Sunday, November 29, 2009

Vic Stenger visited Austin at the end of October

Dr. Victor J. Stenger, author of the New York Times best seller, "God: The Failed Hypothesis" was in Austin at the end of October promoting his new book, "The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason". He gave a lecture and did an interview with me. For various reasons, we have not publicized these until now.

Since the Atheist Experience is on break, it seems like a good time to unveil them.

"A Conversation with Vic Stenger"

Mp3 audio is available here.

"The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason"

Mp3 audio is available here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hooray, Mormons!

So, after all my jealous whining every time Kazim has a story to tell about religious types knocking at his door, yesterday evening I got a visit from a couple of Mormon missionaries. You know, the young guys riding around on bicycles in white shirts, black slacks and ties and calling themselves "Elder" although they're all of 20 or 21, if that.

No, I didn't bite their heads off and drink the blood from their spurting neck stumps. These were a couple of nice guys, and I thought, we'll, here's a chance to pin them down on their beliefs and see how they respond to a tough question now and again. I told them up front I was an atheist, affiliated with a local atheist organization, co-host of a TV show and moderator of a blog, both on atheism. They were like, Oh, okay, and asked me a couple of questions about the difference between agnosticism and atheism.

So, to the highlights. I kept the tone entirely pleasant all the way, just in case they were worried. I suspect that these guys put up with a lot of "No thanks" and slammed doors, but generally aren't accustomed to dealing with someone who both openly identifies as atheist and then eagerly proceeds to engage them. (And one of the guys later on said as much.) My main question was one right from the AETV playbook: Exactly what do you guys believe and why do you believe it?

It is always interesting to question believers like that, because right there, in that most basic of all approaches to religious discussion, you will see just how differently theists and atheists approach thinking about religion and its claims. They essentially told me about their belief in God as a loving father figure, etc., and instead of giving me a solid "why" for what they believed, they merely asserted the strength of their belief as some kind of validation for it. The thing is, I don't think they were playing dodgeball. Cognitively, this is just how a lot of theists are. Passion equals proof, more or less. I think they thought they were giving me a very solid why, without understanding why "I know it in my heart" or whatever descriptive phrase they call into play does not, in fact, answer, why. I could have hammered the point home, demanding to know why they knew it in their hearts so strongly, but I know that for an answer I'd have ended up on a rhetorical merry-go-round.

Where the conversation got interesting — to keep this post short — was when I asked them why they believed Christ's sacrifice was necessary. It all went back to original sin, as in mainstream Christianity, though where Mormons split from mainstream Christians is in rejecting the Trinity (at least, that's what they told me). Jesus, in their belief system, is the Son of God, but was not God in the flesh. Anyway, this led to my asking about sin, and why God would allow such a drastic flaw in his creation in the first place, thus necessitating Christ's sacrifice years later. Their answer was interesting. Apparently, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were perfectly innocent, like "three year olds." They didn't reproduce because, in their innocence, they didn't know how, poor things. But here's the strange part. God apparently realized that this childlike, innocent bliss was stifling, stultifying. He introduced sin, they told me, so mankind could be happy. Certainly, introducing evil into the world brought with it much strife, but it also brought humanity the ability to exercise their free will to choose happiness over evil.

I had to admit this was a new take on the theology to me, but it still didn't really pass the smell test. For one thing, I told them I couldn't figure out why a perfect being like God, what with being omniscient and all, couldn't have come up with a better and more consistent business plan. Wouldn't God have know how to get it right from the start, without wasting so much time by first creating a world of innocent, developmentally arrested and hopelessly boring children romping around a meadow doing nothing in particular, only to think to himself "Nah, this ain't working" and change the rules? God here resembles those artists who are said to be such great masters at their craft that they introduce deliberate flaws into their work simply so they themselves don't get bored with it. But even those artists aren't all-powerful and all-knowing, so why wouldn't a perfect being have simply done the job to his satisfaction the first time?

The discussion went back to the whole free will thing, which led me to ask if there was free will in Heaven. After all, Heaven is supposed to be a place of eternal bliss. Why, if the Earth was such a drag in that condition, should Heaven then be a place we aspire to? Do people in Heaven have free will? Yes, they told me. So, if that's true, then is it possible for people to do evil in Heaven? Yes, they said, only in Heaven, well, it's such a great place that up there, you just wouldn't want to.

