Sunday, April 19, 2015

More socially advanced countries are less religious

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Alex McFarland, host of the national Stand Strong Tour, was quoted recently as saying the following: "From a societal standpoint, any time we reject a belief in God and, thereby, a belief in absolute morals based on the Word of God, we see the disintegration of a healthy society. From the breakdown of the family and the killing of the unborn to the rejection of the rule of law and of moral boundaries, the consequences are far reaching."  Given the large number of people with diverse religious affiliations who very confidently express similar unqualified sentiments, the question to ask here is what does the available evidence say about the relationship between a society being healthy and a society being religious?  To answer this question someone needs to identify measures of how healthy and religious a society is, take those measurements, and evaluate the results.

We have new data addressing both questions.  On April 13 the international polling organization WIN/Gallup released the results of a massive new survey into religion worldwide.  The latest update of the Social Progress Index was published the previous week.  This was also a mammoth undertaking, painstakingly assessing the nations of the world against a battery of benchmarks divided into three categories: “Basic Human Needs”, “Foundations of Wellbeing” (health and basic education), and “Opportunity” (personal rights, freedom, tolerance and advanced education).  Now we need someone to combine the data and see if the correlations support McFarland's assertion.

This is a task for Epiphenom. Epiphenom found that the Gallup poll allows us to rank 59 countries by the percentage of citizens who are non-religious.  The least religious countries scored highest on the Social Progress Index and the most religious countries scored worst. This trend is apparent across all three categories.

Back in 2009 Epiphenom showed the less religious countries were also more peaceful, and research since then has shown that they are more democratic, have less corruption, more telephones, do better at science, have less inequality and other problems, and are generally just less dysfunctional and have better quality of life.  Regardless of the underlying cause and effect direction, and regardless of how frequently many different people adamantly assert otherwise, there is only one properly justified conclusion here:  A non-religious society and a healthy society are mutually compatible.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Morality, consensus, standards, and axioms

By Mathew Goldstein

The distinction between a definition in the abstract and a practical operational method for applying that definition is sometimes important, yet it tends to be under appreciated.  As Jason Rosenhouse argues in his recent blog article A Few More Words About Morality "One of the most overwrought questions in moral philosophy is the question of whether morality is objective or subjective."  Following the abstract definition "... something is objectively true if it is true independently of what anyone thinks about it."  However, to apply this abstract "objective versus subjective" distinction we need an operational method to render it concrete.

Jason Rosenhouse makes the following argument:  "The point is that appealing to the consensus is just the best we can do when trying to distinguish what is objectively true from what is a subjective belief.  I see no reason why we cannot apply the same standard to discussions of morality."   Thus, by comparing the laws of different democratic countries we can find consistencies regarding what is deemed criminal and cite this consensus to establish an objectively moral baseline.

Obviously consensus is a flawed method of determining what is true.  Consensus has historically been wrong in the context of morality.  Therefore being moral entails rejecting the consensus when it fails the “don’t hurt people unnecessarily” standard underlying morality.  Since consensus is a flawed method for concretely applying the abstract principle, this result does not mean that morality as a principle lacks objectivity.  Instead it means that humans are, for a variety of reasons, imperfect in distinguishing what is moral from what is immoral.  

Furthermore, in the context of reaching a consensus there is also a question of commitment.  Lack of commitment plays some role in historical failures of the consensus to uphold morality, particularly when people perceive a conflict with their own self-interest.  Jason Rosenhouse briefly addresses the lack of commitment issue by acknowledging that commitment is where morality becomes more subjective.  He says "Moral assertions have to be defended on some basis, and in any system of reasoning something has to be taken as axiomatic."  Mr. Rosenhouse is correct.  His article is short so, if you have not done so yet and are interested and in this topic, go ahead and take a few minutes to read it.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Rules for making a valid argument

By Mathew Goldstein

The following five rules for making a valid argument are universally applicable.  I mention them here because they are too often not followed.*
  • We are restricted to following the evidence and going only where it takes us.  The only proper way to justify our conclusions about how the universe functions is overall best fit with all of the available evidence.  Empirical evidence comes first, conclusions follow.
  • We must accept our accumulated knowledge of the natural world. We are obligated to acknowledge the validity of scientific explanations because they are historically successful.  You don’t get to advance your hypothesis about how the universe works by throwing out accumulated human wisdom!
  • We must accept that we don’t know anything about the nature of entities outside this universe. Deities and afterlives and the like are sometimes defined as existing outside human experience.  The proper adjective for imagined entities that have no basis in human experience is 'fictional'.
  • To determine how the universe functions we need to look beyond what is going on inside someone's head by citing information that is universally accessible.  Human psychology is notoriously unreliable as a source of knowledge. When someone announces that they have knowledge of the mind of god, citing their personal interpretation of their personal experience, they are discussing their psychology.  
  • We are obligated to define our factual assertions about how the universe functions clearly and unambiguously.  Karen Armstrong-style platitudes are empty noise. Insofar as “God is Love” says nothing discernible about how the universe functions it is literally a meaningless, throw-away phrase.

PZ Myers criticized Greta Christina for her recent article proposing 6 unlikely developments that could convince her to believe in God.  PZ Myers complained that Ebonmuse and Greta Christina are 'conceding too much' by engaging in 'what if' arguments to demonstrate the application of the first criteria for valid argument from the above list. PZ claims that the latter four criteria (his four criteria were defined somewhat differently, see his article are prerequisites that theists can’t meet and therefore discussion should end there. I disagree. While it is arguably true that theists always fail to simultaneously meet all four of the other criteria simultaneously, those four criteria are corollaries of the first criteria. The insistence on starting with, and being dependent upon, empirical evidence is not secondary to the other criteria. Providing examples of how to apply the first criteria concedes only the supremacy of empirical evidence and is not rendered irrelevant or useless because theists fail to simultaneously meet all of the other four criteria.

* This list of debate rules was inspired by a recent public disagreement between bloggers Greta Christina and PZ Myers and borrows from what they wrote.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

A Review of Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech,

Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech, by Charles Slack. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015, 34o pp, $26.00.

a review by Edd Doerr

Freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition, like religious freedom  and church-state  separation, were/are intended to be protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution. However, in 1798, less than a decade after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the Federalist controlled Congress and President John Adams enacted the Sedition Act, which was immediately used to prosecute/persecute the slightest printed or spoken utterance that annoyed the Federalist establishment. Even a sitting member of Congress, gutsy Mathew Lyon of Vermont,  was subjected to a sort of Star Chamber trial and sent to prison while running for re-election, which he won big while behind bars. Public reaction to these alarming clampdowns on freedom of speech and press led to the crushing of the Federalists and John Adams in the 1800 elections and the rise of Jefferson and the “Republicans” ( or Democratic Republicans, not to be confused with today’s Republicans).

The whole story is beautifully laid out  in Charles Slack’s terrific new book, a “five star” opus that you just can’t put down.

Slack’s final chapter fast-forwards to an overview of today’s situation, both in the US and internationally. Even in the most advanced modern democracies freedom of expression is being burdened with a newly concocted “right not to be offended” that threatens the prior right. Slack concludes that the US stands virtually alone with its “Parchment Barrier” to safeguard the right to free expression, just short of “yelling Fire! in a crowded theater”. He sums up: “The Bill of Rights’ first great accomplishment was to formally declare rights off-limits to government meddling.” But, the author warns, there are still those in our country, some liberals as well as conservatives, who would tighten down on freedom of expression.  It’s too bad that our federal and state highest courts have of late shown inadequate devotion to the religious liberty portion of the First Amendment, but that is beyond the scope of this book.
Posted by Gary Berg-Cross

Appeal to lawmakers: Evaluate bills on strictly secular criteria

By Mathew Goldstein

Some people argue against implementing any aid in dying law on the grounds that any such law will disrespect the ideal of facing difficulties resolutely. Struggle and tragedy are a part of life.  Being resolute in confronting adversity is the proper approach to living well.  However, living with struggles and difficulties is not therefore a public policy goal to be protected by government laws.  Laws by themselves cannot eliminate all adversity.  But insofar as there are opportunities to implement laws that mitigate or reduce struggle and difficulties we should be favorably inclined to do so.  By implementing laws aimed at reducing suffering we are not challenging or disputing our responsibilities to resolutely confront the ongoing or occasional difficulties that we experience.

People who unconditionally oppose aid in dying laws tend to rely on secular language to avoid limiting the appeal of their argument to religious people.  Their talk of adverse "cultural" impact resembles a veil covering the religious motivation behind their opposition.  There is a dissonance between holding to the conviction that a benevolent God created humans in "His" image and accepting the notion that it is proper to legally authorize terminally ill people to voluntarily hasten their own deaths.  It is this dissonance with the religious beliefs that some lawmakers esteem, not any actual adverse cultural impact, that appears to motivate their unconditional opposition to aid in dying laws.

We all agree that people who are unconditionally opposed to hastening their own death should not do so.  We who are not theists harbor no illusions that humans have a transcendent purpose different from all other animals or that voluntary human self-hastening of death contradicts the desire of a deity.  There is no God imposing suffering on people to build their character, punish them for misdeeds, or qualify them for heaven.  A revised aid in dying bill may be introduced again in the Maryland General Assembly next year.  We appeal to Maryland lawmakers to make an effort to put aside any metaphysical qualms they may have and evaluate all proposed laws, including this one, strictly on secular criteria.