Friday, May 21, 2010

Setting it Straight, One More Time... ad infinitum

In yet another illustration of how the most literate and studied among us have missed the point, this morning's story by an L.A. Times reporter on the vandalism of an "Adopt A Highway" sign, sponsored by a local group of atheists, proves that the idiocy lives on.

"Atheism, broken down, means no theology. Atheists simply believe there is no God, or no evidence to support the existence of God."

To this, I wrote him this clarification:

"I wonder how much you bothered to research what atheism actually is before you wrote this piece. Atheism is the rejection of the claim of a positive belief that god(s) exist, not the assertion that no god(s) exist. It's an important distinction, the default position is a response to a claim, not a claim in and of itself, and I would hope that the press (especially the print press) would work a little harder to get it right."

To which he responded:

"Thanks for the words, Casey. For the record, my exact words were: “Atheists simply believe there is no God, or no evidence to support the existence of God.” Isn’t “rejection of the claim” similar to what I wrote, a belief (claim) there is no God? For example, I claim there was a man called Jesus; that is my belief.

Atheists claim there is no God. That is their belief."

/facepalm... and then finally:

"I still think you're not getting it. Atheists don't claim there is no God, they reject the claim of a positive belief in the existence of god(s).

Atheism is a lack of belief, not a belief. Not being a Libertarian is not a belief either. Or as we atheists jokingly analogize "bald is not a hair color."

You may be confusing the position of a "strong atheist" (one who asserts an explicit belief that there are no gods) with the position of "atheism." It would be bad precedent to set by misrepresenting the atheist position because you simply don't have a grasp of the distinction between a claim, a rejection of a claim, and a belief.

And if you aren't inclined to trust the word of "some guy from the internet," put in a phone call to someone in the philosophy department at UCLA. I'm sure they'll set you straight."

Was I too heavy-handed there? Too snarkey? We report, you decide.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mike Gillis' Defense of "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day"

I am posting this for my friend Mike Gillis, Board Member of Seattle Atheists. Today is "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," an idea conceived by Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris who jokingly floated the idea in reaction to South Park's debacle with portraying Mohammed in an episode of the animated series. While there is nearly universal agreement among atheists that the sort of violence and intimidation visited upon Dutch cartoonists and British novelists for exercising free speech is reprehensible, "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" might not be the best approach to express this opposition. Some of the representations it has spawned are silly, harmless or irreverent; others are unnecessarily crass, scatological or grotesque. Norris has since disavowed the movement resulting from her idea and repudiated the "vitriol" that came from it. Nevertheless, it seems an apt discussion to continue. Mike's passionate defense of participating in this exercise of absurdist internet activism really woke me up this morning. I hope you can pass it along:

I support "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" Why? Because I support free speech. Even speech I don't like. Especially speech I don't like.

Just the same way I'd support "Everybody eat a hamburger Day" if it were Hindus using threats of violence against people who ate beef. Just the same way I'd support an "Everybody draw Jesus Day" if Christians were acting like this.

In a free society, free speech means having the right to say exactly what someone doesn't want to hear. If you don't like what someone has to say, you need to answer with your own free speech. Violence and the threat of it is not free speech. It is the admission that you have a losing argument in favor of your position. Nothing justifies violence to chill free speech, not one having their religious sensibilities offended. Nothing.

If some religious person drew an offensive cartoon or wrote an offensive Op-Ed about atheists, it would be insane and morally reprehensible for me to kill the person who wrote or drew it. It would be wrong for me to cut off their head, shoot them eight times and stab them through the heart. It would be wrong for me to set embassies on fire and beat people up. It would be wrong for me to chant for their deaths and call upon other atheists to kill them for being offensive. It would be wrong for me to heavily imply a death threat to the writer or cartoonist and then post pictures of the above beheaded murder victim on my website. It would be wrong for me to break into the writer or cartoonist's house with an axe and try to kill them in front of their grandchild. Ever. No matter how much I was offended. No matter how bad the cartoons or op-ed was.

And it would be insane for anyone on the outside of this -- especially liberal-minded people who claim to support the right to free speech -- to be more offended by the cartoons than by my threats of violence, or the actual execution of said violence. It would be insane for well-meaning liberal folks to take the side of militant fundamentalists' violence enforcement of their blasphemy laws against people who aren't even a part of their religion. Yet, this is exactly what we've done with Islam.

We wouldn't tolerate this violence or the threats if the Catholics or Mormons or Scientologists were doing it in response to having their religion mocked in a cartoon. In fact, they all have been. Part of living in our society means that your culture WILL have to integrate into a few ways. We want your language, your sense of humor, your food, your clothing, your historical narrative and your music. We want all of the things that other immigrant groups have brought to add to and enrich American and Western culture.

But there are some basic principles we WON'T compromise on. Freedom of speech and expression being the big one. The proper answer to speech you don't like is more speech. Not violence. Not because you're offended. I'm offended to the core by what various religious people say all the time. That doesn't give me the right to use law or violence to silence them. It burdens me with the responsibility of responding with words, not fists, blades, bullets or threats.

Welcome to the Western world. You will occasionally be offended by what you hear people say here. And things you say will inevitably offend someone else. That's the price of admission. We're not allowed to kill or threaten people because we don't like what they say. Period.

We don't let Pat Robertson do it. And we won't let you.

And to my well-meaning liberal friends that seem to believe that blasphemy is a worse crime than murder, battery, arson or incitation of violence. Ask yourself if you'd feel the same way if the Pope had called upon Catholics to kill cartoonists for depicting Jesus in an offensive way.

I support "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" not to be pointlessly provocative or to single anyone out for being mocked. In fact, I believe the very opposite. Islam, like every other religion, isn't immune to mockery or criticism. And no one should try to make themselves immune through death threats.

I'm participating because the point needs to be made that religious sensibilities don't give someone license to use violence or the threat of it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Epistemology: A Critical Approach

The lecture I delivered to the Seattle Atheists organization is now online in video form. The title is "Epistemology: A Critical Approach."

Topics covered are a basic introduction to epistemology, the philosophical 'theory of knowledge', basic history and biography of prominent epistemologists (Plato, Augustine, Kant, Locke.... to name a few), belief as a component of knowledge, and our fight against the dual enemies of skepticism and solipsism.

Stay tuned until the end wherein I deftly deflect the audience's attempts to make me appear like an amateur.