30 June 2012

The truth about income inequality

"And the biggest nonsense of all, he says, "is the idea that because the rich are the smartest, and because we're the job creators, the richer we get, the better it is for everyone. So taxes on the rich should be very, very low because we're essentially the center of the economic universe, the font of productivity." Nick pauses. "If there were a shred of truth to the claim that the rich are our nation's job creators, then given how rich the rich have gotten, America should be drowning in jobs!"

Tulsa faith leaders are divided on the court's health care decision

An article from the Tulsa World provides some interesting insight into how local faith leaders are viewing the court's decision. It's worth perusing the whole thing, but here are some choice quotes:

"I'm thrilled," said Drew Diamond, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Tulsa.

"We spend a lot of our social services resources and energy helping people in our community who are either uninsured or underinsured medically," he said.

"Anything that helps people on the margins get access to medical care is both necessary and important. This was a major move to help people who seriously need help in this area.
And...
The Rev. Bill Crowell, president of Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, said: "We were very much in favor of it. We think it was necessary to help more uninsured people in the country."
And...
Kathryn M. Lohre, president of the National Council of Churches, said that organization's members have "supported readily available health care since we were formed in 1950,"... following "the bold example of Jesus, who healed the sick."
Buuuut....
Richard Land, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, called the law a "blatant violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and perhaps a mortal blow to the concept of federalism."
And...
"The federal government is forcing us to pay for things that various religions, not just Catholics and evangelical Christians, deem immoral. Our religious freedom is being attacked."
And...
Tom Minnery, executive director of Focus on the Family's CitizenLink, said the law will "weaken us as a nation. It forces taxpayers to subsidize abortion, expands the size of government and infringes on our fundamental rights of religion and conscience." 

 
If you're, say, a Jewish person, and you open a small kosher restaurant, you still have to comply by the rules that comes with owning a small business. Handicap access, building codes, food safety standards, etc. etc. Even if you had some obscure religious reason to prepare food in a way that wasn't up to code, guess what? Tough luck. No one's forcing you to open a restaurant, so if you do you have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

Is this Drew Diamond, or a guy wearing Groucho glasses?
If you're, say, a Catholic business owner, and you decide you want to provide health insurance for your employees, there are certain rules that come with health care – like access to contraception and abortion (access to which, apparently some have forgotten, is a constitutional right). If you don't want to play by the same rules as everyone else, don't get into the fucking health care business. But you don't have the right to deny access to care to people who may or may not share your personal religious views.

To all these people who complain that the health care act 'subsidizes abortions and contraception', guess what? You already do that if you have any insurance policy, because abortion is protected by constitutional law and all insurance providers have to cover it. Not to mention the fact that when people have abortions without insurance, the cost of the procedure is absorbed in the system and everyone pays. Uninsured people make premiums go up!

A friend of mine, who is otherwise a nice and intelligent fellow (who happens to be a doctor), said that health insurance should be a "privilege for those who work hard", not a "right". Okay, lets go with that. But how do you decide who works hard and who doesn't? Oh wait! It's the old Republican equation:

Rich people = hard working, deserving of every penny they have
Poor people = lazy, deserving of every ounce of suffering they endure

I truly think that many conservatives sincerely equate personal wealth with personal worth. And they love to point to such-and-such poor person who is now a world-renown surgeon or powerful CEO, as if everyone who is poor could achieve those things if they just stopped being so damn lazy. Health care? That's for the people who are worth something.

Please. Access to a basic level of health care, to the extent we have the means to provide it (which we do), is a human right. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, lazy or hardworking, republican or democrat. All that matters is that you're a person. Sorry, robots. If that makes this country "socialist", well, then socialism fucking rocks. I like this quote from Hemant Mehta today:
If atheists are responsible for ObamaCare, though, we better get some credit for it a decade from now, when people wonder how we lived without it.
As we say here in Oklahoma, darn tootin'! I'm kidding, nobody says that.

28 June 2012

Obamacare upheld, Fox News implodes

THIS JUST IN....

The Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, begrudgingly decides poor people are also kinda people too. Wealthy conservatives outraged; many threaten to leave country, but can't find a wealthy Western democracy without universal health care.




(stolen from Facebook...)


25 June 2012

Can you have a meaningful life without the afterlife?

Great video from The Thinking Atheist (Seth Andrews) that debuted over the weekend at FreeOK. A number of well-known atheist vloggers contributed including Laci Green, Thunderf00t, Evid3nce, and the aptly named Cristina Rad.

23 June 2012

FreeOK quick thoughts

Well, I'm back. And no, I'm not headed to the afterparty, although I'm sure that would be a grand time. But here's my initial report. As I said yesterday, I didn't attend the whole thing. Partly because I didn't know who most of the speakers were, but also because I really just didn't want to sit on my ass for eight hours (at least, not without a guitar and a glass of Scotch). So my friend Sherrie and I got there around 1:30, in time for the afternoon speakers. Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, was supposed to speak at 9:00 that morning but it was announced yesterday that he'd been bumped to the afternoon because of a flight delay. He had to be bumped again, so we saw him last (there was one more speaker, but we weren't interested... and we were hungry).

Me with Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists


So we saw Hemant Mehta, Abbie Smith and Dave Silverman. All three put on great talks. Hemant talked about the obstacles facing young non-believers and how we can develop avenues to help them connect with like-minded people. Abbie talked about viruses. I thought it would be a bit too esoteric, but it ended up being a fascinating talk that  touched on many relevant issues, including the importance of evolutionary biology in medicine and thus the imperative to give young people a sound science education. Lastly, Dave talked about leveraging the progress from the Reason Rally back in March to continue to work for religious equality, and the steps being taken to combat religious privilege (and that, in the courts, we're winning).

