28 April 2013

Life lessons in tenacity

I began playing guitar when I was 17. Well... there was a two-year stint when I was nine, but it's safe to say I lost most of what I had learned in the years between (spent as a drummer, incidentally). When I started, I was practically the world's biggest Dave Matthews Band fan. Coming from a drum background, I like Matthews' percussive playing style. Quite randomly, I dabbled in some classical and fingerstyle guitar as well, including a year-long stint under the tutelage of a local classical virtuoso.

During college though, I lost interest in progressing at guitar. I'd jam fairly regularly, but I didn't really practice. Nothing really stood out to me that I wanted to learn, and my ability was to the point that I could learn most rock and pop pretty easily by ear. But there wasn't really much of anything that lit a fire in me and drove me to be a better player. That all changed around 2006, when I got deeper into the metal scene. I'd been listening to heavier music for a while, but when I started hearing bands like Children of Bodom, Trivium and Nevermore with their blazing, virtuosic guitar solos, it hit me – that's what I want to play!

I don't think it really hit me though just how much more difficult metal is than most other genres. It's really, really difficult. It wasn't enough for me to just look at some notation, learn the notes and practice for 30 minutes until I got it. I had to start doing exercises to develop speed and accuracy in my left hand, and precision speed-picking in my right hand. While those Dave Matthews Band songs usually meandered along at 120 beats per minute (bpm), metal songs regularly hit 200bpm and beyond. It's not unusual for a metal solo to cram in a whopping 14 notes per second. That's fast. Really fast. And very, very difficult to achieve.

It wasn't until 2010 that I really honed my practice time. Whereas I used to spend my nights playing video games or going to bars with friends, I started spending them practicing. I shot for a minimum of three hours a day, which is still what I aim for. It takes some discipline and time management, but I rarely fail to hit it. Still, the virtuosic skill of my idols has seemed impossibly distant. It seemed like every bit of progress served equally as a reminder of how hard I'd worked and how far I still had to go. Worse, it seems like every time I hop onto Youtube I can find videos of other guitarists – some of them just teenagers – who have already achieved or surpassed many of my goals. Why can they do it, and I still can't after all this hard work? Are they just gifted? Maybe I'll never be that good. What's the point of investing all this time if I just need some genetic 'gift' to be as good as I want to be?

As a personal trainer, I encounter this attitude a great deal in my clients. Many people seem so overwhelmed by the seemingly vast distance between themselves and their goals that instead of really putting in the hard work, they just get by with as little effort as they can. They find excuses to miss workouts, to eat poorly, or to avoid activity on their off-gym days. Perhaps if you don't try that hard, you can save yourself the frustration of failure.


Some time back, I had the goal of playing 10 notes per second. It seemed absolutely insurmountable. I practiced for years and still could not do it. And then, one day, I turned on the metronome and tested my progress. I did it. In fact, I surpassed it. Not by much, but I surpassed it. But the celebration was short lived, as I could only play a couple of exercises at that speed, and the goal just moved higher. Recently, I played a section of music that requires six notes per beat at 132bpm. That's just over 13 notes per second, and it was a section of a song that had long seemed to require superhuman talent. And yet, I did it. Again I find myself only able to play a few things at such speed and for relatively short bursts, but I did it. The goal moves higher again and I keep at it. 

The lesson is one that goes back to a famous quote from Michael Jordan: I can't accept not trying. The truth is, I have no idea whether I'll ever be remotely as good as my guitar heroes. But I know that the surest way to guarantee I fail is to quit trying altogether. If there is a chance I can achieve that level of skill, I will do it.

Along the way I'm destined to be frustrated at times and optimistic at others, but I don't let my feelings dictate my actions. Remember that three hours of practice a day I shoot for? I do it regardless of whether I'm in the mood or not. That's not to say I don't give myself a break occasionally, but if I let my whims decide my actions I'll never make progress. Besides, I find that even if I'm not really in the mood, once I get playing the time flies by. I put in the work and let the chips fall where they may.

I think many people view failure as something to be feared, and they tend to focus too much on the destination rather than the journey. Even if I don't achieve guitar virtuosity, I'll still be a great player and I'll still love playing. But no matter how far I go or how much I fall short of my admittedly lofty goals, you're never going to hear me making excuses for my lack of progress.

And that's how I went from noodling on Dave Matthews Band riffs to playing 13 notes per second: old-fashioned tenacity. I don't quit when it's hard, and if I'm frustrated I don't let my emotions get the best of me. In all of life's endeavors, most people protect themselves from failure. They make excuses for not putting in the work in the first place, or give up when frustration hits because that's easier than sucking it up and moving on. Everybody wants success in what they do – I mean really, what guitarist wouldn't love to have virtuosic ability? – but few are prepared to put in the work at all, much less for getting past the inevitable bumps along the way. We live in an instant-gratification culture, so when things don't come as easily as we expected we can just tell ourselves that those who have succeeded must possess some gift that we lack. Maybe it's just easier for them.

And ya know, maybe it is. But even those who have a gift will fail if they don't put in the work. For those of us who aren't so gifted – that is, the vast majority of people on life's giant bell curve – all we can do is take it one day at a time. Do the work. Because as soon as we accept that failure is the best we can do, that will be the reality. Maybe we'll achieve our goals, maybe not. None of us know. I sure don't, but I can't accept not trying.


I leave you with a demonstration of the virtuosic guitar playing to which I aspire, courtesy of the mighty Andy James from England:


27 April 2013

The pseudoscience of McDonald's hate

The other week I went to a local restaurant and had their $12 "prime burger". It was cooked to a perfect medium and had cheddar, bacon, spinach, grilled onions and remoulade. It was easily one of the best burgers I'd ever had and I enjoyed every sinful calorie.

In terms of calories and nutrients, that's easily as bad or worse as anything you can get at McDonald's or any other fast-food chain. Ditto with major chains like Chili's, Applebees, etc. -- you can easily throw down a massive excess of fat, sugar and salt.

And yet for some reason, McDonald's often gets singled out as some sort of bane of the civilized world; an evil organization that wants to fill your belly with cancer-causing junk and chemicals while they laugh all the way to the bank. True to that image, I spied this on Facebook today, from the page "Godless Liberal Social Society":
  
It's hard to even know where to begin.

