Tag Archives: Politics & Society

The plague that is social media

It might take a moment of clarity or an absolute meltdown, but the realization is the same — we are being bombarded with so much distraction and insignificant ranting that social media becomes a troublesome burden rather than some harmless pass time.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Like almost any domain you want to look at, there is no escaping the corporate imperative of having your brain diverted from it’s course and firmly entranced by some new piece of novelty. Cat videos are usually cited here, but the plethora of friends meals, kid photos and their precious opinion about the election infiltrate your retinas and ultimately take up space in your frontal lobes.

So social media is nothing but candy — junk food that ought only be consumed occasionally but often becomes an addiction.

It turns out addiction isn’t an extreme choice of words in this case either. Author and computer scientist Cal Newport says social media is like having a slot machine in your pocket. It’s inherently addictive to seek out novel stimuli and to doubly get the social proof that comes from getting positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on your own posts.

In this way, social media provides a steady stream of dopamine ‘hits’ throughout the day — little pleasurable snacks that keep boredom at bay.

Seen this way, social media hits can be likened to avoidance strategies. With all the responsibilities and problems on one’s plate, what harm could a little mental detour have?

Therein lies the problem. One needs to see one’s addictive behaviour as a problem in order for it to register as something they need to change. One or two short viewings or interactions isn’t the problem — it’s the compulsion to repeatedly disengage from reality and dive into the online world that is the real cost.

To that end, may I suggest going without all forms of social media for 7 days. Go ahead, try it. You will learn a great deal about your habit, your compulsion to use it and you might find, as I have, that there is a tremendously peaceful mental space that opens up.

That mental space is precious to me now and I have to fight hard for it. So many things are banging on the window of my consciousness wanting in. If I’m not proactively setting boundaries for those distractions, my day will be swayed this way and that with little of my conscious input.

Cal Newport, in his Tedx talk Quit Social Media makes the point that social media companies are in the entertainment business and not a savoury one at that. He says that they hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to make them as addictive as possible.

Yes, your attention is valued that much by media and social media so why aren’t we waking up and valuing our attention enough to limit our consumption of these apps?

The bigger picture

In Deep Work, Cal Newport outlines what is truly valuable in today’s economy (indeed in any economy ever): “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal calls this “Deep Work” as contrasted by the most common type mode of approaching life — scattered, distracted and fragmented attention. Cal argues, successfully in my opinion, that Deep Work is a rare commodity and that anything truly valuable that is being created today is coming from a deep work approach.

On the other hand, what the market does not value is tasks that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. He says social media is the epitome of low value work (after all, a 16 year old with smartphone can do it!)

This gels nicely with the idea of craftsmanship, a seemingly antiquated idea that dedication by a craftsperson with exceptional skill and expertise leads to inherently valuable and meaningful products. However, that’s a rant for another day.

For the time being, I encourage you to examine the impact social media is having on your life and take the 7 day challenge. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot about the impact of social media and some things about yourself in the process.

I can’t tell you how much freer my life seems without constant detours off into some meaningless piece of fluff content or rage filled hate post.

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.

Putting and end to being offended

In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris recently, debates have raged throughout the Western world regarding the free expression and its role in society.

Many conversations have been outright condemnation. Sadly, a good number of other conversations have gone: “Nothing justifies murder, but…”

“We shouldn’t attack ideas with satire and ridicule for fear we might provoke outrage,” they say. This just hands power back to the thugs by giving them exactly what they want — control of others by fear and force.

But here are the facts: Words do not do any intrinsic harm. Ideas don’t have feelings and don’t deserve respect. People deserve respect.

Two things are at play here:

(1) People honestly believe that violence is permissible if someone is provoked

Pope Francis clearly believes this — the paragon of virtue of the Catholic Church supports the wife beater’s (she made me do it) defence, saying: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

It should be no surprise that a Catholic official is in favour of violence towards those who the Church deems as “opposition” (just look at Church history), but this is the meek and mild saviour of the Church speaking! The most popular Pope for a long time because he has appealed to the liberal and non-Catholics.

The kind of revenge society that Pope Francis is advocating is not the sort of society reasonable people want to live in. The idea that violence is justified for any reason other than defense  is simply barbaric. We condemn the kids who inflict physical punishment on the playground; we try to stamp out bullying, yet some of us are quick to say that inciting violence if insulted is okay. Progress in human rights, justice and ethical living since the Enlightenment has been away from this kind of meathead justice.

Violence is never the right answer to words and ideas we don’t like. Better ideas and better words are.

(2) People like to gain control by being reflexively offended

In recent years it has become fashionable for some to try to silence others and exert control on public discourse by playing the “I’m offended” card. The notion being that we all must have our feelings protected and if “I say I’m offended then you’d better just stop”.

