28 December 2011

Total war

I first heard the term "total war" many years ago in reference to a series of real-time strategy video games, like Rome: Total War. In fact, if you do a Google search for the term, the first links are game-related.

But in reading Stephen Pinker's new book, I've learned there's a much nastier connotation to the term: genocide. Total war means not just killing your enemies, but their families too. You burn their villages and utterly wipe them. And while the relatively famous Biblical accounts of divinely-commanded genocide in the Old Testament are almost certainly fiction, total war wasn't that unusual in tribal warfare.

It's interesting to consider why. How could anyone, even tribal humans, do such horrible things? I've talked before about the hard-wiring of our empathetic circuitry – why wouldn't that be sufficient to stop people from killing babies? Pinker recounts events, detailed through historical writings and archeological findings, of truly grisly atrocities.

Imagine two feuding tribes. They both feel threatened by the other, and reason that to protect their own existence, they must kill the other tribe. But they don't wait for war; instead, they conduct a raid, piercing the first victims with arrows as they meander out of their tents to pee. In the ensuing commotion, the rest of the men and all the children are slaughtered. The women are mostly killed, but the occasional nubile young woman will be kidnapped and forced to bear the children of her family's murderers. From the Bible, in the book of Numbers:
31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Why would anyone do such horrible things? Survival. Because women can only bear so many children, and because a single man can impregnate many women, women were viewed as commodities. Kidnapping the women and raping them ensured the propagation of one's own tribe.

Why kill the children? Simple: because it could be reasoned that any offspring would grow up and desire revenge, threatening the safety of the tribe in the future. The safest thing to do, it would seem, was to resort to total war – wipe them out.

My point with all this isn't to justify such horrors. But I think that we tend to look upon the savagery of our tribal ancestors with scorn and disdain, and seldom stop to consider that intellectually, physically and emotionally, they weren't much different us at all. In a time when resources were scarce, starvation and disease were lurking constantly in the shadows, infant mortality was high and the threat of predation was imminent, there was much more competition and such hostilities seemed rational. And had any of us been born into such cultures, the odds are that we would have been gutting pregnant women and slaughtering children too.

27 December 2011

Why I'm not a Christian (in a nutshell)

Given that it's that festive time of year centered on a certain mythical deity, I've decided to offer up, as concisely as I can, the two major reasons why I deconverted from Christianity.

1. The events depicted in the Bible are either impossible or almost certainly fiction

The story of Creation is a myth bearing no resemblance to reality – light is created before the sun, the Earth before the stars. Many Christians, realizing this, simply say it's metaphorical. Not literal. But the reality is that until scientists came along and proved it couldn't have happened that way, there was no reason not to take it literally.

Adam and Eve couldn't have existed. Evidence from molecular biology shows that humans descended from a population of no fewer than 10,000 of our evolutionary ancestors. It's simply impossible for it to have been one man and one woman. But if there's no Adam and Eve, how did "sin" enter the picture?

Noah's Ark is also impossible. I shouldn't have to explain why (I'm not in the business of debating literalists), but NonStampCollector does a fine job of lampooning its absurdities.

There is zero evidence of the enslavement of Jews by Egyptians, much less an insurrection and exodus. There is no evidence of a sacking of Jericho or of a Davidic empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Some of the people in the Old Testament may indeed have existed, and many of the places are of course real. But the stories are exaggerated or altogether false – it's hagiography.

The New Testament is no more plausible. The events weren't recorded until decades after they purportedly happened. With the original manuscripts lost, we have only copies of copies, and they're rife with errors, contradictions, omissions and additions – all the hallmarks that they're man-made. The New Testament contains uncorroborated historical claims, historical errors, and supernatural claims for which there is and can be no evidence.

2. It doesn't make any damn sense

The central idea of Christianity is that God gave his only son as a sacrifice to atone for the curse of 'original sin' that has haunted humanity since its birth and doomed us to damnation in the afterlife. But with no Adam and Eve having actually existed, theologians have to conjure up convoluted rationalizations to explain where sin came from. And why is sin genetically transmitted? How could we possibly be guilty merely by being human? Nobody knows, of course – it's just uncritically accepted as a matter of 'faith'.

