politics and, to a large extent, public life
  • Retiring to a plush garden to practice philosophy and live the good life among friends
  • Enjoy pleasures in moderation while abstaining from unhealthy pleasurable pursuits
  • Avoiding superstitious beliefs that cause undue existential harm (e.g. Gods that punish us in an afterlife).

The latter point to me is the most interesting as a modern skeptic. Epicurus’ theory of atomism stemmed from his insistence that beliefs should be proportioned to the empirical evidence. Epicurus thought it unnecessary to worry about the gods and to fear the consequences of judgement from the gods. This was a bold departure from the beliefs of the populous at the time.

So Epicureans pursued a state of tranquility through the taming of desire, because they knew that wantonly fulfilling desires is an unending pursuit that leads to discontentment.

Staunch Stoics

The Stoics went one further than the Epicureans — pleasure is not a good at all, in fact virtue (those actions that perfect one’s character) is the only good. The Stoics were unimpressed with pleasure and craving after desires. They thought these to be the cause of much human unhappiness.

The way to combat perturbations or “unnatural movements of the soul” is to live apatheia (without passions). To achieve this state, one must pursue only those things that are within one’s control. Any ‘passion’ in Stoicism is inappropriate because the presence of such intense emotions can only arise in a person if they mistakenly place value in an external object, sensation or event (which are only indifferents with respect to a flourishing life).

That is Stoicism in a nutshell — quell passions like desire by judging only internal things within our control to be good. Value those things and be indifferent to everything else (in fact we should love whatever befalls us because that is what nature has willed).

Stoic practice is therefore training to hone one’s wisdom about what is truly good and what is truly bad and to act in accordance with nature.

As with much of the Stoic canon, Epictetus is bang on when he says: “It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

The mental disposition of yearning, craving or lusting after something external is the very definition of discontentment. However, this way of thinking, puts us squarely at odds with the frantic, never satisfied life we’ve landed ourselves in.

What that means for us today

Many people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that there is more to life than just fulfilling every desire that enters their consciousness.

In rich countries, we’re sold on the idea from multiple sources — the media, big business, governments… That the goal in life is to have the house, the car the toys, the holidays and everything in between. We’re supposed to work ourselves into the ground to pay for these things and when we can’t we can just sign on the dotted line and go in to debt.

The above narrative is not only faulty it is the also the cause of a great amount of human unhappiness, environmental degradation and social problems. The lie persists, however, because so much is at stake for those who profit from us buying into it.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Perhaps the most insightful and life changing aspect of my study in Hellenistic philosophy stems from challenging the role desire plays in my life. For me, preoccupation with pleasure has reduced dramatically and the positive results as well as increased sense of well-being has flowed into all aspects of my life.

Your path might be different to mine — I have principally studied Stoicism, but it really doesn’t matter. Eastern philosophies and religions have also much to say about how desires and aversions rule our lives. The point is: examine your life, don’t just sleepwalk through it. And evaluating the effect of pleasure and desire in your life is about as fundamental an examination as you can get.

Even if you come out of your study of practical philosophy as a full blown consumerist hedonist, at least you’ll know why and be able to recognise the limitations of that philosophy of life and be prepared for any challenges that you may face.

Stoic week 2014 and the necessity of philosophy

Philosophy has been a source of strength and wisdom throughout the ages — two things sadly missing from our modern world.

Next week is Stoic Week 2014 — an event organised by researchers and Stoicism enthusiasts from the University of Exeter in the UK. In its third year, Stoic Week is both an experiment and a chance for people to “try on” a different philosophy of life.

If you don’t do anything for Stoic week but get the Stoic Week Handbook, you will still receive tremendous value from the event.

Ancient philosophy is important today because our modern cultural ideas have a lot to answer for. For one, we’re taught to worship our emotions. We’re told we should have that new pair of shoes, eat that cake and basically reward ourselves for getting up in the morning.

We are also taught that everything should basically go our way and if it doesn’t this is cause for disappointment. Having ones plans disintegrate right in front of their eyes will unhinge many people, leading to frustration, anger and despair.

Philosophy, particularly the Stoic School informs us that we’re misguided in valuing pleasure too highly and for shielding ourselves from discomfort. The remedy? Start by assessing your expectations.

Expectations — the tranquility destroyers

Recently, I heard an interview with Tony Robbins where he said “If you want a better life trade expectations for appreciations”. Expectations are simply delusions we have about how things ought to go. Expectations set us up for frustration and disappointment.

