29 October 2011

'Religious values' are human values

I was perusing WEIT, and Jerry Coyne has an email up from Dan Barker, the preacher-turned-atheist who is now president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. This section stuck out to me in particular:
During my debates on morality I point out that all of the good teachings in the world religions (which show up in all of them) are really HUMAN values: peace, love, cooperation, and so on. Those values transcend religion, and are in fact the values we use when we are judging from the outside whether we think a particular religion is good or not. (So they must not originate from within religion.) When you factor out the common teachings shared by all religions (the good stuff, the humanistic stuff), what you are left with are NOT good teachings. The so-called “religious values” that Christians, Jew, Muslims and other groups hold are divisive, idiosyncratic, and unproductive to moral discourse: what day of the week you should worship, how women should dress, what foods are permitted, whose beards can be shaved, who is allowed to be married, and so on. Thinking of it like that, there is actually no overlap between “human values” (informed by science) and “religious values” (derived from holy scripture).

This is really important. You can't throw a rock at a Christian without hitting some argument about how our most cherished values were bestowed upon us by Christian Truth. This is obviously false for several reasons. First, it flies in the face of our biology and our evolutionary heritage, which have shown that those values had developed among our ancestors and are observable (albeit in more primitive form) in our modern evolutionary cousins – not to mention the fact that humans had survived, spread and multiplied for some 190,000 years before any of the modern religions even existed. Secondly, those values – selflessness, altruism, compassion, charity, kindness, and the like – can be found in cultures all over the world, including innumerable isolated indigenous cultures. And thirdly, many of history's greatest atrocities have been committed under the guise of spreading Christian culture: the Crusades, the Inquisition, Encomienda, the genocide of native Americans, the African slave trade, and (arguably) the Third Reich. If those cherished values were so intimately woven into Christianity, one would imagine that predominantly Christian cultures would have worked to prevent, rather than inspire, so much cruelty.

There are, of course, many 'moral' values that are indeed the product of specific religions. And without exception, they are flatly absurd. So absurd, in fact, that most believers dismiss them as culturally irrelevant. That includes commands specifically given by Christ that modern Christians nonchalantly ignore, as well as the scriptures that are endlessly re-interpreted to make the religions conform to the progress of modern secular humanism.

28 October 2011

"The Playboy Club" and porn

I recently watched the three episodes of The Playboy Club on Hulu, and I enjoyed the show. Yeah yeah, it's like the old joke about reading Playboy for the articles, but I actually did enjoy the plot and the characters.

Aaand it's canceled.

Its cancellation was due in no small part to the absolute onslaught of conservative media watchdogs slamming the show for being "pornographic", well before the show had even aired. That's right. The show was roundly condemned for, among other things:
  • Objectifying and degrading women
  • Advancing an anti-family agenda
  • Distributing pornography
  • Breaking the law
... all before anyone had actually seen the show. It was enough simply to be associated with the Playboy brand. The conservative media group Parents Television Council raised the biggest huff, sending threatening letters to NBC affiliates and petitioning advertisers to cut ties with the show. The controversy was enough to slap NBC into barely even promoting the show and, as the ratings slid and advertisers were pressured into cutting support, cancellation became inevitable. The accusations of distributing porn are even more laughable to anyone who's actually seen the show, which is pretty much devoid of sex and nudity.

Is Playboy even porn?

Playboy is pretty tame by today's standards, and calling it 'pornography' really begs the question of what, exactly, constitutes 'porn'. Playboy shows nude women. That's it. To each their own, but I think it's ridiculous to claim that the mere display of the naked female form is dirty and evil. Following the cancellation, the PTC released a press statement saying, "We're pleased that NBC will no longer be airing a program so inherently linked to a pornographic brand that denigrates and sexualizes women." I'm at a loss as to how the mere display of the naked body denigrates women, and I don't remember when human sexuality became something to be reviled, feared, and condemned.

Truthfully, as Hef himself said in a Tweet (Hef tweets?), the show should have been aired on cable where it could have found a more mature audience and been free to be a bit edgier. It's just sad that after 50 years, our culture still has not progressed to the point that women can openly express their sexuality without being condemned as "anti-family" and "pornographic". And shame on NBC for not sticking behind their show, promoting the hell out of it and telling these conservative idiots to take a hike. It's reminiscent of Comedy Central's ridiculous censorship of South Park episodes 200 and 201 (still not available on the South Park website) after threats from Islamic groups. Every time we bend to groups like this, we're saying, "Gosh... you're right! We shouldn't air something that might possibly offend someone!" Hey, here's an idea... if you don't like it, don't fuckin' watch it.

p.s. - The conservative media reaction is reminiscent of its reaction to the video game Mass Effect, which allows the player-character to enter into intimate relationships with other characters, and includes the possibility of homosexual relationships. A Fox News segment described the game as having "the ability for players to engage in full graphic sex". Not only was it completely false, but it begged the question of why the media was in a huff over an M-rated game intended for adults.

23 October 2011

Love, marriage, and other quandaries

It's been heavy on the heady stuff here at The A-Unicornist. So here's something a little more introspective and personal.

I'm 32, and single. That old saying "Youth is wasted on the young" has become more and more apparent as I've gotten older. I think, in a lot of respects, I've been sort of a late boomer. It wasn't until I got out my last long-term relationship, which had lasted two years, that I really began to grow as an individual. My career was finally stabilizing (making a living as a personal trainer is not easy!), and I had control of my finances. And after finally finding the guts to end an unhealthy relationship, I was free to really develop my own identity.

I've had relationships since then, of varying degrees – one-nighters, friends with benefits, intense love... but nothing's worked out. Through the course of it all, I've grown incalculably. I've always considered myself introverted, but for most of my life I was terribly shy. I spent a considerable amount of time actively developing my social skills, and now I can do things I could never have done just a few years ago – I'm comfortable in most all social occasions, and that includes striking up conversations with strangers and meeting women (I generally avoid flirting in elevators, though).

