Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

Recent events in global politics seem to have brought the spit-flecked anti-Islamic radicalism of the New Atheists out into the open. Dawkins has had a bit of a thing about Ahmed Mohamed that is perhaps a little strange, but his most recent tweet drawing some kind of weird parallel between Mohamed and some poor child in Syria who was forced/brainwashed into beheading a soldier is really kind of off. Meanwhile in a podcast Sam Harris announced that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky because Ben Carson understands more about the Middle East.

Vicious, slightly unhinged attacks on children, and voting for a religious madman because he would keep out religious madmen seem like prima facie evidence for some kind of fevered new level of anger, so is it the case that the New Atheists are finally letting the mask slip, and revealing their prejudices in their full, naked glory? Harris is apparently an atheist but he would vote for an avowed born again christian who is completely immune to facts and probably wants to force the end of separation of church and state: when you vote for someone who is anathema to all your fundamental beliefs because of one specific policy you are signalling your policy preferences very clearly. Meanwhile, Dawkins is just … whatever he was trying to say with that tweet, it wasn’t pretty. Have recent events finally caused them to lose it?

Just recently I wrote an angry post about the Church of England trying to invade my leisure time, so in the interests of balance I think it’s only fair that I have a go at the New Atheists, who I find just as annoying in their own special way, though ultimately I think they’ll be far less influential than the current Archbishop of Canterbury. By the New Atheists I mean that crew of sciency types who publish books about how terrible religion is and affect to be experts on all things religious: people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers. Although I don’t doubt their atheism, I think they aren’t really acting first and foremost as atheists. Rather, I think they’re establishment scientists reacting in a particularly atavistic way to two kinds of insurrection that really make them feel threatened: the American vulgarist insurrection against science, which is primarily (but not only) driven by fundamentalist Christianity; and the Middle Eastern reaction against colonialism and imperialism, which has sadly shifted from a politically nationalist framework to an avowedly religious framework. The former threatens them intellectually and the latter threatens their identity, so they react viscerally. But in their visceral reaction I don’t think they’re acting against religion generally, and I think their visceral reaction is not a good thing for atheism. Even if they weren’t straight up reactionaries, I think they make poor spokespeople for atheism (to the extent that atheism is a movement of any kind). Here I would like to give a few reasons why.

The New Atheists will never change anything

In attacking Islam so vociferously, the New Atheists have chosen an easy target, but they aren’t going to change anything in Islam, and in any case they can’t even change Christianity. They don’t live in majority Islamic countries, so they’re in no position to make any changes to Islam; and by aligning themselves so closely with the Islamophobia of the religious/militarist right in the USA they instantly render any serious critique they have of Islam inaudible. In any case, Islam is not a monolithic entity like the Catholic church, it has no central leaders or doctrines, so there is no single force they can bend to their prodigious will. But even within their own Christian countries they’ll never effect any change because they’re going about it completely the wrong way. Religions can be institutionally monolithic, like the Catholic church or the Church of England, but they’re also diffuse and incredibly culturally resilient. You can’t change a religion by standing outside it yelling at it, because a strong religion is composed of both a powerful religious institution and a plurality of supporters, who are in a constant cultural tension with that leadership but identify strongly with what that leadership represents. Religions don’t change because people yell at them because changing a religion requires simultaneously changing its intellectual leadership and its adherents.  The best way to change a religion is to slowly move all of society forward, through technological, scientific and cultural advances, and then watch the religion catch up. It’s slow, hard, dirty work, the kind of work you don’t get accolades for and can’t distill into self-aggrandizing tweets, but that’s how religions change. Perhaps the best secular example of this is the relationship between labour unions and labour parties in the early part of the last century in countries like Australia and the UK. To change policy in those environments you had to be active in the union, working at the grassroots, but also active in the elite system of the unions and its associated mass politics. People like Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam emerged from that environment and they were formidable intellectuals with a very practical understanding of both the levers and the limits of power. Of course, the New Atheists aren’t going to have much of a sense of class politics, so they probably don’t have a clue about the secular equivalents of what they’re dealing with, either.

Furthermore, it’s often the case that the leading agents of change are people within the religion – your Martin Luthers and Gandhis – not angry outsiders. One hundred years from now, when Islam has moved forward to wherever it’s going, people will look back and say “look at that Turkish dude who reformed education in the 21st century” and “how about that Sudanese chick who campaigned against genital mutilation”. No one will be thanking Richard Dawkins for tweeting a picture of an ISIS child soldier brutalizing and being brutalized[1]. These people will never change anything.

Scientists are not good Atheists

There’s a kind of intellectual arrogance in the “elite” branches of science – physics, biochemistry, some parts of evolutionary biology – in which they believe that they can enter any other field of human endeavour and just pwn it with their superb intellectual skills. This is visible at its most nakedly ugly in the behavior of those cosmologists who think they are going to disprove (or discover!) god, and those terrible nuclear bomb makers who turned the whole thing into a sick parody of childbirth. But in this case it means that scientists are entering a world that is very unscientific, that has a completely different language and culture, and trying to understand it in terms that make sense to scientists, and thinking they can. This is why they seem to think that religions are anti-science because their books are kooky, and they think they can effect change through logical debate built on attacking the principles of those books. In science you look at founding principles and build arguments on them; in religion you play fast and loose with founding principles in pursuit of a story (or something; I’m not really au fait with how this stuff works). Yelling at people and claiming to be able to understand the way their religion works because you’re used to logical thinking is not going to get you very far. Laughing at silly origin stories (7 days! ha!) doesn’t get you very far because – newflash – most people don’t give a fuck about how smart you are until they need you to fix their TV and then they’re all like “what do you mean you study geckos?” When you engage with people outside of your field of expertise you need to set aside your field of expertise, or find a way to bring it to the engagement that doesn’t appear arrogant and out of touch. Which brings us to …

