Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Soup kitchen director refuses to allow atheists to volunteer

So this story has been making it’s rounds. The atheist group upstate atheists tried to volunteer at a soup kitchen run by a church. They were turned down, the director saying she would resign for her job before she let atheists volunteer.

Now, I’ll first say that they are totally within their rights to do this. Since the soup kitchen is apparently run by a church they have the right to discriminate based on religious grounds they way a secular relief group would not. If they don’t want to allow atheists in their group they have that right, I would, in fact, defend their rights to do so on purely legal grounds.

On the other hand I won’t mince words at all when I say that I think to behave in this way is incredibly mean and short sighted. It makes it appear that they are more worried about their image, and about their ability to use the soup kitchen as a means to convert people than they are worried about feeding hungry people. I also find it bizarre given that Christians so often like to opine that atheists don’t do things to help the less fortunate, but then a group trying to do that very thing is turned away. It does seem a little like a self fulfilling prophecy. Though, for my part, I would be a little sketchy about donating time or money to Christian relief organizations precisely because I wouldn’t want work or money to benefit their ideological goals.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Atheists: Valuable to religion or a “spiritual cancer”

I’m always slightly amused when members of a religion start debates about whether atheists have some legitimate purpose or should be allowed to exist. Even the ones who argue the point in the affirmative usually argue from a perspective of self centeredness and presumptiveness.

I ran across such an article today by Ron Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic Priest. Rolheiser validates the existence of atheists by pointing out that we pick apart bad religion.

In his monumental study of atheism, Michael Buckley suggests that atheism is invariably a parasite that feeds off bad religion.  It feeds off bad religion, picks on bad religion, and picks apart bad religion.

If that's true, then ultimately atheists do us a huge favor. They pick apart bad religion, showing us our blind spots, rationalizations, inconsistencies, double-standards, hypocrisies, moral selectivity, propensity for power, unhealthy fears, and hidden arrogance. Atheism shows us the log in our own eye.

I find it a bit self centered that he promotes the value of people who are atheists because they critique the “bad” parts of his religion. In any case, how exactly do we tell the difference between good and bad religion? Rolheiser seems to be a more moderate religious believer, so I probably would agree with him on many more things than I would with a fundamentalist. However, while I tend to agree with more moderate religious people on social issues I still find some of the reasoning and philosophy that they employ to be questionable if not outright false. So is our standard for “good” religion based on actions or philosophical clarity? If I were to require both I’m not sure I could name a religion I could call good.

He argues:

Finally, most important, the real response to bad religion is never secularism or atheism, but better religion!  We need to be more consistent, both in private conscience and in church practice.

This claim is only true if some version of religion is true, which amounts to the entire debate between the theists and the atheists. Perhaps the best religious belief is to not believe at all. Further, the only rule he lays out here is consistency, and it is possible for beliefs to be consistent but entirely false.

He continues:

What is better religion? How do we recognize better religion? We recognize true religion in the same way as we recognize true beauty and goodness. They're self-evident when they appear.

It’s self evident? If it were self evident then why do so many people disagree? Not just atheists, but does he really think all the proponents of “bad” religion know they are wrong but just pretend otherwise? Many of the proponents of what he might call “bad” religion would think Rolheiser’s religion is the bad one. In fact, I actually found Rolheisler’s article via an article written to criticize Rolheiser, which was posted on the religiously conservative Renew America website. It is written by Matt C. Abbot, but I use the term “written” loosely since 90% of the article is block quotes from a Catholic priest and the Catechism. If you found Rolheiser’s thoughts on atheism were insulting then check out Father John Trigilio Jr.’s criticism of it.

Atheism is an intellectual and spiritual cancer. Imagine if physicians began to praise disease and injuries because they challenge us to appreciate good health. How can the denial of God be good for religion and for personal faith? Our enemy's enemy is not de facto our new good friend. Likewise, just because atheism exposes the hypocrisy and bankruptcy of bad religion, that does not transform the intrinsic evil and error of atheism. Just as cancer is a physical evil, atheism denies an innate truth that there is indeed a God (Supreme Being, Prime Mover, Necessary Being, Creator, et al.).

It would be like praising the devil and evil in general, as one could contend that they make us acknowledge and appreciate God and goodness. The denial of God's existence is an error; it is a false argument and has no merit

Trigilio thinks our existence is a cancer, I care not if he thinks it a spiritual cancer since I don’t believe there is such a thing as “spiritual,” but to call it an intellectual cancer is to imply that atheists are either stupid or evil. Then Abbot goes on to quote what the Catechism says about atheism as if that is the final word, which I suppose for him, as a Catholic, it is. I suppose I shouldn’t expect much more from Abbot, since on the same site he has also published an article interviewing an M.D. who is a professor of psychiatry and who also believes in demonic possession. (I know who I won’t be going to for medical advice) I may write a separate post about this.

