2010: FTSOS in review, July to September

This is the third installment of the 2010 review of FTSOS. See the first two here and here.

Some of the smaller posts I’ve made that I think deserve a little more attention are the ones where I emphasize that biology is all about shape. The article I wrote about the fight against HIV is one of those posts. Research earlier this year found at least one location on HIV molecules that remains a consistent shape between individual viruses. This is important because HIV’s ability to be differently shaped in different parts of a single body makes it difficult to combat.

I also wrote about the difference between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. One of the public relation problems for atheism is that it is viewed as a dirty word. People assume it means absolute certainty, and that is seen as arrogant. It’s ironic because belief in God usually comes with certainty and that isn’t seen as being so arrogant, but I digress. Atheism is not certainty. Furthermore, where it is involved in new atheism and anti-theism, atheism acts as a descriptive base; new atheism and anti-theism are normative positions.

One of my all-time favorite posts is the one about photolyase and cancer. Photolyase is a protein that captures light and uses two of its constituents (a single proton and single electron) to force contorted nucleotides back into place. It is not present in humans, but is common in plants and other animals, helping to keep their genes functioning properly. This may be one reason we’re more susceptible to cancer than many of our fellow organisms.

This was a skimpy month for FTSOS. I was away on a couple vacations for the bulk of the month, so the majority of the posts were either from my “Thought of the day” series or they were pictures/YouTube videos. But for what was there, I couldn’t resist pointing out and expanding on a fantastic quote from the judge who said Prop 8 in California is unconstitutional. In his quote he said a ban on gays getting married fails to advance any rational cause. I compared that sentiment to the idea that the majority cannot be allowed to discriminate simply because it is the majority.

I also made a post about a website devoted to philosophical thought experiments. The thought experiment I chose to highlight was Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Trolley Problem. My big motivator was a recent discussion with another blogger who laughably claimed that the trolley experiment was merely a logistical exercise, not an exercise about morality. To date he is still the only person in the world to believe that.

I also went through a few theistic arguments that are obviously failures. The most notable in my mind is the argument that says everything has a cause, therefore the Universe had a cause. There are two major problems with this. First, then why not just say a sort of ‘exo-nature’ caused the Universe? There is no need for consciousness – in fact, that only makes the theistic argument less probable. Second, the whole basis for this argument rests in the idea that forces result in reactions. For instance, if I push a chair, that chair moves; I applied a force. This is basic physics. But the whole shebang of forces and equal and opposite reactions? We’re talking about the science of what we know that happens within the Universe. And all we know necessarily breaks down prior to the Big Bang. The First Cause argument cannot be used because it rests about an unwarranted extension of science. Religion abusing science? Crazy, I know.

The beginning of September was just as skimpy as the end of August because I was still on vacation. But while I never gave a huge post on the subject, the defining moment of the month (and year and decade and…) for me was my hike of Kilimanjaro. I have started writing about it at this point – just not for FTSOS. But in lieu of that you can read the account of the journey from my fellow group member and current Facebook buddy Jim Hodgson.

I also gave a very lengthy post on why prostitution ought to be legal. No one seemed to care, but I put a lot of effort into, so I thought I would mention it here. Basically, we make the practice illegal because of our own discomfort with sex as a society. We also draw false correlations between it and other illegal activities: of course one illegal thing will bring with it other illegal things if it’s something people want. Finally, for the safety and health of all involved, it would be better to legalize and regulate prostitution than keep the old system we have now.

One of the most popular posts on FTSOS that people found via search engines was the one where I lamented low science and math scores in the United States. A lack of funding relative to other areas, hostility towards science, and a general anti-intellectual trend in the U.S. all contribute to the decline of America on the world stage in education.

Another lament was my post about the anti-vax crowd causing deaths. The fact is, people who advocate against vaccines or for made-up alternatives to vaccines are making the world a more dangerous place, making people sick and even causing deaths. Get vaccinated – and, if you have them, especially get your children vaccinated.

Once again I really want to highlight a fourth post here. In this case, it is the one I made about the Problem of Evil. This has forever been an issue that no Christian (or other relevant believer) has been able to resolve. If God is good and evil exists, then we need to answer why. Appealing to free will fails because while God is necessarily good, free will does not need to necessarily exist. In other words, God is required to be good; he is not required to create free will.

