Religious Meaning is Not Special

life cycleFall is a tough time for outdoor work. The days get shorter, the temperatures swing from hot to cold and back again. The summer maintenance projects that got left behind come to the fore as the regular work must continue. As our family gets used to being in school I become more empathetic to their vicious schedules and try to compensate more by doing more house chores until frustration over my growing list drives me to abandon preserving garden food, better meals, and a cleaner house.

I spent part of yesterday trying to repair a leaking faucet. The field hydrant needs to be changed but even with the water off there is a leak. The valve has been changed and works yet there is a trickle. Either some other leaking pipe attaches to it in this old make shift maze of farm plumbing or there are two leaks and the only solution will be to shutdown the entire line and lay new pipe. A daunting task in this rocky, hard-clay soil that eats up carbide teeth on ditch diggers.

Living on a farm has meant spending less time backpacking, kayaking, mountaineering, bicycling and other outside pursuits. Working in nature much of the time makes me less inclined to be in more of it for leisure. What makes up my meaning in life is swayed simply by living my life in a different material way.

John Gray’s review of Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood” well reveals the blindness of religious expressionists to secular, or any different, expressionism.

“Neither the Greeks nor the Romans”, Armstrong reminds us, “ever separated religion from secular life. They would not have understood our modern conception of ‘religion’. They had no authoritative scriptures, no compulsory beliefs, no distinct clergy and no obligatory ethical rules.”

This simply isn’t true. The mideast was a polyglot of distinct and competing religions with many syncretic sects becoming locally viable and dominant. Priests, like shamans, medicine men, sorcerers, leaders, and wise men were all distinct and frequently were a separate, and privileged class with their own rules. The name Cohen means rabbi and a rabbi has always been privileged and a sought out status, for example.  The phrase “chosen ones” has significance in most religions as they promote their sacred over other’s profane. “One god,” “jealous god,” or educate to godliness are all distinctions like football jerseys that help create alliance and loyalty.

What’s more insulting is these folks seem to feel that a closely held philosophy is more superior if it is religious. Saying that religion is integral to meaning in life is no more than saying everyone lives by a philosophy, even if unspoken and intuitive. We all bring meaning to life. It’s how we do it and how we resolve clashes between them that matters. It’s not my meaning is more intense than yours because it just feels so much more meaningful. Religious meaning is not special meaning that is above philosophy, world meaning, or life view, or peculiar to godliness.

If one meaning means to bind women’s feat and another meaning means to set them free, when these two groups live together and intermarry or witness each other’s expressionism, this clash of meanings must be met by more than saying my meaning is more real or this meaning has always been so.

Either these separate people can become balkanized again with the inevitable commingling and resultant clash, or syncretism, or another set of meanings are developed that enable them to live together without destroying each other. Civil law is a means of maintaining peace that supersedes a particular group. Rather than insisting that one’s meaning is more real or more integral, time could be spent reasoning to find what is meaningful for both or what can be tolerated by both or not. If not, then, how do we keep them sufficiently isolated from each other that offense doesn’t escalate to war?

Reason and science simply because they are not subjectively solipsistic, and there is a there there, allow people to work through living and growing, through meaning, without isolation or violence.

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Jim Newman,

Daniel Dennett, Only Horseman Left Standing

sexist atheistsIt’s been an overwhelmingly busy few days with preserving garden food, supporting a family full of colds, and continuing work. Yet, it is impossible for me not to extract some time to discuss the issue of sexism in atheism as it again rears its ugly head in some recent remarks by Sam Harris in a Washington Post article.

Way back in the neorenaissance of New Atheism they had a conference where they took a few of the big names in atheism and had a conversation. Four people showed up, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was supposed to be there but could not. Otherwise there would have been five horsemen. That was the biggest mistake in this nascent movement (some say it wasn’t-isn’t a movement but usually to derail discussions of intents and purposes.) There were plenty of women atheists at hand, even well published ones.

