Monday, March 31, 2008

More thoughts on the presentation of science

I'm re-listening to the podcast grab of the TV show that Matt and I did yesterday. There is a point that I started to make about the framing of science, but I don't think I carried it all the way through to its conclusion.

What I did say, at the time, was that contrary to Matt Nisbet's bloviations, science does NOT have the "framing" problem of being associated with atheism. Instead, science has the problem of being perceived as boring. The stereotypical image of a science teacher is a dull, droning guy reeling off disconnected facts. Not unlike Ben Stein's own infamous Ferris Bueller character, if you will. ("Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. Voodoo economics.") And so, I concluded, science could actually benefit from more public controversy.

I have more to add to this. Science doesn't have a problem with not being respected. In fact, despite its stodgy image, science is almost universally accepted in our culture as important and worthy of respect. There is no clearer example of this to be found than in the behavior of creationists. When they lost some early battles in the 60's they retitled their subject to creation science. When that failed to work, they reacted by redoubling their efforts to make "intelligent design" (a.k.a. "Creationism, the Revenge") sound less like religion and more like science.

And finally, when people in the ID movement want to boost their own image in the public eye, what rhetorical approach do they take? Why, ID is real science, and evolution is unscientific! Look at all these people who have signed on to this statement titled as "A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism". It says right here that "Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." See? That's not religious at all!

What I'm saying is, in the general battle for science vs. religion, science has already won. In order to make their points more palatable, creationists have to pretend that they're doing science. And beyond the world of creationism, there is a whole industry of pseudoscientists who peddle their wares by filling the descriptions with science jargon-imitating gobbledygook.

Acceptance of science is not the problem. Convincing people to understand science is the problem -- studying is hard, scientists are boring, I'm never going to use this in real life, blah blah blah.

When atheists point out that scientific literacy tends to undermine religion, you might say that they're doing the same thing as creationists: using the already well-established respected status that science has, and associating themselves with science to receive some of that credibility by proxy. On the other hand, associating atheism with education and science literacy also has the advantage of being true.

Should we obscure that fact, as Matt Nisbet seems to constantly suggest? Hell no. Nisbet would have you believe that the "culture war" is over whether you can get these foolish savages to accept our modern ways and incorporate this new-fangled "science" into their culture. On the contrary, however, they've already done that. They all have their own TVs and internet connections and microwave ovens and cars. The job that we, as people who care about education, have before us is to leverage that acceptance of science, tell the truth about how to think critically and evaluate claims, and ridicule the hell out of intelligent design for the phony snake oil sideshow that it is.

If more people are persuaded to become atheists after being so educated, that's just a fortunate byproduct.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Today on the show: Framing Atheism

Links about today's topic:

How do all these things fit together? Listen to episode #546 and find out!

The fundamentalist Christian war on education

I don't know quite how I wound up on these idiots' mailing list, but I'm glad I did. It helps to understand what the proponents of the New Dark Ages want to reshape our culture into.

The folks behind Worldview Weekend, some kind of fundie pep rally for fear and ignorance, have sent out an email flogging a series of propaganda booklets aimed squarely at students whom they fear will actually be educated if they go to college. The idea is to innoculate their minds against anything that might threaten their precious fundamentalist teachings. In other words, keep the flock stupid so they'll keep filling the pews and the collection plates.

Education, clearly, is a detriment to blind faith, and so education itself must be tarred with such emotional hot-button words as "socialist," "communist," "humanist," and possibly several other fearmongering sobriquets I didn't catch.

A quick glance at the blurb for one of these booklets, revealingly titled Christian Worldview for Students (that's about as clear a title as you could come up with for something that's basically naked propaganda), shows us that the "Christian worldview" essentially involves rejecting anything any scientist ever thought up, as well as embracing the most extremist right-wing paranoia out there. Seriously, these are people who believe the Bush adminstration isn't xenophobic enough. Looking at the list below, you can see how these are views that would be eagerly embraced by the next generation of Eric Robert Rudolphs and Timothy McVeighs (and no, I don't think that's either a slippery slope or "appeal to consequences" fallacy).

Survival Kit for the University of Humanism

Glitzy brochures and slick websites that promote many of our universities don't divulge the all-encompassing secular worldview that slashes God from every equation and consumes ill-prepared students. But collegians today will face many of the:

  • 67% of professors who approve of homosexuality;
  • 84% who condone abortion;
  • 65% who embrace socialist and communist ideals.

The results of four years' exposure to these teachers are staggering. Recent research reveals that 91% of students from evangelical churches no longer believe in absolute moral truth. Even the Southern Baptist Convention found that 88% of young people from SBC homes slip away from the faith before they graduate from college.

The reason?

Most students say they did not learn enough Bible content growing up to enable them to make biblical life decisions, let alone defend a Christian worldview in the face of vicious opposition. This book provides worldview expert and best-selling author Brannon Howse's briefing notes to prepare you for the worldview battle that takes place at the university of humanism-whichever one you attend. You will be ready to contend and not bend on topics like:

  1. Why evil and injustice do not negate the reality of a good God;
  2. Why the Bible can be trusted;
  3. Why Darwinian evolution is a lie;
  4. The liberal myth of "separation of church and state";
  5. The authenticity of Jesus' resurrection;
  6. What the fossil record really reveals;
  7. The myth of global warming;
  8. How dramatically crime would increase if guns were outlawed;

And more!

So take Brannon's notes to heart-and mind. The Christian life you save may be your own!

Fear the hallowed halls of academe, Christian students! They want to make the Baby Jebus cry!

There's a reason fundamentalist students have a hard time defending their "Christian worldview" from "vicious opposition," which is fundie code for "enlightened and educated views". Ignorant beliefs cannot stand up to hard facts. I imagine what's so boo-scary for fundies to discover when they venture out of their shelters into the real world is that reality doesn't care what your pet ideology is.

And any Christian student who thinks booklets like these will arm them against reality is being cruelly misled. It's a pretty safe bet, I'd say, that anything these booklets have to say on the subject of evolution or global warming will be the same old moronic canards that have been debunked a thousand times over. Then again, maybe that's all part of the "Worldview Weekend" racket: a student buys one of these booklets; tries to get into an argument about evolution with his biology professor or his fellow students; crawls away in humiliation after having his ass handed to him; goes back to the "Worldview Weekend" website, where they're ready to sell him another booklet! Ca-ching! That's the benefit of having an entire customer base consisting of paranoid, superstitious chumps who've been indoctrinated to fear education itself. Get them to think you're the only ones they can trust, and they'll keep opening their wallets for you time and again.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Christian chimes in on Expelled

It's always nice to be reminded that not all who call themselves Christian are dishonest anti-science ideologues who use their beliefs to justify their haughty disdain for reality. Henry Neufeld is a self described liberal Methodist who has a few things to say about Expelled, and he nails every reason why the movie gets it all wrong with admirable succinctness. From its confusion over what "free speech" really means, to his unequivocal condemnation of the movie's most brazen lie — that "Darwinism" led inexorably to Nazism and the Holocaust, when in fact the teaching of Darwin's theory was banned in both the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia, and Hitler famously credited his own anti-Semitism to a certain invisible guy in the sky — there's not a single one of Stein and Co.'s reprehensible falsehoods Neufeld doesn't take down. His most interesting point is one which is liable to raise the hackles of most of Neufeld's brothers in Christ.

Repeatedly, Ben Stein equates the theory of evolution with atheism, and claims that all ID wants is to open the door to considering that God might have done something. Evolution may be incompatible with certain forms of Biblical interpretation, but it is in no way incompatible with basic theism.

Neufeld's batted 1000 here. True, Dawkins' passage from The Blind Watchmaker to the effect that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist" is the one often flogged by creos who want to condemn evolution as a tool of the Devil to turn everyone away from Jebus. And the "evolution=atheism" link has been effective in pushing the emotional hot buttons of scientifically illiterate religionists. But, while it's true that evolution does explain how nature works entirely on its own to effect biodiversity without any "need of that hypothesis," it's also true the theory itself is not fundamentally incompatiable with some notions of theism.

The deistic god is one who is said simply to have created the world and then left it alone. So evolution has to be operative under deism. But if the Christian God is supposed to be omnipotent, there's no reason why he couldn't have done his business via evolution either. Indeed many liberal Christians have attacked creationism on this very point, that a bunch of stick-up-the-ass fundies are trying to dictate to God how he must have created life, and that it could not have been by evolution. How arrogant! Heh heh.

I, of course, think the concept of God is entirely superfluous, but again, Neufeld's right in that a basic understanding of the principles of Darwin's theory does not necessitate atheism. On the other hand, as I read from some commenter elsewhere this morning, the makers of Expelled must be completely clueless doorknobs if they think the Nazi Holocaust is a great argument for the loving God of the Bible!

Time to hit the gym, Wagner!