The absurdity is only beginning though. In the Old Testament, God decided that the best way to atone for sin would be to kill animals and burn their corpses. Heck, the Bible even says he likes the scent! How did God come to decide that this is how sins should be atoned? Who knows.

This didn't actually happen.
But that's not enough. God decides there's probably a better solution, so he sends his son to be the ultimate ritual sacrifice. Who is God's son? Why, himself! God is his own son. So he sacrifices himself to himself to pay a price he determined was necessary before he could forgive from a curse he put on us after two non-existent people disobeyed him and somehow genetically transmitted this curse to the entire human race.

But wait! It's still not really fixed, you see. God's eventually going to have a big war with the devil (which makes no sense since, being omnipotent, God could instantaneously will the devil out of existence), and all the good Christians will go to Heaven, and the Eden that never existed will be restored. But if humans are still capable of free will, why wouldn't someone eventually just rebel against God again, and totally screw up Heaven?

So, you have two options here: spend your life trying to rationalize these absurdities, or face reality. I chose the latter. I'm not a Christian because Christianity is fucking fiction, and there is not the slightest reason whatsoever for any remotely rational person to believe otherwise. 

26 December 2011

Reading material

I haven't been blogging a ton lately, and this post is just to tell you that it'll probably continue to be sparse. That's because I've got 700 or so pages to absorb:

I read the first 16 pages or so last night. If you're unfamiliar with the book, Steven Pinker (a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, well-known in the secular community) argues, using mountains of research, that – contrary to the popular assumption – our world today is the most peaceful one in human history. Per capita violence, in virtually every area, is the lowest it's ever been. He then uses modern research in psychology, sociology and economics to explain why this is so.

He begins the book by talking about the violent Bronze Age societies, and after an unsettling tour through the appalling violence of the ancient Greeks, the Old Testament (much of it sanction and/or commanded by God), the crucifixions and bloody games of Rome, the use of torture to force confessions from Jews in the Inquisition (why not, if brief pain could save their souls for eternity?), and the celebration of the grisly deaths of several Saints, he concludes with a beautiful rebuke:
[The] point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don't, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.
This is gonna be a good book.

Yule be sorry if you don't convert to Christianity

22 December 2011

The most awesome thing ever

A few days ago I caught the trailer for The Hobbit, directed (of course) by Peter Jackson. Just when I thought 2012 couldn't get any more awesomerer...er, the new trailer for Prometheus has hit.

Why, you ask, is that a big deal? Because it's Ridley Scott's return to science fiction, a genre he practically defined for modern film making with Alien and Blade Runner. It's been speculated that this is a prequel to Alien, and while that much isn't certain, what is certain is that the movie takes place in the Alien universe – fans will recognize the ship and the massive cockpit where the original crew of the Nostromo found the corpse of the "space jockey".

It's a spooky and intriguing teaser, and with the caliber of talent involved I have high hopes for this one. Oh, and the special effects are jaw-dropping. This trailer must be watched in full HD.

21 December 2011

Words of wisdom

I remember a line from the movie Grumpy Old Men: "The only things you regret in life are the risks you didn't take".

I have to admit, that's been a hard lesson to absorb. But in retrospect, I realize that I've let certain opportunities slip away because I took the easy road. As long as something you want stays in your head, there's no possibility of failure. You don't have to face the ramifications: being hurt, disappointed, embarrassed, rejected, or whatever other undesirable outcomes may be possible. It's much easier to let it brew in your head as a comfortable fantasy. The truth can be hard to accept: nothing ventured, nothing gained. But as I grow older, a life of quiet discontent seems much less appealing than a life of spectacular failures and great passions. 

So, I don't care what anyone says. I'm going to clown college!

Okay not really.

Actions and words

I've had an interesting conversation/debate with my brother, a Christian, on Facebook today. I posted the following picture, which mocks "Tebowing", named so because Tim Tebow genuflects every time he scores a touchdown:

The point here is obvious: that it's absurd to believe that God helps you win football games while millions die of famine.

