30 August 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 4 (part 1)

If there's any measure of success, influence, and cultural importance of Richard Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion, it probably lies in the huge wave of backlash it has provoked from believers. Personally, A Brief History of Time did far more to persuade me to reject theism than any polemic, but Dawkins' book (which I read when I was already an atheist) has certainly cut deep into the religious community.

That's evidenced in True Reason, where now two of the four chapters I've read are postured as responses to TGD. Previously, I read William Lane Craig's response and found it to be a quote-mining, dishonest smear. At this point, I'm quite frustrated with the book. I'll say it every time: I don't expect to be re-converted to Christianity, but I at least want to hear some ideas I had not considered – perhaps something that provokes me to critically re-examine some of my key beliefs. Instead, I've found that this book, like most apologist works I've read, simply quote-mines to trigger righteous indignation from its target audience of people who are already Christians, and gets the atheist arguments completely wrong. I really want this book to be more. Much more. Knocking down straw men does not impress me.

The fourth chapter is written by Chuck Edwards, and is another response to The God Delusion. This is a long chapter, so I'm going to have to break it into two parts.

Chapter 4: Richard Dawkins: Long on Rhetoric, Short on Reason

29 August 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 3

Tonight I read the third chapter of True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism. William Lane Craig, my favorite apologist punching bag, wrote chapter 3 of this book. Craig fancies himself a sophisticated philosopher and, when he's not proclaiming himself the winner of his own debates, loves to let everyone know how unimpressed he is with atheists' arguments.

The previous chapter of this book was an unmitigated disaster. Can a learned philosopher and theologian like Craig provide some much-needed leverage to this so far unimpressive book?


Again, I must stress here that I am not expecting this book to convert me. But I am hoping it can at least present some arguments that raise points I have not yet considered. So far, though, the arguments of the book seem to count on its readers not actually reading the source material (see the previous entry for lots of examples). Craig's chapter is a criticism of Richard Dawkins' polemic The God Delusion. But Craig runs into a problem here: I actually own a copy of The God Delusion, so I can check it myself to see if I think Craig is fairly representing Dawkin's points. Not only is he not, but he finishes the chapter with what appears to be an outright lie. I mean, I'd say he was just wrong, but someone who thinks himself as such a prestigious academic ought to be able to use Google. Anyway, into the meat grinder:

Chapter 3: The Dawkins Delusion

28 August 2012

Atheism+ just digs its hole deeper

I revisited the original post Richard Carrier wrote about "Atheism+". The comments from Carrier were not encouraging. Like this pearl of wisdom:
"Atheism+ is our movement. We will not consider you a part of it, we will not work with you, we will not befriend you. We will heretofore denounce you as the irrational or immoral scum you are (if such you are)." 
Here's what Carrier doesn't get: it's possible to support equality for women, to be a good critical thinker, to support equal rights for homosexual and transgendered individuals, etc. etc., and still disagree with Richard Carrier or Jen McCreight's opinions on various topics related to those issues.

I thought Jen was as wrong as wrong can get about the whole Elevatorgate crap. I thought Thunderf00t  was right on many points and that his ban from FTB simply betrayed the emerging groupthink that I (and many others) figured was inevitable when FTB formed, which "atheism plus" has just put a nice little stamp on.

Just because I don't want women being harassed at secular conferences (or anywhere else, for that matter) does not mean I agree with your take on that particular incident. Just because I support social justice does not mean that I'm going to side with you on every issue that arises. And the problem with Atheism+ is that, if you're not drinking the Kool-Aid with the FTB crowd, you're part of the problem. You're with them or against them. No, there is no "Hey, yeah, I agree in principle, but I have a different view on this matter." It's either "Yes, that guy in the elevator with Rebecca Watson was misogynistic asshole!" or, "I hate women!" There's no continuum, no subtlety, no gray areas.

Maybe that's not what Richard Carrier means. Maybe he really is just speaking in generalities, and he'd be fine with saying that Thunderf00t fully represents the values of Atheism+ despite dissension on one issue. But if that's the case, then a) we really don't need a label at all because innumerable atheists are already united on those things, so really the label Atheist+ is nothing but a solution in need of a problem; and b) the A+ crowd is doing a piss-poor job of communicating that gray areas exist. Probably because of stuff like this:

Let me point out, just for the sake of the obvious, that the late great Christopher Hitchens supported the war in Iraq, said "I'm not having any woman of mine go to work"[1], and was in many ways pro-life. So, by Carrier's standard, he's a douchebag. He's the enemy. He's one of "them". Well, I admired the hell out of him despite not always agreeing with him, and I always will. That's the problem with these idiotic labels – they do nothing but marginalize dissent and reinforce groupthink. But then again, groupthink is starting to look like the FTB calling card.

27 August 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 2

The introductory chapter didn't instill me with much confidence that this book will be remotely persuasive to anyone who isn't already a Christian. But there are sixteen chapters here, so there's plenty of time for the good stuff to hit. And to emphasize: it's not realistic, just as Richard Dawkins didn't expect to deconvert any die-hard believers with The God Delusion, that I'm going to summarily renounce atheism and go back to being a Christian immediately after reading this book. I'm hoping just to hear some arguments that cause me to rethink some of my key positions, and consider some different points of view.

But if the second chapter, written by Carson Weitnauer (who runs the site reasonsforgod.org) is any indication, that probably won't happen. This chapter is beyond bad. It's truly awful. It's full of so much misinformation, straw men and disjointed arguments that it was truly exasperating and, frankly, disappointing, to read. If they're gonna talk tough about us unreasoned atheists, they can at least get our arguments right first.

Chapter 2: The Irony of Atheism

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 1

True Reason is a collection of Christian apologetics, from a variety of Christian theologians (the only one with whom I am familiar is William Lane Craig, who contributed a critique of The God Delusion for chapter 2), that is postured as a response to the upsurge in atheism in the last five or six years. Y'know... people like me.

I've read several apologetics books since my deconversion – Tim Keller's The Reason for God, Francis Collins' The Language of God, and the aptly named The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias. And yet, I'm still an atheist! I haven't found any of the arguments persuasive yet. Maybe I just haven't heard the right one yet. Maybe I'm in denial. Maybe I'm just a fool. But I'm going to give it shot and read some more Christian apologetics and see if, at the very least, their critiques of atheism represent the arguments fairly and counter them effectively. Even if the book doesn't immediately re-convert me, it will have done its job simply if it makes me take a good critical look at some of my opinions.

With that said.... on to Chapter 1, which is really more of an introduction to the book.

Chapter 1: The Party of Reason

26 August 2012

I'm gonna read a book on apologetics

Because it's only $3, I'm going to read a book called True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism. Here's the description via Amazon:

While New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others proclaim loudly their rationality, clear thinking, and incontrovertible scientific arguments, others are beginning to wonder how genuinely rational they are. Have they proved anything? Have they argued convincingly? Have they pinpointed any real challenges to the credibility of Christian faith?

"True Reason," edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, brings together a compendium of writers--philosophers, apologists, ethicists, theologians, historians--who look carefully at the best arguments atheism has and evaluate their validity, logic, assumptions, and naturalist conclusions.

Authors include noted philosopher William Lane Craig and popular apologist Sean McDowell, along with Gilson, Weitnauer, John DePoe, Chuck Edwards, Matthew Flannagan, Peter Grice, Randy Hardman, David Marshall, Glenn Sunshine, David Wood, and Samuel Youngs. Each chapter tackles a different atheist argument and brings reason fully into the discussion.

Which is more reasonable: atheism or Christianity? Read "True Reason" and think for yourself.

I'll update the blog chapter by chapter, but in the meantime, I just want to respond to the repeated charge that popular atheist authors are "loud". Here's famous atheist Sam Harris being loud:

And here's Richard Dawkins, with physicist Laurence Krauss, being loud:

Maybe "loud" is just a synonym for "says things I don't like".

The Kalam Gravitational Argument

1. Everything that exists must obey the law of gravity
2. The universe exists
3. Therefor, the universe must obey the law of gravity

A hat tip and, if you're in Tulsa, a beer, to anyone who can explain why this is an unsound argument. If you understand that, you can understand why the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God is unsound.

Hint: ontological categories

They took God out of the schools!

I spied this video on Friendly Atheist today. I remember watching this as a teen... funny thing is, even then, as a devout Christian, I still knew it was bullshit. The opener talks about God being removed from schools. But I carried two Bibles to school, held Bible studies/prayer groups during lunch break and after school, and wore Christian t-shirts. Not only did no one ever complain, it was 100% legal. The only thing that got removed in the 1960s is teachers on the public payroll coercing children into prayer. The evangelical Christians are just pissed that they can't indoctrinate other people's kids. I don't want teachers handing out copies of The God Delusion any more than I want them leading my (future) kids in prayer. Why is it so difficult for some people to just live and let live?

I should also point out that since we took God out of the schools, we've seen a revolution in women's rights, equal rights for minorities, and (believe it or not) a decline in violence. I don't think those things happened because of prayer being removed from school, but when Christians point out the horrible turn for the worse that our country has taken since the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s and blame it on prayer being removed from schools, I want to ask them... what the heck are you smoking?

25 August 2012

I'm not always on board with those billboards

For the most part, I like American Atheists' billboards. The ones that say, "You know it's a myth – this season, celebrate reason" are great because they're targeting closet non-believers. For the most part I enjoy the almost panicked reaction from Christians who are so accustomed to their beliefs being unchallenged that any public display of dissent or criticism is viewed as hostile and, if you watch Fox News, anti-American.

But this one in particular, which just got taken down after various threats were made, rubs me the wrong way:

Lots of this is true. The Biblical god is a sadist. There are well over 30,000 denominations of Christianity, at least according to the almighty Wikipedia. But I suppose it's the last one that kind of rubs me the wrong way. It's cryptic. It doesn't jive with the recorded words of Jesus which, fictional though they may be, didn't promote "hate". And if it's the actual Christians it's talking about, well, plenty of them don't hate anyone. 

Calling the savior "useless" is also inflammatory and, without any context, makes for a rather uninspired mockery of faith. I much prefer something like this, which sarcastically but accurately summarizes what you actually have to believe if you are a Christian:
Christianity: the belief that only God's own magic blood was powerful enough to save humanity from a curse he placed on it when a woman made from a rib was tricked into eating a magic apple by a talking snake, so God created a body for himself and then killed it to appease himself.
See, most Christians don't want to think about the inanity of God sacrificing himself to himself to free us from a curse he put on us, and they don't want to consider that the two people supposedly responsible for the fall of humanity never actually existed.

So yeah, let's mock Christianity. It's fully worthy of a little well-placed scorn from time to time. But most Christians are normal, nice people, so let's try not to be total dicks about it.

24 August 2012

The clumsy path to human evolution

I wanted to write about this some time ago when it hit the newswire, but it slipped my mind until now. Recently, paleoanthropologists have unearthed a skull that reveals an unexpected find -- a third species of humans that co-existed with homo erectus and homo habilis that has been coined homo floresiensis. Now, researchers are trying to understand to what extent these species interacted and interbred. The discovery isn't without controversy; some scientists are still debating whether this is indeed a new species, though the consensus seems to be that it is. It's also possible that yet a fourth species was present at the time.

This is a important and fascinating discovery because it helps dispense with the popular myth that the evolutionary path to modern humans was a smooth, linear process as it is sometimes visualized in the famous "ape to man" pictures:

But this is not how it happened. Evolution was a messy mishmash of species that led to us in fits and starts. One of the most important ideas embedded in evolution is that it dispenses with teleology, the idea that we are the 'goal' or pinnacle of life on Earth. If we rewound the clock of evolution, there's no guarantee that we would exist at all -- and in fact we likely would not. Evolution is not a process working toward a higher goal, or toward more complexity; it's simply the action of nonrandom natural selection acting on randomly varying genes. Were that not the case, and if evolution was the product of some divine 'designer', we would have every reason to infer that the designer is inefficient, sloppy, callous, and petulant as humanity arose in the dust of its extinct ancestors.