Okay, Elze has finally posted her collection of photos from Dawkins' appearance last week, and these include some nice shots from the pre-speech reception. I've been reluctant to post the link, though, because they also include a couple of depressing shots of me at the AE Blog Meetup, in which I look to weigh about 653 pounds. Given that I was something of a major gym rat ten years ago, these are...ahem...well, let's just say I pre-emptively accept every morsel of ridicule with which I'm about to be heaped, and let it go at that. Meanwhile, I think it's time to dig out the MetRX and the creatine and wheel on down to Gold's — where I suspect I'll be pelted with water bottles and dirty jockstraps the minute I walk in the door. O the ignominy.

UK's Guardian flunks Expelled

Haven't been blogging for many days, mainly because of being busy, but also because there's been little to report that hasn't been covered very extensively elsewhere in the atheist blogosphere, and Austin's been pretty quiet. Also, what else is there to say about the train wreck that is Expelled? Every day these people reveal themselves to be a little more reprehensible than they already were. My mind reels at the thought of what it would be like to be the kind of person whose life has been so completely swallowed up by the endless stream of lies required to shore up a creaking, desperate ideology. I think of what it must be like to be Ben Stein and Mark Mathis, and, if I believed in souls, I figure I know what it would be like to sell yours to Mammon. Sure, these guys have probably got the Benjamins. But to do so at the cost of all fundamental human decency is just depressing.

The UK paper The Guardian has now weighed in on Expelled (at least the bit of it that's been previewed online) in a snarktastic little dig at that pompous fool Ben Stein. It's a fun morning read.

From the parts I've seen - the first 10 minutes online - it seems to deploy all the loaded-dice arguments, the overdog's deep-seated sense of victimhood and conventional rightwing hysteria. Stein lambasts academe for dismissing the work of "ID scientists", even when they are bankrolled by the rancid likes of the Discovery Institute, a think-tank inseminated yearly with funds from California savings and loan heir Howard Ahmanson Jr, who in 1985 told the Orange County Register: "My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives." Man, I can't wait for that, Ben, the priests running everything and we live like it's Ireland in the 1940s. Par-tay!

Heh. But otherwise, yeah, not much new under the sun. The movie is still a dishonest piece of shit, and the people promoting it are still dishonest pieces of shit. That's creationism for you. [Cue Thompson Twins] Lies, lies, lies, yeah....

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Natural selection to weed out Expelled at box office

The release date for Expelled is said to be April 18. Josh Timonen over at seems to think it's rolling out wide on 1,000 screens, which I find frankly unbelievable. Independent features, let alone indie documentaries, don't get that kind of theatrical rollout unless they're made by guys called Michael Moore. Almost no indie has that kind of a wide release. The simple cost of creating and shipping out 1,000 prints to theaters, and then buying the saturation advertising needed to make such a release strategy pay off, is simply way out of the reach of independent productions. Unless you've been picked up by one of the boutique "indie" arms of one of the majors, like Fox Searchlight. Which Expelled hasn't.

So I suspect that an earlier figure I've heard of 100 screens is a lot more likely.

But what's problematic for the movie at this point is that there is literally no buzz for it at all outside of the science/creationism/Christian/atheist blogosphere. Which, I'll grant you, is big, but it's not exactly where Jack and Jill Sixpack go for their entertainment news. So if Expelled really does stick to its April 18 release, it might as well be called Ignored. After all, look at what else is going out wide that weekend.

That's a pretty serious slate of pre-summer Hollywood heavy hitters. Also, there is no April 18 listing for Expelled on the upcoming release pages at such major movie sites as IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, or Box Office Mojo. Those sites do, however, list one prominent independent documentary release for that date. It's the new movie by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), which has had serious industry buzz for months.

Seriously, going up against a release slate like that, is it any wonder Expelled's producers have been trying to bribe Christian schools to take their students to see it? Without the "church bus bubble," it's looking like any theater showing Expelled will be as empty as ID's scientific credibility.

Addendum: Jim Lippard has been dropping the occasional comment over at Pharyngula and reports that Expelled's own site claims they're rolling out on 490 screens. We'll see if that pans out. In the meantime, enjoy this entertaining report from New Scientist about a different screening, and the way that sleazebag Mark Mathis handled the Q&A. The producer of a movie complaining that ID supporters are systematically silenced threatening to throw out a challenging questioner? Gosh, fundies never do ironic, stupid things like that, do they?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Thanks, Eugenie!

Following up my post about the Facebook group "Protest Ben Stein's Expelled", I got this blush-inducing celebrity endorsement from no less than Eugenie Scott!

Martin Wagner, you have your head on very, very straight.

If we raise a fuss for Expelled, we increase the publicity and the gate. We play directly into their frame.

Why would we want to do that?

Okay, take a minute to chuckle at the visual of me putting on my "aw shucks" face. Anyway, Eugenie goes on to point out that while Expelled is sure to be a huge hit in "church basements," — har! — the general public isn't exactly awaiting it with bated breath the way they are, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Launching some massive protest campaign against the movie will simply play into their hands by validating their false message that "Big Science" wants to shut down open debate. She goes on to recommend the NCSE's newly launched site Expelled Exposed. It's new and fairly spartan at the moment, but it's been launched both as a one-stop shop for all of the news surrounding the movie's release and publicity (such as the PZ fiasco), and will go on to be a resource for refuting the false claims in the movie itself. Go on over and bookmark it.

Incidentally, if you're a member of the Facebook group, you'll see that one guy who's responded, one Barrett Cune, is doing a great job making my case for me, by presenting himself as exactly the kind of histrionic assclown we don't want responding to the movie. In a couple of ALL CAPS harangues, he wails about the need to "hit the streets" and attacks imaginary people who "just want to whine about the Earth and her problems.. you dont actually want to do anything to help.. you want your fucking parents to do it for you." If old Barrett can't tell the difference between coming up with ways to counter the movie effectively and productively, and thinking no one wants to do anything simply because we think parading the streets like some kind of I.R.A. rally would backfire, he clearly needs to grow the fuck up. I can understand and sympathize with his passion, but not his immaturity. The idea is that we're smarter and more rational than the IDiots who do things like make movies comparing scientists to Hitler as a way of concealing the fact they have no science backing up their own position. Acting even stupider than they do is not how to turn the generally indifferent public off to their message.

Richard Dawkins reviews Expelled

After all the hullabaloo about PZ getting expelled from this movie, at least we have a right to expect some interesting details about the content of said movie.

Not surprisingly, it's pretty bad.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

At least Anne Rice is honest

Former Goth superstar and vampire novelist Anne Rice has gone Christian, with her latest series of novels all about Jesus. Her belief may not be any more rational than anyone else's. (And you get a sense of the emotional desperation underlying it in this editorial she's written.) But at least she grasps that.

Look: I believe in Him. It’s that simple and that complex. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the God Man who came to earth, born as a tiny baby and then lived over thirty years in our midst. I believe in what we celebrate this week: the scandal of the cross and the miracle of the Resurrection. My belief is total. And I know that I cannot convince anyone of it by reason, anymore than an atheist can convince me, by reason, that there is no God.

True dat, Anne. You cannot reason a believer out of a position they did not reason themselves into.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Picket Expelled? No no no no no!

I just got an invitation in my email to join a Facebook group called "Protest Ben Stein's Expelled," which lists PZ Myers as one of two admins. The thrust here is to organize protests in front of theaters wherever it's playing. I joined right away, mainly so I could stop these folks — whose motivations I am, of course, 200% in sympathy with — from what could be a foolish mistake. I promptly posted a bulletin to the group, which I will reproduce in full below. There's a right way and a wrong way to oppose a folly like Expelled, and picketing theaters is the wrong way.

I think picketing theaters is a bad idea. Why? Because it will only serve to draw attention to the movie and might make people curious where they were indifferent before. Nothing sells tickets like controversy, and by organizing theater protests, we who oppose this pack of lies may unwittingly help give it more business.

Remember what happened with Passion of the Christ? This was Mel Gibson's small independent movie, until the Anti-Defamation League began making a big stink in the media about the possibility it might be anti-Semitic, and complaining Gibson would not screen the film for them. The media ran with that, with the result that so many people became fascinated and curious that the movie ended up taking in over $375 million in its theatrical run.

I don't think we want to make the same mistake in dealing with Expelled.

Instead, how about contacting your local media (newspapers, TV, radio) if the movie's coming to your town, and offer to either write a guest editorial detailing the specific lies in the movie, as well as the long campaign of dishonesty being used to promote it? Or ask to talk to their staff movie critic, and provide him with correct information to counter the film's falsehoods that he can then include in his review.

Picketing theaters may even feed into the movie's false message that "Big Science" and its supporters merely want to shut down dissenting views. When in fact, that's what the producers of Expelled are doing!

This movie isn't poised to become some big megahit, people. With the possible exception of an opening-weekend "Church Bus Bubble," I think theatrical attendance will be minute, and the movie will end up doing the bulk of its business with DVD sales marketed directly to churches. Right now, Expelled is having a PR nightmare surrounding the screening they kicked PZ out of. Let's keep working that angle, to help the public understand what liars and hypocrites are responsible for this shit. The best thing that could happen would be for the movie to peter out after a week in theaters due to massive public indifference. That won't happen if we raise a big ruckus and make everyone eager to see it out of curiosity over what the fuss is about.

Addendum: Ames Grawert, who's listed as the group's other admin, replied to my bulletin with the following, which gives me a sense of relief.

I think you're probably right. I've heard this critique from a lot of people. I'll change the description of the group a bit. I like the editorial/education angle a little better.

Very nice. This is a time when cooler heads will prevail. Still, I think this post is relevant, in case there may be any other folks out there considering some kind of overt protest activity on their own.

Last night turning into PR Waterloo for Expelled

Now the whole hilarious story of PZ Myers being thrown out of a screening for Expelled has hit at least one mainstream media outlet. The dishonesty of the people behind this propagandist rubbish is being spread far and wide for the world to see. I laugh. I giggle. I even chortle. Meanwhile, PZ's daughter-of-darkness Skatje has reviewed the movie, and the short version of her take is: Bring a pillow. It sounds like it's a very slapdash affair, and most tellingly, it never does what the promoters are claiming it does: make the case for "intelligent design." They seem to think that intercutting stock footage of Nazis with interviews of scientists constitutes some kind of withering refutation of evolutionary biology. Amateurs.

Addendum: Now the New York Times has picked the story up, and allows associate producer Mark Mathis to lie at great length, only to be rebutted at the end in full. He really sounds like a blustering little nobody with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, while Dawkins and PZ and Genie Scott sound mostly bewildered at the staggering foolishness of these people.

But you know, if they weren't fools, they wouldn't be IDiots either.

On the whole "being offensive" thing

In my Dawkins report, I discussed the way many Christians — primarily of the conservative stripe — can't stop whining about how horribly offensive the anti-religious rhetoric of the "new atheists" is, while intentionally ignoring, and even defending, far worse behavior from their own. A perfect example is this odious hypocrisy I read via Ed Brayton's blog.

Oklahoma representative Sally Kern, not surprisingly a sponsor of the anti-education bill HB 2211, recently had a sickening homophobic hate screed of hers recorded and made public. Is she apologizing? Of course not. She's a Christian, and morally superior to you, after all. So not only is she sticking to her guns, she's got the lunatics at the WorldNutDaily (to which I refuse to link, so go over to Ed's if you must immerse yourself in such filth) concocting a nice little conspiracy theory in her defense as well. Get a load of this. Here they are talking about how the thousands of gays and lesbians whom Kern gratuitously offended with her hate speech are the ones with the problem, and how they're victimizing her.

Basically, they're trying to silence her by threatening, intimidating, harassing and frightening her until she can't take any more abuse. No dialogue, no debate - just crush her.

Only a fundie would think there's something meriting "dialogue" and "debate" when some foul-tempered, hideous old cow (oh noes, the eebul afeist is calling her naaames!) rants about how gays and lesbians are more dangerous to America than terrorists, that they're bringing about the downfall of civilization, and who lies about non-existent "studies" that support such idiotic ideas.

From where I'm sitting, the entirety of the "dialogue" and "debate" hate speech like Kern's deserves can be summed up as, "You're a sick individual, a disgrace, and a vile liar, and would you please go crawl back under your rock, you ignorant useless bitch. Thank you. Signed, The Human Race."

That's their game. It's despicable, and utterly un-American.

While religious hate is just so praiseworthy and "pro-American," of course.

In a sense, Kern does a better job of validating Dawkins' points than Dawkins does. When Dawkins wrote in his essay "Logical Path from Religious Beliefs to Evil Deeds"...

Religion changes, for people, the definition of good.... For non-religious people, the behavior of consenting adults in a private bedroom is the business of nobody else, and is not bad unless it causes suffering – for example by breaking up a happy family. But many religions arrogate to themselves the right to decide that certain kinds of sexual behavior, even if they do no harm to anyone, are wrong.... The following quotation from the Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg has become well known, but it is so devastatingly true that it is worth quoting again and again: “With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

...he was talking about you, Mustang Sally.

Now, back under the rock with you. Here, take your Bible. You'll need that, since you haven't got a brain.

Oh gee. Did I offend someone?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dawkins at UT, Part 2

II (cont'd): The Lecture

To wrap this up: Another memorable part of the talk involved Dawkins' response to Christians who take offense at the supposedly rude and aggressive tone he allegedly uses. While saying that he'd rather be known as a "friend of truth" more than an "enemy of religion," he admitted to being unable to resist "humorous broadsides" against religion and its believers. He compared some of the passages in TGD that Christians have singled out as especially offensive to other examples of criticism, like restaurant reviews in British newspapers, some of which are so scathing and insulting they must be seen to be believed. And these kinds of verbal assaults can be harmful, Dawkins pointed out, as chefs "really exist, while blasphemy is a victimless crime."

Again, we go back to the problem of religion's unmerited privilege of being considered outside the purview of criticism. Everyone today, but especially believers, have gotten used to the idea that we shouldn't be offended, ever, Dawkins noted. But there's no rule that says we have some innate right to expect that, especially in a culture that promotes the free exchange of ideas. In fact, there are many things we should be offended by, like religious fatwas and female genital mutilation. Dawkins went through a list of human atrocities we have a moral duty to find offensive — many of them doled out with the tacit approval of someone's religion — accompanied by a series of slides that elicited ever-increasing applause. It was a touchstone moment of the whole evening's talk.

The idea of how offensive believers find challenges to belief struck a chord with me, as one thing I've noticed over the years is the way in which Christianity in America has managed to become, despite its overwhelming presence in the cultural mainstream, something of an isolated subculture at the same time. There are Christian bookstores, and Christian radio stations, and Christian colleges, and Christian rock bands, and Christian sports teams, and Christian versions of the Yellow Pages that help Christian consumers shop only at overtly Christian businesses. All this sort of thing contributes to an environment where believers can effectively shield themselves from any viewpoint that doesn't embrace and reinforce Christian dogmas and beliefs. To many Christians, you don't even have to be overtly offensive — Don Imus or Ann Coulter style — to offend them. Merely declaring your atheism openly, and not having the good taste to keep your distasteful disbelief to yourself, can be enough to set many believers off.

And it's a fact as well that many Christians who whine about how offensive Dawkins is never think to see what's coming out of their own camp. Even in the comments a few posts down, we get Rhology whining, "Come on, are you really trying to make Dawkins into a guy who never says anythg offensive about Christians?" Well, sure he does, but it's usually in the form of jokes and jabs, as he did last night, in a crack comparing "Christian thinkers...and intelligent people. (Raises hands, chuckles) My apologies!"

Yeah, I guess compared to the recent hateful homophobic rant against gays spewed by Oklahoma representative Sally Kern (a rant enthusiastically supported by her fellow GOP Christian right colleagues and the Thomas More Law Center, who vowed to follow up their wonderful epic fail in Dover by defending Kern against the onslaught of whatever legal action teh gayz were sure to hit her with); compared to the sewage you hear spew from the likes of Coulter and Michael Savage; compared to the way pricks like Ben Stein and Dinesh D'Souza draw links between science and atheism and Hitler and Joe Stalin; compared to the way Judge John E. Jones had to have his whole family protected by U.S. Marshals following his ruling in the Dover trial due to all the death threats they received by loving anti-evolutionist Christians...

Yeah, compared to all that, I can see just how offensive Richard Dawkins is because he wrote a book and went on a promotional tour and cracks the odd joke.

Cry me a river.

Anyway, those are just a couple of highlights from what was, on the whole, an upbeat talk, entertaining, witty, informative, but also passionate and serious in its message and its aim of raising public consciousness to the free ride ancient superstitions have gotten in our culture, and our need to question just how long that free ride should continue. Dawkins ended on a moving and elegaic note, reading the opening paragraph to Unweaving the Rainbow, which he's earmarked to be read at his own funeral and which I'll let you read for yourself.

III. The Q&A

The Q&A only went for about seven or eight people, I think, mainly because he took a couple of questions at the beginning. But one or two of the questions were memorable.

One guy asked about Expelled, and Dawkins wasted no time in castigating the film and informing everyone of the way in which he and PZ Myers and Genie Scott were lied to by the producers in order to secure their participation. Based on the internet trailer that's been up for a while, Dawkins felt confident the film would not "convince anyone who wasn't already an ignorant fool." Of course, as the whole planet now knows, Dawkins saw the movie Thursday night in Minneapolis, at a screening Myers was bizarrely ejected from. I'm sure we'll now hear his informed opinion of what a loathsome pack of lies it is now he's seen it, pretty quick. (Especially the way the filmmakers doubtless edited his interview to make him look a fool. As a filmmaker myself, I can attest: you can create any effect you wish on the editing suite.)

However, Dawkins did make a very good point regarding effective ways to mount rebuttals to Expelled that I hadn't considered.

The questioner had also asked whether the scientific community needed to rush a pro-evolution documentary into production to counter Ben Stein's bullshit conspiracy-theory agitprop. This was also a topic brought up in a thread on Pharyngula. After pointing out the obvious fact that making films professionally is a damned expensive hobby, Dawkins suggested that such venues as YouTube would work just fine for taking down Expelled's campaign of lies. In this age of ubiquitous self-documentation and pervasive video cameras, it's a head-smackingly obvious solution.

For one thing, I don't think Expelled is going to do much theatrical business beyond a possible "church bus bubble" in its first few days of release. (And it helps to remember that the producers are offering Christian schools cash payouts to take their classes on field trips to see it!) As an independent and a documentary (sorry, I'm now slipping into movie biz mode), it won't open wide and it won't do Narnia numbers. Whatever audience it has will almost certainly come through DVD sales campaigns to churches. So there's no need to rush a cinematic rebuttal before the cameras, and in fact, to do so might have the ironic effect of legitimizing it.

But I can certainly see thousands of biology undergraduates simply dismantling Stein's folly piece by piece and scene by scene with their webcams. Bring it on, gang.

Another questioner asked Dawkins what he thought about the transhumanist ideas of Ray Kurzweil, and the possible future in which biology and technology began to merge. Dawkins allowed as how, as a "product of the century I was born in," the notion of such a merging kind of frightened him. Much of transhumanism sounds like science fiction, he noted, but went onto add that he liked science fiction, and who knows, it might be possible that the biotech future some people predict may in fact occur.

The talk finally ended with another rapturous ovation, after which Dawkins signed books for a line that bled out onto the sidewalk. An enjoyable evening for one and all. Except, perhaps, for any religious fundamentalist cowering in the nosebleed seats.

IV: The Meetup

When I announced the AE Blog Meetup for the Spiderhouse following the talk, I expected maybe five or six people to turn up at most. I eventually took a head count of around 18 of us at the peak of it, and we ended up taking over the Spiderhouse's entire front room (chasing off some poor woman who up until then had had it all to herself, sitting with her coffee, iPod, and reading her book — sorry, whoever you were). I saw some old friends I hadn't talked to in ages, and met quite a few awesome new folks, including several students from Atheist Longhorns. (And boy, was their profile on campus ever raised by this event!) It was a great way to wind down at the end of a long and most gratifying day, and after a Shiner and one slice of rich chocolate espresso cake, it was time for me to turn into a pumpkin. Fade out.

It will be kind of difficult for CFI-Austin to top an event like this in scale and public enthusiasm. But still, this is a hell of a long way for the positive promotion of atheism to have come, just since the days nine years ago when I first joined ACA, and you could fit all of Austin's outed atheists into one dinky bagel shop on 5th Street. An event like tonight really made me feel like I'm part of an exciting and vital community, hopefully one that will someday succeed in taking Richard Dawkins' goal of consciousness-raising to an even larger scale.

Good night and good luck.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Dawkins report... bring you this Dawkins-related article of interest from PZ Myers.

It also happens to be the funniest thing I've read on his or any blog all year.

Suffice it to say that the fools behind Expelled just crapped all over themselves in their latest epic fail!

This is just made of awesome!

Report: Dawkins at UT, Part 1

Okay, I've had a good night's sleep, gotten a few morning errands done, and now I'm ready to sit down and hammer out my report about yesterday. The short version: a phenomenal and surprising success. If you had told me a scant four years ago that atheism would have such a high public profile, let alone that a prominent atheist scientist wouldn't just be a guy who wrote books only grad students bought but be traveling around the country treated like a rock star, I wouldn't have believed you. Dawkins' wrote in The God Delusion that his primary goal was "consciousness raising," and in that he's been a runaway success.

To see all the photos I took of yesterday's events, check my Flickr set here.

I. Book People

For me the day began at his signing at Book People, which was attended by close to 200 people at my best estimate. As I mentioned in the previous post, Dawkins read the new preface to the paperback edition of TGD, followed by a friendly Q&A and a book signing.

Tangent: While at Book People I bumped into Dr. James H. Dee, a retired professor and friend of CFI, who has written a number of guest editorials espousing atheist and secularist views for the Austin-American Statesman as well as essays for Free Inquiry. Dr. Dee is brilliant and always has interesting insights into religious belief — he tells me he's preparing a book specifically on the afterlife, which ought to be interesting — but one area where he and I (not to mention he and Dawkins) disagree is on the importance of being up to date on cutting-edge theology for those who wish to critique religion. Dr. Dee is very critical of "The Four Horsemen," as they call themselves, because none of them have this advanced scholarly knowledge of the most abstruse theological arguments and Biblical research he believes is vital.

I think Dr. Dee has a point, but I don't think such knowledge is as essential as he thinks. At best, it would be an interesting exercise for someone who had the free time to blow on it. Dawkins has been critiqued, quite inanely, I think, for supposedly ignoring more "advanced" views of God and debunking only the most simplistic and crude forms of Christian belief out there.

What these critics, including Dr. Dee, miss, that I tried to point out, is that the elaborately arcane and abstruse God of the theologians isn't the God that Jack and Jill Churchgoer worship. The overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Christians are no more well versed in the most obscure Biblical scholarship or cutting edge theological legerdemain than Dawkins. To most Christians, God is a grown-up version of Santa Claus; he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake! If a lack of "sophisticated" theological expertise isn't required for over 99.9% of the world's Christians to feel they're justified in believing in God, why should such knowledge be required for an atheist to declare he doesn't believe in God? As Dawkins has said, why should you have to bone up on leprechaunology before deciding you don't believe in leprechauns?

Dr. Dee thinks, with the increase in public awareness and acceptance of atheism in the post-God Delusion cultural climate, that atheists ought to throw the tent wider, so to speak. While guys like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens can be, shall we say, popularizers of atheism and religious criticism, we ought to make room for those scholars who do keep up on more advanced theological thought, just to know what those arguments are and how to counter. While I still agree with Dawkins that most theology is little more than rhetorical smoke-and-mirrors, as most of it takes God's existence as a given and goes from there as opposed to establishing God's existence with hard evidence first, I think Dr. Dee's got a good idea there. Maybe he can be that scholarly atheist writer, to produce the books that have the academic rigor critics of Dawkins think he lacks.

I know I'm running on about this conversation, but it was really interesting and, I think, relevant. One valid criticism Dr. Dee had of Dawkins, I think, is that when he interviewed Christian leaders like the disgraced Ted Haggard for his documentary The Root of All Evil? (a title chosen by the producers that Dawkins doesn't like), he made the mistake of asking these guys questions pertaining to science. Dr. Dee thinks that if Dawkins were more versed in Biblical scholarship, to the extent of being able to read the earliest available versions of scriptures in their original languages (something Dr. Dee can do), then Dawkins could have called out these prominent Christians on the extent to which they were not only ignorant of things like science, but their own beliefs as well! It's a compelling thought, I must admit.

II. The Lecture

I was advised to turn up on campus no later than 5:30, but traffic held me back until about 6:15. I was gobsmacked by the line. I knew it would be big, but damn!

If you know the UT campus, the following will have meaning for you. (If you don't, just visualize a big-ass line of people.) The line wrapped itself around Hogg Auditorium, then flowed out and around the adjacent Undergraduate Library (UGL), spilled out onto the South Mall, and finally doubled back on itself, coming up alongside UGL once more. I've never seen anything like that on campus. I eventually found Matt D., got my reserve ticket, and ended up helping him and some of the Atheist Longhorns guys wrangle the line a little bit.

I must confess that I was a little disappointed that there weren't any of the campus Christian groups putting in a visible appearance, clustering around Hogg handing out tracts and the like. Someone told me that a lot of them actually were there, but to attend the talk. To whatever degree there were Christian organizations and their members there, I wouldn't know. If they came, they came to listen, not protest. That's cool. (By contrast, when Dan Barker came to UT — to a much smaller reception, obviously — not long ago, Christian students turned up in force and bombarded him with as many challenging questions as they could think of.)

Once everyone finally filed in — with hundreds having to be turned away — Dawkins was introduced by one Dr. Buss (I think that was his name — I suck remembering names) to thunderous applause. But as there was some problem getting the Powerpoint projector to work properly, Dawkins actually began an impromptu Q&A to fill time while his assistants scrambled with cables behind the scenes. I liked the way that turned out, because it gave the whole lecture a more accessible feel. By interacting with the audience first, he established rapport with them right away, and never came across as the ivory-tower professor lecturing to the masses, as it were. (Maybe Dawkins is really only good at being "personable" before a large audience, but if it's what works for him, fine.)

As expected, the lecture was a recap of most of the main points of TGD, primarily those parts of the book dealing with the harmful effects religion has on culture as a whole. But I was grateful the talk wasn't just one big reading. Dawkins has truncated his book and created a real presentation out of it, accompanied by a slideshow both informative and humorous, and quite often sobering as well.

