Thursday, December 2, 2010

For-Profit Prophets

There's a trend I've noticed, and I'm surely not the first: So often when a preacher makes some great declaration about the future, he seems to be in it for the money. Oh, he'll put on a good show of being earnest, declaring that God has spoken to him and given him a message that the big guy needs to get across to his True Believers.

Two recent examples come to mind.

First is a local pastor whose name I don't know. Occasionally at work, if I'm bored, I'll listen to a kooky little local Christian talk radio station. They boast a wide variety of content, from nationally syndicated 'bible study' programs to call-in marriage advice shows to whatever the local ministry has on its mind. Every Monday afternoon, the Australian-born (or New Zealand-born? Sorry, my Aussie and Kiwi friends - I'm not familiar with the accents) pastor will rant on about Obama, the New World Order, and whatever swims else through the water lining his brain.

About two months ago, he made some rather bold - and specific - predictions. Citing a supposed Obama official who said that the world population had to be reduced to about two billion, he said that while driving to the radio station he'd been given a vision. Blood would literally flow in the streets of America. The government would shut off the nation's electricity, and sick and elderly people would start to die horrible deaths as their sorely-needed medications went bad. The Obama administration would start rounding people up and sending them to death camps. (But true Christians would be saved!) All within the next four weeks. Clearly, if it's been almost two months, his deadline has come and gone, and (surprise, surprise) nothing happened. And yet there he is still, every Monday afternoon, ranting about the latest indignity committed by the "Obama regime", as transmitted to him by Glenn Beck.

His church flock is still just as full as ever, and he commented last week about what a "miracle" it'd been that the November church donations were bigger than they'd been the whole year. I can't imagine the sort of things he must've been saying to his faithful, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least to find out that he was saying they needed to give of their "financial gifts" to help God prevent such horrible things from happening.

The second example is one Hemant Mehta blogged about:
The fans of Family Radio Inc., a Christian radio network, have sponsored dozens of different billboards in select cities around the country proclaiming the exact date when Jesus is coming back.

May 21st, 2011.

You know, just like the Bible “predicted.”

They have a website about it, of course. It's a delightfully insane blend of numerology, Biblical contortionism, and general rectal extraction. They're giving away a bunch of stuff for free, though they're limiting how many copies each household can get. Weird... the world is going to end in less than half a year, and they're worried about spending all their money on shipping The Truth to The Lost?

I like Hemant's ideas:
If they are serious, let’s see them put their faith to the test.

I want to know now what these Christians are going to say/do when the Rapture doesn’t happen.

I want Family Radio to promise to go off the air if the Rapture doesn’t occur on the predicted date.

I want them to commit to giving a certain amount of money to Foundation Beyond Belief on May 22nd if they’re wrong. (I promise we’ll only ask them to honor their pledge if Jesus didn’t appear…)

I want a promise that they’ll film a video while saying, “My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?” while wearing banana costumes. It’ll be put up on YouTube on May 22nd… but only if they’re still around.

He's right, of course; they won't do any of this, because deep down they're just expecting to be let down again. What they will do, though, is continue to accept donations. Because nothing says "I really believe the end times are coming" like asking for financial support.

Just goes to show you. "Prophets": Con artists, the whole lot of them.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Live Blogging the Hitchens/Dembski Debate

Famed anti-theist debater, columnist, and literary critic Christopher Hitchens is debating Intelligent Design proponent and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor William Dembski this morning at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas on the subject, "Does a good God exist?" The debate is streaming live at PCA's webcast site and I'll be updating this blog post as the debate goes with my impressions and observations.

It should be an interesting debate. Hitchens is known for his scathing wit and sharp rhetorical skills, and Dembski (while not exactly up to snuff on his science... if you ask me) is a well-trained theologian (whatever that might mean).

(Any times I mention will be Eastern Standard Time, and I'll largely be paraphrasing since I can't type fast enough to quote exactly.)

Bill Dembski's intro mentions his debating and lecture appearances... but Hitchens' doesn't, and they mess up the title of his book.

Hitchens gets out of the gate with an important distinction between deism and theism, mentioning Jefferson's deism. Outlines Paley's Watchmaker argument and how the deists embraced it. Points out that theism typically means belief in a god interested in human affairs, rather than an indifferent designer.

Hitchens points out our tiny, relatively unimportant place in the universe, and points out that we're made of the remnants of dead stars just like our own sun.

Hitchens: "The universe, in all its destructive power, doesn't seem as if it's the intended result of the hand of a divine, benign creator who loves us."..."It's a show of great hubris to think that the universe is focused on us."

Hitchens seems a little bit off his game. His illness is clearly getting to him.

Hitchens muses about the rabbis who claimed to see the will of God in the holocaust, then in the return to Palestine, contrasted to the strife in the region today.

Hitchens: "Our resemblance to other primates is not likely to be accidental." Human fetuses grow and then shed a coat of hair. We have an appendix. We have teeth that we no longer need for our diet. We all bear Darwin's "unmistakable stamp of our lowly origin." Primates are capable of doing great things. We're adapted to the African savanna, which we abandoned at a point where there were fewer than 2000-3000 people left and we needed to avoid the fate of 99.8% of all forms of life ever to appear on Earth: extinction. This doesn't give evidence of design, or a finger of a god of any kind, let alone one that wishes us well.

Hitchens suggests Francis Collins' "The Language of God" - a book about how DNA is evidence of the brilliance of God's design. Weird choice, but probably a strategically good choice for the audience full of Christians.

Hitchens: "I don't think it's healthy for people to want there to be a permanent, unalterable, unremoveable authority above them. I don't like the idea of a father above you who never goes away. You don't want a father who'll stick around and never die. The idea of a judge who doesn't allow a lawyer or a jury or an appeal. For hundreds of years, the struggle for freedom was against the worst type of dictatorship around - the theocracy of the divine right of kings. The totalitarian temptation has to be resisted, and I believe this is one of its core, origin points."

Hitchens: "It's not humble - rather, it's arrogant - to believe that you're the center of the universe. Free yourself from the idea that you're in thrall to the supernatural - a thrall interpreted by other mammals who claim access to the authority that gives them power over you."

Dembski says that the existence of God is the weightier question, and his goodness is much easier to explain. Yet he's going to spend 5 minutes on the former and 10 on the latter.

Dembski brings Dawkins into the debate and insists that atheism requires belief in evolution as our creation story.

Dembski claims that there is no such thing as junk DNA - that all DNA, even that which we call junk, has function.

Dembski claims that the Cambrian explosion is still a mystery today, and makes no mention of the fact that it happened over millions of years. Quotes someone claiming that there is no evidence of evolutionary ancestors of the animals in the explosion. Tells people to read his book.

Dembski claims that the inverted retina is actually beneficial. His argument is that it's not all bad because it ensures maximal sensitivity. His entire argument says nothing to explain away the blind spot in the eye. Couldn't God have made the eyes just efficient but without the blind spot?

Dembski complains that Hitchens, a non-scientist, doesn't provide a full, detailed explanation of the evolution of the eye. "It's not that Hitchens doesn't provide that - nobody provides that." Really? That's quite a claim.

Dembski regarding mathematical, computer models: "Unless you tether them to real, observable processes, you can use them to prove anything - in which case they prove nothing." Dembski is all about computer models.

Dembski: "Atheism demands evolution. ... If you're an atheist, that's your only option." Says that God could've put us here in a way that appears designed. (Nice untestable claim, Bill.)

Dembski: "Science is not a cumulative enterprise." Implies that evolution is just waiting to be overturned.

Dembski attacks Darwin's ignorance of modern biology, as if it were relevant.

It's been 12 minutes. Dembski has done absolutely nothing to discuss God's existence, nor has he discussed God's goodness. Oops.

Dembski claims that our language is not the result of unguided development, but design. What??

Dembski cites a movie written by Carl Sagan in an argument in favor of intelligent design.

Dembski says that we can tell something is designed if it meets a specified template. Do we have access to God's templates so that we can tell what he designed? No? Then your argument fails.

Dembski complains of being expelled from academia for flogging his IDiocy.

Dembski: "Richard Hitchens..." Who are you even debating here? Do you know who he is?

Dembski just made the utterly unjustified leap from deism to theism, claiming that the appearance of design is best explained by theism. Sorry... no. Deism would suffice, if a designer were really needed.

Dembski has now had 19 minutes to speak, compared to Hitchens' 15. The moderator shows no sign of stopping him.

Dembski: "I haven't argued for the full-blown deity, but I've gotten you into the ballpark of a deity." That's DEISM, not THEISM.

Hitchens: "An atheist does not have to be an evolutionist. Atheism long predates the revolutionary discoveries of Charles Darwin."

Hitchens: "Why does religion take discoveries about the nature of things so personally? De Rarum Natura was hated by the church for centuries. They didn't want you to know this. They didn't want Galileo to look through a telescope to see that the sun went around the Earth. Why would anyone care? Well, because it would mean we're not the center of the universe, which might make it fractionally more likely that we're not the meaning of the whole thing. This is such a solipsistic, self-important position."

Hitchens re: the eye: "Dembski said I was obsessed with it. That's not true. Darwin was at first stumped by its evolution, and it's often cited as an example against evolution."

Hitchens mentions cave animals with vestigial eye-shaped indentations where eyes would have been in evolutionary ancestors.

Hitchens: "Darwin said nothing about survival of the fittest; he spoke of adaptability."

Hitchens explains that evolution has nothing to do with the choice of the animals - it's a filter or sifting mechanism.

Hitchens: "Israeli archaeologists had ample opportunity, funding, and motive to find archaeological evidence in support of the exodus, but found absolutely nothing in favor. Rather, they found ample evidence in the Egyptian archives that showed it never happened."

Hitchens: "For me, the most important philosopher and moral teacher was Socrates, but there is little evidence of him - only second-hand accounts, no personal writings, etc. This is much like Jesus. The discrepancies between the gospels are extraordinary and are nothing like the evidence we have for known historical figures. But for Socrates, whether he existed or not is irrelevant, because we have his thoughts and his methods."

Hitchens: "Dembski seems to think that pointing out the disagreements and differences between scientists is somehow a blow to the practice of science, rather than something to be expected of people who make a career out of investigating the unknown."

Hitchens: "Science doesn't claim to prove there is no god - just that we have what we think are better explanations."

Dembski claims that he'll be focusing on the point of the debate this time. We'll see.

Dembski claims that the ANCIENT PHILOSOPHERS had a prototype of Darwinian evolution. What a crock.

Dembski actually claims that ancient creation myths begin with purely material origins and worked toward complexity - hence evolution. What the flaming fuck?

Dembski misuses the term "vestigial" to mean "useless" when no biologist would ever say that. Vestigial organs are not useless. They're organs which have evolved out of their original use.

Dembski distinguishes between adaptation within a species and evolution of species. This is an utterly baseless distinction to make and can only possibly be taken seriously if he doesn't believe in an old earth.

Dembski: "Last time I argued that God exists, this time I'll focus on his goodness." Well, no, you didn't. You rambled about irrelevant things for 4 minutes past the end of your time.

Dembski asserts that a universe without a god could not allow for good.

Dembski: "Denying God's existence is irrational and logically incoherent. It's absurd." God is definitionally good because he's the source of all being and purpose and no objective moral standard can come from God. Dr. Dembski, have you ever heard of the Euthyphro dilemma? "This may seem like a cheat, but it's not." Yes, it is. If morality is derived from God, God can change his mind at any time and define good as something else.

Dembski: "Once you have God, it's incoherent to affirm that God isn't good." You haven't gotten God yet, Bill. You have, at best, a deist god, not the Christian one, and you certainly don't have any of the theological attributes you just threw at it.

Dembski quotes Ingersoll regarding materialist morality: "no reward or punishment, only consequences." Well, DUH. That's right. And consequences are enough to build a moral system.

Dembski asserts that morality without an objective standard is all relativist and baseless. This is not an argument for God's existence or God's goodness. This is totally unrelated to the topic of the debate.

Dembski says that materialism can't provide an objective morality and thus can't determine one behavior as better than another - equating genital mutilation to the objection to it. "The atheist is cheating whenever he makes a moral judgment - acting as if it has an objective standard."

Dembski cites Hitchens' famous challenge (name a moral action taken by a religious person that could not be taken by an atheist) and DISMISSES IT AS THE WRONG QUESTION.

Hitchens: "I imagine that Christians should object to Dembski's position. If the existence of god can be proved scientifically, what is the need for faith? There'd be no need for faith if there were evidence, would there?

Hitchens: "Dembski is right - if I were a Christian, I wouldn't think God owed me an answer. But then, why the discussion of questions of suffering? Are we expecting an answer?"

Hitchens: "If we didn't have a social dimension - a bonding one - we wouldn't survive. We'd have gone by now. We wouldn't have made it out of Africa. The question is self-answering. You could call this morality if you want, but it's only really necessary to recognize that we have a kinship and solidarity and without it we're gone. Morality can't be dictated to us. It doesn't come in tablet form that we can swallow. It has to come from the Socratic method - discussion of why something is moral. The ten commandments say nothing about genocide, slavery, child abuse, and innumerable other things we consider evil. If you base your morality on this, you miss out on a lot."

Hitchens: "You can be an atheist and have any number of political options as you'd like. It dictates nothing."

Dembski's last period was 14 minutes long. Hitchens' was 5 minutes. What's going on here, moderator??

Dembski denies that humanity was ever proud of being the center of the universe. References Sagan's Pale Blue Dot and claims that the ancients didn't regard being the center of universe as being in a place of privilege.

Hitchens interrupts Dembski: "I'm not arguing with the ancients, I'm arguing with you."

Dembski insists that human exceptionalism is morally important and that we therefore must have a special place - otherwise it leads to abortion, euthanasia, and eugenics.

Dembski thinks he's very clever for having bought the domain name '' in response to hearing about the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

Dembski: "Having intelligent design is not proof of the Christian god. It doesn't get you the gospel, the tomb, or the resurrection." And yet you spent almost 20 minutes arguing that it did!

Dembski quotes Romans 1:20 as evidence that God's existence is self-evident.

Question time!
Question 1
Using the evolutionary process, where does the concept of human thought and the ability to reason come in, especially in light of things that appear to go against evolution, e.g. self-sacrifice? How does that promote the species?

Hitchens: It's a good speculation - why do people get pleasure for doing things that aren't necessarily in their self-interest? We do have that along with our predatory, selfish, and other attributes. I like giving blood - the feeling that I'm giving someone else a life-giving fluid, though I'm not really losing anything. You haven't lost a pint, but you've given one. I have a very rare blood group, and I hope that there's enough for me when I need it. It doesn't require a divine spark, design, or programming. The existence of sociopaths and psychopaths is explained quite well by evolution, but not so well by claiming that their minds were the design of a good god.

Dembski: The idea that evolution has given us bonding and group solidarity is possible, but not necessarily exclusive to evolution. If you're going to take the bonding from evolution, you can take other things as well, e.g. the 'great battle for life.' Rape and infanticide have been called an evolutionary adaptation. (The problem, Bill, is that these are SCIENTIFICALLY LINKED to evolution - evolution can't be used to MORALLY justify them one way or the other.)

(Dembski's entire argument appears to be the fallacy of the argument from final consequences - evolution means we can't have an objective standard! Bad stuff happens if evolution is true! Well... yes. And?)

Hitchens: Just a few verses away from the ten commandments is an order to commit genocide, rape, and slavery. I don't object to what people do in the name of religion - I'm objecting to the scripture itself.

Dembski: "The debate is about the goodness of God, not Christian theism." But now he's going to argue from Christian theology, as he has been the whole time when describing the logic of God's goodness. Defends the use of the atomic bomb as a moral quandary.

Dembski: "God is a just god. He's not bound by the same rules we are - he makes the rules." EUTHYPHRO, MOTHERFUCKER, DO YOU SPEAK IT?

Dembski creates a false dichotomy between atheism and formal theism - ignores deism, pantheism, etc.

Dembski objects to Hitchens' atheism because his worldview isn't perfect. Seriously?

Hitchens calls Dembski on his argument from final consequences - "it may be bleak and nihilistic, but is it true?" Points out that believing God allowed the world to break at the fall doesn't provide any less nihilistic or alienating of a worldview. "You have to consider yourself created incurably sick, and then ordered on pain of death and eternal torture to be well. This is not morality."

Dembski: "We're not incurably sick. The cure is Jesus Christ." Aww, how sweet. Human sacrifice.

Dembski: "I was raised a Roman Catholic. I had no belief that Jesus was God." Rambles about how he used to be a nonbeliever and a new-age kind of guy. I have no idea what the hell he's talking about or how it's even vaguely related.

Dembski: "Life here may suck and the scriptures may be harsh, but would you like a sanitized Bible where you had nothing like this?" Actually, yes. If it's meant to be a moral guide, absolutely.

Hitchens: Christianity has saddled itself with an unbelievable and wicked religion by forcing acceptance of the old testament atrocities.

