The Big Thing

About a year ago, I announced my intention to complete a major writing project that I had begun, and subsequently abandoned, two and a half years before. Publicly declaring my intention to finish this piece, “The Big Thing,” was a way to hold myself accountable. I was generously granted two weeks at a writers’ retreat and the necessary time off work to bring this project into being, and my failure to actually make something out of it, no matter how well justified, was a stain on my sense of self that all great Neptune’s ocean could not wash clean.

And besides, it was about stuff that’s really important to me.

Long story short, I buckled down and finished the damn thing, and it’s now the cover story for the April-May 2021 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. It’s 11,300 words-and-change comparing and weighing two views of humanity’s future: transhumanism (we’ll all be saved and improved by technology) and “collapsitarianism” (we’ve blown it and civilization will crumble).

Why these two? Because I feel pulled toward both so strongly, despite their disparate outlooks. It’s the longest piece ever published by Free Inquiry (for which I am immensely grateful) and its editor, Tom Flynn, says it “just might be one of the most profound” (for which I am immensely humbled).

In this post, I offer an excerpt from the main article, its opening “chapter,” as it were. I do ask that you’ll take some time and read the whole thing. It’s been made free to non-subscribers of Free Inquiry, so you are welcome to simply click over, read it in your browser, or add it to whatever read-it-later service you prefer (but please do actually read it later, don’t let it just be another link you totally intend to get to someday).

It begins like this:

Not too long ago, humans believed that the stars determined their fate. Some still do. It was a belief born of naïveté, misunderstanding the nature of those diamonds in the night sky. But it was also a sign of our hubris, to presume that those lights in the firmament could have any interest in us.

Rather than feel controlled by them, we now understand that the stars are not gods or arbiters of fate but places we now aspire to explore. The knowledge of what stars actually are, and how insignificant we are in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos, has humbled us. And yet we are brash eno­ugh to speculate that one day we will be determining the destinies of stars, not the other way around.

Today it’s pretty hard to see those stars. Pollution from smog and the spillage of light from our cities obscures our view of the heavens. The haze through which we must squint to glimpse the constellations reminds us, or reminds me anyway, that humanity’s upward trajectory is not a destiny but a story. A wish.

I am torn. I am stubbornly attached to the idea that one day we’ll all be living on starships, exploring the cosmos free of hunger, disease, poverty, and tribalistic conflict. Looking around at the pace of technological advances today, it still feels possible. I want it to be true.

But one only has to consider the speed and breadth of humanity’s destructiveness to have those dreams thoroughly dashed. Whether we look to the exhausted vitality of the natural world or the buckling integrity of our modern, enlightened societies, we can no longer deny the obvious. The world we made is crumbling.

I dread a global, systemic collapse for my own selfish reasons, of course. As much as I sometimes crave the solace and remoteness of a more rustic, pastoral life, I know that when the shit hits the fan, I’ll be one of the first to die of starvation or disease or be murdered by wandering marauders. I’m very much attached to, and a person of, the current age.

I dread it for my children even more. While they’re growing up faster than I can replace their socks, I can’t quite escape the guilt I feel for even bringing them into being when things are so dicey for the civilization they will have to make their way in. I desperately want them to thrive, not merely struggle to survive in a world their parents couldn’t keep.

Vacillating between hope and despair, I have somewhat paradoxically found myself captivated by two starkly divergent lines of thought, two seemingly opposing prophecies about the fate of humanity that at different times have seemed to me equally persuasive. One camp posits that human civilization is ripe for collapse and that industry, governments, society, and much of the ecology that sustains us will soon run aground, leaving the remainder of our species to cope with a blighted aftermath. The other proposes that despite the enormous challenges before us, human ingenuity will find solutions through technology and biological enhancement, defeating not just climate change but perhaps even death itself. I deeply yearn for the latter to be true. I am anguished that the former is much more likely.

In a more hopeful time, I was drawn to the optimism of transhumanism, the PhD-riddled intellectual movement that once excited my Star Trek–saturated imagination with its often-rapturous predictions of a humanity augmented with unimaginably sophisticated technology.

