Monday, May 6, 2013

A Friendly Conversation

Recently my dad caught up with an old friend of his. I didn't ask to use his name, so I'll just call him Steve. He became a Christian a few years ago after having been raised Muslim and remaining so for most of his life.

Steve wrote a short book about his experiences, and since copy-editing is on my list of potential career options, my dad volunteered me to read through it. It basically consisted of his life story, with a focus on his conversion to Christianity, as well as various arguments for his adopted religion and against other viewpoints.

The universally accepted meeting
place, for some reason.
After I sent the manuscript back to him, he asked about my own views, and upon learning I was an atheist, he suggested we meet for coffee so he could better understand my perspective.

So last Wednesday we spent thirty or forty minutes discussing atheism and related topics. I was a bit apprehensive going in, but thankfully it was a casual, friendly conversation, with an atmosphere of learning rather than debate.

He asked whether I had been a Christian by "default" or whether it was something I actively believed, so I gave him a bit of my background and conversion to Christianity. And how I became curious in my college years of what the opposing evidence looked like, how my investigation of creationism was the starting point for my eventual departure from the faith. 

From there, Steve asked me for my definition of atheism—always a good start for a discussion on the topic. I was pleased to discover that he easily understood the distinction between strong and weak atheism. I explained the need for evidence in proportion to the extraordinary nature of the claims made, and how the idea of God represents such a departure from everything we know about the world that it has an incredibly high evidential bar to meet.

Steve made a few of the standard points for Christianity, which I let go mostly unchallenged, to make sure we stayed in the realm of discussion rather than conflict. He asked what I think happens when we die, and pointed out that if that's true, it kinda sucks. No argument from me there, though it's not a total loss. He brought up Pascal's Wager, although more out of curiosity as to how I approach belief than as an argument in favor of belief.

The problem of evil was mentioned as an example argument, to which free will was of course the vanilla reply. I brought up animal suffering, which it seemed he hadn't considered in that context before. Steve's response was that if animals were treated differently, people might notice and see it as evidence of divine intervention, thus violating free will. While I don't find that very convincing—even if biblical God cared about free will, he could probably find a way to circumvent at least some of the suffering we see—for an improvised explanation, it wasn't terrible.

Steve thanked me for my time and for what he was able to learn from our conversation. He would pray for me, and that my bar of evidence would be met. Despite my warning that I may not read it due to time constraints, he said he would send me Josh McDowell's book Evidence That Demands a Verdict. And he expressed a hope that I would continue to research Christianity. It brought to mind a post I made a while back about my pro-Christian bias: that I've already given Christianity so much more attention than I would give any other faith.

Even though I don't think any minds will be changed as a result of our conversation, I'm glad to have had the chance to talk with Steve. It's heartening to know there are religious people who are genuinely curious about atheism, and willing to engage in a good-natured dialogue to learn about a different way of thinking.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rational Giving

A few days ago I donated what was, for me, a hefty sum of money to three different charities. 70% of my donation went to the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. 20% went to GiveDirectly, which distributes cash straight to needy individuals in Kenya. 10% went to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which treats children in sub-Saharan Africa for parasite infections.

And the entire sum was donated via GiveWell, an organization that researches charities to determine which are the most efficient at saving and improving lives.

Here's why I chose this particular donation strategy—and why you should, too.

As it turns out, a lot of charities suck. Maybe even most. They're either inefficient, ineffective, lack transparency or have unintended consequences like damaging the local economy. (See examples here and here.) Some are actually worse than doing nothing at all. For instance, the "Scared Straight" program, which takes kids on tours of prisons to discourage criminal behavior, was found to increase delinquency compared to doing nothing. Even the practices of big-name charities like Kiva, Smile Train and UNICEF have raised concerns.

Furthermore, many charities (intentionally or not) post misleading information about their own effectiveness. For instance, since malaria nets from Nothing But Nets cost $10 each to make and deliver, they claim an astounding rate of one child's life saved for every $10 given. But roughly 95% of kids would have survived even without nets, and it's not known what proportion of delivered nets are actually used. It's all too common for charities to exaggerate their impact and ignore hidden costs like this. And since most have never been independently evaluated, so we have no real way of knowing how effective they are.

But for most people, none of that's really on the radar. They pick a charity based purely on how it resonates with them emotionally. They may see an ad featuring a starving child with sad puppy-dog eyes, skim a few anecdotal endorsements and start reaching for their pocketbook. All without doing any research. Sure, their hearts are in the right place, but isn't it more important to ensure that we're actually helping people? It's okay to let our emotions drive our generosity, but we need to let reason steer us toward options that will do the most good.

That's where GiveWell comes in. This group looks for charities that:
  • Offer strong evidence of positive impact
  • Are extremely cost-effective
  • Will use added funding productively, without diminishing returns
  • Are highly transparent and accountable
So why trust GiveWell? Well, they've been endorsed both by major media outlets and by experts in the field. They're fully transparent: their research is publicly available, they record their board meetings for donor scrutiny, and much more. They've subjected themselves to intense external evaluation. And their three top-recommended charities have been thoroughly vetted, and are monitored via written reports as well as photo and video evidence.

GiveWell's top-rated charities have the most positive impact of any they've evaluated thus far. Through AMF, it costs about $1.36 per year to protect someone with a malaria net. Through SCI, it costs about $0.51 to treat someone for parasites. And through GiveDirectly, it costs about $4.50 per year to keep a metal roof over someone's head. There are still some unknowns, as there would be for any charity. But right now, these three have the most powerful balance of efficiency and credibility.

Lastly, why did I choose to give via GiveWell rather than to the charities directly? Because it helps GiveWell. Not because they take any of the money—they don't—but for other important reasons. First, giving through GiveWell means they'll have more sway among charities. If their recommendations are shown to substantially impact people's giving habits, charities are more likely to cooperate with their investigations. And second, it gives more publicity both to GiveWell and to the effective altruism movement as a whole, thereby influencing even more people to give effectively. You help the charities, and you help the meta-charity. It's essentially like making your donation count twice.

You don't have to take my word for all this. I encourage you to do your own research. On the other hand, it's easy to get so overwhelmed with ideas and options that you succumb to analysis paralysis and end up doing nothing. So if I've convinced you that this approach to giving is worthwhile, please consider making a donation here. Thank you.

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Evolution on Gay Marriage

Now that the Supreme Court has heard arguments on two gay marriage cases, that the number of senators publicly supporting it has jumped to more than half, and that public opinion has now shifted decisively in its favor, I thought it might be a good time to chronicle how my own views of gay marriage have changed.

For most of my life as a Christian, homosexuality wasn't even really on my radar. The concept was largely foreign to me. When it did finally trickle into my consciousness, I felt no animosity toward gay people; I just considered it a strange and sinful way of thinking and behaving.

I never held very strong opinions on gay marriage, but the issue came to a head in 2008 with the introduction of Prop 8 in my home state of California. I remember that it was something I went back and forth on, but sadly I ultimately voted in favor. My rationale at the time was that gay people could still have civil unions and get the same benefits without taking on the title of marriage.

At the time, I thought that was enough. My vote on this issue was probably the last truly harmful action I took as a result of my religious beliefs. Though I no longer think that civil rights issues should be put to a majority vote, a small part of me wishes this one would be, just so I and others like me could redeem ourselves.

I didn't think much about the issue again until what was probably late 2010—after I had started questioning my faith, but before I became an atheist. I came across this video by prominent atheist and LGBT blogger Zinnia Jones.

In the first half of the video she rattles off a number of potential disadvantages associated with civil unions, but the second half (starting at 1:30) was what really struck me. If civil unions are identical to marriage in every way but in name, why is there a need to make a distinction at all? What does marriage offer straight couples that they need and gay couples can't have?

My views on gay marriage were already tenuously held, but that video was what solidified them decisively in its favor. At this point, I think it's clear that there are no decent arguments against gay marriage, and that most secular arguments have been propped up in order to disguise religiously-motivated concerns. I'm glad to see public opinion changing so rapidly, and look forward to seeing how each sect and denomination will respond to gay marriage's inevitable acceptance.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Life in the Open

In church for Christmas. Nice decor, but
it could maybe use a few more trees.
It's been a little over a year since I came out to my family as an atheist, and surprisingly little has changed. Certainly, they were upset at first. My mom asked me tearfully over lunch why I hadn't told them sooner. A little while later she asked me, not threateningly but solemnly, if I realized what happens if I'm wrong about Christianity. And my dad and I had a few brief, cordial lunchtime debates on religious topics.

Sometimes my parents asked me if I wanted to go with them to church, which I politely turned down except for a few times when it seemed especially important to them—Christmas and Easter, for instance. And a couple of weeks before Christmas they got me a book of arguments for God, which I may work through here if it turns out to be worthwhile. (If so, I'm also thinking about formulating a version of my 30 questions for them to read in return.)

But what I listed above is basically the full extent of their reaction over the past fourteen months. Given that I spend time with them virtually every day, it's surprisingly subdued. For the most part, the topic of my atheism was barely touched after just a couple of weeks.

I have mixed feelings about my family's relative lack of interest in my unbelief. On the one hand, it's great. It's wonderful to be able to talk and have fun with them without feeling distant or uncomfortable. And to be clear, I certainly wouldn't trade this outcome for one where I'm constantly arguing. Still, part of me can't help but be amazed at what a small impact my coming out has had. Having grown up as a Christian, it's all too easy for me to think about my situation from the believer's perspective. If I were an ardent Christian and my sister told me she was an atheist, what would I do? Hmm...
My reaction is confusion, then horror. One of the people I love most in the entire world will be spending eternity weeping and gnashing her teeth in outer darkness! I have to do something, anything to convince her that she's strayed from the straight and narrow! I try to tread carefully around this sensitive topic, but I'm far too curious not to ask what changed her mind. Based on her response, I spend hours researching, steeped in books and articles from renowned apologists, training myself to make the perfect case for the Christian faith. Then, when the timing is right, I broach the subject as tactfully as I can and present my talking points.
Given the seriousness of eternal punishment, the only response that makes sense to me is to expend every available resource in pursuit of saving the lives of my loved ones. Granted, it's important not to come on too strong and drive them further away, but neither will it work to skirt the issue almost entirely.
...So why is avoidance the response I'm seeing here?

It's certainly not that my family is too selfish and unmotivated to come to my aid. They've demonstrated their affection in so many other ways that this holds no water at all. And it isn't that they don't believe what they claim to, just because their behavior doesn't perfectly match their beliefs. I hate it when people draw this conclusion about religious people. It could be that they're nervous about driving me away, just as I would be, but that's probably not the whole story.

I think the best explanation is that humans don't always think through the full consequences of their beliefs. Religious or not, we rarely make optimal decisions given the information available to us. In a way it's not strange to believe in a world of epic spiritual warfare, yet still fret more about what we're having for lunch tomorrow than about saving people from horrific eternal fates. After all, how much time and effort do we devote to worrying about trivial problems like morning rush hour, compared to serious ones like the millions of people suffering from starvation and disease? It's the same basic principle, minus the eschatology.

This may be the most important set of insights that leaving Christianity has taught me—is still teaching me.

Humans are irrational. We make bad, short-sighted decisions. And if we want to bring about as much good as we can, it's imperative that we improve our decision-making, both for our own sake and for others.

So I'm glad that I can live a life in the open, where I'm free to believe what I like without looking over my shoulder. But the next step is much more difficult. Can I live a life where I'm open with myself? Where I constantly challenge the mental weaknesses that keep me from achieving what really matters?

Can you?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bias Profile: The Just-World Fallacy

Do you believe in karma?

That what goes around comes around? That you reap what you sow?

If you believe any of these holds true as a rule, you may be a victim of the just-world fallacy (sometimes referred to more charitably as a "hypothesis").

Even other species of primates hold a sense of fairness as part of their core identity. In a 2010 study, chimpanzees were trained to exchange tokens for a food reward—either a piece of carrot (low reward) or a grape (high reward). When one chimp was given a grape and the other a carrot, the latter was more likely than in the "fair" control group to refuse the reward after seeing what the other received. Interesting, but maybe not too surprising. But here's what's really fascinating: In this highly competitive species, even the chimp that received the grape was significantly more likely to refuse their reward.

If such a powerful sense of justice exists in chimps, it's no wonder that this concept is integral to human society. The problem comes in when our sense of justice collides with our tendency to ascribe agency where it doesn't belong. What happens when tragedy strikes but there's no one to blame? Or when the bad guy gets away, figuratively or literally, with murder? That's when the just-world fallacy kicks in.

If a natural disaster strikes a major city, fundamentalists are prone to interpreting it as divine punishment after the fact. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example. No less than five different motivations were offered for God's wrath: sexual immorality, abortion, racism, failure to support Israel, and (from al-Qaeda) America's attacks on al-Qaeda.

When human justice fails to punish evil deeds, religion offers a comfortable alternative: divine retribution in this life or the next. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism each have their own concept of karma and reincarnation, which, while not always directly caused by God, generally involve the accumulation of positive or negative consequences depending on one's actions. And contrary to what some Christians believe, the Bible repeatedly states that believers will be judged according to their works.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the just-world fallacy can cause people to blame the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator, believing that they must have deserved it in some way since no visible justice was served. If a woman is raped, maybe she was "asking for it" by her choice of dress. In cases of spousal abuse, maybe she had done something wrong to warrant that treatment. It's a terrifying rationale, and one that we should be doing our best to eradicate.

Religion is far from the sole factor here, but it certainly plays a role. When one believes that a god or other mystical force maintains perfect moral order in the universe, one has to explain injustices somehow. But by rationalizing horrible crimes and misfortunes, just-worlders throw a wrench into the already chaotic workings of human justice. Only when we realize that humanity alone is burdened with the task of punishing criminals and aiding victims can we hope to achieve a truly fair and equitable society.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2012 in Review

Okay, so 2012 wasn't exactly a banner year for Other Side Reflections in terms of activity—at least compared to the previous year, which is when I began blogging. 2011 had 170 posts while 2012 had only 39, and just eight of those came from the latter six months.

There are a number of reasons for that, including writing fatigue, lack of necessity, and moving on to other interests. Still, I do plan to update here now and then, and hopefully to at least match the level of activity I managed last year.

In the meantime, here's an index of the posts I made in the last nine months of 2012, much as I've done in the past. Here are my posts from April:
From May through July:
And from the remainder of the year:
It's not much, but what I did put out, I'm happy with.