31 May 2011

A primer on deconversion and good skepticism

Chris Johnson, of the site I Am an Ex-Mormon, talks about his deconversion. I find this to be a very remarkable and inspiring story that mirrors my own devotion to and deconversion from evangelical Christianity in many ways. After he talks about some of the cognitive dissonance he experienced during his days as a believer, he gives a superb primer on skeptical thinking. I especially love his bit about recognizing our own biases – especially the bias that we all want to be right. He challenges us by saying, "Stop wanting to be right, and start wanting the truth."

p.s. – When he's talking about how to test ideas, and gives the example that if your train of logic can be used to prove other similar ideas (he's talking specifically about the idea that praying and feelings can be used to "prove" oneself correct), I couldn't help but be reminded of an old argument William Lane Craig used about the witness of the holy spirit confirming to him the truth of his brand of Christianity over Mormonism:

Did religion make us who we are?

More material from our friend Jack Hudson, who apparently read my previous post. He comments,
While atheists are certainly free to say they they believe in science and art and poetry and love and marriage and family – and I believe it’s true – those aspects of human life invariably seem to have originated from religious belief. To the extent that the atheists enjoy those aspects of human life they are enjoying the fruits of the labors of others and are mere hangers-on to that which they were given by those who came before them. There is no evidence non-religious creatures could have given us the experiences that make us human.
Now, Jack's making two rather contentious propositions here:
  1. Science, art, poetry, love, marriage, and family originated from religious belief
  2. There is no evidence that if we didn't have religion, we would still have those things
While it's related to the first proposition, (2) is in some respects a tautology. Since the beginning of humanity, if a starting point can really even be discerned, we've taken to mythology and superstition. "Religion" as it's known today is a relatively recent invention; for the first 190,000 years or so of human existence, we lived as indigenous tribes whose primitive religions were probably similar to modern indigenous tribes. But we can't rewind the clock and make belief in supernatural things, whether it's ancestral spirits or animism or modern Western monotheism, not be a part of humanity's existence.

30 May 2011

Unintentional Christian comedy

This movie is probably going to be hilarious, but not for the reasons it's intended to be:

Here's the reality: pretty much no one "waits for marriage" [1], and I speculate that marrying young ("purity" pressure vs. raging hormones = marriage for the wrong reasons) is one of the reasons born-again Christians have a higher divorce rate than non-believers [2] – marrying young is correlated with a higher incidence of divorce [3].

I was also really amused when I stumbled on the Barna Group press release about their divorce statistics, and found this gem:
Although Bible scholars and teachers point out that Jesus taught that divorce was a sin unless adultery was involved, few Americans buy that notion. Only one out of every seven adults (15%) strongly agreed with the statement "when a couple gets divorced without one of them having committed adultery, they are committing a sin." A similar percentage (16%) moderately agreed with the statement. The vast majority - 66% - disagreed with the statement, most of them strongly dismissing the notion.
Typical. It's right there in the Bible, and it's not some archaic Old Testament law but the words of Jesus, and the overwhelming majority of Christians just say, "Yeah, I don't believe that." If that's not proof that believers just cherry pick the Bible, I don't know what is.

27 May 2011

How living as an atheist is totally, completely different than living as a theist

Alright, I know I said I was gonna take the weekend off, but I had some downtime at work today and I drafted this post. The rest was finished as I enjoyed a delicious cheeseburger. But seriously now, I'm out the rest of the weekend. Have a safe and fun Memorial Day!


It seems like I've given Jack Hudson of Christian blog Wide as the Waters some material lately, and it looks like he's returned the favor (thanks, Jack!). He recently wrote about the same study on evolution that I wrote about last week and, in discussing the researchers' conclusions, makes a rather sweeping statement:
It is a progression I have seen a number of times before – there is a beginning to unbelief which is claimed to be merely the product of scientific rationality and lack of an evidence for the immaterial or divine, then when it is apparent this isn’t sufficient for rational thought they adopt ontological naturalism or materialism – a framework on which he or she can construct metaphysical beliefs. Then ideas about existence and meaning and morality are built on this metaphysical framework. Eventually the ‘unbeliever’ has come full circle and is no less driven by a dogmatic faith than the most fundamentalist religionist.
It should go without saying that there's an obvious difference between a dogmatic worldview and an evidence-based worldview rooted in epistemic naturalism: that the latter is amenable to evidence, while the former is not. Dogma, by definition, claims absolute truth – fixed and unchanging. A naturalistic worldview, on the other hand, is contingent on our best understanding of reality – an understanding which may change as new evidence comes to light.