More recently, however, I have leaned away from utopian thoughts and into a palpable despondency. I have since recognized this feeling for what it is: grief. I am grieving for the world I once believed existed and the future I know never will.

Just as I was beginning to acknowledge this grief, I discovered a movement known as Dark Mountain. Not a formal association or ideology, Dark Mountain is a sort of cultural banner under which those who await the fall can gather. For me, it has served as a way to process what has become increasingly obvious: collapse is coming.

And yet, all the while I have been holding onto the wish that we are mourning prematurely and that there is still something better coming.

We might very well be capable of transcending our biological and corporeal limits and achieving wonders not yet dreamed of. Or we might soon be forced to reckon with all we have wrought upon this world and then struggle to find some way to atone and survive.

Transhumanist utopianism and collapsitarian despair. They may appear fundamentally at odds, but I think what attracts me to them both is their implications of inevitability. Both presume their vision of the future is inescapable, and their adherents suggest we not waste energy fighting that future; we should instead start preparing ourselves for it. It is the overlap of “the end is nigh” and “resistance is futile.”

What I need right now is clarity. I need an honest appraisal of where we are and where we are headed. Maybe you need it too. Are we doomed? If so, let’s face that hard truth and decide what to do from there. Are we going to save ourselves? If so, how will we do it and at what cost?

In either case, collapse or transcendence, who and what will we be when we come out on the other side? To answer that, we probably have to figure out who we are right now.

This is about more than trying to guess how things will look a century from now. This is about what it means to be human and deciding whether that, in itself, matters at all.

Read the whole thing right here. And thanks.

I have a newsletter, and you should subscribe to it.

Immortality the Ineffable Underdog

Photo credit: Macrophy (Grant Beedie) via / CC BY-SA

Everyone you love and everyone you know and everything you touch will someday be gone. We will lose our lovers, our friends, our parents, our children, our animals, ourselves. The pain will be almost intolerable. The jobs we define ourselves by will end. Anything you make with your own two hands will eventually be dust. It will take only a few generations for you to be completely forgotten within your own family.

This is by Elmo Keep (she who is responsible for so much of the Mars One reporting/debunking that I’ve written about on this blog), who has written a positively brilliant, lengthy piece for The Verge on transhumanism, Zoltan Istvan, and the effort to harness technology to make human life, in some form or another, everlasting. Read the whole goddamn thing.

And this passage by Keep about the unbearable inevitability of death, this is exactly why I (like other white, male, no-longer-young tech enthusiasts) am so attracted to transhumanism in the abstract. We find ourselves living at a time when the ascent of computer superintelligences and, simultaneously, our ability to “meld” with computers are remarkably plausible. Perhaps not certain or even likely, but it’s out there in the hypothetical “someday.” If you squint, you can almost faintly see the event horizon of the Singularity.

And because I’m/we’re no longer young, we feel the tension, the gravitational pull, the off-putting gaze of death. We don’t have to squint to see it over the horizon. We just can’t quite tell how far away it is, exactly, but we know for certain it’s there.

So it’s a race, of sorts, or we imagine it to be. Two runners, death (nature) and immortality (technology), and the finish line is our lives.

We’re rooting for the Singularity, or at least for technology to save us from death. But right now, it’s no more than rooting, and for an underdog no less (or no more). If you’re like me and pushing 40, being saved by technology is a lot less likely than it is for, say, my kids.

But even so, we’re talking about something ineffable, really. A notion, a dream, nothing that’s been proven to be the case, to be imminent. We don’t know that technology will defeat death, or even vastly extend and preserve human life. We just really, really hope, and see inklings of possibilities. But that’s not enough for anyone to be hanging their hats on. To be working on? Investing in? Sure, fine.

I can’t afford to get my hopes up about it, though. I couldn’t bear the disappointment. The grief-upon-grief-upon-regret. I can watch for developments, and I can cheer on advances. But I can’t let myself believe in it.

But, oh, would I like to. I would like to so very much.

