Sunday, May 18, 2014

As an atheist, are you a hard core extremist, or are you an accomodationist?

I was perusing FaceBook this morning briefly, and ran into an argument about how Atheism should act as a movement.  There were two sides - those who argued that the Extremists were too harsh and intolerant and those who were defending the position, with the argument centered around Dawkins.  As in, Dawkins is either a Grade A Number One Dick, or he's the best thing to come along since sliced bread, at least for the Atheist Movement.

While I agree that Dawkins can be acerbic at times (especially when confronting Theist idiots), but in general, he is pretty British in arguing his positions.  Meaning that he can be very polite while tearing you a new a**hole.

But he isn't counted as one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism for nothing.  All four - Dawkins, Denning, Harris and Hitchens (may he long be remembered for his cutting wit...) are known as such because they performed a singular function.  They are responsible for awakening the world to the growing number of atheists in this country (and indeed world-wide) by being, in a word, A**holes.

They served the same function as the Gay Pride movement, namely, attracting media attention to our existence and our growing numbers.

High profile, indeed!  They wrote books, gave interviews, went on TV, established web sites, then blogs and have, in general, made themselves into tremendous pains in the a** for influential theist leaders everywhere.  By telling the world that we are here, we are growing in numbers and influence and will NOT go away.  (and by ripping their theology into very small, very insignificant pieces...but that's another discussion.)

And we've got opinions about religion that are in the process of upsetting the balance of power in, especially, the First World.

As for the argument, there is a contingent that argues that being an a**hole and intolerant of the beliefs of theists isn't changing minds.  That it is counter-productive because it turns them off and makes them ultra-defensive.

Of course it does.  So did the in-your-face Gay Pride movement.  They paraded around the country in big cities where they had the numbers to defend themselves and got people talking.  They allowed others like themselves in less gay-populated areas to realize that THEY WERE NOT ALONE!  They made the media pay attention.

As time has gone on, the methods used by the Gay Movement have mellowed.  They do still have Gay Pride parades, but you don't see the radical dressed-up outrageously decked out folks in those parades like you used to.  These days, you can hardly (even if you squint) tell them from the regular folks who also march with them in support!

Which is kinda the point - gays are just like us.  They have lives, loves, jobs, dreams and debts.  Just like straights.

So do atheists.

We, too have lives, loves, jobs, dreams and debts.  Heck, walking down the street, one can hardly tell an atheist from a god-lover these days!  Ahem!  Sorry, I digress...

Which is why the Four Horsemen were and are needed - to wake people up.  To show them that we ARE HERE, and we are NOT going away.  We live alongside you, we are in your schools, your grocery stores, your parks, even in your churches!

And the more people see atheists as normal people, who do not eat babies nor worship Satan, the more they will see that we have common interests - like the Separation of Church and State.

Those who are derisively called "accomodationists" ARE needed.  Yes, it is Ok to be tolerant of others' religious beliefs.  Yes, we need to work with theists to bring together this society to push out the extremists of all kinds so we can learn to live together.  So we can build a country (and a world) that is neutral at the governmental level so everybody can hold and discuss opinions different from others.  So we can have political disagreements and discussions that will not result in violence and hatred.

In short, this is a big world, with a lot of different people in it.  Just as there are as many religious opinions as there are people, there is room in our movement for many differing techniques for approaching the theist audience, depending on who they are, and what interests we may have in common.

Instead of bad-mouthing other atheists who don't approach the subject like you do, try to understand who they are trying to reach, and discuss how to make them more effective in that effort.  Discuss how YOU can be more effective in reaching YOUR audience, too.  Try to see how the different approaches can be used effectively together, instead of accusing each other of being hurtful.

We've got billions of people to reach, and we can't reach them all using just one technique.

Cooperation works better than infighting.

Robert W. Ahrens

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Transcendence (2014)

Movie reviewed by Bill Creasy

This movie starring Johnny Depp is, in my humble opinion, a real science fiction movie. There have been a lot of special effects and action movies recently that borrow sf elements, but this movie has actual thought behind it, and I found it to be very worthwhile.

The movie is about a computer scientist named Will Caster, played by Depp, who uploads his conscious mind into a computer network. (This is not a spoiler, since it is in the movie trailer.) Before doing so, he gives a speech at a conference referring to the Singularity, the idea promoted by Ray Kurzweil and others. The Singularity is the predicted time when computer or artificial intelligence capabilities exceed the brainpower of organic human beings. When this happens, technology will presumably be out of human hands, and the entire experience of being human will change. In the movie, an audience member asks Caster whether he intends to create God. Caster answers, "Isn't that what humans have always done?"

The scientist is happily married to Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall. At the same conference, she paints a rosy picture of the way that such a transcendent intelligence could fix environmental problems.

Events that follow the uploading of Caster's mind are fantastic but naturalistic predictions of what the Singularity could accomplish. Nanomachines are developed that perform medical miracles. The nanomachines are self replicating and spread over the planet, and they begin to fix ecological problems.

There is a resistance movement that opposes these advances. The members of the movement question whether Caster is still human and whether he can be trusted to care about the best interests of the rest of humanity. However, they also sound like conservative technophobes, so the viewer has to decide how much credibility they deserve.

The resolution of the conflict between Caster, his wife, and the resistance is thought-provoking. It is perhaps not what the most forward-looking people would like, but it is also not depressing or too optimistic.

I will discuss the ending in the comments, with appropriate warnings to those who haven't seen it and want to avoid spoilers.

Bill Creasy is on the WASH Board and is coordinator of the Baltimore chapter. The review was printed in the May issue of WASHline.