There have been a considerable amount of violent protests around the world in the past week or so. So, what to do?

It is wise to think about whether your actions are rewarding or punishing actions. For example, if laws were successfully passed in Western countries that restricted free speech against the Quran or Mohammad as a result of the violent protests -- the message this sends is: one can get what they want if he resorts to violence to get it. This is exactly the opposite of the kind of behavior we'd like to promote.

In general terms, the problem is, as I see it: in response to a perceived insult to an inanimate object or idea, some people are prone to have a violent reaction against their fellow (innocent) humans. This subpopulation is attempting to hold the rest of humanity hostage to their insanity.

The question: how does one deal with this problem?

One of the first guidelines of interacting with people with whom you disagree is to start with taking them at their word for what they believe and why they believe it. It may come out later that they might be mistaken (or lying) about both what they believe, but it's a logical starting point.

So, let's take these protestors at their word, and think about saying something like this to them:

I completely believe you. Further, I believe that you think that insulting Mohammad is terrible and horrible and it causes you a significant amount of grief to even contemplate. This upsets you to the point that you simply cannot restrain yourself from acting in a way that will physically harm and even kill your fellow human beings.

Assuming this is roughly what's being claimed, this gives the rest of us a significant source of leverage; the strategy implications here are ridiculously easy to take advantage of. These protestors have self-identified a fundamental weakness to offensive words/images/ideas. Great! I'll never run out of ammo! I won't even have to reload.

Here's an idea that takes these ideas to what I perceive to be their logical conclusions. Why don't we simply hold the Quran hostage?

The basic idea: every time there's a confirmed story like this: 16 or 4 or 13, where N people are killed: have a prescribed, automatic, and guaranteed response. It's important that it's simply the total number of people killed, as each life loss counts whether the person shares the offended one's belief or not. Have an automated (think style) process with the following recipe:

  • A video camera begins recording a single uncut video.
  • A printer prints a message out: "[N] people were killed on [date]. In response this, [N] new pages of freshly printed out pages from [sacred text] will be printed and shredded. Future violence will be met with the same response. The goal of this project is not to offend, but to provide a reason to stop killing people beyond simple respect of human life."
  • Then, the printer prints out [N] random pages from the [sacred text] which we watch go directly into a paper shredder.
  • The new video w/ time-date stamp and link to the news story that prompted it gets posted to many different places (youtube, vimeo, liveleak, tweet it, and whatever).

If the destruction of the pages is really such a horrible thing to contemplate, then we have something of value to hold hostage. The key point is to make this setup as morally asymmetric as possible. We want to make it seem as absolutely crazy as possible to equate the two actions, so the following would help:

  1. Make it 100% clinical and unemotional -- This isn't a thing where the pages are desecrated and stomped on and lit on fire. No. This is an automated process which should highlight the absolute absurdity of this situation. Imagine the absurdity of a person trying to plead with the 'auto-defilers': "please stop shredding these pages! people are dying!"
  2. Make it 100% equal opportunity. Set it up in an open source way so that any group can use it -- publish the plans on the internet and have the default set include the Quran, the Bible, On the Origin of Species, the US Bill of Rights. I believe that this is a completely fair way to protest anything you want. Neo-nazi's offended about someone making fun of Hitler? Do the same w/ pages from Mein Kampf. Christians doing something sketchy? Print/destroy pages from the Bible. Americans doing something you don't like? Print/destroy pages from the US constitution. People don't even need to wait for murder and death, you could have a trigger that's a much lower bar -- the Belgians voted for a tariff you don't like? Print/destroy the Belgian flag... or something (I might be stretching on that last one).
  3. Print/shred only copies of 100% respectful pages; or 100% respectful images of Mohammad; or whatever else. You want the moral high ground, no need to stoop to doing something even remotely objectionable. Be as pure as virgin snowfall and people won't have anything to hang on you.

