Anti-Prescriptivist Pedantry: The Word “Knowledge”

Language Prescriptivism is the idea that words have inherent meanings. This leads to very unproductive conversations and other problems. As a descriptivist, I thought I’d start a regular series talking about the various usages of different words that come up here and there that cause regular problems in theological and other debates. While I will always have a preference for certain word usages over others, the label we apply to ideas is not as interesting as the ideas themselves, so I will do my best to present multiple usages behind words in the most charitable way while still defending my preference.

 

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Jeremiah Traeger

“You don’t know that there is no god!”

 

Yes, yes, this is a tired argument, and anyone who has seen this already understands the problem: it’s a shifting of the burden of proof. If you want to see good responses to this there are plenty of resources out there, here’s a favorite of mine. But the standard response that atheists usually give is that they don’t actually hold the position that they know a god doesn’t exist. That actually depends largely on two things:

 

  • What someone means by “god”
  • What someone means by “know”

 

This post is all about the second bullet point. How do we come to “know” something? What counts as “knowledge”? Can we really “know” anything?

 

There is certainly a lot of value in acknowledging our uncertainty in life. It’s useful when we are discussing our perspectives that we assign things as being more or less likely to be true. But does that require throwing “knowledge” out the window? Just because we are uncertain about something does that mean we don’t “know” it?

 

One way that people define “knowledge” is by making it absolute. This is certainly a favorite of presuppositionalist apologists. All you have to do is watch the mind-numbing and baldness-inducing debate between Matt Dillahunty and Sye Ten Bruggencate. Whenever Sye would ask Matt if he could know anything, Matt had to clarify whether Sye meant if this was “absolute knowledge” or some form of knowledge with lower certainty. This certainly frustrated Sye, who didn’t have the tools to deal with someone who wasn’t willing to play his game. Sye repeatedly tried to insist that without his god that we can’t know anything. Unfortunately for him, this is all a bunch of word games. It’s true that in a naturalist universe we have no guarantee of absolute certainty (this is also not true in a theistic universe). Of course, this doesn’t eliminate knowledge.

 

There are also plenty of apologists who would state we have absolute certainty of things such as gravity and the beginning of the universe, something which I disagree with in the other direction, since I think absolute certainty in gravity goes too far. Regardless of how you define knowledge, though, you would probably define absolute certainty as at least a part of knowledge. In that instance you could certainly state that we have at least some knowledge of the universe.

 

This even drifts into atheist circles. A surprisingly large amount of atheists describe themselves as “agnostic atheists”, meaning that they don’t think that a god exists, but that they also don’t know whether or not a god exists or not. Seeing as the root word in Greek, “gnosis”, means knowledge, the term agnostic seems to describe that someone is “without knowledge”*. This has thrown a wrench into a lot of discussions with the general public who describe themselves as “agnostic” in an entirely different sense, that they aren’t sure either way about a god so they throw the question out altogether. This causes a lot of confusion, as people who would call themselves agnostic but not atheist describe themselves in a way that implies that atheists are “certain” that there isn’t a god. Meanwhile, many if not most atheists wouldn’t describe themselves as certain that there isn’t a god anyway.

 

Seeing as “agnosticism” is based on what “knowledge” is, does that mean that everybody is really agnostic? Theists claim absolute certainty about their beliefs sometimes, does that mean that they’re the only people who aren’t agnostic?

 

I’d argue that this form of the word “knowledge” is useless. If knowledge requires absolute certainty, then there are very few things I can know. The only thing I can know is something Renee Descartes demonstrated almost four centuries, stating, “I think, therefore I am”. About the only thing that I’m 100% certain of is that I am experiencing life and creating thoughts, therefore I exist. I could possibly be in a simulation, or I could be experiencing life as I currently understand it: laying on a couch typing into a computer and eating far too many chips. But either way, I am experiencing something, so I know I exist, which is true whether I exist as a simulation or a dream or as a fleshy bag of meat in a very real natural universe. In that sense, I can only pretty know one thing. That is fucking useless.

 

Have you ever asked your coworker if they knew whether or not that the coffeemaker had been refilled, and they stated that they couldn’t know because they could just be a brain in a vat? Unless your coworkers are a bunch of snarky philosophers, this probably hasn’t happened. And if you do have a lot of snarky philosopher coworkers, where do you work, the existentialism factory?

 

No, we have much better usages of knowledge. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines knowledge as justified true belief. This means that we have knowledge when we think something is true (belief), when as far as we can tell it aligns with reality (true), and we have plenty of good evidence to show that it’s true (justified). There are a few problems with this definition that philosophers have with this definition. At what point do we have enough evidence in our belief for it to be justified? Furthermore, we could be supporting our belief with evidence that happens to be bad, as illustrated in the above link with “The Gettier Problem”.

 

Still, this seems to work well enough as a definition. At some point, we have enough evidence to state that we are pretty certain about something. If I asked my coworker if the coffeemaker is full and he just saw our buddy Steve refill it, he could reasonably say that he knows that it’s full. Any number of situations could still make that untrue while Steve can reasonably say that he knows it’s full. In the time since he saw it a horde of caffeine deprived workers could have shown up all at once and filled their cups, emptying the machine. The coffeemaker could have also broken and spilled coffee all over the floor. Or there is no coffee machine and we are living in the Matrix. All of these have varying degrees of plausibility, but all are at least somewhat out of the ordinary for someone who just saw Steve fill the coffeemaker, so our coworker can still be pretty certain that it is full and that he knows so.

 

This seems far more useful as a usage of “knowledge”. It is a type of belief that is more certain than other types of belief. While the line between belief that is justified and not justified might be a bit fuzzy, we know that when someone says that they know something they have a higher degree of certainty than normal about that belief.

