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!

“Who do you need to forgive?” – Outreach Media

October 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s October, which can only mean one thing; Outreach Media have a new billboard! They seem to have hit a few nails on the head this time.

Who do you need to forgive?

Who do you need to forgive?

Not everything that religion touts is harmful, in fact there are some valuable lessons that can be learned from the stories and parables of the Bible. The idea of forgiveness, for instance, is a useful tool to allow people to move on from conflicts or incidents, and to not allow small problems to become larger ones. It is useful to us for letting go of people’s trespasses upon our own territories, and allowing us to balk around fighting or killing everyone who does us wrong. This is one of the basics of civilization, and it is one of the things that allows us to form societies and cultures, and to live in such close proximity to each other. It allows for tolerance of other people, and rather than us reacting against everyone violently or aggressively, we can allow others to go on with their lives in relative peace.

So I don’t really have a problem with the idea of forgiveness. It can be more difficult to forgive people than to hold a grudge, but holding a grudge can be harmful to the mental health of a person, and can be extremely harmful to a culture or society, especially when one of the Bible’s other tenets “An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is acted upon. The Gaza Strip is a perfect example of a culture not forgiving the acts of people from their own histories, and continually lashing back and provoking further conflict.

But the idea of forgiveness for the sake of appeasing a God that forgave me for its bringing me into existence in the first place is ridiculous. Having to forgive those around me for their wrongdoings unto me to please a god makes even less sense.

What I’m saying here, yes forgiveness is very important, and worthy of accolades, but not for the sake of going to Heaven. Forgiveness allows us to get along better on Earth. What use can it possibly be to a God? Forgive people because you are a good person, not because you want to appease your God.

On a side note, Steven Pinker speaks at length about the idea of “determinism” in his book “The Blank Slate“, covering off the fear that people have of either being fully at the mercy of our animal instincts to do wrongs to others (this has been used this as a defence against rape, saying that men can’t control their animal urges), as well as the opposite fear (which is scarier) that we are beings of choice and selfishness and do wrong to others because we feel like it or can see some benefit in it for ourselves (mugging and home-invasions etc.).

If either of these cases turned out to be true, in which situation would you find easier to forgive? Why would you forgive someone? Would it be because you can empathise with their situation, and would just like to move on? Or would it be because you were told to forgive so you can reap the reward? Would it make a difference to you if someone stole from you if they had to feed a small baby, or if they stole from you to buy drugs?

Empathising with a situation helps with forgiveness, but even if you can empathise with someone who was stealing to get their next drug fix, would you forgive them? We do use deterrents in society as a way to stop people from causing arbitrary harm to others, such as incarceration and fines, but what we see as acceptable is also up to the societal norms and accepted morality of the culture in which you exist. So when someone goes against what we call societal norms, and mugs, rapes, steals or murders regardless of the outcome, we tend to figure it must be for a reason, whether it is the result of upbringing or genetics or societal pressures.

Having some sort of insight into the reasons behind why someone might cause harm to someone else, regardless of what it might be, makes it easier to forgive. Of course I can see there are some situations where forgiveness is not necessary (someone bumps into int the street on accident), or situations where you don’t want to forgive (murder), and I think this is fine too.

The idea of forgiveness is a good part of human societies, it allows for people to get on with their lives and not dwell on situations they no longer have any control over. As the article from Outreach Media quite correctly says “Letting go of anger and bitterness is a real struggle and you may need to keep working on it all your life,” and counselling may be needed in order to get past certain situations.

Forgiveness was not invented by religion. It was developed by people as a way to get past conflict. It is a useful tool, and it makes for a less stressful society for us all. To be told we have to forgive in order to be forgiven by God is a carrot we don’t need in society today.

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

Steven Pinker and The Blank Slate

September 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

I am still reading the book by Steven Pinker “The Blank Slate”. It’s taking a long time, but not because it is difficult to read, or because it’s unenjoyable. In fact, I’d put it down as one of my favourite books because it talks about the brain, whcih is slowly becoming one of my new fasciations. It’s taking so long because I find myself to be incredibly busy all the time, and only get a chance to read for about 20 minutes before falling asleep every second night or so. In any case, please enjoy this TED talk from Stephen Pinker from 2003.

Language as a window into human nature – Steven Pinker

August 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

This is an amazing insight into the uses of language, the way we say things, and swearing. It reveals more about our nature as humans than we give it credit for. It’s quite lengthy, but to be fair to the topic, I think it deserves this amount of time. So grab a coffee/tea/beer and sit back and enjoy.

WARNING: There is some very crass language in this talk.

From the YouTube page:

“For Steven Pinker, the brilliance of the mind lies in the way it uses just two processes to turn the finite building blocks of our language into infinite meanings. The first is metaphor: we take a concrete idea and use it as a stand-in for abstract thoughts. The second is combination: we combine ideas according to rules, like the syntactic rules of language, to create new thoughts out of old ones”

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

Steven Pinker – How do you make sense of the unknown?

June 19, 2010 § 19 Comments

This is a transcript of an interview with Steven Pinker on the Big Think website recorded On: 6/13/07. I thought it was some of the clearest thinking I’d heard in a long time. The whole interview is below, and I’ll make noted\s in between as I see fit. You can watch the video here.

Question: How do you make sense of the unknown?

Steven Pinker: I think that using the word God or the attitude of faith toward that which you don’t know is a copout. It’s a way of slapping a label on something rather than trying to understand it. Or since we may not understand everything, just say there are some things we don’t understand. To invent stories that sound as if they were true or could be true, to pretend that they’re true just so that we can have a story I think is unsatisfying, and it could even be immoral because it could lead you to mistaken policies to getting in the way of your best understanding of how the world works, to doing things that lead to more harm than good. A concrete example would be treating a cancer with some cockamamie herbal or homeopathic formula instead of the best medicine that we have. Or justifying invasions, and murders, and sacrifices on the grounds of appeasing some god or carrying out some divine mandate. There’s nothing but mischief that can come from inventing stories for that which we don’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with saying there are some things we don’t understand.

Very well put indeed. This is one of the main reasons I blog about religion and atheism. So many people take a stance like “I don’t care what people believe as long as it doesn’t affect me or hurt anyone.” the problem with this statement is, depending on the political, social or public standing of the believer, their beliefs can be harmful to others, if not directly then by means of their decisions which can be skewed because of some false belief. Here in Australia we have decision-makers who are making statements about the future of the people in this country based on their own religious beliefs, as has been happening in the USA also.

Likewise people like Meryl Dorey and the AVN group here and Jenny McCarthy in the USA, using their baseless stance that vaccination can cause more harm than good, are causing people to stop vaccinating and thereby causing pockets of disease across the country, and these are diseases we once had good control over.

Religion aside, do you feel a sense of purpose?

There are some questions that may not have answers because they are bad questions. A question like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It may just be a stupid question. The question of why am I here, why was I put here, what is my greater purpose, might be like that. Given that I am here, I do think that I have an ethical imperative to be good to other people, to put my life to some purpose that I can define like understanding the world better, helping other people, taking the best advantage of the gifts that I find myself with; but some cosmic reason as to “why me” seems to me a kind of arrogance or egotism. Why should the cosmos care about me? That’s seems to be the height of grandiosity to think that it would.

Great point, and one I have tried to make in the past. The whole idea of being special in a cosmic sense is not only a bit infantile, but brazenly selfish. It’s this kind of selfishness that makes for bad decisions. Even if there were an all-powerful creator God, why on earth would he favour some people over others or give two thoughts about the wellbeing of one person over the next? The world was not put here as our playground by a god, and the sooner we realise this the sooner we can get on with fixing the problems we all have to face.

Does humankind have an overarching purpose or direction?

One of the things that I think science show us is that the idea that there’s some purpose to the universe is one that we should outgrow. There’s a purpose to each one of our lives, and we can articulate what that purpose is and why we have it; but why humans emerged on earth, why there is a planet earth, why the universe does what it does, we’ve got to outgrow these questions. It is very clear that there is no purpose in that sense. The fact that the sun will expand and consume the entire earth; that the universe might blow apart; that 99 percent of species go extinct and it would be sort of arrogant to say that homo sapiens would be the only one that doesn’t; the fact that the earth is one out of presumably thousands, and millions, and billions of planets that could support life – that there’s nothing distinguished about our solar system. All of those realizations say that the idea that we were put here for some purpose is a kind of medieval ignorance and arrogance. That doesn’t mean that we humans, with the brains that we have, with our understanding of what we value and don’t, don’t have a purpose. And in many ways there is a kind of fulfillment of human purposes that has gone on through history owing to the cumulative efforts of humans to make something of their lot to achieve something worth while. We know more. It’s astonishing how much we do know. There’s lots we don’t know, but the fact that we know the genetic code of life; that we know how old the universe is; that we know how the earth was formed; that we know the basic constituents of chemistry, this is mind-boggling stuff. People in the 17th century would have given up anything for a glimpse of what we know today. That’s something to be . . . to celebrate. The fact that we’ve gotten less violent over time. We no longer have human sacrifices. We’ve outlawed slavery in most of the world. We no longer have capital punishment for trivial crimes and misdemeanors. We don’t have routine torture, burning at the stake, disemboweling, crucifixion. The number of wars has gone down in the last 50 years. By many measures we’ve become a less violent species; not because there is some force in the universe pushing us in that direction, but I think because we recognize the futility and the undesirability of violence. And we tinker in various ways to reduce them. And in some degree slowly, incrementally we’ve succeeded.

When put like this it is really important that we see what we as humans have achieved historically. We as a species have no purpose but to reproduce, andwe don’t want to do this at the expense of comfort and happiness, so we strive and progress, and this gives us a secondary sense of purpose; the drive for betterment of the human species.

What are the obstacles to secular enlightenment?

It’s hard to know what the obstacles are. There are certain features in human nature. People, I think, are left to their own devices, tribal. People left to their own devices are dogmatic. They’d rather their truth be imposed than challenged. They are, I think, by nature self-deceived. It’s painful to work your way out of those alter human traits, and it’s a constant battle. To live in a modern society is to be criticized; to be refuted; to be hemmed in by rules that you wish wouldn’t apply to you; to have to state your case; to constantly justify what you do. You take a historian of ideas that is wiser than he to diagnose how the west managed to do it in a way that could apply to other cultures. How modernization took place. Part of it might be technological. The spread originally of the printing press and affordable books. But we live in an age today where we have even better media like the Internet, and that isn’t the magic wand that brings the entire world into the enlightenment. How those attitudes change is, I think, an important and unsolved puzzle.

This is where you and I step in. We now have the means, via our technologies, to spread real information, good information, reasonable, rational and secular information around the globe. We now have the power to influence people who would have otherwise never have read our words. This is such an important time in history. We have an opportunity to make real decisions for the betterment of the whole planet, rather than just for greed, ego and belief.  Either we get it right now, or we will be forever cleaning up our own mess. And I for one think we can make change.

Further reading
I get giddy when someone is this lucid

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