The New Atheists are poor scholars

Every field of intellectual inquiry has its own rules, its own language and its own disciplines. You can’t just go into another field of inquiry and start talking about it with the language and discipline of your own field – you’ll misunderstand and get confused. If you talk statistics with a statistician, you need to understand what “consistency” means; if you discuss economics at some point you need to come to terms with their weird and stupid definition of “efficiency”. Believe it or not, religions have their own language and disciplines, and the study of religion is a long-standing and well-respected intellectual field, connected with cultural studies, social science and art theory/history. But the New Atheists don’t give a fuck about that, they just barge on in and start arguing. This is most obvious in Sam Harris’s embarrassing little spanking from Noam Chomsky, where he thought he could engage in debate with one of the preeminent scholars of American foreign policy on the basis of a single reading of just one of his books (“I thought I could read it as a self-contained whole,” what, do you think it’s a Little Golden Book?), without any of the disciplines or scholarly background of international relations. It’s also obvious in the response of scholars of theology to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which panned it as, for example, work that would make a first year theology student wince[2]. This is what happens when otherwise intelligent, well-educated scientists decide that they can enter into other scholarly debates without the proper debate and, dare I say it, the proper respect. And this is the real problem here: they don’t understand or respect the religious impulse or its history, they don’t respect anyone who believes differently to them, and they base their scholarly approach to religion on this lack of respect for its intellectual origins. This is very, very stupid. For much of human history religion was the wellspring of science, and almost all of our modern intellectual tradition is built on Catholic, Muslim, Jewish[3] or Hindu science. When a scientist goes into their world that scientist is dealing not with weird, kooky idiots who think the world was made in 7 days, but people who understand science and theology, and are comfortable believing in one while working in the other. You can’t knock these people over with second rate arguments about whether god could make a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, and when you try they’ll come back at you with sophisticated discussion of exactly where that question fits into a range of epistemological, ontological and cosmological debates.

These religions didn’t develop through 1000 or 5000 years of history because they had a complete disregard for scholarly endeavour. But the New Atheists approach the mysteries of religion as if they were a first year biology problem. That’s bad scholarship, derived from a lack of respect, which is why I can say that …

They give atheism a bad name

Being an atheist doesn’t mean you think everyone who believes in God is an idiot. Sure, there are some cute jokes about sky fairies and stuff, but they’re rhetorical fluff, not to be confused with the substance of how atheists should (and generally do) approach believers. To me, first and foremost, atheism is about inquiry. I’m fascinated by all this stuff that goes on in this amazing and beautiful world, and that doesn’t just mean I’m interested in what will happen to the polar bears when the ice melts; it also means I want to know what my Muslim colleague thinks about things he maybe didn’t have to think about before he moved to Japan, or what my lapsed Catholic friend thinks about Shinto. It doesn’t mean that I just dismiss all that stuff as dumb-arsed imaginary-friend psychological props. It also doesn’t mean that when I see a member of a certain religion (I’m looking at you Mr. Mohammedan) doing a terrible thing I should immediately decide that all people from that religion are insane arse-hats. But please forgive me if that’s how I interpret the recent behavior of the New Atheists, who seem to have got a real bee in their bonnets about Islam, and are really seriously concerned that it’s the end of civilization. By throwing away their critiques of other religions, siding with religious lunatics, and dropping all pretense at mild manners or rational debate, they make it pretty clear that they have a certain, specific animus against a certain, specific religion. They look, in fact, like racists. Some of them also look like unreconstructed sexists. But in the modern era, they are also the main voice of atheism that most people recognize. Which means that in the public mind they speak for me.

My Muslim colleague is very concerned about the image of Islam that ISIS project. He sometimes talks about it with me – raises the terrible things they have done, tries to talk about how they are perceived by people not like them – and I can see he is worried that I might get a bad idea of his religion from the antics of its worst children. He also makes jokes about his own religion, and is comfortable dealing with the social conflicts living in Japan presents. It’s as if he is just a normal guy trying to get by in this crazy world, who believes some different stuff to me. But to hear Sam Harris’s latest utterings, he’s a monster waiting to blow me up. Or he might be, or something. When people say shit like that about any other group you back away slowly, or you give them hell. But these guys think they’re cool with it, and as the tide of public opinion turns against Islam I guess, increasingly, they will be. But sometime in the future, once ISIS are a bad memory (and they will be!), people will remember that those dudes were atheists, and they will assume that atheism is about racism and hatred or, at best, that it is completely attuned with popular opinion about who the latest bad guys are. Which it isn’t. Atheism is much bigger than that. It is much bigger than this small group of arrogant rich white scientists, and the sooner they let it go and give it back to us the better.

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

At the heart of this is a simple fact that perhaps we didn’t have to think about back when our spokesperson was Bertrand Russell, a man who would never have supported the Iraq war: Atheism is not a movement. It is the antithesis of a movement. It’s a group of people who have quietly decided to go their own way on this spiritual shit. We just don’t do it, but there’s no movement we can form to make that fact public – how can we? We don’t agree on anything! Sure, the Satanists are doing a great job of trolling some Christians in a completely cute and fun way, but they don’t represent us and no one thinks they do. We aren’t A Thing. Sure, sometimes we’d like to be – those atheist bloggers in Bangladesh might not have been killed if they were part of a movement with its own stormtroopers – and being part of a movement has many benefits, but that’s not what Atheism is. In it’s own way it’s as intense and personal as religion, it’s a feeling you have that you can’t project onto anyone else although the best of us will put our case carefully and wait for those we love and care about to maybe feel it, or maybe not. But I think the New Atheists would like us to be a movement, and I think you know who they think should be in charge of that movement.

