Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Atheist Sermon 3: How Atheists Misunderstand Religion

Many atheists despise religion because it is not true. They wonder that anyone could be dumb enough to believe such fantastical things as are found in the mythology of religion - all religions, since none are based on a scientific, post-enlightenment understanding of the universe. 

While their devotion to truth is admirable, they are missing the point. People are not religious because they have become convinced of the truth of the myth. Rather, religion is about psychological nourishment; it's about feeding the human soul. 

Let's consider the Christian faith. When people go to church they are told that they will live again with their loved ones who have died. They are told that they are loved by God. They are told that the wrongs that they have done to others will be forgiven. They are told that evil people will be punished and good people will be blessed and rewarded, in the next life if not in this one. 

In short, Christianity fits the shape of the hole in the human heart. It provides an answer for all the features of our world that are tragic and repulsive: we are self-aware beings with unlimited ambitions but tiny, limited lifespans, we are lonely and hunger for love all our lives, we are shamed by our hurtful deeds and words but we cannot undo them, and we wonder at ruthless people prospering while kind-hearted folks are taken advantage of.

This message of hope is wrapped in a profound aesthetic and meditative experience, together with a community of the faithful. It is paired with an imperative to practice universal benevolence - goodwill towards all human kind. This generates an ethic of community, charity, and service that is one of the most attractive features of Christianity.

Atheists who attempt to convert religious people by attacking the truth of the mythology are practicing a futile tactic. They don't understand the human psyche. They don't understand the deep needs that drive the billions of religious people in the world. When they do, they will become better at communicating their message. That's why atheists and religious people tend to talk past each other so much. They have two very different models of religion in their minds. The atheist mind is focused on the truth claims of religion, the religious on the relgious experience. 

I enjoy participating in religious experiences, even though I am an intellectual atheist. I recognize that the peace, the self-insight, the comfort that comes from religious practice and meditation and prayer makes me a happier and healthier person. It's not for everybody, but it's certainly for people like me. I despair at the tragedies of this life, and I long for a better moral ethic than is offered by the materialistic nihilism of this world. I am becoming more culturally Christian, and as I do I grow more proud of who I am. Christianity encourages me to focus my attention outward, on the needs of others, rather than selfishly mulling over all the things I am missing in my life. 

If you would have told me 11 years ago that I wold be going to church again when I was 29, I would  have been incredulous. But here I am. What drives me is my sincere hope is that I may be a blessing to all who know me. If I am, I know the Christian ethic will play a part.

Update: I wrote on a similar theme a few years ago. If you enjoyed this, you should also check out part one in the series on how atheists misunderstand religion.


My current best practices for management, based on my last two years of experience, listening, and reading: link

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Awesome Pledge

Rich people have no reason to feel ashamed of their wealth. Although anti-rich attitudes are popular, by and large getting rich entails creating value, an activity that makes us all better off. We don't live in a zero-sum world with a fixed quantity of riches. If we did, we would be justified to worry about a fair distribution of wealth between the 99% and the 1%. But in our world, wealth is made and economic inequality is an indicator of a healthy system that rewards risk and value creation, as I wrote about on these pages previously.

Not all wealth is virtuous. Half Sigma's dichotomy between value creation and value transference is a useful framework to delineate between good and bad wealth. And I believe in exceptions to a purely subjective theory of value, some things people value are innately better than others. But mostly, getting rich is a good way to benefit mankind.

There are signs that the wealthy buy in to the anti-rich attitude that says they should be ashamed of their wealth.  The evidence includes the popularity of The Giving Pledge, a pledge signed by many rich people to give away the majority of their money to philanthropy. Warren Buffet's tireless advocacy for higher taxes on wealthy individuals is another example of rich self-loathing.

Shaming rich people until they give away their wealth to philanthropy or taxes is not optimal for society. Doing great good through philanthropy is hard work. Mark Zuckerberg signed the Giving Pledge. He later made a $100 million contribution to Newark city public schools. I'm sure that money will do some good, but unionized public bureaucracies tend to be an endless money hole. 20 years from now, what impact will his contribution have?

Meanwhile, a small minority of wealthy individuals are using their wealth in different ways. Elon Musk founded Space X, a venture that has radically reduced the cost of space flight in a first step to making humanity an interplanetary species. The total bill for Space X was a $800 million investment of Musk's personal wealth over 8 years, less than half of what Gates and Buffet spend on philanthropy in a year, and less than 5% of NASA's annual operating budget.

There are many other sci fi dreams within the reach of a billionaire's investment - these are discontinuous leaps forward in technology that will have profound effects on our species. We could mine asteroids, cure death, and create our AI robot children. We just need a few billion dollars in the right hands. I believe that accomplishing any of these things will improve more lives in the long term than any sum of money dumped into a failing school system.

So instead of The Giving Pledge, I propose we create The Awesome Pledge. Pledge to do something awesome with your wealth, like Space X. Don't take the easy way out by just giving it away. You worked hard to earn it. Now work hard to put it to use.

Most importantly, we must change the attitude that wealth is bad. If Warren Buffet had his way and taxes were higher, Space X wouldn't exist. Elon Musk ran very low on cash while building Tesla Motors and Space X concurrently. If he had paid European tax rates on his earnings, the critical cash would have been in some government contractor's pocket instead of his.

It's worth noting that the ideals of The Awesome Pledge and The Giving Pledge are not incompatible. Elon Musk is a signer of The Giving Pledge. He intends to give away the majority of his wealth. It's just that he isn't done with it yet.

And I am not saying that philanthropy is bad. Certainly, for older billionaires who don't have the energy or imagination to embark on a new venture, it is a good idea. But if younger rich wish to embark on philanthropic enterprises, they should think carefully of an enterprise that can have a large impact, and weigh it against all other options. Philanthropy can be awesome, but it is hard work.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Odyssey of the West

I'm listening to the wonderful audiobook series The Odyssey of the West. The first installment deals with the three ancient civilizations with the biggest influence on the West: the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans. I'm about 2/3rds done - I have yet to listen to the lectures on the Romans. 

From the Hebrews we get the Hebrew bible, and later Christianity. It is the basis of much of our moral ideas - compassion for the poor and elderly, empathy through the Golden Rule, and personal moderation. It comes to us with a radical egalitarian worldview. Beggars, women, slaves, rich men, and public officials are equal in the eyes of the Christian god. When the son of god comes to earth, he lives in poverty. It is easy to see how the roots of classical liberalism grew from the Christian gospel.

From the Greeks, we get the idea of excellence, or Arete (a - rit- tay). Any American is familiar with the concept. During a football game when a quarterback whips the ball through a narrow gap between two defenders and into the waiting hands of his teammate for a score and the crowd roars in approval - that is Arete. Americans worship Arete almost as intensely as the Greeks. 

At first Arete was a marshall concept, excellence in warfare, but it grew to include all aspects of society. First the Greeks invented theatre, and then hosted playwriting contests that produced some of the most profound theatre of all time. That is Arete. Arete is embodied in the Olympic games, in sculpture, in philosophy, in mathematics, and in rhetoric. To the Greeks, anything worth doing was worth doing well. Personal excellence was an end in itself. 

Concern for individual liberty and democracy also comes to us from the Greeks. The high water marke for Greek civilization was their defeat of the vastly superior army of the Persian empire. Herodotus (the world's first historian, a Greek) believed the Greeks won because their soldiers were free men while the Persians were nominally slaves to their king. Americans used similar propaganda during the wars of the 20th century.

And from Rome, we get Romanitas. Marshall vigor, hard work, honesty, duty and patriotism are values of the Romans as outlined by Cicero in the waning days of the Republic. The Republican Roman ideal of the citizen/soldier/farmer had deep influence over the early American psyche. As in the period of the Roman empire, these ideals have faded. But it would be a mistake to draw too close of a parallel between Rome and ourselves for the purpose of weaving a narrative of decline. The American mind is similar, but also quite different from that of the Romans. One huge difference is that we are a commercial nation, descendants of island British traders, and Rome was not. Commerce, combined with Christianity, has a profound leveling effect on society. We like to complain about economic inequality today, but in Rome it was truly breathtaking on a scale that is hard for us to imagine.

I've also listened to some of the later lectures in this series. They work well out of order. The material is not well-organized. You never know if a lecture will be a review of a Shakespeare play or an overview of 50 years of history. But they do go in chronological order, and each lecture is interesting and high-quality throughout. 

Monday, May 21, 2012


A Peter Thiel meditation on determinism and optimism. Prime stuff.

God is dead - by Jonathan Frost.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

God Stuff

They say we are made of god-stuff
but today I feel mismighted.
All of my power was left in the slough,
omniscient lenses nearsighted.

I swagger forward with hero-gaze
to greet my trials and testing,
but I have gotten so lost in the maze
and my throat is slit when I'm resting.

My deeds will not weave an epic tale
no child will be taught my story.
There is not a breath for the one who fails
for attempt, not a glint of the glory.

The dark-fated bodies laid out by the fight
make stages for the play of greater lights.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Unexamined Life

Over in the Marginal Revolution comments section, Martin Cohen explains the benefits of the unexamined life

Benefits of the unexamined life:
You don’t have to waste time and energy listening to those others you know are wrong.
You can make use of the dynamic duo of “It’s not my fault” and “It’s not my problem”.
You can get from here to there much faster if you ignore the “Warning – thin ice!” signs. 
You will be supported in so many ways by the others living in the fact-free zone. 
It’s much easier if you think of those things you are climbing over as minor obstacles rather than people. 
It’s so much fun to creatively decorate those walls that surround you. 
Focusing on your own well-being takes all your energy, anyway. 
Finally, if you’re screaming inside, you don’t have to listen.