31 August 2010

Francis Collins' "The Language of God"

I received Francis Collins' The Language of God as a gift from my parents some time ago (I think it was for my birthday last year), and hearing the book mentioned in a debate I recently watched has provoked me to finally get around to writing a critique of this book.

Francis Collins holds a special place in the heart of modern believers because, in addition to being a devout Christian, he's also an esteemed scientist. Francis Collins headed the project that sequenced the human genome. He's certainly every bit as laudable in his field as someone like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennet. Like Kenneth Miller, the evolutionary biologist who led the charge against Intelligent Design in the infamous Dover trial, Francis Collins believes that science and religion reinforce one another and are both integral to the human experience. This stands in stark contrast to someone like Dawkins, who argues that science and religion are inherently and irreconcilably in conflict.

So, I've read Collins' book. And, being that I'm still an atheist, I obviously didn't find it to be very persuasive. Not only do I think Collins fails to provide compelling evidence for belief in God (much less his specific god), but I think he also stands as a fine example of why Richard Dawkins is right — that science and religion are incompatible.

But first, credit where credit is due. Collins is no creationist. He's doesn't hawk Intelligent Design. He's a scientist, and he often states positions he knows may be troubling to some believers. As science unravels the mysteries of the world, those whose faith hinged on finding God's miracles in our ignorance are finding the pillars of their faith slowly eroding. Collins, however, views scientific enlightenment as a boon to faith — even a celebration of it. Everywhere he looks in nature, Collins sees evidence of God's divine hand. Unlike many Christians, Collins seems well aware that the complexity of natural things is not, in itself, evidence of God's existence.

But, Collins is also guilty of a sort of intellectual compartmentalization. While in many instances he seems to rebut the "God of the Gaps", I found him to be in many instances "shifting the goalposts" — that is, conceding and even celebrating that science has filled many gaps in our knowledge, while claiming God's hand as an explanatory device for many modern scientific mysteries.

After spending much of the book explaining why he finds anti-scientific religious fundamentalism, atheism and Intelligent Design to be untenable, Collins summarizes his beliefs with an argument that seemingly embraces both science and faith, which he calls "Theistic Evolution". The cornerstone of his arguments center on six major premises (page 200):

1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago

2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.

4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.

6. But humans are also unique in ways that deft evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

Collins continues with the following summary:

God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

He goes on to briefly discuss why he believes in Christianity specifically, but I won't concern myself with those arguments for the time being. First, I'll take his arguments in the order which he presents them. Anyone familiar with atheist literature, including this blog, should not find any of Collins' arguments to be new.

1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago

Like many theologians, Collins' finds the apparent "beginning" of the universe to be evidence of God's existence. But there are two major problems, both philosophical and scientific, with this position. Philosophically, the idea of the universe coming into being ex nihilo is just as problematic for the believer as the non-believer; the believer is simply postulating some sort of extrinsic, causal force and arbitrarily designating it as "God". The argument seems sensible enough if one already believes that God exists, but it does not provide plausible evidence for God's existence because it fails to prove that this causal factor must be God. Even if such an external causal force was necessary to bring the universe into existence, by what measure do we justify calling it "God"? It could be literally anything at all that our imaginations can conjure, all of them equally (im)plausible and unfalsifiable. Finally, such a cause is logically invalid — causality requires time (specifically linear time), and if the universe did not exist, time and causality would not exist either.

The second problem is that scientifically, the Big Bang is not the "beginning" of the universe, as it is often mischaracterized to be; it is the expansion of the universe from a finite point. Why the universe expanded as it did, why it is expanding at the rate that it is, the state of the universe prior to the Big Bang and the ultimate fate of the universe are all being intensely investigated by modern cosmologists. But the greater issue is that our mathematical models are so limited, and our knowledge of the universe so sorely incomplete (most notably with regard to a theory of quantum gravity), that we have no basis for making an assumption such as "the universe arose ex nihilo". Any reasonable person must simply concede that there is too much we don't know about the universe to draw conclusions about its nature.

2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

Collins is again guilty of "shifting the goalposts". He spends a great deal of the book debunking theological positions that the apparent design of biological life is evidence for the existence of God, but here he asserts that the apparent design of the universe itself is evidence for the existence of God. Of course, it could be evidence of anything at all — superintelligent aliens from another dimension who created our universe, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or anything else. Why should it be evidence of "God" alone?

The fine-tuning argument makes two broad assumptions: that the universe could be different, and that life could not form under different conditions. The former is entirely speculative; as per the previous argument, we have no basis to assume the universe arose "from" something else at all and thus was ever "tuned" to begin with. Perhaps, as the famous physicist Stephen Hawking postulates, the universe is neither created nor destroyed, but simply IS. And while it's true that life as we know it could not arise if certain laws were different, we also do not know what other variables might allow for some kind of life. If the universe were different, life might be different, but it might still exist. Popular secular author and physicist Victor Stenger has gone so far as to calculate a number of variables that would allow the universe to support life under different physical constants.[link]

Collins' statement about "massive improbabilities" is also fallacious. The probability of us being here is 100%. One cannot calculate probabilities backwards. And sheer improbability, no matter how great, must not be equivocated to impossibility. If I were to give someone a deck of cards and lay out the cards in some random order, the probability of any particular order is 1 in 10^68. And yet, we all know that some order had to arise.

3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.

4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.

These could probably be summarized under a single point instead of three. Being scientifically valid positions, I take no issue with them aside from the implication that supernatural intervention was no longer required only after evolution got under way. This seems like a rather arbitrary point. Why not say that no supernatural intervention was required after the Big Bang, or after the formation of the Sun? Perhaps Collins is again succumbing to a God of the Gaps reasoning, since the mechanism of abiogenesis is unknown, but the mechanism of evolution is well validated.

6. But humans are also unique in ways that deft evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

There are two points worth addressing here that Collins believes count as evidence for the existence of God: the ubiquity of supernatural belief in human history, and the presence of cooperative moral ideals. But contrary to Collins' assumptions, neither of these factors defy evolutionary explanation; and even if they did, he is merely shifting the goalposts yet again. In these cases though, Collins seems to be a bit oblivious to the research in evolutionary biology and anthropology that gives us strong scientific explanations for these phenomena.

The search for God

Collins argues that the ubiquity of religion throughout human history seems to point to some greater spiritual need inherent within us. But there are more than a few problems with this line of reasoning.

Religion is to some degree ubiquitous, but nothing about doctrine or dogma is even remotely so. Many religions hold no idea of a Creator (the most well-known probably being Hinduism), instead postulating that the universe is infinite. Some religions have not even worshipped "gods" at all, but ancestral spirits, animals, or forces of nature. Those that do believe in gods may believe in one god, many gods, deistic gods, theistic gods, or pantheistic gods. There is a profound lack of homogeneity among religious practices the world over. This suggests that religion may not be the product of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent Creator, but rather an evolutionary byproduct of our cognition.

All modern animals, particularly humans, are pattern-seeking animals.  We are especially skilled at facial recognition (we see faces on Mars and the Virgin Mary on toasted cheese sandwiches), and recognizing goal-oriented behavior patterns. We are much more likely to err on the side of caution, even to the point of imposing patterns that are not there. We are, it is often said, more likely to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. We are more likely to mistake a leave tumbling across the road for a scurrying animal than to mistake a scurrying animal for a leaf.

There are two mistakes a pattern-seeking animal can make: we can fail to recognize a pattern when there is one, or we can impose a pattern when there is not one. Due to the potentially deadly consequences of the former, it is no surprise that we are prone to the latter.

If a person prays for a safe trip before driving cross-country and arrives safely at their destination, they will likely attribute their pray for keeping them safe. A gambler who snaps his fingers before winning a game of blackjack may begin to associate finger-snapping with good luck and develop a superstitious habit. But we know that car accidents and Blackjack odds are statistically predictable phenomena.

It is no surprise then to find humans attributing divine intent to random processes of nature, or to believe they have seen spirits, ghosts or gods. A significant degree of supernatural beliefs can simply be reduced to pattern-recognition errors. These pattern-recognition errors also served a function as a sort of failed science. They purported to explain a host of unknowns long before the scientific method came along with empirical methodology that could falsify or validate claims about reality. Viewed in this context, the ubiquity of supernatural belief seems an inevitable outcome of our evolution, not evidence of God's existence.


Collins believes that what he calls the Moral Law defies evolutionary explanation. Aside from being an obvious "God of the Gaps" argument, it's simply wrong — there are in fact numerous evolutionary models to explain our sense of "right and wrong".

Humans, like virtually all modern animals, are necessarily cooperative, group-living, interdependent creatures. None of us has the luxury of moral autonomy; our physical health, emotional well-being and our very survival is wholly dependent on our ability to live cooperatively with one another. Nor is our innate capacity for empathy by any means unique; it has been extensively documented in creatures ranging from primates to rats. For our species, as with so many others, cooperative group living is not a choice — it's a survival strategy.

I imagine that Collins would readily accept that evolutionary models could explain reciprocal altruism — i.e., "tit for tat"; I help you, you help me. But can evolutionary models explain the actions of someone who helps others with out regard to to their own well-being, or even to their own detriment? Indeed, a bevy of cultural forces (norms that extols the virtues of giving) coupled with an exaggerated or even misdirected application of our innate empathetic responses may serve to explain such behavior. It's important to understand that our charitable actions are driven not by reason, but by emotion. If we see the image of a starving child on TV, we will inevitably experience an empathetic emotional response. For many, this response will not be powerful enough to provoke check-writing. But for some, their empathetic response will be overwhelming, and quenched only by taking action.  

Of course, it's beyond the scope of this blog to detail scientific models for the explanation of morality. But we seem to be much farther along than Collins seems either aware or willing to believe.

Cover to cover

I found Collins' book ultimately unpersuasive because in literally every case, he merely shifts the goalposts of the God of the Gaps. Perhaps evolutionary models, if they don't already do so, can account for our moral impulse with immaculate precision. Perhaps discoveries in physics in the next centuries will unravel mysteries of the universe we never imagined being capable of understanding. Many such hypotheses — such as String Theory or Stephen Hawking's "No Boundary Universe" — would undoubtedly be discomforting for believers if empirically validated to the degree of Darwin's theory of evolution. An enclosed universe without a beginning or an end, humans whose behavior is solely the sociocultural byproduct of their inner ape... these are the kinds of scientific discoveries that seem more plausible every day, and should further cause us to ponder what value, what real knowledge, faith in supernatural deities can really offer in the wake of such tangible enlightenment.

Addendum: A misrepresentation of Richard Dawkins

I feel compelled to digress just a little and address Collins' objections to Richard Dawkins and his popular atheist polemic The God Delusion. In Chapter 7, entitled "Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism", Collins accuses Dawkins of setting up a number of straw man arguments, mischaracterizing faith, and possessing a "vitriolic personal agenda". He summarizes Dawkins' arguments in three categories:

"First, [Dawkins] argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity and the origin of humankind, so there is no need for God. While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of special creation for each species on the planet,it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution."

That's true of course, but that's not Dawkins' argument. He does not at any point assert that evolution disproves the existence of God. Dawkins asserts that evolution conclusively disproves Creationism and Intelligent Design, a point on which Collins agrees. But what Dawkins is really talking about is the "God of the Gaps"; that science has continually eroded theological ideas by providing material explanations for things once thought to be solely in the domain of the supernatural or unexplainable, and in the process has made God continually less relevant. He is arguing that when science scores points for human knowledge, theists simply reposition the goals. Now that we have a sound scientific theory to explain the complexity of all living things, theologians have in many instances given up on the argument that "apparent design" proves divine design with regard to biological life, but then resort to the same fallacious reasoning when examining, say, cosmology and the origins of the universe.

I'd also like to add that while Dawkins' argument rightly relieves The Flying Spaghetti Monster of the responsibility for multiple acts of special creation for each species on the planet,it certainly does not disprove the idea that The Flying Spaghetti Monster worked out His creative plan by means of evolution.

"Dawkins second argument is another straw man: that religion is antirational... while rational argument can never conclusively prove the existence of God, serious thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to C. S. Lewis have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible."

Dawkins is certainly well aware that many intelligent people have attempted to construct logical syllogisms to provide evidence for the existence of God. Given that a good chunk of The God Delusion is spent addressing arguments such as the Cosmological Argument and the Ontological Argument, I think it's disingenuous to suggest that Dawkins is equivocating faith with stupidity. What Dawkins is really exploring is the issue of knowledge itself — how do we really know what we claim to know? If, as Collins suggests, rational knowledge can never prove God's existence, than how are we to know with any reasonable certainty whether God exists at all?

"Dawkins' third objection is that great harm has been done in the name of religion... But evil acts committed in the name of religion in no way impugn the truth of the faith."

Dawkins spends a great deal of time pointing out the consequences of celebrating irrational thought, but he does not equivocate this to be evidence of religion's falsehood. Dawkins' position on this matter should be quite clear, since he's often stated that what are often touted as benefits of religion hold no bearing on the validity of its claims about reality. Collins' error is that he seems to presume that religious "truth" is a de facto property of reality, and should not be scrutinized with the same vigor as any other scientific claim.

29 August 2010

Pat Condell is wrong about the mosque

Here's a recent video of Pat Condell ranting about the so-called ground zero mosque:

I'm a fan of Pat Condell and his no-nonsense, incisive wit. I've seen him make a lot of great points about god, atheism, Sharia Law in Britain, and a litany of other issues. But I part with Pat when it comes to his stance on Islam. Not because he doesn't make a lot of valid points about Islam, including the problems with "moderate" Islam – of which there are many. But Pat has a tendency to paint all Muslims with the same brush, and that's simply a view that is detached from reality. In Pat's mind, most if not all Muslims tacitly approve of jihad, the oppression of women, and the subversion of human rights.

It's for this reason that Pat disapproves of the "ground zero mosque". Notice the language he uses in this video – he claims that the mosque will be "a few yards" from ground zero, which is patently false – it's a few city blocks, not even in view of ground zero. He claims that allowing Muslims to build the mosque is a victory tactic meant to rub the atrocity of 9/11 in the faces of peaceful Americans, and explicitly states that Islam is the "religion that murdered" the victims. This inane view of his is derived from his belief that there is no such thing as a peaceful Muslim, and that all Muslims – including the ten million or so in the U.S. that haven't blown up anything or hurt anyone – not only approve of but actively support and cheer the destruction of American citizens, apparently including the 30 or so Muslims who were killed in the 9/11 attacks. This is exactly the kind of bigotry that those of us who support the mosque, or at least the freedom of those who wish the build it, are trying to combat.

In a new video released yesterday, Pat is at it again, suggesting that it's ludicrous to frame the mosque as a "freedom of religion" issue:

He again paints all Muslims under the brush of extremism, suggesting that the site is an attempt by Muslims to "rub [their] religion in people's faces as a triumphal political statement." Let me tell you, if all ten million Muslims in the U.S. want to blow people up, bathe in their blood and crush everyone else under the rule of Sharia Law, they're doing a really crappy job of it. In fact, they're not really doing much of a job of it at all.

Pat clearly doesn't understand how the first amendment works, suggesting that if something is insulting enough, it shouldn't be protected. I think the Klu Klux Klan is incredibly stupid, and insulting to all of us who want to live peacefully without regard to each others' race – but I'd still fight to defend their right to hold public demonstrations and build places of worship, just as I support the right of those idiots from Westborough Baptist Church to stand on street corners holding their "Thank God for dead soldiers" signs – because the whole point of the first amendment is precisely that we don't get to pick and choose whose rights are protected and whose aren't. "Good taste" is not a prerequisite to free speech or freedom of religion. Even the nutjobs get equal say, and if your feelings are hurt by that, tough shit – but you have every right to hold your own protest or build your own place of worship (or secular community center, or whatever).

Pat even goes so far as to suggest that Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam behind the mosque, is a radical who supports Iran and blames America for 9/11. I've not seen these allegedly contentious statements myself, but even if they are true, it doesn't matter. Once again, the first amendment is to protect our civil rights from government intrusion, not to protect your feelings from other citizens who may hold controversial opinions.

If any American Muslims actually try to institute Sharia Law as they have in Britain, I'll staunchly oppose it. If they try to commit acts of violence toward other citizens or alter the curricula of public schools to favor an Islam-centered viewpoint (as fundamentalist Christians try to do to suit their own viewpoint). But as it stands, peaceful, law-abiding Muslims have every right to build their place of worship. If that bothers you, well, there are plenty of other countries where freedom of speech and religion are oppressed. Perhaps you'd be better suited to living in, I dunno, Iran.

What does it mean for prayer to be untestable? (via Daylight Atheism)

Daylight Atheism has a great post up confronting the claim many theists make in response to studies such as the MANTRA study, which showed prayer to have no measurable effect: that prayer is supposedly untestable. But that old canard reminds me of the immortal words of PZ Myers:
Science is simply a process for examining the world, and anyone can do it, even if you don't have a lab coat. If something has an effect or influence, you can try to examine it using the tools of science — so when someone announces that gods cannot be detected by observation or experiment, they are saying they don't matter and don't do anything, which is exactly what this atheist has been saying all along.
The reality is that few people believe in an irrelevant deistic god who just set everything in motion, then folded his arms, died, or went about making other universes. Most people who believe are theists who believe God has a real impact on their lives – their health, their financial prosperity, their ability to cope, their sense of happiness and purpose, their good fortune, etc. And maybe that's why people like me call ourselves atheists rather than adeists – because nobody cares about gods who don't actually do anything. What is a deistic god besides a perpetual argument from ignorance – a philosophical placeholder until we find a testable, rational explanation for our universe's origin? Theistic gods are a lot more interesting – they care about how you live your life, they answer your prayers, they intervene in the natural world and orchestrate events around us. The problem for theists is that anytime it's claimed that God intervenes in any sort of significant way, it's a claim that can be examined using the tools of science.

Which brings me to accommodationism, the hottest buzzword in the atheist blogosphere these days. Are science and religion really "non-overlapping magisteria" as the late Stephen Gould claimed? Of course they're not – unless the concept of "God" is so watered down as to be devoid of any pragmatic meaning or usefulness. I mean sure, people can argue for a deistic God or a pantheistic God, but if that's what God really is, who cares whether God exists? We're first tasked with the problem of how we could actually know whether such a god exists at all, and in those cases the absence of falsifiable evidence places such claims in the same category as leprechauns and unicorns. But even if we could answer that question, we're still tasked with explaining how such a deity's existence would actually matter to us, since by definition these deities don't intervene in the natural world in any way. Well... in pantheism, the natural world is God, which raises a related question – how could we know that we're not just anthropomorphizing blind natural processes?

That's why I do not subscribe to accommodationism – the idea that we should accommodate both scientific and religious views in any discourse that is intended to advance our understanding of ourselves and our universe. It's why I find organizations like the Templeton Foundation and Francis Collins' BioLogos Foundation to be laughably useless and, to the extent that they conflate science and religion as equally valid forms of inquiry to the point of promoting bad science, dangerous. Religion does, more often than not, make claims that are indeed scientifically testable. To the extent that religious claims are untestable, the theist is burdened with explaining how such claims are relevant to our experiences at all. I mean hey, I can't prove or disprove the existence of unicorns, but I'm not exactly losing sleep over it.

p.s. – I talked in depth about the futility of prayer here.