My experiences over the last several years have also powerfully changed my perception of love, relationships, marriage, and the expectations with which many of us are raised. I grew up with the idea that there was 'someone out there' for me, my soulmate, 'the one'. But – and I don't mean this to be cynical – that's a delusion, one that we buy into all too easily. The reality is that there are many, many people out there with whom we are compatible. And no matter how much we think we're in love, relationships are a never-ending process. Sometimes people grow closer, sometimes they grow apart; it's not good or bad, but just a cold reality. One relationship failing, no matter how gut-wrenching, does not spell the end for us. There's always a new beginning.

Thoughts on the Universe

If there's anything that grinds my gears, it's this snarky question often posed by believers to atheists (actual phrasing may vary):
"If there's no God, Mr. Smartypants Atheist, where did the universe come from? Huh? Riddle me that! Do you think everything just came from nothing?"
 In the last post, I linked to a Reasonablefaith.org Q&A in which W.L. Craig said the following:
In fact, here you should turn the tables and ask [atheists] how time could come into existence with no causal conditions whatsoever. That is truly bizarre. Why did time and the universe begin to exist at all? How could they begin to exist in the absence of any causal conditions?
The typical response from non-believers is "I don't know" – which is perfectly valid. After all, if we knew why and how everything got here, physicists wouldn't have jobs.

But the better response is to point out that simply assuming that the universe 'came from' anything at all is to presuppose the conclusion of First Cause arguments. After all, that's exactly what we're talking about when we say A came from B – we're talking about cause and effect. That's where Craig stumbles in the quote above; the first cause arguments, like the Kalam Cosmological Argument, are merely designed to argue that the universe requires a First Cause – not to prove that the First Cause is God. The non-believer is not arguing that the universe was caused by 'nothing', but that there did not need to be a cause at all.

Goalpost shifting

Whenever you present an argument against theism, and a believer responds by telling you that your argument has failed to disprove anything or that you didn't prove 'materialism' or 'atheism', call them out on their goalpost shifting. It's the non-believer's job simply to show that a theistic argument doesn't prove what the theist claims it proves. That's it. That's all it takes to show that the theist's beliefs are ill-founded.

For example, I've heard from more than one Christian that they would doubt their faith if the resurrection could somehow be disproved. But all the skeptic has to do is point out that there's no particular reason to believe that the resurrection happened in the first place. Or consider that counter-arguments to First-Cause arguments are often met with an incredulous, "You haven't proved the universe came into existence materially!" It's goalpost shifting, and it's dishonest. The skeptic's job is simply to argue that First Cause arguments don't prove what theists claim they prove.

I see that kind of stuff all the time in theist arguments. In an old Reasonablefaith.org Q&A which I used for some material here, William Lane Craig was presented with the argument that just because causality applies within the universe, it doesn't mean causality applies to the universe. His response? Monstrous goalpost shifting:
[Atheists] might say that even simultaneous causation presupposes time. Yes, the cause and effect occur at the same time. But then why couldn't such a causal dependency exist timelessly? In simultaneous causation the cause and effect exist co-incidently. But in a timeless state two things can exist co-incidently in a dependence relation. So if simultaneous causation is possible, I see no reason to think timeless causation is impossible. [link]
Instead of providing evidential support for his assertions, he challenges the skeptic to disprove their mere possibility. Which is, of course, both absurd and irrelevant – virtually anything we can imagine is merely possible ("Prove that superintelligent unicorns do not exist in an alternate reality in which our universe is merely an experiment!"). This kind of goalpost shifting happens all the time when someone lacks the humility to acknowledge that their argument has been undermined.

22 October 2011

That "I am the 53%" guy

Daily Kos has reposted a great open letter to this guy:

This stood out to me the most:
Do you really want the bar set this high?  Do you really want to live in a society where just getting by requires a person to hold down two jobs and work 60 to 70 hours a week?  Is that your idea of the American Dream?

Do you really want to spend the rest of your life working two jobs and 60 to 70 hours a week?  Do you think you can?  Because, let me tell you, kid, that’s not going to be as easy when you’re 50 as it was when you were 20.

And what happens if you get sick?  You say you don’t have health insurance, but since you’re a veteran I assume you have some government-provided health care through the VA system.  I know my father, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Air Force, still gets most of his medical needs met through the VA, but I don’t know what your situation is.  But even if you have access to health care, it doesn’t mean disease or injury might not interfere with your ability to put in those 60- to 70-hour work weeks.
Do you plan to get married, have kids?  Do you think your wife is going to be happy with you working those long hours year after year without a vacation?  Is it going to be fair to her?  Is it going to be fair to your kids?  Is it going to be fair to you?

The article reflects the reaction I had to this picture. First, I don't see why having to work two jobs and endure 70-hour work weeks are things to be proud of. Sometimes it's just what you have to do, but it's a pretty shitty life, especially if you have a family. Working two jobs, and still not being able to afford health insurance? That's something to boast about? Does that make you tough? When you get sick, what happens? I mean, a bout with the flu could seriously impact your earnings if you have to miss work from two jobs -- what happens if it's cancer? And if you can't even afford it for yourself, what happens if you have kids? Are you going to tell them that vaccines are for pussies? Stitch them up yourself when they take a spill on the playground? Hold them in front of the microwave to treat their cancer?

There are other long-term questions. If you have to work this hard just to get by, how much are you saving? Because, as the article rightly observes, two jobs and 70 hours isn't going to be so easy in 30 years. What happens when you reach retirement age, or when people simply won't hire you because there are plenty of younger, tougher workers wanting your jobs? What about your kids' college education? Is this the kind of life you want for them, too?

Obviously this fellow has worked hard, and I don't think anyone want to diminish that. But working yourself to the bone just to scrape by is not the American dream.

21 October 2011

What the hell happened to Thunderf00t?

