28 February 2010

How not to talk to an atheist

Sometimes I think that believers fail to realize that atheists don't actually believe in God. Any kind of god. And that we don't actually believe the Bible is true.

Yesterday, my brother's former pastor from a church in Boston commented on a humorous atheism-themed picture I have on my Facebook page. This is what he wrote:
Did you wake up this morning? Are you still breathing? Be grateful, it's a gift from God.

Do you know what this is? It is a statement of personal faith. It's not an inquiry into my beliefs. It's not an attempt to rebut anything I've said, ever. It's not remotely an attempt to discuss theological issues in any way at all. You know why? Because I don't believe that God exists! You might as well tell me that each breath is a gift from Voltron.

I responded with some sarcastic remark about how I was glad God didn't change his mind like he does with all those millions of miscarriages every year. I mean, really. Christians love to talk about how life is a gift and God has a plan. But what about miscarriages and stillbirths? Christians have to invent their own rationalizations about why God does stuff like that.

The pastor responded by quoting the Bible. Newsflash: I do not believe the Bible is true! If you want to quote-mine the Bible, I'm can do that all day too. In fact, few things make Christians squirm more than quoting all those Bible verses they like to pretend don't exist, and watching them try to concoct rationalizations to excuse God's behavior.

Look, if you're really interested in talking to an atheist, you have to start from the ground up. Establish independently that God exists. That I have a soul. That my soul needs to be saved. That the Bible is something I should take seriously. That your interpretation of the Bible is something I should take seriously. If you can do all that, then I might care when you make a statement like "every breath is a gift from God". Because you know what? It's not.

26 February 2010

"I don't believe in God because...."

Conversations about religion don't come up often in my day to day life (shocker!), but on the occasion that they do, I am often asked why I do not believe in God. That's not a difficult question for me to answer, but it's a really difficult question for me to answer concisely. It seems that the most common answer is something like, "Because there's no evidence that God exists." But that just opens up a whole can of worms, because some nincompoop is going to say something like, "Oh yeah, well then how did the universe get here?" or "Just the fact that something exists instead of nothing is evidence," and then you get dragged into a conversation that you really didn't want to have while you were out drinking with your friends.

So, I've been trying to come up with a concise answer to the question – one that leaves the believer more humbly inquisitive, rather than provoking them to ask pompous follow-up questions so obvious that you'd think we handed them notes. I'm not completely satisfied with the following, but it's the best I've got thus far:
I don't believe in God because I see a natural world that is cold and indifferent to the suffering of all living things. I don't believe there is anything about our world, including our own existence, that is adequately, or even better explained by claiming that God was behind it. On top of that, I am a good person, and I live a happy life. So I don't see any reason to believe that God exists, or if he does, that his existence matters.

And I'm curious: to my fellow non-believers, how would you concisely answer the question, "Why don't you believe in God?"

HOLY FUCKING SHIT: Obama meets with atheists

Today, Obama met with representatives from the Secular Coalition of America to discuss problems fueled by religion. From USA Today:
The main discussion points were, according to Margaret Talev's McClatchy article:
  • "child medical neglect" -- Many religious child care centers are exempted from the health and safety regulations under which secular health centers are run.
  • "military proselytizing" -- The coalition asserts that the increasing number of evangelical Christians in the military is causing religious discrimination and that these Christians believe they must promote Christianity as part of their military duty.
  • "faith-based initiatives" -- The coalition says the Bush administration created programs like the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to unconstitutionally funnel money to religious institutions.
I'm a little mixed on the idea of atheism as a social movement, mainly because of the fact that there are innumerable stupid things that we don't believe in, but don't find them important enough to give ourselves a name or meet with government officials about. The very title of this blog is a sarcastic jab at the very idea that we actually have to label ourselves "atheists" because we don't believe in divine beings with magical superpowers.

But I think we have to recognize that unicorn believers aren't going around demanding special tax exemptions, trying to repress the civil rights of others with references to ancient unicorn scrolls, trying to get evolution booted out of school in favor of a more unicorn-friendly creation story, or waging unicorn-fueled holy wars. But theists are doing those things, and many more, and we need to speak out about it. Today was a step in the right direction, and I applaud the Obama administration for giving non-believers an audience.  Where he actually stands on the above issues (and others) and what he intends to do about them remains to be seen, but I'm glad our President has at least taken this first step.

25 February 2010

Study: liberal atheist night owls are smarter

Well, this article just gave me a tickle. I'm a liberal, an atheist, and I'm writing this at 3:44 in the morning. And apparently, all of these things are strongly correlated with a high level of intelligence.

I've never thought it was a coincidence that people who identify as atheist or agnostic, in my experience anyway, tend to be more politically liberal. I live in Oklahoma – the buckle of the Bible belt – and I've rarely met non-religious conservatives or religious liberals. And and I don't find it coincidence either that among the religious, those who do espouse more liberal theological views also tend to swing left at the ballot box. Now there is some good science backing this up: highly intelligent people are indeed much more likely to be atheists and liberals.

Is this really all that surprising though? I remember a survey of the National Academy of Sciences showing basically a mirror opposite of the general population of the U.S., with a paltry 7% of scientists self-identifying as religious. I also remember when Jon Stewart was on Bill O'Reilly back in 2004, and O'Reilly derided Stewart's viewers as "stoned slackers". It was subsequently amusing then when Comedy Central struck back with a couple of studies showing that people who watch the Daily Show are not only more likely to have completed a college education than O'Reilly's viewers, but they were also more likely to be better informed on a range of political issues.

