30 June 2011

Believers are confused

I've spent plenty of time in this blog going over various philosophical arguments for the existence of a god or gods, as well as talking about the historical and logical problems of religion. Quite honestly I feel like everything that needs to be said, I've said. I'm not going to devote yet another post to talking about William Lane Craig's idiotic Kalam argument, or arguing that the Bible is a lousy historical document. At this point, curious readers can just browse the archives. It's been done to death.

I say this because while that kind of stuff can be rehashed ad nauseum, I think there's another way of looking at religion to demonstrate that it's false –and that is simply to look at what theists actually believe, and how they rationalize it.

Over at Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True blog, a guest poster has rigorously dissected a Pew survey of American evangelicals. Being an evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne seemed most interested in the survey because of what it reveals about evangelicals' beliefs in science: a paltry 3% believe in evolution. The rest is roughly evenly split between literal creationists and ID-ists. But personally, I was more interested in the part that talked about evangelicals' perceived relationship with God. It seems that someone is getting their signals crossed:

27 June 2011

That whole pesky free will thing

I admit I'm not the most well-read on the subject of free will, although that's something I'm trying to remedy. I've read Sam Harris' recent musings on it, Jerry Coyne's been talking about it, and I'm most familiar with Dan Dennett's extensive discussions of it. I have to confess that I find the debate about free will somewhat tiresome because for all intents and purposes, we have free will. Asking whether free will is illusory is kind of like asking whether our universe is merely a projection of our own consciousness – it's a topic that might interest philosophers, but pragmatically it's a non-starter. Even if it could be proved that free will is illusory, we'd still have to live as though it wasn't.

But I think it's worth talking about what exactly we mean when we use the term "free will", and discussing implications of new advances in neuroscience that help us understand how we make our choices.

Why don't people believe in unicorns?

Found across the interwebs:

23 June 2011

Quick thoughts

I have a couple of more in-depth posts on the way, but in the meantime I've been watching YouTube user TheraminTrees' new video series "There Are No Gods", of which two of three parts have been released. He's essentially tackling the idea that deities are logically impossible beings, and as usual he's doing a damn fine job arguing it.

One idea stuck out in particular that I think is worth revisiting: the omnipotence paradox. Y'know, the old questions like, in the words of Homer Simpson, "Could God microwave a burrito so hot that he couldn't eat it?" TheraminTrees asks a similar question: Can God destroy himself?

The de facto theological answer is this: God is omnipotent, yes; but he cannot do things that are illogical or contrary to His nature. William Lane Craig, for example, in his recent debate with Sam Harris, argued that God cannot issue moral commands that are inconsistent with his loving, holy nature.

Here's the problem though: by that definition, I am omnipotent. Isn't it true that I can in fact do anything that I want, as long as it is not logically impossible (I can't draw a four-sided circle) or contrary to my nature (I can't fly or predict the future)? Once again, "sophisticated theology" is shown to be a contradiction in terms.

I'll repost all three videos once the third is released. In the meantime, you can catch the first two parts on his YouTube channel.

Morality: Good without God

Another outstanding video from QualiaSoup:

22 June 2011

Michael Shermer on being wrong

More Michael Shermer: Here he is on John Stossel's show (???) responding to an audience member's question: "What if you're wrong?"



His answer rings true. What difference does it make whether I believe? Why is mere belief so important – moreso than how I live and treat others? And if mere belief is so important to God, why make the evidence so ambiguous? Why make the correct religion – and the correct interpretation of it – seem so arbitrary? Why make answered prayers indistinguishable from random improbable events, or make the religious texts full of scientific and historical errors – not to mention internal factual contradictions?

Sorry, I'm ranting. There's simply no reason to believe an all-powerful deity would give a hoot whether someone simply believed in its mere existence. Ho-hum.

Michio Kaku talks with Michael Shermer about "The Believing Brain"

There's a great audio clip online of Michio Kaku interviewing Michael Shermer about his new book, The Believing Brain. They generally keep the topic in the realms of conspiracy theories, psychics, etc., but there's no reason this thought process can't be applied to religious beliefs as well, as Michael Shermer often does. It's only about 10 minutes long (and it cuts off) so I won't bother rehashing every detail, but here are some of my thoughts on a few of Shermer's points:
  • We're evolved to make positive pattern-recognition errors, because making negative pattern-recognition errors is potentially detrimental to our survival – i.e., it's better to assume the movement in the brush is a predator and run than to assume it's the wind and get eaten.
  • Science requires us to account for all available information – not just select that which is favorable to our preconceptions. Generally, we tend toward confirmation bias – selectively filtering information so that we only acknowledge that which reinforces our presuppositions. Examining all the data, as science requires us to do, is very counter-intuitive.
  • Smart people are just as likely as dullards to make emotional, irrational beliefs – but smart people are much better at rationalizing their beliefs. Shermer gives the example of Francis Collins' rather silly belief that a trio of frozen waterfalls he happened upon was not just a neat natural phenomenon, but a personal message from God representing the Christian trinity.
  • We tend to arrive at beliefs first, then conjure up rationalizations later. No one will say something like, "I'm a Christian because my friends were into the church", or acknowledge that confirmation bias might have prevented them from making a fully rational assessment of supposedly "spiritual" experiences – they'll tell you that they arrived at their beliefs for perfectly rational reasons.

20 June 2011

Scientology: the musical

I think the rise of Scientology is fascinating for the simple fact that most religions didn't evolve in our modern scientific age, and we can witness firsthand how people twist history into legend and adopt irrational beliefs. And, just like most others believers do, Scientologists like to sing songs about their nutty beliefs. The only difference between Scientology and more popular religions like Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc., is that Scientology hasn't been around long enough to be normalized in any culture to the point that it has stopped looking completely retarded to literally everyone who is not a Scientologist. 