Thunderf00t. Remember when that guy was relevant? It seems like not too long ago his videos on science and creationism had attracted so much attention that he sat down across from Richard Dawkins, Ray Comfort, and some nutbars from Westboro Baptist. Today, this is what his 'latest videos' look like from my Youtube subscriptions:

"Faith, the new stupid!" Really? "Cruci-FICTION", a very un-funny video with Mike Lee, the 'Religious Antagonist'? Really?

The guy's gotta be burned out, because this is just lame. Now, you can poke fun at religion in ways that are both humorous and thought-provoking, as fellow fans of NonStampCollector know. It's called satire. NonStampCollector is masterful at it, and I think satire can be very effective (think George Carlin, Penn Jillette or Ricky Gervais). Calling faith "the new stupid"? Going to a hardware store dressed as Jesus to shop for boards and nails? Not incisive, not thought-provoking, not funny. Thunderf00t's apparently gotten tired of engaging theism and pseudoscience constructively, because this is just lousy material.

Look, I'm not one to advocate pulling punches when we criticize religion. But stooping to purely antagonistic mockery doesn't help anyone. We're not going to persuade any believers by patronizing them. All this kind of crap does is reinforce the generally misguided belief that atheists are assholes. Until Thunderf00t gets back on track, I'm unsubscribed.

Quick thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

In a lot of respects, the Occupy Wall Street protests mirror the Tea Party rallies -- disorganized, partisan (but nobody admits it), and not particularly unified on any particular goal. The overarching themes are good ones: the greed and irresponsibility of big banks, and the weakening of the middle class.

But I'm bothered by something. Back when Clinton was President and America was in the midst of a historic economic boom, one of those Dateline-type news shows had a special about debt in America. While the economy was booming, Americans were taking on record debt such that what used to be our 'savings rate' had become our 'negative savings rate'. I was barely old enough to vote and didn't have any credit cards, but I remembered thinking, This is gonna come back to bite us.

It's easy to pin the problems of the economy on wealthy corporations and big banks, many of whom raked in record profits even as the economy tumbled and unemployment soared. And certainly, I don't want to diminished the unequivocal fact that banks engaged in stupid and irresponsible practices that hurt their customers, only to receive a nice padded bailout from Washington.

But the fact is, Americans have been reckless too. Bigtime. Average credit card debt in American households is over $10,000. Personally, I've been through my share of credit card debt, and learned my lesson in the process: I don't buy stuff I can't afford. Crazy, right? Who'd a thunk? As a musician, there's not a day that goes by when I'm not drooling over some gorgeous guitar or amplifier.  Or effects board. Whatever. I have a pretty fat credit line -- far more than I'll ever need -- and it'd be easy to just slap one of those purchases on the card. But I don't. I know that if I tuck money away for a while, that gear will still be there when I can afford it. I don't go out and waste money on expensive drinks at bars and clubs, and I only go out to eat on special occasions. 

And that's not to say I'm Scrooge McDuck. If you want to be a personal trainer/guitar teacher, it had better be because you love what you do, not because it's going to net you that Mercedes coup. But I'm afloat, and don't take on more than I can handle. 

Imagine if each of those American households had that $10k in savings! We'd still have issues with income disparity than make it harder for working-class Americans to save, and we'd still have irresponsible banks and corporations. But we'd at least have our own houses in order. 

The Kalam Cosmological Argument: the complete rebuttal

I'm bad at this. I keep thinking that I don't want to retread various arguments I've addressed many times before. But every now and then, they just pop into my head and my brain can't turn off. Then I think of some new angle or something, and have this insatiable urge to blog about it. If you're tired of hearing about the Kalam Cosmological Argument, by all means just skip this post. Go watch some horrible videos on Youtube and come back when I've posted about something new and interesting.

Why am I retreading this? Because earlier today, I was thinking about the Kalam and thought of another objection that I hadn't used in any of my prior posts. But instead of just writing yet another objection to one specific part, I decided that this post will take sort of an outline format and summarize all the major objections to the Kalam. If you can read this post and still think the Kalam is a good argument, you've won. I'll be out of ammo. This is it. I'm gonna give it my best, and then I promise to never post about it again. Maybe.


The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is this:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Ergo, the universe has a cause 
This is basically a minor re-formulation of the classic cosmological argument, or First Cause argument. But in the original argument, the distinction of things that 'begin to exist' was absent, leading to a conundrum: you can't say that everything has a cause, then claim that God has no cause. So it was tweaked a bit to clarify that it means, well, everything that isn't God. Because, presumably, God exists eternally and uncaused. If you found that assertion a little presumptuous, well, you'd be right. But the Kalam isn't immediately concerned with what the cause actually is. There are other arguments for that. The Kalam itself aims simply to establish that the universe requires a cause.

Simply put, it's an unsound argument because it commits a fallacy of composition. "The universe", regardless of how it's defined (multiverses, etc.), is not the same kind of thing as objects within the universe. The fact that causality is observed to affect matter, energy or objects within the universe does not imply that causality must apply to the universe itself. Indeed, it doesn't make much sense to take about causality without time, space, matter, and energy; nor does it make any sense to talk about things "beginning to exist" without respect to time – a property of the extant universe.

That's really all that needs to be said to demonstrate the argument as unsound. Theologians have ways of trying to dodge these things though, so read on for a more detailed explanation if you wish – in handy bulletin format!

20 October 2011

Thoughts on the Craig/Law debate

I think that any non-believer who has followed the trajectory of William Lane Craig's debating career has probably imagined debating him. We've gone through the arguments and imagined how we might respond, and we've often criticized some of Craig's atheist opponents for not arguing the way we would.