Okay, hang on, I said (thoroughly enjoying myself by now). Why can't Earth simply be that kind of place, one where you can choose to be evil, but are so content with your life that you don't? Because, if that's the definition of Heaven, I'd have to say I'm already there. I choose not to do evil, because I see too many reasons not to, and even more reasons to be good, plus, I simply have no impetus towards evil acts. It seemed that the more these guys described Heaven to me, the less it seemed like there was any notable difference between it and Earth. (And besides, I had to point out that Lucifer chose evil while in Heaven and rebelled against God, which kind of threw cold water on their assumption that no one would want to.)

Well, you might be able to see where this is leading: they finally admitted (I'm big on body language, so I couldn't help noticing one of the guys take a big step back as he gave me this answer) that in the end, it boils down to faith. Well, of course it does, and if I'd bet myself a ten-spot we'd eventually end up at this point, then...well, I'd have a ten-spot. I was encouraged to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon and study it, but — and here's the kicker — check those hard questions and skeptical thoughts of mine at the door, and just allow the message to wash over me. Now, without shifting from my Mr. Nice Atheist persona, I couldn't let them off the hook with this one. I told them I simply couldn't do that. Whatever I read, I think about it, and if there are hard questions to ask, then goshdarnit, I ask them. You have to. Indeed, the more important the issue at hand, the more there is at stake (and if the claims of Christianity are true, then there is quite a lot at stake), the harder your questions have to be. What they didn't realize was that by insisting I had to treat their holy book different from anything else I might read — simply choosing to exercise little to no critical thinking in the reading of it — they were all but admitting that their holy book could not stand up to such intellectual scrutiny. And that's hardly the way an all-powerful, all-knowing being would go about his business in spreading his Word, wouldn't you say?

Anyway, there are more details about the conversation I could go into, but those were the highlights. We parted cordially, I told them it was nice to meet them and good luck in their efforts, and I hope I left them with some food for thought. If nothing else, I suspect that they'll be telling their fellow missionaries at the church on Sunday about the atheist guy they talked to. I hope they come back.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Allah Flummoxed by Swine Flu

I wanted to share with you the very first news item I saw on television this morning. It was a story about swine flu concerns surrounding hajj. Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of all Muslims who are able to make the trek. Google "hajj+'swine flu'" to find related articles.

Apparently, if adherents are required to destroy skyscrapers and execute unbelievers for jihad, the god will ensure their success. But protecting adherents from a flu bug, while they make the required hajj, is a bit too much to ask from the all-powerful creator of everything.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy 150th, Origin!

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and, reports have it, the mainstream media has decided, in its infinitely misguided goal to be "fair and balanced" about things, to give publicity to ignoramuses. So, I'm told, Stephen Meyer spouts his usual string of canards on CNN, and Time has apparently weighed in by interviewing some dimwit named Dennis Sewell on Darwin's "Dark Legacy" (ooooooo!). You know, the usual Godwinning, "evilushun is to blame for school shootings oh noes!!!" feces. Well, I choose to ignore ignorance. And I'm not linking to it, because blithering anti-science idiocy does not deserve to be rewarded with links. Instead, I'll simply raise a toast to one of the greatest and most important works of science of all time. Long after Christianity — and indeed, the human race — has settled into dust, whatever living things remain on this earth will continue to evolve, and the panoply of life will continue. Which is the reason Roger Ebert has described evolution as the "most consoling of all the sciences." Because it not only tells us that life will find a way, but it tells us how. All thanks to Chuck D. Well done, sir.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanks for not using "No True Scotsman"

I found this letter to the editor in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman interesting. It was in reference to a statement in an earlier article regarding the recent Fort Hood shootings:

Religious radical?
Re: Nov. 12 article "Suspect alarmed doctors."

The story noted that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's doctors and colleagues "viewed him at times as belligerent, defensive and argumentative in his frequent discussions of his ... faith."

That pretty much describes every member of the religious right that I've ever encountered.

Rev. Bill Young

How often have I, and others, said that liberal Christians need to be more vocal in their condemnation of their more extreme brethren--instead of falling back on the "No True Scotsman" fallacy? In fact, it’s their silence and solidarity as much as their support of irrationality that lends credibility to the extremists in their ranks. So, this statement undermines at least one of the pillars supporting fundamentalism in Western Christendom. I hope other Christians will follow suit.

When I first read the content, I thought, “No Christian will hear anything an anti-religious person submits in this vein.” Then I saw the signature and was happy. It’s like reading about a lawsuit to bring down a religious statue on public property and finding the plaintiff is theist. It’s sort of a relief to know we aren’t going to be accused of bias and targeted for criticism or ugly insults—at least not this time. That’s not a bad feeling now and again.

Thanks Bill.

You blog readers are so very silly

After I wrote my last post about Nazis disapproving of Darwin, Ruud pointed out that another reader had converted the post into film format on YouTube.

No reading, no dramatic enactment, just the text of the post -- written in an old timey, grainy black and white film format, with German music playing over it. Watch it here!

It is my hope that Prophiscient will also give this post the same treatment, because that would lead to a delightful kind of double-infinite-self-reference loop.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Another reason not to blame Darwin

Atheist Experience viewer Ruud from the Netherlands just drew my attention to another excellent reason why it's is ridiculous to blame evolutionary theory for Nazism extermination. Checking out the Index to Creationist Claims, I see that it's already on there, but since it was new to me I thought I'd share it.

The University of Arizona's site hosts a list of books that were banned in Germany in the 1930's. Among them is... take a wild guess...

Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (Haeckel).

And just for good measure, there's also this:

c) All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk.

That ought to settle the issue. But of course, you know it won't.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Don't fear to let bad guys talk

There are many lines that you can expect to hear on just about every episode of The Atheist Experience. One is "Tell me what you believe and why you believe it." Another is "Promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state." However, I think one of the most important repeated lines is: "If you disagree with us, then we will try to get to your call more quickly."

To me, that's a vital component of intellectual honesty. Anyone can barricade themselves in a mental fortress of belief, deciding on what is true "in their hearts" early in life, and refusing to listen to any evidence to the contrary. However, if you want to have as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible, you simply have to step out of your fortress and really listen openly to what people are saying who don't agree with you. There is no other way to expose the false beliefs you hold and the true beliefs that you lack.

That's why I generally want to make it a point in life to read the Bible, listen to Christian radio, argue with Jehovah's Witnesses, and take all the callers I can.

That's also why I'm kind of disappointed, though not really surprised, by the apparent terror that, ah, certain people seem to have these days over putting 9/11 terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in a civilian court.

As I understand it, there are two major concerns at play here, both of them (not to put too fine a point on it) cretinous. One of them is that Mohammed will escape from jail and go on the most horrifying killing spree the world has ever known. The other is that if Mohammed is allowed to defend himself in court, then the dulcet tones of his voice spouting terrorist propaganda will surely incite more violence against the United States.

Ezra Klein masterfully dismantles both arguments in just a few short sentences. Regarding their escape:

These guys took down a plane with box cutters. They used crude weapons to attack a far more sophisticated and effective fighting force. The most fearsome of them was captured at home, in his pajamas. It's not like we're putting Magneto on trial and need to keep him away from metal filings.

And regarding letting him talk:

Trying these guys publicly, as well as holding them in normal prisons like common criminals, is good public relations. Being a terrorist is a more appealing prospect if the world's sole superpower appears to cower before your might than it is if you end up trapped in the American legal system, forced to submit to endless cross-examination and consultation with attorneys and other bureaucratic humiliations. Lots of people want to be super villains. But who wants to be a henchman? Being held on a fortified military island and tortured by a country that can't seem to get you to talk is a much more glorious finish than a long and dull trial that ends with you serving time in central New Jersey.

When you come right down to it, Mohammed is really just another extreme religious crackpot, and talking and listening to religious crackpots is what we on the Atheist Experience want to happen. We want it to happen because crackpottery thrives on remaining mysterious. If you can frame your crackpottery in a few pithy sentences appealing to some seemingly high minded ideals, then it sounds superficially convincing. But when you start probing their beliefs in depth, that's when you get to have conversations like this...

"Tommy Davis previously denied the Xenu story, asking CNN reporter John Roberts if it 'sounded ridiculous' and saying the story was 'unrecognisable' to him. The Xenu story has also been denied by actor Tom Cruise and other famous Scientologists."

And this...

"Wait. Mormons actually know this story and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet? ...No, it's a matter of logic! If you're gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you'd better have something to back it up. All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!"*

And this...

"Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man… living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you! He loves you. He loves you and he needs money!"

That's what we want to have happen with the beliefs of fuckwits like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We want an American lawyer to stand up in front of this guy on the witness stand, and let him spout off his beliefs. And then we want our lawyer to shake his head in disbelief, and say "Mr. Mohammed, are you freaking kidding me????"

