25 December 2012

William Lane Craig on Sandy Hook

Y'know, coming from him, this isn't remotely as awful as it could have been. It's pretty much exactly the type of drivel that one might expect as Christians want to turn to their faith in the wake of the tragedy, but have that troubling question Why would God allow this to happen?

The answer, of course, being that it's all part of the Divine Plan.™

I mean really, no matter how much you want to dress it up, that's really all it boils down to. You just have to accept that God has his reasons. I mean sure, he's omnipotent, and he could just defeat all evil and suffering in an instant of willpower, but that wouldn't make for a very interesting story, would it? Batman never kills the Joker, either.

Anyway, my thought on watching this was that there one big difference between the Sandy Hook shooting and the Massacre of the Innocents in the Bible, which is that we have lots and lots of evidence that the Sandy Hook shooting really happened. 

24 December 2012

Feminism, the Patriarchy, PZ Myers, and other trigger words

I haven't read Pharyngula in a long time. I used to really like PZ Myers, but between belittling people who didn't agree with his definition of atheism, the "Elevatorgate" nonsense, and the colossally stupid dramas over sexual harassment policies at conferences and the embarrassment that was "Atheism+", I just stopped caring. But I suppose a part of me yearned for the PZ of old, when he said stuff like this:
Science is simply a process for examining the world, and anyone can do it, even if you don't have a lab coat. If something has an effect or influence, you can try to examine it using the tools of science — so when someone announces that gods cannot be detected by observation or experiment, they are saying they don't matter and don't do anything, which is exactly what this atheist has been saying all along.

So I visited Pharyngula hoping to read something incisive and clever like that. Alas, 'twas not to be. Instead, he has a post ranting again about feminism, mocking Michael Shermer and erecting massive straw men in order to belittle anyone who disagrees with him.

The crux of the rub, and I suspect a big part of what triggers any women's issues post into a mine field, are statements like this:
Most importantly, if you think feminism, that is equality for men and women and opposition to cultural institutions that perpetuate inequities, is irrational, let’s see you explain your opposition rationally.
See, I think that the vast majority of rational people, particularly those in the nontheist community, fully support legal equality between men and women. And we acknowledge that there are cultural expectations – gender roles, if you will – that women and men may or may not choose to embrace, and we should be tolerant of and celebrate those differences.

The thorny part comes in just to what degree this is all really relevant in our modern day. Some women, like Rebecca Watson, are utterly convinced that our society is a "patriarchy" that perpetuates the sexual objectification of women, and that such things aren't really a significant issue for men because, well, men are in control since it's their patriarchy. Or something. Other women, like Maria Maltseva, have considerably more moderate views on such issues.

The thing is, we don't all agree on the severity or relevance of this sort of thing. We don't all agree that there actually is a "patriarchy" in modern America. We don't all agree whether ads featuring scantily-clad men or women, in an attempt to appeal to our biology to drive the free market, are indicative of any kind of broad social problem. We don't all agree that, at least in modern America, the areas where women still experience inequality deserve more attention than the areas where men experience inequality – areas such as life expectancy, medical research funding, homelessness, widespread acceptance of male genital mutilation, suicide rates, victims of violence, workplace deaths, domestic violence and family court biases. Some of us have a hard time caring when the Rebecca Watsons of the world complain about sexy women in commercials and being awkwardly invited on a date when in other countries, women are treated like cattle (some of us like, I dunno, Richard Dawkins).

The problem is, though, that in the mind of PZ Myers, Watson, and the those of that ilk, there is no room for measures of disagreement. If you're not totally on board their train, then you are the enemy. You are, as PZ describes it, an "anti-feminist". No – you are not allowed to broadly support women's legal equality and support their right to accept or reject certain normative gender roles while disagreeing about the extent and/or severity of these issues in modern Western civilization. You either swallow the whole doctrine, or you are part of the problem.

And, that's why I stopped reading Pharyngula. If I wanted dogmatism, I would have stuck with religion. At least they give out free crackers.

23 December 2012

The book "True Reason" in a nutshell, via NonStampCollector

Did you know that NonStampCollector has a second channel? And a blog over at Freethough Blogs (ugh)? I was reading an excellent post of his on the old "What if Hitler had won?" question that theists love to throw at atheists, and stumbled on a link to his other channel.

...Where I found this.

The Christian chatter in this short video reminds me very much of the kind of circular nonsense that pervaded the book True Reason, and I love NSC's response at the end.

22 December 2012

Prayer doesn't do anything, exhibit #472 (updated)

Update: My friend's son is okay, and who got the credit? Three guesses....

Yeah, because praying for "no complications" worked so well the first time. Seriously, how do people not think that this is God just fucking with them, or simply wake up and realize there are no deities involved here? Did God just need to get a sick kick from the child's esophageal burns before he decided to intervene? 

Original post-------------------------------------------------------

A friend of mine is having a rough night – her son swallowed a battery, which got stuck in his esophagus. Now, just to be clear, that's a serious situation and I hope he's okay. I'm not out to make light of his pain. I am out, however, to ridicule his mom's appeals to God. Notice anything here? (You have to read the bottom one first...)

Prayer for "no complications"... shortly followed by news of a serious complication. The solution? MOAR PRAYER.

