Monday, November 6, 2017

No true atheist?

Update: When I first drafted what follows, I gave substantial credence to the view that Devin P Kelley was an atheist who repeatedly expressed hostility toward religion. As it turns out, those reports were highly exaggerated and it appears that his motivation for his murder of dozens of people in a church is far more likely to be part of "a domestic situation". Kelley has a long and awful history of domestic violence, against women, children, and animals.

I leave what follows as I originally wrote it (except for fixing some typographical errors and perhaps adding some references. I believe that it is a valuable commentary even if the specific incident that motivated it isn't applicable to the point.

We already know that someone who commits mass murder isn't right in the head. This is true whether they are nominally motivated by global Jihad, defending the unborn, protecting the white race or instigating the uprising against the Fascist state. It is no more or less true when it is motivated by a hatred for religion.

So what should my fellow atheists do when one of these atrocities is committed by a self-professed atheist, who appears to have been motivated by his hostility to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

We can correctly point out atheists do not call for violence against believers and that most atheists believe in freedom of religion, and fully respect the rights of people to believe. There is no way that this killer was taking cues or hints from "the atheist movement" (to the extent that such a thing exists).

We can correctly point out all of signs of mental illness in the individual that are distinct from his atheism or atheism in general. But that applies equally well to any of these other kooks. If I criticize some aspects of religiosity for the horrors brought by the religious, I shouldn't expect to hide behind "he is a kook who doesn't represent us" even though he is a kook who doesn't represent us.

We could even try to say that no true atheist would do such a thing, as we value life, reason, and human dignity. This would be a stretch in the best of cases (as atheism and humanism are not the same things even if many atheists are humanists). But I would not accept that argument from religious people who use it to avoid looking at how their own belief system may have supported some of the craziness of the killer. So I won't accept this argument here either.

Are we (atheists) doing something wrong?

So is there anything about atheism or the atheist community that can be legitimately said to contribute to the kinds of awfulness we've seen? I'm going to say that there is a little something that we should try to correct, but that it is tiny compared to responsibility that religion and some political ideologies have to bear for what crazies do in their name.

Atheists, for the most part, do not really care what other people believe. A Christian might be highly motivated to change my mind about things in order to save me from eternal damnation, but I have no equivalent motivation to change a Christian's mind. We merely think that believers are wrong about some things. We don't believe that their error is part of some evil demonic force (because we don't believe in such things). And we certainly don't believe that we have God on our side.

It is true that most of us probably believe that the world would be a better place if people were less religious. And so there is scope there for caring about what others believe and disliking those beliefs. It is possible in these terms to imagine some sort of ideological crusade against religion. Perhaps that was part of the motivation, but on the whole, you don't see atheists even talking about trying to suppress or punish religious belief. You see us trying to persuade.

Uncomprehending insult

But despite that enormous asymmetry, I do think that there is a little something that we could be better about. There are substantial portions of the atheist community and online communities that paint believers as sheep, cowards seeking comfort, weak-minded, deluded, infantile, mentally ill, and other unpleasant things. This is because we struggle with understanding how (otherwise) reasonable people can believe things that to us are patently nuts. We really do struggle with that question.

The problem is that we genuinely do not understand this facet of the majority of our fellow humans. Now I have my theories, but this isn't the place for them, but most of guesses spouted by many of my fellow atheists to not paint a pleasant picture of believers.

It is easy to think poorly of people we disagree with, particularly if we can't really understand why they disagree with us. It's clubby to ridicule them. It makes us feel special and superior. Now this is fine to an extent. It's like what Longhorns say about Aggies. It becomes a problem if we take it too seriously. And it becomes a problem if the dangerously disturbed among us take us too seriously when we talk in those terms.