How to confuse a creationist


It's Memorial Day weekend! Woohoo!

Y'know, blogging takes a lot of time. And I realized this week that in addition to writing here and reading other people's blogs, I was spending a fair bit of time in the comments sections of both other people's blogs and my own. I love discussing and debating, but there are only so many hours in the day.

So with a three-day weekend coming up, I've decided to dedicate it to some serious shed time with my guitar, making a good dent in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (which is great), and possibly finishing The Witcher 2, which is also great.

In the meantime, I've recently come across a smart and prolific blogger who has a small readership, and she really deserves a big one:
One Minion's Opinion

She's got tons of content that can easily suck up a weekend.

If you're feeling feisty, head over to Christian blogger and occasional visitor/ideological antagonist Jack Hudson's blog and remind him why he's wrong.

Or, just do what I'm gonna do and kick back this weekend. See y'all next week!

23 May 2011

Study: Anxiety about death fuels belief in 'Intelligent Design'

We gnu atheists often suggest that religion is, in many cases, just wishful thinking. Now,  new research out of the University of British Columbia and Union College in Schenectady, NY and published in the journal PLoS ONE (the Public Library of Science) finds that certain people reject evolution and embrace intelligent design because they find that the cold, algorithmic nature of evolution does not satisfy their desire for meaning and purpose.
Despite scientific consensus that intelligent design theory is inherently unscientific, 25 per cent of high school biology teachers in the U.S. devote at least some class time to the topic of intelligent design. And in Canada, for example, Alberta passed a law in 2009 that may allow parents to remove children from courses covering evolution.
"Our results suggest that when confronted with existential concerns, people respond by searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life," says [UBC Asst. Psychology Prof Jessica Tracy]. "For many, it appears that evolutionary theory doesn't offer enough of a compelling answer to deal with these big questions."

22 May 2011

I'm sort of proud of myself

Alert readers (both of you!) may have noticed that I didn't blog about any of that rapture stuff. It's because I really didn't see the point. Obviously non-believers don't take any of it seriously, but the overwhelming majority of believers don't take it seriously either.

End-times prophecy is big business, as testified by the huge sales of the Left Behind series of books. I've personally known people who stocked their attics full of "Tribulation food". The most insidious part of this whole story is that several people gave their life savings to Harod Camping, the old fart behind the fiasco. I've said it many times before: wherever there are people stupid enough to believe in that stuff, there will be someone smart enough to make money of off their stupidity.

End-times groups/cults/whatever you want to call them are actually fascinating to me from sociological and psychological standpoint. In literally every end-times story from the return of Christ to 2012, the gist is the same: everyone else gets destroyed, but we – the true believers – find ourselves in a new utopia. That's why you can find dozens of websites selling supplies for the Tribulation or for 2012. End of the world events are only the end of the world for "them". It's a radical conjuration of in-groups who feel cut off and disconnected from the rest of the world, and the destruction isn't so much feared as romanticized. 

I'd love to see some real anthropological research on the phenomenon. To my understanding, such stories are almost as old as civilization itself.

Atheists have better sex than believers

Here's a whopper, but one that should come as no surprise to apostates: atheists have better sex lives, while believers tend to be overwhelmingly plagued by guilt. A "Sex and Secularism" study out of Kansas that surveyed more than 14,500 people found that believers did not enjoy sex as much because of the stigmas created by their belief systems. And the margins weren't small, either:
The study found that in individuals, the stronger their religious beliefs were the more powerful their feelings of sexual regret
Of people raised in very religious homes, 22.5 per cent said they were shamed or ridiculed for masturbating  compared with only 5.5 percent of people brought up in the least religious homes.
Some 79.9 per cent of people raised in very religious homes said they felt guilty about a specific sexual activity or desire while 26.3 per cent of those raised in secular homes did.
Worryingly, children raised in strongly religious homes were more likely to get their sex education from pornography, as they were not confident enough to talk with their parents.
However, there was some good news for religious groups. People who had lost their belief and became atheists reported a significant improvement in sexual satisfaction.
That last one's a doozy, but none of this comes as a surprise, particularly given the last line, a quote from one of the authors:
'Of course, they have to return to their religion to get forgiveness. It's like the church gives you the disease, then offers you a fake cure.'