Full stories:
Early human ancestors had lots of company, fossils reveal
New Fossils Put Face on Early Human Ancestor
Fossils complicated human ancestor search

23 August 2012

Thought of the day

I visited Uncommon Descent to get the link for my previous post, and I couldn't help but notice the peculiar fact that they have lots and lots of posts attacking atheists and atheism. Why is that peculiar? Because 'Intelligent Design' advocates, or 'IDiots' as the biologist Larry Moran likes to refer to them, will go to great lengths to assure ID skeptics that their intelligent designer isn't necessarily a god at all, much less the Judeo-Christian god that the overwhelming majority of them believe in. Curious, then, that a blog supposedly devoted to "serving the intelligent design community" spends so much time talking about people who don't believe in gods.

Actually, it's probably not that curious.

22 August 2012

Does Richard Dawkins support infanticide?

I was doing some research for a forthcoming post, and I stumbled across the blog Wintery Knight. If you're wondering what it's like, it's basically like Wide As the Waters with a few extra megatons of science-denying, conservative-idolizing, atheist-bashing inanity. Hard to fathom, but read it at your own risk.

The anonymous author of this blog frequently references the creationist blog Uncommon Descent, which is one of the blogs of the ID-touting comedy troupe The Discovery Institute. And he pulled a doozy of a Youtube clip from there in which it appears that Richard Dawkins is rather unequivocally endorsing infanticide. Here's the clip, as posted on the site:

How horrible! Surely this is proof that atheism leads to a complete abandonment of the sanctity of human life -- not at all like the god of the Bible, who only slaughtered children and/or ordered his minions to do so when it was, like, culturally appropriate at the time.

This isn't just a lesson in face-palm-worthy hypocrisy, though. It's a lesson in willful ignorance. Because I was curious about the actual context of this quote, I sought out the original video. In just the first few minutes, it becomes abundantly clear that, by removing the context of the discussion, the religious nuts are straw-manning Dawkins rather embarrassingly. Heck, why not just trim it down until it's only the sentence in which Dawkins appears to be unequivocally endorsing the wholesale slaughter of babies?

This is reminiscent of when Sam Harris was maligned for allegedly endorsing torture (and, I admit, I jumped on the critical bandwagon prematurely). But he was considering a serious moral dilemma, which is what good moral philosophers do. That's what Peter Atkins is doing, and that's what Dawkins is doing as well. The theist response to this is to edit out all the actual discussion and context, and emphasize the most emotionally provocative soundbite possible. That way, instead of actually thinking critically about complex moral issues, you can just get angry and shake your righteous fist at those abominable atheists.

Here's the full clip, at just under an hour, from Dawkins' The Genius of Charles Darwin DVD. It's quite provocative and I highly recommend watching it.

Link of the day: Richard Dawkins interviewed by Playboy

What's better than an interview with Richard Dawkins? An interview with Richard Dawkins plus hot chicks, of course. Warning: some modest 'adult' images in the link, which may not be work or home safe if you're surrounded by people who think the scantily clad female body is gross, evil, and sinful.


It's a very good interview. I particularly like this line, because I'm a big fan of pointing out the sheer absurdity of Christian theology:
It’s a truly disgusting idea that the creator of the universe—capable of inventing the laws of physics and designing the evolutionary process—that this protégé of supernatural intellect couldn’t think of a better way to forgive our sins than to have himself tortured to death. And what a terrible lesson to say we’re born in sin because of the original sin of Adam, a man even the Catholic Church now says never existed.

Shermer, Carrol, and Falzon chat atheism on "The Point"

Good stuff...

21 August 2012

"Atheism Plus"?

Freethought Blogs (sigh) is afire with several of its more prominent writers (Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, Richard Carrier) rambling on about some new 'movement' they want to start to distinguish the good atheists from the bad ones. Greta Christina starts it out in flawlessly hyperbolic form:
If you’ve been getting worn down and discouraged by the seemingly-endless barrage of misogyny and trolling and hateful stupid in atheism and skepticism lately… read this.
The problem is that what constitutes 'hateful' or 'stupid' or 'misogyny' has been the subject of quite a bit of discussion and debate, and the Thunderf00t debacle showed that if you're not willing to uncritically wave the flag of the loudest bloggers over on FTB, it's time to take a hike. But anyway, Richard Carrier jumped on board and expounds:
I am fully on board. I will provide any intellectual artillery they need to expand this cause and make it successful.
Its basic values (and the reason for its moniker) Jen stated thus:
We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
Ah. So, you're humanists. This is new how?

Carrier goes on to list four 'declarations' explaining values he thinks atheists should embrace. And y'know, I think that most people who read it would have a hard time disagreeing that they are good values to have. So why am I cynical about this utterly stupid "atheism plus" movement? It's simple, really.

I’m an atheist. I’ll let my opinions on various issues stand for themselves when the time to discuss them arises. I don’t need to latch on to a bunch of bandwagon platitudes so that I’m easily pigeonholed before someone even asks me anything. I don’t need to be associated with any movements or maxims. Call me crazy, but I thought we’d been doing a good job avoiding that kind of thing.

All these sorts of platitudes do is oversimplify complex issues and, when dissent arises (as it inevitably will), it allows groupthink to take over: Hey! You're not embracing the values of Atheism Plus™! You're not one of the good guys! Somehow, I doubt that the giant parade of bullshit that accompanied the reaction to Thunderf00t, to use the obvious example, will magically be resolved by reciting a few platitudes. All this serves to do is stifle discussion, marginalize dissent, and reinforce groupthink – exactly the sorts of things that atheists, usually being self-proclaimed 'free thinkers', tend to want to avoid.