Hitchens: "The sheer number of accounts of Jesus' life makes it likely that some such figure existed, though we can't discern his attributes. It does not prove or even suggest that his birth was divine, that his father was God, or that his mother was a virgin. Suppose that they are true. I did not ask for Jesus' torture and human sacrifice, and were I there, I'd have done whatever I could to prevent it. It's not bad for a person to take the punishment for your debts. But it's ridiculous to suggest that they can take away your culpability. It's scapegoating. It's an old, primitive practice from the middle east that doesn't deserve the consideration of modern people. This sacrifice is not being offered - you refuse on pain of death. Is that a threat? 'Well, that means an eternity of torture, you know. You better take that into account.' This is North Korea. This is a celestial dictatorship. This is the sort of worship that it takes a slave to accept."

Dembski points out that it's not offered on pain of death because scripture says we're dead in our sin. Hitchens laughs.

Another Dembski straw man: bringing up other people's arguments against free will and then charging Hitchens to explain the idea of responsibility in light of them.

Question 2
Where did the matter of the Big Bang come from? How about the fossil record - do you find it convincing/confounding?

Dembski: "Biblical creation ex nihilo [which doesn't exist, btw - there wasn't "nothing" in Genesis 1:1] mirrors the Big Bang. The Big Bang opens the door to theism [Deism at best - sorry Bill.] The Big Bang hasn't been alive/the way to go for 40 years." Big Bang cosmology has "theistic" implications? What? "I think there's a fair amount of common ancestry, but not universal." He's speaking of the Biblical "kinds" here - good old baraminology.

Hitchens: "There was a time when a natural philosopher like Newton or Kant could speculate about the natural world and do better than many professionals could. Hawking's statement that science has killed philosophy, I believe, means that we're approaching a point where you might not be able to say anything useful as a philosopher unless you're also a scientist."

Hitchens cites Lawrence Krauss' "A Universe From Nothing" lecture on YouTube regarding creation ex nihilo.

Hitchens: "A lot of 'nothing' is coming our way to destroy us. What kind of design does this evoke? A fantastic waste of energy. Makes God into a tinkerer or a profligate. Just like how 99.8% of all species have become extinct - what a waste! What a cruelty! That's the kind of tinkerer - the capricious, incompetent tyrant God is. Man did not create God. Man and women created many, many gods, and we continue to do so. Either all of them are false, one or more of them are true, or all of them are true. And the evidence seems to point that none of them are true. They're the creation of something that is so obviously half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee."

Dembski reveals that his closing remarks are prepared. Sigh. That's not a debate.

Dembski: Quote saying that any man who strives to bring everyone over to his ideology is dangerous. HELLO! Romans 14:11 ring a bell? "For it is written, [As] I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God."

WHY AM I NOT SURPRISED that Dembski thought bringing up Hitler, Kim Jong Il, and Stalin would be a KILLER conclusion? And why does Dembski dismiss the fact that most of the SS were Christians? Does he excuse the mostly Christian people of Germany because Hitler was (supposedly) an atheist?

Dembski flails about trying to defend Mother Teresa. Thinks that's a good conclusion. Meta-babbling about how his rhetoric courses taught him to wrap up quickly.

Hitchens: "Mother Teresa spent her entire life struggling against the empowerment of women, the only thing that has been proved to combat poverty. She did much to increase suffering, poverty, disease, and filth. These were and are the metier of the Catholic church."

Hitchens: "I'm not going to allow Nazism to be called secularism. I'm a prisoner of my knowledge; I know too much about it. Mein Kampf speaks greatly to the idea of an obligation to God. Nazi soldiers swore fealty by God and wore the Gott Mit Uns belt buckle. Nazism was the Christian right in Germany subsumed into a political party."

Hitchens: "I don't have to wait to die to meet Shakespeare; the Shakespeare we know lives immortally in his writing. If we were to meet the man, we'd likely be disappointed."

Hitchens: "To me, the offer of certainty, complete security, and an impermeable faith that can't go away is an offer I don't want to take. I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of knowledge and wisdom, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd look at the people who tell you - at your age! - that you're dead already and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't take that as a gift; look at it as the poison chalice that it is. Much more truth and beauty and wisdom will come your way if you do."

And that's it. Whew. Good fun. Hitchens may have been flagging early on, but he certainly picked up the pace along the way and got back in his stride.

Hitchens has to leave to go take care of his health, but Dembski is sticking around. I wonder if he'll be licking his wounds.

They're closing with a prayer. How nice. The guy doing the prayer says he doesn't have all the answers, and the debate confused him, but since 1978 he's never been convinced of the atheist worldview and he's been convinced of the truth of the Bible. How nice - get in there right away to reaffirm your beliefs and wash away some of that doubt that was starting to take root.

In summary...
Hitchens was Hitchens, as we've come to know and love. Polite and at times deferential, showing great respect for and camaraderie with the audience. His barbed tongue and eloquence were just as I expected. Dembski rambled incessantly, going over his time by several minutes at every occasion, asserting that he'd established things he never established, contradicting himself, claiming not to be arguing from Christian theology, and arguing against quotes from people who were not at the debate nor with whom Hitchens agreed.

Hitchens made an effort to connect emotionally with the kids and their desire for freedom. The only connection Dembski built with them was over scripture and dogma. He seemed to see them as fellow Christians only, not as individuals with their own desires.

Am I biased? Yeah. But seriously, if anyone sees this debate and thinks Dembski came out on top, I'll wonder about their sanity.

I'd love to be able to sit in on the lunchroom conversations going on at this school right now!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New on the bookshelf: "The Atheist's Guide to Christmas" and "The Moral Landscape"

Just recently, I spoke over twitter with Jen McCreight (she of 'Boobquake' fame). With minimal effort, she talked me into buying a copy of The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, a compilation of factual and fictional writings on the Christmas holiday and its trappings by a wide variety of atheists (well-known and little-known) from around the world. I got in the mail yesterday, just in time to share it with my fellow heathens from my local atheist meetup at our happy hour. It sparked a lovely discussion about our own experiences with Christmas, how we first realized that there was no Santa Claus, what Christmas can be like as an atheist in a house full of Christians, and so on.

Now I just have to read the book...

I also picked up a copy of Sam Harris' new book, The Moral Landscape. Our group is setting up a book club-style event with this book (probably... we've yet to decide) as the subject, and I've heard it's really quite a dense read, so it'll be ... interesting ... trying to balance the sweet lightheartedness of the first book with the meaty, intellectually challenging richness of this one. I think I'm up for the challenge, though.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

How to Build a Well-Stuffed Straw Man

John Shook, director of education and a senior research fellow for the Center for Inquiry - an organization that is typically friendly toward skepticism, critical thinking, and atheism - has written a scathing attack on ... someone, I'm not entirely sure who, exactly ... in the good ol' HuffPo.

In his article, pithily titled "For Atheists and Believers, Ignorance Is No Excuse", Shook states:

Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology. They either dismiss the subject as irrelevant, or, if they do bother to acknowledge it, slim refutations of outdated arguments for a medieval God seem enough. ... Challenging religion's immunity from criticism is one thing; perpetuating contempt for religion's intellectual side is another. ... The "know-nothing" wing of the so-called New Atheism really lives up to that label. Nonbelievers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of the freethought legacy.

When I read this, I blinked. Just who is he talking about, anyways? Is he making the (baseless and almost certainly false) assumption that the "new" (ugh) atheists are unfamiliar with more complex forms of theology? Is he saying that we only dismiss it because we don't understand it? Who is this "'know-nothing wing' of the so-called New Atheism"?

Yes, there are plenty of fools who claim that religion is false because they've accepted simple (and wrong) explanations such as those offered by idiocy like Zeitgeist, but... does he think that most of us are like this?

I didn't become an atheist because it was the easy answer. There's nothing easy about giving up indoctrination. I gave up my faith because I was familiar with the more 'complex' theology, and I found it just as empty and intellectually unsatisfying as its simpler cousins. Yes, theologians have become very good in the past few thousand years at ducking and weaving around good questions, but their arguments, no matter how complicated, are still centered upon assertions of knowledge about things they couldn't possibly know. Any defenses of gods they have are based on asserted attributes of gods; in essence, they've become very good at defining God into existence, in the absence of any actual evidence of said existence.

Are most of the more vocal atheists ignorant of theology? Hardly! In my experience, the people who are less familiar with theology are the atheists who go along quietly, not making a fuss out of their disbelief. They don't find the subject of god meaningful, so they don't bother talking about it. But those of us who do understand theology tend to recognize that it's a subject in which expertise can't be demonstrated! If the gods are inscrutable, no one can claim to be more knowledgeable than anyone else, and we have no reason to accept a person's authority.

If Shook wants to criticize people who dismiss theology as meaningless because they're not familiar with the more complex thoughts of theologians, he's asserting that there's some basis for assuming those theologians actually have something authoritative to say on the subject! What sort of freethinker assumes that a person who is good at disguising sophistry with flowery language actually has the inside scoop on a subject?

Shook continues:

How did know-nothing atheism and lazy theology grab the spotlight? This dead-end trap of mutually assured ignorance was not inevitable. Ironically, better educated classes of believers and freethinkers had emerged over the past 200 years.

Again... what is an educated believer? When you say that a believer is familiar with complex theology, are you actually saying that they know something about reality, or just that they've become better able to spin nonsense into gold?

Shook goes on:
Christian theology has come a long way since St. Thomas Aquinas. Under stress from modern science and Enlightenment philosophy, it has explored cosmological, ethical, emotional, and existential dimensions of religious life. Many kinds of theology have emerged, replacing a handful of traditional arguments for God with robust methods of defending religious viewpoints.

In other words: Religion has consistently ceded ground to rational thought. The gaps in which God can be shoved have consistently shrunk, until God can only be described as a mystery. Why, then, should we be concerned with theology, if it's constantly having to remold itself to fit the reality that science is revealing to us every day? Theology is a discipline in search of a field to explore.

Why is Shook spouting such silliness? Well, you shouldn't be surprised at all, really...
I expand on these observations from the front lines of the God debates in my new book, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers, and Everyone in Between. All of the major traditional and contemporary arguments for God are reorganized by these five categories: Theology From The Scripture (can we trust its accounts of Jesus?); Theology From The World (should we supplement science with acts of God?); Theology Beyond The World (does cosmology need supernaturalism to explain the universe?); Theology In The Know (placing religious certainties before any other knowledge); and Theology Into The Myst (letting religious experiences of God take priority over creeds). The final chapter on Faith and Reason evaluates the competition among Western worldviews struggling to balance reason and faith, including fundamentalism, liberal Christianity, panentheism, mysticism, religious humanism, and secular humanism.

Oh, so he has a book to sell! And thus, all of his nonsense can be excused as an attempt to stir up controversy and increase his sales.
If atheists are going to produce a rational worldview capable of replacing religion, they must take religion and theology more seriously.
These are the words of a man who has done very little reading and a whole lot of pontificating lately. How sad. Plenty of atheist writers have taken religion and theology seriously - as natural phenomena. Playing on the theists' own court is a surefire way to lose at their game. Deny that they have a right to make the rules, and you'll be better off. This is the Courtier's Reply writ large.

Shook's entire article is one big angry-old-man-fist-shaking at a group who supposedly exists, but for which he is apparently unable to cite a single example. Were he able to do so, it would lend quite a bit of credence to his point. As it stands, he seems to be adept only at attacking scarecrows.


Something else I've just realized about Dr. Shook's article: Underlying it seems to be the assumption that atheists, rather than simply being people who don't believe in a god or gods, instead somehow bear a responsibility for addressing the evidence-free claims made by religious people. Where does this come from? Why does disbelief require us to examine all the claims made by the religious? And which complex theologies should we be prepared to rebut - just those of the mainstream religions, or those of the more obscure sects as well? What if the most convincing and complicated theological position is that of a single person nobody has ever heard of - should we be embarrassed to call ourselves rationalists or freethinkers if we can't debate that one person on all her finer points and on her terms? Why do atheists need to be philosophers at all?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

You Don't Have to Think, Either

My mother thought it would be a good idea to forward on a rather vacuous little article from someone writing on her church's website. The article, I Don't Have to Prove It, is a celebration by UCC minister Lillian Daniel of that oft-quoted passage from the Bible:
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

That's from Hebrews 11:1-3. Never you mind that the book then goes on to explain how the ancients of Judaism performed great acts of faith after receiving direct proof of the existence of God, either through visions or by hearing God's voice; no - it's much better to ignore all that and just interpret the passage to mean "faith is the ability to believe without evidence."

To quote the article:

I can't prove to you that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected, nor that he healed people on the sabbath or that he forgave his tormentors. I can't prove to you that one God can also be three in one, and that together that force has parted the waters, burned bushes and fed thousands on short rations. None of this can I prove. But I can tell you that I have faith in it.
Well, that's fantastic. But it's utterly meaningless to me that you have faith in it. It gives me no reason at all to consider your position. This is the kind of thing that a believer will e-mail around to other believers so that they can reassure each other that they're fine believing whatever they want, regardless of evidence for or against it. It's certainly not the sort of thing you send to your atheist son, expecting it to convince him that faith is really a good thing after all.

I can hope and believe in what is not before my eyes. I don't have to be logical, and most of all, I don't have to prove it. Not to you, not to anyone.
Not to yourself, either, as you go on to demonstrate. And I get a kick out of people who say they don't have to be logical. Aren't they just admitting that their position is illogical, and that they don't care?

In our culture, it seems like people of faith are always on the witness stand being asked to prove things, and we Christians tend to cooperate. We come up with the search for the historical Jesus and scholars who vote on whether Jesus said this or that. Or archaeological studies that will finally prove whether or not Jesus was resurrected. Documentaries on/* the history channel draw us in, as if finally, we might look reasonable to the viewing public, as though finally we will get our proof.

I'm tired of playing by that dull and pedestrian set of rules, which has everything to do with a litigious, factoid-hungry culture and nothing to do with following Jesus.
Dull and pedestrian? You're talking about people who actually care about whether or not their beliefs are true, and calling their attempts and desire to verify their beliefs dull and pedestrian. What patronizing, silly nonsense. Where's all the Christian humility we're always hearing about? What I see is a smug, self-satisfied, pompous pseudo-intellectual.

Here's the clincher:
I don't come to church for evidence or for a closing argument. I come to experience the presence of God, to sense the mystery of things eternal and to learn a way of life that makes no sense to those stuck sniffing around for proof.

And this is where Daniel reveals just how completely wrongheaded her approach is: Not only does she believe in the absence of evidence (which is perfectly common among people of faith), but she sees evidence as wholly unnecessary and shows contempt for the idea that she should care whether or not reality bears out her dogmas. She turns up her nose at those of us who would first require the merest bit of proof, declaring not just with contentment but with abject pride that she's far above the need for "dull and pedestrian" things like facts. Were it the case that every single thing she believes were absolutely, demonstrably false, still she would hold fast to her belief, sneering at the people who proved her wrong for how they just don't understand how strong her faith is or how great is "the mystery of things eternal." (Remind me to blog later on how stupid it is that people idolize mystery for mystery's sake.)

Needless to say, the strength of a person's faith has no bearing on reality. People can believe nearly anything at all with all of their being. But when evidence shows them to be wrong and they persist in their beliefs, this is no longer mere ignorance but in fact a form of insanity. It is no more rational (or admirable) than believing very strongly that gravity does not affect you and pooh-poohing people who warn you about stepping into elevator shafts because you draw strength and comfort from the idea that, if you decided to do so, you would float about unharmed in midair.

Such seems to be the case with Daniel. She doesn't care to investigate her beliefs. Moreover, she doesn't even seem to want to hear anything from people who have done the investigations she's far too clever to need to do. She decries logic, reason, and evidence, the only tools that we know actually work for making change in the world or for learning about how reality works. I can almost imagine that, were someone to try to teach her the things she doesn't want to know about, she would stick her fingers in her ears and sing loudly to mask out their voice.

So you don't think you need evidence for your beliefs. Bully for you. But you don't even want to have to consider whether or not they're true; you don't even think it's a worthwhile question. And that's pathetic. This is a person who revels in her ignorance and holds a smarmy, self-important sense of superiority over those of us who want to know what is and isn't actually true. And I can't help but scratch my head at the fact that my mother thought I would be interested in reading this...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My last days as a believer

I've managed to dig up an almost four-year-old discussion on a web forum where I argued (with cringeworthy levels of smarm and fake logic) for the existence of God (of the generic Deistic variety) against a few atheists.

Worthy of note is the fact that I was a college senior and most of the people I was talking to were high school students or younger college students, and yet they tend to come off sounding more rational than I do.

Here are some choice quotes of myself from that thread:
Quite simply put, all physical events have a cause. The Big Bang was a physical event. Now, as to its cause, we have two primary competing theories:

1. It is either a) impossible to know the cause, since observation of anything within the singularity is by definition impossible, or b) it was caused something that defies every rule of physics and mathematics that we have, and
2. It was caused by a supernatural being, force, or event.

