Monday, January 27, 2014

Thoughts on the pervasive influence of creationism

So, you may know, I grew up as a young earth creationist. We were homeschooled, and that was the "science" we were taught. Our textbooks (Abeka science) devoted huge sections to disproving evolution by seizing upon a mislabeled fossil here and there, arguing that dinosaurs walked with man (citing the Bible, of course), arguing that dinosaurs might still or else very recently exist(ed) (in the form of the lochness monster, etc.). We watched lectures on evolution, too -- not by evolutionists and rarely by biologists, but from creationists and preachers. Kent Hovind was a favorite of the creationist community at that time; though he's in prison now, and so been displaced on that particular stage by folks like Ken Ham and Banana Man, once upon a time he was a big star in the creationist movement. At any rate, whoever was speaking, the usual tropes were hauled out: evolution devalued man (you're not a monkey, are you?!), degraded our sense of morality (no wonder people hurt people, take to drugs and alcohol, etc. -- they act like animals because they think that's what they are!), invoked Nazism ("Darwinism led to the 3rd Reich!" [a statement that ignores that Darwin's theories were banned in Nazi Germany and that the Nazis strongly embraced Christianity...but hey why bother with facts?]), etc. But that was the coup de grĂ¢ce of the worldview: that evolution will ruin you and you should be very, very afraid of it. The creationists first spent a great deal of time laying the base for that claim, convincing their scientifically illiterate viewers, gullible children and their equally gullible parents, that evolution was not just dangerous, but wrong. How did they do that? Well, mostly by misrepresenting both science and evolution.

One of the favorite strategies is to find a handful of examples where random evolutionists were mistaken about a particular fossil or sequence, and wave those instances around as if they "disprove" evolution. The creationist would present a false dichotomy, that science is either right on everything and every detail of that thing at any given time, or else completely false and untrustworthy. Well, that entirely disregards what science is and what it does! Science is a self correcting mechanism for knowing the world with the best possible certainty based on the information we have at the moment. Mistakes do and will happen -- and scientists amend their work to account for new information (something religion could really learn from). Science is a work in progress, always; scientists are open to correction, and change their ideas as new facts emerge (again, something religion would do well to imitate). So when a scientist discovers that he's made a mistake, and amends his work to reflect that, that is not an instance of science not working; it's an example of science working exactly as it's designed to work, of flawed hypothesis's, when put to the test and found wanting, being discarded. In the creationist worldview, though, science working is evidence that science is wrong: if it had been right, no one ever would have got anything wrong. (In which case, we might as well chuck out every bit of science we have, from astronomy to medicine, because more than a few someone's have got more than a few something's wrong along the way in every field of study we have; you'd be hard pressed to find the creationist who would give up life saving medical treatment, though, because doctors used to be wrong about something...) It's an intellectually dishonest approach reserved almost exclusively to the science of life's beginnings.

Furthermore, this discussion always tends to ignore the fact that these errors are never make-or-break  points; individuals might get minor details wrong, but the overall theory stands. It's something akin to arguing that one person thinks that Jennifer Lawrence wore a black gown to such-and-such awards show, but it was really white; therefore Jennifer Lawrence can't possibly exist. Jennifer Lawrence's gown color might be a tiny clue toward understanding the overall picture of her mood, tastes and fashion preferences as relating to that award show on that particular night, etc., and wearing a different color will slightly alter matters, but the detail has no impact on the question of whether or not she attended the award show, wore a gown of some color, etc. -- and it certainly does not alter the fact that she exists!

That is simply a bad argument. The strawmen are my favorite, though. Creationists have a habit, whether of ignorance or willful misinterpretation I do not know (I think it varies from person to person), of completely distorting the theory of evolution, and then attacking the strawmen they've spawned. These tend to be the only view of evolution that they can successfully rail against: one that they, and not reputable scientists, construct and/or promote. Scalae naturae is one such notion that is often conflated with evolutionary theory by creationists (visually depicted/addressed below).

This is the source of the non sequitur "But there are still apes around! How can there be apes if we evolved from apes millions of years ago?!" This argument works on the faulty premise that the apes in question are our direct ancestors when evolution does not claim this; evolutionary theory suggests that we all share a common ancestor, but not that the gorilla or chimpanzee is our ancestor, much less that they are part of a chain of ancestors leading to us. The creationist claim is something like observing that there exists a brother and a great-great-great grandfather in your family tree, and dismissing the entire business of one's lineage because, "look, I have a living male relative, therefore I couldn't possibly have a dead male ancestor!" It is nonsense, utter nonsense. Distinct relatives should not be be conflated, combined, or confused. It is a complete misrepresentation of evolution to do so, but, of course, the strawman that the creationist cites is much easier to attack than the actual theory...

Misrepresentation is perhaps the strongest tool in the creationists box of tricks, because appeals to ego and fearmongering can only go so far, especially with a rational mind. Naturally, there are plenty of misrepresentations to be found. The Boeing 747 fallacy is one such. It relies on evolutionary changes happening in giant leaps, and argues that it is more likely that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard could assemble a Boeing 747 than [insert complex item] might have just happened by chance. I've personally heard many variants of them, from those that focus on proteins to human beings. This is a misrepresentation because biologists do not allege that mankind simply happened, that all the right pieces fell into place spontaneously, and viola! Adam is born! Change is a gradual process that takes many, many years; a random collection of bacteria, proteins, or anything else, didn't magically fall out of the sky into the shape of man (or monkeys, or plant life, etc.). That's not the position of science. The only people out there making this claim are creationists -- in their attempt to disprove evolutionary theory, by completely misrepresenting it's claims. (I should note that Richard Dawkins' chapter on this topic in The God Delusion does a masterful job of dismantling this argument; indeed, he turns it rather on its head, making a convincing case that the god notion is the ultimate Boeing 747. I highly recommend perusing it).

Another popular misrepresentation relates to the term "theory". In common usage, we use theory to mean "idea" or "speculation"; something that is true is fact, something that we're guessing about is a theory. In scientific terms, this most closely resembles a hypothesis; by contrast,
a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena.
Richard Dawkins had this to say on the matter:

A theory, then, in science, is not just a random guess, or even an educated guess. It's also worth pointing out that the practical application of theories plays a tremendous role in our day to day life (we avoid germs if possible, we don't jump out of tall buildings, etc.). "Just a theory" is a misrepresentation of what it means for an idea to be a theory in the scientific world.

A related falsity that the creationist will often put forth is that theories like gravity are observable -- we can drop an apple and observe the outcome -- but the theory of evolution is not.

This is to conflate "being there in the moment to watch as it happens" (this has happened, but, obviously not with our own species) with "observable". Human beings have witnessed new species arising, but the evolutionary process leaves ample additional observable evidence. It is nonsense to say that evolution hasn't been observed. It has been and is being observed. In the same way that we can observe that we had great-grandparents (even if they were long dead before we were born) through the evidence that is left behind, we can trace the origins of species. There is a difference between scientific observation and being a witness, in real time, to the event. This argument is merely an attempt to gin up incredulity: "well, gee, how do you know if something happened a million years ago? Who could observe that? I mean, were you there?"

Which brings us to yet another horrible argument employed by creationists: "Well, how do you know evolution happened? Were you there?!" Ken Ham's piece (linked above) arguing exactly that includes these illustrations.

This is a point so stupid that it barely needs addressing. And yet it is a pervasive line of thought. To go return to my grandparent analogy, we do not need to have been present when our ancestors were alive to know that they existed. We have solid, observable evidence so that we don't need to rely on witnessing the event in real time.

The absurdity is perhaps best highlighted in the following (from Ham's piece; all emphasis original):

Carl Sagan's Big Bang theory is WRONG! How do we know that for sure? Because God was there—Carl Sagan wasn't! God knows everything—Carl Sagan doesn't! This world did NOT have a fiery start from a big bang, but it surely will have a fiery end with a big bang, for "the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (II Peter 3:10).
An invisible, unobservable being bringing everything into existence with happy thoughts and magic? No problem. Observable data that indicates something contrary to the claims of my ancient, oft-revised, scientifically inaccurate tome? If I didn't see it, it didn't happen. And I didn't see it...

While the trope of creationist arguments do not actually address evolutionary theory, I would hazard a guess that for many creationists that's not really the point. They don't take on actual scientific claims, but rather tackle figments of their own imaginations in order to convince the listener that evolutionary theory is an absurdity. It seems that the point is to bolster religion's claims by making them all science-y, and little else. The irony, of course, is that creationists are preying on the science illiteracy of the listeners, on their own ignorance of the very thing they're criticizing, to convince them that scientists are foolish and ignorant. It's the blind leading the blind -- to think that everyone who can see is in fact blind, and that eyesight is itself a myth.

