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Tolerating Imperfection

It wasn’t too long ago that I came upon an evangelism worksheet that posed the following question: if God is perfection, where in this 2-d space would you place yourself? With each subsequent question and scenario, the reader was supposed to draw stick figures. Pretty soon, the scenario became pretty predictable: there was an unbridgeable gap between you and God. The message? You deserved to burn in Hell forever, of course.


Humanists approach the question of perfection differently. Contrary to popular accusation, we do not celebrate the fact that we are not perfect people. In fact, many of us will admit that the world is a dark place. Our minds are irrational, our societies are broken, and sometimes we do horrible things to each other. Indeed, we should fight for change.

Instead, humanists approach imperfection with a degree of proportion. You said a bad word when you were seven? You stole some money when you were eight? You shouldn’t have done it, but humanists don’t think you deserve to go to Hell.

We also see things in terms of the sentient creatures that are involved and what beings can be harmed, not in absolute theological terms. You think that contraception and/or gay sex is a sin? We beg to differ.

We recognize that rational pursuit of the goal to become better people means we should think critically about justice and punishment. We have to understand there are diminishing returns to enforcing moral values, and that telling people they will face much more “justice” than they deserve is downright cruel.

Vocabulary is tricky. I guess the idea I’m promoting isn’t that we should accept our imperfection and do nothing about it. It’s that we should tolerate them. It’s that we should approach them rationally in accordance with the principle of a compassionate understanding of human limitations.

Of course, you can read and think about this all you like, but there’s nothing like a Tim Minchin song to sum up the ethos of this post:

Reductionism isn’t scary or oppressive. It’s beautiful.

My friend Chana has given the best definition of reductionism I’ve seen:

Reductionism <ri-duhk-shuh-niz-uhm>, n. The evil evil belief that people are made of cells. And cells are made of atoms. And atoms are made of quarks and leptons. And everything is quantum configurations in something or other.

For many, the “evil evil” part throws them off, way off. To them, it’s not just scary (like death). It seems morally repugnant. After all, do we start treating each other like we’re just globs of goo? Is there not something “real” in the make-up of a human being, something that goes beyond just an assortment of cells? Does it lead to erasure and marginalization of peoples, or the continuation of male, white hierarchies?

Are you telling me that everything I see above, its beauty and truth and essence included, is all reducible to smaller things?

Well here are a few points to clear up our Hollywood, pop culture idea of this scary, scary idea. So here we go:

1) Reductionism is true.

If anything, you should accept reductionism because it’s overwhelmingly likely to be true. The alternative would mean that there’s something in us or about us that isn’t material or physical, which is magic. And if it’s magic, it isn’t an explanation. And you shouldn’t believe it.

2) Reductionism isn’t a normative claim.

Being a reductionist doesn’t mean you should or shouldn’t be a liberal or a conservative. It doesn’t say if religion is good or bad (although it suggests that most religions are untrue). It doesn’t say anything about how you should or shouldn’t treat other people. So claims about reductionism leading to social ills are in the same approximate category as claims about atheism leading to the Holocaust or claims about Darwinism leading to eugenics.

3) The dichotomy between Map and Territory does not mean that maps aren’t important.

Reductionism doesn’t say that our moral and ethical systems are worthless. It doesn’t say that biology is useless because it’s ultimately physics (even though biology IS physics). In fact, we must acknowledge that our human-level maps are incredibly important. And no, it isn’t just science that’s important. Philosophy, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, history. Juggling, piano-playing, fire-breathing, skydiving. All of it. Important, and invaluable to us all.

4) Reductionism is beautiful, in every way.

Think about it. You’re made of atoms. And the atoms (or other smaller things) make up entirely what you are.