I'll have more on the talks later, but I just wanted to share a quick thought.

I've always been a bit hesitant to get involved in 'atheist communities'. Firstly, because, well, I don't believe in astrology either, but I don't care about starting any non-astrology clubs. And secondly, because I'm leery of the hive-mind that is so pervasive in religion, and I very much value my independence.

But... the reality is that if the majority of people in the country were astrologers, and non-astrologers were ostracized and mocked, and if astrologers tried to usurp astronomy in science classrooms and tried to leverage their numbers for political influence and legal privileges, then I would definitely form a 'non-astrologer' group. Despite my cynicism, I've definitely come to see the value in connecting with a community of like-minded individuals.

The cool thing, too, is that we aren't really connecting over our non-belief, but on our many shared positive values. We value social and religious equality; we value science and science education; and while we may think the world would be a better place without religious doctrine and we certainly love a good debate, we don't want anyone ostracized or marginalized for their beliefs. We aren't looking to turn the tables and put, as Dave joked, "In God We Don't Trust" on money; we simply want to eradicate the pervasive privilege enjoyed by many in the majority and erase the stigma often associated with being an atheist.

All in all, an afternoon very well spent. Attendance was a tad over 500, which is nearly double last year's attendance. Considering we're smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, I think it's a success.

22 June 2012

FreeOK is tomorrow!

Tomorrow is the largest gathering of atheists and agnostics in Oklahoma history. It's also going to be the hottest day of the year so far. Coincidence?

Either way, I'll be blogging about it this Sunday. I won't be attending in the morning, but I should manage to see all the afternoon speakers. If you're local, get your ass out there! It's only ten freaking bucks! I'm hard to miss (I have garishly pale skin, a purple mohawk and lots of tattoos), so say hi! Seriously, if anyone approaches me and says they're a fan of The A-Unicornist, I will quite literally swoon.

Anyway, it should be a good time. More to come over the weekend.

20 June 2012

Yahweh's perfect justice

NonStampCollector returns with another great satire. This seems pretty fitting given my last couple of posts.




From the description:

"This is actually a re-make of one of my first videos, from 2008. The original video had, at the end, footage of an actual stoning that had taken place somewhere in the Islamic world, taken on a camera phone. The video was banned and taken down in 2009, and I didn't dispute the ban. I could never get around to drawing a stoning scene that I thought would have the same impact. A few months back I came up with the idea of seeing if people would like to draw cartoon pictures of a stoning that I could include in this remake. I made a quick video calling for submissions, and you can see the results here."

17 June 2012

Does God have to obey his own commands?

I've talked a lot about the flimsy basis of "objective morality" that Christians claim for themselves; they waffle between various definitions of what constitutes object morality, trying say that certain acts are 'just wrong' while claiming they're okay if God says so. If an act can be moral in a certain context – like, if it's moral to stone people to death for working on the Sabbath, as commanded by God in Old Testament law – then no act in particular is either moral or immoral; instead, the morality of the act is determined (obviously) contextually. So if God's commandment to stone people to death made it moral back in olden times, but it's immoral now, then the basis for determining the im/morality of an act lies not with the act itself but with obedience to God's commandments at the time. And if God's commandments can change, then so can the im/morality of any particular act.

This "divine command theory" is what many self-styled sophisticated theologians argue for, but it's clearly not an argument that supports objective morality – morality becomes based on the subjective and contextually relative commandments of God.

But what about God's own behavior? It's often pointed out that God, in addition to commanding many horrible things, did many horrible things. He 'hardens the heart' of the Pharaoh, then punishes his stubbornness by murdering all of the Egyptians' firstborn children. When people behave badly, he sends a great flood and kills them all. In the story of Job, God kills Job's family on a bet. When one of his prophets is taunted by some kids, he sends a pack of bears to maul the kids to death. And if you have the wrong theology, God is going to send you to a very bad place forever and ever.

But recall what William Lane Craig said in his debate with Sam Harris:
"God's own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, faithful, generous, kind, and so forth."
"God's moral nature is expressed to us in the form of divine commandments. Far from being arbitrary, God's commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature."
Now, here's Craig claiming that God isn't subject to his own commandments:
Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself,  He has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.  We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.”  Human authorities  arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God.  God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second.  If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.
Craig's stumbling over his own feet, plainly contradicting himself. If God's commandments are expressions of his holy and loving nature, then to do things contrary to his commandments would be to act against his own nature. In this sense, God cannot choose to do evil things, for that would be in defiance of his very nature. If we take this to its logical conclusion, it means that for God to murder the firstborn of the Egyptians, or to send bears to maul smart alec children, etc. etc., are not intrinsically evil acts. Whether or not they're evil depends on whether God does them, or commands them. That is, by definition, a subjective and contextually relative form of morality.

All this goes to show that theist arguments for "objective morality" are a bunch of crap. Theism does not provide, as Craig claims, a sound foundation for objective moral values. And the God of the Bible, through such atrocious acts of wanton cruelty, condemns himself.

