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Showing posts from September, 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 11

Remember earlier when I said that one of my annoyances with this book is that the topics tend to repeat themselves? Well, this time they do so for two chapters in a row. I mean come on. This is a sixteen-chapter book, and it's looking more and more like it could have been, I dunno, ten. The next two chapters deal with the idea that science and religion are inherently in conflict.

Now, in my experience, there are two ways theists deal with this. First is to suggest that science and religion answer different questions – the old non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) argument. The other is to point out that lots of important scientists have been, and are, religious – heck, without religious people there might not even be science! The first is actually a semi-interesting topic; the second isn't really an argument at all. Isaac Newton was a scientist and an alchemist. Does that give alchemy more credibility?

Shockingly, these two chapters stick to the formula. That's a bit of a reli…

Sean Carroll responds to William Lane Craig

Sean Carroll has an essay in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology called, "Does the Universe Need God?" I think it's an outstanding rebuttal to first-cause and design arguments, and a thorough overview of modern cosmology and its implications. His arguments buttress what I have read in many other books and articles by modern cosmologists.

Recently, William Lane Craig did a podcast in which he tried to offer a response. I was literally in the process of writing a post about it when it dawned on me that Sean may have responded himself. And indeed, he had. I particularly like Sean's post because it reinforces many of the arguments I've put forth here on this blog in response to Craig's arguments. I am definitely not a physicist, which is why I tend to quote them instead of trying to correct them as Craig does.

Some choice quotes from Carroll's response:
One point he makes repeatedly — really the foundational idea from which everything else he has to …

Attack of the Jack

Old Jack Hudson is back after a bit of a blogging absence, and man did he ever make up for it. I was starting to type up a response at his blog, but then I thought I'd reply here because I think his post is a good insight into just how severe the nutbaggery can be in the mind of a religious conservative.

Jack's new piece is about the catastrophe that is the Atheism+ movement. Atheists divided against each other! Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! As a conservative Christian who thinks we atheists are mostly just a bunch of ignorant, angry, unsaved youths, this little incident has provided ample ammunition for him to point out not only the character flaws of atheists, but the flaws of atheism itself. Or, so he thinks. The truth is that Jack's perception of atheism, and the atheist community, is a cartoonish caricature of the real thing. He begins innocuously enough, but there's a bit of hyperbole that doesn't ring quite true:
New Atheism,…

A new Hubble deep field

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The Hubble telescope has captured a new deep-field image, revealing thousands of galaxies many billions of light-years away (click for the full-sized image):


Most primitive cosmology myths, including the Biblical one, tended to view the Earth as the center of the cosmos. Like this. I don't think it can be understated how humbling an image like the above ought to be. In light of these kinds of images, it seems to be the height of arrogance to conjecture that all this was "designed" with us in mind – we who took nearly 14 billion years just to arrive on the scene in a cosmically insignificant speck in one of billions of galaxies, each filled with hundreds of billions of stars.

If I were a theist...

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I was pondering what beliefs I might be most likely to entertain if I were a theist of some kind. What would I believe about God?

I think I would be a pantheist. I've always been sympathetic to the idea that there's an intelligent innate to the universe itself. Given the order and design of the universe, it seems to be the most plausible idea of a "god".

It's when this idea is anthropomorphized that I have a problem. I think it's ridiculous, and arrogant, to personify a deity, projecting human values upon it and suggesting that this deity has any vested interest in the affairs of humans any more so that it would have a vested interest in any other form of life, or in the birth and death of stars, or whatever.

So, why am I not a pantheist? Because I think the idea is unfalsifiable and utterly devoid of any explanatory value. We don't need to say the universe is conscious to be the way that it is; that's nothing more than a tautology. And whether the un…

DADT – one year later

We were all warned by conservative religious groups of the dire consequences of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. This "social experiment", we were told, was a risk to national security. A year later, it's the biggest non-story out there. Peter Singer (not the Australian one) and Aaron Belkin have written a terrific op ed for CNN on the topic:

A year after DADT repeal, no harm done

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 10

I'll be honest... this has gotten to be a bit of a slog. The best arguments this book has had to offer are ones that I've thought through, and found lacking, many times in the past. The worst arguments are responses to straw men – distortions or misunderstandings of the atheist point of view.