My brother responded by noting that Tim Tebow isn't just some paper Christian – he gave his entire signing bonus to charity, and is turning a luxury condo into a soup kitchen for the homeless. My brother then suggested that we non-believers have no business mocking or criticizing his beliefs because chances are we are not doing anywhere what he is to help the needy. So while we may find his underlying motives objectionable, we should still agree that they produce a "net positive" for humanity and avoid criticizing them:
I'm not talking about non-believers generally. I'm talking about you and everyone who feels it necessary to pile on in this post to dog the beliefs that motivate a man to kneel after a touchdown, which happen to be the same beliefs that motivate him to feed the hungry. I'd wager you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in a secular NGO or a religious charity who would take joy in doing the same thing you're doing with respect to anyone who was putting a hand to the plow and helping their cause, for whatever reason.
[Charity] "can only be measured by the degree to which giving becomes sacrificial", like the parable of the widow's mite in the Bible. So, while I don't care about the gross amount of one donation vs. another, I don't think you've got a leg to stand on unless you actually care enough to do whatever your parallel to Tebow's (spending his entire signing bonus on charity and living in a place while having it renovated to being a soup kitchen) might be.
And my point is that unless your beliefs net humanity a greater (albeit proportionally adjusted) good, the only thing you prove is how bad a case of plank eye you have.

I responded that no amount of charity exempts ideas from public dissemination and criticism, and that the latter is every bit as important to our humanity as the former. To which my bro replied, "Tell that to a starving child." My final response, I feel, is my coup de grace. I can think of nothing further to add. So here it is, in its entirety:

Tim Tebow's beliefs don't exist in a vacuum. While he's done acts of charity, he's also publicly campaigned for (and is a member of) Focus On The Family – which opposes gay rights and sex ed, promotes the subjugation of women in marriage, promotes the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design, and wants Roe V Wade overturned.

That is what I mean when I talk about the importance of the public dissemination of ideas. Those touchy-feely beliefs that are motivating him to do charitable things also motivate him to support an organization that opposes civil rights, science education, and the autonomy of women. Tebow doesn't get off the hook for that stuff because he's building a fucking soup kitchen. He can build a hundred soup kitchens and it will not elevate his beliefs above criticism. I may or may not be devoting "x" proportion of my time/income/possessions to charity in equal measures to him. But I'm not endorsing an anti-humanist organization either.

And, point of fact, a significant part of Africa's starvation today can be traced back to Christian imperialism. So while I'd sooner give the starving child a morsel than a book, in the long term I would stake much more than his own well-being on his valuing of reason and his rejection of dogmatic ideologies.

My bro's argument is one that he's used in the past to criticize Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and other atheist polemicists. His argument is that the effect of religion is a "net positive" for humanity, and atheism has nothing to offer but harsh words. To my mind, this is incredibly disingenuous. Atheism is not an ideology and atheists are a significant minority, so you are not going to find too many "atheist charities". But there are a litany of secular charities, including ones founded by both Dawkins and Harris. And I think it's very short-sighted to measure the impact of religion only by its modern charitable contributions when its ideologies permeate so many facets of our culture and have such a complex and often sordid history.

As humanists, we have an ethical duty to speak out against absurd and dangerous ideologies, even when they are enshrouded with a thin veil of charity.

18 December 2011

Thoughts on Social Contract Theory (part 2)

In part 1, I gave the general outline of Social Contract Theory. It's essentially the idea that we are a bonded, interdependent species, and that in order to survive and thrive we must live in cooperative social hierarchies. This necessitates the advent of certain rules, whether explicitly stated or not – that we must respect the needs and interests of others if we wish others to respect our own needs and interests. It could be said that the 'Golden Rule' is the unstated heart of all SCT.

Conventional SCT has been what Frans De Waal describes as a 'Veneer Theory' – i.e., we are in our most basic form cruel, selfish and tyrannical. It is only through our capacity for reason, whether it is as Thomas Hobbes suggests the ability to recognize our responsibilities toward others or, as John Locke suggests, our ability to recognize some transcendent moral authority to which we are ultimately subject. Either way, our nature is perceived as the disease, our capacity for reason the cure.

But modern research into moral behavior is telling us something very different. We're finding that many behaviors we've long assumed to be uniquely human – altruism, self-sacrifice, caring for the weak, etc. – are in fact quite common in the animal kingdom. They are most poignantly observed in our primate cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, but can be observed in a variety of intelligent mammals from dolphins to elephants.

