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Showing posts from 2010

Thoughts going into the new year

I started this blog just shy of a year ago with the goal of expanding my range of topics from my previous religion-only blog into a broader array of skeptic-related topics. Traffic and readership have really picked up in the last few months – I went from maybe a few dozen hits a day to hundreds. That's encouraged me to invest a little more in the blog, as posting regularly does have its reward in more frequent traffic.

But somewhere in all the comment discussions and attempts to post pretty much daily, I started getting burned out. I have a lot of irons in the fire, and I don't really want blogging to become a predominant hobby of mine. I'm far too obsessed with my guitar, and enjoy too many other hobbies – reading, playing video games, eating babies, etc. – to have time to keep up the pace of blogging I was maintaining earlier.

I'm not about to stop blogging or anything. I know myself too well to know I could ever stick to a no-blogging resolution, and as I type this …

One more quickie

Bud over at Dead Logic linked to a great blog of PZ Myer's from back in '09 when he took down Alvin Plantiga – one of those "sophisticated" Christian philosophers. I liked Myers' post, but I really liked this comment from the user "Sastra":
This argument (often called The Argument from Reason) comes up regularly in comments, and you've done a great job pointing out some of its major flaws. In addition to the false dichotomy (either we have 'warrant' to trust our brains completely, or anything goes), it suffers from the same problem most theistic reasoning suffers from: they can't get away from the childish idea that Like comes only from Like. Reason, free will, life, consciousness, morals, love, you name it. If things didn't start out there, they can't get there. Nothing new comes gradually out of increasingly complex patterns and interactions. Nothing grows. Nope. We get Reason from a Reason Force which is made out of …

Quick update

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It's been a great Chrimmas weekend. I warned my parents that I couldn't really afford to get them much if anything, and I told them that I really didn't need anything and would be totally happy just with their company. That didn't stop them from being very generous though. They got me some primo cookware (most of mine was old hand-me-downs with the coating scratched off) and, to my utter shock, a totally awesome solid state hard drive I'd been eying.

I'm going to be moving my Windows installation to the new drive this week, which will mean reformatting my old mechanical drive, optimizing the new drive and re-installing all my programs. So blogging will probably be a little slow this week as I get everything set up.

A quick word though, about my family. I'm very lucky to have the family I do, and it's extra humbling knowing that many people spend the holidays alone. They do so many little acts of kindness (and sometimes big ones) that I know I could nev…

That thing is not really a thing

There's a scene in the movie Contact when Ellie, who's an atheist, asks her Christian-philosopher boyfriend Palmer if he can prove God exists. Palmer responds, "Prove you loved your father."

Checkmate, atheists!

This sentiment was recently echoed by Rabbi Alan Lurie over at Huffpo, who asks whether God's existence can ever be proven.
The attempt to prove the existence of God through the scientific method of hypothesis, controlled experimentation, observation and documentable repeatable results is somewhat akin to trying to discover the cause of a person's response to a deeply moving work of art. We can examine the painting, analyze the composition of the canvas and pigment, study the arrangement of shapes and colors, discover the historical context of the work and the biography of the artists, or even conduct psychological experiments and CT scans, but none of this will do anything to explain, understand and share in the person's aesthetic experie…

An atheist Christmas

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It's that time of year when a great many theologically conservative Christian like to display their persecution complex – without all the things that go with actual persecution. They piss and moan because people have "forgotten" that Christmas is about Jesus, not about Santa and carols and flat-screen TVs. With the recent spurt of atheist billboards – including one that says, "You know it's a myth. This season, celebrate reason" – folks like Catholic League Head of Nutbaggery Bill Donahue are saying there's a "war on Christmas."

Here's the thing though. Nobody forgot what Christmas is about – they just don't care. Around this time of year, church services are packed with "cultural Christians" – people who identify as Christian but rarely if ever attend church and most likely don't even know the basic theological tenants of their religion. They're Christians because they were raised that way, because of cultural tradit…

Ricky Gervais on atheism

I love Ricky Gervais – he's a great comedian and a very smart guy to boot. Last week he wrote an essay about why he's an atheist. This week he answers some of the most commonly asked questions about his essay. Here's an excerpt, about an all-too-familiar misconception about atheism:
In your piece you write, that “Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know.” In fact, mainstream scientific thought has sometimes been wrong, and it is constantly changing and revising itself. So how can you be so sure that science supports your belief that God does not exist?Ricky Gervais: Science doesn’t concern itself with the non-existence of something. The periodic table of imaginary things would be too big for a classroom- infinitely big in fact, and rather pointless. It’s not trying to prove the non-existence of anything supernatural. All it knows is there is no scientific proof of anything supernatural so far.

Ray Comfort: "Atheists believe that nothing created everything"

In case you aren't familiar with Ray Comfort, he's an evangelical creationist who has gained notoriety mainly for three things:
The infamous "banana routine". In a video posted on YouTube (the original video has since been removed), he called the banana the "atheist's nightmare", and proceeded to describe the myriad ways in which it appears perfectly designed for human consumption — it fits the hand, has a tab on the top for easy opening, etc. etc. Comfort had used this routine in his church with great success, but when he went public with it, alert skeptics were quick to point out that the modern banana is a mutation resulting from thousands of years of human horticulture, and barely resembles wild bananas, which are extremely difficult or impossible to eat.The "Crockoduck". In a truly awful debate televised on Nightline, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron suggested that evolution should have produced a hybrid between a crocodile and a du…

DADT is d-o-n-e.