But the world is constituted in such a way that this is clearly an absurd position. Just look at the droves of American Idol contestants in genuine shock and denial after receiving negative comments about their lack of singing talent. This is likely the first time they ever received any negative feedback because their so-called friends are constantly pumping them up and egging them on to “pursue their dream”.

You have the right to be offended but you don’t have the right to silence people in public discourse just because their arguments are inconvenient or uncomfortable to you. For if it is acceptable to silence others for your benefit, then it must be fine for others to demand that same level of respect of their beliefs from you.

If we try to change the world to conform with our wishes we are in a head-on course with disappointment and suffering.

It is impossible to not offend someone, somewhere. For some, the mere existence of atheists is offensive. Others just can’t be offended at all, though they feel revulsion at things done in poor taste. The thing is, ideas and concepts aren’t intrinsically offensive, people get offended.

Be not offended

Have you ever noticed that if you take two very similar people (similar interests and stations in life) and tell them the same thing they will respond differently? That’s because it’s not the words or the message that matters, it is the meanings people derive and layer on top of the message.

Words do not injure; words merely carry meaning and that meaning can only lead to injury if it is perceived to be so in the mind of the receiver.

Despite this, it blindingly obvious that when we lash out in response to things we don’t like it is because at some level we believe ourselves to have been injured in some way.

This is probably due to the fact that people identify with their beliefs and the more conviction and importance they assign those beliefs, the more sting they’re likely to feel if their beliefs are challenged. While they maybe ideas to us and we might even recognise them to be in error, to the person who holds the belief it is a matter of utmost importance. This is particularly the case when it comes to religion, primarily because those kinds of ideas are at the root of a person’s identity.

How the Stoics handled insults and criticism

As usual, the Stoics had some of the better insights on dealing with anything people had to say, positive or negative. This was because the Stoics knew that too many people place too much importance on what people thought, to the point where it would derail them emotionally.

Many of the following Stoic approaches to handling insults have been used with great effect in anger management classes and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The Roman Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepared himself for the hostile life in Roman Politics by reminding himself not to be surprised that people ware scoundrels:

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill”.  People do not choose to behave they way they do so “[t]hat men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice.” – Meditations 2:1

Much of the shock we experience from the actions and words of others is because we at some level we think people shouldn’t be nasty or provocative. This is however, an unrealistic expectation and Aurelius’ morning reminder posted above is an antidote for such idealistic delusion.

We can’t control other people, but we can control our responses to them.

Another very effective way of dealing with comments is to refrain from thinking of them as negative or positive in the first place. After all, it is the assignment of meaning to statements that governs our emotional response.

“Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” – Meditations 4:7

The above quote reveals a central theme in Stoic training that survives today in modern CBT: Don’t allow your initial impression to catch fire and turn into a full-on emotional outburst. Ultimately, we have the faculty of reason that can pour water on the sparks of emotional fires thereby keeping our equanimity and calm.

Epictetus says it much more eloquently:

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. – Enchiridion 1.5

Ideas don’t deserve respect, people do

In a civil society it is our duty to challenge ideas and allow the best ideas to make to survive while discarding those that are subversive, harmful and factually wrong. This can only happen with reasoned debate and inquiry free from corruption.

Words, ideas and pictures don’t have feelings, they can’t endure suffering and can’t be offended. Ideas deserve no special treatment for if they did then the idea that Earth is center of the universe or the ideas of alchemy would not be cast on the trash heap of history as they should be.

This is the big point that people like Pope Francis don’t get: we have only made moral and scientific progress — away from barbarism and the archaic notions that hold humanity back, by criticising ideas, holding them up in the light of day and seeing whether they’re valid, invalid, helpful or harmful.

However, ideas do carry power — power to change society, transform lives and shift wealth. This means people and and heads of corporations and institutions such as religions are motivated to suppress, deny and rubbish ideas that don’t serve their purpose or will lead to a loss of power. This is why we need freedom of speech — to avoid abuses of power in all its guises.

summary

Some things will offend people, regardless of how tame they maybe. You can’t not offend people. If we had a society that remained tight lipped over important issues for fear someone may cry “offense” then that lack of honesty and transparency would be allow all kinds of abuses and toxic ideas to flourish. The bullies would win.

The main take away points:

  • Words, pictures and actions are not inherently offensive, we become offended.
  • Words and ideas don’t deserve respect but people do
    Ideas don’t have feelings.
  • Trying to bend reality to meet our expectations is a flawed strategy.
  • Remind yourself daily, as Marcus Aurelius did, that you will encounter people who are rude, critical, irrational and outright nasty. Expect insult and avoid injury.
  • Repugnant ideas should be met with counter ideas in a civilised society, so that we can make moral progress.
  • Violence is only justified when meeting violence, never because we don’t like the words or ideas of others.

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: