Saturday, January 31, 2015

Police shoot man talking on cell phone

Considering that cops in America can shoot people with impunity (especially black people), I think it's important that we see and review every police killing and not let this issue die.

Here's a story I heard today (via DailyKos): a man named John Crawford was shot and killed in a Walmart, as he talked on his cell phone, holding a toy gun in the toy section of the store. It's not a new story, but it's new to me, and it is shocking.

I don't have to tell you what color his skin was.

Addendum: How often are unarmed black men gunned down by police? Across the U.S., the government doesn't care enough to count "unjustified killings", and not many independent studies exist.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Beagle

As a lifelong Christian and Mormon, I experienced various difficulties: guilt about my sinful nature, sadness that God wouldn't communicate with me, and the many intellectual questions that the church couldn't answer. I don't talk much about that on my blog; it has often been difficult to focus my thoughts on these issues, and besides, I like to talk about solutions rather than problems. After my long journey, I have found that Christianity offers a lot of problems, but not many reliable, trustworthy solutions.

I can always be thankful that Mormonism (together with the teachings of my father, perhaps just as importantly) gave me my belief system. Even if it turns out there is no God, I still learned many good principles from the Church. I have good reasons, however, to say that I will probably never return. I don't feel like talking about it right now, but I found someone who does...
You said you’re worried that you might discover your mother is intellectually dishonest. I suppose she might be, but it’s more likely that she is just fearful. Fundamentalists believe that life without God has no purpose, that they would have no reason to be good, and no reason to care about anything. Add the threat of eternal torment if you give up your faith, and the Bible passages that say apostates can never come back, and you have a huge load of fear. I don’t think conservative Christians as a group realize how much they are oppressed by fear. It is so woven into the doctrinal clothes they wear every day that they don’t even notice it. They think that if they were to give up their faith their whole world would fall apart and they could never put it back together. This is a powerful disincentive to question honestly and thoroughly. What I observe is that they question just enough that they can assure themselves that they have exercised critical thinking, but not so much that they get to the bottom of things. They accept pat answers that, objectively, are totally inadequate. I’m sure they don’t realize they’re doing this, or that it comes from fear.

Also, cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, are part of the human condition. Your mother has them, you have them, and I have them. That doesn’t make your mother a bad person.

- Snippet of a comment from The Beagle
I'd like to thank a new friend of mine for pointing me to this blog, The Path of the Beagle. While the Beagle's path away from Evangelical Christianity is not the same as my path away from the LDS Church, and I haven't completely rejected my church the way he has, it explains the path and the reasons better than I have time or inclination to.

There are a few reasons I left, one of which is the seeming evil of the God of the Old Testament. The Beagle featured this satirical YouTube video which explains the problem pretty well, complete with many biblical references that you can read for yourself.

I'll just add a couple of thoughts.

Above all, the most important issue is whether or not Christianity is true. If it is true, does it really matter that much if God is unreasonable, has committed genocide repeatedly, doesn't answer our prayers, or makes us feel guilty all the time? After all, we are imperfect. Maybe we deserve all that. After my brother left the church, he told me it was because he was tired of feeling guilty all the time. This argument was not persuasive to me, since the really important thing isn't whether you like the church or its doctrines, but whether they are true. I still believed it was true, so I kept going to church, kept reading scriptures, kept praying—and not without guilt!

I think the issue that affected me the most was not evidence that God didn't exist, but rather evidence that he wasn't Good. If God wasn't good, it makes perfect sense that he would still say that he was good in the Bible. If God existed, but was not good, and not trustworthy, and did not keep his promises, should we really follow him? I wouldn't say I started to believe God was evil. But the mere possibility seemed inescapable. How could we know that God is good? Well, we can't. All we have is his Word, and how can we be sure that his Word is trustworthy? Well, there is little more I could do than assume.

I must admit that I haven't sought out information that calls into question the many testimonies of miracles heard within the church--information that would question the very existence of God. But whether there is a God or not, my trust in a loving God is gone, and that is sufficient. If God exists, and is good, he should prove it. If he is unwilling to prove it, then it would be fundamentally unjust for him to send unbelievers to hell. To elaborate, if the Christian God exists, there are two possibilities:
  1. He is Good, and follows some rational ethical system that mortals could understand, even if that system hasn't been clearly stated in the Bible (and even if the conclusions of that system are not predictable by mere mortals). In that case he will not send earnest unbelievers to hell simply for incorrectly concluding, after careful thought, that he does not exist, for it would be unjust to do so. Therefore, since I am sincere and committed to high ethical standards, I need not fear God merely because I am an agnostic — and there is simply no need to try to "save my soul" by bringing me back to church.
  2. He is not good. In that case, nothing stated in the Bible is trustworthy, and his nature is fundamentally unknowable. In this case it makes little sense to worry about angering him, regardless of what we believe or disbelieve, because we don't really know him, because a God that isn't good isn't obliged to tell the truth, even if he says he is. So we can't know how he will treat us after death or even in this life (although if history is any indication, he will not do anything for us or against us in this life). Why would you follow a God who is fundamentally unjust, even if he exists? In this case the ethical thing is not to follow him, even though he exists.
I still hope for life after death, and I wish there were a loving creator, I just don't expect to meet one. I am an agnostic now. But I still know that I have a soul.

Philosophy is therefore no idle pastime, but a serious business, fundamental to our lives. It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, scripture with the whole world of human learning. The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well-investigated and well-proved, rather than what is merely asserted or well-liked. … Above all, she commits herself to the constant study of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things. - Sense and Goodness without God, pg 25-26, as quoted by The Beagle

Sunday, January 11, 2015

It's Not as Bad as You Think

There are many cognitive tasks Human beings are not very good at... one of which is discerning the differences between eras. We don't appreciate that life today is a lot different from previous epochs from which we got The Bible, the works of Shakespeare or even The Wealth of Nations.

The church I used to attend likes to look for signs of the second coming of Christ (other churches apparently believe in the Rapture instead), which is said to be preceded by great wickedness, wars, and suffering.
And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. - Daniel 12:1
And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. - Matthew 24:6–7
I heard people at church saying things like "we don't know when the second coming will be--it could be tomorrow!" But they know the signs — how can they think we're having sufficient famines and wars, let alone earthquakes, for the second coming?

This post is not about religion; it's just a convenient way to illustrate that many people still seem to think the world is filled with wickedness, war, and suffering. Wickedness, conservatives would say, due to phenomena like gay marriage, apathy and atheism — but don't we live in a time with less hatred than ever before? I do think apathy is a serious problem, but it's been a problem throughout all of history. Isn't war and murder far worse than premarital sex? We have much less of the former. Hatred is worse than apathy, and we have less of that. As far as I'm aware, the largest group of hateful people on earth are Muslim extremists, and they are a tiny minority of the world's population. As for war and suffering, it can be shown objectively that there is less war and less suffering today — dramatically less — than during most of human history.

When you read this, does it seem remarkable merely that you can read it? I'm not just talking about the fact that you got it from a fantastic technological medium called the internet, or that I was able to publish it worldwide without having to pay anyone a dime. More basic than that, your brain is able to decode a complicated sequence of glyphs into human thought! The remarkable thing about the modern era is that this ability of yours is so commonplace. It is remarkable, not only that you can stare at a bunch of writing and have an intellectually stimulating experience, but that most of the adults in your country can do the same thing.

Don't take my word for it. Slate has a fantastic article on the subject entitled Why The World Is Not Falling Apart.
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world.... The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”
This must-read article systematically dismantles the idea that the world is falling apart, mostly with graphs dating from 1945. Before 1945, of course, we had two world wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, in which 50 to 100 million people were killed.

If you look at statistics before 1900 (what few are available) you'll see numbers even worse than during most of the 20th century. Before 1900 there was no penicillin, virtually no blood transfusions, and few reliable surgical procedures. There were no radios, virtually no automobiles, no airplanes, no television, and no computers. Now you can read this article on the internet--from almost any location on Earth! Do you really understand what life was like before 1900, let alone 1800? Before 1800 there were no anaesthetics (and not much in the way of analgesics), almost no vaccines, and doctors didn't know (and had false beliefs about) how diseases were transmitted, which led to many deaths. Before 1800 there was no such thing as refrigeration, no telegraphs, no telephones, no electricity, and no tall buildings except Pyramids and cathedral spires. Forget indoor plumbing; even underground sewers were rare. Since 1800, life expectancy has more than doubled worldwide, and since 1800, rates of literacy and education have skyrocketed around the world (references: medical, inventions, life expectancy, literacy, etc).

In New York in 1915, even an idea as basic as being kind to your infant was revolutionary in some circles:
Though infant mortality had plummeted in the slums thanks to the bureau’s efforts, it hadn’t budged in wealthier neighborhoods.... At the time, medical opinion held that mothers should train their babies early to be independent by feeding them at regular intervals and ignoring their cries and babbles. Doing otherwise was thought to damage them psychologically. We now know the opposite is true. - The Doctor Who Made a Revolution
To sum up, I bet that even a cat has a much higher chance of surviving to age 5 today than a human child did in 1800.

The world could, of course, be a much better place than it is, but it could also be so much worse. The one constant is change, and the price of liberty is eternal vigilance; we must keep fighting for a better world if we are to maintain our quality of life and avoid slipping back to old patterns of war, suffering and ignorance. Thanks to nuclear and biological weapons, another world war could be incomparably disastrous. Thanks to today's severe income inequality, and the shrinkage of the job market, it's possible that average living standards may slip backward soon in some countries. But as we listen to the news and fight for a better world, let us give thanks, and not forget that we are, in fact, living in the most prosperous time in all of human history.