Will the Sacred Save Us from our own Reason?

I came across an article on the blog Science on Religion a little bit ago, and it made the argument about how powerfully destructive human reasoning can be. With our brains we humans have figured out great ways to ravage the land with ever-increasing efficiency and has pushed us to the environmental limits. Unmitigated, self-serving rationality can be destructive.

The solution? The need for certain cultural axioms, assumed without or beyond reason, in particular the notion of the sacred. If it is taboo to say or do a certain thing, then your create an automatic cultural brake towards all sorts of potentially detrimental behaviors. Without these cultural axioms, all sorts of doom can be expected.

While thoughtfully written, with a few swipes at New Atheists and IFLS that seemed more obligatory than insightful, it left us to beg the question: which axioms or sacred beliefs? Because it seems that the author (a PhD candidate at Boston University) already has a set of goals in mind, which means he wants there to be some particular sacred beliefs in place. Not just any. Which is very much the case because some sacred beliefs would count exactly contrary to his own goals of planetary preservation.

There has been a fair bit of opposition to environmentalism by American Protestants, and that has been the case for quite some time. That seems to be in part because of the belief among some that it is the sacred duty to use all of the resources of the earth, that they were placed here for a purpose. The notion of “subduing the earth” is supposed to be derived from Genesis, and that this was in part a reason for a lack of Christian support for the environmental movement was argued by L.J. White (1967) “The historical roots of our ecological crisis”, Science 155:1203-7. Much research has gone into this question, and it is still generally the case that some of the loudest opponents to combating climate change invoke biblical reasoning. So it seems that the cultural axiom of “subduing the earth” for its natural treasures is leading to exactly the sorts of doom that pure reason was supposed to have done.

So how are we supposed to get the right cultural axioms? If reason is off the table, we are left with what, religious authorities? Straight-up priestcraft? This sounds more like snobbish elitism trying to control the (reasonable?) masses.

Moreover, since all cultural groups, religious or otherwise, are going to have their own notions of the sacred or what constitute their cultural axioms, how do they figure out what to do when those cultures interact? How does the environmental/hippie culture deal with the slash-and-burn earth-subduers? Another holy war or two? Because if reasoning cannot decide, then what is left besides violence (a point made in part by Hector Avalos in Fighting Words)?

All of this is premised on what seems to be an absurd position, that pure reason has only one goal and cares not for the consequences. It also fails to understand that reason is motivated by what we already value, and we can have conflicting values. Obviously we want to have nice things, but we also notice the negative side effects. I want chocolate cake, but I want to lose weight. I want to have a car, but I don’t want to contribute to eventual sea level rise. How do we find the right path? Well, shouldn’t we be reflecting on it and seeing what appears to be the best way forward? Shouldn’t we be using … reason?

Moreover, reasoning is the common currency we can use across cultures. It’s about finding common beliefs and goals and then using logic and evidence to get the globally desired result. Cultural axioms fail to do that for the very defining fact that they are culturally relative and not cross-cultural. That isn’t to say the process gets us to where we want in a timely or efficient manner. Humans tend to stink at the process, and our own tribalism gets in the way. We tend to use our reasoning all too often as rationalization for our sectarian beliefs or goals. That is rather apparent in the news with the Kim Davis court battles and her specious arguments for religious freedom to not do her constitutional duties. Her supposedly sacred beliefs and bad reasons are getting in the way. (And remember, the marriage debate only moved forward because we said the current definition of marriage wasn’t uncompromisingly sacred but was relative and malleable as it historically has been.)

The solution isn’t more balkinization of beliefs, it’s being better reasoners and defrocking bad arguments and political stances. It doesn’t matter what is the sacred belief because of the consequences of her actions. Making the marriage debate a taboo is simply to undermine justice and freedom.

Now, it is true that pure reason cannot tell us what our values ought to be. Reasoning needs premises. We might find out we have stored up in our heads inconsistent premises (which is almost certainly the case for all of us), but it is from there we winnow out a more consistent position. From this we do our meta-ethics. Not from fist-pounding at some alter of the sacred, bestowed with power by mere say-so.


Boy Scouts and Gay Scouts

I already talked before about how the Boy Scouts are considering changing their policies about allowing homosexuals into the program, but the other day I received an email from the organization about the topic. They wanted to know what their alumni thought about the subject, and being an Eagle scout I have my opinion.

In their questions, they first asked what I thought about gays in scouts, then presented a number of scenarios, and then asked again what my opinion was. For example, it asked about how I felt having a gay and straight boy sleeping in the same tent.

Which pretty much goes to show that there is a problem of bigotry right there. Are we afraid that gay people are rapists, and we have to protect our children from them? That’s just insulting, I’m sorry. Actually, no, I’m not sorry. That this is a question anyone thought was legitimate is what’s sorry.

They also asked what I thought about letting some groups decide if they wanted to allow gays in their troops, while others could remain segregated. Yeah, because if the scouts did that with races no one would complain, right? Why support bigotry in any form? The only way to potentially allow this sort of compromise is based on the religious convictions of the members of the troop, and the Boy Scouts puts religiosity right in its laws. However, that still won’t work because that reverence to a god isn’t a particular one, let alone a particular theology, let alone a particular answer to a theological question. If you are a deist, Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, or Jew, you are allowed in scouts, so you cannot use the theology of one group to ban people of another as the rules are already; to allow the rules to ban gays in some groups is, again, straight-up bigotry, and it doesn’t matter how it’s supported.

So I find no good excuse for having the Boy Scouts keep gays out of their program. By keeping it in its bylaws, or by saying it’s okay for some troops to be intolerant, the program will only create derision and division rather than community–and community is one of the most important parts of scouting. So BSA, I hope you have been paying attention. The ban on gays is without excuse.

Increase the Minimum Wage?

There seems to have been an uptick in the amount of talk about what the federal minimum is on hourly wages in the US. Currently that is $7.25, though a number of states have their own, higher minimum wage limits (Georgia, in some circumstances, has a minimum of more than $10). The thing that seems to push it the most right now is that there is a major wealth disparity in the country, and more and more people are not just poor but working poor: they have jobs (part- or full-time) yet do not have enough income to get above the poverty line.

There are plenty of issues with increasing the minimum wage. Perhaps the most obvious is that it can have an adverse effect on employment levels. The more expensive a worker is, the more likely that a company will not hire more or downsize to keep costs down. On the other hand, if more people on the lower end of the economic scale have more disposable income, that can spur more spending which will create more jobs. In other words, the relationship is complex between wage limits and employment. But even assuming a given increase in the minimum wage will increase unemployment, there is the question of how much. If the effect is small, while the benefits of more spending in the economy are large, then it’s a better deal to force wages up.

But how much should we do this? Continue reading

Does Obama Hate German Home-Schoolers? The Deportation Case of the Romeikes

The conservative news and blogosphere has been exploding because of the story of Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, a married couple from Germany with several children. Back in 2006 the family was resisting the German government’s law that all children must attend public schooling. The Romeikes instead preferred homeschooling, which meant they were going to be fined per child, per day, and they may lose the custody of their children. The most useful webpage about the case I have found has numerous, long quotations from the US legal decisions that detail the history of this case, which you can find here.

A few details to note are that the family did go to court in Germany, but there they lost their cases. The fines were becoming very large (7000 euro, while the family had an income of 12,000), so in 2008 the Romeikes fled to the United States for political asylum. In 2010 a US immigration judge, Lawrence O. Burman, granted them asylum. Then in 2012, the decision was repealed by Immigration Board of Appeal. There was also a peer-reviewed paper back in 2011 about the case, which you can read here. You will also be able to read the case the Romeikes (more correctly, their lawyers) made in their opening statements here, the DOJ’s responses here, and a response to that response here.