For one, having expectations relies heavily on our ability to (a) sum up the reality of a situation in order to (b) make realistic predictions about how things will turn out. Human minds are unreliable in both these instances. Sure we can use experience to come up with reasonable estimates about how reality will work out but the universe is far more complex and chaotic than we could ever account for.

The point that Stoic philosophers repeatedly asserted the importance of knowing what is within our power to control and what isn’t.

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” – Epictetus

A key Stoic maxim is that to have a good life, one must “live according to nature”. In other words, things that happen and the things we have in our life come from providence and can just as easily be taken away. Fretting over things that happen is contrary to nature. Trying to control what is outside ourselves is the source of human suffering.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asserts often in his Meditations that our concern and despair for things that happen as a matter of natural course of the universe is misguided and pointless. He often mentions that we’ll soon be dead so what’s the point of suffering for no reason.

“… But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.” – Aurelius, Meditations.

Freedom comes from within

If we allow ourselves to be swept away by the impressions (thoughts/appearances) then we have given away our freedom.

Epictetus was the most forceful in this respect. He repeatedly reminds us in his Discourses of the need to be on guard from ‘impressions’ or appearances. In fact the opening lines of Epictetus’ Enchiridion (The Handbook) proceed as follows:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This is where ancient philosophy meets modern therapeutic practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Freedom, Epictetus says, flows from the ability to step in between impressions and not be bold over by passions that flow from those impressions. Epictetus wants us to realise that we have control to step in and judge impressions, delay judgement, exert self-control and gain freedom from being swept away by external things and events.

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus

A prescription for a better life

How then do we put expectations aside and not be swept away by external events and circumstances? The Stoics devised a number of practices to fully integrate philosophy into the fibre of your being.

Realign your perceptions with reality

Firstly, do a thorough analysis of what is in your power to control and what isn’t. Then discard all concern for those things you can’t control. This practice is connected with the Stoic conception of values. Truly good things are not conditional — they are intrinsically good. These are the virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance (self control).

Realign your expectations

In Western society we are sheltered from the world in many ways. We find innovative ways to avoid thinking about death, we expect things to go well and we constantly seek comfort. It seems somewhat strange then to question these societal norms.

But keeping ourselves in a suspended state of comfort and ignorance just means when things go wrong in life, and they will, we are more likely to not have the courage, strength and wherewithal to navigate through the difficulty and emerge victorious on the other side.

Enter the most prized (in my opinion) Stoic exercise: Praemeditatio futurorum malorum — Anticipation of future difficulties (literally: future evils).

Spend time occasionally contemplating misfortune, including losing the people and things we love. Imagine losing these things in a sort of detached way, not in a way that causes anxiety. The goal is to make sure you are fully aware that these things can and do happen in life and to be prepared should they happen.

This one exercise will recalibrate your expectations and help you develop a deeper sense of gratitude for everyone and everything in your life. By contemplating what life is like having lost the things and people in your life, you are more fully able to feel joy and gratitude in the present. Positivity through negative thinking… I like it!

Both Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Marcus Aurelius devised negative thinking practices to handle the rudeness, annoyances and challenges that arise in everyday life.

Aurelius, who was embroiled in the turbulent political life of Roman Court, used exercise below to keep an even keel.

Aurelius morning exercise

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

Seneca On Anger

Seneca speaks quite timelessly in his essay On Anger about the need to accept the fact that things don’t always go our way in order that we be at peace with them. Seneca’s rather insightful observation is that anger not only had dire consequences if not controlled, it also resulted when we were shocked by events that happen.

Here is a good exercise to demonstrate the power of Seneca’s insight. For most of us living in cities, this will be of particular benefit.

Spend a few minutes every morning thinking about and even expecting people to cut you off in traffic, being stuck in traffic, being late for a meeting… Expecting people to be in a rush and inconsiderate on the road.

Expecting people to let you down, be rude, greedy, impatient and obnoxious inoculates you against these things. They are after all, to be expected as the natural course of things.

Practical philosophy to overcome modern ills

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” – Epictetus

My wife is often the source of both inspiration and incisive comments. While this can be tough to handle sometimes (no one likes hearing the truth all the time!) my life is immeasurably better because of her honest appraisals of my conduct (a euphemism if ever there was one).