After strong majority votes from both the House and Senate, the President today signed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".


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The Craig-Ehrman resurrection debate

I know that some atheists are impressed with William Lane Craig – not for his actual argumentation, but for his deft use of rhetoric in debates. The result is that in most debates I've seen with Craig, nothing really gets accomplished. Craig usually abides by a five-argument format, and when time constraints prevent his opponent from addressing all five in detail, Craig will make some inane non sequitur like, "we haven't heard any evidence that atheism is true."

But when the debates get more specific (as opposed to "Does God Exist?"), Craig usually gets a beatdown, and there is perhaps no finer example than his debate with Bart Ehrman on the historicity of the resurrection. In his debate with John Spong, Craig presented what he called "four facts" about the resurrection, which he used again in his debate with Ehrman:

That Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority at the time of the Passover Feast, having been arres…

Facing the truth

I recently watched a lengthy debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson from the Westminster Theological Seminary. It was a long and interesting debate, one that maintained a surprisingly civil, even humorous tone throughout, but it was in fact one of the more productive debates I'd watched in a while. (I tend to look at academic style debates rather cynically — I don't think they're often an effective medium for communicating ideas.) Hitchens made a comment that I thought was interesting in light of some of my current thoughts on religion, which is that (and I'm very loosely paraphrasing here) he is not an atheist because he wants to be; he is simply led by the evidence to find atheism to be the most reasoned conclusion, and he accepts it.

In a discussion some time back with my brother (a Christian), I made the remark that if we all converted to Jainism, it would certainly be a net positive for the world. Jainism is a religion of strict non-vi…

Can science determine human values?

Sam Harris argues yes:

Atheism as congruence

One of my favorite videos from TheraminTrees, and pertinent in light of an upcoming post. It's about a year old, but I feel it's worth revisiting.

TSA security doesn't work

A while back I commented that personally, I don't really care about the backscatter machines or rock-concert-like "patdowns". But after reading a rather disturbing article over at ABC News, it's clear that despite all the whiz-bang new technology, the Achilles Heel of TSA checkpoints is old-fashioned human error:
According to one report, undercover TSA agents testing security at a Newark airport terminal on one day in 2006 found that TSA screeners failed to detect concealed bombs and guns 20 out of 22 times. A 2007 government audit leaked to USA Today revealed that undercover agents were successful slipping simulated explosives and bomb parts through Los Angeles's LAX airport in 50 out of 70 attempts, and at Chicago's O'Hare airport agents made 75 attempts and succeeded in getting through undetected 45 times.That's not a slim margin of error. That's a complete and total failure. And while this all happened prior to the wide distribution of b…

They report, they decide

Here's a shocker: A University of Maryland study by its Program on International Policy Attitudes has found, for the second time (the first being in 2003) that regular viewers of Fox News are significantly more likely to be misinformed about everything from tax policy to climate science.

From Media Matters:
Last week, the Program on International Policy Attitudes released another, wider-ranging report on "Misinformation and the 2010 Election," which examined the accuracy of news consumers' views on tax policy, government bailouts, the economy, climate science, and President Obama's background. The findings were in line with the 2003 survey -- Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely" to be misinformed In other news, beaches have been found to be composed primarily of sand.

That's me in the corner

My previous post about William Lane Craig's inane rationalization of what is to him the obvious truth of his religious beliefs got me thinking a bit about my own de-conversion. One comment of Craig's in particular really grinds my gears:
Indeed, Paul says that [non-believers] actually do know that God exists, but they suppress this truth because of their unrighteousness.  The implication here is that we actually do think it's true – we just don't want to believe (because we'd rather be naughty). I can't speak for other apostates, but this is like a slap in the face given how extraordinarily trying my deconversion really was. Contrary to Craig's assumptions, I was very deeply rooted in the church and my personal faith. It was the center of my social life, an important means by which I connected with my family, and a deeply personal source of strength and inspiration that I believed had helped me through many difficult times. Unfortunately, a helpful delusion…

William Lane Craig thinks atheists aren't real

I'm not sure why I visit Reasonable Faith. It's sort of like a train wreck – you just can't look away! On the site, Craig has a Q & A column in which he assuages the doubts of believers with a powerful combination of academic-sounding rhetoric and obfuscatory logical fallacies.

This week, a reader asks a very reasonable question:
If an [sic] sincere atheist thinks God is a fairy tale, how can he be blamed? If belief is not a choice, no one can be blamed for not believing.Belief is indeed not a choice. Our beliefs arise out of our best understanding of the information presented to us. If someone is convinced that the evidence is squarely against theism, they can't magically make themselves accept the existence of gods anyway. In fact, this realization was pivotal in my de-conversion. I never outright rejected my faith – I simply reached a point where I didn't believe any of its tenants to be true, and I was unable to hold on to my faith.

So what's William L…

Jon Stewart is mad at Republicans (again)

The Daily Show is always at its best when it satirizes hypocrisy, and here Jon takes Republicans to task for their rejection of a bill that would have given billions in health care provisions to 9.11 first responders.