Related reading:
The "New Wave of Atheism"
Richard Carrier and the Atheist+ Religion

20 August 2012

Quote of the day

"It’s simplistic to argue that belief in God alone makes people evil — obviously it’s more than that and we all know people who will say they’re better human beings because of their faith — but it’s willfully ignorant to avoid any discussion of how religion might contribute to violence." – Hemant Mehta

18 August 2012

David Silverman vs. Fox News on the 9/11 Cross

Right in line with his stellar talk at FreeOK in July, David Silverman goes on Fox 'News' to defend the lawsuit that's trying to get the 9/11 cross removed from the Ground Zero Museum:

Couple o' things. First, I can't help but laugh at the us-vs-them way that Fox is framing the discussion. Their second guest is introduced with a picture of a loved one lost in the tragedy, as though no atheists, Muslims, or people of any other faiths lost loved ones. Kelly coddles him and mocks atheists as he laments that atheists are "trying to destroy America".

Meanwhile, Kelly is predictably condescending and dismissive toward Silverman, basking in her Christian Privilege™. She completely dodges the actual issue at hand, which is that this isn't some 'symbol' found in the wreckage – it's a cross that was taken out, reshaped, blessed by a priest, and inscribed. There's nothing miraculous about finding a gnarly looking 'cross' in the wreckage of a building that was made from fucking crossbeams.

This is exactly what Silverman talked about at FreeOK: We're not the dicks – they're the dicks. We're not the dicks for wanting religious equality, for pointing out that it's illegal to display one particular religion's symbol to the exclusion of all others on public ground. They are the dicks for exploiting a tragedy to marginalize people of other faiths, for framing the tragedy as one that befell only good Christian Americans. 9/11 affect people of many faiths and no faith, and that is something that should be represented fairly, or not at all.

Dawkins on debates

This seems pertinent in light of my previous post...
If your case depends on pulpit-style oratory, manipulating the emotions of your audience and playing with words, debates will probably work for you very well. They do not, however, work well for explaining science. Debates play to the emotions, to soundbites, to oratorical flourishes and, all too often, to sheer volume. They may make for good drama, but they do not make for good understanding. Fine if your goal is to grandstand; no good at all if it is to educate.
- Richard Dawkins

17 August 2012

Nobody cares about William Lane Craig

Today over on Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta has a post talking about why atheists pay attention to creationists like Ken Ham. He says,
We go after Ham because, whether it’s right to take the Bible literally or not, more than 100,000,000 Americans already buy into that lie and he’s one of the ringleaders.
It’s the same reason atheists love to quote horrible Bible verses. It’s not because we think people should take random lines (in and out of context) from the Bible at face value; it’s because so many people already do.
But it's his next paragraph that hits home for me:
This is also why I don’t find it useful to pay attention to what “sophisticated theologians” have to say. Most Christians aren’t paying attention to them, either, so why bother debating a version of Christianity so few people even know about?
Isn't that the truth? How many Christians have the slightest idea who Alvin Plantinga is? Alister McGrath? Even Francis Collins is probably way more famous for being the 'human genome guy' than for anything he's said about Christianity.

Which brings me to William Lane Craig.

I admit, I'm totally guilty of paying way too much attention to William Lane Craig. If you do a search for him in the search bar on the right of the page, you'll find way too many posts about him and his various apologetic arguments.

Ladies love that Stallone-like smile
It's not that I don't think it's worth talking about those things, to an extent. I do. First-cause arguments, moral arguments, and all the other lame 'proofs' of God's existence that Christians throw out are worth discussing from time to time, and WLC happens to be one of the premier apologists on the... uh... well, the apologist 'scene', whatever that is. He's made such a ruckus that Richard Dawkins felt it necessary to write an op-ed explaining why the guy is not worth debating... which for better or worse didn't stop Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris or Stephen Law, among others. Atheist blogs, including mine (embarrassingly) have been and are afire with posts criticizing his arguments. Just about every well-known atheist Youtuber has spent some time on him.

But really, in the big picture, William Lane Craig is much more influential in his deluded mind than he actually is in real life. Unlike the new atheists he so derides and mocks as philosophically unsophisticated (as though he's some authority on the matter), he's never had a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Hell, I imagine that the vast majority of Christians familiar with him couldn't even name one book he's written. He's mostly famous for 'debates', for which he always insists upon using a 20-minute-presentation format... which to me looks more like a monologue than a debate.

His Facebook page has a shade over 5,000 likes. Richard Dawkins' has over 186,000. Sam Harris, over 117,000. The late great Christopher Hitchens has several pages that collectively top 200,000 fans. Craig once appeared in Lee Strobel's unintentional comedy The Case for Christ movie, and... well, that's about it. He teaches at Biola, a tiny evangelical college ranked 170 in 2012 (Dawkins, of course, taught at Oxford). His 'scholarly' articles on natural theology are available online from Leadership University, an online-only evangelical degree mill.

In other words, I think that in light of Hemant's comments, we're spending way too much time on this guy. The overwhelming majority of Christians have no idea who he is or what the Kalam Cosmological Argument is. Hell, most of them probably don't even know what the regular cosmological argument is. Christians like having quasi-academics like Craig around because, when they're challenged on the basis for their faith, it's easier to just recite some sophisticated-sounding argument than to actually think critically. But in the big picture, the William Lane Craigs of the world are a niche of a niche in evangelical Christian circles.

Personally, the book that was most influential in my rejection of belief in gods was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. The most powerful counter to Craig's 'objective morality' argument comes in the form of books like Frans De Waal's Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved; and understanding why humanity has 'sought God', as theologians like to claim, can be understood from an evolutionary and anthropological perspective like that in Pascal Boyer's excellent book Religion Explained. Yeah, we can address arguments like Craig's from time to time. But I think we should focus more of our energy into spreading science and reason, because viewing the world as it actually is, and not how some wish it to be, is the fastest route to realizing that religion is a farce.

15 August 2012

Richard Carrier: Are Christians Delusional?

Short answer: duh.

This is a great talk that lightheartedly but poignantly mocks the sheer absurdity of the Christian religion -- particularly the fact that its beliefs are every bit as bizarre as any other cult or religion you can think of, which is obvious to most people who've studied comparative religion.

