The FFRF and the Separation of Church and State

The Freedom From Religion Foundation catches a lot of flack from religious people. No surprise there. Given their name, they sort of describe their mission right from the word go.

Stephen was one of those who the FFRF had offended. He was incensed that the First Amendment advocacy group had taken up the cause of a person who was experiencing some type of religious overreach. Rather than sympathize with this person, Stephen felt the FFRF was instead, promoting an “atheist” religion by means of some kind of atheist inquisition. He also was convinced that the USA is a “JudeoChristian” nation, therefore Christianity should be allowed some measure of overreach.

You’ve probably heard these claims before. Today’s post is my response to Stephen:

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Dear Stephen, I can tell you are frustrated, but I think if you take a step back, you might recognize that all is not lost.

First, there is no such thing as the “atheist religion.” That’s a contradiction in terms. “A-theism” (I use the dash to highlight the two parts of the word) is simply the state of not believing the god claims of all the other religions. It’s basically the exact opposite of claiming that a particular god is real.

Second, the United States is a secular nation, not a Judeo-Christian nation. It is true however, that the US has hundreds of millions of religious people in it. It’s important to distinguish between the law and the majority. Our secularism protects your beliefs about your god as much as it does a Hindu’s beliefs about her gods, a Jew’s beliefs about her god, a Muslim’s belief about her god, and so on, as well as protecting an atheist’s right to not have any of those god beliefs foisted upon her, or anyone else for that matter, by the state.

Finally, our nation is intended to be an open marketplace of ideas and the actual Inquisition, in which Christianity was mandated by the authorities under threat of death and torture, is thankfully long gone. We live in a time when the expression of ideas is protected. And just think, without exposure to other ideas, how would you know if you were wrong? So by defending the First Amendment, the FFRF is protecting all of us, including you.

Progress, Stephen, is a good thing.

The Facebook algorithm is changing, and I’m not sure I like it

Mark Zuckerberg posted a couple of weeks ago, that Facebook is changing their news feed algorithm.  He said:

“…we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content — posts from businesses, brands and media — is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

He also said:

“We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.”

I have already noticed the changes, and as of right now, I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. Facebook’s market value took a hit after Mark made his January 11 announcement, because businesses who you use Facebook to advertise are worried that their content won’t show up in front of users. But this isn’t a problem I’m wrestling with. My little page has less than 1000 likes at the moment, so it’s not like my page is sending a million unique visitors to my blog.

No, my worry is that I’ll once again be reminded of just how “out there” some of my friends and family are. (The fact they may be saying the same thing about me is not lost on me.)

For example, one of my dear cousins in Texas shared a conservative political meme a few days ago that was just factually incorrect. Anyone with Google and an interest in knowing the truth, could within a few keystrokes, figure this out. And with this new Facebook feed algorithm, all of a sudden, his misinformation was on my feed!

Of course, you know what I did.

In a very nice, respectful, and even humorous way, I commented. In my comment, I pointed out the meme was inaccurate and even cited the credible source by which to validate that.

He marked my comment as spam.

My own first cousin marked my fact-based comment, as spam.

It’s almost as if Mark Zuckerberg expected this type of reaction, because one week later, he posted the second big update coming to Facebook:

“There’s too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today. Social media enables people to spread information faster than ever before, and if we don’t specifically tackle these problems, then we end up amplifying them. That’s why it’s important that News Feed promotes high quality news that helps build a sense of common ground.”

Here’s hoping that truth begins to rise again, and that the cousins of the world, learn to value it. And sooner rather than later, before all reasonable people are marked as spam by those who would rather filter for what they believe, than believe what is true.

Dear Pascal, what if Hinduism is true

Image source: freethoughtpedia.com

Sooner or later, when you’re talking to a Christian apologist who is trying to convince you that you’re wrong and they’re right, you’re going to hear something like this:

“If you’re right, then we both lose nothing. But if I’m right, you’re going to spend eternity in a lake of hellfire!”

That statement is the essence of the good old Christian apologetics gambit known as Pascal’s Wager.

It was deployed against me just this past week, during a conversation I was having on Twitter with RDH_HDP @ RickeyDale07. Ricky and I went on for quite a while so if you follow me on Twitter, I think you should be able to see the thread. (I’m a returning Twitter user, so I don’t know if the mechanics are the same as they were when I took my hiatus…it would be great if someone could let me know if you are able to read our conversation.)

During our exchange I was doing what I normally do. I was using the Socratic method to help Ricky understand why his reasons were deficient.

Eventually we got to Pascal’s Wager. I had asked Ricky how could he know if his beliefs were incorrect, and he said:

“I am not wrong…but let’s consider for a moment the possibility. If I am wrong, when I die…I lose nothing. If you are wrong, you will die and lose EVERYTHING.”

All CAPS were his, not mine.