Craig's doing his 'tour' of the UK, trying to get atheists to debate with him, and the other day he went toe to toe with Stephen Law, a philosopher at the University of London. Craig's debates are usually structured the same: he goes first (arguing the affirmative), and outlines the following five arguments:
  1. The Kalam Cosmological Argument
  2. The Argument from Design
  3. The Moral Argument
  4. The Resurrection Argument
  5. Argument from personal experience
For this debate, though, he ditched 2 and 5. Good. Hopefully he's ditching the fifth because he's realized that arguing for revelatory theology doesn't fly too well in debates that invoke evidential arguments and formal logic. In any case, he cut down. I think that generally speaking, the five-argument approach is designed to inundate his opponent with information – it's very difficult, if not impossible, to substantively rebuke five arguments in 20 minutes. Then Craig comes back with a See? The atheist has no response! riposte and claims a disingenuous victory.

But I digress. I was really hoping that Law would insist on going first. Just once, I'd like to see someone argue a positive case for atheism and put Craig on the defensive. Nonetheless, even though he didn't go first, Law took an unusual approach and did a fine job undermining Craig's arguments.

Stephen Law's philosophical action shot
Instead of trying to dismantle each of Craig's arguments in detail, he recognized that Craig is arguing for a specific kind of God – a good God. Craig has attempted to argue that God's goodness logically follows from his existence [1], but Law jumped on it and argued from the evidential problem of evil,
arguing that the immense amount of gratuitous suffering in the world makes a good God unlikely. But here's where it got interesting: Craig's responses were the usual appeals to mystery (perhaps the suffering does serve some higher purpose that we can't discern; y'know, God's perfect divine plan, blah blah blah). And that's where Law pounced: he showed that the same rationalizations could be used to justify the existence of an evil God, and challenged Craig to demonstrate that God is much more plausibly good than evil.

The tricky thing about philosophy is that so much of it plays on meanings of words. You can 'prove' damn near anything you want if you're clever enough to subtly shift around the precise meanings of various words, like Craig does with the Kalam [2]. So rather than fuss over etymology or semantics, Law essentially used the language of the theistic rationalizations to argue that Evil God is just as likely as Good God. Nice.

I liked Law's approach mainly because it narrowed the focus of the debate. Craig is not arguing for deism or pantheism. He's arguing for the Christian God. Law forced the issue by ignoring the Kalam, which Craig (of course) disingenuously proclaimed as a concession for deism. (See? He didn't answer my argument, thus he concedes!) The Kalam was irrelevant for Law to argue against Craig's God, simply because nothing about the character of the first cause can be discerned from it.

He spend a little bit of time beating down the Moral and Resurrection arguments, but neither were particularly relevant. I'm not going to bother with pointless arguments over who 'won' the debate, but I thought Law did a good job of turning the tables on Craig and putting him on the defensive, which is where he belongs.

More on the debate at Stephen Law's blog.

Dawkins finally explains why he won't debate WLC

And it's a beautiful slap-down:
Don't feel embarrassed if you've never heard of William Lane Craig. He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a "theologian". For some years now, Craig has been increasingly importunate in his efforts to cajole, harass or defame me into a debate with him. I have consistently refused, in the spirit, if not the letter, of a famous retort by the then president of the Royal Society: "That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine".

18 October 2011

John Loftus controversy

UPDATE: We've worked it all out. See comments. I'm leaving the post up because, well, the fact that we got it all sorted out gives me good vibes.

An alert reader called to my attention a lengthy tirade the downward spiral that is John Loftus posted on his blog, which is notable because it calls me out:
If my accusers really cared about the things I do, then they would not try to "save face" by attacking a person such as myself who uses his real name. They play footloose and fancy free with my name, but realize that they are doing so from behind otherwise anonymous monikers, and are therefore chickens. Even a name like Mike D means nothing until he uses his full name.

For the record, I am not blogging anonymously. My contact info is easy to find via the tab up top. You can email me or go straight to my Facebook page. I just think "Mike D" is a little catchier. Lots of my friends have used it as a nickname over the years and I like the ring to it.

I don't know why John is reacting so irrationally toward those of us who are criticizing his recent behavior. I was one of many who thought John was wasting time by obsessing over a debate that wasn't going to happen, at least not anytime soon. That sort of behavior is not constructive – it's self destructive. It was especially disappointing considering that recently, he complained that more famous atheists like PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta weren't posting reviews of his new book even though he sent them a free copy. Well, golly... did they ask for a copy, or did he just send them one and expect them to read it and promote it for him?

What John doesn't seem to realize is that those of us criticizing his recent behavior are doing so because we've followed him and been fans for a long time, and we think he's better than this kind of stuff. I even told him as much, right before he banned me from commenting on his site. If you can't take public criticism, it's probably better to keep your thoughts private.

17 October 2011

Can something begin to exist outside of time?

You know how I said I'd never, ever, ever blog about William Lane Craig again? Me neither. But I'm pretty sure I said something similar, like that I'm not going to retread the same old arguments a million different times. Y'know, like Craig's pet argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I've already made it my bitch on several occasions (exhibits a, b, c, d). But there's one aspect of the second premise – "The universe began to exist" – that I was pondering today.

In the semi-recent Discovery special Did God Create the Universe?, Hawking addressed the old cosmological argument not by talking about his No Boundary proposal (see A Brief History of Time), but simply by suggesting that it's nonsensical to suggest that God created the universe because you can only talk about something beginning in reference to time. If the universe was non-existent, so was time, so the universe can't 'begin' to exist. Sounds reasonable to me. But wait! My favorite apologist punching page objects:
The claim seems to be that since the initial cosmological singularity is a boundary point to spacetime rather than a point of spacetime, therefore there was no time at which God could have created the singularity. But this conclusion follows only if we equate time with physical measures of time.
Stupid scientists, trying to understand stuff by using reality. What other measures of time might there be, Professor Craig?
A sequence of mental events alone is sufficient to generate relations of earlier and later, wholly in the absence of any physical events. So if God were counting down to creation, “. . . , 3, 2, 1, Let there be light!” God would exist in time even if He were not in physical time
Mental events are the products of neurological activity in the physical brain, so I'm not sure what Craig is thinking here. But let's take that last sentence, because I think it illustrates what he's really getting at: "God would exist in time even if He were not in physical time."