I particularly like the line about the Christian idea that "God needs blood to fix the universe, but only his own blood has enough magical power to do it, so he gave himself a body and killed it." I've asked countless Christians how it is that God can sacrifice himself to himself to pay the price he determined was necessary to free us from a curse he put on us (which is a pretty damn fair assessment of Christian doctrine), but I've yet to get a straight answer and I doubt I ever will.

14 August 2012

Gallup: Atheism is on the rise in the US

Hide your kids! Hide your wife! Yet another poll shows what we all already know: the industrialized world is becoming less and less religious. But the latest Gallup poll shows not only a whopping 13% decline in those who say they are 'religious', but a 4% increase in those who identify as 'atheist':

The poll, called “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was conducted) to 60 percent.
At the same time, the number of Americans who say they are atheists rose, from 1 percent to 5 percent.
What interesting is that this has all happened in the last seven years – the time frame of the 'new atheist' movement.
The seven years between the polls is notable because 2005 saw the publication of “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, the first in a wave of best-selling books on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other so-called “New Atheists.”
But how people exactly develop a non/religious identity is murky, to say the least. There tends to be a fair bit of variance in these types of polls depending on the questions asked. In this case, the question was:
“Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”
Huh. A 'convinced atheist'? That's a pretty loaded term – I'd be more inclined to self-identify as Richard Dawkins does: an agnostic atheist. The term 'convinced atheist' sounds a little bit like the far end of the 1-7 scale of belief Dawkins discussed in The God Delusion, in which a 7 means you are certain there is no God – a gnostic atheist. Dawkins identifies as a 6: "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."

Accordingly, a couple of people interviewed by the Washington Post are a bit skeptical of the data:
Ryan Cragun, a University of Tampa sociologist of religion who studies American and global atheism [...] does not believe the poll shows more people are becoming atheists, but rather that more people are willing to identify as atheists.
“For a very long time, religiosity has been a central characteristic of the American identity,” he said. “But what this suggests is that is changing and people are feeling less inclined to identify as religious to comply with what it means to be a good person in the U.S.”
I'm inclined to agree. Even among non-believers, the terminology of self-identification varies tremendously. Lots of 'non-religious' people are probably atheists in any practical sense of the word, but perhaps shy away from the certainty that is often (and erroneously) associated with atheism.

That terminology issue probably extends to more religious people as well, hence one researcher's skepticism about the new data:
Barry Kosmin, the principal investigator for the ARIS report, said he’s skeptical of the new study.
“The U.S. trends are what we have found and would expect, but the actual numbers are peculiar to say the least,” he said. “The drops in religiosity seem too sharp for the time period — people just don’t change their beliefs that quickly. Most of the trend away from religion has demographic causes and demography moves ‘glacially.’”
Specifically, he points to the poll’s finding that Vietnam, while showing a sharp 23 percent drop in religiosity since 2005, also shows no atheists. “Eight million Communist Party members but zero atheists?” he said. “That statistic makes me very doubtful of the accuracy of the survey overall and some of the international comparisons.”
Like any study, this poll needs to be duplicated and/or cross-referenced with other surveys to get a more complete picture. There's little doubt, though, that religious belief is eroding. That, to me, is far more important than whether someone identifies as an atheist. 

13 August 2012

David Barton finally eats some crow

I blogged about David Barton a long time ago. He's a guy who founded a group called Wall Builders, which claims that most of what you think you know about American history is a bunch of liberal nonsense. America is really all about Jesus, and the Founding Fathers were all ministers who basically wanted a Christian theocracy.

The snowball started rolling when NPR did a piece that exposed the outright garbage that Barton has been peddling as history. Conservative scholars who had yet to drink the Barton kool-aid were curious about this, so they looked into it. And, turns out, Barton – shockingly – is a liar. The result? His publisher, a conservative Christian organization, pulled his book:
Casey Francis Harrell, director of corporate communications for Thomas Nelson, tells the newspaper that it had gotten several complaints about the book and found enough errors to cancel it, halt new shipments and recall unsold copies.
So, a small victory for truth and justice. But there was one quote in that article that rubbed me the wrong way:
Glenn Moots, professor of political science at Northwood University in Michigan [...] is quoted as saying Barton was well-intentioned but should have been more careful to get the details right.
What? Well-intentioned my balls. The guy is a pathological liar who is trying to rally conservative Americans by peddling fabricated garbage as an untold history of the United States. He's an embarrassment to conservatives, and it's nice to see they're finally starting to catch on. 

Misquoting Einstein

Religious people, for whatever reason, like to quote Einstein. I suppose they imagine that some of his comments that seem pro-faith give a boost to religion by having a super smart guy in its corner. I'm talking about stuff like this:

Let's ignore the fact that, like lots of quotes attributed to Einstein, Einstein never actually said this. Ever. At all. Turns out that a quick Google search reveals Albert Einstein to be a veritable treasure trove of bogus quotes. That's the problem with the internet: people just share stuff without sourcing it.

First of all, it doesn't matter what Einstein thought about religion. He was a brilliant physicist and undeniably a smart fellow, but that doesn't preclude him from being wrong from time to time. Let's not forget that after Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion, the laws of optics, universal gravitation and differential calculus, he spent the rest of his life dedicated to the pseudoscience of alchemy. When you resort to the old "See, Einstein was a brilliant scientist and he believed in God!" you are, at best, falling into an old logical fallacy known as (you guessed it!) the appeal to authority.

But more to the point, Einstein wasn't exactly a friend to religion, and he was especially not a fan of Christianity. In fact, it's kind of hard to discern exactly what he did believe, but he was absolutely clear on what he thought of the idea of a 'personal God' a la modern Christianity (from Wikiquote):
Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. That is, if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him? The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.
And this classic:
I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
It's also clear, however, that while he was not a religious man himself, Einstein – unlike the famous nontheist scientists of today such as Dawkins and Hawking – didn't necessarily see religion as a bad thing, but he seem to regard it as a sort of refuge for the unsophisticated. Perusing his quotes reveals him to be some sort of deist or pantheist who flatly rejected the notion of a personal God but believed that there was something of a supernatural clockmaker behind the universe itself. And if some of his quotes seem somewhat in conflict with each other, then it seems as though he became a bit more charitable toward religion in his later years – but didn't change his personal views on God.