Anyhow, she made a comment a while ago that really rocked me. After reading a couple of articles on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog, I expressed an interest Stoic philosophy as guidance for how to live a better life. She laughed and said that I already had a philosophy of life — hedonism! In that moment I had keen insight into why I needed to pursue a philosophy of life. Hedonism, while not inherently a bad philosophy of life, is the default approach to life most of us in industrialised nations take.

Hedonism: The satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Hedonism is, at least for many, leads to an unrewarding way of life. The ancients in many schools of thought observed that the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake was not only easy to do (no special character development needed) it also had a cost associated with it.

This explains the popularity today of Buddhist retreats, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in the modern world. The way many of us live today — in large industrial cities — is a relatively new state of affairs for the human animal to be dealing with. Couple this with the need to fulfill the numerous roles in the many relationships we have and it really is a perfect storm for burn out.

What people need are practical approaches to decompress and deal with the world, other than mindless shopping/consuming in the vain hope at the end of it we feel fulfilled and content.

Ancient philosophy as an operating system for your life

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
– Henry David Thoreau

The phrase “what’s your philosophy of life” might not be the most common dinner party question. In fact it probably isn’t something many people consciously think about. We tend to take on the attitudes, beliefs and approaches of those around us without much questioning.

Philosophy is also a word with baggage. To most people, philosophy is a purely academic exercise, and the joy of learning the wisdom of the philosophers is lost sometime between assignment one and the end of term exam.

This is unfortunate — philosophy  in the ancient Greek and Roman sense was practical philosophy. A student of one of the many schools in Athens and Rome would have as there goal the attainment of certain virtues in life through philosophical contemplation and the practice of key tenets.

I like Tim Ferriss’ take on philosophy — that it should be an operating system for making better decisions.

Any philosophy of life must address a few key questions:

  • What is our true nature as humans?
  • What should we value?
  • How should we act given our values/nature?
  • How does one go about dealing with problems, obstacles and misfortune?
  • What is our role in society?

Stoicism, self-control and virtue

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” – Epictetus

Any philosophy of life, other than hedonism, will require self-control. While maximising our opportunities for pleasure seems logical, pleasure for pleasure’s sake ultimately isn’t a rewarding way to live for many people, and requires little or no self-control at all.

Hollywood offers the best examples of this — people who seemingly have it all are constantly destroying themselves and the lives of others through sexual excess, drugs, alcohol, aggression and a host of other destructive practices. According to hedonism, these people should be maximally happy, but we know for a fact that many of them aren’t. Fame and riches own them, and sadly it costs lives.

Failing to put our circumstances into proper perspective is part of the problem. The Stoics, for example, advocated forgoing pleasure and in some cases advise us to actively seek out discomfort so that we may have the proper appreciation of our circumstances.

With appreciation for what we have now we can abandon the suffering that stem from our desires, making it possible to live a life of durable happiness — a life that remains on a positive path despite what is going on externally.

The happiness conundrum

The Stoics were principally concerned with Eudaimonia — the Greek word that roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca stated that such a condition can only be achieved by one who has a tranquil mind. This, to me, seems a much more worthy goal in life than the vague and undefined ‘happiness’ which can mean different things to different people. Tranquility, on the other hand, is a state of mind and we can then reason backwards and find ways of achieving this state.

The Stoics devised many practical ways to achieve a tranquil mind and the attainment of virtue (in the classical sense). This is good news for the modern man or woman trying to deal with life’s stresses, temptations, problems and challenges.

Because of this, stoicism is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism withered on the vine for centuries, only to emerge at several times throughout the past 1000 years.

Zen Buddhism has many cross overs with Stoicism but have different approaches to the same end. Stoic practices tend to be more about reflection and analysis of our lives whereas Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, these are increasingly popular as people find them useful for achieving some inner peace in a mad world.

Simple stoic exercises can help you:

  • Develop an operating system for better decision making
  • Deal with stress and eliminate needless suffering
  • Tame pleasures rather than be owned by pleasures
  • Put the value of the people and things in your life in proper perspective
  • Increase your joy in the life you have right now (without trying to fill the void by consuming or chasing ‘external things’).

**Check out the online resources below for specifics on Stoic exercises and practice.

Concluding thoughts

I have lived my entire life to this point taking the easy road. After all, if I didn’t have to exert myself, why should I? Why would I wake up earlier? Why shouldn’t I eat that chocolate bar? The only problem with this style of living is that I ended up coasting through life never really achieving much of anything and infuriating people when I didn’t follow through in my role, whatever that was (husband, co-worker, friend…)

The Stoics were very astute in their observation that relying on external events of objects to create within us the positive emotions is a losing battle.