Clearly this sweater is the product of non-physical causality.
In some of my past critiques of the Kalam, I mentioned the inanity of "non-physical causality". Now we can add "non-physical time" to the mix. One of my biggest criticisms of the argument is the way Craig plays fast and loose with the meanings of words. What exactly he means by "cause", "thing", "begin", etc., all varies ever so slightly depending on which meaning he finds most convenient.

Here's an important rule of logic: You cannot use conjecture as the basis for the premise of a logical proof. Logic has to be based on reality. I'll be charitable and agree with Craig that "non-physical causality" and "non-physical time" might exist. It's certainly possible. But... so what? Nobody's ever observed either one. Both are entirely speculative. And you can't include either as part of the definitions of "cause" and "beginning" in the premises of your arguments – partly because they're conjectural, but also because they're what you're trying to prove! Another important rule of logic: you cannot assume your conclusion (not even part of it!) in your premises. In other words, you don't get to assume that  "non-physical time" exists just so you can prove that the universe was created in it.

16 October 2011

3 ways I'd be better at being God than the Christian god

I've blogged in the past about the evils of the Old Testament god [1, 2, 3], and I've talked about how modern Christians ignore what Jesus said. But my comrade Harry's comment on my recent post about the Imperialism of the Christian West got me thinking: there are plenty of things that God did that seem irrelevant, and many of his commandments that modern Christians ignore either because they're inconvenient or because they justify them as 'meant for the culture at the time' (i.e., they're inconvenient). But what about the things that the god of Christianity could have said – things he probably should have said – that he didn't bother mentioning?

1. People aren't property

Harry mentions in his blog that Jesus never condemned slavery. The god of the Bible never does. Kind of a big one, yes? Isn't it weird that Yahweh remembered to tell people to stone women who aren't virgins on their wedding night, and how Jesus reminded us that it's a sin to get divorced if someone didn't cheat, but nowhere in the Bible is it ever commanded, concisely and unambiguously, that all forms of slavery are wrong because people are not property. You'd think that, for the one book the omnibenevolent Lord of the Universe supposedly gave humanity and given how widespread and nasty slavery was in the Christian West, that God would have wanted to avert all that evildoing – particularly given that his own followers were a big part of the problem. Instead, God remembered to command his people not to make garments using both linen and wool (Leviticus 19:19). But owning people? Oops.

2. You evolved

When you think about all the senseless controversy over creationism and evolution, it seems a little odd that God wouldn't mention something about that. What's the point in the creation myth, including the existence of Adam & Eve, when we'd eventually just find out that it's all a bunch of bullshit? By the time we learned it wasn't true, lots of people had become really attached to it all. Surely God would have seen that coming. Why didn't God just tell people how the world was actually created, and how humans actually got here? Did he think they couldn't handle it? I mean sure, they probably didn't need a physics lesson about stars cooking light elements into heavy elements, then exploding so that new stars and planets could form and eventually evolve living things. But just informing people of the rudimentary basics would have saved an incalculable amount senseless division over irrelevant old myths. 

3. Hey everyone! This is the correct religion

This is actually one of the things that spurred my inquiry into Christian theology and history when I was a devout believer. Doesn't it seem strange that, instead of just telling all of humanity from the start which religion was the correct one, he instead waited until humans had been on Earth for over 190,000 years, then picked a small tribal culture in the Bronze Age Middle East in which to reveal the One True Faith? By that time, humanity had spread all over the globe and adopted thousands and thousands of distinct religious beliefs. And whenever people have been in a murderin' kind of mood, religion has always provided plenty of grounds to kick ass and take names. Even Yahweh told the people of Israel to kill the Canaanites, because they worshiped the wrong deity. Why didn't Yahweh just go over there, appear before them and say, "Hey! I'm Actual God. Quit worshiping that cow!" After all, he didn't seem to mind revealing himself to tribal Israel, right? That might have saved a lot of pointless bloodshed, no?

15 October 2011

Lying for Jesus: Brian Auten reviews Alister McGrath's new book

Alister McGrath, who I last recall from his squirmy evasiveness while being interviewed by Richard Dawkins for Root of All Evil, loves talking about the so-called 'new atheism'. He's the author of one of the most famous fleas, The Dawkins Delusion, and has now authored another assault on atheism with his new book, Why God Won't Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?. Over at the Apologetics 315 blog, Reasonable Faith (Belfast) director Brian Auten has reviewed the book. Not surprisingly, he thinks it really shows us how it is.

I haven't read McGrath's book, and don't plan to – especially after reading this review. What I read was such a flagrantly distorted caricature of new atheist writings and beliefs that I was at a loss as to where to even begin to clean up such a mess of dishonest tripe. But dammit, I'm going to try. Bear with me as I trudge through this review, addressing what I feel are some of the most overtly bogus and misguided statements. I've broken it up into several sections, because this is a long post.

Imperialism and the Christian West

On Columbus Day last Monday, some friends of mine were discussing (via Facebook) some of the lesser-known qualities of Christopher Columbus. In elementary school, we all heard that he 'discovered America', and was generally revered as hero and inspirational figure in Western culture. Of course, it's not exactly true that he discovered anything. The Nords had already been to the Americas long ago, and – most obviously – lots of natives already lived there in mostly peaceful (if primitive) cultures.

One of Columbus' most significant motives for his voyages was that he wanted to convert other cultures to Christianity. Maybe it's because of the Great Commission, but the spread of Christianity has always been deeply entrenched in Western imperialism. And as had often been the case throughout its history, Christianity was spread by the sword: as the Spaniards began colonizing the Americas and converting them to Catholicism, natives were systematically enslaved and subjected to extreme punishments for disobedience [1]. In subsequent decades, millions more were slaughtered in wars in which Europeans possessed not only more advanced technology, but also vast networks of resources which allowed them to endure the rigors of war far longer than natives, whose resources tended to be limited and centralized. And along with their "gifts" of slavery and genocide, the Europeans introduced smallpox, influenza, measles, whooping cough, and many other deadly diseases widespread in Western Europe which were devastating to native populations.

