30 November 2011

The disastrous results of gay marriage

This has been lighting up my Facebook feed today, and it's pretty impressive:

Of course, this is just a single example, but it's consistent with research.

Let me take a moment to really shove that abstract down the throats of religious conservatives, whose arbitrary interpretation of Bronze Age scriptures is the driving force behind most of the opposition to gay marriage in this country:
"More than two decades of research has failed to reveal important differences in the adjustment or development of children or adolescents reared by same-sex couples compared to those reared by other-sex couples."
All those horrible effects of gay marriage? They don't exist. Science has proved religion wrong, as usual.

27 November 2011

Traditional Biblical marriage

The other day on Facebook, a lesbian friend of mine pondered why Christians are not as anti-divorce as they are anti-gay-marriage. "You know", she said, "to preserve the 'sanctity'". This elicited the predictable response from several conservative Christians who opined about 'scripture' and 'Biblical marriage'. It is ironic that Christians don't crusade against divorce nearly to the extent the crusade against gay marriage, particularly because Jesus specifically stated, in Matthew 5:28, that it's a sin to divorce unless your spouse had an affair. That's every bit as much scriptural justification as their crusade against gay marriage – more actually, since Jesus himself never said anything about gay marriage.

But I digress.

Let's get something straight: the line that conservatives push about Biblical marriage being between one man and one woman is just something they made up. This is a classic case (there are lots!) of holier-than-thou Christians not actually reading their Bible. Traditional Biblical marriage is polygamy. Abraham, David, Jacob, Solomon, Moses, Saul, and many other patriarchal 'heroes' of the Bible had many wives. And nowhere does the Bible condemn it, at all.

My thought is this: as long as you're not hurting anyone else, marry whomever you want. Research on same-sex marriages overwhelmingly shows them to normal, healthy relationships; and children raised by homosexual parents are as well-adjusted as anyone else. Not that reality has ever stopped religious conservatives from believing stupid things. But you do have to love the irony. Yeah, sure, let's go back to 'Biblical marriage'. Can I have a few hundred sex slaves... er, concubines to go with my dozens of wives? Sure I can!

Of course, Christians will undoubtedly try to weasel out of that one by saying polygamy was only acceptable for the 'culture at the time' – you know, the way they do with slavery. But, like slavery, polygamy is never explicitly condemned. Funny that God remembered to command his people to stone rape victims and avoid combining fabrics, but forgot things like slavery and polygamy. The point is, if you want to use scripture to justify your bigotry, it's easy to cherry-pick. With a book as confused and obfuscated as the Bible, what else can Christians do? 

Greta Christina: Why are you atheists so angry?

I wish every believer I know would listen to this. 

(h/t: Shaun)

24 November 2011

Giving thanks

I hope you've all had a great holiday. I have many things to be thankful for:

My amazing family. My parents live about 15 minutes away from me, and I love being able to see them so easily. I wish it were easier to visit my brother and his wife out in California, but a lot of people I know hardly see their family at all so I count myself lucky. My parents are supporting, loving, kind, humble, and honest. I admire them both very much.

My friends. I've had many of the same friends for many years (one of my best friends is someone I've known since middle school, nearly 20 years ago) and I feel very fortunate to have such awesome, fun, and supportive people in my life. I've had friends stick with me through good times and bad, and there's no real way to repay that except to pay it forward.

My co-workers and clients. I'm lucky to have a job that has good hours and is very low stress, and I work with some first-rate trainers and loyal, hard-working clients. I'm not the wealthiest guy in the world, but I have everything I need and then some so I can't complain. Besides, if I were rich I'd probably just be buying guitars all the time.

My health. A client of mine recently shared a great quote, presumably an old Persian proverb: "I used to complain about my shoes, until I met a man who had no feet". I follow Jason Becker on Facebook. Jason Becker was a prodigy guitarist who shocked the world of rock and metal guitar with his virtuosic ability at a measly 17 years of age. Now age 42, he lives in a wheelchair, paralyzed by ALS (the same disease that afflicts Stephen Hawking). So whenever I feel frustrated at the gap between my current ability that of a Jason Becker, I remind myself that I'm fortunate just to be able to play at all. Plus I can go to the gym, do crazy stuff like the Warrior Dash, etc. Not everyone is so fortunate.

