Friday, March 25, 2011

I've moved!

Thanks to hosting from the great folks at ThinkAtheist, I’ve moved my blog from its old place here at Blogspot into my new domain name ( It’s all part of my Master Plan™ to start posting more regularly and to try to contribute more to the atheist ‘community’.

If you’re not already a member at ThinkAtheist, I’d definitely recommend signing up. It’s a great place to discuss just about anything with other freethinkers, from science and philosophy to politics and video games.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Getting over the messiah complex

I have a confession to make: I want to fix everything.

Back when I was a Christian, I never really had to worry about injustice. The suffering we endured in our life here on earth wasn't all that meaningful, since we were guaranteed a happy and peaceful afterlife for our faithfulness. I figured that God would make everything work out for the good in the end.

Now, as an atheist, I have no such assurances. I look around at the amount of suffering in the world and I feel simultaneously motivated to do whatever I can to reduce it and impotent to actually accomplish anything meaningful in response to it.

Last Thanksgiving, I spent a week with my parents down in Mexico. On my second to last day there, while we sat comfortably in our condo watching people pass us by on the road, a homeless woman came along with her two children. While my parents commented about how amazing it was that she seemed so comfortable carrying her infant on her back in a sling fashioned from a scarf, I was watching her collect soda cans from trash cans along the street. All I could think of was that this woman was, because of purely random and meaningless circumstance, resigned to a life of struggle and hardship, scraping along with whatever she could manage just to be able to live to see another day. I desperately wanted to figure out what I could do to help her, and as soon as I started to think about it I realized that there must be tens of millions of people just like her all over the planet.

From my perspective as a person living in a first-world nation, this seems to be something that disappears all too quickly from view. There's no reason that I should have a better life than these people, and I shudder to think of all the potentially brilliant minds that fade into the background of the story of humanity simply because they're not wealthy enough to reach their potential.

So... what? Am I crazy to feel guilty about this? Is it wrong for me to willfully ignore these people so that I can get on with my life? What can I actually do to help fix the underlying roots of their suffering? Should I even worry about it?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What's To Hate?

I just got the following bizarre/amusing comment from someone calling himself OJ Simpson on the first post I ever made on this blog (where I told the story of my deconversion). I figured it needed to be both dissected and shared.
A beautifull world,but beyond your mind,beyond your closed mind, beyond your reach,
Two things: 1. You really like commas! 2. My mind isn't closed. It's open to evidence. If there's another way to figure things out that doesn't require evidence, you'd need evidence to show that that method can produce real knowledge.
because you are just a slave a peon of this system,
Not anymore. Kinda broke out of the whole 'following a dogma' thing when I gave up my belief.
you are just dancing between two sides, two sides of one big lie,neither is real,nor neither is false,
Either gods exist or they don't. One side is false. Sorry. It's a dichotomy - that's how it works.
between two sides,carefully raised in order to keep you brainwashed,two extremes.
That's another problem. Y'see, by giving up on dogma and on uncritically accepting what I'm told, I'm sort of immune to being brainwashed now. But go on.
I feel sorry for your death of your uncle,
Thank you.
but that traumatic moment has darkened your mind, your hatred for god was very visible in your life story.
Now this, I just don't get. When I was a believer, I never hated God. I think my testimony makes that rather patently obvious. I even came right out and said it when I talked about my slide toward deistic agnosticism:
I was outraged – not at God, but by my fellow Christians who were so closed-minded about these things and what they meant about the truth of our beliefs. Why did so few of them care if what they believed was true or not?
And when my uncle died:
I returned to my car, where I wept like a lost child, screaming at God to come back into my life and tell me what to do. I poured my entire being into it. I wanted nothing more than for something solid and permanent to reassure me that everything would be okay. I wanted that old comforting certainty again. And for a while, I felt like I had it.
This is the only thing I can think of that even sounds like I was angry at God. What "OJ Simpson" seems to be overlooking is the context of what I used to believe. Calling out to god to come into your life and take control isn't anger at god - it's a desire to draw yourself closer to god than before. It's the whole "Jesus, take the wheel" thing.
Many people have worse lifes, have bigger problems, your problems are pitifull compared to others, insignificant, but who am I to judge.
In other words, "Quit whining." Sorry, I didn't realize that my life experiences weren't good enough reason for me to change the way I lived my life. I'll be sure to get your permission to change my mind from now on. Who are you to judge? That's a fantastic question. Maybe you shouldn't.
You must understand death isnt bad, death is a cycle of life, death brings life and vice versa.

Ahh, good old-fashioned theistic death denial. If you believe in an eternal life after death, then death isn't real to you. But I don't. I believe that when people die, they're gone. Saying "my uncle is dead" is not like saying "my uncle is in Mexico." If my uncle is in Mexico, he still is. If he's dead, he just isn't. Isn't anything. Death is not a part of life. It's the absolute end of it. It does not bring life.
For your uncle, if he had serious life problems, death was salvation, death is beautifull but scary.
My uncle didn't have serious life problems, and death wasn't salvation. He isn't there anymore. Not here, not in some magical fantasyland - nowhere. He doesn't exist. There is nothing beautiful about that, and you are delusional to think there is.
You started to hate god, because of your selfishness, because your uncle left your life

No. I never did. Sorry. Not that I actually give a damn whether you think I hated your imaginary friend or not - it's just really goddamn aggravating that you could get what I said so fractally wrong.
but question yourself, is it truly better to live in pain or die?
Honestly? I'd prefer to live in pain, because at least then I'd still exist.
If you truly loved your uncle, you should be happy that your uncle is free, free from mortality, free from the pain, not selfishly hate god for his death.

My uncle isn't anything anymore. Not free from anything, not trapped by anything, just not anything. And again, you seem to keep getting my reaction entirely wrong. I did not get angry at god for my uncle's death. At the time I didn't even believe in the god I'd believed in before. My reaction was to retreat into the belief I'd been indoctrinated in - to try to seek comfort from what I'd believed before. It wasn't hatred. It was desperation born from loneliness.
You tasted both sides of a lie, so you should be ready to break free, to open your eyes from this "grouping" from these doctrines, both crippling either mind or spirit.
What the hell are you even talking about? I don't have any doctrines.
Remember God loves you, he doesnt want you to worship him, he just wants you to live,be free and love everyone, nothing more.
Oh, yay! Soft, sappy, warm-fuzzy platitudes! Just the sort of thing to convince someone who gives a damn about reality to stop giving a damn and just believe! Not to mention that your concept of god is useless. If god just wants me to live, be free, and love everyone, then it sure as hell doesn't seem to matter if I believe in him or not. Whoops!

People wonder why atheists get angry - it's drivel like this. Just because you think you've come up with a happier kind of god doesn't mean I should give you any more credence than I give a fundamentalist. In fact, I think it makes less sense to believe what you believe, because it's patently obvious that you've just invented a deity that seems likable to you. Fortunately for the rest of us, reality is not subject to your whims and desires.

So, to answer the question posed in the title... What's to hate? Not god - I'm an atheist. There's nothing there to hate. A complete misunderstanding of my point of view, combined with self-important empty-headed reality denial thrown at me mixed in with an attack on my way of thinking? Sure, that's hateable.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mike Huckabee Plays the Victim Card

Over on The Atheist Experience blog there's a post with a link to a very ... interesting letter from Mike Huckabee, soliciting donations for a new organization he's involved with. In the letter - which I strongly urge you to read - he mentions the threat we face from Islamic radicals, but then warns his constituents of "an even greater menace [that] threatens to destroy us from the inside out" - "a re-energized Left here in our midst that is working harder than ever to drive out God and ALL MENTION of religious faith from America's public life."

That's right - Mike Huckabee, a Christian living in a majority Christian nation, wants to warn his fellow Christians that, somehow, evil godless liberal atheist scum are going to subvert their will and override the entire democratic system.

Huckabee blames "Big Government", Obama, and Pelosi for "liberal attacks on faith [that] are accelerating to a crisis point."

A few choice bits:
I'm sure you've followed the stories of how liberal judges have targeted our cherished "Pledge of Allegiance" because it contains the words "one nation, under God. [1]

You and I have watched for years as liberals [2] and atheists have systematically driven all [3] Christmas-season nativity scenes from public squares all across America. [4]

Prayer in schools is all but extinct... [5] public school children are barred from singing Christmas carols... [6] an invocation at a graduation ceremony is likely to generate a barrage of lawsuits from "offended" liberals and atheists. [7]
How long do you think it will be before the liberals and atheists are able to have the words "In God We Trust" stricken from our bills and coins? [8]

How long before the atheists and the ACLU [9] declare final victory in getting the entire "Pledge of Allegiance" banned from our schools? [10]
I am concerned that our children and grandchildren could inherit an America where ANY religious utterance is prohibited outside the walls of a private home or church, just because some liberal might be "offended!" [11]
Our liberal-leaning [12] courts have been outlawing God in all aspects [13] of our public lives.

And our left-dominated media [14] has mercilessly portrayed believers as either frightening fanatics or idiotic simpletons. [14]
Here's what I have to say about that.

[1] This has never happened. Judges can't "target" anything. People bring lawsuits, and judges make judgments.

[2] Notice how he paints all liberals as enemies of people of faith? Never mind the fact that the majority of liberals are people of faith themselves, and might actually agree with him about some of his complaints... let's paint them all with a broad brush! Discriminating between different people is hard!

[3] This is an interesting use of "all" to mean "practically none of the."

[4] Removing the promotion of religion is not the same as promoting atheism. A blank piece of paper is not an atheist pamphlet. A public square without a nativity scene is *a public square.*

[5] If you ignore, of course, the fact that children and teachers are fully allowed to pray in school - the teachers just aren't allowed to lead kids in prayer or make them pray.

[6] [citation needed]

[7] See, Mike, this is where you don't get it (again). We're not offended by your beliefs. We're offended that you're so eager to trample the Constitution by injecting your beliefs into our taxpayer-funded schools. You want your kids to learn about God and Jesus in school? Send them to private school. I don't want to pay for it.

[8] Oh noes! Not our money! How can we practice our faith freely if we can't put our deity on the coinage?

[9] The same ACLU which has fought for the rights of Christians several times.

[10] Who has ever suggested this?

[11] Again... it has nothing to be with being offended. But that's beside the point. Neither I nor any atheist I've ever known have wanted to legally prevent people from expressing their religious beliefs (though we would prefer they kept them to themselves). What we want is for the *government* to stop endorsing religion. There's a significant difference between "we won't let you say 'God'" and "we won't let the government promote a specific religion." Mike Huckabee is intentionally ignoring this.

[12] What's the composition of the Supreme Court, again? Oh, that's right... half and half, with a swing voter who leans conservative:
  • Ginsberg: very liberal, consistently votes against conservatives
  • Breyer: consistently liberal
  • Sotomayor: consistently votes progressive
  • Kagan: centrist-progressive
  • Kennedy: the swing vote; considered conservative; sometimes votes liberal
  • Alito: consistently conservative
  • Roberts: consistently conservative
  • Scalia: extremely conservative
  • Thomas: extremely conservative (more than Scalia)

In George W. Bush's eight years in office, he appointed 325 federal judges. In Barack Obama's three years so far, he's appointed 62. Extrapolate that out to eight years and you get 165 judges - barely half of those appointed by Bush. And yet we're supposed to believe that liberals have been taking over the court system. Hilarious!

[13] He's playing with "all" again... and I'd really like to know just what on earth he's talking about.

[14] The media so left-dominated that a milder, leftist, more reality-based version of Glenn Beck gets fired from the top-rated show on his network.

[15] Well, Mike, if the shoe fits...

