20 April 2014

Easter fun time Bible facts

Easter's almost over, and it's been a busy day! But I have a few minutes to mention some important facts about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  • The gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Or at least, there is absolutely zero evidence that they are eyewitness accounts. They do not claim to be, and several scriptures (the temptation in the desert, for example) describe Jesus' actions and prayers even though he's purportedly alone.
  • Eyewitness accounts tend to fairly unreliable anyway, even in the short term. Considering the gospels weren't written down for many decades (at least 50 years), there was clearly a lot of time for details to become omitted, altered, or added.
  • There's no evidence that the gospels were passed on through any sort of oral tradition, at least not in the rigid sense of the oral Torah, an obviously Rabbinic tradition. The gospels don't claim to be the product of any such oral tradition and there's zero independent evidence that they were. It's just something Christians made up.
  • The original manuscripts are long lost, which if you think about it seems like kind of a big deal. If the Lord and Creator of the universe had visited Earth and conducted the most important mission of all time, wouldn't the early church have a vested interest in preserving the early manuscripts?
  • The gospel manuscripts we do have are riddled with uncorroborated historical claims and contradict each other.
  • Some Christians like to pass contradictions off as simple omissions: for example, the contradiction of who was at the tomb. Since the different gospel say different things, Christians claim they create an aggregate account rather than being a contradiction. But, at least in that example, it's a pretty silly claim. One of the gospels claims an angel was present; the others don't even mention it. Wouldn't that be kind of a big deal? Y'know, the sort of thing you don't forget to write down? Face it: it's a bona fide contradiction.
  • While many secular historians accept the idea an apocalyptic rabbi fitting Jesus' description did exist, there's absolutely no evidence that the Jesus of the Bible actually existed or that the gospels provide a reliable account of historical events. 

Most importantly though, there is absolutely zero evidence, nor any rational reason to believe, that the Bible was "divinely inspired" or that there is anything contained therein which could not have easily been written by the contemporaneous humans. There's absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection actually happened.

Hope you had a wonderful Easter, which of course is one of many holidays that Christians adapted from pagans.

19 April 2014

American history, revised and updated

Last night Vanessa and I watched Jesus Camp, which I'm sure many of you have seen. It brought back some memories of my brief stint in Pentecostal-style evangelical churches. But something caught my ear, and that's a refrain I've often heard from conservatives: a quip about the moral decline of America. They've kicked God out of schools! You can't say "one nation under God!" The gays are marrying! Dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Later in the evening, I came across a provocative article on the Huffington Post which, courtesy of famed photographer Ansel Adams, documented the lives of Japanese-Americans living in an internment camp during World War II.  Here were ordinary American citizens detained in direct violation of their Constitutional rights. It struck me as odd, though increasingly less surprising, that I never learned about that in my many US history classes in grade school.

An unrelated article I read later discussed the global economic and political policies of the US and Britain that provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I'm not enough of a history expert to ascertain the accuracy of the article, but its thesis seems sound and well-researched enough that it seems reasonable to conclude that the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't just an act of Those Evil Japs, but a move that resulted from a complex global economic and political scenario. As the saying goes, history is told from the top, and in my younger years I was never given any perspective on why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor aside from, "They were imperialists".

We were all taught about Christopher Columbus, heralded as some sort of adventurous hero; we weren't taught about his use of torture and mutilation to govern Hispanolia. We're often told about early colonies of the Spanish empire, but we're rarely told about Encomienda – the systematic slavery and forced conversions to Christianity. We're often told about Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery – with some religious conservatives preaching revisionist history that the US was somehow an innovator in abolishing slavery – but we're rarely told about Jefferson Thomas' Biblical justification of slavery, or just how divisive the fight over slavery really was. We're told about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, but are rarely shown the lynchings or rioters being beaten and hosed by white policemen which illustrate just how bloody and difficult the struggle for racial equality was at the time.


I'm by no means trying to demonize my country, but it's worth pointing out that American history is fraught with cruelty and injustice. In just the last decade it was found that we were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and America's global policies continue to be controversial. Religious conservatives have a penchant for portraying American history in a skewed, idealistic light; the 1950s were like Leave it to Beaver – nevermind the inequality of women, the McCarthy hearings, and the segregation of minorities and the violence and injustices perpetrated upon them. World War II is often viewed as a "just war", and in many ways it certainly was; but Ameri

I suppose that in contrast to my cynical conservative counterparts, I see my country as flawed as any other. But I also see progress. I see growing equality and a growing awareness of injustices. I see growing opposition to frivolous and unjust war. I see a growing awareness to economic inequality and the struggles of the working poor. I even see a growing awareness of the cruelty we've inflicted on animals in industrialized husbandry, and increasing pressure for the industry to treat them humanely and for consumers to find alternatives to animal products.


I feel a bit of frustration at just how filtered my history education was. I'm sure over my lifetime I'll learn much more about the bloody injustices perpetuated by my country. But I'm also optimistic that the more these cruelties come to light and the more honest we are about our mistakes, the less likely we'll be to repeat them. 

16 April 2014

Our moral evolution must transcend religion

Today my fiance Vanessa and I wrapped up the last session of our premarital counseling, which we had been doing under the guidance of the head pastor of my parents' church. Secular premarital counseling is hard to find in Oklahoma, and he agreed to respect our wishes for the counseling to be non-religious. But, as a pastor might be reasonably expected to be, he was curious about our perspectives on religion. We both briefly shared the stories of our deconversions – Vanessa having been raised Catholic and never feeling connected with religion, as well as being frustrated by the evasiveness of the church elders on matters of doctrine; and myself, being raised in a Christian home but ultimately leaving the church after a rigorous study of theology, apologetics, and comparative religion.

We both made it clear that we're "live and let live" non-believers; we both think that if someone feels what Alvin Plantinga would call a sensus divinitus that leads them to faith, then more power to them. We simply feel no such thing, and are fully happy and content without it; there is no God-shaped hole in our hearts or lives.

The pastor was appreciative of both our attitudes and our willingness to share, and it was clearly a topic we could all sit around discussing for days on end. But I had to bite my tongue a bit with what came next. He described his generation being raised with "modernism", which he said was the idea that "science has all the answers". And what we (Vanessa's and my) generation are facing is postmodernism, in which "everything is true". Something can be true for you, but not true for me. He went on to say that this causes him much concern with the issue of morality, as what is good simply becomes subjective; and with such pliable moral standards, virtually anything can be deemed permissible.

It was essentially a restatement of the old canard, "Without God, anything is permissible" – the idea that those without God can have no objective moral standards, and thus morality devolves into something subjective, arbitrary, and likely destructive.


I'm not going to attempt, in this post at least, to answer the question of where we should look to guide or moral evolution (I do however highly recommend the second half of A.C. Grayling's book The God Argument, titled "For Humanism"). But whatever it is that shapes our shared moral values, it cannot be religion. This isn't because I don't like religion, or because I disagree with any given religious dogma. Religion is fundamentally incapable of guiding us toward moral enlightenment, and the reason why should be obvious.

Religion is perpetually – and I would argue, terminally – plagued by schisms and division. If one Christian looks to the Bible and extracts from it a given moral principle, another Christian need only say, "I think those passages are intended to be interpreted differently" to derive from them a completely antithetical moral principle. Christianity alone is home to some 33,000 denominations and innumerable schisms in its 2,000 year history. Far from growing toward a consensus of proper Biblical interpretation, Christianity has become so increasingly divided that it almost seems improper to call it a singular religion, as opposed to a broad umbrella encompassing a staggering array of often sharply conflicting ideologies. And of course this is but one of the world's countless religions.

This isn't an issue of liberalism versus conservatism, either. The issue is simply this: if you are a religious person, there is someone out there who is just as passionate as you are, who holds their beliefs with every ounce of conviction you do, and who is just as confident that God is in their corner as you are – but whose beliefs are opposite to yours. Even if you're right – and let's face it, only others in your "doxastic community"* do, and that's not very many people – the world will never unite under a single banner of religious faith. If even one religion cannot help but become fraught with schisms, how can any religion possibly guide us toward a shared moral enlightenment?


It's worse than that, though. Because of the steadfast conviction with which religious individuals hold their beliefs, religion by its nature stifles dialogue, and hence progress, on our moral responsibilities. From each corner, believers shout antithetical proclamations asserted with equally unwavering certitude, and the discussion inevitably shifts from how we should live to whose holy book we should believe – and whose interpretation, of a staggering myriad, is the correct one. Religion's endless inter-group pliability, coupled with its insidious intra-group rigidity, reveals the opposite of the famous canard to be the truth: "With God, anything is permissible."

Clearly, our moral evolution must transcend religion; it must instead be guided by a common humanism – a recognition of our interdependence and solidarity. Any study of comparative religion reveals commonality not in doctrines and dogma, but in the valuation of friendship, trust, love, and the simple beauties and pleasures of life. Indeed, it seems as though it's only when doctrine and dogma rear their rigid heads that those values become muddled or lost. We can do better. And as the grip of religion continues its steady erosion from the industrialized world and we're able to discuss contentious moral dilemmas without the oppressive confines of dogmatism, I'm confident we will.