Hitchens on why Christianity cannot be believed

17 December 2011

Thoughts on Social Contract Theory (part 1)

Note: I'm going to be splitting this post up into two parts, for brevity's sake.

Yesterday I was watching old videos on Youtube of Christopher Hitchens. In particular, I watched his second debate with Frank Turek, on the question "Which better explains reality – theism or atheism?" I don't know much about Frank Turek, but, while maintaining a half-yell for virtually the entire debate, he recited all the typical arguments – the cosmological, the teleological, the moral (Hitchens rightly pounced by pointing out that these are, at best, deistic arguments). Turek's challenge to Hitch on the moral front was especially facepalm-worthy; he did exactly what virtually all theists do: he falsely equated atheism with moral nihilism. The old, "Without God, everything is permissible" canard. (I've addressed one glaring failure of this argument here.)

Considering how a lot of these Christian apologist types like to posture themselves as learned in topics like philosophy and various sciences, it's astounding to me that none of them seem to have even heard of Social Contract Theory (SCT). This isn't some new, radical theory or something; it's been around since Socrates. And yet you can't throw a rock at an apologist without hitting some canard about how, without some absolute final authority, we have no reason to be kind to each other; why not, as Turek suggests, just kill each other?

15 December 2011

In memoriam: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens has lost his battle with cancer, at age 62. Far too young for such a brilliant mind. Hitch, you were an inspiration. I didn't always agree with you, but you were always provocative, always lucid, always eloquent. You cut to the heart of matters, had the courage to expose evil behind sacred cows, and faced death with dignity and courage. You will be missed.

"I suppose one reason that I've always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate that the universe is designed with you in mind.
Or even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not. This kind of modesty is too arrogant for me." - Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

On "Tebowing"

After reading this facepalmer from Fox News (shocking) that accused people mocking Tim Tebow's overt displays of piety of being "anti-Christian bigots", I thought it was about time to chime in. I'm not claiming to speak for anyone else here, but there are a few things to say about "Tebowing".

First, it's hypocritical. Jesus was flatly against these kinds of charades:
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." [Matthew 6:1]
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men." [Matthew 6:5]
Secondly, it's silly. Why would anyone really, honestly think that God gives two shits about who wins a football game? I dare say that if God is indeed helping Tebow throw a ball around, he's got his priorities back-asswards. How about, I dunno, getting rid of the famine in Africa so all those millions of kids don't die every year? What's that Lord? After the playoffs, maybe? Puh-lease.

We have every right – nay, duty – to call it for the nonsense that it is. The real bigotry is coming from the religious loons who react with utter shock and indignation at anyone who dares criticize their shallow, self-aggrandizing displays of piety.

On the existence of the supernatural

Things that are invisible and otherwise empirically undetectable look a lot like things that don't exist.

13 December 2011

The language of dolphins

Here's a fascinating one:
Researchers in the United States and Great Britain have made a significant breakthrough in deciphering dolphin language in which a series of eight objects have been sonically identified by dolphins. Team leader, Jack Kassewitz of SpeakDolphin.com, ‘spoke’ to dolphins with the dolphin’s own sound picture words. Dolphins in two separate research centers understood the words, presenting convincing evidence that dolphins employ a universal “sono-pictorial” language of communication.

I've read several books by the primatologist Frans De Waal, and the central theme of much of his writing is that humans are not as different from animals as we would care to admit; or rather, animals are much more like us than we would care to admit. It's perhaps comforting to reassure ourselves that we, with our superior intellects, are entitled to complete dominion over the Earth and all the instinct-driven beasts within it.
Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground." [Gen 1:26, NLT]
But nature is not merely "red in tooth and claw", and while the "survival of the fittest" is generally (falsely) portrayed as an every-animal-for-itself struggle for survival, the truth is that virtually all animals survive by living gregariously – in cooperative social hierarchies. In many mammals, particularly our primate cousins, we can see analogs of many behaviors long thought to be uniquely human – altruism, self-sacrifice, nurturing the weak and wounded, sharing food, and much more. We see emotions – pain of loss, joy, amusement, frustration – and we see complex social cultures and language.

So when I see something like this – the language of dolphins being decoded and understood – it reinforces to me that De Waal is right: animals are much more like us, and us more like them, than we've long believed. But for many, that's a scary idea. For now, we tend to view animals as objects – for our consumption, our entertainment. If we begin to view animals as conscious creatures like ourselves – with thoughts and emotions that in many ways mirror our own – we might have to change the way we treat them. And, perhaps even more daunting, we may have to change the way we view ourselves.

Thought of the day

Isaiah 45:7 says,
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things
 In Matthew 6:13, Jesus instructs his followers to pray,
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

So, the Judeo-Christian god creates evil, and then wants you to ask him to be delivered from it. Makes perfect sense.

h/t: Michael Hawkins

11 December 2011

Strong or weak atheism?

Most atheists, it seems will tell you that they are "weak atheists"; that is, the extent of their atheism is a "lack of belief in gods". This is just another way of saying, "Gods may or may not exist, but their existence hasn't been sufficiently established by falsifiable evidence, so I do not believe in them." This is often thought of as a sort of "agnostic atheism", and it's pretty consistent with where most non-believers fall. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins rates belief on a seven-point scale:
  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: "I do not believe, I know."
  2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. "I don't know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
  3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
  4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."
  5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. "I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical."
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
  7. Strong atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one."

Dawkins places himself at a 6, as I generally do. But in my experience, most theists seem to associate atheism with "strong atheism", which is a positive statement that "Gods do not exist" – the last on the Dawkins scale. So theists claim that our arguments must then conclusively prove that gods do not exist, which of course is impossible since gods are purportedly supernatural and beyond the purview of empirical validation. When we refuse to answer (since it's an irrelevant challenge), the theist claims to have bested us.

But for me, it's not quite so cut and dry. Whether I consider myself a strong or weak atheist – a 6 or a 7 – depends very much on the kind of god in question. I think believers often take for granted that their particular conceptualization of God is only one of many, and different arguments become relevant depending on what a believer claims God is and does.

10 December 2011

Stephen Law tackles Plantinga

Tristan authored a rebuttal of Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism over at Advocatus Atheist not too long ago, and now Stephen Law, who actually does this stuff professionally, has a paper up in the Oxford Journals called Naturalism, Evolution and True Belief that takes Plantinga on in even more detail. It's a beefy read, and personally I always find the heavy use of acronyms a bit confusing, but it's a good read if you're in to that sort of heavy philosophy.

Is Stephan Law's rebuttal successful? That's for you to decide.

09 December 2011

The Perr-o-dies (see what I did there?) come rolling in

Well, Rick Perry's made an ass of himself. I know, I'm shocked as well. And now, the parodies of his gay-bashing, falsehood-touting commercial have begun popping up. Some are clever, some are a little too try-hard, but it's encouraging that the reaction to Perry's bigotry and ignorance has been swift and merciless.

Shocking news: Biblical scholars are mostly Christians

In his debate with Bart Ehrman, William Lane Craig – as he usually does – stated that there are four "facts" about the Resurrection:
  • Jesus' burial
  • the discovery of his empty tomb
  • his post-mortem appearances
  • the origin of the disciples' belief in his resurrection
Ehrman, however, didn't take the bait; instead he challenged Craig on whether those "four facts" have been sufficiently established as facts. After taking a pounding in that debate, Craig has devised an ingenious dodge to circumvent similar arguments in the future: he simply states that most Biblical scholars agree on these historical facts. Well, of course they do: they are almost all Christians! In other news, the vast majority of Muslim scholars affirm the historicity of the Koran.

The Ehrmanator
There are a handful of non-Christian Biblical scholars, but as you might imagine, work can be slim pickings for these folks. Most Biblical scholarship is done at theological seminaries, and what seminary wants to hire an outspoken atheist? Someone who thinks all the students are being taught a bunch of bullshit? Moreover, as Chris Hallquist notes, several of the more well-known non-Christian Biblical scholars, like Bart Ehrman and Robert Price, were originally fundies who got into scholarship because of their religious devotion.

Evolution News says abiogenesis is in trouble

Over at the always unintentionally hilarious Evolution News blog (which, contrary to its name, is a site for Intelligent Design creationism) there's an article about some new research which has supposedly undermined naturalistic explanations for the origin of life – aka abiogenesis.

Oh, but don't get too excited – the IDer's still haven't done any original research. They're reporting on a study published in the journal Nature which suggests that as soon as 500 million years after its formation, Earth's atmosphere may have had abundant oxygen. Here's where the conundrum supposedly arises: scientists (real ones, not IDers) have long though that an anaerobic environment – that is, a low-oxygen or "reduced" atmosphere – would be best for the formation of the amino acids that would eventually form RNA. This new research, according to IDers anyway, suggests that the time was far too short for RNA to have formed by "chance".

Well, not according to one of the authors of the study. In an article that is ironically linked to and even quoted in the article on Evolution News, the authors clarify:
The results do not, however, run contrary to existing theories on life's journey from anaerobic to aerobic organisms. The results quantify the nature of gas molecules containing carbon, hydrogen, and sulfur in the earliest atmosphere, but they shed no light on the much later rise of free oxygen in the air. There was still a significant amount of time for oxygen to build up in the atmosphere through biologic mechanisms.
Huh. I guess the ID guys didn't read the whole article. Of course, that hasn't stopped the them from saying that the study is a problem for "naturalistic" explanations for the origin of life... ergo Goddidit:

07 December 2011

Best of 2011

The year's not quite over yet, but there's nothing really notable on the horizon for the last few weeks of 2011. So I'm going to go ahead and dish out my picks for the things that I liked most this year.

Best book: The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen

Yes, he's related to Sacha Baron-Cohen (they're cousins). But this book isn't satirical; it's an exceptionally well-researched exposition on human empathy that moves important questions about morality (how can people be cruel?) away from religion and into the empirical sciences. This is one of those books I consider essential reading for non-believers; it's by no means a polemic, and he even states late in the book that he does not have a "Dawkinsian anti-religious agenda", but it's the kind of book – like A Brief History of Time, Primates and Philosophers or Religion Explained – that takes a Big Question traditionally monopolized by religion and demonstrates not only that the religious explanation is inadequate, but gives us a way to move forward using science and rational inquiry. 

A believer's big fat fallacies

See if you can spot the fallacy in statements like these:
  • The fact that the universe contains order and complexity shows that it operates according to finely-tuned laws
  • The observation that humans have an intuitive sense of right and wrong is consistent with the Christian belief that God has created us to adhere to a higher Moral Law
  • The reliability of our cognitive faculties is consistent with the belief that God designed us to be rational beings
With all these types of statements, while they may cause a skeptic's bullshit detector to start buzzing, it can be a bit difficult to identify exactly where the fallacy lies.  They're used often in the rhetoric of theologians as a means of giving faith-based ideas the illusion that they are grounded in reason, but their usage reveals a poor understanding of how rational inquiry actually works.

Technically, the fallacy at work here is assuming the consequent, where necessary and sufficient conditions are confused. For example, an intuitive sense of right and wrong may be necessary to prove that we are created to adhere to a Moral Law, but it is not a sufficient condition for proof since there may be other explanations for our intuitive behaviors (and indeed there are). Virtually all primitive beliefs about gods controlling the weather, volcanoes, or natural disasters 'comport' with observation, but that is not enough to prove them true – a rational explanation must be falsifiable. In the words of philosopher Stephen Law:
"What a scientific theory requires if it is to be credible is not merely consistency with the evidence, but confirmation by the evidence."
That's a subtle but vital distinction, and it's precisely where theists stumble. Falsifiability is what allows us to gain reliable knowledge that a proposition is valid. If a proposition cannot be potentially disconfirmed, there is no way to identify whether it is erroneous or not. As an example, let's go back and look more closely at the first statement. Here it is again:

Rick Perry, in his own words

I think all Obama needs to do to win the next election is just play the campaign ads from conservatives verbatim.

04 December 2011

William Lane Craig says atheists are angry, whiny, and unsophisticated

For guy who positions himself as someone who engages with and responds to the arguments and concerns of atheists, Craig does a consistently fine job of not having the first damn clue what the arguments and concerns of atheists actually are.