You know what praying does? Nothing, that's what. People pray for what they want. They think the answer is "yes", "no", or "wait", which simply means they already decided that God answers prayers before they even asked it. Whatever the "answer", subsequent events will always be interpreted as God intervening in some way. If they don't get what they want, it's just "God's will". This essentially means that the actions of God are indistinguishable from random events.

I think this kind of delusional behavior was best summarized by the late, great George Carlin:
Pray for anything you want. Pray for anything, but what about the Divine Plan?
Remember that? The Divine Plan. Long time ago, God made a Divine Plan. Gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the Divine Plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along, and pray for something. Well suppose the thing you want isn't in God's Divine Plan? What do you want Him to do? Change His plan? Just for you? Doesn't it seem a little arrogant? It's a Divine Plan. What's the use of being God if every run-down shmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can come along and fuck up Your Plan?
And here's something else, another problem you might have: Suppose your prayers aren't answered. What do you say? "Well, it's God's will." "Thy Will Be Done." Fine, but if it's God's will, and He's going to do what He wants to anyway, why the fuck bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn't you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will? It's all very confusing.
So to get around a lot of this, I decided to worship the sun.

Unlike my friend, at least George Carlin came to his senses.

19 December 2012

That one thing you think is the problem? It's not the problem.

Something that frustrates me about the post-shooting dialogue – or lack thereof – is the tendency that people have to resort to finger-pointing and platitudes.

I'm a pretty liberal guy, and yeah, I think we need stricter gun laws. I really don't see why any civilian needs to own a military-style assault rifle. Home protection? Against what, the zombie invasion? But if I'm not mistaken, the Virginia Tech shooting was carried out with a hangun. Stricter gun laws aren't a panacea that's going to make the problem go away.

And I'm sure that any rational person, either religious or not, rolls their eyes at the wing-nuts saying that it's because we "took God out of schools" (which we didn't... and I thought God was supposed to be omnipresent anyway...), or because we aren't teaching children to gang-rush shooters (seriously, people are saying that), or because we aren't giving deadly weapons to teachers.

For my part, I've been focused on the mental health issue. We need to be better, as a community, of recognizing the symptoms before something terrible happens. Young people need to be taught how to recognize the signs among their peers, and to report them promptly. In fact, just such foresight resulted in an arrest in Bartlesville, OK, a suburb close to me, when a student tried to recruit others for a mass killing. Awareness works. Further, we need to improve access to mental health care, which goes along with improving our national health care system. (Sean Carroll had some good thoughts on the matter here.)

But the reality is, aside from the predictable idiocy from the wing-nuts, this situation resulted from a perfect storm of factors, and its solution isn't going to be a one-stop affair. It's not video games, it's not feminists, it's not God's judgment, it's not secularism, it's not because we don't have enough guns,  or anything like that. It's parenting, it's community involvement, it's placing sensible restrictions on access to firearms, it's better health care and better access to it, it's education of teachers (having a plan of action in case of a threat), etc. It's a tough problem with a tough solution.

And the reality is that this kind of thing will not go away. These kinds of tragedies will happen from time to time. A comprehensive effort to identify the problems and find solutions is what is needed to reduce them.

The actual Ten Commandments

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook, and I was pretty surprised that I hadn't heard of it before. There are, it would seem, two versions of the Ten Commandments. No, not Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – the other ones in Exodus. They're significant because unlike the ones popularly cited, the scriptures specifically refer to these as "the Ten Commandments":
27 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments. [Exodus 34]
What, you might ask, are these Ten Commandments? What timeless moral wisdom did the all-knowing, all powerful Lord and Creator of the Universe impart on his chosen Holy People?

1.) Do not make any idols.
2.) Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread
3.) The firstborn offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all firstborn males of your livestock
4.) Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons
5.) No one is to appear before me empty handed
6.) Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest
7.) Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year
8.) Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning
9.) Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God
10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk

Hmmm... I wonder why no one is trying to get these put up at courthouses.....

Handing out these flyers for the Festival of Weeks is a pain in the...

h/t: Brackforce

16 December 2012

Where do we really get our morals?

Morality has been on my brain a lot, as you can see from the two posts on the subject earlier today (here and here). In those posts I argued that even if an Objective Moral Law exists and comes from God, it's a) useless, since no one has objective access to God; and b) renders theism pointless as a catalyst for good, since theologians readily acknowledge that we can be good without believing in God.

So now I want to turn to that more academic, philosophical question of meta-ethics: where do our morals come from? I want to turn again to the Objective Morality Argument (which I'll abbreviate OMA), which is this:
  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist
  2. Objective moral values and duties exist
  3. Ergo, God exists
I've noticed that whenever this argument is used (primarily by William Lane Craig, but also by folks like Frank Turek, Tom Gilson and David Marshall) the first premise is tossed out with virtually no support whatsoever. I suppose that it's assumed it'll be uncontroversial. And indeed, my main beef is with the second premise – objective moral values and duties do not exist – but more on that in a moment. I don't see any reason why, if objective moral values do exist, they could not be somehow embedded in nature itself or as an inherent feature of humanity. I'm not arguing for that position, but I just want to throw it out there because I think these theologians take it for granted that other things might be able to account for objective moral values.

So, the second premise. When theologians talk about objective moral values and duties existing, they mean it in a transcendent manner; that is to say that moral values are something like a tree falling in the woods – it does make a sound, independently of whether anyone hears it. Objective moral values would, similarly, continue to exist even if all humanity was wiped out and there was no one around to observe or practice them. Quoth William Lane Craig: "To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so."

