Showing posts from January, 2011

Nergal 1, leukemia 0

I posted a few months back that Adam "Nergal" Darski, frontman for the Polish blackened-death-metal band Behemoth, was admitted to a hospital with leukemia. He was told that chemotherapy wouldn't be enough, and that without a bone marrow transplant he did not have long to live.

What's that have to do with this blog, I hear you asking. Well, you know how many a Christian pounced on Christopher Hitchens' cancer as an opportunity for him to convert? Nergal is a pantheistic pagan who is vociferously anti-Christian. Behemoth has heartwarming song titles that include "Christians to the Lions", "Satanica", and my personal favorite, "Christgrinding Avenue". As part of the show for introducing the latter song, he's been known to tear up a Bible on stage, calling it a "pile of shit" and encouraging the audience to "burn it" and "piss on it". (If you're unfamiliar with the reasons why black metal bands loath…

The Bible is a worthless historical document

The story of the Jewish exodus out of Egypt is of pretty pivotal importance in the Bible. It's what established Moses as God's chosen leader of his chosen people, and that leadership became integral to the establishment of Old Testament law. Indeed the covenant of the Jews before Christ came was called the Mosaic Covenant.

One problem though: there's not actually any evidence that it ever happened. There's zero evidence that the people of Israel were ever enslaved by the Egyptians at all, much less that they escaped in a brave insurrection. Some modern-day Christians are fond of incorporating a healthy dose of retroactive rationalization to explain the total lack of contemporaneous or extra-Biblical evidence. But it's a myth, a fable – and most historical scholars know this.

This raises some interesting questions. The creation story of Genesis, Adam and Eve, the Flood, Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job – all myths, proved completely implausible by modern scienc…

Sam Harris takes on his critics

Sam Harris has written a lengthy response at Huffpo to critics of his latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It's a very thorough and strong rebuttal, and truthfully I've had a hard time reading all of it. But that's mainly because I already agreed with him, and when I read the early criticisms of his book (many of which, as Harris notes, were put forth by people who hadn't even read it), I found them to be sorely misguided.  

I think The Moral Landscape is an important book. Secular morality is far more nuanced and sophisticated than religious ideas of morality, which are asserted from vacuous claims of authority usually rooted in arbitrary interpretations of holy books or epistemically worthless philosophical musings on metaphysics. Harris is dead-on in suggesting that moral values must relate to objective facts about the human condition, and only by acknowledging this can we begin to evolve the moral dialogue toward an understandin…

Knowing What We Know, part 1: "Patterns"

The first book on physics I ever read was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. It's actually the book that catapulted me from a sort of weak theistic agnosticism into full-on atheism. It wasn't that I thought Hawking had disproved the existence of God or anything like that, but it was the thought process that intrigued me – he bravely took certain "big questions" out of the realm of mysticism and into the quantifiable world of science. This was also the book that introduced me to the famous double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics. In the experiment, a particle does not take one path from A to B, but rather all possible paths simultaneously. That's a profoundly counter-intuitive idea, one that's even more counter-intuitive than the weirdness of things like gravitational time dilation from Einstein's General Relativity.

Our minds play tricks

We tend to view the world from a rather insular kind of bubble. We're bombarded with a massive amou…

Ted Haggard: bisexual

In a revealing interview (bad choice of words, I know) with GQ, disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard (whom I remember mainly from his bizarre interview with Richard Dawkins) describes himself as bisexual, and makes some revealing comments reflecting a newfound cynicism about the church:
"I think that probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual." When Ted resigned from New Life, a board of church-appointed overseers presented him with a separation agreement that required him to cut off all contact with members of the church, stay away from the media, perform no ministry-related work, and move his family out of Colorado. As severance, the church would provide fourteen months' salary for him and Gayle (about $200,000) and assorted other benefits. Ted obediently signed the agreement, but he now believes it was excessively harsh treatment for a family in the midst of a major crisis—especially since, well, isn't providing mercy …

Another apostate joins the fray (... of bloggers)

Being a de-converted Christian, I'm always interested in hearing the stories and perspectives of fellow apostates. Now Brian Wallace, formerly the anonymous writer of Going Apostate, has started a new blog called (appropriately) Gone Apostate.

Which reminds me: former pastor Bruce Gerencser, who penned the NW Ohio Skeptics, is back in action at Fallen From Grace.

And this is a fine time to remind my readers of a few of my other favorite apostate blogs:
Dead Logic
Advocatus Atheist
Closet Atheist

And I still occasionally peruse the superb blog of the late Ken Pulliam, PhD:
Why I De-Converted From Evangelical Christianity

And here is a German folk metal band.

Some common logical fallacies

In my discussions with believers, I often hear believers both committing logical fallacies and accusing non-believers of committing them. So for this post, I just wanted to list some common fallacies and how they are used and misused, drawing from examples I've frequently encountered.

1. Ad hominem

Ad hominem is "attacking the man". But it's often confused with insults, like follows:
Person 1: "Blah blah blah"Person 2: "You're an idiot"Person 1: "Oh, there you go with making ad hominem attacksAn insult is not the same thing as an ad hominem attack. The proper fallacy occurs when you dismiss an argument because of your value judgment on the person. For example:
"You're wrong because you're an idiot""Horatio can't be trusted, so I wouldn't believe his argument"It's not a fallacy to say that someone is untrustworthy, stupid, or whatever. It's only a fallacy when you conclude that their argument is inva…

The Euthyphro dilemma

In Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates queries, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Socrates’ query can be re-phrased in this more modern way: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” This creates an inescapable conundrum for the believer: if something is good because God commands it, then no act is intrinsically immoral. If God commands something because it is good, then God is not the source of good, but rather subject to it.

The God of the Old Testament seems to adhere to quite a different standard of morality than we value today. He explicitly condones slavery (both slave labor and sexual servitude), fosters the subjugation of women, and commands his followers to commit genocide and human sacrifice. No doubt today we find these sorts of things to be morally repugnant. But if they are objectively immoral, then how could God, who is perfectly moral…

Educational inflation

From Dr. Michio Kaku's Facebook page today: "The space program, particle physics, stem cell research- the US is gradually losing its edge."

He's right of course. We can't coast forever given how abysmal our education system is in comparison to the rest of the industrialized world. Our system is fundamentally broken, and while I think throwing money at the problem might help in certain specific instances (such as underprivileged schools needing up-to-date materials), I think the whole paradigm of education in the U.S. is problematic. 

I can only relate my own experience, and what I think is wrong. I hated my entire educational experience. I've always been more of an autodidact, but there is no question that I learned little in all my years in school compared to what I learned on my own outside of school. Math and science were always taught horribly – as abstract concepts requiring lots of rote memorization rather than real-world application. Reading comprehensio…

A history of God

h/t Bud:

A few thoughts:

I can't help but think of Dan Dennett's excellent lecture from AAI 2009 and the "use-mention error" he talks about. This is really a history of the concept of God. I suppose that title's a bit less interesting.

I haven't delved much into Old Testament scholarship, which I suppose is mostly because most of the people I end up debating are Christians. Jews are a little harder to come by, particularly Jews who obsess over things like inerrancy. Aside from the fact that there's no historical evidence that the Jews were ever actually in Egypt (a pretty good example of when absence of evidence does in fact constitute evidence of absence),  I don't know much about the historical background of the Old Testament. So it's nice to see someone tackling the Old Testament more thoroughly.

I've followed Evid3nc3's videos on Youtube for a while, and there's a sentiment that he touches upon often (and again in this video) that…

Was the universe designed for life?

One of the themes I've been hammering recently is the idea of evidence of absence. It's the idea that if God exists, there ought to be some kind of evidence that he does, and if there isn't evidence consistent with how God is conceptualized then the lack of evidence is evidence that God does not exist. This is an important concept to understand to see why atheists are agnostic about the existence of God, but that this agnosticism should not be misconstrued as a middling view that the odds for and against God's existence are equiprobable. We define ourselves as atheists not just because we don't think there's evidence for God's existence, but because the absence of evidence where there should be evidence suggests that God's existence is either highly unlikely or unknowable to the point of irrelevance.

The apparent life-supporting design of the universe is all too often touted as tautological proof that God exists. I discussed the fallacy of our apparent …

You can't make up this kind of stupidity

I mentioned in my previous post that if God exists, there ought to be some specific evidence of that depending on how God is being conceptualized. This is a fine example of how some believers conceptualize a theistic God – when people do bad things, bad things happen! It's like when Jerry Falwell claimed that 9/11 happened because we tolerate homosexuality, or when Pat Robertson suggested that Katrina was evidence that God was angry over abortions. So recently there have been some seemingly odd mass deaths of birds and fish. Why is this happening? Cindy Jacobs says it's because we repealed DADT:

Now that you've become dumber and wasted a few minutes of your life, let's fix that with actual science courtesy of physicist extraordinaire Dr. Michio Kaku:
So these events really do happen all the time, except we are unaware of them, until something pushes these events into the national media, such as simultaneous die-offs. In fact; In the past eight months, the United Sta…

The burden of proof

Here's an issue that keeps cropping up in the debate about God's existence: where does the burden of proof lie? Do theists have to prove their claim that God exists, or do atheists have to prove their claim that God doesn't exist? Predictably, there's frustration on both sides of the isle – atheists argue that believers are the ones making the claim, therefor the burden of proof lies with them. But theists assert that atheists are making a claim of their own that also must be proved.

Let's start with some basic philosophy: the burden of proof always falls on the person making the affirmative claim. This is logic 101. If your friend Cletus tells you that aliens are visiting Earth, the burden is not on you to disprove his claim – he is holding the affirmative position, and the burden of proof rests solely upon him. In this case, you hold what is called the null hypothesis:
The null hypothesis typically proposes a general or default position, such as that the…

CNN: Few swayed by fraud finding in autism study

Here's great news: you know how some idiot jerk named Andrew Wakefield published a fraud of a study that falsely linked important vaccines to autism? Remember how the public went into a fury, and Jenny McCarthy was on TV all the time talking about the evils of vaccination? Remember how Wakefield's study was subsequently discredited and retracted after it was proved he falsified the medical histories of everyone in his study, and he was stripped of his license?

Well, apparently despite that, people are still freaking out about vaccines and autism. Anti-vaccinism is the new religion, and like all religions it's rooted in fear and values passion over reason. Evidence? Pfft. Science? Fbblltt. Meanwhile, more kids are dying of treatable diseases like the measles and whooping cough.

This is often framed as a personal choice issue: "We shouldn't have to get our kids vaccinated if we don't want to!"

Ted Williams and the power of prayer

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about Ted Williams, the "Man with the Golden Voice." A week ago he was living on the streets, where he'd been after alcohol and drunks took him in a downward spiral for many years. His unique pipes were captured on a Youtube video, which became a viral sensation. Now there are job offers pouring in for all kinds of broadcast work. He finally has the chance to turn his life around – quite dramatically in fact, as some of the job offers stand to be very lucrative.

Williams has been adamant about his relationship with God and the power of prayer. In various interviews he's talked about how he "found God" this past year and has prayed daily for better fortunes. In the dramatic reunion with his mother, she says she always prayed for him.

I'm sure that more than a few believers have used this as an opportunity to extol the power of prayer. But it's actually a fantastic example of how bel…

Dark matter? Maybe not...

There's a fascinating article in Scientific American about the ongoing search for dark matter; a small but vocal group has suggested that it's the theory of gravity itself that needs to be modified to account for the observed discrepancies:
"Once you convince yourself that the universe is full of an invisible substance that only interacts with ordinary matter through gravity, then it is virtually impossible to disabuse yourself of that notion. There is always a way to wiggle out of any observation."The article talks about how researchers have continually altered their parameters as all attempts to detect dark matter have failed:
After each non-detection, McGaugh says, theorists continually redefine the interaction cross-section of WIMPs to safely undetectable levels. This kind of behavior, he adds, can spark a never-ending game of leapfrog between experimental physicists and theoreticians, allowing them to continue business as usual without ever revising their …

Philosopher of religion Keith Parsons calls it quits

From Religion Dispatches:

After a decade teaching philosophy of religion at the University of Houston, during which time he founded the philosophy of religion journal Philo and published over twenty books and articles in the field, Parsons hung up his hat on September 1st:
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest... I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it.Notable snippet…


Bud over at Dead Logic has a fantastic post handing a smackdown to Christian apologist Tim Keller, whose book The Reason for God I wrote a partial critique of back in November. Bud takes Keller to task for his claim that rejecting Christianity requires one to have formulated an alternative hypothesis:
Keller claims that the "only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it." Keller seems to misunderstand what it means to doubt. He apparently thinks that to doubt Christianity means "to have an alternate belief" in lieu of Christianity. No, Tim. To doubt is to question, to be unsure of the claim(s) being made, to require evidence before accepting the claim(s) as truth. Doubt does not require an "alternate belief" as Keller suggests. I think Bud nails it on the head. As many a debate in forums and here on this blog attest, some Christia…

Giant levitating superturtles

I'm a big fan of Dr. Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist who specializes in String Theory. Today on his blog he answered a question from a reader that echoes some common confusion about Stephen Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design: "Can a universe create itself out of nothing?"

Dr. Kaku essentially explains that because the total energy of the universe is zero, it does not require a net positive increase in energy to create a universe. This is similar to the explanations I've heard from Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking himself. But I feel like it's probably a bit of an unsatisfying answer for many, because when these physicists are using the word "nothing", they're not really using it the way most people use it colloquially. We generally think of "nothing" to mean absolutely nothing at all – no energy, no matter, no physical laws, no universe – you know, nothing. These physicists are using it in a sense of no matter, and sugge…

Why live?

When I was growing up, there was an elderly woman down the street from us who was an atheist. My mom used to remark that it seemed so depressing to think that after you die, that's just it. You're gone, and there's nothing else to look forward to. I agreed unquestioningly for many years, until my apostasy forced me to confront the finality of death.

Nowadays, I actually feel it's the other way around – to me, it's depressing to think that this world isn't enough. That we can't be satisfied with nature's strange beauty or the complex nature of our human experiences – happiness, suffering, pain, love. That we have to imagine that the uncomfortable parts of our humanity will be stripped away in a world to come, as though that would really be some sort of utopian existence – it sounds more like a lobotomy to me.

Eastern philosophy played a big role in my deconversion. While in the West we tend to treat suffering and unhappiness with great fear and loathing…