Creationism strokes the egos of its believers: they are not mere monkeys, but creatures of divine making, molded in the image of God! Creationism strikes fear into the heart of believers: the world will surely be destroyed by the godless heathen if we accept that we are mere animals! Creationism convinces believers that they are embracing the only logical position: (the creationist strawman position of) evolutionary theory is clearly illogical and must be rejected! Building on all of this, creationism finally convinces believers that they're special smarties for rejecting the patent absurdities of science (as they themselves have presented it): that Jesus has rewarded their devotion with wisdom, while the rest of the world goes around believing nonsense and looking like fools! This is a very strong aspect of creationism, and one borne out by even a cursory examination of creationist materials: that people who accept science are idiots, to be mocked and derided by those in the know. (I don't claim that evolutionists refrain from mocking creationists; many surely do not. However, creationism is generally mocked on the strength [or, more properly, lack thereof] of its arguments. It is standard practice for creationists to completely misrepresent evolutionary positions, but extremely rare for evolutionists to do so to creationists: a creationist has little choice, if he is to prevail against evolution, but to invent a myth to take down, whereas the evolutionist need only focus on the absurdities claimed by creationists. No myth making is necessary, as creationists have already done that part.)

This is both the strength and weakness of creationism: as long as people are ignorant of actual science, they will be susceptible to the misinformation, fearmongering and egotism of creationism. But when knowledge replaces that ignorance, people will have to either do as the Catholic church has done, and accept evolutionary theory as God's creation mechanism, or otherwise reconcile their beliefs with reality. I suspect that this will come at the detriment of belief in most cases...which might be the great irony of all of this: that creationist insistence on such a radical course of anti-science nonsense might actually backfire when people realize just how duped they've been. That would be interesting, wouldn't it?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Buddhist student harrassed, ridiculed, told to accept it, leave school or convert

Negreet High's version of separation of church and state

So here's a fascinating -- and by fascinating, I mean appalling -- case that the ACLU is filing on behalf of a local family, against a Louisiana school district and several officials/teachers. The family suffered a tremendous litany of unconstitutional behaviors directed against them, but they are perhaps best represented by the words of plaintiff Scott Lane, husband of plaintiff Sharon Lane, father of plaintiffs S.L and M.L, and stepfather of plaintiff C.C. He gives examples of some of the issues his Buddhist stepson encountered, and the disregard for constitutional separation of church and state is simply staggering:

On a science test, their teacher had included a fill-in-the-blank question: "ISN'T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" When my stepson didn't know the answer ("Lord"), she belittled him in front of the entire class. When he wrote in "Lord Buddha" on another exam, she marked it wrong. As she was returning that exam to students, one student proclaimed aloud that "people are stupid if they think God is not real." In response, my stepson's teacher agreed, telling the class, "Yes! That is right! I had a student miss that on his test." The entire class broke out in laughter at my stepson.
The same teacher also told our children that the Bible is "100 percent true," that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, and that evolution is "impossible" and a "stupid theory made up by stupid people who don't want to believe in God." She's also told the class that Buddhism is "stupid." (emphasis added)
While this particular teacher, Rita Roark, was especially problematic, Lane gives a number of other examples of the general atmosphere of the school, including that of defendant and school superintendent Sara Ebarb:
  • When we went to the school to meet with the principal, we saw a large picture of Jesus over the school's main doors, a Bible verse on the school's electronic marquee, and numerous religious posters and pictures on the walls. Religious images and messages are displayed throughout the school, in fact.
  • We learned from our children that official prayers, typically led by the principal or teachers, are routinely incorporated into class and school events like assemblies, and sporting events. The school even requires students to attend "See You at the Pole" each year, where they must take part in prayer and worship.
  • We discovered that school officials were distributing religious literature to students. For example, one of our other son's teachers passed out copies of a book from the "Truth For Youth" program, a revivalist ministry. The book included the entire New Testament of the Bible as well as cartoons that denounce evolution and trumpet the evils of birth control, premarital sex, rock music, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, sorcery, and witchcraft. (emphasis added)
Supporting evidence is provided. But the embrace of religiosity and disregard for constitutional protections goes much higher than teachers and event coordinators. When the Lanes took their complaints to the school superintendent, she told them
that “[t]his is the Bible Belt” and that they would simply have to accept that teachers would proselytize students. She also asked whether C.C. had to be raised as a Buddhist and whether he could “change” his faith, and she suggested that C.C. transfer to another district school – more than 25 miles away where, in her words, “there are more Asians.” The day after meeting with the Lanes, the Superintendent sent a letter to Negreet Principal Gene Wright stating that she approved of Negreet’s official religious practices. Wright read the letter to the entire Negreet student body over the school’s public address system. (emphasis mine)
The superintendent's complete lack of comprehension of religious freedom is made more clear in the complaint, which details how she told the Lanes
that “[t]eachers have religious freedom.” She further stated that “if they were in a different country,” Plaintiffs would see “that country’s religion everywhere,” and that, therefore, they “shouldn’t be offended” to “see God here.” Purporting to illustrate her point further, she noted that, because she did not find it offensive that “the lady who cuts [her] toenails has a statue of Buddha,” Plaintiffs should not be bothered by Roark’s in-class proselytization.

In her mind, "freedom" is not a freedom to hold a belief, but a freedom to force others to hold that belief. The illogicality of such a position is made apparent when one considers what happens when you have people who hold different beliefs exercising this "freedom". Furthermore, Ebarb's response to the family -- that C.C. should go elsewhere, because he was in the Bible belt -- illustrates that her view of religious freedom is entirely one sided. It is not freedom, and it extends only to Christians.

It is worth noting that, while C.C. did transfer, he is still subject to much of the same religious harassment. Even if that were not the case, it should go without saying that no child, and no family, should have to go half an hour out of their way each morning simply to avoid being harassed and intimidated -- much less by authority figures -- for praying to Lord Buddha (or not praying at all) rather than Lord Jesus.

And while C.C.'s troubles are not over, neither are those of his siblings (one of whom is a Christian):
Plaintiffs S.L. and M.L. are minor children and brothers to C.C. They are both enrolled at Negreet High School, where they are subject to the customs, policies, and practices of Defendants Sabine Parish School Board, Superintendent Ebarb, and Principal Wright. Although M.L. attends church, he believes that faith is a personal matter. He believes that he should be able to decide, with the guidance of his parents and religious leaders, which beliefs he will follow and when, as well as how to express those beliefs, without pressure from his teachers and school officials. S.L. is a non-believer who does not subscribe to the religious beliefs promoted by schools officials.
 It's simply mind boggling that adults would think that doing this to children was in any way appropriate, much less legal.

If it works, then "god"

There is a popular argument amongst creationists and even some other Christians that goes something like this: "stuff in our world just works, therefore it must have been designed by a powerful, intelligent designer." It's similar to both the watchmaker argument and the banana fallacy, but not exactly; this one relies less on the complexity of the "design" or the human-centric nature of it, and more on the flawless operation of it.

Perhaps the most infamous proponent of the argument was Bill O'Rielly, with his "tide goes in, tide goes out" bit (starting at 1:50 below):

Not all tellings are necessarily as amusing as Bill's, but, if you discuss humankind's beginnings with religious people, it is bound to come up.

The "tide comes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication" argument (or, what I call the "shit works, therefore god" line) gets it exactly backwards, though. First, it overstates the quality of the "design". Nature is awash with "miscommunications", when the optimal working order of a thing or being is, through some natural process or mutation, turned on its head. If a lack of error is evidence of God, we have no such evidence of God; amongst our own species, people routinely suffer from genetic defects and "miscommunications" that oftentimes greatly impair and even kill us. Heart flaws, genetic illnesses, etc., can surely be viewed as aberrations of an ideal human design; and yet they are to be found all over. The same is true of other species of animal, of vegetation, etc. We have good examples of what perfect working models are, but that is not a state shared or retained by all. So the alleged perfection of what is claimed to be God's design is simply bollocks; "miscommunications" happen constantly. If an absence of them is evidence of God, we can at least conclude that we have no such evidence.

