Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Volokh's Error: Hate Crimes Legislation

In “The Perils of Hate Crimes Laws” and “The Schmulevich Case—Facts and New York Law, As I Can Best Figure Them Out”, Eugene Volokh gives us a tour of the slippery slope fallacy and a host of legal inaccuracies.

Volokh’s Huffington Post blog gives a brief, inaccurate introduction to the Schmulevich case followed by “hypotheticals that strike [him] as legally analogous to the Shmulevich prosecution.” His more detailed post on the Schmulevich case at The Volokh Conspiracy unfortunately twists reason and the standard interpretations of the law as they are generally applied.

A few too many commenters delve into Mr. Volokh’s motives rather than addressing his arguments, a logical fallacy which I’ll seek to avoid. However, I would like to note, in defense of Mr. Volokh, that I believe it is his misunderstanding of the law that leads to his slippery slope argument not any ulterior motives he may harbor. Because I believe that one follows the other, I’ll begin with the problems with Mr. Volokh’s legal arguments. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll annotate any quotes from The Volokh Conspiracy piece as VC and the ones from The Huffington Post piece as HP.)

Mr. Volokh’s first problem is that he misunderstands how the law would determine whom would be considered the victim or victims of the crime involved.

“But it's pretty clear that Shmulevich isn't guilty under this provision, because his victim was Pace University, which he didn't choose because of its religious affiliation.” (VC)

Is Pace University the sole victim of the crime? Mr. Volokh’s mistake seems to be in assuming that the victim in a property crime is solely the legal owner of said property. This is not the case. In Mr. Volokh’s defense, this is an easy mistake to make. (In most law books, judicial interpretations and definitions of terms involved in a particular statute may be located in a separate part of the section or code.)

In most legal interpretations, the victim in a property crime can be the legal owner, the person who leases the property, or the person for whom the property is set aside for use. For example, if the KKK vandalizes the home of an African-American family, the family members are considered the victims of that crime even if they’re only leasing the home. In the case of the Schmulevich case, since the “meditation room” was set aside for student use and the Koran was specifically provided for the use of Muslim students, the University’s Muslim students can be considered victims of the crime in conjunction with Pace.

“And there's no damage to premises primarily used for religious purposes, since ‘premises’ means a place (see, e.g., Black's Law Dictionary); the damage here was to a religious book, not a religious premises.” (VC)

Although the basic definition of premises is in fact “a place,” for legal purposes, the term premises can also include a building’s furnishings and contents, especially if those furnishings and contents are directly related to the building’s purpose. In the current case, the Koran would be considered contents directly related to the purpose of the meditation room, so that “damage to religious premises” would apply.

As for the harassment charges, which may or may not be pending against Mr. Schmulevich, we can apply the reasonable person standard. (I’ll note that we’re missing quite a bit of information here, so accuracy is not possible.) Would a reasonable person feel threatened or harassed by Mr. Schmulevich’s actions? We don’t know the contents of the argument or what events provoked it; however, considering that the events in question took place during a string of bias-related incidents on campus and considering that these are Muslim students in post-9/11 America, we can assume that a reasonable person could deem the events to be threatening or harassing.

These misunderstandings lead to Mr. Volokh proposing a variety of hypothetical cases (HP for all) that he believes could be prosecuted under hate crimes laws. Since none of these cases meets the standards set forth in hate crimes laws nor do they logically follow from reasonable interpretation of those laws, the argument falls under the slippery slope fallacy.

For instance, in the hypothetical flag burning case, the victim can only be considered the owner of the flag since there is no one leasing the flag nor is it set aside for anyone else’s use. Unless Mr. Eichman burns the flag specifically as an attack on the owner due to his beliefs with the intent to intimidate him or her, it cannot fall under hate crimes legislation. If Mr. Eichman went on the property of a veteran and set fire to his flag to send a threatening message to veterans, it could be a hate crime.

As for the cross case, we can assume the cross display is the property of the artist. The owner of the public housing project (the state) cannot be considered a victim of a hate crime. The residents may be considered the victims of a hate crime if the display reasonably constitutes vandalism and/or an act of intimidation (such as a Klan cross-burning or a swastika erected in a housing project filled with Holocaust survivors). If the display doesn’t rise to the level of vandalism and the artist’s intent is at worse to offend rather than harass or intimidate, it would not be a hate crime. Trespassing on state-owned property would be related to the hate crime but cannot constitute a hate crime in and of itself.

This last part applies to the minister case as well. Trespassing alone cannot be considered a hate crime. Harassment and intimidation, if they are also involved, could be considered a hate crime. For the minister’s behavior to rise to the level of hate crime, he would not only have to refuse to leave, he would have to harass or intimidate the Episcopal Church leader because of his views or sexual orientation. It’s highly unlikely that merely remaining on the property against the wishes of the owner after being invited in would be deemed a hate crime.

The final hypothetical requires us to consider what might happen if the current laws are extended to the point of absurdity and thus constitutes a slippery slope argument in and of itself.