Indeed, at that time more women were visibly present to the public than now; notably Ellen Johnson, Margaret Downey, Eugenie Scott, Rebecca Goldstein, Susan Jacoby, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Wendy Kaminar, Ann Druyan, etc. Though the boards did and do remain male dominated. While I was at that conference I can’t remember the exact list of women atheists available, at hand, but there were plenty to draw from.

Who knew that atheism would face an ontological crisis of inclusiveness of women, minorities, and humanist issues that many, usually men, said had nothing to do with atheism.

Perhaps the most famous woman atheist of old was Madelyn Murray O’Hair but there have been many and anyone paying attention would remember an even older time where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her cohorts wrote a feminist bible.

With this in mind it is troubling that there has been pushback against women, in particular atheists who claim that women haven’t showed up because they aren’t naturally or culturally aggressive enough to enjoy the combative environment–as Sam Harris conjectured. It is true that women have stepped up and said sexism is alive, well, and thriving in atheism. Rebecca Watson in particular but also Amanda Marcotte, Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and many others. In too typical way they were pushed aside with notions of prioritizing social ills in the attempt to return discussion to big issues like flashcards of the most obscene crimes on the planet, forgetting that it is often the everyday acts of violence that count the most.

Mark Oppenheimer’s article outlines this agonizingly protracted issue that has yet to be resolved.

Odd though, that men could talk about atheist issues pertinent to their own worlds yet were unable to consider atheist issues in women’s worlds. I can see the goal was to show just how magnificently evil religion was on a global scale. Richard Dawkins exclaimed surprise that so many came to him and thanked him for giving them the courage to come out. That so many missed the importance of coming out on local levels evidences the blind eyes these men had to their own gardens.

Richard Dawkin’s inability to empathize with the real problems of women who were trying to change the world on local levels as well as national levels made his sincerity sound beyond shallow but vicious. And so it has been in his many oddly inchoate ramblings on logic and social justice, where women should just feel guilty, stupid, ready for schooling, for not thinking right.  And then categorizing all who don’t get him as radical feminists, an old term of specific meaning that now just means feminist. Dawkins has taken Mansplaining to a glorious new high, as if women weren’t far more aware of these issues than he ever will be.

Hitchens famously said women have no sense of humor. His point was that women have been so oppressed, even biology has made their lives more difficult then men’s; they burden most of the ills of the world while working more then men. How could they be humorous they were too busy being oppressed? This sideways homage to women caused his downfall. Mostly because his point was lost in the lack of truth of the statement. Nor was it a matter of statistics looking at how many of one versus the other were present in popular culture. It was casting an inevitability, a wrong one, to women.

Hitchens further lost it when he thought women should stay at home, unless they want to work. That last phrase was completely lost because so many women were choosing to work at great sacrifice because economic power is political power. Women well knew the cost of economic, political, and governing engagement. They didn’t need to be told that staying at home was really the ideal. Especially when that is equally true for men. Especially since that was the crap conservatives were spouting to support their particular form of vicious patriarchy.  Neither of what he said has much to do with reality today, sounding more like a romantic sentimentality of some particular, and rare, egalitarian, forager society that can’t possibly exist now, or in any kind of near future. It’s the kind of talk you hear at renaissance festivals, not politics.

Sam Harris in another inchoate response to “where are the women,” the question itself sounding like a Steve Martin skit on Saturday Night Live, responded by saying the atheist world is a competitive world, and women are more nurturing supportive types. Saying this to a growing audience of feminists is beyond absurd. Basically he shot himself in the foot while chewing the other up to his knee. More pertinent is sexism exists in atheism in greater numbers than anyone thought. It took women to show this because of incredible confirmation bias on the part of men. Addressing this directly would have been incredibly helpful and far more accurate.

