The Only Freedom That Matters

Critical thinking is the alphabet and grammar of science.

This is a submission for the upcoming issue of Secular World.

“I am convinced that the act of thinking logically cannot possibly be natural to the human mind. If it were, then mathematics would be everybody’s easiest course at school and our species would not have taken several millennia to figure out the scientific method.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist

‘Freedom’ is a word that is on everyone’s lips these days or so it seems. From the stomach-turning image of the Q-Anon Shaman yelling “Freedom!” into his microphone as seditious group of terrorists stormed the US Capitol to right-wing pundits on TV screaming about how being asked to perform basic hygienic rituals to stem the spread of a deadly pathogen is a full-frontal assault on our freedoms, it seems that everywhere we turn we are told that our freedoms are being taken from us. This, coupled with the ever-present admonition that things have never been worse and are on the verge of chaos, makes it seem that violent action is what is needed and, indeed, we have seen these calls translate into action. We have seen the scourge of fascism march openly in the streets of the United States, chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” ending with a madman driving his car into pedestrians, ostensibly to “own the libs” and killing one of them while others, using metal pipes, beat a black man senseless in a parking garage. To any thinking person watching these events it would seem that a wave of madness has swept over society and, it could be persuasively argued, they would not be wrong in concluding this.

The freedom that is at stake, however, is not the freedom to believe that the Earth is flat or that vaccines cause autism, rather, it is the freedom to know both ourselves and the universe in which we find ourselves, rather it is the freedom that most do not realize they have yet swim in every day of their lives. It is the freedom to know ourselves and the world in which we live and that freedom comes directly from the inquiries of science. Science is under attack, ironically, by those whose lives are completely beholden to science in the very areas they attack. Take, for instance, the vaccine deniers: They pontificate about the dangers of vaccines while blissfully immune from the deadly diseases that have plagued mankind because they are fully vaccinated. A list of vaccines and the diseases which they prevent can be found here. I would extort the reader to pull up this list and be amazed at the amount of human suffering that has been eliminated by the science on that chart. To be free of those scourges hints at the freedom that is taken for granted. What is that freedom?

For the longest time, our species fought and struggled to stay alive. If you were lucky to survive childbirth and youth, you became a hunter or a gatherer depending on the gametes your DNA bestowed you with. At the mercy of disease, predators, weather, we spent our 30-40 years in pain, fear and suffering, helpless against the assault of the world around us. Fast-forward to the current day where we are flying drones on Mars, using mRNA technology to fight new diseases having already eradicated some and able to prevent many more, having all the libraries of the world and all their knowledge at our fingertips, the list goes on and on. What gave us this ability to first insulate ourselves and then to explore the world? Science did and by giving us all these technologies freed us from the life of a hunter gatherer and allowed us the freedom to choose. Freedom to choose how we spend our lives, how best to care for each other, who we are and how we got here, and the understanding that all we see was not made for us six thousand years ago by some vindictive and cruel god to who we are beholden in our every thought, word and deed. It is the freedom to live the life we choose, without the fears that had been constant companions to our species. This is what science gives us.

Today, we have a concerted effort to attack both science as a discipline and the people who practice it. There is a remedy for this and that is for our educational institutions to institute a K- 12 Critical Thinking curriculum in all public schools in the United States. This will have an immediate effect. High School seniors, even with just one year of Critical Thinking training, will have the essential skills to begin to parse what they hear and what they read. Imagine an electorate which asks “How do you know this to be true?” This is precisely the fruit that a Critical Thinking curriculum will give forth. As each successive class graduates, each will contain more sound thinkers more and more immunized to shoddy thinking and more and more comfortable with thinking in a scientific manner.

Critical thinking is the alphabet and grammar of science.

In a policy piece for Scientific American, Jim Daley wrote, “Since taking office on January 20, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have signaled a clear commitment to science and pledged sweeping initiatives to reestablish and elevate its role in the federal government.” The full article can be found here. All the proposals thus far by the Biden administration to get us back on track with science should evoke a sign of relief from any thinking person. More is needed, however, and the curriculum in our schools should also reflect this commitment to science by investing in both the methodologies (science classes) and the foundation of rationality and the scientific method, Critical Thinking.

Apostasy – The Triumph of a Free Mind

“The most tyrannical of governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for everyone has an inalienable right to his thoughts.”— Baruch Spinoza

“People who change their religion should face the death penalty.”
― Zakir Naik

Apostasy seems a strange word to someone raised in the United States. As we go through our lives both we and some of the people we know question the religious beliefs they were brought up in. As our friends and neighbors progress through their education and lives, it is not unusual to hear of some abandoning their religion of birth and becoming members of some other religion: Catholics become Protestants and vice versa, some may even leave the Abrahamic religions and search out New Age or Eastern Religions. Some even abandon their religious beliefs entirely becoming, as survey results are calling them these days, ‘nones’. This searching and experimenting with different belief systems strikes the rest of us as nothing out of the ordinary; no different than choosing a different sports team to root for or even rooting for a different sport entirely. The freedom to pursue whatever avenue the mind wishes to go down is one of the privileges of living in a society that holds to Enlightenment values, specifically the ideas that traditional authority is not always correct and humans can and should improve themselves through reason. When the claims of religion contradict reason and by extension science, the child of reason, we should be and are, in fact, free to reject those claims.

Every reader knows that this freedom is not a given in other places of the world. Depending on the religious fervor of the country in question, leaving the “official religion” (another strange concept to those of us raised with Enlightenment values) may and, unfortunately does, come at the cost of one’s life. Many religions contain commandments that demand apostates should be killed. The Old Testament and the Koran both contain verses instructing the faithful to do just that. Leaving the religious plantation (apostasy) is as illegal and life threatening in some countries today as it was for slaves attempting to leave the Southern plantations during the time of slavery here in the United States. This egregious behavior is not limited to theism; political religions such as Communism engage in this behavior. Having lived in the shadow of the Berlin Wall I know this all too well. Many paid the ultimate price at the foot of that filthy wall, their flight to freedom ending in a hail of bullets or an explosion from stepping on a mine. These days Saudi Arabia and Russia, both noxious and festering cauldrons of theocratic and political fascism, respectively, are shining examples of this barbaric behavior. Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the direction of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Putin’s attempted murder of Alexei Navalny, both for political reasons are clear indications that coming to the wrong conclusions about a political regime and voicing them will ensure a secular fatwa will be issued against you demanding your death.

“The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.” – Christopher Hitchens

Those who would charge others with apostasy (religious or political) and demand the required punishment of death all seem to claim a certain right over others. This right they claim, whether explicitly or implicitly, is the right of ownership. The purpose of your existence is to advance the goals of whatever system, political or religious, claims ownership of you. If you fulfill your duties, you will be allowed to live; assert or act in manner which repudiates that claim of ownership and you will either be imprisoned or killed, oftentimes both. This is, at its core, what apostasy really is: the assertion of self-ownership and the repudiation of fascist claims to the contrary. Each and every man and woman is free to think and question everything they have been taught to determine the direction of their lives. Against that are those who assert you are their possession, like some farm animal, and, like some farm animal, when you are rebellious, they will snuff out your life. Questioning their right of ownership over you is an immoral act of the highest order and deserves a like punishment. Every thinking person finds that claim of ownership and the people who make it and punish those who dare disagree with them disgusting.

“Freedom is self-determination.” — Baruch Spinoza

Secular individuals who can speak freely and inquire as their minds see fit owe this freedom to the Enlightenment values that created our modern society. It is the rediscovery of these values and the dedication to them, both as individuals and society, that will allow us to confront apostasy and the idea which underlies it, the claim to own people as chattel.

We must rededicate ourselves to the values of the Enlightenment and advocate them in the face who dare claim the right to own others. While no human endeavor is perfect, we can point to the new Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, to show the power of these values and what they can accomplish. Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, pointed out that we are in, “...a country and a time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” Every lover of freedom and self-determination should have stood up and cheered at that utterance. Though the light has dimmed and ebbed, it is still burning. It is up to us, if we truly want to purge our world of apostasy, to advance that light forward in whatever way we can. The simple enumeration of the values of the Enlightenment will start a fire in all those yearning to be free and will crush the forces opposing freedom no matter where they are or how entrenched they may appear to be.

Review | Why I Am Not A Christian by Richard Carrier

This short book (84 pages in the Kindle edition) is another instance of the proverb, “Good things come in small packages.” Borrowing Bertrand Russell’s title, Dr. Carrier gives four main reasons why belief in Christianity makes no sense. While every atheist should take the time and read through the arguments he presents, the real value of this book is that it is the perfect book to give your Christian friends and family members who will almost certainly state at some point, “I don’t understand how anyone could be an atheist given all the evidence for God and Christianity.”

Leaving aside the fact that were there any evidence, any evidence at all, for Christianity’s claims this debate would have been over centuries ago and there would be only one religion, this book presents four arguments that it is incumbent on Christians to answer since they are the ones making the claims. While the arguments are directed towards the Christian religion, they could easily be used in a debate over Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or any faith-based belief.

The Greatest Discovery Of All – Part 1

I’ve often posed the question to people, “What do you consider the greatest discovery in our species’ history?”  The answers are all over the board; all of them very good ones.  Many point to writing, some go even further back to the discovery of language.  Some point to our building skills, clothing, various monetary systems, and such.  Some will dive into science where there are a plethora of ideas all seeming to vie for the moniker of “Greatest Discovery”.  Darwin’s evolution, Semmelweis’s nascent discovery of antiseptic, the discoveries of anesthesia, vaccines, and the pathogen theory of disease are but a few that could be named. Astronomy would strenuously wave the flag as well, as would Physics and I could devote paragraphs delineating the many history-changing discoveries of both.

I’m sure the reader has thought of a number of things that they might offer as “the greatest”.  Let me ask the reader:  were the discoveries that came to mind discoveries about the world we live in?  Discoveries that changed how we lived, discoveries that lessened the suffering that for thousands of years seemed to be our lot?  I humbly suggest an answer that it was a discovery about ourselves, not the world external to us, that was the greatest discovery of all.

“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.”   — Christopher Hitchens

Up until this discovery, certainty was a hallmark of our understanding of the universe and our place in it.  We only needed to ask the religious leaders of whatever land we found ourselves in.  We can even do it today.  Take any religious leader that you know.  Are they absolutely certain about what they know?  This claimed knowledge and the certainty of it were beyond questioning.  In the cases of religions that were in the position of making an offer no one could refuse, questioning this certainty would cost your life.  Not giving verbal assent to those certainties would cost you your life.  There are places in the world today where this is the state of affairs and in those places where it is not, the religious continually yearn for a return to those days and are actively working on making that happen.  The discovery that I would offer rejected that certainty and in its stead claimed to be certain of nothing and to know nothing about the world operated.  It was that seminal grasp of our ignorance when looking out at the universe we found ourselves in is what I would claim to be the greatest discovery of our species.  It was that intellectual cornerstone upon which all the future great discoveries depended on.

Can we pinpoint in history when this happened?  No, I don’t think we can and even if we could point to a specific example, I would suggest that this epiphany has happened many, many times, over many centuries and in many lands. It happens today. It is the driving force behind science and the search for truth. The understanding of how little we know about the universe lights in us a quest to fill that void with knowledge. This knowledge has turned our existence from what Thomas Hobbs called, “nasty, brutish and short” into the lives that we experience today.

More to come….

Religion’s Greatest Lie

“While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.” – Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

Each day we are bombarded with article after article, news report after news report of the horrors that religion inflicts on the world.  From Muslims throwing homosexuals off the tops of buildings, widespread female genital mutilation, and the censorship of ideas in the name of “religious liberty” just to name a few.  As egregious as the above examples are, and I could write a number of articles enumerating the barbaric acts of the religious, these all pale into insignificance when one considers the greatest lie of religion: the idea that death is not the end. When Christopher Hitchens talks about religion poisoning everything, the idea that death is not the end is how the poison is introduced. There is a stark contrast between how an atheist and a religious person views this life. As an atheist, I understand fully that the few years I have on this planet will come to an end and so will I.  This makes every single moment we have here precious.  Contrast that to the religious person who, when faced with an appalling situation will rationalize it and say, “When we get to heaven, all wrongs will be righted.” The most pungent example of this occurred during a discussion panel.  Christopher Hitchens had this to say:

“What about Fraulein Friesel in Austria, whose father, unwilling to get out of the way, kept her in a dungeon where she didn’t see daylight for twenty-four years and came down most nights to rape and to sodomize her, often in front of the children… I want you just to take a moment to imagine how she must have begged him. Imagine how she must have pleaded. Imagine for how long. Imagine how she must of prayed everyday, how she must have beseeched Heaven. Imagine, for twenty-four years. And no. No answer at all. Nothing! No-thing! NOTHING! Imagine how those children must have felt. Now, you say, ‘That’s all right that she went through that, because she’ll get a better deal in another life.’ I have to ask you if you can be morally or ethically serious and postulate such a question. No that had to happen, and Heaven did watch it with indifference, because it knows that that score will later on be settled. So it was well worth her going through it – she’ll have a better time next time. I don’t see how you can look anyone – ANYONE- in the face, or live with yourself and say anything so hideously, wickedly immoral as that, or even imply it.”

I hope the reader understands that the response of the religious makes sense only if they believe the lie that death is not the end; that there is a life after we die where all wrongs will be righted.  Implied in this idea is the poison that we are morally released from doing anything to alleviate the suffering of others as “god will right all wrongs in the great by and by”.  Nothing could be more corrosive to morality than this and the above example shows how effective that poison is.