Just to touch on a couple of bits that stood out for me: One of the book's efforts at consciousness raising is to question the privileged position religion has always held in culture. It's been considered something that is above criticism. To express doubt about a person's belief in this or that imaginary sky fairy is to be uncouth and ill-mannered in the extreme. You can tell a person their favorite band sucks, and that their politics are full of shit, and even — in desperate situations — that their spouse is a gold-digging bitch or drunk abusive shitheel and they'd be better off alone. But don't touch their religion! Why should this be? Why should religion deserve this privileged status among all of humanity's ideas, especially as its ideas are usually the ones least supportable by rational argument and evidence?

If there's one part in all of TGD that makes the steam erupt from Christians' ears, it's what Dawkins has to say about the religious indoctrination of children. The brutal fact is that the man is on point. Isn't it interesting that most people almost always fall into the religion of their parents? And why should this be? Childhood indoctrination, pure and simple. But is this right? How can it be, any more than it could be right to indoctrinate a child too young to understand what they're being taught into one or another political ideology?

And yet you'll never see a Christian's face turn redder than when Dawkins points out that's there's no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, that all you can really say is that this is a child of Christian or Muslim (or whatever religion) parents. Dawkins presented a slide of three children taking part in a nativity play, that he clipped from some British newspaper. The children — each only 4 years old — are identified as Christian, Jewish and Muslim, and the original article, we were told, went on gushingly about how lovely it was that these little 4-year-olds from different faiths could come together in the same nativity play. Obviously it never occurred to the reporter to think that maybe those children weren't aware — being 4 years old — that the fact they were from "different faiths" meant there was a presupposition they should reflexively hate each other. Or that what their "faiths" were even all about. After all, they're 4 years old. Dawkins' next slide showed the same caption, but he had replaced the names of the faiths with those of different political parties. Now the absurdity of the whole thing was clear as day.

If you wouldn't identify a 4-year-old child as a Republican, or a Democrat, or a Socialist, or a Marxist, or an Objectivist, or a Libertarian, or even an atheist or agnostic, then how can it possibly make sense to identify them as Christian or Jewish or Muslim? How can a 4-year-old be expected to comprehend religion when they're too young to comprehend politics or philosophy? You can't. A 4-year-old is no more capable of being a "Christian child" than it is of being an "Objectivist child." And here's the part that makes Christians' heads completely explode: to impose a belief on a child too young to understand that belief, Dawkins opines, is tantamount to child abuse.

That's pretty heavy. But in principle, I agree. Now naturally, when people hear the word "abuse" in the first place, their immediate association is with physical abuse. And so you hear Christians time and again wail that Dawkins is comparing them to child beaters for taking their precious widdle babies to Sunday School. This is emphatically not what Dawkins means. He simply means that — intellectually, developmentally, psychologically — it is abusive to impose ideas and beliefs upon the mind of a person incapable of understanding what it is they are being told they must believe. A 4-year-old is not intellectually equipped to evaluate ideas critically, is not emotionally capable of standing up to parental authority, and not mature enough to make its own decisions. Given this fact, while parental guidance is necessary for the child in most things (basic care, really), when it comes to beliefs, imposing a religion upon them is as wrong as imposing a political ideology.

But is the use of the word "abuse" here too strong? I'll grant, having been raised by Christian parents, that in most cases it may be, and that Dawkins' use of the term may be overreaching. I think most parents just raise their children into their own religion because their religion is so woven into the very fabric of their lives it just doesn't occur to them they shouldn't. So in most cases, where I might differ from Dawkins is in preferring the word "negligence" to "abuse." A parent who simply imposes their religion upon their very young children, but isn't motivated by any sort of malice and are simply doing what they're doing because they haven't stopped to wonder even if it's a thing they ought to be doing, is at most guilty of negligence. They may not be abusing their child by not letting them come to whatever religion they might choose (including, perhaps, none) in their own time. But they are being unfair to the child by forcing that decision on them when they're too young to understand. Remember, I said in most cases.

In some cases, though, there is no denying that religious indoctrination of children is child abuse.


This photo shows Catholic children — ahem, children of Catholic parents — being escorted to school in Belfast by police, in order to protect them from being attacked by Protestants.

And yes, Dawkins is dead on when he says it's also child abuse to scare the shit out of a kid and tell them they'll burn forever in hell if they don't love Jesus, too.

Frank Zappa, when he was alive, actually espoused a view similar to Dawkins vis-a-vis kids and religion. I remember a few years before he died, Zappa was interviewed on either The Today Show or Good Morning America, and the subject got around to his family; the Zappa family was always a very closely-knit unit. Zappa, warning the interviewer that she wasn't going to like what he was about to say, gave his formula for raising perfect children: "Keep them away from religion...Choosing a religion is a very important decision, and a child should not have that decision forced on them when they haven't got enough data to make their own choice."

Personally I can't see what it is that people find so appalling and horrible about this idea. It's simply one that supports freedom of conscience, even for our society's youngest members, and Dawkins just has the guts to criticize those parents who don't allow their own children to develop their own freedom of conscience where religious belief is concerned.

But that ties back into his point about the privileged position religion holds in our culture, as this subject that is granted immunity from criticism. Most parents would probably object to the notion of indoctrinating children in some radical political fringe. But tell them they shouldn't shove Jesus down their kids' throats either, and suddenly you're the asshole.

End of Part 1. This is taking longer than I thought, in and among all the other things I have to do today. But you know me: thorough. Or is that "long-winded"? Anyway, I'll wrap up my report of the talk either late tonight or early in the morning. Go ahead and start commenting and Digging if you like.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rho, I have your answer

Okay, this will be a pretty quick post, because I've just gotten home from Richard Dawkins' signing at Book People, which was attended by about 200, and have to head off soon back down to campus so I can get my reserved seat by the recommended time of 5:30. Photos of today's festivities will have to wait until tomorrow.

Dawkins preceded his signing by a reading — the new preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion — followed by a brief Q&A, which was actually quite good. I tried to get Rhology's question in at the Q&A but wasn't called on, so I waited until after Dawkins had finished his full signing and was getting up. Rhology will probably be somewhat disappointed by the answer, which is very brief and to-the-point (brief enough for me to quote it verbatim from memory, and I regret I didn't have the ability to record it), but it's pretty much the answer I expected Dawkins would give.

To recap, Rhology's submitted question (it was actually a series of questions, but hey) was:

Professor Dawkins,

On page 92 of "The God Delusion", you present a 4th option to CS Lewis' famous "Lord-Liar-Lunatic" trilemma with respect to the identity of Jesus Christ, namely that he was actually mistaken.

Why is it that you rarely if ever extend such an understanding to today's theists? If you met a man who said there was a pink elephant in a 10×10 room, would you say that the man could be "honestly mistaken?" How much less would you say that a man who thought he was the pink elephant in the room was "honestly mistaken?"

If Jesus could be "honestly mistaken", can not then all theists?

To which Dawkins replied:

But of course I believe they [theists] can be honestly mistaken. Why shouldn't they be?

There you have it. Again, I'm sorry I didn't get a tape of this exchange. But it was very brief, and I felt a little nervous doing it in the first place. But hey, I'm the kind of guy who, if I say I'll do what it takes to do something, I'll do it.

What was interesting was that, while Dawkins was perfectly at ease in speaking before a large crowd, he seemed very ill at ease being approached directly. (During his signing, as I expected, the store employees were perfect sheepdogs, moving the line along efficiently, with Dawkins merely giving autographs without personalizations.) When I first introduced myself and asked if I could speak to him for just a moment, his look was wary and guarded. It wasn't until we had spoken for a few minutes that he began to recover his usual congenial, good humor.

His attitude was understandable. I was told by some of my CFI buddies who were there that security has been a real concern for Dawkins during this whole tour. Dawkins is understandably cautious about the possibility of being waylaid by some some truly offensive theist berating him, or even assaulting him. Hasn't happened, happily, but when this tour was first announced in the media, at least one Christian minister, David Cox of the First Southern Methodist Church in Charleston, SC, was quoted as saying...

I would certainly like to protest. [Dawkins] is a tool of Satan, of the AntiChrist it sounds to me. All God-fearing people will be opposed to an atheist touring.

Considering how many fundamentalists take rhetoric like that as a call to action, it is understandable that Dawkins would be guarded about his personal space. And lest we forget, there have also been two instances in which creationists approached him for interviews under false pretenses, most recently the producers of Expelled. So the direct approach is an iffy one to take with him, and I felt nervous doing it in the first place for all those reasons.

So no, I didn't have a chance to make a tape of this brief exchange, Rho, but I can assure you on my word I did ask him, and the quoted reply is his reply. Now, I know you were doubtless hoping for a much more detailed reply, and I have one myself that I will present tomorrow when I post my report about tonight's talk. I know also that Kazim and Lui, and possibly some of our other regular atheist readers, want to answer you themselves. They're free to do so at this time.

I'm going to grab a quick bite to eat and hit the road. See you all tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Word's come in that legendary atheist science fiction writer (2001: A Space Odyssey; Rendezvous with Rama) and science advocate Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died today. He was 90.