16 June 2012

Old Testament loopholes

I think Deuteronomy is simultaneously the most comedic and the most disgusting book in the Bible. In it, our Perfect Benevolent Creator commands some pretty atrociously cruel stuff. But the real eye-opener is in chapter 22:

An old-fashioned mercy killing
13 If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her , dislikes her 14 and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” 15 then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. 16 Her father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. 17 Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, 18 and the elders shall take the man and punish him. 19 They shall fine him a hundred shekels[b] of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.
20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.
Okay, so, stone non-virgins to death. Gotcha. But wait....
28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels[c] of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
I mean, this is horrible for several reasons that should be as obvious as a bear on a bicycle to anyone without the Jesus goggles on. The man is "punished" by the woman being forced to marry her rapist. Could that be more back-asswards? And stoning a woman to death for failing to have a hymen? Hymens can be torn by any number of non-sexual activities. And we should also consider the fact that stoning someone to death isn't some kind of swift, painless mercy killing – it's a slow, excruciating, humiliating, all-round terrible way to die. It's literally death by public torture.

But hey, maybe the rapist can be spared the cruel fate of forcing his victim to marry him by pointing out that she's not a virgin, and just have her stoned to death. 'Course, if she didn't already cry out for help, she's to be tortured to death anyway:
23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
Yes, Christians, tell me more about this perfect, just, merciful God of yours.

Churches: reaming your tax dollars

Hemant Mehta has a great post up today about the cost of churches not paying taxes. I have no idea why churches get tax-exempt status, but it's always seemed absurd. Given the whole "congress shall make no law" thing, it seems like obvious unconstitutional favoritism to allow churches to reside on often huge properties and even hand out conservative-leaning 'voting guides' without paying a nickel.

Anyway, so how much is this tax exemption costing us? Brace yourself:
While some people may be bothered by the fact that there are pastors who live in multimillion dollar homes, this is old news to most. But here is what should bother you about these expensive homes: You are helping to pay for them! You pay for them indirectly, the same way local, state, and federal governments in the United States subsidize religion — to the tune of about $71 billion every year.
I'll leave it to you to peruse the rest of the article. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the data (there's a link in the original post to a defense of the methodology in Free Inquiry), but it certainly seems plausible. Churches are everywhere. Many of them are massive, and bring in millions of dollars in revenue. And none of them pay taxes.

Right now, Tulsa is facing some serious budget shortfalls. We've had to close several schools, and there has been much talk and debate about firing more teachers. And I do not think it's a stretch to say that our city, with churches about as hard to find as gas stations, could benefit immensely from the revenue a simple property tax on churches would generate.

Of course, that might mean some of our pastors might not be able to afford million-dollar homes and Mercedes coups, but you'd think that paying for education would be a priority for Christians over stuff. Y'know, "store up treasures in heaven", etc. etc. But then again, the only thing easier to find in this town than a Christian church is a Christian hypocrite.

Asbury United Methodist, just a few miles from my home.

15 June 2012

Tulsa gets sex ed

Finally, some good news: Tulsa public schools are getting sex ed.

This is kind of a big deal, because Tulsa is both religious and conservative – it's known for its innumerable historic and modern churches, and it's home to Oral Roberts University and Rhema Bible College; Oklahoma is also the only state in the union in which every county voted for John McCain in 2008.

Surely all this religion and conservatism would produce a veritable utopia, right? Errr....
According to recent statistics, Oklahoma has the fifth-highest rate of teen births in the nation among 15- to 19-year-olds and the second-highest rate in births to teens ages 18-19.

Another report determined that the 7,581 births to Oklahoma teens in 2008 cost state taxpayers an estimated $190 million. About a third of those births were to teens ages 17 or younger while 89 were to girls ages 10 to 14.
Thus far, Oklahoma's sex ed has looked something like this:


So here it is in 2012, and some of these people are finally starting to realize that ignorance isn't bliss. If we want young people to behave responsibly, we have to educate them – and that includes how to use contraceptives and protect themselves from STDs. As the saying goes, abstinence and condoms both work, but abstinence has a much higher rate of failure.

7 Myths About New Atheists: Myth #5 – Atheists have just as much faith as believers

I don't know why, but for some reason last night I found myself watching an old clip from Hardball with Christopher Hitchens and Bill Donahue. In case you're not familiar with Bill Donahue, he's one of those people who constantly talks in a half-yell and has said, among many other dumb things, that that child-molesting priests weren't pedophiles because "The vast majority of the victims are post pubescent. That’s not pedophilia buddy. That’s homosexuality." 

Anyway, he frequently used the term "dogmatic atheist" to denigrate Hitch, and I was really curious about what exactly he meant. Being an atheist means you don't believe in any God or gods. That's it. There aren't any holy books, no doctrines, nadda. So, what do we have to be "dogmatic" about?


Then there's that book, I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. Oh, and Ray Comfort's book, God Doesn't Believe in Atheists: Proof that the Atheist Doesn't Exist. And in case you thought that only a young-Earth creationist crackpot like Ray Comfort would say something that stupid, William Lane Craig – the theologian who occasionally mistakes himself for an authority on physics – has similarly claimed that atheists don't actually exist.


So, why is this the case? Why do believers think that atheists are people of faith, and that we don't really believe what we say we believe?