Here's a really important part: humanists might also be inclined to use the language "objective moral values", like Sam Harris does. But it doesn't mean the same thing; in this case, we're talking about objectively valid reasons given certain shared goals. I know that's a mouthful, but bear with me. On the humanist view, we are all bonded and interdependent. We're a necessarily group-living (obligatorily gregarious) species with shared needs and interests. Moral values are not fixed ideals, but pliable and contextually varying guidelines that allow us to live cooperatively for mutual benefit.

The question is, then, why you should view morality from the humanist perspective instead of the theistic one. To quote William Lane Craig again (same article):
If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest.

Objective or contextual?

So what's the evidence that objective moral values and duties exist? The common answer seems to be something like this:
  • Is it absolutely wrong to murder children?
  • If you answer yes, you're acknowledging a higher moral law
  • Thus, you've proved that you believe in objective moral values
  • If you answer no, then you don't really have any moral values at all – it's just whatever you decide. It's subjective, arbitrary, and ultimately meaningless. 
But the answer is, in fact, "no". It is not absolutely wrong to murder children, and this can be easily demonstrated with a thought experiment. Let's say you answered "yes". Then I could infer that you opposed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which the United States deliberately killed tens of thousands of civilians, including many thousands of children – many of whom died horrible, slow deaths from radiation poisoning.

Hold on a second, though. The reason we dropped those bombs was to end World War II. We were on the verge of a long and costly invasion of Japan – costly both in blood and money. I'm not taking a side here, as I know this remains a controversial decision. But clearly, even someone who may have intuitively answered "yes" to the above query may nonetheless view the massacre of Japanese children as contextually justified.

If you find yourself on the other end of that particular example, I'm sure with enough thought you can find another. And this is how we discredit "objective morality", because you cannot have it both ways:
  • Killing children is absolutely wrong
  • Killing children was contextually justified in the Japanese bombings
That's essentially saying,
  • Killing children is objectively wrong now
  • Killing children was objectively acceptable in that circumstance
So, which is it? Objective, or contextual? You cannot claim any act is "absolutely wrong", then moments later dream up an example in which it is contextually justified. That's not objective morality – that's relative morality, because the justification of the act is relative to the circumstances.

With some acts of cruelty, we have to get pretty creative to imagine a scenario in which they would seem justified. So instead of child murder, let's use child rape. After all, we didn't drop a plane full of pedophile rapists onto Japan. But again, as a thought experiment, we can probably imagine a scenario in which it is justified – far-fetched and unlikely though that scenario may be:
  • A malevolent alien race is going to destroy the entire planet unless you rape 10 children
 So, would it be contextually justified to rape 10 children to save 7 billion lives? I think most of us would say yes. Obviously, that situation or anything like it will never happen. But that's why it's so easy to take for granted that something like child rape is not, in fact, objectively wrong; we can't imagine any realistic scenario in which it could be justified. But if children's deaths are part of a war-ending genocide like the Japan bombings, we can rationalize it as "collateral damage" for the greater good. 

The theist hasn't proved the existence of an objective (transcendent) moral law simply by asking whether we think something is right or wrong. We could be appealing to a cultural standard, or even a personal standard. If they include the word "absolute", it's easy to show that no one really believes that any act is utterly incapable of ever being contextually justified. William Lane Craig himself argued for this when he justified the Biblical story of the slaughter of Canaan, using what he referred to as "Divine Command Theory"; essentially: God commanded it, so it was contextually justified. But that by necessity means the act itself, genocide of civilians, is not "absolutely" wrong – its rightness or wrongness is relative to the contextual circumstance.

Knowing right from wrong

So then who decides what is right or wrong? We do, both individually and collectively. Remember, on the humanist view, we are a group-living, interdependent species. Want to have zero moral accountability? That's easy: move into the woods and live by yourself. It'll be tough, but you'll never have to answer to anyone. But if you want the myriad benefits of group living, there are certain rules you'll have to abide by. Just like you, other people have their own needs and interests. If you do not respect theirs, they will not respect yours.

There's an implication here that's discomforting for theists: the Nazis weren't "absolutely wrong", at least not in the transcendent sense posited by theists. But in case you forgot, the Nazis lost the war. The rest of the world stood against that tyranny; simplistically, the Nazis didn't respect the autonomy of their neighbors – so their autonomy was not respected in turn.

So in another sense, we might indeed say the Nazis were "absolutely wrong" – because given that we are bonded and interdependent, a group who wishes to conquer and kill indiscriminately is absolutely in conflict with our broader shared needs and interests.

This view of morality comports perfectly with the reality we observe: moral standards and ethics have shifted dramatically over the centuries. 500 years ago, if you'd asked someone, "Is slavery wrong?" They'd likely have told you "no". Today, we consider slavery unambiguously antithetical to our shared values, and we are not hesitant to declare it wrong.

But what's the point?

There's one more related issue I'll address, as Craig highlights in his essay:
Given the finality of death, it really does not matter how you live. So what do you say to someone who concludes that we may as well just live as we please, out of pure self-interest?
I'm not sure how, if Craig cannot find meaning and worth in a mortal life, he will find one in an eternal life. But he's nevertheless appealing to our own self-interest.