 

 

knowledge venn diagram

[Image: A venn diagram. The negative space is labeled “Stuff I don’t believe”. There is a circle labeled “Stuff I believe” and a circle within that circle labeled “stuff I know”, and the more certainty in the belief indicates that the belief is more justified as “knowledge”]

Of course, under this model a lot of theists may be able to claim knowledge of the existence of their god. According to them, they have a lot of evidence, whether through scripture or personal revelation. Their indoctrination has led them to a high degree of certainty that their god is real. This usage of the term knowledge does not always mean that stuff you know is necessarily true. At this point you may accept their use of the word knowledge, but you may also want to question whether or not they are justified. Certainly the evidence they have is fairly poor, so that would be a good point to attack whether they actually know that to be true or not.

 

Conversely, you could also use this definition to actually say that you know that certain gods don’t exist. The quote at the beginning of the piece questioned whether we actually know that gods exist, which is often something said to dismiss someone’s atheism. While many will retreat into a weak atheist or “agnostic” position stating that they don’t know that gods exist, it may be actually a better idea to actually push back and say that you do know that there isn’t a god, at least not in the sense they are proposing. Assuming that this person’s god is a Christian one, there are a lot of contradictory behaviors that he engages in in the Bible. Furthermore, thhe dogma and tenets that people hold about this god lack consistency. The evidence that we have discovered in the real world has only ever supported natural physical causes for the universe’s existence and behavior. Again, we can’t be absolutely certain, but there is a lot of evidence to not only show that the Bible is unreliable, but that it is demonstrably false. This is why I am personally comfortable in stating that I know that there isn’t a Christian god. As AronRa has stated about the Bible, it is, “not evidently true, or evidently not true”. I’m less willing to say that I know there is no god whatsoever. A vague or Deistic god could potentially exist and I don’t have evidence against it, but I certainly have no reason to start believing it in the first place. But for certain gods that have been proposed I’m certainly not an “agnostic atheist”, I am certain of their nonexistence.

 

Hopefully this was a thorough investigation on two different usages of the term “knowledge”. There are certainly more ways people use the word, but these two seem the most common within theological debates, and seem to have the most to discuss. I find the latter usage far more useful. I’d like to think that I’ve made the case enough for you here, but I don’t know that for sure.

 

*The opposite term gnostic could hypothetically be used to describe that someone has knowledge. That being said, Gnosticism is a type of religious sect whose tenets go far beyond merely “knowing that a god exists”. While most people probably don’t know the term “gnostic” anyway, just be careful with your terms should you ever discuss your theistic dissents against a theology professor.

Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep

This piece was written last spring when the author’s aunt died. It was written to help us through some recent periods of grief in the atheist community, so we can get through the hard times.

Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

 

~Mary Elizabeth Frye

 

Deb

Deborah McTaggart

This past spring, one of my favourite aunts died.  My Father’s sister, she was only 64 years old.  That’s younger than her own mother was when she passed.  My uncle has already been gone a number of years now, but my aunt, while it hit her hard, never let that phase her.  My aunt was fiercely independent and tough as nails.  She always did her own thing and fuck anyone who tried to get in her way.  Her life was a lot shorter than it should have been, but I think she had a good one, and I think she was happy.  She loved animals and kept horses most of her life, as well as dogs.  She had her own little hair salon in her home and did hair for the community for decades.  She was the first one to ever cut my hair and the only one for my entire childhood.  She raised my two beautiful cousins and enjoyed her three grandsons.  Again, far too short, but it was mostly a good life.

 

I know that death and loss is one of the hardest things we all have to go through in life, yet it is an integral part of life.  Unless we die at far too young of an age ourselves, we will all experience loss and grief at some point.  I am also keenly aware that this heartache and fear is primarily what drives belief in gods and religion.  What wouldn’t any of us do to be able to see and spend time with those we love whom we have lost?  It’s a hell of a lure.  The idea that we can divest ourselves of some of that pain and anguish with the knowledge that our loved one has just moved on, and we can eventually go with them.  It’s a beautiful sentiment, it’s a comfort to millions, it inspires people to do incredible things, and it’s all a fucking lie.

 

Those we have lost are gone.  They are never coming back in any form, and we will not be going anywhere to see them in the future.  This is reality, and in all honesty it fucking sucks.  Which is why billions of people in the world refuse to accept this reality.  Religion has known this for millennia and to me, one of the most despicable practices of religion is to manipulate and capitalize on that. Religion takes people’s deepest fears and pains and uses it against them and it is reprehensible.

 

I’ve heard it said frequently that if religion provides comfort to people, then we should just let it be.  Allow those people the comfort they seek because it doesn’t do any harm and it helps them.  Bullshit! It absolutely DOES do harm.  For every person we allow to believe this shit, they sell the same pack of lies to everyone else in their lives, especially any who have children.  By allowing this mirage to exist, we are harming billions of people who hang a good deal of their emotional well-being on something that is false.

 

We have allowed generations of people to cling to this ideal, that death is not death and that all have the possibility of more.  In doing so, we have deprived ourselves of the true value of life.  The pious deprive themselves of true living, and the fundamentalist often seek to deprive others of experiencing being alive.  Beyond that, we have also deprived generations of the opportunity to gain emotional strength through experiencing loss as it truly is.

 

When people say we should allow a grieving person that solace of believing in eternity, it sounds like a kind thing to do.  We think that it will ease the pain of the loss if we allow them to think their loved one will be waiting for them in the afterlife, whatever that means to them.  But it doesn’t.  It only deprives them of the ability to fully process and accept that loss, because they always doubt that it is actually a loss.  They have hope that it is only a temporary separation, so why would they seek to really accept the finality of death?

 

As a refresher, I looked up the stages of grief.  I’ve been through it enough times that I don’t even follow the stages as they are anymore so it had been a while since I thought of them.  Some schools of thought even claim there are more stages than I remember, but two very important things stood out to me.  One, is that the final stage, acceptance, is not reached by everyone.  Just think about that for a moment.  Millions of people will experience grief and never be able to fully accept the loss.  I have to wonder how much of that is caused by religion and the notion that the loss isn’t final.  I ache for those people who will never know what the peace of that acceptance is like, for those whose emotional pain will likely never ease.  If religion causes even a small fraction of this, it is an evil thing.  I suspect it is the cause of a lot more suffering than this.

