Archive for January, 2011

It is almost taken for granted in discussions of morality, government, and human endeavor in general that life – as opposed to there not being life – is a good thing. Who knows how long this opinion has been around, and when it was that the first person argued against it.

I know of a few places where this point has been challenged in recent times. There was an opinion piece in the New York Times by Peter Singer titled “Should This Be the Last Generation?” in which Singer makes a case for no longer having children so that we can be the last generation. There are also a couple songs by Bad Religion, namely “Better Off Dead” and especially “Pity the Dead” that express skepticism over the idea that living is better than not living.

And certainly there are arguments for ending it all. I won’t go into them, as that’s not why I’m writing this. If you want some arguments, read Singer’s article or listen to “Pity the Dead” (and read the lyrics while you do so you know what he’s saying; he talks pretty fast, but has some interesting things to say!).

What I’m getting at is that the answer this question of whether or not we should bother living is not a de facto “yes.” But I do want to get past this question so we can move on, so how should we decide? I do not simply want to say “yes, we should live” just for the sake of it. And I also do not want to weigh the merits of living and ending it all, as I have already mentioned.

What I will do is take each answer to their logical conclusions. I will say what I think are the only reasonable things to do if you choose to answer the question. And then, perhaps, based on the conclusions we come to, we can decide how we want to answer the original question.

If we answer “no,” if we decide that life is actually not worth living because it contains more suffering than happiness, more strife than peace, what should we do? I think the only options would be what I call the “quick fix” and the “slow fix.”

The “quick fix” would be for everyone to take their own lives. Perhaps not outright using guns or nooses or razor blades, but perhaps after one last planet-wide party. After the huge feast, after the orgy, after getting drunk and high and listening to the best music our humble planet has produced, we could all take an overdose of something or another and die peacefully in our sleeps, before the next day’s hangover and (probably justified) accusations of infidelity, and especially before going back to work.

The “slow fix” would be, as Singer suggests, to no longer have children. Let us soldier through these painful lives we lead, but at the same time not bring any more innocent souls into the world. As the last human being dies off, our species would finally be free from this Hell on Earth. Perhaps our brains are not equipped for reality. Wolves feed by brutally killing deer, and deer live by constantly avoiding the wolves, but neither are smart enough to realize their horrible positions. To them, living is merely so. Too much knowledge, as the God of Genesis might have said, only led us to understand the suffering we actually face.

As poetic as I tried to make those solutions sound, would you take them? I doubt you would take either, but would you agree you would more likely take the latter (if say, forced to decide)? I think there is an easy explanation for this: people don’t want to die. I won’t go so far as to say they like living. Many people, not even those who are crippled by depression, are not happy. Yet nonetheless they do not want to die. (And some people really want to have kids.)

So, at this point I could very well stop and say since we do not want to answer “no” to our question of whether we should bother living, we therefore must answer “yes.”

I will note here that if you answer “no” to the question, the two options I laid out are, as far as I can tell, the only logical conclusions. You may have a slight adjustment to one of my “fixes,” perhaps modifying the “quick fix” to instead party until we have exhausted all resources that are readily available. (If we allow for resources not yet excavated or turned into something usable, I don’t really see how that’s different than what we have now, or the “slow fix.” Why bother working (suffering) at all if your goal is to enjoy life as much as possible before killing oneself?)

You may have come up with another solution, such as killing 90% of the population so that the 10% remaining may start over with the more resources per person, presumably eliminating the problem of suffering for those who are alive. However, that is not answering “no” to the question “is life worth living period?” In this case you are just saying that life is not worth living as it is now and are therefore saying that life would be worth living ultimately if we could change it. This means life is worth living, if only to ensure that eventually we don’t need to put so much thought into this question. This is a “yes” answer. So far as I can tell, the only things that lead from the “no” answer are killing ourselves and no longer procreating – in other words, somehow ending the human race. (If you can think of another conclusion to the “no” answer, let me know in the comments!)

I am not going to stop at our answer of “yes,” however. I want to take this answer to its logical conclusion as I did with the “no” answer. If life is in fact worth living, if the human race is better around than not, what must we do? At the very least, this will give you something to compare to the “fixes” I proposed in response to the “no” answer. Perhaps you will choose “no” after all!

Anyway, unlike the “no” answer, I do not think there are multiple options in this case. I think there is just one thing that needs to be done, as well as a number of things that would probably be a good idea.