I don't know if that kind of talk played any role in this particular case, but I do think that we atheists should make an effort to remind ourselves and each other that the large majority of humans are decent and (otherwise) reasonable people just like us.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Support the Amash Amendment

I have just (July 23) sent the following to my Congresscritter, Sam Johnson (3-TX).
To the Honorable Sam Johnson, US Representative 3rd district, Texas. It is clear that the indiscriminate collection of American's telephone data goes well beyond the intent of Congress in sections 401 of FISA and 215 of the PATIOT ACT. But until those laws can be properly revised to prevent the kinds secret interpretations that the Administration has given to them, Congress can -- with the Amash Amendment to HR 2397 -- send a clear message to at least defund the most abusive operations (that we happen to be aware of). Congress must send a clear signal that spying on citizens who are suspected of no crime is unacceptable in a democracy. And make no mistake about it, collecting our phone records, lists of contacts, and locations is spying. Only by sending a strong signal can we ensure that we actually will have the open discussion on this matter that the President claims he welcomes. I spent some time in Communist Hungary, and so I have seen a country where secret courts made secret laws and where the government felt free to spy on its own citizens. It would by hyperbolic to claim that the US is doing the same, but in all appearances we do seem to be heading down that road. Sincerely, Jeffrey Goldberg
Plano, TX.
Here is some background on the Amash Amendment, and the White House response looks like a joke. The White House statement actually says,
This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process
The various secret interpretations of FISA and the PATRIOT ACT by both the Obama and Bush Administrations checked only by secret courts that have never rejected an administration claim have become the law of the land through a process that is anything but open and deliberative.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Game theory and "Stand Your Ground"

When it's best to attack first

During the Cold War, before the day of the ABM treaty, the situation between the United States and the Soviet Union was extremely dangerous, as each country was coming close to acquiring what was called "First strike capability". If you had first strike capability it meant that you could launch a surprise "first strike" on the enemy which would be so devastating that they could do little harm to you in retaliating. If the your enemy had first strike capability, that would mean that they could launch a surprise attack against you that would be so devastating that you could not effectively retaliate.

So let's consider Sam and Joe. They don't get along. And there is no sheriff in town. There is no outside force to keep the peace between them. Joe thinks that Sam is developing first strike capability. That is, Joe thinks that Sam is powerful enough to ambush and kill Joe without Sam having to suffer much. Meanwhile, Sam is thinking the same thing about Joe. Sam is worried that Joe could kill Sam without having to face any serious consequences. Sam is afraid that Joe might attack first.

Joe is a pretty scary guy. So Sam has to wonder whether it would be better for him, Sam, to attack Joe before Joe attacks Sam. Now Joe isn't stupid. He realizes that Sam might be thinking along those lines. So even if Joe wasn't initially planning to attack first; he, Joe, now has real reason to worry that Sam will attack first. Now that Joe has some real reason to suspect that Sam might attack first, Joe now has a real reason to attack first. After all, if Sam might attack first, then they only way for Joe to stay safe is for Joe to attack Sam first.

Sam isn't stupid either. Sam realizes that the situation gives Joe some real reasons to attack first. So Sam gets even more jumpy. This goes round and round so even a small conflict leads to a situation where the safest thing for both Sam and Joe is to try to attack the other first. This is extremely dangerous. It is unstable because what might start out as an irrational fear of the other spirals into perfectly rational fear that the other will attack first, for which the only defense is to launch the first, devastating strike.

This dynamic should also be familiar to anyone who's watched the Treasure of the Sierra Madres.

Bring in the sheriff

Now let's put a sheriff in town. If Joe goes out and kills Sam, Joe will be severely punished. If Sam goes out and kills Joe, Sam will be severely punished. Furthermore both Sam and Joe know this. Because Sam knows that Joe will be severely punished for killing Sam, Sam doesn't have to worry so much about what Joe might do. Joe knows that Sam doesn't have to worry so much, so Joe doesn't have to worry so much about Sam launching a pre-emptive attack.

Stand Your Ground

Now let's take a different story. Sam and Joe live in a state with a "Stand Your Ground" law. They both know the law. Sam looks like a scary dude to Joe, and Joe starts following Sam to see what Sam might be up to. Maybe Joe wants to catch Sam in the act of something. Maybe Sam really is a scary dude.

Sam notices that Joe is following him. Sam is worried. He doesn't know what Joe is up to. Maybe Sam notices that Joe has a gun. So Sam figures that Joe, with a gun, is stalking him and figures that his best chance at surviving the night would be to jump Joe before Joe can shoot.

Or maybe Sam doesn't know about the gun, but has shouted, threateningly, to Joe to back off. Sam might just try to stand his ground and try to scare Joe away. Joe now has real reasons to be afraid of Sam. And of course now Sam has a real reason to be afraid of Joe. Each at this point can legitimately fear that the other will try to kill the other first. So maybe Sam now attacks Joe, hoping to kill or injure him enough before Joe can use his gun. Sam fails. Joe uses his gun. Whoever succeeds in killing or incapacitating the other will not be punished. So both Sam and Joe are fighting for their lives with no outside constraints. Someone is going to die.