What we don't want is for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to get away with no trial at all, or a tribunal under cover of darkness. We don't want him to be executed without a chance to air out his horrific, vile sounding views. We don't want to give people an excuse to make a martyr out of him without laying his idiocy bare for the entire world to see.

I'm sure some people will object that someone will hear his words and say "Hey, ya know? This jihad business sounds pretty reasonable to me." And I'm sure that that's true; I can imagine that there are probably a (very, very, very small) number of people who were not already looking to sign up for the terrorist lifestyle, but will be persuaded by Mohammed's silver tongue to join the cause.

But you know what else? I'm willing to take that chance, because I'm seriously betting that the number of people who will be moved to sympathy for America and disgust for Mohammed and his ilk would tremendously dwarf the number of people who would fall for his recruitment speech.

I am firmly of the belief that you can't prevent bad ideas from being heard, but you can shed light on them and make them look foolish. I think it's the ideal of free speech that we should all strive for. If I didn't think that, then I would have to conclude once and for all that our little public access show is a bust, simply on the grounds that we have allowed so many more bad ideas to get air time than would have gotten it otherwise.

Call me a naive idealist for having some faith in humanity that they can be dragged to a reasonable position. The ones to really watch out for are the small-minded, pathetic people polluting the airwaves, who are afraid to hear Khalid talk. Somehow they must feel that his beliefs are so reasonable and so seductive that millions of people will become America's enemies just by listening to a defeated criminal speak on a docket. And frankly, I feel sorry for them, for the fear of the world around them that they must feel every day.

* Note: It was pointed out in the comments that the quote about Mormonism from South Park, while funny, is not an accurate representation of the Mormon story.

A beautiful day, sans creationist fools

Okay, so I read on Pharyngula this morning that Ray Comfort, the World's Stupidest Christian™, rescheduled his giveaway of his bowdlerized Origin of Species on university campuses for today instead of tomorrow, evidently because he heard that people were preparing to counter it by printing up information from the NCSE's enjoyable Don't Diss Darwin site. So naturally, he had to do an end-run around that, since his pathetic, ignorant twaddle sinks like the Titanic when faced with the iceberg of scientific fact.

So I'm trying to make up my mind whether or not to go down to the UT-Austin campus and confront the dopes handing out books. But I'm not sure I really feel like it. For one reason, unless you're a student, or you live down there or have business there, the campus isn't very visitor-friendly. Traffic is a headache, and parking is a righteous pain in the ass at the best of times. And anyway, it would be amusing for a few minutes, I suppose, but then, like all dealings with creationist fools, it would simply get aggravating and tedious.

Finally, I step outside, and I see this.

And I think to myself, Wow, an absolutely perfect autumn day. Which is rare enough in Austin, I can tell you. Seriously, we're talking deep blue, cloudless, endless skies, and the temperature like Goldilocks' porridge. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

And then I think, now who would I rather spend a gorgeous day like this with? A gaggle of hopeless anti-science morons, or someone with more charisma and intelligence than all of them put together? Say, this guy:

It was not a difficult decision. Grab the leash, dial up a little Miles Davis on the iPod, and it's off to the park we go, big boy!

Really, some days are just too beautiful to ruin.

So, I have no idea yet how the UT giveaway went, and what fireworks may or may not have erupted. I've put an email in to some folks with Atheist Longhorns I know, so maybe they'll have a report for me later.

Oh, the Irony

I had to chuckle when I read about the recent study that investigated the alleged link between homosexuality and pedophile priests, only to find no connection. The Catholic Church has been blaming gays, pop culture, and even the victims for their problems. Now, it seems they have one less group to blame. (Don't hold your breath on them stepping up to the responsibility plate, though.)

What made this study even more delicious is that the Catholic Church funded it. It reminds me of the 2006 intercessory prayer study that the Templeton Foundation funded that showed that nothing fails like prayer. I'm willing to bet that in both cases, the funding agency thought for sure that their world view would be vindicated. Both groups each had millions of dollars riding on the bet.

Reality bites, sometimes.

I think these are both excellent uses of religious funds.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dinesh D'Souza, Christianity's silliest intellectual poseur

In the wake of the Ft. Hood shootings, which are looking more and more to have been influenced at least to some degree by shooter Nidal Hasan's increasing affiliation and correspondence with extremist anti-American Islamist clerics, Dinesh D'Souza has popped up with a USA Today editorial that demonstrates — again — how poor a thinker he can be when attempting both to defend theism from blame for evil deeds theists commit, while in the same fevered breath indicting atheism for all the world's evils. D'Souza is usually pitiful, true, but this is lame even for him.