I think it is safe to say that if life is worth living, if living is good, then if something happened to us (either you or I personally or the human race as a whole) that killed us it would be bad. So what do we need to do to ensure that this bad thing has as small a chance of wiping us all out as possible?

Simple: we need to get off this rock. As it is now, there is far too much possibility of self-destruction. I won’t get in to the fact that people with Iron Age beliefs are getting access to 21st century weaponry. I won’t get in to the fact that we have enough nuclear weapons on this planet to destroy it many times over. I won’t get in to the fact that we’re slowly killing the planet through our over-use of fossil fuels. I’m sure you all know enough about these things already. But there isn’t just our self-destruction to worry about. If an asteroid hit Earth, we’d be done for. If aliens attacked us, we’d be sitting ducks here on this single planet.

We need to spread beyond our planet. We need to colonize the moon. Colonize Mars. We need to invest in new methods of transportation to get us even further away. This will ensure that no intentional act or accidental disaster could wipe us all out. Because that would be bad, as we’ve established.

That’s pretty much all I can think of that absolutely must be done. Leave the governance of the people, what moral systems we should have, and so on to the ebb and flow of human culture to decide. All that needs to be done is to ensure that we’re around for as long as possible.

I think there are a few things that are “strongly recommended” though. We need to improve the lives of everyone on the planet. If killing ourselves is bad, why give people the idea in the first place? By this I do not mean to censor media so that it does not mention suicide. I also do not think that suicide should be illegal. What I mean is that we should make every place humans live a place where nobody would want to kill themselves. Let’s feed the hungry. Let’s end prejudice and hatred. Let’s eradicate human slavery.

So there you have it. If we’re going to say that life is worth living, if we’re not going to be hypocrites and cowards, living when we think we shouldn’t, then let’s at least look like we mean it. If we’re going to live, then let’s live, and spread, and try to bring happiness to everyone.

~peace, RR

I welcome comments and suggestions. Comments can go below, suggestions to radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com :)


Atheism and charity

In contrast to the relationship between organized religion and charity (which is probably the only thing organized religion can say it has going for it), the relationship between atheism and charity is much more complicated.

A reader of the blog, David, brought a piece of information to my attention that is pretty interesting. A study done by The Barna Group found that nonreligious people (atheists, agnostics, and those who profess “no faith”) donate less to charity than religious people do. The relevant bit of the article is as follows:

One of the outcomes of this profile – and one of the least favorable points of comparison for atheist and agnostic adults – is the paltry amount of money they donate to charitable causes. The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.

It should first be noted that The Barna Group, according to Wikipedia, was “founded … for the purpose of providing ‘research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry.'” I am not saying that their facts are wrong. (I am actually not surprised by the results.) I am just saying that with such apparent bias it might be prudent to take what they say with a grain of salt.

So, per David’s request, I’d like to go over why I think this is. Why do we give less?

Let’s go over some things mentioned (and not mentioned) by the study. There is a lot of interesting information that the study presents, even though it is not all applied in ways that I will.  (Perhaps due to their bias, perhaps because they are just stating facts and nothing more.)

First, the study notes that nonbelievers tend to be younger. (From the article: “The no-faith audience is younger, and more likely to be male and unmarried.”) Already I am seeing reasons why charitable donations are not as common. Some good reasons are that young people are just getting started in life, and are probably living paycheck-to-paycheck as they start their lives in the working world. Perhaps they are saving for houses. Perhaps they have children that are still in their care. Some less-good reasons are that young people probably spend more and party more.

In contrast, religious people — who must be older if atheists are younger — may be well-established in their careers. Their children may be out of the house already and no longer need to be cared for. Plus, religious people party less, and (according to the study) are less interested in new technology (“64% [are interested] among no-faith individuals versus 52% among active-faith adults”) so they might spend less, too.

Next, the article mentions “[nonreligious people] also earn more and are more likely to be college graduates.” Let me start with the college graduate bit. Again, nonreligious people are more likely to have college loans to pay off, so they have less money lying around to spend on charity. Now let’s touch on this bit about earning more. This strikes me as saying “they should be able to give more.” However, living in an area with a lot of younger, intelligent college graduates in the work force (coastal regions or larger cities in blue states), the living expenses are also higher as well. The article does not mention specifics about how much more nonbelievers earn, which is surprising because they give specifics for just about everything else.