Expect October to December tomorrow.

Atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists

There’s confusion afoot. A lot of people aren’t sure what the difference is between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. Thank Zeus I’m here to clarify everything.

An atheist is someone without theism. This applies to those who actively reject all theologies but it can also apply to those ignorant of all theologies. The former point is clear enough (and includes deists), but the latter point begs for expansion.

Someone who is ignorant of all theologies is a bit of a rarity in one sense but then ever so common – in fact, they become commoner every day. In the first sense, few adults are without any form of theism. Anyone who amalgamates belief in a creator with normative statements has some theism. For instance, if someone says there is a creator of the Universe and that creator has commanded that people ought to act, behave, or believe in a particular way, that is a form of theism. (It isn’t necessary that an organized religion be the basis, but it does happen that even those who reject all religion tend to incorporate pieces of predominant cultural religious beliefs in their own personal theism.) On the other hand, someone who is a pure deist does not incorporate any statements of value into his belief (‘An entity started the Universe and that is it’) and is therefore an atheist, though connotations cause us to hesitate to such a label for a deist.

In the second sense, a baby is an atheist. This point draws the ire of a lot of theists who desire ever so deeply to incorrectly label their children things like “a Catholic child” or “a Baptist boy”, but this is part of the confusion. Remember, an atheist is simply someone without theism. A baby has no concept of God, except maybe in the sense that mommy and daddy are all-knowing and all-powerful. Until the child develops the ability to comprehend values, no theism can be said to exist.

A consequence of this definition is that all non-human things can be said to be atheists. A rock, a tree, speakers, spaghetti, metal, waterfalls. They’re all without theism. This is utterly correct, even if generally useless. Definitions are not required to acquiesce to popular connotations. A possibly helpful, if complicating, distinction can be made with the terms active atheism and passive atheism. An active atheist is aware of theologies, but rejects them. A passive atheist has no idea of any theology. An adult atheist would be an active atheist while a baby, tree, or spaghetti would be a passive atheist.

A new atheist is someone who rejects the existence of all gods, takes a strong stance against religion, and utilizes a strong tone. It originated in 2006 as a result of books written by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger. It does not refer to the novelty of any particular arguments, but rather the type of presentation of arguments. All the listed authors criticize religion, invariably making the statement or implication that religion is bad. This is a normative statement and it offers insight to a key difference between atheists and new atheists.

New atheists make value statements. Atheism is a descriptive position. To take a recent post, “Many people think bugs are gross” is descriptive. No judgement on the grossness or non-grossness of bugs has been passed. All that has been said is a statement of what many people think. On the other hand, “Bugs are gross” is a normative statement because it passes judgement on bugs. (It is necessary to qualify that atheism is “mostly” a descriptive position because this applies to active atheism. Passive atheism is a lack of description but gives the same result.)

New atheists aren’t merely rejecting the existence of all gods; they’re also saying religion, especially its component of faith, is bad. They’re saying something more about religion than that it isn’t true. They’re saying it’s a negative force in the world and we ought to find better alternatives such as reason, rationality, and science. Atheism, passive or active, does not make any of these claims.

An anti-theist is similar to a new atheist. Normative claims are made and belief in God is rejected. There are essential differences, however. One is that an active crusade against faith is not necessarily encouraged. Whereas a new atheist is considered out-spoken, an anti-theist may be as quiet as a mouse. In addition to this, tone is also not an inherent point. An anti-theist may take a gentle approach, offering respect towards religion and faith. New atheism, on the other hand, is partially defined by the vigor and forthrightness of its tone, as especially exemplified by the argument that says most religious claims have not earned anyone’s respect. In other words, new atheism is somewhat of a strategy (though that strategy is largely defined externally rather than internally by those who bear the label) while anti-theism may encompass a wide swath of individuals who believe in a wide swath of different ways to best attack the veracity of religion; new atheism takes one general path towards beating back religion (though it does not adhere solely to any individual path) while anti-theism makes no inherent claims of best strategy or approach.