Now, I have to throw in this little qualifier here: this is correlative. It doesn't mean being smarter makes you liberal and atheistic. It simply says that if you're smarter than the average bear, you're more likely to be liberal and atheistic. That means there are still plenty of very smart people who are religious and conservative. So let's not go taking this out of context to mean that people who are religious and/or conservative are stupid, or that atheist liberals are automatically smarter than religious conservatives.

How smart do I think I am? Well, I've taken a fair number of online IQ tests, and I generally score in the mid to high 130s. But, I don't know how accurate those things are. I also took the practice exam for Mensa on their website, and it told me I was very likely to pass the full test. But I haven't had the balls to take the test. I think I'm a smarter-than-average guy. Call it ego if you want, but I do. And yes, I have always associated my atheism and liberalism with having a higher intelligence. Maybe it's because I can flip on Fox News and see hour after hour of the most paranoid idiocy imaginable from the conservative movement, but I've always had a hunch that atheistic liberal types like myself are probably, on the whole, more likely to be skeptical, inquisitive and rational than religious conservative types. And now there is some good science to support my instincts.

24 February 2010

I don't respect the clergy

Generally speaking, when people attain credentials marking high levels of specialized knowledge, I feel obliged to show some measure of respect for their achievement. I would not be so presumptuous, for example, as to lecture someone with a PhD in physics on the implications of quantum mechanics. This isn't a hard and fast rule, of course; people with doctoral degrees can still say and do stupid things, often by stepping outside their field of expertise. And not all education is created equal – I'm not about to be impressed by someone who has a degree from Regent University. But, generally speaking, I think most of us realize that the high level of specialized knowledge marked by such degrees indicates that at least on their particular subject, they speak from some position of authority.

This is not the case with clergy. Whether they call themselves reverend, pastor, minister, father, or dear leader, being an expert in theology is like being an expert in astrology or homeopathy. It's a claim to knowledge predicated on a litany of baseless assumptions, and these falsehoods are used to coerce and manipulate throngs of ignorant, superstitious people into adopting absurd beliefs that range from comically benign to virulent and deadly. To be clear, I don't think that clergy are being deliberately dishonest, nor that they are bad people or stupid people. There are some very smart people who peddle some really stupid nonsense (Francis Collins comes to mind), and of all the culturally ingrained biases we have, our laxity toward critically evaluating the truth claims of religion is certainly among the most difficult to shed given how deeply rooted it often is in our personal and social lives.

The problem really comes back to the nature of theology itself. Anyone who's read my blogs will have heard this familiar refrain: there is no methodology by which to discern true theological claims from false ones. Take, for example, the notion that we have a soul. The entirety of Christian thought is predicated on the assumption that not only do we have souls that survive our bodily deaths and retain our conscious minds for all eternity, but that we have corrupted souls that need to be "saved" before they can unite in the afterlife with the divine creator of all things. But what is the basis for claiming we have a soul – much less an eternal, corrupted soul? Is this a claim that can be established independently of any particular theology? That seems like a pretty large "leap of faith" to me, particularly considering how drastically one's entire view of life can be altered once this assumption is granted.

The assumption that God exists is just as egregious – particularly the notion that God is a theistic god who loves you, cares about how you treat others, controls the events around you, listens to your prayers, forgives sins, and told the women of tribal Israel to burn their clothing after menstruating. Upon what independently verified knowledge are such assumptions predicated?

Theology, as an intellectual endeavor, is doomed to stagnation because it is founded upon a series of immutable assumptions, none of which can be independently established. Thus the men and women (mostly men) of the clergy who purport to be experts in the field, and who posture themselves as being in a position to tell laypeople the will and attributes of God, are intellectual charlatans. And such affronts to rational inquiry and reliable, verifiable knowledge do not deserve our respect.

Crotchety old douchebag in silly hat claims hell is real

Pope John Paul II seemed to take a more liberal view of hell, describing it as "the ultimate consequence of sin itself . . . Rather than a place, Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy." But leave it to the newer (yet still old), more conservative Bearer of Pointlessly Large Hats to proclaim that hell is not merely "separation from God" – it's a real place where you literally get burned forever in a lake of fire.

From Times Online:
Addressing a parish gathering in a northern suburb of Rome, Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to “admit blame and promise to sin no more”, they risked “eternal damnation — the Inferno”.
Hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more”, he said
I also found this little gem pretty entertaining:
In October the Pope indicated that limbo, supposed since medieval times to be a “halfway house” between Heaven and Hell, inhabited by unbaptised infants and holy men and women who lived before Christ, was “only a theological hypothesis” and not a “definitive truth of the faith”.
Which is hilarious when you think about it, because, I am really curious, how do you test a theological hypothesis? I mean, is this data that they have? Were they visited by some corporeal spirits who informed them that in fact, purgatory is baloney? This, folks, is why theological "knowledge" is nothing of the sort – there is no methodology by which one can discern truth from falsehood.

But that's not the only thing that makes my eyes roll painfully far back into my head. It's really this concept right here:
God had given men and women free will to choose whether “spontaneously to accept salvation . . . the Christian faith is not imposed on anyone, it is a gift, an offer to mankind”.
Not imposed? You're going to the most horrible place imaginable for all eternity if you don't accept it, but hey, we're not trying to force it on you. Give me a break. The real problem with hell is that if you don't already accept that it exists and that the Christian doctrine (or whichever version of it is being peddled at the time) is true, then you can't be persuaded by threats like that. Threats of hell don't scare me because there's not a modicum of evidence to suggest that it actually exists, nor that there's anything about the Christian religion worth taking seriously. When was the last time you saw scientists or skeptics using petty threats to sway people's opinions? If the truth is on your side, the evidence will bear it out. If it's not, you may need some other tools of persuasion.

