31 October 2012

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 3: The theology is absurd

Of all the things that compelled me to reject the Christian faith of my youth, none was more persuasive that the Biblical book of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews essentially explains how Christian theology works; it explains how the new covenant through Christ is related to the previous covenants God had with humanity.

And it's really, really stupid. Here's the short version, in handy bulletin form:
  • Adam and Eve were created in God's image, but rebelled against God and were cursed with "sin", which they passed on through all their offspring – i.e., all of humanity.
  • God made lots of covenants with humanity. Lots. In particular, he made one with Moses, which became Mosaic Law – a complex system of behavioral codes and atonement through ritual animal sacrifices.
  • Ritual animal sacrifices were imperfect, so God gave his only son to be the perfect sacrifice of atonement.
  • Jesus, being born of a virgin, did not inherent the sinful nature of humanity. He was perfect, and in sacrificing himself on the cross, atoned all humanity for its sin. Animal sacrifice was no longer necessary – just faith in the death and resurrection of Christ.
There's more, but I'll stop there. Granted, this is a really short summary, but I'm confident it's generally accurate (although, Christian doctrinal beliefs vary so widely that someone will probably find something to nitpick).

This convoluted narrative is so full of holes that it makes the Matrix trilogy look impeccable by comparison. Christian theology raises some really obvious questions:
  • Adam and Eve didn't exist.... so where did "sin" come from? Is humanity being punished for the crimes of mythical people? And why did God allow "sin" to be passed on from one generation to the next at all, instead of just punishing Adam and Eve? 
  • Adam and Eve's crime is that they ate from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil". If they had no knowledge of good and evil, how could they have known disobeying God was wrong? 
  • Why does God need bloodshed to forgive sins?
  • Why did God bother with several ineffectual covenants instead of just sending Jesus the first time around?
  • Jesus is God. How can God sacrifice himself to himself, particularly when he is paying a price he determined to be necessary to free us from a curse he put on us?
  • Why bother with any of the divine pageantry? Why can't God simply forgive sins?
  • Since sin is an inborn, inherited trait of all humans, why wouldn't God just keep people from being born (just send them straight to Heaven) so that no one would have any need to be saved, or any chance of going to hell?
  • If God is omniscient, he knows who will end up in Hell and who will be in Heaven. Not only does that render our own "free will" illusory, but it raises the question of why God would create anyone whom he knew would ultimately reject him and be sent to Hell. 
Of course, it's still not over! It's still not enough to Fix Everything. No, you see, God will come back, sometime between immediately and the heat death of the universe. All the bad people and atheist bloggers will go to The Bad Place, and all the good Christians will go to The Nice Place. But that raises some interesting conundrums, too:
  • If you had loved ones you knew were suffering in Hell, could you really be in Heaven?
  • In the words of Deepak Chopra: "There is no creative impulse in the absence of discontent. In heaven, you would be doomed to eternal senility."
  • If Adam and Eve could sin, then what would prevent humans in Heaven from sinning and starting the whole process again?
Being a Christian is like watching really trashy sci-fi – you just have to ignore all the loopholes. The less you ponder them, the more content you'll be. The difference is, nobody will tell you that you're going to hell for not watching enough sci-fi. Well... maybe some people will...

30 October 2012

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 2: The Bible isn't true

In part 1, I pointed out the absurdity of believing that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. That leads to closely related, but no less important point: most of what is in the Bible is simply not true. And in some cases, that actually impacts Christian theology rather profoundly.

Adam and Eve did not exist. Overwhelming evidence from every field of biology points to humans evolving from a population of no fewer than 10,000 individuals. Any way you slice it, it's simply impossible that we can from one man and one woman. That's not an innocuous detail, either: the entirety of Christian theology is built upon Adam and Eve being real people. I'm fond of this quote from Pastor Tim Keller:
“[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the biblical authority.  If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work “covenantally’—falls apart. You can’t say that Paul was a ‘man of his time’ but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.”
The Bible is also wrong about the history of the people of Israel. Guess how much evidence there is that the Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians, rebelled, escaped, and wandered the desert for 40 years? If you guess zero, you'd be right! Christians can't get out of this one by saying it hasn't been disproved, either. After all, maybe there is some powerful archeological evidence just waiting to be discovered! Problem is, Egypt is the greatest archeological hotspot in the world. There ought to be overwhelming evidence that they kept all those slaves, because that's not the kind of thing you can really keep secret. It takes tremendous resources to feed, clothe, and house all those slaves (600,000 according to Exodus!). But we don't have a lick of evidence that anything of the sort ever happened.