And that's really about it. There's not much point in trying to meticulously dissect Einstein's thoughts on religion, because it doesn't matter. He was a Jew born in overwhelmingly Lutheran Germany, so of course it's likely that he had some deep thoughts about the gods of Western Monotheism. But he could also have a been a Buddhist, a Jainist, an agnostic, or an atheist. Whatever he believed, his thoughts don't get a free pass  from skeptical criticism just because he was a brilliant mathematician.

12 August 2012

The problem of suffering... redux

Long ago – actually, back when this blog was still called The Apostasy – I did a post called The Problem of Suffering. To this day I'm very proud of it; while I might add to or revise many of my older posts if I were to write them now simply because of all I've learned, that particular post is one that I think still holds up as well as the day I wrote it.

At the top of the site page, there's a tab for something called The Gospel Challenge. It was a post that I wrote that I felt concisely summarized my objections to the claim that the gospels are divinely inspired, and I felt it worthy of sticking up as a fixture to the site (since the overwhelming majority of my theist visitors have been Christians). I'm going to do the same with the content that follows here.

I've been thinking about the problem of suffering again, prompted by William Lane Craig's recent lecture on the topic here in Tulsa, along with a recent article penned by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath. I want to revisit the topic and, as concisely as I can (since my original post went pretty in-depth) illustrate what I think is the key argument at hand, and why it is a serious problem for theism.

The fine print

But first, a slight digression. The problem of suffering is often conflated with the 'problem of evil', but they're different arguments. I've never liked the term 'evil' anyway; it's just too loaded and too vaguely defined. When discussing human behavior, I like to use the terms 'kind' and 'cruel' instead of 'good' or 'evil'; and when talking about the 'problem of suffering', I'm specifically talking about natural suffering rather than acts of cruelty of humans against each other. That's because I can accept the theistic argument that a consequence of God creating us with volition (I'm avoiding the loaded term 'free will') is that we may choose to act maliciously against each other. However, natural suffering is a different issue that encompasses the suffering inflicted upon conscious creatures by exposure, predation, famine, disease, disasters, etc. A child dying of cancer, for example, endures great suffering, but her condition was not thrust upon her by the cruelty of any person. The question of why God would allow such a thing to happen is the heart of the problem of suffering.

And one more thing. The problem of suffering is not an argument against the existence of any god at all – particularly just some vaguely defined 'higher power', like a deistic god; rather, it's an argument the idea of a particular kind of god – particularly the kind that Christians believe in – that is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent is logically incoherent given reality as we observe it. In other words, it's an argument that a theistic god is a self-defeating concept.

The problem of suffering

The problem of suffering was very concisely summarized to me by a reader, whose comment I am going to paraphrase and expand upon (credit where credit is due).

William Lane Craig argues that it is the burden of the atheist to show that it is "highly improbable that God could have a morally justifiable reason for permitting this to occur." It seems irrelevant whether we would actually know what the reason is; the believer simply has faith that God has his reason, and the atheist must show that the believer's faith is ill-founded. But I am going to go a step further than arguing that it is improbable; it is impossible for an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being to have a justifiable reason for permitting suffering to occur.

We only view suffering as justified when inflicting suffering of lesser weight is deemed necessary to prevent suffering of greater weight. A common example would be vaccinating an infant – the pain inflicted by the needle causes some suffering, but by preventing the child from contracting measles, small pox, etc., we are preventing vastly greater suffering.

A more extreme example would be the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the US inflicted great suffering upon tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children – many who died very slow, painful deaths from radiation poisoning. But this act was viewed by the US as justified suffering in that by forcing Japan to surrender, we prevented the war from being prolonged indefinitely – which would likely have included a bloody invasion of Japan. The bombings, though atrocious, were seen as the lesser of evils by preventing even greater suffering.

However, if we could achieve the same end with a means that entailed no suffering, then that is always the preferable path to take. If we could have found a diplomatic solution to end the war, that would have been preferable to bombing civilians; if we could develop a painless topical spray to administer vaccines that was just as effective as needles, we would stop using needles.

And this is why the notion that God could have morally justifiable reasons to permit suffering is invalid. God, if he is omnipotent, would be capable of achieving his end (his 'divine plan' for humanity, as many call it) without allowing suffering.

Alister McGrath argues, "Real life implies suffering. Were God to take suffering away from us, he would take away that precious gift of life itself." This is arguing that suffering is a necessary and intrinsic aspect of life; but if that is the case, then either God is not able to create life without allowing suffering – meaning he is not omnipotent – or he could have, but chose not to – meaning he is not omnibenevolent.

Even if, as McGrath further argues, suffering is a means to a greater end, the dilemma is not escaped. He argues,
So what purpose might suffering serve? There are several echoes of Luther's ideas of the `strange work of God (opus alienum Dei)' - an idea we explored earlier (p. 72) - in Lewis' discussion of the mysterious yet creative role of suffering within the provi­dence of God. Suffering brings home to us the distressing fact of our mortality, too easily ignored. It reminds us of our frailty and hints of the coming of death. `It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.' [26] In short, it creates a climate in which our thoughts are gently directed towards God, whom we might otherwise ignore. `God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.' [27] Painful though Lewis' point may be, there is enough truth in it to make us take it seriously. All must die, and any world-view which cannot cope with death is fatally deficient. Suffering gently prods our consciousness, and forces us to contemplate the unpalatable but real fact of our future death, and how our outlook on life relates to this sobering thought. It can sow the seeds of doubt with existing outlooks, and lay the foundation for a new way of thinking, living and hoping.