“Such additional punishment is not, it seems to me, primarily punishment for the crime (since that would have been covered by the unenhanced punishment), or even for the discriminatory selection of a crime's target. Rather, it is punishment for the ideology that motivated the crime.” (HP)

“But it doesn't necessarily follow that the law should be free to increase the punishment not just because the criminal was discriminating in choice of victims, but because the criminal was hostile to some other person based on that person's religion, religious practice, sexual orientation, or race -- which often means that the criminal simply disapproved of some group, even when the target of the crime was not discriminatorily chosen.” (HP)

I can see how Mr. Volokh would believe that based on his misunderstanding of the law and how it applies to Mr. Schmulevich’s actions. However, with the law as it now stands and the relevant situation as it is interpreted under that law, this is not the case.

As many of the commenters point out, hate crimes laws are similar to many other laws that classify particular acts as more or less egregious due to motive or intent. Hate crimes laws are not intended to punish an ideology any more than laws that consider “crimes of passion” separately are intended to punish jealousy.

As Mr. Schmulevich has not yet been tried and the full evidence is not available, we cannot determine his guilt or innocence. However, the evidence as it is known supports a hate crimes prosecution. The targets of the alleged crime were the Muslim students of Pace, who were selected based on their religion and could reasonably interpret the events as a threat against their community.

“For more on the growing movement to specially punish speech that is blasphemous or otherwise offensive based on religion…” (HP)

Considering all of the above, the current situation does not “specially punish speech that is blasphemous or otherwise offensive based on religion.” If it were, that would be a violation of freedom of speech.

UPDATE: Foolish me. I wrote this not thinking about the fact that Mr. Volokh is a law professor. (I'll have to accept the egg on my face for that.) I gave Mr. Volokh the benefit of the doubt on motive and assumed he simply didn't get the particulars of the law as they applied. Taking into account his legal background, I wonder if a.) this isn't his area of practice, b.) he's really not that good at what he does or c.)he's intentionally distorting the legal facts in favor of his ideological stance. None of these things have anything to do with the quality of his arguments, which are poorly constructed and completely unbecoming someone of Mr. Volokh's stature. Just one of those things that make you go Hmmmmmmmm...

UPDATE2: I've been trying to find a web source for the extended definition of premises as it applies here with no luck. I've seen the broader definition used in the legal codes/opinions that I use for the day job, but finding this application when you're looking for it, especially one that you can link too is a bit frustrating. I unfortunately don't have a registration to some of the legal sites where this info could be found via a simple search.

However, consider this: If "premises" is defined too narrowly, a neo-Nazi group could enter a synagogue and destroy the pews, free-standing altar, candelabra, Torah scrolls, etc. and not be responsible for damaging the premises if the building itself is undamaged. Doesn't make sense, does it?

UPDATE 3: Christopher Hitchens has chimed in over at Slate. I wonder how "defenders of reason" like Hitchens can avoid the cognitive dissonance inevitably produced by writing irrational polemical screeds that distort the facts to fit their ideological agenda? Intriguing.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I'm Really Not Being Lazy

My apologies for the delay in posting. It's been a rough week. I'll be back on the ball as soon as possible.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, Part III

Back to Mr. Harris and his distinct problems with fact and logic.

On pp 43-45, Mr. Harris cites some overhyped statistics from studies of religiosity and social health that purport to show that the most religious nations are less "healthy" than the least religious and compare the U.S. to other nations in the developed world.

Although he admits that the correlations do not imply causation, (that religion doesn't necessarily cause social problems) Harris ignores the fact that there are substantial political, economic, historical and cultural differences between the countries being compared. For instance, some of the most religious countries have only recently emerged from decades or even centuries of colonialism. Also, the U.S. is an almost purely capitalist country whereas countries in Europe are predominantly social democracies.

Mr. Harris similarly ignores the difficult of measuring religiosity cross-culturally since the term has significantly different connotations from one society to the next. Unless we can control for all other factors so that religion is the only distinction between the societies being measured and control for the differing cultural interpretations of the word religious, these superficial correlations are meaningless.

Mr. Harris also makes the dreaded mistake of contrasting atheism with religiosity, where countries with low levels of religiosity are assumed to have high levels of atheism, leading to the conclusion that "these statistics prove that atheism is compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society."(p45)

Although I agree that atheism is compatible with civil society, Mr. Harris' reasoning on the matter is deeply flawed for a number of reasons. 1.) Atheism is the opposite of theism, not religion. 2.) There are atheistic religions like Jainism and Buddhism. 3.) There are many theists who reject organized religion and therefore do not consider themselves "religious." 4.) Only a very small percentage of people in the countries being compared actively identify as atheists. 5.) Studies of religious identification show that "nonreligious" and atheist are two completely different things. For example, while the UK is deemed far less religious than the U.S., 71% of the UK's population identifies as Christian compared with 77% of the U.S. population. The differences are not as significant as Mr. Harris would have us believe.