The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10cLame-as-F@#k Congresswww.thedailyshow.comDaily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

DADT repeal is still struggling

Update: The House today voted overwhelmingly – 250 to 175 – to repeal DADT. [link] The vote now goes to the Senate.


A while back, the Pentagon released a report which devastated conservative myths about gays serving openly in the military. Not that this would change any minds; the conservative objection to gays serving openly in the military is ideological, not rational. And now, the House is about to vote on a standalone bill. I'm skeptical that the bill will pass. Maybe it's just cynicism, but congress has consistently shown itself to be not only disjointed from the American public on this issue, but stubborn in holding misguided principle above reason. I hope this time is different, but I'm not holding my breath.

If this legislation fails, it just makes it that much less likely that any repeal will pass before the Republican majority takes over the House next year, in which case you can pretty much guarantee that ideology will take precedence over facts. But even in th…

This is just too good

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It's especially funny because he tried again to spam up my blog the other day, this time with yet another pseudonym. Fortunately Disqus is proving to be far more effective than the vanilla Blogger comment system at keeping such douchebaggery at bay. h/t PZ Myers.

"Believing Is Seeing"

A few months back I encountered a guy at a bar, who asked me about a blasphemous-looking tattoo I have on my right arm. I told him that I used to be religious, but now I'm not. He asked me why. Trying to keep things as terse as possible since I wanted to get back to having fun with my friends instead of getting sucked into a debate about theology, I explained that I had been a devout Christian for many years, but after studying theology and logic I found too many things wrong with it to keep believing.

He replied, "Like what?"

Oh boy. I knew where this was headed. I gave a very quick example or two, and finished with, "I believe it when I see it." By which I really meant that I accept it when it can be empirically verified, but I was at a bar for crying out loud. While an evangelical Christian would jump at an opportunity to talk to a nonbeliever, I'm not out to convert people and just wanted to get back to my friends.

Anyway.... He replied wi…

The tax cut compromise

So today, the tax cut compromise looks to be on track for a vote later this week.

I'll never quite understand why conservatives are so insistent on cutting taxes for such an incredible minority of wealthy Americans. They insist that these very few people are the ones that create jobs, and that tax increases will hinder that. But clearly the tax breaks haven't helped them create jobs for the last decade, and higher taxes didn't hamper them when the country experience record growth during the Clinton administration. Even if the tax cuts expired, the rates would be lower than they were during the Reagan administration. I really believe that the biggest obstacle facing our country is debt. We simply have way too much of it, and letting the upper-class tax cuts expire would have a much better long-term benefit. The upper-class tax cuts, by the way, will be financed entirely by adding to the national debt.

Some paradoxical concepts of the Christian god

In no particular order:

1. God is perfect, but needs to be worshiped
A perfect being by definition needs nothing. The canned theological response would be that worship is for us, not God. But if God doesn't need to be worshiped, why would he create beings who need to worship him?2. God is omniscient (all-knowing), but has free will
A being that is all-knowing knows the past, present and future. He knows all decisions that have been and will ever be made, including his own. This implies that he lacks the ability to make a choice, because he already knows all his future actions. He can't just change course, because he would have to know that he will decide to change course!3. God loves everyone and desires everyone to be with him, but created people who he knew would go to Hell
God's omniscience carries with it another conundrum: he knows all people's actions as well. He knows all thoughts, beliefs, actions, and the processes by which people arrived at them. He would necess…

What to do when you're raped! (according to the Bible)

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Click for a larger version (h/t - Blag Hag)

A new study from the Center For The Study Of Totally Obvious Things

http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-12-reveals-secret-ingredient-religion-people.html

A new study has "revealed" what non-believers – especially apostates like myself – have known for a long time: that people are drawn to religion primarily because of its social aspects rather than its theological ones:
"Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction," said Chaeyoon Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. "In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier."No. Really?

I've known people who converted to different denominations and even entire religions because they got married. I've known people who've casually bounced between denominations because they wanted a church with more youth programs. I can…

Religion – The Bad Parent

TheraminTrees is quite possible my favorite YouTuber. His ability to clearly articulate logical concepts is unmatched.

Policitians: hurting us more than they help

I know I'm not the only person concerned about the national debt. It's astronomical, quickly approaching $14 trillion. The scariest part is that virtually all of that was accrued in my lifetime (I'm 31). The national debt is a tax. It raises interest rates on everything and devalues the dollar. Much of our debt is owned by foreign countries, and we better hope they don't plan on cashing it in anytime soon. How do we fix this mess?

The truth is, no one really wants to do what has to be done. Money does not grow on trees, and there are basically two ways for the government to reduce this horrible, out-of-control deficit spending: raise taxes and cut spending. It really is that simple. Both parties want to cut taxes, but Republicans want to cut taxes for everyone, including the wealthiest Americans. Democrats want to cut taxes for everyone except the wealthiest Americans, because that tax revenue would help reduce the annual deficits. And contrary to the posturing on TV, …

I'm gonna write a book

Yeah, I've said this before. But I have way too many ideas to keep them all bottled up, and what I have is just way too big for this blog. For a long time I've wanted to write a book on a secular theory of morality, and I figured it was high time I just got around to doing it instead of putting all my energy into blogs and forum posts. I'll do my best not to let my writing impact my posting here, but it'll probably have somewhat of an impact because as crazy as it might seem, I actually have a life outside of the internets.

