Thinking Thoughts About Gods and Science in Other Venues

I recently wrote a couple of brief op-ed for the website Atheist Republic, an online community for folks inclined toward secular thinking.

I figured I would link to them below. Follow the links for the full text.

Religious Belief is Hard Work 

Religious belief stands in belligerent indifference to information about what the world is like. It persists in spite of nature, not because of it. The scales started to fall from eyes as I developed a deeper and more expansive understanding of science. In a panicked state of youthful naivety, I tried to justify my religious beliefs despite the fact that they were contradicted by many of the more elegant and substantive truths derived from science. It was an exhausting struggle.

Aspirational Atheism

…an embrace of reason need not stop at recognition of and resistance to the harms of superstitious belief. It can also inform our sense of what we want for ourselves and our fellow humans. Reason leads us to reject religion, but it also leads us to recognize our shared humanity. It leads to the eradication of disease and the recognition of individual human rights. Embracing reason is the groundwork for unleashing human potential and building a world increasingly amenable to the business of human thriving.

Reign of Terror Redux: Why History Seems to (But Never Really Does) Repeat Itself

Prise_de_la_Bastille

Jean-Pierre Houel’s depiction of the Storming of the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution

I’ve been reading James MacGregor Burns’ book Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World. It’s a fantastic book, one I’d recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in world history, politics, or modern philosophy. Really, it should probably be mandatory reading for anyone interested in U.S. history, especially the period of political tumult and intellectual fervor that characterized the nation’s nascence.  Last night, in reading a chapter on the British response to the (seemingly) dumbfounding success of the American Revolution and the unease sparked by the developing Terror across the channel in revolutionary France, a largely tangential thought occurred to me. Or, more accurately, recurred to me, because it’s an old question: why do certain historical events, separated by sprawling chasms of space and time, bear such striking resemblance to one another? That causal theories of history tread hazardous ground is widely recognized, but speculation concerning why history is populated with remarkably similar events provides fodder for some entertaining intellectual masturbation. In precisely that spirit, I’ve decided to spill some energy bouncing a very simple idea across the digital aether: certain historical events look, if not like twins, then like distant cousins, because they are product of the simple fact that humans tend to do similar things in similar circumstances. That is, that the behavioral repertoire of humans is sufficiently circumscribed that certain responses to vaguely similar triggering events are bound to recur on a long enough time frame.

History does not repeat itself – at least not in any literal or precise sense. Nevertheless, the parallels between events culminated from disparate causes and separated by decades, centuries, or millennia of intervening history are sometimes striking enough that one can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. What these similarities reveal is not the mechanistic internal workings of human affairs, but what might be referred to as the conditional regularity of human behavior. Similar circumstances unsurprisingly engender similar responses.

Consider, for purposes of illustration, the repeated instances of governments wielding the looming specter of external events to justify the suppression of internal dissidents. In the late 18th century, the ruling parties of Britain used the anxieties provoked by the French revolutionary Terror to silence opponents, curtailing subversive speech and prohibiting large public meetings. Revolutionary or critical voices as were denounced as “Jacobins”. In the middle 20th century, American conservatives – under the leadership of the reprehensible would-be autocrat Joseph McCarthy – likewise invoked the threat of communism to justify their campaign to seek out and harass potential political opponents. More recently, U.S. congressmen across the political spectrum invoked the threat of terrorism – primarily of the Islamic, or “foreign”, variety – to legitimize efforts to roll back constitutionally enshrined rights to speech and privacy, exculpating themselves  from sins against the very essence of American democracy on the grounds that such actions guard against greater threats to life and property.

