Monthly Archives: December 2012

Is Dawkins a Fundamentalist?

Peter Higgs — proposer of the Higgs boson and, following its discovery this year, good bet for the Nobel prize — recently called Richard Dawkins a Fundamentalist. Well, what he actually said was “I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

Those predisposed to dislike Dawkins, predictably, used the opportunity to push the ‘fundamentalist’ label with gusto. Those who ally themselves with Dawkins brand of scientific atheism, predictably, rounded on the term with scathing criticism. Plus ca change…

Higgs went on to say some things that show he probably isn’t a keen follower of “New Atheism”[1] and its debates, internal and external. And, to be fair, many of the responses I read on New Atheist blogs were as much about those other misunderstandings as about his use of the F-word.

But was he right with his rather qualified assertion?

What struck me immediately was the obvious fact that this is purely an argument about what words should or do mean. I didn’t read (on this specific point) much disagreement about what New Atheism actually promotes.

My experience with communities of New Atheists (and in fact often scientists in general) is that they are sometimes astoundingly naive about the basic mechanics of language, making the kind of mistakes that Liberal Arts professors wearily correct in freshman essay after freshman essay. I think partly because in science there is very good reason to try to close down and pin down meanings, so there is less need to break oneself of the habit of thinking about meaning prescriptively.

So, the question should be: what do we mean by fundamentalism?

1, Fundamentalism is an insult, meaning ‘extremist’ with regard to some religious position. So, is New Atheism extremist? We can do the same dance with defining extremism, and get different answers, of course. But insults operate on the level of gut feeling more than definition. Extremist often is just used for “a religious position that is outside the range I think is reasonable”. So for an atheist with a sympathetic view of religion, New Atheism could easily be Extremist, and Dawkins therefore a Fundamentalist. A corollary of this observation is that just about nobody ever thinks they are a religious extremist. Because they think their views reasonable. The guys who flew the planes on 9/11 didn’t think they were extremists, they thought their views perfectly reasonable. I point this out because the it renders the obvious response “I’m not an extremist” rather comical in its inevitability. — So Fundamentalism scores 1. Dawkins is a fundie.

2, Fundamentalism is the Christian movement who’s beliefs are expressed in Dixon and Torey’s Fundamentals. This is the historical definition of fundamentalism – a movement in Christianity deliberately aimed at cross-cutting denominational lines and transcending the term ‘evangelical’ (which had some PR problems). Under this definition, which is what I usually mean on this blog by the term ‘fundamentalist’, New Atheism is the very opposite of Fundamentalism. So score 1 for Dawkins the non-fundie. The problem with this definition, is that it also excludes other forms of religion regularly called ‘fundamentalism’, such as ‘fundamentalist Islam’. I try not to use the term that way, but I certainly have slipped into it at times.

3, Fundamentalism is the belief that one should not compromise with ‘alternative sources of truth’. Here we’re getting underneath the skin of the Fundamentalism movement in Christianity. Why was fundamentalism born, and why was it so named? Because Christians objected to historical and scientific criticism of the bible and doctrine. The claim at the heart of Fundamentalism is that the ‘Revelation of God’ is the only reliable way to know anything for certain: when other techniques, such as science, lead to conclusions that conflict with revelation, they should be rejected without hesitation. On this definition, we have a choice: is it important that ‘revelation’ be the overriding principle; or is any epistemology — when held as the only ultimate authority — as good for the definition? I tend to think the latter (the former I’ll come back to below). So, as someone for whom empiricism is the only ultimate authority on truth, I am therefore proudly a fundamentalist on this definition. As are New Atheists. Score another 1 for Dawkins the fundie.

4, Fundamentalism is the unwillingness to change one’s mind, no matter the evidence. This is Dawkins own model, I think. At least, I’ve seen a quoted response of his to the accusation of fundamentalism along these lines. In this way, again, science and empiricism is the very opposite of fundamentalism, since it privileges evidence over authority, feeling, revelation and any other source of information, real or imagined. This is really just definition four again, but where the ultimate-authority-on-truth can be anything other than empiricism. Thus it grants an exemption for New Atheists, and a different result for Dawkins: 1 more point for being a non-fundie.

So which is the one ‘right’ definition?

There isn’t one. The second definition is the one I use formally, and the one that should probably be used in an academic essay, for example. The Associated Press guide for journalists echoes this with its advice that fundamentalist should only be used as a term for groups who self-apply it. The first definition is the one that I get the sense is used most commonly. A lot of my friends, religious and not, rail against fundamentalism in that sense (and, yes, some include New Atheism in that camp). Dawkins himself seems to prefer the fourth definition, and if we agree on the third, I’d proudly call myself a fundamentalist.

Here is a fifth definition, a special purpose one: 5, A Fundamentalist is someone who argues against tolerance and accommodation.[2] It is a minor modification of definition three, where New Atheists remain fundies, but I am now off the hook. As such, I think it is just about perfect.

[Edit 2013-1-2: Vorjack at Unreasonable Faith also posts on this topic today. He expresses his own preferred nuance on definitions 3/4 where Fundamentalism is a rejection of modernism, which is also a great definition. I also want to point out that my ‘I think it is just about perfect’ comment above is intentionally facetious, just in case I’m taken as really suggesting #5!]


[1] I’m going to use New Atheism to refer to modern scientific atheism in the Dawkins, Harris, Coyne pattern. I recognize the term is awful, and highly misleading. But the alternatives such as Gnu Atheism also jar. And other than playful scoring at the end of each definition, I don’t want to make this about Dawkins, it concerns a large and growing atheist subculture.

[2] One interesting feature of fundamentalists, under this definition, is their tendency to recast others who disagree as being inferior or ‘not real’ members of the group. So Fundamentalist Christians have and do routinely dismiss non-fundamentalists as being not real Christians, or as being reprobate, heretics, anti-Christian or atheists. And likewise, I’ve been told several times on this blog and others, that I am not a ‘real Atheist’, or that I am a coward or a ‘wannabe theist’. Though I don’t think it defines ‘fundamentalism’, that attitude is a good marker, in my mind, of a kind of intolerant ideological tribalism which is independent of actual belief: the place where a certain kind of atheism is politically indistinguishable from a certain kind of Christianity.

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ASMR and Religious Ritual

ASMR (Autonomic Sensory Meridian Response) is a recently coined term to describe a physiological response that various folks have reported to certain stimuli. There are common features in both the response and the trigger, such that people who have had these experiences were able to find one another online, form a community and name their experience. There is little to no scientific basis for ASMR (the term itself was coined to sound science-y, but originated as a self-designation among the community). There is nothing inherently implausible about most of the reports[1], though some in the community then claim ASMR as evidence of ESP, Indigo Child-ness and other implausible stuff. There is now quite a sizeable and vibrant community on Youtube (search ASMR) and reddit (r/asmr)

ASMR is characterised as a short-term spreading tingling sensation over the head and shoulders, accompanied by a wave of pleasure or relaxation. It has been described as a ‘brain-gasm’, for its spreading wave of strong pleasure, but is almost universally described as non-sexual. Common triggers include whispering, proximity, slow and deliberate movement, tapping and certain noises. The variety of triggers reported seems to be larger than the variety in symptoms.

I only started reading about ASMR a week or so ago. I am interested because I found descriptions of both experiences and triggers that I can strongly associate with.

My most reliable trigger situation is at an optometrist visit (not an uncommon trigger, it seems). It requires an optometrist (of either gender) with a very soft voice, or who whispers when working close. There are plenty of other situations where I have experienced ASMR, but I can recall having this response to optometrist visits well back into my childhood. So this video, for example, triggers me quite strongly.

My wife also gets ASMR, but with slightly different triggers. She reports a similar experience when visiting a hair salon, and when watching very deliberate and slow actions. So this video triggers her. I don’t get the big wave of pleasure at this, but I do find it deeply pleasurable: it just doesn’t tip over into the intense burst.

I’ve been wondering, as I read, whether this kind of response has partly motivated and shaped certain religious rituals. I have experienced one ‘laying on of hands and anointing with oil’, and I remember that triggering an ASMR response. A slow and deliberate communion preparation could easily trigger someone who responds like my wife. I’m reminded of Reiki (which is now most commonly associated with alternative medicine, but actually originated as a spiritual discipline). The magick rituals I’m aware of, with the way they establish the sacred space and cast the spell seem obvious triggers, as do certain fortune telling patterns.

I’m at the beginning of thinking about this, so there are no conclusions here. But there has been extensive sociological study of religious rituals as triggers for hypnotic, or trace-like mental states, and it seems to me logical to view them as potential triggers for ASMR too.

I’m also putting this out here to attract anyone searching for ASMR and religion to get in touch.


[1] I’m going to talk about having ASMR, or experiencing ASMR, with the assumption that ASMR is a ‘thing’ and that it is the same thing that different people are experiencing. These assumptions aren’t really warranted by the science, yet, but for the purpose of this article, it is simpler than overloading every mention with qualifications.

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Why I Love Christmas

Like many families of all faiths and none, we’ve enjoyed celebrating Christmas this year.

We celebrated with a buffet of cultural and religious elements.

We began with Advent, with the opening of an advent calendar, and the burning of candles.

We put up a tree, decorated with lights, baubles and sentimental ornaments. This year our tree had no specifically Christian symbols on it. It had a robin on top, a “Father Christmas” (the original British faery version) hanging from it, and various stars and snowflakes.

We celebrated Yule on the solstice, with the singing of Yuletide songs, lighting candles on a log (and eating a chocolate log). This year we moved home, so we no longer have a woodburning stove, so we couldn’t do what we did in previous years where we made and decorated a log and burned it.

We celebrated Christmas with carols and lessons at the two churches in our small village, and we went to church on Christmas morning and saw lots of friends.

We gave and received presents, enjoyed a feast, and shared drinks with our family.

Christian elements are important to our celebration of Christmas, but I’ve noticed more this year, just how many of the things I love to do at Christmas are part of a wider culture of midwinter celebration. Though I’ve been aware of the dividing line since my teenage years, this year I felt Christianity’s offering has sat in equal status alongside other sources.

Religions have always accumulated elements from the faiths around them. We call this process ‘syncretism’, and while it is condemned as heresy by many religions, its creeping tendrils are inexorable.

And this makes me wonder about post-religious culture. I can’t help but think it will be, and perhaps should be, as syncretistic. It should draw in religious symbols and traditions, it should free us to participate and enjoy them, without concern for what is says about our religious identity (just as most Christians erect a tree without undue angst).

I’d be very happy to live in a society that had shed its theism. But it would be a loss to lose the traditions and celebrations that were inspired by it. Just as it would be rotten to celebrate Christmas with all the pagan and non-religious elements removed.

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Ass Backwards on Video Games

In the wake of the atrocity in CT, another wave of anger has rang out against violent video games. Joe Lieberman, senator for CT and erstwhile next-vice-president-of-the-US, made a statement speaking of the link between video game and movie violence and violence among young men, particularly what he called ‘vulnerable’ young men.

And predictably the entertainment software industry reacted with its well-rehearsed counter that, according to all the available research, violence in video games does not cause violence in real life. A position it has polished after every gun attack since Columbine.

Who’s right?

Now, let me say that the entertainment software industry paid my bills for good chunks of the last two decades. I’ve worked on technology for violent video games, and been remunerated with their profits. I’ve written books that detail how to simulate ballistics in games, how to simulate dead bodies (known euphemistically as “rag dolls” in the trade), and how to create characters who follow realistic military tactics. So any moral culpability is mine as much as anyone’s.

So it might seem a relief (if not a foregone conclusion) that — as far as I can tell from the research — there is no direct causal link between violent video games and real-world violence. On the strength of the evidence, the games industry is right and the politicians are scape-goating, again.

Except that is ass-backwards. Everyone is arguing the wrong point, the real point is being missed. I think.

The issues isn’t cause. The issue is condonation.

The pursuit of realistic violence in video games, the increase in fidelity of gun models, sound effects, tactics and splattering blood animations is real and obvious to anyone with an interest in the industry. Pick up any games magazine in the store and count the proportion of pages with a picture of someone heroically brandishing an offensive weapon. I’d be very surprised if you’ll find any with less than 50% of all pages (including editorial). Even in so-called highbrow mags aimed at old-fart gamers like me (Edge, for example), it can be as high as 90% (from a quick survey of my back copy pile). Type some variation of “Best Games of 2012″ or “Most anticipated games of 2013″ into YouTube and you’ll get hours of commercials filled with mass murder and gun violence.

Violence in video games might not be a direct, isolatable cause of violence in real life, but must take its share of the responsibility for creating the milieu of glorification of killing which is all pervasive in media aimed at men. It both responds to the obsession and fuels it. Demand for these games draws the biggest budgets out of publishers, and the addictive experiences they provide, drives demand for the more. Games didn’t create the problem, but they feed it.

I can’t help but see the games industry as morally culpable in letting themselves be drawn by profits into supporting a culture where murder is routine. Where it solves problems. Where guns provide power, and bigger guns are rewards for progress. As the fidelity ratchets up with each cycle of game designs, there is no moral absolution from studies that show no direct causal link.

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Stories and Functions – How Religion Works

In the creative endeavours I am familiar with — writing fiction, game design and graphic design — there is an interplay between stories and functions.

Imagine I’m writing a story for children. A problem I have is that, while children want to be strong, self-sufficient and confident, they still live under the wing of their parents. So I need to get my protagonists away from their parents. I can do this in a number of story-ways. I might have a distracted or absent parent (“My Neighbour Totoro”, “Northern Lights”), orphaned children with uncaring guardians (“Harry Potter”), children who are magically removed from their parent-figures (“Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”), a setting in a boarding school (“Mallory Towers”, “Billy Bunter”) and so on. So I have a story, which serves to clothe some function of the narrative.

I see theology as a creative discipline. Theology recognizes a set of constraints and opportunities, and weaves a story or set of doctrines around them. A good theology does so in a way that the story appears to be natural, almost inevitable, and it hides the underlying function. The functions behind religion are pretty consistent, but the theological solutions can vary wildly.

So, let’s say you’re creating theology today. The scientific method puts constraints on what you can credibly say. You can undermine it, refute it, accommodate it, or embrace it, but it is hard to ignore it. You need to move God out of the realm of scientific testing. There are lots of ways to do that, and different groups do it in different ways. You can have a God who has no connection with the natural world, non-empirical by definition. Or you can have a God who refuses to be observed, because it diminishes the ability for people to have faith. Or you can have a God who works in the ‘heart’ (i.e. psychologically). But in all cases we can say of a theology: “what story or stories are used to implement that function?”

Or, as another example, if we want a faith that spreads, we have to create some impetus for new people to come into the faith (e.g. “if you don’t spread the good news, people will go to hell”, “we are the only way to bring peace to people’s suffering”, “God doesn’t want you to use contraception: large families are a blessing.”). Not all faiths use this function, but those that do can theologize the function in many ways.

If you take a good creative writing course, you learn to identify these functions and brainstorm ways to implement functions in your own work. I think we can do the same with theology: we can ask what lies beneath. Why would this theology be chosen? What is it doing that sustains, promotes or defines the faith? What behaviours does it create in those that believe it?

What, in short, does this bit of theology do?

The answers to that question are relatively few. And when asked, they reveal the actual structure of a religion, and the actual unity between them.

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The Next Big Social Justice Issue

I tend to think of the recent history of society in terms of a series of social justice conflicts.

From justice for non-established religious groups; the fight against slavery; women’s emancipation; racial equality; gender equality; to gay rights.

I wonder what’s next in the list. What cause will I find myself on the conservative old-fart side of, while my son’s generation struggles to see how we can be so blind?

I think it is likely to be Vegetarianism.

I’m a meatophile. But I recognize that the moral case for meat-eating is pretty poor. The justifications I can find seem mostly of the same character as the justifications against the social justice issues of the past: appeals to the natural order, to what is ‘healthy’, to the way it has always been. I recognize that any moral argument I can mount is a post-hoc rationalisation of my love of meat.

For the sake of my gastronomic pleasure, I hope I’m wrong, but I’m meeting an increasing number of non-fanatical moral vegetarians these days. By that I mean that zealous animal rights folks seem to have waned in favour of folks who just calmly take the moral high ground. I suspect that’s probably a good sign of what’s to come.

So I’m going to keep my eyes on the Quakers. If they go vegie, then the writing is definitely on the wall.

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How Spam Comments Work

One of my research interests in my day job is natural language generation (NLG) using generative grammars. Today the following was posted as a comment to this blog. Due to a bug somewhere, their comment spamming system posted the raw source it uses to build its comments, which is interesting, I think. There are hundreds of lines of this, but here are a few. I hope it is clear how the final text is designed to be formed.

I {couldn’t|could not} {resist|refrain from} commenting. {Very well|Perfectly|Well|Exceptionally well} written!

{I will|I’ll} {right away|immediately} {take hold of|grab|clutch|grasp|seize|snatch} your {rss|rss feed} as I {can not|can’t} {in finding|find|to find} your {email|e-mail} subscription {link|hyperlink} or {newsletter|e-newsletter} service. Do {you have|you’ve} any? {Please|Kindly} {allow|permit|let} me {realize|recognize|understand|recognise|know} {so that|in order that} I {may just|may|could} subscribe.

Thanks.

or

These are {really|actually|in fact|truly|genuinely} {great|enormous|impressive|wonderful|fantastic} ideas in {regarding|concerning|about|on the topic of} blogging. You have touched some {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious} {points|factors|things} here. Any way keep up wrinting.

which presumably could lead to great comments like:

These are in fact enormous ideas in about blogging. You have touched some fastidious factors here. Any way keep up wrinting. [sic]

The point of the randomization is to try to fool comment-spam filters that work on (Bayesian!) probabilities of seeing particular word combinations. Unfortunately, the result is terrible.

The quality is because of the algorithm. It is what we call ‘context-free’: choices made at one point have no effect on choices at others, so the only replacements that can be made are those you’d see in a thesaurus. As a result, it is almost impossible to get good text produced (certainly nothing beyond a few lines) with sufficient variation. The need for synonyms also encourages the person creating the underlying text to be careless with what they add (as here), and you end up with word combinations that are a dead-giveaway of a non-human writer. Which in turn means that spam-filters have an easier time tracking the comment. Add the fact that the comment algorithm takes no account of the blog, and you’ve got a very primitive attempt. On top of that, I assume whoever is behind it is technically deficient in any case, since the raw source was uploaded, not the generated text.

It wouldn’t be difficult to scan the blog and figure out some key phrases, then incorporate them into a slightly more complex language generator. Perhaps someone has already done that. Perhaps some of you, while appearing to be esteemed commenters, are merely state of the art NLG systems ;)

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