I don't really have any grand ambitions for making the NY Times bestseller list or anything. I'm not a world-renown biologist or thinker – I'm just some dude with a blog. So, I'll probably just self-publish as an e-book and sell it inexpensively here on Blogger. But I am going to do this, so prepare yourselves for what could quite possibly be the most important book in the history of mankind. Or not, I dunno.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument commits the fallacy of equivocation (twice!)

I've dished out some critiques of William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument (well... he didn't make it up, but he's certainly popularized it) recently – here, and more recently here. But today I thought of another angle to approach refuting this argument, and even though I don't want this to turn into Mike D's Official Kalam Criticism Blog, I thought it was worth sharing. I should point out that I'm certainly not the first person to have thought of the basic concepts here, but I'm hoping this will nicely supplement my previous arguments in addition to standing on its own.

The fallacy of equivocation is when you use a word that has multiple meanings, but you're not clear on which meaning of the word your argument is using. The Kalam is actually a fine example, because it commits this fallacy twice, and in doing so commits the fallacy of assuming the consequent, which is when you assume the conclusion – either whole or in part – in one of the …

Are theoretical physics the god of atheists?

I mentioned a couple of posts back that I deleted and banned a commenter because he spent two paragraphs tossing out insults after one short paragraph in which he believed to have completely decimated my argument against the Kalam (well, one of them anyway). But I'm actually going to respond to the substantive part of what he wrote, because it's something I hear often.

In that post, I mentioned M-theory. Without fully reading the post, the commenter essentially said that if I can't accept causality existing outside the universe, it's hypocritical to accept gravity existing outside the universe. That's a pretty gross misunderstanding of both my argument and M-theory, but this is how he phrased it, using my own words but substituting "gravity" for "causality":
Our very concept of gravity is derived from the observable universe. Gravity, as we know it, is observable, obeys the laws of the universe, and requires space-time. If there were no unive…

Virus, ho!

I've been building my own PCs for the last five years. I'm a gamer and I take pride in the overclocked speed and red-LED sexiness of my rig. In my old Windows XP builds, I used AVG, a popular free anti-virus. I used it because it was a) free, and b) light. It caused some conflicts with other programs, so when I upgraded to Vista, I literally didn't even bother with anti-virus software. I stuck with Windows Defender – Microsoft's built-in anti-spyware program – and that was all. After upgrading to Windows 7, I eventually decided that an anti-virus was probably a good idea. So I went back to AVG, since I'd used it before.

But after a while I noticed that AVG seemed to be hogging more resources and behaving more strangely than it had in the past. So I uninstalled it and opted for Microsoft Security Essentials. It's light and free, and from the same guys who made my OS.

The next day (yesterday), I was re-installing my OS after being infected with a virus for the fi…

Science and the media: never a good combination

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Back when the Large Hadron Collider was being built, I remember the media fussing over one thing: black holes. Remember? Remember how the LHC was going to destroy us all, sucking our planet into a void the way planet Vulcan was destroyed by "red matter" in the new Star Trek? And don't get me started on all the "Darwin Was Wrong!" or "Power of Prayer Proved!" or "Politician Speaks Truthfully!" nonsense.

The latest has been the hubub over the "discovery" of "new life". NASA leaked some teasers, saying it was a Really Big Deal that would impact our search for extra-terrestrial life. People thought NASA might have actually found life elsewhere in the solar system. The result was really, really boring: a researcher found a strain of bacteria that could use arsenic to assist with growth. Why is that so boring? Biologist Larry Moran of Sandwalk explains:
For a start, even the title of the paper is misleading. The title says &qu…

Growing pains

I hit a small milestone the other day here at the A-Unicornist: I passed 10,000 visitors. I have no delusions of grandeur, of course; my blog is still really small, but all things considered, I'm happy with the growth I've achieved in my first year. My old blog, The Apostasy, was exclusively about theology and philosophy. I figured I could produce more consistent content (while still retaining substance) if I broadened my horizons to include related areas of science and skepticism. I'm proud to say I feel I've achieved that goal.

Along the way, I've garnered some great regulars and had some random visits from many guests. For the most part, people have been courteous to me regardless of their views. I've had some very thought-provoking discussions with some very smart people, received praise from very nice people, received spam from very crazy people, and received insults from some really pathetic people.

Tonight I was perusing my comments – for some reason my …

CSI examines the "feeling the future" study

A while back I posted about a study in which the author claimed to have discovered scientific evidence of psychic abilities in humans. I've been very skeptical of the study (as many have), and now James Alcock at CSI (that's the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, not Crime Scene Investigators) has taken a crack at it. Among his conclusions:
Just about everything that could be done wrong in an experiment occurred here. And even if one chose to overlook that methodological mess, because of the multiple testing problem his data still do not support the claimed above-chance effect. The article begins with a look back at historical failures of parapsychology, which I think is highly relevant. Sometimes, as a skeptic and atheist, I'm accused of not being open-minded enough about things like this. But the fact is that parapsychology and paranormal experiments have been going on for a long time, and they have a terrible track record. In fact, they have a track record of 100% failu…

Wikileaks: friend or foe?