I've discussed this several times in the past. It's commonly believed that religion exists to offer comfort to its believers. But, as Pascal Boyer pointed out in his book Religion Explained, "If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates." This is precisely what religion does so masterfully, and so insidiously: it contrives feelings of guilt, then offers you respite from the guilt it contrived. One of the best things about being an atheist is being free from such nonsense, and being able to enjoy sex openly and responsibly.

Read the full article here.

19 May 2011

The problem with natural theology

I want to expand a bit on a concept I talked about a while back in my post on ontological naturalism: namely, the idea that supernatural concepts are fundamentally incoherent. Theologians argue that theology is, like science, a viable of means attaining knowledge; but I am going to argue that theology is in principle incapable of imparting us with knowledge.  I'm not concerned with theological debates over doctrine (revealed theology), but rather natural theology. From Wikipedia:
Natural theology is a branch of theology based on reason and ordinary experience. Thus it is distinguished from revealed theology (or revealed religion) which is based on scripture and religious experiences of various kinds.
Natural theology is what most apologists, from C.S. Lewis to William Lane Craig to Francis Collins to Alister McGrath, are preoccupied with; it's the idea that we can use our understanding of the natural world to make inferences about the existence and nature of divine or supernatural things. Take, for example, the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause to its existence
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Ergo, the universe has a cause to its existence
The purpose of this argument is to articulate what we feel is intuitively true – the idea that something can't come from nothing – and cantilever those intuitions into realms that are beyond our immediate, objective reach. In other words, it's attempting to use our intuitive understanding of the world around us to infer things about worlds beyond us. That's the crux of all natural theology and, as I aim to show, its downfall.

Kirk Cameron vs. Stephen Hawking

This is just too good.

Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Chair of Mathematics for 30 years and world-renown theoretical physicist, ruffled the feathers of some believers recently when he said in a recent interview,
I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
Well yes, I certainly agree, and not least for the fact that the very concept of the afterlife is completely incoherent. But Hawking is simply expressing his personal belief, and he pretty much leaves it at that. Kirk Cameron, apprentice to Master Stooge Ray Comfort, grabbed a few headlines with his "rebuttal", published by TMZ:
Cameron tells us, "Professor Hawking is heralded as 'the genius of Britain,' yet he believes in the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything and that life sprang from non-life."

He adds, "Why should anyone believe Mr. Hawking's writings if he cannot provide evidence for his unscientific belief that out of nothing, everything came?"
A couple of things to say here. First, you gotta love a washed up actor-cum-evangelical lecturing one of the world's most renown scientists on what science is.

17 May 2011

Stewart v. O'Reilly

Jon Stewart, despite his comedy pedigree, has shown himself on many occasions to be a shrewd thinker and incisive media critic. O'Reilly is, as usual, louder than he is substantive.

14 May 2011

Made-up minds

There's a great article over at The Week that discusses just how stubborn people are when it comes to changing their minds about deeply held beliefs. The article focuses on political views, but certainly religious views are subject to the same biases. It discusses how end-of-the-world cults, when the world doesn't actually end, find ways to rationalize the events in a way that actually reinforces their beliefs. As the article details, we've seen the same thing with vaccine deniers, the debunked Iraq-Al Queada connections and climate change denial. I would add creationists (including the intelligent design movement) and a litany of believers with whom I've argued who, when presented evidence against their view, either change the subject or attempt to discredit the evidence rather than offering counter-evidence of their own. From the article:
In other words, by the time we're consciously "reasoning," we may instead be rationalizing our prior emotional commitments. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end — winning our "case" — and is shot through with biases. These include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial. Plainly put, if I don't want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else.