Transhumanism as a Possibility, Not a Promise

Photo credit: Smashn Time / Foter / CC BY-NC-SAThe caption by the artist is, "They are one weird bunch, essentially a brain in a box."
I have a soft spot for the transhumanists, and as I’ve said, if they were a little less sure of themselves and their goals, and if they were just a little less, well, religious in their faith about what technology and artificial intelligence will bring, I could see to donning the label myself.

Zoltan Istvan, the movement’s (and party’s) presidential candidate is the embodiment of this faith. A huge, strong fellow who has led a life that resembles Indiana Jones-meets-extreme sports, he has put himself at mortal risk countless times, only to undergo a kind of revelation about just how fragile and short life – even his – can be. Now he’s a kind of missionary for immortality, using his presidential campaign (such as it is) to get us talking and thinking more seriously about making life-extending technologies a prime priority for society.

After reading a fascinating “campaign trail” report by Dylan Matthews at Vox on Istvan, and watching Istvan’s 2014 TEDx presentation, I think I see something that distinguishes Istvan from what I normally think of when considering transhumanism.

To me, transhumanism is advocacy of the utilization of technology to radically improve, augment, and transform human life. Its “faith” is that machines and humans will merge in one form or another, and very soon, so that there will be no distinguishing between flesh and robotics, computer and brain, software and mind. And this is supposed to happen in the next few decades, in what’s called the Singularity. The person most associated with this line of thinking is of course futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, now a lead engineer at Google. He is the transhumanists’ equivalent of a prophet, and he is himself obsessed with keeping himself alive as long as possible in order to experience this Singularity himself.

If I were to paint in the broadest of strokes, I’d say that the Kurzweilian transhumanists are very much jazzed about the gee-wiz of technology, the wow-factor of look-what-we-can-do. Having a brain uploaded to a super-internet, enhanced by unfathomably powerful computers, is a kind of Rapture, a removal from existence as we know it. Maybe this isn’t a fair characterization, but it’s how it seems from my vantage point.

Zoltan Istvan is, I now think, a little different from this. If you take him at his word, he is after not advancement for advancement’s sake, but for “beauty.” As he says in his TEDx talk, “Unless you are alive, it is impossible to experience beauty.”

And it seems to all stem from this. The idea that death is a ridiculous waste, and that life offers so much beauty and enrichment, the likes of which we as mere homo sapiens have barely scratched the surface. In order to truly know what he calls “new concepts” and “new arenas” of beauty, we have to, first, not be dead (obviously), and second, invest in the kinds of technologies that will allow for this kind of life extension and experiential enhancement.

As someone who is on the record (severally) as one who fears death like nobody’s business, I am deeply sympathetic to this…what is it, aspiration? Wish? I wholeheartedly share Istvan’s view that death is something to be avoided and ultimately conquered, because as far as we silly meat-robots are concerned, there is literally nothing beyond our experience of this one short life. If we are a way for the universe to know itself, as Carl Sagan put it, I really do feel like the universe should get more of a chance to do so by not letting its intelligent, sentient creatures die.

And there was one more thing that surprised me about Istvan, and this from his profile by Dylan Matthews, who was joined on the Immortality Bus by fellow journalist Jamie Bartlett:

On many matters, Zoltan openly concedes that he just doesn’t know what to do. … To Jamie, who in addition to writing for the Telegraph is working on a book about “political revolutionaries” for Random House, this is striking. The other chapters in Jamie’s book profile movements characterized by unwavering faith in an inviolable set of principles. He’s writing about ISIS, about neo-Nazis, about radical Islamists in Canada. These are people willing to take extreme measures precisely because they know they’re right. That raises the question: Zoltan has a beautiful home, with two beautiful daughters. His wife makes a healthy living for the family, and he can get by as a futurist on the speaker circuit too. He could be in his bed with his wife, knowing that his kids are safe in the next room…

But instead, he’s sleeping on the side of the road in a decrepit 37-year-old RV without running water. Why, Jamie asks, if you’re not sure your ideas are correct, are you willing to go through all this? Zoltan shrugs. He’s not sure. Nobody’s ever sure. But he thinks his beliefs have better odds of being true than the alternatives. Otherwise, he wouldn’t believe them.