I'm fascinated by the latest controversy brewing over Wikileaks, this time regarding classified diplomatic cables that show embarrassing diplomatic behavior of many countries, including the United States. Wikileaks has previously released damning footage of U.S. behavior in Iraq, and numerous other documents from all over the world displaying all kinds of corruption and human rights atrocities at the highest level of government.

There's a natural reaction to the leakage of classified information, which is that there's a reason some information is classified. There are legitimate secrets needed to ensure the safety of military and government personnel. But if Wikileaks has shown us anything, it's that a great deal of time and money is spent by governments all over the world to keep secrets not because they're necessary to ensure anyone's safety, but because no one likes being exposed as corrupt. The predictable reaction of most governments is to condemn Wikipedi…

Department of "I swear I am not making this up"

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The infamous bastion of pseudoscience colloquially known as Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Kentucky is preparing to build a tourist attraction to end all tourist attractions – a full-sized replica of Noah's Ark. Supposedly it will be finished by 2014, though I'm skeptical whether it will, true to Biblical mythology, be built with a skeleton crew and wooden pegs. Over at their website, they're trying to raise $24 million to build the eyesore, and they're even trying to use loopholes in Kentucky tax law to get a break on it. Fortunately they've barely made a dent in their required funding.

Perhaps most annoyingly, they're trying to claim that the tax break shouldn't be subject to that pesky separation of church and state thing, because what they're doing is "scientific" rather than explicitly religious. For the sake of both science and aesthetics, I can only hope that their odds of being able to fund this thing are about the same odds that the…

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is a (pseudo) scientific argument

Over on the Reasonablefaith.com forum recently, a user stated that the Kalam argument was philosophical, not scientific. This was my response:

It's false to say that the Kalam isn't a scientific argument, because both its premises are intended to be factual, verifiable statements about the nature of reality.

Three problems:
Not everything that exists has a cause. In fact, the entire field of quantum mechanics defies any causality in the classical, Newtonian sense of "cause-effect" we observe. Quantum mechanics is ruled by probability and mathematical determinism, not Newtonian "cause and effect".The universe may or may not have had a beginning. The "cosmic singularity" is an artifact of General Relativity, nothing more. When we use quantum mechanics, we do not have a singularity – the universe reaches Planck size, and we simply have no idea what happened before that. Craig's notion that the universe is either infinite or had a begin…

The problem with Heaven

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My fellow apostate blogger Tristan Vick of Advocatus Atheist recently did a provocative piece on the problem with Hell. He essentially argued that no matter how you try to rationalize Hell, it is inherently in conflict with the concept of a loving God. I agree with Tristan that the concept of Hell is untenable, and paradoxical in the context of Christian theology. But I'm just as interested in the concept of Heaven, which in my estimate is every bit as untenable as the concept of Hell – just for different reasons.

In Christian theology, Heaven is what brings God's plan of humankind's redemption to completion. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve in his image, and they were like him – perfect, without sin. But they ate from the forbidden tree, rebelling against God, and God cast them out of Eden and condemned mankind to the sinful desires of the flesh. But God loved his creation, and wanted to redeem them. He created a system of ritual animal sacrifices, in which a hi…

Does the universe have a purpose?

Thanks to a heads-up from Debunking Christianity, I spent part of my afternoon watching this recent debate between Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley versus William Lane Craig, David Wolpe, and Douglas Guivett on the topic: "Does the universe have a purpose?"

It was the usual spat of argument that, if you've watched debates with or read material by any of these guys, is pretty familiar territory. I was happy to see Michio Kaku have a say, as he's one of my favorite physicists and he made some important points; I'm just a little disappointed he didn't have more time. In fact, it seemed that none of the guest panel commentators had quite enough time.

The brunt of the affirmative side can be summed up as this: if the universe has no purpose, we have no purpose. Nothing we do matters. We're just material "stuff", there's no real right and wrong, love and feelings are just delusions, etc. etc. The negative side can be summed up a…

The TSA wants to molest you

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Tulsa International Airport was one of the first airports in the country to get the new full-body scanners. I went through it a couple of years ago, and didn't think anything of it. I had a pat-down too, and didn't think anything of it. And so when all the hoopla over the TSA's "enhanced security" began foaming with choruses of people claiming that their rights were being trampled on, I thought they were talking about some even newer security protocols. But, as I found out later, I was ahead of the game on this one.

The concerns about the TSA's methods are valid: they use something called backscatter radiation, which sounds scary. And they can see through your clothes, which sounds like an invasion of privacy. If you decline to go through the machine that will presumably give you cancer and take naked pictures of you (which of course will wind up all over the internet or on some TSA pervert's hard drive), you are subjected to a pat-down. During this pat d…

How close are we to a Theory of Everything?

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Stephen Hawking's latest book The Grand Design certain gives the impression that we're mighty close to having it all figured out when he says on the last page, "M-Theory is the unified theory Einstein was looking for. The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph."

Of course, if you've read Hawking's book, he thinks that we may never have a single "Theory of Everything", but instead may have something closer to the current incarnation of M-Theory, which unifies the five variants of string theory in a sort of overlapping network. So what is a "theory of everything" or "unified theory", and how close are we to having one?