I prefer to follow option 2. Regardless of the fact that it's a cop-out explanation, at least it's an explanation.

So I was happy to stick with a cop-out, just because I could pretend it was an explanation.
I mentioned the cosmological constants before. I'm not going to be a proponent for intelligent design, but I think that the fact that the constants came out to be exactly the values that would support life is pretty good evidence that SOMETHING made them that way intentionally. If any of the constants had been slightly different - somewhere on the order of 1*10^-60 - life of any form would be a physical impossibility. In fact, the universe as we know it might not exist. It could be a sparse cloud of free-floating hydrogen atoms, or an unstable, dense, decaying nuclear universe devoid of anything much lighter than solid matter.
Ahh, the good old 'fine tuning' argument, complete with numbers pulled out of thin air! Always a classic.
The very definition of 'supernatural' is 'something outside of natural existence.' The laws of physics just don't apply to it. It could be a physically-detached intelligence, some underlying force within the fabric of spacetime, I don't know. Supernatural entities are not necessarily bound by physical constraints. Their existence is something nearly inconceivable to a natural entity.
No evidence? No problem! Define your concept as unexplorable, then assert, assert, assert!
Personally, I think a life devoid of faith in a higher being would be a life I wouldn't want to experience. I can't see why you would continue to live if your future consists of being forgotten in the passage of time and eventual cataclysmic destruction of the universe that will erase all traces of human existence from... well, existence. I mean... how can you derive any meaningful purpose from life if your life is, in the long run, utterly without meaning or merit?...
My point was that since the universe will eventually be destroyed, there is no reason for life to be here in the first place. The entire concept of life is meaningless, and intelligent life is just a cruel joke fate plays on us. Unless, of course, there's something out there greater than life itself.

In other words, "I don't like the idea that the universe has no ultimate purpose, therefore I will simply believe that it doesn't, even though I really don't have any good reason to do so."
I believe in evolution, too. I'm not blindly ignorant of scientific fact :) I just don't think it's plausible to say that the universe is set up the way it is by random chance.

Besides... how does something create itself?

Nothing can create itself. It's a logical impossibility caused by the fact that every physical event has a cause other than itself -_-
I said, with precisely zero sense of irony.
God doesn't hate anyone. He hates things. Like war. And killing.
Says the guy who hadn't yet read the Bible all the way.
You really think God ought to micromanage the weather?
In response to "Would God allow something like the Hurricane Katrina to happen if he existed?" Yes, I really was that trite and thoughtless about it.
... why does God have to prove Himself to you the way you want Him to? I'd say that the fact that humans exist at all is pretty good evidence of the existence of divinity.

... who would be a better person to judge what's right and wrong than the one who INVENTED "right?" You?

I'm not saying that the Bible tells you what is right, but there's certainly nobody with a higher level of cognitive function than the being who created cognitive function -_-
Seriously, I was a moron.

There's more gold in the rest of the thread. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

An atheist godfather?

My cousin is an Episcopalian, which he describes as "the American version of Anglicanism, which is the British version of Catholicism." He has a beautiful new baby son, who will be baptized in just over a month. And he's asked me to be my new cousin's godfather.

Being raised a protestant, I really had no idea what this meant. The whole godfather/godmother thing was totally foreign to me. So I decided I'd ask around at work. I'm surrounded by Catholics here in New York, something else that was foreign while I was growing up in the Midwest.

Apparently, to be a godfather means several things:
  1. That you're expected to give the biggest gifts at birthday parties, graduation, etc.,

  2. That you'll take responsibility for being a parent for the child if anything happens to his real parents, and

  3. That you'll help with the spiritual upbringing of the child.

Oh, dear.

You see, my cousin asked me over the phone, and I pretty much said yes right away without bothering to find out what it meant. And the vast majority of my family - namely, anyone who isn't my parents or doesn't look too closely at my Facebook profile - doesn't know I'm an atheist.

So… what do I do now? How do I let my cousin down easy? I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable helping to raise his son as an Episcopalian, but still - the fact that he'd consider me for such a job tells me that there's something about me that he respects, and I want to show him that I'm grateful that he'd consider me for such a role. Not to mention that telling him I'm an atheist would likely mean that I'd be outed to that entire half of my family… which is something I'm probably due for at this point.

Part of being named as a godfather also means that I'd have to attend the kid's baptism, which is (in my mind) inextricably tied with the beginning of an indoctrination into Christian dogma… sigh.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Regarding the 'Left Behind' prequels

For reasons I can't really explain, I've just listened to all three of the 'Left Behind' prequels in audiobook form.

These books hold a strange fascination for me. I'll freely admit that it's largely because I was reading the original series when I became a born-again Christian. These stories are deeply embedded in my memory. But when I first read them, I was just thinking about how glorious the future was going to be - as if the books were not just fictional descriptions of future events, but actual works of prophecy. The lines between fiction and prophecy were totally blurred for me.

Now, when I listen to them as a nonbeliever, I can't help but be struck by how trite and silly they seem. The characters are totally unrealistic, the plot lines are predictable and full of pointless delays, and the dialogue is stilted and utterly unlike any kind of dialogue that real people have. Everyone seems to speak the same way, eschewing contractions for the full versions of words (in what seems like an attempt to conform with the formal, Victorian English of the KJV of the Bible).

The whole thing is ridiculous, and it's packed with straw man versions of the arguments that atheists actually use. It's amazing that I was ever so drawn into something like this...

And that doesn't even begin to describe just how stereotypical the non-white characters are in this series. Jenkins and LaHaye actually portray the only explicitly African American characters as being stereotypically 'sassy' and obsessed with barbecued ribs. They could really only have been more racist if they'd gotten into a discussion of watermelon and chitlins... I mean, come on! Their straw man black people even started talking about how white people don't know how to cook ribs! What the fuck?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Can Child Indoctrination Be Child Abuse?

Recently this video popped up over on Hemant Mehta's blog:

Hemant polled his readers:
I know the poll question is simplistic, but the idea is a broad one: What do you think about the use of the child in the video? Is this a form of child abuse?

Essentially, the question is whether or not it's abusive to involve a child in the act of indoctrinating others, as a part of the process of raising them to believe the parents' dogma. It's a sticky question. Without a doubt, there are certain lies that parents can tell their kids without it being considered child abuse.

But religious dogma - especially that of the woman in this video - is entirely different. When you teach a child that the world works in an entirely different way than it actually does… and teach them social skills with the intent of getting them to make friends in order to get people saved… and teach them to fear and be repulsed by their human nature… and teach them that their body is shameful and can lead then to eternal damnation… and teach them that it’s a virtue to believe in fantastic things on little to no evidence… and set them up for a future where they’ll either never really think for themselves or spend many painful years getting over the various mental blocks their indoctrination put in place… yes, I would call that child abuse.

It's especially insidious when these people take their children along as props to disarm their marks. The kids are being told that they have to spread their beliefs to others, and I doubt they've been given much opportunity to determine whether or not they actually want to believe those things.

I indoctrinated myself into fundamentalism, and I’m still digging the poisonous nonsense I learned out of my brain. I can only imagine with horror just how much more difficult that would be if you spent your entire life being told it was true and being encouraged to constantly express your belief in it.

People at Hemant's blog compared this to telling kids that there's a Santa Claus, or raising them with an atheist worldview (whatever that may mean; it's about as meaningful as the term "gay agenda").

It does not compare with telling kids about Santa Claus, because eventually you tell them it was a myth. It also doesn’t compare with raising them as atheists, because you don’t have to lie to them to do that. Some atheists do tell their kids things that aren’t true about what other people believe, but you won’t find them telling their kids that they’ll suffer an eternity of burning torture if they dare disbelieve their parents.

This woman is raising her daughter under a belief system that tells her that she and every other human being on the planet is deserving of eternal punishment for the crime of being born human, and that we have to submit our will and give up much of ourselves to the control of the very being threatening us with said torment. And she's raising her daughter to believe that it's not only good, but admirable to spread those beliefs to other people. She is raising the poor girl in a dogma that teaches that no degree of work that you do to help people live more comfortable or satisfying lives can ever amount to anything meaningful if you don't believe that you're doing it at the command of an eternal judge who finds your essential nature unworthy of redemption.

Yes, this form of evangelicalism is, in fact, abusive. It denigrates everything that makes human beings human and spins it as sinful and offensive to their god. Certainly there are other forms of Christianity that are less damaging to a child's ability to function as a rational member of society, but only inasmuch as they have taken on secular values such as critical thinking and the rejection of eternal punishment for finite crimes. Moderate Christianity is more palatable because it has seen and removed the worm at the center of the rotten apple that is the dogma, but by and large it still attempts to sell you a rotten apple, polished and painted to look more appealing.