 

I am a firm believer that adversity breeds strength.  I’ve lived it enough to be sure of the concept.  In the time immediately following my aunt’s death,  I had a couple of good friends tell me that I am a strong person.  I don’t mean to toot my proverbial horn, but I believe them.  I KNOW it.  I always tell them that I had no choice in the matter, that it was adapt, cope or die.  This speaks to the other thing that really stood out for me when I was researching grief.

 

In that piece, it said: ” As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs.”

 

THIS is how I manage, how I get through every shitty situation that life has to throw at me and come out ready to take more.  I have to look that pain in the face and go through it.  Let it wash over me like a tsunami until I am left there standing.  And you know what?  I’m always left standing after it passes.  I cannot fear to feel these things, or it will consume from the inside out.  It will fester like a cancer, an infection that will slowly eat you alive.  That’s why I call the experience “lancing the abscess”.  It isn’t pleasant, it’s downright agonizing at times, it can be very messy, but it HAS to happen for me to remain healthy and strong.  I suspect this is the same for a great many people.

 

Yet what does religion do?  Clergy will give you platitudes meant to sooth your pain and encourage you not to feel bad because “god” will fix everything.  I have been to far too many funerals that I have seen this shit time and time again.  Your loved one is “in a better place,” “god wanted to take them home” “god needed a new angel,” and of course, the idea that your loved one will be waiting for you in heaven or be “risen” on judgement day.  Clergy assumes this is true, and does whatever they can to get the bereaved to believe it too.  The intent might be good, but in the end, the bereaved would be much better served by learning how to process that raw emotion, instead of pretending they don’t have a reason to feel that way.

 

Grief is not a standard issue item.  Grief is a mixture of emotions that evolves over time, from when the loss occurs. Just like love, which I talked about in a Facebook Note, there is no fucking way billions of people experience grief the same way.  I get so pissed when I hear people talk about how someone isn’t reacting “normally” to a death or that they are grieving too long or not long enough etc.  Hell people have been suspected of and I might say even convicted of murder based on how they grieved the loss of the victim.  Sorry but there is no “right” fucking way mourn the loss of someone.

 

As I mentioned, I have lost a lot of people in my life, and I have even experienced grief differently over the years.  I don’t follow the known stages of grief, and I’m not sure that I ever have.  I see nothing wrong with that.  Different people mean different things to me, regardless of DNA or affection or love and I’m an individual, not some kind of carbon copy person.

 

I’ve mourned people very profoundly, like my father; I’ve mourned people more for the loss they created in the lives of others around them, like my brother.  I’ve been relieved that the suffering of some people was relieved by their death, like my maternal grandmother.  I’ve been dismayed and shocked by loss, like my college friend who lost his battle with mental illness.

 

And yes, I have rejoiced in the death of someone, the grandfather who molested me.

 

How anyone grieves a loss is their own damn business, and no one should be trying to tell them they’re doing it wrong.  And religion shouldn’t be trying to tell people their grief should be muted or held in.  We have to let it out or we risk being consumed by it.

 

No one in my father’s family was ever religious.  I never had cause to discuss it with them, any of them, but judging by their actions, I would say they were likely a mixture of deists, apatheists, agnostics and maybe even the odd atheist.  Whatever their beliefs, church was only something you did when someone got married or died.

 

Except this time, there was no church.  It is often the custom to have a clergyman at the funeral and say some kind of religious shit like I mentioned above.  My beautiful cousins are apparently smarter than that.  There was no funeral, no clergy, no religious shit whatsoever. We gathered together as a family and remembered my aunt, talked about good times with her and were happy we knew her.  THAT is how it should be.  Find joy in each other; celebrate the life gone and the lives that are still here.  Fuck the sky fairies and their false promises.

 

Dysphoria

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Melina Rayna Svanhild Barratt

Today I get to live in drab. That’s another way to say I am not presenting as my authentic self, and instead presenting as a male. Cross dressing in a sense. That’s the problem with transitioning, there is invariably a period of time you have to go back and forth between the two.  Part time in both roles, like one foot is stuck in cement like mud up to your knee. It takes time to get out for some of us. Between records, driver’s license, passport, educational papers and W2’s.  So much has to be done.  A few manage to do most of it before coming out, for some that’s just not possible. Either by regulations, or internal impatience, many have to present well before their official life can change. Often gender dysphoria is a commanding reason to begin to transition and present authentically.  But what is gender dysphoria?  How to explain it….. I’m not sure.  So many times I’ve heard others say they can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to feel this way.  Well, I think atheists are in a unique position to really understand, at least in this country.

 

 

To explain, let me take you down a road.  Before we go, remember that experiences are many and varied.  You’re an atheist, think of how you got there. Now think of how others got there, think of Ryan Bell (Life After God), think of Bobby C (No Religion Required), of Miss Suzy(Bar Room Atheist), Morgan Stringer(BiSkeptikal), Seth Andrews(The Thinking Atheist), Dan Barker(Freedom From Religion Foundation).  Think of how all these people and more had very different experiences getting to atheism.  In a similar fashion, transpeople experience the same variation even while the type is vastly different.  So with that in mind, let’s begin.

 

You have to go to a relative’s house for a night.  For whatever reason, you have to pretend to be Christian while you are there.  It’s not so bad, it’s just dinner. You take off your iam4th T-shirt, put something else on and go.  On the way there, about an hour’s drive, you pass a bunch of churches, many with signs demonizing atheists or gays. One combined those two to fight the Gaytheist Manifesto. Once there, you walk past a statue of The Virgin Mary. On the door is a big decorated cross and a Glory Be welcome mat.  With a smirk you notice a Hole next to the word Glory.  You knock on the door and after a few moments the doors opens, you can hear Amazing Grace playing inside. Your relative warmly greets you then asks you to join in a prayer to thank God for your safe trip.  Once inside you sit on the couch under the painting of Jesus and talk for a bit before dinner. As their honored guest, they ask you to lead the prayer. You bite back replies that come to mind and manage to get through it. After dinner you talk a bit more, before you go they insist on another prayer thanking God the Almighty for bringing such a wonderful God Fearing Christian to their home tonight and wishes He grant you a safe journey home.