Remember, this is the clown to tried to blame "cultural liberalism" for the 9/11 attacks, claiming, in a manner similar to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, that the Islamic world was so incensed by America's tolerance for things their religious culture found offensive (you know, homos, abortion, porno, etc.) that they just couldn't contain themselves any longer. Apart from being an egregious exercise in victim-blaming, the claim reflected total pants-on-head ignorance of several decades of the evolving political landscape over there that eventually led to the rise of bin Laden and al Qaeda. Easier, after all, to blame the whole thing on godless tree-hugging hippie faggots.

The gist of "Don't Blame God for Terrorism" is that we shouldn't pick on religious people for being crazed killers, when there have been crazed-killer atheists too. He then drags out his well-worn talking points about Stalin, Marx, Pol Pot, blah blah blah. He tries to make a special pleading argument about Islamic terrorism, claiming its "motives are secular," ignoring the fact that 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta had a list of instructions in his possession that was chock full of prayers mentioning God's name no fewer than 88 times in five pages, and that it is also widely known (and been the subject of jokes ever since) that the 9/11 gang were taught they'd be rewarded with a harem of 72 virgins in the afterlife. While it may be the case that the al Qaeda masterminds who recruit these idiots to do their bombings for them have complex political motives, the fact that they're happy to use their religion, its xenophobia and its promises as key elements in their recruitment propaganda cannot be brushed aside as if it were utterly irrelevant, as D'Souza idiotically tries to do. Once you get some wild-eyed wacko yelling about God in the context of mass violence, guess what: his religious beliefs are involved.

If D'Souza actually wants, with a straight face, to make the special pleading argument that "suicide terrorism in its origins has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife" when we have a suicide terrorist's letter saying things like "Oh God, open all doors for me" in evidence, then he's not merely ignorant but a lying tosser. (And the qualifier about the secular "origins" of suicide terrorism is irrelevant, since something with secular origins can very easily be co-opted for religious purposes, just as something with religious origins can be co-opted for secular purposes.)

D'Souza's dishonesty flowers in this passage:

If religious beliefs in life after death are the source of terrorism, where are the Buddhist suicide bombers? Nor has anyone been able to identify the Christian bin Laden, the Christian equivalent of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, or the Christian "nation of martyrs" patterned along the lines of post-Khomeini Iran. The vast majority of people in the world believe in God and the afterlife, yet hardly any of them launch suicide attacks in the hope of hastening their journey to heavenly bliss.

Well, duh, you idiot. The fact that there are numerous benign religions out there is not under debate. Every atheist acknowledges this, including Dawkins and Hitchens.

But that does not mean that we must ignore the malignant religions that freely exercise their capacity to become violent and fanatical through appeal to the supposed will of their Sky-Daddy. History has shown this occur time and again.

And in the case of benign religions, while I'll happily mollify D'Souza by agreeing that there aren't any Buddhist suicide bombers out there, it's still the case that benign religions are as false as the malignant ones, and in a cage-match, the malignant one will win. Why, it's almost Darwinian. An Islamist bomber will take out a hundred peaceful Wiccans and Buddhists as easily as anyone else, and the prayers, incantations and deities of those victims won't protect them from the explosion any more than Allah will turn up with a hot virginal fuckbunny troupe for the bomber. While atheists do often criticize religion for enabling atrocities, our main criticism is still that religion is simply false. That certain religions also happen to inspire violence is just grist for an already active mill.

And no, it isn't that belief in an afterlife alone, in a vacuum, inspires terrorism. One can forge religious beliefs that include an afterlife, and then, the tenets and dogmas of those religions can go one of two ways: they can be benign, or malignant. You can believe in an afterlife and think the way to get there is by contemplating your navel all day in the lotus position, or you can think the way to get there is by killing infidels. D'Souza's big lie here is in claiming that atheists don't distinguish between benign and malignant religions. We do, but of the two, we will be more concerned about the malignant ones, as they're actually killing people. Duh twice.