Hey, Ben Stein! Here's "Big Science" for you!

Diggers in the fossil-rich wilds of North Dakota have uncovered a whole mummified dinosaur. The ol' fella is 65 million years old, give or take, and he's got almost all of his skin, hinting at pretty quick fossilization under extreme conditions. This is a swell find, and it will simply add to the wealth of material available for scientists to study, to glean an understanding of the prehistoric world. We learn new things, sometimes we reject old ideas when they're no longer valid or useful. But it's an ongoing process of learning, and it has no time for intractible ideologies.

So while the ID crowd spends its time flogging press releases and quote mining peer reviewed articles or making insipid fakeumentaries about the sinister "Big Science" conspiracy to suppress all the hard research they aren't actually doing...real scientists are out doing...teh science.

This is the difference between reality, and the warped vision of it that Ben Stein and Casey Luskin and John West and Bill Dembski and the DI seem to think we live in.

Which do you prefer?

The post-Dawkins AE blog meetup location...

...will be at Spiderhouse Cafe. Here's a map. As you can see, it's right by campus. We'll all just wheel over there afterwards. Looking forward to meeting folks.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Here's one for the creationists!

Earlier today, our old pal Dan Marvin, eager for attention as usual, tried to threadjack the comments about the blog meetup following Dawkins' talk on Wednesday. He implied he'd have a real stumper to ask Dawkins if he could be there, and then trotted out some more silly crap from AiG about the appendix, and how he seems to think the recent discovery that it actually seems to have a function presents some kind of problem for evolution. Typical know-nothing creationist idiocy, which I quickly spanked with some information from TO. Then, being an evil mean old atheist, I slapped him around with the usual batch of personal insults and sent him packing. Hey, I gotta keep my horns and my pointy tail sharp, don't I?

But I haven't been able to stop chuckling about the whole exchange this whole time. Because it's ever so entertaining to know that there are these clowns out there who, in classic Dunning-Kruger Effect fashion, think they know more about subjects like biology than the leading experts in the field. Of whom Dawkins happens to be one.

So I thought I'd make an offer to creationists who won't be in Austin on Wednesday, one they just can't refuse. I will be your proxy. No, I'm serious. All you have to do is this:

Submit to the comments the question you would want to ask Dawkins during the Q&A. Make it as h-a-r-d as you can think of! A real toughie! Squeeze your brain like an old mop and come up with a real humdinger. No going easy on the man, now. If you've got a question you think would leave him slack-jawed in stupefaction in front of an audience of hundreds of people, entitling you to do a little Snoopy dance all around Hogg Auditorium singing "Pwned in the Name of Jeezus!" at the top of your lungs, then, by all means, ask it.

I will pick the best question of the batch and present it to Dawkins myself. That's right. I'll be your proxy.

In fact, considering that it may be difficult to get the question in at the Q&A, I will introduce myself and present the question to him at his book signing Wednesday afternoon. (Though I will still try to ask at the Q&A; I suspect those will be highly limited due to time, but you never know.) If he's too busy at the book signing, or if store employees are just rushing people through the autograph line like a conveyer belt, which could happen if the place is as jam-packed as it's likely to be, then I will ask him politely if I may have a moment of his time after the signing is over.

Now, there is just one simple rule. Please try to follow it, creationists. Because you know how we like to be mean and insulting, and so if you demonstrate that you can't even follow one simple instruction, well, that will just give us godless amoral heathens an excuse to make jokes about you involving inbreeding and sex with indignant farm animals and what have you. So just do this: Post your question in the form of a simple, easily phrased question. Don't cutpaste a ten-paragraph page from Answers in Genesis or the Discovery Institute and then go, "So what about that?" Obviously, there won't be time for anything like that. Just present the one, on-point, direct question you'd get to ask if you were able to attend Wednesday night's talk.

Feel free to ask silly shit like "How do you feel abot the fact yer gowing 2 HELL!!1!??" if you like. But that's not a good question, you know. Really, I plan to pick the best, smartest question, and so take this as an opportunity to show us arrogant, know-it-all atheist assholes that you're not as dumb as we think you are and are in fact quite a bit smarter, thank you very much.

So there you are. Let's all play Stump Dawkins. Just submit your question, I'll pick the toughest, best one (I'll even ask Kazim and Tracie and the other regular posters here to weigh in with their opinion of the best question), and ask that question to Dawkins personally on Wednesday. I'll even arrange to record myself doing it, so you can get your answer straight from God's...ahem...Dawkins' mouth.

Can't get much fairer than that, right?

Bring it!

PS: To our regular godless readers: Think of this as one of those trivia board games, where another player has gotten an easy question they can't answer to save their lives, and you're sitting there clenching your jaw going, "Oh god, I know this one I know this one!" In other words, please resist the urge to answer the questions that come up yourself in the comment least until after Wednesday. At that point, all the non-picked questions can be answered freely by any of you. For the time being, remember these are creationists' questions for Dawkins, and so let's get his reply first. I'll be leaving comment moderation on to ensure everybody plays nice. (Lui, put that cricket bat down. Down! Thank you.)

Why and How

Many years ago, a Krishna friend said to me, “People often ask ‘why?,’ when what they really mean is ‘how?’”

Initially, this statement confused me. But he explained it further. It made sense to me. And since that day, I have adopted his stance.

On Yesterday’s show, we had a Christian caller who told us that she believes in god because she has personally witnessed miracles. Matt asked her to give us an example of a miracle. She said there were so many to choose from it would take too much time to go into them. Matt asked her to just give us one example.

If you are an atheist who is ever engaged by Christians, you know that it’s important to get an example of a miracle, because Christians do not agree on what constitutes a “miracle.” Like most other religious terms, the word is meaningless, and pretty much self-defined, along the lines of something like, “love” or “freedom.”

The woman explained her “miracle” pretty thoroughly. But it didn’t take much time to see this woman defines miracle as “a natural/reasonable occurrence that I interpret as a sign from god.” Her definition is not unlike an autobiographical story I once read about a Christian woman who hated the color of carpet in her church. When it was changed out, she knew it was a sign she should marry her fiancĂ©, because, prior to that, she had determined she must be married in that church, but couldn’t bear to be married on that hideous shade of aqua carpeting. Most atheists don’t think of these types of things as “miracles,” so it’s always good to check before assuming when a Christian uses a word that relates to the supernatural. Since none of it is available for examination/verification to anyone—we’re left with the reality that any such term has only the meaning that any individual Christian assigns.

The woman on the phone said her reason for believing in god was that she began asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” And she prayed ardently to a god (that she didn’t believe in) to let her know if he was there. She also began to research different religions. And she found one that really spoke to her, and became a Christian. So, now, in her words, “I know that I know that I know [there is a god].”

There are some obvious issues with a claim of “not believing” a god exists while I’m repeatedly pleading to that god. But this is already going to be long, so let me jump to where it ties into another obvious problem: the problem of asking for signs from spirit beings to determine whether or not they exist.

In other words, any “sign” I receive as the result of prayer is only open to subjective interpretation, and not to any verification. Christians put forward that it’s wrong to ask for any sort of verifiable miracle or definitive sign. To do so would be “testing” god—a serious no-no. So a person making this sort of plea is open to accepting any sort of subtle influence or coincidence. They’re not asking for Earth-shattering, convincing evidence—just something “meaningful” to them, personally.

What’s the obvious problem? Well, ask them how this sounds to their ears: “If you wanted to know if Big Foot exists, and I told you that I know Big Foot exists because I prayed to god for a sign to let me know if they exist. And after a few days, weeks, and months, I got nothing. So, I started researching Big Foot online—reading all I could find. I also kept on praying and asking to feel assured and have a sign. I prayed and prayed and kept on praying, and reading about Big Foot, until I finally encounter a subtle coincidence—a better job offer, a feeling of euphoria/peace, (or even a video of Big Foot online)—that convinced me god was telling me that Big Foot do, in fact, exist. And so now, I know that I know that I know Big Foot is out there in the woods.”

Would they think I had justification for belief in Big Foot? Or would they think I wanted so badly to believe that I just drilled myself until I finally accepted anything as proof of Big Foot’s existence?

If I want to know if a god exists, why not check into it like I would check into the existence of anything else—of Big Foot? Clearly define what it means to “exist,” exactly what it is I’m seeking, and where it should be found manifesting, then check to see if it’s actually manifesting there in the way I expect. If it’s not, then what I am seeking doesn’t exist. That’s, honestly, the best anyone could do to make a determination of the existence of any item-X. Praying to item-X for assurance it exists makes no sense unless, on some level, I’ve already accepted all sorts of claims about the existence of this item and how it operates—even while I attempt to assure others I haven’t presupposed these claims to be valid. I’m certainly throwing out everything I have learned in life about how to determine whether or not something exists and how to determine truth value, and it appears I’ve also, to some significant degree, accepted all the terms laid down by superstition in my search. And if I was truly skeptical—is this really how I’d go about it? Would I see proof of the validity of a god on supernatural terms? Or would I go with what I know to be tried and true in existent reality?