While I disagree with him, at least Rolheiser ends his article by trying to give atheists some credit.

Atheism is a parasite that feed offs bad religion. So, when, like today, atheism takes on a particularly nasty aggression, perhaps we need to examine more closely what this mirrors inside of religion.

To some extent he is right, people who are members of more extremist religions are likely to reject such beliefs and then religion all together, and atheists are also likely to be louder in the face of harms being done explicitly in the name of religion. However, I disagree with his attempt to paint atheists as nothing more than reactionaries or some sort of yang to his yin. His argument sound a little bit too much like the typical claims that people become atheists because they had some bad experience with religious people. Atheists are our own people with our own thoughts, we aren’t here just to help you fix the flaws in your religion.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Reaction to atheist who beat up a pastor in his church.

A recent story has about an atheist named James Maxie who beat up a pastor has been making it’s rounds around the blogosphere, including the Friendly Atheist Blog. Some theists have tried to use this mans actions as an indictment against atheism in general, which I think is ridiculous since the number of atheists who have gotten in fist fights with preachers is actually quite small.

jamesmaxieNow, on the other side of this story there are atheists who, while they condemn Maxie’s actions, are tempted to commiserate with him because they feel the anger that led to his violent act was justified by the pastors bigotry against atheists. On this point I have to disagree with them, at least based upon the available evidence.

See the violence started when Rev. Norman Hayes asked Maxie’s girlfriend, whom he presumably knew, if she was safe, indicating that he was worried that Maxie might be abusing her. I suppose that some atheists believe that the pastor made this accusation because Maxie was an atheist, but there really isn’t any evidence of that.

Now, I’m not saying that bigotry against atheists doesn’t exist, nor am I saying that this pastor might not have some of those views himself, but nothing in this altercation leads me to believe that Hayes leveled such a charge because of Maxie’s atheism. Further, Maxie’s reaction is evidence that there was merit to Hayes supposition of abuse. Maxie had already been argumentative throughout the service, and having been convicted of both assault and statutory rape previously it is entirely possible that people in the area, including the pastor, already knew his reputation.

So it is entirely possible, and even likely, that Hayes’s accusation not influenced by Maxie’s atheism, but a genuine concern that the woman was being abused. Given his position as a preacher it probably wasn’t the first time he had seen a couple exhibit signs of an abusive dynamic, and given that there are many stories where preachers have ignored or even actively covered up cases of abuse I have to give Hayes credit for his actions.

That being said, there is one point where I think Hayes made a mistake. Preachers often act as therapists or counselors even though they are not properly trained to do those things.  A trained psychologist or psychotherapist would have known that you never ask someone if they are being abused in front of an abuser, and might even know tricks to separate them so they could ask the question privately. At best, in front of the abuser, the victim will deny it. At worst, we get exactly what happened and the abuser becomes violent as a result of the accusation. One of the reasons for this is that most abusers intellectually know that hitting their significant other is abuse, but they don’t think of themselves as abusers. In their own mind they will have found ways to excuse their own personal behavior as somehow different than that of actual abusers. Accusations of abuse will force them to face their internally inconsistent views. Of course, this makes them angry and these are people who often deal with their anger by blaming someone else and then hitting that person.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Christian argues the only real solution to health care is to let the church handle it.

Ran across this Christian criticism of the ACA today.

7 Things the Bible Says About Obamacare

I know, I know, everyone has an opinion about the Affordable Care Act and the subsequent Republican shut down of the government. In all honesty I have no degree in economics so it’s entirely possible that you shouldn’t listen to me any more than this guy. However, I’m going to make my argument anyway, decide for yourself if it makes any sense.

His starts with these two points:

  • Caring for the sick is a good thing to do
  • Caring for the sick, however, is not the role of the government

I can applaud him for noting that caring for the sick is a good thing, so I have little problem with his first point. He tries to drive home his point with the bible which is irrelevant to me, but the article is clearly written to a Christian audience so it makes sense that he would do this.

It’s the second point I take issue with, he first sets up the idea that the government fills particular roles, and says that health care is not one of them. However, this he bases the idea for these roles on religion and since this is a secular democracy we are not bound to rules in the bible, we need more convincing reasons for this rule. To be fair, he tries to offer somewhat secular reasons for this later on but I disagree with them too.  I would also point out that his interpretation is self serving and many religious people do not agree that healthcare is an area government is not allowed to go.

Of course with the government out of healthcare, since he agrees we need it, who does he imagine will take over for the government? Why, the churches of course. In this thinking I see a big problem, though the author probably doesn’t see it as such. I’ll admit that when we go to the government for a solution there are usually strings attached, and sometimes those strings are annoying or work poorly. However, these governmental strings are at least predictable, mostly rational, and are, at least in theory, the same for everyone.