There it was. Mr. Pascal. When an apologist tries this line of reasoning, I just normally flip it. By flipping it, I show my interlocutor a couple of things. One, I show him that it’s not a convincing argument. And two, it’s a great way to reinforce the unreasonableness of an epistemology that one uses to support his belief that a god is real, by using the outsider’s test for faith.

The outsider’s test for faith is a dialectical technique whereby one essentially asks, “why can’t the same methods you are using to arrive at your god belief, lead someone else to arrive at a completely different god belief?”  It’s a way to hopefully get people to stop and think about why they believe as they do.

On this day, I countered Ricky’s deployment of Pascal’s Wager with my own:

“You do lose everything, if at the end Karma is real and yet you’ve spent your life telling people they are going to Hell if they don’t believe the same god claims as you.”

I flipped the wager by using Karma as the incentive. The ease with which Ricky dismissed my wager might have given him a clue as to the ease in which I dismissed his wager, but alas, his mind was singularly focused this day, and he kept marching in the same evangelical direction:

“I lose nothing…,” he said, and the rest was a sermon.

A mind rusted shut for so many years is tough to pry open, and Pascal’s Wager isn’t exactly the best WD-40.

The world is not suffering from an overabundance of rational thought

The world is not suffering from an overabundance of rational thought.

I say this at least once a week. If this sentiment was true prior to our last presidential election, it’s become more relevant by a factor of about 100, since. In fact, I was inspired to write a book about it.

Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t respect opinions. Let me caveat that.  Of course, I respect everyone’s right to their opinion, but just the fact of expressing an opinion, doesn’t automatically grant that opinion some special dispensation from critique if it’s expressed around me. If your opinion has been formed using methods which lead you to conclude things that don’t comport with what is demonstrably true, then I will probably call you out on it.

For example, if you have opinions about vaccines not working, or global warming not being real, or the earth being only 6000 years old, or about all people of a certain skin tone being worthless, then I will take issue with you because you have come to conclusions which are factually incorrect, and in some cases, morally repugnant.

This is what Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham did to the President of the United States a few days ago. They held him accountable to his morally repugnant statement about people from Haiti and other African nations.

In a subsequent Facebook conversation I was having with a pro-Trump attorney, the attorney suggested that Durbin should have suspended his moral scruples in favor of getting an immigration “deal” done, because Durbin’s constituents are more important than his moral objections to Trump.

Never mind that that position complete absolves Trump from any responsibility for serving his constituents, the American people, in this case, but the line of questioning struck me as odd and frankly, a bit alarming.

I believe in speaking truth to power and holding all people accountable, irrespective of title or position, particularly if they are demonstrating irrational behavior or saying vile things. If the President of the United States wants to make “great deals” as he claims, perhaps Dick Durbin’s and Lindsey Graham’s vocal disgust will inform the president that he needs to adjust if he’s going to be taken seriously.

And to answer the attorney’s question, not only would Durbin’s and Graham’s constituents be better served by a more reasonable and compassionate President, but the entire nation would be better served as well.

In fact, who are any of us to remain silent in the presence of racism? The idea of suspending basic human decency in favor of political efficacy makes me wonder about the underlying morality of the trade-off the attorney was suggesting. In 1630, Puritan John Winthrop borrowed from Matthew 5:14 when he told his fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists, that this new community they had left England for, would be “as a city upon a hill”, watched by the world.

What do we want the world to see?

My public speaking adventure begins

I can’t think of a better day to begin a public speaking improvement journey, than on the day we as a nation, celebrate one of the most influential orators our country has ever produced, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

First a little background. I get the opportunity to speak publicly about once a year, usually to a large crowd at a work-related conference. While those sessions tend to go fine, once a year is just not frequent enough to truly get comfortable in front of a crowd.  Knowing this and knowing that I plan to do a lot more public outreach on topics that I’m passionate about, such as street epistemology and critical thinking, I gave myself a New Year’s resolution of delivering at least five public talks on critical thinking-related topics this year.

On MLK Day, I had the opportunity to knock one of the five off the list. It was also something I haven’t done since I was in high school….give an extemporaneous speech! With zero prep time, I picked a random Martin Luther King, Jr. quote from a basket, and then delivered a short speech based on that quote in front of a crowd of strangers.

It is great to be forced out of your comfort zone like that. Using inspiration from the quote, I’d like to believe that I put together a fairly cohesive speech about Dr. King, how he valued education, and how the real value of an education is in teaching children how to think, not just what to think. I wanted to make sure I reiterated to the audience, that education doesn’t stop once you leave the schoolhouse, and as life long learners, we all have to understand how to evaluate claims by honing our critical thinking skills. I could feel the ideas getting a bit jumbled at times, but fortunately – and for me this is a huge success – I only interjected one “uhh” in the process!

Finally, if I learned anything at all from the experience, it’s that I need to make sure I have a strong antiperspirant. 😂 On to the next speech!