These days, we hear a lot of hot air from conservatives about 'Christian America'. They tell us that the values we cherish – freedom, liberty, equality, and opportunity – were bestowed upon us by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The spread of Christianity, from the Crusades to the European conquest of the Americas, had nothing to do with spreading such noble ideas; instead, it was rooted in expansionism, imperialism, ethnocentrism and bigotry. Millions paid the price for the spread of Christianity with their lives, and we should never forget that many of the comforts we enjoy today are here in part because of the many who died unjustly under the march of Western imperialism. Even when our country was established, such ideals were more or less limited to white aristocrats. If you were poor, female, or non-white, those 'Christian values' were not for you.

The truth is, humanitarian values are secular. They transcend religion, culture, and history. Countless cultures existed peacefully for many thousands of years without the influence of Western religion, and many continue to do so today. If religion were the beacon of righteousness it's purported to be, one would imagine that it would have prevented, not inspired, the tyrannical imperialism and expansionism of the great Western civilizations.
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg

14 October 2011

Old Testament legal loopholes, exhibit a

Deuteronomy 22:28-9 says that if a man is caught raping a woman, he has to marry her. At the same time, 22:20-1 says that if a woman's not a virgin on her wedding night, she's to be stoned to death. I bet those old-time rapists were all, "Whew! I thought I was gonna be stuck with her!"

h/t Michael @FTSOS

12 October 2011

Me vs. John Loftus, and a few more words on debates

Well, John's blocked me from commenting over at Debunking Christianity following my harsh words on yet another post about W.L. Craig's refusal to debate him.

I may have been a bit too harsh on John. I don't think he lacks the competency to debate Craig, though I do think it's futile for him to harp on the topic when Craig's already stated his position. It is what it is, and I'm not sure what John has to gain from dwelling on it or why he believes it so important that this debate occurs.

To use the obvious boxing analogy, Craig is like the guy going for the prize fight. He's stepped in the ring with plenty of lesser-known atheists. Within the last year he's finally gone toe-to-toe with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. There's only one atheist more famous and influential than those two, and that's Richard Dawkins. But Dawkins doesn't give two shits about debating Craig. I don't recall Dawkins being into the whole debate scene anyway. If he were, he'd probably want to debate someone like Alister McGrath instead (Oxford being generally more prestigious than Biola), with whom he's had extended dialogues (on camera!).

I'm sure this wasn't a waste of time or anything.
I think that for Craig, debating John Loftus would be a step backward. It's not that John isn't a smart guy – he's got some fine arguments when he puts his energy into it – but that he simply isn't in the same league, in popularity or influence, as the other guys that Craig's been debating lately. I haven't the slightest doubt that a big reason Craig does things like his current debate tour in the UK is simply to stroke his own ego. He wants to claim that he's stepped in the ring with all the bigtime atheists and delivered knockout blows to every one.

If you're on a forensics team in college, there is a panel of judges who decide who has 'won' the debate. No such panel exists with public debates, leaving the subject of the victor as one of substantial controversy. Some people have told John that he lost against Dinesh 'The Squirrel' D'Souza, and I've heard several of Craig's fans remark that he's beaten every atheist he's debated. But it's a matter of perspective. If someone were to ask me if Craig's won this debate or that, I'd say it depends on what you mean by 'won'. Did he present his arguments more coherently and effectively than his opponent? Then perhaps yes, he won on the strength of rhetoric. But were his arguments valid? Then no, he's yet to win a single debate. His arguments are colossally amateur, despite the transparent veneer of academic prestige in which he enshrouds them. He's a philosopher of religion, yet he believes himself qualified to debate physicists and biologists. He's a delusional, myopic egoist trying desperately to apply reason to a belief which he himself has admitted is ultimately immune to it. 

So I don't get why anyone would care about giving such a clown more exposure. Let him write his books and reassure his flock that they aren't really sheep. For him, every debate is just one more fight under his belt in which he (or his fans) can claim a disingenuous victory.

Christians ignore what Jesus said

Betty Bowers' new video sounds a lot like some stuff I talked about a while back....

10 October 2011

In case you forgot what 'traditional marriage' really is

What's the big deal about debates?

Recently, John Loftus of Debunking Christianity has been complaining about my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig refusing to debate him. It sounds conspicuously like Craig whining about Richard Dawkins refusing to debate him. Meanwhile, Craig is going on a 'tour' of the UK where he's challenging atheists to debates. So far, the only one I'm aware of is a debate with the philosopher Stephen Law. I haven't read much of Law's stuff, but what I have read I like, so it could be interesting.

But, probably not. I really don't get the big fuss over these academic-style debates. Firstly, they frame the dialogue between believers and non-believers as though it is a contest of intellectual and rhetorical virtuosity, which in my view loses sight of the importance of dispassionate, self-critical inquiry. Presumably, each side's 'goal' is to present an argument so devastating that the opponent is unable to respond coherently or relevantly, if at all. But 99.9% of the time, all that happens in these debates is that the two simply talk past each other. The contestants, as it were, are so preoccupied with gaining a rhetorical advantage that they rarely stop to consider charitable interpretations of their opponent's arguments.

Obviously, I'm speaking in generalities. I'm sure there are many moments in which audience members, and perhaps even the debaters themselves, are at least persuaded to consider some ideas they'd not paid much mind to previously, or have been forced to re-examine their pet arguments. But I think these are exceptions to the rule.And quite simply, no argument is ever going to be settled in such a debate. However, the repetition and forced defense often serves to more deeply entrench false ideas and poor arguments – and I mean that with regard to both sides.