My readers. I mentioned recently that I originally started this blog as a way to organize my thoughts; I never really had any ambition of gaining an audience. Over time the blog grew a small but steady readership, and while I'm not raking in the views of Debunking Christianity or the almighty Pharyngula, I've somehow managed to attract a small contingent of very smart people.

And lastly, I have to thank Carvin for giving me my best excuse for not having a wife. Seriously, they made me this. It's the most perfect instrument I've ever played and it inspires me to keep toiling away, hoping to achieve at least a portion of the kind of ability that made Jason Becker such a phenom 25 years ago.

23 November 2011

Physicist Lisa Randall on the conflict between science and religion

I totally stole this from Tristan (with his permission, of course), but it's just too good. I read Lisa Randall's excellent book Warped Passages a few years ago, and loved it. Her new book Knocking on Heaven's Door is on my short list, but Tristan beat me to it and yanked out a few quotes from her on the conflict between science and religion. I've never known her to have a Dawkinsian anti-religious agenda, but she knows her epistemology and these quotes really capture the heart of the matter:

"For a scientist, material mechanistic elements underlie the description of reality. The associated physical correlates are essential to any phenomenon in the world. Even if not sufficient to explain everything, they are required."

"The materialist viewpoint works well for science. But it inevitably leads to logical conflicts when religion invokes a God or some other external entity to explain how people or the world behave. The problem is that in order to subscribe both to science and to a God--or any external spirit--who controls the universe or human activity, one has to address the question of at what point does the deity intervene and how does he do it."

"Clearly people who want to believe that God can intervene to help them or alter the world at some point have to invoke nonscientific thinking. Even if science doesn't necessarily tell us why things happen, we do know how things move and interact. If God has no physical influence, things won't move. Even our thoughts, which ultimately rely on electrical signals moving in our brains, won't be affected...."

"If such external influences are intrinsic to religion, then logic and scientific thought dictate that there must be a mechanism by which this influence is transmitted. A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic--or simply not care."

"This incompatibility strikes me as a critical logical impasse in methods and understanding. Stephen Jay Gould's purportedly "nonoverlapping magisteria"--those of science, covering the empirical universe, and religion, extending into moral inquiry--do overlap and face this intractable paradox too."

"Empirically based logic-derived science and the revelatory nature of faith are entirely different methods for trying to arrive at truth. You can derive a contradiction only if your rules are logic. Logic tries to resolve paradoxes, whereas much of religious thought thrives on them. If you believe in revelatory truth, you've gone outside the rules of science so there is no contradiction to be had."

22 November 2011


My blog originally started out simply as a way for me to organize my thoughts. I never really had any expectations of a regular readership... y'know, people actually caring about what I have to say. But over the last couple of years my little blog has gotten itself a mildly respectable following, and I'm happy to say that 99% of the comments have come from intelligent, nice people.

But I'm also a bit frustrated that, over the last year or so, the blog has pretty much plateaued. My hits are up marginally, as are comments, but I haven't seen a dramatic growth in the numbers. The Facebook page has helped, as has dialogue on other blogs.

Anyway, in an effort to promote the blog a bit more, I decided to start sharing posts on Reddit. Bud over at Dead Logic had some crazy success with it, and the Secular Student Alliance got a big boost from it too.

Sure enough, in terms of raw hits, it's a success. My previous post garnered nearly 1,300 hits in a matter of hours (that's a lot for me). Other posts quickly hit several hundred. And yet, I don't consider it much of a success (at least not yet) simply because I'm not after 'hits'; I'm after a regular readership of smart guys and gals like the ones having provocative discussions in this post. And so far, Reddit has completely failed to increase the number of participating readers or subscribers (whether here or via Facebook).

So I'm curious... to any other bloggers, what have you done to increase your readership? What's worked, and what hasn't?

Oh, and p.s. – If you have your own blog, I have no qualms with you promoting it in the comments section here, as long as the content you're linking to is related to the original post. I don't do a feed sidebar because of space, but I do mention the blogs I read fairly regularly too and I'm always interested in new stuff. 