On the other hand, a state of reality like our own, complete with errors, is very much in line with natural selection. Flaws of a nature not severe enough to ensure extinction can (and do) exist in a species, but errors of a sufficiently weighty nature to increase the chances of extinction are not generally passed on -- particularly in more difficult times. This is true wherever you look. A plant susceptible to blight is less likely to survive long enough to reproduce, a deaf lion will be less likely to pick up on sounds of consequence to his survival and reproduction, etc. Even something as simple as bad eyesight, in more dangerous times, would have been a significant handicap; the individual with poor vision would be less likely to spot danger, and more likely to die before the genes for it could be passed on. Nowadays, stabler societies and increased technology have relegated this to a minor concern, and so we "four eyes" don't have much to worry about in that regard. While it's still a disadvantage, a defect even in terms of design, it doesn't threaten our own, or -- as it proliferates -- the species', survival; what is a flaw in "design" survives natural selection. So it is with many medical ailments of a more serious nature as well. Nowadays, we can treat formerly fatal conditions -- not because we have corrected a design flaw*, but because we have enhanced our own survivability in the process of natural selection. And this process continues to get better, as our species advances; we are a social species, and we strive to augment the more narrow constructs of survivability that the natural world imposes. We see the effects of this every day -- people in some parts of the world live long, healthy lives despite conditions or circumstances that would kill people in parts of the world where that social instinct has been negated by poverty or warfare. So when we look at a part of the world where the vast majority of people exist in a state of relative survivability -- but a far cry from the perfection of a flawless design by a perfect and all-knowing creator-designer -- we are seeing the results of natural selection: an intelligent species that has advanced beyond the most basic survival, to a point where it can tweak nature sufficiently to boost the survival of its fellow creatures. That is what we would expect from the process of natural selection on such a species as ours; but it is certainly not what you would expect from an intelligent designer.

In conclusion, "it just works" is wrong because it ignores the ample instances where systems, organs, etc., don't work as per the general use; furthermore, such an argument entirely disregards the fact that natural selection would both ensure that in most cases only that which works well enough for a species' survivability gets passed on to future generations, as well as account for the presence of what can only be construed as design flaws and workmanship errors in a designed/created system. Natural selection is a not only a far better explanation that intelligent design to fit the reality of our world, but it actually makes sense.

*  I should note that I do not use the terms flaw and defect in a pejorative fashion, to imply that there is actually something "wrong" with individuals; I simply  mean that, from the standpoint of a grand designer, these would be seen as defects in workmanship, flaws as it were, aberrations from the gold standard of perfection. My argument is that nature is far more complex than that, and that the design argument is foolishness; not that those who would fall into the designer's category of imperfection are actually imperfect. I should note, I am one such; and, I would suppose, most are (those rare people who have no physical, mental or social deficits, no propensity to illness, no weaknesses of any sort, absolutely no need of medicine or healing, being the exception; and if they were many, I cannot but think the rest of us would long ago have been rendered obsolete). There is no design, thus no gold standard against which to be judged perfect or imperfect. There are optimal states, but we are, all of us, through our own human ingenuity and through our genes, survivors of natural selection, fitting within the range of survivability that allows us to be here, now. We don't have to find a place in the stark dichotomy of perfectly created or imperfectly created. The broad range of "good enough, thank you very much" that natural selection allows for, and that we continue to expand, is what most of us fit into...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Spectrum Argument for Abortion, Revisited

Spectrum Argument for Abortion, Revisited

The difference between newborns, teens, and adults is negligible
compared to the single cell on the other side of the spectrum, which has
nothing that we commonly think of as a trait of personhood. The
commonality across the spectrum is that they all have eukaryotic cells
with Homo sapiens DNA. That’s it. That’s not something that
many of us get misty-eyed about. Very little sentimental poetry is
written about the kind of DNA in the cells of one’s beloved.

Very much worth reading, if you're interested in the abortion debate.

If a theory (or belief system) is slipperier than an eel, maybe it's just bullshit...

Your maxim of the day, foul language and all. Growing up in a very religious, strongly right-wing, conservative world, I have often had the misfortune of listening to people spout utter nonsense, and then twist themselves into logical pretzels to maintain those irrational stances when confronted with reasonable counter arguments.

The Biblical genocide argument is always “fun”, for instance.

The Bible's accounts of genocide weren't really genocide.  
How is wiping out entire people's not genocide? 
Okay, they were genocides, but it was merited. God gave the massacred people's lands to Israel, therefore it was just.
So God is above his own laws? He can kill people to take their stuff, and that somehow is not murder?
Well, of course God wouldn't wipe out a civilization to steal the inhabitant's land; they were bad people!
Even the babies? What about the fetuses (because, we all know that those are “people”...)? The little kids?
Why do you hate God so much?!?

It's like off the cuff hermeneutics. But these slippery eel type arguments transcend religion, and find a hallowed place in our political arena. I'm sorry, a niche of batshittery in the political circus. The longer you argue, the more you see that your opponent is playing a game of logical hopscotch: as soon as one line falls, they have another, and then another, and another. Oftentimes, you'll see that the lines are either ill suited to exist in conjunction with one another, or else completely contradict one another. The arguer will do anything, no matter how poor an overall argument it makes, to “prove” a sufficient number of little points, here and there, in order to convince themselves that the main point is valid; and as soon as one point is knocked down, they will move onto the next. There is a lot of completely unjustified “connect the dots” type thinking (“People died in Benghazi. Obama deliberately killed those people!”), but this doesn't much matter either, because they are absolutely convinced of the conclusion. The premises and inferences that lead them to it are negotiable. In other words, we're talking about belief, belief attempting to find validation through the use of reason. But reason is tangential to, not central to, the argument. Reason is simply a tool with which to convince other people of and placate their own intellect regarding the belief; but the belief exists and persists regardless of reason.

Often, the tiny points seem (and even are) logical. This is the trap, the twisted beauty, of the strategy, though. The Sean Hannity's of the world don't win people to their side by feeding them an exclusive diet of bullshit. They win people to their side by presenting them with random facts, and then making bullshit inferences, like a connect-the-dots picture of duplicity. Yes, President Obama is black; and, yes, he has discussed racism. But, short of some damned compelling evidence to the contrary, you can't just assert that he is a racist. The thing is, that damned compelling evidence is never forthcoming. Those reasonable premises are presented as if they are the inference. In fact, suggesting that a person talking in a mature, polite fashion about wrongs they've encountered is racism is just batshit crazy. But if you question the inference, the argument almost always comes back to the premise, or some other equally unconnected premise. It's very much shifting the goal posts...any time one line falls, just move onto a new position. And, maybe, loop back around eventually, because why not?

As tempting as it is, it's oftentimes an ineffective strategy to take umbrage with the subpoints – even when they're god awful (like “Obama's a fascist socialist communist dictator!”). If they don't hit you with the one tactic, they'll hit you with another: if they lose the subpoint, they'll move onto another one, and you'll be stuck in an endless hopscotch game, leaping from tangential point to tangential point; and, if the subpoint was valid, there's obviously no point arguing it. In fact, right or wrong, as far as the overall argument is concerned, if the inferences are horrible, then the premises don't much matter. The premise that Obama is a Christmas hating socialist is logically less problematic than the inference that brings us to alien existence.

At the end of the day, though, if a belief system requires ample mental gymnastics simply to be consistent; if believers have to invent a field like hermeneutics to cook up interpretations that seem less insane than the obvious and accepted meanings; if they have to constantly shift the goal posts or hop from one point to another to convince themselves that the argument has a leg to stand on...maybe it's time to take a long, hard look at that belief. Because, the slipperier an argument, the more often it seems that it – or at least the reason for believing it – is just bullshit.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Who would die for a lie? (Tracie Harris' comprehensive demolition of the argument)

I've heard the "No one would die for a lie, therefore religious martyrs must be on to something" line of reasoning many times, and have been planning to do a blog post about it for awhile. And then I stumbled on an episode of the Atheist Experience, where Tracie Harris does a masterful job of shredding this argument, as can be seen in the videos below: 

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

All of this is laid out, with much greater detail, in her blog post on the topic here. It is very, very much worth reading. She illustrates that a person's ardent belief, up to and including a willingness to die for that belief, does not prove the validity of the belief (there's a tremendous logical and factual chasm between"I believe x" and "x is true"). But far more importantly, she shreds the premise on which the whole thing is constructed -- that someone will not die for something they know to be false.

People will die for a lie, either because of coercion or to spare a loved one.

