Category Archives: Politics

What is your goal for the relationship between humanity and religion in the future?

First of all, I want to state what my goals definitely are not.

I don’t want to stop you from enjoying a transcendent experience at church or synagogue on the weekends. I don’t want the world to stop reading religious texts or to extinguish every last trace of the Bible or Koran from material existence (What other kind of existence is there anyways?).

3541

(How atheists really want to spread their views. Not.)

I don’t even necessarily want people to stop identifying as Christians or Muslims or whatever, even though much can be said about what identities we should hold primary, and whether those considerations put primacy on individual choice, or whether society has a role in directing people’s energies towards a more harmonious, tolerant whole.

And there are many different reasons why my goals wouldn’t matter to you even if you are religious. If you think of religion in a vague, academic sense as Durkheim did (in the categorization of the sacred and the profane), then pretty much anything is religion, and you’ll still have it. If you think of God as something that goes beyond theism in the Paul Tillich sense (God Above God, faith as ultimate concern), then your religious beliefs are solid (I think) even if all my goals become reality.

And yes, I understand that for many traditional theists, my demands are outrageous, even offensive. So here it goes.

1) All religions have to lose their supernatural claims.

This means a full embrace of science. If you think Jesus literally rose from the dead, that’s not going to cut it. If you think maybe, just maybe there was a real Garden of Eden, that’s probably not going to pass either. You can’t believe that prayer actually does something. (I’m not against people praying though, oddly.) The reason is that we’re tired of humanity having to spend energy to fight claims that seem really trivial at first, but somehow cause parents to watch their children die in front of them, make people think that creationism is actually worth teaching in the schools, or take the existence of heaven and hell way too seriously. Removing actual supernaturalism from religion makes adherents more likely to not descend into a state of extreme denial of reality.

2) Religion has to give way to secular ethics.

I’m willing to compromise on this, but not by much. You can use religion to explain why you feel passionately about a moral issue, and why this religious motivation inspires you to be an activist. But humanity shouldn’t take religious arguments for why something is right or wrong seriously. We should stop fooling ourselves into thinking that debates over whether homosexuality or slavery is right or wrong belong in the sphere of people arguing about the proper exegesis of the Bible. We have much better ways to settle issues like that. It’s called the body of secular ethics (notably utilitarianism) in modern philosophy.

3) Religion has to give way to secular politics.

It’s similar to ethics. But no quote I’ve found has been as good as this one:

obama-500

4) We should promote general religion over specific religion.

I think there’s a a need and a good that specific religions provide. Just as pro-lifers say they want to promote a “culture of life”, I think there’s a case to be made that promotion of civil religion, the kind that emphasizes common values and universal humanistic truths, is important. How I want this civil religion to play out I have not fully decided, but I don’t see why it can’t take many forms to promote the spiritual and psychological health people in general. One need not have the fantastical visions of Alain de Botton to find a practical way to keep the good parts of religion or to recognize that there’s something valuable in promoting those good parts in a reasonable, *socialized* manner.

Example

I believe there was once a commenter on this blog who asked that if I wasn’t content with Christians holding the position that “homosexuality is a sin and therefore gay people must be celibate,” what he could possibly do without leaving Christianity. My answer was that Christianity needed to change, drastically, just as it had done so in the past with all the schisms and scandals in the Church. I also noted that there are many LGBTQ-affirming Christians out there, and that it wasn’t a practical impossibility to change one’s position.

Of course, I pretty much got yelled at online for suggesting that Christians fundamentally change the Word of God, or at least the orthodox interpretation of such revelations.

Unfortunately, that’s kind of my demand. And if you’re not happy with it, then I’m afraid you’re not going to enjoy the work that this secular movement is going to do to fundamentally change the culture and ethos of this country.

Depiction of Asian Americans in the media

This post will be fairly brief because this topic has been discussed a lot. All you have to do is seek out all the sources that already exist!

I remember when I was in elementary school, I went with a group of Asian friends to a parade on the South Side because we were paid to be next to a float and walk alongside it in promotion of a city project (it was the repair of the Dan Ryan Expressway). It was arguably one of the most awkward and most terrifying experience of my life. It was pretty obvious that we were the only *different* ethnicity there. But that wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t been for the kids around us insisting that we act like Bruce Lee and that we fight them with karate or something. When you’re surrounded by kids that seem to want to fight you, you tend remember it. We tried to walk away and forget it.

Of course, feeling terror is not interesting in and of itself. There are many times when people are afraid, and there have been many people who have had much worse experiences that I did.

The incident had me thinking a lot about why people form the conception of others in the way they do, and whether it’s the media or something else.

I-fear-not-the-man-who-has-practiced-10000-kicks-once-but-I-fear-the-man-who-has-practiced-one-kick-10000-times.-Bruce-Lee

(Martial arts is really cool. Fighting and all. But there’s a philosophy of discipline and hard work behind it.)

The funny thing is that I rather like Bruce Lee. He brought the martial art of an entire country to America and the world, and popularized respect for it. More importantly, he was as American and human as any of us. He went to college here and studied drama and philosophy. He married an American and was actually an American citizen. His movies, though very imperfect, showed many ethical and philosophical sides to martial arts and human existence in the characters that he played. Bruce Lee himself was a physical trainer, a filmmaker, an artist, and a poet. He was also, somewhat in an irrelevant way, an atheist.

The question is how did all of this richness and depth get all lost and reduced to the image of merely fighting multiple people on the street?

This is not to defend the media or anything like that. Even Bruce Lee left Hollywood in the 1970’s because he felt he had a lack of opportunity there due to discrimination.

As articles like this suggest, there is still a lot more to be done in the media to change the status quo, even though not all stereotypes are media driven.

From New York Knicks basketball star Jeremy Lin to Priscilla Chan, wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the mainstream media usually portray Asian-Americans as wealthy, well-educated and foreign. The dominant cultural narrative routinely ignores working and middle class Asian-Americans, people of various nationalities who struggle with the same socioeconomic conditions as do other Americans.

Despite shortcomings, mainstream media are rarely criticized for the way they depict Asian-Americans, even though the lack of depth in the coverage is stunning.

Yes, the media sucks. But we have to do our part in not selectively remembering what’s actually depicted either. Sometimes there’s more richness and depth in people, if not in the media, than you realize. Doing otherwise is just confirmation bias acting on our stereotypes.

And by the way, Happy Asian-Pacific Heritage Month!

Does the gender wage gap exist and why?

It’s curious that I get economic questions a lot. But let’s roll.

Does the gender wage gap exist? I think it does. My priors are that it does because we know that in experimental settings, employment discrimination is very real. But what does the observed evidence in the labor market tell us?

First of all, good interpretation of statistical evidence requires that we evaluate not just individual studies and papers, but the entire literature. Reviews of this literature suggest that “there is considerable agreement that gender wage discrimination exists“.

The parsimonious “let’s control for observables” approaches have yielded mixed results. Most of the wage gap disappears, but leaving some significant difference behind. That difference has been the subject of many arguments on both sides. But let me suggest a different way to think about the wage data (or any kind of data).

For many things in life, the fact that you can observe something is information in and of itself. The fact that for a specific individual, a wage is offered and accepted (and then by random chance recorded in population surveys) is telling. Surveys generally do a great job of randomly selecting a sample from the population, but the market does not do a good job of randomly choosing who works at what wage, or whether certain people work at all. Selection bias is at work, whether you like it or not. The only thing I want to convince you of is that the existence of selection bias is something to really consider when thinking about “controlling for other factors”.

Selection, its effects and more specifically how to correct for them, is the area of research that got James Heckman his Nobel Prize in Economics in 2000. Most interestingly, it has been used extensively to study the determinants of wages.

How exactly does selection work in our setting? Let me draw you a few pictures! But I don’t have my awesome graphic design software installed, so I’ll have to do with MS Paint.

gendergap1

If controlled wages for females (sorry everyone, the U.S. surveys don’t code for third gender or anything like that) are lower, and if we want to think about selection into the sample, then we have to ask, “what would make a a person work?”

We all have an intuition that there’s a wage low enough where we would choose not to work. We call it the reservation wage. There are many reasons to think why this wage is nontrivial. Maybe spousal income might be a good substitution for individual income, so we choose to work only if we have to or we’re paid a lot for it. Maybe you believe that the evil welfare state is causing many low-wage workers to rely on unemployment benefits and food stamps because welfare is supposedly better than working at some low wage.

The effect of this reservation wage, if it were a strict thing, would mask more of the lower end of the lower distribution than the lower end of the higher distribution. Take a look at the graph, and imagine all the points under the black horizontal line are not observed. In reality, it would mean that many women choose not to work, which is empirically true because female labor force participation is not all that high.

When there’s selection on the lower end of the spectrum, it makes the slope of the line flatter, which means it makes the estimate of the gender wage gap smaller than it actually is.

An important point is that the graph is a little exaggerated. Specifically, the reservation wages are different for everyone. So there’s no clear black line you can draw on the graph where all the points below that line are unobserved. Instead, we should think of the appearance of a point in the data as a probability–a probability that increases as the wage gets higher because you are more likely to work!

I’m still trying to find a really good paper on specifically the U.S. gender wage gap and selection bias correction (across all different kinds of ways to correct for it), and it’s not been going well. There’s this paper using data from Columbia that suggests “that self selection into the labor force is crucial for gender gaps: if all women participated in the labor force, the observed gap would be roughly 50% larger at all quantiles.” Of course, we need to review the entire literature.

20,000 People Marched on the Streets of Dublin for Savita

If you don’t want to read about a sad, rage-invoking story involving a cruel and unnecessary death, go somewhere else.

16TH_IRELAND_1269723f

About a month ago, Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland after pleading for days in desperate pain for an abortion. She was already miscarrying. Because of Ireland’s draconian anti-abortion laws, the doctors in the hospital said they couldn’t do anything to help her. She died of blood poisoning from her untreated miscarriage.

Less than a month later, tens of thousands of people marched in Ireland, a traditionally Catholic country. They vowed, “Never Again”. This was the scene in Dublin:

Word has it that there is a pro-choice majority in Ireland. But when will things finally change?

The Right to Criticize Religion Is Not Free: Speak Out Now

The right to speak our minds, the right to criticize religion candidly and openly, does not come without pain, or without struggle. If we don’t speak out, if we don’t stand strong and steady, we will lose this right to theological oppression.

If you care about making the world a more tolerant place, if want to know about an interfaith (aka transfaith) issue that really matters, then watch this video (the really inspirational part starts at 1:35).

Alexander Aan is still in jail, for the crime of talking about atheism on Facebook. Many others are also. Countless others live a lie, or keep their beliefs secret.

We humanists believe that no person deserves punishment for speaking his/her mind. No person should live in fear for their lives and freedom because of their beliefs.

Sign the petitions. Share on Facebook. Talk about it with your friends. Make this a topic of national conversation.

No Apologies: Why Strident Atheism is Good Atheism

Anyone remotely familiar with the atheist movement knows we get a lot of criticism, not merely for our ideas, but sometimes overwhelmingly more often for our rhetoric and tactics. The following quote from Greta Christina sums it up nicely:

As a blogger, I’ve received a lot of advice from believers about how atheists should run our movement. I get comments all the time. It’s very difficult to avoid the observation that this advice is almost always in the direction of telling us to tone it down. Telling us to be less confrontational, less visible.

I have almost never seen a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately. To not be afraid of offending people if we think we are right. To be willing to get in people’s faces about things they might not want to think about. I have gotten a lot of advice from believers, and it is almost always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

For many bloggers and outspoken atheists, this rings especially true. And the variety of forms it takes is almost unbelievable. Just within the last week and a half, I have had people tell me to stop “ridiculing” religion and to “stop offending people”. People on Facebook have called me a “jerk” and say that I’m too “mean”. These criticisms range from outright confrontation (e.g., “Stop it now!”) to concern trolling (e.g., “What’s the point? You’re just going to alienate a lot of people.”). And people like Dan Savage have been fiercely criticized by concern trolls for pointing out that the Bible is “bullshit” when he was addressing gay bullying.

These kinds of messages often flood the channels of public discourse, and they crowd out real discussion about serious problems in religion. In other  words, atheists are often criticized for being confrontational, angry, offensive, etc. simply for being part of the public dialogue, but are rarely criticized for their ideas. Believers criticize atheists for the act of criticizing religion, but don’t give arguments for why the atheist criticism is wrong.

The first thing people “offended” by atheist rhetoric should understand is that religion is indeed a sensitive topic, but it shouldn’t be. Claims about the universe like “God exists” and “God cares about me” are hypotheses about the world, and are therefore subject to criticism in the free marketplace of ideas. As we see every single day, there are people who go batshit crazy at the idea that their religious assumptions can be ridiculed or criticized, and they confuse criticism with personal attack. And it surprises me to see “concern trolls” act as if this is a problem with atheists/atheism, and not a problem with religion.

