Saturday, January 28, 2012

More divorces in the Bible belt

"A recent U.S. Census report shows the Northeast - and New Jersey in particular - has the lowest divorce rate in America, trailed closely by New York.

The Bible Belt, meanwhile, home to Southern hospitality, church telethons and country music, has more "shotgun" weddings and the most divorces.

"People assume that people in the Northeast divorce easily because they're less religious, but that's not the case," said Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University.

In the Northeast, 7.2 per 1,000 men and 7.5 per 1,000 women got divorced. In the South, the rates were 10.2 for men and 11.1 for women.

New Jersey's rates were 6.1 for men and 6 for women, according to the 2009 American Community Survey, which released the data in August.


The South sees more divorce for several reasons, Carr said:

First, Southerners tend to marry young.

Second, couples don't usually move in together while unwed, a trend tied to religious beliefs. They often frown upon birth control, and are "more likely to have nonmarital pregnancies, which ... then trigger 'shotgun' marriages."

Third, there are simply more marriages in the South. New Jersey had the second-lowest marriage rates, just above Maine. The Census survey reported New Jersey's marriage rate is 14.8 for men and 13.3 for women.", September 29, 2011
If you're not married you can't get divorced.

Irreligious countries are happier

"Circumstances predict religiousness," he said. "Difficult circumstances lead more strongly to people being religious. And in religious societies and in difficult circumstances, religious people are happier than nonreligious people. But in nonreligious societies or more benign societies where many people's needs are met, religious people aren't happier -- everyone's happier."

ScienceDaily Aug. 8, 2011
This should settle the discussion on religiousness and happiness. Irreligious people has a harder time in religious countries, but if irreligious people are the majority, then everyone's better off. The map in this post (which I think is from the Gallup poll this study is based on) is also pretty self-explanatory.

If you believe in a loving god you're more likely to cheat

"Belief in God doesn't deter a person from cheating on a test, unless that God is seen as a mean, punishing one, researchers say.
On the flip side, psychology researchers Azim F. Shariff at the University of Oregon and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia found that undergraduate college students who believe in a caring, forgiving God are more likely to cheat.


No differences in cheating were found between self-described believers in God and non-believers."

ScienceDaily Apr. 20, 2011
Fairly interesting. As the saying goes: "We're not perfect, we're forgiven". It must be noted, however, that people who believe in a vengeful god may cause a lot of other problems.

Religious people has higher blood pressure

"Religiosity appears to have little affect on preventing hypertension, or high blood pressure, and those study participants proclaiming to be the most religious were actually the most likely to have hypertension. The study was conducted by medical students at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and presented on April 30 at the meeting of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine in New Orleans.

Although a small study presented at a small meeting, it is yet one more report that chisels away at the notion that prayer and belief alone offer significant health benefits.

Many studies indeed have shown that those who attend weekly religious services or participate in church activities have at least marginally better health than non-participants. Yet these studies have focused primarily on physical participation: getting out of the house to a weekly service and being part of a community.


Marginally significant results aside, these earlier studies could not tease apart what it was about religion — the spiritual act of believing or the physical acts of participating and interacting with neighbors — that provided the purported benefit.

The Loyola study focused more on the spiritual, not whether a person merely attends church but whether they "carry [their] religion over into all other dealings in life," as cited in the study. Those who were most religious in this regard were the least healthy in terms of high blood pressure.

Other recent studies have focused on spirituality, too, to see if that alone could lower blood pressure, perhaps through mechanisms such as stress reduction. Yet prayer and spirituality were associated with higher blood pressure in a study of more than 3,000 adults published in January 2009 in Social Science Medicine; and they offered no benefit for preventing hypertension for approximately 1,600 women in a study published in June 2009 in Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Even a life of the cloth seems to provide little protection. The obesity rate among United Methodist clergy is 40 percent, about 10 percent higher than the national rate, as reported in the September 2010 issue of Obesity.

Meanwhile, just about anything that gets someone out of the house can be helpful. Playing bingo, for example, even in a non-religious setting, is associated with a 40-percent reduction in death risk and 65-percent reduction in disability among the elderly, according to a study published in June 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine."

LiveScience, Christopher Wanjek, 05 May 2011
I quote this article at length, because it points to a very important effect of religion, the social aspect. So there aren't any metaphysical effects or effects from belief itself, only the effect that getting out of the house provides. Maybe atheists should gather once a week too.

On a personal note, not long ago I actually had fairly high blood pressure. I could hear the blood pumping when I was laying on my bed with the ear to the pillow. Then I started to excercise once a week, and that helped. Now I can't hear the blood pumping anymore.  No need for spirituality, just common sense.

Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says

"A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.


The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.


"The idea is pretty simple," said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.

"It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.


Dr Wiener continued: "In a large number of modern secular democracies, there's been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%."


And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction."

BBC News, 22 March 2011

Even in Ireland!

Youths are less religious

"In a survey released last year, it was found that 72 percent of millennials were "more spiritual than religious." According to Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, the group that conducted the study. Rainer explained to USA Today that young adults today do not pray, worship, or read the Bible.

In studying the data of 1,200 18-29 year olds, Rainer found that among the 65 percent who described themselves as Christians, "many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only; most are just indifferent," said Rainer. "The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith," he added.

The study found that 65 percent rarely or never pray with others, and 38 percent almost never pray by themselves. In addition, 65 percent rarely or never attend worship services, while 67 percent don not read the Bible or sacred texts."

The Christian Post, Sep. 22 2011

I really can't stand the word "spiritual" but I guess in this case it's better than being religious.

70 percent of scientists believe religion and science are sometimes in conflict

"They interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 participants, pulled from a survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences at 21 elite U.S. research universities. Only 15 percent of those surveyed said they view religion and science as always in conflict. Another 15 percent said the two are never in conflict, while 70 percent said they believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.


The study was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation with additional funding from Rice University.


Many of those surveyed cited issues in the public realm (teaching of creationism versus evolution, stem cell research) as reasons for believing there is conflict between the two. The study showed that these individuals generally have a particular kind of religion in mind (and religious people and institutions) when they say that religion and science are in conflict.

Other findings in the study:

    Scientists as a whole are substantially different from the American public in how they view teaching “intelligent design” in public schools. Nearly all of the scientists – religious and nonreligious alike – have a negative impression of the theory of intelligent design.

    Sixty-eight percent of scientists surveyed consider themselves spiritual to some degree.

    Scientists who view themselves as spiritual/religious are less likely to see religion and science in conflict."

Beliefnet, September 23, 2011
I've seen this survey cited in a number of places and nearly all of them has a headline indicating that science and religion are not in conflict, while the numbers clearly state that 70 per cent thinks religion and science are sometimes in conflict. Only 15 per cent thinks religion and science are never in conflict.

Is religion good for society? See how God's own country compare.

"Take homicide, which is way higher in the United States than in any other advanced country. Same with incarceration – we have more people in prison than China does, and China is four times our size. In no other first world state do so many die as children. Life spans are notably shorter than in other nations. Abortion rates are higher. Also high are gonorrhea and syphilis infections, which are dozens of times lower in parts of Europe. Out of wedlock teen pregnancy? We’re #1. Divorce? Only the Swedes beat us out. Illicit drug use is exceptionally high. As is mental illness. The not a total societal basket case, we are typical in suicide rates and alcohol consumption, and score high on marriage rates and income. But when I tallied up the factors used in my Evolutionary Psychology paper on a zero-10 scale American scored a meager three, while the most atheistic democracies scored up to a remarkable eight (none reached 10, there being no utopias.