Why, for example, should even the powerful respect the needs and interests of others if they are able to live comfortably exploiting people? If the theist posits one's obligation to God, it's simply another way of saying that God will ultimately punish or reward your behavior – which falls back to valuing our own self-interest. There may not be justice in this life, but there will be in the next.  If you can't threaten a powerful person here and now, threaten them in the hereafter.

So, why should a powerful person respect the needs and interests of others? Because history has shown that those who do not are not likely to remain in power very long. Tyrannical governments eventually fall; powerful people cannot walk on the backs of the weak forever – people will collectively rise up against them. I recognize that theists may not find this answer satisfying because there have been plenty of times when powerful people do get away with cruelty, but wishful thinking is not a sound justification for requiring some kind of absolute justice

There's yet another reason though. We are, as a culture, far more productive when we live cooperatively and freely than when we are set against each other. Think, for a moment, how many African slaves could have been great doctors, inventors, teachers, or scientists. How many oppressed women could have changed the world for the better, had we allowed them to? It's taken humanity a long time to learn that mutual respect is ultimately in the best interest of all of us.

There's more to cover on the topic – what makes us different than animals, or how we can value things – including ourselves – that do not have "intrinsic value". But those will have to wait for another post.

I guess irony can be a little ironic

I came across this gem from William Lane Craig when sifting through the Q&A from ReasonableFaith.org for my post earlier today (emphasis mine):

What you’re really asking, I think, is, “Why should I think that objective moral values exist rather than that evolution has made me believe in the illusion that there are objective moral values?” And the answer to that question is, “Because I clearly apprehend objective moral values and have no good reason to deny what I clearly perceive.”
This is the same answer we give to the sceptic who says, “How do you know you’re not just a body lying in the Matrix and that all that you see and experience is an illusory, virtual reality?” We have no way to get outside our five senses and prove that they’re veridical. Rather I clearly apprehend a world of people and trees and houses about me, and I have no good reason to doubt what I clearly perceive. Sure, it’s possible that I’m a body in the Matrix. But possibilities come cheap. The mere possibility provides no warrant for denying what I clearly grasp.
It's weird to hear Craig say this, in light of his response to an unrelated question. When pressed on why the observation of physical causality within the universe should warrant us to infer causality applying to the universe, Craig replied:
Ask [atheists] why one timeless entity—say, a number—could not depend timelessly for its existence on another timeless entity. Why is that impossible? Why couldn't God timelessly sustain a number in existence? That would clearly be an asymmetric causal relation. Why is that impossible?
Craig seems perfectly willing to retreat to the merely possible when he's arguing for something that seems intuitively true or obvious to him, but when he's less credulous he is quick to point out the folly of that kind of thinking. I believe this is what Richard Dawkins would call "intellectual compartmentalization".

Being good without (believing in) God

I've seen several debates between theists and atheists on, or touching on, morality. Frank Turek, William Lane Craig, etc.... and I've read many an author on the subject.

Something that strikes me as a bit unusual is that they will almost always try to steer the debate away from whether we can actually be moral if we are non-believers; instead, they tend to want to focus on a philosophical or academic question of where we fundamentally derive our morals. Tom Gilson, who co-authored True Reason, said something along these lines in a blog post:
[Atheists] think that if they’re good without believing in God, they’re being good without God. They treat it as if it’s the belief that matters, not the reality of God.
William Lane Craig echoes the sentiment:
The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives? There is no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterize as good and decent lives. Similarly, the question is not: Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the theist would also largely agree. Or again, the question is not: Can we recognize the existence of objective moral values without reference to God? The theist will typically maintain that a person need not believe in God in order to recognize, say, that we should love our children. Rather, as humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz puts it, “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”

I'm all for debating the notion of where we "ground" our moral values, and obviously I don't think it's in any God or gods. But I'm also more than a little surprised at how readily theologians seem to be willing to cede this ground to atheists: we don't have to believe in God to be good.

It's worth pointing out that this is not merely some sort of anecdotal observation; we actually have mountains of data showing that this is the case:
  • Across the industrialized world, we now enjoy the most peaceful and egalitarian era in human history[1]. Not only are we less violent, but we are more tolerant of others. This has positively correlated with increasing secularism [2] – there are more atheists and agnostics, church attendance and adherence to organized religions is dropping off, etc. Young people, especially, are less religious.
  • Here in the United States, it is the more liberal, secular coastal states that have the lowest per capita crime and are the soonest to adopt civil rights legislation. In the more religious states, per capita violent crime is higher, teen birth rates are higher, domestic violence and abuse are higher – even online porn subscriptions are higher.[3],[4]
  • More secular nations donate more money per capita to charity; atheists and agnostics are also less likely to be nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, dogmatic, ethnocentric, and authoritarian.[3]
On a more anecdotal note, when we look at the most violent and oppressive countries in the world, they are very often countries with theocratic governments and/or a great deal of religious fundamentalism among the populace (Iran, Saudi Arabia). The Israel/Palestine conflict has been raging for decades because two opposing religious groups are convinced that God gave them a patch of land in the desert.

So we aren't just blowing smoke when we say we can be good without God. Of course we can. It's a fact supported by mountains of data. Theists, usually knowing at least anecdotally that there are plenty of good people who are also non-believers, seem to be willing to concede this point and then try to steer the debate to the more philosophical conversation of meta-ethics.