Leading Republicans want a Christian theocracy

Slate has a rather disturbing article filled with quotes from the Republican presidential candidates, uttered at a recent event called the "Thanksgiving Family Forum", in which they make it quite clear that they don't mind the idea of a theocracy at all – as long as it's an evangelical, probably Protestant theocracy. Noticeably absent from these proceedings? Mitt Romney. Of course, he's a Mormon, which means he's not a True Christian™. Anyway, read on for some highlights from this monstrosity. Truly, the best way to keep these people out of office is to just let them open their mouths.

p.s. – I'm reminded of Newt Gingrich's statement that the U.S. is in danger of becoming an atheist nation run by radical Muslims. Whatever that means....

20 November 2011

The conflict between science and religion

I occasionally peruse the blog of former-frequent commenter, now-banned Jack Hudson, and he recently posted this video interview with physicist/theologian Stephen Barr, which I wanted to comment on. It's essentially promoting accommodationism – the idea that there's no inherent conflict between religion and science. I'll let you watch the video for yourself, but because it's fairly lengthy, I've summarized what I view as the central points below.

The themes are as follows:
  • Science and religion answer different questions
  • Science has confirmed some of the things in the Bible
  • Christians are responsible for some significant advances in science
  • Atheists are committed to a dogmatic form of materialism that discounts the possibility of the supernatural (see the 19:00 mark)
This video does a great job of illustrating just how detached theologians are from the real issues concerning atheists. It's a terrible misunderstanding of our position at every front, and begs a few important corrections. 

Science confirming the Bible (or not)

Before we get to the heart of conflict, let's take a look at the idea that science has confirmed certain things in the Bible, or certain things thought of by Christians. He mentions the Big Bang and the (misguided) notion that it shows a beginning of the universe, as well as Augustine of Hippo's theory of time.

There are several problems here. Firstly, if we were really to make a list of all the things that the Bible says about reality – about the origin of the universe, the development of life, biology, astronomy, etc. – the list of things proved wrong by science will surely be vastly longer than the list of things proved right. Even if we granted the tenuous notion that the universe has a beginning, the Bible gets just about everything else wrong. There's water before there's anything else, light before the sun, plants before animals, and the Earth forms before the stars. Further, Barr disingenuously frames the conversation as though to suggest that the idea of the universe having a finite origin was a uniquely Judeo-Christian idea. In reality, numerous cultures all over the world had such creation myths.

As to the notion that the Big Bang is the 'beginning' of the universe, I've devoted a fair bit of time to explaining why that's wrong, but here I'll let a physicist do it too. Suffice to say that the notion that science has confirmed anything the Bible has said is a case of cherry-picking both the Bible and the science.

And finally, to the idea that certain Christians have been instrumental in advancing science. So what? The philosophers of ancient Greece were pivotal, as were several atheists, deists, pantheists, and what have you. Funny how these Christian accomodationists fail to mention the advances in science that came from Muslims. Again, we have a case of liberal cherry-picking where the accomplishments of non-Christians are diminished or ignored entirely in order to create a false caricature of Christianity as some beacon of enlightenment.

Atheism, materialism, and the conflict between science and religion

The real conflict between science and religion doesn't come from who has the answers or who doesn't. For example, we could time travel back three millennia ago, and find that we lacked the technology to understand microorganisms. It could be rightly said that science had little to say on what, exactly, made people sick and how they ought to be treated. But that wouldn't render a supernatural explanation, such as demon possession, valid by default. We have to guard against a classic argument from ignorance fallacy – the fact that a scientific explanation is not forthcoming does not render a supernatural explanation valid by default. And yet, this is precisely the kind of God of the Gaps reasoning that many theists resort to, suggesting that a divine miracle was required for the origin of the universe or of life on Earth, simply because science has little to say definitively on these matters.

The conflict really lies not in the answers, but rather how we ask the question and, most importantly, how we pursue knowledge. The frequent accusation of 'materialism' is sorely misguided; there is nothing, in principle, which precludes us from discounting supernatural explanations. The problem lies in the fact that no one postulating supernatural claims has figured out a methodology by which any of the claims could be confirmed or falsified. Religious claims about reality are based primarily on revealed knowledge; and unfortunately for theologians, revealed knowledge, in principle, cannot be independently verified.

This leaves theologians in a precarious position. As the empirical methodology of science continually illuminates the world, frequently usurping religious claims about reality in the process, theologians are forced to retrofit their theology into the lexicon of scientific knowledge. This is precisely what Stephen Barr is doing in the interview when he claims that the Big Bang supports the Bible, yet selectively ignores the innumerable scriptures which science has proved false. I'm sure he would try to weasel out of that conundrum by suggesting that those inconvenient errors are just 'metaphors'. Of course, if science appears to confirm something... well, then clearly that was meant to be taken literally! Until the next scientific discovery proves it wrong, of course....

You'll never hear anyone using any sort of 'theological method' to understand reality, because one does not exist. That is the fundamental conflict between science and religion. Religion makes metaphysical claims about reality that cannot be independently verified – only awkwardly retrofitted into modern scientific knowledge. And while the independently verifiable methodology of empirical science leads to increasing consensus about controversial issues as erroneous ideas are systematically identified and discarded, the lack of such a methodology has the opposite effect in theology: as more specific unverifiable claims are made (e.g., about what God is, what God does, what God wants, etc.), the more divisiveness emerges in the theistic community. This is the watermark of a failed epistemology, and that is precisely what religion is. 

19 November 2011

Freethought Blogs sucks

I don't know what it is with the migration of several of my favorite blogs to this network, but:
  • The templates are all totally generic and ugly
  • There are lots of intrusive ads
I don't see what the payoff is. Blogger and Wordpress are so much nicer.

17 November 2011

The silliness of prayer, encapsulated by a believer

I came across this video over on the always entertaining Christian Nightmares (which is entertaining because it more or less exposes the absurdity of Christianity in the words of its own practitioners). It's a clip about something called 'prayer circles' (not people standing around holding hands, if that was your guess). This guy is going on about the power of prayer, but the money quote is just past the 1:30 mark.

He says,
"Our prayers are like time capsules. You never know how or when or where God is going to answer them, but you can live with the holy anticipation." 
There's a massive hole in logic in that sentence. The question is a simple one, but it's a big one to which no Christian (or theist in general, for that matter) has ever been able to give me a straight answer. Ready? It's this:

How do you tell the difference between a prayer that wasn't answered the way you hoped, and a random even that would have happened anyway?

The problem with prayer is that the believer has already assumed, upon praying, that the prayer will be answered. It doesn't matter if the prayer isn't answered the way they hope it to be. They might get the total opposite of what they actually prayed for, or nothing at all. It doesn't matter. Since the believer has already assumed that the prayer was answered, they have to find some way to creatively interpret mundane events around them to rationalize their assumption that the prayer was answered. It's classic confirmation bias

This goes back to the core problem of religion: revelatory knowledge. There's simply no way at all to independently verify revelatory claims. So when someone has convinced themselves that God answered their prayer – even when the 'answer' looks nothing like what was asked for – the only rationalization they have is that they believe it out of sheer emotional conviction. There's no logical process, no objective methodology, for distinguishing between an answered prayer and a random occurrence. That's why the efficacy prayer isn't really testable, and it's astonishing that so believers think that's a good thing.

16 November 2011

I'm a little bothered by this

A few years ago, at the encouragement of my (devout Christian) older brother, I contacted the pastor of my parents' church just to see if he'd be interested in chatting. He replied that he would love to meet with me, and we eventually met and talked for about an hour and a half. At the end, he loaned me two books – one by Frank Tipler, a physicist, called The Physics of Christianity, which turned out to be one of the most loony books I've ever read. The other was a much more reasonable accomodationist tome by John Polkinghorne called The Faith of a Physicist. I originally tried to take notes on things I found questionable, but filled up pages so fast I had to stop.

John Polkinghorne
Anyway, some time later I contacted the pastor about meeting again. I wanted to talk about the books and about some of the issue we'd covered in our previous conversation. At the time, he had some medical issues, so I simply left a message. After he got through that, I contacted him again, through his secretary. After some time passed with no response from him (his secretary did reply), I contacted him yet a third time. No dice. I gave the book to my parents, and told them to pass the message on that I wanted to meet with him again. They returned the books to him, but he never contacted me.

Some time later, he added me on Facebook. We didn't correspond directly that often, but did exchange both friendly comments and butt heads on a few issues – though never uncivilly. I recently realized I hadn't heard anything from him in a while, so I typed his name in the Facebook search bar, went to his page and discovered he had unfriended me.

So, fine whatever, I'm not losing any sleep. But I don't get it. Christian doctrine holds that the fate of my eternal soul rests in my faith, or lack thereof. Why would he not even want to talk? And why on earth would he decide to cut me from his 600-plus friends roster? Obviously, as a non-believer, I occasionally say things that ruffle the feathers of believers. But goddammit, it's important to exchange ideas. It's especially disappointing because he's one of the few truly educated pastors to whom I had access.