It's at this point that I would like to defer to NonStampCollector for his insight on this issue:

22 February 2010

NonStampCollector does it again

If you haven't subscribed to this guy's Youtube channel, get on that shit asap.


21 February 2010

How C.S. Lewis convinced me to reject Christianity

When I was a young, enthusiastic evangelical Christian, I undertook an inquiry into philosophy and apologetics that would eventually be the undoing of all my faith. When I began the journey, however, I did so with the most noble intentions. I had a lot of unresolved questions about my faith, and I believed that if my faith were truly the rock I believed it to be, it would stand up under the most rigorous critical scrutiny. Unlike many of my peers, who seemed fearful of reading materials critical of or counter to our Christian beliefs, I thought that a dispassionate understanding of opposing views was vital to growing stronger in my Christian faith.

I read a lot of books in those years, and among them was The Case For Christianity by C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis is to this day held up as a beacon of Christian reason, as someone who made Christian theology the domain of academics and learned philosophers – someone who made less inquisitive believers feel comforted that such a learned and intelligent person still saw faith as being of the utmost importance.

But I took a more critical approach. After reading the book, my immediate instinct was to try to dissect it and turn it on its head, to find little loopholes that would undermine the validity of the arguments. I did this not out of a desire to undermine my faith – quite the opposite. I wanted to prove to myself that Lewis' arguments were air-tight.

The book begins with Lewis arguing that humanity is, at its core, flawed. We're corrupt, selfish, and driven to deceive and harm one another. He posits this as evidence that we have not merely a soul, but an innately sinful soul. His intent, nobly, is to establish this premise independently of the Bible or Christian theology. But it was here that it alarmed me just how easy it was to completely undermine the arguments in his entire book.

See, I didn't have to go through the entire book as I expected, trying to pick holes in this argument or that. I simply realized that all of his arguments were predicated on the initial assumption that we have sinful souls. But what if I didn't accept that as a valid explanation for our behavior? After all, his conclusion seemed more than a bit presumptuous: "We behave selfishly sometimes, therefor we have eternal souls cursed with a sinful nature." What if I posited that humans are innately cooperative and interdependent, and that there may be scientific explanations for our occasionally competitive and selfish behaviors? Lewis failed to demonstrate why a "sinful soul" was a valid explanation for human behavior – he just assumes that it is. And since we cannot prove or disprove whether we have souls, I did not need to disprove his argument – merely find another plausible alternative. And if that plausible alternative is scientific, well, a scientific explanation is always more parsimonious than a supernatural one.

All of the philosophical "proofs" for God's existence and the heady-sounding arguments put forth by apologists fail to acknowledge one fundamental truth: if you cannot independently demonstrate that I have a soul, much less a sinful soul, you will not be able to convince me that I need salvation. For all the attempts by Christian philosophers to use reason and logic to prove God's existence, they overlook this most fundamental assumption. There is simply no basis for logically establishing the existence of souls, thus it will always be strictly "faith" – or, more accurately, a blind assumption. Rid yourself of this singular assumption, and the entire foundation of Christianity comes tumbling down.

I read The Case For Christianity, and very shortly thereafter realized I could never again call myself a Christian. Not because I didn't want to believe, but because I had held the arguments up to critical inquiry, and they had failed.

A god who might as well not exist

I've always been interested in philosophy, and obviously with this blog and my previous blog The Apostasy, I often spend time discussing philosophical arguments regarding the existence and nature of God. And I think that there is a lot of value in pondering those things. However, it seems to me that a much more relevant question than "Does God exist?" is "Does it matter whether God exists?" The only thing worse than a god that is unlikely to exist is one whose existence is trivial.

In the last couple of posts, for example, I talked about the cosmological argument, and my objections to natural theology in general. But even if the cosmological argument were correct, it would only be capable of proving, at best, a deistic god. And really, if people imagine God as a hands-off, abstract intelligence that merely set the universe in motion, what difference does it make whether they believe in God at all?

I had the same thought when I first listened to my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig talk about God being the source of "objective morality". It's a stupid argument, but what really struck me as odd was his concession that you didn't need to believe in God to be a good person or live a moral life. Instead, he was really just positing the existence of God as the source or origin of our innate moral compass. But isn't that just a bland, academic kind of distinction? I don't think he's even close to being right, but even if he were, who would care? He's made the same kind of argument about meaning, suggesting that although we can indeed find our own meaning, that without God there is no "objective" meaning to life. Again, that seems to me to be incredibly trivial, since we will each ultimately define our life's meaning in our own way anyway.

I'm an atheist, and I live a great life. I have a wonderful family and the best friends anyone could ask for. I'm not wealthy, but I have everything I need. For me, life holds great meaning, and it does so without any delusions that I am special or that this incomprehensively vast and complex universe was placed here for me. I live a moral life out of an acknowledgment of our innate human solidarity. I am, in every conceivable way, a very happy person.

So it certainly begs the question... what good is faith? What good is religion? When I was young and wrapped up in the church, I naively believed that it was impossible to live a truly good, happy, fulfilling life without believing in God. But it is. And while it's fine for the more philosophically inclined among us to debate the existence and/or properties of divine entities, a much more salient question is simply whether it matters at all. If we can be moral without the church, if we can be fulfilled without believing in supernatural magic, what good is religion, even if its claims were true?