The only person left is Daniel Dennett who has gone on in his work. Reminding me of Santayana he maintains an Olympian gaze to the world below while he finishes up his tenure. His exaggerated and annoyed response to Sam Harris playing philosophy in his musing of free will shows just how annoyed professionals get when amateurs play expert. Aside from this, Dennett is also the only working professor and educator of the bunch, which means he long ago learned how to analyze and deal with an audience as well as how to educate rather than pontificate. He has certainly shown a curmudgeon responsiveness. He famously quipped he didn’t see how it would be socially useful to study people who meditate 10 hours a day. A perspicacious clue as to why many women find fault with Buddhism, precisely because it has been a male separatism from not just the world but women and the families they often leave behind in happy bliss.

The last salvo has been about the #EstrogenVibe against Harris. I can say the best remark on that was by Debbie Goddard who said she would like to imagine that meant something more pleasant.

Jim Newman,

Willie Robertson Pushes Convert or Die

Wilie-RobertsonLast night I steeled myself to clip the wing feathers of a small flock of Jersey Black Giant Roosters so they wouldn’t fly out of their pasture fence. When I have ignored this task our chickens have taken to the trees, and been eliminated by predators. Chickens can fly pretty high but ultimately trees don’t save them. The roosters were calm since it was night–which  is why they are so easily predated in the dark. I’d thought to clip them during the day but these quite large roosters are intimidating when awake and clear eyed.

A cousin’s dog broke into a pen and got one a couple of weekends ago. It made a fine roast so looking forward to these roosters as winter food. When ready they should weigh out at 8-10 lbs. My daughter helped me do the clipping and all went without a hitch. The other rewards are a little more freedom for them and a little less feed reliance for me. Natural food adds flavor.


Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty is the silent executive producer of the new “Left Behind” film coming out, starring Nicholas Cage. Aside from further proof that Cage is not a likeable actor, it’s mind boggling that so many wish for the sky daddy’s son, self, tripart-oneness, to come back and slaughter the rest.

“Like most Christians, my family and I can truly say that we’re excited about the soon return of Jesus,” he says. “And I’m sure if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that that return could be any day now.”

The news is not pleasant. Almost everyone is awaiting an extinction or some sort of global disaster. But we didn’t sterilize the planet during the cold war, proving that negotiation here and now can work.

Willie would rather hope, demand, prophesy, for a sky daddy to come do it for them. This is hopelessness, giving up, and blaming others.

“It’s a warning to those, if it happened today, would be left behind, and I believe people are going to make that life-changing decision to follow Christ on the way home from the theater on Oct. 3,” Robertson said. “Let’s all make sure we bring some friends and family to see this movie – people who need to see to believe.”

Because a fictional movie and book series that aren’t even accurate are the words of sky daddy? Not to mention making violence sacred–positively Islamist, Christian Jihad.

Willie is echoing Phil Robertson’s recent demand that *we* tell Muslims to convert or die. Anyone not following their sky daddy will die. Hopefully soon. It’s pathetic gibberish that threatens peace.

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Jim Newman,

Racism Due to Low Intelligence?

sammy-davis-archie-bunker-kiss-2Wray Herbert reports on new studies showing racism to be more frequent in people of low intelligence. While liberals knew this all along (#sarcasm) we tend to avoid this topic. Most people believe they are above average. Further it is a big taboo to talk about relative intelligence and politics, much less social topics. Yet, it may be true that the Meathead in Archie Bunker was more intelligent than his racist father-in-law Archie, or at least more compassionate, begging the question of whether the ability to empathize has some relation to intelligence or education to intelligence.

While division of labor supports expertise in a variety of areas as being useful, few want to acknowledge that nature and training, education, in thinking creates an expertise worthy of attention. While many would agree that if your car is broken taking it to a mechanic is a wise choice, or educating yourself to compensate for those people that seem to be able to fix anything mechanical. In intelligence we tend to refer to reliance on expertise as an ad hominem or appeal to austerity argument; because it is true or because it’s hard to follow the argument? Choosing a good car mechanic can be tricky. Mechanical Blue books and repair guides flatten the differences in native and educated expertise. Could something like these be developed for situations requiring intelligence?

The hot button is if racism is related to intelligence what do we do about it; what are its consequences?

Part of democracy is our insistence of any individual to be able question everything and anything, regardless, whether trained, educated, or intuitive. Or not. This does get us into trouble as in global warming where a few people can hijack the research of an overwhelming majority. It also works the other way where a majority of people who are racists overrule the few who keep trying to point out its continued existence, not to mention the vaccination debacle, or ebola fear.

In “Is Racism Just a Form of Stupidity?” Hebert goes where few are willing to trend–which is enough for me to respect him.

I think that a lot of us are shying away from an obvious truth: that the kind of blatant racial prejudice we are witnessing in Ferguson, Missouri, has everything to do with stupidity.

I’m talking about low intelligence, lack of mental ability, cognitive rigidity. Racists may be a lot of other things — hateful, insecure — but let’s not sugar-coat what most fair-minded thinkers believe in their hearts: A person of intelligence cannot embrace such authoritarian and racist views.

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Prejudice declines with presence of intelligence.

Let’s not stop there, however. It’s important, when dealing with such a controversial topic, to get down into the evidentiary weeds a bit. One of the problems plaguing the early research was that the results were confounded by other possible causes, like financial status and class and education. That is, it could have been these things, and not intelligence per se, that led to prejudice. Scientists had trouble sorting all this out. Scientists also didn’t have longitudinal data — data gathered on the same subjects over time — so they could not address the important issue of cause and effect. Plus their study samples were not representative of the population. But scientists have over time solved these problems, and the key finding has held up: Empirical evidence has consistently linked low intelligence with prejudice.

Importantly, scientists have measured intelligence in a variety of ways, and the main conclusion always holds up. In one study of white children, for example, some were less able to see that a short, wide glass holds the same amount of water as a taller, skinnier glass. This ability is known as “conservation” in the jargon of the field, and it’s widely considered an important mental ability. In this study, the kids who lacked this ability also held more negative views of black children. Other researchers conducted an ambitious meta-analysis — a statistical aggregation of findings from many studies — and this also documented a link between cognitive style and ability, on the one hand, and authoritarian attitudes on the other.

Longitudinal studies provide some of the most convincing evidence. One such study looked at general intelligence in 10- and 11-year-old kids, and then re-studied those kids as adults two decades later — and found a clear connection between low intelligence and subsequent racism and sexism. Similarly, higher intelligence in childhood has been shown to predict less racism in adulthood. These analyses strongly suggest that low intelligence actually leads to hateful attitudes later on.

But is this collateral or causal? Supposedly this has been compensated. Herbert goes on to echo others that say certain personality types self align with peers in their politics; authoritarians choose authoritarian-promoting politics.

Dhont and Hodson believe they have an answer to this, again one based on rigorous abundant evidence. Their theory is that right-wing ideologies attract people with lower mental abilities because they minimize the complexity of the world. Right-wing ideologies offer well-structured and ordered views of society, views that preserve traditions and norms, so they are especially attractive to those who are threatened by change and want to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. Conversely, smart people are more capable of grasping a world of nuance, fluidity and relativity.

The empirical evidence supports this link, too. Low intelligence and “low effort thinking” are strongly linked to right-wing attitudes, including authoritarianism and conservative politics. And again, there appears to be a demonstrable causal link: Studies have found, for example, that children with poor mental skills grow up to be strongly right-wing adults.

It is interesting to consider that some people fall prey to specific heuristic biases more than others.

The scientists elaborate on this idea in the Current Directions article: Intelligence and thinking determine how people assess threats in the world. Those with lower ability — reasoning skills, processing speed, and so forth — prefer simple and predictable answers, because that is what they are capable of processing. Any uncertainty is threatening, and they respond to such threats by trying to preserve what is familiar and safe, the status quo. These conservative reactions are basic and normal — they reduce anxiety — but over time they harden into more stable and pervasive world views, which include stereotypical thinking, avoidance, prejudicial attitudes and over discrimination.