A while back, my brother went to a dinner hosted by Francis Collins. It was a small affair with a round-table discussion, and he said he really wished I could have been there, for two reasons: one, because it would have given me the chance to directly converse with educated believers, and two, because my perspective would have been a welcome (to him, at least) counterpoint to what was an exclusively theistic audience. I lamented that, while I enjoy blogging, I find it quite frustrating that it's so difficult to find believers with whom I can engage in actual conversation.

And one of the few I had found decided that he didn't want to meet with me or even read what I had to say on Facebook. I'm a little disappointed, but I'm also simply bothered by the fact that someone educated is closed off to engaging opposing perspectives. If you were passionate about the truth, wouldn't you be interested in opinions that differ from your own? Otherwise, you're simply trapped in a self-deceiving bubble designed to protect yourself from the possibility that you could actually be wrong.

15 November 2011

Theistic strategies for elevating faith to the stature of science

I think that if there's one overarching goal of the modern new atheist/skeptic/freethinking/whateveryouwanttocallit movement, it's to remove from our culture the notion that faith is a good thing. Faith is, by definition, believing in things in spite of – or even because of – a lack of evidence. When we have good evidence for something, we don't actually need faith – we can just accept reality as it is. I mean, isn't that alone a good reason to chuckle at the so-called logical 'proofs' of God's existence? If it was that easy, if we really had proof that God existed, faith would be pointless.

If there's another position that should be evident among new atheists, it's that we love science. We love it so much that we're even accused of scientism! One of the interesting contrasts between science and faith is that both claim to be means of "knowledge", yet only one of them has given us reliable information about the reality we inhabit that we've been able to use for all those advances in technology that have made our lives better and easier. The theologians, meanwhile, still haven't figured out how to deduce what God (assuming one exists) actually is. We atheists are right to point out that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world. Actually, it's the only one, because the others (like faith) don't actually have a methodology by which we can discern between true and false information through objective, independent verification.

But theists are very closely tied to the emotional security blankets of their religions, so they work very hard to elevate faith to the same level of epistemic prestige as science. There are two major ways they do this:

1. Claim that science can't answer the Big Questions

Science, so they say, may be able to tell us a lot about the natural world. But it can't tell us why the world exists, how we ought to live our lives, how we ought to treat others, or what things we should most value.

14 November 2011

Hiding behind a fallacy

It really grinds my gears when Christians try to give their religion credit for all the sociocultural progress we've made, all while blaming atheism for everything from economic woes to Stalin's genocide. It's astounding self-deception, one in which the innumerable Christians responsible for histories greatest cruelties and injustices are dismissed as not being 'true' Christians; that way, Christianity is responsible only for the pleasant things, and all the unpleasant things can be blamed on atheists or misguided believers who never would have done such things if only they'd had the correct theology.

It simply cannot be ignored that Christians were responsible for, among many other atrocities:
  • The wanton killing and displacement of Native Americans
  • Encomienda
  • The Atlantic slave trade
  • The Crusades
  • The Inquisition
  • The Nazi regime and the antisemitism that inspired the Holocaust 
  • Witch burnings
  • The KKK
  • The murder and forced conversions of Germanic peoples (the Saxon wars)
Importantly, I don't think people did these things because they were Christian, just like I don't think Stalin was a tyrant because he was an atheist. No non-believer thinks that being a Christian will by definition lead to such things. However, religious fanaticism intertwines effortlessly with imperialism and the demonization of outsiders. The important point, then, is that Christianity not only didn't stop these people, but it was often used as an inspiration and/or a justification for these atrocities. To suggest that these people were simply misguided Christians, or not 'true' Christians, is to hide behind the No True Scotsman fallacy in a transparent charade of self-deceit.

The truth is, people will do kind things and cruel things with or without religion. Human solidarity has, quite necessarily given our gregarious and interdependent nature as a species, existed as long as humanity has, and we made it for 198,000 years before Christianity came along to enlighten the lost – whether by words or, if that didn't work, by the sword. 

13 November 2011

Explaining the Holocaust

Back when I did my series on morality, I used the Nazis – and the Holocaust in particular – as an example of people doing really cruel things. In truth, the inhumanity of the Holocaust – while still fairly fresh in our minds because it was relatively recent – is far from an isolated incident. Encomienda, the Atlantic slave trade, the Trail of Tears, tribal warfare in Africa are just a few of the many examples of humans doing horribly cruel things to others en masse.

How do we account for this cruelty? It seems a little easier to account for something like a serial killer or child molester – we just say something like, that person was a sociopath. One of my clients works as a prison nurse, and has told me that one thing the prisoners frequently have in common is a horrible childhood full of abuse and neglect. Another former client works as a public defender specializing in death penalty cases. He's told me that only a very small percentage of killers are true sociopaths – that most are people who would, in most circumstances, never imagine themselves taking anyone's life. They typically feel great shame, guilt and regret.

But when cruelty is systematic, as it was in the Holocaust, it's hard to believe that everyone is a sociopath, or that everyone had an abusive childhood, or that everyone just found themselves in a brief, extraordinary circumstance. How do we get so many people working together to do such cruel things?

11 November 2011

A quick thought on divine morality

The idea that our morality is bestowed upon us by God is one that, to me, has always suffered from a problem so obvious that it really shouldn't even need mentioning.

Nobody has direct, objective access to God. Now, some people will of course claim they have personal access to God, but these claims are not independently verifiable – which is pretty important when you're living in an social, cooperative and interdependent society. If someone tells you God spoke to them, how could you possibly substantiate – objectively – whether their claim was true? Revelatory claims, by definition, fall outside the realm of empirical knowledge. Are God's commands known from his Holy Book? Whose interpretation of which one? And again, how can those claims be independently verified?

So even if it were true that God's commands form the basis of our moral compass (and of course I don't think it is), it would pretty useless to us unless we all could independently verify exactly what God's commands are. But since that's not possible, the result is that all these believers who claim that the basis for their morality is 'objective' end up being on the exact same page as everyone else – they have to find reasons, motivated by rational self-interest, to value certain behaviors and condemn others.

10 November 2011


I linked to this over on the A-Unicornist Facebook page, but I also wanted to link to it here because I think it's just that damn good. Shaun at The Atheist, Polyamorous Skeptic has an outstanding post responding the accusation of "scientism" that is often leveled at non-believers. Choice quote:
Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the critics of the so-called “scientistic” people (one is tempted to juts call them “scientists”) seem to not understand the position as it is commonly used by those, such as myself, who believe that science is the preeminent epistemological methodology in the world (perhaps the universe!).  The other part is, as has been pointed out, that this method conflicts too much with theological methodology which is often non-empirical.  People like [theologian John Haught] have a bias, a conviction that ties them to a set of doctrines which make claims at odds with science, and so they see something beyond the reach of empiricism.
But to say something is beyond empirical reach is to say that there are non-empirical things.  Well, how would they know? How could they know? From where could they get that data? Revelation? By what train does the “revelator” travel in order to get from a non-material world to a material one? What are the connecting tracks made of? Without a justification for how they get their information, were are right to be skeptical.

Read the full post here.

As I echoed in my comment on Shaun's post, we non-believers often point out that it is a fallacy to place God as an explanatory mechanism in places of scientific ignorance – the origin of life, of the universe, of consciousness, etc. When we do this, we're often accused of a dogmatic adherence to materialism, naturalism, or the aforementioned 'scientism' – the notion that we are refusing to even consider divine explanations.

This is simply a false characterization of our position. Our objection is a valid one which should be easy to comprehend: that the inability of science to explain something does not render a divine explanation valid by default. Throughout history, a great many things were thought to have divine or supernatural explanations, only to have scientific explanations usurp them. As Sam Harris has frequently pointed out, it's hard to think of a single example of the opposite happening .

But to the objection that we are unwilling to so much as consider divine explanations, or that we are dogmatically committed to materialism, nothing could be farther from the truth. We are simply committed to systems of evidence that demonstrate their claims. Well, we only have one of those, and that is empirical science. Theologians have not been able to postulate a system by which we could reliably discern true divine claims from false ones; instead, they simply place God in the gaps while attempting to cantilever assumptions based upon our rational understanding of the natural world into realms that are in principle beyond the purview of rational inquiry. The folly of such an approach should be readily apparent.

09 November 2011

I can haz computer?