And, beyond that, though, people will die for a lie based on voluntary false confession for a number of reasons, as scientists have already established (seriously, read the post. It's all laid out there): a compulsion to suffer as recompense for a wrong (imagined or real), a desire to profit, the thrill of it, etc. 
I don't have much to add to that because Tracie's points are amazingly thorough and well documented. There is one aspect that I would like to spend a little more time on, though, and that is religions motivations for lying. She touches on the topic, with her characteristic wit and wisdom:

Would a Christian saint lie, though? Someone so devoted to god? Absolutely, yes, if they were suffering from these issues. Good Christians have lied without gaining notoriety, redemption, or a rush. Every scribe that ever doctored a canon text to make it a little more orthodox is guilty of lying for the cause of Christianity. I’m sure they were aware it was dishonest. But a higher cause, a nobler goal was prompting them. The texts were revised. We have the notes in our Bibles today describing which passages have been added or altered from older or better manuscripts. Quotes were “fixed.” Characters were made more consistent or gentler. But it was all to improve on the message—all for the greater good.

Yes, people who subscribe vehemently to a doctrine will lie and die for it—even if the doctrine promotes honesty as a virtue. It’s weirdly hypocritical and contradictory—but since when have religious zealots (or any of us, for that matter) been immune, as humans, from hypocrisy or contradiction? Aren’t these, ironically, some of the very flaws Christianity says we’re all subject to? On that note, how ironic that an apologetic would be built around the idea that a human being couldn’t possibly act in a way that makes no sense. We see it all the time. The Bible condemns us for it and calls it sin and fault. I call it being human.

Would a reasonable person die for such a lie? No. But since when are humans—even most humans—reasonable? Where in the world was that fantasy bred?
I would add only that this precise mentality of lying to further your religious beliefs, lying to further  causes religious people consider greater than themselves, spawned the term "lying for Jesus". Simply put, many religious people will lie if they think it furthers their argument or beliefs. And it's not a new concept. Fourth century bishop  Eusebius advanced the notion "that it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment". In other words, lying is acceptable if it's for the greater good. Furthermore, an obsession with martyrdom is a feature of Christianity and Islam. We know that people will and do die for their gods (radical Islamic teachings often laud religious martyrdom as a magnificent goal; indeed, it is marketed toward children as such; and Christianity for its part is obsessed with the persecution complex). In combination with the guilt that religion imbues, and the martyrdom obsession of both Islam and Christianity, is it farfetched to think that someone might see martyrdom over a lie, all to aid a cause greater than themselves, as a worthy goal? Of course not. Religious people will and do lie, murder and die for their faiths, in combination as well as individually.

Claiming that a person's martyrdom is evidence of anything beyond their commitment to a cause (and that, as Tracie points out, is not even always the case [if coercion, etc., is involved]), is ludicrous. It's an appallingly bad argument, that fails on just about every level -- starting with its premise.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The untenable concept of "love your enemy"

As readers of my blog will know by now, I don't believe the Bible is true, or actually represents a real god figure. But I do think the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament, who probably lived and probably taught much of what is attributed to him, is a pretty cool guy, a sort of Gandhi of ancient times. Granted, he would have had to be fairly delusional to believe that he was akin to or in some way connected to a God (if he said those things), but if the New Testament is remotely accurate in transcribing his teachings (which, to be honest, I am making an assumption that I cannot prove), then he was in many ways a radical breath of fresh air at the time. He lived judge not that ye be not judged, and like the philosophers, prophets, and priests from many religions (again, if they, and not their followers, actually said what's been attributed to them), emphasized principles more in keeping with humanism than were embraced at the time. And that's important, and laudable.
A close examination of Jesus' words, however (I highly recommend Matt Dillahunty's deconstruction of the Sermon on the Mount, for starters), reveals that, as much a "step in the right direction" as they were in a time of rigid legalism, stonings and jealous gods, they were often problematic in their own right. Sometimes, they were just bad advice. Doing away with "an eye for an eye" is excellent, but encouraging people to submit to abuse ("turn to him the other [cheek] also") is bad advice. In fact, it's horrible advice. Would you encourage your child to submit to more bullying? "Hey, how about another swirlie? Come on, dude, you sure you want to leave it at just one? Wouldn't you at least like to stuff me in a locker?" Would you encourage a battered spouse to keep putting up with abuse? (Alas, for far too long we did exactly that). The concept of not overreacting to injurious actions is laudable; the idea that we should further submit to injury is idiotic and destructive.

Love your enemy is another proscription that is, frankly, lousy and unrealistic. It's perfectly good advice to put away anger and hate, as those are personally destructive forces. But to love your enemy? It sounds all well and good until you really think about it. Since Jesus is supposedly a divine being espousing divine, eternal, absolute morality, there should be no exceptions. Pardon me for invoking Godwin's law, but should a Holocaust survivor love Hitler? Should one of Doctor Mengele's victims love him? Should a child who was raped love the pedophile who raped him or her? Should the parents of a murdered child love the individual who murdered their child? Are they morally failing if they do not? Frankly, no, to both questions. The healthiest course would be to process the grief and anger and eventually arrive at a place of peace, if that's possible (and, in such a case, who can say except the individual?), but it would be ludicrous to expect someone to love a person who was responsible for such hideous cruelties. These are all circumstances where loving your enemy seems wholly unrealistic and even dangerous. As obvious as it is, an enemy is not a friend; they are the opposite of a friend. Responding to the actions and behaviors of an enemy with the same reaction you would normally reserve for a friend is downright dangerous. Even a petty enemy is best distanced and regarded with suspicion; you are better on your guard, recognizing that this person is not your friend, than trying to convince your mind to hold them in a warm fuzzy place: that just opens you up to further suffering and injury.  It is simply unhealthy to hold high regard for someone who seeks to harm you.

And yet Christianity has enshrined this unrealistic and unhealthy goal as a tenet of faith. It is not at all uncommon in Christian circles to hear personal accounts of people loving their enemies (oftentimes from people you know damned well, as soon as they're done tooting their own horns, despise and actively work against their 'enemies'); you read about this in the papers every now and again, when something horrendous has happened, people say they forgive and love the person who wronged them. While I hesitate to criticize someone who is processing their grief, I would say again that, if this person is still their enemy, this is possibly not an advisable course of action; loving a person who means to harm you is dangerous! Now, if the person who wronged them or their family is not their enemy any more, that is a different story; in other words, if someone is seeking your forgiveness and/or they have no further interest in causing you suffering and no more malice directed at you and yours, are they still an enemy? Possibly -- and, if their quest for forgiveness is genuine, probably -- not. Now,I'm not attempting to diminish the personal strength that would be required to both forgive a former enemy, and then genuinely love them; I'm simply pointing out that there is a difference between forgiving a person who did something terrible to you and finding a reason to regard them highly afterwards, and holding in high esteem someone who either is currently or you know likely to cause you hideous injury: one is admirable and praiseworthy in its own right, and the other is foolishly endangering yourself and family. It's also worth noting that forgiveness and love are often conflated, as are love and the absence of hatred. You do not love someone simply by not hating them, any more than you love them simply because you've forgive their actions. Love is more than that.

Unfortunately, the real, practical dangers of loving someone who means to, would like to, or wishes you harm is lost in the fluffy nonsense of religious ideals about "love". When truly practiced as preached, the concept of loving your enemy is dangerous and destructive. Who are you to reject a predator, when God says to love him? And, when embraced in word but not practice, it breeds hypocrisy. Even if you hate your enemy with every fiber of your being (also, not a good idea), you must pretend to love them, because that's what Jesus commanded -- and who would disobey Jesus?! If you really loved Jesus, he'd give you the strength to embrace that pedophile.

As with many faith-based concepts, religion demands something impossible from us, tells us we're evil, sinful and thoroughly flawed for failing to meet an impossible standard, and then tells us that abject worship will allow us to rise to this impossible standard; religious community then adds pressure not only to strive toward such an untenable goal but to actually achieve it, adding the judgment and condescension of peers as an immediate penalty for failure, in addition to the more removed failure in God's eyes. It simultaneously promotes self loathing and, in actual practice, flagrant hypocrisy -- because our failure to do what is not within our nature is evidence of our wickedness (self loathing), but to admit it in a world of people pretending otherwise is to single ourselves out as faithless failures (rendering the easy route of hypocrisy appealing to many). And, as with many faith-based concepts, love your enemy is wrong and potentially dangerous.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

You Wouldn’t Believe How Fast Americans Are Losing Their Religion — But the Fundamentalists Have a Plan

You Wouldn’t Believe How Fast Americans Are Losing Their Religion — But the Fundamentalists Have a Plan

[S]tanding against the religious right is a moral imperative: not just for
the sake of people in the First World, but for the sake of people
everywhere in the world. Unless we can chop down the tree of
fundamentalism at the trunk, it will send out seeds that will take root
elsewhere and grow into the same evils we’ve worked so hard to abolish.

