Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Government neutrality on religion protects us all

In a comment on my last blog post, my good friend Gavin stated that he is "concerned about the rise of secularism in general" because atheist groups are "far more intolerant of religious people than religious people are intolerant of atheists." I think this is far from the case, and I want to share a few stories of people who have bravely fought to be treated neutrally by their government.

I'm giving a summary of Vashti's story from a paper I found online here, although I originally heard many of these stories on FFRF podcasts.

My first example is Vashti McCollum. She isn't atheist, but wanted freedom to teach her children her own interpretation of the Bible. Her son Jim came home with a permission slip to allow him to participate in religious instruction at the school. She refused to sign it, but after heavy pressure from his peers, Jim desperately wanted her to sign it, so she did. She soon found that the class was not teaching ethics and morals, but rather religious indoctrination including faith and miracles. She transferred her son Jim to another school, and the next school again sent home a similar permission slip, she again refused to sign it, and Jim began to be bullied by his peers who saw that he was not attending the religious instruction class. He was forced to sit alone in the music room while everyone else went to the class. She decided to sue, on the grounds that the school was violating the 1st and 14th amendments.

Her family was ostracizied from the community. She often received very angry and threatening letters and phone calls, which were most especially vehement on Sunday evenings (after church). At one point, a crowd marched on her house singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers," rang her doorbell, and when she opened the door, she was pelted by rotten fruits and vegetables. People would dump their garbage in front of their front door. Jim often came home crying, and teachers seemed angry at him for not attending the class.

It was under these circumstances that the Supreme Court found that the only way for the schools to treat all students equally would be to ban religious classes in public schools. This decision protects all religious minorities. A Mormon family in Texas found refuge in it, and sued to prevent the Southern Baptist majority in the area from pushing their religion on their children. It protects students in Utah from having Mormonism pushed on them. Ultimately, these decisions protect all religions, and defends our right to not have someone else's religion pushed on us or our children at school.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

You can be good without religion

Many people have suggested that society needs religion to be good. In contrast, I think there's some decent evidence that more secular societies are better in many ways. According to The Moral Landscape, location 2557-62 on the kindle version:
And on almost every measure of societal health, the least religious countries are better off than the most religious. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands—which are the most atheistic societies on earth—consistently rate better than religious nations on measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations, etc.
He cites  "Society without God" by Phil Zuckerman.

Now I'm not saying that atheism is for everyone; I think many people are actually better off religious, whether you're better off religious depends a lot on your personal circumstances and background. But I do see this as good evidence that as America becomes more secular, it's not going to fall apart. It's entirely possible to have a good, non-religious society, and to be a good non-religious member of society. Many deists, atheists, and non-religious individuals have made very substantial contributions to society. I'll list a few of my favorites:

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • James Madison
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Albert Einstein (seriously, I promise he didn't believe in a religious God)
  • Charles Darwin
  • Stephen Hawking
  • Bill Nye
  • A couple of my heroes, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett
  • George Soros
So there's no lack of awesome non-religious role models out there, including many of the founders of this country, our most prominent scientists, and the most generous philanthropists in the world. I hope that as America becomes more tolerant and diverse, that non-religious individuals and atheists like myself will be as accepted and trusted as religious individuals.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Human sexual evolution

If I've never written something that made you feel awkward, this probably will. Read at your own risk.

Our biology reveals fascinating evidence of our
evolutionary history, and answers some interesting questions. Why are our penises so big? Why is the vagina so acidic? Why do we have sex so often per childbirth? Why so much pumping action, and why do females have a tendency to vocalize during sex? Why do we have large external testees hanging off our bodies? Any man can vouch to the inconvenience of his balls: they're terribly sensitive and present an easy target in a fight. It doesn't have to be that way. Gorillas have tiny 1-inch penises and balls safely inside their bodies. The answer to these questions is that sperm competition has played a prominent role in our sexual evolution.