Thanks to the modern miracle of express shipping, I have a shiny new motherboard. Literally shiny, since my old one was a little dusty. I still won't be blogging much... I had to reinstall Windows, so I'm in the exciting process of re-installing all my programs and getting everything the way I like it. Then, since everything is working now (y'know, like that new memory I was installing when my computer keeled over), I'm finally going to get around to overclocking the living shit out of this thing, which will take a few days. Oh, and Skyrim will unlock tomorrow night, so I'll basically be in my underwear for the next week, eating reheated pizza and drinking Mountain Dew by the gallon.

Here's a pic of my new rig. I'm thinking of painting some flames on it:

Update: Well, that was easy....

4.1ghz. And I'm not even pushing the damn thing. When I started building PCs back in 2006, the AMD FX chips were the kings, and it was a huge deal if you could overclock it by an extra 100mhz. 

08 November 2011

Moral objectivity and oughtness

QualiaSoup continues his already outstanding series on morality by absolutely demolishing William Lane Craig's pet moral argument (and more!). A must-watch:

07 November 2011

That which we most desire...

Hey look! Computer access... after hours at work.

In my computer-less evenings, between lengthy bouts of guitar practice, I'm reading a great book called On Desire by William Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University. It's a thought-provoking examination of how desires drive our behavior, how they're formed, and how we can deal with them. In my reading thus far, Irvine has briefly touched on an interesting point which strongly links desire to our moral behavior, and it got me thinking in new ways about some theistic arguments I've heard in the past.

Motivated self-interest

In his debate on morality with William Lane Craig, Sam Harris asserted that our desire for well-being is something we take as axiomatic. Craig's response was that we don't have any objective reason to desire well-being, so using it as a cornerstone of moral judgment, as Harris does, is just begging the question. The theistic argument is that morality is derived from authority; they argue that the chain of authority (our parents, the law, etc.) logically must terminate somewhere -- presumably with the ultimate, infallible authority of God.

When I discussed this with theists around the time of the debate, I posed what I thought was an obvious question raised by that assertion: why ought we care about obedience to authority? Or, to put it another way, why ought we value God's commands? By asking these questions, I was trying to state what I thought was a fairly obvious truth: that motivated self-interest can never be separated from moral behavior. Presumably, we ought to obey God's commands because it's in our best interest, both individually and collectively, to do so.

The theists with whom I discussed this issue, however, attempted to argue that God's authority simply warranted obedience intrinsically. It shouldn't be difficult to see that this is really just avoiding the question; I want to know why we would value obedience to God's authority. What would be in it for us?

05 November 2011

It may be a little slow...

So I decided to upgrade my RAM on my PC, from 4GB to 8GB. RAM is really cheap these days (4GB was a measly $30), so I figured why not? I got the RAM yesterday, popped the two new modules into my motherboard, and... the computer wouldn't boot. Two hours of troubleshooting and a call to the motherboard maker's tech support and it was determined that somewhere in the process of installing the memory, the motherboard shorted out. I'm in disbelief! The easiest upgrade possible ends with me replacing a motherboard. Ugh.

Anyway, I'll have pretty limited computer access for the next couple of weeks, so it'll be pretty quiet 'round here. Of course, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim comes out this week, so when I do get my PC back up and running I will quickly become enslaved to the massive time drain of Bethesda's open-world RPG. Set expectations accordingly.

In the meantime, check out some of my favorite blogs:
Dead Logic
Advocatus Atheist
For the Sake of Science
The Atheist, Polyamorous Skeptic
One Minion's Opinion

04 November 2011

Hey atheists!

A few reasons to reject "God did it"

God did it is more or less the cornerstone of all 'sophisticated' theological arguments. The First Cause arguments, the design arguments, the moral arguments... they all fall back on the same appeal. If it sounds like I'm oversimplifying, well, I'm not. Because the thing about using God as an explanatory mechanism is that nobody has the first clue how God actually does anything. He just, y'know, does. Worse, no one can offer the slightest explanation as to why God does anything. It's just, errr, his 'will'!

For example, we now have the theistic camp firmly split into (coincidentally) a trinity: young-earth creationism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution. The last group is by far the least wrong, and make an effort to show that evolution is compatible with faith. But here's the problem: all you can ever do, even if you fully accept modern science, is retroactively make God fit. You can never tell us before hand why or how God would design anything at all. Which brings me to the first reason to reject God did it:

It doesn't actually explain anything

We never had any theologians telling us that God would have designed evolution by natural selection (and genetic drift). The 'intelligent design' advocates can't actually explain why God would design us with eyes that have a blind spot and with retinas that are upside-down. We never had theologians telling us that God would have, obviously, designed an exponentially expanding universe dominated by dark energy. It may be hard to imagine, but until the last century we didn't even know that 'the universe' consisted of anything beyond our own galaxy. And man were we wrong! But where were the theologians telling us just how small and insignificant we really are?

That's the Achilles's heel of theology: it has no explanatory power whatsoever. All a believer can do is observe the facts that science has illuminated, then retroactively agree that God, of course, would do it precisely that way.

But that's not all. Theology complicates things. As much as believers like to rant against 'materialism' or 'naturalism', postulating theological concepts raises more questions than it answers... and I don't think is really answers any questions at all anyway. That's the other problem with God did it:

It makes things more complicated

I'll give a few examples. First, let's take the 'First Cause' arguments. These arguments require that we

Jerry Coyne vs. John Haught debate (with a slice of controversy)

In case you haven't been paying attention in the atheist blogosphere, there's been a bit of a fuss. On October 12th at the University of Kentucky, Jerry Coyne debated John Haught, a Catholic theologian who's written a lot of books about the compatibility between science and faith. Jerry Coyne, as anyone who reads his blog could figure out, argued that science and faith are antithetical.

The controversy comes from the fact that bizarrely, Haught refused to consent to the release of the video. After a massive influx of emails, student petitions, and outrage on the blogosphere, Haught relented... sort of. At first, he made a list of strange demands, including that Coyne apologize for something Haught presumably found offensive, and then publish a three-page letter from Haught on his blog. Coyne didn't apologize, and he stuck Haught's letter in the comments section. Haught relented, and consented to release the video. What a facade! Don't agree to a public debate if you won't stand behind your performance.

Haught got smoked pretty badly. Jerry's an expert at exposing the silliness of 'sophisticated' theology, and in my estimation Haught is really out of his league here. But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself:

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? October 12, 2011 Q+A with Jerry Coyne and John Haught from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.

02 November 2011

Cosmically insigficant

People sometimes ask me if it's depressing facing death as an atheist. I mean, when you die, you're just gone. No white light, no harps in the clouds, no gold-paved city, no reunions with those who went before you. Just the end. And I tell them, no – it's actually kind of the other way around. To me, it's a much more depressing thought that this life isn't good enough – that it's just a preparation for the eternal life to come. Over at Evolutionblog, Jason Rosenhouse phrases it eloquently:
I really don't understand people who say life has no point or meaning unless it's a prelude to the eternity we will spend with God in heaven. This seems precisely backward to me. It is hard to imagine anything more pointless and soul-crushing than the thought that we are just marking time here on Earth while waiting for our real lives to begin after we die. Whatever meaning life has surely arises in part from the fact that it is finite. You have only so many years in which to cram as much experience, learning, love, friendship or whatever else it is that gives you satisfaction, so you had better make every moment count. That's the realization that gives life its point and its zest.
This thought also applies to the significance of how we live our lives. Certain theologians muse that unless our actions have cosmic significance, they just seem completely pointless. Why live if you're just going to be gone? Why do good if, in a thousand years, no one will remember or care?

People who think like that are missing out. Imagine you do some small, random act of kindness – like, say, buy a sandwich for a homeless guy. Did you solve all his problems? Did you give him a second chance? Did you change the world? Is anyone going to remember, or care, in a thousand years (or in eternity)? No. You met someone who's had a rough life, and you're brightening his day just a tiny bit. You reminded him that people are out there who care. Shouldn't that be enough? Why would it matter whether your act of kindness would be remembered, or whether it would be cosmically significant?

When we get to the end of our lives, hopefully we've made the best of it. Hopefully we've been lucky, and made it through without a lot of suffering. Hopefully we're leaving behind lots of friends and loved ones whose lives we touched, and we did what we could to live the happiest lives we could. And maybe we hope that the kindness we've shown others has helped make the world just a little bit of a better place – because we care about those we're leaving, and we want them to go out with a smile on their face too. Eternity doesn't care about me, but that's okay – I don't care about eternity.