But I don’t to be part of any movement that turns my inner life into a caricature of itself so they can spit on Muslims and use child soldiers as a rhetorical tool in some kind of shitty twitter war over a fucking clock. I don’t want to be part of any movement whose leaders think they’re intellectually superior to a couple of billion people, and I don’t want to be part of any movement whose representatives would vote for a religious lunatic who’s probably a con artist just because he hates the same people they do.

Once this war on Islam is done – and it will be done, once ISIS are gone, and they will be gone – these New Atheists will discover how fickle their new bedfellows are. When their new anti-Muslim fundamentalist christian friends kick them out, don’t welcome them back. Tell them they sold themselves cheap, and they can be footsoldiers in someone else’s intellectual battle. Atheism doesn’t need them, and neither do the religious people they think they’re helping.

fn1: Seriously WTF were you thinking, dude? Have you been following the movement against child soldiers, are you aware of what a complex, cruel and brutal thing the recruiting and enslavement of child soldiers is? Do you understand that the media have conventions about showing child victims? When the BBC interviews child soldiers they pixelate their faces. What were you thinking, comparing an American kid to a child soldier in the act of beheading someone? Do you have any respect at all for human dignity?

fn2: Read that review. That is how reviews are done.

fn3: Noam Chomsky, for example, grew up in a Jewish tradition heavily steeped in Jewish intellectualism.

Christian doctrine summarized

Christian doctrine summarized

Today’s news brings us reports that the Church of England’s gentle attempts to frontload the new Star Wars movie with a one minute long advert for their brand of authoritarian fantasism have fallen flat, in what everyone (even Richard Dawkins, apparently) is calling a defeat for free speech. In a stunning moment of unexpected bravery from our corporate overlords, the bosses of three different cinema chains have told the CofE to get fucked. Rather than being horrified by this slow slide into oppression, I am very happy, and extremely angry that the CofE felt they had the right to pull this nasty piece of totalitarianism on the British public. Before you start hyperventilating, dear reader(s), let me explain …

I’m not an easily offended man, I think, and I think I’ve been on the record as supporting free expression for all religions. I’m an atheist but I don’t subscribe to the “Militant Atheist” school of “thought”, which holds that religion is a childish emotional prop and that society should and will grow past it. I respect individual religious belief, I think religions should have freedom in public life and I’m not especially bothered by the special place that some religious institutions hold in public life – e.g. the christian churches of various denominations in various nations, Islam in Turkey, etc. In the modern era I really don’t see religion as a big threat to our continued progress towards enlightenment, and I have no problem with its open expression and with its historical contributions being recognized. I’m also, I think, on record here as saying I suspect that a lot of the militant atheist spokespeople are sexist, racist bigots who are especially fond of using their atheism as a cloak for their obvious anti-Arab or anti-Islamic racism, and I don’t think that their aggressive tactics do atheism any favours. To the extent that atheism is a movement (it’s not) we don’t need these people as our chief representatives. However …

The Church of England, because it has a huge and privileged position in the British intellectual world. It is the establishment church, meaning the head of the church is also the head of a nuclear-armed state. It owns most of the publicly-run schools, and I can personally attest to the way it used those schools to exclude other religions from discussion, to misrepresent them and to force us to learn and recite its doctrine. It gets free public air time for Sunday worship and special events that no one else gets, and its religious events are the key public holidays, during which time it gets almost untrammeled access to both state and private television and radio. Despite this near constant exposure of a large portion of the population to its propaganda message, and despite the fact that the major media organizations treat the corrupt content of that message with kid gloves, it is still losing the intellectual battle with atheism, agnosticism and who-gives-a-fuckism. So, having lost that battle, and aware of that, they are now going to start forcing adults who have graduated from their schools and escaped their slimy clutches to sit through a minute of unbridled power worship before they can enjoy some actually good fantasy.

Why should we put up with this? Why should I be forced to endure that horrible piece of authoritarian “poetry” when I have already been forced to recite it every morning for the first 17 years of my life? If I am not voluntarily reciting it then there is a simple reason: I think it sucks and I don’t want to. So don’t make me read it again, if I never have to read that horrible little cry for help ever again in my belief-free existence I will be a happy man. And most importantly, what gives the church the arrogance and sense of superiority to think that it’s okay for them to afflict me with this crap during my daily activities? Every time I go to a hotel in the English speaking world I’m given a free bible [another public service extended exclusively to the christian church by private companies], hasn’t the church worked out that if I wanted to read that prayer I would?

Most people understand that if you have told someone something a certain number of times and they still don’t believe it or don’t want to hear it, it’s time to stop yelling at them. Apparently the luminaries at the head of the Church of England have yet to learn that lesson, and think they have some special right to lambast us with their brand of patriarchal authoritarianism just once more, because that one more minute will get us back. The thought of sitting there, waiting to watch something I really want to watch, while for one minute this old man lectures me on how much I should love a god I don’t believe in, makes me so angry. It’s a direct reminder that these evil old men still own my society; an attempt to force me back to being my 8 year old self, shivering and powerless in assembly hall while I wait to be free of their pointless rituals. How dare they do this?

Some random dude at the Guardian is complaining that the real reason the cinemas refused is because they’re scared the illuminati might force us to listen to a muslim prayer in the future, and then they’ll be forced to play it if they also play the christian one. For me personally a passage from the Quran is largely meaningless, and if I listen to it it won’t make me angry because I have no historical association with Islam (though I guess this depends on the prayer they choose!) But for the record I think that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and everyone else should steer well clear of my precious pre-Star Wars advertising time. I also really want to hope that this is not the reason the cinemas said no, but rather that they, like me, are horrified at the thought of allowing any church to preach to us for a minute before a movie. I’m glad they don’t need the money that badly!

