Tag Archives: atheism

You Are Not The Flag You Wave, Or “Enough with the Equal Signs for Profile Pics”

Yesterday, I saw a picture of Kabul, taken in what must have been the late 70s or early 80s. It was either in or near a university- I recall there being a stone courtyard with tall, shady trees and an ornate water fountain. There were also a couple of young women, wearing short sleeves and pants, carrying their books. The comment section for this picture was awash with sighs about “how beautiful Afghanistan had been” once upon a time and “what a shame it was that religion had come along and messed it all up!”

I was, needless to say, a little ticked off by the responses to the picture. While there were a few people who managed to point out that Islam didn’t one day appear in Afghanistan and wipe out every last vestige of modernism (and that a major Soviet invasion may have played a part as well), for the most part it was all comments on the terrible threat to civilization religion plays. Continue reading

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“Science” Culture

Now that’s a lousy title, so let me kick things off by immediately clarifying what I’m talking about. This isn’t academia, or the world of contending theories and thirty-page papers on the finer points of psychopharmacolgy in relation to the mating habits of the Atlantic bluefin tuna. While this kind of world certainly does exist, it’s not what we’re talking about here. This is the culture not so much of scientists, as it is of science fans: those who are becoming increasingly invested in the idea that advancements in our knowledge is not only inherently awesome, but the solution to many, if not most or all, of the world’s problems.
“But Gordon, you striking portrait of wisdom and nobility,” you may be asking, “don’t we all fit that category?”

And to some extent, yes, we do. Even the most hardcore Luddite or primitivist will applaud the polio vaccine or HIV medication, but even so, there is a growing number of people who take things to the next level entirely. Check out this trailer:


Kind of a crazy premise- guy transfers his consciousness into a machine body. But still not too far off from the way many people believe we’ll eventually be living. “Transhumanism”, they call it, which, to grossly simplify it, is the general idea that the best (or even inevitable) course of human existence is to “evolve” beyond the confines of our biology. That with the progression of science and technology we’ll stop the effects of aging and be capable of improving upon our own minds and bodies. If you wanted to find a decent illustration of this kind of issue, try watching Battlestar Galactica (the new ones), or better still, Caprica. Now this is an extreme element of this culture, but a contributing element nonetheless. Major advances in prosthetics over the years, as well as films such as Surrogates, GamerAvatar, The Matrix, I, Robot (heck, any film or media dealing with the whole “what makes a person a person?” question) have all been instrumental in introducing transhumanist ideas. But of course, it’s more than just that.

It also has a lot to do with these guys:

These guys right here are arguably responsible for popularizing this entire culture, breaking down even dry subjects and making them compelling and (relatively) easy to grasp, even if only on the most basic level. You probably won’t go off to revolutionize the world of astrophysics after a few episodes of Cosmos, but chances are you’ll come away amazed. Would the recent Mars landing have had the same widespread popularity as it did without these guys? Would the cutting of manned space-missions have been met with the same outrage? Almost certainly not.

To some extent, the decline of religious adherence in the West may also be a factor in this culture. A growing number of individuals in the US are simply reporting themselves as being “without religion,” and the “science culture’s” emphasis on altruistic humanism (more on that in a minute) and skepticism offer a sympathetic atmosphere. The fact that many leaders (or at least, poster boys) for the culture are atheist (Mythbusters’ Savage and Hyneman, for example) or agnostic (Neil Degrasse Tyson) is also certainly a factor.

And perhaps the most fundamental element of all in this culture is the concept of “post-scarcity.” Quite simply, it’s the idea that we have progressed to a point where we no longer have scarcity of resources. E-books are typically used as an example, with adherents of the idea pointing out that with almost everything ever written in human history accessible in digital form, we could potentially give access to everything ever written to every man, woman, and child who will ever live without ever cutting down a single tree. The same logic is applied to film and music as well.

All of this combined creates and fuels a culture based ultimately on values of human welfare. In many respects, it’s the polar opposite of the “manly” culture discussed last week, emphasizing interdependence rather than independence, cooperation rather than competition, and progressive and postmodern social norms rather than traditional ones.

So what are the pros and cons of the culture?

Positives:

  • The fundamentally altruistic and humanistic elements of the culture are certainly something to be admired.
  • Money goes into scientific research, and cures and advancements come out; you can explain that.
  • Quite simply, the idea that we, as individuals and societies “aren’t done yet” creates a great atmosphere for experimentation, advancement, and general optimism about our conditions.