The salt, saturated fat and simple carbohydrates in McDonald's food are naturally occurring. There's no evidence that specific ratios of macro-nutrients are more addictive than other ratios, much less that McDonald's is "engineering" their food to contain such ratios.

So if it's not macro-nutrients, maybe it's some sort of additive or preservative. But what, exactly, and what is the evidence that it is addictive?

And finally, all food is made up of chemicals. Everything you eat is a chemical. Your body is a giant cauldron of chemicals. Get used to it. So maybe they're referring to some synthetic chemical in McDonald's food. Okay... what is it, and where is the evidence it's addictive? People spreading FUD just like the word "chemicals" because it sounds scary. 


See what I'm getting at? Guess how much guilt I felt eating that burger the other week... that's right, none. That's because I don't eat that way very often. My diet consists of whole grains, seeds and nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meats. I watch my portions carefully. That means that now and again, I can splurge. And it just so happens that last week I was in Oklahoma City for a concert with some friends, and we grabbed some McDonald's beforehand. I had a Big Mac, and it tasted awesome (not remotely as good as the prime burger, but still tasty). On the way back to Tulsa, I got hungry and had McDonald's again... a grilled chicken sandwich. It also tasted good and I've lived through the experience.

Wait, what? Grilled chicken? Well, it turns out that McDonald's has a variety of food, some of which is total junk and some of which is at least reasonably healthy. They leave it to the consumer to decide. The fact that their burgers are their popular mainstays is evidence that people like that type of food, not that McDonald's Corporation is engaging in some conspiracy to lace their food with addictive chemicals. 

Strike a balance, people. Quit scapegoating restaurants for your poor eating habits and your excuses for avoiding the gym. And as I like to say, all things in moderation -- including moderation!



p.s. - While I'm at it, here's a great article debunking the old "McDonald's food doesn't spoil" pseudoscience that's popular on social media:

http://skepticalteacher.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/the-myth-of-the-non-decomposing-mcdonalds-hamburger/

26 April 2013

Tom Gilson of ThinkingChristian.net on gay marriage

Tom Gilson of ThinkingChristian.net might be a familiar name around here – he edited the book True Reason, which I read and reviewed chapter by chapter. He recently opined on gay marriage, and had this to say:
It’s impossible to be wrong about feelings: we feel what we feel, and that’s it. It’s also impossible for me to persuade another person that my feelings rightly, truly, and justly rule over his or hers, because of course they don’t. There’s nothing really there even to talk about except as statements about ourselves — which provides no basis for discussion, much less agreement, on common principles or beliefs.
So the basis for agreement is being cast aside; and yet we must come to some agreement in order to make and to practice public policy.

In the comments section, he clarified:

I didn’t say our processes must be guided by “this transcendent truth,” as if we have to agree on what is true before we begin; that would be silly. I said rather that a healthy debate pursues the joint discovery of what is true.
Actually he didn't say that, although I'm fine with him clarifying that that's what he meant to say. Anyway, I left a reply to this clarification, which I'm reprinting here in its entirety:


________________

It's interesting you say this, because this is precisely what frustrates me so greatly about the almost exclusively religious opposition to gay marriage.

Per your particular brand of theology, you are compelled to believe that homosexuality is sinful and destructive. As a non-believer, I'm not bound to any particular position; if the evidence shows that homosexual relationships are contrary to the best interests of individuals, families, and society at large, I would not be easily persuaded to support gay rights.

But in years of research and anecdotal experience (I've had many gay friends and acquaintances over the years), I've never come across any hard evidence that homosexuality is dangerous; on the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming in showing that if there's anything that makes gay people miserable, it's the stigma, discrimination and ostracization they often suffer. But in every other way, gay relationships are just as happy, healthy and emotionally well-adjusted as those of straight people – as are children raised by gay parents. That is why major health science organizations like the AMA and APA  support gay marriage.

American Medical Association (see H-65.973 for gay marriage specifically):
http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama/our-people/member-groups-sections/glbt-advisory-committee/ama-policy-regarding-sexual-orientation.page

American Psychiatric Association:
http://www.psychiatry.org/advocacy--newsroom/position-statements

The American Psychological Assocation:
http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/same-sex-marriage.aspx

The American Academy of Pediatrics:
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/4/827

So the way I see it, all opponents of gay marriage like yourself have to fall back on are religious arguments, because the science is simply not on your side. That's the real trouble for you – the truth is that the evidence indicates that homosexual relationships, marriages and parenting are not detrimental to humanity.  So your option is to either accept the science and alter your theology accordingly (or at least adopt a 'live and let live' ideology) or deny the science, claim these health science organizations are acting on some political agenda – anything you can do to ease yourself of the dissonance between reality and your theology. If your theology won't change, you are left with no choice but to forge your own insular reality.  But if it's really a battle for the truth in which you're engaging, then your theology ought to be the first casualty of war.

24 April 2013

It's important to criticize Islam

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not making any secret of the fact that his Islamic beliefs played an important role in his motive for the Boston bombings. From the NY Times:
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev admitted to playing a role in the marathon bombings, which killed three people and wounded more than 260, and told federal agents that he and his brother were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs, when he was interviewed Sunday at the hospital, law enforcement officials said. 
And....
Elmirza Khozhugov, 26, the ex-husband of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s younger sister, Ailina, said that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been enamored of conspiracy theories, and that he was also concerned by the wars in the Middle East.
“He was looking for connections between the wars in the Middle East and oppression of Muslim population around the globe,” Mr. Khozhugov said in an e-mail. “It was very hard to argue with him on themes somehow connected to religion. On the other hand, he did not hate Christians. He respected their faith. Never said anything bad about other religions. But he was angry that the world pictures Islam as a violent religion."
Yeah, why would anyone think Islam is a violent religion?


You can't throw a rock at the internet without hitting some idiot who thinks that any criticism of Islam is tantamount to a criticism of all Muslims – just like those who seem to think that criticism of religion is tantamount to criticism of all religious people.

A young life wasted by fundamentalism
Here's the elephant in the room: criticizing ideas is not the same thing as criticizing people. No one who falls under the "new atheist" umbrella, to my knowledge, has disputed the commonly known fact that the majority of Muslims are not violent people. Nor is anyone saying that religion is the sole cause of the problems in the world.

What we're saying is that some religions preach dangerous and violent ideas, and Islam is quite easily the worst offender because calls to violence are abundant in the Quran. Why, then, is it so difficult for some people to accept that what someone believes about reality might powerfully influence their actions?

Is Islam the sole cause of the Boston bombings? Of course not. If it were, every Muslim out there would be blowing shit up. But for these young men, it was unarguably a pivotal aspect of their ideology.

Moderate religious folks and even some accommodationist non-believers tacitly give a free pass to fundamentalist epistemology: it's all faith, and faith is good – unless it influences you to do bad things. We "new atheists" are just being more consistent: the problem isn't that some people are doing faith wrong; the problem is faith itself – the notion that it's acceptable to believe in ridiculous dogmas devoid of evidence (or whose best 'evidence' is circular reasoning). We must disabuse people of the notion that irrational beliefs are to be respected and valued.

And while it's certainly true that irrational beliefs come in many guises, few if any of them are as pervasive and dangerous as religious belief. That's why it's important that we criticize religion, including Islam. Those who would view the criticism of ideas – not people – as "intolerance" or "bigotry" have simply removed themselves from the conversation by demonstrating their inability to think rationally.

23 April 2013

Hey look! Time may exist after all.

A few posts back, I mentioned how my inquisition into the metaphysics of time led me to get pretty exasperated of the absurdity of metaphysical philosophy. Part of the whole controversy was the debate between "presentism" (only the present exists) and "eternalism" (the past and future also exist) which is an integral feature to something called the "block universe".

Supposedly, Einstein's theory of relativity deals a big blow to the idea that only the present exists, simply because what is the present for one observer is not necessarily the same for another. This is known as the "relativity of simultaneity". If eternalism is true, then time doesn't really "exist"; it's more of a useful fiction that describes the relationship between objects in space, which seems more consistent with relativity.

But to me, eternalism seems kind of nonsensical; I subscribe to model-dependent realism, and I can't imagine any experiment which could demonstrate that the future already exists, and clearly time is an integral part of our understanding of reality (making it as "real" as anything else in our experience). However, I'm reading Brian Greene's latest book, The Hidden Reality, and I came across something that would seem to show that you can have presentism (meaning you can accept that time actually exists) and the relativity of simultaneity, for both people who care. Here's the excerpt:

The passage of time depends on the particulars—trajectory followed and gravity experienced—of the measurer. When applied to the entire universe, or to our bubble in an inflationary setting, this immediately raises a question: How does such malleable, custom made time comport with the notion of an absolute cosmological time? We freely speak of the “age” of our universe, but given that galaxies are moving rapidly relative to one another, at speeds dictated by their various separations, doesn’t the relativity of time’s passage create a nightmarish accounting problem for any would-be cosmic timekeeper? More pointedly, when we speak of our universe being “14 billion years old,” are we using a particular clock to measure that duration?

We are. And a careful consideration of such cosmic time reveals a direct link between parallel universes of the inflationary and quilted varieties. Every method we use to measure time’s passage involves an examination of change that occurs to some particular physical system. Using a common wall clock, we examine the change in position of its hands. Using the sun, we examine the change in its position in the sky. Using carbon 14, we examine the percentage of an original sample that’s undergone radioactive decay to nitrogen. Historical precedent and general convenience have led us to use the rotation and revolution of the earth as physical referents, giving rise to our standard notions of “day” and “year.” But when we’re thinking on cosmic scales, there is another, more useful, method for keeping time.

We’ve seen that inflationary expansion yields vast regions whose properties on average are homogeneous. Measure the temperature, pressure, and average density of matter in two large but separate regions within a bubble universe, and the results will agree. The results can change over time, but the large-scale uniformity ensures that, on average, the change here is the same as the change there. As an important case in point, the mass density in our bubble universe has steadily decreased over our multibillion-year history, thanks to the relentless expansion of space, but because the change has occurred uniformly, our bubble’s large-scale homogeneity has not been disrupted.
This proves important because just as the steadily decreasing amount of carbon 14 in organic matter provides a means of measuring time’s passage on earth, so the steadily decreasing mass density provides a means of measuring time’s passage across space. And because the change has happened uniformly, mass density as a marker of time’s passage provides our bubble universe with a global standard. If everyone diligently calibrates their watches to the average mass density (and recalibrates after trips to black holes, or periods of travel at near light speed), the synchronicity of our timepieces across our bubble universe will be maintained. When we speak of the age of the universe—the age of our bubble, that is—it is on such cosmically calibrated watches that we imagine time’s passage being measured; it is only with respect to them that cosmic time is a sensible concept.

See? Now you can look at your watch without having an existential crisis.

22 April 2013

The problem with presuppositionalism

There are basically two routes that apologists will take in trying to argue the case for the existence of God. They often subtly shift back and forth between the two – perhaps not even really being aware of what they're doing – but they can indeed be delineated by two broad categories. The first is that they'll attempt to argue that an examination of evidence leads us to the existence of God. This is essentially (though often unstated) conceding the importance of an empirical epistemology, and using empiricism to lead to God. This usually fails pretty hard, so they bring out what Stephen Law calls the "nuclear option": presuppositionalism.

That oversized mess of a word means just what it sounds like: the believer argues that one must presuppose the existence of God in order to have any kind of valid epistemology at all. This isn't some fringe idea at all – Frank Turek argued it recently in his debate with David Silverman (I suffered through some of it); it's the root of Alvin Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism"; and David Marshall, Tom Gilson and Peter Grice (among others) argued it in the apologetics essay collection "True Reason".

It seems like it should go without saying that these two routes are incompatible, though apologists rarely if ever get taken to task for the error. Think about it: you presuppose that God exists, and then the evidence you examine leads you to affirm God's existence. If that ain't circular reasoning, nothing is. If presuppositionalism is valid, then God's existence is self-evident. Apologists rarely if ever use this exact language (probably because it betrays how stupid presuppositionalism actually is), but it's the inevitable logical conclusion – God's existence can't be supported by evidence even in principle, because without God you couldn't have evidence in the first place.