But hold on a sec. If it is true that there is an Objective Moral Law, and that God is the one who gives us this Moral Law, then why wouldn't rejecting God make us less moral? Or why wouldn't being Christian make us more moral? It seems rather intuitively logical to me that we should conclude, from the theists' argument, that a less holy society is a less peaceful, less free and less content society. This is especially true in light of the fact that theists are often eager to pin the blame for everything from Stalin to school shootings on a rejection of God. Make up your minds!

I think that theologians shouldn't get off the hook so easily. Theologians like Craig, Gilson, Turek, et al have a burden to explain why this should not follow from their argument. It's not enough to simply steer the debate into esoteric meta-ethics on the grounding of moral values. If it has no pragmatic value, what difference does it make? After all, presumably the whole point of these theologians engaging in debates of this sort isn't just to wank off with other academics; they want atheists to realize the error of their ways, to win converts for Christianity. But if we can be really be good without being Christian – as the data overwhelmingly shows to be true – then who cares whether we are Christian or not? I've always said: the only thing worse than a God who does not exist is a God who might as well not exist. 

A question for William Lane Craig

Every once in a while, I drop a question into the Q&A form over at Reasonablefaith.org. This is one I dropped today:

My question pertains to the objective morality argument as you lay it out:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

For the sake of discussion, I'll grant you this argument. There is a Moral Law, so there must be a Moral-Law-Giver.

But it seems to me that this argument, even it is true, runs into an inescapable problem: namely, how we can *objectively know* what the Moral Law actually is.

If objective morality indeed comes from God, that should raise an obvious dilemma – nobody has direct, objective access to the mind of God. It might be tempting to suggest the Bible is just that, but the Bible is subject to an endless litany of interpretations. Ask any ten Christians what God thinks about abortion (for example), and you'll likely hear ten different answers all asserted with the same confidence: "My interpretation of the Bible is the correct one!"

Claims of revealed knowledge are similarly problematic; people claim God has spoken to them or worked through them, but different Christians will claim contradictory things and attribute them to God.

Even worse for the Objective Morality argument is a study published in 2009 which indicated that believers ascribe, rather than derive, their moral values from God.


Said the authors,

"People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing."

This to me seems like an insurmountable dilemma. How is the objective moral law objectively known? Who decides how to properly interpret the Bible or the witness of the Holy Spirit? It seems to me that having an Objective Moral Law is pragmatically useless unless we can objectively know what it is.

The Pope says gay marriage is "a threat to justice and peace"

Emperor Palpatine Pope Benedict XVI, in his ironically titled "World Day of Peace", joined the chorus of religulous idiots who think gay marriage, is some horrible scourge on society:

"There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union," the pope said in his message for World Day of Peace 2013, which was presented by the Holy See on Friday.

"Such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society.

"These principles are not truths of faith, nor are they simply a corollary of the right to religious freedom.

"They are inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity.

"The Church's efforts to promote them are not therefore confessional in character, but addressed to all people, whatever their religious affiliation.

"Efforts of this kind are all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, since this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, with serious harm to justice and peace".

Y'know, no matter how much religious nuts hate it, the science is in: being gay is not bad for gay people, bad for children, bad for families, or bad for society. The only people it's bad for are religious quacks like the Pope, who would rather have gay people repressed. Y'know, the type of people who say that a gay man ought to "hope to marry a Christian girl".

Well, the decades of research have been unambiguous. The public tide is turning, in both secular society and within religions themselves. The more people like the pope make their position clear, the more they'll be fracturing their own followers and spurring apostasy. 

14 December 2012

Hanging heads

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker lays out mountains of evidence that, contrary to popular perception, we're living in the most peaceful time in all human history. The average person is less likely to die of violence now than ever before.

But today's tragic news shows that we still have a lot of work to do to better ourselves. My thoughts are with the families and friends who have lost loved ones today.

12 December 2012

William Lane Craig's op ed from the Washington Post – prepare to launch facepalms!

William Lane Craig is mighty upset that the American Humanist Association has a new website aimed at kids who are either non-believers themselves or are being raised in non-theist homes. He's so upset, golly, that he wrote an op ed in the Washington Post about how unsophisticated we non-believers really are. Those "condescendingly dismissive" atheists are cowering in fear, utterly humiliated by the mighty intellect of William Lane Craig laying the beat-down on their most cherished beliefs!

Right? Right?

Whenever Craig opens his mouth to pat himself on the back (which is most of the time), he just digs his hole deeper. He starts out innocuously enough:
One doesn’t need to be a naturalist in order to endorse curiosity, critical thinking, tolerance, and the pursuit of accurate information on a wide range of topics.
Well gosh, that's true! But you do need to be a naturalist to avoid the religious trappings of wholly irrational beliefs like, I dunno, the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit".
For example, why think that naturalism is true? The last half century has witnessed a veritable renaissance of Christian philosophy. In a recent article, University of Western Michigan philosopher Quentin Smith laments “the desecularization of academia that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960s.” Complaining of naturalists’ passivity in the face of the wave of “intelligent and talented theists entering academia today,” Smith concludes, “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.”
Notice that the opening sentence above has no connection whatsoever to the rest of the paragraph, unless Craig is really arguing that we shouldn't think naturalism is true because there are religious people in philosophy departments. But Craig's wrong. According to a worldwide survey of academic philosophers conducted by researches at the Australian National University in Canberra, approximately 73% of academic philosophers accept or lean toward atheism.  If there's a big revolution in Christian academic philosophy, no one seems to be noticing.

