Wednesday, June 21, 2017

No, leftist regression is not killing the atheist movement

I’m a member of several secular mailing lists, for activists or organizers – in-house and intra-mural conversations, mostly. Shop talk. Well, this morning a message came through on a mailing list for humanist organizers. This is what the submitter sent in:
Saw an interesting post from David Smalley of Dogma Debate about whether the regressive left is killing the atheist movement. What do you think?

This question, and the article it links to, got under my skin for some reason. Maybe for a bunch of reasons. By way of response, I replied with what turned into an op-ed column calling out the secular community at large for their (our!) lack of demands when it comes to our leadership. Here’s what I wrote. Your comments are welcome.

Of the several dozen factors I would list as inhibiting or impeding the progress of secular activism, I would NOT include leftist repression among them. 

Over the past few months (since Trump's election boosted my motivation, actually), I've been checking in with a network of professional organizational consultants with relative regularity -- folks that work with international nonprofits, campaigns, corporations, and so on. I'm very fortunate in not having to pay their usual billable rate, which is somewhere between painful and audacious. Good for them, I suppose.

What we talk about is the structure and activity of the secular movement -- its personalities, its assets, its organizations, its opportunities and its failings. Take this with a grain of salt, but the overall view that I've taken away from these consultations is that "our" greatest hindrance is our lack of focused, outcome-oriented leadership. We are largely headed up by non-professionals, whether that term refers to their employment history and expertise or to their temperament. 

We have (in potentia) the money, resources, human capital, and skills to achieve gains. We have gains TO achieve -- socially laudable, economically relevant, politically needful activism to pursue, and noble (if I may use that word without seeming like overly pious) goals to fight for. We have work to do and the means to do it. But if the review I've been doing of our activity over the past two decades has shown anything, it is that our work is time and again disrupted and destroyed by organizational infighting; operational incompetence; and personality-driven failure. 

If you asked me why the "atheist movement" (loaded term) is "failing" (leading term), I'd tell you it has a lot more to do with the self-serving, short-sighted, self-aggrandizing and frankly destructive personalities that our complex community has not yet figured out how to neutralize, than it does with leftist repression.

(The continued failure of secular leadership in the US to take responsibility for the terrible demographics of the movement, in all its manifestations -- talking heads, org officers, media representation, conference attendance, and so on -- is I think concomitant to larger leadership problem. The demographic problem and the leadership problem are to each other both cause and result.)

If secularism were half as rational as we like to think we are, then a lot of the folks in charge would be shown the door in quick fashion, making room for folks who are ready and equipped to deliver in terms of revenue, media activism, legislative influence, membership growth, local chapter stability, etc, etc. 

If I may say so without seeming merely to be "stirring up shit" -- some of those people who should be shown the door are on this mailing list.

More than once, a person I look up to in the secular social movement has drawn a comparison between secularism and waves of enfranchisement. You had women's rights; civil rights; equal rights; and now, perhaps, we could see ourselves as part of a fourth wave. There are a few problems with this comparison, but in spirit, it's an exciting metaphor. The reason I can't embrace it is because I'm embarrassed, on my own behalf and on the behalf of anyone who has any role in organized secularism over the past quarter century, at how badly we've failed at identifying and empowering the kind of astute and honorable leadership that those previous movements depended on. 

I don't mean that our lack of heroically perfect leadership is what's holding us back. I mean that we're entirely too tolerant of entirely too much imperfection. We can do better, as secularists and rationalists and humanists, and we should, and we need to. The US needs every one of its component communities to get their act together; all hands are needed to create, strengthen and defend institutions, memes and attitudes which are up to the task of neutralizing chaotic nationalism, xenophobia of all sorts, nativism and corporatism. 

I write this reply, without wishing to seem to devalue the work and contributions of secular leaders who ARE doing a bang-up job.

I fear I've replied to your question with a bit of grandstanding. I've deliberately not said much about Smalley's article, or about his other statements along these lines in social media. I find it a shallow and unpersuasive position, and with that, enough said. 

All best,

Zachary Bos

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Matron in the train station

Saw an older woman handing out Watchtower tracts at the T this morning. I bet that work gives her a sense of purpose, and of dignity through purpose. And it's nice to know that she has a reason to be out of the house. Still, I'd much rather see her stumping for an ideology that didn't reject science, reject modernity, and demand impossible beliefs from the people interested in belonging to that community.

What kind of an ideology might that be? Well, it'd have to be a big one, else it wouldn't attract commitment and motivate behavior. But so many big ideas are also dangerous ideas. Radical fellowship opens the door to disfellowshipping; community belonging opens the door to shunning; values-based leadership opens the door to coercion, authoritarianism, and abuse.

Some days I'm such an optimist that I feel it wouldn't be such a difficult thing to articulate such an ideology, and stitch up a workable community structure around it, and release it into the wild. Then I think about the observable scarcity of such communities where benign values-in-action have resulted in flourishing and stable social situations, and I tuck my optimism back in my pocket and recommit to a more humble set of ambitions.

"It's easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled," Mark Twain wrote. (Or no, he didn't, but I will tell you that he didn't and you won't believe me.)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Orwell on socialist sex maniacs

Ah, YouTube. This morning it brought me to an unaired clip from the British panel show QI, in which the inestimable and inimitable Stephen Fry quotes from George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1936):
"'Socialism draws towards it with magnetic force every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England.' [Orwell] also talks about 'vegetarians with wilting beards', 'outer suburban creeping Jesus' eager to begin yoga exercises,' and 'that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal wearers and bearded fruit juice drinkers who come flocking toward the smell of progress like bluebottles to a dead cat.'" [transcript]
I wonder what justice there is in Orwell's cranky depiction of figures we probably all recognize through the distortions of his caricature. There is an n-dimension graph whose axes represent openness toward or rejection of different conceptual possibilities -- spirituality, personal perfectability, political perfectability, and so on -- and in this graph space, we should be able to identify the overlapping domains of "socialism", "individualism", "bohemianism", "veganism", and so on. Would the result be a disordered pell-mell without order? Or would some kind of informative structure emerge, to tell us about the people who reject theism but embrace socialism, who embrace fascism but reject spiritualism, and so on? Where will we find the bluebottle types, or the skeptics, or the Eric Blairs? What if these each turn out to be categorical cousins, to no one's greater surprise than their own?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wanted: a simple explanation of abiogenesis

On the right, science. On the left, incredulity.

On Sun, Nov 6, 2016, I awoke to find this email in my American Atheists mailbox, from a gentleman writing from India:

Dear Sir, 
Good day to you.
I would like to reintroduce myself as an independent researcher in philosophy and modern science. I gratefully acknowledge your previous evidence-based reply that helped me a lot to improve my critical thinking skills. 
Being an open-minded, unbiased researcher, it is my pleasure to share one of my concerns- as expressed below, hoping a satisfactory explanation: 
When we talk about consciousness, we all know that consciousness is the result of certain evolutionary arrangement of atoms. How can a specific 'collection of atoms' in the universe alone  'think', 'aware' and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence while all the sub-atomic particles in the universe are governed by the same laws of physics? 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects (obviously they are made up of atoms and atoms don't have any self-awareness and consciousness) , for example, a rock ( or any inorganic, non-living matter of choice ) of certain mass (Kg), when subjected to blind, unconscious, unplanned and unintelligent evolutionary forces of magnitude of certain Newtons (N) for trillion, trillion, trillions of years or even infinite time , the original rock will become 'self-aware' in such a way that now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?

Is there any logical fallacy in looking beyond the theory of abiogenesis?

Appreciate your kind feedback.
Please ignore and forgive me if this e-mail is an offence.

Thanks and regards,
F---- V----- P----------,
Electrical Engineer,
When I read his question -- 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects... when subjected to blind evolutionary forces... will become 'self-aware'?
-- I was tempted to write in reply, simply, "1.0", reflecting the 100% plausibility of the emergence of consciousness from non-living precursors, in light of the evidence of the physical world around us and the conscious being (myself) typing in response. I decided in the end to give him a less trivial reply. 

For your reading pleasure, here is my Sunday morning armchair musing on abiogenesis, and the emergence of thinky out of rocky, and all that jazz. 

Dear F----: 
Excellent to hear from you. I'll copy you from my personal email account, so our conversation doesn't clutter up my official inbox.  
Let me address out two points I see in your message that create a lot of confusion. 
The first objection I have has to do with your analogy likening the emergence of consciousness to a rock manifesting the ability to think. This is an error of analogy, akin to an error in understanding what is meant BY abiogenesis, and indeed, by consciousness.  
No theory of abiogenesis posits that a solid solitary object (such as: a rock!) would within its own geological lifetime undergo such physical changes that allow it eventually to think, while also retaining its identity AS a rock. 
Abiogeneis as it is currently conceived is not a local phenomenon that occurs WITHIN an ecology -- today you have no life, and tomorrow, there it is, there is life, isolated and localized within, and somehow separate from, the ecology. Rather, abiogeneis is a process that occurs over geological timescales, and in a manner distributed throughout systems that span an entire ecology. Further, it is conceived of as an incremental process, with manifold different simultaneous instantiations.  
The popular image of abiogenesis as having to do with a puddle of slime on a rocky shore, as isolated in its reaction space as a glass beaker in a lab, is wildly misleading. Although there needs to be a certain degree of concentration of reagents and stock materials, and a certain patterning to the encounters different chemical (and eventually, biological!) materials undergo, this does not bear comparison to the slime puddle image. Things are altogether more dynamic, and take place at scales that are at the same time much smaller (microscopic clay templating! RNA self-catalysis!) and much larger (ocean depth gradients of iron- and sulfur-bearing isoclines! or, according to a different model, iuron- and sulfur-bearing surface deposits such as those surrounding ocean floor vents).  
In other words, I fear that your metaphor of abiogenesis operates at the wrong levels of scale, and with the wrong impression of dynamism. 
The other point I'd wish to address briefly, in response to your kind invitation, has to do with your presentation of the concept of "consciousness." This, like abiogenesis, is a complicated subject which is sometimes disfavored by limiting metaphors. 
You write:  
now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?
This, on its surface, sounds like a plainly ludicrous proposition. But I'd never describe consciousness in this manner. Instead, I might translate your description this way:
the original rock may be subjected to the processes of weathering and erosion, such that it is reduced to sediment. The minerals and chemicals which constituted that rock are now available to circulate in the (aqueous, likely) ecosystem, where they may be involved in chemical reactions we believe to be preliminary to the abiotic formation of biological monomers, such as carbon fixation, chemical reduction, or (to give a more complex example), pyramidine formation.  
Over time, an ecology which has produced biological monomers, may enter into a state of conditions conducive to the formation of biological polymers, some of which are self-catalyzing. The abiogenesis really heats up then!
An ecology which features concentrations of self-catalyzing biological polymers may give rise to autocatalytic chemical networks and structures such as micelles and vesicles. These molecular-scale phenomena may interact and form more complex structures and systems, which we begin to recognize as rudimentary "proto-life."  
Over eons of chemical, and then biological, and then ecological, evolution, this proto-life may develop adaptive systems which "record" life experience, in the form of chemical changes in the cell, or taxic changes in behavior, or changes in genetic expression, or charge potential changes in nerve cells. As this system of record-keeping (memory, you could call it) becomes more sophisticated, the organism benefits from the ability to predict appropriate behavior for future conditions which resemble past conditions it has a record of. This is a significant part of what we call learning.   
The organism continues to become more sophisticated. But keep in mind, we aren't talking here about a single individual. We are speaking in evolutionary terms, so this change takes place over countless generations, across the somatic instances of countless individuals.  
Eventually, the learning/memory systems of the organism become so sophisticated, and recursive, and powerful, that the organism is able to model future potential behavior! This does bear comparison to the way that a computer program using patterns of charge distribution in an electronic system, to model the world of a computer game. We don't think there's anything magical about that, do we? Likewise, the pattern of charge distribution in the nervous system of the organism, are able to run a model of the world. And this model may contain sub-programs we can label as "thinking", "awareness", "reasoning about its own existence and its surroundings", "pondering the the laws of physics", "mulling over maths", "fiddling about with logical reasoning", "the drawing of conclusions", "the sense of justice", "a sense of purpose" , "a sense of existence", and "the experience of pain and sorrow."  
All of these thoughts and feelings are 1) simply patterns of charge distribution changing across the vastly complex representational network of a nervous system, and 2) amazing. 
Voila! From rock to mind. Now, I am kidding, of course. But I hope that my "translation" of your description of the origin of consciousness, even as briefly as I describe it, is enough to make the point I intend -- namely, that while there is so much that we have yet to measure, verify, and truly understand about the way life emerges from non-life, and how mind emerges from minerals, the nature of the mystery isn't, any longer, metaphysical, if we come to terms with the vast scales of complexity involved in a naturalistic explanation.  
Seen from a distance, the complexity of the naturalistic explanation may look supernatural. But we don't have to keep our distance. We can zoom in, get our hands and minds dirty, and engage with data, and models, and articles and animations and questions and answers, and so on, through the technology of information and communication which frees us from the backwaters of our ignorance as separate individuals. (That internet -- she's amazing.) 
Thank you for the stimulating questions; these were fun things to think about on a Sunday morning here in New England. 
With warm regards from Boston, 
Zachary "the Thinking Rock" Bos
Massachusetts State Director for American Atheists
To the extent that we atheists want to have our materialist apologetics in order, I think it would be useful to have a "best practices" way of responding to questions like, ah, but, rocks can't think, can they.

Do you have any suggestions for concise and accessible explanations of abiogenesis, of the sort we could share with persons like this Indian engineer when they have questions about the plausibility of that theory? I'd love to know what you recommend. (How great if there was a really brilliant YouTube animation going through this stuff... )

The graphic above, interestingly enough, comes from the blog of a Christian defending creationism as a plausible theory. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Grassroots wisdom... from

Those of you who know about probably know it as a platform for wacky, even sophomoric, humor writing. However: from time to time, their contributors sneak in content with some real wisdom. When reading a recent post, I came across a few paragraphs that seem really, really relevant to the kind of cultural activism many of us are involved in as organizers in the secular movement. The title of the section gives the short take:  

America was born from a revolution. It's in our DNA. If you want your blockbuster movie to get asses in the seats, make it about a few common folk taking down an advanced, oppressive force. In the third act, when the hero nobly declines to kill the Emperor, that's OK -- somebody else will toss him down a bottomless shaft. What matters is the unquestioned assumption that abrupt and/or violent upheaval of the current system is the only way to affect change, and that anything less is a de facto stamp of approval for the status quo.
In reality, sudden upheaval usually results in an even more brutal asshole taking power (See: the Middle East, China, Russia ... most of the world throughout history, in fact). This is because the people who shout loudest for abrupt change -- particularly those who promise to restore the greatness of the nation to some imagined idyllic past -- are often either short-sighted idealists or power-hungry sociopaths looking to exploit scared people. It's the political version of a get-rich-quick scheme.

But real change is usually as tedious as watching a game of chess played by two fungus colonies. Slavery didn't vanish with the stroke of Abe Lincoln's pen; abolitionists had been chipping away for 45 damned years, changing public opinion inch by inch. The gay rights movement has been banging its head against the wall since the 1890s and still hasn't broken all the way through. A lawsuit here, a board meeting there, a petition here, a city council candidate there. A step forward, a step back. The kind of grinding, unsatisfying slog that wouldn't even get a montage in a movie adaptation.

In other words: Small gains add up. The failure to make a huge win every calendar year doesn't mean we're somehow not making progress. And the sex appeal of dismantling the current system, in order to build a brave new world, may be distracting us from the wholly intolerable cost of such revolution.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fly your flags high

Proposed (but never officially adopted) logo for the now defunct Atheist Discussion Group, a Boston-area enterprise active from 1998 on. The Latin above means "Christians for the flavor's sake."

A charming limerick from the young Saki (H.H. Munro, 1870-1916):
There was a young lady O'Brien,
Who sang Sunday hymns to a lion.
Of that lady there's some
In the lion's tum-tum,
And the rest is an angel in Zion.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Skeptical of the Bible? Have I got a book for you.

If I told you of a book that included the following topics, would you be interested?

  • "Contradictions and Errors in the Biblical Text"
  • "Distortion and Abrogation in the Bible:
  • "Refutation of Misleading Protestant Statements Regarding the Authenticity of the Bible"

You are interested, aren't you, you skeptics and revelation-scoffers. Well, let me not tantalize you cruelly. The book exists! In fact, it's a foundational text in the world of Muslim apologetics.

The six-volume Izhar ul-Haqq, Rahmatullah Kairanawi's magnum opus, was written (in Arabic, naturally) in 1864. Christine Schirrmacher describes the work thusly:
'The Demonstration of the Truth' (izhâr al-haqq) served as a summary of all possible charges against Christianity and was therefore used after al-Kairânawî's death as a sort of encyclopaedia since al-Kairânawî extended the material of former polemicists like 'Ali Tabarî, Ibn Hazm or Ibn Taymiyya to a great extent.
Check it out in English translation here. Don't be surprised if you have to pick around some bits that defend the existence of the Islamic god, even as you enjoy the take-down of the Christian one.