A disturbing lack of alternatives

One of my all-time favorite posts from the mighty Sean Carroll is one called "Faith and Epistemological Quicksand". He didn't use the word, but it was actually an incisive rebuttal of presuppositionalism. He said (emphasis mine),
Any time we have beliefs of any sort, we need to admit the possibility that they are incorrect. Even if we have think that some result has been reached by nothing but the application of pristine mathematical logic (e.g. the ABC conjecture), it’s always possible that we simply made a mistake — have you ever multiplied two numbers together and gotten the wrong answer? Certainly in an empirical endeavor like science, we recognize that our theoretical understanding is necessarily contingent, and are constantly trying to do better, via more precise and far-reaching experimental tests. These are methods of reaching knowledge that have built-in methods of self-correction.
So what about faith? 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.
In a nutshell, that's the problem with presuppositionalism. If you presuppose that the existence of God is foundational to any valid epistemology, then you have no way of knowing whether you're right or wrong about your presupposition. All evidence doesn't merely lead to God's existence, but the mere conceptualization of evidence itself necessitates God's existence. That means there can be no self-correction mechanism – no methodology by which the assumption of God's existence could be falsified, since any rational examination of the evidence would include the a priori assumption of God's supposedly self-evident existence. Apologists deserve a gold medal for such sophistic gymnastics.

And when you think about it, isn't it pretty hilarious that one of the great triumphs of 'sophisticated' apologetics is that theologians have come up with an elaborate rationalization for assuming, a priori, precisely what they are trying to prove?

Robert Price on William Lane Craig

I caught this on Youtube earlier today, and I thought it was worth listening to. Much of what he says is a more eloquently stated version of my criticisms of Craig -- that he's just an evangelist masquerading as a philosopher, whose belief in the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" trumps all evidence and argument, thus rendering his engagement in debates to be little more than a cynical facade.



The full debate is on Youtube as well, if you can stomach it.

21 April 2013

I'm totally skipping this debate...

.. but maybe you're interested. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, debated Frank Turek – who is probably most famous for an embarrassing debate performance against Christopher Hitchens and some cliche apologetics books.

I'm skipping this one for two reasons. The lesser reason is that I think these debates are totally played out. I hate this format where each speaker rambles for ten or twenty minutes without interruption. They do eventually get into a discussion (so I've been told), but not until they've both had plenty of time to have their little monologues.

But the bigger reason I'm skipping it is because the title of the debate is astoundingly stupid. It's "Which better explains reality: theism or atheism?" That's not even a question. Belief in god (theism) or disbelief in god (atheism) don't "explain reality". Some better ideas for titles:

  • Which better explains reality: naturalism or supernaturalism?
  • Is belief in God necessary to explain reality?
  • Is materialism more successful in explaining reality than arguments from ignorance?
You get the idea. How we understand reality is called "epistemology". This goes to the root of what science is, what assumptions are, and how we systematically identify and discard incorrect information. In other words, you can't assume God's existence a priori to the establishment of an epistemology (although some Christians like to do that); if God exists, a valid epistemology would lead to the conclusion that he/she/it does.

To me, that's a divide that's often lost on believers. Atheism is not a "worldview" that informs our outlook on other issues; rather, atheism is the outcome of an evidence-based epistemology. So it's stupid to ask whether atheism explains reality just as it's stupid to ask if a-unicornism explains reality. The question is how do we explain reality, and does that methodology lead us to God?

That's why I'm skipping this. But if it fascinates you, dear reader, have at it.




20 April 2013

Arguing with brick walls

I admit that I occasionally check out Ray Comfort's Facebook page just for the rampant anti-intellectualism, fundamentalism, the incessant straw-manning of atheism (and evolution, which is apparently related or something – sorry, Francis Collins) and the spades of unintentional comedy. It's like a train wreck – it's hard to look away. I visit various religious blogs and websites out of the same idle curiosity.

There are lots and lots of atheists who comment on Ray's page; some civil, others just to mock and scorn (I don't support the scorn). Either way, I catch myself wondering why. I've never commented on Ray's page or blog, and I can't fathom any reason to do so. You can't force someone to think critically or to have a dialogue. If Ray wanted to understand atheism, he'd at least read Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan (seriously, it's a terrific book). But he doesn't. He wants to promote his brand of fundie reality-denial, and bash atheism and (for some reason) cosmology and evolution as well, usually just showing – proudly, it would seem – that he has a level of science knowledge that wouldn't pass a high school exam. That's why when he does his little "ask people if they understand evolution" ruse, he asks laypersons instead of, golly I dunno, biologists.

I just don't get it. I'd like to that that I welcome a civil dialogue on The A-Unicornist to those who are seeking it. As an evidentialist, my view of the world is contingent on evidence and while I'm familiar enough with theistic arguments that I think it's unlikely anyone's going to re-convert me, I'm at least in principle open to the possibility that I'm wrong. It's called epistemic humility – there may be evidence or arguments we haven't considered.

But when you have someone like Ray, or say William Lane Craig and his "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" that for some reason is immune to evidence and argument, you're dealing with people who cannot fathom being wrong. They're closed even to the possibility that evidence or argument might undermine their most cherished beliefs. What's the point, then, of trying to have a spirited debate with them?

Thought of the day – on science and naturalism

Science uses reason, experimentation, empiricism, replication, etc., to study reality. We aren't limited to studying natural phenomena unless you limit the definition of "natural" to that which can be studied by science, in which case the claim becomes a tautology. Science studies supernatural claims all the time – esp, psychic clairvoyance, ghosts, near-death-experiences, miracles, you name it.

If God exists, then either God has an empirically detectable effect on the physical world, or he is irrelevant to human nature. Claiming that God is somehow knowable through human experience and/or evidence and reason but is utterly undetectable to the tools of science is tacitly admitting that God doesn't matter and doesn't do anything, and the only thing worse for religion than a non-existent God is an irrelevant one.

17 April 2013

Sometimes, it's hard to care about philosophy

An alert reader of mine, the astute Jonathan M.S. Pearce, commented the other day on my post about William Lane Craig and philosophies of time (the "substantival" versus the "relational" view of time) referencing an essay about something called the "block universe". I hadn't heard of it before, but essentially the block universe says that the past, present and future all exist and are equally real – basically meaning that time would just be a useful fiction that we use to measure the relationship between events (or points in space), rather than something that actually "exists".

I caught myself reading several lengthy essays on this stuff, reading all about "presentism" versus "eternalism" and all this other jibber jabber. I read quite a few chunks of Sean Carroll's book From Eternity to Here, which talks about all of these obscenely esoteric subjects in a lot of detail. My brain was being twisted in knots by all the bizarre possibilities of these different philosophical viewpoints, and I mulled over which, if any, were persuasive to me.

And then it hit me: Who fucking cares?

I subscribe to what Stephen Hawking coined as model-dependent realism. This says that there is no theory (or 'model')- dependent view of reality, and that it is essentially meaningless to mull philosophically over what's real and what isn't – all we can do is construct models of reality with less or more predictive and explanatory utility. That makes vastly more sense to me than any other philosophical proposition on the nature of reality that I've ever heard, and I've heard lots.

So when I thought back to presentism versus relationalism, it hit me that there's absolutely no way, quite possibly even in principle, to derive any kind of useful model of reality from this obscure gobbledygook. How could we demonstrate that the past doesn't exist, or that the future already exists? It's like William Lane Craig using the "Neo-Lorentzian interpretation of Special Relavity", which says that there actually is a privileged frame of reference in space-time – except it's totally undetectable and the claim can't possibly be falsified. Even if it's there, how could we know? And if we can't know, who cares?

What it all boils down to then is precisely what turns me off to a good deal of philosophy: it's just intellectual and linguistic masturbation. Like,  "If you take this word to mean that, just think of the implications! It totally transforms reality!" For the life of me I can't think of the least bit of pragmatic or scientific value in fussing over the A- versus B-theories of time, the substantival versus relational view of time, or presentism versus eternalism. Who fucking cares?

16 April 2013

Valve refunds Christian gamer offended by new Bioshock game

Shacknews is reporting that a Christian gamer named Breen Malmberg who purchased the new video game Bioshock Infinite from the PC client Steam, which is owned by Valve Corporation, was so offended by a scene in the game that he complained and got a refund. This is pretty unusual because Valve has a pretty strict no-refund policy. If I'd known it was that easy to finagle a refund, I'd have returned plenty of shitty games because I was offended by their mediocrity.

The scene of contention involves the protagonist going through a sort of baptism in which he must pledge his allegiance to the fictional sky-city's America-is-the-greatest ideology before being allowed to enter. Said the gamer:
"As baptism of the Holy spirit is at the center of Christianity--of which I am a devout believer--I am basically being forced to make a choice between committing extreme blasphemy by my actions in choosing to accept this 'choice' or forced to quit playing the game before it even really starts. Of course I cannot hold true to my beliefs and also commit this act, so I am therefore forced to not play the game."
Leave it to religious nuts to be offended by art. What Malmberg fails to understand is that when you're playing a game, the avatar isn't you – it's the character. What the character does is representative of the fictional world s/he inhabits, and has nothing to do with you personally. I've played plenty of games that allow players to choose between kindness and cruelty, and I've often chosen cruelty just for the sake of play – to see how the consequences play out. It's not real; it's a game.

If Malmberg is so offended by games, he'd probably be better off avoiding the medium in general. These days, gamers can allow their avatars to do plenty of potentially offensive stuff. It's funny, too, that he also mentions playing Call of Duty. So, senseless violence? Killing legions of nameless foes? Totally fine. Fictional baptism in the context of the game's characters and story? Offensive!

The scene of the crime

Reaction to the Boston bombings

Today, I've seen all manner of reactions to the bombings. Many offer "thoughts and prayers"; many lament the apparent descent of humanity; others still call it judgement from God – Westboro Baptist Church, so I've heard, is already prepared to picket the funerals of the victims to remind us that God is judging us because we're becoming more tolerant of gay people.

My thoughts are simply that it's easy to become cynical in times like this and lose sight of the fact that we are living in the most peaceful era in all human history. That can be a pretty counter-intuitive concept in times like this, but it's the truth. Let's not lose sight of how far we've really come.

On another note, I think that while the media does a pretty decent job of sanitizing the tragedy, the reality of this horror doesn't quite sink in until you see it. There's a gallery here, though it's probably not for the feint of heart. It's scary stuff, and it's a reminder that the better angels of our nature need to keep pressing on, lest history should repeat itself.

15 April 2013

More apologist question-begging – on the nature of time

When I visited Reasonablefaith.org last week and found Bill Craig's utterly asinine comments regarding gay marriage, I also took a few minutes to peruse a couple of the previous Q&A sections, and found a recent one entitled God's Creation of Time. The question is a good one:
One common objection (e.g., Grünbaum) to your view of the universe's beginning is that the moment of creation cannot be "before" the universe's actualization, since that already presupposes the time of the universe. In response, you've proposed that perhaps the moment of creation of the universe was simultaneous with the universe's beginning, thus no longer needing a "before".
But our notion of what it is for an event to be simultaneous with another event can only make sense within an already existing space and time (irrespective of whether simultaneity is taken here as absolute or relative).
So to talk of space and time itself as being in a simultaneous relationship with a cause or moment of creation (as if space and time is a spatio-temporal thing or event itself) seems unintelligible. Our notion of simultaneity, or coincidence, and even our notion of what it is for something to be an event, surely can only make sense within an already existing space and time.
Lastly, if one claims that perhaps the property of simultaneity itself also begins at the SAME TIME (or "simultaneous") with the universe's beginning and its cause, then one would seem require a second-order simultaneity, which again seems unintelligible.

That's a pretty solid counter to Craig's past arguments. In his response, Craig gets into more philosophical ideas of what time actually is:
The key assumption underlying your objection presupposes the truth of the substantival view of time. For it assumes that time is explanatorily prior to the occurrence of events. It assumes that in order for events to occur, time must, so to speak, already be there. But on a relational view that is false. Time exists because the events occur. The happening of events is explanatorily prior to the existence of time
Basically, the "substantival" view of time says that time exists even if events don't actually occur; the "relational" view says that time only exists when events occur. Craig concludes,
So on a relational view of time, God existing changelessly sans creation would be timeless. As Leibniz rightly saw, time comes into existence with the occurrence of the first event, God’s act of creation. Time begins to exist because an event occurs.

So your objection must presuppose the untenability of a relational view of time. But such a view seems perfectly coherent and is widely held today. So the objection is based on an assumption which the theist is free to reject.



