Professor J. Anderson Thomson on Why We Believe

October 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is a great talk by Professor J. Anderson Thomson from the American Atheist convention in Atlanta, Georgia in 2009, which addresses ideas of human evolution, the mind’s coping mechanisms, and the way religion probably evolved with us as a by-product of social mechanisms which emerged within us.

Watch and enjoy!

Atheist Climber Prominent People Project

September 24, 2010 § 7 Comments

Atheist Climber Blog is turning One year old on October 10! Yay! And I remember like yesterday thinking “Do I have anything to write about? Will anyone care? Will anyone read it?” I just wish I had taken more baby photos!

Well you have all spoken to me by visiting and commenting on my blog. My measure of success has been reflected in the blog stats with over 60,000 page hits, over 100 subscribers, and more than 1500 comments for the 100+ articles and videos I have posted. This far surpasses my expectations and for that I thank you all.

To celebrate, I am in the process of interviewing a selection of prominent figures in humanism, atheism, science and critical thinking. Most of these will be in the form of written interviews, but who knows? I might, down the track, do some video or audio interviews too. This will be dependent on how these interviews are received by my readers.

I don’t want to say too much at this stage, but suffice to say, I already have confirmation from a few very prominent and important people who I’m sure you’d recognise. More information to come. So stay tuned!

The first interview will be published on Atheist Climber Blog’s first birthday, October 10, 2010. So come celebrate with me, and feed your brain with the words of some great thinkers.

Thanks again,
Atheist Climber

The Atheist Re-Enlightenment

August 18, 2010 § 12 Comments

I have often wondered why it is that we are seeing an uprising of voices in the world of skeptical inquiry and atheism in the mainstreams of the world. And I wonder why it is that I am so heavily entrenched in this to feel it is important in my life to put so much effort into this blog at this point in time. Maybe I’m a little slow on the uptake, but it seems to me that now, more than ever in my lifetime, is the appropriate time to stand up for reason and rationality in the face of bad information and outdated dogma.

There is now, in any bookstore, a religion section which not only contains some bibles and stories about Mary MacKillop and her ilk, but a large array of books which question the very fabric of religion itself. Authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling et al. are touted as attacking the thinking of the religious, or criticising the religions and their dogma. In addition to this there are many authors whose books may be found outside of the “Religion” section who tackle other pertinent topics which have ramifications for religious people and their beliefs,  (Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Micheal Shermer just to name a few).

Scientific discoveries in cosmology, neuroscience, medicine, physics and biology are speeding forward at an unprecedented rate, and the advent of very powerful social-media tools like Twitter and FaceBook have allowed for the propagation of information in a way never seen before. We can watch things as they happen! Earlier this year I watched as a space shuttle took-off from the USA in real-time (with some delay, my internet connection is not great at home). And millions in Australia are now Tweeting about the current election campaign as the debates take place on our TVs.

So there is an upsurge, and the information can spread fast, but why is this movement happening now?

On August 14 The Australian Online published this article titled “Reason on the offensive” written by Luke Slattery. He compares the changes happening in mainstream society to The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and America, where academics of the time fought against dogma and doctrine in favour of reason, rationality and free-inquiry. The article uses this quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the book and film Nomad:

“The intellectual tradition of the European enlightenment, which began in the 17th century and produced its greatest works in the 18th, is based on critical reasoning,” she writes.

“It employs facts instead of faith, evidence instead of tradition. Morality in this world view is determined by human beings, not by an outside force.”

Indeed, and this is what I strive for now. But the article goes on to suggest that we are now in a similar situation to those that led up to the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment. It suggests that one of the reasons that this “re-enlightenment” is occurring now is because of the Post-Modernist movement of the 1980’s, which was a rejection of  the Modernist ideals of globalisation and objective truths among humans. Other reasons for it to be occurring now, according to the article, is the lack of people challenging the ideals of faith, and the  political agendas which are at the forefront of western societies interactions with the rest of the world.

The article states that the current push, I’ll call it the “Re-Enlightenment” push, comes in part from:

“… fear that the enlightenment’s contemporary enemies have grown more powerful, in part because they have gone unchallenged, and that the virtues of rationality, liberty, free inquiry and free speech — of democracy itself — need to be re-invigorated. But the challenge is multifold. Grayling, for example, believes that the gravest threat to civil liberties in the West stems from the policy responses of British and American governments to the threat of terrorism.”

Now that is an interesting thought indeed. I’m not a political expert by any means, nor have I ever pretended to be one, but it definitely does seem that somewhere in the political agendas of the American, Australian and some European governmental policies is an intentional leveraging on the fear of possible terrorism from Islam. And by leveraging on this fear, we see suspicions rise, fingers pointed and people becoming more insular in their communities and their beliefs, and more vocal about how they need their rights protected. People are more fanatical about their special-interests in the west than I have ever seen. And it seems in reaction to the terrorist attacks on “friendly soil” that people have become more fundamental in their beliefs. And very vocal.

Yes, we need to protect the rights of the individual, but not at the expense of the masses. Much of the rhetoric we see screamed out by these people who claim they are discriminated against is actually coming from a fundamentalist viewpoint. Be it Christian or Islam, the loudest words are possibly some of the scariest ideas, ones which aim to impose religious dogma on all. Some even cry for death to the non-believer, a positively bronze-age idea at best.

But I’m not writing to decry the fundamentalist ravings of the minority of religious believers, as most people who call themselves “believers” are good people, and who moderate their ideas with some empathy of others. But what I am saying is that these loud voices from those who see their religious ideals as being threatened by spurious interpretations of their holy books, and those who claim that their “way of life” is threatened by what people do in their bedrooms or in their homes, it is these loud voices that have been a catalyst to the uprising of the atheist voice and the voice of reason, rationality and free inquiry.

From the article, with regards to the obstacles faced by reason and rational thought:

“The traditional adversaries of the enlightenment — obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism — are like the heads of the Hydra that keep growing back as they are cut,” Todorov writes. “This is because they draw their strength from characteristics of human beings and societies that are as ineradicable as the desire for autonomy and dialogue. People need security and comfort no less than freedom and truth: they would rather defend the members of their group than subscribe to universal values; and the desire for power, which leads to the use of violence, is no less characteristic of the human species than rational argumentation.”

Todorov in this quote suggests that the desire for power over others, including violence, is as natural in the human being as the quest for rationality and reason. So is it hopeless?

I don’t think so. Every day I am greeted with a friend request on FaceBook from yet another atheist or skeptic, every day I get pro-choice activists following me on Twitter. Every other day I read a news piece, like this one in The Australian, which lightens my spirits a bit and makes me realise that I am not alone in this quest for rationality and reason to prevail. And in fact, I have some of the smartest people on the planet in my corner.

So I welcome, with open arms, a New Re-Enlightened human society, a place where every man and woman is equal, where religious dogma is the exception to the rule, where politics don’t play on the baseless fears of the masses. The Re-Enlightened society knows there’s no “Reds” in the closet, no bogeyman under the bed, and no terrorist on the train. Or at least, we don’t go into a panic the possible threat of other threats.

And while there are real threats to our safety and happiness in this world, the important issues should lie in how we as a whole species will overcome these challenges, not whether my god is the true god, not whether I’m in “your” land, not whether I have more rights than you do to be here, or to be alive, or to be happy. We need to look to the culture and how it affects our expectations as human beings. We need to look at humanity to see how to fix it, not to look skyward and pray for intervention, or worse, the end of days. And I really do think we can do this; we have the knowledge, we have the means, let’s make this thing work for all of us.

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Further Reading
The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism

“Don’t be a dick”? Sometimes we need to…

July 10, 2010 § 17 Comments

I have no idea what Bad Astronomer Phil Plait said at TAM 8 today, I was not there, in fact I am on the other side of the world right now. But the news I got is that Phil was trying to put forward the position that being overtly aggressive when addressing any kind of wrongly held belief is not the way to go, that you don’t catch flies with vinegar, you catch them with honey. Some people apparently took this as a criticism of Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, and the twittersphere was filled with tweets about his talk. I can’t comment on the talk itself, but I know that PZ likes to be overtly assertive in his standpoint and is not one to avoid a topic for the sake of being polite. I’m sure also that there was more to Phil’s talk than just puppies and hugs.

But it does bring forward an interesting problem. What voice should we use?

As overtly critical thinkers, is it better to be aggressive toward people who hold ignorant or skewed views about the world, society and the universe, or is it better to adopt a “soft touch” approach?

Personally I tend to go for the latter, and for this reason. I think it is very important to see where the other side is coming from in debates about religion, society or science. In my experience in dealing with people if you go at someone hammer and tongs from the beginning they stop hearing what you are saying, they get defensive. It’s ineffective, and they tend to resent you for attacking them. If you approach them by listening and understanding, people will tend to listen to you in return. A civilised conversation does not involve a knife-fight.

Having said this, there is a time and a place for ridicule. Some people only respond when they have their faith in irrationality shattered. And some people need to be publicly humiliated before their peers before they can see just how ridiculous their viewpoints may actually be. But keep in mind, this will not change the mind of the individual being ridiculed. What it can do is change the minds of those who listen to the irrational person, people seeing both sides of the debate can evaluate both sides of an argument and come to a conclusion for themselves.

For me the biggest problem is that people who hold certain irrational beliefs will go into a state of denial about their situation or beliefs. As I said in an earlier blog “Pitfalls in debate – the difficulties we face” in relation to dealing with loved-ones’ irrationalities:

  • People’s core beliefs are very precious to them, because this is what they base their assessments of their universe upon. If you stomp on these, you stomp on all they hold dear.
  • When discussing topics of belief, people with strong views which you are addressing or opposing can tend to “clam-up” and stop listening to you. The more insistent you become, the less they hear.
  • Aggressive attacks only cause the other person to feel threatened. If you get too emotional about a topic or during debate, you lose, the other person will claim victory based on your lack of self-control.