Noah's ark and Biblical literalism and inerrancy

If you're inclined to think that the Bible is infallible, literal and complete, as so many Christians in the States do, what better than a funny animated, paint shop drawn, youtube series to shatter your faith and ruin the foundation of your life (which is, of course, what atheists do*)?

But, seriously, the videos are hilarious and mostly factually accurate, and raise a number of objections to the literal interpretation of the flood story. Oh, and I should mention, I had nothing to do with the production/don't know the people responsible. Just stumbled across them, and find them to be very much worth sharing.


* Kidding, my fundamentalist readers. It's just a snarky reference to Chris Arnade's take on atheism. Put the pitchforks down, please. ;)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"But God commanded that for a different culture...and they sort of deserved it anyway"

The Bible, we are told by Christians, should be our ultimate moral guidebook, and the only way to know the absolute truths of morality and ethics. Point out, however, that that moral guidebook came down on the wrong side on a whole range of topics -- say, slavery -- and you've stepped through the looking glass, into a world where morality is at once relative and absolute. "Well, at that time, the context of the culture made that necessary..."

Now, I should mention that both Judaism and Catholicism, while holding in common at least some of these texts, have developed mechanisms to, I won't say correct, but at least smooth away the roughness, should they taken at face value, of some of these passages. Of course, in protestantism there is no such self-correcting property, no need for further interpretation. Sola Scriptura is a defining principle, and so any attempts to soften the Bible's more mortifying passages is at best wrong-headed. What follows is a criticism specific only to those traditions that take and attempt to justify Biblical horrors.

It's a curious justification, most especially in light of the idea that moral law is absolute, eternal and unchanging (which moral law has to be, if we are not to end up at the despised endpoint of moral relativism). Now, the believer will try to wriggle out of this. They'll set timelines (which reduces Biblical moral law to a temporal state, and acknowledges that some of it has already passed away): "oh, that was for we...". They'll invoke god powers (meaning that they are not absolute): God can change them if he wants. Often, though, issues with consistency are just ignored. So you see arguments like these:

While in general massacres and genocides are bad, Biblical genocide happened because it was necessary, in that time, to eliminate threats in such-and-such fashion.
While it seems cruel to force a rape victim to wed her attacker, marrying a rape victim to her rapist was necessary, in that time, because she had lost her virginity, and in such a culture that prized virginity so highly, what other choice was there?*
Sure, selling your daughter to be someone's sex slave sounds bad, but what if the alternative was starvation? You can't know, and without knowing, we can't judge God's decisions!

No matter how bad the law or the story, the conversation ends up going something like Kenny's call into The Atheist Experience, where he argues that it was just for God to command the killings of enemy children because they would have grown up to do bad things, like killing children; and, anyway, it was a long time ago in a different culture, which more or less makes it right:

(Kenny cites a book found in the Orthodox Bible but not in western Christianity's Bibles, but I've had these same sort of arguments with people citing canonical texts...and, once upon a time, desperately searched for explanations that were something better than this)

If someone was killed, infant or otherwise, they probably deserved it; and, if they didn't, well, they kind of did, because cultural context, and we have no right to apply modern standards to back then. Which sounds a lot like cultural relativism to me, masquerading and sometimes mingling with objective morality, to produce a sort of illogical hybrid: 
God was justified in destroying those various tribes because they were immoral, they killed babies, etc. So, really, they totally deserved it.
Even the babies?
Well, it's wrong to try to compare actions like killing babies in the past to readings from our moral compasses now, because that was then and there, not here and now. So those babies totally deserved it, and it was all cool, because, you know, different set of same, unchanging rules.

It really makes no sense. We are simultaneously judging God's actions according to the laws we have now (it was self defense, because they would have killed His people -- if they hadn't had their heads bashed open as infants), and saying it's wrong to do that (well, sure, nowadays we might come up with solutions that didn't involve babies heads and rocks, but that was back then, and God was dealing with the cultural framework of the time and...). It's simply embracing whatever argument, or piece of an argument, you think might win your case; and swapping it for something else the instant it's inconvenient. It's cherry-picking -- but instead of verses, logic. It becomes objectively right when we judge the morality of the massacred people against the supposed objective morality of the Bible (which coincides very nicely with our own ideas of morality, nowadays), but apply relative standards of morality to the actions of the Israelites. In other words, "our side" can claim a special exemption from today's moral standards, but the other side can't.

But, really, if it was right for the Israelites to kill babies because different time/different culture, why wouldn't it be right for Kenny's baby sacrificing Canaanites? If baby killing is okay in the same period for one culture, who are we to judge it in another culture? It's a logically inconsistent position to argue anything else.

And if your reaction is to sputter, "That's absurd -- of course we can judge whether or not killing children is immoral!" Well, exactly. You can't have it both ways, though. Either there is, or at least was, no objective morality when God's people were wiping out various peoples (and their animals!), or there is; and if genocide and baby killing is wrong, objectively, then it was wrong to wipe out the Canaanite babies, just as it was wrong to kill Israelite babies.

Both the relative and objective moral arguments for divinely sanctioned infant slaughtering are bad. But when they're merged? They're just a sloppy, desperate hodgepodge of inconsistencies and contradictions. 

*No, I'm not just deliberately crafting bad arguments to prove my point. Honest to Zeus, I've heard that one from multiple people -- presented as if it was a compelling bit. And "but the only reason they were obsessed with virginity was because of God's laws, so it's all a problem of his making" just nets more of the same. "Oh, but they had to limit promiscuity" ... "Well, where did that directive come from?!" You end up in a sort of infinite regress of "it wasn't God's fault -- look, over here, they had to do something else that God told them to do, because they had to do something that God said was necessary because..."

Monday, January 20, 2014

Chris Arnade's atheism challenge

I know much has been written already about the December 24th, 2013 piece in the Guardian by Chris Arnade, and his assertion, more or less, that atheism is a position of privilege, and introducing people, at least those in dire straits, to the reality of the improbability of gods is "pointless and cruel". But it was an interesting article, and, having spent some time thinking about it, I feel compelled to share a few of my own observations.

Firstly, the journey to atheism is not a one-size-fits all adventure, and all atheism certainly is not borne of comfort and privilege, as the author concludes. It is, however, the end result of deep introspection and study -- and that is usually done most easily when life is not desperately difficult. This is true of most things. It is more difficult to devote yourself to learning in general when you are consumed, of necessity, with the basic struggles of life. That "privilege" is a state we should wish on all people, not deride as elitist. The world would be a better place if everyone could manage their basic care (food, shelter, heat, etc.), if everyone had the "luxury" of devoting time to growing their mind, examining their ideas, etc.

It also strikes me as a rather naive view of mankind to suppose that suffering reliably breeds atheism, which Arnade initially expected to find. The world's great religions all more or less promise escape from suffering, rewards for suffering, great things to those who have suffered great wrongs. Some preachers actually prey on the pain of the suffering to fill pews and coffers. In the same way that religion targets the young ("train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart"), who have not yet developed a capacity for critical thinking, it promises to be a salve to our injuries -- in this life, but particularly in the next. Human history illustrates exactly how seductive these promises, across faiths, have been. It seems, in reading Arnade's piece, that he traded one simplistic assertion -- that suffering reveals atheism -- for another -- that ivory towers make atheists.

What is, perhaps, most troubling is that Arnade's solution is so defeatist. Essentially, the privileged and enlightened should sit back and do nothing, because to interfere with a homeless person's belief would be needlessly cruel. While this seems a false set of choices to me (why must it be a question of do nothing, or shatter a person's only hope in life?), there are, apparently, no other options that he sees. There are certainly none that he addresses. So there must be an elite, privileged class who knows the Truth, and a class of people who are left to believe falsehoods and myths to get by from day to day because, really, that's all they can handle. (There is also no consideration for what a person might do upon realizing that a single lifetime is, indeed, all they have, that the actions we take now are the only ones that will ever be taken because there is no comforting tomorrow waiting). It reeks of the very elitism he scorns: for some people, a delusion of happiness is all that can be hoped for, and this placebo should not be interfered with.