Along with others I call this the Bullshit Meter. Nassim Taleb recently Tweeted that he thinks the ability for qualitative logical analysis is like perfect pitch or a musical ear. It can’t be taught. My mother and other music teachers have taught pitch and ear to some degree but it usually requires effort and must be kept up or is diminished, if not wholly lost back to their base line–much like Lykken’s Happiness Setpoint theory. I wonder if intelligence is this way as well. Education and continued education, or exposure to social groups that provide intuitive education, allow people to make more complex and nuanced choices. But that can be lost if you move or change groups.

The truth of this was posited long ago by Plato who said truth, beauty, and goodness were a tight braid. Knowing the truth also means knowing goodness and beauty.

The big issue is how do we talk about this without offending, insulting the crap out of, many people. On the other hand we easily recognize that a fit person can run faster. An unfit person can learn to run more fast. Perhaps, we should value intelligence and educate towards that. Another problem is it’s easier to see a superior gymnast than a superior intellect.

Jim Newman. bright an well

Posting Blues, All-Consuming, Farm-Construction Life

It’s been 8 days since my last post. Work this time of year on a farm and in construction, and when  the bills surpass the income, means I work every day, dark to dark, without weekends. In the midst of this we got a mixed-lucky-break. A two-week, made-four-years-ago-contract, as part of short-sale-deal-vacation on a barrier island off the coast of Florida that if we don’t take we pretty much lose forever–and it’s during hurricane season. Which means I have to make up for that lost income while paying for trip expenses if I am also to cover August expenses. Yikes. We need vacation in winter when work is slow but then everyone is in school. There was a reason school was out during summer for the many farm families when every hand of all ages was valued and useful.

Another worst for us is walking away from garden for such long time just as it comes into prime; we need every bit of it to preserve for winter and save on food bills now.

Hell, I’m glad for a break to just write this. When you’re working full blast there’s no time for 140-character tweets even much less read a time-line. This life style was typical until unions.

So I hope to be back in a couple of days so please stay tuned.

Jim n

Deconstructing Feminist & Atheist Babies

jewish babyThere is a schizophrenic attitude (at least) towards what we call babies. Richard Dawkins has said all babies are atheists. On the other hand he tweeted that this is droll yet too contentious to be a speaking point. Joyce Carol Oates has said there are no misogynist babies. We will take that as meaning all babies are feminists. Others have said babies are born sexists by virtue of gender and anatomy issues.

Andrew Brown calls a halt to all of this, in a polemic against Dawkins, by saying his babies are cultural since atheism is really just another religion. Chinese babies are Chinese by virtue of their birth location. Brown implies we can only accurately nomer a baby  by an inherent trait or physiology. There are Down’s Syndrome babies, colicky babies, and even the occasional, good natured baby (will that endure as they age?).

Some Muslims will never speak of “converts” but only “reverts” because they believe that everyone is born a Muslim, even if some babies have this truth hidden from them by their parents who tell them they’re Christians or atheists. And there’s a style of atheist rhetoric that makes exactly the same point. To take two random examples from my recent Twitter stream: Joan Smith wrote: “I’m not convinced there are Muslim or Christian children. They have religious parents, but should be able to decide when they grow up.” And Richard Dawkins wrote: “When you say X is the fastest growing religion, all you mean is that X people have babies at the fastest rate. But babies have no religion.”

But there are no atheist babies, and certainly no agnostic ones. This is for two reasons. The first is that if we’re going to be consistent, and to demand that babies only be ascribed identities that they themselves embrace, there are no German, British or Chinese children either. There are simply the children of German and English and Chinese parents, who will in due course learn the habits and the rules of the cultures around them and grow into their parents’ language, nationality, food habits – and religious opinions. The way in which they express these will become more subtle and more interesting as they grow up – or at least we can hope it will – but the fact remains that babies are entirely anchored in the world by their parents.

Babies bear the brunt of being called whatever others choose. Babies cannot self avow (if they could they’d probably say STFU). They cannot verbally say “I am a gay baby” for example.