So the line that societies cannot help but go to hell in a handcart if they do not follow the dictates of a God is nothing more than a great big lie. Instead, it is the most atheistic democracies, where few ask what Jesus would do, that enjoy the best overall lifestyle conditions. The same trends hold up within the U.S, too: The Northeast is already as secular as parts of Europe and enjoys less dysfunction than the Southeast which is the most conservative Christian; life spans are actually decreasing in the Bible belt. "

Washington Post, Gregory Paul, 10/17/2011

See the full report here: The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions

Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

"A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.

Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon."

Washington Post, Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman, April 30

In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally

"Three in 10 Americans interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God. That is similar to what Gallup has measured over the last two decades, but down from the 1970s and 1980s. A 49% plurality of Americans say the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally, consistently the most common view in Gallup's nearly 40-year history of this question. Another 17% consider the Bible an ancient book of stories recorded by man.", July 8, 2011
Odd fluctuation in recent years.
See the article for lots of other numbers on this issue.

In U.S., Increasing Number Have No Religious Identity

"Americans have become increasingly less tied to formal religion in recent decades, with the percentage saying they do not have a specific religious identity growing from near zero in the 1950s to 16% this year and last.


An additional measure Gallup has tracked over time asks Americans if they believe that religion can answer all or most of today's problems, or if they believe religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date.



Bottom Line
Gallup surveys confirm a downward drift in religious identity among Americans, as well as a slight increase in the number of Americans who view religion as old-fashioned and out of date.", May 21, 2010

Intuitive people are more likely to believe in God, study shows

"In a series of studies, researchers at Harvard University found that people with a more intuitive thinking style tend to have stronger beliefs in God than those with a more reflective style. Intuitive thinking means going with one's first instinct and reaching decisions quickly based on automatic cognitive processes. Reflective thinking involves the questioning of first instinct and consideration of other possibilities, thus allowing for counterintuitive decisions.


Participants who gave intuitive answers to all three problems were 1 ½ times as likely to report they were convinced of God's existence as those who answered all of the questions correctly. That pattern was found regardless of other demographic factors, such as the participants' political beliefs, education or income. "How people think - or fail to think - about the prices of bats and balls is reflected in their thinking, and ultimately their convictions, about the metaphysical order of the universe," the journal article stated.

Participants with an intuitive thinking style also were more likely to have become more confident believers in God over their lifetimes, regardless of whether they had a religious upbringing. Individuals with a reflective style tended to become less confident in their belief in God. The study also found that this pronounced link between differing thinking styles and levels of faith could not be explained by differences in the participants' thinking ability or IQ. "Basic ways of thinking about problem solving in your everyday life are predictive of how much you believe in God," Rand said.", 23 Sep 2011
 I'm tempted to say: "So, they really are more stupid, then?".But that's just my intution which could be wrong.

Better sex without religion, survey shows

"Uh oh. Sex. As America's "war on sex" once again heats up as the country slides toward another presidential election, a new Sex and Secularism study conducted by Kansas University undergraduate Amanda Brown and Dr. Darrel W. Ray is bound to raise some hackles among the religiously faithful. Controversy abounds.

After surveying over 14,500 secularists about their sex lives the study's key findings were as follows:

    Sex improves dramatically after leaving religion.
    Sexual guilt has little staying power after leaving religion.
    Those raised most religious show no difference from those raised least religious in their sexual behavior.
    Those raised most religious experience far more guilt but have just as much sex.
    Religious parents are far worse at educating their children on matters of sex.
    Religious guilt differs in measurable amounts according to denomination.

The authors admit the study was not perfect. It was conducted online, with respondents self-reporting their responses to questions posed, and all of the participants self-identified as currently secular, which could imply a certain motivation on their part to paint a rosy picture of post-religion sexual bliss. The authors feel the sheer number of respondents goes a long way to make up for its methodological weaknesses, and the authors freely admit the purpose of the study was to test six specific hypotheses that can be found on the link bottom of this piece.
 The study's authors state:

    "Most religions preach strongly against pornography so it is reasonable to think that porn use would be less among the more religious. This survey found that porn use is quite high in all groups and is a key source of sex education for religious teens. The most religious teens said they got their sex education from porn 33% of the time, the less religious 25.2% of the time. The survey found that 90% of men were using pornography by age 21 with no significant difference between those most and least religious. For women, over 50% were using porn by age 21 and 70% at age 30, with little difference between most and least religious."", 25 May 2011

Stripping Judiciary Powers


An article in Bloomberg discusses the attitude of several Republican presidential candidates towards the judicial branch of government.

Among these, Newt Gingrich "says as president he would ignore U.S. Supreme Court rulings he dislikes" and Ron Paul "would bar federal judges from hearing many cases involving abortion, same-sex marriage and religion."

(See Bloomberg: Gingrich Leads Revolt Against Judges by Vowing to Ignore Court)

I want to start by looking at what is in fact a major motivator behind many of these claims. There are a great many Christian theocrats - particularly church leaders - who would like to set up an American theocracy. This is a state where religious leaders get to dictate the direction that the country goes. However, the Constitution prohibits this. A lot of judges are doing their job - that is to say, they are upholding the constitution. That blocks these Christian theocrats from setting up a Christian theocracy. So, these Christian theocrats want to get rid of the judges or, at least, strip them from their power to decide issues relevant to the establishment of a Christian theocracy.

Of course they claim that they are seeking to protect the Constitution. It is politically necessary for them to do so. If they were to say, "We want to repeal the religious freedom elements of the First Amendment" - If they stated their true intentions - the American people would soundly reject their program. Consequently, they argue that the establishment of a Christian theocracy is somehow identical to protecting freedom of religion.

It is actually a simple argument to make - and it can be seductive to those who want to believe it. "If we are not permitted to establish a Christian theocracy, then we are not free. The government grants us liberty in practicing our religion. We practice our religion by establishing a Christian theocracy. Therefore, the government grants us the right to establish a Christian theocracy. Any attempt to block this Christian theocracy is a violation of our God-given rights as defined in the Constitution."

However, this argument is as invalid as that of a skinhead caught spray-painting a swastika and "Kill the Jews" on the door of a synagogue saying, "Hey, it's a free country. Don't I have a right to freedom of speech? I'm just expressing my opinion here. If you stop me from doing this then you are violating my right to freedom of speech."

More intelligent, thinking individuals would not be seduced by this type of argument. They recognize that the right to freedom to practice their religion, like the freedom of speech, has its limits. They roughly follow the model that, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."

The right to freedom of speech does not grant one the right to express an opinion in spray paint on somebody else's property. The right to freedom of religion does not grant one the right to set up a religious theocracy.

One of the ways that our government is set up to avoid tyranny is by this method that establishes three branches of government, with a system of checks and balances between them. Let any one of them try for tyrannical power, and the others are set up to stand in their way.

Executive tyranny is blocked by the fact that the executive branch must depend on the legislature to pass laws and approve a budget. It is also blocked by a judicial system with the power to declare their tyranny unconstitutional.

A tyrannical legislature depends on an executive branch with the power to veto legislation - which the legislature can override only if it provides a super-majority. Legislative tyranny is also checked and balanced by a judicial that can declare its laws unconstitutional.

A tyrannical judiciary is checked by the fact that judges only have the power to judge cases that are brought before them and are appointed by the executive and legislative branches. Furthermore, the legislative and executive branches can work together to change the Constitution.