 

Now that wasn’t so bad?  Was it?  It’s really easy to read, but seriously put yourself in that story. Now, let’s take it a step further. Easter weekend…..

 

Once again you find you have to spend time with that relative, but this time it’s an entire day.  Easter Sunday. You wake up, drink some coffee from your NRR mug, get dressed and go. This time you meet at the church.  The pastor at the entrances asks what church you normally go to.  Maybe you manage to refer to Sunday Assembly just enough to deflect any further inquiry. Right before the service starts, the pastor approaches you and asks you to fill in for an absent usher during the collection. They serve communion, they sing hymns, they read bible verses. You sit and stand and sit again, eat the wafer and drink the grape juice, going through the motions mostly to avoid any confronation.  After service everyone goes outside for the egg hunt. Before it starts there’s a benediction to bless all the children with God’s Glory. Afterwards there is a church potluck lunch served, before the lines are opened there is another group prayer with everyone holding everyone’s hands. You get your food and sit down with your relative and together have yet another prayer before eating. After lunch the events continue with all kinds of activities for hours, all bible themed stuff. Finally, that’s over but before you go home you go to eat once more with your relative, once again a set of prayers before and after and again as you get in your car.

 

Now how does that feel, as a Thinking Atheist?  Dwell on it.  Let’s go yet another step…… Vacation Bible School.  You’ve been enlisted to help manage VBS for a week at the church while you are staying with your relative for reasons that don’t matter (don’t argue, yes you have to go!  It’s a thought experiment, not a democracy). The whole week, from Friday night to Friday night nonstop Jesusing like one long God Awful Movie. And you have to play along….

 

How comfortable would you find those situations?  That is something of what dysphoria feels like.  And the degree of it will vary from person to person. Some atheists really miss going to those things and find a certain amount of comfort going back, if only for the experience even if they don’t believe.  Others don’t much care one way or the other and are just mildly bothered by it. Some would be fighting back so very many Scathing responses, silently screaming “this is not me!  Why am I doing this!?!”  Call it religious dysphoria, not so much different really.

The Worthwhile Problems Part II: “That Shit Isn’t As Bad As THIS Shit”

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Jeremiah Traeger

Last week I wrote a piece about the importance of giving a damn about yourself and your local problems. The purpose was to comfort those in times of loss and struggle, even though the problems of the world seem like much bigger and much more important problems. It’s advice even I struggle to listen to. That being said, it’s not that hard to arrive at that conclusion logically: we won’t be able to make the world better if we ourselves are not in a position to do that effectively in the first place. Usually the only people who are going to solve your individual struggles are you and the people close to you, so you might as well work on the problem if you’re one of the people who can fix it. This does not, however, only apply to immediate problems within our local everyday lives; this philosophy extends to much larger collective movements and many struggles that we fight against.

Many times when we advocate for a cause, we are met with pushback with the transparent purpose of derailing our fight because we aren’t solving “the real problems”. When last week’s murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers prompted justified outrage, status quo defenders came out of the woodwork to say, “Black-on-black crime is a much bigger problem. Why aren’t you focusing on that?” The atheist community in America often gets backlash from conservative apologists, who will chide us by stating, “Atheists have it pretty easy in America, why don’t you care about the ones in the Middle-East that are killed?” A similar tactic is used to dismiss feminist causes, since any injustices that women face in America are not nearly bad as honor killings and female genital mutilation that appear in certain countries as a result of religious hegemony.

I already brought up the quote by Richard Feynman in the aforementioned piece, but since I find it such an immensely useful quote, I will bring it back up as an example of wonderful advice from one of history’s most rational minds.

“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

The problems we focus on are the ones we choose because we can do something about it. Let us not delude ourselves that every cause will be equally fruitful with the same amount of effort we put in. Furthermore, since we are finite beings with finite energy and finite time without an omnipotent force on our side, we will always have to pick our battles. As such, there is no shame in using our finite resources on apparently small potatoes, as long as we get some fruits out of our labor.

Black-on-black crime is absolutely a problem. So is white-on-white crime, since crime overwhelmingly tends to be intraracial, especially due to housing patterns where people of similar color will gravitate towards the same neighborhoods. White-on-white crime is the same problem as black-on-black crime, which is violent culture. This is a pretty hefty problem in a country that worships guns and the military. I’m absolutely not saying that it’s an impossible or unworthy problem to solve; changing hearts and minds is something many of us work on everyday as atheists and secularists. However, solving this problem is a large and abstract task. Racial justice advocates have very concrete plans that can be written into laws and justice system policies for police reform, and how to educate and advocate for these causes . Don’t get me wrong, this will hardly be an easy battle to fight, but we have a much more direct course of action with clear ways of achieving our goals than just attacking “violence” in general.

The same goes for any societal hurdles that atheists and women face at the hands of religious hegemony. Groups like the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) are known for filing lawsuits against seemingly frivolous offenses such as prayers at public school graduations, exclusively Christian representation in government meetings, or religious symbols on public property. There are certainly more harmful offenses being committed at the hands of religion such as religious-based workplace discrimination, public school indoctrination such as the teaching of creationism, and fucking Hobby Lobby. However, the aforementioned groups certainly seem to spend a lot of time focusing on apparently smaller issues. Certainly America is a great place for religious freedom already! We have no blasphemy laws. We have no rules against apostasy, unlike a variety of middle-eastern countries. We have no Raif Badawi over here. Why are we so focused on things as harmless as a mere cross in a park when ISIS still exists? Why are women so focused on silly and relatively benign gender roles in the United States when women in Saudia Arabia get lashes for being raped? These are BIG problems, why are we focusing on the small ones?

Simply put, because we can win them. I’m obviously firmly against the laws against religious freedom in the Middle East. While there are organizations that can help, we can only be so effective overseas. In comparison, FFRF clearly wins battles. If you give right-wing evangelcals an inch, they will try and take a mile, and we are far from having true religious equality in the United States as it is.

We should protest and speak out against laws in Saudi Arabia that prevent women from driving or walking around without a chaperone, but it will be difficult to make that change from here. By contrast, challenging traditional gender roles in the west is one of modern feminism’s best endeavors (in my opinion). When you begin to challenge people on things women cannot do compared to men, the arguments get pretty silly. Just look at some of the things said against Mad Max: Fury Road or having a woman president (not just against Hillary, women in general). I’m not saying that it’s a guaranteed win; fighting some of these battles can be just as fruitless as arguing against certain religious apologists. At the same time, our society is slowly becoming more egalitarian over time, and that’s a result of our efforts in these conversations.

Consider, then, that whenever you want someone to focus on a “bigger” problem that you come across as tone policing. Everyone fights their battles in their own way. Unless someone appears to be actively causing harm, I tend not to police people’s way of changing the world. It’s worth talking about why someone would choose to fight in one way and not another, and maybe both people involved in the conversation can learn from each other. But by being dismissive of a cause you are diverting the conversation away from where solutions are being developed. You are actively putting your energy into preventing problems from being solved, whether or not that is your intention.

Some reading this may protest, stating, “It’s only logical and reasonable that we focus on big problems? Why should we waste time on ones that aren’t as important?” I have to mention that you are also committing an informal logical fallacy when you make this appeal. The dismissal of certain concerns due to the presence of more pressing concerns is known as the Fallacy of Relative Privation. If we can’t care about prayers at board meetings because Saudi Arabia beheads people for blasphemy, then there are a lot of problems we can’t solve here anyway. We aren’t allowed to get food for our family because children are starving around the globe, we can’t care about violence in America because there are still bombings in the Middle East, and we can’t care about whooping cough while there are still AIDS epidemics in Africa. If you think this is a valid conclusion, I’m no longer concerned with your opinions because I think they are ludicrous.

There are pragmatic reasons to focus on the small issues. For one thing, change tends to  be more effective the more local the problem is. Not only will there be fewer institutional and legislative hurdles to overcome at the local political level, but we are far more motivated to be involved with problems that affect us directly. This doesn’t only apply to issues that hit close to home geographically, but also ones that directly affect our identities and the people close to us. If a trans person faces discrimination or they can’t even pee where they work, you bet your ass they are going to have a much stronger fire lit under them to affect change in that area compared to other problems. If they’re going to be effective at changing one particular thing for the better, why would you ask them to focus on something “way worse”, such as gays being thrown off of buildings in Iraq? If you are interested in diverting their focus, you are acting like the parents who want to force their child to be an engineer when they have no math skills or interest in that type of field. It’s simply not going to work.

And ultimately, there’s nothing preventing us from caring about multiple causes. While we have finite resources, we are capable of caring about crosses at public parks as well as blasphemy laws. Both are important causes. Both are worth discussing and doing something about. You may only have the resources to focus on one, or enough to focus on both, or neither, and all options are ok. Join FFRF or The International Humanist and Ethical Union if either seem like good causes to you. I’ve only put money into one, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value the other. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t really up to anyone to decide what cause is important for anyone else (unless that cause is actively doing harm). I am always willing to “sell” why what I care about is important, but I think dismissing someone else for focusing on something I’m not as personally motivated for is misplaced. I have no good reason to say X is bad because Y is better.

So please do not police causes you see as pointless or useless. Chances are, they are serving a purpose. After all, if a problem can be solved, the important thing is that it can be solved. Someone will have to do it, even if it means taking time away from your favorite cause. That’s ok, because the best problems worth solving are the ones that can be solved, however small.

 

The Doubt Behind the Mixed-Faith Household

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Jeremiah Traeger

Mixed-faith households must have a terrible time deciding how to raise kids in their faith. It’s probably hard deciding which eternal hellfire is more of a risk and should be avoided. I’m horribly informed about the demographics of mixed-faith households, and  as usual I’m not interested in putting effort into much, but some quick Googling tells me that as many as 25% of households are mixed-faith. That trend appears to be increasing over time, and therefore more and more households will be raising kids under the roof of two religions. This certainly makes sense in a world emphasizing more cultural tolerance over time, and I honestly think this is good news for secularism. Though I found no good numbers on the faiths of children leaving mixed-religion households, my experience being raised under parents under two denominations makes me believe that it’s an environment that will cause children to question over time and become more religiously tolerant.

 

As a bit of background, my dad comes from a Lutheran background (his mom gave me a shirt that says “Luther Rocks!” for my birthday once), and my mom is Catholic. Both are socially liberal, though my dad is more of a political centrist and has cancelled out my mom’s votes from time to time in major elections. Both have supported gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights, and both even recently thought my recent advocacy for the transgender rights movement is wonderful. Both are supportive of immigrants and value the variety of cultures around the world, including religions. This appears to be a successful enough foundation for a successful relationship including a marriage that is now 30 years old.

 

At this point, some ex-Baptists or other such ex-fundies might cringe of thinking of the Catholics as a “denomination” of Christianity. After all, Catholics deviate from Biblical literalism in many aspects of their practice, including praying to saints and including extrabiblical Church teachings as an integral part of the doctrine. What many people fail to recognize (Christian and non-Christian alike) is that while a holy book may be part of the foundation of a religion or a denomination, the holy book is not the sum total of the religion. There are plenty of extra-Biblical concepts that fundie churches teach; the Bible mentions nothing about abortion as we know it today, transgender people, and it doesn’t really describe original sin in detail or mention it by name. As such it seems just as reasonable to include Catholicism under the umbrella of Christianity as any other group. As a non-believer, it’s not my job to decide who a real Christian is or not, I’ll let the Catholics and the evangelicals battle it out and let me know when they come to a consensus.

 

Despite what some perceive as large differences, it was actually pretty hard growing up with both denominations to remember which part of each church was which. Each service is pretty much the same. There’s some singing, a guy up front talks for a bit, and he reads from his book, talks some more, there’s some more singing, you sit up and down, you have snacks, and then you leave. The Sunday schools were pretty much the same, we colored scenes from the Bible and sang songs and made artsy t-shaped torture devices out of popsicle sticks. Growing up in both, they were so similar I didn’t really have a good way of remembering which was which. My siblings and I constantly had to be corrected when we referred to the Lutheran minister as the “priest”, or the service as “mass”. And I was always confused when I would see that the person up front leading the service was a woman a few weeks after learning in Catholic Sunday school that women couldn’t do that.

 

One of the other relevant experiences that most religious folks growing up probably don’t share is a sense of openness to other belief systems. For any healthy interdenominational relationship, there has to be a certain respect for other religious viewpoints, which my parents definitely have. Because we were raised in that environment, we were not only respectful of the belief systems of both parents, but that extended to belief systems of others. As such, it was easy to get along with the LDS people that were a large portion of my small Arizona hometown, or to go to my friends’ Churches when I spent the night with them. I recall my mom even taking me to see some Buddhist monks working on a sand mandala, and she educated me on some basics of their supernatural belief systems such as their belief in the Buddha (at the time I didn’t realize that my aunt also had converted to Buddhism, which had caused a ruckus in that family).

 

Of course, such openness to other religious belief makes you realize that not everyone is right. Some beliefs are mutually exclusive. The god that Christians believe in can’t simultaneously approve and not approve of women ministers, as noted above. The existence of saints is either true or it’s not. I can’t comment on the experiences of others who lived with interdenominational parents, but for me this set me in a mindset of having to pick which religion was true. In a world where Christians are the overwhelming majority and being raised exposed almost exclusively to that worldview, my biases led me to believe there was probably a monotheistic god of a largely Christian flavor, and all the denominations more or less had it right but had minor differences of opinion on what the truth was. But because of this perspective, this put me in a state of having to decide what doctrines seemed correct or not. Of course, even the leaders of each church disagreed with each other, even after years of going to their respective seminaries (not all denominations require this, but many do). Most of them had far more intimate knowledge of the Bible than I did. How could I even hope to find which doctrine held to the truth over another? While I didn’t know it at the time, these would be the cracks that would eventually burst causing me to abandon my faith. At the time, I went about my life, having faith that my god would reveal me the truth when I needed to see it. Until then, I was on the same spiritual journey of uncertainty that everyone else seemed to be on, with no clear truth in sight.

 

Of course, this was under the faulty assumption that everyone else was just as uncertain as I was. My parents both were both open enough that they felt that once I was old enough I could decide for myself what my beliefs were. My naiveté didn’t allow me to realize that parents of the same religion likely taught their children that theirs was the correct one, and there were no realistic expectations of converting. After all, without exposure to anything else and with the trusted parent figures insisting that they have it right, what motivation is there to do anything else. This baffled me when I met fundamentalists who wouldn’t budge. Imagine my confusion when I met an actual creationist for the first time. I found him so close-minded at insisting that, “the Bible says it, and that’s that!” What a small god, who couldn’t design the Earth utilizing the Big Bang and planetary cosmology? The only way he could have possibly done it is by the snap of the fingers, but over the course of six days, apparently. Imagine my confusion another time when a girlfriend of mine didn’t get my liberal faith. “How do you decide who is going to Hell or not?” Is that really our decision? Wasn’t that our god’s decision? Shouldn’t we just do our best to seek the truth and do our best to our fellow humans?

 

Thus far, I have illustrated the mixed-faith upbringing as a mostly positive experience. I think it was a beneficial upbringing, but I think it has its downsides. The liberal, mix-and-match cafeteria Christian has a lot of room for the other hippie bullshit. By its nature, it lends itself to the thought-stifling, “all religions can be true” uncritical nonsense. Because of this, other religions are fair game to bring into the mix, as well as all kinds of woo. This insulates religion from criticism, since it elevates mere faith as a virtue, and has all kinds of problems wrapped up in the coexistence message. If someone else holds some batshit religion, it stifles questioning, reducing that interaction to a mere, “Well, that’s what those people believe, so we have to respect it.” This extends to holding back on fundamentalist Christianity which has a myriad of abusive problems and societal harms, or stopping criticism of Islam since it’s “just what they believe”.

 

 

My sister has gotten wrapped up in this too. When I’ve rolled her eyes at her for being afraid of spending time in a supposedly haunted house, she got mad at me because she believed in ghosts. She chastised me, because, “that’s just what I believe!” At a funeral, she insisted that there was some grand plan and that “everything happens for a reason”, a sentiment I think is part of a grand failure of religion’s way of dealing with death. She’s into karma and all sorts of other bullshit that has a “spiritual” essence but doesn’t fall under the Christian umbrella. This may just as easily be a result of her personality, but an open-minded Christian upbringing certainly didn’t hurt it.

 

That being said, I hope that the trend continues and religious households continue to diversify. Even if people fall into the “Everyone is right” coexistence narrative, it’s better than an abusive, homophobic, or authoritarian upbringing. For other children predisposed to doubt and skepticism, it is probably the best religious environment people could hope for, as it sows seeds of questioning. Someone could probably make the case that it’s even better than a household with no religion, as it gives the child a real chance to think their way to the truth and think themselves out of the faith. I wouldn’t take that stance, I’d rather the falsehoods be done away with altogether.

The Worthwhile Problems

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Jeremiah Traeger

The world is a shitstorm right now. I don’t need to go into details, this has been plastered all over our social media feeds and news sites. The world is hurting.

