Showing posts from November, 2010

The problem with Heaven

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

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 summe

The TSA wants to molest you

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

How close are we to a Theory of Everything?

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)

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

Church mistaken for mosque, citizens outraged

Image 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

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

Advocatus Interviewus

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 d

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 t

Now we just have to make a bomb out of it 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.

"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 Israelite

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

Altruistic bacteria

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 intuitio

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

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 inb

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 Granger   wrote on her blog   after 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: Here's the question:

Atheist ministers leading the faithful (redux) 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?

Biocentrism is 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

Laurence Krauss on spotting 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 t

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'

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 Ch

Questions for Christians

I caught a post over at Debunking Christianity , and although I haven't been following it closely, apparently John Loftus is proposing a book co-written by a Christian scholar that will purportedly debate Christianity. There's been some suggestion that his questions weren't ideal – he's focusing on very specific doctrinal and theological issues instead of broader questions on faith. Anyway, some readers commented with some of their own questions/challenges, and I think some of them are worth repeating. You can view the original thread here . From user "P.Coyle": 1. If God exists, then he responsible for the existence of evil, either because he is the knowing cause of it, or because he knowingly allows it. 2. Most of the people who have ever lived never heard of the Christian god. If "belief in God" is a requirement for salvation, then God is responsible for those people not being saved, because he did not make his existence known to them.

Churches are purdy

While I was driving home from a concert last night, I drove past some of Tulsa's many churches downtown. In case you didn't know, one of Tulsa's claims to fame is the number of historic churches dotted about town, and some of them really are quite beautiful. I saw a performance of Mozart's Requiem in one of the downtown churches years and years ago, and I was very much in awe of the architectural beauty of it. Churches on the South side of town where I live tend to be more modern and pedestrian, or in some cases the kind of excessively lavish evangelical epicenters that look like modern-day towers of Babylon. So the downtown churches seem to offer something a bit more culturally unique and aesthetically compelling. This just presented a bit of a duality for me. I have lots of fond memories in various churches. I see them as impressive feats of architectural creativity and ingenuity, and symbols of community solidarity. Now, if they could just do all that stuff without

Pseudoscience flow chart

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Click for a larger, more legible version.

The scariest part of Halloween: Christian witnesses

As I do every Sunday, I joined my parents for dinner yesterday on Halloween. They took turns greeting the trick or treaters (I'm kind of surprised at how few of them actually said "trick or treat!" though) while we ate and chatted. At one point, while my mom was in the kitchen, my dad answered the door to some ORU students (that's Oral Roberts University, which should tell you all you need to know). They were collecting canned food for charity. I thought that was really cool, and I applaud them for that. As much as I love to bash religion for its falsity and absurdity, some religions certainly imbue their followers with a sense of charitable duty, and there's nothing wrong with that. Then, after my dad had collected some food to give them, they said it: "Do you mind if we pray with you?"