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Saturday, June 30, 2007

The world is an ashtray

WARNING: This post will undoubtedly piss off some of my fellow atheists. I know this going in and I'm OK with that. There are a ton of very good atheist blogs out there. I'm not going to merely post about things that are already covered elsewhere (and much better than I could do in the first place). So I'm left with the more obscure topics that aren't as crowd pleasing but hopefully generate some interesting discussion.

I'm reading a rather popular atheist blog a few days ago and there is a nice post about dealing with religious co-workers and whatnot and the post starts out like this (I'm paraphrasing here):

"So I'm on a cigarette break chatting with a religious co-worker..."

OK, stop right there. Cigarette break?

Say you're having a polite conversation with someone and half way through the conversation they happen to mention that they are a Scientologist, or have been abducted by aliens, or tell you that Jesus is returning to earth next Friday. Be honest, you're opinion of them has just dropped a little, regardless of what you are discussing. I don't care if you discussing evolutionary biology with frickin Richard Dawkins. If he let's it slip that he wears a magnetic bracelet to help him with his arthritis, your estimation of his IQ just fell a few points, even concerning his area of expertise (after all, if he can be fooled into believing that magnets will cure arthritis, what does he mistakenly believe about biology or evolution?)

Now, let's move on to something that isn't in dispute and that the vast majority of the scientific community agrees on: smoking is dangerous to your health and even to other people's health. This is pure rational science, backed up by tons of evidence. The jury is in, the verdict has been read and the guilty have long since been executed. Everyone (in this country at least) has no excuse for not knowing that they are harming themselves and others by smoking. The rational conclusion is that you should not smoke.

So am I a bad person if my opinion of someone (and thus of their opinions) drops a little when I find out they are a smoker???

We atheists like to claim that we are rational thinkers. It's what separates us apart from those who choose to believe and have faith in something that has absolutely no evidence to support its existence. Yet there is a ton of scientific evidence telling us that smoking is bad for everyone and yet a rational person can still choose to smoke? I'm sensing a little cognitive dissidence here.

Yeah, I know, everything is bad for you. Some people eat too much. Others drink too much. Some participate in high risk activities. Hell, just waking up and getting out of bed in the morning exposes you to risk. And you'll wither away and die quickly if you stay in bed all day. You can't win, so why not just give in to your temptations? Because we pride ourselves on being rational and hence making decision and living our lives based on the best available scientific evidence we have available to us.

So I'm a smoking Nazi now I suppose? I'm not telling you that you can't smoke. I'm not asking the government to make smoking illegal (at least in non-public places). I'm merely saying that you shouldn't smoke because it makes you appear to be just a slight bit less rational than you would like.

It is of course possible to say "I know that smoking is bad for me, but I choose to do it anyway because it is my body and I can do what I want with it." Again, I'm not arguing that you can't. But when we accuse others of hurting people based on their irrational religious beliefs but yet we willingly hurt ourselves and others by choosing to ignore the recommendations of our doctors, then we lose some of our claim to rational superiority.


Anonymous Karen said...

Nicotine is fiercely addictive for some people. Even my mother, who was not anywhere near the sharpest tool in the shed and also capable of immense cognitive dissonance, knew she should stop smoking. She tried. And tried. And tried. And always eventually went back to the drug in times of stress and pain.

I grew up in a secondhand smoke cloud, and after I lived on my own for awhile and got to where I could smell properly, I scorned smokers. Then I watched my mother die slowly over two decades, fighting her addiction to nicotine, while she succumbed to the damage smoking inflicts on the cardiovascular system.

Compassion is necessary in order to be fully human. Go carefully in your judgement of others' vices, and realize that logic sometimes cannot triumph over stress and pain.

Sat Jun 30, 01:54:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Bruce said...

Hi Karen. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Yes, I fully understand that nicotine is addictive. And I guess there is a segment of the population out there who can't beat it. But I also find that with a lot of the smokers I know the attitude is one of "It's my body and I can do what I want with it." They don't even wish to quit. Smoking for them is a form of expression as much as an addiction.

I'm sure quitting is not easy, but we've got a lot of methods available nowadays to help people who want it. For those who have really tried and for whatever reason have failed, I do feel sorry for them (see, I'm not a heartless beast). They are wasting their money and shortening their lives (and possibly others as well) over something they can't control.

But I've heard the comparison between religion and addiction made before and it seems like it does have some validity. Hence, if we expect to be able to reason with the religious and help convince them that they should lose their "addiction" then we should be making the same sort of attempts to lose ours as well.

Sat Jun 30, 05:09:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When someone chooses to use caffeine to perk themselves up it's okay, but when they choose to smoke to calm nerves or whatever other reason they may have, it's wrong. I don't get it.

Why should some drugs be "bad" when others are good? The fact that it's harmful isn't even a valid reason. I'm sure everyone is well aware of that. There are many things in this world that are harmful. You're putting yourself at risk of getting skin cancer if you spend too much time outdoors. It's the personal choice that is important. As long as the person is aware of the risks involved and chooses to do it anyway, what's the problem. You might look down on them for it, but it seems to me that it's your problem, not theirs.

Mon Jul 02, 07:57:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Bruce said...

The fact that it's harmful isn't even a valid reason. I'm sure everyone is well aware of that.

That is exactly my point. We all know that smoking is harmful to the smoker and also to others who have to breath their second hand smoke, yet some people still choose to smoke. But the rational stance is to NOT smoke (we all know that we really shouldn't). Thus, my point is that if we expect to convince others to overcome their irrationality, we should probably try to overcome ours as well.

Again, I'm not advocating any sort of prohibition. I don't support the so called Drug War. I am all for the legalization of marijuana. I fully support the right of people to put into their bodies whatever they choose. I'm not saying that you can't smoke, I'm saying that you SHOULDN'T smoke if you want to be taken seriously as a rationalist.

Tue Jul 03, 11:42:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Super Happy Jen said...

Interesting post. I find smokers and theists similarly incomprehensible. The first group knowingly puts poison in their body several times a day, the other believes in fairy tales. The weirdest thing to me is not that people are like this, but that INTELLIGENT people are like this. So even if someone is a smoker, or a Christian, or an alien abductee, their opinions about other issues can be perfectly valid. It's one of those weird mysteries of life thingies.

Wed Jul 11, 11:34:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Ford said...

One evening, at a restaurant in Aberystwyth, a couple at a nearby table recognized my American (Oregonian, actually) accent and invited my to join them for dinner. They were both smoking, so I declined. But I stopped by their table later, just to be polite. They said they were from Oklahoma. As an Oregon chauvinist who looked down on smokers, I figured they couldn't be very interesting, but I asked if it was their first trip outside the US. No, they replied, in the last year we've been in El Salvador, Cambodia, and Bosnia (or some such list). Turns out it was Clyde Snow, a real hero of a forensic anthropologist, who trains human rights groups around the world in the identification of torture victims, and his wife. I'd heard of him, but never expected to meet him. Wonderfully interesting people. I haven't looked at smokers quite the same way since.

Wed Jul 11, 04:05:00 PM 2007  
Blogger jtheory said...

I have the same reaction (and smokers, you should be aware of it... maybe it's another little motivation for you).

When I see someone smoking, it's like a little sign over their head: "I was stupid". It's hard to say if they're *still* stupid -- many smokers started while they were teenagers who wanted to fit in, and have been addicted ever since. It's a lot like seeing someone with a very bad tattoo. "Yup; one night I was really, really drunk and stupid, but it's hard to get off now...."

Three of my four grandparents smoked (and two died from it... the third died young before the smoking caught up with him). When they started, it was *not* common knowledge how unhealthy smoking was, so they get a free pass.

But how many smokers nowadays have that excuse? Very, very few.