I have noticed, though, that many of the members of my community are hurting as well. This includes health problems, family emergencies, accidents, anxiety, etc. Some of these apply to me, to a large or a small extent.

As someone who struggles with mild anxiety (most of the time), sometimes I feel guilty that I’m taking up space with a psychiatrist, when other people probably have far worse problems. And when I struggle to be productive at work due to these anxieties, I feel guilty that there are other people who don’t even have a steady source of income while I have a stipend. And when I come home to relax, I see videos of people being murdered by trusted members of society while I sit at home watching others’ lives being turned upside-down, guilty that I’m not affected.

This sense of guilt is misplaced, and it may take some rational thinking to come to that conclusion. You need to take care of yourself. And you don’t need anyone’s permission.

One of my biggest heroes is someone who thrived on analytical thinking and rigor, Richard Feynman. Watch any of his videos and complicated physics and abstract concepts will immediately come to life. He had a way of solving problems by thinking so clearly about everything, and communicating those ideas so simply to those who would listen. When a former student expressed shame at doing work that he felt was unimportant or simple, Feynman responded in a letter.

“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it”

This speaks to the importance of what we do from day to day. I not only speak for myself, but also the members of our community, that we want to change the world for the better. There seem to be so many important problems. That’s because they are important. But any alleviation of suffering is important.

That includes you. And if your problems are solvable, then they are the most important right now.

We aren’t going to solve police violence overnight. We will not eradicate terrorist attacks next week. A year from now there will still be homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, and bigotry of every stripe. These are problems we will have to continue to pick and chew and scrape away at, bit by bit, little by little, and we will still be dissatisfied every day with how far we have gotten.

But today, you can disconnect from social media. You can take a breather from volunteering to visit your sick or dying relative. You can talk to a counselor next week about your mental health issues. You don’t have to pay attention to the news, you can drive your cousin to the doctor. You can just reach out to your friend who are just as distressed about the world as you are. You are able to detach and have a beer with a friend. And if this is able to ease anyone’s pain including your own, then it is worth doing.

You aren’t selfish for taking care of yourself, and you need no justification for alleviating anyone’s pain in your life no matter how trivial it may seem. You are solving a worthwhile problem, that is all the justification you need. As humanists, we know that this is the only life we are certain to have. Please make it better for someone, even if the life you make better is your own.

The big problems are worthwhile problems too. When you are ready, when you have all the mental health spoons in order, your presence will once again be welcomed to the fight. These are problems we can do something about too. It will be incremental and tedious, and we will have to remain vigilant to both keep ourselves educated and to speak out when we are needed. But if something is holding you back, something you need to take care of first, then why aren’t you doing that? Please, take a step back. Work on anything you can make a difference in. And do so without apology.


If you’re done taking care of your immediate needs and are looking for some problems that you can help solve a bit, please start by listening to the voices of people who have been affected. Here are a few. After that, take action, even if it’s a small donation of time or money. Due to recent events at the time of this piece, I recommend Showing Up for Racial Jusice (SURJ).

Just Random Chance?

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Jeremiah Traeger

One of the most common arguments (I won’t dignify it with calling it an apologetic) against atheism is, surprisingly, to rail against our existence under naturalism and mere physical laws as just a product of chance or an accident. The argument inevitably sounds something like, “How does an atheist find meaning in life? If all we are is just molecules and physical laws interacting, then we’re just here randomly! There’s no ultimate meaning if we’re all just an accident!” Of course, many, many, atheists have expressed how they find meaning and purpose in their life. It’s almost a cliché for atheists to have to answer this question, because the religious think our lives must be so pitiful and hopeless without a cosmic ruler of the universe for some reason. There’s even a whole book/film project by Chris Johnson dedicated entirely to this question for atheists. It’s safe to say that this question has been answered, and that we still find meaning and happiness, and can often find more than in our previously theistic worldviews. I’m not going to talk about that here.

I wanted to address the part of the argument that insists that under a naturalist worldview that, “we’re just here by chance, and that we’re an accident.” As someone who understands natural laws, probabilities, and statistics, the statement seems almost ludicrous to me on multiple levels, and trivial on other levels. The theists have tried to reduce a scientific perspective our existence as just being “up to chance”, yet even at a basic scientific level that claim is just nonsense.

On one level, we know that everything is due to chance. Quantum mechanics, for those who are unfamiliar, has shown us that at a fundamental level basic particles exist in the world of probability. They don’t behave the way we expect everyday objects to behave, sitting in one location unless acted upon by a force. Instead, they exist as a sort of “cloud of probability”, where an electron is 50% likely to be in one space and 50% likely to be in another. We also know that sometimes particles will “tunnel”, where they have a small probability of jumping from one location to another in a way that doesn’t make sense in classical “everyday” physics. It’s the equivalent of tossing a baseball into a concrete sheet and it ending up on the other side. This happens all the time in nature, and is why radioactive atoms decay despite the force inside the nucleus being so ridiculously strong. It happens to our DNA, giving us mutations in our genes every day. Everything is made up of these ångström and nanometer-sized particles at a basic fundamental level, so chance affects the universe and subsequently us whether or not there is a god to design the physical laws that create it.

On a slightly more everyday example, the laws of thermodynamics operate in this way too. Due to the quantum mechanics described above, atoms and molecules are always in a state of motion, constantly jiggling around and bumping into each other randomly. Even objects that appear to be sitting still have chemicals vibrating rapidly at the atomic and subatomic levels. The objects where the molecules are jiggling rapidly and at high energy are objects we call hot, and the ones with small vibrations are ones we call cold. The random behavior and subsequent vibrations actually describe a surprisingly large amount of the world we inhabit. It explains why we are able to suck air into our lungs by expanding them, since the random air molecules in the atmosphere will end up pushing each other into empty space by random collisions. It explains chemical reactions, since when molecules collide with high enough speed in random motion they are able to break and change chemical structure. It even explains why hot things heat up cold things, as the random movements of the molecules will cause the high-energy chemicals to transfer energy to low-energy chemicals. To illustrate this idea, imagine a box of atoms (pictured on the left), where all of the particles are on one side of the box. If all of the atoms are moving around at high speed in random directions and colliding into each other, it’s easy to see that they will eventually spread out evenly as shown on the right. This random thermal motion of things bumping into each other has a profound effect on us biologically, chemically, and physically. It would take a graduate-level thermodynamics class to explain this to a lay person, but these processes explain so many phenomena in our life, from the function of cells in our body to the wind outside.