It gets worse, though. It just so happens that we do have evidence about the origin of the Jews... and they were Canaanites. Y'know... the ones that the triumphant armies of the lord supposedly slaughtered in the Old Testament? Wikipedia:
A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness,[22] and most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit".[11] A number of theories have been put forward to account for the origins of the Israelites, and despite differing details they agree on Israel's Canaanite origins.[25] The culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult-objects are those of the Canaanite god El, the pottery remains in the local Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet used is early Canaanite, and almost the sole marker distinguishing the "Israelite" villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones, although whether even this is an ethnic marker or is due to other factors remains a matter of dispute.[26] There is archeological evidence of the Caananite Hyksos people moving into and out of northern Egypt, though the relation of their dates to the biblical account is debated by scholars.
What about David?  As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, "If there was a Davidic Empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else seems to have noticed it." [p.11] Wikipedia again:
The evidence from surface surveys indicates that Judah at the time of David was a small tribal kingdom.[37] The Bronze and Iron Age remains of the City of David, the original urban core of Jerusalem identified with the reigns of David and Solomon, were investigated extensively in the 1970s and 1980s under the direction of Yigal Shiloh of the Hebrew University, but failed to discover significant evidence of occupation during the 10th century BCE,[38] In 2005 Eilat Mazar reported the discovery of a Large Stone Structure which she claimed was David's palace, but the archaeology is contaminated and impossible to date accurately.[39][40]

These examples are in addition to much which, Biblical literalists not withstanding, is already accepted as myth by the vast majority of Christians: the creation, the flood, Jonah and the Whale, Job – even the conquest of Canaan.

Then there's Jesus. There is absolutely no contemporaneous evidence that Jesus – at least as he is described in the gospels – ever existed. For someone who stirred up so much controversy and performed miracles in front of thousands of people, it's rather odd that no one seemed to notice. The only records of his existence appeared decades later in the gospel narratives. We don't have the original gospel manuscripts, but we do have many, many copies – and the copies are filled with errors, omissions and additions.

Why is this a big deal? There's always the view that the Bible doesn't have to be literally true, and that it doesn't have to be inerrant. I think most Christians hold just such a view. Over at the Christian blog Wide as the Waters, Jack Hudson wrote a post where he talked about the historicity of the Old Testament. He makes an important claim:
There were no archeological controversies over ancient Greek or Roman religious beliefs because they were never understood to be historical in nature – they didn’t pretend to be. We don’t talk about Hindu archeology or Buddhist archeology because those religions are not reliant upon historical facts. None of these religions even pretends to be the product of a set of events that occurred in a particular time and place in history; only vague references to certain individuals whose actual existence is unimportant to the belief system. Biblical belief however is definitively set in a particular places and times and concerns certain individuals. [link]
Exactly. The Bible is rooted in historical claims – so since we have overwhelming evidence that many of those historical claims are false, it creates real problems for Christian theology. Were it not for the progress of science, Christians would believe all these stories to be literally true. It's only in the face of science that Christians change their tune and say, "Oh, but of course that scripture was never intended to be taken literally!" The obvious problem is that Christians have no independent means of discerning which parts of the Bible should be taken as historical, and which should not. Science does the work for them, and they subsequently alter their theology to make it fit the facts.

This is already evident with the non-existence of Adam and Eve. Biologos has an article on it, and this is what they say:
One option is to view Adam and Eve as a historical pair living among many 10,000 years ago, chosen to represent the rest of humanity before God.  Another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an allegory in which Adam and Eve symbolize the large group of ancestors who lived 150,000 years ago.  Yet another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an “everyman” story, a parable of each person’s individual rejection of God.
In other words, just make shit up. I sincerely wonder how Christians can do this to themselves. When the facts reveal their theology as untenable, they don't reject their theology – they just alter it with speculative nonsense to placate their cognitive dissonance. Why spend so much effort rationalizing beliefs for which there is no evidence?

29 October 2012

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

Imagine that you were the perfect, omnipotent, all-knowing Lord and Creator of the universe. You decided that you were going to give one -- just one -- book to humanity. It would be their moral compass, an insight into their nature and into yours, and act as a guide for how they could live rightly and walk a path that would lead their souls into an eternity with you.

Obviously, the first thing you'd want to put in there are some totally unscientific, archaic behavioral codes for menstruating women, and for pregnant women after they give birth. You'd want to be sure to help them regulate slavery, and specify how badly they were allowed to beat their slaves. And of course you'd want the book to be chock full of mythology -- a creation myth, a flood myth, a fictional exodus, and hagiographical stories about how your loyal armies killed the shit out of everyone who dared to worship the wrong gods.

There's a point here about the Bible that, in my estimation, really cannot be understated: there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that could not have been simply made up by Bronze-Age human beings. Nothing at all. There are no profound scientific insights that such cultures could never have known. There's some bogus cosmology, a flat Earth, and instructions for how to slaughter animals among other profound insights.

Now, some Christians are keen to point out that the Jews did apparently get some things right. They had a sanitation system... but so did ancient Egypt, the Hittities, the Elamites, and the Aegean civilization. So, big whoop. They also had some codes for cleansing themselves after handling dead bodies or lepers, but these rituals also included ritual animal sacrifice. Not exactly cutting-edge. Moreover, the rituals themselves were stupid -- after handling a corpse, for example, you would be "unclean for seven days" [Numbers 19:11]. This obviously had little to do with hygiene.