The sooner the Church of England is out of schools and television altogether the better. It’s a dying institution that is propped up by the state and the buttresses of history, but its days are numbered. This desperate, mean-spirited lashing out at non-believing adults needs to be stopped early, and rather than seeing this decision as “nonsense on stilts” or some kind of blow to free speech we should recognize that it is a huge victory for modern values over superstition and authoritarianism. Well done those British cinema chains, and shame on the Church of England for thinking that such a move would ever be okay.

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Indiana, USA[1] has just passed a law that discriminates against ordinary arseholes, and especially confirmed atheist arseholes. This law would make discrimination okay so long as the discriminator [hereafter referred to as “the arsehole”] is religious, and clearly sets up three categories of people with different sets of rights: nice people who want everyone to get along, religious arseholes and non-religious arseholes. Into the latter category we can add arseholes who are religious but whose arseholery is clearly not religiously-based, which is a distinction I’m sure the current Supreme Court can have a lot of hours of fun with.

As a confirmed, unrelenting but unfortunately atheist arsehole, I will be boycotting Indiana from now on. I was planning to visit later this year, rent a massive gas guzzling car with sealskin hubcaps and drive around throwing money to passing orphans while snorting cocaine off the naked bodies of zero-size barely legal models, but I refuse to throw away my arsehole currency in a state that classifies me as a second-class citizen. I will instead visit a state that allows all arseholes to be equally arseholey[2].

I mean, what is the point of this law except to redefine arseholes into two categories? It can’t possibly be the case that the LGBT couple who are refused service will be all peachy about it just because the refuser is wearing a funny hat, or believes in some funny beardy dude; I accept that intent is important in framing law (see e.g. manslaughter vs. murder) but usually it is limited to classifying degrees of severity, not allowing some people to break the law with impunity. Sure, if the law defined degrees of discrimination it might make sense (and a whole new season of Law and Order would be born) but to just define away criminality for certain classes of arsehole? Isn’t that … discriminatory?

This Vox article tells me that 20 states in the USA have these laws in place, and suggests to me that arsehole freedom is the next great civil rights movement in America (we could call ourselves the moonies). It also makes me wonder if there are any adults left in America, because it suggests that most of these laws have been passed to protect “religious minorities” and gives an example of Amish trying to protect themselves from a law that requires them to hang a glowing light on their buggies. They had to go to court to get protection against that law? Couldn’t everyone just discuss the law and come up with a compromise? Apparently not in America. And did the Amish really think they were so special that they were willing to go to special legal lengths to ensure that they didn’t have the same road safety responsibilities as everyone else? And why should they?

The same applies to vaccination exemption laws. If you believe in some beardy dude who says that women are second-rate citizens, gay people should be shot (I’m looking at you, Californian arseholes!) and pi is 3.0, you get to endanger other peoples’ kids by refusing  a medically safe and proven technology. But if your intention is simply to endanger other peoples’ kids because you’re a misanthropic arsehole who is too smart to believe the blather of a 2000 year old book that was written before people understood how to be nice to each other then too bad! You gotta be nice or face a fine.

Why this extreme double standard against arseholes?

America needs a movement of arseholes, willing to throw off their shackles and rise up against discrimination, before it becomes impossible to be intelligent and mean in any state of the union! Rise up, arseholes of America, and reclaim your right to be mean to people you don’t like for no other reason, without having to dishonestly cloak it in superstitious blather! Truly, liberation of pure arseholes is the movement 21st Century America needs, and truly 21st Century America is ready for it!

fn1: What is it with Americans thinking they don’t need to specify which country their states are in?

fn2: Suggestions in comments please

Many people have pondered the real reasons for the Iraq war, the stated reasons being so blatantly false. Most critics have claimed it was a war for oil; some have suggested it was a stupid mistake by a clique of idiots; others have proposed the darker conspiracy theory that it was intended to unleash chaos specifically to keep the oil in the ground. Well, today Tony Blair revealed the truth: it was a crusade by Protestant extremists. In a piece for the observer, Tony “the Vampire” Blair gives his considered opinion of wars in the 21st century, and decides that they will be primarily driven by religious extremism.

Well, the Iraq war was the second war of the 21st century, its longest-running new war, and certainly a fairly serious business. Before it was invaded, Iraq was a secular dictatorship. It was invaded by a ragtag coalition of Christians, and the leaders of the coalition of the willing were two Protestant nations. Surely we should apply the Vampire’s logic to the big war that he started? Western religious extremism is surely the greatest threat to world peace …

We can do better than that though, can’t we? Now we can look to the religious roots of the Senkaku Islands conflict, driven by the irreconcilable differences between Confucian fascists on the one hand and Shinto Extremists on the other. The increasingly tense dispute between Indonesia and Australia is not really over boat people, but over interpretations of whether Jesus was the son of God. And what is this shit about the conflict in the Central African Republic being ethnically based? It’s clearly a threeway fight to the death between born-again christian fanatics, shamanic exterminationists, and moderate Islam. Right?

History tells me that people in the UK voted in quite large numbers for Tony Blair, several times. I find this hard to believe. Was there ever a time when if he opened his mouth, lies or garbage didn’t come out? Because I don’t remember it, but surely millions of British voters (adults, apparently!) couldn’t have been so easily fooled? Once again there can only be one explanation: Tony Blair is an extremely powerful vampire, with incredible powers of mass hypnosis. Put a stake through that beast! Or at least, keep its hideous rantings off the pages of national newspapers …

I follow God on Facebook[1]. Not the real God, obviously, but this one has almost as many followers: just over a million people follow God. God does a couple of weekly regular updates that get a lot of attention: he does a weekly smite where he finds someone really annoying in public life and threatens to strike them down with some terrible curse; he posts pictures of new creations in which he has blended animals together; and he runs regular “Ask God” sessions where you can ask him questions about life. My favourite was the guy who asked God “why does my girlfriend yell your name when she is coming,” but he has a wide range of questioners. He also occasionally puts up hate mail he gets – he gets a lot of messages from people telling him to stop mocking God, and mostly these messages are full of hatred and anger.