The value of the end goal of suffering (speculative as all McGrath's rationalizations are anyway) is irrelevant. If God were omnipotent, he could achieve his ends without suffering. McGrath's arguments fail to address this simple paradox, as do William Lane Craig's. God, if one exists, cannot be omnipotent and omnibenevolent given the reality of suffering in the world. It really is that simple, and no 'sophisticated' theologian has sufficiently addressed it.

AC Grayling confirmed for American Atheists' national convention in 2013!

07 August 2012

Religion isn't faring well in the marketplace of ideas

Here's some food for thought:

What do you call someone who mocks something the church considers sacred? You guessed it – a blasphemer.

What do you call someone who questions or openly criticizes church doctrine? You guessed it – a heretic.

What about someone who abandons the church for either another church or no church at all? You guessed it – an apostate.

Now, think about someone who openly questions, criticizes or mocks a political ideology. What's the name for that? Can you think of one? What about someone who changes political parties? Or maybe you can think of a name for someone who changes their mind about a philosophical issue, or a scientific one. I sure can't, though.

Religion has such a rich history of suppressing critical inquiry that it actually has names that marginalize people with dissenting views. These aren't innocuous labels, either; for most of religion's history, being labeled a heretic, apostate or blasphemer was sure grounds for imprisonment, torture, exile or execution. A long trail of blood and corpses has been left in the wake of accusations of host desecration – blasphemy of a fucking cracker.

I remember watch Piers Morgan's interviews with Ricky Gervais and Penn Jillette; in each case, Piers pressed them on the idea that they were 'mocking' religion. And in both cases, they shied away from saying they did. But I imagine that if it were me in that interview, I would turn the question around: what is wrong with mocking religion? Not that I want to get fixated on mockery here, but I think there are plenty of religious beliefs and practices that are so utterly ridiculous that they are fully worthy of mockery. 

And I think all religious ideas are deserving of the same critical inquiry to which we would subject any idea. Religion has, for most of human history, constructed ways to shield itself from inquiry, whether through insular communities, the demonization of outsiders, or the marginalization and persecution of dissenters. But now, in the age of the internet, as we have unprecedented access to contrary views of all imaginable stripes, it's becoming increasingly difficult for religions to shield themselves from criticism and doubt.

The result does not bode well for religion: non-believers are the fastest-growing 'religious' subset in the industrialized world; young people are increasingly skeptical, and are leaving the church in droves; and even among those who remain religious, surveys show that its significance continues to diminish. And why would we expect anything less? If any religion's claims were true, its followers would have nothing to fear from skeptical juxtapositions with dissenting views.

For my part, I've embraced my non-belief for what it is. Apostate. Heretic. Blasphemer. And proud of it!

05 August 2012

Photographs from the Mars Curiosity rover!

We've landed on Mars, and holy shit! There are aliens everywhere!

Okay, those are from Prometheus... which I just found out today has been officially given the green light for a sequel. Great news for guys like me and Roger Ebert who think it's awesome. Maybe not such a big deal for people who think it was total shit though.

Anyway, we landed on Mars! Well, not us, but a robot! Again!

Don't get me wrong, it's cool and all, but when are we gonna get the terraforming? The chicks with three boobs? Kuato? "Quaaaaaaiddd... start... the re-ac-torrrrr...."

No, in case you forgot already, this is what the action-packed surface of Mars looks like:

I guess it's kind of a fixer-upper.

Inquisitive minds, guarded minds

I don't want to toot my own horn too much, but I've changed my mind on a lot of things. I deconverted from Christianity after a lengthy study of theology and comparative religion that included several extended dialogues with clergy. Nearly a decade later, I deconverted from an agnostic theist to a full-on atheist. More recently, I've refined my views on topics ranging from free will to the value of philosophers to the ethics of industrial farming and animal testing.

That's happened because no matter what I think, I seek out contrary views. I treat my own ideas with skepticism. It's important to understand that no idea is sacred; nothing should be above skeptical scrutiny, criticism, or even mockery.

In the last week, I've had a couple of visitors to my blog who clearly have a different sort of mindset – a guarded one. It's not the first time this has happened, but it pops up occasionally. Someone finds me through some search engine or RSS, finds me talking about their pet argument, and proceeds to write one rambling essay after another purporting to school me on these topics.Without exception, these people want to suck me into lengthy debates – usually without even reading the whole post, much less using the tabs at the top of the page or the search bar to find related posts.

Well, I'm not going to bite. I've been doing this long enough to know that certain people will never be persuaded, no matter how in-depth the debate, simply because they have no interest in thinking critically about their own views. This isn't to say I dislike being challenged – on the contrary, I think it's important and I welcome constructive criticism.

But here is an example, from earlier today, of what not to do:
By the way, just so you now, since you have no knowledge of physics... All these models proposed are not empirical. They are just guess work. They are mathematical formulations that as of yet have not been tested. Now continue with your ignorance. ;)
This, to me, is like William Lane Craig declaring himself the victor of his own debates. Look, masturbating is fine, but please, do it in the privacy of your own home. I'm not impressed that you think you're right, and I'm not losing any sleep because you hurl insults and lace your arguments with one patronizing remark after another. To me, that sort of self-aggrandizement smacks of the guarded-mindset arrogance that prevents one from lucidly examining their own opinions.

This is all on the heels of an ID advocate who recently visited and attempted to school me on what science is or is not, before telling me that he'd taken some hallucinogens and talked with spirits. Not too long ago, it was a guy named James Redford hawking his pet argument about the "Omega Point Cosmology" (he was immediately blacklisted, and to see why simply Google "James Redford Frank Tipler").

Healthy criticism is marked by questions – hence the term "skeptical inquiry". It seeks to understand first, and object later – and expresses objections concisely, clearly, and with the provisional mindset that the original argument may not be fully understood. I want to change minds and provoke critical thought, as well as expose my own opinions to critical scrutiny. But I've learned that certain people aren't in the business of having their minds changed. And I'm not going to get sucked into worthless debates with people who are unwaveringly convinced of the certitude of their own opinions. I blacklist them, delete their comments, and don't look back. There's a fine line between constructive criticism and trying to turn my comments section into a platform for your own pet arguments, and I've got a low tolerance for the latter.

p.s. – I'm sure there is a temptation for some who disagree with me to resort to the old "physician, heal thyself" canard. Maybe I haven't changed my mind on certain things because I'm just that stubborn. Maybe I have been totally schooled and I'm just in denial.

