Thursday, January 31, 2013

What does being an atheist mean to you?

I was raised in the absence of religion. I was taught to question, to be able to change my mind, and to not be ashamed of not knowing. Because of this being an atheist isn't something I've had to think about much, it is just a part of who I am and how I am in the world.

But I would like to hear about what it is like for other people. People who had to struggle, convert, remake sense of the world. I am the community organizer for atheists and I feel like there is part of their story I don't know well enough.

Also there is a conversation happening over at

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Breakfast recap 01/26/13

Not withstanding a goof-up with the date of the breakfast, I had a really good time with the about 10 people who showed up. And in an effort of both advertising our events and inclusion I thought I would write up some of the conversations I had.

I started the breakfast with a quick little talk about altruism as it is found in the vampire bat. A talk I boosted almost entirely from Radiolab. Radiolab is one of the best things available via podcast or radio. It does science journalism is a way that is accessible honest, and emotionally engaging. But back to vampires. Vampire bats share their "food" with one another based not just on kin relationships but also on friendship bonds that they build while grooming one another, an activity they spend as much as 30% of their time doing while roosting. Which is a very striking example of "good without god".

I brought up my broken record references a couple of times. Gary Taubes "Why We Get Fat" is probably the best thing I've ever read on what to eat, what not to eat, and why. There is no short version of his argument  but there are several versions of an hour long lecture that I found enormously persuasive. And you should know that I am not easily persuaded on these fronts. I point out his work because it not just tells you about food, but is also a huge step in the right direction in terms of having a real understanding of why everything else you've ever read is stupid.

My other bring it up every time I talk for more than 10 minutes is "Sex At Dawn". This book has deep implications, not just for how you understand your own sexuality, but also how you understand the evolutionary psychology of our species generally. This is easily one the five most important books I've read when it comes to understanding the contentious issues in my life and the culture around us.

Georgina and I also discussed the role of objectification in sexism. Which tangented to a discussion of pornography. I have a contentious view of the role of objectification that I may explain in more detail elsewhere, but my view is in large part informed by a paper I read by the amazing Nancy Bauer: "Pornutopia". That is a rather adult document, but it is a work of feminist philosophy.

A number of other interesting issues came up, and I would welcome comments from attendees mentioning what they thought was interesting, but those were the three that I wanted to distribute links about.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The irrationality of rationality

If, as I believe, there is no rational defense of rationality; then we must responsibly attend to the (ir/a)-rational basis on which rationality depend.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Atheism

My atheism is the result of a methodological choice. It is a consequence of my epistemology. Given what I think counts as good practices what counts as good evidence and good argument  atheism is the only way I can imagine things to be.

It isn't a stand alone belief, it doesn't do any work. I don't believe other things because I'm an atheist. If somehow you made me believe in the divine, none of my other beliefs would have to change.

Monday, January 21, 2013

One offs

Being alive isn't the product of a choice, it is the product of not radically interfering with your animal self.

A question, and a couple of answers

"Without positing an afterlife or condoning suicide, is it possible to reframe Death as a positive? As something not only defanged and not-to-be-feared, but truly celebratory?"

I think that the end of A life, with rare exceptions, is always a loss.¹ It is a loss of a necessary condition for a lot of what we think of as good. Furthermore the loss of a loved one is always a sadness, even when it is temporary. I don't see a way around being bummed out that someone is gone if having them around was good. But that isn't the full story. 

Death in general is an unavoidable, inexorable part of the world around us. So much so that to hate death, or malign it at all would be like hating on gravity, or entropy. 
Making virtue out of necessity frequently looks like a cop-out but what else can you do. Death makes life what it is. And if something is cherished then all parts of it must be embraced, because to change one part is to change the whole. So if you celebrate life, you celebrate a thing that ends. That doesn't mean that the end is as good as the other parts. But only that to honestly enjoy life, and call it a good, you must acknowledge that it is a temporary affair. 

That being said I think that a death can be an occasion for celebration. If this life is all we get, and it's value is linked to its limited supply, then death can be seen not as the loss of something good, but as the limitation that makes life valuable. 

I think part of what makes death so tragic in our culture is that by and large death isn't understood as part of life. Even the simple language of life and death has a denial of death in it. "He saved my life!" has buried in it the assumption that now that I am not going to die in that fire I won't die at all. Of course no one really thinks that but wouldn't it more honest to say "He extended my life!' Incorporating death into how we understand our lives would be a step toward reframing death. 

¹An answer I don't think you are looking for: In cases of unmitigated suffering death is a good. This is, however, not an interesting point, nor what I think you are looking for. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sex is not immoral.

Just because I don't think this gets said enough: Sex is not immoral. Sex between two men, two women, 17 drunken counter culture 20-somethings, kinky sex, anonymous sex, none of it is inherently immoral. 

“Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other "sins" are invented nonsense.”