Craig continues...
The New Atheism is, in fact, a pop cultural phenomenon lacking in intellectual muscle and blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in academic philosophy. In my debates with naturalistic philosophers and scientists I have been frankly stunned by their inability both to refute the various arguments for God and to provide any persuasive arguments for naturalism.
I'm stunned that Craig thinks anyone would be either surprised or impressed by the fact that he thinks he wins his own debates. But if atheists are doing such a lousy job, why does survey after survey find religious affiliation plummeting in the US and Europe, especially among young people? Why is religious affiliation positively correlated with lower intelligence? And why on Earth do atheists know more about religion and the Bible than most Christians?  

It gets worse, though...
Moreover, naturalism faces severe problems of its own. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued persuasively that naturalism cannot even be rationally affirmed. For if naturalism was true, the probability that our cognitive faculties would be reliable is pretty low. For those faculties have been shaped by a process of natural selection which does not select for truth but merely for survival. There are many ways in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true. Hence, if naturalism were true, we could not have any confidence that our beliefs are true, including the belief in naturalism itself! Thus, naturalism seems to have a built-in defeater that renders it incapable of being rationally affirmed. 
Plantiga "argued persuasively" to whom, exactly? Oh, that's right. William Lane Craig. Not really very many other people. Plantinga's argument is kind of ironic, because if there's anything that science has taught us, it's that our cognitive faculties are indeed often extraordinarily unreliable.Why would god design brains that are so easily prone to delusion? Perhaps because he enjoys William Lane Craig's op eds?

[For a more in-depth treatment of Plantinga's argument, try reading Stephen Law's essay here]

Craig then goes on with his usual canard about how naturalism can't provide a framework for any morals:
The problem for the humanist is even worse, however. For humanism is just one form of naturalism. It is a version of naturalism that affirms the objective value of human beings. But why think that if naturalism were true, human beings would have objective moral value?
Humans don't have objective moral value. We may have, per Sam Harris, objective reasons for behaving a certain way, but moral values themselves are always relative and contextual – and even Craig himself tacitly admits this when he touts the "divine command theory" as a justification for God commanding the genocide of Canaan. Genocide is objectively wrong now, but objectively right when God commands it. See the problem? You can't have it both ways. If an act is intrinsically wrong, God cannot be justified in commanding it. But if it's God commanding something that makes an act good or bad, then no act is intrinsically good or bad – pulling the rug out from the feet of Craig's own argument.

Further, even if it were true that objective morals were grounded in God, we run into a fatal impasse in that nobody has direct, objective, independently verifiable access to the mind of God. God's truth, supposedly, is "known" by revelation – the self-authenticating-witness-of-the-Holy-Spirit kind of revelation. But without objective access to this objective moral law, no one can agree on what, exactly, the Holy Spirit is saying – or if the Holy Spirit is the one you should even be listening to in the first place.

Science lands the coup de grace with a study showing that people simply ascribe their own preconceived moral values to God:
"People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want," the team write. "The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing."
Craig further claims that humanists have to "defeat" both the theist (who claims morality is grounded in God) and the nihilist, who claims morals are subjective and ultimately meaningless:
That is to say, even if the theist were wrong, that would not mean that the humanist is right. For if God does not exist, maybe it is the nihilist who is right. The humanist needs to defeat both the theist and the nihilist. In particular, he must show that in the absence of God, nihilism would not be true.
I agree that these are topics worth discussing. But we're all in the same boat here – each arguing for one of three positions; if any one 'wins', the other two lose. I'm not sure why Craig thinks his position is special. And, who, might I ask, decides whether a position 'wins' or 'loses'? Why, the esteemed Dr. Craig seems eager to volunteer:
Humanists tend to be condescendingly dismissive of theism and oblivious to nihilism. Meanwhile, they blithely extol the virtues of critical thinking, curiosity, and science, apparently unaware of the incoherence at the heart of their own worldview.
This is coming from a guy who holds a belief that by his own proud admission is immune to evidence and argument, and who believes that only God's own blood had enough magic power to save humanity from the curse he put on it – so he made himself a body (which was himself) and sacrificed himself to himself.

In retrospect, Craig's op ed was pretty much a cut and paste job from any number of other things he's written; he had nothing at all to say about the AHA's website itself. But launching into a tirade over humanism because the AHA has a website aimed at kids is more than a little hypocritical, considering this:

h/t – Atheist, Intermarried

10 December 2012

The Ray Comfort ploy

It turns out that the everyone's favorite unintentional comedian, Ray Comfort, has released a documentary about John Lennon just in time for the anniversary of the singer's untimely death in 1980.


Yeah. Ray Comfort. The Crockoduck guy. The Banana Man. Doing a bio on John Lennon.

Shockingly though, just like Comfort's bosom buddy Kirk Cameron in the movie Fireproof, it's really just a big ploy to get you to come to Jesus. I know, I know, I'm surprised, too.

Comfort doesn't actually spend much of the movie talking about John Lennon. Instead he just uses a shallow cultural analysis of Lennon to springboard into videos of his dumb street-preaching ruse. And in case you forgot that Ray is a Young-Earth Creationist, he spirals into a tirade against what he calls "atheistic evolution" and says that it will destroy our morals.