There are some who argue that these proposals from Gingrich and other Republican presidential candidates are a part of the system of checks and balances. As such, they do not work against that system.

However, a system of checks and balances requires that no entity be given a trump card that renders another branch totally impotent. An impotent branch of government can offer no checks and can create no balance.

If the executive branch can ignore any judicial decision it does not like invalid, then executive power is unchecked. It is worthless to even take a case to court. No matter what the judge decides, the executive will continue to do what it pleases. Consequently, judicial checks on executive power are eliminated.

Similarly, a law that says that judges may not render an opinion on certain issues is a law that gives unchecked and unbalanced power to the legislative and executive branches on those issues. Where there is no power to review or question, there is no check or balance.

Of course, this is exactly what the Christian theocrats hunger for - the ability to cast aside the first amendment protections against a theocratic government controlled by religious leaders for their own benefit.

It seems only natural for religious leaders to seek more power for themselves. They claim to speak for a God, but they are only human. Let's not forget that the God that they want us to obey is a God that they invented. They invented this God by projecting their own image onto a divine form. The message that they claim comes from God with a command to obey actually comes from them.

They are certainly going to be tempted to invent a God that says that they have the God-given right to rule humanity (in God's service, of course.)

It is an old-fashioned way of thinking. However, this does not mean that it has lost any of its seductive power.

The Year Ahead - Atheist Activism


This is a time traditionally assigned to assessing one's place in the world and plotting a course for the year ahead. What should be the goal of atheist activism in the year ahead?

There seem to be a lot of people who think that every atheist should line themselves behind a single cause - marching lock-step behind a single message, without deviation or dissent.

I object to this way of thinking. It requires individuals to give up the practice of reaching their own conclusions based on an application of reason to the evidence available. Instead, it requires that each person obligate himself or herself to be a puppet obeying and serving the puppet master. Whether or not this form of power does good or evil depends a lot on the moral character of the puppet master.

The Republican party operates this way - and as a result it exercises political power out of proportion to its numbers. However, it has also seems to attract immoral people seeking to use this mass of unthinking puppets for their own personal use. Either that, or it elevates as leaders those members who are experts at the type of unthinking, irrational idiocy that this system requires.

I would not want the atheist movement to acquire this type of lock-step mentality.

Besides, I think it is useful to have different groups pursuing different objectives.

For example, I strongly disapprove of a pledge of allegiance that groups atheists with traitors, tyrants, and the unjust. I strongly disapprove of a national motto that segregates the community into groups of “we” versus “they” on the criteria of trust in God. However, I fully realize that no politician could get away with defending this position, even if he agreed with it. It is useful to have a community advocating the removal of these offensives. While, at the same time, others seek public office that will not advocate policies that will guarantee the position they seek goes to their political opponent.

It is good to have a PZ Myers harshly condemning all of creationism (on the grounds that it deserves criticism), while at the same time having others with their mind in the political realm taking a softer approach and seeking compromises that can actually have an effect on policy. It is not the case that one is a villain and the other is a hero. It is the case of two people pursuing means appropriate to their ends. The loss of either will be a great loss indeed.

In general, this means that we will have to accept as a working assumption that there will be a diverse set of groups that call themselves atheists, they will be run by people who have different ideas on how best to proceed, and some of them will be embarrassingly wrong.

There's another fact that atheist activism will have to accommodate in 2012 (or any other year) is that we do not get to pick and choose which of our leaders will become popular. This is true in the same way that we cannot pick and choose which YouTube videos will go viral. The culture itself will determine this - and will do so according to its values.

This means that, in 2012, the leading news stories will continue to be those that are embarrassing to atheists. This is simply because the critics of atheism have good numbers and an eagerness to embarrass atheists. Those people simply have no incentive to take an example of an atheist doing great deeds and sending it off to their friends - given that the bulk of those friends will likely to be hostile to anything that depicts atheists in a favorable light. Only things that cast atheists in an unfavorable light have much of a chance of making news.

This is how bigotry works. There is widespread bigotry against atheists in this country. That bigotry will grasp onto anything that serves its interest. Those are the things that it will introduce into and spread throughout the community - while ignoring and burying anything that does not serve this interests.

When we criticize those who "embarrass" atheists - but who do not actually do anything wrong - we are actually giving voice to and embracing the very same bigotry and prejudice that we complain against.

In the absence of bigotry, an atheist can do something foolish or embarrassing without this reflecting poorly on all atheists. It is only in an envirnment filled with anti-atheist bigots, eager to make invalid inferences from the specific to the general, one atheist's foolishness does harm to the image of all atheists. When we join in the criticism of the atheist activist by saying, "Don't embarrass us," we are simply giving bigotry and prejudice a seat at the head of the table.

Consider the fact that a religious person can do something foolish and embarrassing - it happens all the time - yet the community does not take this as proof that all of religion is defective.

Granted, some atheists make this leap. However, this only shows that some atheists are anti-religious bigots. I am not shy at calling them that. In fact, I am deeply embarrassed by the atheist community that, while they profess to be the champions of reason, their writings are filled with the bigot’s fallacy – repeated arguments that begin with premises identifying the immoral or irrational acts of a single person or small group that leap inexplicably to conclusions about "religion" in general.

I wish these would disappear from the atheist community – not because I think they represent poor tactics, but because they fly in the face of a commitment to reason that permits supporting only the conclusions that one’s premises will allow. The principles of reason do not permit the bigot's leap from the specific to the general.

They are just as immoral as anti-atheist bigots who make the similar move, begining with premises about the immoral or foolish actions of some atheist (usually Stalin), and drawing conclusions about all atheists. This is as clear of an example of the bigot's fallacy as one can imagine.

In light of this fact, I would suggest a different response in the face of atheists doing something foolish or embarrassing - or that you just don't like. You should use this as an opportunity to turn on those who commit the bigot’s fallacy and condemn them for their immoral conduct.

"Look, here's proof of how pervasive anti-atheist bigotry is in this country. Atheists are human, and in any group of humans you will always find some of them doing something foolish or embarrassing. Non-bigots recognize that all groups have a immoral and foolish members and refuse to condemn the whole group and dismiss them as not being characteristic of the group. Bigots, on the other hand, love to exploit this fact to belittle and denigrate whole groups of people in those communities that their bigoted mind wants to target. Where we see people using the foolish acts of some atheists to denigrate all, we see this bigotry at work."

This does not deny the legitimacy of criticizing certain things that atheist activists do. Some of them are simply wrong.

In the recent past, there was the sign that said of religion, "You know it is a scam". Setting aside the question of whether this is good or bad tactics, it is false. A scam requires an intent to deceive. Much of religion simply does not have the required intent (though some of it - a lot of it - certainly does) to be a scam.

I have noticed that, in light of the criticism this campaign generated, the message has changed to, "You know it is a myth," which is perfectly acceptable.

Nor do these arguments prohibit reasoned criticism of the methods used by others when those methods seem ineffective. There has to be a debate on the effectiveness of different means – both in terms of their effectiveness in realizing ends and the legitimacy of those ends.

However, it should be a debate grounded on evidence and reason – and much of it is not.

When I read about one group of atheists criticizing another group of atheists for actions considered tactically or strategically unwise (as opposed to being factually wrong), I immediately come up with two questions. These are questions that the critic almost never answers.

Question 1: What is your measure of whether something works?

A system works when it generates a state of affairs that fulfills the desires that the system was generated to fulfill. A change in desires implies a change in the lists of states of affairs that will fulfill those desires. This means that what works relative to one set of desires might not work relative to a different set. What works for you given your interests may not work for me given mine.