Of course, the fact that its claims are complete and total bullshit certainly does not hurt.

20 February 2010

Beyond the great beyond

Some might say that I was a little harsh on Bill Craig to call him a "retard" in my previous post. Of course, I don't actually think that he's mentally retarded, or even a half-wit. I dare say that he is quite possibly smarter than Brick Tamland. But see, what grinds my gears about people like him is that he's floating in a cloud of his own intellectual hubris, to the point that he derides the "new atheist" movement as being intellectually unsophisticated. And yet, his arguments fail at such a basic level of logical scrutiny that it truly boggles the mind that someone of reasonable intelligence, which I'm sure he is, actually believes them.

I wanted to elaborate, relatively briefly, on a question in the prior post that Craig posed at his website:
I must confess that I'm baffled why atheists would think that causation presupposes time and space or at least time. Janey and John, you need to ask them what they mean by "causality" and what reason they have for believing that it presupposes time and space. They're the ones raising the objection, so make them shoulder their burden of proof. After all, it's not just obvious that causality presupposes time and space. So ask them for their argument.
I thought I should answer this question directly. Heck, I'll even pretend Bill is in the room. Dr. Craig, the reason we think that causation presupposes time and space is because the very concept of causality is one that is derived from observations of the physical universe. We know what causality is and how it works precisely because it obeys the natural laws which govern the physical universe.

Now, you are welcome to suggest that there is a manner in which causality may exist independently of our universe, but this raises some obvious questions. If there is a kind of causality whose existence is not derived from our physical universe, then, since the laws of the universe govern physical causality, what laws might govern this "metaphysical" causality? Why would we presume that a phenomenon existing independently of the universe should follow the laws of the universe? To put it yet another way: what basis is there for assuming that metaphysical causality need be anything like physical causality?

And, as a corollary, if metaphysical causality is not governed by the laws of the universe, but our concept of causality is derived from observations of the physical universe, then what basis is there to call "metaphysical causality" causality at all? It's a non-concept.

This is the problem with any metaphysical concept. Craig also frequently asks, rhetorically, what the probability is of the universe coming into existence with the precise physical properties it has. But it's a nonsensical question, because our very concept  of probability is derived from observation of the physical universe. Once you remove the laws of the universe which govern probability, it becomes a meaningless concept.

Theologians, particularly those who subscribe to natural theology like Craig, need to realize that you simply cannot use reason and logic to infer the existence of things outside of the physical universe, simply because reason and logic are derived from the laws of the universe itself. In order to infer the existence of metaphysical things, you have to presuppose that the laws of the universe from which we derive reason and logic hold true independently of the universe – and the circular reasoning in that should be readily apparent even to someone drowning in presuppositions like William Lane Craig.

19 February 2010

Written proof that William Lane Craig is retarded

I don't like visiting the website of my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig – which is ironically entitled "Reasonablefaith.org", because "credulitycentral" would be a far more appropriate name – but since I wrote a letter to him recently, I decided to bop over there today. And to my surprise, he actually attempted to answer a question about the nature of causality.

One of the common objects to the cosmological argument – which attempts to prove the universe required a "causeless first cause" is that it doesn't make any sense to apply causality to the universe itself. Our very concept of causality is merely an observed phenomenon within the universe itself, one that requires time and space in order to occur. So saying the universe itself required its own properties to come into existence is a pretty obvious failing of logic.

Craig attempted to respond to that argument in his most recent "Q & A" section, and I can't imagine that anyone who has the capability of elementary reasoning skills could not absolutely tear his meager response to shreds. You can read the whole steaming pile here, but what follows are what to me seemed like the most relevant quotes:

I must confess that I'm baffled why atheists would think that causation presupposes time and space or at least time. Janey and John, you need to ask them what they mean by "causality" and what reason they have for believing that it presupposes time and space. They're the ones raising the objection, so make them shoulder their burden of proof. After all, it's not just obvious that causality presupposes time and space. So ask them for their argument.
You could also do a thought experiment. Ask them why one timeless entity—say, a number—could not depend timelessly for its existence on another timeless entity. Why is that impossible? Why couldn't God timelessly sustain a number in existence? That would clearly be an asymmetric causal relation. Why is that impossible?
In any case, even if time is a precondition for causality, why should that preclude God's being the cause of the universe? Many Christian philosophers and theologians, perhaps the majority today, think that God has existed for infinite past time and created the physical universe a finite time ago. This was Isaac Newton's view as well. He thought absolute time was just God's duration, which is from eternity to eternity. Ask your friends why they think Newton's view was wrong.
In fact, here you should turn the tables and ask them how time could come into existence with no causal conditions whatsoever. That is truly bizarre. Why did time and the universe begin to exist at all? How could they begin to exist in the absence of any causal conditions?

I'm going to ignore the blatant appeal to authority fallacy for the most part, and just point out that Isaac Newton also believed in alchemy. While we're busy appealing to authority though, Stephen Hawking does not think the universe had a beginning. So, suck on that.

Craig's first obvious mistake is assuming that atheists are arguing that a timeless, non-physical causality is impossible. Of course it's "possible", the exact same way it's "possible" that there exists beyond our universe a magical land of cheese-growing trees. But here's the problem: causality, as we know it and observe it, exists solely as phenomenon that is an outcome of the properties of the universe. If there does exist some kind of non-physical (or "supernatural") causality, who is to say that it need resemble physical causality in any way? What rules might it follow? How might it be defined?