Furthermore, the whole thing revolves around a faulty assumption that atheism is attempting to wrest this happy myth from the clutches of desperate people with nowhere left to turn. In truth, there are no hordes of rampaging elitist atheists taking to the streets to intellectually batter the homeless and sex workers. To attempt to tie Richard Dawkins' and others' work with his experiences discussing religion with people living on the streets is ludicrous. Atheist academics and intellectuals engaging in the god debate, particularly prominent atheists such as Dawkins, are not preying on the disadvantaged; they almost always engage in debate with equally, ostensibly at least, qualified representatives of "the other side". They are certainly not taking their objections to people whose primary concerns are basic survival, beating them upside the head with The God Delusion, and robbing them of their last shred of hope (that sounds more like the gameplan of the Catholic charities who send Bibles to disaster areas in lieu of aid). The god debate is hardly a battle of ideas, with academics, philosophers, and the elite wealthy on one side, and the poor, starving and ultimately disadvantaged on the other. It's a debate between priests, theologians, rabbis, imams, religious intellectuals, academics, scientists and pseudo-scientists, and secular intellectuals, academics, thinkers and scientists. In other words, a world of people who are, by Arnade's describing, "entitle[d]" and "privileged". Individual atheists and theists may or may not fall into that category, may or may not be poor and downtrodden; but the debate, contrary to the article's implications, is one among intellectual and social equals.

Now, Arnade's exhortations to what amounts to humility and compassion are worthwhile. Arrogance is an unhelpful, off-putting air, and we should all have compassion for our fellow men. Unfortunately, these are buried among many missed opportunities; he could, for instance, have delved into what can be done beyond a placebo effect, rather than leaving matters at "good enough". The missed opportunities are themselves drowned out by false assumptions and implications; most notably, he writes as if it's an unexpected conclusion that it would be cruel to rob an addicted homeless person of the only thing that gets them through the day and leave them with nothing -- but who would advocate doing such a thing?! All of this is seasoned with a bit of false equivalency; he sees his experiences "on the streets" as somehow tied to the, if you will, 'off the streets' world of academic debates. All in all, Arnade's intentions seem to have been good, but the execution was very unfortunately handled; instead of making a convincing argument toward a more positive atheist community, he seemed to get too caught up in his own preconceived notions to make a compelling case for anything but the most obvious: it would be appalling for educated, comfortable people to intellectually bully poor, homeless, addicted and/or abused people. And I'm pretty sure most people already figured that out...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A new threat to traditional marriage (you won't believe the source!)

So, channeling a little buzzfeed here, lol. But, if you guessed "conservative Christianity", you might just be onto something...

For a new study appearing later this month in the American Journal of Sociology, Demographers Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas and Philip Levchak at the University of Iowa looked at the entire map of the United States, going county by county, to examine where divorces occurred in 2000 and what the characteristics of those counties were. Their work confirms that one of the strongest factors predicting divorce rates (per 1000 married couples) is the concentration of conservative or evangelical Protestants in that county.
 Now, I don't say that correlation is causation, but when the greatest indicator of divorce is conservative Christianity, it seems the Christian conservatives might be better served looking in their own homes rather than worrying about gays getting married.

(Originally spotted at Friendly Atheist)

Q: Is an atheist's life empty without god?

Isn't life empty, meaningless, and, ultimately, nothing without god?

As readers of this blog can guess, I'm a big fan of Whitefish Dunes State Park. I head up whenever I get the chance, which, alas, is not often. What does this have to do with the question above, you ask? Well, it's a pretty long drive, and there are roughly ten billion, five hundred and forty-three billboards along the way. One of them, that showed up with remarkable frequency, was a version of the following, from the Kaiser Christian Fund (they had quite a few other signs up as well, but this message in particular stood out to me), whose sole goal seems evangelism-by-billboard.

"LIFE IS NOTHING without God!"

And when I say it stood out, I don't mean it in a complementary fashion. It wasn't soul searching for the reasons intended. It came across as an incredibly arrogant, amazingly presumptive, and downright dangerous philosophy. Yes, dangerous: there are lots of examples through history of what happens when people convince themselves that the lives of those who are not exactly like them are worthless, "nothing" -- and none of them are good.

It is, though,one of the frequently recurring themes emphasized by religious people who preach against atheism. (I should note, as an aside, that the sentiment conveyed on the above billboard, while many religious people could drive by it and nod in agreement, actually targets a much larger list of people than atheists; the KCF's mission is not to convert people to theism, but to Christianity. In their minds, life with Allah or Yahweh is as much a "nothing" as life without any of them. It's only life with their particular deity, God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit, that makes your existence meaningful.) If you do not believe in a higher power (and, as with the billboard, it always gets down to my higher power), there is no point to your existence. Your life is empty, hopeless, and ultimately purposeless.

This isn't a question new to our species. Pagan men wondered, in their day, the role of religion and gods as readily as practitioners of today's religions decry the meaninglessness of life without their gods. Marcus Aurelius' sentiments on the matter are worth quoting:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

It should be noted that ultimate purpose is itself a loaded concept. It generally implies a deity or some supernatural force to evaluate or judge our use at the end -- in which case, it is true to say that there is no "ultimate" purpose. It's sort of like saying that there is no communion if you don't believe in Jesus. Yeah, and? Is purpose diminished simply because there is not some final record keeper to evaluate it and pat you on the head for a job well done -- or cast you into the great grill of eternity if you've not? I don't think so. A life well lived is still a life well lived. When it comes right down to it, it seems less a matter of purpose and more a matter of reward -- if there is no god, there is no afterlife, and so no eternal incentives to be a better person (or punishments for failure). While some will argue that without the divine reward/punishment model, we have no moral basis, Richard Dawkins perhaps answered this best in his book The God Delusion:

Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base though.
Morality is something beyond "you will burn for all eternity if you don't do this" or "you will walk streets of gold in the company of almighty god for all eternity if you do". Morality is determined by other factors, beyond our ultimate judgment. And while the idea of being rewarded for being moral might be appealing, like the idea of finding pots of gold at the end of rainbows (who wouldn't love that?!), there is no logical basis for the assumption that there will be an "ultimate" reckoning, a benevolent deity to keep an account of every wrong we've suffered and every nice thing we've done. In the end, our purpose is no more or less than what we make it. If we make it our goal to make the life of our fellow creatures better, do we need a pat on the head at the end of time as affirmation? Are our motives not purer if we do it without the promise of reward, without the bribe of eventual personal reward (and ever present blackmail of hell)? That seems a worthier, if less personally beneficial, concept than "ultimate" purpose. Furthermore, "ultimate purpose" requires belief in something that is completely unproven and in many cases offers no proof, operating on exactly the sort of basis that a child's belief that Santa will bring them a new x-box if they're good, but coal if they're not, operates on. Few would argue that lifelong belief in Santa Claus would be beneficial, despite its reward/punishment incentives, and despite the fact that there would be someone, ultimately, judging our actions and keeping a record on whether we've been naughty or nice. The desirability of an eternal score keeper has no bearing on the reality of whether such a score keeper exists. Wishful thinking is just that.

Life is not empty simply because we do not take wishful thinking at face value. Art, music, literature, science, and nature are not diminished without a god behind it all. Our world, our relationships, the amazing odds against our being here and the fact that we are here all the same, are reason enough for wonder and joy. Do we need an eternal score keeper to enjoy all that, to live a full and meaningful life? No. Furthermore, the world makes more sense when you do not suppose that an ostensibly merciful god is going to condemn to hell people who have never even heard of him; who is busy wining superbowls but lets kids in Africa (many of whom will then end up in hell for disbelieving) starve to death; who allows multiple, equally confusing, contradictory and unbelievable religions to flourish while, according to so many, whisking believers from only one to paradise, and everyone else to eternal torment. Our actions have direct consequences in the here and now. There are no invisible puppet masters who have given us free will but occasionally pull certain strings anyway.

That's not meaningless. That's the opposite of meaningless. We have a world full of beauty and intellect to enjoy; and, yes, there's a world full of suffering to right as well. But we can't shrug it off and pretend it's someone else's problem, like thousands of years of religion has done. There is no someone else, and as more people realize that, the more urgent solutions will become. Eventually, as we stop leaving things to gods that don't exist, we can evolve into a more caring, more loving society. And that's not meaningless either.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Wisconsin voucher system success!

An amazing success story from my state's voucher system:

A private school in Milwaukee has shut down, but not before collecting two million dollars of tax payer dollars.
Lifeskills Academy, a small kindergarten through eighth grade school, joined the state's voucher program five years ago and collected more than two million dollars in public payments.
Money well spent? Last year, state records show only one student scored proficient in reading.
With the school closing, the state won't send any more money, but because the school closed mid-school year, the state can't recoup what it already gave out.
And according to the Journal Sentinel, the people who ran the school have skipped town to a gated community in Florida.