In determining whether something works one needs to first determine which ends it is meant to serve (and the merit of those ends). Then one must determine the effectiveness of the means available in achieving those ends - straight forward statements of cause and effect.

Question 2: How do you know?

In these debates about which strategies to use, I have noticed a shortage (in some places, a complete absence) of evidence in favor of one's position. People who participate in these debates seldom offer anything more than a gut feeling backed by anecdotal evidence - personal stories - unsurprisingly selecting only those stories that confirm the gut feelings of the person who picked and interpreted them.

We are supposed to be a community of rational, scientifically minded individuals. How about introducing some rational scientific evidence to claims about which tactics "work" and which do not?

In short, my recommendation to atheist activists is not to worry so much about what other atheist activists are doing. Instead, turn your attention on the anti-atheist bigots who so eagerly embrace the bigot’s fallacy of derogatory overgeneralizations.

Every group in existence has members who will be doing things that other group members find foolish or wrong. Usually, we do not feel our own reputation to be at risk by their behavior. Many people my age can do something foolish or wrong without me having the slightest sense that my own reputation has been harmed. The difference between groups where one persons foolishness harms the reputation of others and groups where it does not is the difference between groups where bigotry is at work in the community and where it is not.

We will never be able to end foolish behavior on the part of some members of the group. But we can tackle the bigotry that gives this foolishness unwarranted implications on the reputation of others.

A Basic Review of Desirism


I base my posts in this blog on a moral theory called desirism.

Desirism holds that malleable desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation.

A malleable desire is good to the degree it tends to fulfill other desires and bad to the degree that it thwarts other desires.

The degree that a malleable desire tends to fulfill other desires is the degree to which people generally have a reason to use social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote that desire.

The degree that a malleable desire tends to thwart other desires is the degree to which others have reason to use these same social forces to inhibit that desire.

A right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is the act that a person with good desires would not perform. A permissible act is one that a person with good desires may or may not perform depending on other considerations.

Perhaps the most useful account of how desirism works can be found in the post The Hateful Craig Problem, which looks at the problem of trying to make sure that Hateful Craig will not do harm even when there is a chance he can get away with it. That post demonstrates how the principles of desirism would be put to use.

A commenter, Drake Shelton, is providing me as an opportunity to use his comments about desire utilitarianism as a foil for explaining some of the details of the theory. I tend to find these useful because it allows me to answer the claims of a real person rather than an imagined critic.

I want to start with this:

This falls prey to the problems with Utilitarianism. On your own admission then, the execution and torture of the inferior race gives pleasure to the superior race therefore it is the right thing to do. This theory also caters to totalitarians systems. In utilitarianism, the individual must sacrifice his own interests for the interests of the whole or the state.


This criticism applies to a related theory that can be properly called "desire fulfillment act utilitarianism". That theory says that the right act is the act that would fulfill the most and strongest desires. That theory requires the conclusion that if the torture of a young child fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts (by fulfilling the desires of 1000 sadists while thwarting the desires of 1 child) it would be the right thing to do.

However, desirism evaluates desires - and evaluates actions only in a derivative sense. A desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires.

The sadist's desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. In fact, it inevitably does so. Therefore, the sadist's desire gets counted as a bad desire. It is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit through social forces such as condemnation and punishment. We have many and strong reasons not to want this desire around - and reasons to use our social forces to fight it, and to raise kindness and consideration in its place. Even sadists have many and strong reason to bring these social forces to bear to prevent sadism in others and to promote kindness in its place.

It doesn't matter how many sadists there are, it is still the fact that sadistic desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires. In fact, the more sadists there are, the more desire-twarting we can expect.

I go into this objection in greater detail in The 1000 Sadists Problem

Here's another objection:

Sounds much like psychological hedonism.

Well, it's not much of an objection, but I would like to use it to explain the difference between desirism and psycholoogical hedonism - a theory that was largely discredited 150 years ago but which is still popoular among many atheists.

Psychological hedonism holds that each of us only seeks two things - our own pleasure, and our own freedom from pain. Nothing else matters. Pretty sunsets, the health and well-being of our children, are all valued for no reason other than those are the means by which we can activate the pleasure centers in our own brain - or save ourselves from pain. We give to charity, we risk our lives to save others, we cry at funerals, because these are the tools we have for triggering the pleasure centers of our own brain.

Before I consider objections to this theory I would like to broaden the scope a bit for the sake of efficiency.

Psychological hedonism is an internal state theory. It holds that the only thing in the world that matters to an individual is having its brain in a particular brain state. Other internal state theories hold that happiness is the only thing that matters - or desire satisfaction.

Note: Desire satisfaction is not the same as desire fulfillment. Desire satisfaction is a feeling - much like pleasure or contentment - that one gets when one (thinks that) the world is going the way one wants it to go. Desire fulfillment, on the other hand, takes into consideration that a desire is a propositional attitude - it takes as its object a proposition P. (Thus, desires can be expressed in the form "agent desires that P") A "desire that P" is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true. A desire that I am saving children from disease is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which the proposition "I am saving children from disease" is true.

I discuss internal state theories in detail in the post Internal State Theories.

Briefly, one of the major objections is that no internal state theory can handle the issue of the experience machine.

An experience machine is a machine that feeds electrical impulses into your brain that puts your brain in the state that the internal state theorist claims to be only thing that matters. Your brain is put in a jar, electrodes are hooked up into it, the electrodes produce the brain state of value and keeps it in that state.

Faced with this possibility, many people - most people - will claim that this is not what they want.

Desire fulfillment avoids the problem with the experience machine by holding that what matters to a person who desires that P is that P is made true. The desire to help protect children from disease can't be fulfilled by an experience machine. It can only be fulfilled by creating a state of affairs in which one is actually protecting children from disease.

Desirism is an external state theory. It holds that what a person with a desire that P seeks is (often) an external state - a state of affairs in which P is true - that will make the experience machine entirely unattractive.

There are other considerations to raise as well. For example, it is easier to tell a story of evolution whereby biological entities acquired at least some dispositions to change the world than it is to square evolution with the theory that they only acquire an interest in creating a particular brain state. Evolutionary success - procreation, for example - is an external state. External state changes are necessary for evolution.

Another post in which I draw distinctions between desirism and psychological hedonism (and other internal state theories) can be found in the post Egoism.

Oh, and I was accused in a comment against using a term in its own definition. That, in fact, is not the case. I illustrated a use of the term. Dictionaries, when defining a term, will often give an example of how the term would be used when it meets that definition. It helps to clarify the definition. The way that one might define the word "cow" by pointing to a cow.

Desirism and Neurobiology


CNN has an article, Can a Molecule Make Us Moral?" that invites me to consider the relationship between desirism and neurobiology.

Simply put, the article reports that levels of oxytocin affects such things as whether an individual is trustworthy or generous.

Does desirism have a problem with that?


The systems for morality are to be found in the brain. If desirism is correct, neuroscientists will discover that behavior is grounded on beliefs and desires, that desires are propositional attitudes, and that agents will act to fulfill the most and strongest of their current desires given their beliefs. It will discover that some desires are malleable, and that the mechanisms for change include reward and punishment. They will also learn the mechanisms for praise and condemnation and that they have the same effect as reward and punishment. All of these will have to do with electrochemical operations in the brain.

