Rewriting Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager can be summarized in four points:

1. If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven: thus an infinite gain.
2. If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to remain in hell forever: thus an infinite loss.
3. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded: thus a finite loss.
4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded, but you have lived your own life: thus a finite gain.

Spotted outside the Elim Family Worship Centre Peterborough, Ontario: a rewriting of Pascal’s Wager.

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Religion: “It’s Just a Waste of Time”

Update: After this post was published, I discovered from a Toronto Star article that Carolyn Borgstadt, who is Catholic, got an exemption for her son, Cameron:

On Friday, after notifying the board her son had never been baptized and she is not a separate school supporter, Borgstadt learned the Durham Catholic District School Board will excuse him from religion class.

At the beginning of the Ontario Today, August 27th episode that asks the question, “Should Catholic school students have to take religion?,” we hear a recorded voice say

It’s just a waste of time . . . religion just isn’t, in everyday life, it’s just not needed.

This is the voice of Carolyn Borgstadt who asked The Durham Catholic District School Board to allow her son Cameron an exemption from religious programs: courses, liturgies and retreats.

I listened to only the first half of the show because there is too much emphasis on the value of a Catholic education and not enough conversation about exemptions being a right:

When the Ontario Government agreed to extend public funding to the high school grades in the 80’s, the exemption was written into law for any student choosing to attend a local Catholic High School.

The host of the show, Rita Celli, claims, “opting out [of religion classes] is not easy.” It’s not easy because Catholic School boards make opting out of secondary school religion programs difficult. However, as the very informative and helpful website, myexemption.com, says

[Students’] right to the Exemption from religion classes in Ontario Catholic high schools is covered by this section in the current Ontario Education Act . . .

42 (13) . . . no person who . . . attends a secondary school operated by a Roman Catholic board shall be required to take part in any program or course of study in religious education on written application to the Board of the parent or guardian of the person.

If you are a student in an Ontario Catholic secondary and you would like to be exempted from religious classes, check out myexemption.com.

The Myexemption team is made up of parents and students from all over Ontario. We have all gone through the process and successfully received exemptions.

If you are a student or a parent of a student who has been refused an exemption, contact myexemption.com at info@myexemption.com.

Susan Blackmore Talks About Memes

Various atheist blogs recently drew attention to British intellectual Susan Blackmore’s account of giving a lecture at an Oxford-based institution that “hosts groups of several hundred 17-18 year-olds for two weeks of classes”. She was speaking about memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to ideas whose tendency to spread among human minds is analogous to the tendency of genes to spread among bodies as a result of natural selection – a meme has to be well adapted, in the sense of being attractive to humans, in order to flourish. Blackmore has thought extensively about memes and devoted an entire book (The Meme Machine) to them, so she was eminently well qualified to speak on the subject. She also tried to tailor the lecture to her audience:

I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions. So I prepared my lecture carefully. I tried it out the day before on my husband’s grandson, a bright mixed-race 16 year-old from Paris, and added pictures of the latest craze for ‘Fatkini posts’ and more videos, including my favourite Gangnam Style parody (Python style), but I wasn’t going to avoid the topic of religious memes – religions are an example, par excellence, of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival. I simply made sure that my slides included many religions and didn’t single one out.

Unfortunately, despite her scrupulous efforts, it all went a bit wrong.

Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.

By the time she finished her lecture, she was down to less than half of her original audience, and she understandably indulged in some melancholy reflections as she went on her way afterwards.

Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?

Reading Blackmore’s piece, I found it hard to avoid a certain sense that I was hearing from a well-meaning progressive type who’d been unceremoniously “mugged by reality”, as the saying goes. Her preparations ticked a series of boxes that would probably appeal to any fashionable educator in the English-speaking world: attention to diversity, openness to pop culture, equal treatment of a wide range of religious traditions. And yet, the bunches of young people who walked out of her lecture simply weren’t happy to have Blackmore take jabs at their particular faith, no matter how careful she was to jab a few others as well. From her perspective, she was being fair, enlightened and egalitarian. From theirs, she was being blasphemous. I suppose the interaction could be described as a collision between two mutually incompatible memeplexes, each with some evolved weapons and defences against the other. Blackmore’s memeplex actually didn’t do so badly, in that some “brave believers” in the audience stayed afterwards to talk to her and a few of their more skeptical peers. She at least succeeded in persuading them to engage.