Then we have the New Testament. Written by anonymous authors decades after the events purportedly happened and filled with internal factual contradictions, with no trace of the original manuscripts and thousands of copies rife with errors, there is nothing about the New Testament that demands that a rational person should believe it to be divinely inspired. I talked about this in detail in my post The Gospel Challenge, where I challenged Christians to show that the evidence demanded that we believe the supernatural claims of the Bible are anything more than made-up. There's simply no reason whatsoever for any rational person to make such an assumption.

Is the Bible really the best God could do? Is this book of myths, scientific blunders, and ambiguous or even downright demonstrably bogus historicity really what anyone really thinks the omnipotent Lord of the universe would bestow upon humanity? That this God would ignore humanity for the bulk of its 200,000+ years on the Earth, only deciding to reveal his One True Religion to a small, mostly illiterate Bronze Age tribal culture?

Think of all the things the Bible could be if it were really divinely inspired. Think of all the knowledge and insight such a holy book could contain that simply could never have been made up -- profound scientific insights, timeless moral instruction, and revelation clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues, like how to attain salvation. Any sane, rational view of the Bible shows it to be little more than the confused scribblings of Bronze Age tribes.

22 October 2012

Some things I watched that I thought you might like to watch, if you're the kind of person who likes to watch stuff

Richard Dawkins on sex, death, and the meaning of life:

Sean Carroll on how we know what we think we know, and what it all means:

I really like Dawkins' comment about morality being not a set of lofty ideals, but a practical system that allows animals to cooperate, survive and reproduce. And Carroll's whole lecture is just gold. Insightful, informative, and thought-provoking.

21 October 2012

Responses to my review of "True Reason"

My review of True Reason hasn't gone unnoticed by its authors. Several of them have stopped by in the comments sections, and a few of them have written their own blog posts purportedly rebutting my criticisms.

I've dabbled with debating them, but I've come to the conclusion that it's just an endless morass. I didn't write the review to de-convert the authors. The book isn't written for people like me anyway; it's written for Christians who have a strong need or desire to believe in their religion, and need something rational-sounding to ease their cognitive dissonance. As it is, I'm not going to be debating anyone on their blogs, or here for that matter because I have other projects I want to move on to. I'll update the "An atheist reads 'True Reason'" tab at the top of the blog with the responses as I hear about them so that my readers can check them out, but I'm content to let my arguments stand on their own and let my readers decide for themselves.

16 October 2012

Quick update, October edition

I'm finally through True Reason. It was a pretty lengthy project, one that to my knowledge no one else on the atheist corners of the interwebs has undertaken. And, given how terrible the book is, I completely understand why. The reviews for each chapter can be found in the tab at the top of the page. It was, frankly, an exasperating, mostly awful book that displayed an almost offensive lack of understanding of atheist arguments, frequently seemed to count on its readers ignoring the source material for themselves, all the while repeating the most popular and widely-debunked apologetic canards. I don't see how it will be remotely convincing to anyone who isn't already drowning in the Kool-Aid.

But I'm done. I have two major projects in the works. The first, which has already seen two posts (here and here), will be a response to William Lane Craig's frequent (ab)use of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, including my forthcoming critique of Craig's review of Vilenkin's book Many Worlds in One (which is fantastic, by the way – the book, I mean, not Craig's thickheaded review of it). I'm sure it will seem kind of technical and inaccessible to some, but I think it's going to get to the heart of some fundamental issues that divide believers from non-believers, so I hope you give it a chance.

The other will be a series called Why Christianity is Bullshit. I thought about giving it a more proper-sounding name, like "Why Christianity is False", but I think, in the spirit of Penn and Teller, that "bullshit" drives the point home a little further. Because Christianity isn't just false. It's also ridiculous, absurd, twisted, and obscene. A series like this just seemed like the natural thing to do after suffering through True Reason.

Thanks for reading. Or perusing. Or maybe just glossing over. I don't know. I especially like it when people comment. So big ups to everyone who offers their thoughts. There's plenty more to come!

Last but not least, here's my cat sleeping in a guitar case.

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 16

We're finally on the last chapter. And I'll be honest... I'm not quite sure how to review it. The chapter, written by Matthew Flannagan, argues that the scriptures detailing the genocide of Canaan should not be read literally, but as hagiography.

I find it odd that the chapter says this excerpt is from Come Let Us Reason, edited by Paul Copenhagen and William Lane Craig. Odd because I've read several of Craig's defenses of the slaughter of Canaan, and his central defense is always the use of "divine command theory", which is basically just an elaborate way of saying, "even though that is objectively wrong now, it was objectively right at the time because God said it was."

Flannagan makes a pretty thorough case that the accounts are hagiography, to which I say... no shit! Virtually every yarn in the Old Testament is hagiography. Let's not forget that not only is there positively zero evidence that Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt [1], but the evidence we do have clearly points to Israel originating from... the Canaanites. So yeah, big shock... the Old Testament is not a history book.

Clearly, this is geared toward other Christians who already assume a historical reading of the slaughter of Canaan. And frankly, I don't see any reason to spend part of my afternoon writing a response to something I mostly agree with.

If there's anything I take issue with, it's simply that this is the way God is portrayed at all. You can argue that it didn't really happen, and you'd be right. But remember, Christians think the Bible is the inspired word of the One True God, the most important moral guide ever written and a manual for understanding God and finding salvation. So why is it filled with these stories in which God tells his holy army to kill everyone? Why do we need this kind of thorough exegesis just to understand what the scripture is really supposed to mean?

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 15

So close... so very close. I'm quite ready to be done with this unintentionally funny book. It's going out with a whimper too, with two chapters that seem completely superfluous and don't address any major arguments regarding the veracity of Christianity. This chapter, by Glenn Sunshine, is on slavery; the last, on the slaughter of Canaan. Alright... deep breath, and let's get this over with.

Chapter 15: Christianity and Slavery

I'm going to start out by saying that right out the gate, the whole premise of this chapter is bogus. Sunshine lays it out as follows:
Christianity comes with promises and expectations, one of which is that those who follow Jesus Christ will do good. Biblically, then, we would expect that some who claim the name “Christian” would do evil, but that many would do good, and that on the whole the influence of Christ on civilization would be positive.
I'm not sure where he gets the idea that "Biblically", we ought to expect that some people who say they're Christians do bad things (sounds like a setup for a classic No True Scotsman fallacy, where he says all the evil Christians weren't "true" Christians). Or good things, for that matter. First of all, whether people use their beliefs toward good or ill speaks nothing to the truth or falsity of those beliefs; and secondly, to quote Obi Wan Kenobi, many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view. The Catholics running the Inquisition thought they were doing God's work. Ditto with the witch hunts, the Crusades, the Saxon Wars, Encomienda... well hell, I'd be here all day listing horrible things Christians have done. But at the time, from their point of view, they thought they were supremely righteous followers of Christ.

14 October 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 14

Chapter 14, by John M. DePoe, is on the Problem of Evil. I did a post on this topic fairly recently, and when I went through the chapter I was looking to see if any of the responses offered would speak to my own argument. They did not. So I once again will not be going point-by-point through this chapter; I simply don't think it's necessary. Instead, I'm going to summarize my own argument from my recent post, and highlight why I think this response falls short.

Chapter 14: The Problem of Evil and Reasonable Christian Responses

In the first half of the chapter, DePoe argues that God has two morally sufficient reasons to allow for evil – one, that it's necessary for moral development; and two, that it's necessary for free will.

I essentially agree that evil, as in acts of human volition, are a necessary contingency of free will (not to get into a debate about free will). In my most recent post on the problem of evil, I elaborated:

13 October 2012

Quote of the day – on materialism

Epistemic humility—the recognition that we could be wrong—is a virtue in science as it is in daily life, but surely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease. We may, of course, be wrong in having abandoned teleology and the supernatural as our primary tools for understanding and explaining the natural world, but the fact that “common sense” conflicts with a layman’s reading of popular science writing is not a good reason for thinking so.
- From Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg's scathing review of Thomas Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature is Almost Certainly False, published at The Nation.

11 October 2012

How William Lane Craig misrepresents Alexander Vilenkin, part 2: quick thoughts on the big question

Before I jump into the next part of this discussion, it's crossed my mind that this subject matter may seem too esoteric for many, and I can certainly understand why. There's a lot of technical terminology being tossed around, and even those of us who have a grasp on the general concepts don't generally understand the academic literature at a technical (mathematical) level.

But I think that even if this kind of stuff seems a bit technical, it's worth studying. That's because it all hearkens back to a very basic question: Why are we here? There are other ways to phrase that question, like Why does the universe exist? or Why is there something rather than nothing?, but I think they all touch on the same existential mystery that perplexes humanity.

I deconverted from Christianity when I was 19, but it wasn't until I was 28 that I considered myself a full-blown atheist. Part of what kept me holding on to theism was precisely the above existential mystery. God, it seemed to me, was an intuitive and satisfying answer to that question. It wasn't until I read Stephen Hawking's modern classic A Brief History of Time that I changed my tune, because Hawking raises a fascinating question: what if the origin of the universe can be described scientifically? What if it is "self-contained", meaning that it didn't require any sort of external cause to bring it into existence (such as a Creator)?

What intrigued me is not the notion that we've answered the question by giving a complete, scientific answer to the universe; clearly, we're a ways from doing so. However, my assumption, for many years, was that it was in principle impossible to do such a thing. Hawking shattered that assumption.

Alexander Vilenkin, in Many Worlds in One, takes a similar path, saying,
[Scientists] might have been too rash to admit that the cosmic beginning cannot be described in purely scientific terms. True, it is hard to see how this can be done. But things that seem to be impossible often reflect only the limits of our imagination.
William Lane Craig is a devout Christian who, let it be said clearly, is not ignorant. I suppose that is what frustrates me most about him: he is intelligent enough, and educated enough, to know better. I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that Craig is deliberately dishonest in the sense of purposely misrepresenting data to prove his point, but I believe that he is intellectually dishonest by tacitly doing so. It's my belief that Craig so desperately needs to believe in God that he unwittingly cherry-picks the science, disregarding the finer details that contradict his presuppositions. Of course, that's a pretty serious charge, which is why I'm writing this series. In part 1, I gave unambiguous examples of how Craig's representation of the science is misleading. As I move on to the next couple of parts, I aim to do the same.

I just want to be clear, though: this shouldn't be viewed as an academic or inaccessible discussion. This discussion hits on an issue that goes to the heart of religious beliefs (or the rejection thereof), so it's worth taking the time to understand what it's all about. 

Previous post:
How William Lane Craig misrepresents Alexander Vilenkin, part 1

How William Lane Craig misrepresents Alexander Vilenkin, part 1

I'm reading Alexander Vilenkin's book Many Worlds in One right now, and while perusing Google I happened upon a lengthy review of the book written by William Lane Craig. Because Craig refers to Vilenkin in nearly all his debates and uses Vilenkin's research to support one of his major arguments for the existence of God, I wanted to take the time to address the matter in depth, which will include a critique of Craig's book review. For this first part, though, I'm just going to look at the academic literature itself to see if Craig's representation is accurate.

In case you're not familiar with the connection between these two people, here's a quick summary:

Craig is a theologian who has long propagated the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), which states:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause to its existence
  • The universe began to exist
  • Ergo, the universe has a cause to its existence
Alexander Vilenkin
This argument is, quite simply, a fallacy of composition (I've written an in-depth rebuttal here) – just because we observe causality within the universe does not mean that causality must apply to the universe.

But in any case, Craig often appeals to modern physics to support the second premise. That's where Alexander Vilenkin comes in. While plenty of physicists have debated whether the universe is eternal or has a beginning, Vilenkin – along with  Arvind Borde and Alan Guth – developed a theorem (called the BGV Theorem for short) that, so Craig will tell you, proves that the universe began to exist. This is pivotally important not just to Craig's KCA, but to theism in general. Because, in the words of Stephen Hawking,
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?

The BGV Theorm and the Beginning of the Universe

Does the BGV Theorem really prove that the universe began to exist? And if it does, does it imply that universe requires an external cause? That's certainly what William Lane Craig, and many other theists, would have you believe. But I want to take a look at the original literature and see for myself.

First, let's take a look at the paper generally cited by Craig, entitled Inflationary Spacetimes are not Past-Complete (full PDF available here). The abstract is as follows:
Many inflating spacetimes are likely to violate the weak energy condition, a key assumption of singularity theorems. Here we offer a simple kinematical argument, requiring no energy condition, that a cosmological model which is inflating -- or just expanding sufficiently fast -- must be incomplete in null and timelike past directions. Specifically, we obtain a bound on the integral of the Hubble parameter over a past-directed timelike or null geodesic. Thus inflationary models require physics other than inflation to describe the past boundary of the inflating region of spacetime.
The key phrase here is the last sentence: 
Thus inflationary models require physics other than inflation to describe the past boundary of the inflating region of spacetime.
I'm going to lay the cards on the table: what the BGV Theorem is saying is not "the universe had a beginning", but that inflationary models cannot go infinitely into the past, and require physics other than inflationary models to describe the boundary condition. This paper is a direct response to physicists who attempt to use inflationary models to describe an eternal universe. In case that's not completely clear, the authors elaborate in the paper itself (emphasis mine):
What can lie beyond this boundary? Several possibilities have been discussed, one being that the boundary of the inflating region corresponds to the beginning of the Universe in a quantum nucleation event [12]. The boundary is then a closed spacelike hypersurface which can be determined from the appropriate instanton.
Whatever the possibilities for the boundary, it is clear that unless the averaged expansion condition can somehow be avoided for all past-directed geodesics, inflation alone is not sufficient to provide a complete description of the Universe, and some new physics is necessary in order to determine the correct conditions at the boundary [20]. This is the chief result of our paper.
How has Craig made the leap from "inflation alone is not sufficient to provide a complete description of the universe" to suggesting that the BGV Theorem has proved "the universe began to exist"? Even Borde, Guth and Vilenkin clearly suggest that a "beginning" is merely one possibility that might correspond to the boundary condition.

In Many Worlds in One, Vilenkin talks a bit about a quantum tunneling model that constitutes these "new physics". He compares and contrasts his approach with that of Stephen Hawking, known as the Hartle-Hawking No Boundary Proposal. There are many other options, and I believe Sean Carroll makes a valid point by stating:
The definition of “singularity in the past” is not really the same as “had a beginning” — it means that some geodesics must eventually come to an end. (Others might not.) Most importantly, I don’t think that any result dealing with classical spacetimes can teach us anything definitive about the beginning of the universe. The moment of the Big Bang is, if anything is, a place where quantum gravity is supremely important. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin results are simply not about quantum gravity.
The point ought to be clear: the BGV Theorem does not say that the universe began to exist; it says that inflationary models are past-incomplete, and require new physics to describe the boundary condition.

For the next part, I'm going to jump right into Craig's review of Many Worlds in One, as well as address the second question I mentioned: if the universe has a beginning, does that mean it requires an external cause? I'll let the cat out of the bag: Vilenkin's answer is "no", but Craig (predictably) doesn't like it. You can find the book here, and read Craig's review here.

10 October 2012

William Lane Craig debates a chair

As if what I wrote last night wasn't enough to show what a hack William Lane Craig is, he's now taken to "debating" Richard Dawkins. And by "Richard Dawkins", of course, I mean an empty chair.

William Lane Craig desperately wants to be more relevant and influential than he is. To him, debates are where arguments are settled decisively; they're his primarly platform for his brand of evangelism. And of course, he always declares himself the winner of his own debates, so all the atheist has to do is show up and, no matter how bad his arguments are, Craig can spin his performance however he wants.

But if the desired opponent doesn't deem Craig relevant enough (and why should he?), Craig can just make-believe. Y'know, I think Craig is wrong about the impossibility of an actual infinite, and the proof lies in the size of this guy's ego. To him, Dawkins is like the mothership in Independence Day. It frustrates him immensely that Dawkins doesn't view him as relevant enough to be bothered with debating him, particularly considering that Dawkins has publicly debated with many other prominent theologians (John Lennox, Rowan Williams, Alister McGrath, Jonathan Sacks, and George Pell just to name a few). Craig sorely covets the prestige and influence he believes he would attain by debating atheism's most famous provocateur.

But stunts like this just show how sorry and desperate Craig really is, and likely cement the fact that Dawkins will never bother to debate him.

William Lane Craig is a hypocrite and a charlatan

A while back I mentioned Sean Carroll's response to William Lane Craig's podcast critiquing the article Carroll wrote for The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. I swung by Cosmic Variance earlier today and perused the comments, and it appears Craig himself popped by to offer a comment. Among the comments he offered was this gem:
The “eternal cosmologies based on quantum mechanics” so easily imagined by Prof. Carroll are not, in fact, tenable; but his unsuspecting readers would not know that.
Perusing the comments a bit more, it turns out that Craig has offered a pretty thorough response on his website, where he duplicates the above quote. So, it's safe to say the comment is authentic.

What surprises me about this remark is that Carroll is a cosmologist. At Caltech. William Lane Craig has often taken atheists to task for purportedly speaking beyond their areas of expertise, and yet here he is – a fucking theologian – presuming to lecture a physicist on what constitutes a tenable theory of cosmology. Just a tad hypocritical, no?

In Craig's response on his website, he precedes the above quote with this:
In his oral presentation of his paper at the conference in Cambridge, [Alexander] Vilenkin was clear: “There are no models at this time that provide a satisfactory model for a universe without a beginning” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXCQelhKJ7A). Interestingly, if you take a close look at Vilenkin’s powerpoint slides for this presentation, you will find Prof. Carroll’s own model listed among the purported “eternal cosmologies” which in fact fail to avoid the beginning of the universe.
Even if I take Craig's representation of Vilenkin's theorem at face value, Craig appears to be cherry-picking simply on the fact that he treats the issue as resolved. Vilenkin's theorem, to my knowledge (and I could be wrong), is not undisputed among cosmologists – that is to say, it may be a compelling idea or hypothesis, but it's not rigorously established fact at all, much less one that implies precisely what Craig wants you to think it implies – that the universe, having a beginning, requires an external cause.

But I'm not going to be quite that charitable. In the original article that sparked this whole back-and-forth, Carroll makes it clear that a "beginning" does not imply that the universe requires an external cause:
There is no logical or metaphysical obstacle to completing the conventional temporal history of the universe by including an atemporal boundary condition at the beginning. Together with the successful post-Big-Bang cosmological model already in our possession, that would constitute a consistent and self-contained description of the history of the universe.
Nothing in the fact that there is a first moment of time, in other words, necessitates that an external something is required to bring the universe about at that moment.
The best part is, Vilenkin agrees. On page 181 of his book Many Worlds in One (which has a whole chapter called "Creation of Universes from Nothing"), Vilenkin states:
If there was nothing before the universe popped out, then what could have caused the tunneling? Remarkably, the answer is that no cause is required. In classical physics, causality dictates what happens from one moment to the next, but in quantum mechanics the behavior of physical objects is inherently unpredictable and some quantum processes have no cause at all. 
And on page 177, he says,
So, what do we make of a proof that the beginning is unavoidable? Is it proof of the existence of God? This view would be far too simplistic. Anyone who attempts to understand the origin of the universe should be prepared to address its logical paradoxes. In this regard, the theorem that I proved with my colleagues does not give much advantage to the theologian over the scientist.
Also, the scientists might have been too rash to admit that the cosmic beginning cannot be described in purely scientific terms. True, it is hard to see how this can be done. But things that seem to be impossible often reflect only the limits of our imagination.