12 June 2011

Natural selection is cool

Hat tip to the esteemed Tristan Vick for getting me thinking about this topic today.

I was in the mood for an adventure-y flick last night, and came close to watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. But then I found this old DVD of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World that my parents had given me years ago, but I never watched.

I really enjoyed the movie, but my favorite part was the character Stephen Maturin, who is more or less a fictional version of Charles Darwin around the time of the HMS Beagle. He's a naturalist who travels to the Galapagos Islands and discovers natural selection, and he's played by Paul Bettany, who played Darwin in the 2009 film Creation.

There was a sense of wonder in him as he studied the animals, and that's a wonder which I can't help but feel is lost on creationists. And I mean both kinds of creationists – the really deluded young-earth ones, and the quasi-scientific intelligent design ones. Both kinds of creationists yank out the same canards about evolution: "A dog can't produce a non-dog!", as though evolution says anything to the contrary. I think creationists think evolution is supposed to work like this:

10 June 2011

Christian nutbars, news edition

It's been a marquee week for crazy Christians making headlines. Sometimes it's hard to believe that these people actually exist, but have faith – they do!

First we have quasi-historian David Barton claiming that the Founding Fathers had been through the "entire" creation/evolution debate, and decided they wanted creationism taught in public schools. Quite an astounding fact considering a) public schools did not yet exist, and b) Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

A little bit of good news coming out of a tragic situation: Christian couple Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted of criminal neglect after relying on prayer to magically heal a baseball-sized tumor on their daughters face. The really good news: their daughter is receiving proper medical care, and her condition is improving.

Peter Popoff, the faith healer who was exposed as a fraud by James Randi on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, is back in business exploiting people for thousands of dollars and claiming to heal them. Candid footage of this nefarious wacko was captured by the vigilant crew at Center for Inquiry.

A woman who claims she is a prophet of Jesus falsely lead Houston police on a wild goose chase for a mass grave that does not exist. Criminal charges will likely be filed, but the woman claims she didn't file a false police report: she was just reporting what "Jesus and the angels" told her.

Then there's this. It didn't happen this week, but it exists:

07 June 2011

Intelligent design apologists, BioLogos, and the attack of the facepalms

Earlier today I subjected myself this video, which claims that a paper by some ID "researchers", like, totally proves that old pesky what's-his-face Oxford biologist guy, um, Darkins? Dawking? oh yeah, Richard Dawkins, has no idea what he's talking about. Why the maker of the video chose to focus on Richard Dawkins, I'm not really sure – probably just because he's a prominent biologist and atheist. Clearly those clods at Oxford don't know what they're talking about.

Anyway, I couldn't help but be curious what "peer-reviewed paper" the author was referring to, so I looked it up. It was done by two authors for the Biologic Institute (the "research" arm of the Discovery Institute) who are a chemical engineer and a zoologist, and it was a paper presumably on genetics and molecular biology. That's the funny thing about the Discovery Institute – you don't find too many people who actually have the credentials to suggest they have the specialized knowledge required to do proper research.

I'll leave the detailed thrashing of such research to folks at places like Panda's Thumb, but the whole episode amused me. The Discovery Institute has long been criticized for not actually producing any research which demonstrates how Intelligent Design works. So they created a small research arm, which doesn't actually do a lot of research. But what research is done, well, don't expect that to be published in, say, Nature. They just publish it right there online in a PDF, reviewed by their "peers" in the research institute itself, and then they claim that Intelligent Design is backed by "published, peer-reviewed research". See how easy that was?

04 June 2011

"Atheist have better sex" study: I was wrong

Sometimes, you just gotta 'fess up when you were off the mark.

Recently, I re-posted a story that was going around in the news (and various atheist blogs) about a study which purportedly found that atheists had better sex than believers. Now, the protests of some (you know who you are) struck me as predictably reactionary. But the reality is that a lot has come to light about this test that more or less discredits it, the first of which is the author, Darrel Ray. I don't really care that he's the author of The God Virus. An atheist doing research on atheism (or anything else) is fine, as long as the methodology is sound. I was under the impression that he was psychologist at KU, and he was simply working with one of his undergraduates on the study, which would not be particularly unusual. However, while some news articles described this as a "KU Study", he's just an "independent researcher", not part of any university faculty, which means it's a lot easier to get away with sloppy methodology. He simply worked with a young woman who's an undergraduate at KU – hardly a university study. 

On Adam & Eve not existing, and the fundamental falsehood of Christianity

Jerry Coyne has a great article up over at WEIT in which he discusses the theological implications of what is now an indisputable scientific fact: Adam & Eve are a work of fiction. There is simply no possible way that all of humanity descended from one pair of humans, although a few accommodationists over at BioLogos are trying their damnedest (and generally failing) to reconcile their theology with reality:
Pastor Tim Keller, a participant in a BioLogos workshop on evolution and Adam and Eve held last November (!), says this:
“[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the biblical authority. . If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work “covenantally’—falls apart. You can’t say that Paul was a ‘man of his time’ but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.”
Jerry Coyne rightly points out that without a literal Adam & Eve, the central Christian concept of "The Fall" becomes logically incoherent. More liberally minded Christians don't seem to want to think about this issue too much – well gee, maybe it was all just a metaphor for the idea that we are all sinners. No, it's not a metaphor! It's central doctrine. But Christians, when faced with the harsh sting of scientific fact, are simply forced to find creative ways to re-imagine their beliefs. When, exactly, did "sin" enter the world, since Adam & Eve did not exist? Coyne expounds:

Tulsa Atheists speak out

I'd rather see it called something like "Freethinking Community of Tulsa", but this is pretty cool to see here in Tulsa.