But you don’t get Dawkins and Smith complaining because people talk about “Chinese babies”. They think religion is different. Well, it is. For one thing, and despite the existence of loathsome and barbaric laws against apostasy, in most of the world it’s much easier to change your religion than your language or nationality. It is generally accepted that changing your religion is a human right, but changing your nationality is not. The big difference is that religions usually make it hard to leave and nationalities usually make it hard to enter. But in neither case does an individual get to choose as if no one else were involved. To imply that babies have a default theological position of atheism is as silly as assuming that they have a default language or nationality.

Brown claims that atheism is more of a political position than an inherent trait. He claims that all babies are born with a supernatural ability. The problem here is he assumes babies and humans can discern the one from the other. Human development is a long road of untangling the real from the unreal. Since babies and adults can be inculcated and self fabricate reality it would be better to say babies are born imagineers which includes the realism involved.

There is another reason why babies can’t be atheists or agnostics. Everything we know from science shows that supernaturalism comes naturally to children. It is not just that they believe much of what their parents and the surrounding societies tell them: they show a preference for remembering and transmitting stories that defy scientific rationality. So do we all, unless we train ourselves out of it.

Multiple meanings can be assigned to babies in the sense of Amish which means both a religion and a culture, and usually a heredity and past geography. I wonder what being a born patriot would imply? A baby that has a circumcision os is genitally altered bears this physical cultural attribute for life.

While all of this is greatly entertaining if one has had enough to drink, the point is really that babies don’t have a religious belief system at birth–some ability to construct internal realities doesn’t count as a religion. The point of feminist babies is that they really haven’t learned inequality or misogyny yet. Indeed most babies seem to love women or at least the nourishment they give them. So babies are born lovers. A love baby is something quite different.

While I find this most entertaining, I must consider the implications of being a born atheist or feminist. Atheism is trusting evidence. All evidence points towards equality and justice towards others as being the best and typical way of human well being and survival. At least if we consider our tenure here as sufficiently long. By that count babies are born humanists and feminists purely by being born atheist. Our genetic inclination towards justice and equality are tainted by inherent biases. Nevertheless even culturally we have sought equality and justice in spite of a rather large amount of aggression. We haven’t killed each other off, yet, and cooperation has allowed us to become dominant.

In a factual sense at least it is true that a Chinese baby was born in China though recent immigrants may call their baby a Chinese baby virtually by the culture they wish to impose on their baby irregardless of geography. Are we having fun yet?

The disjunct is too many say atheism is just an absence of gods.That is all fine and good but how do they arrive at that conclusion? They say there isn’t enough evidence, or if they are rationalists, there is no rational proof of god(s). Yet they wish to divorce their conclusion from the process.

It’s as if to say there are no Tea Pots in the sky because no one has seen them but then say it doesn’t matter whether they’ve been seen or not because it’s not about the observation. Of course it is. What atheists are really saying is they are scientists with a smattering of rationality thrown in. Babies are born scientists. Or babies are born observationalists. Or babies are born thinking machines.

What people do when describing babies is to communicate something about that baby they wish to be true or that may exist to some degree. This gets sloppy when people don’t know or disagree what is cultural versus genetic. They will call their babies whatever they goddamned please. Clearly the babies need legal representation and probably therapy by this point.

To reach the state where you can really reflect critically on your own beliefs – rather than simply understanding that your parents are deluded old fools – takes a long time if it ever happens at all. As Bertrand Russell observed, many people would rather die than think and most of them do. And that is why no one can really be called an atheist or an agnostic until they have grown up.

Hmm, they may not think about being a born depressive until they’ve grown up either, or gay, or many other aspects. A Jewish baby may not deal with his circumcision for some time.

That babies are x, y, or z becomes a talking point with the poor little bastard of unmarried logic and science not even having a say.

Like all good deconstruction arguments there are no conclusions other than to make the discussion troublesome. What is important is to consider what one is saying when they assert born atheist, born feminist, or born theistic. Putting it this away it seems unlikely that babies are born theistic. They other two seem quite reasonable. I would hope no one would wish to claim their baby was born sexist or misogynist but then … No, no, stop, please.

Jim Newman, bright and well.