"The dubious link between Christian literalism and Christian values is belied by other indices of social equality. Consider the ratio of salaries paid to top-tier CEO's and those paid to the firms' average employees: in Britain it is 24:1; in France, 15:1; in Sweden, 13:1; in the United States, where 80 percent of the population expects to be called before G-d on Judgment Day, it is 475:1. Many a camel, it would seem, expects to pass through the eye of a needle." (p46)

In three sentences, Mr. Harris manages to get so much wrong that it will take quite a bit more than three sentences to set it right again.

First, Christian literalists are a very small minority in America. "According to a recent study, among the 15% of U. S. citizens that are evangelical Protestants, only 47.8% believe that the Bible is literally true, and 6.5% believe that the Bible is an ancient book full of history and legends. Only about 11% of Catholics and mainline Protestants believe the Bible is literally true..." (Wikipedia) Doing some rough math based on the 77% of Americans who identify as Christian, this would mean that about 12.8% of Americans are Christian literalists, hardly enough to assume that American economic policy is determined by Christian literalism.

As for the four countries mentioned, these countries represent a spectrum of economic beliefs from the U.S. (the most capitalistic) to Britain to France to Sweden (the most socialistic). Is it likely that the ratio of CEO pay to that of the average worker may have something to do with these economic differences? Highly likely.

In fact, the change in the CEO pay ratio in the United States can be traced not to any religious factor but to the emergence of "free agency" for CEO's, who were previously chosen from within companies. As in sports, "free agency" for CEO's brought about a winner-take-all market and drastically increased the pay difference not only between the CEO and average worker but also between the CEO and lesser executives, who are still predominantly chosen from within. (I highly recommend The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook for anyone wishing to understand how these markets emerge and what they mean.)

Finally, I'll refer you to this chart provided by the University of Michigan, which shows the linear relationship between wealth and religiosity in the United States. Note that religiosity declines with increases in wealth. Therefore, it is safe to assume that those who make our nation's economic decisions (including CEO pay and the creation and management of winner-take-all markets) are the least religious amongst us.

"Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm 'of biblical proportions' would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Religion offered no basis for a response at all." (p53)

As someone who fled my home in New Orleans a mere 24 hours before Katrina, I'm personally offended by Harris' cynical manipulation of this event to make his crass little points. But I'll set that aside to deal with the facts.

The destruction of New Orleans had little to do with an "act of G-d" and everything to do with a failure of "science." If the levees (which were not designed by the Christian Church) had not failed, the city would have taken minimal damage, few if any people would have died, and I'd be at Cafe Du Monde right now having beignets with my friends. If it were not for the failures of "science" that led to shipping channels and oil platforms destroying the wetlands, New Orleans would have had a substantial land barrier between it and the Gulf and New Orleans would not have been destroyed.

No, religion couldn't have predicted the hurricane, but neither did science protect us from it. In fact, the opposite is true. Science not only left us completely unprotected, it ensured the destruction of our fair city. That science can now assess its own failures does not change that fact.

As for religion offering no basis for a response, I would point out the millions of religious Americans and dozens of religious organizations that provided assistance to those fleeing the city, helped to evacuate people stuck in the city, and helped Katrina refugees rebuild our lives. I'll also point out the resounding religious condemnation of the American government for failing to act as religious values demand. It seems to me that the government's response has also been deemed inept by by the light of religion.

"It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving G-d, while this same G-d drowned infants in their cribs. Once you stop swaddling the reality of the world's suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones just how precious life is--and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all." (p54)

I think it's about time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of a man who can pretend to be the arbiter of reality and reason while writing a polemical screed filled with factual and logical errors; a man who pretends that atheism alone allows one to "feel in your bones just how precious life is"; a man who cannot see that many of his "co-religionists" and fellow scientists have caused "millions of human beings [to] suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all" except that they were deemed unfit to breed due to physical or mental "defects" or deemed unfit to live due to their religious beliefs.

"Unfortunately, expressing such criticism places the nonbeliever at the margins of society. By merely being in touch with reality, he appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors." (p57)

More of the boundless narcissism and self-deceit for which Mr. Harris should be condemned. Again, I am stunned by the man's claims to be the arbiter of reality and reason considering his propensity for gross factual and logical errors. This polemical screed of his is hardly a testament to his "being in touch with reality." By the way, does this remind anyone of the "They hate us because we're free." school of thought? I absolutely condemn anti-atheist bigotry as I condemn bigotry of any form, but pretending that anti-atheist bigotry arises from the general population's bitterness over atheist "superiority" is ridiculous.

"While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in G-d still holds immense prestige in our society." (p67)

I always love encountering this argument. It's so easy to knock down. Belief without evidence is not considered a mark of madness or stupidity in most areas of our lives. Let me just note a few things that people believe in without evidence or despite the evidence so that you can see what I mean: string theory, multiple universes, serial universes born of black holes, the ultimate intelligibility of the universe, that the complexity of the universe can and will be expressed entirely with a few simple laws, that human life holds greater value than that of animals or plants, that science is a highly reliable source of factual information (despite the majority of information produced by science having been falsified), that we will succeed in creating artificial intelligence (despite our failures to get machines to complete tasks of which even small children are capable ). Need I go on? I don't think so.