My greatest value from working with Luke Muehlhauser is that, unlike me, he had the time and the skill to look at current neuroscience in detail. We found a lot of correspondence between desirism and what neuroscientists were discovering about the brain.

For example, neurobiologists were able to look at the ways experience change an agent's long-term desires. Experience provides rewards and punishments - which have the affect of strengthening or weakening agents' desires.

We did not find a perfect fit.

I had been saying that rewards and punishments modify desires directly. The research seems to be suggesting that the learning effect springs from a difference between expected outcome and actual outcome. Expected rewards or punishments do not modify behavior. Though some of the later research we looked at suggested that current reward independent of expectation still has some role to play.

In developing desirism, I had claimed that the agent does not have to be the one rewarded or punishment for reward or punishment to have an effect on his moral character. The effect is generated by witnessing the reward or punishment - the praise or condemnation - of another person. This provides a role for public criticism and for public praise such as award ceremonies and other honors.

Neurobiologists tell us that we have mirror neurons. These cause us to experience the rewards and punishments of others as if they are our own - which is one of the mechanisms through which social forces mold our moral character.

Even works of fiction from religious parables to children's stories to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto shape our moral characters by making us a witness to the praise and condemnation - the reward and punishment - of others.

If oxytocin promotes generosity and tolerance, the next question to ask is how social forces such as praise and condemnation affect oxytocin.

I do have one long-standing objection to the way biologists approach the relationship between biology and morality. Biologists identify behavior as moral and look for the biological causes of that behavior. However, they gloss over the question, "What is it that makes this behavior moral?"

Higher oxytocin levels may end up being associated with opposition to capital punishment, for example. Does this answer the question of whether capital punishment is wrong? If so, how? How do you get from premises relating biological facts to attitudes about moral issues such as abortion, gay marriage, capital punishment, whether it is okay for 1% of the people to own 50% of the planet - to conclusions about whether these are, in fact, morally right or wrong?

One of the common links biologists draw is that if we are morally opposed to X, then it is wrong. It then looks for the biological underpinnings to our opposition to X and claims to be studying morality. However, this would imply that if we had a disposition to approve of killing all the Jews, then the Jews deserve to die. If we are disposed to enjoy having sex with our stepchildren, then it is morally permissible to do so. Nothing is right or wrong except insofar as a genetic accident makes it so. Alter our biology so that we can enslave others without moral regret, and slavery becomes morally permissible.

And what is the relationship between morality and social tools such as praise and condemnation about? If morality is grounded on some hard-coded biological fact, why praise or condemn others?

Desirism has an answer to the question of relating biology to morality that answers these questions. For moral virtue, we are looking for malleable desires that people have the most and strongest reasons to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation. An agent may be biologically constituted such that he can kill the Jews without guilt, but this does not change the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to that kind of killing.

What makes aversion to such killings a virtue?

Well, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to these types of killings using social tools such as praise and condemnation. And moral claims contain elements of praise and condemnation.

What more do you want?

Religious Liberty


Al Qaeda has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that current airline regulations regarding what passengers can bring onto an airplane violates its constitutional right to religious liberty.

According to lawyers fir Al Qaeda, the first amendment prohibition on Congress impeding the free exercise of religion implies that it has no authority to prevent Al Qaeda operatives from hijacking American airplanes for destructive purposes. These acts constitute the religious practices of a sect that demands that its members attack and destroy infidels.

Lawyers for Al Qaeda argue, "This is our religion, and Congress is impeding our free exercise of that religion."

Okay, there is no such lawsuit.

However, there are religious organizations in this country that are trying to defend a concept of religious liberty that, if we take them seriously, would make this type of argument appear sound. These organizations say that anything that can be defined as a "religious practice" - even if it is hurtful or harmful to the interests of those who are not members of that religion - must be respected by the government. Since attacking infidels fits this definition, the logical conclusion that this religious practice must be provided with constitutional protections.

The current form of the argument is one in which Catholic bishops in Illinois claim that "religious freedom" means that the government must turn a blind eye to the organization's practice of actions hurtful and harmful to the interests of other citizens when acting as agents of government policy.

The current policy prohibits money spent on organizations that facilitate adoptions and foster care from going to organizations that discriminate against homosexual couples. Because these Catholic organizations are all about hateful bigotry against homosexuals, they have been forced to make a choice. They can continue to act as government agents and give up the practice of conducting their affairs in ways harmful to the interests of homosexual citizens, or give up the practice of acting as government agents (and the government money that comes with it).

This, they say, is a violation of their religious liberty.

( See New York Times Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion)

The fact is that their religious liberty is not being interfered with.

Nobody is going to arrest members of this sect simply because they are members if a hateful and bigoted religious sect. No attempts are being made to outlaw the sect or make membership a crime. The right to freedom of religion protects sect members from this type of action.

Nobody is going to arrest members of this sect for preaching their brand of hateful bigotry to the public. While the potential victims of their primitive superstitious hatreds may have a vested interest in shutting them up, the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech prohibit this. Those prohibitions are not being threatened.

Nobody is going to prohibit members of this sect from engaging in private actions that express their primitive, irrational bigotry. In their private actions, they remain free to refuse to shop at businesses that are owned by gay couples and to refuse to watch shows with gay actors or that have pro-homosexual themes. They may freely use their hateful bigotry as a criteria in determining who gets their vote and who gets the benefits of their acts of private charity.

As citizens, they have a right to vote and to have a say in determining what government policies are. They have an opportunity to support candidates and to lobby the legislative and executive branches to get a permission for their agents to act on their primitive bigoted superstitions while serving as government agents. These rights are not being threatened.

However, there is no right to act in ways hurtful or harmful to the interests of other citizens while acting as government agents. The "right to religious liberty" does not provide this right. Those other citizens have a right to demand that the government treat them with the dignity due to peaceful citizens, even if certain primitive superstitious refuse to do so.

If these types of religious practices are given constitutional protection, then why not the Al Qaeda operative who wants to fly an airplane into a building filled with infidels? Or the anti-abortion opponent who thinks it is permissible to kill a doctor that performs abortions? Is it because these acts, unlike the acts of the anti-gay bigot are harmful to the interests of others?

Interfering with a gay couple's opportunity to adopt a child may not be in the same category as shooting them or blowing them up, but it is in the same category with respect to being hurtful and harmful to their interests. As such, it is not something that deserves special protection as a religious practice - at the expense of those citizens who would be its victims. Particularly when these sect members are being paid to act in the capacity of government agents.

Defending Trial by Jury


Americans are not lovers of freedom and individual rights. It is politically naive to think that they are.

Cenk Uygur has an article calling for a political rebellion against President Obama because he is not the defender of civil liberties that Uygur and others wanted. To call his article politically naïve puts the case mildly.

(See, Huffingtonpost, Vote Against Obama in Iowa)

You have a choice in thus country. You can be an advocate for and defender of civil rights, or you can be President of the United States. You can't be both. The American people will not tolerate it. People like Uygur who insist that we have both are wholly irrational.

Do you want Obama to be a passionate defender of civil rights? You might as well tell him to appoint Dick Chaney as vice President, then shoot himself in the head. The effect will be the same. The effect on our civil rights will be the same.

Reached this conclusion even before the 2008 elections - that no matter who the Democrats nominated for President, he or she had better not defend human rights. If they did, the Republicans will play the fear card, remove that Democrat from office, and use the fear to generate an even more rapid destruction of civil rights.

The political reality of this was shown when the Obama administration made the attempt to bring the Guantanamo prisoners to the United States to face trial in federal courts. It would be hard to find a better defense of the principle of trial by jury.

However, the effect was a political outrage that resulted in the legislature blocking all funding for this move.

And the people cheered. It was one of the most politically damaging moves the President made in his first years of office - to make a spirited defense of the right of trial by jury. What the legislature did was an outrage against the Constitution and the principles on which it was built - and the people cheered and granted their political support to the perpetrators of this outrage.

For an account of the politics of this attempt to give Guantanamo detainees a fair trial in federal courts, you can read David Laufman, Guantanamo Detainees in US Federal Court

Now, Uygur wants the President to do the same again? Given the fact that he got no support and suffered a significant political hit the last time he tried this, what incentive is there for him to try again?

Obama learned from that attempt to defend the principle of trial by jury that it is a political suicide. The people will not tolerate it. It doesn't matter what the Constitution says on the matter - the Constitution only has force where the people are willing to see it enforced. Any principle that the people themselves refuse to defend is as empty as it would have been if repealed directly.

That is political reality. Like it or not, this is the real world. And when it comes to determining what to do we should at least pretend we are agents who have no choice but to act in the real world.

Given these political realities - given the fact that the lovers of liberty utterly failed to support Obama in his attempt to give the Guantanamo detainees a fair trial, the best that rational voters can hope for at this point is somebody who is willing to perform a delaying action. That is to say - he should make no attempt to retake lost ground (that option has already been tried and failed), and be willing to fall back if pressed to hard, in order to hold on to as many civil liberties as possible.

Ideally, this time would be spent rebuilding the stock of resources necessary to take back our civil rights.

Unfortunately, this time is being spent by people like Uygur ignoring history - ignoring the fact that a serious attempt was already made to retake lost ground and failed as a result of public hostility - and attacking the defenders from the rear. Effectively, Uygur's strategy amounts to, "We are going to withhold ammunition from you until you do more to defend our civil liberties."

Yeah, that's going to help.

What we are seeing now is the logical consequence of an utter failure to supoprt Obama when he was willing to stick his neck out in defense of a trial by jury. We watched his head get cut off and we did nothing. Now, Uygur thinks it is a good idea to condemn him for the learning the lessons we have taught. A defense of trial by jury will not be supported.

We are not going to get any defense of civil liberties in government until a love of liberty by the American people itself has been restored. The public reaction should have been an utter condemnation of the House leaders of this move - to the point of threatening their political careers. Uygur wants to send a message to the politicians in Washington - THAT would have sent a message. But, that is not the message that was sent.

Uygur lives in a fantasy world where he thinks he lives in a country that is opposed to indefinite detention and the assassination of American citizens abroad without a trial. If he were to live in a real world, he would realize that the propaganda of the economic elite has eliminated this love of civil rights and, instead, generated a love for the very type of police state that the economic elite finds most useful. We cannot have any effect by pretending that we have this imaginary army of freedom lovers ready to charge into battle. That army does not exist.

So, the first thing we must do is face this reality and start to rebuild that army from scratch.

In the mean time, we need politicians in office who can perform a delaying action that will give us time to rebuild a love of liberty in the American people.

Theism, Atheism, and Blame


Gad, how does one kill this senseless piece of atheist bigotry? The idea has dug itself into the atheist community as tight as a tick, even though it represents the worst forms of unreasoned bigotry.

It’s the idea that when a religious person does something wrong religion is to blame, but when an atheist does something atheism is blameless.

This is a very attractive conclusion – for the hate-mongering atheist bigot. The lover of reason has no use for it, but the hate-monger has sure found it attractive.

If you take “atheism” and its counter-part “theism” NEITHER of these are a source of violence or evil. You cannot draw any moral implications from the statement, “It is not the case that at least one God exists” just as you cannot draw any moral implication from the statement, “It is the case that at least one God exists.” They are both behaviorally, morally, and practically impotent.

In order to get to any moral conclusion – any type at all – you have to add something to your fundamental premise, regardless of whether it is atheist or theist.

In order to get violence against homosexuals, you have to combine, “At least one God exists” with “That god commands that homosexuals be put to death” and “We all have to duty to do that which God commands.” Then, you can get behavior worthy of condemnation.

However, on this level, the same reasoning applies to atheism. In order to get any form of behavior – any type at all – out of atheism you have to add something to your fundamental premise. We might add, “Man is a rational animal, and it is irrational to provide help to others unless one expects a sufficient profit in return that more than compensates the cost of the help. Therefore, man ought not to help others. Selfishness is a virtue.”

If we are going to say that religion is responsible for the violence against homosexuals in the first instance, then consistency commands that we hold that atheism is responsible for the selfish disregard for others in the second case.

If, on the other hand, we are going to deny that atheism has anything to do with the selfish disregard for others in the second case, then logical consistency requires that we also deny that theism has anything to do with the violence against homosexuals in the first place.

There is no grounding – none at all – for the claim that religion is responsible in the first instance but that atheism is blameless in the second.

But, hate-mongering bigotry is so sweet, so warm and comfortable. It is so much fun. This sweet, warm, comforting fun is why this bigotry continues to be such huge part of atheist culture.

Oh, and we need to add hypocrisy to this list of evil pleasures. Because when theists engage in these types of unprincipled leaps of logic in order to defend hateful and bigoted conclusions against atheists, they are to be condemned.

The bigot’s trick is to compare general atheism (to which no harms can be attributed) with specific theism (which can be charged with doing harm). Yet, they scream in protest when theists go the other way, comparing general theism (your condemnation is senseless because I can identify at least one person who believes in God who is not guilty of your charges) to specific atheism (Stalin).

Here’s the fact. Religion is exactly as harmful or as harmless as atheism – no more and no less. There are certain religious philosophies that can be condemned for the evil that they contain. However, there are certain atheist philosophies that can be condemned for the evil that they contain. Yes, it is true, atheism itself does not entail any of these philosophies. However, theism itself does not entail any specific religion either.

In other words, when it comes to being a cause of harm, “atheism” (broadly defined) is just as innocent as “theism” (broadly defined). And specific atheist philosophies (narrowly defined) in many cases are just as guilty as specific theist philosophies (narrowly defined). And no decent person is going to sanction scoring political points by comparing broadly defined atheism to narrowly defined theism, or comparing broadly defined theism to narrowly defined atheism. The lover of reason finds this move indefensible. Though the lover of hate-mongering bigotry tends to find this move very, very delicious.

Moral Diversionary Tactics


Anybody who has been at this for a while know that theists have a sack full of defensive responses whenever you begin to criticize their religion. You point to a group of religious people who use religious premises to promote superstition in science classes, or to justify harms inflicted on the interests of homosexuals, or that treat women as the property of men, and you can predict the responses.

"Yes, but, not all religions are like that. If you are going to criticize religion, you need to be extra clear about that."

"Yes, but, these religiously motivated injustices do not just happen in this religion. They happen in other religions. In fact, some religions are even more unjust."

"Yes, but, people who belong to this religion often do great things. They perform great acts of charity and kindness. You have to acknowledge their positive contributions in your criticism."

"Yes, but the religion's victims could do things to avoid being the victim of this discrimination. If the atheists are less critical, or homosexuals hide in the closet, or the Muslims keep their temples away from downtown New York, then we won't have such a problem."

"Yes, but atheists are not morally perfect either. Look at Stalin and Mao."

"Yes, but the specific critic has made some moral mistakes as well. Sam Harris, for example, defended torture. Why are you focusing on the abuses that come from religious beliefs?"