Ray's street-preaching ploy consists of several parts, and they're all so transparently stupid that I can't believe anyone, ever, would be dumb enough to fall for it.

First he poses questions like, "Have you ever lied?", "Have you ever stolen anything?", etc., to which the answer is predictably "yes". "So", Ray will follow, "You're a liar/thief/etc." – the implication being that you deserve to go to Hell. This "logic", if you can even call it that, could easily be turned on its head: Have you ever told the truth? Have you ever given to charity? Have you ever put someone else's needs above your own? Have you ever comforted a friend in need? Since we could predictably answer "yes" to those types of questions, does that make us saints?

Well, we're not saints. We make mistakes. We do both good things and, less often, bad things. But making mistakes, reaping the consequences and learning from them is what molds us into stronger, wiser people. Ray's Heaven, where everyone is perfect, would rob us of that growth. But more to the point, why on Earth would anyone want to spend an eternity with a god who tortures people horribly for eternity because of literally any one wrongdoing? That's not justice – that's cruelty. It's primitive barbarism that arose from the theology of primitive people.

Next he goes into a hook about your morals. He asks if you'd steal lots of money or kill someone for lots of money, especially if you knew you'd never get caught. Here's the thing though: people might say yes, but people are also smart enough to realize that situation has absolutely zero chance of happening. They know it's a completely silly question. Saying you'd do something in an impossibly far-fetched scenario and actually mustering the will to kill someone or steal vast amounts of money are two very different things.

Then he asks people to explain evolution to him. Does he go to universities and talk to biologists? Of course not. He asks people on the street who probably had, at best, a high school biology course. Ray is well-rehearsed in arguments for creationism, so stumping someone who has no formal education in biology whatsoever isn't exactly difficult. At one point in the video, he banters back and forth with a young guy on Big Bang cosmology. Clearly, the guy has no idea what he's talking about. But that's because he's not a scientist, and chances are that unless you're a scientist you probably don't know much about cosmology or evolution. Oh, how I wished I could have been there when Ray describes the Big Bang as an explosion that created rocks.

Ray ends his video by saying that there will come a time when God will put a stop to all evil. Which reminds me of this:

Here's the full video, if you want to suffer through it:

h/t: Friendly Atheist

07 December 2012

Atheists hate Christmas because they love sin

Per the previous post, William Lane Craig obviously isn't the only Christian out there who thinks that atheists don't really exist. We all secretly believe in God, and probably the Christian god at that, but we just love our hedonistic ways.

Enter the uber-conservative website Town Hall, and an op ed by stereotypical uber-Christian-neo-conservative Doug Giles entitled The Real Root of Atheists' Anti-Christmas Rage. In case you don't watch Fox "News", you might be surprised to find out there's a "war on Christmas". That's right, even though you can't walk down the street without being inundated with Christmas cheer or throw a rock at your TV without hitting a Christmas special, Christians are apparently being, like, totally persecuted.

Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist has been doing a marvelous job covering all the supposedly anti-Christmas rage of the secular left, so I won't rehash that here. Suffice to say that for the most part, we atheists just don't want our tax dollars promoting the Christian religion, nor any other religion for that matter. That's because it's fucking unconstitutional to do so, which means you can't put a nativity scene at, say, a courthouse.

But I digress. What's Doug Giles think is the real problem here? It'll probably sound familiar:
Why do some atheists embarrass themselves year after year trying to eradicate Christmas from American culture? Why do they make themselves societal hemorrhoids during this hallowed season? Is it because they are crusaders for equality, secularism’s saviors and humanism’s heroes? I’m sure that’s what they tell themselves when they’re pouting on their couches all alone on Christmas Eve after every single one of their friends has dumped them for being a rabid jackass.
What a coincidence – those are exactly my Christmas plans! I'm going to go be a dick to all my religious friends, then pout on the couch while my family celebrates Jesus without me. I mean really, I love the irony of Giles painting atheists as rabid jackasses while saying that we spend our holidays pouting alone. Last I checked, I spend the holidays with friends and family. And while my family is at church, I am indeed on the couch – but I'm playing Far Cry 3 with my feet up after a nice sleeping-in. Maybe I'll find time to pout later, but I'm too busy enjoying life.

Anyway, now that Giles has established that we're pouty jackasses, what's the real reason we don't want unconstitutional promotion of religion?
I believe, however—and I could be wrong—that the reason some rage against the machine is that they hate God and love their sin, and bringing up Jesus in December is not the way they wanted to finish off the year.
At least, unlike William Lane Craig and his "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit" charade, Giles admits that he could be wrong. And what a coincidence, because of course he's wrong. How do you "hate" and "love" things you don't believe exist? I don't think there is a God to hate, and "sin" is nothing more than a narrow-minded trapping of Christian dogma – which, not coincidentally, I also do not believe in.