I think it’s safe to say that God is a pretty forgiving, tolerant, inclusive kind of guy. He’s of the pro-gay-marriage, live-and-let-live, community-action-minded kind of viewpoint, not the kind of person who supports vengeance and judgment. He’s how God would be if God hadn’t written the Old Testament, and caused all manner of trouble with his violence and vengeance. This is not a God that will turn you to salt for disobeying him, and will refer you to a suicide helpline rather than tell you not to do it or you’ll go to hell. He’s also funny, sometimes hilarious, and a generally light-hearted and positive voice on my Facebook feed.

Sadly for God, recently his mother died, and he and his family were rightly distraught about it. He announced this on his website and received a huge outpouring of support. Perhaps buoyed by this, God revealed that the insurance company were being dickheads, and set up an Indiegogo website to raise $5000 to send his dad on a holiday. This got a huge response, and within a couple of days God had raised $20,000. You can read more details about the positive aspects of this story at this blogpost about God as a community phenomenon.

Sadly, God’s Indiegogo successes brought some trouble to his online community, and the very worst of humanity came crawling out from under their rocks to criticize him. The things they said were terrible, and the things they said about those who donated to him were also terrible. The worst of the comments have been weeded out now so I can’t copy them, but there are still some pearlers. For example, one person wrote:

like i said before…it is kind of sad that i asked for money to pay my mother’s cancer bills and did not receive a penny…but YOU raise thousands of dollar’s for ” a vacation”……what a shameful example of humanity !!!

Another wrote:

I’ve had enough. Man, it’s like a car wreck!! I can’t believe how many gullible people there are in the world! Yes this was a fun page to visit on occasion but folks….his reward for putting the page up in the first place is his million followers. That’s the reason he does it. He doesn’t get to expect money for making you laugh. To each their own but you are sending money to a cartoon image. You know nothing about this person except what he/she wants you to know. If you think he or she is going to visit you while on vacation with Dad, you’ve got another think coming. YOU ARE SENDING MONEY TO A CARTOON!!!

while someone else writes

like this god page, but i think asking for money and receiving over $20,000 is kind of bullshit in my eyes, sounds alot like gods taking this stuff to seriously and becoming like the church……

but the nastiest by far for me was a comment that has now been taken down, which I saw with my own eyes when it was put up, in which someone wrote

Both my parents died and I didn’t get a cent from anyone. Get a fucking job.

These comments to me seem to show the worst of humanity. Some guy with a million followers openly states that he wants to raise money for some personal, completely selfish purpose; people give him money because they like him and it’s no trouble to them; he raises more than expected and decides to use it for himself; but for a  sizable minority of the population, this is a terrible terrible sin. The first quoted comment shows the reason for this: people can see a person getting something they couldn’t get, and they are angry about that. But they aren’t just angry – although they know that he is sad from a recent loss of a close family member, they post critical comments and accusations on his facebook wall where he can see them. These comments include personal attacks, accusations that he is lying about his family, that he is a scammer, and demands for him to drop his anonymity. Something that had originally been a source of joy for a person going through a difficult time has obviously turned into a huge and painful chore, simply because a sizable minority of people on this earth hate to see someone else gain something for nothing. And no doubt some of the attacks will rub off on God, making him feel like a dirty person for simply asking for help and receiving it. Is this a microcosm of the reasons why so many people are opposed to welfare in all its forms? And why charity is always expected to come with so many strings and so much shame?

I find this particularly amusing when I compare God’s honest and open request for money for jam with the way so many Indiegogo users scam their users through obvious deception. I defriended someone from my Facebook after they began spamming their friends with Indiegogo fundraisers for a project that was clearly dishonest and that they never intended to deliver on; and of course the role-playing world has been beset by very real scams involving large sums of money on undelivered projects, and an entire website devoted to uncovering vaporware. Strangely though, the Dwimmermount project still has supporters even though the author has disappeared for 18 months and taken $50k with him; while God cops a heavy dose of abuse for asking for $5k for the stated purpose of producing nothing. How can it be that the humans in this world can behave this way? What psychological or philosophical perspective makes people supportive of a scam with no product after 18 months, but critical of a direct and simple plea for money from someone who has been entertaining a million people for 3 years?

It’s as if God has managed to prove that there is no humanity out there, just a deep, untapped well of jealousy and immaturity.

fn1: yes, I am sufficiently shallow to have facebook. And no I don’t use google+.

The Shaikh would not approve!

The Shaikh would not approve!

I discovered tonight that my blog has come to the attention of a Muslim scholar in the UK, in a piece he wrote about the UK census. Like me, this scholar noted the obssessive focus of the UK press on the growth of Islam, rather than the explosion of atheism[1]. Unlike me, the writer of this piece didn’t comment on the simultaneous release of gay marriage laws that privilege the bigotry of the mainstream churches. I wonder why?

Anyway, in previous posts here I have presented the use of Tolkien by fascists as evidence in favour of my thesis that his work is racist. So it’s only fair that I hoist myself on my own petard, and have a look at what kind of people hold my work in high esteem[2]. If we can find even one work by this website that supports the veil, then surely I’m anti bikini? Right?