25 August 2010

The art of the 20-something life crisis

"When I was your age, I was older than you." Those are words my dad said to me on my 30th birthday, and they seem relevant today. There's a great article in the NY Times this week that talks about the peculiar stubbornness of modern-day 20-somethings – a lot of them just have a hard time growing up. It's a pretty involved read if you care to soak it all in, but I just wanted to touch on a few points that hit home for me. From the article:
The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.
Speaking personally, I moved back "home" after college. The plan was to make it a very temporary stay. Unfortunately, getting a steady paycheck as a personal trainer is much easier conceived than achieved. I floated from one job to the next, bartending for a while to get some extra cash, and all in all spent a good two and a half years trying to get my life together. I was more than a little miserable. I realized of course that moving back home after school is becoming increasingly common, but it's certainly not what anyone dreams of doing. Most of us are damn happy to get out of the house and have our own space.

I've been fortunate to have had a great job for the last several years, and although the pay is probably a fraction of what some of my masters-degree, law degree, or B.S. in chemical engineering friends are pulling in, I have everything I need. But what about all that other stuff? I just turned 31, and I'm still single, never been married and without kids. Earlier this year I was seeing someone and I thought those rosy things might be in sight, but she ended up having a 20-something crisis of her own. With every failed relationship or even every spark that ends up leading nowhere, I have to readjust my expectations a bit. I'm not exactly in a rush to get married or have kids, but I also don't want to be like "Mystery" from VH1's The Pickup Artist, late into my 30s and wearing goofy hats while trying to pick up chicks at clubs. I want to think there's a happy medium.

I've found that it's often really difficult to have stable relationships with 20-something women, precisely because they are similarly struggling through that tumultuous decade. Many of the women I've dated are in similar predicaments as described by the Times above: one of my exes moved in with her parents while we were dating, and went back to school. Others, while living independently, have not been financially independent, regularly receiving money from their parents for important bills. Others find themselves back in school after a four-year-degree can barely produce a passable entry-level job, or they agonize in frustration at how unfulfilling their careers have turned out to be.

So, I know I poked fun at "Mystery", a.k.a. Erik Von Markovich. But I've read his book The Mystery Method, and at the beginning of the book there's something that resonated with me. He says that there are essentially three major areas of our lives – health, wealth, and relationships. Deficiency in any one of them will adversely affect the other two. I'm reminded of someone I was close to who, a couple of weeks after losing her job, fought back tears as she said to me, "I don't know who I am." I think that young people are still raised with some degree of traditional expectations. We expect to leave for college, get our degree, find a job, and become financially stable. We expect along the way to meet someone special, to tie the knot, and maybe even start a family.

The problem though is that we grew up in a credit-card, inflationary economy, and the other shoe had to drop eventually. Just as many of our parents lived in debt, many young people are taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt in student loans, car loans, etc., with the expectation that their college degree will place them in a meaningful job that allows them to pay it off without too much hassle. But like any other form of currency, higher education degrees become less valuable as they become more commonplace. Even entry-level jobs become more difficult to find. Some of my 20-something friends are fortunate to have strong careers, but it seems that most of them view their current jobs as pivot points – something to pay the bills while they figure out what they really want to do. 

But there's a more personal side to it as well. Previous generations worked to live; they didn't live to work. People in the 30s and 40s took whatever shitty industrial job they could find. The point wasn't to find themselves – the point was to give them the means to live a happy life. But in our culture today, careers are extraordinarily diverse, and we've been raised in a culture that tells us we deserve a fulfilling career doing something we are passionate about. Moreover, we're taught to associate financial independence with personal self-worth, and when a dry job market forces us to borrow money and/or living space from mom & dad, it's accompanied by feelings of inferiority, shame and failure. (I should know... I've been there!)

Our careers and financial independence are so intricately tied to our identity that it's no wonder romances are so tumultuous in our 20s. When our wealth suffers, our relationships suffer too. We yearn to feel like our careers allow us to express and share our talents, and feel like we're unable to bring our true selves to a relationship until we achieve that lofty dream. And when it comes to kids, well – if we still have one foot in the nest, we certainly can't be thinking about starting nests of our own. We're barely figuring out who we are in our 20s, much less how that identity is supposed to tie into an intimate relationship. The Times article mentions that our brains, particularly to parts that regulate emotions, undergo significant physiological developmental changes well into our 20s, dooming many young relationships to frustration and failure at the feet of biology alone.

So how do 20-somethings weather this mess? I wish I had the answers. Perhaps we ought to start by managing expectations. We ought to recognize that the copacetic life we're conditioned to strive for is something of an illusion. We ought to stop pretending that our careers define us – they don't, and I think I'm a good example of that: while I'm lucky to have a job I enjoy, my real passion is music, and the best part of my day is when I get home from work and plug in my guitar. I am lucky that I greatly enjoy my job, but I view it as a means to an end, something that ultimately allows me to indulge a greater passion. And if someday I can make a living from music, I certainly will. Until then, I'm willing to accept that who I am is more than the path I take.

Similarly, we're conditioned with certain expectations toward relationships, and these too must be let go. If I've learned anything from my failed relationships (which is obviously all of them, since I'm single), it's that it's not enough to simply feel a connection with someone; you have to be on the same page in the bigger picture. Sexual and emotional chemistry have their place, but in our 20s we're too easily consumed by passion and infatuation. It's fleeting, and it's not enough. You have to feel as though you are moving through life in a true partnership. When one (or both) of you is struggling in your health and/or financial independence, it will inevitably affect your relationship adversely. We ought to have some patience, and spend more time focusing on "us", so that when we do find love, we're able to give to it our best selves; and as we tend to it patiently, words like "I love you" or "I miss you" are spoken with a sincerity that expresses more than fleeting passions.

I'm finally out of my 20s, and the honest truth is, I have no desire to turn back the clock. My 30s have been accompanied by a strong sense of identity I lacked in my 20s, and my failures in love and in the workplace have given me valuable perspective on what in my life is truly important. Maybe the our culture is changing so rapidly and ruthlessly that there's not much we can do to stop it; instead, we ought to reconsider how we think about our lives, how we define ourselves and our self-worth, and learn to be happy through the journey rather than awaiting a rosy pasture that always seems just out of reach.

21 August 2010

If there's no God, where did the universe come from?

The whole idea that the mere existence of all things is evidence of God is a common one. Perhaps more than any other, it's leveled at atheists like it's this big "gotcha": Hey smart guy, you can't explain how the universe got here, can you? It was God. If it wasn't God, how could anything exist? How could something come from nothing? 
The answer is, I don't know. But I submit that theists don't know either – they only make an assertion. In the absence of robust scientific explanation, they claim victory. This is tantamount to someone in the first century claiming that demons cause illness. If I pointed out that this was an illogical explanation, but we hadn't yet discovered microorganisms, the theist would claim victory. It's a classic argument from ignorance.