Believers (and a word of caution: I'm generalizing about the believers I encounter most frequently by far, which are the Christian-defender types) seem to think that God's existence is self-evident. Ray Comfort famously thinks that he can trip up atheists by asking them, "How can something come from nothing?" Presumably, the notion that the universe had a creator, and had to have been designed, is so self-evident that to deny it requires us to believe in something completely absurd, like, I dunno, 'The universe popped into existence out of nothing by random chance'. [note: I'm using the 'ex nihilo' definition of 'nothing' here, not the connotation of empty space used by physicists]


But if there's anything that we non-believers are contesting, it's precisely the idea that the existence of any God or gods is self-evident. Where did the universe come from? Well golly, let's ask some physicists:
"The singularity at the Big Bang doesn't indicate a beginning to the universe, only an end to our theoretical comprehension.  It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning, and a complete theory of quantum gravity will eventually explain how the universe started at approximately this time.  But it is equally plausible that what we think of as the Big Bang is merely a phase in the history of the universe, which stretches long before that time – perhaps infinitely far in the past.  The present state of the art is simply insufficient to decide between these alternatives; to do so, we will need to formulate and test a working theory of quantum gravity." - Sean Carroll [1]
"So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?" - Stephen Hawking [2]
Atheism isn't about having faith in some sort of dogmatic creed or doctrine; it's not about claiming to have the answers to everything; it's about asking the right questions.  It's about doing away with unnecessary, useless and epistemically unjustified questions like, "where did the universe come from?" Well, guess what? The laws of physics do not require it have to come from anything at all. Maybe it can "simply be".

I'd take this all a step further, too. It's often said that atheism is a "lack of belief in gods". I take this to be generally accurate, as long as we're talking about some vaguely defined higher power. But theists don't stop there – they assign God many specific attributes and claim that certain physical phenomena (like the origin of the universe) simply cannot be explained at all unless we invoke a higher power. On these sorts of gods, I take a stronger stance: they almost certainly do not exist. I say that because, were it true, then a "God hypothesis", as it were, should have some kind of predictive utility.

Recently, I took an opportunity (as I often do) to bash William Lane Craig, this time for supporting a so-called "Lorentzian" interpretation of Einstein's theory of special relativity. Back in the the 19th century, physicists – among them Hendrik Lorentz – postulated the idea that space was permeated by an invisible "ether", a substance through which light traveled. Einstein, by showing that the speed of light is the same for all observers at all velocities, proved that the "ether" doesn't exist, and the theory was abandoned. Well... for the most part. Some (philosophers more so than physicists) have still tried to work Lorentz's ether into modern interpretations of special relativity, but the ether has no predictive utility... in "Lorentzian Ether Theory", its existence is superfluously assumed.

But in Real Science, things that have no predictive utility and require an extra layer of assumption are generally discarded. And so it is with God. Invoking supernatural explanations tends only to complicate matters, raising more questions than it answers while requiring us to add on layers of unjustified and unnecessary assumptions. Being an atheist simply means getting rid of those assumptions. It doesn't require "faith" in some alternative explanation – simply the ability to ask the right questions. Once it's clear that belief in God is based on unwarranted assumptions, theism unravels all by itself.


Myth #4
Myth #6 (coming soon)



14 June 2012

Dumb 'science' reporting: what's a cheater look like?

I spied a link in my Facebook feed last night from Huffpo in which they were reporting on a survey from the website AshleyMadison.com, which is designed to help married people have affairs. The link was titled, "Revealed: the type of man most likely to cheat", but upon visiting the page itself, it says (similarly) "AshleyMadison.com reveals the typical cheating husband".

A couple of blurbs:
What does a cheating husband look like? According to a new survey by AshleyMadison.com -- a dating site for married people looking to have affairs -- he's likely in his 40s, been married for over 10 years and has two children over 10 years old.
And....
What about cheating wives? In May, the site polled 2,865 of their married female members and found that the typical cheating married woman was in her 30s, married for five years or less and had a daughter under three years old. She is also likely to be a teacher, a stay-at-home mom or work in the medical industry

Why this is dumb

A website surveying its users does not constitute a random sample of married men and women. Hell, it doesn't even constitute a random sample of its own site. I don't know how the site vets its members, but I'm guessing it doesn't, so people could also just lie about whether they're married in the first place. And it overlooks the fact that just because someone signs up for the site doesn't mean they actually follow through and have an affair. This survey tells us what type of men and women are most likely to take a survey on AshleyMadison.com, and that's about it.


As a side note, I think affairs are probably a lot more common than we might care to think. I haven't been able to find statistics I think are reliable (I've seen it reported anywhere from 20% to 80% of married men, for example) but if there were ever something that would be under-reported in statistics, that would probably be it.



12 June 2012

Free will, God style

An oldie but goodie, spurred by a conversation earlier today....

The church is digging its own grave

How is that title? Hyperbolic enough for you? I know, I know.

I watched a great discussion the other day between Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett (posted over at Friendly Atheist), in which they bashed religion and incessantly mocked believers talked about a range of topics including language, evolution, atheism, and the church. They talked about Dennett's interviews with closet atheists in the clergy, which he had discussed back at AAI 2009. That research project spun into a website called The Clergy Project, which is an anonymous, invitation-only forum for current and former preachers who are non-believers. It's now sitting just shy of 300 members.

Dan Dennett made some interesting comments about just how forceful we need to be as atheists, in the sense of trying to persuade others to our perspective. He contends that religion is "unraveling itself", and he's right. The change is happening, but not in the most obvious ways. If we're hoping for some mass exodus from the church in which everyone reads The God Delusion and calls themselves atheists... it's not going to happen. 

What's going to happen is really what's been happening for some time:
  • People will be increasingly skeptical about organized religion – especially young people
  • Church attendance will accordingly drop
  • Even among believers, religion will not be as important as it used to be
  • Churches will water down liberalize their doctrines to reflect changing social norms
  • Other churches will lean more toward fundamentalism, which will spur further skepticism and apostasy from more reasonable parishioners
Think I'm just pulling this out of my bum? Well, I'm not. There is ample research to show that this is already happening. It's been happening for quite some time.
  1. More and more young people are skeptical of God's existence [1]
  2. Polls show that religion isn't as important to people as it used to be [2 – and the really interesting stat is not the small decrease in the number who say it is 'very important', but the large increase in the number who say it is 'not very important']
  3. Church attendance is falling [3, 4, 5 (love the first comment on that one)]
  4. Despite the overall decline of religion, conservative churches are growing [6]

Here's the whole discussion between Dawkins and Dennett: 

11 June 2012

Prometheus and 'big questions'

So in case you missed my post the other day, I saw Prometheus Thursday night, and I'll probably be seeing it again once or twice this week. Yes, it's that good. Well... at least I think it's that good. It's interesting to watch how critics are divided; the reaction is positive overall, but there are some big contrasts too – the critic for Forbes utterly trashed the film as worthless and forgettable, while Roger Ebert called it "magnificent" and gave it four stars. For those who didn't like the movie, one of the criticisms seems to be that it doesn't answer all its own questions. Which is odd, because I generally prefer movies that provoke thought rather than lay all their cards on the table. This is one of Ridley Scott's most ambitious films, and that's bound to produce a more complex reaction from audiences than a straightfoward crowd pleaser like The Avengers. For me, its ideas have been intriguing and complex.

There are some minor spoilers here, so please skip this whole thing if you plan on seeing the film.

SPF 300 for this guy
Promotheus touches on some ideas that, while not original, are pretty big: the origin of life on Earth, and our place in the universe. I recall an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where it was revealed that an ancient, extinct alien race seeded many worlds with life – meaning that humans, Vulcans, Klingons and the many other humanoid species in the galaxy were distant evolutionary cousins. In that episode, the ancient aliens are portrayed as wise and benevolent. And I think that generally, when we imagine alien civilizations that have evolved technologically to the point that they can seed the universe with life, that's how we imagine them.

Prometheus turns that on its head. It's interesting that Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is a woman of faith; the events that unfold clearly challenge her, but the real implication is not about who came from whom (when she's mocked for her faith after it's proved that aliens, not god, created us, she simply replies, "Who created them?"), but the idea that we humans have a privileged place in the universe. Religious mythology in particular often reinforces this idea, like in the Biblical creation myth when God gives humans "dominion over the Earth".

But the "engineers" of Prometheus seem more like the gods of the Cthulhu mythos – not necessarily evil, but they've evolved so greatly, both biologically and technologically, that they are like demigods compared to us. We're like flies to them – an experiment perhaps, or perhaps even just one phase in an experiment. This is hinted at in a conversation between David and Charlie:

David: "Why do you think your people made me?"
Charlie: "[shrugging] We made you 'cause we could."
David: "Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?"

To me, the most profound idea in Prometheus is our utter insignificance. And for me personally, it's a familiar one. As a non-believer, I think it's absurd to think that this unfathomably vast universe, expanding exponentially for 14 billion years and filled with billions of galaxies and sextillions of stars, was 'designed' with us in mind. The universe got along fine without human life for virtually its whole history, and the overwhelming volume of the universe is not only hostile to life, but will continue functioning just fine long after humanity has ceased to be. Special, we may be; but privileged... not so much. And as unlikely as it may be, it could be that there is, somewhere out there, a race of aliens that has evolved such that to us, they would seem like gods. Would such beings welcome us with open arms? Or would they swat us like flies?


Oh, and then there's this. Maybe it's just me, but I think that the orchestral theme for this film might just be good enough to be remembered as one of the great scores of film history.




09 June 2012

William Lane Craig tries to be a physicist... again

Morbid curiosity, as it sometimes does, led me over to the ironically named website of William Lane Craig Reasonablefaith.org. I noticed he had a podcast about the recent PBS series with Brian Greene called The Fabric of the Cosmos (no doubt pulled from Greene's book of the same name). I decided, hey, what the hell, I'm just sitting here doing drills on my guitar... I can listen to it. So I did.

I expected that Craig would, as he usually does, say plenty of things that are true... and then mix in plenty of pure, unadulterated bullshit. I expected that he would distort the science to fit his religious agenda. And I was right on both counts.

It's a fairly long (3-part) podcast, and I'm not going to go through every little point, but I want to touch on some broader concepts where Craig really lights up the crack pipe.


Theories of time

Craig likes to contend that physicists are really out of their league when asking "big questions". He thinks that's a domain best left to philosophers. In this case, the question is: What is time. Well, that's kind of a complicated question. But the short of it is that Craig, as he often does, argues for something called an "A Theory" of time, or "tensed" theory of time. This basically says that there is an absolute reference point by which all relative time is measured.

It's worth noting that this "A Theory" of time, or "Lorentzian" interpretation of Special Relativity is based upon a concept that has been stuck in the trash bin of physics for over a century: the luminiferous aether. The aether was supposed to be this substance that permeated all of space, which served as an absolute reference point for bodies in motion. Einstein, in showing that the speed of light remains the same for all observers, proved that the aether doesn't actually exist. From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
Today LET [Lorentzian Ether Theory] is often treated as some sort of "Lorentzian" or "neo-Lorentzian" interpretation of special relativity. The introduction of length contraction and time dilation for all phenomena in a "preferred" frame of reference (which plays the role of Lorentz's immobile aether), leads to the complete Lorentz transformation. Because of the same mathematical formalism it is not possible to distinguish between LET and SR [special relativity] by experiment. However, in LET the existence of an undetectable ether is assumed and the validity of the relativity principle seems to be only coincidental, which is one reason why SR is commonly preferred over LET.
In other words, this "interpretation" of special relativity, as Craig calls it, requires the assumption that this "aether" actually exists. Plain old special relativity does away with this assumption and works just as well as LET, thus there is not a legit physicist in the world who actually thinks the "aether" really exists, which is required for absolute references in space and time. That's Occam's Razor for you: do not multiply assumptions beyond necessity.

Craig then goes on to say that recent "evidence" has supported the Lorentzian theory of time: namely that neutrinos were measured traveling at faster-than-light speeds (fancy term: "superluminous velocity"). Except there's a slight problem with Craig's "evidence": it was thoroughly debunked as a measurement error. But of course, Craig doesn't bother mentioning that inconvenient detail.

Craig needs to think a little more critically (okay... a lot more critically) about Stephen Hawking's concept of model-dependent realism. Craig says that there's a difference between actual time, and us measuring time. Okay... so, how do we know what this "absolute" standard of time actually is? Do we measure it? Oops. I'm gonna pull out the Hawking quote of the day here. As you may recall, Stephen Hawking, unlike William Lane Craig, is an actual physicist:
"There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science."
"According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation ... then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration."
Craig wants to believe that there is some sort "absolute" reference point for all of spacetime, even if we can't measure it or observe it. Why? Not because there's a lick of evidence for it, not because any actual physicists think it's true, but because his stupid theology requires it. Seriously: this guy is advocating the adoption of a theory that's been in the trash bin for over a century just because his theology needs it. Pathetic.

And what really grinds my gears is that Craig tries to portray the contrary position as fringe, as if his view reflects that of mainstream physicists. Really? Craig's actually advocating a philosophy that is based on the existence of the luminiferous aether, and he's calling Brian Greene's perspective fringe. What a choad.

I'll blog more about this later, but this is enough for now. This all reminds me of a quote from Richard Dawkins I stumbled across earlier today:


I should remind readers that Craig is a gnostic theist, and in his own words has proved Dawkins correct:
"....even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness."

No two religions alike

I'm working my way through Star Trek: Enterprise, and one of the concepts I think is interesting about the Star Trek universe is that we imagine many aliens as developing technology very similar to ours. That's because, as far as we know, the laws of physics work the same on the far side of the known universe as they do right here on Earth. Any alien civilization that developed spacefaring ships with warp drives would first develop particle colliders, fusion reactors, etc. etc.

Flash back to 14 years ago (or so)... one of the reasons that I deconverted from Christianity was because I noticed something very peculiar about religion: no two cultures on Earth, who are geographically isolated and have no contact with each other, will ever develop the same religion. And it's not just that they call "God" by some other name, or they have a different "solution" to humanity's problems – it's that they have completely different concepts of what God or gods are, about what the problems facing humanity are, etc. etc.

For example, in much of the "how to witness to people of other religions" pamphlets and books I read as a Christian, there was a great deal about how other religions had posed inadequate solutions to humankind's "sinful nature". But the very concept of "sin", of humankind being "fallen" and needing redemption, are uniquely Judeo-Christian theological concepts. You would think that, if Christianity were true, that other cultures might at least get the problem correct, but fall short on the solution. But that's not the case; no two religions agree on just what the problem(s) is, much less the solution.

The more I reflected on this, the more it bode poorly for the validity of my faith. Scientists on separate sides of the globe, measuring the stars and studying the orbits of planets, would ultimately come to the exact same conclusions about the laws of physics. Somewhere in some other distant galaxy, there's probably another Isaac Newton type who discovered the law of universal gravitation. These facts can be independently verified by anyone with the knowledge and tools to explore them.

Not so with religion. Instead, the more cultures you have that are geographically isolated, the more disparity of religion you will find. This shows that unlike science, there isn't really any method by which the faithful can identify and falsify bogus ideas, or independently verify correct ones. Not surprisingly, each culture thinks that their take on gods and religion happens to be the correct one. How do they prove that? They can't. They believe it because they want it to be true, because they have a personal conviction that it is true.

It certainly is worth pondering that a great deal of what religion one believes is the product of the region and time in which one lives. If we ever meet a spacefaring alien race, will they preach their religion to us, and us to them? Will Christians tell the Vulcans that Jesus can save them, too?






You know what it's like to not believe in a particular faith because you're not a Muslim. You're not a Hindu. Why aren't you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, not in India. If you had of been brought up in India, you'd be a Hindu. If you had been brought up in Denmark in the time of the Vikings you'd be believing in Wotan and Thor. If you were brought up in classical Greece you'd be believing in Zeus. If you were brought up in central Africa you'd be believing in the great Juju up the mountain. There's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up and, and ask me the question, "What if I'm wrong?" What if you're wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?"

08 June 2012

Prometheus

I saw Prometheus last night, at the midnight IMax premier (complete with limited edition poster, thankyouverymuch). I'm a huge fan of the Alien movies, and (mostly) of Ridley Scott, so I've been excited about this for a while. Now that I've seen it, I can honestly say that for me, it was totally worth the wait. It's a modern sci-fi masterpiece that's visually unprecedented, narratively ambitious, and full of outstanding performances from the entire cast. It fits perfectly into the Alien canon, while not drowning itself in excessive exposition. There are plenty of unanswered questions and new narratives to explore (rumor is that a sequel is already being written). I could nitpick a few things, but that's all I'd be doing. Bottom line: See it for yourself.