"It is also worth noting that one can obtain a Ph.D. in any branch of science for no other purpose than to make cynical use of scientific language in an effort to rationalize the glaring inadequacies of the Bible. A handful of Christians appear to have done this; some have even obtained their degrees from reputable universities. No doubt, others will follow in their footsteps. While such people are technically 'scientists,' they are not behaving like scientists. They simply are not engaged in an honest inquiry into the nature of the universe."

I assume Mr. Harris is referring to proponents of intelligent design here. While his use of the "appeal to motive" fallacy is worth noting, I think it is more interesting that Mr. Harris cannot see how some of the scientists involved may simply be wrong. It is very possible for sincere and honest inquiry to result in a wrong answer. I'd like to know where Mr. Harris got his information on this new strategy of getting a Ph.D. in science (a difficult task indeed) solely for the sake of manipulating science. I also wonder if Mr. Harris realizes that the same dishonest argument could be made against him, that he is seeking a Ph.D. solely to crassly manipulate science to further the "atheist agenda."

"Any honest reading of the biblical account of creation suggests that G-d created all animals and plants as we now see them. There is no question that the Bible is wrong about this."

There is also tremendous evidence that the Bible was never meant to be a literal, scientific account of creation. Literalism, is in fact, a relatively new phenomenon dating to the Protestant Reformation and the tit for tat competition between Protestants and Catholics trying to prove their "fidelity" to scripture and therefore their supremacy in religious matters. So, I find it difficult to determine where Mr. Harris gets the authority to assert that the only "honest" reading of the biblical account is a literal one.

"Any being capable of creating a complex world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed repeatedly, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution."

This, I think, would fit in nicely with the "argument from personal incredulity" fallacy. First, because the existence of a deity may simply be a raw fact of the universe. Secondly, just because evolution is the only natural process we know of capable of producing a complex being, that doesn't mean that evolution is the only means by which a complex being can come into existence. Third, we cannot assume that natural processes and natural laws apply to the presumed creator of nature, who must by necessity exist independently of his creation and it processes and laws.

"Any intellectually honest person will admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religous believers do not." (p74)

Interesting that Mr. Harris refers to intellectual honesty just before treating scientists and religious believers as if these are two mutually exclusive groups. They're not. Mr. Harris's point is therefore ridiculous as it creates the problem of a single person (a religious scientist) who both admits ignorance and does not. Of course, Mr. Harris's statement about religious believers is also false since the question of why G-d created the universe (and thus why the universe exists) is a very old theological conundrum that has led to more than one admission of ignorance on the part of the religious.

I'll stop here. I'll tackle the last pages and provide a general review in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Pink Pistol-Packing Lesbians

Bill O'Reilly has really lost his mind this time. He's apparently done a piece about supposed lesbian gangs terrorizing America with their pink pistols, recruiting kids as young as 10 into the lifestyle, raping young girls, and randomly attacking heterosexual men. Yeah. Sure. Bill, the Lesbian Shadow Government is watching you. Be afraid. Be very afraid. We may tell your wife what orgasms are and then you're really in trouble.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Charity Options for Atheists

Uncertain Principles has a long list of nonreligious charities for those who wish to give but may have concerns about giving to religious organizations.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, Part II

In part II, we see Mr. Harris play with oxymorons and stereotypes and blatant hypocrisy.

"But we can easily think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a lawgiving G-d. For there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need be only better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world." (p23)

The term "objective morality" is an oxymoron. We cannot test two moral standards by empirical methods and determine which is true or at least more true. We cannot compare moral truths to reality and see which ones fit.

The truth of this matter lies within Mr. Harris' own statement. For a moral truth to be objective, it would have to be viewed as equally valid by anyone who considers it. "Better and worse ways to seek happiness" are necessarily subjective.

Imagine being tied up and beaten with a whip. For most, this is suffering. For a masochist, this is pleasure. Can we have an objective moral rule for the production of happiness that says, "Don't tie people up and beat them with whips?" If this moral rule would deny pleasure to the masochist and thus would not be viewed favorably by him, it would be neither objective nor conducive to universal happiness.

"Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral--that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more 'moral' energy opposing abortion than genocide." (p25)

There are a few major problems with this statement. The first is covered in a limited way above. The term moral is so system-dependent that there is no objective way to define the term. Moral or immoral will be determined by a person or group's ethical system, whatever that may be.

Secondly, he assumes that his audience views abortion and genocide as two distinct moral issues. This is absolutely not the case. Although I would fervently disagree with this interpretation, we have to acknowledge that for pro-life Christians, abortion and genocide are the same thing. They view abortion as the taking of an innocent life without just cause aka murder. They view widespread abortion as the widespread, officially sanctioned murder of innocent "undesirables" on a massive scale. They view it as tantamount to genocide. For those who fight in the pro-life movement, what they are doing is nothing less that combatting genocide in their own country. As they could rightly believe that they as citizens and taxpayers are more likely to be successful at combatting "genocide" here than abroad, it would be quite reasonable for them to expend their moral energy here.

Third, many conservative and fundamentalist Christian organizations and individuals expend their "moral energy" lobbying the government to take a firmer stance and decisive action on a variety of human rights issues, such as genocide, human trafficking, child pornography, slavery, etc. There is great diversity within the religious right. Undoubtedly, we can find many instances where they are on the "wrong" side of an issue, but we can also find many instances where they are on the "right" side. In fact, when movements based on "scientific rationality" promoted the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of innocent men and women, the strongest opposition came from religious fundamentalists. When movements based on "scientific rationality" promoted euthanasia (not including assisted suicide), the strongest opposition came from religious fundamentalists.

"Your qualms about embryonic stem-cell research are similarly obscene. Here are the facts: stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine." (p29)

Mr. Harris then goes on to excoriate Christians for their opposition to stem cell research, including arguing that their "beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings." (p31)

While I can understand Mr. Harris' anger at the current anti-stem cell research movement and his faith in the potential of that research, what I do not understand is how he can then praise the Jainists, holding them up as a positive example of what Christian morality should be. (pp 11-12, 22-23) The Jainists do in fact have moral prescriptions against causing any living creature physical, psychological, or spiritual suffering. However, there is also a moral prescription against benefitting from the suffering of any living creature. The Jainists are therefore completely opposed to animal experimentation or the use of animal products in medicine. Unlike stem cell research, which has mere potential, animal experimentation and animal-based medicines have been repeatedly proven effective in easing human suffering and preserving human life. Is this mere inconsistency or outright hypocrisy? Or is Mr. Harris' giving Jainists a pass simply because they haven't yet been successful in getting a ban on animal research or having it defunded?

"Christians like yourself invariably declare that monsters like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism. While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational." (p40)

"Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia are not examples of what happens to people when they become too reasonable. To the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of political and racist dogmatism. It is time that Christians like yourself stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma......I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs." (p42-43)

What a conceit! Atheism and atheists are here described as "especially rational," "what happens to people when they become too reasonable," "a rational rejection of [Christianity]," and "desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs." None of this is true. Even if we concede that there are no deities, it is highly possible for a person to embrace atheism for nonrational and even irrational reasons. Even if we concede atheism as the "rational" conclusion, this does not imply anything about the rationality of atheists as a group nor does it imply that atheists necessarily reject political or racist dogmatism. Nothing in the true definitions of atheism and atheist requires a person to "rationally" reject theism or any particular religion or desire "evidence in support of their core beliefs."

A person can be raised an atheist and thus simply accept what his parents have told him is true based on their authority. A person can reject theism because of negative feelings towards his parents and religious upbringing. I am not saying that these examples are true for all atheists, only that they show that the opposite is not true for all atheists. The capacities for reason and irrationality are not dependent upon one's atheism or theism.

Mr. Harris is right that the examples given do not prove anything negative about atheism and atheists in general. However, it is also true that the Inquisition (for one example) does not prove anything negative about theism and theists in general. What these examples do prove is that neither atheism nor theism is necessary or sufficient for cruelty and brutality. Given what we know of war and predation in nonhuman species, it is more likely that war and predation are tied to natural human capacities. This doesn't mean that humans will be violent in all circumstances, only that given particular circumstances, humans have the innate capacity to become violent. Justifications for that violence will take a multitude of forms due to the diversity of human cultures.

I'll end this part here. In part III, we'll see more of Mr. Harris disproving his assertions that atheists are "especially rational."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Recruiting Is So Much Fun!

The Lesbian Shadow Government strikes again! I don't know why you straight people continue to resist the ultimate and inevitable dominion of your homosexual overlords. It is futile. The power of Ellen is strong within us!

UPDATE: I'll admit it. I check my sitemeter regularly even though I haven't been able to get it to become visible on the blog again. Anywho, someone googled "FBI role in advancing gay lifestyle" and got me.

Honey, it's not the FBI. Your homosexual overlords are more than able to carry out our own covert and overt propaganda campaigns without the help of the suits. Jay Edgar was just there to make sure the suits stayed off our backs while we put the grand plan in place. But don't worry. It won't hurt. Much.

Sci-Fi Nerd Call to Action!

Calling all trekkies and other assorted science fiction nerds! They're knocking sci-fi over at ScienceBlogs. This cannot be permitted. Science fiction is the best of all possible generes. Science fiction brought us 7 of 9, Princess Leia, Deanna Troi, Jadzia Dax, Queen Amidala, The United Federation of Planets, the deathstar, light sabers, ewoks, Umox, phasers, Yoda... We'll forgive it for Jar Jar Binx. Science fiction also brought us many scientists and science journalists who fell in love with science via its (admittedly inaccurate at times) great stories, awesome adventures, cool toys and badass special effects.

If you love science fiction, go on over and give 'em what for at:

Galactic Interactions
Gene Expression
Adventures in Ethics and Science
The Voltage Gate

Feel free to follow the links they provide to other offenders.