Vilenkin's work buttresses the Creator-less universe Stephen Hawking describes in A Brief History of Time as well as that describe by Lawrence Krauss in his book A Universe From Nothing (although their mathematical approaches differ). So really, there are at least a couple of ways to tackle Craig's second premise in his pet argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument: "the universe began to exist":
  • That the universe had a beginning is not an agreed-upon fact among cosmologists (I would add that the very concept of "beginning" is philosophically thorny in the first place)
  • A universe with a beginning can still be self-contained and not require an external cause 
I find it telling that despite how much Craig loves to cite Vilenkin's work, he doesn't bother sharing the whole story. That goes back to a frequent criticism I have of Craig: that he seems to count on you not actually having read the source material for yourself. Even a cursory reading of Vilenkin shows that his work does not give Craig the advantage he would have you believe it does. Maybe he should stick to theology.

07 October 2012

Does atheism assume materialism to be true?

One of the most common misunderstandings I encounter when theists argue against atheism is the assertion that atheism presupposes materialism (also called metaphysical naturalism) – that atheism entails a faith-based assumption that the material world is all that exists, and the existence of God and/or supernatural things is simply impossible.

I recently remarked about my frustration with this frequent claim from theists when reviewing True Reason. Co-author and editor Tom Gilson stopped by to offer his comment on the matter, saying:
[If] you don't know any popular atheists who presuppose metaphysical naturalism, all I can say is wow, how does that sand feel in your ears, nose, and eyes, and how do breathe with your head in there?
As a brief reply, I offered two examples of popular atheists saying the contrary: Richard Dawkins' assertion in The God Delusion that God's existence is improbable, not impossible; and Sam Harris saying, in one of his debates, that "science is not, in principle, committed to the idea that there is no afterlife, or that the mind is identical to the brain, or that materialism is true." [1]

I could probably keep searching around the writings of popular atheists and find similar statements, but I don't think that would be germane to my point. After all, this is my blog, and my views may or may not represent the views of others. Maybe there are dogmatic materialist atheists out there, but I don't know of any.  But even if there are, that's not the position that I take. The important question, as I see, it whether atheism necessarily entails materialism, and I think it's abundantly clear that it does not.

Here's why. When we are given a proposition x, there are not only two options: x is true, or x is false; x may also be indeterminate. We may reject ideas as indeterminate because they are poorly structured (containing logical inconsistencies), or because they lack evidence for their claims.

Consider for example an article I read recently in Scientific American on the multiverse. The author, physicist George Ellis, argued that the litany of multiverse theories are poorly formed, can be molded to 'explain' virtually anything (there's an old saying that a theory which proves everything proves nothing), and may in principle be unfalsifiable. This is not sufficient evidence to deny that a multiverse exists, as Ellis acknowledges in the article; however, it's grounds to refrain from affirming that it does, because it is indeterminate.

This is a critical distinction that, to my great frustration (and that of many other atheists I've encountered), theists just seem to have a hard time with. We view the existence of God as indeterminate. We view the evidence as insufficient and/or the basic concept of 'gods' or 'God' to be logically incoherent (see ignosticism). This is sufficient for us to reject holding a positive belief in a God or gods – hence atheism. This does not imply that God's existence is impossible or that materialism must be true – only that supernatural concepts are lacking coherency and/or supporting evidence.

Sometimes, theists attempt to corner the non-believer into affirming materialism by cajoling them into answering 'big questions', like "If there's no God, how do you explain the existence of the universe?" To quote the physicist Sean Carroll,
[Some] things happen for “reasons,” and some don’t, and you don’t get to demand that this or that thing must have a reason. Some things just are. Claims to the contrary are merely assertions, and we are as free to ignore them as you are to assert them.
In other words, we don't have a burden to answer the question simply because the theist has demanded that the universe must have an explanation for its existence; it's entirely possible that, per Stephen Hawking's No Boundary Proposal for example, the universe simply is. Again, we do not have to assume or affirm that this is the case – its plausibility, coupled with the fact of all we simply do not know about the universe (such as what lies beyond the Planck Epoch in the realm of quantum gravity) is sufficient to show that the theist's demand for an explanation is rooted in a baseless assumption.

I feel that this distinction is so critical to properly understanding atheism that it really cannot be understated. I'm going to finish with a great video from Youtuber QualiaSoup that he put up today on "substance dualism" – the idea that the mind and the brain are distinct entities, which is quite common if not necessary in many branches of theology. Note that he does not reject the idea by saying that materialism must be true, or that he can disprove the existence of "non-physical" things; rather, he rejects dualism because it is conceptually incoherent and lacking evidence. He could rightly be called an "adualist".

05 October 2012

Survey finds 19% without religious affiliation

The number of non-believers is rising rapidly. According to a new aggregate of Pew surveys, the number has risen from 6% of US adults in 1990 all the way to 19% through 2011.