13 May 2011

Pat Condell on Pascal's Wager

I've always thought that Pascal's Wager was one of the dumbest arguments for Christianity. The most obvious reason is simply that any position could be wrong, so you're not taking any less of a chance by being a Christian and being potentially wrong about Islam or Jainism than you are being a non-believer entirely. More egregiously though, it erroneously assumes we can voluntarily change our beliefs – that we can decide to accept something as true even when all our rational faculties have led us to believe otherwise.

But worst of all is the notion of Hell. Christians will tell you we have free will to accept or reject God, but what we really have is a choice between coerced submission and the most horrible punishment imaginable. NonStampCollector lampooned this foolishness to great effect in a series of videos that used actual comments from Christians, and now Pat Condell is tackling it with his trademark incisiveness.

11 May 2011

A poem, from Closet Atheist

Harry over at Closet Atheist has a poem entitled, "Here I am, burning in Hell", and I love it.
I should have known better
when he talked to me in all those love letters
I should have tried more voraciously to understand
that ordering the execution of women and children was a moral and justified plan
Like a good father sometimes does, God did some things to his children that they just couldn’t comprehend
This seems to be an ongoing but necessary Old Testament trend
But, now his infinite justice has been served
A never ending punishment is what I deserve
I should have listened more keenly to Pascal’s Wager
even though it seemed implausible according to Occam’s razor
I should have realized that Christianity was the only way
and all these other religions were just there to lead me astray
Read the rest

10 May 2011

Evid3nce on epistemology

Youtube user "Evid3nce", whom I credit with the "network theory of deconversion" I discussed once upon a time, has done an exceptional job building a library of videos that thoroughly yet concisely elucidate his deconversion from Christianity to atheism.

In his latest video, he discusses epistemology. I might nitpick a few things, in the sense that I wouldn't quite explain them the way he did, but all in all this is a superb video. It's also a surprisingly lucid critique of Descartes and Rationalism, which he rejects in favor of Evidentialist Foundationalism. This is an area of philosophy I am not familiar with, but he makes a very compelling case.

More proof the Tea Party isn't serious about the debt

I always like to start talks about the national debt by reminding readers that the only President in the last 30 years to reduce the national debt was Clinton, in the latter years of his term. It was one of the few things that was accomplished, remarkably, with something called "bipartisanship". The debt nearly quadrupled under Regan and HW, and doubled from $5 trillion to $10 trillion under W. So while I wholeheartedly agree with tea partiers that we must reduce the debt, you'll have to forgive me for being skeptical that conservatives suddenly are willing to make real sacrifices.

And, as usual, they're not. It's just politics as usual. They'll fuss over millions in annual federal funds for Planned Parenthood, but raise taxes by 3% on the wealthiest Americans, which would save tens of billions annually? Never. And now, Democrats are calling their bluff on the debt ceiling:
WASHINGTON -- Less than a day after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) demanded that the debt ceiling not be lifted unless the government reduce spending by $2 trillion, Democrats are calling his bluff.
Senate Democratic leadership is asking Boehner to reaffirm support for ending tax breaks to five of the top oil companies as part of his quest to achieve federal savings.

09 May 2011

High-fructose corn syrup

Here's a creepy-ish low budget parody of those dumb commercials being put out by the Corn Refiners Association:

A few things to say about this, though. One minor beef I have here is with the notion that HFCS isn't "natural". It's important to remember that there is no FDA consensus on what defines a food as "natural". It's a completely arbitrary definition that's used strictly for marketing purposes. And just because something is made with supposedly "unnatural" ingredients doesn't mean it's carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous to eat.

This isn't to say I think it's good to eat HFCS – although the truth is that, like any food, a little bit here and there won't hurt you. If you drink pop and/or eat candy on a frequent basis, you're asking for trouble – just like if eating fries every day is asking for trouble, though the occasional helping of fries will not hurt you. No single food will cripple you if you are eating a generally healthy diet: whole grains, legumes, lean meats, nuts, and a variety of fruits and vegetables.

The best reason to avoid HFCS is simply that it's calorie dense, spikes insulin, and foods it's used in tend to be devoid of nutrients.