And the entire immensity of the Universe, its happenings and events, which go on on an unimaginably massive scale are also made up of smaller things, on a scale unimaginably small. The atoms that make up who you are in every way–mentally, physically, consciously, biologically, psychologically–all of it comes from the explosions of unbelievably large stars millions of miles in diameter, explosions that were made up of unbelievably small and subtle quantum events on scales far smaller than less than one millionth of a centimeter.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this view of the world is amazing. It means that there’s no magic, no fuzziness, no blurriness or supernatural nonsense in our model of reality. It means that the “magic” that we feel in our experience is great, because we are able to understand it on a more general (but less information rich) level. It means that somehow we’ve evolved a remarkable and intricate consciousness that can abstract from complex information, that can reason and discover, and that can develop amazing ethical systems to make the world a better place. Reductionism gives us a beautiful perspective to understand reality.

As Carl Sagan said, “the beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”

When Religion Claims to Tame Natural Impulses

Often one hears from the religious (and from Christians in particular) that religion tames the natural state of the human. The creationist pseudo-intellectual John Piper, for example, often talks about this in his oh-so-sophisticated “analysis” of atheism.

But why should we believe that the willingness to put rules and regulations on human freedom in the name of mystical ascetic values is not natural tooReligion, as described by Daniel Dennett, is entirely natural phenomenon. It is exactly what one expects from a species that, having evolved for billions of years, still have frontal lobes that are too small and hormonal glands that are too big. Even with our frontal lobes, we are host to countless cognitive biases that we are very seldom aware of and which seriously disrupt our ability to make reliable, accurate inferences from available evidence.

It is therefore no surprise that we, as natural people, have a long history filled with superstition and off-the-charts irrationality. We have and we continue to believe that witchcraft and demonic possessions are real things, and that we can kill witches or perform exorcisms. We have people that fall for Nigerian scams and arguments like Lewis’s Trilemma or TAG. We have a surprising number of highly educated people committing the conjunction fallacy. We have a very difficult time understanding Bayes’s Theorem.

The methods of skeptical inquiry that we take for granted, the methods of science, rationality, and logic are not natural. We are not born with nearly the kind of sharp rationality that we should have; rather, we are inescapably mammals full of delusions and beliefs that we don’t realize we have.

The secular idea of human freedom, of living in a pluralistic society with a separation of church and state, is also not natural. It is politically radical, religiously blasphemous, and chronologically modern. The history of humanity is filled with patterns of oppression, and much of this oppression comes from ideas about how we should control the apparent “natural” impulse of man. This need, this will to political and moral power, is as natural as the impulses themselves, and it leads to very bad places.

These ideas are a rejection of our supposed “natural” ideas of sex, of work, of family life. They’ve placed women in bondage and homosexuals in jail. They’ve made certain days of the week “holy” enough to not allow anyone to work (or sell alcohol). They continue to haunt us through taunts of, “we love the sinner, but hate the sin”. They seek to define what people can wear or how they should present themselves (often with extra regulations for a specific gender). They care about your family and your marriage and feel threatened when your family isn’t like theirs. They’ve warned against the dangers of skepticism, of free inquiry, of rational inferential methods. And they absolutely cannot stand atheism, because all people are born without a belief in God, and whatever people are naturally can’t possibly be good.

If religion wants to tame us as natural people, then it has to start at the fundamental level. It has to demonstrate why it is correct outside of the realms of “personal experience” and other fallacious methods of inquiry. It has to demonstrate, and not merely assert, why it is morally superior. Even after hundreds or thousands of years, there is still work that they haven’t even started.


Eight Reasons Why Skepticon 4 Rocked

1. It was better than going to church.

Sure, there was plenty of music and dancing and feel-good stuff, and yes, there was even a mock church service by Sam Singleton. But this was first and foremost an amazing educational event where people learned about things like molecular biology, Baye’s theorem, math education, rationality experiments, Solomonoff induction, poker strategy, as well as hot political/social issues like death, Hollywood rationality, sex positivity, atheist anger, and mental illness. Come on, when was the last time church-going challenged anyone to think this deeply, or to think at all?

