28 September 2010

Here's a shocker


On Basic Religion Test, Many Doth Not Pass

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

We who criticize religion are often accused of being out of our league – criticizing theology when we're not theologians.

27 September 2010

Francis Collins on The Big Think: "Why is it so difficult for scientists to believe in a higher power?"

Francis Collins' point of view here basically amounts to the old "non-overlapping magisteria" argument that Stephen Jay Gould put forth ages ago. Science and faith answer different questions. The problem with this view twofold: the first is that many questions hastily deemed beyond the scope of scientific inquiry are in fact not. Collins himself argues in his book The Language of God that the existence of moral judgment is evidence of a higher power, but countless evolutionary biologists – and perhaps most notably Frans De Waal – have stripped the supernatural from morality. Stephen Hawking recently ruffled the feathers of many a religious thinker when he declared that cosmology can explain the origin of the universe just fine without invoking a supernatural Creator – a God of the Gaps long held dear by many believers. The physicist Laurence Krauss, in his lecture at AAI 2009, answered the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" using physics: "There had to be," he said, "If you have 'nothing' in quantum mechanics, you’ll always get something. It’s that simple."

But the greater problem is how faith purports to answer questions of "why". I feel like a broken record sometimes, but no theist has even attempted to provide a coherent answer to this question: what is the methodology for discerning true faith claims from false ones? Science has a rigorous methodology that allows us to discard mistakes as we inch closer to the truth. But how do people of faith know, with any amount of certainty at all, whether what they believe is true or simply pulled out of their asses? Making stuff up does not constitute an "answer".

To that end, many of these questions are meaningless. Like, "Why are we here?" Well, we're here because of a litany of natural processes that slowly brought us about, rather accidentally, over billions and billions of years. I mean really, that's why. It's easy. But merely the way believers ask the question implies that there is some sort of supernatural reality that determines what we are supposed to do with our preciously short lives. It presumes that there is a divine "why". But why should we presume such a thing? I'm reminded of Carl Sagan's famous quote: "If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?"

That's why I just can't take Francis Collins seriously. It's bad enough that he greatly underestimates the power of science to answer the big questions, but it's even worse that "faith", to him, remains some sort of vaguely defined affirmation of ethereal mysteries rather than a reliable methodology by which to uncover new knowledge.

26 September 2010

Sunday Sacrilege: What's the point of the devil?

In case you haven't heard, there's a shlocky-looking horror movie coming out this week called Devil. It doesn't look like the kind of flick I need to see on the big screen, but it did get me thinking about Christian mythology, and the peculiarity of the devil as a central figure in the battle for people's souls. It's one of those things about Christianity – like Jesus being God, which means God prays to himself and sacrifices himself to himself to fulfill his own covenant – that just doesn't make any sense.

What is Satan, really, but an inordinately underpowered minion that does God's dirty work? God is supposed to be all-powerful, so any power that Satan has – you know, to torture people, tempt them, possess them, drive them insane, whatever – is power that God would have granted him. Then in the end times described in Revelation, there's supposed to be this epic battle between good and evil. Except how is anything really a battle? It sounds like the Steelers playing a local middle school team. God is all-powerful. There doesn't have to be a "battle" at all. God can just think it, and *poof*, the devil and all his minions and follows are instantly transmogrified into fuzzy lovable unicorns.

In the Old Testament, God has complete sovereign control over both good and evil. If people suffered, it was because they had been disobedient and were suffering God's wrath. This is perhaps best illustrated by the end of the book of Leviticus, where God spends a lot of time describing the massive shitstorm that awaits his people if they decide to rebel against him. But in the New Testament, God is portrayed as only partially responsible for suffering; instead, there's another player, Satan, who has demonic minions that can possess people, and who tempts people to rebel against God's commands.

The weirdest and most nonsensical of Satan's exploits is by far the temptation of Christ in the desert. It makes perfect sense until you stop for a split second and remember that Jesus is God. In a comedically flat-Earth moment, Satan takes Jesus to the peak of a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. He says that he'll let Jesus rule over these kingdoms if Jesus bows before him. But Jesus is God, and God is supposed to be all-powerful. The only control that Satan has over the "kingdoms" of the world is whatever God is temporarily giving him. How can Satan possibly "tempt" an all-powerful deity?

This is just another of many concepts in Christianity that are logically incoherent. Evil spirits and devils exist in many religions, so it's not a big shock that early Christians fabricated one too. It's perhaps most absurd because God is also omniscient (omnipotence requires omniscience, so it's a tad redundant to point it out), so God would already know what the outcome of the final "battle" is (in Revelation, guess who wins?). He would have to know that mankind would rebel against him, as well as who would end up in heaven and who would end up in hell. So it seems like the story of Christianity is really one of an all-powerful deity entertaining himself. If there's really a source of evil, it by definition has to be the all-powerful God. So who is the devil, really?

22 September 2010

Adam "Nergal" Darski on his leukemia

In case you're not into European black/death metal, Behemoth frontman Adam Darski, who records and performs under the namesake of the Babylonian deity Nergal, was diagnosed a little while ago with leukemia. It's an advanced stage of the disease, and unless he gets a bone marrow transplant soon, the world will lose an amazing musical and philosophical mind – not to mention a cool fucking guy (I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly when Behemoth played in Tulsa, opening for Dimmu Borgir).