Fortunately, the Islam21c website gives a convenient collection of all the works of the scholar in question, Shaikh Haitham Al-Haddad, so we can read his opinions in full, and an interesting read they are. Essentially they read like your standard form of leftist religiosity, with perhaps a touch more homophobia and prostration than one might see of a Catholic liberation theologist, but generally in the same vein – they’re the sort of thing that a mainstream leftist christian in America would probably approve of (minus the “peace be upon him”s) or that a conservative Australian catholic unionist (or even Tony Abbott) could get behind. They also have a particular theme that you won’t find in the works of a “mainstream” religious activist in the UK – how to deal with being a Muslim in Britain. And in this regard they don’t read particularly differently to the opinions of a practical Marxist or fascist, in that they attempt to provide guidelines for how to conduct oneself in a world that one simultaneously appreciates and enjoys, but finds morally bankrupt and which (to a greater or lesser extent depending on one’s political and religious leanings) rejects you or your kind. Thus we find advice on whether or not to vote (do so, but do so from a framework of minimizing evil, and aim to follow the advice of Muslim scholars about which party to vote for); advice about how to respond to the killing of bin Laden (which, funnily enough, contains no advice; but condemns al Qaeda while blaming everything on America); an opinion on the London riots (morally reprehensible, but driven by racism and the exclusion of the poor from education[4]); and recommendations about banking practice (if you hold views which require a boycott, as do e.g. vegetarians or environmentalists, then you need people to gather information and present their opinion of whether particular products are valid to use[3]). Every gold card should have a fatwa!

More interesting is the site’s attempts to describe the nature of the hijab (voluntary, but recommended to all), the issue of immodest hijabs (yes, they exist!) and the problems inherent in treating the hijab as a symbol of identity rather than an act of worship (I actually thought these readings would put many a post-structuralist feminist to shame); and most interestingly, its ongoing series of posts on what it means to be British in an Islamic context, built around a debate with another Islamic scholar about the role of music (very appropriate, given the strength of British culture in the production of music). Would that mainstream journalists in the UK could put as much thought into these issues as this obscure website has done! In this context I thought the open letter to David Cameron was particularly impressive.

Although I think I can say I disagree with almost everything on this site, I think I understand the fundamental struggle it describes: to try to live according to a strict set of moral precepts in a world that doesn’t agree with them, or that agrees with them in principle but doesn’t support them practically. You can see this from christian fundamentalists, vegans, pacifists and some kinds of Marxists and libertarians, and the personal struggles their websites describe are all the same. Unlike some christians in the west, though, this site is more honest: it directly blames the Japanese tsunami on a failure to embrace the correct God – a view this tired atheist would have once got angry about, but now appreciates for its cruel honesty. The more times that religious people say things like this, the more potential followers they will lose, because in statements like this they reveal the fundamental cruelty of the god they claim loves them, and the responsibility of all right thinking people everywhere to oppose those gods if they were real. Anyone who submits to a god that kills 10,000 people even though they have never had a chance to convert to his “love” is lacking some fundamental understanding of what compassion is. Or is being very bloody-minded. Either way, it’s better that these things are stated openly than clothed in mealy-mouthed excuses about “the problem of evil.”

Anyway, the post-colonial critique of mainstream analyses of Islam was good, as was the debate about what it means to be British, and the subjugation of nationalism to the greater struggle – very much in keeping with the major streams of international socialist thought. Shame about the hocus-pocus, but you can’t have everything – but who cares when you can hoist faustusnotes on his own petard, and prove without a shadow of a doubt that my website is opposed to bikinis!? And, no doubt, objectively pro-terrorist …

fn1: incidentally, my spell-checker notes that “Islam” requires a capital “I” whereas “atheism” does not need a capital. Typing here, I also note that “Christianity” requires a capital “C”. I think this is bullshit. I think in all future posts, I will capitalize the “A” in “Atheism.”

fn2: my claiming that this islam21c blog holds me in high esteem might be stretching it a bit, but we don’t get a great many hits around here, so please go easy on me.

fn3: In Australia, vegans generally told each other that Toohey’s Red and Coopers were safe beers to drink

fn4: but your average rioter probably doesn’t want to assume this means they receive any sympathy – if our friendly shaikh had his way, they’d be getting a hand amputated!

Christianity’s fundamental promise is of eternal life, and the risk of refusing to accept God’s grace is generally accepted to be eternal damnation. While the truth of these statements is still subject to debate, there is little empirical evidence of the benefit of eternal life, and little research exploring the possible drawbacks of a decision to forego evil in exchange for the promise of eternal salvation. In a world of finite resources, decisions about how best to dispose of available resources while alive need to take into account the long-term and (if certain cosmological properties are shown to hold) potentially eternal consequences of the choice between good and evil. In this blog post, we will examine the costs and benefits of baptism and rejection of sin from an econometric standpoint. Of specific interest in this blog post is the relationship between the benefits of accepting God’s grace and the discount rate society applies to years of life not yet lived.

The immediate use of an analysis of the costs and benefits of accepting god’s grace is obvious, but from a wider perspective a clear understanding of the economic aspects of this theological decision may help us to understand the persistence of evil in a world where humans have free will, and to answer the eternal question: why does evil exist in a world shaped according to God’s will?

Methods

Standard cost-effectiveness analysis methods were applied to two simple decision problems. The first decision problem is the question of whether or not to baptize a child, on the assumption that baptism grants the child God’s grace, causing them to live a holy life but to lose the benefits that might accrue to an evil-doer. The analysis was then extended to consider a problem implicit in a great deal of modern rhetoric about the soul and sexuality, viz: if homosexuality is a choice, and that choice leads only to hell, is it cost-effective to choose to be homosexual? This question was answered in terms of numbers of partners foregone, and quality-adjusted life years gained from the sacrifice.