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, Part I

As Mr. Harris makes so many logical and factual errors in Letter to a Christian Nation, I'm going to cover this book in parts. In part I, we'll see Mr. Harris appeal to ignorance and bigotry, get his history wrong, and display a willful ignorance despite the accessibility of Google.

"The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims." (p7)

Atheism has nothing to do with accepting "beliefs", only deities. This is a lovely cheap trick, but it does not follow from logic. Even if the audience can empathize with Mr. Harris via this example, it does not provide logical justification for their beliefs or his.

"Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn't it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn't it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry?"

Is Mr. Harris' appeal to the perceived ignorance and bigotry of his audience reasonable? How can these facts be "obvious" to his supposed target audience since most have probably never read the Koran and therefore cannot determine the reasonableness of those who follow it? It is only "obvious" because it appeals to their narcissism and bigotry against Muslims. It is far from "obvious" that "Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry" considering that Muslims created the scientific method, amongst many other accomplishments based on "honest inquiry."

I'm not sure if the next example is an appeal to the audience's ignorance or an argument from Mr. Harris'. The Golden Rule did not originate with Jesus of Nazareth, on this Mr. Harris is correct. However, Mr. Harris forgets that the historic Yeshuah Bar Yehoseph was a Jew, a rabbi, and intimately familiar with probably the earliest known source of that rule, The Babylonian Talmud, which originates from the 13th Century BCE and thus predates his examples, "Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, [and] Epictetus."

My favorite part of the book so far is Harris' brief exposition of the Martin Luther King/Ghandi/Jainism connection (p12). MLK is inspired by Ghandi who is inspired by Jainism, so Jainism is "objectively" better than Christianity at producing someone like MLK. (We'll leave aside the fact that early Christians were pacifists for centuries.) Surely, Harris knows the difference between pacifism as a philosophy and the tactics of nonviolent protest? Surely, he understands that MLK would have been directly inspired by Ghandi in large part because Ghandi was a man of his own time who used these tacts successfully against a similar enemy and for a similar purpose? Does Harris even realize that Ghandi's hunger strikes and and other forms of civil disobedience were inspired not by the Jainists but by the use of these tactics by the Catholic Irish nationalists? I would also ask if Mr. Harris is familiar with the logical fallacy called "proof by example," but he obviously is.

"The moment a person realizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment. It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany--and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever known." (pp18-19)

This epiphany came "remarkably easy" for the Quakers, who took their first stand against slavery in 1688. Unfortunately, it didn't come "remarkably easy" for Western scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries and those who depended on them for the creation of public policy and for determining the circumstances under which their moral decisions were made. Yes, slaveowners justified themselves with the Bible, but they also justified themselves with science.

Science, unlike the Bible, gave them specific justification to enslave the African race based on its supposed inferior characteristics, the "benefit" Africans received from slavery, and scientific assessments of the African's "inability" to rule himself. Furthermore, via the theories of scientific racism, science actually circumvented the white man's ability to perceive Africans as either "human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness" or as capable of that reason which grants humanity its meaning and value.

As for his interpretation of the Civil War and its relationship to the abolition of slavery, Mr. Harris is a bit too naive. First, Abraham Lincoln made it well known that his intent was only to preserve the union, a goal he was prepared to achieve either by abolishing slavery or preserving it. Secondly, slavery along with other forms of oppression were practiced in the Union as well. Third, I'd like to know what objective assessment Mr. Harris used to determine that Southerners were "among the most pious Christians this country has ever known." I have my suspicions that this is more complicated than Mr. Harris realizes for two reasons: 1.) Christianity was probably far less influential amongst the Southern elite and thus the majority of slaveowners than it was and is amongst the South's middle and lower classes. 2.) Thomas Jefferson (for one example) was a Southerner, a slaveowner, and a deist and although he opposed slavery in theory, he owned slaves until the day he died. (If we accept the Sally Hemmings story, Mr. Jefferson enslaved his own children.)

Mr. Harris' take on the Ten Commandments (pp21-23) is laughably inaccurate and, since a five minute google search or a bit of simple reasoning would have informed him of this, must reflect willful ignorance. I'll only briefly mention his reference to the commandments as "Judeo-Christian" despite the fact that they predate Christianity by more than a millenium and despite the fact that there is no such thing as Judeo-Christian. The term is a conceit that originated in 1899 as a way to describe the Christian emergence from Judaism and came to have its current meaning via World War II anti-Nazi propaganda.

My favorite of Mr. Harris' many inaccuracies is perhaps his characterization of the third commandment as having "nothing whatsoever to do with morality" and forbidding "utterances like 'G-d damn it!'" This may come as a surprise to those who are not theologically literate, but the commandment "Thou shalt not take the name of the L-rd thy G-d in vain." has absolutely nothing to do with profanity and everything to do with honor and morality.