08 May 2011

Sean Carroll on the nature of time

A common false dichotomy peddled by religious apologists is that either the universe had a beginning a finite time ago, or it went on infinitely in the past – which, they argue, is impossible. To me, this has always sounded like flat-Earth cosmology: if the Earth were flat, we'd have two options – it would either go on forever, or stop at a finite boundary.

But just as we learned there is a third option for Earth – that it is both finite and without a boundary – modern cosmology tells us that our understanding of time may be completely transformed with new advances in physics. In this 20-minute TED Talk, Caltech physicist Sean Carroll muses on the nature of time, and how new discoveries in physics may transform our understanding of it.

Steven Novella on morality

I was perusing Neurologica after referencing it for yesterday's post, and found a nice discussion on theistic vs. naturalistic morality. The de facto argument is that without God, there are no absolute moral proscriptions, and we're reduced to moral nihilism. Dr. Novella nicely summarizes my feelings on the problems inherent to such claims:
Whether or not God exists, no one has objective direct access to God or his moral code. All we have are people’s interpretation of what they think God’s moral code is. This is evidenced by the fact that there are hundreds of such interpretations in the world.  We can also take a historical view and see that the morals that people ascribe to God or their gods tend to follow our evolved moral sense, but also the local culture and history. In more primitive times, God’s morality was also primitive and barbaric. As cultures evolved, so did our concept of God and deific morality
So even if an objective supernatural morality existed, no one knows what it is. And of course no one can demonstrate that such a code exists. So in reality the entire discussion is moot – because in the end we are left to figure morality out for ourselves. The fact that ancient texts like the bible prescribe a moral code is not helpful, because such sources are ambiguous, self contradictory, and allow for endless interpretations.
This is exactly correct, and it's why a naturalistic view of morality is the only game in town. Read Dr. Novella's full post here.

07 May 2011

Steven Novella appears on Dr. Oz

I recently wrote a blog criticizing Mehmat Oz after he advocated the use of psychics as a form of grief counseling. Shortly thereafter I watched him hawk a hybrid of homeopathy and acupuncture as a kind of panacea. Surprisingly, he invited Dr. Steven Novella – neuroscientist, skeptic, author of the terrific blog Neurologica, and vocal critic of "alternative" medicine and of Dr. Oz himself – on the show. The interview was more than a bit lopsided – Dr. Novella was the only skeptic among several advocates, and Dr. Oz spent the last few minutes delivering a pro-alternative-medicine monologue. Nonetheless, it's great that Dr. Oz at least gave a notable skeptic an audience, and Dr. Novella was able to make some sharp arguments.

Watching the interview, I was a bit struck by some of Dr. Oz's statements. For example, he suggests that we shouldn't be so dismissive of therapies which have been used for "thousands of years". Ask yourself: what was the average life expectancy 100 years ago? 500? 1000? 3000? Not long ago, there was a fascinating article in Scientific American about the discovery of a small tribal culture on the southern tip of South Africa which indicates that the earliest use of tools was over 100,000 years earlier than previously believed. These indigenous peoples foraged for fresh food and ate shellfish from the nearby oceans. They never touched a single morsel of processed food, never encountered industrial pollution, and got lots of fresh air and exercise. And yet, any one of them would have been lucky to live to 30.

06 May 2011

David Barton: douchebag

David Barton was on The Daily Show Wednesday night, and took an extended interview with Jon Stewart. In case, like me, you have never heard of David Barton, he's apparently a very influential evangelical (named so by TIME magazine) whose modus operandi is revisionist history. And of course, by "revisionist", I mean "lying about". He basically argues that the Founding Fathers were all devout Christians who wanted America to be run by the church. He thinks that states should be allowed to provide religious litmus tests for candidates for public office. And he claims to have access to a litany of Super Secret documents that prove our whole modern understanding of the constitution is wrong.

It's really just the standard "We're a Christian nation" bullshit with an extra helping of bullshit. Most fundies just try to argue that the Founding Fathers were all Jesus-loving churchgoers who wanted the United States to be dominated by Christianity, but Barton takes it a step further and tries to claim historical legitimacy.