Behemoth is one seriously blasphemous band, which of course I absolutely love. Nergal was even arrested and threatened with jail time subject to one of Poland's anti-blasphemy laws after he ripped up a Bible during a concert. So now that he's on death's door, is he rethinking things? Maybe ready to give his heart to Jesus? This is what he had to say:
I want to comment on some opinions which, provoked by religious circles, lead to far-fetched and inaccurate interpretations. I was surprised to hear my illness became a pretext for some people to embark on their own crusade. Opinions suggesting I might come closer to God or abandon my ideals and grovel to the only correct world view in this country not only surprised but also frightened me. This is a typical example of supporting one’s own views by preying on someone’s misfortune. ‘He fell ill so he will convert to Christianity, he will discover the religion he fought against is actually close to him.’ Halt! Why should the illness change my point of view? It is true this is a difficult time for me and the thoughts of ultimate matters are hard to chase away. But the idea that I will change my opinions, priorities, and values as a consequence of my illness sounds as if someone regards my head, and not my body, ill. Suggesting I might convert are ridiculous. To what would I convert? After all, I know Christian mythology pretty well, not only in its literary version, and I find nothing good, creative or beautiful in it. I read books better and wiser than the Bible. War, blood, blackmail, rapes, incest, pedophilia, zoophilia, collaboration and treachery – each page emanates with evil. Some may say I don’t understand the message of the Bible. I’d rather say [that] Christianity is nothing more than a rusty and archaic structure that is going to fall down any moment. It lasts only because of the gullible that follow the shepherd blindly; without any questions, without any consideration, not to any promised land, but to an intellectual slaughter. So, I say to those, who see some chances to break my rules, and myself because of the illness: over my dead body!

This is what religion stoops to. You don't come to religion when you're lucid and rational. If they can't snag you through years of childhood indoctrination, they try to snag you when you're facing your own mortality. How disgustingly typical. The dogmatic vortex of religion preys on the foolish, the weak, and the ignorant. Enough of this "no atheists in foxholes" bullshit!

19 September 2010

Those damn militant atheists

Man, you just can't win. For the longest time, atheism was so stigmatized that atheists rarely spoke openly about their dissent. It's still facing a heavy stigma in many parts of the world, and we're fighting an uphill battle to get more non-believers to speak up. And now, there is undoubtedly a strong cultural movement promoting atheism, of which I am a tiny, tiny, tiny part. A huge part of this movement isn't just the public dissemination of ideas, but a move to create acceptance for non-believers. 

Why are atheists speaking up? Probably because we're sick of nutcases killing people over silly ideas. We're sick of religious nuts trying to alter education curricula, and we're sick of accomodationist crap like Templeton and BioLogos that tries to conflate religion with scientific and rational inquiry. We're sick of people oppressing the rights of the LGBT community and setting back stem-cell research, and justifying it with appeals to a ridiculous ancient text. A lot of stupidity comes from religion, and we simply don't need it. And while believers love to point out that religious people often do really nice things, we can still have charities and orphanages without affirming all kinds of dogmatic nonsense (we already have countless secular ones anyway) .

But while I can't speak for all atheists, I feel like I'm pretty in touch with the community. And you know what? Most atheists don't care what people believe as long as they don't try to impose it on others. Like, I don't care that Pope Benedict XVI is a Catholic, and believes all the weird bullshit associated with that religion. It's his life, and he can believe in leprechauns and space monkeys from Andromeda for all I care. But I do care when a prominent religious figure is culpable in the systematic cover-up of widespread child abuse, and he hides behind the wealth and political influence of the church. I care when he tells people in AIDS-plagued Africa that using condoms makes the problem worse. And I fundamentally oppose an organization that denigrates women, indoctrinates children, and promotes superstitious nonsense as though it were profound intellectual enlightenment. 

Well, according to some people over at the Guardian who have been covering the Pope's visit, that makes me a "militant" atheist. Silly me, not content to just keep my non-belief to myself. There I go, writing that damn blog and inviting others to read it. See, I had Googled "protest pope" in the hopes of finding some more coverage on the protest rallies, and I came across a couple of sneering writers who talked about "anti-Catholicism", "militant" opponents of the pope, and even one douchebag who claimed that, in his fiery speech the other day, Richard Dawkins "compared all Catholics to Hitler". He must have watched a different speech than I did.

Here's what I don't get. There is pretty incontrovertible evidence that the Pope, back when he was just that Ratzinger guy, helped coddle known sex offenders. He's head of an organization that is losing members in droves in no small part because of a series of cover-ups by church officials in what has been revealed to be a widespread incidence of child abuse. And he comes to England, and what does he do? He apologizes. Golly, isn't that sweet. I'm not saying he shouldn't apologize. Of course he should. It's good he did. But that's the tip of the iceberg. The church itself clearly has some deep-running problems, and that's not even beginning to touch all the other things I mentioned. So there's nothing "militant" about a guy who actively promotes the denigration of women, who covers up child abuse to preserve the reputation of the church, and who equates atheists with Nazism; but when atheists peacefully protest this clown's actions, they're "militant"?

Look, this is just a couple of editorials. But I hear this kind of crap all too often. Militant Muslims blow people up, send death threats to cartoonists, oppress and abuse women, and execute people for the pettiest of crimes. Militant Christians try to alter education curricula, oppress people's civil rights, blow up abortion clinics, and hold hate-speech signs at funerals. Militant atheists write books and blogs, and occasionally gather peacefully to oppose the aforementioned nuttery.

Maybe some of the anti-papal imagery and language in the rallies was childish and abusive. There are assholes in every political movement. But it really irks me when just the act of speaking out against the Pope and the imperious institution he oversees is denigrated as "militant". Secularists are engaging in a battle of ideas; ideas that a lot of people integrate very deeply into their personal and social identities; ideas that, for far too long, have been taboo to publicly critique. It's nothing new, of course; folks like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens have been mischaracterized as "shrill" and "strident" for years. How dare we?

Is fish oil safe?