The reason we have large penises is that a vacuum is created by the tight seal between the vagina and the penis. By pumping, the male can suck out any semen that may have been left by a previous male. His large external testees create enough sperm to allow him to attempt to fertilize many women each day. The female's vagina has barriers to entry, such as its acidity, so that only the healthiest sperm could fertilize her egg. Her tendency to vocalize during sex may be an invitation for other males to have sex with her as well.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be monogamous, but I am saying that for the last several hundred thousand years, our species has not usually been monogamous. Some of these explanations may turn out to be wrong, but I think it's clear that evolution offers very plausible explanations of our biological characteristics, whereas the hypothesis that we are a special creation of a loving deity who wishes us to be monogamous does not offer plausible explanations of those characteristics. I think this evidence indicates that we are a product of evolution.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The balance between selfishness and unselfishness

Once I had accepted that promoting human well-being should be the basis or morality, I faced a difficult moral dilemma. Any money that I spent on myself that could have benefitted Africans without clean drinking water meant that I did not care about those people or their needs. The requirement for truly loving your neighbor as yourself seemed impossible for Americans. I had a hard time seeing American society as any better than The Capitol in the Hunger Games. We have so much, and use so little of our means to help the people in this world that need help so badly.

While I still feel like American society does not do nearly enough for the needy in the world, I eventually came to a partial resolution to that dilemma. I realized that trying to be so frugal and generous was making me unhappy, and I couldn't promote a moral system that caused its own adherents to be unhappy. For this reason, I now think it's reasonable to buy the things that we really need for ourselves to be happy, and fit into the culture we are apart of, and save for our financial security, before donating to charities to help the less fortunate. I still think that spending money frivolously, on things that don't really add to our happiness or are unnecessarily expensive, is wrong. That money could have been used to help to destitute. I think being ostentatiously rich is wrong too, for the same reason. If you appear rich to those around you, you're spending more than you need to fit into your own culture. I still think we should each make a strong effort to become unselfish: to train ourselves to feel happy when we are helping others, not ourselves. But I do think it's reasonable to put our own happiness and security first, before helping others.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Atheist Morality

After losing my faith in God, I was unsure about what should be my basis of morality. I discovered part of the answer in Sam Harris's TED video on how science can answer moral questions, and his book The Moral Landscape. The basic idea is that morality should be based on promoting human well-being, or in other words, based on empathy, compassion, and loving your neighbor like yourself. So I'm a big fan of Jesus's 2nd greatest commandment (although obviously not so much his greatest).

The traditional basis of morality is tradition, usually religious tradition. Using compassion as the basis of our morality means that it can progress, and there are several reasons that it might:

Tradition may be mistaken

There are a lot of commandments in the Old Testament that seem objectionable to us today. For example, most of us would consider it wrong to kill someone for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, for worshiping a different God than us, or for being the child of someone who worships a different God. I realize Christians don't follow those rules now, but were any of those things ever right? If not, then maybe we should question whether scriptures are a good source of morality.

Our environment may change

For example, as we become more and more exposed to advertising, and that advertising becomes better at causing us to want to buy things, we can re-evaluate its effect on our well-being. We may realize that advertising does not promote our well-being, and we should take steps to reduce our exposure to it. What's right can depend on our personal circumstances.

We may learn more about human nature

After we learn that sexual orientation is largely immutable, and that most gays and lesbians are happier accepting their sexuality than repressing it, we can become more accepting of our gay and lesbian peers, or even encourage them to accept their sexuality rather than repress it.

People are different

What's right for one person may be wrong for another. Maybe pre-marital sex is a terrible idea for some people, but fine for others, depending on their personalities, desires, and situation. Maybe getting married and having a family is a really great idea for some people, but not others. We shouldn't think that what's good for many people necessarily applies to everyone.

For these reasons and others, I think loving your neighbor as yourself is a superior basis for morality than religion or tradition.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Drive Safely

Last month one of Sarah's friends from her ward passed away in a driving accident. She is the third young woman from that ward to die in a driving accident, and Sarah's brother Matt was the one to find her car and call 911, so I thought I'd write a blog post to encourage us all to drive safely.

According to the CDC, the #1 cause of death for ages 1-44 was "unintentional injury", and the #1 cause of injury deaths age 5-24 and #2 for age 25 on up was unintentional motor vehicle traffic. Driving may be the most dangerous thing we do as adults. According to, text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent--at 55 mph--of driving the length of an entire football field, blind. Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use.

So here's my advice: don't text and don't use your phone while driving. Don't fiddle with the gps. Pull over or do it before you leave. Don't do makeup. Don't be distracted while driving. Avoid driving when you can. Treat driving like it's a very dangerous activity. People love you, be safe.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why I Hope Obama Wins

Here are a couple of simple reasons that I strongly support Barack Obama over Mitt Romney for the presidency: he supports a more progressive income tax, and is more fiscally responsible.

President Obama recognizes that some tax increases are going to be necessary to reduce our national debt long-term. I like his Buffett Rule: that people earning over $1 million/year should pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent. I think this is in line with the literature on optimal taxation (like the excellent Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez paper), which not only supports the idea of progressive taxation, but always (to my knowledge) concludes that we should have a tax system that is much more progressive than it currently is.

Mitt Romney's tax proposals would significantly raise the national debt, and are fiscally irresponsible. The assumptions made to argue otherwise are questionable at best. Reagan and Bush after him are responsible for running up the national debt unnecessarily during good economic times. The recession that began at the end of Bush's term has caused the national debt to continue to increase under President Obama, but I think the ultimate cause of that was deregulation, and that increase was necessary during an economic catastrophe. Obama supports regulating Wall Street to prevent something similar from happening again. An increase in tax rates on high incomes will reduce the deficit and will not significantly hurt the economy because people with high incomes are more likely to save their money during a recession anyway. Tax cuts on people with low incomes and direct government spending tends to stimulate the economy during a recession, because that money gets spent, and not saved.

Barack Obama is simply more fiscally responsible and has tax proposals that are more in line with the interests of middle-class Americans, rather than the very rich. His proposals make good economic sense.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Principles in Finding Truth

Some of my suggestions for any seekers of truth out there.

1. Read widely

I see a lot of people on Facebook who seem to have simply absorbed the ideas that were around them as they grew up, and now believe those things to be absolute truth, without having been exposed to or seriously considered other beliefs. What they don’t seem to realize is that their real reason for their beliefs is that they were born in an area where those beliefs are common. This obviously isn’t a good way of determining what is true. The best antidote is reading widely. This is a good way of getting exposure to lots of different ideas, preferably by people who actually believe those ideas. If the only things you know about liberal political ideas are the criticisms you’ve heard from conservatives, then you haven’t given them a fair shot. Read a popular book by a liberal, and one by a conservative. Read a book by a theist, and an atheist. Give them both a chance.

2. Trust yourself

On some issues, you’ll be able to identify experts, and it’s okay to trust experts. However, on some basic issues like whether God exists, it’s not really possible to “be humble” or trust someone else on the matter, because you’d be the one choosing who you should trust, so you’re the one choosing what to believe either way. If you’re choosing to trust that person because you know them (even if he or she is also a very good and smart person), you’re falling into the same trap of believing something because it’s the local tradition. If you’re interested in truth, you can’t just rely on someone else. Find out for yourself by hearing out many different ideas.

3. Don’t be afraid of information

Growing up, I was sometimes be made to feel afraid of “anti-Mormon” literature. If you’re a real seeker of truth, you cannot choose your destination. You must follow the evidence, wherever it leads. If there’s information that can convince you of something, then maybe you should be convinced of that thing. Never be afraid of knowledge.

4. Assume as little as possible

If a creationist is determined to interpret all available information inside the framework of creationism, he will never be convinced that creationism is false. He will make up alternative explanations for fossils, DNA, and anatomical evidence. It’s like he’s wearing creationist-tinted glasses that he sees the world through. Similarly, if someone is determined to interpret all evidence according to a Mormon, Catholic, or Muslim framework of thought, no evidence will ever convince him or her that their perspective is false. If you assume that reading the Book of Mormon and praying will tell you whether it is true, you’re still wearing Mormon-tinted glasses. To find the truth, you must be as unbiased and objective as possible, and that means make as few assumptions as possible. It’s okay to assume that logic will lead you right, and that the world basically is as it appears to be. If those assumptions are false, then knowing the truth is impossible anyway. But assume as little else as possible.