Tim Keller's "The Reason For God" (part 1)

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I'm a little late on this review, I know. The book came out in 2008, and attempted to quell the doubts of believers that may have been raised by the wild success of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion as well as Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. Keller's book is one of the few post-new-atheist apologetics books that isn't just a flea, like Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion or Ravi Zacharias' unintentionally aptly-titled The End of Reason. Christians often accuse us atheists of only responding to the crackpot fundie type Christians (I know John Loftus gets that one a lot), but short of doing an in-depth response to the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (assuming you're a Christian who subscribes to natural theology), Keller's Christianity is about as sophisticated as you're going to get. It's thoughtful theology targeted at everyday people who don't have PhDs in philosophy. He's very…

Church mistaken for mosque, citizens outraged

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http://thinkprogress.org/2010/11/15/mosque-church-whoopsidoodles/

In what's become an all-too-common example of the outburst of Islamophobia in this country, a non-denominational Christian organization has been getting concerned calls from neighbors who have mistaken their church-in-progress for a mosque because it has a big dome on it. They have to reassure the irate neighbors that it's a Christian building, and they've even put up a ridiculous sign that, quite ironically, exemplifies the depth of argumentation that Christians generally employ to defend their faith:












Obviously I wish that this dome-shaped building were an observatory, which would contribute a hell of a lot more to society than yet another tax-exempt house of dogma.

Hat tip to Ed Brayton.

Earth: the privileged planet, and the lottery fallacy

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Here's an old canard you may have heard which tries to support the existence of God:
Have you ever noticed how perfectly suited Earth is for life? If we were only a tiny bit closer to the sun, the oceans would boil; if we were further away, Earth would be a lifeless rock of ice. Our proximity to the sun and even our axial tilt are "just right". We're even lucky enough to have Jupiter floating out there millions of miles away, as its immense gravity attracts asteroids that may otherwise pose a risk for Earth. Thanks to our nickel-iron core, we have a radiation shield that protects us from the deadly radiation emitted by the sun. The moon's effects on our tides and on the speed of the rotation of the Earth (the very early Earth had only a six hour day) have all contributed to the ability for life to form. Is this all just "random chance"? The probability of any one of these events seems absurd, much less all of them happening together. The probabilities ar…

Advocatus Interviewus

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Alert readers are aware that I recently had the privilege of being interviewed by the mighty Tristan Vick, who runs the outstanding blog Advocatus Atheist. I've now had the opportunity to pick his brain as well, and if you haven't already been reading his blog, this interview should give you a clear sense of what a lucid thinker and studied apostate Tristan really is. He not only shares many of the passions I do, but he's especially adept in intellectual domains where I feel I could use the most study. In this interview I asked Tristan to share his thoughts on science, philosophy, religion, communicating with believers, and much more.


How did science influence your de-conversion, if at all? Were there any areas of science in particular that significantly challenged your perspective?

AvA: Interesting you should say that, because my deconversion was influenced, in part, by my involvement with the popular literature of cosmology. Coincidentally I started doing som…

Music learning make you brain more good?

According to an article in last month's Scientific American, a study by advocacy group Music for All found that school music programs in public schools dropped precipitously between 1999 and 2004 – by 50%. I shudder to think about how much more music programs have been shed in the six years since that report, but based on what we are learning about music's effect on the brain, we are doing our children a great disservice.

"Mozart therapy" – the idea that parents could boost their children's intelligence by exposing them to music – has turned out to be largely unsupported by further research although, as SA points out, the original researchers never claimed more than a minor and temporary effect. What can produce lasting changes in the brain, though, are music lessons. Thanks to an overlap in the parts of our brains responsible for language and music, playing an instrument (including voice) and learning to discern between subtle changes in pitch can help us to lea…

Now we just have to make a bomb out of it

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/11/17/5482096-antimatter-atoms-caught-at-last

Big news from the nerdery: We've trapped anti-matter. We've known that anti-matter exists for a while now, but every time we create it, it's immediately annihilated. For the first time, scientists have successfully preserved anti-matter in a magnetic field, if only for a short time. This is a big step in our ability to understanding anti-matter and the role it has played in our universe's evolution.

But can we make a super-cool bomb out of it? Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at City University in New York, says no.

John Loftus on the "Outsider Test of Faith"

Terrific lecture from Debunking Christianity's author John Loftus on his OTF argument:


TFC 2010: John Loftus from Zachary Moore on Vimeo.

I like the quote (paraphrasing) that it's frustrating to try to reason people out of beliefs they weren't reason into in the first place. I can certainly relate, and it was examining my own Christian faith from an outsider's perspective that led me to reject it. The OTF is a great thought experiment that should get any believer critically examining their own faith.

Also: notice that, at 38:54, he says he's a non-unicornist. I think we can build a movement here.

The A-Unicornist: the interview

Tristan Vick, who runs the superlative blog Advocatus Atheist, interviewed me about all things physics and cosmology. I'll be picking his brain in similar fashion within the week.

http://advocatusatheist.blogspot.com/2010/11/gallivanting-through-universe-on.html

"The Stoning of Soraya M," and the barbaric god of the Bible

I watched The Stoning of Soraya M. recently, which is a chilling movie based on a true story about a woman in Iran who, being subject to Sharia Law, is stoned to death following accusations of infidelity. It exposes the inhumanity of Sharia Law and its utter subjugation of women. But it's also, in another sense, a look back in time – to the Old Testament of the Bible.