*"Doxastic community" is little more than a euphamism for the scientific term "in-group".

04 April 2014

The meaning of suffering

I've been having a conversation with some regulars on Randal Rauser's blog about the problem of natural suffering. Frankly, I see it as being utterly devastating to theism. All theodicies attempt to resolve the problem of suffering by suggesting that God has morally justified reasons for allowing (causing?) suffering, in that it is ultimately a step toward a greater good. My take is that it's logically impossible for theodicies to be valid, because an omnipotent God – by definition of his omnipotence – could always achieve his aims without natural suffering. If a theist claims that natural suffering is in any way necessary for God's plan, they've tacitly conceded that God is not all-powerful.

In my comments, I referred to an eight-year-old girl I encountered while working as a physical therapy tech during my college years. She was afflicted with terminal brain cancer, and had lost most of her physical and cognitive functions. I remember thinking that there was another problem with theodicies: that the end does not justify the means – which, when you think about it, is precisely what theodicies are arguing. But there was no reward that could possibly await me in the hereafter that would, for me, justify that child's suffering (not to mention that of her parents, watching their child slowly wither away).

Tracie Harris of The Atheist Experience once rebuked a caller by saying, "If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That's the difference between your God and me". While the problem of evil is important, the problem of (natural) suffering is even more so, because there can be no argument that it was an act of malice or cruelty, or that the victim was receiving some just punishment. If I could stop a child from suffering and dying of a terrible ailment, I would.

Coincidentally, this story popped up tonight on Huffpo, and it's a heart-wrencher. A four-year-old child named Eliza diagnosed with an incredibly rare terminal illness that will kill her slowly and painfully: she'll lose the ability to speak, to walk, develop seizures, and eventually die.

At the risk of being crass, while her story is tragic, it's also just one millions; children suffer and die every day – of famine, disease, exposure, natural disasters, and many other things that are of no fault of their own. If we could all stand before the god of Western monotheism, would we not declare that this kind of collateral damage was not worth whatever logically problematic eternal bliss awaited us? And would we not wonder why, if God was really all-powerful, he couldn't have gotten us there without all that collateral damage in the first place.

My deconversion was accelerated by a shift in perspective – what if, I asked myself, the reason I can't make sense of this is not because there's some ineffable answer or that I need more faith, but because it's not true? Looking at suffering through the lens of naturalism is liberating: the reason natural suffering looks random and meaningless is because it is random and meaningless. No one is being punished, and it's not anyone's fault. This child, who will die far too soon, did nothing to deserve her ailment and there is no god for whom we must make excuses and rationalizations.

If you wish to donate to help Eliza, click here.

24 March 2014

Something Sam Harris said

I skimmed the essays that Dan Dennett and Sam Harris wrote to each other (they were way too damn long), and something caught my eye in Harris' response to Dennett (emphasis mine):
2. You believe that determinism at the microscopic level (as in the case of Austin’s missing his putt) is irrelevant to the question of human freedom and responsibility. I agree that it is irrelevant for many things we care about (it doesn’t obviate the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior, for instance), but it isn’t irrelevant in the way you suggest.
Provided we all agree that liberarian free will is bullshit, I don't see a meaningful distinction between the statements
  • I did something by choice
  • I did something voluntarily

Aaaand, discuss.

20 March 2014

Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, is dead

Fred Phelps was bottom-feeding scum, and the world has become a marginally better place with his death. If I mourn anything, it's a life that was wasted on bitter hatred and unwavering fundamentalism – a life bereft of the opportunity to share in peace and happiness with those who are different. I mourn for the pain he caused for so many others, be it the tyranny he held over his own family or the crass cruelty with which he hurled invectives at gay people and mourning families. But I will definitely shed no tears for his passing, nor will I have any sympathy for the life he chose of his own accord and the decisions for which he is solely responsible. Good riddance.

Perhaps the most poignant commentary this morning came from Betty Bowers:

18 March 2014

How not to argue on the internet

I've taken the last week or so off from blogging, deliberately so – I've needed to refocus on the web aspects of my business, and Vanessa and I have had quite a few family obligations of late. But I've still been perusing my favorite sites, which are mostly science-oriented blogs like Preposterous Universe, Bad Astronomy, and Neurologica but also includes a few religious oriented blogs on both sides of the pew (so to speak).