(Emphasis added). Amazing success, at least, if you're the fleabags who scammed the state of this money -- including 200K paid out this year (for nothing).

Q: If it was good enough for Moses, isn't it good enough for you?

If my faith was good enough for [insert # of practitioners or list of famous practitioners here], shouldn't it be good enough for you?
No. There are a couple of variants of this argument, and none of them stand up to examination.

The first is a fallacious appeal to authority: "someone very smart (or some set of very smart people) believed in my god; surely, you don't think you know better than him/her/them, do you?" It implies that a person who is intelligent and correct in some, oftentimes many, matters is correct in everything, or at least this point of importance. An authority is only relevant if they are an authority on the matter at hand; and, as that involves unknowable, unprovable things, like invisible entities, magical occurrences, etc. a person cannot have the sort of knowledge that develops an expertise sufficient to be convincing. Furthermore, there is no current or historical consensus among intelligent persons as to the nature of gods. Tellingly, every era and every culture produced its own sets of geniuses who pray to their own sets of gods -- and, now, do not pray: the number of the godless amongst our best and brightest is exploding. Wise men have always prayed to the gods of their era, at least publicly (brilliant atheists pop up, openly, in every culture that doesn't brutally suppress them; like Iran's gays, the absence of acknowledged atheists seems to be strongly correlated with the likelihood that they'll be dismembered/beheaded/stoned/flogged/otherwise brutalized). Today, it's generally assumed that the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans got it all wrong -- and are burning for their error, this very moment, in the fires of eternal torment, while a loving almighty god opts not to intervene. Indeed, the Muslims assume the Christian scholars, monks and scientists of yesteryear (as well as the atheistic, Jewish, polytheistic, etc., ones) are roasting and boiling for their sin of disbelief; and the Christians think the Muslim, Jewish, pagan, etc., geniuses and laymen together are likewise cooking. In short, everyone is cooking, because they all got it wrong according to someone.

Genius has always been found and will likely continue to be found whatever god is or isn't prayed to; and religious matters are faith, rather than evidence, based, disallowing a level of expertise that renders an appeal to authority useful. So, no, a religious genius (or a hundred of them) is not sufficient to sway someone to your faith.

The other form of this argument tends to be argumentum ad populum. The most recent example I've seen is Tony Jones' piece on Patheos, but it pops up every once in awhile. "So many people believe, how can you think you're smarter than them?!" Which is interesting, when one considers exactly what we discussed earlier -- that so many of the people who use this argument condemn more or less everyone else to eternal torment. This being argumentum ad populum, it is an all around bad argument. It might feel convincing, for the half a second before your mind floods with contradictory instances (ancient Egyptian gods were worshiped for thousands of years; and yet who today would argue for their survival? Christianity and Islam currently have prodigious followings, and yet regard each as hellbound fools. And so the list continues...). But, ultimately, consensus does not assure correctness; a lot of people making bad choices just means a lot of bad choices and sorry people. So an argument cannot rely on numbers to do its work for it.

Finally, I should note that while the "smarter than" phrase doesn't always show up, it often does. This is a strawman in and of itself. Unless someone is actually claiming that  being an atheist makes them more intelligent than anyone who is not, it is a bogus accusation, meant to subtly shame the person into agreement, something like, "Well, gee, of course I'm not smarter than Isaac could I even suggest that?!" Fact is, we're all -- even the Isaac Newtons of the world -- wrong about something, sometime; and the Newtons are still, well, the Newtons of the world (and we remain just us :P ). Disagreeing on the issue of deities is, quite simply, not challenging another person's intelligence.

Friday, January 17, 2014

"God Loves Uganda": the consequences of evangelical religion in government

Just in case the past two thousand years have provided insufficient warnings as to what happens when religion takes over, or you really buy the "but we're different! Those guys got it wrong by torturing, brutalizing and killing everyone who disagreed; we still love the sin even though we hate the sinner!" (which is a load of crap if ever there's been one), here's a modern day example of evangelical Christianity sans separation of church and state.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The smiling, polite preachers and missionaries who spread their doctrines (and, mostly, escaped before the consequences were realized) are directly responsible for the hell they've unleashed on these innocents.

And I'm sure most of them happily cite, in the unending Piety Games of evangelism, their exploits of "spreading Jesus' love" and "saving souls", and imagine themselves victorious warriors in a supernatural war. All without giving a second thought to what they've actually done. And the worst part? They'll be inspiration to their church groups and peers, to do the same harm here and elsewhere. I remember the various churches I've attended doing this same thing, at VBS', in lieu of or following sermons. Ugh.

Research: Six year high in religious violence

One of the favorite arguments against secularism is that religion prompts people to be moral, and without religion to guide them, our species would descend into a self-consuming vortex of mayhem: in other words, we need gods to be good. It's a point on my list to address, but the PEW research discovering that religious violence is at a six year high brought it to mind. Going through the study, I've noticed two interesting correlations. Firstly, countries with secular democratic ideals and less restrictions on free speech, etc., seem to have fewer problems with this. Secondly, and even more tightly correlated, is religiosity and violence; European nations, for instance, with substantial, highly religious minorities see this same kind of violence (albeit on a smaller scale) from the religious communities. In the United States, we don't tend to have religious rioting or anything along those lines...but the people who shoot abortion doctors, who advocate violence against gays, etc., are almost exclusively religious. Furthermore, self-describing atheists make up a tiny, tiny fraction of America's incarcerated criminal body -- less than one tenth of one percent. Rather than atheism leading to upticks in violence, the opposite seems to be true: atheists are less, not more, violent than their religious counterparts. Granted, correlation isn't causation (I do think there is a danger to believing that you have a divine authority behind you, and a divine sanction on your actions; but that's something I'll lay out elsewhere), and it's possible, for instance, that non-violent people are drawn to atheism in the States (which doesn't address low crime rates/high morality in largely atheistic societies like Sweden, but I digress). At any rate, it's a longer topic than I have time to address right now, and I'm in the process myself of learning more on the question of moral origins (which this topic is surely a facet of), getting back to the PEW study:

The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. A third (33%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.1 There also was a significant increase in religious hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region, where China edged into the “high” category for the first time.

The power of prayer: prayer and the problem of evil

The Power of Prayer: prayer and the problem of evil

Huffington Post's ran an article yesterday "Half of Americans Say God Plays a Role in Super Bowl Winner: Survey". The content is as cringe inducing as the headline indicates -- half of Americans believe the supernatural is at work in sports -- and more or less nicely summed up in the following Public Religion Research Institute graphic:
(Click for larger version)

Not noted in the graph form is another point that is worth noting if only because of how closely it echoes the increasingly popular notion among evangelicals that success is a measure of God's love (it's not for nothing that the "party of God" and social conservatism is also the party of big business...):

Just as they were divided on whether God has a role in sports games, Americans also were divided on whether God rewards religious athletes with health and success. Forty-eight percent of Americans said God does reward athletes this way, but 47 percent disagreed. The belief that God will help religious athletes was most prominent among white evangelicals (62 percent) and non-white Protestants (65 percent). A little more than one-fifth of the religiously unaffiliated held the same view.

But consider the big picture for a moment. Half of our country believes that gods are mucking about in football games. Now, there's not a damn thing in the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, or any of the other holy books about gods and football. That's all, 100%, egocentric, wishful thinking. "I care about my team, therefore God cares about my team." (And theists claim atheism is an arrogant world view...) The presumption involved to suppose that a deity concerned with the matters of the universe is out there rooting for your's really mind boggling.

It particularly highlights a deeper problem within Christianity. If not a sparrow falls but that God knows it, that means that God is fully cognizant of kids starving to death, being sold into slavery, and otherwise being abused and killed all over the world. Now, the Christian will agree that saving kids is the right to do; they'll agree that only a monster would, if given the option, let a child starve to death. But they'll say, "Ah, but we have free will, and it is men -- not God -- choosing to starve, brutalize and kill those children. God doesn't interfere, because that would thwart our free will, and then all bets are off." Alright, fair enough. That is the answer to the problem of evil. Not a great answer, but at least a logically consistent one inside of its framework (if you start thinking outside of the box, you can poke holes in it...but that's beyond this discussion). God can't stop evil because he can't interfere with our world.