Craig misses the obvious circularity of his arguments. We've observed physical causality. We know how it works and why it works. No one has ever observed any sort of "non-physical causality". We don't have any way of knowing if such a thing does or even can exist, much less how it would work if it did exist. But in order for the argument for God being the First Cause to be valid, you have to make the a priori assumption that this non-physical causality exists – which is of course what the cosmological argument is trying to prove in the first place. When you have to grant all or part of your conclusion as an assumption within your premise, you are using circular reasoning.

The rest of Craig's ramblings, particularly the idea that the universe could "begin to exist in the absence of any causal conditions" fallaciously assumes that the universe actually did "begin to exist" – a notion wholly unsupported by anything in modern cosmology – and that the universe requires an explanation for its existence, but God, for some reason, does not (which I discussed in this recent post.)

Seriously, I think I'm done with this guy. I've written a lot of blogs in responding to his comedic attempts to form baseless assumptions into logical syllogisms, and frankly this stuff is just getting too pathetic to be worth the trouble to respond. Although I will, of course, post his response here alongside my own in the unlikely event that he responds to my recent letter.

That whole Tim Tebow thing

I have to admit that I just wasn't really paying attention. My interest in football is pretty casual, to say the least. I mean, I played it middle school and I root for the Packers since I'm from Milwaukee, but I don't really follow it or watch ESPN or anything. This year's Superbowl was especially dull to me, because I would have liked to see the Jets rob that defector Favre (pronounced "phaav-roo", which of course is Yiddish for "indecisive") of another Superbowl ring, but it was the last two teams that I could possibly care about this year. And I somehow missed the "controversy" about Tim Tebow, who is apparently a big football star, in an ad for Focus On Family, which is a group that focuses on telling single parents and women who have abortions that they are destroying the country and going to hell.

So I finally got around to watching the ad, which is actually pretty entertaining and benign. The ad prompts you to go to the FOF website, which I reluctantly did. And now that I think about it, FOF sounds like a great name for a hipster alt-rock band. There you can learn about the whole story of Tim Tebow, and be directed toward more resources explaining that abortion is bad, and Christian-based two-parent heterosexual marriage is the only way to go if you don't want to see the country descend into a distopia like Los Angeles in Blade Runner.

The gist of all this stuff is that had Tim Tebow's mom, who carried him to term at great risk to her health and life, had chosen to abort the pregnancy that we would have been deprived of Tim Tebow. Which is true, but here's the thing: we are no more likely to be deprived of a Tim Tebow through abortion than through the use of contraceptives, or the blind luck of hundreds of millions of sperm – each carrying unique genetic information – competing to fertilize a single egg. This is what's known as the Great Beethoven Fallacy, after a famous Christian pro-life pamphlet that goes something like this:

"About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic, the mother had tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?"

"I would have terminated the pregnancy."

"Then you would have killed Beethoven."
It should be noted that this is actually bullshit, as Beethoven was actually the eldest of his siblings, not withstanding an older sibling that had died in infancy. But the fallacy remains: it would be just as likely that had Tim Tebow's mother elected not to carry him to term and instead decided to get pregnant later, we might have gotten the next Beethoven instead of a pro football player whose girlfriend has freakishly gigantic boobs.

p.s. – I can't type out "Beethoven" without thinking of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure where they always called him "Beeth-oven".

18 February 2010

Cleansing diets: stupid

Modern day hipsters, particularly hipsters really into trendy hipster things like veganism and "raw foods", are all about "cleansing" diets. Okay, it's not just hipsters; you can see all kinds of cleansing diets in books and health-oriented magazines, particularly ones targeted at women because apparently men want their steak and that's that.

There isn't really any scientific consensus on what a "cleansing diet" actually is – probably because it's not a scientific concept – but the conventional wisdom (if you can call it that) goes something like this: the foods you eat are filled with preservatives, toxins, and other yucky things that adversely affect your health. So, to prevent yourself from getting weighed down – possibly to the point of spontaneous combustion – with all these bad yucky things, you should get on a cleansing diet for a while to flush all that gunk out of your system. What follows is usually some regimen that consists of eating a very small amount of food, usually plant-based and often prepared in a blender, and drinking a lot of purified water.

As both a fitness professional and a skeptic, I'm really pretty baffled at why people get so fired up about these things. Because in case you skipped high school anatomy, which apparently a lot of those damn hipsters did, your body already has mechanisms in place for getting rid of gunk. And if you're not satisfied with the frequency, quantity and/or consistency of your poop, you can help your body expel more gunk by eating more fiber (particularly soluble fiber, like in oatmeal) and drinking a lot of water. And it doesn't have to be purified water; contrary to what the people at Brita and bottled-water companies would have you believe, the minerals present in tap water are indeed good for you.

If you starve yourself by eating a sparse diet of plant-based foods, you are going to feel much better as you begin eating normally again. If you overeat, you might even feel better – at least for a while – on the "cleansing" diet. But see, you should be eating lots of plant-based foods anyway. And people seem to be confusing having a "clean" system with having an empty one. You need lots of nutritious healthy foods to fuel vigorous exercise, which by the way also helps you poop. The ultra-low-calorie nature of cleansing diets is detrimental to athletic performance.

I wouldn't sacrifice the ten minutes it takes to write this blog just to gripe about people doing something stupid and pointless that makes them feel better. The real problem is that people peddling cleansing diets make all kinds of ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims about what these diets actually do. I've heard everything from curing acne to putting cancer into remission. As with any pseudoscience, there isn't actually any medical basis for such claims, nor is there even any scientifically established physiological basis for using any cleansing diet for any purpose. So at best you have a waste of time, and at worst you have false hopes of treating serious medical conditions. If you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, your body will cleanse itself just fine.

James Randi at TED Talks

Here is a relatively short and altogether excellent talk by the great James Randi from TED Talks. He discusses things like psychics, homeopathy, and the importance of skeptical inquiry.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

17 February 2010

Why doesn't God's existence require an explanation?

I had a discussion on my birthday last year with my Dad, who is a practicing Christian, about theology. An argument that he kept coming back to, with quite a great deal of fervor I might add, was the imponderable complexity of the universe and our utter inability to explain it. And while he did not formulate his arguments into logical syllogisms, many theologians have.

The mere existence of the universe is something that many of us, perhaps intuitively so, feel requires an explanation. Believers make the presumption that a universe as marvelous and unfathomably complex as ours requires some kind of intelligent agent to bring it to be, and on its surface such an assumption seems reasonable. But if we posit "God", a being of infinite knowledge and power, as the agent that brought the universe to be, we are left with a simple question: how did God come to be? The infinite regression becomes immediately apparent.

Believers will counter that God's existence does not require an explanation – God simply is. But why should this be the case? An infinitely knowledgeable and powerful conscious being who is capable of willing our universe into existence is certainly at least as marvelous as our universe itself – so why is it that the universe requires an explanation for its existence, but God does not?

Why can we not save ourselves this infinite regression and say that the universe itself simply is, and requires no explanation for its existence?  

What does it take to de-convert someone?

I'm a regular reader of John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity. John's a former preacher, and a student of my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig. He's written a number of books on Christianity and atheism detailing his de-conversion as well as the arguments that support his view.

He recently debated Dinesh D'Souza, who ranks in my book as one of the most abrasive, obnoxious people alive. He's a crafty public speaker and a great debater, but his arguments are almost comedically awful under close scrutiny. Fortunately for him and other apologists who love debates including the aforementioned William Lane Craig, the debate format is extraordinarily poor as a means of substantively deconstructing such arguments.

John appears to believe he lost the debate. I'm not sure that he did, or what one can really consider "winning" or "losing" in a debate like that. I mean, lots of people "win" those things by presenting an avalanche of arguments that can't be sufficiently and substantively addressed in the time allowed, or by resorting to red herrings and straw men. And just because one person appears to have "won" or "lost" does not mean their arguments are correct. Although I'm relatively well-educated on evolution and the folly of "Intelligent Design", I would probably lose a debate with an ID advocate like William Dembski simply because I am not an evolutionary biologist and would likely be unprepared to offer thorough rebuttals to all his arguments. But my lack of specialized knowledge or preparation is not a reflection on what is actually true, and even very experienced and knowledgeable people can be caught off guard in such a format.

I'm not sure what John expected the reaction to his debate with Dinesh to be, but most surveys I've seen of debate audiences indicate that few people are persuaded by such events. John Loftus is a smart guy who has some great arguments up his sleeve, but convincing people to de-convert is not about persuading them with sound argumentation alone. In my experience, even when believers cannot adequately answer an argument, they make the assumption that someone else like them – someone smarter and more experienced – probably does.

Religion thrives on groupthink. Its worst enemies are free thought and skeptical inquiry. It's no coincidence that atheists are notoriously difficult to mobilize, and that they often self-identify ass "free thinkers". Accordingly, the greatest weapon we have against religion is to simply persuade people to think for themselves. It really doesn't take much – a single conundrum that confounds them will set off a chain reaction. Once the pieces are set in motion, we don't have to do anything more – the believer will eventually reject religion on their own. It just takes one moment of lucidity, one small thing that allows the believer to briefly set aside his or her own biases and critically contemplate their faith.

I haven't watched the Loftus/D'Souza debate, and I don't plan to. I'm already a very well-studied atheist, and I've read plenty of writings from both authors. I've watched a couple of D'Souza's debates, and I find him incredibly irritating, as though he possesses a pompous sense of self-assuredness that belies the transparency of his arguments. John might think he "lost", but I think that simply putting these arguments out there is half the battle. If only a few of the believers in the audience are persuaded to examine their faith critically, the process has already begun. Regardless of anyone's flowery oratory skills or lack thereof, atheists will always "win" these debates for one reason alone: we're right.

The god of the Bible is not pro-life; he's pro-death

One of the most important arguments that skeptics can make against the Bible is, as I mentioned in my previous post, the fact that there is no independent criteria for how one should properly interpret the Bible. Every sect and denomination has different ideas about what scriptures mean. Some are to be taken literally, others allegorically; some are to be taken as rules, some are to be taken as guidelines; some are to be taken as contemporarily  relevant, others are only relevant to the culture at the time. The problem is – and it is really so obvious that it should not even need mentioning – that without any independent criteria for interpreting the Bible properly, any interpretation is necessarily both circular and arbitrary.

It follows logically then that any position that claims to be "Biblically based" can be dismissed as nonsense, because there is no such thing as a position based on the Bible – only positions based on a wholly arbitrary interpretation of the Bible. And modern conservatives love to throw out random scriptures that appear to show that God values human life even in the womb, thus making abortion immoral. God, they claim, is pro-life. Others, most famously Catholics, use the Bible as a justification for opposing the death penalty.

But is the Christian god really pro-life? Before I even start listing scriptures, consider that the entire Christian theology is based on death. In Genesis (as interpreted by Christians), God cursed humanity with sin for their disobedience. Then God decided that the only price that could redeem this sin was death, and required his followers to slaughter animals as offerings. But nothing we imperfect humans had was enough, so God sent his son... who is also himself... to sacrifice himself to himself so that he could pay on our behalf the price he mandated for the curse he put on us. Does your head hurt yet? Yes, and I mean this in the nicest possible way: Christian theology is fucking stupid. The degree of willing credulity required to believe this nonsense defies imagination, and I am sincerely baffled at how many otherwise highly intelligent people don't bat an eye at this kind of stuff. Maybe it's because so few Christians actually read the Bible.

But I digress. I don't know that any of what follows even requires commentary; simply listing the scriptures is enough. Think the god of the Bible is pro-life? Think again:

God loves ritual human sacrifice

  • At the LORD's command, a man of God from Judah went to Bethel, and he arrived there just as Jeroboam was approaching the altar to offer a sacrifice.  Then at the LORD's command, he shouted, "O altar, altar!  This is what the LORD says: A child named Josiah will be born into the dynasty of David.  On you he will sacrifice the priests from the pagan shrines who come here to burn incense, and human bones will be burned on you."  (1 Kings 13:1-2)
  • [Josiah] executed the priests of the pagan shrines on their own altars, and he burned human bones on the altars to desecrate them. (2 Kings 23:20)
  • "Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods.  In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully.  If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock.  Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it.  Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 13:13-16)

God loves killing children, infants and the unborn
  • The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open." (Hosea 13:16)
  • “0 daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.  Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.(Psalm 137:8-9)
  • Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' "  (1 Samuel 15:34)
  • If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.  And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21)

The story of Jephthah

In Judges 11:30-40, which I will not repeat here as you can simply read it for yourself, God grants favor to Jephthah in battle after Jephthah promises that in return, upon his arrival home he will offer the first thing to come out of his house as a burnt offering to the Lord. Darn the luck, it happens to be his daughter, and God poses no objection to Jephthah murdering his unfortunate daughter as a human sacrifice. And why would he? The god of the Bible is obsessed with death. It should be painfully obvious to anyone who actually reads the Bible that this is the god of primitive, ignorant, superstitious tribal people. Thankfully, there's not a shred of evidence that this perverse god actually exists.

15 February 2010

Religion is the enemy of women

First of all, I apologize for linking to Fox "News". This article was drawn to my attention by a friend of mine. Anyway, it appears as though a British pastor has offended some of his parishioners by suggesting that they should obey the Bible, even when it flies in the face of our modern standards of morality. Specifically:

Church of England reverend Angus MacLeay issued a leaflet to churchgoers saying that women should not speak if questions could be answered by their husbands.
The leaflet, entitled The Role of Women in the Local Church, adds that wives should "submit to their husbands in everything."
It continues, "Wives are to submit to their husbands in everything in recognition of the fact that husbands are head of the family as Christ is head of the church.
"This is the way God has ordered their relationships with each other and Christian marriage cannot function well without it."

I rather vividly recall from back in 1998 when the Southern Baptist Convention made a similar kind of decree, saying that wives should submit graciously to their husbands. To this day, women are not allowed to be pastors/ministers/priests in many, if not most churches.

We usually associate the oppression of women with certain non-Christian religions... you know, countries where rape victims are punished, women have acid thrown at them, women are forced to cover their entire bodies, and where in general women are afforded none of the opportunities given to men – education, independence, leadership, etc. etc. Such cultures are at such odds with the civilized Western world that it's easy to overlook how oppressive religion can be right on our doorstep.

If there's anything that Christians are good at, it's cherry-picking the Bible. This one is literal, that one is metaphorical; this one is relevant to us now, that one was only relevant to the culture at the time; this one is a strict rule that can't be bent or broken, that one is more of a guideline. So, let's see what the Bible actually has to say about the rights of women. I'm sticking to the New Testament here, because I've already talked at length about the misogynistic barbarism of the Old Testament in prior posts.

  • Women should cover their heads:  3Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. 6If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. 7A man ought not to cover his head,[b] since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. (1 Corinthians 11)
  • Women are not allowed to teach, and the Fall of Man was their fault: 11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1 Timothy 2)
  • Wifes are the "weaker" partners: 7Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (1 Peter 3)
  • Wives should submit to their husbands:  22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5)

Now, most modern Christians are going to dodge these massive bullets with the old "it was appropriate for the culture at the time" argument or, less commonly, the "that's really more of a guideline" argument. Here's the elephant in the room though: There is no independent criteria for properly interpreting the Bible! The importance of this fact really needs to sink in. When Christians decide to ignore this scripture while following that one, or declare one scripture as a hard and fast rule while another is culturally irrelevant and can be safely disregarded, they are pulling it out of their ass. This is why nobody actually uses the Bible as a book of moral guidance: Christians simply interpret the book in accordance with pre-existing sociocultural biases. 

Inevitably, when people like the British pastor above or the leaders at the Southern Baptist Convention use the Bible to justify sexism that seems more fitting for the year 10 than the year 2010, lots of more liberal-minded Christians will be quick to point out that such views are not representative of all Christians, and that plenty of them are more sensible (disclaimer: degree of sensibility may vary by denomination). But such well-meaning theists are missing the heart of the problem: that religious beliefs, since they are not derived from independent evidence, can be adopted and interpreted arbitrarily. When you take something that can be interpreted arbitrarily and then ascribe to it absolute authority, you have a recipe for the most pathetic kind of manipulative behavior. It's the problem that is at the root of all religion, so we should not be surprised when it spills over into the treatment of women.

I believe very strongly that a secular view of human solidarity deepens our morality in a way that religion can never attain. Solidarity is simply the understanding that we live as a necessarily bonded and interdependent species, and that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others will have no reason to respect our own needs and interests. Instead of oppressing the rights of others and justifying it with references to ancient scribblings from a long-lost primitive culture, I recognize the immense contribution we can make to each others' well-being and to humanity regardless of superficial things like age, class, sex, or race; and therefore, I see no logic, no rationale, behind treating anyone as intrinsically inferior to me, for any reason.

10 February 2010

The existence of brains: an argument for atheism

On my old blog The Apostasy, I wrote a post about the question of whether God's existence is a scientific question. Most believers will say it's not, because, they will tell you, God transcends physical reality and his very existence cannot even be proved or disproved, much less observed and measured scientifically.

However, the truth is that people who claim God exists are in fact making a claim about the nature of reality. And the more specific these claims get about God – that "he" is patriarchal, that he designed and created the universe and everything in it (including us), that he loves us, that he cares about how we treat each other or even who we have sex with, the greater the burden for evidence becomes.

This is why I've always found the Cosmological Arguments to be laughably weak arguments. They're fallacious for a number of reasons (particularly the fallacy of the stolen concept as it relates to causality), but even if they were logically valid arguments they do not even prove the existence of an intelligent creator – simply a first cause. The theologian still has all his work ahead of him to prove that this cause is supernatural, eternal, intelligent, loving, and even extant. Those kinds of claims require a great deal of evidence.

Supernatural claims about reality should logically coincide with what we observe. Particularly, they should be able to explain why we observe what we do better than purely scientific explanations. But do they? I once wrote a very lengthy post (one I'm particularly proud of, if I can toot my own horn just a bit) detailing why I do not think that God's existence, or the existence of "sin", can explain nature's indifference to suffering as well as a secular, atheistic viewpoint can. Similarly, I think there's an interesting fact about our minds that actually makes a decent case for atheism: the fact that we have brains.

The concept of God, particularly that practiced by modern Christians, is that of a disembodied mind that transcends our physical reality. But if a mind can exist without a brain, then why did God create us with brains? Notably, this is also an argument against a soul, or even substance dualism. Simply, if atheism is true, we have brains because we need brains. We can't have life and consciousness without them. However, if God exists, then the burden is on theists and dualists (usually one and the same) to explain why brains exist at all, since they are clearly not necessary for the existence of minds. What explanation can possibly be offered beyond a trite, "Well, I guess that's just how God chose to do it", which is quite obviously no explanation at all?

This simple argument nicely illustrates the fact that if God exists – particularly if some specific god exists – then his existence should explain our observable reality better than if he did not exist. But whether we are observing the hostility of 99.9999...% of the universe to life, nature's indifference to suffering, or the simplest facts of reality like having brains, the existence of God always seems to simply complicate, rather than illuminate.

09 February 2010

The rise and fall of MTV

 I grew up watching Adam Curry and Martha Quinn as they introduced me to the vibrant world of 80's hair metal. Watching Def Leppard and Scorpions videos had that taste of forbidden fruit that made them all the more appealing to a kid like me. MTV had become a symbol of youth culture by giving music a visual identity it had never possessed.

But, over the years, music played an increasingly diminished role on the network. But even when The Real World made its landmark debut, we still had shows like Alternative Nation and 120 Minutes. The lure of cheap reality TV proved too difficult to pass up, and by the mid and late 90's the only way to see videos on MTV was to stay up past midnight. TRL was possibly one of the greatest tragedies in MTV history, by eschewing full-length videos in favor of clips, many of which lasted only moments. It's been years since I've watched anything on MTV, and the last time I looked through the schedule (courtesy of my Dad's satellite TV subscription) it was just one patronizingly stupid reality show after another.

Today, the LA Times brought the news that MTV is dropping "Music Television" from their logo. It certainly comes as no surprise, but for those of us who grew up with the network being a symbol of the incredible power music had to shape us, it's a bit of a somber day. All we can do now is reflect on the fact that the MTV we knew and loved is gone, and will never be back.

And maybe that's to be expected. The reality is that music videos are delivered through the internet, through sites like YouTube and MySpace. When I was a kid, I'd watch MTV for hours just hoping to see that one totally awesome video. Now, I can just hop on the internet and watch that video when I want, as many times as I want.

Yet I can't help but feel like MTV is taking the easy way out. Their head of marketing, Tina Exarhos, said of the logo change, "Why have we been so scared when the channel itself has evolved so much over the years?" From where I'm sitting, MTV has done anything but evolve. Instead, they've degenerated into a symbol of what's wrong with modern television – a collection of cheaply made, exploitative reality shlock. It's no wonder that they've been in a years-long ratings decline. But there's still so much music-centric programming MTV could offer beyond mere videos. What about documentaries of touring bands, live concert broadcasts, or even American Idol style showcases for talented young musicians? MTV has long forgotten that it became a relevant network precisely because it brought music to the world in a way that had never been done before. That may be a little archaic now, but rather than reinvent themselves and influence popular culture in new ways, they've allowed the worst money grabbing garbage to become the defining element of their network. They shouldn't just drop "Music Television" – they should drop the name entirely.