Allow the churches to take over healthcare and care for the poor we are left with a system that has strings attached to it which are completely arbitrary and could change at any moment. Even secular private organizations that help the poor often have government regulations placed upon them to keep them from using the system to abuse people they are trying to help, but churches regularly get a free pass on these regulations even now, and given this guys opinion it seems clear he would want to further limit the governments ability to regulate churches in this area. This could result in a situation that gives the church quite a massive amount of control over those with lower incomes.

Imagine a single parent who looses their job and needs food to feed their children, they go to a church for help because that is the only place to go. What is to stop this church from requiring this person and their children to attend church? Nothing as far as I can tell. This may be an acceptable situation for Christians because they feel it is their god given mission on earth to convert everyone by any means necessary. However, for someone like myself who finds the moral teaching of the church morally suspect they would be forcing me to choose between my religious rights and the ability to feed my family. Further, they could change these rules at the drop of a hat for no reason at all.

It may not be the authors intent but they would have created a system in which true freedom of religion will be a right only consistently granted to the rich and middle class. Further the system is ripe for abuse by bigots of all types. Of course some churches would work to eliminate these problems no doubt, but now instead of one government bureaucracy every denomination will end up with their own separate bureaucracy to govern their own separate healthcare/insurance system. How exactly would this save us anyone money?

The third point:

  • The ACA forces compliance

Well, he is right about this, but there is nothing wrong with the government expecting compliance; that is called law. The government does this all the time, this is how it works if you want to live in a society with other people. We agree to give up certain rights for the good of all. If you want to argue that this particular instance goes to far that’s fine, but don’t pretend that living under the rule of law is some crazy idea that the government just started forcing on us when Obama was elected president. The government also fines us for not wearing seatbelts, and they tax cigarettes, and beer and all sorts of things.

Fourth point:

  • The ACA violates religious liberty.

This is one of the more ridiculous points that the religious right has been pushing. The notion is that Christian owned companies like Hobby Lobby are justified in refusing to include medical coverage in their employment package for certain legal medical products/procedures that the owners happen to have moral issues with. This is patently ridiculous, no one has interfered with their religious beliefs, as no one is asking that they personally take any part in or be subject to said medical treatments. Refusing to offer insurance coverage to employees based upon your religious beliefs is interference with your employees religious freedom, not the other way around.

A quote from this section I found particularly informative:

What your lawmakers should know: Government is not above the Christian principles upon which it was founded, and cannot force Christians to do something that violates their consciences.

The author has bought into the completely false idea that the government was founded on Christian principals, but was is particularly troubling is that he asserts that the government cannot force Christians to violate their conscience. Why only Christians? Why are Christians so special? If some Christians happen to feel so strongly about not allowing the insurance they provide to cover things like birth control then they are free to no longer work in management positions at secular companies.

Fifth point:

  • The ACA is theft.

Taking money to give to another is stealing – even if it is for a good cause.

Ahh, this idea. He doesn’t explicitly say so, but he is following the typical anarcho-capitalist idea that all taxes are theft. The fact is that this simply isn’t true. For one thing it is a huge oversimplification to say that the government takes money from the rich and gives it to the poor. The government takes in taxes which it then uses to provide services. Some of those services like roads are are accessible to everyone equally. In fact, it is arguable that rich people get more benefit from roads than anyone since it enables them to cheaply move their products from one place to another.

Of course it is true that some things, like Medicare, benefit the poor more than the rich, and it’s also true that the poor pay less taxes. (Some will argue that pay none but this is inaccurate, they often pay no income taxes but they still pay many other taxes including sales taxes) However, I still don’t’ think this qualifies as theft. Anyone remember the American revolution? It didn’t start because of taxes, it started because people were being taxed by England but had no representation in the parliament that levied those taxes. Does “No taxation without representation” sound familiar? We have representation though, and we used our election system to legally elect the people who promised health care reform, and then they did what they promised by passing the ACA.

I understand that they didn’t vote for them and they don’t agree with them, but they got their vote same as everyone. That’s how the system works, and it isn’t theft because this is how everyone generally agrees things should work. I wasn’t a fan of the Iraq war under Bush, and I’m also not a fan of many of the military engagements under Obama, yet those things cost money and inevitably some of my taxes went to pay for it. That annoys me, but I don’t claim the government stole my money because taxes aren’t theft, they are an entrance fee to live in a civilized society.

Sixth point:

  • No government program, including the ACA, can reduce the cost of medical care.

What your lawmakers should know: The only way cost reduction can be accomplished is by healthy, economical competitionThe goal is to get to a point to where you shop for the best medical care like you shop for a mechanic.  You make a few calls to get some prices, and then make a decision about who will best satisfy your needs.