In the era that the Hebrew scriptures were written, all contracts and oaths were made "in the name of G-d." So this commandment forbade using the name of G-d for a vain, pointless, or insincere oath and by extension forbade vain, pointless, or insincere oaths of any kind. This practice continues somewhat to our own day and can be found in the courtroom. A violation of this oath, taken in the name of G-d, is called perjury, which is also covered under the commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor." We could also extend this to those supposed Christian politicians who vow to uphold and defend the United States Constitution and who, upon violating their oaths or taking them insincerely, violate this commandment. I will assume that most people would consider keeping one's oaths an important part of morality and honor, not to mention a vital source of social stability.

"And what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of our universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock?"

And what are we to make of an author who, although intimately familiar with Buddhist philosophy and its prescriptions against desire, is unfamiliar with the application of this commandment to morality? Covetousness is forbidden due its relationship to the actions which we may take to obtain that which belongs to another. (In the Jewish interpretation, this commandment includes both the desire AND the act.) Adultery, theft, murder, kidnapping, bearing false witnesses, etc. are all linked to covetousness in many instances. In the Bible, David has Uriah sent to the front lines so that he'll be killed, making Bathsheba available for David. In history, accusations of witchcraft, heresy and other crimes were often used to obtain the property of the accused. History is also replete with examples of how the desire to seize power from another can lead to unspeakable horrors.

I will end part I here. In part II, we'll analyze Mr. Harris' "objective morality" and the blatant inconsistencies and not a little hypocrisy inherent in condemning the Christians for opposing stem-cell research while praising the Jainists.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Tax the Churches?

There's an interesting movement to "tax the churches" by removing religious institutions' 501(c)3 status. Here's a few sites if you're interested:

Daylight Atheism
Tax the Churches
Gainesville Humanists
Tax Churches

I've explained the basics of 501(c)3 in a previous post, but there are some details left out.

Yes, churches are "automatically" tax-exempt once they incorporate as a church on the federal level; however, state and local departments of taxation often require even religious organizations to file for 501(c)3 status to be exempt from their taxes. Incorporating as a "church" implies nonprofit status.

Yes, religious organizations are not required to submit for auditing, but this distinction is meant to avoid government intrusion in religious matters per the 1st amendment. The government does not decide what constitutes a religious organization other than that it must be incorporated as such. This exemption also applies to any nonprofit that has less than a $25,000 net profit annually, which means most nonprofits.

Yes, many church leaders are quite wealthy. So are many museum directors. Anyone remember the recent Smithsonian controversy over pay and perks? This is not church-specific nor does it exclude the organization itself from nonprofit status.

Yes, churches are excluded from certain laws, like anti-discrimination statutes, as are many nonprofit ideological organizations.

Yes, churches are forbidden from "political" activity of a sort in keeping with their nonprofit status although they are allowed to talk about "issues". Some people see this as a problem. (I'll assume because of the issue-based activism of the religious right.) However, remember that this applies to all ideologically-based nonprofits, many of which are "issue" organizations.

I'd go on, but I can see you nodding off. The problem is this: How do we maintain separation of church and state if we revoke nonprofit status for religious organizations but permit it for other ideological organizations that operate in the same way? We would then be making a determination based on religion, a violation of the 1st amendment. (According to the Supreme Court, atheist organizations would count as religious organizations for purposes of the law. Do we tax them as religions?)

Of course, it might work constitutionally if we also taxed these organizations and/or forbid them to talk about political issues:

Atheist Alliance International, American Atheists, PFLAG, The Human Rights Campaign, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, NAACP, Alliance for Justice, Free Speech Coalition, PETA, The Ayn Rand Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Workplace Fairness, etc.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

War! What Is It Good For?

Three days ago, we marked the 38th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the radical gay rights movement. For those who don't know, the Stonewall Riots began in response to a police raid on a gay bar called The Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood. Police raids on gay establishments were very common then as was police harassment and entrapment of gay people. The Stonewall Riots and subsequent riots throughout the country mobilized gay resistance to widespread, systemic oppression and discrimination and transformed the gay movement from an underground, legalistic movement to one based on direct action.

Its role in actually changing the situation for gay people was, like the race riots of the Civil Rights movement, very limited. The riots alerted the gay community to the need to fight back and alerted the mainstream to the fact that gay people would no longer passively accept oppression. Its effectiveness in doing that is unquestionable.

Like the Civil Rights movement, however, the real progresss in the condition of gay people was born of nonviolent direct action. After the riots, the newly radicalized LGBT community used marches, political lobbying, petitions, and lawsuits to challenge discriminatory laws and to fight for laws that would protect the rights of gay people.

The centerpiece of this new movement, however, was visibility in the personal and public lives of gay people. Through "coming out," activists began to draw attention to the ordinariness and diversity of the LGBT community, which crossed all lines of gender, race, religion, class, occupation, education, etc. In addition to coming out in private and in public, the gay community pushed to change the representation of LGBT people in the mainstream media and to create positive images through gay-created media. Unfortunately, much of this visibility came about in part through the AIDS epidemic.