I had a client say something to me yesterday that I thought was kind of peculiar: that fish oil can cause cancer. She's a cancer survivor, and took fish oil for years. Now she refuses to take it on the fear that it will cause her cancer to return. I don't have the slightest clue where she could have heard that, but as is often the case, people base their beliefs on limited information and dubious sources. But I thought this was kind of interesting, since I take fish oil – it's one of the few supplements I actually think has decent research behind hit.  And I don't eat as much fish as I'd like to, so it's kind of a pragmatic supplement.

So I Googled. I couldn't find any data suggesting that fish oil can cause cancer. In fact, the data, while only correlative, seems to be the opposite. What I did find was a lawsuit by some folks who claimed that some brands of fish oil exceeded FDA-approved levels of PCBs, which at high levels pose a cancer risk. Interestingly, the products tested were derived from liver oils, which may contain higher levels of PCBs than oils processed from the whole fish. The companies involved are disputing the findings.

But given the data suggesting that fish oil is, in fact, a pretty darn healthy supplement that, among other things, may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, it seems the best course of action may be to simply avoid liver-based fish oils.

As usual, the picture is not as black and white as people often assume.

Father Robert Barron: "Why do we believe in God?"

I hopped on to Youtube this afternoon, and this video popped up in my recommendations. It's a few years old, but I think it's worth addressing. In the vid, Father Robert Barron attempts to answer the question, why do we believe in God? I suppose why should we believe in God? would be a little better suited to us skeptic types, but he gives it his best shot:

1) The argument from desire

He describes his first argument as an "argument from desire"; that we seek things like truth, justice, and meaning, and we can't seem to find them here in the material world. Because we desire them, they must exist ("you can't desire what you don't know") – but beyond the material world.

Like wow. That's a doozy. At first glance, it's circular – how can we seek truth if we already know it? But I think he's wrong. We don't seek "truth", at least not in the nebulous way he seems to be defining it. Rather, we seek congruence between our experiences and our beliefs. I've kept in touch, via Facebook, with a number of friends from my church days. I've also become acquainted with a number of fellow apostates through the almighty interwebs. I've received a surprising number of candid letters from my old church friends, who are still practicing Christians, and found they share something with my fellow apostates: doubt. It's not just a skeptical kind of doubt, but a sense that what they've been taught to believe is incongruent with the reality they experience. Biases form when, instead of basing our beliefs on reality, we make assumptions about reality to fabricate that congruence. For example:

a) I prayed to God that my friend would be healed of cancer
b) My friend died of cancer

Whenever a prayer is perceived as not being answered, the believer fabricates a rationalization to preserve congruity between reality and belief. In this case, something like:

c) It must just have been God's will not to heal my friend

This of course begs the question that George Carlin so famously lampooned: if God is perfect, and he has a perfect divine plan, what the hell is the point in praying? God's just going to do his will anyway. But believers seldom entertain these kinds of questions; it's must easier to simply fabricate more rationalizations and/or ignore the cognitive dissonance such incongruity creates. In the case of every apostate I've encountered, they simply got fed up with the incongruity and decided that maybe the problem was how they tried to understand reality.

The point to all this being that yes, humans do in a sense seek "truth", but we often do it in irrational and unreliable ways. In science, we recognize that people are biased; thus, instead of attempting to remove bias from individuals, science prepares and accounts for bias with double-blind experimentation, peer review, and replication of observation. Theology, unfortunately, has no such means by which to weed out bias; thus instead of being derived from evidence, theology is asserted by authority.

But of course, it's just patently ridiculous to assert that because we desire something to be true that it therefor must be true. Of course we can desire things we don't "know" – we can desire a great many things to be true without knowing whether they actually are.

2) Religion and science compliment each other

For the second argument, Barron claims that scientists assume the universe is "intelligible" – that "it can be known". But the intelligibility of the universe is not an assumption – it's an observation. We observe that no matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter where we look, the laws of physics always operate the same way. In fact, we understand this from the time we're infants – something cognitive psychologists call "intuitive physics". That is, we don't have to test every solid-looking object to make sure we won't pass through it; we don't drop everything we pick up just to make sure gravity works on all objects we enounter. We observe the laws of physics with such consistency that we simply assume they work all the time. And, while intuition and assumption aren't tools of science, science has done a remarkable job of demonstrating that things like chemistry and physics do obey certain laws with unwavering reliability such that in this case, and on the scales which we observe physics in our daily lives, our intuition is correct. (I mention scales of perception to distinguish our experiences from the often counter-intuitive physics on the cosmic scales of general relativity, or the subatomic scales of quantum mechanics.)

But this is also one of those ridiculous arguments in which a God of some sort is posited, and somehow we're supposed to get from that to Jesus. Even if God does exist, it could be a pantheistic consciousness or an indifferent deistic creator. "God" could be some superintelligent species of alien from a parallel universe or a block of ethereal Swiss cheese. A theologian still has all their work ahead of them to get from some nebulous concept of a creative intelligence to a god who loves you, forgives your sins, answers your prayers and intervenes in the natural world.

3) Argument from contingency

And there he went and busted out the old ontological argument. Ugh. Whenever you hear the words "necessary" and "contingent", you know you're hearing ontological bullshit. Since I've discussed the argument in detail previously in the link above, I'll just stick to what Father Barron is asserting.

He says we don't exist "necessarily". We don't have to be here, but we are. But, from a standpoint of probability, how can it be said that we don't exist necessarily? In quantum mechanics, the universe does not have a single past or future, but all possible pasts and futures (yes... I'm still reading Hawking's The Grand Design). So it seems to me somewhat logical to suggest that indeed we do exist necessarily. Right now, our probability of being here is 100%. But wait. Maybe he means that the universe doesn't need us. Which it doesn't. Yes, all the hundreds of billions of galaxies are not here just for you. Get over it. Or maybe he means the universe doesn't have to exist, and yet it does. But that's just it – it does. It's a little silly to query whether it has to.