Let's look at the idea that God made everything. How could we know? How could we know, for example, that it was one God and not 40 trillion gods? How could we know it was a an all-powerful God that is infinitely old, and not a lesser deity created by some other deity? How could we know whether it was a deistic or theistic God? Perhaps, per Deepak Chopra, the universe itself is God – a.k.a. pantheism. How could we know it was a deity at all, and not, say, a superintelligent race of aliens from a parallel universe? In other words: how could we test the God hypothesis?

I submit that the God hypothesis is unfalsifiable, and the irony is that most theists would agree. After all, if there were robust scientific evidence of God's existence, it would be in textbooks right along side biology, math and physics. But the God hypothesis can, in some cases, be falsified. Science is in the business of observation and measurement. If something has a measurable effect on our world, we can examine it using the tools of science. For that reason, I believe the concept of a theistic god – one that answers prayers, cares about where you put your penis, brings good fortune or death upon humanity, etc. – is indeed a claim that can be subject to the rigors of science, and I've discussed that at length here and here.

But there's a bigger issue at hand, and this is where a little cosmology comes into play: how do we know the universe "came from" something else at all? The physicist Laurence Krauss did an excellent talk about what's known in physics as a "universe from nothing". There are speculative reasons to believe the universe could exist in a continual cycle of expansion and collapse, or that it emerged from a quantum vacuum and will end in a quantum vacuum. There's a great deal of inquiry about the problem of entropy. I don't know the right answer. Nobody does. There's simply too much we do not know about the universe to blindly assert that a Creator, much less a theistic Creator, was necessary for the universe to exist. It's entirely possible, as Stephen Hawking suggests in A Brief History of Time, that the universe could simply "be".

That's why the God hypothesis is unconvincing argument to an atheist: we recognize it as merely an argument from ignorance. I remember a discussion with a believer once where I was asked about the problem of entropy. I didn't have an answer, because, y'know, I'm not a theoretical physicist. But what struck me about the question was our differing views on what it meant to ask the question. My theist friend saw the mere question as evidence for God's existence. For him, the conversation was over before it started. But for me, and for the myriad of minds with intellects vastly superior to my own who are diligently studying that problem, the question is the beginning of a long quest for knowledge. And isn't that how it should be? Shouldn't we avoid pretending to know the answers to such fascinating questions?

19 August 2010

That whole pesky mosque issue

I just don't get people.

But first, some fact-checking is in order. How far from "ground zero" is the "mosque"? Well, it's actually a little over two city blocks. And, here's the interesting thing: muslims already meet and pray there. Oh, and it's not really a mosque; it's a community center with space set aside for prayer, sort of like the Y.

That stuff's important, because the wing nuts who are politicizing this issue are calling it "the ground zero mosque" not because that's actually what it is, but because they're trying to unify their base of ignorant dipshits by rallying prejudice against a religious minority, conflating "Muslim" – of whom there are millions of peaceful practitioners here in the United States – with poisonous terms like "Al Queda", "Bin Laden", and "9/11". Nevermind the fact that among the roughly 3,000 killed in 9/11, a number of them were peaceful Muslims.

This all speaks to a bigger issue though: religious freedom. It's funny how the conservative right think the constitution is really just sort of a "guideline", with first amendment rights being stripped from people who aren't in the majority when said majority deems their activities to be in poor taste. The reality is that building this Muslim community center is every bit as protected a religious freedom as any other, and those who would mask their bigotry with the thin veil of reverence toward 9/11 victims are precisely the kinds of people who remind us why we have a constitution in the first place: to protect the liberties of all Americans, not just the ones you like.

The conservative right's reaction to this issue is offensive to anyone with a modicum of rational good sense. The flagrant disregard for the constitutionally protected freedoms of all Americans is offensive, as is the continual distortion of facts to serve petty political agendas that pander to the darkest corners of our human nature.

It's eerie how much this mirrors the gay rights issue in one critical way: wing nuts really wish that the fourteenth amendment to our constitution did not exist:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

15 August 2010

Theology is fluff

People get PhDs in theology. I think that's kind of comical. It's the intellectual equivalent to getting a PhD in astrology, homeopathy, telekinesis or psychic clairvoyance. Of course, the people who actually study theology think it is serious business. But it's not. It's bunk. It is in fact so glaringly bunk that the whole field of "study" can be dismissed in one fell swoop... which I will do momentarily. But first, a little back story.

Writing the post I did the other day about the plurality of religions got me thinking back to my time as a Christian, and the process that led me from the flock. Bud over at Dead Logic is doing a series of posts telling his deconversion story, and I've gotten in touch with quite a few apostates over the last year or two and had the privilege of hearing their own stories. Interesting too is the number of emails I've received from Christians with whom I went to church as a teen, and they have all told me similar stories.

The stories are all about doubt. As Bud phrased it so beautifully in his own blog, "Doubt is a natural and healthy reaction from creatures capable of rationality, discovery and wonder." Yet from the letters I've received from Christians, doubt is seen as a troublesome thing - something that must be defeated or even ignored rather than embraced. Doubt is the bullet that kick-started the deconversions of every apostate I've ever talked with, and their experience with it is, time and time again, remarkably similar.

What I'm talking about here is the way in which people of faith attempt to reconcile their beliefs with the way the world actually is. They believe abc about God, but the world is full of xyz, and the two seem at odds with each other. Theology, as an intellectual discipline, is really nothing more than the attempt to reconcile any given concept of God with the world we observe.

The problem is twofold. Firstly, there is no ubiquitously agreed upon idea of what God actually is, much less what he does or what he wants from us. So since a coherent concept of God cannot be derived from observation, God is whatever you want it to be. However, this can create some problems when the traits you ascribe to your God have to be stacked up against the reality we live in.

This is precisely the problem I faced with the "many religions" question. I was told that God loved everyone perfectly and equally. The Bible seemed to make it clear that Jesus... well, per John 14:6, that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through him. But that didn't really add up with the fact that there are now, and always have been, thousands of cultures spanning the globe that have never heard of Jesus. Or Yahweh, for that matter. If there were really only One True God, and he was really omnipotent and all-loving, why did he do such a lousy job getting the word out?

At this point, the theologians jump in. Theologians are, as Dan Dennett has said, the spinmeisters of religion. In his talk at AAI 2009, Dennett talks about the nature of theological spin. Good spin, he says, has four qualities:
  • It is not a bare-faced lie
  • You have to be able to say it with a straight face
  • It has to relieve skepticism without arousing curiosity
  • It should seem profound
This aptly describes the kind of theological rationalizations people conjure up to placate their doubts, or the "interpretive footwork" as Bart Ehrman describes it, that believers have to go through in order to reconcile their beliefs with the way the world is.

In my own case, and in the case of every apostate who has shared with me their deconversion stories, the process was the same: when faced with the discordance between our beliefs and the world around us, we reconsidered the validity of our beliefs. But believers often do not take that step, and instead spend lots of time conjuring up some sort of spin, and one of two things happens: they either find an answer that seems profound enough and relieves their skepticism without arousing further curiosity, or they simply assume that someone else has the answer and so they stop thinking about it. To believers, losing their faith is a terrifying prospect, and clinging to it even with one eye closed is more important than critical inquiry. 

And this, ladies and gentleman, is why theology is an illegitimate intellectual endeavor: it always requires you to begin with an immutable conclusion. You begin the process of "inquiry" by making an assumption about what you think God is. Then you attempt to reconcile this assumption with reality. When things don't add up, you're forced to engage in all kinds of speculative interpretive footwork: "Well, maybe it's because God does things this way or that way... hmmm... yeah, I guess that makes sense... I guess... yeah... okay...." The elephant in the room is that there is no objective standard by which these conclusions are deduced, nor any objective standard by which any particular concept of God is established in the first place. You begin by affirming fluff, and you have to conjure up more fluff to keep affirming it. Theology is the intellectual discipline of making shit up.

Those of us who crossed over simply got tired of trying to fabricate excuses to rationalize our beliefs. Instead, we formed a worldview in which our beliefs are contingent on reality, not in conflict with it. When your beliefs are derived from reason and evidence rather than assumed on faith and conjured in contorted rationalizations, doubt becomes your friend. Truth becomes your friend. Ideas become malleable. Your view of the world becomes fluid and adaptive to what you see. And I think that the sense of intellectual liberation my fellow apostates and I frequently describe is derived from the liberation of our minds from the constant rationalizations we were forced to engage in to reconcile our faith with reality. Reality is much more wondrous when you simply take it for what it is.

14 August 2010

The problem with health science

Okay, nevermind the hyperbolic title to this post; it's really just about a problem with health science, which how research is done and published, and what we laypeople are supposed to make of it all. Here's what got me thinking about this issue:

There was a blurb in this month's issue of Flex magazine (a hardcore bodybuilding mag) about doing "supersets" - that is, if you are doing exercises for your chest and back, instead of doing all your chest sets and then all your back sets, you alternate one set of a chest exercise with one set of a back exercise, and so on. The question was whether doing supersets burns more fat than training with traditional "straight sets". According to the study reported on in Flex, the answer is "yes".  A few days later, I was reading through this month's Men's Fitness, and found another blurb about a study on supersets asking the exact same question. But guess what? In that study, the answer was "no".

The funny thing is that these two magazines are both Weider publications. Both have some pretty knowledgeable people on staff, and both report on current exercise science and nutrition research. And yet here readers are given patently contradictory advice. Neither magazine gave much detail about how the studies were conducted, although Flex actually detailed the workouts and rest intervals. Still, a clear answer on the matter is obviously elusive.

This isn't just related to exercise science. I read about a series of studies linking milk to an increased risk for prostate cancer. Except the studies were small, and there were innumerable lifestyle factors that weren't controlled for.

We see this kind of thing all the time. Some small study of 15 people gets done, the results published in some peer-reviewed journal, and suddenly it's the new recommendation. Exercise this way, not that way. Eat this food, not that food. We really have to take all this stuff with a grain of salt (or maybe not, depending on the latest study of sodium intake). The real test of good scientific research is replication. I repeat, for emphasis: replication. A small study, particularly one in which countless external factors may not be adequately controlled for, is virtually impossible to extrapolate to a larger population. Studies need to be done on a larger scale, over longer periods of time, with various different populations, and the results need to be consistently replicated.

This isn't a minor issue. American consumers are constantly in a state of confusion because magazines and newspapers are always reporting on this new study or that one, and frequently giving contradictory advice. Unfortunately, I don't think there's much most of us can do to stop the torrent of bad information and dubious science. We simply need to be aware of what's going on, and avoid jumping to conclusions based on small amounts of research.

13 August 2010

Why are there so many religions?

This month's Scientific American has a fascinating article on how early humans survived near extinction, with a breeding population in the mere hundreds, before our exodus out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. The most interesting thing is that the archeological evidence discovered along the southern tip of South Africa completely rewrites our understanding of human history. While molecular evidence has firmly placed the earliest homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, it was widely believed that our cognitive abilities did not evolve until much later; the oldest evidence of art and language dated back to some 40,000 years ago in what is now France. However, new archeological evidence described in the article shifts that back to well over 160,000 years ago. And notably this is merely the evidence we have now. It seems reasonable then at this point to assume that more than likely, homo sapiens' cognitive abilities were essentially the same at our origin as they are now.

This got me thinking about religion. The article described some evidence of rituals in these very early human cultures – including evidence of jewelry and face or body painting. Ponder for a moment the significance of this; the oldest of the major world religions – Hinduism, not Judaism as is sometimes falsely assumed – dates back a mere five or six thousand years. Judaism is marginally more recent. And it's reasonable to speculate that there may be other indigenous religious practices whose origins predate recorded history.

When I was an evangelical Christian, the plurality of religions was the issue that kick-started the inquiry that eventually resulted in my exodus from Christianity. I didn't know as much about science as I do now, but I knew enough that something just didn't seem to add up about what I'd been taught to believe. Why are there so many religions? Why did god have a "chosen people" in what was essentially tribal Palestine, when there were thousands of cultures all over the world that he simply allowed to continue on practicing false beliefs? Why wouldn't God reveal the truth to all humans from the beginning of time, particularly considering how much blood has been shed in religiously motivated feuds? Most troubling to me, though, was this: how could I be so sure that of all the thousands of religions throughout history, I just happened to be so lucky as to be raised in the one correct one?

That last statement may not resonate with all believers. Christians come in all kinds of liberal and conservative stripes; some believe that Christianity is the one true religion, and the rest are patently false paths to hell. Others believe that Christianity is the most true religion, and that while there are truths in other religions, ultimately everyone will answer to the Christian god. And still others take a more liberal "one mountain, many paths" world view in which Christianity is "true for me" but there is no presumption about ultimate truths. As a Christian, I was taught the first view, but pondered the others. Ultimately I found them futile, because the religions of the world make patently contradictory claims about all manner of things. There is no "true for me"; a claim is either true, or it's not. All the world's religions can be wrong, but not even two of them can both be right.

If Christianity, or any other single religion, were true, then it begs the question: where was God for the first 190,000 years? Why did God only decide to intervene in tribal Palestine in what is, relatively speaking, very recent human history? This begs a further question. Religion is often credited with taming our "animalistic" nature by giving us a divinely revealed system of morality. But how could we as a species have survived long enough for those systems of belief to emerge if it was not already in our evolutionary nature to live cooperatively, share resources, and care for the sick and wounded?

If we examine any two geographically isolated cultures anywhere on the globe, we'll find that there is virtually no homogeneity whatsoever among their religious beliefs. They won't just worship different gods; they'll have completely contradictory ideas about what god is, whether there is one god or many, or even if they serve a god or gods at all – many cultures practice animism, animal worship, or revere ancestral spirits. Some may believe that a god or gods created the universe; others may believe that the universe itself is god (pantheism), and others still may believe that the universe is infinitely old and was never "created". It's worth reiterating: they can all be wrong, but they can't all be right.

These questions became instrumental in my deconversion. The Bible held no answers, and the many Christian books I read and pastors I talked with failed to give satisfactory answers as well. They all seemed to think there probably was an answer, but no one seemed to agree on what it might be. I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how this could all fit together. I became exhausted from the theological footwork, and eventually realized the futility of what I was doing: I was simply hoping to conjure up some sort of rationalization that would placate my nagging doubts, because I was terrified of losing my faith. But I was forced to confront the obvious question, the answer to which was infinitely more simple and logically coherent: What if my beliefs were not actually true? What if the reason why there are so many religions isn't because "The Lord works in mysterious ways", but because the god I believed in does not exist? This seems to explain the world so much better. The reason there is no theological homogeneity among geographically isolated cultures is because there is no God, and religion is simply a by-product of other evolutionarily favorable traits, such as pattern recognition. I believed Christianity to be true not because I had carefully weighed the evidence or done a study of comparative religions, but because I was young, naive, and viewing the world ethnocentrically.

I still feel that it's exceptionally rare for believers to critically examine these kinds of questions or, more importantly, critique the thought process they've constructed for arriving at rationalizations to answer them. Most believers study religion from an ethnocentric, devotional standpoint, failing to consider how their beliefs really fit with the bigger picture of humanity's long history.

11 August 2010

There goes Billy Graham again

Thanks to Bruce Gerenscer over at the NW Ohio Skeptics blogs for bringing this one to my attention. Building on my semi-recent rant about how us happy atheists are a bit of a conundrum for believers, the Reverend Graham takes his own stab at the classic "Why is my atheist friend so happy and awesome?" question, and the torrent of spurious reasoning he unleashes is downright impressive in its vacuity.

Reverend Graham was given the following query:
DEAR DR. GRAHAM: The kindest, most thoughtful person I know says she's an atheist and doesn't even believe in God. I always thought we needed to believe in God before we'd behave like she does, but I guess this isn't necessarily true, is it?
What's that you say? A happy, functional atheist? Aren't we all supposed to be amoral, depressed hedonists? Graham replies (emphasis mine):

I'm convinced that when a person comes to Jesus Christ and commits his or her life to Him, they will become a better person than they ever were before. If your atheist friend comes to Christ one day, she'll be an even better person than she is now.  
Why is she such a kind and thoughtful person? I don't know the reason; perhaps she simply has a sunny personality (as some people do), or perhaps her parents taught her to be kind and considerate when she was growing up. But I do know this: She's not this way because she's an atheist. In fact, she's this way despite her atheism — because a true atheist has no real reason to believe in right and wrong or to behave sacrificially toward others.
This is just the same old ignorant nonsense we hear time and time again from theists: without a magical being in the sky to preside over everything, morality become relativistic and life becomes meaningless.

There are some obvious questions here. First of all, human beings have been around for roughly 200,000 years. The oldest religions are maybe five or six thousand years old. This isn't to say there weren't other religious practices (surely there were many pre-historic indigenous cultures with complex religious beliefs), but if we all need Jesus so badly, were was he the last 195,000 years? How did we humans make it so far without the Judeo-Christian tribal god watching our backs?

The answer is that, as the primatologist Frans De Waal so eloquently phrased it, we are as a species obligatorily gregarious. None of us has the luxury of moral autonomy. We depend on others for every aspect of our physical and emotional well-being. To quote De Waal again: cooperative group living is a survival strategy, not a choice. Too many people ignorant of the real science of evolution misconstrue our history as an "every man for himself", dog-eat-dog kind of world. But the overwhelming majority of species on Earth, especially primate species like us, thrive by sharing resources, caring for the sick and wounded, and living in highly cooperative societies. Empathy isn't some mystical force – it's an evolutionarily selected behavioral trait.

But I'll do one better than our mere biology. We treat others well because we recognize that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no reason to respect our own needs and interests. We behave charitably because it's the kind of world we want to live in; we want to believe that if the roles were reversed and we were in dire circumstances, others would come to help us. We humans are by no means alone in our altruistic behavior – it's been observed countless times in our primate cousins. It's an integral part of who we are and how we as a species made it this far.

Does life become meaningless? That's trickier to answer, but I've never quite seen the logical connection between God and meaning. Leaving Christianity and ultimately becoming an atheist has in no way diluted the beauty, depth or intensity of my Earthly experiences. I still feel close to my family, have wonderful friends, experience love and heartache, marvel at the beauty of nature, and feel a deeply personal sense of meaning. I just don't derive it from some magical deity whose mere existence is devoid of supporting evidence.

Nice try Billy Graham. But functioning, happy atheists remain a thorn for believers because we expose religion for the vacuity that it is.

Why we don't need religion

There was an op-ed in USA Today that I'm frankly a little surprised the usual crew like PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne haven't tackled in their own blogs, because it's filled with the usual kind of spurious reasoning that those guys love to pounce on not unlike Jerry Coyne's own cats. So I will dutifully step up to the plate and tackle this hogwash.

The article is by a guy named Oliver Thomas, and it's called "Why Do We Need Religion?" I would jump at the chance to write a similarly titled op-ed, but Thomas goes in a completely difference direction than I would with his conclusion. See, I would ask it rhetorically, while he's asking it ironically. But you knew that. In case you want to trudge through it, here's a link to the full article. I'll just tackle it in snippets.
Why religion? In the face of pogroms and pedophiles, crusades and coverups, why indeed? 
Religious Americans have answered the question variously. Worship is one answer. Millions gather each week to acknowledge their higher power. The chance to experience community is another. Healthy congregations are more than civic clubs. They are surrogate families. The opportunity to serve others also comes to mind. Americans feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless largely through religious organizations. Yet as important as community, worship and service are, I am convinced that religion's greatest contribution to society is even greater. 
Religion makes us want to live.
It does? Shit, as an atheist, I am in deep trouble, what with not have the will to live and all...
Man's search for meaning — whether in a Broadway penthouse or the darkest corner of hell — is the most basic building block of a successful life. Without a sense of purpose, many people will simply shrivel up and die, whether figuratively or, in some cases, literally. 
Alas, many of us have discovered purpose for our lives through religion. Inside America's churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and ashrams, we wrestle with the great questions of life. And with due respect to my atheist and left-leaning friends, most of those questions are not amenable to the scientific method. 
Why are we here?  
What does it all mean?
How should we then live? 
These are the things that matter most. Not whether Pluto is a real planet or the atomic weight of carbon is 12 or 13. Even Nietzsche recognized that if one can answer the why of life, he can cope with most any how.

Here I'm reminded of an old chestnut that came from the mind of that aforementioned PZ Myers: Just because science can't answer a question doesn't mean religion can.If religion is actually a tool for attaining knowledge (as it unquestionably claims to be), then it begs the question of how said knowledge is attained.

These questions are also question-begging questions. Why should these questions have answers? I mean, if you want to know why we're here, you can study astronomy, and learn about how ancient stars cooked heavy elements into lighter elements, then exploded in supernovae that spewed their enriched guts across the cosmos, forming new stars and planets – ours, at least, has been fortunate enough to spawn life. But if you're searching for some sort of transcendent or divine meaning to "why" we are here and what it all means, for some reassuring comfort that we are not mere accidents – well, tough luck. There's not actually any evidence of that. Sorry, but the cosmos does not care about you. Deal with it.

The foolishness of religion lies in the perception that it can actually provide useful answers to these questions. But as I've said a hundred times before, there is no methodology by which to discern religious truths from religious falsehood. There is no process for discarding unproved or spurious claims, or by which to build a consensus. The language of faith and religion is rooted in personal "revelation" and authority, not reason and evidence. Alright, but there's a bit more...
Here's the point: I think religion makes it easier to be decent. The positive core values, mutual accountability and constant striving for self-improvement help one to be a better person. And I want to be a better person. Not because I'm afraid of God. Because I'm grateful for another trip around the sun and, like a good house guest, want to leave this place in better shape than I found it.
Oliver doesn't actually even attempt to establish why this might be the case. But we can simply look at the world around us to see he's completely off track. A recent article in the LA Times reiterated what I, and many others, have been saying for some time: religion doesn't make us better. Religious people are no less likely to get divorced, suffer from depression, suffer illness or tragedy, or experience financial prosperity. The most secular nations in the world (think Scandinavia) are the most peaceful, healthy, and prosperous nations in the world. The conservative "Bible belt" states in the U.S. have higher per capita crime, lower test scores, higher teen pregnancy rates, and higher divorce rates than the rest of the nation. Evangelical young people who taught to extol per-marital purity are actually more likely to engage in pre-marital sex, and less likely to use protection (since sex education is generally frowned upon by religious conservatives). And let's not forget all the science denial, the young-earth or "Intelligent Design" creationisms, the war mongering, the "wives should submit to their husbands" sexism, the inter-faith divisiveness, and the violence and human rights atrocities committed in the name of religion.

We do we need religion, indeed?

08 August 2010

Notable stuff other people are doing

My computer is still down (new motherboard should arrive Wednesday, and hopefully everything else will work). So, I can't really blog on my phone. I mean, technically I can, but that's like asking someone to sit through Ben Stein reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So right now, I'm at my folks' (that's "parents" for you people not from the South) house for our usual Sunday dinner, and I'm stealing a bit of time on their iMac, which is about as far removed from my uber-awesome gaming PC as you can get.

Anyway, there's lots I want to blog about once I can do so with some consistency, but for now I just want to share some stuff I've been reading and watching.

1. TED Talks. Here's the deal. I like to have something on in the background while I practice guitar - movies, shows on Hulu, etc. Since my computer is down, all I have is Youtube. Ugh. So I've been watching lots of TED Talks. And let me tell you, I have watched (well, listened to, since I'm usually looking at my guitar) some really, really, reallyreally fascinating talks on all kinds of diverse topics, from education to orgasms. So, here's the link to the Youtube channel. You're welcome.

2. In case you didn't know, Christopher Hitchens has esophageal cancer. Here's the extended version of his recent interview with Anderson Cooper, and his editorial about it in Vanity Fair.

3. Jen McCreight (Blag Hag) and Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) went covert-style to a big Focus on the Family event, and wrote some entertaining and insightful commentary about their experience. Here's the link to his write-up, and the link to her write-up.

4. Jerry Coyne has written a rebuttal to some douchey philosopher type, and it's a great read. It's a bit long-winded, and I have no idea who the philosopher guy is, but I like the post because he concisely summarizes a lot of the reasons why faith is stupid.

5. I have to give my friend Harry a shout-out. See, here's the thing. Six months ago, this guy was a devout Christian. And I mean the really annoying type too, who rambled on about Jesus all the time, denied evolution, and was a terrible writer. Well, now he's an atheist, and he's got his own blog. He's probably read more books in the last few months than I've read in the last few years, and he's morphed into a lucid thinker and a great writer. I really enjoy reading his blog, and I highly recommend you check it out.

6. On a note totally unrelated to skepticism, I've got a new blog where I'm writing poetry. Forsooth!

04 August 2010

A quick word on the Prop 8 ruling

Unless you've been living in a cave, you have probably heard that a Federal District court in California struck down Proposition 8 as being unconstitutional. The battle is won, but the war is far from over. No doubt this legislation is not gone just yet, and I wouldn't be surprised if it makes it all the way to the Supreme Court.

I think it's really worth noting that there is one group of people who really supported Proposition 8: religious conservatives. You know that whole thing in the constitution about equal rights under the law? Well, according to these religious nutbars, it's really more of a guideline. The following video was brought to my attention via Facebook, and I think it's typical of the religious conservative mindset:

Notice the way she phrases it: People who voted to oppress the equal rights of others are the "victims" here. She says that you should pray to protect their rights. You know, the straight people who already have the freedom to marry whomever they love. The rights of homosexuals is apparently not a relevant point to these people, the constitution be damned. They aren't equal citizens, but a special class of people.

There's one common thread in all civil rights movements, including abolition, suffrage, and desegregation: us and them. The gay rights movement, like other civil rights movements before it, is not about liberating one group of people. It is about recognizing our common humanity, respecting our differences, and erasing those labels that separate them from us. It's about saying that homosexuals are not a special class of people – they are just people.

Fortunately for the gay rights movement, prayer does not work, most likely because God does not actually exist. Prop 8 was struck down, and progress has been made... for now.