I do like seeing dialogue between believers and non-believers. I enjoy partaking in it myself, which unfortunately is not too often (most folks in my neck of the woods would just as soon not talk about their beliefs in any detail). But a dialogue is not the same thing as a debate. The former implies the seeking of mutual understanding, of empathizing with and making every effort to accurately comprehend the others' view; the latter implies a contest of wits and egos meant to subdue the other into a rhetorical quagmire. Given that one's ability to concisely summarize a coherent counter-argument may or may not be representative of the validity of said argument, little is ever accomplished.

But, for those who are into that sort of thing, I guess it'll be exciting. Ho-hum.

07 October 2011

Pseudoscience of the day: Energy Armor

I caught this via the gaming site Shacknews, which reported that video game giant Electronic Arts is suing California sports-performance company Energy Armor over use of their logo, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Electronic Arts' iconic "EA" logo.

Energy Armor specializes in what they call "negative ion" wrist bands which they claim improve balance, performance and energy levels. Here's their promotional video:

There all kinds of products like this on the market, including the ever-popular magnetic wrist bands advertised for many of the same reasons. They are, without exception, placebos.

The supposedly amazing balance test that is displayed here is one that magnetic bracelet manufacturers also used, and it's not difficult to explain. The body adapts very rapidly to tasks in which some measure of resistance is required. For example, try holding out your hands and having a friend drop a heavy book into them. You'll find your hands dropping quite far as they compensate for the unknown weight of the book.

Now, say the word "FOOGALAGABAGA!" and repeat the experiment. You'll find the second time that your hands drop only a fraction of the original distance in response to the impact of the book. Your body has very quickly adapted to the task. Is this a simple motor-neural adaptation, or is it because you said "FOOGALAGABAGA!"?

That's more or less all that's happening in these videos. The subjects quickly adapt to being gently pushed by the Energy Armor "specialist", but the exact same adaptation would occur with or without the $25 piece of plastic on their wrist.

Importantly, these bracelets bear the hallmark of all pseudosciences: nonspecific claims. Notice that they never tell you exactly how "negative ion technology" actually works, or what exactly they're supposed to do. You're supposed to feel better, have more energy, etc. etc. Well, whoopdeedoo. The exact same result can be achieved through positive thinking or even by munching on a bowl of cereal. Real science requires specific claims and specific mechanisms of action.

Unfortunately, by the time these things are ever tested and debunked, the makers will have made a killing by selling tons of plastic wristbands for $25 a pop.

06 October 2011

Bill O'Reilly and Richard Dawkins (again)

This is a great example of why Bill O'Reilly is a complete idiot. He purports to be interviewing Dawkins about his new children's book, The Magic of Reality. But of course he really just wants to get into an argument about religion and, as usual, is more interested in gaining a rhetorical edge than thinking critically.

First, O'Reilly poisons the well. Richard Dawkins was Professor for Public Understand of Science at Oxford for 13 years, and was a fellow there for nearly four decades. He's one of the most esteemed and influential biologists in the world, and if anyone is qualified to write a children's book on science, he is. But O'Reilly simply introduces him as an "atheist", complete with unflattering picture and the caption "atheist" inconspicuously positioned at the bottom of the screen during the interview.

Then he states that Dawkins "is on a crusade to convince believers they're idiots". Good grief. Only someone who knows absolutely nothing about what Dawkins has actually written is capable of making such a bone-headed statement. Dawkins' polemics are devoid of such abject derision; but for some reason, O'Reilly cannot understand a simple truth: smart people can be wrong. Dawkins wants to show believers that they are, on that particular issue, mistaken. Not "idiots", but misguided. But this is O'Reilly we're talking about here, so we know he will deliberately mischaracterize his opponent in the interest of self-aggrandizement.

The interview is a joke, though. O'Reilly clearly isn't interested in discussing the book. And the last exchange is priceless: Dawkins asks him how an intelligent designer helps us explain life, and O'Reilly rambles incoherently about behavior. Dawkins doesn't miss a beat and asks him what that has to do with the question, and O'Reilly's retort is little more than,  "Well it's just what I believe." Believers are not necessarily idiots, but Bill O'Reilly certainly is.

02 October 2011

An atheistic thought for the day

I don't bother differentiating myself as a 'weak atheist', 'strong atheist', 'agnostic atheist', or whatever. "Atheist" does just fine. That's because there is no singular, ubiquitous definition of god – so whether I subscribe to weak or strong atheism depends on the definition of god being questioned.

If we define god in some nebulous sense like Deepak Chopra would – some sort of inexplicable 'universal consciousness', I am a weak atheist. Such a being's existence, by definition, can never be either confirmed or disproved. But on a theistic god such as the god of the Christian Bible, I am a strong atheist. Such a god purportedly intervenes in the natural world, answers prayers, authors books, gives people powers of miracles and prophecy, etc. The evidence is overwhelmingly indicative that such a god does not, and logically cannot, exist. 

The Christian crusade against porn

Who knew? According to an article over at CNN's Belief Blog, one of the biggest problems in the Christian church today is porn addiction. The blog describes several therapy centers, usually run by pastors or ministers, which purport to "cure" people of their addiction to porn:
This is Michael’s second week at “Faithful and True – Atlanta” a 16-week counseling program that, like dozens of others like it around the country, combines traditional psychotherapy with the Bible in an attempt to treat addictive behavior.
Blankenship, a devout Christian who once struggled with sexual abuse, says his own ordeal has helped him to treat and “graduate” nearly 500 Christian men and women with similar addictions in the last five years.
He says he has helped people achieve what he calls “sobriety,” which means resisting porn and lustful thoughts.
Christian therapies "curing" people of sexual ills? That sounds like something we've heard before, amiright Ted Haggard?  The problem, so it would seem, begins with thought crime:
Though the words “porn” and “masturbation” don’t appear in the Bible, [Pastor Jeremy] Gyorke believes the biblical verdict is clear. “Sexual immorality is mentioned a lot in the Bible, and that is what porn is,” he says.
He quotes the Gospel of Matthew: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“Porn is lust, and lust is a sin,” the pastor said.