Here's the thing though. I don't change my mind easily. I want evidence. I want sound arguments. And in many cases, I've spent literally years studying various arguments in depth. Sorry, but your odds of convincing me that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is a sound argument are basically nil. That's not because I'm stubborn; it's because I've examined the argument six ways from Sunday and I've never found it to be anything but a heap of fallacies. You can't just whip out your favorite quotes from The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology and expect me to be impressed.

Ditto with the historicity of the Bible, the coherency of Christian theology, the validity of self-proclaimed spiritual experiences, the implications of modern cosmology, or arguments about "objective morals". I've been listening to these arguments for years. And sure, maybe I'm wrong – but I form opinions slowly, and I'm an informed dissenter. When someone trots along and thinks they can educate me like I'm some ignorant child (and bully me like one, no less), chances are they're just going to be pissing into the wind.

The "Awful Atheists" article

Hemant Mehta brought to my attention an article from Alternet (which I tend to avoid) in which some guy named Ian Murphy, whom I suppose fancies himself a fantastic atheist, labels five fairly prominent non-believers as "awful atheists". He begins,
Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs, lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight, and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. In other words: The crap always rises to the top.
It's true that being an atheist, just like being very intelligent in general, is not a buttress against believing in some stupid and/or simply erroneous things. But what makes this article worthy of an old-fashioned facepalm is the haste and hubris with which Murphy dismisses and ridicules their views. I'll reprint Hemant's summary, because I think it's pretty fair and accurate:
  • Sam Harris: He thinks religious profiling might have merit and defends torture in some instances.
  • Bill Maher: He’s misogynistic, condescending, and anti-flu-shots.
  • Penn Jillette: He’s a libertarian.
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali: She’s practices “neoconservative lunacy” and is excessively anti-Islam.
  • S.E. Cupp: She’s a self-loathing atheist
I have no idea who S.E. Cupp is, so I'm going to pass on that one (Hemant seems to agree on her, though). But let's take a look at the others.

Sam Harris has the stones to do something that most people don't, which is to take a skeptical stance on our usually reactionary views on things like profiling and torture. Sam was wrong on profiling and, to his credit, invited to his blog a security expert who did a fine job of explaining why and published a lengthy exchange on the topic. Frankly, I thought Sam got schooled.

I also disagree with Sam when he starts rambling on about 'transcendence'. But y'know what? Sam is one of the most lucid and articulate critics of religion out there; his books, especially The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, have been hugely influential – as have his lectures. His excellent book on morality, The Moral Landscape, was similarly provocative – even for those who found themselves disagreeing.

But what about torture? Sam does not endorse torture. He's essentially using torture as a tool to demonstrate the absurdity of absolute moral values. I'll use another: genocide. We all agree that it's not just wrong, but really really wrong, to kill hundreds, thousands or millions of civilians. Absolutely wrong, right? Well... what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Whether you agree or disagree that the bombings were the right course of action, they had the intended effect: they forced Japan to surrender, ending World War II. The genocide of those Japanese civilians is, for those who support the bombing, justified in that they believe their deaths prevented a much greater evil – the indefinite extension of the war and an invasion of Japan. Sam is using torture in a similar context, suggesting that we can probably think of desperate times in which torture is the most rational course of action. He's never advocated systematic torture and has said so on countless occasions.

But even on the issues where I disagree with Sam, that doesn't make him an "awful atheist". We're allowed to disagree, to varying degrees, about particular things. It's important to create a dialogue about issues we often take for granted.

Penn Jillette aroused Murphy's ire because... he's libertarian. Really? I know many, many atheists who are libertarian. One of my favorite writers, a brilliant and learned critic of religion who unfortunately passed away in 2010, was also a libertarian – Ken Pulliam. In any case, I found a comment at Friendly Atheist to echo my view perfectly:
The very suggestion that simply being a libertarian (or any other political philosophy) is sufficient to characterize a person as "awful" is offensive and tells me a lot more about the ethics of the person making the assertion than it does about the person being characterized.

Bill Maher is not anti-vaccine. He penned a lengthy (and pretty rambling) post clarifying his view, and it's not really anything like what his critics have said it is. I'm not saying I fully agree with him – on many points he makes, I do not – but it's misguided to put him in the same corner as the ignorant-but-loud Jenny McCarthys of the world. And I don't really care that he's occasionally condescending... that's one of his best qualities!

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not as well-known in the 'new atheist' movement, because she spends most of her time criticizing Islam specifically. She had her genitals mutilated as a child – still a 'tradition' in some Muslim countries – and lives under guard because she's received death threats. Her charity – the AHA Foundation – actively works to help women who are victimized by the misogynistic culture of Islamic fundamentalism.

She's expressed some controversial views – like saying it would be better to try to convert Muslims to Christianity than to try to convert them to atheism [here], and suggesting that Muslim schools should not be allowed in the US. But her views on these subjects are far more nuanced than Murphy's reactionary hyperbole would let on.

Personally, I welcome dissent among atheists. It's fine that we occasionally disagree on controversial topics, or question things we might take for granted. There are many positive humanist values that are interwoven with the new atheist movement, and I think it's important that we can have a constructive discourse without ostracizing one another. Ian Murphy seems like he'd be happier in a circle-jerk. That's religion's specialty.

03 August 2012

An omnivore's dilemma

Tonight I re-watch the documentary Food, Inc. It advocates a reduction in factory farming of all types, especially animal farming, and an increase in organic farming in lieu of commercial fertilizers.

But here's a question that pops up in my mind....

How do you increase organic farming, which requires manure, while decreasing animal farming – which is what produces manure?

An 'omnivore's dilemma' indeed.