Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Let's not talk to Joss; he's sad and confusing.

Actually, I would like you to listen to Joss. This post’s title is just a stray line from Commentary: The Musical! I want you to listen to Joss because he is, in my opinion, what an atheist should be. If you’ve read certain postings on this blog (or if I’m fortunate enough to get Deity published or sell my script for Thanatos), you may have noticed that I have somewhat of an anti-atheist slant. Hell, if Thanatos ever gets made I expect to receive limitless hate mail from atheists (The antagonist is very clearly a militant, Richard Dawkins type atheist, whereas the protagonist is the leader of a society of fanatical guerrilla vigilantes, whose opposition to Transhumanism is both based on religious beliefs and on the existential threat the transhumans clearly posed to Humanity in the movie). This attitude is partially reactionary against the traditional anti-religious sentiment espoused by science fiction, which I feel is biased and unfair and deserves to be counterbalanced. I would like to make something very clear; it is only militant atheists that I dislike. I’ve said that Richard Dawkins is an arrogant fucking douchebag, and I’ll say it again. As far as I’m concerned, militant atheism only serves to polarize non-believers and believers against each other, which is not good. Daniel Dennent has pretty much acknowledged that antagonizing the faithful is detrimental to their cause. In the above video, Joss says something very important, which applies to every ideology, both religious and secular “It isn’t important that we’re right,”. Joss also lacks the smugness and arrogance that is sadly typical of militant atheists. He says to his fellow Humanists that they need to come up with a reliable morality that doesn’t involve a Cosmic Arbitrator (whom he calls the Sky Bully), but admits he doesn’t actually know how to do this. As I’ve said in a previous post, Peter Singer’s ideology scares me, and I completely reject it. Morality conflicts with the scientism most atheists adhere to, because morals cannot be proven by empirical observation or experimentation. Most people, atheists included, believe that killing innocent people is wrong. But that is still a belief and not a fact, and not everyone shares it. There are serial killers who have flat out said “Why shouldn’t I kill people?”. How do you scientifically prove that murder is wrong? Morality is ideology, not science, and the line between ideology and religion is a thin one. Militant atheists seem to believe that supernatural ideologies inherently arouse extremism, whereas secular ideologies do not. Environmentalists clearly demonstrate that this is not so. It’s not based on anything supernatural, just that Humans shouldn’t damage the environment or harm animals. Yet eco-terrorism has been on the rise in recent years. Clearly, an ideology doesn’t need anything supernatural to invoke extremism, and I regard any claims by atheists that religion is responsible for most of Human suffering as being ignorant and bigoted. World War II was the most devastating war of Human history, and it was not a Holy War. Joss clearly gets this, as he has a character in Serenity (the Operative) who is clearly a fanatic, but out of wholly secular devotion to his government. Michael Shermer, another atheist I consider to be good, has made note of the most obvious fact that for every one person who commits violence because of their faith, are there not thousands of people whose lives are enriched by their faith, who are motivated to be better people because of their belief? I wish more atheists admired him than Richard Dawkins.

Religion does encourage collectivism, and some of you no doubt believe that’s a bad thing. However, in order for a society to function effectively, the majority of its members must share the same basic beliefs. These beliefs don’t have to be religious in nature, but religion is an effective means of accomplishing this. In a society that can afford more individualism, the role of religion, at least organized religion, is probably diminished. Nevertheless, those who feel the religious impulse strongly are driven to congregate and celebrate their faith, so organized religion will always exist. Good old Joss realizes that the religious impulse isn’t going to go away. Even Richard Dawkins has admitted how tenacious religious ideas are. Joss realizes that “maybe some otters do need to believe in something,” which is why when he created Firefly he didn’t go down the ‘we have outgrown such primitive superstitions,’ road. They tried that on South Park; it didn’t work. So many innocent otters died. Gene Roddenberry thought that in the future everyone would believe what he believed, which is absurd. I avoided such narcissism in my own Space Opera, and provided my characters with ideological diversity, both because I think it’s more realistic and because the near total ideological conformity that we see on Star Trek would be horrible. I do have atheist protagonists in both my novel and screenplay if you’re wondering. They’re just not militant atheists. They’re more like Joss. What’s ironic is that whereas many science fiction writers have created societies without religious fanaticism, my society was saved by it from Transhumans, and these holy warriors remain essential in protecting Humanity from existential threats. I admit, they’re kind of like Jedi (themselves based off of the Samurai), but (mostly) lacking their psychic powers and with less advanced swords. A Jedi would definitely win in a fight with a Necrotheist.

Not only do I not share the scientism that is common among atheists, I also do not value reason as highly as they do. What’s so bloody arrogant about the critique of “The God Delusion”, is that we all have our own delusions, atheists too. Whatever you believe that gives your life meaning, even if it’s wholly secular, it’s not based on anything objective or scientific. To be purely empirical, you are merely the result of a completely random evolutionary process. Your existence is a total accident, as well as extremely precarious. You will live to be a hundred and twenty at an absolute maximum, an infinitesimal instant in cosmological time, and when you die everything you are will cease to be. Everyone will forget you, everything you did will ultimately be meaningless. For you are only one such being among billions, who for all intents in purposes cannot affect anything beyond our home planet, which is just as cosmologically insignificant as its inhabitants. Hell, our whole galaxy is cosmologically insignificant. Going by purely scientific facts, your life is meaningless, and believing otherwise is contrary to empirical evidence. The choice is between despair and madness, and most of us have chosen madness. Those who don’t usually off themselves. As Johnny Depp says in the trailers for Tim Burtons Alice in Wonderland (but not the film itself), “To survive it (Wonderland), you have to be as mad as a hatter. Which, fortunately, I am,”. To me, atheists are like Alice saying…

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” to which the Cheshire Cat responds…

“Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“But how do you know I’m mad?”

“You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Yes. Atheists, theists, deists; we’re all quite mad.

What I love most about Joss’s speech here is that he says while theism is belief in the absence of evidence (which I agree with. There is no direct empirical evidence for a Creator), Humanism is belief with a lot of evidence against it. I typically think of Humanists as being moral relativists, and as my last post made clear, I am a moral objectivist, so I suppose I’m not a Humanist. I believe in Good in Evil, and believe God to be the ultimate source of this morality. I’m also given to understand that Humanists regard Humans as inherently noble, whereas I only see Humans as being potentially noble. We are sufficient to stand, but free to fall. I do believe that most people feel an imperative to be good, but too often abandon that imperative when it becomes impractical, choosing instead to rationalize immorality. There are ignoble qualities about Humans as well, which I choose to represent with the Freudian id. There’s a part of all of us which is just like an infant. It’s wholly selfish and wants all of its desires instantly gratified without ever having to do any work. Fortunately, Humans also have a superego which is far more altruistic and only wants to be good. The id and the superego are in constant conflict. I believe that Humans are not inherently noble, but must chose to be noble by following their superego and not their id, which I admit is far more easily said then done. I do believe that most Humans want to be good and strive for nobility, but that nobility is only potential and does go unrealized in many people.

For any Humanists reading this, it is my opinion that you must reject the ideology of Unintelligent Design in the Human body. I believe in evolution, and I accept certain design flaws in the Human body that are a result of evolution. For example, we evolved from quadrapedal animals, so we are not optimally designed for bipedal locomotion. What I have a problem with is militant atheists claiming that certain parts of our bodies are ‘idiotic’ in their design. For example, they claim that breathing and eating out of the same hole is idiotic, because it results in hundreds of deaths in the US each year. Of course, the United States is a country of hundreds of millions, so that’s really only like one person out of a million each year. You divide that by an average lifespan of eighty, and your odds of dying from choking are really one in 12500. Your epiglottis is a perfectly adequate mechanism for keeping food out of your trachea, and in case something does get in there you automatically start coughing to expunge it. If your nose were your only air passage, you’d die the first cold you got. Breathing through the mouth also allows you to take in a greater volume of air during times of physical exertion. Most importantly, breathing through the mouth has allowed the evolution of Human speech. I believe in theistic evolution, which means that I accept both the evolutionary explanation for our respiratory systems (lungs evolved from air bladders of early amphibious fish) as well as a teleological explanation (our mouths were needed to produce Human speech). In evolution, it is far easier to adapt a pre-existing system to perform a new task, than it is to create a new system from scratch. Our lips, tongues, teeth, and so on originally evolved to manipulate food, but they were later adapted to manipulate sound as well, allowing as to speak. If we only breathed through our noses, our nostrils would have to be significantly larger to allow for sufficient intake of air during physical exertion, as well as somehow evolving the articulation necessary to produce speech, which is evolutionarily unlikely. Another common claim that's come out of the pathetic little war between creationists and atheists is that our retinas are backwards, since the light sensitive cells are located behind the nerves and blood vessel. Well this is admittedly counterintuitive, to call it a bad design is to overlook the valid functional reasons for this arrangemnt. Rather than list these reasons here, I will merely provide a link on the design of the vertebrate retina. Quite frankly, I don't see how any trait that has served vertebrates adequately for hundreds of millions of years could really be a bad design.

I would never claim that the Human body is perfect from an engineering standard, because neither evolution nor God are engineers. Evolution is a tinkerer, and God is…mysterious. I simply consider it inexcusably arrogant to say that God made a mistake, because to do so is presuming to know what God was intending to do. I do not know why God created the Universe, life or Humanity, and so I cannot judge His Creation. If you consider yourself a Humanist, then I think you are obligated to believe that Humans are just as noble in body as we are in spirit.

I also do not consider myself a Humanist because I believe that Humanity should be humble. Humans are only intelligent and powerful compared to the other life forms of Earth. But the Earth is only one planet in a galaxy of three trillion stars, in a Universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies. There may be other Universes, but since we’re nowhere near a Grand Unification Theory I regard such claims as mere speculation. My point is that in the vast scheme of things, Humans are very ignorant, very stupid, and very small. Sad little king of a sad little hill. I’ ve no doubt that somewhere in this incomprehensibly vast Universe there exist beings with knowledge, intellects and powers far beyond those of mortal men. I question the wisdom of ‘playing god’ not necessarily because such a thing would be an affront to God (though it may be) but because we ultimately don’t know what we’re doing and the results may be disastrous. The modern concept of progress arose during the 18th century, and went more or less unquestioned until the invention of the atomic bomb. This invention made it clear that we may be getting too big for our britches. Technological progress is clearly a double edged sword, so there is nothing inherently good (or evil) about Human progress. Because of this we must take caution with our technology, since it may likely be the end of us.

I’m not sure how Joss feels about Transhumanism. In Serenity, an attempt to make Humans less aggressive, meaning better, resulted in the deaths of thirty million people, as well as the creation of the savage Reavers. We played god, but fucked up, because we just didn’t understand what we were doing. Mal makes it very clear that he does not believe that Humanity can be made better. The Firefly Universe apparently lacks any post-human creatures, and I can’t help but wonder why that is. I’d love to hear or read something official from Joss about his opinions on Transhumanism.

So, those are my thoughts on atheism and humanism, as prompted by Joss Whedon. I hope that more atheists will choose Joss as a role model for their behaviour, and I beseech them to reject the hubris, intolerance, bigotry, hypocrisy and irrationality of militant atheism. I believe in harmony between faith and science, and encourage you to check out The Biologos Website for many great articles on that topic. When Dr. Horrible II comes out, I hope that believers and non-believers can watch it together in harmony.

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