But that’s a huge digression. Back to “why” and “how.” Definitions can change, I understand. And I will be the first to admit that people I know use “why” and “how,” often, interchangeably. I’m not writing to say “you’re wrong.” I’m writing to call out a subtle difference that may/may not speak to a difference in perspective that an atheist should be aware of when he or she is engaged by a Christian. When the Christian says, “I was asking myself, ‘why is the sky blue?’” I should already be wary, because the Christian is potentially starting off asking the wrong (and potentially very loaded) question. With my prior disqualifier regarding definitions firmly in place, I’m going to appeal now to Webster for a standard, accepted definition.

“Why” is listed as basically meaning: “For what reason, cause, purpose or motive.” “How” is listed as “in what manner, in what way, by what means.”

Can they be used interchangeably? I think so. However, consider this: In a discussion about whether or not the universe is the result of natural causes or intelligent purpose, doesn’t the term “why” carry with it the potential to muddy the waters with presupposition, whereas “how” is more unpresuming and more to the point? If a god did it, “how” will get to that. If a god didn’t do it, “how” will also get to that. But if a god didn’t do it, “why” may or may not get to that—depending on how we’re using it.

Depending on what the Christian means by “why,” the word comes preloaded to presume purpose and motive in creation. When I hear a Christian ask “Why X?,” where X is a natural function, I will say, “I think you mean ‘how’ X.” The less biased and more accurate question is “How is the sky blue?”

We use “why” rather than “how” so often that that last question may sound awkward to some. But I recommend getting used to it. And I recommend pointing out the bias that comes with a preloaded word like “why” when a Christian uses it. “Do you recognize that a more appropriate word would be ‘how’—since ‘why’ presupposes motive in natural functions and causes? You’re potentially already starting off with a bias that the universe has purpose. And since that is the very point of our debate, I have to declare that I don’t know if there is any reason ‘why’ the sky is blue—but I believe we can discuss something of how the sky is blue; and if it leads to a purpose, so be it.”

Am I being over-analytical here? I don’t think so. Consider that the Christian on the phone was responding to Matt’s question about what made her believe a god exists. She answered that she was putting questions to herself, such as “Why is the sky blue?” What does that have to do with god unless you perceive a motive behind the reality that the sky is blue? If Matt had asked her a question about determining truth values or finding the cause of natural realities, then there probably would be no reason to consider the word “why” to have any ulterior meaning beyond it’s interchangeable use with “how.” But in the context of “Why do I believe an intelligent being is behind the natural universe?,” the idea that someone pondered “Why is the sky blue?,” takes on a whole new (pardon the pun) shade of meaning.

Make of it what you will. Draw your own conclusions. If you think I’m being too detailed in analyzing the language people use, then disregard my point entirely. But I find that definitions often are key source of misunderstandings in any discussion with a Christian. And, so, I see no reason to allow for more than will certainly already occur. “Why” has, over the years, become a red flag to me in discussions with Christians. I don’t know there are any “why”s for the things they want to know. But we can talk about “how”s, if they’re ready to investigate nature in an unbiased fashion.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Strictly for Austinites

Okay, so everyone's looking forward to Dawkins' appearance at UT this coming Wednesday. That will be at 7:00 PM. I suspect it will go about two hours, including Q&A. So I thought that following the talk, unless you're all going to be a bunch of pathetic gotta-go-to-work-tomorrow candy-asses, we'd have an Atheist Experience Blog meetup somewhere in the vicinity. I'm announcing this early so that people will have a couple of days to think about it and add it to their schedules accordingly. There are any number of kewl coffeehouses or bars or late night restaurants to repair to in the UT area, up and down the Drag and elsewhere. Hell, even Amy's Ice Creams is an option. So, all you locals chime in, and if you're interested, offer your suggestions.

Christians trying to destroy education altogether in Oklahoma

What do you do when those damn pesky facts keep throwing cold water on your precious, precious Bronze Age superstitions? Why, just rewrite the law so that no facts can be taught in classrooms, ever.

This is the goal of HB 2211 — named, with typical Christian-martyr self-absorption, the "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act" — in Oklahoma, which essentially allows any stupid fundie student to substitute "Duhhhhh...Goddidit!!!1!" in lieu of the correct answer on any test or homework assignment, and, by law, a teacher could not grade that answer as incorrect! I am not shitting you!

The school would be required to reward the student with a good grade, or be considered in violation of the law. Even simple, factual information such as the age of the earth (4.65 billion years) would be subject to the student's belief, and if the student answered 6,000 years based on his or her religious belief, the school would have to credit it as correct. Science education becomes absurd under such a situation.

Whatever shenanigans Kansas has ever gotten up to in the past will look like tiddlywinks compared to this, people. This is a bill that renders the practice of education itself pointless.

And naturally, the damn thing has actually passed the House Education Committee. All of which argues for a state run by fools who are not merely anti-intellectual but actively hostile to knowledge. I may disagree with that wacky old lush Christopher Hitchens on many, many things. But on this point, he's hit nothing but net: Religion poisons everything. And here, we see religion poised to poison the educational standards of literally millions of young children in the worst way possible, by making it effectively impossible for any teacher in that state to teach them anything factual at all.*

So if little Trailer Park Timmy is asked on his American History exam, "Who was the first president of the United States?" and he answers, "Jesus!" that answer could not be counted as wrong.

And people whine about that horrible Professor Dawkins and how he dares to call religion a form of child abuse.

Oklahoma citizens, if any of you are reading this, it's time to get out the big guns. If you care, not only about your state's reputation, but about the future of your children and anything resembling truth and intellectual integrity at all, you need to be bombarding your state representatives and senators day and night with angry mails and phone calls expressing your dismay in no uncertain terms, that a piece of legislation this patently absurd and outrageous could even be written in the first place, let alone get passage out of committee, in this day and age. And remind them that it's 2008 C.E. (actually, you'd better use AD), not 2008 B.C.E.

Millions of minds are in the balance here.

Addendum: *Okay, I can see some readers responding to that part with "Hyperbole much?" After all, there's no reason to think that this bill would mean that students were suddenly not learning that 2+2=4 or that the Third Reich lost World War II if it were passed. Of course, this just illustrates more succinctly than ever that the whole purpose of the bill is — here we go again — to target science education specifically. Still, the way it's worded, it would be very easy to poison other courses apart from science if it actually passed. I can see the Reconstructionists using it to warp history curricula in order to reflect the "Christian nation" pseudohistory of America promoted by such groups as David Barton's Wallbuilders, for instance.

Suffice it to say that if HB 2211 does become law in Oklahoma, the ink won't be dry on the governor's signature before the federal lawsuits get filed. And then you'll have the entire course of education in that state needlessly disrupted as the Christian Right finds itself having to fight and lose yet another Dover. As Barbara Forrest pointed out when she spoke here last fall, all that these attempts by anti-science religionists actually achieve is the tearing apart of communities, the unnecessary waste of millions of dollars in legal fees, and the disruption, not enhancement, of the students' educations. It just isn't worth it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Expelled = epic fail!

An invitation-only (of course) private screening for Expelled in Florida, held expressly to influence state legislators to support a bogus "academic freedom" bill that's been introduced to counter the recent ruling that schools must teach evolution, tanked miserably, drawing only about 100 viewers. There's a report here. It seems no one (least of all lawmakers, thank goodness) is fooled by the movie's disingenuous message, or its amateurish attempts at stealth marketing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A truly tragic meltdown

Matthew Murray, the poor messed up kid who shot up his church in Colorado back in December, had a lot wrong with him. Beyond his ADHD, there were overwhelming feelings of rejection, and not belonging. With his brain chemistry so badly screwed up (he was taking medication, but it's impossible to tell if he was on it at the time of his rampage), it's hard to say what could have prevented him from doing what he did.

God didn't, of course, but that's because there isn't one, so you can't exactly be bitter about that. But not only didn't Christianity provide the path to peace and healing Murray needed, but it may well have exacerbated his situation. An angry letter from Matthew written to God has come to light. In it, Matthew rails against the hypocrisy he sees all around him in the Christian community.

"The more I read your stupid book, the more I pray, the more I reach out to Christians for help the more hurt and abused I get," he wrote.

"I've heard good things about what Jesus can do, yet everywhere I go in Christianity, all the Christians I see or meet are miserable, angry, selfish, hypocritical, proud, power hungry, abusive, uncaring, confused, lustful, greedy, unsure of their doctrine and mean-spirited ... Am I too lost to be saved? My soul cries for deliverance. I'm dieing (sp), praying, bleeding and screaming. Will I be denied???"

This stuff is just heartbreaking. And revealing in the way so much of his anger and bitterness is directed at the religious beliefs in which he'd been raised, setting an ideal for which he never believed he was good enough, while all around him, he saw people who had been accepted, loved and successful within the church (like Ted Haggard, whose sex scandal was especially appalling to him), revealed as hypocrites and liars.