Spreading molecules

[Image: a box of molecules starts with all molecules on one side, where the second box shows that they have spread out]

Random motion and chaos is everywhere as part of the world. Even Biblical literalists will have to accept this fundamental science theory, as so many fields of science rely on it. Creationists, likely unknowingly, rely on the truth of this behavior whenever they invoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics to try and refute evolution or abiogenesis. It’s safe to assume that any knowledgeable Christian would have to accept that this random motion and behavior is there. In this sense, everyone can accept that “mere chance” is an inextricable part of the universe. It creates things that are trivially true: the rain, the sunlight, the distribution of flora across the planet, etc. and it’s not very difficult to describe how it works. In this sense, stating that the atheists’ view of the universe is “just chance” is equivalent to saying that the atheists’ world is “just one where people breathe oxygen” or “just one where people sit on chairs”. It’s obvious and tells us nothing new about the universe, and this aspect of the universe does not differ from the Christian worldview anyway.

There is another way that stating that the universe is “just up to chance” doesn’t really make any sense. As we’ve established, everything is up to chance, but “chance” means a lot of things. It doesn’t just mean that all things are equally likely. There’s a chance that tomorrow I will get struck by lightning and killed. There’s also a chance that that won’t happen. The chance that I won’t is higher than 99.9999% but it is still up to chance. Nothing is guaranteed in the universe, which is another way of saying that absolute certainty is unattainable. I can’t even absolutely guarantee as I type this that I will be sitting here one second from now.

This is not to nitpick at words, since at some point we have a high enough certainty to say we “know” something will happen. It’s to illustrate strongly that not all things “up to chance” are up to the same trivial probability. There are lots of things in nature that govern whether things are more likely or not. The factors that go into these are all the physical laws of the universe and the way the universe is arranged as the matter and energy interacts. For example, we know that electrons are attracted to the positive charge of the atomic nucleus. If an electron flies towards a nucleus, they are more likely to collide than two neutral particles, since the attractive charge causes the two to be attractive to each other. This changes the probability of an event occurring, all due to the presence of a physical law. It wasn’t just chance that caused the two to collide, it was the way the universe works!

When creationists talk about chance, they are likely referring to abiogenesis or evolution (the same thing according to many of them), and both of these are consequences of natural laws shifting the probabilities in our favor. Let’s talk about abiogenesis for a bit. One component of abiogenesis is the formation of the cell wall, which is composed of lipids. Lipids are fatty molecules, where one part of the molecule is attracted to water (hydrophilic) and another part is water-repellant (hydrophobic). In the primordial Earth, when pre-biological chemicals were floating around ancient shorelines, the lipids were likely to be floating around like any other molecule, just as randomly as the atoms in the box from above. However, when two lipids interact, the hydrophobic ends of both of the molecules attract each other, until two lipids stick together. The two lipids will likely attract a third lipid, until they aggregate more and more. This process continues until a bunch of lipids “randomly” interact, but end up forming a wall where the hydrophilic parts interact with the water while the hydrophobic parts are comfortable on the inside. This creates a sort of bubble called a “vesicle”, which becomes the basis for the actual cell. This random process occurred “all by chance”, yet led to a structure guided by physical laws. For more talk on the probability of protein and RNA sequences forming for abiogenesis, I recommend this TalkOrigins page.

vescicle

CC: Wikipedia [Image: a vesicle comprised of lipids, illustrating hydrophilic heads on the outer walls and hydrophobic tails on the inner walls]

Evolution describes how humans got here in a different way. Of course, there are two parts to evolution: random mutation and selection, and we got here after a long, long, long, looooooong string of repetitions of these two parts from an uncountable amount of generations. Each generation led to slight changes in DNA sequences, almost unnoticeable from one organism to the next, and every generation had predators and/or environmental pressures that were more likely to prevent the ones outside of our evolutionary chain from reproducing. If it seems so improbable that so many trials of randomly altering gene sequences would somehow end up to form us naked primates today, that’s because it is. The probability that the actual sequences that would be altered would slowly but surely approximate our own genome, and the environmental pressures (including mass extinction events) were right enough to push the “fit” organisms into our direction is astronomically low. Yet here we are? Why? Because it had to lead somewhere. Assuming there’s at least some life on Earth, evolution will continue to change the organisms over time. Even though the probability of any given genetic sequence in particular is unlikely, the probability of any sequence is inevitable. Just like you have less than a one in a million chance of winning the lottery, eventually some person will win. In the lottery of random mutation and selection, we are currently one of the winners, along with our other species currently alive today. We’re here despite odds astronomically lower than any lottery we will ever set up. If that isn’t inspiring and meaningful, I know very few things that are.

Ultimately, the claim that under the naturalist worldview we are just some cosmic accident is an appeal to emotion, with the goal to make us feel worthless or hopeless despite not actually providing any evidence of a god’s existence. This is a cold, calculated response to an emotional argument, showing that there’s so much to unpack when someone gives the offhanded comment of our existence being merely “just chance”. We are a product of chance, but we’re also a product of the way the universe functions, and we’re a product of a sea of quadrillions of quadrillions of molecules on billions of planets on billions of stars in practically infinite galaxy. We’re here because of how large numbers work, and because of how basic rules about how matter functions shape the way nature behaves. Even from a worldview that only considers natural non-supernatural behaviors, we are chance, but also so much more.

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