There's a very thorough explanation of these theories here, but I want to cut to the chase. We've never actually observed time existing without any events (obviously), but we also have no particular reason to believe that the existence of time is contingent on events. A good summary from the linked article from the IEP:
For the relational theory, all that exists are physical objects and their relationships, so its temporal continuum is just a useful fiction created by mathematical abstraction from what really exists. Since this continuum is not just a fiction, we should reject the relational theory.
I'd be inclined to say that a relational theory is less coherent than a substantival one, but I'm fine with saying that I don't know which is correct.  Maybe they're both wrong, or both right given certain contexts and interpretations.

But what I notice here is that Craig shifts the burden of proof. Of course, Craig cannot establish which view of time is correct; so regardless of which view his theology required, he could respond identically. So he says that the theist is "free to reject" the idea that the relational view of time is untenable. But he's putting the cart before the horse – if you already assume that God exists, and you assume God exists in some timeless, changeless form independently of the physical universe, then you can appeal to the relational view of time to justify your position.

But how do you get to that position in the first place? What evidence is there that a timeless, changeless God exists independently of the universe? I've argued extensively in the past that such a conclusion cannot be arrived upon without making a great deal of question-begging assumptions, and Craig's conclusion here seems no different. An atheistic view does not require us to presuppose any particular view of time; we can remain "time-view-agnostic". But Craig's theology requires him to assume the validity of the relational view, and the best he's got is nothing more than 'you can't disprove it'. That's clearly question-begging.

So Craig assumes the relational view of time to justify his adherence to his theology, and uses his theology to justify his adherence to the relational view. Checkmate, atheists!

Remembering Hitch

This past Saturday would have been Christopher Hitchens' 64th birthday. It's hard to overstate just how influential he was to me, and how much I admired him. I didn't always agree with him – I parted ways with him on the legitimacy of the Iraq war and his occasionally antiquated views of women, to name a couple. But his flaws and civil disagreements aside, he nonetheless rose to become one of the most formidable popularizers of atheism and rational thought in the last decade.

I still feel as though much of Hitch's conversations simply fly over the heads of some of his interlocutors. Watch his debates with Frank Turek and Bill Craig, for example, and it's as though they're so accustomed to a script that they can't keep pace with Hitchen's off-the-cuff approach. He left us far too soon, but he did leave us with some fantastic and provocative books, tons of entertaining soundbites on Youtube, and a cornucopia of quotable quotes.


11 April 2013

You can't make this stuff up, William Lane Craig edition

"Laws permitting gay marriage would be clearly unconstitutional, since they would not be blind to the sexual orientation of the persons involved. Such laws would sanction marriage for same-sex couples only if they were homosexuals, thereby taking cognizance of their sexual orientation and discriminating against heterosexuals who wanted to enter into marriage with someone of the same sex."
From this Q&A.


This is so mind-numblingly stupid that I'm not sure it even merits a response, but I'm going to give one anyway. If the Supreme Court votes against DOMA and Prop 8, they will not be adding some sort of amendment to the Constitution that in some undefined way will infringe upon the rights of straight people (who apparently are waiting in line to marry same-sex partners even though they're straight). Rather, the rulings would mean that it is unconstitutional, at either the state or federal level, to forbid marriages based on sexual orientation.

SCOTUS simply has to decide that laws restricting marriage to hetersexual marriages – which clearly infringe upon gay people's right to marry – are unconstitutional. It means taking the government out of marriage. It means that no state or federal legislature gets to decide that consenting adults of the same sex cannot marry – and yes, that would include straight people who for who knows what reason would want to marry someone of the same sex.

Craig continues, dumbly,
What they are not free to do under federal law, whatever their race or orientation, is to enter into same sex marriage, simply because there is no such thing. Marriage is by its essence a relation between a man and a woman.
Says who? Christian conservatives? Because nine states and the District of Columbia have all legalized gay marriage. I'm pretty sure there is such a thing. Denial, Bill Craig, ain't just a river in Egypt. 


Edit: One more thing to add. Even if we grant Craig his entire argument (ha!), it would still be completely undermined simply by wording any gay marriage legislation as "same-sex marriage" rather than "gay marriage" – which to my knowledge is how most such legislation is worded anyway, since lesbians are generally included in the fight for marital equality. Then, all those millions of straight people who want to marry same-sex partners could do so.

Craig finishes with this whopper of stupidity:
Those who espouse same-sex marriage want to deconstruct marriage so that what counts as marriage is just a matter of convention. Once we start down that route, anything goes: a man and two women, a man and a child, two men and a goat, etc. I see no reason at all to start down that road.
It's astounding to me that any adult human of average or better intelligence cannot understand the relevant difference between same-sex marriage and pedophilia or bestiality – that same-sex marriage is between consenting adults.

Who can we count amongst us?

I think that people like myself are the exception to the rule. I was raised in the church, deconverted, eventually made my way to atheism, and have embraced a good deal of anti-theism. I'm interested in religion and its effects on society; I want to advance humanism and do what I can to reduce the influence of religion on our culture, and I'm involved in the public forum.

But I also realize that the vast majority of people, regardless of whether they are inclined to believe in some sort of God or not, simply don't care that much about religion. I remember hearing somewhere, in reference to the large percentage of non-believers in Sweden, the term apatheism. Sure, some people might be more inclined to say God doesn't exist, while others might be more inclined to say that some sort of God does. But in people's day to day lives, it's completely irrelevant. They live accordingly to what are essentially humanist values, and the question of God's existence never really enters their concern aside from perhaps the occasional philosophical chat with friends.

I was thinking about this in light of a panel I caught on CNN not too long ago that included William Lane Craig and TJ Kirk, a.k.a. "The Amazing Atheist" (video below). It was agreed upon by all that the rise in non-belief wasn't necessarily a rise in atheism and that while atheism has been on the rise over, say, the last decade or so, Craig claims that it's plateaued. I'm not sure what survey he's referring to. He might mean this one, but that doesn't say anything about atheism, and Hemant Mehta rightly shows that it's far too soon to say that non-belief is plateauing.

In any case, the conversation got me to wondering what I would really count as a victory, and I think I'm more than happy to lump the vast majority of the "nones" in with atheists like myself. I've often said on this blog that the only thing worse for religion than a God who probably doesn't exist is a God who might as well not exist. So sure, there are those who consider themselves deists, patheists, or simply agnostics who are inclined to one side or another on the existence of God but don't hold a strong conviction either way. In all cases, such people don't live their lives as though God is watching. They don't pray, they don't go to church, they don't follow some religious doctrine or creed, nor do they have any sort of holy book.