I'm sure his family tried to help as his mental chaos overtook him, but his suffering was beyond them. It would have been so nice if there really was a God for guys like Matthew, who could hear a guy like Matthew's pleas and reach down from whatever otherworldly, higher realm it lives in and simply, magically take the pain away. But that God's just not there, for him, his victims, you, me or anyone. We're the ones who have to look after and care for one another. You don't heal the problems of someone like Matthew Murray by filling his head with ideas about heaven and hell and being a horrible sinner who must please a jealous God if he wishes to "be saved." Build up a person's life, help him realize that he has value and worth here and now. Because this is the only shot at life any of us gets. And it's tragic to see anyone's life go down in flames — especially when it takes others with it — the way Matthew's did.

Proud of my bud!

Nothing to do with atheism, really, but just thought I'd give a shout-out and high-five to my buddy Kat Feller, who's enjoying much newfound fame and fortune as part of the cast of the TV Land reality show High School Reunion. They're plugging her as "The Lesbian," which I think is kind of lame, because there's a hell of a lot more to her than her sexual identity — she's one of the most talented voice actresses I know, for one thing, appearing in a number of video games and animated movies, and she's got a role in Madagascar: The Crate Escape, which is hitting theaters in November. But I notice part of the gimmick of the show is to fit everyone into one-dimensional labels, kind of like high school itself — "The Bully," "The Jock," that kind of thing. Anyway, she's getting press and interviews all over the place (here's one), and I'm really proud of her. So go Kat! Say, what do you think knowing that you're more dangerous to America than a terrorist!? LO-fuckin'-L.

Theomatics again

Probably not many of you have long enough memories for this, but one of the very first topics I ever did as a guest on the Atheist Experience TV show was about a concept called "Theomatics." If you're familiar with the "Bible codes" then you probably have the general gist of what it's about. You don't create crossword puzzles to find significant words and phrases. Instead, you have a cypher which assigns each letter to a number, and then you attempt to find significant words or phrases in the Bible that are multiples of some number that you pick.

It's all very silly, of course, because you can pick any number that you like, and then given a long enough sequence of words, you can find seemingly significant phrases on any subject. If you'd like to verify this for yourself, you can read the short article I wrote at the time, and then find your own gematria-based phrases by running my program.

I still get email about this from time to time. Part of the reason is because I'm linked from the first page of a Google search on Theomatics, and I'm also linked from the Wikipedia page. Here is an email exchange I just had.

Gary writes:

I just reviewed your Theomatics Debunked rebuttal of Theomatics... and immediately,
it became a useless challenge.
I have known of Theomatics for over 20 years... and understand it.
After reading your rebuttal and so called "Debunking" it became
immediately apparent that you completely misunderstand the entire
premise and subject. And so much so, that I can see that your only
goal was to slam Theomatics... whether you proved anything or not.
In totem, your 'Debunking' was hillarious... hedging on utter stupidity!

Now, usually I don't respond to this level of obnoxiousness at all -- somebody who walks in assuming that I'm an idiot is unlikely to yield a fruitful discussion. But I was curious about what Gary might bring to the table, so I replied:

Okay, I'll bite. What was it about my program that failed to capture
the point of Theomatics? Can you be more specific about what makes it so stupid?

Gary replied:

For one (major) of many points:
I am admitedly no expert on the subject, but I'm not brain dead. Your analogies to debunk Theomatics were clearly without merit.
All you did was show that numbers can be found in random text.
a) you completely ignore the fact that in the Bible, specific NUMBERS are established "in the text/writings" that also correlate and become significantly re-established in the numerology of both the Hebrew/Greek alphabet. That these numbers are adequately repeated throughout scripture.
Theomatics reveals that these numbers written in text (IE: seven, two etc) are reinforced by the subjects, themes and within context of "MEANING" whether literal or prophetic, whether poetic or factual, whether spiritual or historic... THESE SAME NUMBERS IN TEXT are directly supported by the construction of the writings... which, across 4000 years span of two languages/cultures (Hebrew/Greek), and authored by 40 authors... the letter symbol construction of these writings in these two languages reinforce the script or TEXT level numbers and meanings. None of which was assembled in random nor is there ANY evidence in collusion between or amidst the authors to establish the onion skin-like layers of numerical significance. To go further, The phenomenon of Theomatics wasn't even KNOWN until the mid seventies.
In this point alone, you have missed the boat in your lame attempt to make an analogy of Theomatics with your examples. In short, your examples leave out 80% of what is significant about Theomatics.

I replied:

I certainly do appreciate the feedback, but I'm not convinced that
your claim has any bearing whatsoever on my response.

Regardless of how the significant numbers are chosen, the point of the program was to demonstrate that ANY number can yield seemingly significant results from any text. Thus is doesn't matter whether the text attaches significant meaning to 111 or 52 or 69. By running a large enough text through a computer with some set of rules and any number you please, you can pick out thousands of phrases which translate to multiples of that number. It's simply a matter of confirmation bias. No collaboration or special planning on the part of the authors is required.

> To go further, The phenomenon of Theomatics wasn't even KNOWN until the mid
> seventies.

Of course it wasn't, and that's part of the point also. Theomatics doesn't make any predictions and it doesn't yield any useful new knowledge. At best it can be used as a tool for identifying events in hindsight. You know what you are looking for already, and you find things that appear to confirm the significance of phrases that look

Gary replied (all bold text from the original):

But you DO SO at the complete exclusion of the fact that the numbers
are significant because they are established IN THE TEXT and writings.
They are established both in language/writings and are given specific
relationships to people, times, places and subjects.
Your analogies do NOTHING but prove you can produce detached numbers!
You exclude that the phrases associated with these numbers are related
IN CONTEXT of the commucation of concepts of various central theme.
No. I have reviewed your site all morning... and you simply DO NOT MAKE
A VIABLE CRITIQUE that holds relevence whatsoever to support "debunking."
All you achieved is to debuke yourself.

Of course it wasn't, and that's part of the point also. Theomatics
doesn't make any predictions and it doesn't yield any useful new
knowledge. At best it can be used as a tool for identifying events in
hindsight. You know what you are looking for already, and you find
things that appear to confirm the significance of phrases that look
Wrong again. But, you've already debunked yourself.
So I will leave you to your own defunct debunkingness.

Then I replied:

But as I've already said, it doesn't actually matter how the numbers are chosen. The number 111 will produce significant hits, and so will all other numbers. You claim that the number 111 is especially interesting because it is established as important by the text — although in reality, 111 is just one of thousands of numbers which could be regarded as significant depending on your interpretation.

But I don't care how you pick your numbers. The point is that whether a number is "significant" to you or not, it will yield phrases which appear to relate to any topic you choose. It's just that you care about the resulting phrases when the chosen number is "significant," and you don't care when the chosen number is not "significant." It's your own filter on the text that makes it meaningful or not, however you read it.

> Wrong again. But, you've already debunked yourself.
> So I will leave you to your own defunct debunkingness.

That's a great word you've invented. Although I think I would have picked something like "debunkiferation."

Gary replied:

You have missed the entire collective point.
I don't know how to help you see it, but I have friends who are
PHd's that get it... and several friends who are not even Christians
see the signifiance. If you see a copy of the book I have,
Sanford University's Statistics division studied Theomatics
for several months and produced a report that said that
the Theomatics feature in the Bible is unique. They could
not produce the same results in other writings, or even
spiitual writings. And they said the chances of it just
happening were like 1 out of several hundred billion.
If I find the online re-print of this I will send it.

I replied:

> I don't know how to help you see it, but I have friends who are
> PHd's that get it...

It looks like you can't. Maybe you should ask them to discuss it with me instead of you.

> If you see a copy of the book I have,
> Sanford University's Statistics division studied Theomatics
> for several months and produced a report that said that
> the Theomatics feature in the Bible is unique.

Since "Sanford" doesn't appear to be the name of an actual university, I have to assume that you mean either "Stanford" or "Samford." Samford is a Bible college in Alabama, so I bet it's that. Imagine that: a Bible college came to the conclusion that Theomatics is correct. I'm floored by their objectivity.

> They could
> not produce the same results in other writings, or even
> spiitual writings. And they said the chances of it just
> happening were like 1 out of several hundred billion.
> If I find the online re-print of this I will send it.

Well, I produced what appears to be a similar result in just twenty minutes on my computer, so perhaps they weren't trying all that hard. I expect you'll continue to repeat that I missed the entire point of Theomatics, as you have in each letter so far. So far I still don't see the relevance of your argument that some numbers are more important than others. But I suppose that's just a factor of my dysfuntional debunktionality.

That was the last message in this exchange.

So let's see: in the final tally I see at least two arguments from (unnamed) authority, and three things I'll say are confusion of cause and effect (the phrases were found in the Bible after the "discovery" of theomatics, therefore they were put there deliberately by someone who knew theomatics in advance).

Did I miss any others?