In taking a step back and just reading and observing debates, I've picked up on some things that have been on my mind for a while. I've definitely been in the position where I felt that indulging too much in Disqus comment threads can bring out a side of myself I rather dislike, and I've been trying to be more conscientious about my behavior and think more carefully about the types of words I use. It's easy in discussions involving issues about which we feel very passionate to let our emotions get the better of us.

I've come to the conclusion that there are several major mistakes we can make when discussing and debating, and that most all debates are ultimately an endless morass. It's simply human nature to try to "win" the argument, and in all my years of blogging I've almost never seen interlocutors on any side of a debate concede even the smallest point – at least not in the midst of discussion. The reluctance to concede an erroneous argument is only exacerbated by the use of patronizing or antagonizing language, and the language doesn't have to be overtly insulting or hostile to achieve this effect.

This means that while lengthy discussions can occasionally be fruitful, for the most part it's impossible for everyone to track all of the minor points and still maintain a cohesive overall direction. Discussions often end in tangents, or when everyone feels frustrated from feeling like they're repeating themselves ad nauseum. It's my opinion that the best thing to do is to know when to withdraw. Make your case as clearly and concisely as you can. Odds are that the other person will have some counterargument, and you'll likely feel that they misunderstood or misrepresented your argument in some way. That, I think, is when it's time to let it go. No amount of harping is going to change minds. State your case and let it be, continuing only if you feel there is an atmosphere of productive communication and mutual understanding.

Anyway, those things not to do. Well, I was over at Randal Rauser's blog, and I saw plenty of counter-productive behavior. Some examples:

Now, I know I'm kind of picking on Randal here, but I have to admit it's low-hanging fruit – he's got tons of comments like this. He's certainly not the only one of course, though I'm struck by this behavior particularly because Randal himself has admonished it in his own blog.

First, he's expressing exasperation at having to explain himself again. He's telling this person that the reason they have not come to agree with him, or at least concede this portion of the debate, is solely the result of their willful ignorance of the points he has already "succinctly" argued. There is absolutely no concession of even the mere possibility that he could have explained himself more clearly, or that it was he who failed to properly grasp his interlocutor's arguments. He lays all the blame for the impasse solely on the other.

This kind of behavior is antagonizing to the extreme, and frankly it doesn't matter one iota who is right or wrong – he's put himself well past a discussion that might change any minds. As soon as you adopt this sort of antagonistic and patronizing tone, the debate is over. Everyone is just protecting inflated egos.


The statement here that got my attention is "That shows that at best you're a poor listener". As before, Randal is laying the blame for the impasse solely at the feet of his interlocutor with not one iota of that elusive Christian humility (I hear so much talk, but see so little in practice!). But this time he's taking it a step further and making a comment about this person's general character. That's sort of like when your spouse forgets to take out the trash after you asked them to, and you say "Gawl, you never listen to me!"

We ought to be careful about how much we impugn someone's personal character based on discussions on the internet – particularly ones that are prone to impassioned disagreements, and ones in which people tend to be operating from completely different sets of assumptions.

Now, I know I've been guilty of engaging in similar behavior from time to time. Sometimes, frustration just gets the better of me. But that doesn't excuse it, and I'm making a concerted effort to be more conscientious of the words I use in the future. That's not to say that I don't think one can have a spirited debate on the internet, but I think a few rules should be kept in mind:
  • Stay on topic.
  • If you're baited to go off-topic, don't take it – or at least explain how your answer is relevant to the broader discussion.
  • Be as clear as you can.
  • Be concise – show you respect others' time by avoiding essay-like comments
  • Avoid passive-aggressive behavior. Insults cloaked in a thin veil of intellectual maturity are still insults.
  • Never, ever get personal. 
  • If you feel your interlocutor is out to "win" rather than understand where you're coming from, politely end the conversation. You're not going to change their mind.
  • Once you feel you've made your point, you're not obligated to keep re-explaining yourself. If you don't feel you're being understood, yet you sincerely feel you've done your best, let it go.

03 March 2014

The Kalam Cosmological Argument: not even wrong

During the Craig/Carroll debate, one of my favorite arguments that Sean Carroll used against the Kalam Cosmological Argument's first premise is that it's not just wrong; it's not even wrong.