The Christian problem of sex

I'll leave the rest of the article for your own dissemination. But to my eyes, this represents a fundamental problem with the way the Christians view sex: it's based on arbitrary interpretations of a 2,000 year old book, awkwardly melded with conservative sociocultural norms. Our view of sex should be based on science.

And science says porn is not so bad, actually. Some time ago, I mentioned an article about porn in Scientific American Mind which discussed modern research into porn, and it concluded (among other things) that sexual assault has plummeted in nations (including the US) in which porn has become more widely available. But the real money shot... er, quote from that article was this (emphasis mine):
It turns out that among porn viewers, the amount of porn each subject consumed had nothing to do with his or her mental state. What mattered most, Twohig found, was whether the subjects tried to control their sexual thoughts and desires. The more they tried to clamp down on their urge for sex or porn, the more likely they were to consider their own pornography use a problem. The findings suggest that suppressing the desire to view pornography, for example, for moral or religious reasons, might actually strengthen the urge for it and exacerbate sexual problems.
Knowing this, reading articles like the one over at Belief Blog makes me want to slap the stupid out of people. How can anyone be so blind to the obvious? Humans are sexual creatures. That's just the way it is and there's nothing we can do about it. Saying that it is a "sin" merely to look at someone "lustfully" is tantamount to a divine conviction of thought crime. Of course suppressing it is going to make it worse! And in focusing on porn, the Christians – as usual – have missed the real problem. Let's go back to the CNN article for a moment, and what kick-started Pastor Gyorke's movement:
Gyorke said he confessed to his congregation after his wife caught him looking at porn and told him it made her feel inadequate. She wanted him to seek help and to be transparent as a man of God.

Gyorke ultimately decided that viewing any porn, even once or twice, is a problem for believers.
Our pastor here missed the side of the barn when he blamed porn for his 'addiction'. The problem wasn't porn; it was his marriage. If someone who is married is looking elsewhere for sexual fulfillment, it's a huge red flag that there is something seriously wrong in the marriage. What Gyorke should have done, instead of starting a crusade against porn, is to get some help for himself and his wife. In many ways, porn can illuminate one's sexual needs. What turns you on? What do you like? What can I, as your spouse, do better? And then, perhaps instead of avoiding the porn while obsessing over it with some ridiculous crusade, Gyorke and his wife could watch some porn together. 

Christianity: trying to solve problems of its own creation

If the Christian church is having a problem with porn addiction, it's a problem of their own making. Consider, for example, the religiously-rooted push for 'abstinence-only' sex ed: statistically, young people who have a-o sex ed are no less likely to have sex than their peers; however, they are much less likely to use protection when they do.

Consider also a recent case here in Tulsa, where a 19-year-old had sex with a 13 and 14 year old in the back of his car, and is now facing statutory rape charges. The young man's lawyer – an acquaintance of mine who told me about the case – mentioned that his family is very strictly religious.

Or consider some friends of my family's, also very strictly Christian whose younger daughter, envious of her elder sister's marriage and children, went through several tumultuous and fleeting relationships before getting pregnant by a young man she'd only known for a few weeks – and to whom she is now married. Something tells me that is not the best way to decide who you are going to spend the rest of your life with. Ten bucks says that in ten years, they're struggling with infidelity or 'porn addiction'.

Now, I want to be clear here: I am not suggesting that porn cannot be a problem in some cases. But my point is that I think Christians are tackling the issue from the wrong angle. They're trying to suppress their human urges, saying that simply thinking sexual thoughts about people other than your spouse is evil and wrong. That's a great way to guarantee that every human being will be a 'sinner' riddled with self-inflicted guilt.

But the problem is not that we think lustful thoughts; the problem comes when we attempt to control our thoughts, because guess what? You can't control your thoughts. That's why thought-crime 'sins' are so incredibly stupid. Here's an experiment: Do not imagine a white elephant. Whatever you do, try as hard as you can not to picture a white elephant. Now try going throughout the day, telling yourself not to think about the white elephant. Obsess over it. Engage in other activities to distract yourself from it. You'll find, as the researchers mentioned by SciAm Mind did, that the avoidance simply makes the 'problem' worse. You'll spend all day thinking about that damn white elephant. To make it worse, imagine that you believe it is morally wrong to think about that white elephant, so that you have a nice helping of self-inflicted guilt to accompany your fixation.

Set to fail

That is precisely the problem that Christians fabricate with their avoidance-fixation on sex. Sexual lust is normal. Masturbation is normal. And not only are these things normal, they are healthy. And if 'lustful thoughts' are sinful, then masturbation must also be sinful – just try pleasuring yourself while thinking about, I dunno, the stock market (maybe you're into that). Indeed, as one 'recovering' porn addict said in the Belief Blog article,
For [Jeff] Colon, sobriety means abstaining from looking at porn, masturbating and performing any other sex act not involving his spouse.
Jeff is setting himself up to fail. He's fighting against his own nature. He'll obsess over porn, and sooner or later, he'll crack. He'll be overcome with guilt. He may lose his marriage.  The solution is so much more simple: he needs to quit obsessing over it. Jeff and his wife need to figure out what needs to improve in their sex life. His wife should buy some toys for herself, so she can better understand her own body and help her husband pleasure her. She needs to accept that Jeff needs to jerk off sometimes too, and that it's okay and healthy for him to do that. And maybe instead of reinforcing her husband's senseless guilt about his desire to watch porn, she could watch it with him. Jeff, meanwhile, needs to start communicating more openly with his wife about why he's looking at porn, and what he wants and needs out of a sexual relationship.

In my last days as a Christian, I came to believe that one of the most insidious falsehoods of Christianity is that we are essentially convicted as criminals merely for that over which we have no control: our humanity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Christianity's storied history of misguided sexual norms. I'm reminded again of the words of the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained:
"If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates."