Sunday, June 29, 2008

Logical? Maybe Not. Educational? You Bet!

OK, I confess. The whole Death Penalty Logic post was a hose, aimed primarily at my friend (maybe my ex-friend, after this admission) PhillyChief, who had been blowing loud and hard about his superior logical ability in death penalty debates. Unfortunately, he bowed out early at No More Hornets. He has now rejoined the fray over at You Made Me Say It, though. If he wants to continue, I’ll joust with him there – because I think his “demonstration” of the flaws in my argument is itself extremely flawed. I did love the graphic, though. Anyway, I recommend that you head over there and judge his logic for yourself.

You might also want to take a look at Barefoot Bum's devastating commentary on my "astoundingly bad argument." (I'm not exactly sure what criterion he uses to distinguish between an argument that's just garden-variety bad and one that's astoundingly bad, but his premise seems correct.)

The truth is: The long-winded argument in my post was cobbled together in about as long as it took to type it. I actually have no idea if it’s logically sound or not, but I can’t imagine how it could be. I’m pretty good with slinging words, though, and I was aware of some “tricks.” Many other seemingly planned authorial manipulations, like that sophomoric affirming the consequent, were just fuck-ups on my part.

There was one other person in the Atheosphere who knew I was going to do this before I’d actually done it, but that person bears no responsibility for anything in the post — or even for the fact that it became a post. I’ll amend this paragraph to give that person a link if he or she (seriously, I can’t decide) wants his or her (still can’t) identity known. I also briefly told my wife what I planned to do, but she never listens to me anyway (could you blame her?), and wouldn’t have cared even if she had listened.

I don’t know shit about formal logic much beyond what I learned in 1966 in my Freshman Course in the Symbolic Logic of Lewis Carroll. In that course, we proved all kinds of important stuff on the level of “a dormouse who dunks crumpets in his tea will never amount to anything.” (My memory isn’t what it once was, but I could probably still derive that if I could duplicate the set of premises.) I also own a book called Thinking From A to Z, but I usually get to more than one Z just a few minutes after opening it. I think I've actually read as far as D-and-a-half.

Interestingly, some atheists and theists alike showed that their primary method of fighting faulty logic is to yell “bullshit,” make ad hominem wisecracks, and resort to other forms of semantic thuggery. I’ve been guilty, myself, of using that technique. Hundreds of times. It’s fun. And it gets your rocks off. And you feel so self-righteous when you’re done. But it doesn’t win debates against someone who refuses to get rattled. Very early in the thread, commenter yunshui noticed that.

Finally, John Morales (who, alas, has no blog to link to) stepped into the arena with some real skill at deflating a logical argument just by using the tools of logic. I’m not certain what his plan was, but I think he hoped to give me just enough rope to slowly hang myself with my tendentious definitions and unsupportable premises. I’m going to assume that was it; he’ll have to demonstrate to me formally that my assumption is incorrect. (Note to JM: I’d still love to see how you skewer me, so let’s continue over there — or here, if you’d like. I’ll pretend I never wrote this, and defend my argument against you as best I can. I wasn’t kidding about how much I was learning from watching you build up a solid case, even though I have no idea yet what that case is.)

There's a blatant lesson in the comment thread. In future, I think all of us atheists should refrain, when “debating” with theists of the pseudo-logical variety, from immediately reaching for “this sucks” or “you’re a moron.” That goes for me, too. When we do that, we heat up the interchange without accomplishing anything. Now, obviously, there are plenty of morons out there, making sucky arguments, who can’t respond to anything other than insults. If you find one like that, and you’ve lost your patience, knock yourself out. But do try to be witty about it for the entertainment of the rest of us. Saying “your ideas are fucked-up” is so dull.

As far as the death penalty, I am adamantly against it. But I don’t think either side can get anywhere in expressing its position by going through the rigmarole of a silly logical puzzle. The best way to exchange views on that issue is probably to have just a regular old-fashioned discussion, featuring, on both sides, some logic, some emotions, some references to authority, gut feelings, preconceptions, etc. — as if we’re normal people (not bloggers) having a conversation, instead of engaging in a debate or a formalized exercise.

If anyone gets angry enough to murder me for my little hoax, know that my friends and relatives will do everything in their power to make sure you’re executed. I won't approve, but I'll be dead.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


[Note: The Wall Street Journal of June 28-29 features an article with some free verse by Billy Collins, former U.S. poet laureate. The poems are about Looney Tunes characters. Since I’ve been writing drivel my entire life, and also since I identify closely with Daffy Duck, I feel as if I have the authority to challenge Collins at his own game. However, I thought I’d add some rules: all poems must be haiku. That is: they must have three lines of, respectively, 5-syllables, 7-syllables, and 5-syllables.