Can child indoctrination not be child abuse? Sure - when the dogma is as watered-down as it possibly can be, and everything that impugns the value of humanity (i.e., the entire concept of original sin, sinful thoughts, sinful natural behavior, the need for redemption, etc.) has been removed. This is essentially what I was raised with, and looking back on it I'm struck by just how little I actually bothered to think about God when I was a kid. Yes; when indoctrination is basically content-free, I don't consider it abusive. I just consider it an odd use of time.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fun with UPS

This is completely unrelated to atheism... but hey, it's my blog. I can vent.

When I left work today I discovered that I had a voice mail from UPS, saying that they'd attempted to make a delivery of a package that required my signature. Since I wasn't home, they would leave a note on my door with information and instructions for picking it up.

I got home to discover that the note was curiously absent.

The package having been sent from the UK, I only had a Royal Mail reference number to track the package - I had no UPS tracking number. After an hour or so of frustration at trying (to no avail) to determine my tracking number through the UPS website, I received another automated call from UPS. It gave me a menu of options, one of which was to be reminded of my tracking number! Aha!

But my luck being as it is, I was in the middle of a thunderstorm, and I'm lucky to get two bars at best when the weather isn't so oppressive. After three digits of the tracking number, the call cut out. I redialed the number of the automated message, only to be informed that I had received a call from that number because a delivery attempt had failed. (Wow, really? I had no idea!) I haven't been called by that number again since.

Next I decided to check with the local UPS store, which is only about five minutes from my apartment. No luck. In fact, the store employee told me rather curtly, regarding the automated message, that "that's got nothing to do with us."

I called the international shipping customer service number. They took my name, address, and phone number, typed merrily away into their system, and lo and behold, nothing came up for me. I can only assume that this is because it was before the trucks checked in for the evening, though it seems like they should be able to submit delivery attempts remotely... In any case, they couldn't help me. They told me they'd check with the local UPS store. Hooray!

Maybe I'll get the package eventually...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dear Muslims: It's not you - it's me.

So there's been fuss in the atheist community about how a message was conveyed. (Shock, amazement, surprise!) And I've got an opinion about it. (Further astonishment!)

Everybody Draw Muhammed Day was met with mixed results. Commenters on several blogs have tried to compare the activities to throwing around racist slurs - an analogy which falls flat when one considers the fact that religious belief is something that can be consciously chosen, and that death and violence were threatened as a means of intimidating the participants.

I've even been told (by a fellow atheist!) that, since I supported this expression of free speech, I must therefore endorse all expressions of free speech, including the history-denying insanity of Everybody Research the Holocaust Day, a reaction by a Muslim user of Facebook that invites people to deny the Holocaust as a way that we're "being emotionally blackmailed by Hollywood tales and holocaust museums which legitimize the war crimes and crimes against humanity of the extremist Atheist regime of Tel-Aviv." I'll leave it to you to determine which logical fallacies are employed in this argument.

Worst of all, those of use who participated in EDMD are being scolded, as usual, for our "tone." Ignore for the moment that we had a legitimate message to send; the mere fact that we'd dare to send a message that might offend someone means that the Niceness Police can step in and tell us, as the same person above did, that we "completely lack empathy."

What these hand-wringers don't seem to realize is that this wasn't about offending Muslims. Muslims abide by a doctrine that commands them to be offended at depictions of their prophet. (This doctrine is relatively new, by the way; there are plenty of historical depictions of Muhammed painted by Muslim artists.) For some reason, the more vocal Muslims seem to think that we should be forced to abide by this dogma as well, and must therefore forgo any attempts to draw Muhammed, lest we offend anyone. This is similar to a fundamentalist Christian insisting that since they find it offensive to claim that homosexuality is natural, we non-Christians must never make that claim, lest they be offended.

But in this case, it goes beyond that. Muslims of all stripes, including liberals and moderates, all seem to follow this doctrine. Even Aasif Mandvi of uber-liberal faux news show The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was offended:
Mandvi addressed the issue after a Muslim Web site sent "South Park," another Comedy Central show, a warning after it depicted the Prophet Muhammed in a bear suit.

A self-described liberal Muslim, Mandvi said on the "Daily Show" that he would be upset to see the prophet depicted in a cartoon, but not as upset as he was to find out someone of his faith was threatening people who did so.

When we're told that we mustn't make pictures of Muhammed because a dogma teaches that it's offensive to do so, we're being told that we should be willing to let another person's dogma control our lives. This, for me, was the core of this exercise. It is not about whether or not someone else was offended. It was about rejecting the intrusion of someone else's dogma into my life. I am not a Muslim. I reject the dogma that teaches that drawing Muhammed is offensive. I don't feel that I need to empathize with a dogma that commands people to be offended on a completely irrational, unreasonable basis. This exercise proved that it doesn't even matter what the content of the message is. Some people were obscene. Some people drew stick figures. Some people were even more abstract:

This was my contribution. It really doesn't matter what the drawing was - you were guaranteed to upset someone. The dogma doesn't say that positive depictions are acceptable; it teaches that all are offensive and must be forbidden.

To those who say we should take a different tack with this: How would you suggest we do that? Should we promise to respect people's dogmas, no matter how ridiculous they are or how they intrude into our lives? Should we engage in a pointless interfaith dialogue with a group that would never allow themselves not to be offended? Should we simply accept that things like the censorship of the South Park episode are part of being a multicultural nation, and that the religious freedoms of others are allowed to infringe upon our rights? What message could you possibly send to Muslims, other than the message that we don't want to be controlled by a dogma that we have not chosen for ourselves? And how would you send that message, if not by ignoring that dogma?

If not by drawing Muhammad, how would you assert that we won't stand to be threatened into censorship? And how is it anything but cowardice to allow yourself to be controlled by threats?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's Meowhammad!

Happy Draw Muhammad Day, everybody.

What's it about? I'll let Wikipedia explain it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ex-Christians have it easy...

Thoughts from a Godless Heathen has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information. That said, let's continue!

If you've got some time, I recommend perusing The Lens, a blog by my twitter friend Ali. Ali, a former Muslim, lends an interesting perspective on the intersection of religion and culture that I and many former Christians have likely never seen.

From what I've seen, Islam seems to be more deeply embedded in the culture of its followers than the beliefs of most Christians are embedded in theirs. This is something I'm only just coming to recognize, but it's an important point. When I tell people I'm an atheist, they tend to get a little freaked out by it, but it doesn't shake their world off of its foundations. When an ex-Muslim tells other Muslims that they're an atheist, it's not so simple. The Godless Monster related it this way over on Hemant Mehta's blog:
I get sick and tired of running into other Arabs and have them ask me if I am Muslim and then hear them respond to my declaration of non-belief by saying, “No!!! Once a Muslim, always a Muslim! You can NEVER go back! Never say that!”
I had to fake I was a believer at a cousin’s funeral when I was in southern Lebanon last month. How humiliating. It just wears you down emotionally after awhile. The entire culture and religion is obsessed with compliance and subordination and woe be to those who rock the boat or betray their own kind as I have. You former Christians and Jews have no idea how lucky you are.
I agree, and the more horror stories I read from former Muslims, the more I realize how smoothly my 'coming out' has gone.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Subliminal Christianity and Racism

According to the latest post on Hemant's blog,

a study published by Baylor University researchers finds that “Priming Christian Religious Concepts Increases Racial Prejudice” (PDF).

Basically, the researchers presented subjects with subliminal flashes of words, purportedly to test their ability to detect and differentiate between words versus non-word letter groups seen for only a brief period of time (less than 100ms). Some subjects saw neutral words, like butter or house, while others saw words associated with Christianity, such as Christ, faith, Bible and gospel. They then ran the subjects through a battery of situational questions designed to determine their degree of hostility towards the African Americans in the situations.

Kate Shellnutt summarized the conclusions quite nicely on HoustonBelief:

Researchers offer some possible explanations for why these Christian terms have such negative effects. They can cue fundamentalism or political conservatism, which can isolate “out-groups,” or echo the notion of the Protestant work ethic, which has been connected with anti-Black attitudes, the study said.

The researchers didn't draw any larger conclusions from this (i.e., that most Christians are racist or anything quite so extreme), though they did insist it was causal rather than correlational.

The demographics were a little weird:

A total of 73 college students (57 women and 16 men; M = 19.6 years) were recruited from introductory psychology classes to participate in a personality and language usage study. Participants were somewhat ethnically diverse (37 Whites, 13 Asians or Pacific Islanders, 13 Hispanics, and 10 African Americans) but predominantly Protestant or Catholic (n = 43, n = 17, respectively). A few participants were of other religions (Muslim n = 1, Buddhist n = 1, “other” religion n = 8 ) or had no religious group at all (n = 3).

78.1% female? That’s an awfully small male sample size. That's an awfully small overall sample size, for that matter.

However, I think the study is fundamentally flawed. To quote the abstract:

Participants subliminally primed with Christian words displayed more covert racial prejudice against African-Americans (Study 1) and more general negative affect toward African-Americans (Study 2) than did persons primed with neutral words.

The problem is pretty obvious: What’s the overlap? Which of the participants who responded with prejudice and/or negative affect after hearing the Christian words would have responded the same way to the neutral words?

Prior to arrival at the lab, participants were randomly assigned to either the Christian or the neutral prime condition.

This means there was zero overlap. How seriously should we take the claim that, within a specific individual, Christian conceptual language is tied to racial prejudice? There’s no control on an individual basis. They say they pre-screened people on their religiosity and spirituality; what about their possible existing racist tendencies?

Not to mention: They specifically picked African Americans because of the historical racism toward them in America. Couldn’t this create an exaggerated effect?

(On a side note, this concept seems to be a theme for Wade C. Rowatt (one of the researchers). He has been involved in two studies with similar conclusions in the past, according to one of his webpages which mentions that he focuses on “the psychology of religion (e.g., religion and prejudice).”)

Their conclusion:

Consistent with the Christian-racial-prejudice hypothesis, people who were subliminally primed with Christian words reported significantly more covert racial prejudice than did people primed with neutral words. Participants subliminally primed with Christian words did not self-report more cold feelings toward African Americans on the thermometer item than did people primed with neutral words. This experiment reveals an influence of Christian religion on subtle racial prejudice. Priming Christian concepts in American college students caused a slight (but significant) negative shift in attitudes toward African Americans on a covert measure. This effect remained when controlling for preexisting levels of religiosity and spirituality.

My objections:

  1. There was no control for existing racial prejudice, only for religiosity and spirituality.

  2. There was no method used to determine whether priming with Christian words would increase a particular individual’s racial prejudices.

  3. The second experiment was done to “replicate and expand the effects of priming Christian concepts on racial prejudice found in Experiment 1.” However, if you’re going to replicate the effects of an experiment, you don’t modify the experiment – you just repeat it. Otherwise you’re doing a different experiment, and its results have to be taken on their own. For example:

    Participants were asked to complete measures of general negative affect and specific negative emotions (i.e., fear and disgust …) toward African Americans. Including these measures allowed us to determine whether the slight but significant increase in covert racial prejudice observed in Experiment 1 was because of a change in a specific affective or emotional response.

    This is not the same as the original hypothesis: “activation of Christian concepts in Americans increases racial prejudice.” The new experiment tests a hypothesis based on the assumption that the first hypothesis is true, rather than attempting to confirm the original results.
Do these mean that the hypothesis is false? No; I think it's a worthwhile hypothesis to explore, but I think that a much more carefully crafted study would have to be performed. This one just doesn't cut it, in my opinion.

Others on Hemant's blog have pointed out some weaknesses in my objections. For #1:
The very fact that the subjects were randomly assigned to either the neutral-word group or the Christian-word group controls for these two factors. That is, if it were merely a matter of existing racial prejudice, then that prejudice would be just as likely to occur regardless of which words were shown.
I'll concede this. Considering that the study took place in the south, which has historically had a higher baseline of racism, I don't think the degree of pre-existing racism could be the sole decider. The population randomization would also lead to less 'clustering' of people with particular views.

For #2:
By splitting the people randomly into the two groups, and still seeing a measurable difference, doesn’t that clearly indicate the causal effect of the Christian words in individuals? Even without testing anybody more than once, the study shows that, on average, flashing the Christian words will tend to make a typical individual act more racist.
I still disagree with this part. If you only test somebody once, you don't have a baseline for that individual to determine whether or not the priming with Christian words actually did increase their level of racism. You can draw a correlation between higher levels of racism and Christian word priming over the entire sample population, but you can't say with reasonable certainty that it was a causal connection for each member.

I would be interested to see the study repeated with different ideologically tied language and with other ethnic/minority groups as the 'target' of the discrimination. I can understand the idea of ideological language being linked to in-group vs. out-group thinking, but whether subliminal cues can cause an increase in that sort of thinking isn't clear to me. It's worth a further look.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Pastel Eggs and Bunnies Day!

Today, Christians celebrate Easter, the biggest day on their holy calendar. It's the day that Jesus is supposed to have risen from the dead, having completed his victory over death and offering absolution from sin to all who accepted his sacrifice and followed him.

The reason for the sacrifice was to stand in the stead of all mankind to pay for their sins, which they had inherited by virtue of the sinful nature of mankind caused by the fall in Eden. On a side note, it's debatable whether or not being dead for three days and then becoming God could really be called a sacrifice, but let's leave that alone for now.

For those who believe in the literal version of Genesis, Adam and Eve were created perfectly, but some way or another, their free will managed to screw that pooch. Their disobedience (apparently God figured it was a good idea to build that in) led to sin, which led to death, decay, suffering, and struggling in life. I can't even begin to understand how a perfect being could do anything wrong, especially when it was built to be incapable of understanding right and wrong. In fact, the whole point of the fall is that Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus giving them insight into things that they could do wrong. They were punished for not knowing it was wrong to want to know right from wrong. Amazing.

For those who don't take Genesis literally, this presents a problem. If you accept evolution, for example, then there was no fall of man. There was no original sin. This could only mean that it was part of God's plan for mankind to have a sinful nature - after all, where else could it come from? Either we always had it, or we never had it at all (since there was no fall). That means that Jesus was sacrificed to pay the price for the way God made us. It's just God covering his ass, in the most ham-handed and irrational way possible - through human torture and sacrifice. Good one, Jehovah!

And if you believe in both evolution and hell, it's even worse! Not only do you think we always had a sinful nature, but you think God has a special place lined up for everybody! So God had to sacrifice himself... to himself... to make a loophole... for his own creation to escape the punishment he assigned... for behaving the way he intended us to behave from the beginning.

Ta da! Christianity makes so much sense. Good thing so few Christians actually buy into the whole 'hell' thing these days, or they might have some explaining to do - like, why their God is allowed any sort of moral authority when he punishes things for being broken that he broke himself.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Horror of Eternity

One of my Facebook friends just asked her 'followers' if the idea of the afterlife ever brought comfort to us. It was interesting to see some of the responses:
"The stress of wondering where I would go in the afterlife did not bring me any comfort. I don't remember when I first learned about Hell, but when I was a child, I was so afraid of it that I repeated the thought "I love God" over and over and over again in my mind."
"I never, even as a Christian, completely accepted the concept of Heaven and Hell because my dad was an atheist and I knew it. I tried my best to rationalize, though. I just couldn't understand the point of us being created only to be tortured. So no, it never brought me comfort."
"Absolutely not. I remember thinking who would want to live FOREVER? And I was maybe 7 or 8 years old."
"I was always terrified of the afterlife, particularly heaven. At a very young age, I was terrified of the thought of NEVER dying. I did not want to live forever, and worse with god. I was terrified about constantly being criticized by him. I did not truly understand what acts were sins and did not want to upset god."
Until a few years ago, the idea of the afterlife was nothing BUT comfort to me. I was raised in a liberal Christian family, and was taught that everyone was saved by grace at birth, meaning that nobody went to hell. The idea of people suffering forever wasn't even an issue for me. Everyone would go to heaven, where they could do whatever they wanted, be whoever or whatever they wanted, etc. It would just be a magical world where anything was possible. Definitely not the Biblical image of heaven, with the constant singing of praises to God.

It wasn't until I was 'saved' at age 17 that I began to think about the more orthodox idea of the Christian afterlife. it was at that moment that the idea of the afterlife ceased to be entirely comforting, and became a driving force for me to try to get other people to accept Jesus.

I think that, had I never become an evangelical, I'd still be a believer. Much of what triggered my disillusionment with Christianity was the realization that what I believed was a far cry from what the Bible actually teaches, and that what it taught was often things I found reprehensible. Had I not been 'saved', I would probably still believe.

I can't help but wonder if most Christians even consider what eternity really means. We're not talking about living for a long, long time here, folks; we're talking about forever. If you got bored, you could go and learn the properties of every fundamental particle of matter in the universe, give them names, and write a series of novels about them. Then you could scale up - name all of the quarks, the muons, the gluons, etc. Name all the atoms. Name all the molecules. And so on.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could learn the life story of every human being, alive or dead, through to the extinction of the human species.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could watch the heat death of the universe, unimaginably distant into our future.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could reach a point where there is nothing left to know; nothing left to do; nothing left to see. You could experience everything that could possibly (or even IMpossibly) be experienced.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could, as does Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, travel throughout time and space and insult every intelligent being in alphabetical order.

And you would still have eternity left.

It would never end.

And yet, according to orthodox Christianity, the result of a meager 70 years or so here on earth is meant to determine our outcome for eternity. According to any religion with an afterlife, this is what we're supposed to desire.

I can envision the result of achieving eternal life: Madness. Unfeeling, unthinking madness. An existence with no end and a desperate desire for an end. And yet the evangelical Christian is meant to believe that this isn't a possible outcome; that we'll be content to live forever, on our knees before the throne of God, singing praise to his name.

Any being that could be content with that is not something that we could call human. That's not to say evangelicals are inhuman, but rather that I don't think they've really thought it through. The only thing that could make me desire an eternity of praise and grovelling would be a complete removal of my personality and a replacement with something else.

I'm just glad it's not true.

The Friendly Atheist - Hemant Mehta at RPI

Hemant Mehta, best known as The Friendly Atheist or The eBay Atheist, recently paid a visit to the Secular Student Alliance at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New Yok. Hemant's original claim to fame was an eBay auction where he offered to go to the religious service of the buyer's choice for one day per $10 spent. The media spun this as Hemant "selling his soul," and after he tipped off a few key blogs and local media organizations, his auction quickly made the international news. Atheists and Christians squared off in a bidding war over the deal, and Hemant fielded dozens of questions in response, both off-the-wall and serious.

The winner of the auction, a former evangelical minister from Seattle named Jim Henderson, tweaked the deal a bit and offered to send Hemant to several different churches around the country, from tiny home churches to Ted Haggard's massive megachurch. Henderson runs an organization called Off the Map which (at the time - the focus has now changed) hired non-churchgoers to attend local churches and write up critiques of their experiences. Jim asked Hemant to do the same, and to post them online. The result surprised both Jim and Hemant: People from all along the religious/irreligious spectrum responded almost entirely positively, often finding common ground in their recognition of parts of what Hemant articulated.

In his talk at RPI, Hemant went into great detail about this project, its aftermath, and what he has been doing since then. Hemant is now chair of the Board of Directors for the SSA, a role which lets him play an active role in supporting secular student groups across the country. He is also a math teacher in the Chicago suburbs, a role which led to his coming under attack as a "dangerous influence" for kids from a extreme conservative Christian group called the Illinois Family Institute. Hemant described how that came about and how his life has changed (or not) as a result of it.

I recorded the entirety of Hemant's talk and posted it to YouTube here. The first seven minutes or so are audio-only, but the rest is both video and audio. Several members of our local atheist/agnostic meetup group attended the talk. I got a photo with Hemant, which was met on his website with shock at our size differences :)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

We're Not Alone

One thing I hear a lot from my fellow nonbelievers is that it seems like Christian extremists are constantly pushing for an American theocracy. While I'm convinced that this is true - that is, that fundamentalists would love to take over the country and turn us "back to the Bible" (whatever that means to them) - I'm not sure just how successful they would be. After all, they would have to deal with all the non-Christians, not to mention the other Christians who disagree with them. That's no small number of people, either; regardless of how noisy and obnoxious the extremists are, they're still technically a fringe. And they're not without their detractors inside the faith community, either. Anomaly100, one of the few Christians I follow on Twitter, wrote (among a lot of other stuff that makes good sense):

The Family at 133 C Street, infamous for their stifling and oppression, behind closed doors, [and for] deeming who is and who isn’t moral, are the very ones showing support to Uganda for giving homosexuals the death sentence.

The protesters in Iran are determined to topple their government due to the oppressive dictatorship they’ve had to endure from a forced theocracy.

Are we becoming them? So much is done in the name of God but do you think God needs their help?

This is something I've wondered about quite often. Why do religious extremists feel that they need to enforce their God's rules? Do they honestly think that an omnipotent, omniscient being wouldn't be able to handle things on its own? That they're so ready to take action in defense of their deity seems to directly counter the idea that they are devout in their faith. After all, were they truly of the opinion that their God's will would always be done, they would see no reason to act on his behalf. And if their God were omnipotent, how could anything possibly go any way but his? The idea of something going against the will of God would be a logical impossibility.

Anomaly100 and I definitely don't agree on the basic theological argument - that is, she argues against religious extremists on the basis that they distort Christianity, while I argue against them on the basis that their actions belie doubts that their words deny (and think that their stance is more in keeping with a fundamentalist tradition). But her viewpoint is a good reminder that nonbelievers aren't the only ones who are loath to allow dangerous religious ideas to take a solid root.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Uncomfortable Gift Requests at Work

Recently, one of my coworkers lost her father after a long battle with a terminal illness. She took the last week off from work to grieve and deal with family business. Today, she came back to work, and one of my other coworkers passed around an envelope containing a sympathy card.

The catch? There was a note on the envelope asking for cash to be given in her father's name as a gift to a local church.

Being the nonconfrontational person I am, I was a little irritated at first, but not enough to raise a stink about it. I simply signed the card with my condolences and an offer to lend her an ear if she needed someone to talk to, then passed the card off to the next person on the list. I considered the idea of asking her if there was anything else I could do in her father's memory, but quickly dismissed the idea as (obviously) a little insensitive.

I'd like to make up for not chipping in on this gift, but I'm not quite sure what to do. Most of my coworkers are Catholic, and asking them for alternatives would almost certainly lead to an uncomfortable discussion about religion that I really don't need to have in the middle of my workday. I'd talk to my parents, except that they seem to be confusing "I'm an atheist" with "I'm a nontraditional Christian who is struggling with his faith." I figure my best bet is to toss the question out onto the web, and hope something comes up in the net: What could I do to honor her father's memory without offending her and bringing up subjects that aren't really appropriate for work?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I can't WAIT to read the letters to the editor about this one!

The Schenectady Daily Gazette occasionally has a column by Carl Strock called "The View From Here." It's often inflammatory and a bit mixed-up on the various flavors of Christianity, but his column from today was pretty interesting. If you're a Gazette subscriber, you can read it here, but everybody else who doesn't want to shell out a few bucks to read it is out of luck. Fortunately, I have a physical copy of the Gazette on hand, so I'll quote rather liberally from it...
Disorders are updated, but one is missing

A forthcoming new edition of my favorite book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has gotten publicity recently with the disclosure of some of the changes it will contain, but frankly, ladies and gentlemen, the changes are nothing to get excited about. A tweak here, a tweak there.
Just fine-tuning, which is quite meaningless since all the definitions are arbitrary anyway, simply made up by the American Psychiatric Association. It's not as if they are based on new scientific discoveries. [well... somewhat yes, somewhat no. but that's another issue.]
What really strikes me is what is NOT in this supposedly comprehensive manual of derangement, with its hundreds of "dissociative disorders," "mood disorders," and "somatoform disorders," and what I especially have in mind is the religious disorder, which is not included nor is any hint of it included.
But think about it, ladies and gentlemen: What is the main type of lunacy afflicting the world right now? Is it not the conviction that one is serving an all-powerful invisible being by using one's own body as a bomb to blow up other people who do not share one's devotion to that invisible being?
Certainly that's the type of lunacy I'm most aware of, and I'm aware of it every time I go through airport security or even courthouse security.
Then below the level of suicide bombers devoted to Allah and his Prophet, who must be the purest exemplars of the religious disorder, we have other religious fanatics - Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu - who are so convinced of their mandate from higher invisible beings that they feel fully justified in hacking, burning, torturing, shooting, dispossessing or just disdaining people who swear allegiance to different invisible beings.
Now, the definition of a mental disorder ... is that it must not be merely cultural but must be associated with distress, disability, or with "a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom." It must be "a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual."
Doesn't the religious disorder fit that definition? ... I think it [does]. The trouble is, too many people are afflicted with it, and they and their sympathizers have too much clout for American psychiatrists to dare call them nuts.
I could go on and on about how Carl needs to mitigate his tone and take note of the difference between religious extremism and generic religion, but I don't feel like it, and you've probably heard it all before. Besides, he's right - the people who follow the more gentle, generic religious track would be up in arms if any kind of religious belief was labeled a mental disorder.

Mainstream newspapers airing atheistic viewpoints! What is the world coming to?