Octobre_1793,_supplice_de_9_émigrés

Sketch of executions during the Reign of Terror.

red-menace-is-real

One school of thought holds that these events result from the intrinsically exploitative and nefarious nature of authority, that there are only so many ways leaders can exploit external threats and public fear to further hidden agendas. This may be true in a limited sense – there are undoubtedly leaders who harness and abuse public sentiment to satisfy veiled motives. Indeed, it is very difficult to explain the second Iraq war (2003-2011) without invoking precisely this type of reasoning. But the more general truth underlying the regularities apparent in distinct historical events relates to something more rudimentary. What the aforementioned explanation gets right is that these events are not produced by the ceaseless revolutions of the cogs of history. Any impression that history is somehow cyclical is purely illusory. On a deeper level – though certainly less satisfying to one’s internal, oft irrepressible conspiracy theorist – the apparent repetitiousness of history is simply a byproduct of the fact that all history is the product of the behavior of the same animal. More precisely, history is the product of interactions – on a variety of scales – carried out among a species of highly gregarious primates, variously inclined toward cooperation and conflict, and uniquely capable of transmitting large stores of extra-genetic information across generations via language.

The British response to the French Revolution, communist witch hunts during the Red Scare of the 1950s, the Patriot Act and domestic spying – these events illustrate a more basic human tendency to get whipped up into a panic of frenzied ignorance and overreact to distant threats. Or, more precisely, to overreact to the imaginary bridges we construct between distant threats and our own best interests. One need invoke no conspiracy to uncover the connective tissue between these examples. All that is required is the recognition that some humans, gifted with a particularly sharp eye for downstream threats (both real and imagined), are hawkish, eager to protect the status quo, and preserve traditional ways of life. This behavior is certainly self-interested, and to that extent it lines up with the instincts of the conspiracy theorist. But, cynical as it seems, very little human behavior can’t be reduced to self-interest on some level. The larger point is that some folks are imbued with certain inclinations. In these examples, men and women inclined toward reactionary defenses of the way things have always been left their mark on history.

Of course, the particular causes of any historical event are highly contingent. The specific roots of the British response to the French Terror and McCarthy era communist witch hunts are entirely distinct. They represent individual manifestations of basic human tendencies triggered by unique and disparate events. In this view, it makes little sense to explain the British response to the terror, communist witch hunts, or trembling despotic impulses behind the Patriot Act and “War on Terror” by pointing to human nature. Surely these things are the product of human nature, but a comprehensive understanding of any of them won’t be achieved through this kind of reductionism. However, there is insight to be gained from studying their commonalities. Here, the answer is deceptively simple. One need invoke no cosmic force, driving human affairs to endlessly perpetuate the same trends. More elegantly, one need only look to the relatively unremarkable fact that all history is the product of the behavior of one species of primate. We like to flatter ourselves with illusions of infinite plasticity, most recently rooted in the Lockean fable of the blank slate. Yet a wealth of evidence suggests that, despite the massive, perpetually expanding body of cumulative cultural information that makes modernity look so distinct from antiquity, the habits of instinct are difficult to escape.

History doesn’t repeat itself. But given the right circumstances, humans often do.

Locusts: The Spreading Plague of Liberal Censorship

2013-10-21-webcensorship

An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.

Oscar Wilde

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

Salman Rushdie

If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.

Noam Chomsky

I’ve been told repeatedly never to open a piece with a quotation. Having digested that advice, I’ve gone ahead and opened this piece with three. Never mind that the list of quoted individuals includes a hedonistic and lecherous Irishman, a staunch opponent of the increasingly abused and perpetually misunderstood concept of cultural relativism, and a radical pinko intellectual. The more pressing fact is that they all have a point. Unfortunately, this is a point that a growing segment of purportedly progressive academics seem to have missed. A disconcerting wave of liberal censorship is flourishing on college campuses across the United States. That this censorship is advanced in the name of progressive values is, quite frankly, offensive. It is probably reasonable to assume that the most passionate advocates of moves to institute the use of “trigger warnings” when potentially uncomfortable subjects are under discussion, establish “safe spaces” where people who voice culturally insensitive perspectives are derided and shunned, and prohibit controversial speakers from speaking at university events, have laudable motivations rooted in a sincere concern over the comfort and psychological well-being of other. But the ground they tread is incredibly dangerous, fraught with all the trappings of incipient autocracy.