So, the religious people might just have more money lying around.

Now, I’d like to provide a few reasons outside of the article that might explain why nonbelievers give less.

First ties into my post on atheism and politics. I think the “battle lines” are different for religious and nonreligious people. Religious people focus on giving to the poor at least in part because it gives them easy targets for proselytization.  Nonbelievers, on the other hand, are not worried so much about converts. They are worried about keeping God out of our government. So I feel as though perhaps we are spending money, or at least effort, but not on charities. Instead we are focusing on political issues.

Now, there are a couple bits about politics in the study. First, “[nonreligious people] are less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%).” This might take some bite out of my previous point. However, with the average overall-voter-turnout being much lower than either of those figures, you wonder if perhaps a higher proportion of nonbelievers actually vote, while the religious people (already steeped in ritual) register to vote out of habit or due to a sense of “civic duty.” The figures for whether people actually vote are, like specifics on income, absent.

Second, “[nonbelievers] are also more likely to be registered to vote as an independent or with a non-mainstream political party.” This tells me that nonreligious people are more involved with politics than their religious neighbors. The mere fact that someone would not do the easy thing and vote for one of the major parties shows at least a higher level of sophistication with regards to politics.

The unfortunate thing about how the article presents the numbers on charitable giving is that it is unclear what “charity” means. I am comfortable, however, in assuming it leaves out political and activist spending, which is where I think nonreligious money would go anyway over charities.

And to focus a little bit more on the numbers the article gives, it is also unclear what “church-based giving” is. Is that just donating to pay the pastor and renovate the church, or is that to fund a soup kitchen in the basement? It is very unclear. I am unsure whether a fair comparison would include the church-based giving or not. Since they even bothered to mention it, I think it would be fair to leave it out.

And with that being said, I think it’s much more enlightening to say that the average nonreligious person gave $200 in 2006 while the average religious person gave $400. (Rather than to say that the average religious person gave double what a nonreligious person gave.) With the points I put forward already, I think a meager $200 gap can be easily explained.

However, explained or no, I will continue with what I think to be the central issue with regards to a lack of nonreligious charitable donations: it is simply easier for a religious person to give. I do not mean that atheists lack the necessary mental faculty to give. I mean that the tools, institutions, and networks for religious charitable giving are very robust and very visible.

If a religious person wanted to donate some money to charity or something, it would be very easy. Go online, find basically any charity, and give. Or, just give in church! Not only would it be incredibly easy to give in church, but the guilt factor further explains why church-based giving is so high. Plus, giving to the church is like putting money directly into God’s wallet! Who cares if the money is just going to go towards new Bibles that nobody will read? You’re giving to the church! High-five! (Psyche!)

On the other hand, if a nonreligious person wants to give to charity, they have their work cut out for them! In the past few years a lot of high-profile atheist organizations and YouTubers have been highlighting secular charities (like Doctors Without Borders), but if you don’t belong to any groups (or their mailing lists) and don’t watch YouTube, it is difficult to find a suitable charity. You need to make sure the money isn’t secretly going to anti-gay, anti-woman, or pro-superstition institutions. Basically if “God” is mentioned on the website, you’re fucked, and you’d be surprised how many times you can be fucked in a day if you’re looking for a secular charity! (Hint: Do NOT give to the Salvation Army.)

But don’t worry, my fellow heathens. All is not lost! If you feel bad about our (in my opinion, understandable and expected) inferiority when it comes to charitable giving, here’s a case to cheer you up!

Kiva is a microfinance website that attempts to alleviate poverty by providing loans to people. They take out a loan (from the money people donate), start their business, whatever that may be, and when they are able, pay back the loan. Your donation can actually be used multiple times as it gets paid back again and again! From their website: “Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By combining microfinance with the internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending.”

Okay, sounds pretty good. But you’re probably wondering, aside from the fact that such a site exists, what’s to be happy about? Well check out this page. That’s right! Atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers collectively have given more money than any other group on the website, by far. They are very comfortable in their #1 spot. Perhaps nonreligious people do give after all, given the opportunity?

