Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Just Babies, by Paul Bloom

Just Babies: The Origin of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom

This is one of many books on morality published recently, but it's not specifically written to fight the canard that religion is the foundation of morality.  Nor does it claim that morality is totally innate and the result of evolution.  Rather, Bloom presents an interesting and nuanced view of human morality.... which just happens not to rely on religion.  I plan to read some of the other new books on the topic, especially Michael Shermer's new book, The Moral Arc but I thought I'd start with Bloom's book.

Bloom cites several studies of babies in this book, hence the title.  The studies are fascinating, showing that it may be instinctual to show compassion.  It may also be instinctual to be "evil," so the answer to the question of whether people are good or evil is:  Neither.  The answer to the question of whether religion promotes morality is: Possibly.

Before we get to baby humans, there are primate studies that show instinctual behaviors previously thought to be human traits.  Bloom cites a Frans de Waal's study of capuchin monkeys.  The TED talk showing video of this became rather viral:




Elephants have the intelligence to figure out how to cooperate for a task:



Bloom does spend quite a bit of time on studies with babies and toddlers.  Lacking language, the challenge for baby studies is to find a way to ethically study their brains.  One method is to train a camera on the baby's eyes.  This shows the amount of time the baby spends on one image vs. another.   This is called eye tracking.  Studies have shown that a young baby will focus longer on an image that doesn't make sense.  They also favor pro-social images.

Babies who viewed a puppet show in which one puppet was cooperative and one was anti-social prefer the cooperative one.  Paul Bloom discussed this in the New York Times. and 60 Minutes visited the Baby Lab at Yale, where he and his wife do the studies:



Check out Paul Bloom's Video Presentation:



He expands from here to cover racism and the expanding circles of community.  Babies relate first to their mother, then their family, then their small community, etc.  Until recently we never encountered people from other communities, much less people of different races or from different continents.

The book is worth a read, but the videos above are also great.

The idea that humans are born evil, because of Adam & Eve or because of our "sinful nature," is baloney.  Babies are just babies, capable of learning how to get along in society where selfishness and cooperation are both necessary for survival of both the individual and the species.

Christian child-rearing books love to quote this passage, which they don't attribute correctly if at all (it comes from a 1958 study of delinquency that determined delinquency comes from an unloving household, not from evil)
Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it: his bottle, his mother's attention, his playmate's toys, his uncle's watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He's dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children but all children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.
When you google that passage you come up with dozens of articles, sermons, and books.  Well-meaning parents are hearing this message from books and pastors, and not hearing that their babies are good and even sometimes noble.

If they could be disabused of that idea they'd see that their kids don't need to be "saved."  They just need to be nurtured.




Sunday, February 22, 2015

Inspirational Songs for Atheists

"But without Christianity there'd be no B Minor Mass!"  If you haven't heard this objection to atheism yet, you will one day.  My answer is that Johann Sebastian Bach composed what his employer wanted, and he also composed the Brandenburg Concertos.  So it's a bogus argument.

But there is a small point there -- we don't have our own arts.  We have satirical art based on Christian art, but not our own.  ... Unless you count all other art everywhere that isn't based on a religious story.   Gaugin's paintings were gorgeous and not a Virgin-and-child among them!

But we could use some inspirational stories.  The song, "The Mary Ellen Carter" has always been inspirational to me, and in this video you can see it's been inspirational to at least one other person:


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Do Atheists Need to Dial Back the Rhetoric?

My answer is:  "NO!"

And this grad student who has a column in the WaPo agrees. Excerpts:
No, atheism does not need a moment of reckoning... Neither does Christianity, Islam, or any other group


After the discovery that the man who murdered three Muslim students in North Carolina on Wednesday was an atheist, it was a matter of hours before the media conversation shifted from simple horror and mourning to a discussion of the attack’s implication for atheism.

But connecting the killings in any way to atheism rests on a dangerous underlying principle. To begin with, the link between the religious or political persuasions of criminals and their criminal behavior should always be approached cautiously. While the “parking dispute” narrative pushed by Richard Dawkins is thoroughly discreditable, the violently insane have all manner of obsessions and can crib any set of principles to rationalize their acts. To suggest that the atheistic beliefs of Craig Hicks turned him murderous is akin to saying that Jodie Foster caused Reagan to be shot, or that Judaism caused the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.