Our visibility and the challenge that poses to the stereotype of gay people as some amorphous "other" disconnected from humanity has radically transformed societal attitudes about sexual orientation and the nature of discrimination. However, there is a long road ahead as we face the resurgent right wing and its far too successful campaign to bar LGBT Americans from full equality before the law.

As I think about all that we've gained and how different my life is from the lives of those who came before me, I can't help celebrating just a little bit. As my friends and I love to say, "Butch Up!"

Framing: Not Just for Pictures

I've been reading quite a bit about the "framing" wars amongst scientists trying to bolster public acceptance of evolution and atheists trying to eliminate stereotypes about them. There's a lot of confusion about what framing means. Since I've got that lovely B.A. in Communications sitting around gathering dust, I'll weigh in with my expert opinion. But to make things fun, I'll step away from the science/atheism/religion controversies and show you how framing can work for you.

Imagine a young gentleman trying to pay tribute to the young lady with whom he is in love or even merely in lust.

In situation A, he says, "Man, my bitch is FINE! She's got a smokin' ass and tits that'll put ya eyes out, Dawg!

In situation B, he says:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

In both A and B, our love-struck young man is expressing that the object of his affection is very attractive. However, although A may seem flattering to a particular sort of young lady, I think you can understand how B is framed much better and is more likely to be successful in most situations.

Now, let's take a more serious scenario. A young woman is applying for a job after being unemployed for a year.

In situation A, she says, "Man, I just didn't feel like working. Hell, the only reason I'm applying for this crap job is because my parents won't pay for my shit anymore."

In situation B, she says, "After finishing school, I thought it best to take some time off to explore my options and decide what I really wanted to do with my life. I think I learned a lot about myself and gained perspective on what a career means to me. Now, I'm ready to commit myself to a full-time job at your company."

B is obviously better framing. A may get you a good position at McDonald's, but B will help you take the next step up to a cush job at the Gap.

Framing is not about what you say, but how you say it. It's about ensuring that your message gets across in a way that helps you achieve your goals. Bad framing is kind of like the static that interferes with television reception. It doesn't change the quality of the program but it does make you more likely to change the channel away from something you might have enjoyed otherwise.

501(c)3: It's Not Just for Churches Anymore

I know how exciting you find the tax codes, so today, boys and girls, we're going to learn about 501(c)3 and its many applications. Most of you probably think of 501(c)3 as that part of the code that makes churches tax exempt and you'd be right, to an extent. But it's so much more than that. Here's a brief FAQ for 501(c)3:

"Oh, Great Tax G-ddess, what kinds of organizations are tax-exempt under 501(c)3?"

Well, minion, all sorts of organizations can get tax-exemption under this code. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, schools, scouting organizations, fraternal organizations, think tanks, cultural institutions like museums and theaters, charities, religious associations like YMCA, historical societies, benevolent societies like the Shriners, hospitals and health clinics, and even public parks and playgrounds are tax-exempt as long as they are what we call non-profit.

But Great Tax G-ddess, what does non-profit mean?

Non-profit, little minion, means that the purpose of the organization is something other than making money.

For instance, McDonald's is a profitable business. The owners want to make money for their own use. They do this by trying to make sure that the money they spend on labor, supplies, advertising, taxes, etc. is less than the money they take in from people who want to fill their bodies with artery-clogging cholesterol molecules. Any money that's left over after they pay all of the bills goes into the owners' pockets.

A museum, on the other hand, is non-profit. Their purpose is to expose the public to works of great art or historical artifacts. They get their money from people who donate it, from the people who come to see the museum's exhibits, or from renting out art or artifacts that they're not using at the moment. Sometimes, they lose money or just break even. If they make money, it doesn't go to the owners, it goes to buying more art or artifacts for people to see when they come to the museum.

I understand that, Great Tax G-ddess, but aren't churches and religious organizations automatically tax-exempt?

No, a church or religious organization is only tax-exempt if it files for and receives tax-exempt status under 501(c)3 just like all of the other non-profits.

But, Great Tax G-ddess, what if the church has a profit-making business like a bookstore?

Tax-exemption only applies to the activities that are not for profit. So, if the church has a soup kitchen, it doesn't pay taxes on that, but the church would pay taxes on the bookstore.

So, if I donate money to a church, is it tax-deductible?

Yes. Any donation to a non-profit that has tax-exempt status under 501(c)3 is tax deductible. Whether it's a church or museum or zoo doesn't matter. Just remember, this only applies to donations. If you buy a book at that bookstore we talked about, you still pay sales tax and the money you spend is not tax deductible.

What about the First Amendment, Great Tax G-ddess?

You're a curious little minion, aren't you? 501(c)3 doesn't violate the First Amendment for a few reasons. 1.) The religious groups don't get tax-exemption because they're religious, only because they're non-profit. 2.)501(c)3 doesn't make a distinction between different religions. 3.) The religious organizations have equal status with the nonreligious or secular organizations.

Well, little minion, any more questions?

No. Thank you, Great Tax G-ddess!

That sums it all up, I think. But if any of you minions out there in the blogosphere have questions, the Great Tax G-ddess has answers.