This is really an easy argument to win, though, because of what the Constitution actually says. Article VI contains two provisions that shatter Barton's ambitions: first, it forbids religious litmus tests for public office. Second, and most importantly, it establishes the supremacy of federal law over state law – so Barton can't argue that the ban on religious litmus tests should only apply to positions in federal government. That's the whole point of the union. I don't know if Barton realizes this, but the Confederacy lost the Civil War.

In the meantime, he's going around to churches promoting "family values" candidates, which is just another reason why churches should have to pay taxes like everyone else.

Check out his interview on The Daily Show here.

05 May 2011

This girl is not in love with Judas, baby

This young girl is upset by the lyrical content and imagery in Lady Gaga's new single "Judas". I don't find this so much obnoxious or offensive as I find it tragic. It reminds me of when I threw out all my secular music for fear of polluting my mind with godless thoughts. It's also a great example of what Pascal Boyer said in his book Religion Explained: "If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates." [p.20]

04 May 2011

A movie and a book

A great horror movie is one of my favorite things in the world, but I'm sure any film aficionado would agree that great horror movies are few and far between. The really good ones don't just make you jump; they get under your skin.

I've been watching a bunch of horror movies lately, with mixed results. Last night I watched the French film Frontiers, and I basically found it to be a pretty standard Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of flick; I also watched Let Me In recently, which is a surprisingly excellent American adaptation of the Swedish flick Let the Right One In, which I liked a lot as well. I also watched about ten minutes worth of an indie haunted house movie called Dream Home, which is seriously the most terrible 10 minutes of film to which I've ever been subjected. Yes, even worse than The Human Centipede, which was way too stupid to be properly disturbing.

But no horror movie I've seen lately have I found as provocative and disturbing as another bloody French film called Martyrs. I watched it weeks ago, and some of the imagery and concepts are still etched in my mind – and it's sparked great interest in a new book which I have just ordered.

Christopher Hitchens on a historical Jesus

In just a little over five minutes, the Hitch concisely summarizes why there is no reason to believe that Christianity is true.

03 May 2011

Introducing Sc3ptics

Today is the official launch of a new, collaborative freethinking blog: Sc3ptics. Three Skeptics, a.k.a. SC3PTICS, is the surprise team of three atheist bloggers: Bud Uzoras of Dead Logic, myself, and Tristan Vick of Advocatus Atheist. What makes SC3PTICS different? Many freethinking-themed blogs are only sparsely populated by substantive posting – instead being filled with news, reposted videos and personal anecdotes. We want to create a steady stream of thought-provoking content – not just ramblings and opinions, but well-reasoned, educated opinions argued in well-researched articles spanning a diverse array of topics related to skeptical inquiry, science, philosophy, history and belief.

These guys are lucid thinkers and first-rate writers, so I feel very privileged to be a part of this. If you read this blog, please, by all means, subscribe to Sc3ptics. We've started by each pulling three of our personal favorite essays from our archives, and there is much more to come.

In case you're wondering what the impact on The A-Unicornist will be, the answer is: negligible. I'll still be posting my personal musings here regularly, but certain in-depth topical essays will go to Sc3ptics first.

02 May 2011

On "Atheistic societies"

Stop me if you've heard this one:
You know what happens when a society becomes atheistic? You get Stalin. You get Hitler. You get Mao. Death and despair and evil running rampant.The Crusades and Inquisition may have been bad, but they're nothing compared to the millions slaughtered by those atheists.
Some approximation of this argument has been floating around ever since atheists started pointing out all the ridiculous things that religious fanatics do, including but not limited to blowing people (and themselves) up. It's a colossally dumb argument which conveniently ignores a litany of facts about these dictators, about atheism, and about secular cultures.

The Hitler thing has pretty much been put to rest, and only a few ignoramuses still use the Third Reich as an argument against atheism. That's because Hitler was a Catholic, and it was the church's long history of antisemitism which undoubtedly influenced his contempt of the Jewish people. Hitler referenced his God, the Almighty Creator, and his Christian faith in several of his writings and speeches. German soldiers wore belts with the phrase "God with us" inscripted on them (in German, obviously). And moreover, Hitler outlawed the German Freethinkers League, which was Germany's largest organization of atheists, and turned their building into a Christian outreach center before beheading their leader. The whole "Hitler was an atheist" argument was even incisively lampooned by NonStampCollector. But please, no need to take my word for any of this – it's nothing a few minutes on Wikipedia won't clear up.