Perhaps a more appropriate question is whether the universe requires some kind of external condition to come into existence. Well, if you've been keeping up with science, the answer is no – it doesn't. The laws of quantum mechanics allow the universe to be completely self-contained. Much like theologians claim in regard to God, the universe itself can simply BE. It's funny how for all the talk about religion and science being perfectly harmonious, those kinds of scientific concepts seem to make believers a little uncomfortable. And why shouldn't they be? Every argument Barron puts forth is simply an appeal to mystery. Desire is so mysterious. Existence is so mysterious. Therefor, God.

I'm not buying it.

18 September 2010

Dawkins vs. Ratzinger

Wow! (Updated with much higher quality video)

Bill Donohue thinks atheists should apologize for Hitler

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, is one of those people whose thought processes are so remarkably vacuous that he fills his rather expansive intellectual void by being loud and belligerent. He's fond of saying things that are so ignorant and fallacious that you could swear the guy is trying to parody something, and damn is he awesome, until that horrible moment when you realize this clown actually believes the nonsense he's spewing. So recently, he posted something on the Catholic League website in which he demanded that atheists apologize for Nazis:
Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities. 
Man, where to start.

First of all, Donohue, as usual, gets his facts wrong. Hitler was a professed Catholic. The entire Nazi army wore belts with the slogan "Gott Mit Uns", which just happens to be the slogan of the Lutheran church: "God with us". In Mein Kampf, Hitler makes countless references to his religious faith. Some may say that Hilter didn't really believe in God, and that he was just a savvy politician – which may or may not be true. But what is true is that Hilter made countless public references to his faith, and that he publically declared atheists to be the enemy. Moreover, it's well documented that numerous high-ranking Catholics had close ties to the German government at the time.

And then there's the whole comparison of the Inquisition with more recent genocides. It's a ridiculous comparison, for a number of reasons:
  • Record keeping from the time leaves something to be desired, to say the least, so it's really difficult to say how many people died in the Inquisition
  • There were a lot more people alive, and thus a lot more people to kill, in the 20th century than in the 13th
  • People in the 13th century did not have bombs, gas chambers, or machine guns that could quickly kill multitudes of people
  • There are also those pesky crusades and witch burnings, also devoid of machine guns and gas chambers

But while I feel compelled to call out Bill Donohue's bullshit, all this fact checking is really beside the point – his whole argument is rooted in a fallacy, and addressing this fallacy is how, in my opinion at least, atheists/agnostics/skeptics/humanists/whatever should respond to these kinds of dumb arguments from religious nutcases. After all, religious apologists love pulling out the old Stalin canard: "See how much worse things were when ATHEISM ran rampant?!" Nevermind that the most peaceful, prosperous countries on this planet also happen to be the most secular. But I digress...

If someone tells you they are a theist, what do you know about them? Can you say whether they are politically liberal or conservative, what their views are on abortion or gay rights, or even whether they are Buddhist or fundamentalist Muslims? No. That is because while "theism" is a component of a great many religious philosophies, it is not a philosophy unto itself. It is simply a belief in a higher power – a god of some sort.

Atheism, likewise, is not a philosophy. It has no doctrine. It is simply the absence of belief in God. Atheists may be conservative or liberal, rational or irrational. While there is certainly some philosophical homogeneity among the "new atheists", that cultural movement is not reducible to atheism itself. A great many people are atheists who know little or nothing about science or religion, and who have not studied rational arguments for and against the existence of God. As with theism, there are atheistic philosophies. Marxism, for example, is an atheistic philosophy. But that doesn't mean Marxism is reducible to atheism, or that all atheists are Marxists. Of course not.

So yeah, take some kook like Stalin. He thought religion was a threat to the State, and tried to eradicate it. But were his actions motivated by a rational critique of science and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God? Of course not. They were motivated by nationalism and megalomania. Was Stalin's problem that he was too reasonable for his own good? Please.

What theists often miss in these discussion is this: the problem with religion is not necessarily the conclusion; it is the way it asks questions and seeks knowledge. Richard Dawkins says it himself in The Devil's Chaplain:
My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a "they" as opposed to a "we" can be identified at all.
Atheists are fond of pointing how irrational thought processes lead to dangerous behavior, and that often includes specific religious doctrines being adhered to in a wholly uncritical manner. But in all my readings and video-watching, I've yet to hear an atheist suggest that theism implicitly leads to destructive behavior. Yet theists try to pull this canard on atheists all too often, and like all theistic arguments it's predicated on a logical fallacy. If there's one thing nutbars like Bill Donohue are good at, it's throwing stones from glass houses.

12 September 2010

My Grand Design for a book review

I got Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design today. For a book on theoretical physics, it looks to be a rather unintimidating read: It's not very fat, the font is reasonably large and generously spaced, and there are lots of pictures. Contrast that with, say, Lisa Randall's absolutely fascinating book Warped Passages, which despite its fascinating... uh... fascinating-ness, is approximately 40,000 pages of text that requires, at bare minimum, a monocle for accurate viewing.

Anyway, I will of course do a thorough discussion on the book. But before that, I'll do a quick vid that I'll stick on my dusty YouTube page to just give an overview of everything. Got it? Synchronize watches!