What happens to that idea when God, like a Valkyrie of yesteryear deciding who goes to Valhalla that day, determines passes and intercepts? Well, quite frankly, it blows a gaping hole in your theology. If God is interfering in our world, he can; if he can and does but chooses not to save kids from starving to death, well he's an asshole (the only solution to the problem of evil thus shredded). And every holy book out there tells you that he's not. Which means either he isn't just or he isn't deciding football games.

And half of Americans believe that he is deciding those. And probably more than that think he's protecting them when they're afraid. And helping the family get home safely in that blizzard. And helping her ace a test. And making sure that cute girl in bio notices him. And the list goes on...

The fact is, when pressed on the question of evil, Christians will excuse themselves from facing the difficulty with a disclaimer about God's inability to interfere, a note that humans are responsible for their own actions, etc. Which, really, renders prayer and the notion of "ask and you shall receive" utter nonsense. But the moment difficulty arises, that same Christian who professes that interference is impossible (and thus the problem of evil is ours, and not God's) will pray for exactly what they said was impossible -- God's interference. If God is deciding football games, that means he is either hampering someone's decision making and/or abilities, or enhancing someone's decision making and/or abilities. In other words, their free will is being circumvented; they are no longer solely responsible for their actions. Someone is benefiting because God directly intervened on their behalf -- and someone else is suffering for it, either because they were personally caused to err in their own playing or because God enhanced an opponent's playing. In other words, one team is playing at best on their own, possibly with a divinely imposed penalty, and the other is playing with the aid of an almighty being.

One student is acing his test because God helped him remember all those biology terms, while others have to struggle on their own
One person avoided going into the ditch because "Jesus t[ook] the wheel," while another receives no such protection
One person got a job (while a lot of other deserving candidates didn't) because God decided so

God then, in the minds of many American Christians not only can, but does, actively interfere; and not only in events outside of free will (i.e. sparing someone from a natural disaster), but in events that demand that he co-opt free will (i.e. overruling one student's hard work and dedication to give another a desired internship).

If prayer is effective, we do not have free will and humans are not ultimately responsible for everything that happens. (At best, we have partial free will, and we are partially responsible.)
If God can and does interfere in our world on people's behalves, then he can but chooses not to prevent suffering, even the extraordinary suffering of innocents.
Thus, if prayer is effective, God shares at least some blame in the suffering of innocents. Conversely, if God shares no blame, prayer is ineffective.

As a Christian, the problem of evil never bothered me very much because I accepted the typical solution: it's our fault (something that, as an atheist, hasn't changed...we are responsible for our own actions). But the "power of prayer" was something I struggled with since childhood: if God didn't intervene because he couldn't, within the limitations he'd set up, prayer was useless; only if God can intervene, which belies the notion of those limitations, could prayer be effective. And yet, Christianity teaches that prayer is not useless, and we're encouraged to pray because it is effective. When both concepts are given equal weight, it is a logical contradiction that even a child can spot. The power of prayer is that its effectiveness renders God a monster; and its lack of effectiveness a myth.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

President Obama mentions atheists and agnostics on Religious Freedom Day

More at Friendly Atheist.

Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.

The fallacy of defaulting to "god did it"

I often hear people ask in debates with atheists, as if they've discovered a fabulous trump card, "But how do you explain the origin of universe if there is no god?" That always surprises me, because it's such a terrible and yet historically successful argument. Ultimately, it infers that if we do not know the answer to something at the moment, the conclusion must be a god or gods.

There just is no good inference that gets you from one to the other, and proof is never forthcoming
Unexplained event/phenomena
 |     (????)

Divine intervention

Now, there are a couple of facets to this argument that we should not overlook. The first is that, while the arguer might phrase it in an innocuous, non-specific fashion, the intent is rarely to defend theism as a whole, but to defend the arguer's particular brand of theism. When the atheist replies with a perfectly honest, "I don't know," the theist pounces. "Well, Allah tells us..." or "Well, the Lord Jesus Christ said..." Even if "I don't know, therefore a god" was a legitimate form of argument (it's not; more in a moment), "I don't know, therefore MY god" would take more work to prove.
Unexplained event/phenomena
 |     (anything unexplained must be the result of a god)

Divine intervention
 |     (?????)

My god did it
In other words, it certainly doesn't follow that allowing theism as a possible alternative leads directly to surety in one flavor of theism. That demands a much weightier burden of proof, which is never met. The intent, of course, is that you should consider the two alternatives ("I don't know" and "well, maybe a god did it") as equally meritorious, thereby admitting "maybe a god did it" as a viable solution; and somewhere along the way, with absolutely no justification, jump from "a god" to "my god". This is ludicrous, as allowing for the viability of the god concept does not in any way prove the existence of specific god(s). But "I don't know" and "a god did it" are not equally meritorious answers.

In the past, religious institutions have relied very heavily on "god did it". In times of more primitive technologies and science, this was an eminently successful strategy. Consider the vast range of items the Church (and most other religious bodies) attributed to their god(s). Everything from the common cold to weather patterns, plagues and pestilences to wealth and good fortune, spoiled ale to a healthy newborn, came down to god (or demons, that could only be defeated with more god). The less we knew about biology, the more we attributed to gods -- the more churches attributed to gods. The less we knew about our planet and other planets, the more we attributed to gods. The less we knew about any given branch of science, the more "prayer", "repentance", "God's favor" and "God's anger" mattered. Nowadays, we don't much worry that a loud thunderstorm means that we've pissed off some extraordinarily temperamental divine; but at points in history, people cowered in terror over just such a meteorological event, the words of a pious priest or wise shaman echoing in their ears. Even in this day and age, when science explains so much of our weather related phenomena and natural disasters, we still have the odd preacher, rabbi, or imam who tries to sell them as part of the divine anger and godly retribution package. (If you're curious, according to religions' snake oil salesmen, temperature shifts, tectonic plate shifts, etc., are more or less irrelevant...hurricanes happen because dudes hold hands, and earthquakes are the result of tank tops. See, who needs science?!).

In general, though, it's ignorance that provides the most fertile environment for this reaction to develop: while some people will cynically view a natural disaster or tragedy as their merciful god's message delivery system of choice, most of us cede to the science of the event. Because now we know the how's and why's. We can understand the progression of illness, and we don't need to fallback on "God's wrath" or "demonic possession". Where religion once had a monopoly on the plentiful swath of human concerns, science has, a piece at a time, wrested that control from it; prayer and tithing might have been the best answer to most questions during the dark ages, but now science provides practical resolutions and sensible answers to those same concerns. Indeed, when we look back at the long history of man's superstitions, we see that "god", "demons", and "more abject fealty" were never really the answers after all.

That is why it is so surprising when people fall back on the same ineffective line to explain matters that science hasn't been able to adequately address -- yet. It calls to mind Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. In this case, it's resorting to the same non-answer and expecting a different result -- its accuracy. "God", while invoked for just about every question man has encountered since the beginning of time, has never been the answer. We've never had an instance where we've encountered an unknown and discovered that, at the end, "god" really was the answer; no matter how impossible a solution seemed at the time, eventually our species discovered it. What recommends "God", then, as a best solution? Absolutely nothing beyond wishful thinking. No evidence, no compelling philosophical reasons; it's just a fallback, a baseless substitute for "I don't know", borne of wishful thinking, masquerading as something more, and conferring a false sense of surety as it goes.

"I don't know, but we're working on it," is the most accurate and honest answer for the question of "how did our universe come into being." And, incidentally, it's the only answer to these sort of questions that has ever borne fruit. "God" is the answer that nets no further examination; "I don't know, yet" is the answer that demands further investigation. Frankly, if mankind had been content to accept the former, we'd still be in the dark ages; just about every branch of science, all of our life saving medicine, etc., would have been lost to the "God" vacuum. Indeed, "god" has been the answer that historically has slowed humanity's progress; it's the answer that got scientists burnt at the stake.

So seeing people throw out "god" as a response to the questions of the universe's origins is not reassuring, and answers exactly nothing; it's simply shades of past follies: exploiting a knowledge vacuum to substitute the desired answer. And, sadly, it is an act that confers an entirely undeserved confidence on itself. It's the true deus ex machina, something humanity has been doing since time immemorial: instead of solving the problem, invoke a god, thereby producing an answer that is at once unproven and unprovable. We live in a world that should, by rights, render such an argument (at least, arrived at in such a fashion) laughable -- because our success and progress is directly attributable to people moving beyond "because god" to understand why, really. And yet it's still trotted out with all the false surety of the most superstitious snake oil salesman of yesteryear -- and with not a lick more proof...