Interestingly, the researchers say that the chief way the category grows is by "switchers" -- people who grew up religious, but are now agnostics, atheists, or simply "nothing in particular". The researchers speculate that two things could keep the numbers down: immigrants from religious nations, whose numbers fluctuate, and that they have a low birth rate because they are "disproportionately young, often single, and highly educated".

Totally obvious things that religious conservatives don't get, part 372

Religious conservatives oppose sex education.

Religious conservatives oppose contraceptive distribution.

Religious conservatives oppose abortion.

I would think this would be a pretty obvious contradiction to anyone with a modicum of common sense. Being educated about sex makes you more likely to use contraception. Contraception makes you vastly less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy. And reducing unwanted pregnancy should, quite obviously, make you less likely to seek an abortion.

Now, there's a pretty huge study to back up what we liberals have been shouting from the rooftops for ages:

Free birth control cuts abortion rate dramatically, study finds

When more than 9,000 women ages 14 to 45 in the St. Louis area were given no-cost contraception for three years, abortion rates dropped from two-thirds to three-quarters lower than the national rate, according to a new report by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis researchers.
From 2008 to 2010, annual abortion rates among participants in the Contraceptive Choice Project  -- dubbed CHOICE -- ranged from 4.4 abortions per 1,000 women to 7.5 abortions per 1,000. That’s far less than the 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women nationwide reported in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available.
Among teen girls ages 15 to 19 who participated in the study, the annual birth rate was 6.3 per 1,000 girls, far below the U.S. rate of 34.3 per 1,000 for girls the same age.
Washington University School of Medicine? I thought it was from the Center For Figuring Out Really Obvious Things.

04 October 2012

I can't make this stuff up

Here is an actual quote from an evangelical Christian friend of mine, posted to her Facebook page earlier today:
"Amazing morning at Bible study learning Gods word. It's crazy how satan will try to stop you for growing inGOds word he was working overtime this morn. All before nine am, I had a doctors apt, rushed Lexi to the vet after she was beaten up by some devilish dogs and still got to study on time and looking at the time frame it was not humanly possible but that's what's great about God."
I'm not sure what 'satan' has to do with her doctor's appointment (presumably, she scheduled that in advance) but apparently she believes that God sat idly by while her dog was mauled by other dogs, necessitating an emergency trip to the vet, but then he somehow orchestrated traffic so that she would arrive at her Bible study in a timely fashion.

I do not think this is an isolated example. This is typical of the stuff my Christian friends post, and it's typical of the way my friends and I perceived events back when I was a devout Christian. The world, the devil, the flesh... everything is out to get you and tear you away from God. But God somehow intervenes and gives you the chance to go to church, Bible study, whatever. It's amazingly egocentric, drowning in confirmation bias and wishful thinking.

03 October 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 13

Hey look! Just four chapters left! This one's gonna be... uh... well, another one. Alright, at this point, I'm pretty cynical. I wasn't looking to be re-converted. I was just hoping to keep an open mind, to hear something I hadn't heard a hundred times before, or to hear a new angle on an argument I hadn't considered. No dice.

Now, we're to a long-overdue chapter: the historical evidence for the gospels. Kind of a big issue, being that the gospels are absolutely foundational to Christianity. If the gospels aren't demonstrably reliable, then there's no reason to believe Christianity is true at all.

I just want to state, at the outset, that I've spelled out my general gripes with the gospels in both The Gospel Challenge (also in the tab at the top of the blog) and my 3-part critique of Lee Strobel's movie The Case For Christ. I'm not big on rehashing things I've already covered in detail (especially since the whole reason I'm reading the book is in the hope I'll hear something new), so I'm not going to go point-by-point through this chapter. Instead, I'm just going to try try to hit on some of the broader concepts. Suffice to say that this chapter, by Randall Hardman, did not convince me that the gospels are reliable historical documents.

                                       Chapter 13: Historical Evidences for the Gospels

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 12

I'm almost through it. I can safely say that most of the dirty work is over. The last few chapters of this book are not ones I need to respond to in any great detail. I'm going to skip my usual intro, and just jump right into the twelfth chapter – another one by Tom Gilson, basically on the same topic as the previous chapter.

Chapter 12: God and Science Do Mix

He begins:
As Sean McDowell wrote in the preceding chapter, Christianity (properly understood) takes a high view of science. There is yet one more objection, however, that some atheists (especially atheistic scientists) have made. Simply stated, it is that God and science don’t mix. That was in fact the title— and the strongly stated message— of a 2009 Wall Street Journal1 opinion piece by Arizona State University physicist/ cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss. His article centered on this quote from geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964):
My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.
Echoing Haldane, Krauss’s point in this piece was that, Christianity is all about miracles and other such interfering-God nonsense. Science could never make sense under conditions like that.
Gilson is essentially going to argue that the view of God interacting miraculously with the world and the assumption that the laws of physics are unchanging are compatible.