The basic decision problem: whether to baptize

The basic decision problem was addressed using standard measures of effectiveness. It was assumed that were a child to be baptized they would be eligible to enter heaven upon their death, and would thus be able to live forever. Were they not to be baptized, they are assumed to enter hell at death. Each year of life lived was assumed to grant the individual a full quality adjusted life year (QALY); each year in heaven (from now until the rapture, i.e. infinite years from now) was also assumed to grant 1 QALY; while entry into hell was considered to grant 0 QALYs. All QALYs were discounted using the standard formula, and the effect of the discounting rate on the benefits of each decision were calculated over three different life expectancies: 45 years (enlightenment-era), 70 years (biblical lifespan) and 80 years (the life expectancy granted by modern materialist living). Effectiveness was then assessed for a wide range of discount rates, varying from 0.5% to 5%. The difference in QALYs gained (the incremental effect) was then calculated for all these scenarios.

Cost-effectiveness calculation for the baptism problem

Having calculated the incremental effect of baptism, the cost was then calculated under the assumption that evil people make more money. This assumption is implicit in, for example, Mark 8:36, when Jesus asks

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?

which suggests that doing good requires some form of material sacrifice. This is, of course, also obvious in the early doctrine of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and much of pre-enlightenment religious debate was focused around this struggle between material goods and goodness.

This contrast was modeled by a variable \alpha, which represents the percentage of additional annual income an unbaptized sinner earns relative to a person living in grace. For example, if a sinner earns 10% more than a convert, then \alpha=0.1. Then, assuming a fixed average income for god-fearing individuals, we can calculate the lost income due to being good. This is the incremental cost of salvation. From this calculated incremental cost and the incremental benefit, we can estimate an incremental cost effectiveness ratio (ICER), and estimate whether the decision to baptize is cost-effective.

In keeping with standard practice as used by, for example, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, we set the basic income of one of the saved to be the mean income of the UK, and define baptism as “cost-effective” if its ICER falls below a threshold of three times the annual mean income of the UK. We also establish a formula for the cost-effectiveness of salvation, based on the relative difference in income between the good and the evil, the discount rate, and the human lifespan.

All income in future years was discounted in the same way as future QALYs.

The costs and benefits of voluntary homosexuality

Finally, we address a problem implicit in some forms of modern christian rhetoric, that of the wilful homosexual. Many religious theorists seem to think (either implicitly or openly) that homosexuality is a choice. If so, then the choice can be modeled in terms of an exchange of sexual partners for eternal damnation. In this analysis, we calculated the number of sexual partners a potentially homosexual male will forego over a 20 year sexual career commencing at age 15. We assumed that all life years before age 15 are irrelevant to the calculation (that is, we assumed that all individuals make a choice at age 15 as to whether to be good or evil), and that a person foregoing homosexuality will have 0 partners. Other assumptions are the same as those made above. The ICER for being good was then calculated as the cost in foregone sexual partners (discounted over a wide range of rates) divided by the QALYs gained through foregoing this lifestyle and gaining access to heaven.

Faustian discount rates and the problem of heavenly utilities

Commonly used discount rates range from 3 to 5%, but these are potentially inconsistent with the discount rates preferred by evil-doers. In this study we did not model differential discount rates between evil-doers and the elect, but we did consider one special case: that in which everyone observes a discount rate equal to that observed by Dr. Faust. As is well known, Dr. Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly power, and after 24 years his soul was taken into hell. Since he knew the time frame at the beginning of the deal, this implies that he was following a discount rate sufficient to rate all time more than 24 years in the future at 0 value. Under standard discounting practice such a rate does not exist, but we can approximate it by the rate necessary to value all time more than 24 years in the future at no more than 5% of current value. This discount rate, which we refer to as the Faustian Discount Rate, is approximately 12.5%. All scenarios were also tested under this discount rate.

A further problem is the problem of calculating utility weights for a year spent in heaven or hell. Given the lack of empirical data on utility of a year in heaven, and the paucity of first hand accounts, we assumed that a year in heaven was equivalent to a year without pain or suffering of any kind, i.e. one full QALY. According to the site What Christians Want to Know, Revelations 4:8 describes heaven as

a constant chant of holy angels that are continually proclaiming Holy, Holy, Holy over the throne of God.  The Mercy Seat in heaven where God sits is surrounded by magnificent angels full of glory and power that proclaim and bless the holy name of God without ceasing.  Some of these are described as beasts, full of eyes, with six wings and neither rest day or night in their proclaiming the holiness of God.

For those of us who don’t enjoy doom metal, this would probably have a utility value of less than one. In the interests of a conservative analysis, we assign heaven a utility of 1.

A similar problem applies to assigning utilities for hell. Many people claim to have been to hell and back, but their accounts of their time at a Celine Dion concert are not convincing and it is unlikely that accurate data on the state of hell exists. Popular conception of hell suggests a realm of eternal torture, but it is worth noting that in standard burden of disease studies even the most unpleasant and torturous diseases – such as end states of cancer, AIDS, and severe disability – are assigned positive utility weights, often quite a lot higher than 0. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that hell should be assigned a positive but small utility. However, again in the interests of conservative analysis, we assign a utility weight of 0 to a year spent in hell – that is, it is equivalent to death.

Results

Incremental benefit of salvation

The formula for the incremental benefit of salvation can be derived as

LY_{g}=\frac{\exp(-rl)}{r}

where here,

  • LY_{g} is the incremental benefit of being good, in QALYs
  • r is the discount rate
  • l is the human life expectancy

Figure 1 charts this incremental benefit over a wide range of discount rates for three different life expectancies.