The blaming of communities of belief for the lunatics among them is precisely what lets atheists wrongly tar Christianity itself for the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. Viewing such acts as a necessary consequence of the belief, of the belief “taken to its extreme,” unfairly blames a demographic for the seeds of violence in its metaphysics, rather than grappling with the violence in human nature more broadly.

A similar discourse was applied to civil rights protesters after two police officers were shot in New York by a man who had voiced anti-police sentiments on social media.

Atheism has needed new spokespeople for a long time. But to draw links between Richard Dawkins and a deranged triple-murderer is spurious, and rests on a principle that is rightly rejected when applied to other groups. By all means, speak of atheism’s failings, but do not do so in the context of this tragedy, whose only political meaning is that bigotry and violence are as poisonous as ever.

But I disagree on one small point:  religious zealots do need to dial back the rhetoric.  Here's why:  To quote Ken Ham, they "have a book."  The example of the social warrior rhetoric in this piece was apt for us atheists.  Someone with a mental disorder that creates a fixation on one idea would naturally express their mental illness according to their beliefs.  John Hinckley is one example.  Many less famous people have been killed or terrorized by individuals with obsessions.  You could make the case that Craig Hicks may have had enough impulse control to resist shooting someone who wasn't a Muslim, but these muslims weren't exactly dressing "foreign."   From what I've seen, this particular couple had violated his sense of parking right-or-wrong once too many times, and instead of taking his gun to menace them he took his gun with him to kill them.  The situation is as much an argument against handguns as atheist rhetoric.  If he hadn't had a gun he might have keyed the offending car instead.

The difference with religious nutters is that the broader society supports the framework for their obsession -- supernatural justice.  The murderer of Doctor Tiller probably thought he was going to be forgiven by God.  Suicide bombers get rewarded in Heaven (and their families get a big payoff for sacrificing a son).  They have a book that is bigger (to them) than the rhetoricians who may have stoked their anger.  And they don't have to be off their rockers to be pushed over the edge toward violent behavior.  A true believer could be persuaded to a delusional point of view in the absence of mental illness.  An atheist or parking spot social justice warrior cannot.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lost Books of the Bible: The Book Of Lola

Last week the Huffpo published a story on the number of words spoken by women in the Bible.  Only 49 women were named, and they spoke only 1.1% of the words of the Bible, according to a study published as a book: Bible Women: All The Words and Why They Matter.

We should remember, however, that there were many other "books" that were not chosen for inclusion in the Bible.  Could it be that they were excluded because women did too much talking?  There was a Gospel of Mary Magdelene   There was also a book of the Acts of Paul and Thecla.  Thecla was a disciple of Paul.  Both of these books were left on the cutting-room floor when the Council of Nicea made its final decision on which books should be considered canonical in C.E. 325  (though there was consensus for some time before that).

But if the Bible suppressed the voice of women what of the voice of tranvestites?  Certainly there must have been some, as pants had not yet been invented.  It would take only minor tailoring to cross-dress in those heady days of yore.

Fortunately, the work of archaeologists continues apace and recently the book of Lola has been discovered in a remote cave in the Middle East.  It has finally been translated, and I present it here:


And Lo, a Youth traveled to the ancient city of Soho, 
And thereupon he found a tavern to refresh after his travel.
And the wine there tasteth not like wine from grapes but wine from cherries.
And thence an adulteress approacheth the youth and invited him to join her in dance.
The youth, being in a strange place, requesteth the name of the adulteress.
She spoketh like a demon, saying Lola, LOLH, LULH, LVLH  (לולה)
לולה  לולה  לולה

The youth admitteth he that he was yet not a man
His spine was like that of a snakeskin - fragile and easily broken
He understandeth not the strength of the adulteress
Nor her gait nor the hoarseness of her voice.
She walketh like a woman yet talketh like a man.
לולה  לולה לולה 
They drinketh and danceth through the night
The stars lighted the tavern with unnatural glow
The woman Lola (לולה) picketh up the youth and setteth him upon her knee
She inviteth him to her dwelling for she knew him to be a visitor
The youth gazed upon her eyes and lo! he was nearly smitten
He went to leave from the door but afflicted was he and fell to his knees
He looketh upon her and she looketh upon him
לולה  לולה  לולה