Or do I? The pattern with these Christians is one of utter incredulity at the notion that anyone could actually just not believe like they do. So, they tell themselves, we secretly do. We just love "sin". I'm not sure what exactly that is, but I'll think about it after I throw today's orgy and abortion party with all my Bible-hating friends. Giles continues:
This is not good news to some, though. Indeed, many atheists are up front about it and don’t want to leave their wantonness.
Really? Like who? He doesn't say, of course, because he's making it up.
A person who has no remorse and thus no desire to repent from their sins is probably not going to be a big advocate for the celebration of the person who reminds them they’re wrong and calls them to repent and believe.
Yeah, I don't feel any remorse for "sin", because sin does not exist. And I don't feel any debt to the Christian god, because he doesn't exist either. I'm really curious though what it is that Giles thinks we atheists actually do that's so sinful. Smoking "the pot"? Having sex with multiple anonymous partners in a consequence-free environment? Listening to that rock n' roll music?

Come. On. People like this Giles fellow live in such an insulated tunnel that they're unable to conceive of people being happy without the trappings of religion they so adore.
While most atheists this Christmas will be drinking to forget, I will, as Martin Luther said, drink to remember the One who was and is and is to come.
Ah, we're alcoholics! How could I forget? Maybe it was the 40 of Jim Beam I had to wash down my pouty tears after I took my girlfriend to the abortion clinic. By the way, you know what Martin Luther also said? He said that Jewish people are "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth."[1] But I don't think any Christians will be quoting that little pearl of wisdom.

03 December 2012

The supposed moral failing of atheists

It's funny, but it seems like whenever I announce a big hiatus, I can't stick with it. Then, for completely unrelated reasons, I just sort of fade out from blogging for a bit.

The truth is, I've been burned out. I'm tired of arguing with believers. I read through that mind-numbingly awful apologetics book, and I've had it up to here with any of the incessant drivel coming out of William Lane Craig's mouth. The reality is that I've just been really disillusioned about changing anyone's mind, and frankly it's hard to see the point in trying. I want to keep blogging, but as Tristan has been doing, it's time for a change of focus. Don't get me wrong, I could never stop writing about theism entirely. It's just that I'm having a hard time caring about arguing for atheism.

Ironically, part of the catalyst for all this has been an interesting video I watched on William Lane Craig, called Understanding William Lane Craig. It's worth watching, although it's almost all text so it's pretty boring – it lacks the slick presentation of, say, a QualiaSoup vid. Nevertheless, it raises some really interesting points.

Essentially, it cuts to the idea which Craig has espoused in many of his writings and debates, which is that there's not really any such thing as atheists. We all know deep down that God exists, but we just want our sexual immorality and selfishness or whatever 'sin' you can think of. God's existence is self-evident, but we just don't have the stones to acknowledge it.

For Craig, his experience of the "witness of the Holy Spirit", as he calls it, is self-evident unequivocal truth that his faith is justified. He has said, unambiguously, that even if he were persuaded that all the evidence were against him, he would still believe. He would just think that there was some stone unturned, something lacking in his understanding, that was standing in the way of him thinking about his beliefs rationally.

What this means is that Craig is incapable of seeing non-believers as people who simply have a different point of view. We are people who have a deep moral failing. We're in denial, fully aware "in our hearts" that God exists, but we're just so comfortable in our sinful ways that we refuse to acknowledge the truth.

So in my mind, it's futile, and frankly missing the point, to debate cosmological arguments or whatever else with Craig or anyone like him. They do not really care about the arguments, because the arguments are not what underpins their belief. 

What, then, about this whole idea of the "witness of the Holy Spirit" – the idea that, even in the face of illogical arguments, assertions unsupported by evidence, or even overt evidence to the contrary – you can still, "in your heart", know that you are right?

I'm reminded of something Sean Carroll said:
Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.
The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary.
This means that, when William Lane Craig enters into one of his 'debates', he does so with absolute certainty that he cannot be wrong – because no matter how un/persuasive he finds his opponent's arguments, he knows he is right because of the "Holy Spirit", and anyone who doesn't acknowledge the same truth is guilty of some moral failing. What's the point of even entering into a discussion with someone who is certain they cannot be wrong? In the above video, Craig can be seen accusing atheists of being "cocksure". I can't imagine anything more "cocksure" than a belief that is utterly immune to evidence and argument.

I'm singling out Craig because I think he embodies a mindset common in many modern believers. I see this all the time when I engage in lengthy debates with believers. The real buttress for his beliefs is simply incredulity at the notion that his most cherished beliefs could be complete and total bullshit. His personal and social identity is so deeply intertwined with his beliefs that he's incapable of putting himself in the shoes of a healthy skeptic. He just cannot imagine that we don't secretly believe in God. He can't even entertain the idea that his experience of the "Holy Spirit" may have been nothing more than the outcome of common cognitive biases.

That's why, in so many words, I'm burned out on it all. I don't have any desire to try to reason with people who only apply reason and skepticism selectively. This blog must go in the direction of my own personal development, and I'm not entirely sure what that's going to be. But I'm not going to be reading any more apologetics books or anything like that – not for the foreseeable future, anyway. Whatever direction The A-Unicornist goes, I hope I can keep it entertaining enough to keep you, my invaluable readers, around.

Oh, and I'll be extra-honest. I also haven't been blogging as much because I've been spending lots of time with my fantastic girlfriend (we have lots of atheist orgies and drugs to do!), and practicing a shitload of guitar. I've been studying this amazing Australian guitarist named Paul Wardingham. His music is insanely difficult, but learning it has definitely pushed my development as a musician. I'm currently, among other things, trying to get down the 'solo' section (2:08 – 2:41) to this song: