Showing posts from September, 2010

Here's a shocker
On Basic Religion Test, Many Doth Not PassBy LAURIE GOODSTEINAmericans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.
We who criticize religion are often accused of being out of our league – criticizing theology when we're not theologians.

Francis Collins on The Big Think: "Why is it so difficult for scientists to believe in a higher power?"

Francis Collins' point of view here basically amounts to the old "non-overlapping magisteria" argument that Stephen Jay Gould put forth ages ago. Science and faith answer different questions. The problem with this view twofold: the first is that many questions hastily deemed beyond the scope of scientific inquiry are in fact not. Collins himself argues in his book The Language of God that the existence of moral judgment is evidence of a higher power, but countless evolutionary biologists – and perhaps most notably Frans De Waal – have stripped the supernatural from morality. Stephen Hawking recently ruffled the feathers of many a religious thinker when he declared that cosmology can explain the origin of the universe just fine without invoking a supernatural Creator – a God of the Gaps long held dear by many believers. The physicist Laurence Krauss, in his lecture at AAI 2009, answered the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" using physics…

Sunday Sacrilege: What's the point of the devil?

In case you haven't heard, there's a shlocky-looking horror movie coming out this week called Devil. It doesn't look like the kind of flick I need to see on the big screen, but it did get me thinking about Christian mythology, and the peculiarity of the devil as a central figure in the battle for people's souls. It's one of those things about Christianity – like Jesus being God, which means God prays to himself and sacrifices himself to himself to fulfill his own covenant – that just doesn't make any sense.

What is Satan, really, but an inordinately underpowered minion that does God's dirty work? God is supposed to be all-powerful, so any power that Satan has – you know, to torture people, tempt them, possess them, drive them insane, whatever – is power that God would have granted him. Then in the end times described in Revelation, there's supposed to be this epic battle between good and evil. Except how is anything really a battle? It sounds like the S…

Adam "Nergal" Darski on his leukemia

In case you're not into European black/death metal, Behemoth frontman Adam Darski, who records and performs under the namesake of the Babylonian deity Nergal, was diagnosed a little while ago with leukemia. It's an advanced stage of the disease, and unless he gets a bone marrow transplant soon, the world will lose an amazing musical and philosophical mind – not to mention a cool fucking guy (I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly when Behemoth played in Tulsa, opening for Dimmu Borgir).

Behemoth is one seriously blasphemous band, which of course I absolutely love. Nergal was even arrested and threatened with jail time subject to one of Poland's anti-blasphemy laws after he ripped up a Bible during a concert. So now that he's on death's door, is he rethinking things? Maybe ready to give his heart to Jesus? This is what he had to say:
I want to comment on some opinions which, provoked by religious circles, lead to far-fetched and inaccurate interpretations. I was …

Those damn militant atheists

Man, you just can't win. For the longest time, atheism was so stigmatized that atheists rarely spoke openly about their dissent. It's still facing a heavy stigma in many parts of the world, and we're fighting an uphill battle to get more non-believers to speak up. And now, there is undoubtedly a strong cultural movement promoting atheism, of which I am a tiny, tiny, tiny part. A huge part of this movement isn't just the public dissemination of ideas, but a move to create acceptance for non-believers. 

Why are atheists speaking up? Probably because we're sick of nutcases killing people over silly ideas. We're sick of religious nuts trying to alter education curricula, and we're sick of accomodationist crap like Templeton and BioLogos that tries to conflate religion with scientific and rational inquiry. We're sick of people oppressing the rights of the LGBT community and setting back stem-cell research, and justifying it with appeals to a ridiculous anci…

Is fish oil safe?

I had a client say something to me yesterday that I thought was kind of peculiar: that fish oil can cause cancer. She's a cancer survivor, and took fish oil for years. Now she refuses to take it on the fear that it will cause her cancer to return. I don't have the slightest clue where she could have heard that, but as is often the case, people base their beliefs on limited information and dubious sources. But I thought this was kind of interesting, since I take fish oil – it's one of the few supplements I actually think has decent research behind hit.  And I don't eat as much fish as I'd like to, so it's kind of a pragmatic supplement.

So I Googled. I couldn't find any data suggesting that fish oil can cause cancer. In fact, the data, while only correlative, seems to be the opposite. What I did find was a lawsuit by some folks who claimed that some brands of fish oil exceeded FDA-approved levels of PCBs, which at high levels pose a cancer risk. Interestingl…

Father Robert Barron: "Why do we believe in God?"

I hopped on to Youtube this afternoon, and this video popped up in my recommendations. It's a few years old, but I think it's worth addressing. In the vid, Father Robert Barron attempts to answer the question, why do we believe in God? I suppose why should we believe in God? would be a little better suited to us skeptic types, but he gives it his best shot:

1) The argument from desire

He describes his first argument as an "argument from desire"; that we seek things like truth, justice, and meaning, and we can't seem to find them here in the material world. Because we desire them, they must exist ("you can't desire what you don't know") – but beyond the material world.

Like wow. That's a doozy. At first glance, it's circular – how can we seek truth if we already know it? But I think he's wrong. We don't seek "truth", at least not in the nebulous way he seems to be defining it. Rather, we seek congruence between our experi…

Dawkins vs. Ratzinger

Wow! (Updated with much higher quality video)

Bill Donohue thinks atheists should apologize for Hitler

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, is one of those people whose thought processes are so remarkably vacuous that he fills his rather expansive intellectual void by being loud and belligerent. He's fond of saying things that are so ignorant and fallacious that you could swear the guy is trying to parody something, and damn is he awesome, until that horrible moment when you realize this clown actually believes the nonsense he's spewing. So recently, he posted something on the Catholic League website in which he demanded that atheists apologize for Nazis:
Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this…

My Grand Design for a book review

I got Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design today. For a book on theoretical physics, it looks to be a rather unintimidating read: It's not very fat, the font is reasonably large and generously spaced, and there are lots of pictures. Contrast that with, say, Lisa Randall's absolutely fascinating book Warped Passages, which despite its fascinating... uh... fascinating-ness, is approximately 40,000 pages of text that requires, at bare minimum, a monocle for accurate viewing.

Anyway, I will of course do a thorough discussion on the book. But before that, I'll do a quick vid that I'll stick on my dusty YouTube page to just give an overview of everything. Got it? Synchronize watches!

Accomodationism in the New York Times: a review of "The Grand Design" and a strange op-ed

There's a rather odd and unpersuasive op-ed in the NY Times today by a self-proclaimed atheist by the name of Tim Crane. It's an odd little bit of accomodationism, essentially a retreat to the old canard that religion is about meaning, and science is about stuff:
... scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability. Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical.Well duh. That's because unlike science, there's no methodology to religious beliefs. There's no way of determining, in any valid or reliable way, whose theological claims are true and whose are false. What a shocker: making shit up does not require years of …

What religious tolerance really means

Sam Harris has a post today on his Facebook page where he asks his fans to compare an op-ed from Christopher Hitchens over at Slate to the apparently way-too-sissified prose on tolerance from Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times. I read both articles and I encourage you to do the same, but here's the gist of each: the Hitch tells us that Islam is fundamentally a dangerous religion, and that it must either be eradicated or conform to the inexorable forward march of secular modernism; Kristof reminds us that being respectful of those who hold different opinions, traditions, and values is a central part of what makes America the land of the free.

Sam Harris derides Kristof's essay as "pablum", and to an extent I think he's right. But I think that fundamentally, both scribes are correct. Hitch is right to say, regarding Islam, "Some of its adherents follow or advocate the practice of plural marriage, forced marriage, female circumcision, compulsory veiling of…

Sean Carroll on Stephen Hawking

Physicist Sean Carroll explains Stephen Hawking's controversial statement that God was not needed to create the unvierse:

I've said it a hundred times before, and I'll say it again: the only thing worse than a god that doesn't exist is a god that might as well not exist. Hawking's ideas aren't new, and cosmology has been to a point for quite some time where a deity was not necessary to explain the origin of the universe. But I'm glad that a big gun like Stephen Hawking is having the cojones to put it out there in the public forum, because that famous question, "Why is there something rather than nothing" has been answered with science, and it's time more believers know it.

I don't expect Hawking's statement, or his book, to instigate a mass wave of deconversions. But if it gets some people thinking critically about their faith, if it gets more people eschewing revelation and sentiment in favor of reason and evidence, then he's acco…

The myth of the historical Jesus

Something has been on my brain, kind of randomly: Jesus. Not the religion that worships him and eats him, but the idea of Jesus as a historical figure. Some non-Christians figure Jesus was probably just a nice, charismatic dude who shopped at Journeys and played guitar in Fleet Floxes, and that all the divine parlor tricks are just myths. But I take the more confrontational and factual position that Jesus, at least in the way he's described in the Bible, did not exist at all. He is a complete work of fiction.

The only records of Jesus' existence are the books we see in the Bible. A lot of people, like Francis Collins (the human genome guy), think that the four gospels are eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life. But there are two really, really big problems with that. The first is that even by the questionable standards of early-church scholarship, the gospels were all written decades after Jesus purportedly lived. The second is that they are simply not written like eyewitness …

The ontological argument

Through some comments on Youtube videos, I've found myself in a discussion/debate about the ontological argument. If you're not familiar with this rather odd argument for the existence of God, it essentially tries to define God into existence. I think apologist philosopher type like the argument not because it's particularly good, but because it uses a lot of obscure language and is really confusing to most people. Then apologists can just sort of smugly say, "See, you just don't understand the argument."

As with all philosophical arguments for the existence of God, there are a number of versions of the ontological argument. I'll lay out a couple of them:

Ansel's ontological argument (the original) 

1. If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I can think of no being greater1a. If it is false that I can think of no being greater, it is false I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable2. Being is greater than not being3. If the being I am …

I wonder what all those accomodationists will say about this one

Stephen Hawking has a new book coming out next Tuesday, and apparently part of it has him suggesting that when it comes to the creation of the universe, God just wasn't necessary.

This is of course different than saying that he's disproved the existence of God or something like that. But accomodationists like Francis Collins, Fransico Ayala, Kenneth Miller, and... well, the entire Templeton Foundation have long acquiesced to the fact that evolution, driven by the blind processes of survival and reproduction, doesn't require a deity to guide it. So they simply shifted the goalpost and said the universe itself, and its apparent design, is evidence of God's existence.

I've read a number of popular science books on physics including a couple of Hawking's books, and I subscribe to Scientific American, which occasionally features articles on cosmology. Hawking's comments really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who stays abreast of developments in the fi…

More on Francis Collins

The virtual ink had barely dried on my critique of Francis Collins' The Language of God when I came across an essay he contributed to the Templeton Foundation. Generally, I am not a fan of the Templeton Foundation and its attempts to conflate science and religion as though each were valid forms of inquiry (there is no methodology to religious inquiry), but I don't particularly mind when they invite people of all different scientific and religious perspectives to comment on a "Big Question". The Big Question this time around was "Does evolution explain human nature?" [link] Personally, I was most impressed by the essay of primatologist Frans De Waal, of whose fantastic books Our Inner Ape and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved I am very fond.

But I wanted to take some time to address parts of Francis Collins' essay, most notably because in his essay he addresses some of my criticisms of his book — namely, that he was merely "shifting th…