He’s not sure. And he can say so. It makes me feel a little better that what Istvan is selling is not a promise, but a possibility. This is probably why he refers to it as “the transhumanist wager” and not “the transhumanist guarantee.” He’s betting on this path to a better future, because why not? Why not invest heavily in technologies that will improve our lives, enhance our abilities, and perhaps one day eradicate death itself? Of course a comparable investment in ethics will be required for such a path, but there are positive dividends to be gained from that as well.

I suppose the “why not” could be the dangers of explosively advancing artificial superintelligence, a danger that folks from Nick Bostrom to Elon Musk are warning us against. In this line of thinking, the superintelligent machines (or machine) won’t give two figs about human lifespans or our experience of beauty, and rather pose a kind of threat in which our extinction is a small event.

So despite the enthusiasm of Istvan, or Kurzweil or any transhumanist for that matter, I can’t get too pollyanna about this. Set aside the actual feasibility of the transhumanist wager being won, I don’t feel like I can even spare the emotional investment in such a future. Can there be more of a crippling, depressing letdown than to believe that death will be conquered, only to discover that it won’t? “The human being is not a coffin,” Istvan says, but for now, it is, eventually.

Perhaps this makes me a lazy transhumanist, or a spectator transhumanist. I’m not yet willing to go there with them, but it isn’t to say that I don’t want them to keep going there. I think what I also want from them, then, is to do a little more of what I glimpse Istvan doing: admitting that they might be wrong.


Related posts:

To Persist, to Ponder

Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi died on March 9 of lung cancer. He was, as I am, 37 years old. He had, as I do, a young daughter. (I also of course have a son.) Before he died, Kalanithi wrote about his mortality, the change in his experience of time, and what held meaning for him in his last days.

Time for me is double-edged: Every day brings me further from the low of my last cancer relapse, but every day also brings me closer to the next cancer recurrence — and eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. There are, I imagine, two responses to that realization. The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time, it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. But even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder, some days I simply persist.

Even to those of us whose end is not impending (as far as we know) this is a satisfactory state. To persist and ponder.

Kalanithi writes of his goals and achievements now belonging exclusively to the past, and I’m glad that at the same age as he, I need to not succumb to that feeling, though at times I can feel like being 37 means that all meaningful opportunities are now lost. It is a fallacy, but one whose fiction I must constantly remind myself of. Kalanithi’s piece helps.

Here’s part of why there is meaning in the middle ground, of reaching a point where, as he puts it, there is less “ascending” and more of a plateau. It’s a good plateau. (Forgive me, this is his final paragraph, so, I suppose “spoiler alert”?)

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

20150221_093538When my 2 1/2-year-old daughter greets me when I pick her up from daycare, she greets me with her whole self, throwing so much joy and love at me I can hardly take it all in. Things quickly move on to her inquiring frantically about the immediate availability of fruit snacks, but in those tiny welcoming seconds, I feel a lifetime of meaning.

Why Not-Being in the Future Completely Sucks

Adam Frank at NPR’s 13.7 blog on why we shouldn’t be hung up about death, even though there’s no afterlife:

[E]ven though none of us existed 1,000 years ago, you don’t find many people worrying about their nonexistence during the Dark Ages. Our not-being in the past doesn’t worry us. So, why does our not-being in the future freak us out so much?

Oh pick me! I know!

Because we experience time linearly, in one single direction, so we’d have no reason to be concerned about not existing in the past. We’re incapable of ever having perceived that which came before us, but we are able to perceive the present as it unfolds into the future, and we are aware that at some point, for each of us, that present will stop unfolding. We don’t witness the past before our births, so we have no reason or frame of reference for concern. We do witness ourselves in the present moment and are cognizant of the fact that we will (or ought to) exist in future moments. And we are also aware that there will come a time when that existence, that awareness, will stop. For-fucking-ever.

Perhaps if we were the Wormhole Aliens of Deep Space Nine or part of the Q Continuum, and could watch time and all the other dimensions unfurl around us in dancing strings and infinite toroids, we might have a different perspective. But we are mere mortal bags of meat.

That’s why not-being in the future freaks us out. Okay?

And personally I’m god damn glad I missed the Dark Ages.

P.S. Here’s a post explaining more about my feelings about death. They are not good feelings.


Over My Dead Body

A college girlfriend of mine used to pride herself on being kind of pro-death. She wasn’t goth, per se, but she was certainly contrarian, and when we’d get into existential discussions (far too often for my late teenaged self who was more interested in physical explorations), she’d tell me that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Well, I am, I’d tell her. The idea that everything ends, and you don’t even have the benefit of being aware that it’s over, it’s all too horrifying and confounding for me. No thank you.

She’d one-up herself. “I’m looking forward to it! I can’t wait to see what happens.”

Suffice it to say, she was not a scientific skeptic, and tried to convince me of the existence of spirits and past lives and the like (which she did with some brief success, eager to please her as I was). Death purportedly didn’t spook her because she was convinced that she herself would be a spook.

As an adult, it’s now clear to me that there was more going on there than some college-age rebellion. It’s of course rational to accept death as an inevitable event, and to make peace with that acceptance. It’s another to declare one’s enthusiasm for it. There was a pain she harbored that my 18-year-old self could not have comprehended.

I was reminded of this when I read a piece at The Atlantic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in which he declares his intention to stop trying to stay alive at the age of 75. The long and the short of it is that he feels that his probable physical and mental deterioration will cause him to be too much of a burden on his loved ones, and insufficiently vigorous for his own tastes. (“It is much more difficult for older people to learn new languages,” he informs us. Well, why go on indeed?) Therefore at age 75 he will stop seeing doctors, forego treatment of disease, and more or less embrace his (at that point) accelerated decay.

I found something unsettling about it, even offensive. I admit that this was almost certainly in large part due to my own fear of death, which, I’m telling you, is visceral, intense, and probably worthy of medication. But I was also put off by the idea that deterioration must equal devaluation. Being able to do and experience less than one used to is somehow pitiable in Emanuel’s eyes. So pointless as to not even be worth existing for.

In particular the way he talks about his father’s aging grated on me. He used it as an example of the terrible fate that awaits us all, noting how his father became “sluggish” and less “vibrant” after a heart attack. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, dude, cut your dad a break.”

My fear of death stems in large part from my atheism and skepticism. I know there is no God, no heaven, no afterlife, no reincarnation, no spirit world (in the practical use of the word “know,” as in, “I know there are no real Klingons”). I know that this life is literally all we have. This experience of being ourselves is 100% of what it is to exist, and that even much or most of that experience is illusory. Without the awareness of being alive, right now, we have literally nothing else. Once it’s over, we’re not even extended the courtesy of having a moment to digest all of it. (“Whoa, that life was crazy. I wonder what happens now.”) Nope. It’s on, and then it’s off.

During the “on” portion, the experience is inconsistent. We’ll start out brand-new and energetic and vigorous, and then we’ll develop, and we’ll age. Illness, accidents, psychological baggage, and plain-old wear-and-tear will take their toll and we will be able to do less. Our brains may process less and at a slower clip. We may get to the point where we can hardly do anything, where most of our lives are physically agonizing, or where we have no idea what the hell is going on (not in the usual, banal sense in which I have no idea what’s going on).

But you know what? It’s not nothing! It’s not the void of death! We can still squeeze out what tiny droplets of joy, love, enrichment, pleasure, even mere awareness that our collapsing meat sacks will allow us to. Perhaps the balance is tilted more toward the side of pain, of torpor, of confusion. And we all may have our own ideas about the point at which those things become too much, when ending existence is a superior choice to experiencing its punishments any longer. Fine.

But I would never put an arbitrary number on it, and predispose myself to speeding up my own demise because I crossed some threshold my younger and more arrogant self put in place. And I could never see myself looking forward to it, wishing for it to come to answer some tough philosophical questions.

Because it will definitely come. There’s no avoiding that. Morbid curiosity will be sated. The scales will tilt to the point of falling over. I see no reason to place my thumb on them now.