So, come on, Billy Collins: Let's slam.]

Just wanting carrots,
but the hunter is stalking
so you must crack wise.

Lisping and zany,
you may be irrational,
but so is the world.

Elmer Fudd:
Armed with a shotgun,
always dreaming of success;
creatures know better.

Yosemite Sam:
Big mouth on small guy,
guns drawn, ready for varmints,
you can't beat the hare.

The Roadrunner:
Racing through your life,
overcoming obstacles
produced by Acme.

Wile E. Coyote:
Life is too cruel
when all that careful planning
ends with a big boom.

You thought you saw what?
Don’t worry about the puss:
You can outsmart him.

He looks so tasty
swinging blithely in his cage,
but eat something else.

Pepe Le Pew:
Sorry, mon ami,
you may think you’re a lover
but your technique stinks.

Three words -- “That’s all, folks” --
it comes rolling off one’s tongue:
but never for you.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is the Death Penalty Logical?

One of my very best friends in the Atheosphere is a guy who prides himself on always being logical. I can picture him constructing syllogisms while at the butcher's, deciding which cut of meat to buy for barbecuing.

Recently, in light of yesterday's decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana, my pal made a claim that he could use his razor-sharp logic to defend the death penalty, a punishment which, apparently, he finds just peachy. I don't think it's possible for a reasonable atheist to do that.

The following proof of my statement is not elegant. It relies on far too many definitions, premises, and conclusions, but it is, I believe, logically sound.

Definition 1: Murder is the willful killing of another human being.
Definition 2: Self-defense is the use of physical force to stave of violence against oneself only (1) while such violence is being perpetrated or (2) at the moment when the threat of violence is imminent.
Definition 3: An execution is the willful killing of another human being, performed by an official body, such as the government.
Definition 4: Revenge is the infliction of harm on a person who has, or is perceived to have, done a harm.
Definition 5: A primal urge is an unthinking, instinctual action, most likely the result of evolutionary development.
Definition 6: An atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of any gods.
Definition 7: A reasonable person is an individual who does not rely on conclusions that can’t be drawn logically.
Premise 1: Murder is morally wrong.
Premise 2: Murder is justifiable when done in self-defense.
Premise 3: Murder is “worst” when done with pre-meditation and malice aforethought.
Premise 4: Executions are pre-meditated and performed with malice aforethought.
Premise 5: An incarcerated person is not actually perpetrating violence, nor does he or she pose an imminent threat.
Premise 6: Revenge is a passionate act, driven by a primal urge, not reason.
Premise 7: Humans, both individually and within groups, have the ability to resist primal urges.
Premise 8: Executions in the United States are performed “dispassionately,” after much consideration; they are cold and calculating.
Premise 9: It is impossible to put a specific monetary valuation on a human life.
Premise 10: There is no way to bring a dead person back to life or to unrape a person.
Premise 11: There is no evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent on others from perpetrating crimes.
Premise 12: Reasonable people should not use bullshit as an authority to justify their opinions.
Premise 13: Atheists think the bible is bullshit.
Premise 14: Judaeo-Christian religious societies have used the biblical verse “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as the accepted standard for punishment, including the death penalty.
Premise 15: Society ought not itself perpetrate acts that it finds morally wrong unless it can find some rationale for such acts.
Premise 16: There are no rational arguments for the death penalty that do not rely in some way on one or more of the following concepts: (1) it's a deterrent; (2) it's a societally acceptable form of revenge; (3) it's a societal method of self-defense; (4) it's an accepted standard of punishment and/or (5) it's the "price" a criminal must "pay" for his or her crimes.
Conclusion 1: It follows from Premises 1 and 2 that murder may be justifiable in self-defense, but it is still morally wrong.
Conclusion 2: It follows from Premise 1 and Definition 3 that executions are murder.
Conclusion 3: It follows from Conclusion 2 and Premises 3-4 that executions are among the “worst” form of murder.
Conclusion 4: It follows from Definition 2 and Premise 5 that executions performed by the government are not self-defense.
Conclusion 5: It follows from Definitions 4-5 and Premises 6-8 that in executions the government has resisted the primal urge for revenge.
Conclusion 6: It follows from Premises 9 and 10 that the murder or rape of a person cannot be compensated financially. There is no specific “price” that can be paid to make the victim “whole,” since he or she stays dead or raped.
Conclusion 7: It follows from Conclusion 6 that executions cannot be rationally justified by saying that the criminal must “pay” for his or her crime.
Conclusion 8: It follows from Definitions 6-7 and Premises 12-13 that a reasonable atheist should not quote the bible as an authority to justify his or her opinions.
Conclusion 9: It follows from Definition 7 and Premise 11 that if a reasonable atheist wishes to defend the death penalty, he or she must find a rationale other than deterrence.
Conclusion 10: It follows from Definition 7 and Conclusion 5 that if a reasonable atheist wishes to defend the death penalty, he or she must find a rationale different from “the primal urge for revenge.”
Conclusion 11: It follows from Definition 7 and Conclusion 4 that if a reasonable atheist wishes to defend the death penalty, he or she must find a rationale different from self-defense.
Conclusion 12: It follows from Conclusion 8 and Premise 14 that if a reasonable atheist wishes to defend the death penalty, he or she must find a rationale different from the standard set in the bible.
Conclusion 13: It follows from Definition 7 and Conclusion 7 that if a reasonable atheist wishes to defend the death penalty, he or she must find a rationale different from the wish to make a perpetrator “pay” for a crime.
Conclusion 14: It follows from Premises 1 and 15 that society should not commit murder unless it can find some way to defend such acts.
Conclusion 15: It follows from Conclusion 2 and Conclusion 14 that society should not perform executions unless it can find some way to defend such acts.
Conclusion 16: It follows from Conclusions 9-13 and Conclusion 15 that a reasonable atheist, speaking for society, cannot defend executions on the grounds that they (1) act as a deterrent on others, (2) create an acceptable outlet for revenge, (3) are a method of self-defense, (4) conform to the accepted standard for punishment, or (5) ensure that a criminal "pays" for his or her crime.


It follows from Premise 16 and Conclusion 16 that a reasonable atheist cannot argue for the death penalty.
So, all you ultra-rational, death-penalty-loving atheists out there (religionists are welcome to take part as well, but you must respond to my argument using only the tools of logic) make your case for "disproving" my final conclusion. Remember, in a logical argument you may not simply challenge my premises by asserting that they’re incorrect. You must show that they’re incorrect, either by presenting facts to refute them, or by demonstrating that they lead to logical fallacies within the argument itself. Also, you may not ask questions that are irrelevant (e.g., What else should society do with its murderers and rapists?) to the argument I made.

Let the debate begin.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thank You for Your Bushiness

In my town, there isn’t much culture, unless your idea of sophistication is barbecuing in your driveway. So it’s not unusual, on a Sunday, for me to make the ten-mile trip to Barnes & Noble, there to commune with civilization.

When I approached that store today, though, I was greeted by the following sign, which I’ve reproduced verbatim:


The first sentence seems to imply that the clerks have rebelled against management. “You can’t come in because there’s a mutiny going on.” But, no. It’s 21st-century shrink-speak for: The fucking electricity isn’t working.

Nobody in America today — except maybe for bloggers — wants to make a definite statement, commit himself or herself to a clearly defined position on what’s right and what’s wrong. Instead, parents have issues with their children, and children have issues with their parents. Workers have issues with bosses, and bosses have issues with workers. Teachers have issues with students, students have issues with teachers, and everybody has issues with the principal. Conservatives have issues with liberals, and liberals have issues with conservatives. Christians have issues with Muslims, Muslims have issues with Jews, Jews have issues with Christians, and who doesn’t have issues with atheists?

“Having issues” is a weasel phrase. It’s not the same as “taking issue,” which at least means “disagreeing.” No, “having issues” is about viewpoint, based on the idea that all opinions are equal. It was born on the psychologist’s couch, where having strong ideas is often considered a sign of mental aberration. It was reared in a relativistic society, in which we all must "respect" one another, whether we've earned that respect or not. And it flourishes in media-driven politics where candidates strive to be the most inoffensive product for sale.

"Having issues" leads to rubbish like “Teach the controversy.” That’s why creationists have issues with so-called evolutionists, and why real, but apologetic, scientists have issues with the army of ignorati who are largely responsible for teaching our kids nonsense.

But, often, there are no issues, f’cryinoutloud. There’s a right side and a wrong side; opinions are not necessarily co-equal. I, myself, do not “have issues” with fundamentalist thugs who want to shove religion down the throats of impressionable youngsters. Instead, I argue, vehemently, for what’s objectively right. If you’re an atheist blogger, chances are that you do, too.

OK, returning to the sign, let’s look at the second sentence. You may not have noticed that “inconvenience” is misspelled, so take another look. Now remember: That sign was written by a person surrounded by English dictionaries. There are at least a dozen different editions scattered over the Reference shelves in my local branch. Does an employee have issues with orthography? Or with Noah Webster, maybe? What does it say about the Barnes & Noble staff if the combined skill of all the clerks can’t manage to spell a fairly common word correctly? Do they read anything they sell, or are they too busy slurping caramel macchiatos to look at the store’s main product? Follow-up question: Are books still the main product of Barnes & Noble Booksellers? Or should the company be renamed to “Barnes & Noble Latte Pushers”?

But idiotic behavior was not limited to those powerless few in the store. I sat for about ten minutes watching customers walk up to the doors. Singly or in groups they stood at the entrance and carefully read the posted message. Then ... they pulled on the handles of the doors. Not one person shrugged and turned around to head back to his or her car. Nope, every potential customer decided to try to get in, as if the “We’re Closed” sign were some kind of hoax. Even when one person or group failed to gain entry, the next in line thought that maybe he or she would have the magic touch.

Call me an old curmudgeon, but I have issues with that kind of stupidity.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pardon My French, Voltaire

So. Zadig, eh?


Well, here’s the odd thing. I’m one of those people who never lack an opinion. If I’m in a conversation and I genuinely have no viewpoint, I just make one up. Then I defend it passionately until I believe it.

Similarly, I’ve read very few books from start to finish that haven’t “hit” me in one way or another. Yes, I’ve begun my share of novels that I tossed aside after 50 pages because I was bored. But when I go through an entire volume from cover to cover, I expect to have something to say about it when I’m done. And — surprise! — I always do. Not that my literary pronouncements are necessarily of value to anyone, but they do keep me off the streets. In any case, I can't remember ever resorting to just a shrug (French: un shrug).

Until now.

Zadig is a pleasant enough story, set in some screwball Orient of the author’s imagination, although really it’s just a series of parodistically exotic episodes loosely strung together in a style that’s not exactly a fairy tale, not exactly an Arabian Nights tale, and not exactly a folk tale. But it has a definite tale-ish-ness, only without the charm. Maybe you’ve gotta be French. Or perhaps you need to have a hunk of crispy bread and some decent Bordeaux handy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned ahead, so the closest things I had in the house were a stale hot dog roll (pain éventé de hot dog) and half a glass of unbubbly Lite beer (moitié par en verre unbubbly de bière de Lite.)

Anyway, the whole book has a spontaneously knocked-off quality, as if it were made up by someone who had never actually told a coherent story before. I can imagine Voltaire, sitting down at his desk, setting his pocket watch (watch de poche) for an hour (soixante minutes), and saying to himself: “Today, I’m going to write exactly 1,000 words.” (Aujourd'hui, je vais écrire exactement 1.000 mots, give au take dix mots.) And that’s apparently what he did. Some of those words were shaped into blasphemous or satiric sentences, which no doubt made him chuckle. Me, too, in a bland sort of way. An example of his irreligious wit: Is there anything more worthy of respect than an abuse dating from ancient times? Cute. I won’t cite any more here, because I’m going to leave the best quotes for the other Nonbelieving Literati to steal; there aren’t really enough to go around. Still, I do identify with someone using that kind of automatic-writing authorship style, and can easily picture Voltaire slapping himself in the knee: “I think this stuff is very funny.” (Je pense que cette substance est très drôle. Ouch. Mon knee.)

Now, to be fair, I’m sure that Zadig was a hoot in its time. The people who read it when it was hot off the presses (chaud outre des presses) were probably able to catch every topical allusion, understand all the in-jokes, recognize each of the sardonic portraits. Me, I’m not that up on French 18th-century history. I know there was some kind of revolution near the end of that period, and before that, a couple of kings and cardinals and musketeers. Truthfully, though, I’m pretty much indifferent to almost everything from France except for its cheese, its wine, and the Brigitte Bardot of 50 years ago. So all the passages for which I would have needed a reference flew way over my head (flew au-dessus de ma tête avec la plume de ma tante).

I neither liked Zadig, nor hated it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I also wouldn’t warn anyone to steer clear of it. Voltaire was a cool dude (dude frais), and he certainly deserves to be remembered. I think his reputation is neither enhanced nor damaged (fucked vers le haut) by this book. However, if you want to see the kind of irreverence that helped give the Enlightenment its name — an irreverence that we could use a lot more of here in Bush’n’Bible-Land (terre de la brousse et l'Evangile) — you might find Zadig mildly entertaining (divertissant de ho-hum).

In short, it’s worth un shrug. Maybe deux shrugs.

Our Next Book:
Well, we had a wonderful nonbelieving and literate member who was going to pick our next selection, but, unfortunately, she’s still deciding. This may not be such a bad thing, since we’ve had a very female-heavy selection process for the last few installments. There are only a few of us guys, though, so I took the liberty of appointing myself to choose the next book. My original thought was that we’d read something a little more male-oriented for a change, and, naturally, I immediately zeroed in on my copy of Two-Fisted, Gun-Totin’, Ballsy Adventure Stories: The Car Chase Edition. But the thing seemed a little sissyish to me.

Seriously, I decided not to burden anyone with having to fill in with a decision at the last minute, and, fortunately, without wracking my brain, I happened to think of an unusual book that might be of interest to atheists, particularly (but not limited to) science-lovers: Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. I’ll warn everyone that although this appears to be a short book of simple science-fiction stories, looks can be deceiving. You may not want to put it off until the very last minute before the target date of August 1.

By the way, thanks to all you Nonbelieving Literati — both old and new members — for continuing to support the group.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Notable Deaths This Week

Here are some notable deaths this week. If you care to, you can find the names, listed in order of their appearance here, at the bottom of the page.

  • A medical researcher who was one of the first to find a link between tobacco and cancer.

  • A woman who fought a battle against hospitals, doctors, and societal taboos to champion nautral breast-feeding; one of the founders of La Leche League.

  • A former Vietnamese reformer and eventual prime minister who helped to lift his country from a war-torn, Soviet-style regime back into a place on the world stage.

  • An Italian film director who pioneered a new style of cinema that helped give citizens a newfound self-confidence after the trauma of Mussolini’s Fascism.

  • A researcher who discovered important information on organ transplant rejections and was one of the first blacks to be granted tenure at New York University Medical School.

  • An Egyptian politician and ex-prime minister who helped negotiate the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

  • A man who, as NATO ambassador under Johnson, repeatedly urged a halt to nuclear proliferation and urged “a world structure in which” weaker nations “will have assurances that existing nuclear powers will come to their rescue.”

  • A famous philanthropist who supported dozens of progressive causes, gave monetary assistance to candidates who otherwise might not have had a political voice, helped to finance the lawsuit that ultimately led Spiro Agnew to resign from the vice presidency, and was a prominent name on Nixon’s “enemies list.”

  • A guy who read the news on television, chatted with people who actually said and did important things, and helped to foster the idea that the mainstream media was worthless at presenting unbiased information.
So who got the most news coverage BY FAR?

Their Names
George E. Moore
Edwina Froehlich
Vo Van Kiet
Dino Risi
Randolph M. Chase, Jr.
Mustafa Khalil
Harlan Cleveland
Stewart R. Mott
Tim Russert

Friday, June 13, 2008

Unlucky Atheists

Atheists don’t actually believe in luck, but it’s possible that they can, in fact, be unlucky. Today being Friday the 13th, I thought I’d perform a service and list an appropriate number of ways that atheists could find themselves to be the victims of misfortune.

  1. Not voting for George W. Bush but having him be your president anyway and then the party you did vote for doesn’t have enough balls and/or scruples to impeach him.

  2. Living next-door to a hard-of-hearing family that enjoys Contemporary Christian music.

  3. Having a crush on an attractive coworker and taking months to summon up the courage to ask her out on a date and then the day you finally do feel confident enough to approach her she shows you her new “Jesus Saves” tattoo.

  4. Being so dimwitted that even though you can speak intelligently about the dangers to the food supply brought about by a combination of climate change, pollution, and corporate greed you still need Charlton Heston to clue you in that Soylent Green is people.

  5. Taking a home-study cartooning course in Holland and having as your first assignment: Draw a picture of Mohammed with a bomb on his head.

  6. Hearing your atheist wife telling an old friend of hers that she thinks your marriage has been successful because the two of you are both Capricorns.

  7. Tuning into a TV program announced in your local newspaper as “Richard Dawkins hosts a discussion on the evolutionary development of family morality,” but actually the editors didn’t catch a minor typo in a blurb that really should have said, “Richard Dawson hosts Family Feud.”

  8. Being awakened early on a Sunday morning by a knock on your door and gearing up for a fun confrontation but it’s just a Jehovah’s Witness who wants to let you know that your car is on fire.

  9. Inventing a great atheist game in which the object is to acquire as many areas of knowledge — science, history, math, philosophy, literature, etc — as possible and then build on your knowledge to make it even more effective but somebody points out that the rules are almost exactly the same as Monopoly.

  10. Having a priest ask you how atheists can claim to have any morals and then after you get all smug in preparation for a devastating answer it turns out that he’s the only Roman Catholic clergyman in the entire world who goes for grown-up women.

  11. Smiling sheepishly when asked to say grace at a family dinner, you finally reveal that you’re an atheist and everybody says, “Really? I’m an atheist, also!” but it’s still tuna casserole.

  12. Wearing your A T-shirt to an atheist convention at a big hotel and accidentally wandering into a suite where there’s a meeting of the Assholes Club.

  13. Getting into a blog argument with a Christian about the Problem of Evil and scoring dozens of “killer” points that leave him or her totally whipped and then you notice that you’ve been typing “evli” in all your comments.
Anyway, good luck, folks.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What Problem of Evil?

I can’t get anywhere near cut grass without sneezing. Perhaps because of that, I’ve developed an overly fine sense of smell when it comes to newly mown lawns. Their odor is strong and repulsive to me; it literally punches me in the nose. The scent of recently chopped blades is an entity to me: I experience it in the present, I can recall it from the past, and I can conjure it up in my brain as a dire prediction for the future. Often, it assails my nostrils when I merely look at a grassy field, when the smell isn’t even there. But it’s very real to me, a constant threat.

My wife, who is normally far more sensitive to aromas, both good and bad, than I am, gets little or no nasal stimulus from cut grass. When she actually does smell it, she finds it, at most, mildly pleasant.

I’ve tried arguing about that smell. I can call it repulsive, nauseating over and over, but she doesn’t get it. She can tell me that I’m imagining things again and again, but I know that my nostrils don’t lie. It’s just not normal for her not to share my difficulty with that blatant stink. Why can’t she acknowledge the truth? It's a terrible smell and it exists in and of itself.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to this corner of the Atheosphere, in which we’ve been spinning our wheels for about a week at SI’s blog over the Problem of Evil, specifically Epicurus’s series of questions:

Is god willing to prevent Evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh Evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him “God”?
It’s a very cute riddle, and loads of fun to trot out when having a discussion with theists who believe in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being. Question: Why does god wear evil? Answer: To keep his pants up.

In such arguments, atheists often label suffering as a subset of Evil, apparently to make the solution even more difficult. We call on theists to answer for natural disasters and illnesses as well as the wicked doings of fellow humans. How do they account for Hitler, Hurricane Katrina, malaria, the Bush administration, Earth-threatening comets, and the squirrels who keep eating the birdseed? Evil exists; hence, there's no god.

Of course, given the rhetorical nature of Epicurus’s epigram, there is no answer. Religionists are stumped. “God works in mysterious ways,” they’ll say. They try to weasel out of the difficulty by claiming that there can be no Evil, that everything is, ultimately, for the best in their deity’s plan, that Evil is actually Good, its opposite. Or they may posit that Evil is necessary to test humans’ faith, to give us lowly critters an opportunity to use our free will for the greater glory of their insecure, egomaniacal king of kings. Or, perhaps, Jesus is wrestling with Evil even as we speak, but he hasn’t beaten it yet.

The thing is: atheists don’t actually believe in a Platonic Form known as Evil. There are evil people, yes, but there’s no embodiment of that quality. Evil is not an entity in and of itself. In a world lacking a divine plan, suffering is morally neutral. Tsunamis, tornadoes, tuberculosis, drought, dry rot, and the dove who casually shits on your car — these things can’t be plotted on a morality graph; they’re neither good nor evil. They just are.

For an atheist to assume the premise that Evil does exist — even when he or she finds it a convenient tool for one-upping an ignorant Christian — is nonsense. There’s no such thing as capital E Evil. There’s no Problem of Evil because capital E Evil doesn’t exist, any more than capital G God exists.

In actuality, the smell of mown grass is neither revolting nor mildly pleasant; it just is. Because of my psycho-somatic reaction to that smell, it’s disgusting to me: Evil. I have a problem with it. For my wife, who accepts it as part of the natural world, the fragrance is there, but it doesn’t need to be weighed on a scale of morality.

I’m the one with the sickness, the one with the unreasonable reaction, the one obsessed. I’m the one who dreads that scent, who can call it into existence in my own mind whenever I want to make myself feel ill. I’m the one who insists that the smell is caused by the actions of my neighbors — or my own wife! The propagation of that noxious smell may or may not be part of their plan, but when they mow their yards, they spread the Evil.

My wife, wisely, doesn’t accept that premise. She refuses to argue whether the odor is either good or bad. She just tells me to shut up and blow my nose.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Socrates in the Atheosphere

[Note: Some historians have claimed that Socrates was born on June 4. Oddly enough, on his birthday, I discovered this unheard-of dialogue in an old jar of stuffed grape leaves I had sitting on my shelf.]

Socrates: Greetings, Evo. What brings you to the marketplace today?
Evo: My feet do Socrates.
Socrates: LOL, Evo. But, nay. I mean why do you come here?
Evo: It’s another day in paradise, my friend. The sun is shining, and so I thought to betake myself outdoors.
Socrates: I agree with you, Evo. The sun is indeed shining. But does it not also shine when there are clouds? Or does the sun cease to shine on such a day? Does the sun disappear when we cannot see it?
Evo: No, of course not. The sun never disappears.
Socrates: Then it always shines?
Evo: Yes, scientifically that is true.
Socrates: And yet, you make a distinction between a clear day on which the sun shines and a nasty day on which the sun shines. Is that not the case?
Evo: Well, maybe I should have said it was a beautiful day.
Socrates: And can you then, Evo, tell me what beauty is? How can I know that this day is a beautiful one? By what standards am I to judge?
Evo: I can tell you only my own standards, Socrates. Yours might be different.
Socrates: So are you saying that there is no way of judging beauty? Your idea of beauty is different from mine?
Evo: Well, of course, Socrates.
Socrates: I win this round, Evo.

* * *
But wait a moment. Who is that with you? It is Sigho, if I’m not mistaken.
: Yes, Socrates, it is indeed I. I’m glad I found you.
Socrates: I assume you have a question for me, then?
Sigho: I would like to change the look of my blog, Socrates. What do you recommend?
Socrates: You have tried Popeye already?
Sigho: Yes, Socrates. But I tired of him.
Socrates: And ghouls? Have you tried them?
Sigho: I did indeed, Socrates. Even before Popeye.
Socrates: And a naked woman?
Sigho: That’s what I have now, Socrates. A good-looking naked woman.
Socrates: And do good-looking naked women not please you, Sigho? For if they do not, there’s plenty of guy-on-guy action in the agora.
Sigho: I am sufficiently pleased by good-looking naked women.
Socrates: But you would like to get rid of this particular naked woman?
Sigho: Yes.
Socrates: Is she beautiful by your standards?
Sigho: I think so.
Socrates: Is she more or less beautiful than Evo’s day?
Sigho: I think she might make Evo’s day even more beautiful.
Socrates: And yet, you would remove this beautiful image?
Sigho: As I said, Socrates, I’m tired of it.
Socrates: So you are tired of beauty then?
Sigho: No, Socrates, not beauty in general. Just this particular beauty.
Socrates: And yet you would like your blog to look beautiful?
Sigho: Certainly.
Socrates: Before picking another beauty, would you consult with Evo to find out his standard?
Sigho: I might.
Socrates: And you know, don’t you, that Evo thinks a sunny day is beautiful?
Sigho: Yes.
Socrates: So should you not use the image of a sunny day on your blog?
Sigho: I had something else in mind.
Socrates: And what was that?
Sigho: I’m not sure.
Socrates: But it will be beautiful?
Sigho: To me.
Socrates: But you won’t know whether it’s beautiful to your readers, because everyone has a different standard of beauty. Is that right?
Sigho: What you say is so, Socrates.
Socrates: And yet, it is to attract readers that you’d have a beautiful image at all. Am I correct?
Sigho: Yes.
Socrates: And at least one of your readers has declared that he thinks a sunny day is beautiful?
Sigho: Evo has, yes.
Socrates: Well, I win that one, too.
* * *
But, look. That’s Phillitus, if my eyes deceive me not. I recognize the headdress and the red hair and the general oversized appearance.
Phillitus: Just so, Socrates. It is I.
Socrates: And you, Phillitus? For what reason have you come to this place?
Phillitus: Why, to seek you out, Socrates.
Socrates: Me?
Phillitus: Yes, Socrates. I was hoping you could answer a question I have. Why is it that when I barbecue chicken my team always loses?
Socrates: Do you have a particular chicken in mind?
Phillitus: No, Socrates. I mean any chicken.
Socrates: The idea of “chicken” then.
Phillitus: Exactly.
Socrates: But surely, Phillitus, you do not barbecue an idea. For that would not be sustenance enough for an ant.
Phillitus: No, Socrates, I barbecue particular chickens.
Socrates: And are these chickens beautiful?
Phillitus: Not to my standard of beauty, Socrates.
Socrates: And when you have barbecued these particular non-beautiful chickens, your team has lost?
Phillitus: Yes.
Socrates: But there may, may there not, be some beautiful chicken that you might barbecue which would not result in a loss by your team. Do you agree?
Phillitus: That has not been my experience with chickens, Socrates.
Socrates: Are you saying, then, that you have barbecued every single chicken there is?
Phillitus: Certainly not.
Socrates: Well, I would suggest that you try some beautiful chickens to see if your hypothesis stands.
Phillitus: But I don’t want my team to lose, Socrates.
Socrates: You don’t get what I’m saying, do you? Well, I win this round. Three points for me so far.
* * *
But, say. Who is that sourpuss skulking around in the distance? Can it be Owlas?
Owlas: Socrates, as you know, Obammas is running for the council.
Socrates: Yes, I’ve been told that.
Owlas: I do not want to vote for him. He speaks nonsense sometimes.
Socrates: What kind of nonsense.
Owlas: Why, religious nonsense, Socrates.
Socrates: Then why not vote for his opponent.
Owlas: I believe his opponent speaks even more nonsense, which is not merely religious in nature.
Socrates: So, according to you, both Obammas and his opponent speak nonsense, but Obammas less so. And only in one area.
Owlas: Yes. But it’s still too much nonsense for me.
Socrates: Are either of the candidates beautiful?
Owlas: I do not vote on the basis of beauty, Socrates.
Socrates: But you must make a choice for the good of Athens, mustn’t you?
Owlas: I shall vote for myself.
Socrates: And by doing so, you hope to win?
Owlas: No, Socrates, my vote will be a protest against two poor choices.
Socrates: Will anyone know that you have protested?
Owlas: I, myself, will know that I have protested.
Socrates: And your protest which only you will know about, is that sufficient to get your message across?
Owlas: I sincerely doubt it, Socrates. But I refuse to put up with nonsense. I think if enough people knew my position, they would, indeed, vote for me.
Socrates: Are you beautiful?
Owlas: I don’t believe so, Socrates.
Socrates: Assuming that you are not beautiful, what kind of barbecue does your team prefer?
Owlas: I don’t have a team, Socrates. I don’t follow sports.
Socrates: If you did follow sports, what kind of barbecue do you think your team would prefer?
Owlas: I have no opinion about that, Socrates. I don’t usually eat barbecue.
Socrates: Well, if you did follow sports, and if you did eat barbecue, what kind of barbecue do you think your team would prefer?
Owlas: I can’t say, Socrates. I lack knowledge of teams and I lack knowledge of barbecue.
Socrates: So white male workers are not likely to vote for you, are they Owlas?
Owlas: Probably not.
Socrates: That’s another point for me, wouldn’t you say?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

In One's Own Words

Anyone who reads this blog regularly is aware of my frequent commenters, all of whom I’d like to think are friends — not just of mine, but, for the most part, of one another’s. Yet, we argue about ideas all the time. We do it in our blog posts, in our comments, in our emails to one another. Some of us do it weekly on Another Goddamned Podcast (shameless plug), or even on the telephone. In fact, I can’t think of any two atheists I know, in the Atheosphere or in real life, who haven’t disagreed with each other about philosophy at least once.

Interestingly, though, we all employ the same simple skill when arguing for our particular views: We state our positions in our own words.

Now, this should not be a remarkable situation. Every state in the union has educational standards for its public school students requiring that kids as young as 3rd-graders be able to paraphrase and/or summarize written and heard material in their own words. Being able to restate concepts, facts, and details in your own words shows that you actually understand what you’re talking about. On the other hand, not being able to put someone else’s thought into your own words shows that you really don’t get it.

An interesting phenomenon that comes up again and again, over and over, on the Web and in the world, is the incapability of many Christians to say, plainly, clearly, and in their own words exactly what they believe about this or that. To be absolutely fair, I’ll assert right here that I’m not talking about all Christians. I’m not even comfortable saying that my observation applies to most Christians, although I think it does. But it certainly fits many Christians that I’ve come across. When pinned down, they just can’t articulate their beliefs.

Their inability is indicative of an intellectual emptiness in the religious world view. The thin ice upon which religious beliefs are built will crack when put under the weight of any extra words needed to clarify them. So theists, unable or unwilling to add to the load (of whatever you choose to call it) retreat into using those words that are already available to them, i.e., quotations from the bible and citations of religious “thinkers” throughout history.

Most believers have never been challenged to explain in their own words how their faith works and what it means. I’m not talking about meaning in the emotional sense, as in “what it means to me.” I’m talking about meaning in the pure dictionary sense: Explain this idea, define it, describe it in your own words.

By and large, they can’t do it. Take away their ability to parrot phrases from the bible and other “authorities,” and they’re left speechless. They retreat hastily from a conversation or debate whenever they’re put on the spot to dig into their store of language and find their own words to elucidate what they “know.”

It’s not unreasonable to infer that those who can’t explain what they claim to know, actually know nothing.