By the way: if I'm ever killed by a religious extremist for offending his/her religious sensibilities/ideas, I'd like this kind of a thing to be setup in my name. Hell, think if people around the world started making auto-defilers part of their will in the case of being killed by an extremist. Every single insane over-reaction would automatically generate a self-correcting response. The only way to stop this auto-desecration massacre is to stop killing people when you are offended. Seriously, we'd run out of people before we ran out of paper.

If you don't think this would work -- this has only one of two eventualities: an increasing spasm of violence that eventually kills everyone in the world OR a response that's essentially, "yes, the pages of the Quran were torn again today, what's new some people are assholes."

We want the second response, by the way.

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Joseph Stalin

Image by Dunechaser via Flickr

The Huffington Post recently posted An Open Letter to the Atheist Community by Rabbi Adam Jacobs.

The reason behind his letter is "so that we can understand each other better and possibly "walk back" some of the clamorous dialogue." Sounds reasonable enough -- let's see where this goes. I'll be quoting from his letter throughout this blog post.

The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists. It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe...

This has to be one of the most boring arguments that will not die. My default position is "skeptical" -- and the whole infinite list of hypothetical creatures starts in the "skeptical" column. A creature only gets into the "I have some belief that this creature exists" column via evidence. Guess what, God, Zeus, leprechauns, and unicorns haven't made it out of the "skeptical" column.

You may want to counter that you have many well-regarded and brilliant personalities who have provided more than sufficient evidence to knock theism back to the Bronze Age where it belongs.

I would be tempted to ask for some way of distinguishing your belief in Yahweh from the false belief that Zeus-followers had thousands of years ago. Both you and an ancient pagan believes in some specifics about the supernatural -- and as far as I can tell, you are on equal footing. What have you discovered about Zeus -- or about Yahweh -- that help me to not mistakenly categorizing things that are not alike?

Yet, many of you seem to have a big axe to grind, and I only recently realized why. You believe that we are ruining the world and stunting its progress. You will point out all of the violence carried out in religion's name. We will point out that equally severe evils have been perpetrated by secularists such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.

You've got it partly right. Yes, faith-based religions are a scourge on this earth -- and irrational beliefs and superstitions lead to all kinds of unnecessary suffering. The violence and other ill effects are truly the symptoms of the underlying disease. It isn't enough to get religious people to accept evolution, the entire enterprise of believing assertions on bad (or no) evidence needs to be dismantled and ridiculed.

Also, citing Stalin and company doesn't help your case or hurt our case in the slightest. That'd be like arguing against a cure for cancer because "people also die from heart disease" -- if it's a cure for something terrible and wrong, the fact that it doesn't address heart disease is irrelevant. Does religion cause unnecessary suffering on a massive scale? Yes, and I'm trying to fix that. Pointing out that there are other problems is irrelevant.

You deride us as anti-science, to which we respond that we're really not, but, rather, see scientific proof and inquiry as subject to certain inherent limits.

We arrive at the sentence that got me to write this entry up. The scientific method is more concerned with the limits of what it knows and the implications of its knowledge to a degree unmatched by almost any other human endeavor. To claim that the scientific method has limits is true.

Science encompasses human curiosity and rationality -- its limit is at the boundary of human knowledge.

Contrasting with religion where proclamations are made with no (or pathetic) justification, about subjects which cannot be verified. It's equally important to recognize the limits of revealed religion.

Religion encompasses human fear and irrationality -- its limit is at the boundary of human ignorance.

The faith to which I ascribe has brought substantial light and unique meaning to the world... could you be open to the possibility that religion isn't inherently bad?

This is what's known as a non-sequitur. My fundamental argument is that it's not true, not that it's not useful. It's possible that I could get people to give more to charity if I could convince them that the great unicorn in the sky would reward them if they were more generous. This does nothing to establish the existence of the great unicorn.

...Theists look carefully at the astounding complexity and improbable fine-tuning of our universe and conclude that there's no way that this happened randomly, you then turn around and ask us to accept that it is the result of undetectable organizational forces... Isn't your argument every bit an assertion of faith, rather than knowledge?

  1. No one thinks evolution or gravity happens randomly.
  2. No one (except your fellow theists) will ask you accept things that are the result of undetectable forces.
  3. Tu quoque is a fallacy

Speaking for myself: if you think we should understand each other better (and I do) you have to tell us what you think, and why you think it. You have to understand what we think, and why. Telling us that we aren't really atheists -- or that Stalin was an atheist AND did bad things is simply irrelevant to what we believe and why we believe it. No one is an atheist because they think Stalin was a moral dude -- we're atheists because we see no compelling reason to think that any supernatural gods exist.

We (in aggregate) are very fair. You have to use and demonstrate methods of gaining knowledge that we can verify for ourselves -- and if this is too restrictive, we will dismiss your poorly conceived assertions about the real world just like we dismiss the relentless claims to supernatural knowledge that we are bombarded with daily. Just like you dismiss the heartfelt beliefs of ancient pagans as being any sort of guide to describing reality in any interesting way.

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Can morality be scientific?

January 19, 2011

Image via Wikipedia There has been some back-and-forth in the comments of my blog, and I wanted to let the discussion out for a bit more air. Jason has been arguing that he thinks that Sam Harris fails to make the case for a scientific morality. I think my criticism is more damaging to Harris' [...]

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Homosex is immoral -- an atheist responds

November 17, 2010

Image via Wikipedia I recently walked through a large hostile crowd that had formed around a small group of Christians holding signs talking about the evils of homosexuality. The people surrounding the sign-bearers were largely upset about the signs -- probably a number of Christians, and definitely a number of atheists, as well. The interactions [...]

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The Department for the Study of Wishful Thinking

November 13, 2010

The New York Times published an article Nov 12th, The Burning Bush They’ll Buy, but Not ESP or Alien Abduction, by Mark Oppenheimer. It tells the story of a religious studies Professor who wants to increase the scope of religious studies to include all kinds of nonsense. I think he wants to include essentially every [...]

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Going from Is to Ought

November 11, 2010

Image via Wikipedia I remembered reading Sam Harris' argument that led from "is to ought" -- and when I tried to look it up online, I couldn't find it anymore. The link went to a broken page on Sam's website and was hard to find elsewhere. I'm reproducing it here because I think it is [...]

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Coffee with Bernie -- Conversation Analysis

November 11, 2010

I just saw an interesting YouTube video posted by TheIowaAtheists and linked to by at least The Friendly Atheist (where I happened to find it). It was a scripted conversation between two actors: an atheist and a Christian that takes place in a coffee shop. There are several reasons I'm posting it here. First of [...]

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Reference checking Sam Harris

August 15, 2010

Sam Harris wrote an article for The Daily Beast titled, "Obama Backpedals on Mosque". It's an interesting read, but one passage in particular caught my eye. He writes, Thus, when Allah commands his followers to slay infidels wherever they find them, until Islam reigns supreme (2:191-193; 4:76; 8:39; 9:123; 47:4; 66:9)—only to emphasize that such [...]

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Slavery -- a problem in modern times

June 9, 2010

I've mentioned before that slavery is a problem, and that the books of the major monotheisms don't have a single verse against slavery, anywhere, within them -- (see my article on slavery and the Bible, or my article on slavery and the Koran). has a ton of high quality and short-and-to-the-point talks on a [...]

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Another victim of Islam -- Child Bride Bleeds to death

April 15, 2010

The BBC reports of a child bride in Yemen bleeding to death. BBC: Yemen Child Bride "Bleeds to Death" "A 13-year-old Yemeni girl has died of internal bleeding three days after being married, rights groups say." ... The report comes amid ongoing debate on setting a minimum age for brides in Yemen, where more than [...]

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