Saturday, October 15, 2016

Privacy: How Much is Enough?

By Bill Creasy

The movie Snowden (2016) by Oliver Stone again raises the issues that Snowden himself raised in 2013. How much electronic surveillance should the federal government be allowed to do in pursuit of a small number of terrorists? Unfortunately, the movie doesn't give an answer. It does give some background on Edward Snowden. 
According to the movie, Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was deeply affected by the events of 9/11/01. As a patriotic young man, he first joined the U.S. Army Special Forces, but he shattered his legs during basic training. He got a job with the CIA in 2006 and wrote an important program designed to back up huge amounts of data. The program later found uses in other unintended areas including targeting drone strikes. 
He had a series of intelligence positions as a contractor until 2013. In the process, he became familiar with the U.S. Government program for mass data collection of both U.S. citizens and noncitizens, including phone calls, email, and social media. The movie illustrates how easily this database can be searched for personal information on essentially anyone. Snowdon admitted to using it once to check on his girlfriend.

The goal of the data collection is to look for terrorist networks. But a search to the third degree of separation (searches of all contacts of contacts of contacts of a suspect) gives over 2 million people, whose data could be viewed with no need of a specific court order or informed consent. So if you happen to have the same dentist or delivery person or Facebook friend as a terrorist suspect, the NSA can search all your email for anything that looks incriminating or that looks like you are connected to any other terrorist suspect. 
Snowden felt obligated to report this surveillance to the press, even though he knew that such an act would make him a criminal and a target of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, cause him lose his job in Hawaii and his security clearance, and threaten his relationship with his long-time girlfriend.

A problem with the movie is the depiction of Snowden's personality. The movie has the "feel" of a fictional movie story. Perhaps that is just Oliver Stone's directoral style. Snowden appears in person at the end of the movie in a cameo. There are documentaries and interviews of Snowden himself, for example the documenary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras. (Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill were the first journalists that Snowden talked to in Hong Kong.) Snowden was also interviewed remotely in a public event at Johns Hopkins University while he was in Russia [1]. So there are sources for seeing Snowden himself on video without the filter of a movie.

Snowden doesn't seem like a movie star or a narcissist, just a fairly average, smart, computer nerd. He seems to have remarkably calm attitude about his actions. Perhaps he has developed a emotional detachment from his chosen role as the center of a world-wide controversy and as a person taking on the federal intelligence agencies. That kind of attitude is not easily captured by actors. 
It is hard to see Edward Snowden and his background and call him a traitor to the U.S. This is a clear message of the movie. He hasn't done anything to hurt the U.S. for his personal gain. He claims no one has been hurt by his data release, and no intelligence agency has said anyone was hurt. He has acted in a way that is consistent with a strong belief in the ideals of the U.S. founding documents, including in freedom and privacy. 
But it's also hard to judge his ideas about the problem that he has brought to light. Is he arguing that the government shouldn't do any surveillance or intelligence collection? How does he reply to the people who are worried about terrorists? There are officials who say antiterrorism is an important social need, and what Americans don't know about surveillance won't hurt them. They say that many people voluntarily put personal information on the internet, so why should they expect privacy? In short, how much privacy do people need?

There is an ideological conflict between those who think that the government should have access to any electronic information to track criminals and terrorists, and those who think privacy is a right. Neither extreme is practical, but both can make arguments to support their extreme. So we must consider what privacy is for and what it is worth. These are philosophical questions as well as practical ones. Is it possible to balance the practical with the idealism, and the personal vs. social?

People have an instinctive, emotional desire for privacy, especially if they think they are around people they don't trust. If others aren't trustworthy, they may use embarrassing information for blackmail or coercion. But once people feel safe in a situation, they are less worried about protecting themselves, and there are rewards for being trusting. People who are charming or good leaders tend to reveal more about themselves in order to get people to like them and to do what they want. So even on this non-rational level, privacy is in a balance with openness.