03 December 2011

Serious treatment of the last post

The pic in my previous post, to me, seems like the kind of thing you'd see on Christian Nightmares. It's just amusing all by itself... at least, to non-believers. To us, the absurdity of it is readily apparent. But obviously to that believer, and many like her, it's not absurd at all – in fact, it's a completely normal part of their lives.

Basically, this friend of mine goes to the doctor worried she might have kidney stones. It turns out to be a few cysts, one of which ruptured. She immediately praises the Lord. I'm going to be charitable here and assume she's praising God not for giving her a ruptured cyst, but for preventing her from having more serious (or at least more painful) health complications.

So here's the problem: where, exactly does God play his role? Why not prevent her from having any health complications in the first place? Since when is a ruptured cyst something to be enthused about? No matter how serious the problem, though, the believer could always thank God that it wasn't worse. Kidney stones? Damn. At least it's not cancer, so praise the Lord! It's cancer? Well at least the prognosis is good, so praise the Lord! The prognosis is bad? Praise the Lord for allowing me the time I have left.

Even the death of another can simply be rationalized as 'God's will'. It's here we get to the problem George Carlin so incisively lampooned many moons ago: if God has this perfect divine plan, and he's going to do his will in the end anyway, what's the point of prayer? If God sits around dishing out who gets sick and who gets well, why thank him for anything when he's just doing 'his will' without any regard to you?

Because God micromanages illness

Spied on my Facebook feed just now:

Depleted uranium (and skeptical thinking)

I always try to emphasize that my non-belief is not a doctrine (how can it be?), but the outcome of a rational epistemology. Good critical thinking skills, of course, should not apply exclusively to the supernatural. That's why a lot of non-believers are also skeptics about alternative medicine, psychics, the Illuminati, and whatnot. But if there's one truth about critical thinking, it's that it can easily be compartmentalized.

There are some exceptionally smart people who go to great lengths to rationalize absurd beliefs, who fail to apply critical thinking skills to one area or another when, on the whole, they are generally rational individuals. That's why I often like to point out, when I'm accused of painting theists as stupid because I think they adhere to an irrational belief, that Isaac Newton – one of the most brilliant minds that ever lived – spent much of his life as an alchemist. You can be very smart, in general, and very wrong about specific things.

This will ruin your day
So, depleted uranium. This was a random thing that popped into my head after I saw a graphic image of a beheading purportedly carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in Thailand. While the beheaded corpse (purportedly of a 9-year-old child) was very real and unsettling, I was hesitant to accept the entire backstory on its face simply because it was posted on a virulently anti-Muslim website. It reminded me of a few years ago, when news about depleted uranium being used in Iraq was responsible for all manner of birth defects.

These claims popped up all over the internet and were accompanied by disturbing, graphic pictures of grotesquely malformed children and fetuses. If you do a Google image search for 'depleted uranium', you'll find many such images. And, back in the day, my MySpace page (I know right) was lit up with references to the horrors of depleted uranium, supposedly responsible not only for those grotesque birth defects, but also high rates of cancer and the nebulous Gulf War Syndrome. But are those really pictures of children affected by depleted uranium?

01 December 2011

Sophisticated theology (or, something that annoyed me yesterday)

Yesterday I popped over to Debunking Christianity, where John had a post up talking about some the paradoxes of the omni-qualities of God (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.). It's a great post. But, like clockwork, some Sophisticated Theologian™ calling himself Dr. Günter Bechly chimed in to remind us all what intellectual cretins we all are:
"I am a scientist and not a Christian, but such arguments by new atheists are rather embarassing than convincing, because they show a fundamental ignorance or lack of knowledge about sophisticated theology. .... No professional philosopher could yet demonstrate that the concept of classical theism is logically incoherent.
I know, you're probably peeling your palm off your face. But wait, there's more! When asked by others to expound on Monolism, part of this Sophisticated Theology™ of which we're apparently totally ignorant, our umlauted teacher replied,
"I am not prepared to explain Molinism here (get a book, read some of the papers by Lane Craig on Molinism, and ... Wikipedia and Google are your friends)."
So you see, you foolish atheist, there are these sophisticated arguments that are in fact so sophisticated that they cannot possibly be concisely summarized and discussed. But if you simply were to read the books I have read, you'd know the folly of your ways.