The other thing to know is that since religion often seeks protections from criticism (and demand intellectual “respect”), if we are going to be concerned about truth and reality, we ought to be more skeptical, not less. Criticism of religion is a basis and a model for all criticism. Christopher Hitchens says it succinctly:

Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things because we need to demystify supposedly “holy texts” dictated by god and show that they are man-made. What we have to show is that there are internal inconsistencies and absurdities. One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.

Open, unfiltered criticism of religion isn’t just something we think is a good idea; it is essential to a free and liberal society.

The second major point is that the “concern trolls” have very little idea of what the modern atheist/secular movement is, mostly because they aren’t in it. This is not surprising. Even in progressive circles and events (like 2012 NetRoots Nation conference for activists, which didn’t feature a single event about atheism), the atheist movement is largely being ignored as a legitimate social change movement. And this lack of understanding is fueling much of the well-meaning, but deeply mistaken beliefs about how atheists should act.

The fact is that the movement has been incredibly successful in the last ten years. We went from nearly nothing to holding a major presence in the consciousness of the American public; we’ve infiltrated popular social thought, as well as colleges and high schools in all fifty states, and we have sparked a large public conversation in the mainstream media. In religious demographics, there has been an explosion of secularism, especially amongst young people. In every single one of the fifty states, the fastest growing religious identification is “none”. Activist secularism–whether in the form of Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist, in the lobbying work performed by the Secular Coalition for America, or in spirit of tens of thousands of people who descended upon the National Mall in Washington for the Reason Rally–is a force that is shaping America, and the entire world.

We are successful not because we have been quiet and nice to religion. We are successful because we are loud and critical, as well as legitimately angry. We are angry at injustice. We are angry at the the idea that people are being unnecessarily harmed. We are angry that there are serious metaphysical claims about the universe that are considered “too personal” to be criticized. We are angry at ignorance, at the lack of skepticism and critical thinking in this world. And we want things to change.

And things are changing. Not only are social attitudes (i.e., incredible distrust) towards atheists changing for the better, not only are more and more atheists coming out, but more and more people are becoming atheists. If you hang out for a while on /r/Atheism, for example, you’ll read hundreds of stories about how intense, uncensored debate has changed people’s mind on religion. If you watch videos dedicated to Christopher Hitchens (one of the most vehemently and outspoken anti-theists in history), you’ll see many people describe how his strident writings have turned them into atheists. It is not an accident that the most influential atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett) aren’t known for being nice to religion. Even I have personally have changed people’s minds about creationism, about sexual ethics, about end-of-life issues, and of course, about the existence of God by talking honestly and openly about my beliefs. Sharp, harsh criticism of religion is making a difference, and it shows.

And this loud criticism is what gives us our power, socially and politically. It’s what’s driving more and more people towards the movement.

The fallacy of concern trolls is therefore the following. They think that just because they are personally offended (or because they perceive others will be offended), they then automatically think our tactics don’t work or should be squashed. In other words, they ask us to give up one of the most essential aspects of our movement (our angry, critical attitude) just because they hold personal dislike–all without any evidence, and without any sound argument.

Following the orders of the concern trolls is one of the most dangerous things we can do. We are being asked to give up our power and our voice at a time when we are beginning to gain it.

Don’t let this happen. Speak out. Speak loudly. Be skeptical. Be critical. And don’t keep the faith.

“I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

-Barack Obama

The Atheist Movement is Not Political

Okay, maybe I just shot myself in the foot. Yes, there are secular lobbyists (see Secular Coalition for America). Yes, atheists care about religious discrimination laws, women’s rights, gay rights, prayer in public schools, science education, etc. These are all hot political issues. Yes, tens of thousands of people congregated in Washington, D.C. demanding “legislative equality” and asking everyone, including politicians, to come out.

But there seems to be a difference between involving atheists in political affairs that relate to religion and defining what it means to be a good atheist with reference to a set political ideology. For example, I find the National Atheist Party not so much cringeworthy because of the things it has done, but rather because the idea is dangerous. It is troubling to think that one political party–with a single platform (and maybe a candidate in the future)–represents atheism and or at least what it should look like.

Of course, there is the much greater problem of the actual and deliberate hijacking of atheism by the Leftist, anti-capitalist, feel-good social justice kind of crowd. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to say about religious conservatism and its evils. There’s a lot to criticize about our current market economy and the policies we have in place. And yes, there’s a lot more good that could be done by the atheist/humanist/secular community to fight for the dignity and rights of oppressed peoples.

But there’s a raging temptation within parts of the atheist community to say that you aren’t really up to the standard if you aren’t a strict liberal, if you aren’t supportive of Occupy Wall Street, if you don’t agree with the left’s tax policies, if you don’t agree with the many subtleties of race and poverty in America, if you don’t neatly fit within the box that is the “activist” political left. There are also people like Chris Stedman who criticize people like Greta Christina and say that you aren’t really furthering worthwhile goals of the atheist movement if you seek to change people’s minds about religion in a rational context.

The fact is that this kind of narrowly-defined atheism is absolutely counterproductive. This issue is bigger than the fact that there are many conservative/libertarian atheists in America. Defining good atheism narrowly means that atheism is not really atheism, that the movement isn’t really worthwhile as an effort to spread rationality and reason (and to bring about positive change), unless we all adopt ideologies that frankly have little to do with atheism.

I, frankly, would much rather have our movement be successful in creating a rational society that is majority secular than having atheists neatly fit itself into a modern American liberalism. The former would not necessarily mean a political consensus, but it would be an absolute game-changer in terms of building more welcoming communities for nonbelievers, as well as opposing the influence of religion in the public sphere and effecting secular change. I know this is shocking, but one of the best ways to ensure a secular humanistic society is to have an electorate of secular humanists.

The idea that all atheists should instead be holding “I am the 99%” signs in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is far less appealing to me. It’s even short-sighted in that it trades an open, dynamic, and diverse movement for an almost blind (but not necessarily bad) involvement in specific political activities. We should be very skeptical of this kind of stuff, and of the socio-economic ideologies that purport to be atheism’s soul-mates.

The secular/atheist movement is a huge tent. I say we keep it that way.

Why Reason Rally Was A Success and An Inspiration

The Reason Rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was an amazing, unforgettable, life-changing experience.

The Thinking Atheist made a video recap of his experience at Reason Rally. It’s a captivating overview of the emotions, the sights, the congenial atmosphere, and overwhelming awesomeness of the whole thing.

Everywhere I went I had this awareness that I was amongst friends. And if you’ll forgive the cliche, I felt that I was home.

For me, I was inspired by the words of Nate Phelps, the son of Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps, who talked about the sadness that he felt watching his family protest, and how it reminded him of the incredible amount of human potential that is wasted on religious dogma.

I was also inspired by people on Twitter and the support we received around the world. A tweet from Iran was made in solidarity with American atheists and in the hope that one day, there will be Reason Rallies in Tehran too.

I was inspired by everyday people who showed up. Students who flew from Wyoming. My fellow Chicagoans who drove ten hours to get to Washington. The family in D.C. who welcomed me personally to the city. My fellow interns from Foundation Beyond Belief. All the students. The surprising number of seniors I saw. The families. High school teenagers (like Jessica Ahlquist). It was an incredibly diverse crowd of everyday people, of all colors and backgrounds, from all corners of the country, wanting to take a stand for Reason.

Just look. Look at the picture above again. Stare at it, and think about each person’s life, each person’s journey of skepticism, doubt, and *maybe* religious upbringing. Think about why they came, why they thought they wanted to be part of something much much greater than themselves.

I was inspired by the passion, the dedication, the love and compassion that atheists showed for each other and the greater humanity that we care so much about.

The Lives She Saved, For The Humanity She Loved

Tina Strobos, famous woman of the Dutch resistance who sheltered more than 100 Jews during the Holocaust, recently passed away from cancer at the age of 91.

She risked her own life for total strangers. She found ingenious ways to forge travel documents. She let carpenters build hidden rooms in her own house. She was arrested multiple times and survived all the interrogations. Her house was searched multiple times. She didn’t fail.

“I never believed in God,” she said, “but I believed in the sacredness of life.”

So don’t ever ever ever let anyone tell you that we can’t be Good Without God.

So speak up. Be brave. Do amazing things.  Know that godless doesn’t mean voiceless, and atheist doesn’t mean heartless.