5. It’s okay to be unsure

You don’t have to “take a stand” or “choose” your beliefs. If you are an altruistic seeker of truth, you have an obligation to help your fellow seekers by being honest about what you’ve discovered and how confident you are about it. Don’t claim to be more sure about your beliefs than you really are. Let the evidence guide you, and say it exactly as you see it. Be honest.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Favorite Gadgets

Too many serious posts of late, so I thought I'd write about... MY FAVORITE GADGETS!!! It's no secret I'm a super-nerd gadget lover. I keep up with the latest rumors of new gadgets, and I love the ones I've got already. So here are my favorites:

Kindle DX

I LOVE my Kindle DX. I like to read a lot: books, random articles, academic papers, whatever. I also spend a lot of time staring at LCD screens, so reading from e-ink is a welcome relief. If I find a long article on the internet I want to read, I often copy it into a text file and put it on my Kindle just because it is so much more comfortable to read there. I also read a lot of academic papers and PDFs, so having the large screen is really helpful. It's my favorite gadget.

Nexus 7

I LOVE my Nexus 7. The 7" size is super convenient, Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor and Jelly Bean makes it super smooth, games run great on it, it has great build quality and a great screen. It's by far the best 7" tablet out now, and in my opinion, the best Android tablet as well. Far better than the Kindle Fire or the Nook, and cheaper than anything else, and the best bang for the buck tablet available anywhere. I was surprised at how much better the video call quality was from my HTC One S, and the One S really should be just as good as the Galaxy S III or any other phone out there. The speakers on the Nexus 7 are way better, the microphone is way better, the front-facing camera is way better, and the processor is significantly better. I don't mind not having a rear camera because my phone has a very nice rear camera already. Most of all, I love having the latest and greatest version of Android, and knowing that when the next version of Android comes out, I'll be the first to have it. Google takes care of its Nexus line. It's a tablet that will be awesome for years to come.


I like my HTC One S. It's very slim, nice-looking, pretty fast, and has a great camera. It runs Android 4.0, and HTC is pretty good about updating their phones' software. But it's had some weird problems with wifi calling and skype, and I don't like Sense, HTC's custom skin for Android. It has the best rear-facing camera out on a phone today (other than Nokia's Pureview 808), but it's still nowhere close to the quality of even the cheapest DSLRs (which is true of any phone's camera). It's the perfect phone for someone who loves taking pictures and videos with their phone, and even though I'd rather have vanilla Android or Windows Phone, it's one of my favorite gadgets.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Natural vs. Supernatural

In a discussion about my post on the Atonement, a couple of people didn't see why I don't think the Law of Justice that necessitates the Atonement could be a natural law. This gets right to the heart of the difference between the natural and the supernatural worldviews, so I thought I'd try and answer that more clearly.

The naturalist, or scientific, worldview asserts that things behave the way they do because they are following laws. The laws of quantum physics appear to fully describe the behavior of certain particles, such as protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and others. Because these laws have been accurate in predicting the behavior of these particles in virtually every case, it seems likely that inside anything composed of these particles, the particles are behaving the same way. The behavior of whatever is composed of these particles is therefore almost certainly the result of all of its particles following the laws that govern each particle's motion.

Everything we've learned seems to confirm this conclusion. The laws of chemistry conform to, and can even be derived from, the laws of quantum mechanics. The behavior of cells can be explained using the laws of chemistry, and so on. Our behavior, and the behavior of everything composed of matter, can ultimately be explained, at least in theory, even if not in precise detail, by the laws of quantum mechanics.

So now back to the Atonement: it's necessitated by a Law of Justice, that apparently governs us, but can't be derived from more basic laws like the laws of quantum mechanics, even in theory. What could you possibly decompose the Law of Justice into that could be derived from more basic laws? That's what I mean when I say that it couldn't be a natural law, and it can only make sense if you accept the supernatural.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Problem with the Atonement

The central doctrine of Christianity is the Atonement. It’s a powerful doctrine that often affects people very deeply. It plays strongly on our emotions, our insecurities, and our senses of gratitute and love. Even now, as an unbeliever, the analogies used to explain it, such as this one, affect me very deeply. But as emotional and powerful as this concept is, I don’t think it is logical. I haven’t yet heard an explanation of the Atonement that makes sense to me. The explanation given in the video I linked to is a pretty typical Mormon example, and I’m going to discuss the problems with it. Why was the Atonement necessary? The seminary video explains the conflicting demands of the Law of Justice (there must be punishment if a sin has been committed) with the Law of Mercy (when repentance has occurred, an offender may be forgiven the punishment). But the “Law of Justice” is not just. Justice would demand that the sinner himself be punished, not a surrogate. The “Law of Mercy” is similarly unmerciful. Mercy would not require a punishment at all, not merely punish someone else. If God was truly merciful, it seems he would desire to simply forgive the penitant without severely punishing His perfect and guiltless Son. So why doesn’t He? A common explanation is that there is some Law, related to the ones described above, that even God Himself cannot break, which requires the punishment. But what kind of law could it be? There are two types of laws:

  1. Natural laws, which are descriptions of how things work, like the law of gravity, which cannot be broken.
  2. Human laws, which require require someone intelligent to create, interpret, and enforce the law.
So which type of law would force a benevolent God to punish a perfect being? The only way I can think of to argue that this “Law” is a natural law, would be to suggest that sin creates some kind of evil energy, attached to the sinner, that can only be alleviated through suffering. That’s pretty metaphysical, and substantially different in nature than anything we've ever observed scientifically, which makes me think that it's also very unlikely. Concepts like justice and mercy seem to imply intelligent interpretation. What constitutes “sin” seems to change over time. For example, it apparently wasn't a sin to drink in Christ’s time, but is now. But if God is subject to the decisions of other intelligent beings who are neither just nor merciful, then why have faith in a Gospel that is missing such important information as who these beings are and why they are intent on their cruelty? Either way, the Atonement doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if someone found a logical explanation, how come that explanation isn’t regularly taught in church, or in the scriptures? If there was such an explanation, it seems like that would be important information to share.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Is the Spirit Evidence of God?

The Witness of the Holy Ghost is often cited as evidence of the Gospel, and even as evidence of the existence of God. I know from personal experience that religious experiences can be very powerful. But I now think there are good reasons to question whether they are really evidence of the divine:

  1. Religious experiences tend to be culturally specific and socially influenced. Most people’s religious experiences tend to lead them to believe in either the religion they were raised in, or the religion of their friends. Our feelings in general tend to be strongly influenced by our peers, and religious feelings seem to be the same.
  2. Religious experiences often contradict each other. If you think one religion is right, you have to admit that most people’s religious experiences lead them to the wrong conclusion. Even people who have been exposed to the “right” religion have experiences that lead them to other religions. LDS church leaders seeking the spirit often disagree on what God wants [1].
  3. Memories change over time. Powerful religious experiences are often not recorded clearly and specifically until long after they've occurred. Especially when a story is retold several times, its main points tend to be increasingly emphasized and then exaggerated over time. The memory itself will change accordingly [2]. A good example is the story of Brigham Young’s “transfiguration,” which grew from a story about Brigham Young’s leadership presence into a story of him transforming in appearance and speech into Joseph Smith [3].
  4. Confirmation Bias causes us to remember the experiences that confirm our beliefs. We tend to forget all the times we prayed or “had impressions” and nothing remarkable happened. We also go through so many experiences, that what seem like amazing coincidences are actually very likely to occur occasionally. If those seemingly amazing coincidences confirm our beliefs in some way, you can bet that story will be remembered and shared.
  5. Even very spiritual people are often wrong. Even blessings from Apostles sometimes do not come to pass. One good example is this story:
  6. “When he was eleven year old, James Talmage accidentally blinded his younger brother Albert with a pitchfork. At age thirty-one, while writing the first draft of “The Articles of Faith,” James asked members of the First Presidency and the Twelve to administer to his brother. They inquired if he had the faith to be healed after twenty years of blindness, and Albert said “Yes.” In the Priesthood ordinance of healing, they promised him a complete restoration of his sight. James recorded his equally unconditional expectation for the fulfillment of this apostolic blessing. Days passed, then weeks, then months, and Albert remained blind. Years passed, and Albert received equally emphatic promises of restored sight from other apostles and prophets. He remained blind the rest of his life. Did either brother experience religions doubts as a consequence? The diaries of James E. Talmage do not say so specifically, but they do indicate his own bewilderment and ultimate resignation about the non-fulfillment of Priesthood blessings given and received in absolute faith.” [4]

All of this is to say that spiritual experiences are not surprising. In order for evidence to provide strong confirmation of a theory, the evidence must be different than what we would otherwise expect. Given what we know about human psychology, most spiritual experiences do not meet this standard, and hence do not provide strong confirmation of either the Gospel of the existence of God. I conclude that religious experiences, although powerful, are not reliable guides to truth. I am all for seeking after and having spiritual experiences in our lives, and I try to nurture myself spiritually (meaning mentally and emotionally) as well. But when determining the nature of physical reality, I think that reliable, repeatable, and verifiable evidence should definitely have precedence.

[1] The Mormon Hierarchy series by D. Michael Quinn illustrates the many disagreements church leaders have had on many subjects.
[4] D. Michael Quinn, “To Whom Shall We Go?”, Sunstone #137, May 2005.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Android vs. iOS

I just switched from iOS to Android a few days ago. I used to be carrying around a 4th generation iPod Touch with me (along with a Nokia 5310), and I just recently switched to a Samsung Galaxy S Blaze, which is pretty much a Galaxy S II but is a little smaller. It’s made me appreciate a few things about iOS: its slickness, ease-of-use, simplicity, its lack of bloatware and redundancy, and how easy it is to find top-quality apps in a well-organized app store. But there is a one attribute that I LOVE about Android: customizability. The launchers are AWESOME! With iOS, I was getting bored of its interface and I couldn’t change it at all. With Android, I can change its look and feel very easily, which is a lot of fun.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Moral Progress

After listening to religious leaders bemoan the “moral degradation” of society this weekend at the LDS General Conference, I thought I would write about the moral progression that humanity is undergoing. I’m going to cover some of the biggest steps forward in morality that we’ve seen in most modern developed societies over the last several centuries, although we still need more progress in many of these areas.
  1. Cessation of seeing disasters as a curse of God. Some religious people once opposed vaccinations [1] because they thought they violated the will of God. I’m glad those views are not held today. I think the eradication of smallpox is one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind. Smallpox killed 300-500 million people during the 20th century, more than three times as many killed in all wars combined. The fact that we can eradicate diseases shows that much suffering is not necessary in any way.
  2. Cessation of witch-hunts: Between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed during witch-hunts in Europe during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries [2]. People who are “different” in some way have long been treated poorly.
  3. Treatment of mental illness. In the middle ages, madness was often considered “a mixture of the divine, diabolical, magical and humoral” [3]. This problem still exists today: “A 2008 study by Baylor University researchers found that clergy in the US often deny or dismiss the existence of a mental illness. Of 293 Christian church members, more than 32 percent were told by their church pastor that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness, and that the cause of their problem was solely spiritual in nature, such as a personal sin, lack of faith or demonic involvement.” [4] Seeing mental illness as a function of brain structure is a step forward. I hope those steps continue until we see that the mind is entirely a result of brain structure [5].
  4. Incorrect beliefs that masturbation causes insanity have been abandoned.
  5. Abolition of slavery. “In the 1860s, Southern preachers defending slavery also took the Bible literally. They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, ‘slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling’ (Ephesians 6:5), or ’tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect’ (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.” [6]
  6. Abandonment of Biblical stoning. We don’t stone to death stubborn children. We don’t stone people who worship other Gods, or gather sticks on Sunday, or are not virgins when they get married [7].
  7. Cessation of physical disciplining of children. The Bible says “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Child psychologists assure us that children are better off if they are not physically disciplined. I’m glad we’re listening to the psychologists instead of the Bible.
  8. Acceptance of medical treatment over superstitious or religious treatments of illness.
  9. General decrease in wars and other violence [8].
  10. Rise of democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries. The outcome is uncertain, but the hope for positive change is strong.
  11. Significant increase in the educational level of the general public, over the last several decades.
  12. Giving women the right to vote. The feminist movement generally has opened doors to all kinds of opportunites for women.
  13. Making abortion a legal right [9]. This is probably the one step forward that will remain controversial for a long time.
  14. Availability and acceptance of contraceptives. Even the LDS church has reversed their original position, and now accepts and even promotes the use of birth control by married couples, although they still pressure married couples to have many kids. I wish the Catholic church would change to a reasonable position on contraception.
  15. The granting civil rights to everyone, regardless of race.
  16. Seeing racial discrimination as wrong. The LDS church abandoned official racial discrimination in 1978, which is wonderful.
  17. The realization that homosexuality is natural to many people, and is largely immutable. The societal acceptance of gays and lesbians will be a tremendous blessing to them [10]. The legalization of gay marriage will be a great achievement, and a significant moral step forward. Just as many of the steps above were once controversial but now enjoy widespread acceptance, I feel confident that gay marriage will someday enjoy that same widespread acceptance.

Are we coming out of pristine past, where morality was much better? No. Is society collapsing, out of “moral degradation?” No. In fact, I think people are happier and better off today than at almost any point in our past. We’ve seen significant moral progress and are likely to see more in the short-term future. Democracy is on the rise in many places in the world, tolerance and acceptance have become more widespread, medical and technological advances have improved lives and will continue to do so. It is my hope that the wonderful moral progress we’ve seen will continue unabated, creating a brighter future for us all.


Sunday, March 18, 2012


After a fair bit of research and thought, I realized that my position on abortion came down to something very simple: fetal pain. I base morality on promoting the well-being of conscious beings, but if the fetus is not yet conscious and cannot suffer or feel pain, then I do not think its well-being needs to be considered yet. In many cases abortion could be a very good thing.

Scientific research indicates that fetuses probably cannot feel pain until 26-30 weeks into the pregnancy. I understand some people being skeptical about the research, and wanting to ban abortions a little earlier than that to be on the safe side. I personally disagree, but it’s a reasonable position. What is totally unreasonable is the “life begins at conception” position, which is the standard “pro-life” position. Those people believe that a fertilized egg that doesn’t have anything close to a brain or any capacity to think or feel should be given human rights. I find that position to be totally unreasonable.

In many cases an abortion is a blessing in the life of a woman. The life of a teenage girl who was planning on going to college can be drastically and negatively altered if she is pressured to carry to full term, or if an abortion is difficult to obtain. Not only do pro-life laws cause harm, but because they’re usually religious-based, I consider them a way that religious people force their beliefs on other people. Because of the negative impact on the well-being of many people that is caused by this pro-life position, I find it to be clearly and deeply morally wrong.

Fortunately, if you’re LDS, I don’t think you’re obligated to hold the pro-life position. The 2006 Church Handbook of Instructions (the one I happen to have) states:

“The church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience. . . The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion. However, the First Presidency encourages members, as citizens, to let their voices be heard in appropriate and legal ways that will evidence their belief in the sacredness of life.”

The key parts are that the church doesn’t have a stand on the legality of abortion, so members can have their own opinions on what should be legal. They can also believe in the “sacredness of life,” and support the legalization of elective abortion: the question isn’t whether life is sacred, the question is whether a fetus is a separate life or part of a woman’s body. So I hope you’ll join me in supporting a woman’s right to choose.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can We Choose Our Beliefs?

A frequent response to my atheism is that I’ve “chosen” to be atheist, and that I must have some motivation for that choice. Many atheists reply that we do not choose our beliefs, but simply follow the evidence.

A bit of definition is needed here. I don’t believe in a spirit that inhabits our bodies, so I think every choice that we make is unconsciously a result of our genetics, our environment, and possibly some amount of randomness. Choices do not transcend our previous experience. The word “choose” just means the mental process by which we sort through our knowledge to select one of many options.

So the question really boils down to whether the mental process of selecting beliefs is similar to the mental process for choosing our actions. I think that it is under certain circumstances. I believe this because I have seen how humans frequently choose beliefs that are in their own best interest, without additional empirical or logical reasons. For example, a man who falls in love with a woman may convert to that religion (possibly very genuinely), even though he was aware of its doctrine and didn’t find it convincing before meeting the woman.

There are some limits to this ability though. I doubt that any educated, intelligent adult would be able to choose to believe that the Earth is flat. The best she could do would be to act as if she believes the Earth is flat. That is, the more you know about a proposition, the less you are able to choose your beliefs about it. At one point, my belief in God was a choice, but the more I investigated arguments about His existence, the more I became convinced that He does not exist, and the less choice I had in the matter. That alone doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m right, but it does mean that I can no longer choose my beliefs on the subject.

The other caveat is that the more non-epistemological reasons for believing something, your beliefs are less likely to correspond to reality. If you are interested in truth, you should attempt to choose your beliefs purely on evidence that indicates the likelihood of that idea being true. You are free to choose your beliefs for other motivations, but if you do, you’ve reduced the likelihood of your beliefs corresponding to reality.