I’ll preface this by reminding you I’m not an economist, but then neither is this guy. This is simply wrong as far as I can tell. There are plenty of countries with government run healthcare where things are much cheaper than here.

Because I’m no expert here I’ll let someone who actually knows what they are talking about here fill you in:

So the article makes some really noticeable errors in judgment about how healthcare works, and economics in general. For those who don’t watch the video, one of the major problems is that one can only negotiate for a better price when they have a strong position. As John points out in the video, health care is not something that individuals can negotiate efficiently on because they are in a very weak position. (I.E. I need those pills or I will die)  This is why it is possible for the government, or insurance companies for that matter, to get a better price for services than an individual who needs medical treatment. The authors attempt to blame high medical costs in the U.S. on government involvement is a huge oversimplification if not just outright wrong. As John points out government involvement in this area can actually improve competition not stifle it as is suggested.

Point Seven:

  • The ACA creates more debt.

This is not actually certain, some economists think that it might, but there are also economists who predict that in the long run it will actually save money. It is difficult to say for sure because economies are a complex thing and they don’t always behave as expected. The author wants to take a rather simplistic approach by saying this will cost more money therefor increase debt. However, there are a number of ways the bill could work to lower medical costs and improve the overall economic efficiency of the U.S. Again, I suggest reading an article by someone who knows more than me.

The Economics of the Affordable Care Act

He ends this section with this:

What your lawmakers should know:  We should not increase our national debt, even if it is for a “good” thing, unless it’s necessary for national survival and for a biblical purpose (i.e. war costs).

It is a very odd logic that leads a person to conclude that is totally moral for our country to go into debt to kill people, but not to save them. I find it odd that people who want us to balance our national debt never suggest cutting military spending, even though it is the third largest expenditure by our country, coming in at 716 billion dollars last year. This kind of thinking is exactly why I find the “moral” teachings of so many Christians completely immoral.

The author seems does not really seem to understand the complex economic issues surrounding healthcare and tries to offer overly simplistic answers to these problems based upon his personal interpretation of the bible.

His call that Christians should care for the poor seems laudable, and in a sense it probably is. However, the long term effect of such a policy would be to give the Christian church a massive level of political and social power within this country. Given this fact, I wonder if perhaps they understand things a lot better than they are letting on. Perhaps some, if not many, are just using small government talking points as a guise that will allow them to use health care as a wedge issue to move the country towards Christian theonomy. Of course I can’t look inside their minds so I can’t know for sure, but I certainly wonder. Even if it isn’t their goal I’m sure they wouldn’t have much of a problem with it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Scalia believes in the devil and ad hoc reasoning.

Justice Scalia believes in the devil according to an interview published in New York Magazine. Some people, including the interviewer, seemed surprised by this fact. I was actually more surprised by the interviewers surprise. Didn’t the interviewer know anything about Scalia before doing the interview. The man is a 77 year old conservative catholic, it would be far more surprising to me if he didn’t believe in the devil, and why exactly is this belief so much more shocking than his belief in god? They are both beliefs in a supernatural entity for which good evidence is practically non-existent, and quite frankly Scalia is right when he tells the interviewer that most Americans believe in both of these beings.

What I found really interesting is after he admitted to believing in the bible the interviewer asked a fairly good question about this.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?

Scalia gives a rather interesting answer.

You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

So Scalia acknowledges that there is a clear difference between how we see our modern observations of reality and all of the supernatural activities described in the bible. So how does he resolve this contradiction?

What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

So he believes that the reason the devil doesn’t engage in obviously supernatural actions is because sometime between two thousand years ago and the development of modern scientific standards during the renascence he figured out that convincing people he isn’t real would suit his purposes better.  His argument would actually make sense if you start out by assuming the bible’s description of these events is mostly accurate. However, without that unfounded assumption we are free to believe that the stories were simply made up or exaggerated, which seems like a much more reasonable explanation. 

It’s ad hoc reasoning to start with a conclusion and interpret all of the facts to suit your preconceived position, but what really irks me with is argument is that his evidence for supernatural actions in the past, the bible, is essentially hearsay. It bothers me that a judge thinks that hearsay is a valid bases for a belief. I hope that he is doesn’t use this kind of reasoning while ruling on cases, but I’m not exactly convinced he understands this distinction.

Of course he also tries to deny that his argument would suggest that atheists are doing the work of the devil even though that seems to be exactly what his argument would suggest, I’d be offended but I have long since stopped being offended by Scalia’s thoughts on religion. I will say I won’t be sad when he finally steps down from the bench.

Geek USA

I just saw this a trailer on Hulu for a movie coming out this year about high school student growing up in the 90’s who is a member of an alternative band.

The moving is set in 1997, the same year I graduated High school. I’m not entirely sure about how I feel about the knowledge that I am now old enough that people are making nostalgia based movies about the decade I grew up in.