One of the more profoundly life-changing aspects of stoic principles is in extinguishing stress and eliminating anger. Epictetus probably said it better than anyone:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This quote is a central tenet in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The notion that between an event and our response is a judgment we make. Change the judgment, change the response.

At the end of the day, the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome had tremendous insights into human nature and how we can flourish, despite the travails of life. Can we gain from their works? Absolutely. Given that these philosophers lived in sophisticated societies at times of war, political turmoil and upheaval, their insights about how to live a good life are as relevant today as they ever were.

Philosophy of life and Stoicism online resources:

The real cost of the distraction epidemic

Every day we waste two of our most precious resources but most people won’t realise what it costs them until it’s too late.

In your typical day, how many distractions do you encounter? Chances are you probably don’t know the answer and you also probably don’t know how much it’s costing you. We tend not to notice how much time we waste in a typical day delighting our minds with minutiae and other trivialities but the cost of such distractions is more than just a unit of time. It’s also costing us quality of life.

On another level, a war is being raged to capture your attention and hold it. Modern culture is geared around consumption, to the point where governments regard us as consumers first and citizens second.

Western societies particularly have never been as unbalanced as they are now. Because consumption is king, everywhere around us are things screaming to grab our attention. Billboards, TV, mobile apps, news, the internet in general, everyone wants a piece of your two most precious resources: time and attention.

Time and attention

Distraction is just a way of life for most of us. We wake up and check our emails, Facebook, Twitter, maybe a cute YouTube vid of some cat somewhere doing something somewhat cute. We get to work and probably read something in transit that piqued our curiosity.

Throughout the day we’ll check sports results, news and other things that amount to attention leakage.

Why is attention important? We can never get time back, that we all know. What is sometimes forgotten is that what you do with your time is crucial to living a good life.

JOMO

The movement affectionately known as JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out — is the antisthesis of something that has become known as FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out. Think about that for a minute. Fear of missing out on what? Kim Kardashian’s latest belfie? (Yes, a picture of her ass). The latest fashion, what Rhianna is wearing, is she back with Chris Brown again? Why the fascination? Are famous people really worth looking up to when you look at many of the lives they lead and the fact they cannot get a moments peace from the paparazzi?

JOMO is the exact opposite of what marketers and the big businesses they represent want. They need you glued to social media, TV, the internet and following famous people on Twitter (as an example — I’m not picking on Twitter here!) In order to reclaim your life back from the obsession of checking our phones every 10 minutes we need to realise how a constant bombardment information is affecting us.

Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca warns against such obsessions in his must-read letter, On the Shortness of Life:

“Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust.

“Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides.” – Lucius Seneca

*The full text of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life can be found on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week Blog.

Distracted from what?

In order to be distracted you have be distracted from something. Now, if the purpose of your life as defined by you consciously or unconsciously is to indulge your attention in everything that comes your way then distraction isn’t really distraction for you. For those who want more from life, better quality relationships, a healthy state of mind and body, a degree of security and options… Distraction is our enemy.

How you use your time determines the quality of your life. It also contributes to a regret-free way of living. No one wants to wake up 20 years in the future only to realise that they’ve wasted their lives going from link to link on trashy news websites the internet, reading gossip magazines, playing video games constantly or watching endless reruns on TV.

Now, if you like these doing these things it isn’t a judgement on my part to tell you what you can and can’t read, do or watch. My main point is a Socratic one: that the unexamined life is an impoverished one.

If you key in on what you really value in life and operate everyday in accordance with those values, distractions are the enemy. All becomes clear when you realise what is truly worth valuing in life.

As Seneca warns, vice is the enemy of the good life. Anything external that captures your attention regularly and distracts you from truly important things in life is vice. Modern society seems fixated on the next novel piece of news, but honestly, how is that working out for you?

Chances are it’s not working out for you because multitude of messages dangled in front of you everyday aren’t designed to benefit you — they are designed to make it easier for you to hand over your attention and therefore your behaviour to suit others’ needs and desires.

Feather in the wind or iron fortress?

The bottom line is thus: you can either go through your day blown around in different directions by the external stimuli bombarding your senses or you can take reasonable steps to wall yourself off from the mortar fire ‘out there’ designed to capture your attention.