WARNING: SPOILERS AHOY


Seriously, do not freaking read this if you plan on seeing the movie. There's a lot to spoil too. But here are a few thoughts:


  • Michael Fassbender almost steals the show as David. I loved his cold, calculated nature. When Shaw is demanding that he remove the "fetus" inside her, and she crumples over in pain, he has this utter sterility when he says "It must be very painful". I also liked the line when he's talking to Holloway, right before he poisons him... something like, "Why do did your kind create me?" "I don't know... because we could?" "Would you be disappointed if your creators said the same?"
  • Charlize Theron was awesome as Vickers. I like that she starts out as a total ice queen, and while she never really becomes a "good" character, it becomes clear that she has her own struggles and that her motivations are more complex than we initially assume. A little bummed she's out of the running for any sequels.
  • I loved the design of the new aliens. Eerily human, almost like what we might imagine our own species evolving into in a few million years. And their seemingly malicious nature fits very well with the idea that a species that would engineer the Xenomorphs probably wouldn't be the benevolent creators we might imagine a highly developed alien race to be.
  • I like that the movie doesn't insult its audience with too much exposition. The closest to that came when the Captain was telling Shaw that the installation was "an installation... probably military," but it wasn't out of place. We still don't know much of anything about the alien's motivations for creating human life or its experiments with biological weapons
  • It's the most visually amazing movie I've ever seen. The Avengers looks amazing too, but it's still a big cartoon. Prometheus looks real. There's nothing that jumps out as an obvious effect, and most of the technology seems plausible. Although I always have to chuckle at the idea that one of the first things we apparently figure out is artificial gravity... cramming the attractive energy of a whole planet into a spaceship. 
  • I love the snake-like aliens that attacked the engineers. Brutal. And it looked like the Xenomorphs weren't the first bioweapon to bleed acid.
  • Noopi Rapace is fantastic. She's a perfect successor to Sigourney Weaver. The scene in the surgery pod.... damn. 

05 June 2012

The round table... of creationists

Hemant Mehta posted this over at Friendly Atheist, and I thought I'd share. It's sort of like the fundie creationist version of the Four Horsemen DVD. I'd propose a drinking game for every fallacy, but somebody would end up getting their stomach pumped.

It almost plays like a collection of every half-baked apologetics canard every devised, with some new ones just for good measure. Dark matter is evidence of the supernatural, atheists secretly believe in God but hate him, atheists think no one can no anything (or, we think we know everything), science has to fit the Bible (or, more accurately, each person's interpretation thereof), science should be changed to allow for supernatural explanations, etc. etc. Anyway, watch it if you dare....

03 June 2012

Internal consistency, coherentism, the Bible, and Star Wars

As has happened several times in the past, a conversation/debate with our friend/adversary Jack Hudson got me thinking about a particular topic: in this case, the idea of "internal consistency" as a measure of reliability. Jack wrote a post in which he, citing a graph, claimed that the Bible is "reliable" because it has many more preserved copies closer to antiquity than other famous works. Tristan did a bang-up job of shooting that down, so I won't parrot him here. Instead, I want to focus specifically on something Jack said in his post (emphasis mine):
The New Testament has many more existing copies from antiquity which are closer to the the writing of the original text than any other well known ancient text we have – which would be expected for a document understood by believers as being Divinely inspired.
In a subsequent comment, responding to some of my objections, he said:
Consistency is merely the necessary condition of the truth of any argument. For example I could not argue both that my dog is all black or all white – the two claims contradict each other.

Thus the wide availability of demonstrably reliable copies of the New Testament would be consistent with the idea that a loving and powerful God had a hand in their production and desires humans to know the truths contained within those texts – which is a pretty decent if general explanation of Divine Inspiration.
He may or may not know it, but Jack is advocating an epistemological framework called coherentism.  The Wiki article on it isn't exactly light reading, but I've culled what I think is the most important point:
Coherentists typically hold that justification is solely a function of some relationship between beliefs
In other words, Jack is arguing that his concept of divine inspiration of scripture is justified by its internal consistency. He begins not with a null hypothesis, but with the assumption that scripture is divinely inspired. Then, as the evidence rolls in, he can interpret it in whatever way is most convenient for his assumption – while denying, omitting, rationalizing or minimizing evidence that might otherwise been seen as inconsistent.

For example, I noted in my review for the movie The Case for Christ that Lee Strobel et al did not deny the existence of factual contradictions among the gospels. In fact they not only acknowledged them, but went on to claim that these errors were actually desirable. This is an example of a post-hoc rationalization designed to preserve internal consistency.


Star Wars apologetics

A similar but more entertaining example that Bud introduced me to some time ago is the "Parsec Apologetic" – a post-hoc rationalization designed to establish the internal consistency of Han Solo's claim that the Millennium Falcon could do the Kessel Run in "less than twelve Parsecs". The problem is that a Parsec is a measure of distance, not of time. The Wookipedia entry says,
Solo was not referring directly to his ship's speed when he made this claim. Instead, he was referring to the shorter route he was able to travel by skirting the nearby Maw black hole cluster, thus making the run in under the standard distance. By moving closer to the black holes, Solo managed to cut the distance down to about 11.5 parsecs.

The Parsec Apologetic has something in common with the apologetics of divine inspiration – both attempt to preserve internal consistency by retroactively interpreting the evidence after the initial assumption was made.