2. The speakers were absolutely incredible.

Simply the best and brightest in their particular fields. Many, like PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, Hemant Mehta, are wildly popular bloggers. Eliezer Yudhovsky is the author of the most popular Harry Potter fan fiction in world and an artificial intelligence researcher at the Singularity Institute. Dan Barker was a former preacher who now works with the Clergy Project, a group that helps closeted atheists in the church. Spencer Greenberg is a mathematician who founded Rebellion Research, a company that develops machine learning technology for investing. There were so many amazing speakers there that it would take too much time to talk about them all!

3. Too many people showed up.

Skepticon started as a small event a couple of years ago with merely two speakers. It has grown exponentially since, and this year, we nearly filled one of the largest theaters in the city. Who would have thought that people would actually show up in the middle of nowhere in America?

4. It was so far away.

Road-trips are fun, and nine-hour road trips are even better! Well I kind of cheated and flew to St. Louis, but we drove back to St. Louis and took Megabus back to Chicago. Thanks to SA-ers Chana Messinger and Brian Green (no, not the physicist) for an unforgettable time.

5. We stood up against atheist discrimination.

The owner from Mio Gelato, a gelato vendor right next door to the Skepticon event, thought that skepticism was limited to questioning the existence of UFO’s or disproving astrology. So he unknowingly walked into the Sam Singleton event (an amazing comedic event, btw) and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In response, he posted a sign on his window that said “Skepticon people NOT welcomed to my CHRISTIAN business.” Soon enough, people were taking picture of this sign, and his Yelp score took a nosedive, and this was all reported in the local media as well as the blogosphere. Afterwards, the owner posted a quick apology, and, after more public pressure, finally issued a long, thorough apology.

Two things to say about this: first of all, yes, discrimination against atheists is so not fucking okay. This case is no different than posting a sign that says “Blacks not welcome to my white business” or “Jews not welcome to my Islamic restaurant”. Giving excuses like “I was offended when I voluntarily walked into a black church” or “Hamantash and Latke made me throw up last night” is NOT okay.

Secondly, I’m glad we stood up as a community. Two decades ago, this kind of bigotry was not only common, but also occasionally supported by popular figures like the President. Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress. I’m also glad that the owner learned his lesson and that he has apologized publicly for his indefensible actions. I do not think we should excuse him. I do not think we should forget. But I hope we can, instead of holding grudges, move on and learn collectively from this experience.

6. I met unbelievably smart and talented people.

Skepticon is a spectacular social event. I remember meeting wonderful student skeptics from KU, MSU, UofI, Depaul, and an engineering college in Indiana that I can’t remember the name of.  I also met many non-student skeptics not just from the Missouri area, but also from places like Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, etc. I met people from CFI, Unitarian Universalists, and other skeptics/freethinkers. I met Jesse Galef who works at the national SSA and co-writes Measure of Doubt. I also had the amazing opportunity to have dinner with several speakers from the event, namely Eliezer Yudhovsky, Spencer Greenberg, and Julia Galef. During dinner, we talked about game theory, the infinite hat problem(s), the axiom of choice, Godel’s incompleteness theorem, etc. etc. It was super!

7. We had an influence on Springfield, MO.

Besides the Mio Gelato incident, the experiences I’ve had with people from Springfield were overwhelmingly positive. The Christian activists outside our event did not cause any trouble at all. Also, many restaurants in Springfield opened early on the weekends just to accommodate us! One even gave us a special menu (I ordered a Skepticon salad, for example, but wasn’t sure if it was really a salad). In return, some of these businesses had one of their best weekends ever in terms of sales!

8. It made me proud to be part of this movement.

What more can I say? America is changing, whether you like it or not. Religion is losing its grip on the human mind, and especially with the advent of the internet, it now has to compete, for the very first time in history on such a large scale, in the free marketplace of ideas. Wherever skepticism leads us, there is no doubt that this movement has already had a profound effect on American political and social thought, and it will continue to do so. There will be a time in America when Christians (and religious people in general) will be a minority, and if the current trend continues, that day is approaching very quickly. I left Skepticon 4 with a great sense of optimism and a sigh of relief that we really are a movement that continually questions itself, continually tests itself, and continually tries to improve itself. We’re skeptics, we’re proud of it, and we have no apologies.