Isn't that the more likely and, frankly, equally desirable scenario – that there won't be some uprising of atheism that overtakes culture, but that belief in God will just slip further and further into irrelevance?

It's interesting that in his debates on the grounding of moral values, Craig begins by conceding that the debate isn't about whether a non-believer can be a good person. He says, "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." I think that's a pretty powerful concession; it's essentially conceding that God's place in the moral conversation is academic and philosophical rather than pragmatic. And if you don't need to believe in God to live a "good and decent" life, then who cares whether God exists?


10 April 2013

Bondage porn illegally downloaded by someone... at the Vatican!

Here's one that no one ever saw coming!

Porn Downloaded From IP Address In Vatican City

Now there's no way to know whether it was anyone directly affiliated with the Vatican, as Vatican City has some 800 residents. It was probably the town atheist! Since of course Christians think porn is evil and don't look at it, right?

Anti-gay pastors being outed as gay is so commonplace as to make it virtually a sure bet. Christians preaching the sanctity of marriage who have had multiple affairs are a dime a dozen (one of them even ran for President!). And it's no secret that the same religious conservatives railing against the evils of pornography are also its biggest fans. A survey by the Religious Institute found that 20% of religious professionals admitted to viewing porn; 16% declined to respond on that issue, and half unconvincingly claimed to have never visited a porn site – but only 4% admitted to being concerned about the time they spend on porn sites.

And while we will probably never know who downloaded what was apparently bondage porn (note: that link takes you to Huffpo, not bondage porn!), it wouldn't be the least bit shocking to find that it was a member of the clergy. If there's anything Christians do better than self-righteous smugness, it's hypocrisy.


09 April 2013

My new co-worker is an uber-Christian

There's been some turnover at my job of late, and we recently hired someone new after a long and frustrating search that resulted in me working a fair few split shifts. Things are back to normal now, and the new guy seems to be doing well.

This evening I had a chance to shoot the breeze with him for a bit. He's from out of state and said there was some "drama" he needed to leave behind so he could start over. He told me about his recent divorce, during which he peppered the conversation with references to how frequently he prayed ("I resolved to pray for her every hour on the hour", he said at one point), that God spoke to him and gave him sage advice along with revealing that his now-ex was having an affair with a good friend of his (because apparently he could not possibly have figured that out otherwise), that she knew she needed to choose between "God's path" and "the world" but that she chose the world, that their marriage counselor was their pastor, that he had spent some time as a youth leader before moving here, blah blah blah...

Now, being a non-believer in a generally very religious part of the country, I usually make every effort to avoid conversations about religion. I have one client who frequently talks about the Bible and how it relates to life lessons, and another who cited Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline as some of his favorite bands before referring to Richard Simmons as a "maggot infested faggot". I just nod and smile. If someone outright asks me about my beliefs (almost never), I'll tell them in as courteous a way possible, but I don't ever bring it up either with co-workers whose beliefs I am ignorant of or with clients with whom I need to maintain a professional relationship.

I suppose that's why I get that much more annoyed when people just start talking about religion or politics like their beliefs and opinions are the norm. Yeah, right on, you prayed for her every hour! That's not weird or pointless at all! And it totally worked, if by "worked" you mean God did whatever the fuck he was going to do regardless – which has a strange tendency to look exactly like shit happening as if God didn't actually exist at all! It's obvious this guy  has led a pretty insular life, which isn't unusual for a devout Christian. He seems to be accustomed to being surrounded by others who share his beliefs to the point that he's taken it for granted that the real world is more diverse than that, and I'm sure he'd be surprised to learn that he has co-workers and clients who are non-believers.

We work different shifts, so I doubt we'll have much time to get to know one another. He's a very nice guy and it seems so far that he'll be a great fit. But I can't help but wonder though whether we'll end up having long discussions about God and atheism and whatever else. Oy. I feel like I get enough of that on the interwebs.

08 April 2013

Camp Quest kicked out of fundraiser for being non-religious

Camp Quest is a non-religious kids camp here in Oklahoma whose mission statement is (in part) "to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government."

Horrible things, those! It's not an atheist organization per se, but one dedicated to "freethinkers"; it'd probably be better described as a group for the people who, when filling out religious surveys, circle "none of the above".

But today they were booted out of a fundraiser at local barbeque restaurant because the owner didn't like that they were a bunch of evil atheists.

Now of course, this is a private business and the owner has every right to kick out whomever s/he wants. But my goodness... what are people so afraid of? It's quite telling that the religious response to critical inquiry, skepticism and reason is often fear and antagonism.

07 April 2013

What if I'm wrong?

An atheist Facebook group recently posed the question,
Well, well! What a surprise! You have just died and found yourself face to face with God. Which God? THE God. What's the first thing you say to him?
Ignoring the fact that their own answer to "Which God?" isn't particularly helpful, I'm just going to assume they're talking about some deity of Western Monotheism. I can accept the possibility, remote though I think it may be, that I'm totally wrong about the existence of God. I can't know for certain, and neither can anyone else. Epistemic humility ought to be par for the course for any rational human being. But let's say God exists and, even though it doesn't necessarily follow from God's existence, an afterlife exists as well despite all its paradoxes and absurdities. And now, after spending most of my life as a non-believer, I'm forced to explain myself before God and hopefully avoid being fitted for a suit of flames.

Well, if that God exists, then I wouldn't have to explain myself. God, being all-knowing and all-powerful, would already know all my thought processes. He'd know what led me to deconvert from Christianity, and he'd understand. He'd see my sincerity and know that I simply could not see any justification for believing in his existence or the truth claims of any particular religion. He'd see that although I was mistaken, I was sincerely mistaken. There would be none of that "Deep down you really believed" garbage that some believers like to hurl at skeptics.

Now comes the thorny part. According to the more fundie-minded Western monotheists, it doesn't so much matter how you lived your life. It doesn't matter if you were a good person, loved your friends and family, treated others kindly, acted selflessly to help those in need, whatever; what really matters is what you believe. You didn't know you were supposed to pray to Allah and bow to the East five times a day? You didn't know you were supposed to believe all those Christian preachers and theologians? Well, sucks for you! Into the lake of fire!