07 September 2010

Accomodationism in the New York Times: a review of "The Grand Design" and a strange op-ed

There's a rather odd and unpersuasive op-ed in the NY Times today by a self-proclaimed atheist by the name of Tim Crane. It's an odd little bit of accomodationism, essentially a retreat to the old canard that religion is about meaning, and science is about stuff:
... scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability.
Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical.
Well duh. That's because unlike science, there's no methodology to religious beliefs. There's no way of determining, in any valid or reliable way, whose theological claims are true and whose are false. What a shocker: making shit up does not require years of training or specialized knowledge.
... most people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it.
Crane seems to fault human nature, but evidence abounds that we're an extraordinarily curious species, and accordingly I don't think the problem is our nature. I think the problem is how science is taught; a lack of education and a lack of exposure hinders our sense of wonder for the natural world. In the absence of the informative elegance of scientific knowledge, it's easy for people to resort to making things up instead. 
Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.

Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.
Yeah yeah... this is similar to something Richard Dawkins discusses in The God Delusion: that while for a scientist a mystery is the beginning of the question, for the religious person, the mystery is the end of the question. But I think Crane misses the side of the barn here. Religious claims that God created the world,  intervenes in natural events, answers prayers, or that are souls survive death are indeed scientific claims: they are claims about the nature of reality, and the job of science is to understand reality. But see, religious "meaning" isn't inserted as a layer of frosting on these types of claims; the meaning is found in the claims.

Take for example the oft-spouted nonsense by creationists that evolution renders our lives meaningless and morally misguided, or the simple notion that God created our universe (and by extension, us) – so that instead of being "cosmic accidents", we're the intentional product of a loving being. The whole fallacious notion that religion attempts to answer questions of meaning while science attempts to answer questions of fact is undone by the fact that once the many factual claims of religion are stripped away, it becomes... *drumroll*... meaningless. That is why Stephen Hawking's recent comment that the universe did not need a creator is stirring such ire in the religious community: it strips religion of its utility, and by extension, its meaning. Believers derive a sense of comfort from the thought that they, and the world about them, were purposefully crafted; strip away the need for such a designer in our understanding of the universe, and religion is left bereft of any sentimental or pragmatic value.

In other Times news and speaking of Stephen Hawking, some guy there reviewed The Grand Design, and he didn't like it. I think the best commentary on the review I saw was in the comments section over at Jerry Coyne's blog, from user Ben Goren:
Mr. Garner claims that it’s the tone of the book he doesn’t care for, but he reveals the true source of his dislike in the last two paragraphs of the review:
The arguments in “The Grand Design” — especially those about why God isn’t necessary to imagine the beginning of the universe — put me in mind of something Mr. Ferris said in his excellent book “The Whole Shebang” (1997).
“Religious systems are inherently conservative, science inherently progressive,” Mr. Ferris wrote. Religion and science don’t have to be hostile to each other, but we can stop setting them up on blind dates. “This may be an instance,” Mr. Ferris added, “where good walls make good neighbors.”
Or, in other words, how dare Professor Hawking discard Mr. Garner’s favorite pantheon like a used condom? Doesn’t he know that those magisteria aren’t supposed to overlap? Why, cross the magisteria like that and you could get cats and dogs living together, and we can’t have that, now, can we?

06 September 2010

What religious tolerance really means

Sam Harris has a post today on his Facebook page where he asks his fans to compare an op-ed from Christopher Hitchens over at Slate to the apparently way-too-sissified prose on tolerance from Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times. I read both articles and I encourage you to do the same, but here's the gist of each: the Hitch tells us that Islam is fundamentally a dangerous religion, and that it must either be eradicated or conform to the inexorable forward march of secular modernism; Kristof reminds us that being respectful of those who hold different opinions, traditions, and values is a central part of what makes America the land of the free.

Sam Harris derides Kristof's essay as "pablum", and to an extent I think he's right. But I think that fundamentally, both scribes are correct. Hitch is right to say, regarding Islam, "Some of its adherents follow or advocate the practice of plural marriage, forced marriage, female circumcision, compulsory veiling of women, and censorship of non-Muslim magazines and media." I'm not a fan of the weasel language "some of its adherents", but it's not by any stretch an insignificant number of Muslims who support these practices. Islam, like any religion, is full of dumb ideas; it should be roundly criticized, and its feet held to the fires of rational inquiry. But Kristof is correct to point out that allowing people to be weird or different, even if we don't like it, is fundamentally an important value.

I suppose that frames my outlook on the construction of the mosque. I don't have a problem with it from a civil point of view – people do, and should, have the right to propagate whatever silly ideas they want, and we should be careful not to brand all or even most followers of any religion with the actions of extremists. But being "tolerant" of different ideologies doesn't mean exempting them from criticism, because the public dissemination of ideas is a fundamental American and human right.

04 September 2010

Sean Carroll on Stephen Hawking

Physicist Sean Carroll explains Stephen Hawking's controversial statement that God was not needed to create the unvierse:

I've said it a hundred times before, and I'll say it again: the only thing worse than a god that doesn't exist is a god that might as well not exist. Hawking's ideas aren't new, and cosmology has been to a point for quite some time where a deity was not necessary to explain the origin of the universe. But I'm glad that a big gun like Stephen Hawking is having the cojones to put it out there in the public forum, because that famous question, "Why is there something rather than nothing" has been answered with science, and it's time more believers know it.

I don't expect Hawking's statement, or his book, to instigate a mass wave of deconversions. But if it gets some people thinking critically about their faith, if it gets more people eschewing revelation and sentiment in favor of reason and evidence, then he's accomplished a great deal.

But this is consistent with what science has done to religion at every turn: made it irrelevant to our understanding of the world. Evolution showed how all life arose through natural processes rather than spontaneous, magical creation; we're on the cusp of a complete theory of abiogenesis, showing how life arose from inorganic matter; science has debunked the folly of prayer, and we can explain suffering, disease and disaster without theology; we can explain morality through evolutionary psychology, the origin and utility of religious belief through cognitive psychology, and now, the coup de grace: we can explain the origin of the universe through science alone.

I'm fond of Sam Harris' question: can we name a single phenomenon for which the best explanation used to be scientific, but is now religious? Of course not. Religion is a failed science. It's a failed utility for understanding ourselves and the world around us. Science continually usurps it, and religion will continue its path into obscurity and irrelevance.

The myth of the historical Jesus

Something has been on my brain, kind of randomly: Jesus. Not the religion that worships him and eats him, but the idea of Jesus as a historical figure. Some non-Christians figure Jesus was probably just a nice, charismatic dude who shopped at Journeys and played guitar in Fleet Floxes, and that all the divine parlor tricks are just myths. But I take the more confrontational and factual position that Jesus, at least in the way he's described in the Bible, did not exist at all. He is a complete work of fiction.

The only records of Jesus' existence are the books we see in the Bible. A lot of people, like Francis Collins (the human genome guy), think that the four gospels are eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life. But there are two really, really big problems with that. The first is that even by the questionable standards of early-church scholarship, the gospels were all written decades after Jesus purportedly lived. The second is that they are simply not written like eyewitness accounts; there are countless times when Jesus wanders off alone, and then we're told exactly what he and God (or Satan) said to each other.

There's a stunning lack of contemporaneous evidence that Jesus ever existed — in fact there is exactly zero. There are no collaborating documents of Jesus's life anywhere. And here was a guy who, by any standard, was pretty amazing. He performed amazing miracles before thousands of people and was persecuted by the Roman Empire, but there are no contemporaneous records of his existence at all?

But there's another simple, and very obvious problem with the accounts of Jesus, which is the fact that virtually his entire life is absent from any kind of recorded history at all, much less contemporaneous records. Does it not ever bother Christians that people were supposedly there for his birth (which was suspiciously similar to the Egyptian god Horus), and then nobody seems to know what he did for the next 30 years? Does it not bother them that the New Testament is loaded with internal condradictions? That claims the gospels make, such as Herod ordering all firstborn killed or that he performed a census, lack any corroborating contemporaneous evidence?

Of course, I can't prove that Jesus didn't exist. One website attempting to address the historicity of the census said that just because there isn't any extra-Biblical evidence doesn't mean it isn't true. Well duh. But it means that the case for it being true is very, very weak, because you're just believing it because it's in the Bible. Using the Bible to verify that Jesus existed is sort of like using Gone With The Wind to verify that Scarlett O'Hara existed. I mean, the Civil War really did happen, right? Many of the places and events described were described accurately. Not only that, but there are multiple accounts of the events — a book and a movie!

Consider one last thing, an argument I have to credit to Sam Harris. Consider that right now, the mystic Sathya Sai Baba has thousands upon thousands of followers. People believe he performs Jesus-caliber miracles, some of which are unimpressively documented on YouTube. People believe that Benny Hinn can channel the power of Jesus to cure the blind and the crippled. People believe that John Edward can talk to their deceased loved ones. And people believe this stuff today, in our scientific and technologically advanced age, where we can pretty much prove that those guys are full of shit. And yet we're supposed to believe that people 2,000 years ago, retelling fantastic events decades after they happened, are reliably accurate?

Christians use a kind of special pleading, where they disregard all the countless other stories of gods and miracles as myth, but embrace Christianity's as infallible truth. At least as an atheist, I'm an equal-opportunity blasphemer. I think all religions are stupid and false. It's just a damn shame that in our modern world, it's accepted and even respected to believe first and ask questions later. Being skeptical is good. Demanding plausible evidence for extraordinary claims is good. Disregarding those things for your own comfort... not so good.

03 September 2010

The ontological argument

Through some comments on Youtube videos, I've found myself in a discussion/debate about the ontological argument. If you're not familiar with this rather odd argument for the existence of God, it essentially tries to define God into existence. I think apologist philosopher type like the argument not because it's particularly good, but because it uses a lot of obscure language and is really confusing to most people. Then apologists can just sort of smugly say, "See, you just don't understand the argument."

As with all philosophical arguments for the existence of God, there are a number of versions of the ontological argument. I'll lay out a couple of them:

Ansel's ontological argument (the original) 

1. If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I can think of no being greater
1a. If it is false that I can think of no being greater, it is false I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
2. Being is greater than not being
3. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I can think of no being greater.
4. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
Conclusion: If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I am thinking of a being  that exists
Descartes' ontological argument
  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
  2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Alvin Plantinga's ontological argument
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

Alright. If any of these seem kind of ridiculous, it's because they are. But Bertrand Russel famously remarked that it's easier to feel like it's a fallacious argument than to point out precisely where the fallacy lies. Well, allow me to do that.

The ontological argument conflates concepts with actual things. There is a difference, for example, between the concept of God, and God himself. Everyone agrees that the concept of God exists, but that's not the same thing as saying that God actually exists.

The ontological argument makes a few errors. Plantinga, for example, uses the term "maximally great". But what exactly is "maximally great" supposed to mean? "Great" is an arbitrarily defined term, and the term "maximally great" is no more meaningful than "maximally sexy" or "maximally cool". The concept of "possible worlds" is similarly silly. A "possible world" is simply something we can conjure up in our imaginations. But just because we can dream it doesn't mean it's actually possible. We aren't dreaming up actual worlds, just concepts of worlds.

But the fatal flaw of the ontological argument is the notion that existence itself is a "great-making property". In other words, if we can dream something up, it's greater if it actually exists than if it doesn't exist. But again, anything we conjure up is merely a concept that is, in certain cases, representative of a real thing. When I'm thinking of, say, a horse, my thoughts are not an actual horse; they are the concept of a horse.

The problem for the ontological argument is that existence is a pre-requisite for something to have actual properties, rather than just concepts of properties. A horse has certain properties that make it a horse. But if it didn't actually exist, it wouldn't have any of those properties; rather, we could conjure up imaginary concepts of properties that would comprise this imaginary creature called a horse. But that's all they'd be – concepts. Some will argue that God exists necessarily; to quote Peter S. Williams:
The goodness of existing per se is a great making property that admits a logical maximum in necessary existence. And although - as Hume and Kant pointed out - saying that something ‘exists’ does not add to the list of its properties, to say that something ‘exists necessarily’ does add to its list of properties.
But of course you can't exist necessarily unless you already exist in the first place – in other words, someone making the ontological argument would have to prove that God exists before they can prove that he exists necessarily. To assume otherwise simply begs the question.

So the ontological argument is circular because existence is not a property – it's what you have to have before something can actually have properties. Otherwise, you're simply talking about concepts, not actual things. Hopefully that cuts through some of the fog of this colossally weird argument.

02 September 2010

I wonder what all those accomodationists will say about this one

Stephen Hawking has a new book coming out next Tuesday, and apparently part of it has him suggesting that when it comes to the creation of the universe, God just wasn't necessary.

This is of course different than saying that he's disproved the existence of God or something like that. But accomodationists like Francis Collins, Fransico Ayala, Kenneth Miller, and... well, the entire Templeton Foundation have long acquiesced to the fact that evolution, driven by the blind processes of survival and reproduction, doesn't require a deity to guide it. So they simply shifted the goalpost and said the universe itself, and its apparent design, is evidence of God's existence.

I've read a number of popular science books on physics including a couple of Hawking's books, and I subscribe to Scientific American, which occasionally features articles on cosmology. Hawking's comments really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who stays abreast of developments in the field, but it will undoubtedly make the accomodationists a little squeamish. No, we can disprove the existence of God. But we can do one better – we can show that God is unnecessary. As I've said many times before: the only thing worse than a god who probably doesn't exist is a god whose existence doesn't matter.

01 September 2010

More on Francis Collins

The virtual ink had barely dried on my critique of Francis Collins' The Language of God when I came across an essay he contributed to the Templeton Foundation. Generally, I am not a fan of the Templeton Foundation and its attempts to conflate science and religion as though each were valid forms of inquiry (there is no methodology to religious inquiry), but I don't particularly mind when they invite people of all different scientific and religious perspectives to comment on a "Big Question". The Big Question this time around was "Does evolution explain human nature?" [link] Personally, I was most impressed by the essay of primatologist Frans De Waal, of whose fantastic books Our Inner Ape and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved I am very fond.

But I wanted to take some time to address parts of Francis Collins' essay, most notably because in his essay he addresses some of my criticisms of his book — namely, that he was merely "shifting the goalposts" and celebrating the beauty of science where it has solved certain mysteries, and celebrating the beauty of religion where science has yet to give us clear answers.

The link to the full article in PDF form can be found here, and I do recommend reading the whole thing (and the other essays available). I'll simply be responding to the parts I feel are most relevant to my critique of his book.
Scientists who share my view do not see evolution as incompatible with the Bible, and we are puzzled and distressed that so many modern-day Christians insist on an ultra-literal reading of Genesis, when thoughtful believers down through the centuries have concluded that this story of God's plan for creation was never intended to be read as a scientific textbook. We see science as the way to understand the awesome nature of God’s creation and as a powerful method for answering the "how" questions about our universe. But we also see that science is powerless to answer the fundamental "why" questions, such as "Why is there something instead of nothing?," "Why am I here?," and "Why should good and evil matter?"

On the contrary, science can do something much more profound than purport to answer such questions: it can tell us whether such questions are even valid to begin with. Perhaps the problem is not that the answers are elusive, but that we are asking the wrong questions. The important question science begs us to ask is, "How do we know what we claim to know?" The problem with Collins' position ("We see science as the way to understand the awesome nature of God’s creation")is that he assumes the existence of God and the truthfulness of his religious claims as postulates. Thus every mystery that science unveils is evidence of his God, and his God is evident in every mystery science unveils. He fails to explain why he is making such metaphysical assumptions in the first place.

Let's focus on this last question. One of the most notable characteristics of humanity, across centuries, cultures, and geographic locations, is a universal grasp of the concept of right and wrong and an inner voice that calls us to do the right thing. This is often referred to as the moral law. We may not always agree on what behaviors are right (which is heavily influenced by culture), but we generally agree that we should try to do good and avoid evil. When we break the moral law (which we do frequently, if we are honest with ourselves), we make excuses, only further demonstrating that we feel bound by the moral law in our dealings with others.
I don't want to jump ahead of him too much, but Collins appears to be walking a strangely blurred line. He insists that we all have some grasp of "right and wrong" — which, in a sense, is true. But then he says that our beliefs about which behaviors are right are heavily influenced by culture. This is not a scientifically untenable position for one positing an evolutionary model of morality. As De Waal explains in his essay, we know that many of our behaviors are shared with primates — empathy, sympathy, reciprocity, self-awareness, even culture and social hierarchies. Yet we also know that social norms have the ability to shape our concept of acceptable behavior, even to the extent that, until the last century or two, slavery was commonplace across the globe. But Collins isn't positing an evolutionary model; he's trying to show that our moral intuitions are evidence of God's existence.
Evolutionary arguments, which ultimately depend on reproductive fitness as the overarching goal, may explain some parts of this human urge toward altruism, especially if self-sacrificing acts are done on behalf of relatives or those from whom you might expect some future reciprocal benefit. But evolutionary models universally predict the need for reflexive hostility to outside groups, and we humans do not seem to have gotten that memo. We especially admire cases in which individuals make sacrifices for strangers or members of outside groups: think of Mother Teresa, or Oskar Schindler, or the Good Samaritan.
His statement that "evolutionary models universally predict the need for reflexive hostility to outside groups" is patently untrue. While it's true that out-group hostility can sometimes serve in-group solidarity, our innate empathetic drive is not arbitrarily confined to members of our own in-groups. Why should it be? To be reflexively hostile would impede our ability to cooperate with others who may greatly benefit our survival and well-being, or even our ability form in-groups in the first place. It's also quite a ridiculous characterization of the animal kingdom, in which countless animals — primates in particular — function cooperatively in some respect with various out-groups. In any case, I feel that Collins greatly overestimating the peculiarities of human behavior, and greatly underestimating their roots in our evolutionary ancestors.

We should be skeptical of those who dismiss these acts of radical altruism as some sort of evolutionary misfiring. And if these noble acts are frankly a scandal to reproductive fitness, might they instead point in a different direction - toward a holy, loving, and caring God, who instilled the moral law in each of us as a sign of our special nature and as a call to relationship with the Almighty?
The first sentence is a reference to evolutionary models I mentioned briefly in my critique of The Language Of God, namely that acts of extreme selflessness may be an exaggerated or misdirected form of the same empathetic emotional responses that drive us toward more commonplace reciprocal altruism, reinforced by social norms that associate nobility with selfless charity (it should not be difficult to understand why such norms would be beneficial to any socially cooperative culture).

Collins' fatal error, though, is assuming that since evolution shapes our behavior and evolution is primarily concerned with reproductive fitness, that behavior that doesn't contribute to our survival and reproductive fitness would be disregarded by natural selection. We are simply much more complicated creatures than that. Natural selection has merely given us traits — instincts, emotional responses, pattern recognition, etc. — that improve our likelihood to survive and reproduce. Evolution gives no mind to the outcome of these traits. For example, we are excellent pattern-recognition animals, but we often make pattern-recognition errors — mistaking the wind for a voice, the random scattering of grill marks on a toasted cheese sandwich for a divine face, or a tumbling leaf for an animal. Pattern-recognition errors clearly do not contribute to our reproductive fitness, but our general ability to recognize patterns certainly does.

Moreover, extreme altruism toward out-groups may indeed have positive long-term effects on our survival by promoting a charitable culture in which the more fortunate among us offer aid to the less fortunate as well as fostering inter-group cooperation. Of course, we do not act with the foreknowledge of such outcomes, but our altruistic behavior is the product of an innate empathetic emotional response, not a logical algorithm.

The fallacious reasoning of his conclusion is all to easy to expose by simply substituting any other unfalsifiable hypothesis for "God": And if these noble acts are frankly a scandal to reproductive fitness, might they instead point in a different direction - toward a remarkable race of benevolent extra-dimensional aliens who created us, and who instilled the moral law in each of us as a sign of our special nature and as a call to relationship with them?

Do not get me wrong. I am not arguing that the existence of the moral law somehow proves God’s existence. Such proofs cannot be provided by the study of nature. And there is an inherent danger in arguing that the moral law points to some sort of supernatural intervention in the early days of human history; this has the flavor of a "God of the gaps" argument. After all, much still remains to be understood about evolution's influence on human nature. But even if radically altruistic human acts can ultimately be explained on the basis of evolutionary mechanisms, this would do nothing to exclude God’s hand. For if God chose the process of evolution in the beginning to create humans in imago Dei, it would also be perfectly reasonable for God to have used this same process to instill knowledge of the moral law.

The logical flaw here is identical to the previous paragraph: why should we assume that any of this is evidence of "God" and not any other of the infinite number of unfalsifiable hypotheses we can conjure in our imaginations?
A deeper question raised by this debate is the fundamental nature of good and evil. Does morality actually have any foundation? To be consistent, a committed atheist, who argues that evolution can fully account for all aspects of human nature, must also argue that the human urge toward altruism, including its most radical and self-sacrificial forms, is a purely evolutionary artifact. This forces the conclusion that the concepts of good and evil have no real foundation, and that we have been hoodwinked by evolution into thinking that morality provides meaningful standards of judgment. Yet few atheists seem willing to own up to this disturbing and depressing consequence of their worldview. On the contrary, the most aggressive of them seem quite comfortable pointing to the evil they see religion as having inspired. Isn’t that rather inconsistent?

This is really a throwback to the old "if there's no God, nothing means anything" canard. Collins is really asserting that if morality is purely the result of evolution, our standards of behavior are not rooted in absolute truths. To put it another way, if morality is an outcome of evolution, then there is no real "right" or "wrong"; these are merely descriptors we assign to behaviors we find acceptable or not.

And he's right, but for the wrong reasons: "right" and "wrong" are pliable concepts rooted in evolutionarily driven behavioral instincts and reinforced through social norms. Evolutionary models of morality give us a viewpoint that is neither mystically absolute nor wantonly relativistic, but integral to our survival, happiness, and prosperity.

Collins also fails to answer how, if such divine absolutes did exist, we might possibly know them in any objective way. As I mentioned at the outset, there is no methodology to the acquisition of religious knowledge. Special revelation, feelings, visions, voices, and so forth are not valid means of obtaining truth. That is the real power in science: not just to unravel mysteries of the world around us, but to hold us accountable to our claims of knowledge. Religion remains the greatest bastion of superstitious ignorance, where unsubstantiated claims about the nature of reality are not only unchallenged by the burden of evidence, but even celebrated as virtuous. Aren't we getting too big for those britches?