When it comes to social policy, a rational analysis is necessary. We can't decide how private other people need to be based on our own feelings. We have to break up the problem into several cases (but this may not be an exhaustive list):
1. Privacy for criminals. These include protests against the government, since these can be defined as criminal by the government, but the protest can have a higher principle or oppose the laws themselves.
2. Privacy for business secrets or competitive advantage.
3. Privacy for military.
4. Privacy of sexual relationships.
5. Privacy for making arts or simply for making harmless mistakes, because the thought that someone is watching will keep a person from trying some action that is novel
6. Privacy as a basic, irrevocable right that the government can't take away

All these facets of the issue are different, and they can't all be covered in detail here. Some of the cases are easy to agree on. For the first case, it is easy to see why a criminal wants privacy, because without it someone will try to stop them. Clearly, this is a case for a social agreement to invade the privacy of individuals to investigate crimes. The legal and police systems are set up according to that agreement. If someone breaks the law, their privacy will be invaded. Even a suspect of a crime may be investigated, within accepted rules and limits such as those in the Bill of Rights. 
Of course, no system is perfect. The government can make laws that no one likes, and then label the protesters against those laws as criminals. It can keep secrets, and prosecute anyone who reveals the secrets. Snowden is charged under the Espionage Act, a law to prevent spying, and any trial would be held in secret and without public oversight. Hence, the law creates its own Catch 22: any effort to inform the public about the law is defined as illegal, but the only way to get rid of the law is by public opposition.

Daniel Ellsburg, the whistleblower who published the Pentagon Papers, said that whistleblowers are important.  But the courage for a person to support the country or the president is easier and much more common (even in the face of death) than whistleblowers who may loose their jobs, clearances, or freedom to oppose the social conventions.  In trials, they can't make a case or explain their motives in open court.  He said that Snowden or Chelsea Manning wouldn't have been heard in open civil court [2].

Snowden echoed the same idea, saying, "Whistleblowers are really rare and they have to be willing to strike a match to their whole life and burn it." [1]
Case 2 is generally considered almost sancrosant in a capitalist society. Every business is expected and allowed to keep secrets. Fortunately, the Founders set up the patent system, which allows businesses and individuals to publish their methods as patents and still own the rights to them as property. 
Case 3 is also often unquestioned, as long as there is a legitimate need for national defense. The big problem with privacy for national defense is when "endless" wars are declared, like the war on terrorism or the war on drugs. The government, or the military/industrial/government complex and the associated special interests, can use the endless war as protection for indefinite funding and corruption. Citizens should be skeptical of calls for endless wars for this reason. Anything that is labeled as a “war” should be an existential threat to the country that has a definite enemy to be defeated.
Governments should also be concerned about the harm that can be done from a security state. Roger Ebert wrote,
"But the movie [The Lives of Others] is relevant today, as our government ignores habeas corpus, practices secret torture, and asks for the right to wiretap and eavesdrop on its citizens. Such tactics did not save East Germany; they destroyed it, by making it a country its most loyal citizens could no longer believe in." [3]
The endless war on terrorism can also be questioned in terms of whether it is really effective. Kade Crockford from the ACLU said that dragnet surveillance is a lousy method for preventing terrorism. The NSA failed to prevent 9/11 or Boston marathon bombing. It is good for social control, and hence it is used by authoritarian governments. Terrorism is prevented by investigating crimes with probable cause, consistent with rights in the Constitution. NSA has stopped zero terrorist threats from electronic surveillance. [2]
One can argue that the other three cases deserve unrestricted privacy subject to personal choice. Case 4 is a case for personal choice about sexual relationships, either to reveal relationships or not, unless there is a specific dispute that may affect others. Cases 5 and 6 are related in that they assume a personal right to privacy that can't be violated.
Snowden has strong feelings about a right to privacy. Snowden said in a published interview,
"So when we think in the context of the last decade’s infringements upon personal liberty and the last year’s revelations, it’s not about surveillance. It’s about liberty. When people say, “I have nothing to hide,” what they’re saying is, “My rights don’t matter.” Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen—that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, “I don’t need them in this context” or “I can’t understand this,” they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights. You’ve converted them into something you get as a revocable privilege from the government, something that can be abrogated at its convenience. And that has diminished the measure of liberty within a society." [4]
The general emotional reaction or the legal right to want a privacy right can be hard to accommodate with modern technology. Anyone who uses the internet, a cell phone, or a credit card, leaves a "footprint" in electronic records. Even if the message content is encrypted, there may be a record of the source address and destination. Because information on the internet is send as small packets of data, it is necessary to collect all information in order to get the specific packets that make up a phone conversation or a document. One option is to stay off all electronic media, but this is a Luddite solution to stop technological advance. An effort to encrypt all information takes a constant vigilance by an individual.
Ultimately, the problem of privacy doesn't yield to any simple or ideologically pure answers. In some ways, it is a kind of arms race between those collecting information and those keeping it secret. Snowden made a contribution to publicizing the nature of the arms race and the involvement of the government. It is the responsibility of the rest of us to be vigilant about who is getting information about us and what they are doing with it.

1. Edward Snowden gave a presentation at Johns Hopkins University Schriver Hall as part of the Foreign Affairs Symposium, a student-run lecture series. He gave it via Google Hangouts videophone. The talk was moderated by Daniel J. Solove, the John Harlan Marshall Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, on Wed., Feb. 17, 2016.
2. Constitution Day panel discussion at Maryland Institute College of Art on Wed., Sept. 17, 2014, with Hasan Elahi (U. Maryland), Daniel Ellsburg, and Kade Crockford (ACLU).
3. Roger Ebert, review of the film "The Lives of Others," 2007.
4. Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen, "Snowden: 'I Did What I Did Because I Believe It Is the Right Thing to Do,'" Edward Snowden interview in The Nation magazine, reprinted on, Nov. 11, 2014.

The unicellular origin of animals

By Mathew Goldstein

Cell aggregation and differentiation are requisite for organisms such as animals to be multicelled.  Various biological regulatory mechanisms producing the modifications to proteins responsible for tissue differentiation have been identified and studied.  It has been known for some years now, outside of places of religious worship and "education" where knowledge inconvenient to the religious beliefs tends to be ignored or dismissed, that the same cellular mechanisms utilized for animal tissue differentiation are also present in choanoflagellates.  But it has been unclear why choanoflagellates, flagellate eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus and mitochondria) whose full life cycle remains uncertain, posses these gene expression regulatory tools.

Choanoflagellates are not the only unicellular flagellate eukaryotes.  Capsaspora is the genus of another single celled flagellate eukaryote species with a known life cycle that is closely related to choanoflagellates.  A single Capsaspora changes its cell type over time, transitioning from a lone amoeba to an aggregated colony of cells to a hardy cystic form.  A new study explored whether Capsaspora uses the same mechanisms to control cell differentiation over time as animals use to control differentiation of tissues during embryo development.

The answer is yes according to researchers at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain who collaborated with researchers from the Proteomics Unit of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Universitat Pompeu Fabra. A press release published by Science Daily stated that the "researchers discovered that from one stage to another, Capsaspora's suite of proteins undergoes extensive changes, and the organism uses many of the same tools as multicellular animals to regulate these cellular processes."  

Without logic anything goes because the facts provide no constraints on our conclusions.  Logically, if a god created the many species of life then that god must have been willing to deceive us by leaving us with evidence that multicellular animals evolved from unicellular flagellate eukaryotes similar to choanoflagellates and that humans are primates.  But what is mere human logic as compared to a mighty god?  Gods are supernatural so they can be said to do anything.  Therefore logic no longer applies wherever a god is said to operate.  Theism thus undermines human reason and that is a big price to pay.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Hedges et. al. versus Harris

By Mathew Goldstein

Journalist Chris Hedges slams Sam Harris, claiming that the latter advocates for a nuclear attack against Islamic countries in his book End of Faith.  Donald McCarthy recently wrote an article that was then promoted on this blog.  That article reiterates what Hedges keeps claiming about Harris and further implies that Harris is dishonest because Harris denies what Hedges asserts about him.