Negatives:

  • We could talk about playing God and paternalistic big-government and all that, but ultimately, the issue of the “science culture” is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way things actually are in the world. While it’s certainly true that there’s enough to go around, we simply aren’t a “post-scarcity” world. The vast majority of the planet is desperately poor, and their needs have to be met. The culture’s basic tenets also have the issue of seeming to assume that science is the answer to everything- that we can maintain our (general) levels of consumption and simply have our decadence off-set by the latest, greatest advance in clean energy. Now even if you assert that our problems can be solved by a use of technology to give us a surplus of everything we could ever possibly need, the same fact of the matter is that those technologies do not yet exist. The entire outlook is, quite simply, utopian, and while optimism should be applauded, it desperately needs to be tempered with realism.

And that’s it for today- be sure to check out Tuesday’s “Shame Day” post, and check in next time for our look at “internet/free information culture.”

Hitler, Ray Comfort, and the Dismal State of Discussion

I did something bad for my health that I do not recommend. I watched “180”, a half-hour documentary made by Ray Comfort.

It is a bastardization of discourse from all sides. In an interview with Steve, a neo-Nazi punk type of young man, Steve says that he’s certain of his opinions about the falsehood of the Holocaust and other offensive things. To combat this, Comfort asks Steve to spell shop (Steve does) and then asks: “what do you do at a green light?” The question is a trick to get the mind to quickly respond “stop”, which is semi-associated with green lights and rhymes with “shop”, and the person answering looks silly. Sure enough, Steve responded “Stop” and looked silly. And then – well, then Comfort treated that like an actual argument for something.

The documentary was dipped in dramatic music, photos of piles of dead bodies, and use of gratuitously violent photographs. What is most interesting to me, however, is the use of what seems to be the universal argument-ender: comparisons of things to Hitler.

Hitler, the Nazis, and Lazy Discussion
Hitler and the Holocaust have become mythic elements of American culture, I think, and to the detriment of the truth of the actual historical events. I was recently visiting a small church where the members, after the service, started (sort of randomly) to wax poetic about the horrors of Hitler and the Nazis. They weren’t saying anything new – everyone was just affirming that Hitler was inhuman and the Nazis were too. It was the fervent insistence that “real humans could never do that sort of thing” that struck me – I thought of all of the other genocides and massacres of the past century alone, of the killing of civilians in wars by troops of every nationality, of atomic bombs. But even in light of all of these things, current conversation about Hitler seems to serve contrast to our new, very human, very un-barbaric society. We talk about Hitler basically like Satan – an ultimate evil; a rhetorical catch-all.

Ray Comfort and 180: Unethical Discourse

Steve, in the movie "180" by Ray Comfort

Comfort’s specific use of the Hitler argument is reductive and tired. It is, if anything, an exploration of how charged and empty rhetoric in the realm of politics is being mirrored in general culture. His interviewees are inconsistent, and seem to know very little about philosophy, theology, or basic logic. Comfort’s questions are also always precisely and pseudo-cleverly leading, and it doesn’t seem that he wants to engage with the interviewees at all: “Does this mean you’ve changed your mind about abortion?”, he asks. “Are you going to vote differently in the future?” It is not a conversation, is the point: it is a poorly executed set of rhetorical acrobatics. Is this the way to foster discourse and an informed public? Probably not. Arguments depending on rhetorical cleverness are insulting to both parties.

Comfort’s series of interviews are not only annoyingly inconsistent and poorly constructed, however: the movie is also a manipulative presentation of complex issues and events, presented crassly and with a smugly triumphant attitude. One of the less graceful moments was when Comfort asked a woman if she’d had an abortion; she said that she had. He then immediately asked: “Do you feel guilty about it?”

As the big finish, Comfort sets up a game-show setup of moral responsibility and the afterlife, and awkwards them into admissions of fright and death anxiety:

  • Comfort asks people if they have lied/stolen/been lustful: most of them say that they have.
  • Comfort then gets them to admit that this makes them liars/thieves/adulterers.
  • Comfort gets them to admit that liars/thieves/adulterers go to hell.
  • Comfort elicits from the interviewees an understandable anxiety about the prospect of hell.
  • Comfort asks them if they are going to go read their Bibles.
  • Some of them say yes.

Alesia, from Ray Comfort's movie "180"

Theologically, morally, rhetorically, and logically, this is one of the most horrible things ever. Comfort’s quick-talking way of “tricking” people into professing a fright of punishment does very little for the moral health of humanity or the search for truth within rhetoric and theology. The triumphant music and photos of bloody sheets are no help for the legitimacy of the movie.

There are also 40 thousand comments. I do not recommend those either. They are not a happy picture of humanity.

It makes sense to protest the legalization of abortion and to be horrified at the amount of deaths occurring if one believes that life begins before birth. Comfort’s smugness and “gotcha” questions, however, lack earnestness, humility. The whole thing turns a serious situation into an awkward and unproductive onslaught of unhelpful rhetorical inconsistencies, devoid of integrity and, therefore, real efficacy.

In sum, the movie is a disjointed account of unproductive discussions with unproductive people with vague and uninformed opinions. It’s a disheartening representation of the state of discourse on American sidewalks.