― Robert A. Heinlein

Sex's relationship to ethics is the same as any other human activity. Nobody has car ethics, or knife morals, but these are areas of human activity where care needs to be taken to avoid hurting people. If there is exploitation, or problems with consent, Then we have ethical problems. But just the basic act of sex, by definition is not sinful, hurtful, shameful, immoral, or unethical. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The basis of ethics is biology

We, as a species, evolved to cooperate. Empathy, sharing, getting along, and playing fair are biological basics for us in the same way that being an omnivore is basic. Or the way that "being able to learn how to fly" is basic for a bird. The bon mot version of this insight is this: "If you take a basically healthy person and put them in a basically healthy environment, they will behave basically ethically."

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A message as Interim President

As I assume most of you who read this blog know, I recently took over from Zac Bos as president of the Boston Atheists. There has been and continues to be problems for feminists in the secular movement, and from my experience women clearly do not feel especially welcome at our events. As a reaction to that I wanted to say something about inclusiveness and the marginalized and was promoted by a BA member's blog post about feminism & secularism and conflict resolution. 

Here I am speaking to the members of the Boston Atheists specifically. 

If you feel mistreated, uncomfortable, or unwelcome at an event that we are hosting please come to me and let me know. Particularly if I'm the problem. This goes for everyone but doubly so for the marginalized. 

Furthermore I want to say that I am blind to my privileges like everyone else; especially as a white, straight, cisgendered man. 

If others treat you poorly out of blindness, I will try and shine a light. But if you see that I am acting blindly, please show me the way.

I don't know what this means, but it sounds important.

"Life as an end is qualitatively different from life as a means." pg 17

One-Dimensional Man
Herbert Marcuse

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Religions are secular too.

There is something that most atheist critiques of religion have failed to internalize. If there is no god, and there never has been, then religious practice is also a secular practice. Dan Dennett wrote a whole book about how religion is a natural phenomena but he didn't capture an insight that I found in Alain de Botton's book about religion for atheists.

Everything that every religion has done, they have done for natural reasons and with natural outcomes. Not all of those reasons and outcomes are bad, far from it. And I think being an atheist would be a little less difficult and a little less limiting if we realized that religious practice is human practice. Imagine if you will what a church would be like if you knew for sure that no one believed.

Religious people will tell you that what they do they do because of God, or because of scripture, or faith, or whatever supernatural reasons they believe in. But remember that this is not true, their god isn't there pulling the strings. When they give to charity it is because they are charitable. When they discriminate it is because they are bigoted. When they do violence it is because they are violent. And their religious practice plays a role.

But their god does not.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Experimental Breakfast

People often ask what atheists believe, or what the point of the Boston Atheists is. In response I have generated a couple of answers. One answer is that we should take empirical research more seriously and personally. We take scientific research to be knowledge about the world and ourselves. And I think we can do a better job of interpreting it and using it to inform the way we live and make decisions. I mean to take the best that science has to offer us and help to put it to use improving ourselves, each other and our environment.

That is the point of the Experimental Breakfast. In the TED talk I've linked to you will see Barry Schwartz explain his research into what he called "the paradox of choice". His conclusion is that too much choice is bad for us and leads to a reduction in satisfaction and happiness. And ordinarily linking the video would be all I would do, but now that I am president I have the leeway to do more.

And more is the Experimental Breakfast where you will receive, in keeping with the best research available, a limited menu. And we will see if fewer options leads to more enjoyment of what you pick.

Lets use science to improve our lives! Lets do it together! Over waffles!

(Or french toast. To be honest the menu isn't settled yet.)

Meetup Event
Facebook Event

Friday, January 4, 2013

What makes for a life that flourishes.

Rick Roderick, who I have mentioned before and is my current obsession, gave the following quote during a lecture on Nietzsche. He was talking about what issues create a flourishing human life: "Topics ignored by theorists, academics, philosophers, literary critics, and others. Topics we ought to discuss: how good is our food, how warm is our house, how much fun do we have having sex." These topics are emblematic what I find myself concerned with, in no small part because they do go undiscussed.

One of the things that drove me to distraction while studying philosophy was the impossibility that what we were discussing could possibly affect the lives of living human beings. At the same time, most of religious practice strikes me as similarly inconsequential. So much of what religions get criticized for, impossible beliefs, fraudulent founders, metaphysical claims that just don't even make any sense, don't touch the world. In that, the realm of philosophy and the realm of theology is irrelevant to my project; unless and until it touches the concerns of living human beings.

This means that all of the debates about epistemology and ontology, logical necessity and impossibility strike me not just as fruitless, but as a dangerous distraction to the issues that matter.

So let's talk about issues that do touch the world. How warm Is your house? How good is your food? How much fun is your sex life? How is your health? How comfortable are you in your own skin?

People ask what an atheist group could be about and I now have an answer: the welfare of atheists.