With a solid understanding of your values, and a goal-oriented approach to life, you can take control back of your attention and intentionally direct it to that which creates real meaning for you.

With that criteria in place, you can then ask yourself throughout the day: “Is this for who I am and what I want from life or isn’t it?”

Create an inner fortress — know who you are and what is really important to you in life. Living purposefully like this guards against the hounds gnashing their teeth at your attention and provides the motivation to seek out more good stuff and less mind-deadening crap so common in our modern world.

Next post: A philosophical approach that cures many of the ills of modern life.

Regression: Hamilton drops fluoride from water supply

Fluoridation has been proven time and time again to reduce public health costs and dental problems. So it is with some disgust that I stumbled upon the decision by Hamilton City Council officials to bow to a misguided minority and remove fluoride from the city’s water supply.

There are many pseudoscientific beliefs prevalent in society so I shouldn’t be surprised that the removal of fluoride from Hamilton’s water supply has happened. But I am shocked and I am perplexed. Fluoride naturally exists in water just not in adequate quantities to protect teeth from decay. And for fuck’s sake this is 2013.

So there are several things wrong Hamilton City Council’s decision:

  • Firstly, pandering to a vocal minority clearly misguided and misinformed is not an example of good local governance.
  • The majority of Hamilton’s residents want fluoridated water, so if we’re talking about democratic decisions, the removal of fluoride is a massive fail.
  • Refusing to listen to the people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about is also a bad idea. Surely public health measures should be based on expert opinion (in this case dentists and medical professionals who are aware of the scientific evidence)?
  • Most disgusting of all — the deputy mayor  of Hamilton Gordon Chesterton claims there is a “lack of clear evidence” for the benefits of fluoridation in water. Since when did Mr Chesterton become an expert in the science behind fluoridation and dentistry?

A public official, like say, a deputy mayor, has an ethical obligation to check the facts behind a policy proposal — especially one that affects the health of the people he/she is representing.

Ignorance is a poor substitute for data

Mr Chesterton’s ignorance is being used to push a political agenda and for what? To appease the whingeing from people who reject science? The dropping of fluoridation is a symptom of a greater problem: The anti-scientific intuitions popular today stemming from bad assumptions (“if it’s natural it must be good”) and poorly constructed conspiratorial musings. All of this bad thinking is inevitable in human populations which is why we need science. Turning our backs on the data (or claiming the data doesn’t exist when it does) is problematic and sad really.

“People are entitled to their opinion, just not their own facts.” – Dr Steven Novella

Ignorance is a poor platform for making decisions period — especially when it will affect the health of citizens. We are lucky to live at a time when science is answering more and more questions and solving more and more problems. We turn our backs on science based medicine at our peril.

And despite what the advocates of the fluoride removal say, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that fluoride in water supplies is a massive public health benefit (see list below).

I think we can watch dental health deteriorate in the Hamilton region, and it probably won’t be in the people who are opposed to fluoridation. Instead, it will be people in lower socioeconomic homes who can’t afford dental care, have poor dental hygiene and have diets loaded with sugars.

A massive public policy fail

This is yet another massive public health fail. Massive. The ignorance of a few and a pompous deputy mayor who presumes far more expertise than he has will lead to suffering and more pressure on health services.

Let’s be clear about this — those opposed to health measures based on scientific medicine are the exact opposite of what they claim — they’re the ones turning back the clock on progress to a time when a person’s prospects in health, longevity and quality of life were dire.

In the event Mr Chesterton is reading this, here is the evidence you seem to have imagined doesn’t exist:

“That’s just what I believe” inadequacy

With the US Presidential Election just days away, I thought it timely to look at one of the most annoying statements politicians can make (indeed people generally).

Disclaimer: Though there was an emphasis on Republican politicians in this article, I by no means think the phenomenon described here within is confined to any one group (Democrats do this too). We all think our beliefs are right and wonder how others can’t see it. Politicians, however are in the best position to screw others over because of what they think is right.

Sitting in a hotel room in Berlin in September last year and flicking through the TV channels to find an English speaking channel, I happened upon Piers Morgan’s show on CNN. The guest that night — Rick Santorum — the uber-conservative Republican, who was then campaigning for the Republican Primaries.

Piers didn’t really test Santorum too much with his questioning but what did pique my curiosity was a statement Santorum made regarding the theory of evolution. At the time I didn’t realise that this would be the first time of many that I would hear Santorum say these words:

“That’s just what I believe”.

It was of course in reference to the fact that Santorum didn’t believe in evolution and that he believed the everything was created by God (in 6 days).

Think about that statement “That’s just what I believe”. As an interviewer, it would have been nice to hear Piers say “Okay, but you do understand that you can’t force that view on everyone else?” Of course, aligning himself with religious conservatives, Santorum did want to force public schools to teach creationist garbage as science, setting back science education 200-300 years.

I have since learned that when Santorum said it was “just what I believe” he means, “and if you disagree you will pay when I rule the land”.

That’s Just what you believe — so what?

Given that people can believe anything (as Santorum himself shows) we should put little stock in what people believe.

“Oh you believe that taking vitamin C intravenously will cure influenza?”
Or “That face on Mars is obviously a sign of intelligent life”.

People believe a great many things, which is interesting but simply not enough, especially if you’re going to represent a diverse populous as a political representative.

Which is my point really. What right does one have to legislate on the basis of what they believe when it is contrary to fact; marginalises and restricts the rights of others?

I’m picking on Santorum because he was the Republican candidate who was most over-confident of his own beliefs about the world, but the others all exhibited the same pattern.

When confronted with an issue where their statements/policy platform were not supported by evidence, politicians (at least in the Republican primaries) claimed “that’s just what I believe” in an effort to put a full stop on the conversation. No rational justification needed right?

Sorry — you really do have to provide factual justification for your statements

No idea is so great to be immune from criticism and justification. If you think evolution is sent from Satan then we’ll need to fact check that. Hell exists? We gonna need co-ordinates and a map thanks.

If you think the potential foetus from a “legitimate rape” (?!) will be terminated by the woman’s body automatically by some magic means, you are proving to us all that your grip on reality (Tod Akin) is tenuous and that you sir should not be in power.

Again, what you believe is really not that interesting (it is irrelevant) unless it correlates with reality.

It’s politics stupid

Yeah I get it… Politics is about value judgements, but what are value judgements decided on the basis of beliefs and outright fantasies of a political elite?

If we as a species are to evolve (yes evolve) beyond our innate stupidity and ignorance, facts and evidence are really, really important.

So, “that’s just what you believe?” is fine, believe whatever you want — Just don’t inflict your warped reality on the rest of us. Cheers.

Gay rights denial — the untiring bigotry of the pious

In my last post, I commented on how religious moral systems are inadequate in the ways in which they fail to properly account for the real world. Here, we’ll look at the issue of gay marriage as an example of where monotheistic attempts at morality are flawed and ultimately fail us.

In spending too much time and concern with imagined transgressions and harm, religious moral views  steer us away from the actual conditions humans and other animals actually experience. This shift in emphasis from real to imagined often creates more harm than good.

Opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds shows what is wrong with religious conceptions of morality and why secular morality is far superior in practice.

The nature of moral arguments
Whether an argument is moral or not is not determined by who says it, the volume they say it at or the numbers of people who support it. In other words, authority, power and popularity do not make moral arguments valid.

Valid moral arguments must have sound logic and valid reasons.

Pious opposition — Invalid reasons; bad logic

When you strip away the bad logic and invalid arguments, it becomes apparent that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are not moral issues.

Ask an opponent of gay marriage the following: “Can you tell me a valid reason why you as a heterosexual can marry and have all the benefits that come with it, whereas homosexual couples cannot?” What you will hear in return is a bunch of invalid reasons, including:

  • The claim that gay marriage offends God (really? You know that how???)
  • Others will elaborate and say the bible specifically says that the gay lifestyle is immoral and the penalty is going to hell (the Bible does not actually make this explicit claim).
  • Still more assert: “I don’t want to offend the (presumably loving) being that made the rules”.
  • Here is the kicker — a startling claim made by one NZ Herald respondent: that the dictionary definition of marriage doesn’t say anything about same sex couples marrying (as if moral progress is made via lexicography).

Facts
The gay lifestyle is a consequence of being gay. Many believers claim that being gay is a choice, despite the fact that all evidence points to the contrary — that sexual preference is a complex mix of developmental and genetic factors. There is a clear reason for this denial:

Homosexuality is as much as a choice as is heterosexuality. This fact poses a conundrum for the believer — being gay must be a choice or else our God is an asshole — why would God create people with the specific intention of persecuting and condemning some on the basis of a trait that God himself created? This cognitive dissonance explains why believers will deny the reality that homosexuality is not a choice.

Failure by the religious to acknowledge the fact that gay people are born gay amounts to condemnation on the basis of innate identity. This is immoral.

Condemnation on the basis of the sexual orientation a person is born with is morally the same as discrimination on the basis of colour.

Pick your flavour — biblical moral relativism

The Bible is a deeply flawed book filled with contradictions. This in part explains part of its success as a guide for believers. You can pick and choose those parts that confirm what you wish to be true while ignoring the other, contradictory and less convenient passages.

For instance, the books of the Bible gay marriage opponents point to as evidence for their position (one man one woman) also advocate polygamy among numerous other marriage arrangements, including a gem from Exodus which says a slave owner can assign male slaves to female slaves (how moral of those slave owners!) This cool infographic shows marriage according to the Bible.

Vile, evil and immoral commands in the Bible
Perhaps the most quoted biblical warning against homosexuality comes from Leviticus 20:13 (following an earlier warning from Leviticus 18:22): — “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them”. What a loving God! Interestingly, in this same book we find passages that prohibit men from shaving their heads or trimming their beards (Leviticus 21:5); and if a priest’s daughter “plays the whore,” we are instructed in God’s infinite loving wisdom to burn her to death.

Upon reading the Bible it is clear that if we are to live our lives based on bronze-age edicts in Leviticus (Deuteronomy, Numbers, Genesis…) we are advocating for a regression back to primitive, morally repugnant times.

Conclusion

Progress in human rights has always had its challenges. Staunch defenders of the status quo is to be expected, but in the areas of human rights, moral and scientific progress, religious opposition has always been an impediment.

From slavery, the oppression of women to barbaric acts such as stoning people for working on the sabbath — we no longer accept these biblical definitions of roles and justice. We (at least in my country) have simply moved on — and a good thing too. These ideas do not deserve respect and for the most part are positively immoral.

When the issue of “should we grant homosexual couples the same status we enjoy as heterosexuals” is finally put to rest, let us look back in 20-30 years to celebrate the victory of compassion over the scornful who tried in vain to convince us that they acted morally.

For more on the science of sexual orientation:

Bible in Kiwi schools? For what reason?

The Bible does have a place in New Zealand schools but it must be in a context of criticism and ethical philosophy — not for the indoctrination of minds into a narrow, dogmatic and exclusive viewpoint.

A handful of correspondents to the NZ Herald on this issue have pointed out that religious instruction should cover a range of world religions — what they believe and how their faith is practiced. This is a good platform, and one that flushes the religious fundamentalists out from behind the bushes.

Under the guise of “values education”, Christians seeking to teach the Bible in schools are primarily concerned with bringing ‘sheep’ to Jesus. This is not values education and unnecessary to lead a good moral life. This does, however fall under the category of indoctrination and does not belong in public schools.

Ethical teaching — a good idea

The teaching of ethics is an absolutely fantastic idea. In fact, I would say philosophy generally is under taught in schools and reflection on the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers throughout the ages can only enrich the lives of students who study them.

Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.
Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great”

Moral thought existed before the Bible and was even more important after because then it was possible to reflect on whether its ideas had moral weight. This basic requirement of any ideas — that they be critically analysed — was met with resistance when applied to the Bible. Those daring to question religious ideas persecuted and outright murdered by those privileged by Christian beliefs (notably the Catholic Church).

morality is Not the unique domain of religion

…religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available. We don’t have to believe that a deity wrote one of our books, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, to be moved to help people in need. – Sam Harris, http://www.samharris.org/

Morality is not dictated from on high. Moral progress is possible because of critical reflection on behaviour and the consequences of our actions.

Secular morality is concerned with the suffering of sentient beings out of basic empathy and compassion, not because we are commanded to. This includes the experiences of non-human animals as well. This necessarily requires the understanding of the experiences of others (the basis of empathy) and therefore the acceptance of differences.

The Bible is not a reliable manual on morality because it does not teach understanding; instead it inspires the believer to be incredibly judgemental and conceited (hey, I’m only speaking on behalf of the creator of the universe here). The Bible contains many immoral acts — some by God, others commanded by him. The Bible doesn’t mind slavery, glorifies rape and incest in places and stresses ‘obedience or else’ threats from a supposedly ‘loving’ God.

Hence, the Bible is a ‘pick and choose’ book — the choosing done on the basis of personal opinion using an obvious external; standard of morality. This makes biblical morality a perfect example of the moral relativism that is often claimed of non-religious morality (also evidenced by the fact that different denominations cannot agree on basic doctrines and interpretations).

literature and philosophy are superior to holy books

We have had to ignore the Bible on so many fronts in order to progress passed our innate petty, fearful and xenophobic traits. The following is a short list of areas where we have sought moral and human rights progress only to be confronted by religious opposition:

  • The abolition of slavery
  • Women’s rights and equality
  • Women’s health and sexuality (and therefore the alleviation of poverty and emancipation of women from being male property)
  • Progress away from racism
  • Gay and lesbian rights
  • Environmental concerns and conservation
  • The ethical treatment of animals
  • Treatment of non-believers and rival religions…

Progress in these areas requires ignoring the pronouncements of holy books. Indeed, in the case of the Bible, the above items are either not addressed or it advocates diminishing the rights of others — thereby causing more harm in the process.

In religion there is no mechanism for internal improvement of moral codes. After all, how can you improve on God? The emphasis is on inflexible rule dictation with the presumption of truth not requiring external validation. These have shown to be impediments to scientific and positive social change.

Literature is far better at approaching moral conundrums and dilemmas while philosophy enriches our moral intuitions by questioning beliefs and assessing how actions impact individuals and societies in the real world.

Religion is optional and not necessary to teach people to be virtuous and so belongs in NZ public schools without privilege; requiring the same criticism we apply to all philosophical ideas.

Next post – the finer points of morality and why religions have utterly failed us in that respect.

Further resources

Something’s awry with Xocai – Internet thuggery at its worst

In a show of solidarity, bloggers are showing support for a Norwegian blogger who has received personal threats from Xocai Multi-Level Marketing distributors in Norway AND, scarily, his personal details transmitted to the distributor network.

The Skeptic’s Guide to Universe podcast recently reported on this story of internet thuggery on a few Norwegian bloggers that dared criticise the outrageous health claims of a “healthy chocolate” marketed through an MLM network.

The story on the Unfiltered Perception blog reveals the threats levelled at one blogger in particular, in an attempt to silence his valid criticism of the extravagant health claims of Xocai chocolate.

The blogger –  a responsible skeptic who values the truth of his writing – wrote back to the company sending the threats (Sjokoservice – Norge) asking specifically where his story is in error so he could change it to more accurately reflect reality. Such a reasonable request was met with more threats of a lawsuit by Sjokoservice’s American backers (MXI corp); denial of their responsibility to provide relevant information and reports that distributors were engaged in heated discussions on Facebook about what to do about these “untrue and libelous” claims.

The whole time the author of the threatening letters takes the position of ‘we are just reporting this to you, we have no responsibility for what happens next’ despite transmitting the bloggers personal details – including photos of his family members and a Google map of his house – to their 9000 odd distributors.

Hacking Google

Much of this insecurity and bullying surfaces from the fact the blogger’s original stories were highly ranked on Google. Sjokoservice successfully forced one blogger to remove his original 201o story, primarily by contacting the blogger’s place of work, thereby causing him great personal distress.

Bloggers have rallied and now the mainstream media in Norway has taken to the story. To remedy this, Xocai distributors appear to have gone on the offensive. Take look at the web search results below for the search term “Xocai threats” (below). It seems that distributors have hijacked website names in order to redirect attention to their marketing nonsense:

Xocai marketing plastered over Google.

Xocai marketing replicated on numerous sites using other website’s names. A cynical attempt to smother legitimate criticism of their products. Page after page of these search results shows the same story (including every state of the US represented).

Here’s a URL example: http://badscienceblogs.info/2012/07/03/xocai-threatens-nasty-chocolate-in-vermont-with-healthy-chocolate/

Notice that http://www.badscienceblogs.net/ and Xocai critical blogger Jaycueaitch have their names represented in the URL that direct to these pro-Xocai spam blogs.

It is quite ingenious in its desperation but one simply needs to create a domain name, setup a free WordPress install and hey presto – spam Google search filters with your nonsense (load it with keywords like “threats” to redirect attention away from stories about the Xocai threats).

This is a piece of work – the extreme measures these purveyors (or “artisans”) of natural and alternative health will go to in order to protect their bank accounts. It doesn’t surprise me – the insecurity of the Xocai powers-that-be is valid and this spam blogging and hijacking of website names is a desparate attempt to rectify a situation that could have been avoided if they didn’t make extravagant claims in the first place.