Playing with the language and perspective of memetics can be fun, but I’ve never been terribly enthralled with the concept. It seems to me that the word “meme” is basically an unnecessary synonym of “idea”, and that the propagation and selection of memes is so different from that of genes that any analogy between the two is more amusing than illuminating. Minds actively work on and attempt to improve “memes” in a manner that has no real parallel in genetics, and “memes” can be disseminated far more freely than genes. However, I haven’t yet given Susan Blackmore the chance to change my mind, in that I’ve never read The Meme Machine or attended one of her lectures. If an opportunity to do the latter arises, I certainly won’t walk out before the end, even though by staying I may run the risk that Blackmore’s own memeplex will overwhelm my defences and colonize my helpless brain.

Inclusiveness: Toronto Dominion Bank, LGBT and Atheists

A few months back, in March, I wrote about an unpleasant interaction between American Atheists and TD Bank when a notary at the Toronto Dominion Bank in Cranford, New Jersey had refused to notarize documents for American Atheists when she learned what American Atheists does. The notary informed them that she could not sign the documents because of “personal reasons” and then asked a colleague to take over for her. 

This story is of particular interest to me for two main reasons:

  1. I am an atheist who writes about topics that I think other atheists will find interesting and I interact with atheists and believers on social media. I am lucky to live in a society that embraces diversity and has laws against discrimination. However, that does not mean that this society is free of bigotry and atheism is a stance that draws ire from the religious and irreligious alike. As I embark on a career change, I have been told that political and religious topics are polarizing and that speaking about them on social media is taboo if I want to land a new job. Yikes! Sometimes I write about both in the same post!
  2. TD is a Canadian bank that I hope promotes Canadian values that I am proud of:  diversity, inclusiveness, acceptance. I was embarrassed, as a Canadian, when the New Jersey Incident happened.

I was somewhat relieved when I read a speech by Ed Clark, Group President and Chief Executive Officer, TD Bank Group, entitled Somewhere over the rainbow: a CEO’s perspective on building an inclusive company. Mr. Clark delivered this speech on June 25, 2014 at the Economic Club of Canada to coincide with the World Pride Human Right’s Conference in Toronto. In it, Mr. Clark talks about how TD offered same sex benefits to TD employees as early as 1994 ahead of many other companies and governments. That’s pretty impressive for a bank, where the work environment is typically conservative.

Mr. Clark talks about how TD has embedded the principle of inclusiveness into their corporate mission and takes this seriously, for TD monitors “progress through bi-annual surveys” and makes “clear to leaders this is part of their jobs”. TD even “introduced mandatory diversity training for people managers and executives in Canada and the US”. In creating this environment of inclusiveness, TD has learned that “different groups have different issues” so it is clear that TD is dedicated to ensure inclusiveness, monitors for progress and has learned a lot along the way. That’s impressive! Well done, TD!

But Mr. Clark continues to look forward; he acknowledges that, “we should be proud of what we have accomplished, but not complacent”  and explains that a gathering like World Pride would “be outlawed…in almost 80 countries”. I dare say, the figures for atheist gatherings would be the same and like LGBT members, atheists would be put to death in many countries as I’ve mentioned before and of course, atheists, like LGBT, still face discrimination even in Western countries.

I applaud TD for being steadfastly inclusive of LGBT and for knowing that their “employee brand actually grows — people are attracted to our values and want to work for us”. However, given what happened with American Atheists, is Mr. Clark sure TD includes people like David Silverman, American Atheists’ president or indeed, someone like me? Would Mr. Clark hire me to work at TD? I really hope so because I agree with Mr. Clark when he says:

…this issue is about the kind of society in which we want to live. Be a good corporate citizen but don’t just be a good corporate citizen…be a great personal citizen. People believe you when you are invested personally.

h/t Veronica

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