David Marshall, whose previous chapter left me unimpressed, is back for the tenth chapter which, similarly to the previous few chapters, tries to link Christianity and rationality to the degree that not only does the former follow from the latter, but the latter requires the former. And, it's pretty terrible. But I'll save the explanation for the post to follow.


Chapter 10: The Marriage of Faith and Reason

Tulsa church administrators allegedly covered up abuse

Victory Christian Center, one of the largest churches here in Tulsa and easily the largest evangelical church in town, is in some hot water after church officials have been caught covering up sexual abuse. Five administrators are now facing charges after evidence surfaced that they had known about several incidences of abuse, include a girl who was raped.

NewsOn6.com - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - KOTV.com |


More in the pipe

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Just in case you were losing sleep at night wondering where all the blog posts are, it's coming. I'll be finishing out my reading of True Reason very soon, starting with my review of chapter 10 which is mostly done. Honestly, I just needed a break. There's only so much apologetics I can take. After I wrap up True Reason, assuming it hasn't reconverted me I'm going to do a series called Why Christianity is False (well... title subject to change, but that's the idea).

In the meantime, here's a really, really great article by Sean Carroll in which he talks about the problems with faith-based beliefs – responding in particular to Sophisticated Theologian™ Alvin Plantiga's claim that faith-based knowledge is a "special gift from God" (which reminds me of William Lane Craig's claim that the "witness of the Holy Spirit" trumps all actual evidence). An excerpt:
Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. …

Did Jesus have a wife?

I say no, mainly because Jesus never existed. But a newly discovered text indicates that some early Christians may have believed he indeed had a wife. Other revealing texts indicate he had several kids, lived in the suburbs, and drove a minivan.

NPR: Did Jesus Have A Wife?

Sacrum Profanum

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I don't really know how to describe Behemoth. I think you just have to experience their music for yourself. Most will turn tail at the abrasiveness and chaos of it, but those who are left will have found something darkly beautiful.

I greatly admire frontman Adam 'Nergal' Darski, who's releasing an autobiography entitled Sacrum Profanum next month. Like the band, I don't really know how to describe these clips, where Darski reads excerpts from the book. But they somehow capture the essence of what I love about the band, and I think you just have to experience them for yourself.




An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 9

This chapter, like the last, meandered a bit before really getting to the point and could have benefited from being a bit more concise. But... this is probably one  of the better chapters in the book so far. Unlike the chapters by Gilson, Edwards, and Craig, it doesn't rely on misunderstandings of atheist arguments and/or quote-mining atheists out of context. The author, Peter Grice, tackles the topic of what "reason" actually is and, with a little dose of Plantinga (essentially the "argument from reason" I've already covered), argues that Christianity and reason are intertwined such that you can't have one without the other.

The downside is that this chapter is, more so than any other so far, clear evidence to me that this book was written with Christians as its target audience. This isn't for atheists like me, and it's not really even for fence-sitters either. It's for Christians who feel troubled or threatened by gnu atheism, and want som…

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 8

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Oy. This chapter was exhausting. Not because it's horrible or anything, but because it's verbose to the point of masturbatory absurdity. The author, Samuel J. Youngs, certainly has a way with words and, to his credit, manages to get in "phlegmatically". Here's a sample of what I'm talking about:
An indifferent universe, an “accidental collocation of atoms,” is by definition a world without meaning, a world where the ships of reasoning and consideration have no horizon by which to plot their course; where the beating hearts of compassion have no higher sun to warm their virtue; where the earth and all its peoples are cast adrift in the cold dregs of harrowing vastness. Good grief. Not that I don't enjoy creative prose, because I do, but in this chapter it just serves to obfuscate the actual arguments being presented. When you're crafting an argument, it's better to be concise. And in this case, it takes Youngs a good bit of flowery blathering befor…

Yahweh's Amazing Test

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NonStampCollector is back, this time lampooning the story of Abraham and Isaac:


Apologies if blogging is kind of slow, but....

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....I got a new toy. Fortunately (or not) it's kind of a slow work week, so I should still be able to get through a bit more of "True Reason". Several of the authors have stopped by to offer their rebuttals, so go check out the discussions and decide for yourself whether I am totally off my atheist rocker. Wait, was that a pun?

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 7

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As I make my way through the Christian apologetics book True Reason, I'm starting to see a fair bit of redundancy. I suppose that's to be expected given that it's just relatively short contributions from a variety of authors, but perhaps a little bit more editorial oversight would have helped.

In any case, Chapter 7 of the book, written by David Wood, is more or less a collection of some prevalent Christian apologetics arguments with a few new ones thrown in. Some of these, like the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, I've already addressed extensively in this blog so you'll have to excuse the link farm because I have no interest in beating dead horses. And at least one, the "problem of biological complexity", is basically an endorsement of Intelligent Design, and that's an argument that even many Christian leaders outright reject [1, 2, 3] and, while I've written about it before, I don't see much need to dignify an argument for creationis…

Scott Fraser on why eyewitnesses get it wrong

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This is a talk from Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, on why eyewitness testimony is so terribly unreliable. This talk centers on criminal cases, but it may bring to mind a certain deity – the written accounts of whom its followers claim are based on eyewitness testimony some four decades earlier.



Update: some alert readers have pointed out that, in a massive dose of irony, Fraser is wrong about the second WTC tower footage; there was a great deal of live coverage of both towers collapsing.

It is likely that Fraser meant to refer to this study, which shows false memories of the first plane hitting the first tower. That's the footage that wasn't broadcasted until a day later.

Given that TED has a considerable delay before they post these talks online, I'm rather surprised they still put it up despite the error.

Humans suck at critical thinking

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Reflecting still on David Marshall's critique of the "Outsider Test for Faith", I'm a bit surprised at statements like this:
If the OTF shows anything empirically, it shows that Christianity must possess remarkable reserves of plausibility to have convinced so many people, in so many cultures, to risk so much, to follow Jesus. There seems to be an assumption in statements like this that people are generally good at critical thinking. If someone converts, chances are they were presented with the evidence of a religion, dispassionately examined it and contrasted it with the claims of other religions, and accepted its truth only after a rigorous process of education and logical deduction.






Of course nothing like that happens. It doesn't happen with religion, and it doesn't happen with most things. Politics? It's like an ounce of reason for every pound of rhetoric. Economic forecasters are notoriously awful at their jobs because consumers do not behave ratio…

I know that miracles occur, because I say so

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One thing that's been grinding my gears as I read through True Reason, as well as read some of the responses, is the tired old "there were miracles!" canard.

I remember back in the debate with Sean Carroll and Michael Shermer, Ian Hutchinson literally resorted to the line of 'argument', if you can even call it that, that he had personally witnessed miracles and nobody can disprove that he did. Francis Collins gave us the same crap with his 'three waterfalls' story.

Today I had a commenter on the previous post tell me "all of these revivals are accompanied by various accounts of miracles and supernatural experiences." That's right on the heels of David Marshall, in chapter six of True Reason, saying, "miracles in fact sometimes occurred." I mean, they just put it out there so nonchalantly, like I'm gonna go, "Oh, really? I didn't know that! What powerful evidence!"

People have been making claims about supernatural …

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 6

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I was wrong when I said that the only author with whom I was familiar is William Lane Craig. I'm also familiar with David Marshall, who has been a frequent visitor to John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity. Appropriately, Marshall spends this chapter critiquing Loftus' "Outsider Test for Faith", or OTF.

As I do with every chapter, I'll begin by reiterating that in reading this book, I'm not expecting to be re-converted to Christianity. I'm just looking for some arguments that will provoke me to re-examine some of my core beliefs.

Like the previous chapter, this chapter is much better than the first few chapters in the book simply because while I did not find Marshall's arguments persuasive (big spoiler, I know), he didn't hinge his arguments on dishonesty and distortion the way Carson Weitnauer and William Lane Craig did.  As far as I can tell, he represents John Loftus' position fairly – although, as I'll argue, he misses the side o…

Model-dependent realism vs. metaphysics

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Model-dependent realism is the idea proposed by Stephen Hawking in his book The Grand Design that "There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations."

Some other quotes originally from The Grand Design, from the Wikipedia page on model-dependent realism:
"[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth." "According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there…

William Lane Craig vs. Stephen Law... now on video!

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It took a while, but the debate between Stephen Law and William Lane Craig is finally on video. Personally I much prefer videoed debates over audio-only, so this is a nice touch. I think this debate was a sore spot for Craig. He lost, and lost rather badly because he was unprepared for Law's "evil god" argument. There's been a fair bit of discussion about Law's argument since the debate itself, and I must reiterate that even when Craig clearly loses a debate (his debate with Shelly Kagan also comes to mind), arguments are not won or lost in debates. Debates are rhetorical contests that are often "won" or "lost" on the preparedness and eloquence of the speaker, not necessarily on the strength of the arguments themselves.

Nonetheless I like Law's approach here. He's a very sharp guy who is often overlooked by atheists but, being a philosopher by trade, knows how to sort out the sophistry that often characterizes apologetics.

That being …

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 5 (part 2)

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(Read part one here)

Gilson opens his critiques of Harris' responses to Craig by arguing that Harris is "incompetent":
Harris stated, “I hope it’ll be clear to you, at the end of this hour, that religion is not an answer to this problem. Belief in God is not only unnecessary for a universal morality, it is itself a source of moral blindness.”  Craig had not argued that either religion or belief could supply the grounding necessary for morality. He said that only God himself could. Therefore religion and belief were strictly irrelevant to Craig’s argument. If he thought Craig had erred in pointing to God, rather than belief in God, as the relevant issue, he never took the opportunity to say so. Perhaps in Craig's imaginary universe of "possible worlds", it makes sense to talk about what God is versus what people claim God is; but here on Earth, you run into a bit of a hurdle with God as the objective moral lawgiver: there has to be a way for pe…

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 5 (part 1)

With chapter five, editor Tom Gilson makes a reappearance, this time recounting the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, and explaining to us why, in his estimation, Craig was the decisive victor. I blogged about the debate back when it happened (1, 2, 3) and I've talked a lot about secular morality (4), so I don't want to retread all that stuff. But there are several points that Gilson touts, rather uncritically, as wins for Craig when closer examination reveals them to be resting on some pretty glaring assumptions and poor understanding of atheists' arguments (and, as you'll see, that's sometimes atheists' fault).

I'll start of this chapter review the same as I have with each so far: I do not expect this book to convert me. That's an unrealistic expectation. I'm simply looking for some good arguments that provoke me to critically re-examine some of my key positions. So far, though, the book has been utterly dependent on misinformation…

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 4 (part 2)

In the latter half of this chapter, Edwards tries to argue that life is so improbable that it had to be a miracle, and challenges Dawkins' ideas about religion as child abuse. Read part one here.



The improbability of life

Edwards now moves on to Dawkins' use of biology. He doesn't go after evolution specifically (though the term "Darwinian evolutionary biology" is cringe-worthy). Instead, he tackles the origin of life. It's a classic god-of-the-gaps argument: you can't explain how life started, ergo GodDidIt.