But this mindless, factually-ignorant screed isn't even the best part. The best part is that he blames increases in crime, abortion, and drug use on godless liberals and atheists. Mike... atheists don't even make up 10% of the population of this country. You're in the majority; sounds to me like you're the one who needs to get his house in order here.

Huckabee's letter goes on to announce the formation (partnered with Newt Gingrich) of Renewing America's Leadership (ReAL), an organization "a new national non-profit organization that is working with ministers and lawyers" to fight the perceived threats to religious liberty from liberals and atheists.

Huckabee insists that "the Founding Fathers fully intended for expressions of religious belief to be incorporated into American life" - something I don't really have a problem with. I'm sure they did. What they didn't intend was for the government to be the one making those expressions. They intentionally set up a secular democracy, not a theocracy, no matter what Mike and his pals would like us to think.

The letter is a golden example of hyperbole, from the beginning down to the statement (next to the box you tick to indicate you want to donate) saying that the "Obama-Pelosi liberals [want] us all to worship at the altar of Big Government". It's also a golden example of historical ignorance, blind bigotry and hatred, and foamy-mouthed fear-mongering.

This smarmy little diatribe could be presented in schools as an example of the conservative mindset: fearful, hateful, pious, always looking for an enemy, bombastic, exuding a sense of helplessness even when part of the majority, perceiving nonexistent threats, and ignorant of reality.

But it's worse than that, really. Read the letter again, but substitute 'atheist' for any other minority group. Imagine a past and future presidential candidate attacking any other minority this way. Imagine, for example, a candidate blasting African Americans for wanting to remove segregation and anti-miscegenation laws from our government. That candidate would be laughed out of the race. And yet, with atheists (and, to be fair, with Muslims, since Huckabee attacked them too), it's still okay - in fact, you're practically expected to attack atheists if you want to be taken seriously by conservative voters.

Mike Huckabee should be ashamed, but you can bet he won't. He won't because we still live in a country where most people agree with his distorted view of reality. And that's why we can no longer afford to remain silent. We actually are victims to this wannabe theocrat and his ilk, and yet we're the ones painted as oppressors. If atheists remain silent - if we remain hidden away in the closet, out of view - we'll never change minds in our favor.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New year, new plans

So, it's 2011. We've marked off another circuit of our journey around the sun, beginning at an arbitrary point in our orbit. Yippee!

My resolution for this year: Get through a first draft of a book. What does that entail? Well... I'm not sure yet. I'm not even sure what I want to write about. But I've got all sorts of ideas constantly floating around in my head that I'd love to commit to paper, and if I can contribute something to the evolving societal zeitgeist, that'd be nice, too.

My biggest stumbling block is that I have some weird obsession with trying to write about something nobody else has covered yet. My girlfriend (rightly) reminds me just how futile this is; the chances of an idea being actually original these days, with almost 7,000,000,000 people on the planet, are next to nil. So once I get over that block, I'm sure the writing will come more easily to me. I've got all sorts of themes I'd like to cover: why freedom of religion must necessarily include freedom from religion, why morality doesn't require an absolute source to be valid, why evidence-based belief is better than faith-based belief, why I dislike postmodernist thinking and its effects on pluralism, and so on. I'd also love to write in greater length than I already have about my deconversion, and how it affected my life, my thinking, my relationships with others, and my outlook on the world.

Fortunately, I won't have to go into this totally blind. We're fast entering an era where self-published books and books published by smaller publishing companies have a good chance of competing in the market, and Hank Fox, local author and member of our atheist Meetup group, has just come out with his own book, “Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods and Faith”. I haven't read the book yet, but I really look forward to it, since folks like PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta have been promoting it (and my views tend to align with theirs on many issues). I'll have to chat up Hank and see just what he had to do to get published and promote himself... but that's far in the future for me. I've still got all that writing to do...

I guess that's my resolution for 2011: Write a book. Lofty goal, sure, but I know I can do it if I put in the effort. Wish me luck!

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...