If that is true – if God would punish people for having the wrong theology, then why would I want to spend eternity with such a tyrant? If one's theological opinions count for more than how they actually lived, then God should have made his existence absolutely beyond question. He should still be making appearances like he purportedly did according to the Old Testament. His existence ought to be as plain a fact as that I am sitting in a chair in front of my computer as I type, above the ambiguities of theological absurdities and contradictions.

Of course, there are those who will trot out Romans 1:20:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
In other words, they think God's existence is self-evident. Well, the whole point of being a non-believer is that we think that's bullshit. But if I'm wrong, and I'm going to go to a horrible place because I was wrong about theology, well, that God can go fuck himself. Such a scenario would just confirm the absurdity of Western theology, and I'd happily cannonball into the lake of fire.

Good thing, then, that I'm right.


05 April 2013

A.C. Grayling on The Colbert Report

A.C. Grayling was on The Colbert Report to talk about his new book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism:


Remembering Roger Ebert, with thoughts on the afterlife

Even as a kid, I remember seeing new theatrical releases proudly trumpeting "Two thumbs up!" from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They had a TV show for a while in the 90s, and I remember always marveling that these guys actually considered themselves friends the way they got so worked up over their opinions of movies.

I gained a lot of respect for Roger Ebert during my tenure as a writer and editor for the video game webzine GameCritics.com. His plain-spoken style served as a nice contrast to the haughty pretentiousness that sometimes seeps into criticism of the arts and served as a model for my own writing. I liked that he seemed to recognize movies for what they were, not for what some would want them to be. He often praised schlocky action movies like the run of B-action flicks that Jackie Chan released in the late 90s, because he knew that they were intended to be silly escapism and judged them accordingly. Plus, he loved Prometheus; in that review and many others (his review of Contact comes to mind), he often articulated many of my exact thoughts on the film more concisely and poignantly than I ever could. 

I never knew much about him outside of his movie-critic persona, but an essay in his book Life Itself: A Memoir, reprinted in Salon, reveals him to be an atheist. On death, he remarks,
Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” I say, “Look for me in the weather reports.”

Like Roger Ebert, I've never in my adult life found the sales pitch of eternal life to be persuasive or desirable. If we lived for an infinite amount of time, then eventually all possible experiences would be had and all possible knowledge would be attained. Eventually, there would simply be nothing to discover.

While I'm not normally fond of quoting Deepak Chopra, I loved his remarks on the afterlife that he made on The Colbert Report: "Hell costs a little more, because it's more interesting. If you were in Heaven, you'd be doomed to eternal senility... because there is no creative impulse in the absence of discontent."  That concept has often been raised in questioning why a perfect being (God as conceptualized in Western monotheism) would have a desire to create the universe and, eventually, people. Desire, like creativity, only arises as a consequence of discontent.

Then there are the paradoxes of Heaven: If we still have free will, what's to stop us from screwing it all up (in the Christian narrative, making the "Fall" happen all over again)? And if we had friends or loved ones in Hell, could we really be eternally content knowing that they were suffering horribly?


Ebert continues,
What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.
That, to me, is far more desirable than eternal life. I will eventually be forgotten, and that doesn't bother me; after all, why should future generations live their lives pining over the dead when there are so many wonderful experiences for them to have? In the sense that I do live on, I hope that I do so by spreading love and goodwill, by committing my ideas to (digital) paper, and through creation – be it in music, art, poetry, or that elusive world-changing idea.


01 April 2013

Judge rules that the 9/11 cross isn't religious

Apparently the secularization of Christianity is well under way. First we have Bill O'Reilly declaring that it's not a "religion", but a "philosophy". And now a U.S. District Judge has ruled that the ubiquitous symbol of Christianity – the cross – isn't actually religious.

From Huffpo:
U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts in a ruling released publicly Friday rejected the arguments of American Atheists, which had sued the National September 11 Memorial & Museum's operators in 2011 on constitutional grounds, contending that the prominent display of the cross constitutes an endorsement of Christianity, diminishing the contributions of non-Christian rescuers.
Batts wrote that the cross and its accompanying panels of text "helps demonstrate how those at ground zero coped with the devastation they witnessed during the rescue and recovery effort." She called its purpose "historical and secular" and noted that it will be housed at the museum in the "Finding Meaning at Ground Zero" section with placards explaining its meaning and the reason for its inclusion. It also will be surrounded by secular artifacts.
"No reasonable observer would view the artifact as endorsing Christianity," the judge said.
Wait, what? What's that again?
"No reasonable observer would view the artifact as endorsing Christianity," the judge said.
Pardon me while I rant about this for a second. First, the cross was found in the wreckage of the WTC towers... buildings constructed with crossbeams... and declared by Christians to be a sign from God (a sign from God on the morning of the attacks might have been worth more, but whatever). The cross was blessed by a priest, inscribed with "God bless our fallen brothers", and became a site of Sunday religious services. American Atheists wanted a non-religious symbol included in the 9/11 Memorial for the many non-religious people who were killed. The powers that be refused, so AA sued them – arguing that since the memorial is partially taxpayer-funded, either they shouldn't play religious favorites, or they shouldn't have religious symbols at all. And now judge Deborah Batts has tossed out the suit, claiming that the cross isn't religious. That's right, according to the judge, the cross – which looks conspicuously like the symbol of the Christian religion, was inscribed with a Christian phrase, became the site of Christian worship services, and was blessed by a priest – isn't religious at all.

Some people, even the generally awesome Jon Stewart, have said that AA were being dicks for bringing this lawsuit. "Not now", they said. "Just let people have their grief", they said. No! Times like this are EXACTLY when religious privilege rears its ugly head. AA doesn't have anything against the cross being included – provided that the memorial allows people of other faiths or no faith to be represented as well. When did that become unreasonable? When did 9/11 become a tragedy only for Christians? Many Jews, Muslims, non-believers, and people of other faiths died in that tragedy. The dicks aren't the feared and maligned atheist groups who want religious equality, but the Christian majority who are exploiting the tragedy to have their beliefs given special privileges that the beliefs of other Americans are not.

AA is appealing the decision, and I hope they're successful.


Dave Silverman talked about the lawsuit (among others) when he visited Tulsa for FreeOK last year (he begins discussing it around the 14:50 mark):