Stuck in the Middle with You: The Awkward Sidelines of Skepto-Atheism’s Internal Battles

Image by Shutterstock.
Mommy and daddy are fighting, and they’re ruining Christmas. This is pretty much how I feel most days when I glance at my Twitter feed or peruse the blogs of the skepto-atheosphere. People I like and respect making each other miserable, attacking each other, and each more or less defining the other as either a monster or a bucket of spit.

Despite my best intentions, I fear that I often come off as “above it all,” in the snootiest sense of that term, as I tend to avoid mixing up with myriad debates and wars. First and foremost, this has to do with my job, where it would boot little for me or my organization for me to paint myself, and then by perceived association my employers, with one particular faction’s colors. I have not always succeeded in avoiding doing so, but it’s what I try to do.

Another major factor is my own aversion to conflict. My self-loathing is deep enough that being on the receiving end of attacks, or even perceiving myself to have dropped in the estimation of someone I like, is enough to send me back into therapy. (I actually am back in therapy but that’s unrelated to this little rhetorical flourish.) Few are the hills I feel are worth dying on. So unless the issue in question is of such significance to me that I feel I have to get over my anxiety, I tend to stay out. One example is my recent post on violence against women portrayed in video games, which I was terrified to post, and I kept in a draft state well after it was finished, and even then I didn’t tweet the link or post it to Facebook, just so I could delay any blowback.

But perhaps the most galling part of this is when the war of words is, as I mentioned before, between people I like and respect, people who I believe to be on the same side in almost all things, to have more overlapping goals than opposing, and to be coming from equally principled and well-meaning points of view. And regardless of where I personally come down on a given issue, I can recognize the validity and wisdom in aspects of those positions I don’t agree with. Like I was taught in retail, I begin by assuming positive intent.

(Let us also assume I’m not talking about plainly malicious trolls, and give me the benefit of the doubt that I would not consider genuine harassers who mean harm among my friends, or among those I respect. Okay?)

The current kerfuffle over Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one good example. I have my own opinion about it, friends and colleagues of mine have opposing opinions, and the argument over those opinions immediately became not only personal but all-encompassing. Someone who holds the opposite of one’s own opinion on the issue is not only wrong, but probably an awful person all around, and therefore deserving of awful treatment.

Name any issue about which our community has argued, and this template will probably apply. So what’s one to do?

No really. What should I do?

Here’s what I have done. I haven’t always been weirdly silent. Again, my staying on the sidelines is often necessary for reasons that are bigger than me. Other times, I feel compelled to speak despite the discomfort. In some of those occasions when people I like and respect are locked in Twitter or blog combat, and I note that one of the combatants is going over the line and causing genuine distress, even if I agree with them on the issue, I will contact them privately to ask for a change in their behavior, to mitigate their wrath or gleeful pillorying of their opponent. I try to remind all involved, privately, that we’re all coming from the same place of wanting freedom and equality, even if we don’t agree what that looks like. I try to remind all involved that the person they’re arguing with is a flawed human, with feelings. I think once in a while it helps.

It makes keeping these friendships challenging. When holding the wrong opinion (on what to the outside world might seem a niche concern) is all that stands between me and total outcast status, getting involved at any level in these arguments fails any cost-benefit analysis for me. Worse is when those I do agree with are being dicks about it, where I want to defend one side intellectually, and the other personally. And those differences are excruciatingly difficult to parse, particularly on Twitter, but on any medium.

There’s no solution proffered by this post (sorry!). If anything, I think I just want to convey that there are many moving and changing parts to all of our arguments, and it’s too easy to turn respectful disagreements into the casting of others as villains and sops. I think, and this is an opinion, that to truly hold to the principles of skepticism and rationalism as well as humanism and compassion, is to recognize these nuances, and to make an effort to perceive the moving parts for what they are. It’s to resist the urge to demolish, and to consider the humanity of those with whom you argue.

I mean, really, we can’t all be monsters.

The Collision: Enforced Religion Meets the Internet

Miriam Badawi, daughter of Raif, from the Free Raif Badawi Facebook page.
Every human being alive today, provided they have access to even the most rudimentary computing hardware, is now a broadcasting platform. Compared to generations past, even for the least electronically visible among us, we have many times the reach for any thought or opinion we care to express. And we rarely have full control over who hears what we say.

The consequences for the expression of religious belief (or lack thereof) have been enormous. To my mind, the collision of the democratized Internet with the innate restrictions of certain faith traditions is the most significant development in the world of religion today. Never in human history have supernaturally based belief systems, so specific in their proscriptions for behavior and thought, been so open to scrutiny and criticism, and on such a mass scale.

And it is a collision, because the free expression of dissenting ideas are anathema to dogma, particularly state-enforced dogma. Incidents of heretics and religious dissenters are not unique to our era of course, but never has it been so easy to broadcast one’s dissent, for religious authorities to become aware of said dissent, and for the rest of the world to be awoken to how those dissenters are being persecuted. They are no longer isolated to villages or insular nations. A heretical tweet can land one in jail, but one’s next tweet can then rally a movement to demand your freedom.

This collision has sparked a global crisis, a crackdown on free expression from serial offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to countries that fancy themselves democracies like Turkey, Russia, and even Greece. Often these prohibitions against religious dissent are given names like “hurting religious sentiments” or “insulting religion,” but they all fall under the rubric of blasphemy laws.

It is remarkably easy to commit blasphemy today. Some victims of persecution have been willing agitators, intentionally trying to bring about change within their own societies, such as Saudi Arabia’s Raif Badawi, who began a website for the discussion of liberal opinion; or Alber Saber, the Egyptian secular activist arrested in 2012 for allegedly sharing links to the video “The Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked enraged protests and violence across the Islamic world. But on the other hand, we also have people like Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant who has begun quietly expressing atheistic opinions on Facebook, and soon faced the violent wrath of an angry mob and several months in prison as a result.

In other words, one need not seek out controversy to find it, and one need not look to publicly commit blasphemy to find oneself in existential danger as a result of expressing dissenting beliefs. A casual Facebook conversation or tweet can land one in just as much peril as being an intentional rabble-rouser online.

The silver lining to this is how easily the rest of us can become aware of this crisis, and each instance of it. Alexander Aan began his travails alone, but soon found that he had won the support of countless allies around the world, including leading human rights organizations, such as the one that employs me, the Center for Inquiry. These newfound allies, friends he could never have known he had without the same technology that allowed him to be placed in danger in the first place, rallied to his cause and leveled a degree of political pressure to Indonesian authorities that they could not have anticipated when the first locked Alex up.

And for Raif Badawi – along with his fellow dissenter, Saudi human rights activist Waleed Abu Al-Khair, who also sits in prison for blasphemy-related offenses – their cause has likewise brought to bear the combined efforts of activists, human rights organizations, and even casual users of social media to push back against their persecution. Their case was recently brought before the UN’s Human Rights Commission by my organization, which was an important enough step in itself. But when delegates of the Saudi government manically tried to silence our own representative, Josephine Macintosh, as she delivered her rebuke of Saudi’s human rights abuses, the video of the altercation went viral, exposing to tens of thousands of individuals the extent of Saudi Arabia’s crimes, the plights of Badawi and Al-khair, and the fact that a growing movement was working so hard to push back.

But without Twitter and Facebook and other online media, we in the West might never know any of this. We might go on wholly unaware and uninterested in the challenges faced by atheists and other religious dissenters around the world. Miriam Ibrahim, originally of Sudan, is a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to convert to Islam, but the outcry for her right to follow the faith of her choosing was heard at first exclusively online, and largely from atheists and secularists. The sheer volume of attention brought to her cause online led to breathless “mainstream” media coverage, which in turn brought the heat of the world’s gaze upon Sudan, who eventually released her. She is no agitator. She didn’t have a blasphemous blog or tweet religious satire. She, simply and quietly, refused to violate her conscience, and the online world turned up the volume on her behalf.