01 May 2011

Terrorism is over!

The President announced tonight that Osama bin Laden, longtime evil nemesis of the United States, is dead. Rumor is that his secret underground volcano base was infiltrated single-handedly by a well-trained secret agent, who easily dispatched dozens of anonymous guards before felling Bin Laden in an epic sword fight. Suffice to say that the "war on terror" is now over. We won, and there will be no more terrorism ever.

Seriously, while this is a small victory, ideologies are bigger than one man. Osama was just one guy, easily replaced by the next ideological fanatic who, for all we know, could be both smarter and crazier.

William Lane Craig defends genocide (again), gets pummeled by Greta Christina

It's not the first time that William Lane Craig has used Divine Command Theory™ to defend that pesky passage in the Bible in which God commands his loyal soldiers of Israel to slaughter the people of Canaan – men, women, and children. No one is spared. I criticized his original take, and now that he's brought the issue up again in his Q&A I would love to pounce on it... but I've been beaten to it by Greta Christina, who says everything I would have said and then some, with far more wit and incisiveness than I could have mustered. Here's a quote:
See, here's the thing. When faced with horrors in our past -- our personal history, or our human history -- non-believers don't have any need to defend them. When non-believers look at a human history full of genocide, infanticide, slavery, forced marriage, etc. etc. etc., we're entirely free to say, "Damn. That was terrible. That was some seriously screwed-up shit we did. We were wrong to do that. Let's not ever do that again."
But for people who believe in a holy book, it's not that simple. When faced with horrors in their religion's history -- horrors that their holy book defends, and even praises -- believers have to do one of two things. They have to either a) cherry-pick the bits they like and ignore the bits they don't; or b) come up with contorted rationalizations for why the most blatant, grotesque, black-and-white evil really isn't all that bad.
And when you don't go the cherry-picking route? When you insist -- as Craig apparently does -- that your holy book is special and perfect, that the events and motivations in the text all took place exactly as described, and that the actions of God described in it are right and good by their very definition?
You put yourself in the position of defending the indefensible.
When your holy book says that God ordered his chosen people to slaughter an entire race, down to the babies and children -- and you insist that this book is special and perfect -- you put yourself in the position of defending genocide. You put yourself in the position of defending infanticide. You put yourself in the position of defending slavery, rape, forced marriage, ethnic hatred, the systematic subjugation of women, human sacrifice, and any number of moral grotesqueries that your holy book not only defends, but praises to the skies and offers as models of exemplary behavior.
She goes on, and frankly I doubt most dyed-in-the-wool believers will have the balls to face the harsh realities she shoves under their noses. Check out the full article here.

For my part, I'd simply point out that Craig's position – that genocide is okay if God commands it – runs flatly in contradiction to the position he took in debating Sam Harris, in which he stated,
"God's moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God's commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature."
And who can think of anything more loving than commanding your chosen people to slaughter infants?

More on Sam Harris' thoughts about torture

A couple posts back I reposted Sam Harris' response to his critics regarding the section in The End of Faith in which he weighs the ethics of torture, and which has been mischaracterized by his detractors as pro-torture. Over at RDF, there's a thread going there about the article, and I want to raise one particular response by the user "Red Dog":
He may say that torture should be illegal but in this article he also argues that it at times is the moral thing to do (see my previous comment above). I don't agree with that. I think not only should it be illegal but it is always immoral.
I agree, torture is always immoral. But I want to again raise the issue of nuclear genocide. In 1945, the US bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians in a show of force intended to stop the war. It was believe that, if perpetuated, the war would cost millions more lives. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were essentially regarded as "collateral damage".

So, was it the right thing to do? At the time, the US was on the verge of a full-scale invasion of Japan which it was believed would cost many more innocent lives than were lost in the bombings. This is really an elaborate version of the famous Trolley Problem, which I discussed some time back. Do we allow one person to die to save five? Do we deliberately kill one person to save five? Do we torture one person to save hundreds, or nuke tens of thousands to save millions?