As can be found in books like Exodus and Leviticus, God's execution method of choice in the Old Testament is stoning. What people might not realize is that this was by no means a mercy killing. Stoning is barbaric, and it can take more than an hour for the victim to die from massive hemorrhaging.  When you consider that this brutal form of execution was thrust upon people at God's behest for the pettiest of things, like a woman lacking a hymen on her wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:20,21), it becomes very inconsistent with the modern Christian idea of a loving god. It's not as though the Israelites…

Woo on Huffpo: Robert Lanza's theory of everything

Man, it's like the ink had barely dried on my last write-up of biocentrism when Robert Lanza penned an awful op-ed over at Huffpo hawking his pseudoscientific rubbish. I love physics and cosmology, so when I saw the link to an article that said, "Why are you here? A new theory may hold the missing piece." I excitedly clicked the link expecting to read some fascinating new theory from a reputable physicist. Instead, I got Robert Lanza, who knows absolutely nothing about physics, talking up his pet theory. Rather than rehash my criticisms of the theory itself (it's not even a proper theory in any sense of the word), I'm going to comment on a few statements that stood out to me for their face-palming stupidity.
Even setting aside the issue of being here and now, the probability of random physical laws and events leading to this point is less than 1 out of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, equivalent to winning every lottery th…

Altruistic bacteria

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There's an article in this month's Scientific American about drug-resistant bacteria that help their more vulnerable counterparts survive onslaughts from antibiotics. The resistant bacteria secrete a molecule called indole which helps the non-resistant bacteria by activating drug-exporting pumps on their cell membranes. The catch is that secreting indole weakens the resistant bacteria, adversely affecting their own growth.

Obviously this is nothing like altruism in the sense we talk about it in humans or other primates. Our own altruistic behavior is driven by a deeply embedded biological tendency toward empathy, stirred together with a vast array of ever-shifting sociocultural ideologies. Bacteria, lacking brains, aren't capable of feeling empathy and certainly not of developing sociocultural norms.

But there is a lesson here that I think is worth shoving in the face of creationists, and that includes "theistic evolutionists" who believe our moral intuitions are …

NY Times: Roman Catholics are expressing a renewed interest in exorcism

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/13/us/13exorcism.html?_r=1

You can't make this stuff up:
There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil. Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care. I'm not really sure what the methodology is for determining whether someone is possessed by the Devil, and to my knowledge no exorcism rituals have ever been subject to any kind of controlled experimentation. But that's not the real face-palming part. We know that there's a strong inverse correlation between education and religiosity. An…

Y'know what... I WILL read it!

You know those really stupid commercials that the LDS Church uses to promote the crackpottery* that is Mormonism? Someone finally decided to make fun of them.




* "Nutbaggery" would also have been acceptable.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

Alright. I know I'm not the first to tackle this one. Lots of non-believers on Youtube have tackled it. It's been tackled by Bud at Dead Logic, Tristan at Advocatus Atheist, and Luke at Common Sense Atheism just to name a few. But far be it from me to leave myself out of the action.

But first, a word on my approach to these kinds of things. I don't have a PhD in physics or philosophy. I've read debates about the Kalam that are so full of obscure phrasings and terminology that I wonder if even the authors completely understand what they're talking about. When I'm reading, say, a book on theoretical physics, I try to break everything down into its simplest form. People who get off on arguing love wordiness and obscurity because it makes their arguments sound more intellectual, even if at their core they are unintelligible. I think that if we break it down to its most basic assumptions, the Kalam Cosmological Argument is ridiculously easy to dismiss.

Hitler the atheist!

NonStampCollector makes some of the most clever, incisive videos around and this latest one is no exception. We've heard time and time again that Hitler was an atheist, or that Stalin and Mao are "atheist regimes". This video rips that folly to threads.

Reality 2, William Lane Craig 0: Craig's criticisms of "The Grand Design"

Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, much like his seminal bestseller A Brief History of Time, contains some ideas that make theists uncomfortable. A central and well-publicized concept of the book is that the universe does not require the invocation of a god to explain its origin; the universe can be self-contained, without a beginning or end and exist without cause. This essentially removes the need for a creator, which while perhaps not undoing Deepak Chopra's vaguely defined pantheistic consciousness (beyond its superfluousness), certainly renders a divine Creator an obsolete concept.

William Lane Craig fancies himself somewhat of an expert on physics for some reason, and despite his frequently inane arguments is unquestionably well-versed in the obscure lexicon of philosophical theology. So when believers weren't sure of what to make of Hawking's book and didn't want to bother reading it themselves, they deferred to their expert and inundated Craig's inbox…

An African-American voter is forced to swear on a Bible

Here's a weird one, via Alternet:
"did anyone else have to swear on a bible that their address was correct before they were able to vote? just wondering, because i did," Philadelphia voter Lindsay Grangerwrote on her blogafter voting in last Tuesday's mid-term election. "i had to lay my palm on the good book and state my name and address before i was allowed to sign my name in the voting log and enter the booth. they called it an affirmation. i call it creepy… and a little offensive…"But that's not the really disturbing part:

Reality 1, William Lane Craig 0

I mentioned my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig a few posts back when I was talking about the problems with apologetics, and while I was briefly at his site to copy the URL I couldn't resist the morbid urge to check out his latest ghastly Q&A section. Surely nothing could top his face-palmingly unfounded criticism of Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design or his horrid and convoluted attempt to defend God's demands of genocide. But this new one is pretty remarkable in how much inanity this beacon of Christian enlightenment manages to cram into such a small space. Read the whole thing if you dare: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8470

Here's the question:

Atheist ministers leading the faithful (redux)

http://abcnews.go.com/WN/atheist-ministers-leading-faithful/story?id=12004359

Thanks to John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity for this one. There's a great article over at ABC that focuses on a couple of atheists in the clergy. I talked about this a few months back, and I sincerely doubt it's an isolated phenomenon. Not only do I think that the incidence of "closet atheists" in the clergy is likely much greater than the small number with the courage to speak out belies, but I think that there are just as likely many atheist parishioners as well. And beyond those who have flat out stopped believing, there are most certainly many more who struggle with a great deal of doubt, and who tire at being told to "just have faith."

Disqus commenting and the DM saga

I've ditched the default Blogger commenting scheme in favor of Disqus. "Why, Mike," I hear you asking, "Why oh why would you do such a thing?" Well, Disqus has some really cool features that make commenting more interesting while making my life easier.

Mainly, I did it because I was tired of deleting spam by notorious troll Dennis Markuze/Dave Mabus/Douche Maximus. I mean, I am all for dissenting constructive criticism of anything I write – in fact, I feel like if I'm not getting some criticism, I must be doing something wrong. It's important to stimulate dialogue and to be challenged on your views. But the incoherent spam that "DM" posts everywhere isn't worth the bandwidth it's transmitted on. Blogger's spam filter was a joke. It literally did nothing. Every comment DM posted, I'd mark as "spam", but that didn't prevent him from using the same profile to post more garbage.

Is Biocentrism worth taking seriously?

Biocentrismis a theory of cosmology proposed by Robert Lanza, a doctor who is chief science officer at ATC (a company that does biomedical research) and an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which states that the rather than consciousness arising from the universe, the universe arises from consciousness.

All of physics has always assumed, as best we can discern from the available evidence, that the universe exists independently of us. Lanza's theory flips the script, suggesting that consciousness is what produces the universe. He derives the theory from, among other things, the observer effect in quantum mechanics – we can't measure a quantum system without altering it. He takes it a step further and claims that delayed-choice experiments, which I talked about a few posts back, support his theory that the observer affects events that have already happened. Cosmology is full of riddles, and we have a long way to go before we r…

Laurence Krauss on spotting quantum quackery

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/09/20/5144889-how-to-spot-quantum-quackery

There's a lot of woo out there with regard to quantum mechanics, not the least of which is the bile spewed from the pseudo-intellectual fraud Deepak Chopra about how we're all connected to a universal consciousness and that there's something called "quantum healing". This interview with Laurence Krauss sheds some perspective on why stuff like Chopr's woo, The Secret, and "quantum consciousness" is all just a bunch of bologna.
People latch onto their dreams, and they always try to match them to reality. Quantum mechanics is a replacement for the phrase "anything goes." Once anything goes, you can have anything you want. So what better thing to have than something that gives you everything you want? The point is, with quantum mechanics, everything doesn't go. On certain scales, for certain times, in certain regions, everything goes and strange thin…

Jesus loves you!

This video is a little over the top, but as it goes on it really highlights the absurdity of the Christian doctrine: Jesus loves you as perfectly as you can be loved. Jesus IS love. But if you don't love him back, you're going to spend eternity in the most miserable place imaginable. I would add that according to Christian theology, you're condemned to this horrible fate just by being born. Sounds like quite a ruse.

The problem with apologetics

I've spent a fair bit of time addressing apologetics arguments in this blog, from Francis Collins to the always cringe-inducing William Lane Craig. You've heard them all before – the Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Design, the Argument from Moral Law, and the most horribly face-palm-inducing of them all: the Ontological Argument.

My introduction to apologetics was C.S. Lewis' The Case For Christianity back when I was a practicing Christian. Ironically, it ended up doing more to dissuade me from belief than to reaffirm what I desired to be true, mainly because I was disappointed at how easy it was to poke gaping holes in his logic – take away a few early assumptions, and all the subsequent arguments became irrelevant. But there was something else that bothered me quite a bit, which was that Christianity is supposed to be about faith. The more I thought about the implications of "having faith", the more I doubted Christianity's veracity. If it's de…

Do pastors even know what they're talking about? Do parishoners?

I stumbled across this little gem of Christians bickering (like they do) about who is the "real" Christian, and how so-and-so is a heretic and not preaching the "true" gospel, etc. etc. Stuff like this is a dime a dozen, but I found this one entertaining because it involves a pastor from a church I attended as a teenager – Bill Scheer from GUTS Church here in Tulsa.

GUTS' claim to fame is that it's a "rock n' roll" church. You wear whatever you want, they play contemporary music, and the church is basically in a big warehouse instead of a fancy work of architectural art. Churches like this are pretty common nowadays, with Life Church being a pretty widespread example. These are non-denominational churches, which is interesting to me. Technically, it just means that they're not affiliated with any particular national denomination. But it's also supposed to mean that you're not this kind of Christian or that – you're just a Chris…