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The Skeptic’s Dilemma

Let’s conduct a thought experiment about an ethical dilemma.

For the sake of argument, in this story you are a world traveller and you have the resources and contacts to go anywhere on Earth for any amount of time.

Eventually your travels take you to a place that is furthest away from modern civilization… perhaps the interior of a vast rainforest or an isolated island in the Pacific far away from shipping lanes. Upon arrival you discover a village full of wonderful, generous, but unsophisticated people. They greet you and invite to their ceremony where they worship and provide offerings to their God Alistair, whom they report can make fire from his fist and reveal what the afterlife looks like.

Intrigued, you follow them to their worshipping spot, where out of a hut pops a man who appears to be from your home country. He holds up a Zippo lighter and the villagers drop to their knees. He pulls out a smartphone and plays a video on it and the villagers gasp in awe. (Before you ask, he has a solar powered charger.)

“Kneel before me and offer your tributes!” he demands.

One by one the villagers give him 10% of their food, backing away on all fours as to not anger Alistair. You notice he has so much food that some of it is rotting by his hut, which is the biggest in the village. You also notice that the prettiest girl who’s also fresh out of adolescence has been made his wife. Alistair is clearly taking advantage and living it up at the expense of these kind and hospitable people.

What do you do? You could play along, offering Alistair 10% of your rations and address him as “My Lord” which would endear you to the tribe and make for a pleasant stay. You could confront him or tell the villagers how they’re being taken for a ride, which might backfire on you since Alistair holds sway over their hearts and minds and could order them to kill you for your blasphemy if they don’t believe you. Or you could follow his example and take your own lighter and smartphone and go to the next village to live like royalty at the expense of those people.

Which choice is the most ethical?

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret about skeptics. If you’ve been a skeptic long enough, and had enough frustrating conversations with people who insist on believing something to the detriment of their own interests, eventually you begin to say to yourself, “To Hell with these rubes! If they’re not going to listen to reason, I may as well start my own psychic hotline/television ministry/Bigfoot research center/Homeopathy shop and take their money since they are determined to throw it away! And I’ll be awesome at it because I know how the trick is done!”

Fortunately, most of us are ethical enough that it never goes further than mere ranting. But not everyone… which is why these places exist in the first place.


I have given it some thought.

Now I appreciate if your position on the “everyone’s kinda right a bit, I guess, and so we shouldn’t challenge that” kind of vibe you’re throwing out there. And that attitude does maintain a level of civil order and strengthening of community bonds. I suspect you are the kind of person who tries to make friends with just about everyone because you have such a giving heart and you’re very “love” oriented. Back in the 80s, the D&D crowd might’ve call it “Chaotic Good”.

I don’t know if that’s true, not knowing you, but if it is… that’s awesome. The world would have fewer tragedies of more of you were in it.

But here’s my thing: Factual truths are defended with facts, logic and reason, and they are tethered to reality. Emotional truths (aka Bullshit, which is not the same as a lie) are free to mutate like a virus to ensure it’s survival, and sometimes that virus is deadly.

The past 12 months have seen numerous child deaths because they were denied medical treatment. These were not abusive, mean parents. They were loving parents who gave their child prayer/homeopathy/traditional medicine/essential oils instead of so much as First Aid. As someone who cares about humanity and the number of body bags were filling, that concerns me.

Every year hundreds of thousands of children in Asia and Africa die or go blind from vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice would go a long way in reducing those numbers, but the Anti-GMO forces delay it’s progress. This is despite that the scientific consensus on it’s safety is the comparable to the consensus on global climate change or the hazards of smoking. It seems to be more about hating Monsanto.

And how did Monsanto become the Nickelback of corporations? I can think of several off the top of my head who deserve it more. United Fruit Company comes to mind. Their involvement in Columbia… THAT’S evil shit.

And how did Nickelback get to earn so much hate? That’s emotionally extreme. It’s just a band, and they would’ve disappeared long ago if they were ignored.

Anyway, just some food for thought. Respond… don’t respond… it’s all good. Chew on it for a few weeks, whatever.


I had heard the same argument maybe a dozen times in my life, and usually under these circumstances.

I was outside a watering hole having a cancer stick when I was joined by another patron, a man in work clothes and steel toe boots, and sporting a magnificent red beard that offset the slight paunch acquired from 30 odd years of draft beer and upper body-intensive labour. He seemed like a pleasant enough chap as we exchanged truisms about the weather and the fortunes of local sport teams. That is, until we were distracted by a young man under 21 years of age wearing sunglasses driving a convertible 25 year old sports car much too fast and much too loudly (if your car doesn’t sound like farm equipment, you won’t have to turn the stereo up) for a residential neighbourhood at that time of day. If that is not enough for you to register disgust, I’ll add that he was also proudly wearing an exceptionally garish Ed Hardy tee shirt. If not a douchebag, he was certainly a douchebag trainee.

Of course such a display in front of working class middle-aged men will inevitably lead to a discussion on what’s with these kids today and why are they always on my fucking lawn. It’s a phenomenon as regular as gravity and it always ends the same way.

“You know what these kids today need that we had?” asked my smoking companion.

“Proper instruction on how to function in society?” I answered… incorrectly it seems. Also, did we have proper instruction?

“Respect!” he spat out. “We had respect for our elders. And I’ll tell you why: because if I back-sassed my Old Man I would’ve gotten a smack to the face.”

Yes, of course! This has been mentioned to me ever since I was the young whippersnapper at the heart of such debates. How could I get that wrong? But the more I thought about it, the more I kept thinking of what I didn’t hear.

For example, I’ve never heard anyone say they were loyal to a company because the boss punched them in the face. I’ve never heard anyone say the reason they revered Nelson Mandela was because he backhanded them. I’ve never heard anyone say they “back the blue” because a police member bitch-slapped the smile off their skull during a routine traffic stop.

You know what else I have never heard? I have never heard anyone finish that sentence off with, “… because my Dad was a decent man,” or, “… because my Dad worked hard to benefit the community,” or, “… because my Dad ended a lot of people’s suffering.” I’m sure those folks exists, but they rarely have a cigarette with me outside of bars. I suppose that my be an argument against my lifestyle choices, and I will ponder those implications as I stare at the ceiling during my next bout with insomnia.

It occurred to me that my partner in addiction was trying to justify his loyalty to a man with anger-management issues, or perhaps justify his own child-rearing techniques. I decided to exercise a modicum of caution.

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “that what you’re describing is fear?”

“What’s the difference?” he asked.

“Just ask the citizens of North Korea,” I replied.

“Fuck the North Koreans!” he said at he flicked his butt at the parking lot and hurried inside to his pint of draft.

Sin and the Sinners Who Sin Them

As an atheist, I’m sometimes confronted by believers who refuse to believe that my position is one of logic and reason. At the top of the list of their alternate theories is that I “just want to sin.” I admit I cannot deny this accusation, but not in the way they suspect.

First of all, we need to define sin. Most people define it as “going against the wishes of God(s).” This seems pretty straightforward, yet it can be an incredibly nebulous concept upon application. Not to mention unavoidable.

Every “Holy Book” in the Abrahamic Box Set can be broken down into two rules (not including those meant to strengthen communal bonds like rituals, genital mutilation, etc.): Be a decent person, and; keep society exactly the way it was at the time and place of the Holy Book’s writing. These are two concepts that are destined to conflict with each other. If you focus on the former, you’re a moderate. If you focus on the latter, you’re merely orthodox (aka extremist). A violation of either of these principles is considered a sin, yet the tension between the two becomes greater the further in time and space from the original writing you get.

To be sure, sin is not the same as as a crime. Sometimes it is, in the case of theft, but often it isn’t, such as homosexuality. Also, there are crimes which are not listed as sins, like slavery and genocide. So is a sin worse than a crime? I guess it depends on who is the victim and who is the transgressor.

Let’s take for example Evangelical Christianity’s favourite target: slutty girls. Young ladies are made to feel terrible for the “sin” of dressing immodestly, having sexual or romantic agency, or controlling their own womb. The level of vitriol and anger directed at these fellow citizens (who have committed no crime) is off the charts.

On the other hand, if you’re a priest or pastor who sexually violates a child or embezzles church money (which are crimes for you non-lawyers out there) and your organization does a terrible job of covering it up, then sin is a way to lessen your comeuppance. “I have sinned against God and I have received His forgiveness” is often employed as a way to explain why you didn’t deserve jail time, let alone unemployment. If you get on your knees and pray to your imaginary Skydaddy who totally sees things your way, then you’re OK to re-enter society. It’s not like you wore a halter top or anything.

As for the sin I personally partake in every day, it is the only unforgivable sin listed in the Bible. Murder, rape… these things the Great Alpha Male of the Universe can cut you some slack, but NOT opting out of the cult. Denying the divinity of Christ is the ONLY thing that is unforgivable. That is the sin I commit every day,and to be honest, it feels AWESOME!

“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.” Matthew 12:31 KJV