"Yes, but, religious injustices are not nearly as bad as some other harms - from disease or starvation, for example. We should be focusing on them instead."

"Yes, but, that religious group is also the victim of religious discrimination elsewhere, where they are not in the majority. Why aren't we defending them from those injustices?"

"Yes, but, we are entitled to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. How dare you criticize our religious practices?"

"Yes, but, calling attention to religious discrimination and other forms of religious criticism only makes them defensive, and makes the situation worse. It is best to ignore it."

"Yes, but, why do you atheists have to be so angry and emotional and over-sensitive about it? That doesn’t help your argument or your cause."

"Yes, but, what about the Holocaust/Crusades/30 Years War?"

There is a wide range of areas where people will attempt to avoid a discussion of wrongs and injustices, effectively trying to bury them - ultimately with the objective of throwing off the discussion and liberating the perpetrators from actual condemnation. If they can change the subject, then they can continue with business as usual.

A lot of atheists have experienced a great many of these defensive tactics and are quick to criticize them.

Perhaps they should be just as quick to criticize them when other subjects are brought up as well.

We have a lot of many and strong reasons to condemn these type of tactics whenever or wherever we may find them.

2012 - A Campaign Year

It is a new year, with a new project.

Given that this is a Presidential election year, I want to turn my focus to political and social change.

In doing this, I wish to start with this video discussing a new strategy for the secular community.

There is a lot of good in this. I intend to spend a few posts highlighting some of its more important points.

Key Point Number 1: You cannot accomplish anything politically useful unless you bring money or votes to the table.

I see a lot of blog and forum posts where the author says, "Write to your legislators and oppose/support this legislation."

As if that is going to do any good.

It is particularly amusing when the people writing those letters decide to use well-reasoned evidence-based arguments in support of their conclusion - as if legislators judge legislation according to well-reasoned evidence-based arguments.

If you want to convince a legislator to take your side on a piece of legislation, then what you need to argue is that supporting your side translates into more campaign contributions or more votes come election time, while opposition means less money or fewer votes.

This probably sounds cynical - as if I have given up on finding any decency in the human race and now think that the world is governed by callous self-interest.

However, that is not the case. If I were a legislator, I would work according to these same standards. The only place where I would pay attention to well-reasoned evidence-based arguments are those where the law in question is sailing under the radar, as it were. In most cases - in almost all cases that you would be interested in writing to me - those arguments would only serve a tie-breaking role.

Reality demands it.

Let's say you came to me wanting me to support gay marriage. Let's say that I agree with you on all of the points of evidence and reason - that the laws are discriminatory and unjust - perhaps even that these restrictions on gay marriage violate the principles on which the Constitution was founded. However, knowing my district, I know that voting for gay marriage would mean a sizable shift in campaign contributions and votes to my opponent - a bible thumping young-earth prayer-in-school creationist.

My answer to you will be, "No."

What you are asking me to do is, in practical terms, no different than asking me to resign my position and appoint the bible thumping young-earth prayer-in-school creationist in my place. Is that really what you want me to do?

Do you really want me to support your side on this legislation?

Then you need to bring money and votes to the table. Come to me as the representative of an organization. Let me know how many volunteers you have and how much work you are willing to do in support of a candidate that sides with you on this issue. Let me know that you are willing to put those resources to work in my district. Do this - and make be believe it - and you will have my vote.

Do not write some letter to me saying how wonderful the law is. Write to your mother. Put a link to an article on your Facebook page. Twitter or "Stumble Upon" articles defending your position so that your friends and family can see them.

Join an organization that can pool your resources. As a part of the organization, volunteer to hand out fliers, stuff envelopes, and man a booth at the local county fair. Organize some publicity such as a march or a demonstration that will bring the television cameras and newspaper reporters who will take down your message and put it in front of their audience - and make sure you put out the message you want to put out. Create and collect money to put out a radio or television commercial. Create a web site, then write to a few hundred blog posters asking them to share its message with their audience.

Even in doing this, remember that your goal is to build the political and economic support for the issue you are defending. You can't do this by giving your message only to those who already support your issue. You need to reach the fence-sitters - the people who might change their behavior if they hear the arguments.

So, this is the second question you should ask yourself if you want to be bring about social or political change. "Do my actions increase the political or economic power behind my view. When the representatives of my view go to the legislator, will these actions give them more campaign contributions and more votes to bargain with?"

The second question . . . ?

Well, the first question always has to be, "Am I right?" There are a lot of people arrogantly certain that they are using these practices to support ideas that they think are right - but are just plain wrong. Let's always leave room for the question, "Is this the right thing to do?"

And . . . Happy New Year. Let’s see if we can make it a better year than it might have otherwise been.

Funding a Political Cause

It is an election year, and I am looking at the issue of creating political change.

In my first post I argued that to make political change you need to bring votes or money to the table. At this stage, evidence and sound reasoning are largely irrelevant. They are relevant elsewhere. I will get to that in a future post.

This is not a cynical complaint about a world gone corrupt. This is a fact, as morally neutral as gravity.

If I were a legislator and you came to me asking for support, I am going to want to know what you have and are willing to put into play to defend that position - and what the opposition might be able to put into the field. It is stupid - utterly stupid – to come to me with an issue where you have nothing to put into the battle for its political defense when I know that there is a ton of resources willing to fight against it.

That is like demanding the evolutionary success of a species with a trait that is instantly fatal to those who have it.

So, if you want to make effective political change, you need to come with money or votes (or both). You need to come with the resources and the will to fight for your position, not only in my office, but on the political street.

Now, lets look at the issue of getting money.

Fact: 1% of the population has 42% of the wealth.

Furthermore, the other 99% of the people who have 58% of the wealth need to spend a substantial portion of that on food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and energy consumption.

Consequently, when it comes to wealth that those who have it can afford to contribute to a political campaign, the top 1% of the population has substantially more than half of the available wealth. The top 10% has over 90% of the available wealth.

This is a fact. Like it. Hate it. Shake your fist to the heavens in protest. It will not change this fact. You can ignore it - like you can ignore the car coming down the street as you step off of the curb. However, you ignore reality at your own peril. Reality does not change merely by wishing it were not true.

A political campaign is a product - a commodity. You are putting a product on the market and asking people to buy (into) it.

People will part with money. They will do so when you can give them something that is more valuable to them than the money that you are asking them to part with, and more valuable than anything else that they can do with that money.

We see this at work in a key difference between the Tea Party movement compared to "Occupy Wall Street".

The Tea Party has a product that they can sell to the top 10% - freedom from taxation and regulation. The Tea Party did not start off this way. It started as a protest against government bailouts for billionaires – rich people getting huge amount of government aid while the rest of us suffer. However, like every movement, it had factions. The factions of the Tea Party movement that succeeded were those factions that had a product they could sell to the top 10%, “No government bailouts for billionaires” couldn’t be sold to the top 10%. ”No tax increases or regulation” had a market. That message got funding and media support. That is where the Tea Party is now.

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement, on the other hand, does not have a product that the top 10% has an interest in buying - most of it anyway. Instead of being funded, the top 10% is more inclined to buy a different product – for example, one that is being sold by public relations firms whose objective is to discredit the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Now, let’s not get into hate-mongering stereotypes here. Remember, our focus is on the real world.

The top 10% is not some monolithic "them" in a state of perpetual war against "us". They are a diverse group, ranging the spectrum from utterly horrendous moral monsters (e.g., the executives of Phillip Morris and Exxon Mobile) to the admirable (e.g., Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Bono).

And, of course, many are admirable in some areas and contemptible in others.

Like normal human beings, they will tend to be persuaded by arguments with conclusions that they like. Thus, many will find Ayn Rand's arguments for selfishness attractive and blind themselves to its flaws. However, these are tendencies, not laws of nature.

Here is where evidence and sound reasoning can be used - at least on some of them. These people – the top 10% - can be persuaded by moral argument. They are prone – at least to some extent - to the effects of praise for their virtues and condemnation for their vices. Many want to be known as good people who did good things.

Rich people get cancer, Parkinson's disease, and suffer from mental illnesses. They want clean air and water. They do not want to be the victims of violent crime. They do not want to be killed by somebody flying an airplane into a sky scraper. Some adore their pets and children and hate to see them come to harm. Some are gay. All of these facts define a set of political products that can be sold to the top 10%. Organizations that create and package these products can collect cash that they can bring to the political table.

The Democratic and Republican parties know this rule and design their political products to sell to the top 10%. Some people lament this and demand change. However, the fact is that the political organization that does not do this simply is not viable. We do not have a party that refuses to create a political product it can sell to the top 10% for the same reason that nature does not give us mammals without a circulatory system. Those creatures do not live long.

Create 10 secular organizations. In 20 years, those with the best track record for change will be those with a political product they can and do sell to the top 10%. It will be those that developed such a product, created an organization that it could market as the organization best capable of delivering that product, sold that product, collected the money (in terms of donations and in-kind contributions), and put those resources to work. The other organizations will become small collections of impotent malcontents whining to each other over the Internet about how messed up the world is.

This, then, is the political question. What political products can the secular community offer that they can sell to the top 10%? Answer this question. Create the product. Make sure to create an organization that can deliver that product better than any competing organization. Sell it. That organization will have cash that it can bring to the political table. That organization can make the world a better place.

Funding a Political Cause II: The Ineffectiveness of Campaign Reform


I am starting this year - a campaign year - by looking at the issue of making effective political change.

What came before:

Post 1: I argued that to make political change it isn’t enough to come to the table with conclusions backed by solid evidence and sound reason. The leaders of the organization need to come to the table with resources – with cash and votes – that it is willing to and able to mobilize in defense of the position it advocates. Without these resources, the strength of the arguments is irrelevant.

Post 2: Regarding the "money" component, a successful secular organization needs to create a political package it can sell to "the top 10%". The top 10% have almost all of the disposable money that can be spent on a campaign. The money the organization brings to the table almost has to come from them.

Today’s post:

Those who have money to bring to the table cannot be stopped from using it to obtain their objectives.

A whole family of political tactics that people often try to promote is to try to block those with money from bringing it to and using it at the political table. They seek all sorts of restrictions on who can spend what in a political campaign to achieve this goal.

I find these maneuvers to be foolish. At best, they create a room full of smoke to hide political connections, where people then pretend that the relationships they can no longer see do not exist.

Allow me pretend for a moment that I am somebody with a lot of money, and I have a few political causes that I am interested in.

In all but a few very rare circumstances, my money will get me into the door for a personal meeting with any candidate for office. I already have something that the rest of you do not have. I have one of the two commodities that one must bring to the table. The candidate knows this. The candidate also knows that nothing can prevent me from putting those resources to use in the campaign.

Assume that I want a candidate in office that will support policies A, B, and C. It does not matter what they are. They could be selfish. They could be noble. Whether they are an interest in fighting AIDS in Africa or removing regulations that prevent my factory from poisoning the air downwind, these are my interests.

I meet with the candidate and I make it clear that these issues are important to me. There's nothing wrong with that, right? I'm a private citizen. I meet with my representative. I tell her what my concerns are. She knows I have money to put into addressing those concerns. She knows that the money can enter the political arena on her side, or on her opponent's side, depending on how she answers my questions.

I am not talking about some vicious, corrupt politician. She has her own agenda - issues C, D, and E. We may even share some common interests. By giving me what I want on those concerns we do not share, she can bring my money into the political arena on her side - helping her to promote her interests. Again, these need not be selfish or vicious interests. They are hers.

Let's assume that the law prevents me contributing more than $2000 to her campaign. Let us further assume that I am also prevented from contributing more than $2000 to any organization (political action committee) that directly supports or campaign or directly challenges her opponents.

I answer that with the shrug.

The candidate I favor might be a vocal proponent of campaign reform. She knows it will have no effect. She knows that she will still accept my request for a meeting because she knows that no campaign reform law will prevent my money from either helping or hurting her campaign. However, being in favor of campaign reform might win the votes of those deluded enough to think it has power, so why not be in favor?

I know that the candidate's personal agenda includes issues C, D, and E. My options include making contributions to the National Association of D, and the American E Society. I don't have to announce into the hidden microphone, "If you support my issues, I will contribute to yours." It is understood.

Is this going to be prohibited? If my candidate has parents with cancer, am I to be banned from giving money to the American Cancer Society? You would have to ban these types of contributions if you want to prevent me from using my money to influence my preferred candidate.

It is also the case that I pay attention to the news. The news tells me that some issue F is becoming a campaign issue. Let us assume it is the construction of a pipeline. My candidate comes out against the pipeline for environmental reasons. Her opponent comes out in favor because "creates jobs".

It's time for me to make a sizable cash contribution to whatever local chapter of whatever organization exists that is opposing the pipeline. They will put that money to work in an "education" campaign that will unavoidably challenge the arguments that my candidate's opponent is using to defend the pipeline: "It will not create that many jobs" and "Pipeline jobs will come at the expense of jobs in the tourist industry, or at the expense of a company that constructs windmills or builds solar cells."

Of course, I am not going to call the candidate and arrange a deal. When I meet her at a fundraising dinner a few weeks from now I might mention my contributions. It will be only natural that she will want to do a favor for me, given that I have done a favor for her. And, again, she knows that my money goes to aid of whatever candidate listens and responds appropriately to my concerns.

As a wealthy person, we may assume that I am a member of several local organizations. Many other members are my friends - we work together. I can solicit an opportunity for my preferred candidate to come to speak before the orgganization. After the speeches, when we meet for drinks afterward, she will have the opportunity to shake hands, pocket checks, and make appointments to address other groups at other times.

I discussed something similar to this regarding the presidential candidacy of Rick Perry. He organized an evangelical gathering in April of last year to ask for God's help for a nation in crisis in front of 20,000 religious conventioneers.

We know that Perry did not do all of the work organizing this meeting himself. We also know that he used it as a campaign tactic - to gather evangelicals and to try to get their support for a Presidential election bid.

While we are assuming that I am a wealthy person interested in influencing a (potential) candidate, we may assume that I have connections. I know people who are good at organizing events and executing them. Everything from catering to booking locations to arranging travel - I have experts in all of these fields. I direct them to help with the arrangements, and I give the assistant an unlimited expense account. There is going to be a ton of things he can do to promote the gathering that will not count as a direct political contribution to the candidate.

This series of posts is about how a secular organization can make a positive political contribution - make the world a better place. A part of doing this requires understanding and respecting how the real world works. In my last post I argued that the effective organization needs to create and package a political product it can sell to the top 10%. A lot of people think that it is a viable strategy not to seek to bring more money to the table, but to prevent (by law) "them" from bringing money to the table. They call it "leveling the playing field".

It's not going to happen - at least not that way. That money is coming to the table by one route or another. The politically effective secular organization must live and work in the real world. It may not like reality, but it would be to its advantage to respect reality.