So, the basics of the case are if the Romeikes have a case for political asylum, and that means they have to show that they are escaping a sort of political persecution, in this case by the German government. They contend that the law forcing their children to attend public school is not religiously neutral, hence it is biased against certain religious practices, and this is a violation of human rights. To make the case that their religious practices are being persecuted, they argue that they are a “particular social group”, the subject of the legal paper I mentioned above.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is arguing that the Romeikes cannot show that they are the sort of social group that is the subject of such persecution. They make the points that not many religious people in Germany argue to homeschool their children (only 500 in a population of 82 million actively homeschool), and not all who want to homeschool are doing so on religious grounds. Some argued that they worried about bus routes, others that the material wasn’t sufficiently challenging, or there were noisy classrooms; all these groups were fined as the Romeikes were. This suggests there is not a homogeneous “particular social group” that the Romeikes belong to that makes them the subject of persecution, so their appeal for political asylum is invalid. (It should also be noted that the European Human Rights Court back in 2006 decided on a similar case, agreeing that Germany has the right to force all children to attend public school; you can read that decision here. That decision also pissed off conservatives in Europe.) Continue reading

Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers

Today is the fourth Sunday in February, which in the US is declared Black History Month because in this month is the birthday of the great emancipator, Abe Lincoln, and the erudite and powerful voice of those in bondage during the Civil War, Fredrick Douglass. There have been criticisms of having such a month, including by African Americans, but I think it still worth-while because, while we would like a color-blind society, we are nonetheless a racially diverse nation and one with race issues.

And on this day, freethinking African Americans want this to be a Day of Solidarity. Here is the press release about the event:

The Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers (DoS) is a nationwide event during Black History Month to promote community and solidarity among blacks in America who identify as non-believers: atheists, agnostics, skeptics, free-thinkers, etc. DoS has been organized as a way to counter the religious voice that all too often serves as the lone voice of black consciousness and experience. These gatherings in cities and towns across the U.S. will promote fellowship and the pursuit of humanist strategies to solve the problems facing humanity – especially those affecting the black community.

The events will be unique, customized by each of the organizers and attendees. DOS gatherings will take place in coffeehouses, restaurants or other casual settings. Larger groups may convene in libraries or other public venues. Although there is no formal itinerary for the DOS events, organizers are encouraged to include a segment on historical black non-theists, share life experiences, plan for the next DOS, and there should be ample time to socialize – get acquainted!

National Contact: Donald Wright, aadayofsolidarity@yahoo.com
(213) 373-3938

Sponsored By: African Americans for Humanism, Black Atheists of America, Black Freethinkers, Black Non-Believers, Inc., and Black Skeptics Los Angeles

Info: aadayofsolidarity@yahoo.com

This is something we ought to be promoting in the secular world. The ideals of skeptics, atheists, and other non-believers should have their values to universal rather than collected among a particular segment of society. Moreover, there are plenty of issues that should be addressed that are of concern in the African American community, as well as other minority communities. We should be having the most diverse tent of people possible, united by common cause.

Unfortunately there are too many that have either been silent about this event or think it is somehow inappropriate. Somehow too many think that the African American voice is not alienated by the atheist or skeptical community (though it is). Naima Washington gives a good chewing-out of those that deserve it, and I recommend you read it if you feel that there is something wrong with this event.

We need to keep the movement diverse, try to grow with all populations, and not make excuses for why our movement is homogeneous (i.e. “black people are just more religious”).  Let’s have some solidarity here, people.

My Day in Court Part 2

This is a continuation about my experience as a recent juror. The back story begins here.

As I talked about, I was in the jury pool of 20 people, 10 of which would be part of the jury proper, though eight would decide the case (two being the alternates). I was the ninth name on the list, so unless some of the 1 through 8 jurors had to leave, I was not part of the main group. But before that, we had some wonderful waiting time. When you take 20 people, put them in a small room with only about 10 chairs, close the door, and leave for a while, it gets a bit warm. Conversations happen, but they can be very divergent, and several times it would die in its tracks. (That may have been my fault in moving the conversation forward, but I’m irresponsible and won’t believe that.)

Eventually we were taken into the court room. The judge’s bench was at the back wall by the door we entered in, and the legal teams on either side. Opposite all this was a semi-circle with the 10 chairs for the main jurors, with more chairs behind for the remaining potential jurors and any interested audience members. Our seating was pre-determined, but we actually had to reverse it since one of the lawyers had the seating going from left to right (from the juror’s perspective) rather than the other way. After a bit of musical chairs, we began the voir dire process. The judge asked the first questions, some of them basic but necessary (i.e. can you read and understand English?). One of the prosecuting attorneys then started asking questions, some asked of all the jurors, some of individuals. Most of the questions made sense when it comes to figuring out if someone isn’t what they want in the box making decisions (i.e. what do you think of the police (the primary source of testimony)? have you had a DUI in the past (the case was related to this)?). No question was directed at me by name, though when the attorney asked if we knew what circumstantial evidence was I was the only one that claimed any such knowledge. Fortunately I didn’t embarrass myself.

After this, the main defense attorney asked a series of questions. While the prosecutor was methodical and systematic in his process, the defense was less so, basically being personable and getting along with the jurors. Again a series of general and specific questions were asked, and only then was I singled out. He wanted to know what I was a student of, which was a bit surprising to him, and he asked if I ever baked anything. My guess is he wanted to see if I was someone that would follow instructions, but that isn’t certain.

Once the questioning was over, the attorneys came up to the judge for some private discussion while we all sat there. Afterward I realized they were deciding who wasn’t going to be a juror. I was suspecting that I was going to be off. Continue reading

My Day in Court

From what I have gathered, the US is an interesting place when it comes to its legal process. For better or for worse, America has a jury system that randomly picks people in the voter registration rolls to be placed on juries for trials. Other places seem to be more picky about who can be a juror, and some nations aren’t good on having fair trials. But up until yesterday, I was a potential juror in my county. This was a unique experience for me, and most people I know haven’t been called themselves. Also, some states and counties do things differently here in the US. So, I want to talk about my experience.

It all began with a jury summons in the mail. Mine came back in late November or so, and I was supposed to get available for a two-week period. This was a problem because I already had plane tickets to get out of town before that period was over. But fortunately, the system allows you to defer your service one time to a later date. I didn’t know what was the best time to do this, but I chose January to make sure I got it out of the way as early in the year as possible and get to my research and other work. That period began the Tuesday before last after MLK day. Continue reading

YouTube Copyright Issues — Fair Use

So I’m having some trouble with the video I uploaded the other day of my talk about aliens. As many have learned, YouTube is in an odd legal position because people can and do upload copyrighted materials by people who do not own the copyright. Obviously, if I was to upload a video I did not make but I try to profit from it, that is all sorts of wrong, both legally and morally. But there are also points when you should be allowed to use another’s material without their express permission. The most obvious way is with parody and commentary/criticism (some useful comments can be found here, including statements in my favor when using clips). I’m doing more of the latter in my talk, so I will focus on that.

If I had to have express permission to use the materials of another person to criticize it, you can see an obvious issue: that person probably doesn’t want to have that criticism of their work out there, so giving them the power to stop critics from using their material becomes a method of censorship (something creationists have done, for example). And there is legal provision for this under the Digital Millennium Copyright Acts (DMCA). In the legal code 17 UCS Section 107, this considers the nature of the work, and there is the understanding of Fair Use. There is a lot of legalism to it, but one thing generally recognized is the use of materials for commentary/criticism. For example, there are websites pretty much devoted to critiquing movies, such as at That Guy With the Glasses. Such Internet shows could not exist without the Fair Use clause.

Now, in my presentation, I use a bit from the opening of the original Battlestar Galactica (1978), namely the part about how some believing ancient humans may have descended from people from other planets, peoples that may still fight for survival beyond what we know. Since my presentation was about ancient aliens, including in popular culture, I believed this to fall under Fair Use. However, YouTube has an automated system for finding copyrighted materials.

Obviously the algorithm YouTube uses is great for copyright holders; the work is done for them in finding materials they own so they can make sure their property is not used without proper provision. However, the automatic nature of the system means two things: it can make mistakes, and it does not consider the context it is in. That’s a significant problem. On the first part, I had uploaded a video about the Star of Bethlehem as used in Zeitgeist, and YouTube said it used copyrighted materials. However, it did not say what material was copyrighted, and the company I had never heard of (La Red, I just double-checked). Best I could tell, YouTube claimed I used materials from a Chilean TV network, though I didn’t use anything in Spanish, and the music was public domain.

So I appealed that copyright claim. And how does this work? They send the claim to the company/owner that YouTube says owns the material, and that company decides if in fact I violated their copyright. Oh, WOW is that a lot of power given over to copyright owners, and that makes both censorship and taking another video maker’s money away. La Red could have held to the copyright claim, and any ads on my video would have given money to them rather than to me who made the video. This had happened to one person recently; he recorded some things in his backyard along with bird song, and YouTube identified the sounds as a song from the company Rumblefish. This was difficult since there was no song used by the video maker, other than the ambient bird song. So that video maker make a counterclaim, but Rumblefish still claimed one of their songs was being used without permission! One could call that a lie in order to make profit. However, the Internet spoke, and Rumblefish said they made a mistake and lifted the copyright claim.

Mistakes can be made, but it is strange nonetheless to give the prosecuting party the power to also declare guilt. That is so contrary to how a courtroom is: in the above example, Rumblefish should have been the prosecutor, the video maker the defendant, and there would need to be some other entity as judge and/or jury. But Rumblefish was judge and prosecutor, and obvious conflict of interest, especially when no party was wronged except for the defendant.

Now, in my case, the company La Red responded faster than the YouTube team, and more helpfully. In about a day’s time, La Red let go of any copyright claim. I only wish I could thank them for being so honest and efficient.

But now I have a new copyright issue, and this time with a company I do know: NBC. As I mentioned, I used part of the opening to BSG 1978, and here things are not so cut and dry and the examples I gave. Indeed, NBC owns the copyright on BSG 1978, I used the opening to that show, and the content match by YouTube was correct. So that part of the process is not at fault at all. So now I have written a copyright counterclaim, stating how my video about ancient aliens falls under Fair Use. This has now been sent to NBC, and someone there has to decide if in fact I fall under Fair Use. Again, YouTube is giving all the power to the copyright holder in judging Fair Use. I doubt NBC will hire a thousand lawyers to check every complaint sent their way for Fair Use, so more likely some clerk or secretary will have to watch some bit of my video and make a quick decision (poor bloke, by the way). In the mean time, I cannot monetize that video (which is looking to become one of my most trafficked), and I have a strike against my account; too many strikes, and I am gone from YouTube (and perhaps other legal trouble?).

So I am in the hands now of NBC. I can’t say how they will judge things, though I think I am in the right. My clip is about 30 seconds out of a over one hour video, and the clip is part of the presentation for commentary and criticism. If I may say, I doubt I reduced the number of views of BSG 1978, and from the audience I showed the clip to it was generally unknown, so if anything I should have increased the number of views of the show (in case you haven’t seen the original Battlestar Galactica, it’s on Netflix and very entertaining; the new series is also awesome; go watch it now!).

By your command.

Let’s see what happens in the next few days, though NBC has until mid-October to decide. That means fewer monetizable views, but I suspect most of the views will come later; it’s not like my talk has gone viral. And I still don’t know if other copyright claims will come up with my video, especially from ancient astronaut evangelists (again, I claim Fair Use). Again, we’ll see.

Crime Doesn’t Pay

I will be going to the airport soon, and this not long after coming from a trans-Atlantic round-trip a couple of weeks ago. I don’t mind plane rides other than it’s impossible to lay back far enough to sleep well. At least that’s the case in coach. A few hundred more dollars, maybe I’ll enjoy a higher class seat. As long as I have a book and an occasional drink, all if fine.

But what kills me is waiting for getting on the plane. Obviously between connecting flights you need some layover time or potentially miss a flight. On my most recent round-trip, I had a seven hour layover in Chicago. I knew that going in, but the plane had mechanical problems. This added another two hours or so of waiting. This waiting period became longer than the actual flight! You can’t read anything that long without your eyes burning out. And with $9 crappy beer in a plastic cup, it’s hard to make the time go well.

It almost feels criminal, and in fact I think it is. The airports are literally killing. Killing time.

The shear level of chronocide is astounding. There has to be a better way. Unfortunately, with the complexity of the machines involved and the large numbers of people to operate and who need to travel, it’s hard to get past the problem. Other than everyone gets flying cars or teleporters, I don’t know what can solve this.

What can make mass transit more efficient?

I can think of one thing: make chronocide criminal. That is, if you have to wait longer for a plane than you should, that should be compensated financially. Perhaps this will give an incentive to airlines to find ways of minimizing delays. Inter-airline competition obviously has not eliminated such delays, probably since all airlines are willing to accept delays and so creates a plateau of wasted time no one can avoid. But if chronocide becomes too expensive for airports and airlines, maybe that could change it.

The UN and Religion

Apparently, yesterday the United Nations passed a resolution in the General Assembly that included an amendment to combat the “defamation of religion”. Such a title already seems more broad than should be desired by any nation with freedom of speech. When it comes to discrimination of people because of religion, this should easily be called unjust, and the UN already passed such a resolution some time ago.

Okay, first to put this in perspective. The UN has no real teeth. Money and troops come under UN control if other nations are willing to give such things. Much of the money comes from the United States and troops are many from the US and Europe, but hardly exclusively (perhaps not even in the majority?). This resolution was also passed in the General Assembly, not the Security Council which producing much more binding statements. The GA can only produce “symbolic” statements for other nations to take heart, but such resolutions certainly cannot change member-state constitutions. The US can ignore this resolution as it can most things the UN throws out, or as did Iraq according to the run-up statements before the war began in 2003. However, the existence of such a resolution passed by the majority of nations in the United Nations does send out a diplomatic shield to those it would protect. The question is, does the resolution protect those unfairly maligned by the prejudices of kooks and bigots, or does this give cover to nations and organizations with religious zealotry which do harm to citizens of the world?

So, what does the statement even say? Is it going to hinder free speech? I thought that perhaps some had over-hyped the nature of this resolution, making seem worse than it is. I first learned of it through sources such as Christopher Hitchens, a well known opponent of religion, an “anti-theist” by his own admission, so perhaps he was biased in his report for Slate.com. But is he right? Does the resolution want to limit free speech and criticism of religion? Well, yes.

For example, Paragraph 100, Section 5 says that states should

take serious steps to address the contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and in this context to take firm action against negative stereotyping of religions and defamation of religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols.

So, I’m not supposed to defame religious personalities, holy books, and so on. Of course, I can defame politicians all I want. Why can’t I say bad things about the Pope or certain Ayatollahs? Does this mean biblical criticism is off now? Bye-bye Documentary Hypothesis.

The resolution also points the blame at right-wingers against Islam who try to use xenophobia to rack up political points. That ignores liberals that attack this religion, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc. (I would probably add myself, since I’m no right-winger, but I’m not a hippy as well.) The Dutch MP Geert Wilders seems to be in view of the UN resolution, whose documentary “Fitna” created a large stir on the Internet. I agree with critics of the film that it is more anti-immigrant than a proper critic of Islam, but we don’t need to look far to find a Dutch MP producing a documentary critical of Islam.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali created a documentary years ago with a decendent of Van Goeth, and the director was killed! Ali has been under protection of years from a similar fate in the US. Ali is also part of a liberal party in the Netherlands, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD); Geert used to be a member of this same part, but changed in 2006 to a right-wing group called the “Party of Freedom”. Geert left the VVD because it was favorable to Turkey’s inclusion into the EU, so he was much more against Islamic nations than the VVD in general. Ali can also give more valid criticism of Islam having been Muslim for much of her life and even chanted death threats to Salmon Rushdie.

Apparently now, if Ali, who was abused under Islam, dares criticize, she can be called a xenophobe because of this resolution. How different from the case of the murdering and raping monster in Austria. Should he be given protections if he declared that his actions were part of his religious tradition? Would criticism of his actions be “backward” and “elitist”? If not, then why not the forced circumsizion of women, the stoning of rape victims, the beheading of homosexuals, the death of apostates? Why does religion get a pass?

Obviously, this resolution is truly backward from what any sensible enlightened institution should produce. Imagine if this was passed in the days of Hume; his discourses on natural religion and human reason would have to be outlawed according to this nonsense. Bertrand Russel would have been sent to jail. The intellectual tradition of Western thought would be against the law, the tradition of free inquiry and the ability of all ideas coming to the free market to see what wins out. Apparently, religion has to be protected. Perhaps because it cannot stand up?

Fortunately, I live in the USA, and my country voted against this resolution, along with Canada, France, Germany, the UK, and even Israel, along with many other European nations. It’s odd that nations such as Japan did not vote, and Russia voted in favor. I’m betting any nation I end up living in will most likely be against this piece of tripe. Well, as a citizen of the Red, White, and Blue, I must say, God bless . . . er, good goin’, the USA.