Even if the law would have applied the same...

Sam dies; Joe survives. Even if we were to believe that the law would have treated Sam the same way it treated Joe had Sam been the victor, the entire dynamic of Stand Your Ground means that even a small amount of fear (merited or not) can quickly escalate into very legitimate fear in which the rational course of action for each party is to do is to try to kill the other guy before he kills you.

The only way to win is not to play

The only way out of this dynamic is to return to the law that says that you can only fight back if you have no other choice. If you fight back when you could have run away, then you will go to jail. When both Sam and Joe Stand Their Ground, someone dies.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

It's important. Parrott for SBOE District 12

It's tempting to think that votes in many parts of North Texas don't matter. The Republican candidates are bound to win locally. But I am going to argue that those in the 12th district for the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) need to take this election very seriously. Note that district boundaries have been redrawn, so you may not know which district you are in.

I particularly exhort my Republican friends to not just vote party line here.Texas State Board of Education If you are worried about the extremist influences in your party, and more importantly if you care about the kind of education we have in Texas, this is where you need to draw a line.

I do not actually know very much about Lois Parrott other than what I've been reading over the past weeks. I haven't spoken with people who have worked with her. My support for Ms Parrott is based substantially on the fact that she has stated unambiguously that she opposes the Religious Rights' attempted take-over of school textbooks and curricula in Texas.

Miller has abandoned reason and the center

I've (mildly) supported her opponent, Tincy Miller, in the past, and so I need to explain why I am now unequivocally opposing Ms Miller. Tincy Miller, as the the Republican candidate will still probably win (although the 12th district also contains substantial parts of Dallas County, so there is still a fighting chance for a Democrat). Miller's experienced, and has been reasonably professional. In her previous terms she's been an odd sort of swing vote between the radical Creationist and anti-Historical faction and the professional faction. I would have preferred someone who did more to stand up to the people who make Texas a laughing stock of around the world, but I also had a certain admiration for the non-ideological, pragmatic, "good governance" Republicans that I found when I first moved to Texas seven years ago.

But pragmatic, consensual Republicans have been getting turfed out. They either get replaced by people on the Radical Right or they move dramatically to the right themselves. Miller has done the latter. I held my nose (and my tongue) as Miller courted endorsements from the Texas Eagle Forum and other very conservative groups during her primary battle with fiercely anti-intellectual the Tea Party candidate, Gail ("Pilgrims were Commies") Spurlock. I had hoped that Miller would move back to the pragmatic center after she had the GOP nomination. This has not happened.

In a recent candidate's forum (full video hosted by the Richard League of Women Voters), Miller has stated (incorrectly) that scientists agree that Creationism and Intelligent Design should be taught along with natural selection. Miller also stated some sort of endorsement for school-led prayer. She has refused to respond to the Texas Freedom Network's questionnaire.

You don't have to be on the left to fear the right-wing take over of the SBOE

Miller is displaying her unwillingness to stand up to the faction that have tried to remove Thomas Jefferson as an enlightenment thinker from textbooks, Deleting history tfn that have wanted to teach the bizarre historical theories of the discredited David Barton, that have fought at every opportunity to undermine teaching of the most fundamental principle in the biological sciences, which has led to them refusing to rely on educational and subject matter experts. This faction has not just made the Texas a laughing stock of the nation, but also of the world. The same world in which our children will be living, working, and studying.

In the past, Miller has been erratic in standing up to that faction; but over the past four months she's been signaling that she will be joining them (possibly giving then an outright majority on the board). So while Parrott may be to the left of most of the voters in the 12th District, this isn't about left/right; it is about sanity versus the ridiculous. Miller has done everything she can to indicate that she will not challenge the ridiculous.

Your vote will matter

Now I don't know whether Miller's shift reflects her genuine convictions, fear of future primary battles from the right, or a look toward an expanded political career. Either way, she shouldn't be on the board, and if she does end up on the board she should be reminded by a strong showing for Parrott that there are voters who will not tolerate an anti-intellectual ideological and deeply embarrassing and destructive board of education.