The problems with this trend are myriad and I have written about them elsewhere. To begin with, there are no universal criteria for defining what does and does not count as offensive or threatening speech. It is rooted entirely in the subjective experience of the listener, and only loosely bound by the communicative intent of the speaker. As a result, the realm of what counts as a subject worthy of “trigger warnings” or exclusion from a “safe space” is potentially infinite. As Wendy Kaminer put it:

This reliance on subjectivity, in the interest of equality, is a recipe for arbitrary, discriminatory enforcement practices, with far-reaching effects on individual liberty. The tendency to take subjective allegations of victimization at face value — instrumental in contemporary censorship campaigns — also leads to the presumption of guilt and disregard for due process in the progressive approach to alleged sexual assaults on campus.

This is a dangerously misguided approach to justice. “Feeling realities” belong in a therapist’s office. Incorporated into laws and regulations, they lead to the soft authoritarianism that now governs many American campuses. Instead of advancing equality, it’s teaching future generations of leaders the “virtues” of autocracy.

More fundamentally, the very notion that people have a right not to be offended should be anathema to anyone sympathetic to the intellectual traditions at the heart of the American Experiment. Take for example the bloviating walrus Rush Limbaugh, who makes millions of dollars by spewing abominable invective across the a.m. airwaves. The man is a fount of vile opinions, nurtured on ignorance and paranoia. But anyone who truly endorses the values expressed in the founding documents of the U.S. constitution should, at the very least, be willing to tolerate his right to express his views.

On a still more elementary level, the idea of censoring views should be appalling to anyone who cherishes the sense of intellectual freedom at the core of the Enlightenment. The freedom to express opinions, however repugnant, is crucial to the growth of knowledge and the cultivation of social progress. The proponents of the modern wave of liberal censorship seem to have conflated silencing bigots with the eradication of bigotry. This, I suspect, is not the most effective tactic to employ in combating the more regressive elements of modern society. It has also revealed itself to be an entirely non-metaphorical slippery-slope, as some students have taken to protesting more than objective expressions of bigotry. Following the expression of some accurate (if less-than eloquently phrased) opinions on modern Islam, students at UC Berkely petitioned to rescind a invitation for comedian Bill Maher to speak at the Fall 2014 commencement Ceremony. The petition read:

The students at the University of California at Berkeley represent a diverse array of students from all walks of life. Every semester a commencement speaker is given the privilege of inspiring a class of talented and capable students. This year, UC Berkeley has chosen to invite Bill Maher to speak. Bill Maher has made comments thata are blantantly bigoted and racist and has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment. Bill Maher’s public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities. Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities. It is the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility. Sign this petition to boycott the decision to invite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker at the U.C. Berkeley Fall 2014 Commencement Ceremony.

Pure nonsense, of course. And also, in its quivering and fervent expression of coddled entitlement, entirely reprehensible. This kind of clumsy, rule-of-thumb invocation of the principle of cultural relativism is indicative of a shallow understanding of the way the world actually works and a pitiful unwillingness to live in the world as it actually is. The views expressed in this petition are not those espoused by people with an enlightened sense of sensitivity. They are the opinions of first-world brats who – to borrow of phrase from Hunter S. Thompson – don’t have the ingredients to “live out where the real wind blows.” University campuses are designed to be places where students are confronted with ideas that make them feel uncomfortable, not biological preserves for milquetoast hipsters and liberal arts students who have somehow come up with the bizarre notion that the world is not a dangerous place and that life therein isn’t hard. If you get through college without running into views that offend you, that make you question long-held preconceptions, and get out into the world with the poisonous notion that everyone’s views are equally valid and that you have a right not to be offended, you should ask for your money back. Everyone has a right to express their views. The unfortunate fact that many of these views turn out to be unsubstantiated garbage or steeped in  prejudice, ignorance, and/or hatred doesn’t change that. Trigger warnings aren’t a path to a civil environment wherein no one says anything hurtful. They are a path to a monochrome and tedious world wherein no one says anything interesting.