The youth fixeth her image
He made her image as a statue in his spirit
לולה לולה לולה

Maiden thou shalt be youth, and youth thou shalt be maiden
The wonders of the world are myriad and confounded.
לולה  לולה  לולה

The youth, having departed from his parents one half a fortnight
Was unbetrothed and inexperienced with maidens
Lola took him unto her by the hand
And promised to transform him from youth to man

Thus transformed, youth into man, man from youth
Though he possesseth not the strength of Goliath
Knoweth he to be man and glad thereof
Knoweth he also that Lola was made man
לולה  לולה  לולה 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Anti-Vaxxers: The "Trolley" Problem Played Out in Real Life

An Arizona cardiologist (an "osteopath" not an M.D.) has gone on national television unabashedly saying that he doesn't care that his unvaccinated child may cause death or disability to another child:
"Could you live with yourself if your child got another child sick?  I mean really sick?  and complications, even death?"
"I could live with myself very easily.  It's a very unfortunate thing that people die, but unfortunately people die, and I'm not going to put my child at risk to save another child.  I'm not going to sacrifice the well-being of my child.  My child is pure."
He's wrong about the risk to his own child, of course.  Unless his child is a transplant recipient his child can handle childhood vaccinations just fine.  And even if his child is totally healthy, measles could cause complications or death.  The risk--benefit analysis isn't subtle.

But let's assume for argument's sake that he may have a point.    He's playing out the ethics of the Trolley Problem perfectly.  In the old days of trolleys criss-crossing big cities, an ethicist posed this question:
If a trolley is running out of control and there were six people unaware of it who were doomed to die, would you pull a switch to send it down a different track which has only one person standing on it?"
A variation on this idea puts the single person closer to you.  In order to save the six people you'd have to push a large man in front of the trolley (you're too small to solve this problem by jumping in front of the trolley yourself), thus killing him but saving the others.   The outcome in either scenario would be the same, but in the first thought experiment you're more removed -- you're not the killer, you merely redirect the killer.  In the second you are the killer, a murderer perhaps.  According to Thomas Aquinas and most people generally, an evil act that results in good results is still an evil act, so the second scenario is untenable.

The problem with the anti-vaxxers' selfish decision not to vaccinate is of course the premise.  They risk their own child's life as well as some hypothetical stranger's life.

I'd like to pose the vaccine question to the parent of two children, one of whom is immune-compromised and one of whom is normal.  Either way, they would pose a risk to one child.   How to decide... how to decide....  Oh yeah, science!

Anyway, I've been reading on morality (book review to come later) and when I hear people say they won't risk their own child's life for another child's life I hear the Trolley Problem being acted out in real life.  This is why appealing to the impact on other children won't sway these people, however selfish the choice seems.

Other doctors have complained about him and he may lose his license.  One can hope.

For another parental view, check out what famous children's author Roald Dahl said about his daughter's death from measles.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Children & Vaccines: Is "Choice" a Holdover from Biblical Ideas?

I am fascinated by the idea of "morality," and especially by the canard that religion is the source of it.  This week politicians have been opining about vaccination, with some incredibly stupid quotes making the rounds.  One egregious one is by Rand Paul, who has an M.D.   He has (in)famously repeated the discredited notion that vaccines cause changes in brain function.  Apparently he hasn't heard of the post hoc fallacy, nor has he heard that the article that started the whole lie has been retracted by the journal that published it.

That essential soundbite has been repeated on CNN numerous times (I don't watch FOX or MSNBC), but the part afterward is what caught my attention.  He says "The state doesn't own the children.  The parents own the children."

Whoa.  Children are chattel?  I thought owning people was outlawed in 1865!

I tried googling for coherent moral arguments about this, and found that it's not an uncommon concept.  Rand Paul knew exactly what he was saying when he used this shocking language;  the religious right and right-wing libertarians believe in this notion.  He was whistling to his dogs.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically addresses the outdated notion that children are chattel.  The United States signed it but Congress hasn't ratified it.  Naturally, homeschooling Christians who want to force sub-par anti-science "education" on their captive audience are behind the opposition.

The full text is here.  Article 24 would be the essential one to the issue of vaccination:

Article 241. States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health.States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services.

2. States Parties shall pursue full implementation of this right and, in particular, shall take appropriate measures:

(a) To diminish infant and child mortality;
(b) To ensure the provision of necessary medical assistance and health care to all children with emphasis on the development of primary health care;

(c) To combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary health care, through, inter alia, the application of readily available technology and through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution;
(d) To ensure appropriate pre-natal and post-natal health care for mothers;
(e) To ensure that all segments of society, in particular parents and children, are informed, have access to education and are supported in the use of basic knowledge of child health and nutrition, the advantages of breastfeeding, hygiene and environmental sanitation and the prevention of accidents;
(f) To develop preventive health care, guidance for parents and family planning education and services.
3.States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.
4. States Parties undertake to promote and encourage international co-operation with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the right recognized in the present article. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries.

Note that the assumption is that only in developing countries would ignorance and superstition be detrimental to child health!

Although they don't specifically state that nobody "owns" a child, they do have a provision for trafficking:
Article 35States Parties shall take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent the abduction of, the sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form.
Since parents are often the ones who "sell" children, this seems to obviate the idea of a child as chattel of the parent.

Funny that when it comes to abortion, the right-wingers think the fetus has more rights than the parent, but when it comes to vaccination or education the child only has a right to be a pawn in religious politics.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Criticizing the Extremists - Good or Bad?

Moderate believers often criticize atheists (and others, I suppose) for going after the extremists of their religion.  Even if they don't commit the No True Scotsman fallacy, they seem to suggest that only their kinder, gentler brand of [insert religion here] should be discussed.  After all, the fringes are irrelevant, aren't they?

As long as they don't bring up Stalin, we should be happy to return the favor.  Right?

Well.... we atheists were pretty quiet until 9/11/2001.  We thought the same thing about the extremists.  They were a little nutty but harmless, and after all they're a teensy minority.  Then 19 people changed the world.

Meanwhile, in January of 2001, a fundamentalist Christian president busily installed his fundy pals in executive branch offices.  The few of us who paid attention were quite worried about the future of our democracy.  Fundamentalist Christian comprise over 20 percent of Americans but are a huge and well-organized voting bloc that propels Republicans into office and takes office themselves.

Again, as long as they were merely being used by their puppeteers to put the oligarchical overlords into positions of power, they weren't a threat to religious freedom.  They only threatened good sense and good government. We'd survived bad government before, so what's the big whoop?

The big whoop is that secularism is under attack.  We are going after our attackers, not the bystanders.  If the bystanders don't like being swept into the umbrella designation of their religion, perhaps they should be the ones fighting the fundies.

We can't live in a society where fundamentalists have the power to change science curricula, take over government agencies, take over the military, or impose their religion on the rest of us in any way.  We can live in a society where the moderates go about their individual lives without causing anyone else any trouble.

Perhaps the moderates should be telling the fundies to stop denying evolution .... and geology and cosmology.  They should be telling the fundies to get out of government and stop grabbing political power.  They should tell them to take the commandment about telling lies more seriously, like stop calling America a "Christian Nation" or quoting the Declaration of Independence instead of the Constitution.

But they don't do it, so it's up to us.  We have more to lose.  The moderates are bit lazy, which is why they're moderates.  Being a fundy is hard work.  They have to go to church more than once a week, and read the Bible (at least the convenient parts) and worry about which of their neighbors they should hate.  They are complacent about the damage fundies can do.

American Christians feel superior to Islamic believers, which is a mistake.  Islamic moderates probably didn't use to worry about what fundamentalists would do if they took control.  How many Iranians in the 1970s expected to be suppressed after the Shah was deposed?  How many Egyptians are happy about the Muslim Brotherhood taking power now?

So... it's too bad that moderates feel they are unfairly maligned when reasonable people take issue with fundamentalists.  We're not the ones that created a messed up tangle of religious division.  We're the ones who struggled to get free from it.

But don't take my word for it, read this Washington Post blog op-ed:  It isn't just Islamic Fundamentalists...