An honest reading of what Harris says in his book is that he is worried about the larger implications of the apocalyptic ideology of pro-suicide Islamic extremists, who think it is a strength and virtue that "we love death more than you love life".  In particular, Harris argues that the religious beliefs adopted by Islamic extremists undermines the viability of Mutually Assured Destruction that has successfully prevented a nuclear conflict since the end of World War II.  Harris devotes only one paragraph to this topic in his book.  He says that if such Islamic extremists obtained nuclear weapons then the risk of nuclear conflict increases, an outcome which he clearly asserts he does not want.

Harris ended that paragraph in his book with "... men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it."  Now, if Chris Hedges, or Donald McCarthy, or anyone else, disagrees with that argument then they can make a counter-argument.  They are not doing that here.  Instead, they are misrepresenting his argument, emphasizing a single sentence, out of context, as evidence for what he is allegedly advocating.  Harris is guilty of using provocative "first strike" language, but not of advocating for that outcome.  Some criticisms of some of what Harris argues are constructive, and I like to see that, but some of it is not.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Blocking Immigrants?

Mathew Goldstein

Donald Trump's signature proposal on stopping or restricting Islamic immigrants is, like his other proposals, unclear because it changes and is not fully described.  Is it possible to reliably identify who is Islamic?  I am skeptical.  What is the most effective way to the vet immigrants?  Do we have good reason to think that fewer immigrants would be effective in preventing homeland attacks?  How do we measure the additional risk of threat of attacks from accepting more immigrants?   What level of risk should be required to justify an immigration shutdown?  What are the repercussions?  I do not know and it is because I am an ignoramus that I am inclined to refrain from discussing complicated issues like this.  

Nevertheless, I can say, based on what I have read, that there is solid evidence of ongoing efforts to carry out attacks in Europe, and to encourage lone wolf attacks, that rely on religious belief based appeals.  Therefore, a review of immigration policies that includes considering options to take into account religious beliefs when vetting immigrants is not automatically an example of racism, or a violation the Establishment Clause, or Islamophobia, or siding with the religious right, or whatever the hell the latest knee jerk invective is favored by those who seek to try to shut down discussion.  When we set our immigration policies we should do our best to take into account the needs of refugees in addition to the risks and try to strike a sensible balance.  If more people die in car accidents every week than are killed by immigrants every year then restricting immigration is probably not justified.  Otherwise, in the long term, if reduced immigration succeeded in preventing attacks then we could end up accepting more immigrants than we would have if we had instead experienced major attacks and reacted by shutting down immigration.

Trump is terribly wrong in so many ways about so much, which appears to tragically be an unavoidable result for any Republican presidential nominee in 2016 given how that demographic votes.  The bombastic Trump, given his populist track record, and his divisive rhetoric, taints any proposals he makes while engaging in election year posturing in front of the electorate.  A partial immigration slowdown that tries to reduce risks from accepting immigrants is not inherently crazy or irresponsible, although a policy that rejects everyone who is Islamic, as suggested by Trump, is difficult to justify.  Being Islamic says too little about the person.  But if there is a strong enough positive correlation between criminal violence and being Islamic among immigrants, or good evidence of ongoing dangerous plots and capabilities, then it may be justified to make that one of the considerations.

While Clinton currently expresses opposition to restricting immigration, if the context changed so that risks from immigration became larger in the future then I would not be surprised if she reversed course.  I would prefer that she would say now, as a candidate, that reviewing immigration policy would be one option she would consider in the event that violence by immigrants became a substantial problem. I think Clinton has a track record of being pragmatic and thoughtful with respect to policy advocacy, more so than any other candidate, including the third party candidates.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about the other candidates, this election is between Clinton and Trump.

The above commentary is my opinion alone, I speak not for anyone else, and in particular I am not speaking here for WASH.  

Monday, October 03, 2016

The old Atheism of Madalyn O'Hair

By Mathew Goldstein

Maryland is the home state of William O'Hair, a religious Baptist who is an author of an autobiography that is critical of his more famous mother (I have not read it). He is also a political activist and I watched him testify, along with clergy, at a 2016 Maryland General Assembly committee meeting in favor of a bill that proposed that the government support religion, arguing that it would be good for the state and country by reducing crime and delinquency, and labeling secular humanism a religion, while also criticizing his murdered mother and shilling for his book.  Families with some members being religious and others not religious are common.  I had a religious grand uncle (he was similar to a grandfather to me).  I also have an opinion about William O'Hair's mother.

I requested literature and an application form to join her organization.  After browsing the literature I decided not to join.  She insisted that atheism was defined as having a set of specific beliefs that went well beyond not believing in gods, or believing that there are no gods, or believing that the universe is strictly naturalistic, or believing in a set of general ethical principles.  She claimed that sharing her own conclusions on various political questions were part of the definition of atheism.  She said if you don't profess those same conclusions then you are not an atheist.  For her, atheism was a proper noun so it was capitalized.  Everyone who was an atheist was an Atheist.  Her Atheism was thus a political ideology, and it was so according to the definition of Atheism dictated by the  Madalyn O'Hair.

My reaction at the time was that if I was looking for an ideology I could join a church.  Her concept of Atheism was incompatible with my concept of atheism.  My concept of atheism was (and still is) that it is a result of abandoning ideology, it is a conclusion derived from a refusal to be ideological, it is built upon a rejection of ideology.  There can be no fixed answer to most public policy questions derived only from atheism because every issue must be evaluated independently, on its own merits, to find a best evidence fit with all the available evidence, and all of the relevant evidence is rarely confined to recognizing that the universe is strictly naturalistic.  I became an AA member years later after the organization had mostly shed its ideological narrowness, although I got the impression that some of its membership remained O'Hair Atheists and my membership did not last long. 

Nevertheless, she was smart, articulate, sharp, and she left behind some good commentary.  Reading what she wrote, I cannot help but identify with her thinking more than with that of her disaffected son.  So here is a sample from her writing from 1989:

Saturday, October 01, 2016

A different take on criticism of the "New Atheists"

By Mathew Goldstein

People who make a career of speaking and writing on current events may express opinions on a wide range of topics.  Being concerned with what is happening beyond the borders of one's own country is not a vice and focusing exclusively on what happens in one's own country is not a virtue.  Hopefully people who advocate on current affairs will make an effort to be well read and informed on whatever topic they discuss, but few people are experts on every topic that they discuss. Sometimes their advocacy may consistently fit within a particular group's consensus view, such as a leftist group view, or a libertarian group view, or a centrist group view, or a rightist group view.  Sometimes an individual's advocacy may not consistently fit within any one group's consensus.  Regardless, their advocacy is their own, they do not represent anyone else.  This is true of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others.  People who publicly self-identify as atheists do not uniquely forfeit their right to speak or write on other subjects.

Some years ago, Christopher Hitchens concluded the world would be better without Saddam Hussein ruling Iraq.  He also said that people who denied that waterboarding was torture were clearly wrong.  His views were not consistently within a consensus of the right or left. However aggravated some people may be about his sometimes straying from the consensus on the left, his advocacy was not for the purpose of siding with "fundamentalists in the U.S." who are not a monolith and who did not all share Hitchens' views on the invasion of Iraq.  Many Democrats voted for the resolution that authorized potential military action in 2002.  John Kerry gave a January 23, 2003 speech to Georgetown University where he said "Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator; leading an oppressive regime he presents a particularly grievous threat because he is so consistently prone to miscalculation. So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real."  In early 1998 Hillary Clinton said "The Iraqi leader was "without conscience," having used weapons of mass destruction on "his own people," she told reporters, referring to poison gas attacks on Kurds a decade earlier, "We are facing an extraordinary threat from this man. Something will have to be done."  In December 2003 Hillary Clinton said "I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote" and was one that "I stand by." After new evidenced emerged that Saddam Hussein had been bluffing regarding possessing weapons of mass destruction, some people switched their position on that invasion after the fact.

Articles in the monthly WASH have sometimes ventured into discussions on what is happening outside of our country. One WASH member has invited the DC area atheist group to showings of various films in liberal churches that criticize Israel.  One of the films featured a women who also claims that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were carried out by the CIA.  I have not seen any of those films, but I suspect that they are one sided propaganda which appears to be commonly relied upon among some critics of Israel.  Black Lives Matters, for example, has asserted that Israel has committed genocide against the Palestinian population, which even if it were true is not a reason for police shootings in Arkansas or Louisiana.  But while they are wrong about Israel committing genocide, and they harm their own credibility by indulging in such hyperbole, there is longstanding evidence for racial disparities in the U.S. and there are also similar disparities between different groups of people in other countries.  If WASH is going engage in such topics then we lack integrity if we simultaneously shut down conversations on international affairs that fall outside a narrow range or insist that any atheists who take positions outside of a narrow range are tainting secularism.  The people who are actually tainting secularism are those who want to engage in such discussion while restricting the range of views that are expressed to those that promote their own views.

It is a problem that people wrongly and unfairly associate Christopher Hitchens' views on various other topics, or Sam Harris' views on various other topics, or Richard Dawkins' views on various other topics, with "New Atheism".  It doesn't help that some of the criticisms leveled against some of the New Atheists are more hyperbole and slander than reasonable or thoughtful criticism.  People who, five years after Mr. Hitchens has died, continue to spill ink asserting that Christopher Hitchens tainted the New Atheism with his other advocacy are conflating apples with oranges.  He could do no such thing since each different topic stands on its own and is addressed on its own merits independently.  The problem here resides on the side of those who persistently make this odd complaint.  Some people are intolerant of particular opinions.  Such people may then reject everything that a person advocated or did in their life because they sincerely disagree with some things that one person advocated or did.  That narrow-minded stereotyping is what we should be criticizing.

The view that all religions are mistaken, yet some religions are better than others in practice, or even in content, can be a difficult position to publicly espouse because it may be deemed to be insulting by the people who self-identify with the religions being targeted for criticism.  If the people who self-identify with the religions being criticized are numerous and intolerant then their hearing such an argument is likely to upset them, which will generate controversy, and that result in turn will upset other people, who will blame the messenger.  But the disliked messenger is not the problem because the message is untidy.  Sometimes to resolve a problem we need to be willing to confront it head on.  If a problem is fear of heights then exposing yourself to heights is a necessary step to overcome that fear.  If a problem is an intolerance of criticism then we are not going to make things better by shutting down discussion to appease the intolerance.

Sam Harris in particular, among others, has adopted this position.  He says that beliefs matter and therefore details that vary between religions and within religions also matter.  The beliefs promoted by some religions are relatively harmless, or they harm some of the believers and not others, while different beliefs promoted by other religions are more insidious. Obviously, religion is grounded in beliefs, which are not genders, ethnicities, races, or the like.  It is a fact (not a diversionary tactic) that some people, when they hear criticisms focused on the details associated with particular religions, or comparisons among religions that do not reach similar conclusions about all religions, assume that they are listening to a bigot promoting bigotry.  That is a form of prematurely cutting off discussion, it is anti-intellectual, it is a mistake.  Arguments need to evaluated on their merits and not on how closely they conform with our preferences or our pre-commitments.

People are capable of changing their beliefs.  People are not synonymous with their beliefs and we do ourselves no good by elevating some beliefs to a status of being exempt from criticism.  The liberal idea is that people are entitled to civic equality before the law regardless of their religious beliefs, it is not that particular religions as currently practiced are individually exempt from public criticism.  I once joined a discussion that others had initiated about Scientology, with some people being critical.  I sided with the critics.  I was promptly challenged on why I was singling out that one religion.  My reply was that it is in some substantial ways worse than other religions. As liberals and secularists living on a religious planet we undercut ourselves when we refuse to acknowledge that there are differences between and within religions which potentially have significant implications.

Street Epistemology: Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons

By Mathew Goldstein

This video Street Epistemology: Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons from the "Skeptrack" of the 2016 Dragoncon conference features Atheist Alliance International president Robert Penczak, also a member of Richmond Humanists who sometimes appears on the Fairfax Virginia podcast Road to Reason: A Skeptic's Guide to the 21st Century, and WASH member David Tomayo who is president of Hispanic American Freethinkers.  It also features John Loftus, an author of ten books, whose blog Debunking Christianity is very good.   I always find myself agreeing with John Loftus when his topic is atheism versus competing beliefs.  Despite the title of his blog he tends to target theism and religion generally.

The aforementioned Dragoncon video advocates for practicing the street epistemology that is promoted in Peter Boghassian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists.  We are told that the partisan book title originated with the publisher as a marketing ploy.  I have read the book and I will say that title has some merit as a description of the book's content.  Nevertheless, epistemology is about the quality of belief justification and learning to recognize and avoid common pitfalls such as confirmation bias. Atheists are prone to employing bad epistemology.  So this topic is more general than atheism versus theism.  It is addressed to, targets, and challenges, all of us.  Atheism is merely a conclusion.  How we go about reaching our conclusions is a skill that can be honed which affects the conclusions we reach across the wider range of decisions we confront.  The web site for volunteer participants is

Friday, September 30, 2016

Criticism of the "New Atheists"

A recent article on had criticism of the "New Atheist" authors, and Christopher Hitchens in particular:

How the New Atheist Movement Blew a Big Opportunity to Bring Acceptance to Non-Believers

The author, Donald McCarthy, is an atheist but considers the New Atheists to be a "crushing disappointment".  He says that the atheist authors, especially Hitchens and Sam Harris, were so obsessed with Islam that they formed informal alliances with U.S. neoconservative politicians.  In the process of opposing Islam, they supported the pro-Iraq War movement, along with many supporters who were fundamentalist Christians.  McCarthy says that the atheists, particularly Hitchens, should have been more concerned with fundamentalists in the U.S. rather than supporting the war in the Middle East.

McCarthy praises the American Humanist Association for its support for separation of church and state and for its arguments that life can be good without God.

Atheists and humanists should be making arguments against religious dogma. We should try to be convincing to our opponents, rather than advocate force by military arms.  Support for the Iraq War was always ethically debatable, and it was never clear that it should have been directed against the Islamic religion as opposed to specific governments or organization, some of which are Islamic.  The best contribution that humanist groups can make is to debate and debunk the religious principles that cause young people to volunteer for movements like ISIS.  Our arguments lose any ethical foundation if we say that overthrowing fundamentalist governments by force is acceptable, except as the absolute last resort for self defense.  (It isn't clear to me that ISIS has reached this threshold, even though they are fundamentalist Islamist and a violent group.)

It is tempting to argue that humanitarian aid is a justification for military force, for example that there are so many deaths in Syria that the U.S. should be involved to prevent civilian deaths.  But pursuing foreign policy based on humanitarian or altruistic motives is not effective in the long term, as recent efforts have shown.  There is only a humanitarian justification if there is a prosocial agreement, not an altruistic one.  The distinction between altruistic and prosocial motives is that a prosocial group is capable and willing to form a beneficial government or social organization that will provide a long-term improvement in the society.  The effort to set up a representative government in Afghanistan may still be valuable and prosocial.  On the other hand, overthrowing the Syrian government by force without any alternative to take over doesn't look promising.  

But there is a bigger problem with the atheist efforts throughout history that is related to the points that McCarthy raises.  Atheist movements has often been associated with a few individual charismatic speakers, including Richard Dawkins, David Silverman, and Hitchens, but also including Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll and many others.  These individuals criticize established religions. Atheist movements have been less interested in building organizations.  There are atheist and humanist organizations, but they tend to be specifically concerned with opposing religion rather than trying to replace it.  One of the goals of modern humanist, secular humanist, ethical culture, and other related groups is to set up social groups that have more to do with living a good life for ordinary citizens.  This is a prosocial effort that will lead to long-term improvements in society.  These kinds of organizations can replace religious organizations.  

There is room in the atheist movement for all these types of organizations.  It is unfortunate that the movement started by the "New Atheist" authors is still mostly known for opposition to religions, particularly Islam, rather than for developing improvements in secular society and government.