Figure 1: Incremental benefit of salvation for three different life expectancies

It is clear that as the discount rate increases the incremental benefit of salvation decreases rapidly. At the Faustian Discount Rate, the incremental benefit of salvation is a mere 0.03 QALYs for a 45 year life expectancy, or 0.0004 for a human with an 80 year life expectancy. That is, even if Faustus had been offered and then rejected his bargain at birth, and expected to live to 45 years only, he would have seen the benefit to himself as being only about 0.03 years of life, due to his tendency to discount the value of years far in the future.

The cost-effectiveness of baptism

We now consider the cost-effectiveness of baptism. Let the income of one of the saved be given by c_{g}, and that of an evil-doer be c_{e}=(1+\alpha)c_{g}. Then the income foregone in order to enter heaven is given by the formula

C=\alpha c_{g}(\frac{1-\exp(-rl)}{r})

where all parameters are defined as before. Then the incremental cost effectiveness ratio (incremental cost divided by incremental benefit) is

ICER=\alpha c_{g}(\exp(rl)-1)

The ICER is plotted in figure 2 for two common life expectancies across a range of values of the discount rate, assuming a mean annual income of 26,000 pounds and that evil-doers earn 10% more income than the saved.

Figure 2: Incremental cost-effectiveness of salvation for two different life expectancies

At a Faustian Discount Rate, life expectancy of 70 years, and 26,000 pound mean income, the ICER for baptism is 16,202,218 pounds per QALY gained.

We can estimate a general condition on society’s discount rate for baptism to be cost-effective, in terms of the additional income gained by being evil and the life expectancy. This formula is given by:

r \le \frac{1}{l}ln\Bigl (\frac{3+\alpha}{\alpha}\Bigr)

For a life expectancy of 70 years, assuming that the damned earn 10% more than the saved, the required discount rate for baptism to be cost-effective is 4.3% or less; if the damned earn 20% more this threshold drops to 3.5%. It is clear that damnation doesn’t have to be much more materially rewarding before it becomes attractive even under quite reasonable discount rates.

The costs and benefits of voluntary homosexuality

We now consider the situation of a callow 15 year old youth, considering embarking on a life of sodomite sin. What should he choose? Obviously, from the perspective of a simple youth, the costs need to be weighed up in terms of foregone lovers. Assuming an average of five sexual partners a year, a sexual career beginning at age 15 (which is set to time 0 in this analysis) and lasting 20 years, and the same conditions on discount rates, eternal damnation, etc. as described above, a simple formula for the number of partners this man would be foregoing by refusing to choose the love that dare not speak its name can be derived as

p=\frac{5}{r}(1-exp(-20r))

and from this the incremental cost effectiveness ratio (measured in partners foregone per QALY gained) as

ICER=5\Bigl(\frac{1-exp(-20r)}{1-exp((15-l)r)}\Bigr)

Note that this ICER is not dependent on the human lifespan. It is in fact almost linear in the discount rate (Figure 3). At the Faustian Discount Rate, the potential gay man is looking at a cost of 4.6 lovers foregone for every QALY gained. Note these values change for different annual average numbers of lovers.

Figure 3: Incremental cost-effectiveness of foregoing a life of sodomy

It might be possible to construct an experiment that assessed individuals’ discount rates using this formula: their answers to the question “how many years of life would you give up to win an additional 5 lovers” could be used to identify their value of r.

Conclusion

In Mark 8:36, Jesus asks the rhetorical question

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?

Although usually presented as a question with no clear answer, it is actually quite easy to investigate this question empirically, and to draw conclusions about its implied cost-effectiveness analysis. The results presented here show that, in general, the good gained by forfeiting one’s soul is quite great, and the decision to forego baptism and live a life of evil (including wilful homosexuality) is generally the best decision one would expect a rational actor to make. At very low life expectancies and unrealistically low discount rates it is more beneficial to forego evil and embrace salvation, but at the discount rates usually used by economists, and assumed to reflect rational decisions made by ordinary individuals, salvation is not a profitable course of action.

These findings have interesting theological implications. First, we note that the Church is most likely to gain converts in a society which has a very low discount rate – but in general, the societies where the Church first took hold were societies with high rates of infant mortality and all-cause mortality, which were likely to put a low value on the later years of life – that is, to have high discount rates. But such societies are not naturally sympathetic to the message of eternal damnation, unless they can be convinced to forego rationality in moral decision making. This might explain the Church’s historical resistance to scientific endeavour, and willingness to foment superstitious practices.

These findings also explain christianity’s historical opposition to usury. It is naturally the case that buying something today and paying for it later – i.e. borrowing – is inconsistent with a very low discount rate, which tends to value future years of lost income almost as much as now. Furthermore, usurers operating in the open market will set interest rates well above 0.05%, and it is likely that the practice of usury plus the publishing of interest rates will encourage a society with higher discount rates (in fact, it is likely that this would be encouraged by the lending class). This directly undermines the church’s lesson of salvation, which depends on very low discount rates to work.

Finally, low discount rates are often associated with environmentalism – care for future generations, priority setting that considers costs in the distant future, etc. – but on the central issue of our time (global warming) many of the born again religious organizations that most fervently preach the message of salvation also vehemently oppose any message of custodianship and environmental care. These organizations would probably make better progress in convincing people to give up the joys of the here-and-now for an indeterminate heaven (that seems to involve a lot of noise pollution) if they could find a theoretically consistent approach to discount rates.

This post has shown a simple explanation for the problem of evil: most people operate with discount rates closer to Dr. Faust than to St. Christopher, and as a result they are unlikely to accept the distant benefits of heaven over the joys of the material world. Until the church can find a way to convince us that all our tomorrows are as important as today, the problem of evil will never be solved.

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