The first premise is generally stated as:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
... but was re-stated by Craig in the debate as:
  • If the universe began to exist, it has a transcendent cause for its existence

I devoted a post to explaining why I think the new formulation isn't just bad, but one that actually betrays the central problem with the KCA. Carroll took a unique approach in saying that classical notions of causality aren't even relevant to cosmological models, where quantum theory comes heavily into play. That's a good approach, and one I endorse. But, I think that Carroll's statement that the Kalam is "not even wrong" can be applied in an even more simple context.

Skeptics and theists alike are fond of squabbling over complex cosmological theories and theorems when debating the KCA, and I can't help but feel that once you're suckered in to that kind of a debate, you've already lost. Far better to cut to the heart of why the KCA doesn't even get off the ground.

The problem is simply that "causality", even if we are being very charitable and including the antiquated and scientifically irrelevant four forms of Aristotlean causality, is something that was gleamed from observation of the physical universe. Causality, as we understand it, is a principle governing physical objects within space and time according to well-known laws of physics. If we look at the second premise of the Kalam,
  • The universe began to exist
... we run into a similar issue. When we speak of something "beginning to exist", we do so within a very specific context – namely, that of the physical universe. There is a time at which something does not exist, and a time at which it begins to exist.

The Kalam is asking us to disregard the existence of the universe and still entertain the idea that concepts which we only are able to define, describe, and understand within that specific physical context somehow still exist. What does it mean to talk about "cause" when there is no space, no time, no matter, no energy, and indeed not even any physical laws at all? What does it mean to talk about "beginning" when there is no time in which something can begin?

The problem with the KCA is that it takes everyday concepts that sensibly describe the classical, Newtonian frame of reference in which we intuit our experiences and cantilevers them into realms in which they are stripped entirely of the very context that gives them meaning in the first place.

I should be charitable enough here to point out that Craig has indeed addressed these arguments, both here (on causality) and here (on beginnings). Craig's folly is perhaps no better represented by his baffling opening statement in the article on causality:

"I must confess that I'm baffled why atheists would think that causation presupposes time and space or at least time"
That's because, Dr. Craig, our very conceptualization of causality is derived from and made coherent by its context within space, time, and the laws of physics. As soon as you're talking about "transcendent causality" or "non-physical time" (as in the article on beginnings), you're no longer talking about our everyday, commonly-held conceptualizations of these things. You're talking about something possibly sort of like them, yet different in a very fundamental way.

That is why the Kalam Cosmological Argument is not even wrong. It doesn't even get off the ground with its most elementary concepts without becoming mired in equivocation. "Sophisticated philosophy" it most certainly is not. 

"God and Cosmology" – thoughts on the Carroll/Craig debate

After Sean Carroll posted the video of the debate on his blog, I finally got around to watching it. We all have our biases, but I've seen some of Craig's debates where I thought his opponent performed poorly or (more commonly) the two interlocutors simply spent two hours talking past one another.

But this, I thought, was a clear and decisive victory for Sean Carroll. He presented a strong thesis that countered Craig's theistic viewpoint, and answered Craig's arguments directly and incisively. He repeatedly corrected Craig on cosmological issues (such as what the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem actually says, which is something I have personally hammered home in the past) and did a fantastic job tying in the esoteric discussion of science and philosophy with more everyday concerns of meaning and purpose.

Craig, on the other hand, repeated irrelevant and rebutted arguments, often times repeating an argument without adding anything new or relevant even after Carroll had directly countered it. This could be my biases projecting, but I thought Craig looked comparatively (and uncharacteristically) disorganized and confused. Carroll sternly corrected Craig throughout the debate and the Q&A, with my favorite moment being Craig's attempt to claim that Alan Guth simply had some sort of personal desire for an eternal universe to be real; Carroll countered that no, it's because Guth is a scientist, that the BGV Theorem applies only to classical descriptions of space-time, and because Guth (like any good scientist) is looking for the best model to fit the data.

Frankly, the debate went just as I expected. Sean Carroll, as always, was a thrill to watch. He's not just a smart guy and a philosophically-conscientious physicist, but he's a great communicator and does a fine job of translating esoteric science into layman's terms and getting to the meat of why it all matters. While there was no direct cross-examination as there was in Craig's dismal performance against Shelly Kagan (and frankly, I suspect that debate plays a large part in why Craig shies away from that format), I'm confident that if there were it would have been even more drastic of a loss for Craig. This debate showed that despite his pretense of expertise, William Lane Craig is not a physicist but a theologian who is in way over his head. In any case, here's the debate in full:

26 February 2014

Farewell, Paco de Lucia

While I can't say that Paco directly influenced my own guitar playing much, I always loved listening to his music.

Spanish Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia dies at 66