This applies to all people, not just your grandmother. Because so many base their understanding of the universe on what they were brought up to believe, by smashing these beliefs you are threatening to destabilise the very foundations of what they consider to be themselves, their core being. As ridiculous as this may sound, it’s true, and to try to smash someone else’s beliefs with heavy-handed insults will only make people feel belittled or “not heard”. People hate to feel their views are not heard or are dismissed.

There is a place for both the heavy-handed approach and the softer approach, and I think it comes down to the situation, who you’re talking to, what it is that they are saying, how much influence this may have on others, whether it’s a public forum or a private conversation. Likewise there is room for both Phil Plait’s approach to debating, and that of PZ Myers.

There are two key factors in debate that DO matter; the facts that we bring and the language that we use. If our facts are sound, and the language we use is persuasive, we may not win over the nay-sayers we are debating, but we may just win ourselves some converts in the audience at large. But again even if we have the facts and the persuasive language for our arguments, the noise coming from opponents may be so loud as to require aggression and ridicule.

One thing that is important to note is the reason why Phil, PZ, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, myself and many, many others are debating irrationality, religion, bad science, bad medicine, dogma and ignorance. We all come forward with a certain understanding that these irrationalities cause more harm in this world than people give credit for. As I’ve said before, we are on a teetering point on this planet, where if we continue to make one bad decision after another about the way we evaluate what is important, the way we treat one-another, and the things we hold as true, then we are surely doomed to much further hardships. We have the information to make a real difference. We have to be effective and we have to be unwavering in our resolve. And we need to use all the tools at our disposal to do this.

I don’t think it matters whether we as individuals employ the same style or fervor in our debates. I think it comes down the the commitment we feel, the information we have and the way we phrase our facts. I don’t think we need to pander to the ridiculous claims of the delusional, but at the same time, with just the right measure of respect and the right amount of ridicule when needed, I do think progress can be made. The right tool for the right job. You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to butter your toast would you?

Don’t call me an Atheist!

June 6, 2010 § 14 Comments

I have always been atheist. I was born without god and have never found that I have ever needed a god in my life. And it would seem as time goes on, that I have been drawn toward people who share the same opinions about religion as I do, mostly without ever having discussed it, or at least having barely touched on the subject. I had never called myself atheist until recently and I must say, I do it with a bit of apprehension, because the term itself to me is without meaning. However at the same time, I do call myself an Atheist with a capital “A” for reasons I will expand upon below.

I find the title of “Atheist” with a capital “A” to a be problematic thing for various reasons.

Being atheist is not like missing something that is needed like being without an arm or leg, in fact it’s an absence of something people add to themselves, more like being without an iPad, or without a favourite type of sushi, so I wonder why it needs a label at all. It has been compared to being a “non-stamp collector” or like considering bald as a hair colour, which shows the absurdity of the label.

With “Atheism” also I worry about the gathering of many people, all of whom have their own individual views of the universe, being lumped under the banner of “Atheism” makes us easy to identify and demonise as a collective. With the collective comes the “target” which theists and conservatives can band together against, much like has happened to Communists and witches in history. Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance Conference in Washington DC in 2007 went so far as to say “…our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.”

I also have a bit of discomfort in saying  I am an “Atheist”, because it is a word which is loaded with so many misconceptions, and paints us as a pariah. We get called variously, “baby eaters”, “haters”, “communists”, “Nazis”, “extremists”, “un-American”, “un-Australian”, “infidels”, “heathens” and the list goes on. The label of “Atheist” is a negative thing, even though it asserts a positive standpoint. Harris says this:

“Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.”

So here we have an unneccessary label, which is demonised and targeted, is considered to be evil and yet we stand proudly under this banner and say “Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about.”  I know that the misconceptions of Atheism are incorrect, and nobody I know has actually eaten a baby; in fact I would go as far as to say the self-proclaimed Atheists I have met are some of the smartest, wisest and kindest people I know.

However, in opposition to Sam Harris’ stand on the label, I also see a plus side. While he says “We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them,” a sentiment I understand and agree with on one level, I think there is an advantage to the label which Harris fails to address in this talk. There is an advantage in unity. The unity of people, who while they might like to gather under the banners of “reason” and “rational”, to gather under the “Atheist” banner gives us a face, gives us a voice and gives us power of numbers. I cannot see how a bunch of solitary people who simply call themselves “reasonable people” and nothing else can even hope to have their voices heard. Sure we can write replies in blogs, or blog ourselves, we can post links in Facebook or tweet as much as we like, but without a unifying label I think we are just solitary figures without a face and without any power.

So we have the conundrum. Which is better? Flying solo under no banner, or flying under a banner of unity? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to this, but it is something I have been thinking about.

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