So yes, you can smoke. It's a personal choice, just like lying in the sun all afternoon with no sunblock, eating nothing but fast food, wearing stiletto heels for your hiking trip, etc. etc. are all personal choices. Just don't be surprised when other people judge you based on the sum of those choices.

Thu Jul 12, 01:21:00 AM 2007  
Blogger jtheory said...

Some thoughts on the anonymous comment.

[quote]Why should some drugs be "bad" when others are good? The fact that it's harmful isn't even a valid reason.[/quote]

Actually, that *is* a pretty valid reason. It's not bad vs. good -- things are on a spectrum -- but the farther they go towards "bad", the dumber you look putting them in your body.

[quote]There are many things in this world that are harmful. You're putting yourself at risk of getting skin cancer if you spend too much time outdoors.[/quote]

The person with the massive sunburn looks foolish, because they needlessly caused themselves a lot of current pain, plus higher risk of future pain/death. The person who loves the outdoors but puts on sunblock and wears a hat looks intelligent.

[quote]It's the personal choice that is important. As long as the person is aware of the risks involved and chooses to do it anyway, what's the problem.[/quote]

If you don't care what the rest of the world thinks of you, that's correct. You can get hammered before your job interview and pick your nose during if you want; that's your personal choice.

[quote]You might look down on them for it, but it seems to me that it's your problem, not theirs.[/quote]

We evaluate each other based on the personal choices we see. You might not care what I think of you, but in general if everyone around you thinks poorly of you, you'll suffer (and that *is* your problem).

Thu Jul 12, 01:33:00 AM 2007  
Blogger B said...

super happy jen and ford, I completely agree that smokers can be very interesting and smart people, but that doesn't mean that they still aren't a slight bit irrational when it comes to their habit.

I'm not a religious man, but if I was and I was being told that my belief in God was irrational by someone who claims to live a rational life based on science, reason and logic and yet he pulls out a cigarette and starts puffing away, I think I'd have a right to take his rational superiority with a grain of salt.

My original post wasn't an attempt to convince everyone to stop smoking. As it has already been mentioned, everyone knows that smoking is bad for you and the people around you. But for those of us who pride ourselves on living the rational life, and especially those of us who like to let others know it, then I think smoking takes away from your credibility.

Thu Jul 12, 09:54:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Bruce said...

Whoops, the comment above is mine. I was just logged into the wrong gmail account at the time.

Thu Jul 12, 12:58:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous grendelkhan said...

But there are rational reasons to smoke. I've heard tell of people who started smoking because it meant that they could take breaks from work. It's possible to make a rational decision based on the desire to get away from a soul-crushing job for fifteen minutes here and there outweighing the desire to not get cancer in forty years.

Tue Jul 17, 10:19:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Bruce said...

Hi grendelkhan, thanks for your comment.

I can understand how that seems like a rational choice, but I don't think it is really very rational, especially if you consider other options. My first thought is that smokers should not be getting any special treatment that non-smokers aren't getting. If smokers get extra breaks then non-smokers should be getting extra breaks too. If religious people got special treatment that non-religious people did not get, would you be ready to convert just for the breaks? Thus, I'd be insisting on getting the same amount of breaks as smokers.

Second, I don't know that it takes forty years to get lung cancer from cigarette smoke. I've heard of plenty of people younger than 40 who are suffering the affects of smoking. Yes, it may not kill you quite as fast as a gun to the head, but it doesn't have to wait until you're in your golden years. And in the meantime you suffer a gradual deterioration in your quality of life. Getting those extra breaks may make you a little happier now but ten or twenty years down the road when you can't walk up a flight of stairs without coughing and wheezing doesn't really sound like a rational trade off to me.

So yes, some people may see the decision to start smoking in order to get some extra smoke breaks as a rational decision but I think they haven't considered all of the options. Here's another one: What if they just pretend they are smoking? Go outside, take a walk while you pretend to smoke away and no one will ever know the difference. Sorry, I'm going to say that deciding to smoke is not a rational choice. These people you speak of just need to be a little more creative.

Wed Jul 18, 09:53:00 AM 2007  

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