Religious belief, whatever good can be ascribed to it, nearly always brings with it the expectation of conformity of thought and deed, lest one earn the wrath of the creator of the universe. The Internet is, among other things, an engine for sifting, parsing, and critiquing information and opinion. The collision of these two phenomena in this early part of the 21st century is one whose shockwaves will be felt for generations to come.

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here


You can learn much more about blasphemy laws and the fight for free expression at CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression.

Montaigne: A Skeptic and Secular Humanist Before It Was Cool

Montaigne is a huge influence on my writing, as he exemplifies what I love best about the form of the “essay,” where certitude about a subject is put aside for self-reflecting deliberation. He’s also the prime influence of Andrew Sullivan, who also inspires my writing, and Sullivan is currently hosting at his site a book club series on a truly wonderful book: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Of particular interest to folks around these parts of the blogosphere is how Sullivan and his readers keep returning to Montaigne’s apparent lack of religious feeling and his general skepticism. Indeed, it is often said in these posts in one form or another that skepticism was Montaigne’s key trait, the thing that differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries, and fueled the very creation of what we now know as an essay.

Here’s how Sullivan puts it in the introductory post, with my emphasis:

[Montaigne’s is] a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. …  This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. Andit is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”.

Now read on as what we began talking about as Montaigne’s skepticism begins to sound like something else:

[H]ere’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

And this is what I mean by secular humanism. (Not necessarily that truth is “beyond our grasp” — I would modify that to an acceptance that there may be things our meat-based cranial wetware can never quite process, but not that we know this to be so.) Life is finite, but in the time we are conscious and mobile we have an opportunity to investigate and make meaning as we will. To do that, you need to come to terms with mortality and, if not the non-existence, then at least the inaccessibility, of the supernatural.

For the record, though I have accepted the lack of a supernatural, coming to terms with mortality is a state of being that continues to prove elusive to me.

There’s more. As the conversation at Sullivan’s blog goes on, readers begin to clamor for a discussion that answers not just whether Montaigne was a skeptic, but whether he was an outright atheist. (Indeed, they really want to know if he qualifies as a “New Atheist,” which I think is a pointless question.) To try for an answer, they go to the authority, Sarah Bakewell:

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. … I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist … but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

That sounds right to me. Ascribing atheism to historical figures for whom such an outlook would have been extremely alienating I think is largely a fool’s errand. We do it with Jefferson, Lincoln, Shakespeare, and on and on, and while any or all of these individuals were certainly skeptical, contemplative, analytical, and prone to challenge outlandish notions, they lived in times when out-and-out atheism would have been quite a leap, and even if they were privately entirely atheistic, we’d likely never know. So too, I think, with Montaigne.

I went back into my notes from my first reading of the Essays to unearth some of his better skeptical passages, and I tell you my cup runneth over. Take away some of the more archaic structure of the 16th century prose, and you could read these passages in Skeptical Inquirer:

‘Tis very probable, that visions, enchantments, and all extraordinary effects of that nature, derive their credit principally from the power of imagination, working and making its chiefest impression upon vulgar and more easy souls, whose belief is so strangely imposed upon, as to think they see what they do not see.

Or how about this for a way to describe the latest flimflam artist or psychic:

These ape’s tricks are the main of the effect, our fancy being so far seduced as to believe that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some abstruse science: their very inanity gives them weight and reverence.

That’s awesome.

He also leaves clear room for the existence of God, even if he finds such a being wholly out of his ability to comprehend. But he does so seemingly as a hedge:

[R]eason has instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater. If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how many are continually presented before our eyes?

Some say God is responsible for this or that event, but Montaigne says that making such claims limits the potential power of said God, and leaves no room for actual discovery or investigation.

Thence it comes to pass, that nothing is so firmly believed, as what we least know; nor any people so confident, as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune-tellers, and physicians.

“God” is such a big idea, so open to interpretation and imagination, with so many ways it could be presumed to manifest, that it makes sense that Montaigne doesn’t tell us that such a thing absolutely doesn’t exist. But his experience in the real world allowed him to be keenly and unabashedly skeptical. And as he does not seem to have lived his life nor written his works in any explicitly Christian mode, we can also say, as Bakewell does, that he was indeed “profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.”