But here's the rub: internal consistency, while a necessary condition for epistemological justification, is not a sufficient condition for it. This is called the Isolation Objection to Coherentism. The Parsec Apologetic is based on the assumption that script writers didn't just make a goof, which of course is a far more parsimonious explanation. Similarly, divine inspiration apologetics are based upon the a priori assumption that the Bible is in fact divinely inspired. But to get to the root of the problem, we need to ask why that is assumed in the first place.

That's exactly what I'm doing with my Gospel Challenge: I'm challenging Christians to establish an independent justification for their assumption of divine intervention. Occam's Razor tells us not to multiply assumptions beyond necessity – the principle of parsimony. So the million-dollar question is this: based on the evidence, why is it necessary to assume that the Bible was divinely inspired at all? What evidence simply cannot be explained as merely the work of human beings, but indeed requires any reasonable person to accept divine inspiration as the best explanation?


The root of the problem

And that, in my experience, is where believers trip up. Some of the more enthusiastic apologetics-types are absolute experts at conjuring up complicated, nuanced rationalizations for their a priori assumptions. The question that must be asked of them is: What is the basis for that assumption in the first place?

I asked this question of believers some time back regarding the unjustified assumptions behind the so-called "big questions", and couldn't get a straight answer. Believers claim, for example, that science cannot tell us the meaning of life – but that very question requires an a priori assumption that there is, in fact, an objective meaning of life. This is one of the most important ways we non-believers can really hammer believers; I don't think it's a stretch to say that it may be the single most important part of the conversation. Undoubtedly, believers will attempt to claim that atheism itself is predicated on unjustified assumptions, and it's a good idea to have enough of a grasp on epistemology to explain why they're wrong.


This post ended up being way longer than I thought it would be. If you actually read it instead of just skimming it, give yourself a cookie.

01 June 2012

7 Myths About New Atheists: Myth #4 – Atheists ignore the atrocities of "atheistic societies"

I briefly touched on this in the previous post in this series, but I want to expand on it a bit more, because it comes up fairly often. While Christianity is spread by peace and love these days, historically it's been spread primarily by tyranny, conquest and coercion. Were it not for the conquest and forced conversions of the Germanic peoples during the Saxon Wars, much of Europe would still be celebrating "Eostre" instead of "Easter". Were it not for Encomienda – the enslavement and conversion under threat of torture or death of Native Americans by the Spanish empire – Mexico wouldn't be a Spanish-speaking, primarily Catholic nation. Were it not for the Crusades, much of the West might be Muslim. Then there's stuff Christians did that was just senseless and cruel, like witch huntings and the Inquisition.

We tend to point out these things as examples of what happens in theocratic societies. When religion has free reign untempered by secular democracy, bad things happen. So the natural counter to this is to point out what believers have (in my experience) often described as "atheistic societies". Stalin, Mao, etc. Hitler and the Third Reich are often thrown in there, but Hitler was a devout Catholic who actually saw atheists as a threat, and Germany was overwhelmingly Protestant at the time. But Stalin was definitely an atheist, and Mao probably was (he was a Marxist). Both of them employed some economic and military policies that resulted in many millions of deaths. The death toll of the 20th Century atheists far eclipses the toll of history's religious atrocities... or does it?

I think it's first worth discussing what we mean by an "atheistic society". Because right now, much of Northern Europe and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe, are extremely secular, atheistic, and/or irreligious. I take most statistics with a grain of salt, because "non-religious" and "atheist" are too often conflated, but there's no denying that religion's hold on most of the modern Western world is pretty flimsy. Across the board, religious affiliation is on the decline in the industrialized world. In Asia, it's even worse for religion. In China, some 70% to 80% of the population is agnostic or atheist. Japan is about the same. It should go without saying that there is a big difference between people being forced out of churches by an autocratic government, and people freely leaving religion in democratic societies (and yes, China isn't exactly democratic, but people are for the most part free to practice their own religions).

It's then worth pointing out that atheism is not a dogma. It has no doctrines, no creeds, no holy books. It entails nothing. It's the outcome of a worldview rooted in evidentialism, not a worldview unto itself. It simply means that one does not believe in any gods. But to the theist, it's not that simple, because theists generally believe that certain ideas are inexorably linked with belief in God – ideas like equality, meaning, the value of human life, freedom, etc. etc. Now, I could take up several weeks worth of blog posts just tackling the philosophical side of those arguments, but I've pretty much already done that.

A younger, hunkier Joseph Stalin
Instead, I'm just going to point out the obvious: if it were true that atheism, or even simply the rejection of religion, entailed a rejection of all the values we hold dear, then all the aforementioned democratic countries would be in utter disrepair. They'd be violent, depraved hellholes while the United States would be sitting atop the world as some sort of beacon of enlightenment. But instead, they're some of the most peaceful, prosperous places on Earth. Moreover, if it were true that religious faith entailed all the values we hold dear, then religion wouldn't have spent most of its history being responsible for some of the most vile atrocities ever committed.

It's also worth pulling from Steven Pinker, and his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which points out, without mountains of data, that we are actually living in the most peaceful era of human history. And while it's true that the 20th Century tyrants killed millions, if we examined the death toll not in absolute numbers but rather as a percentage of the world's population at the time (a far more accurate indicator of rates of violence), Stalin and Mao have nothing on the Crusades, Encomienda, the Saxon wars, witch hunts, and the Inquisition.

Lastly, the problem with such dictators is not that they were too reasonable, or that they didn't believe in supernatural beings running the universe, but that they were cults of personality that were as dogmatic as any religion. Sam Harris said it clearly:
People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

Myth #3
Myth #5