Now you may be thinking that being good is not about who gives the most money. You may be thinking it cheapens the whole experience and spirit of giving to make it a competition. And it certainly isn’t a “fight” we could win, so why bother trying to start it? I agree. However, I think it would be an amazing thing if groups of people competed to see who could give the most to charity. No matter who came out on top, the real winners would be those whose lives depend on the help of charitable organizations like Kiva and Doctors Without Borders.

All this talk of charity and helping others has got me smiling 🙂 I’m gonna create an account on Kiva right now! I encourage you all to donate something to some secular charity. Here is a list of some secular ones so that you may pick a charity that is tackling an issue you care about!

~peace, RR

The idea for this post was provided by a reader like you! If you have any issues, subjects, or topics, specific or broad, that you want me to weigh-in on, please leave a comment below or send me an email at radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com :)

I swear, every time the topic of privacy is discussed, some yahoo has to bring up the old cliché “well, if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.” I’m so sick of hearing this phrase that I’m going to devote this post to BEATING IT INTO A BLOODY PULP. There are so many things wrong with the idea that it’s almost laughable.

I actually used a short version of these arguments on my father while visiting him for the holidays. It worked on him, and he’s pretty stubborn, so hopefully it’ll work on you too, and you can bring these points up the next time some yahoo at a party rattles off this phrase rather than giving any real thought to the issues.

First, the statement assumes that laws are static. It assumes that what is legal today will be legal tomorrow. It assumes that if people don’t need to hide something now, that they never will. I’m sorry, but this isn’t how it works. The law is most certainly not static. Sure, smoking cigarettes is legal today, and if someone knew you smoked they may say “tsk tsk, that’s bad for you, you know.” But what about ten or twenty years from now? What if cigarettes are illegal then? Then your stupid phrase comes back from the dead to bite you in the ass. I guess your only choice is to quit smoking, eh?

Which brings us to the next assumption the phrase entails: that the laws are good. Ask yourself, do you think every law in this country is just, fair, and worth having? I bet you’ve already thought of at least a half-dozen bullshit, unfair, unjust, or perhaps even unconstitutional laws. You might have replied to my cigarettes example “well yeah, we should ban cigarettes, that would be good.” Alright, how about… music? Say some quack shows that music makes people violent, irrational, emotional, and dumb. Say the government thinks its a waste of time. And, say the government starts by making instruments illegal to play. Are you going to toss your guitar in the trash just because it’s something that you’d end up having to hide?

And what about things that aren’t illegal, but are frowned upon? Things that society doesn’t like? What if the government wanted everyone to disclose whether they were straight or gay? Or how about what religion they were? Yeah, no problem for the straight Christians in this country. And probably not a huge deal for gays, atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists who live in more enlightened areas of the country (i.e. the North). But what about the atheists and the gays in the Bible Belt? Why should they be forced to reveal what are very personal aspects of themselves, especially when the main result will just be ostracism from their neighbors?

But even throwing aside all those flaws with the assumptions of the phrase, we are still left with people’s need for privacy. Perhaps you’re okay with having your privacy being taken away in subways, and at airports, and sooner-or-later whenever you’re outside your home. Maybe you’re even okay with cameras in your house, as long as they aren’t in the bathroom or the bedroom. But wait, what? You mean you don’t want them to see that? But you’ve got nothing to hide! They don’t care what your dick looks like! They don’t care how big your breasts are! They just want to make sure you’re not doing anything illegal in there. Oh, and they want to watch.

Do you see? It is a fact that we need some sort of privacy. Humans may be social animals but we are not purely social. We wear clothes. We have our own rooms. We have secrets, even if they are meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

If you give the government an inch with regards to privacy, they will eventually take a mile. And once everyone gets used to the mile, they will ask for ten more. You may think that such measures will make everyone safer, rather than simply give those in power another avenue to control what we do. You might. I, on the other hand, think that’s a very dangerous gamble.

~peace, RR

I welcome comments and suggestions. Comments can go below, suggestions to radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com :)

The blog is not dead

Haven’t posted in like a month. Don’t worry, the blog is not dead. It’s just in the hospital in critical condition. Haha, just kidding. Holiday season took up a lot of my time, and my apartment is currently very messy, and I have a cold. I know, excuses, right? Well a big reason I haven’t been posting is because I’ve been thinking so much. Lots of ideas rolling around the ol’ noodle, so look forward to some posts in the near future!

My apologies to those who have subscribed to my RSS feed and were like “sweet! new post!” only to find this, lol.

~peace, RR