Having lamely tried to dismiss the religious element from religious violence, D'Souza then goes on with his usual atheism=Marxism blather. To point out that D'Souza's concept of Marxism is simple-minded and shallow would be generous. But while atheism was neither "absolutely central" or "the whole point" of Marxism or communism (communism sought to create a classless and stateless society, and religion was rejected, like capitalism, as a tool of oppression), even if it were, what's D'Souza's point? This is the most crucial factor that D'Souza cannot grasp, expressed in his woeful misunderstanding (or perhaps intentional distortion) of Dawkins: Atheism only describes what a person does not believe, not what he does. When people act, they act based on what they do believe, not on what they do not.

Now it's true that what you don't believe can inform what you do believe. But there is no hard and fast rule — for instance, in the case of atheism — that illustrates that the disbelief in God will necessarily result in a specific set of commensurate beliefs among all atheists everywhere. You could, for example, be an atheist, who then decides that all religion everywhere is just bad juju and ought to be stamped out by force of arms, and so you become a dictator for the purposes of achieving this end. But even there, you would be acting based on what you do believe — religion should be stamped out — and not on your disbelief in God alone.

And the fact that the vast majority of your fellow atheists would disagree with you, and indeed be actively opposed to you (most of us tend to be humanists and rationalists, after all, and I'll happily reassure Dinesh that we're not down with the whole "let's oppress and kill people unlike us" thing) pretty much proves Dawkins' point that D'Souza distorts, that there is no logical path from atheism to evil deeds. The very idea of "Because I do not believe in God, I will do bad things" makes no sense on its face. It is a blatant and crystal-clear non sequitur, no different than "Because I do not believe in [insert random mythological creature], I will do bad things." An atheist could say that, but then he'll have taken an illogical path from his atheism to evil deeds. Because — unlike the Koran with its numerous passages advocating the killing of the unfaithful — there is no central atheist dogma dictating a similar fate for the faithful. And if there were, we'd have long ago rejected it as illogical and irrational.

In contrast to the above, consider the sentence, "Because God/Allah/The Great Pumpkin wills it, I will destroy the infidels, paint the walls with their blood and make orphans of their children!" Now, while another theist might say, "Dude, you're doing it wrong! God is love and all that!" you cannot argue that there is no logical path from the crazed believer's theism to his evil deeds. Because, as long as the existence of gods remains conveniently unproven, then the religious have the luxury of being (and this is demonstrably true all down history) remarkably indifferent to anything but their own passionate fanaticism. Believers create their gods in their own image, which is why a benign Christian's God, or a benign Muslim's Allah, is a very different deity from the God of Fred Phelps or the Allah of Mohammed Atta. And there is a very logical path from an evil belief in a malign deity, to evil deeds.

But while D'Souza is eager to stress that the "vast majority of people in the world believe in God and the afterlife, yet hardly any of them launch suicide attacks in the hope of hastening their journey to heavenly bliss," he isn't willing to give the same credit to the vast majority of the world's unbelievers, who aren't going around founding totalitarian states and instigating pogroms. D'Souza's whole schtick is little more than a big "same to you and more of it!" whine, attempting to condemn atheism on the same grounds theism finds itself condemned whenever violence happens in the name of a theistic belief. But he can only make this argument if he distorts the nature of belief versus disbelief, freely ignores the openly stated religious motivations of terrorists and the easily referenced scriptural passages in their actual holy books, and reveals himself to be a hopeless hypocrite whose arguments were all bought at a discount from Fallacies-R-Us. In other words, business as usual for Christianity's silliest intellectual poseur.

We get creationist email #2

This is a follow-up to this dialogue. Martin has politely asked me if I would increase my blogging activity over the next few weeks, so that we can make up for the lack of new shows. Since I enjoy writing posts that react to something else, I'll probably carry on with this sort of thing as long as I can. Besides, it's good to stay in practice.

This email will be abridged so you don't have to see increasingly wide quote boxes.

From: thelambstruth

Hola :)

[Regarding Kazim's statement that "
neo-Darwinian evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for how the diversity of life came into existence"]

Majority is correct? That's extremely flawed. I'm sure you perhaps meant something differently?

Nope. This is not an argument from popularity, although you might regard it as an argument from authority. In brief, I am not a scientist, but I understand the scientific method and recognize that it relies on results that are repeatable and can be independently verified. I also recognize that among the people who devote themselves to the serious study of biology, i.e. published biologists, only a vanishingly small number of them have any beef with the claim that biological evolution occurred.

Science is based on converging consensus based on common repeatable observations. If you'd like me to explain the scientific method in more depth then I will.

[Responding to Kazim's statement that fossilization is a rare event]

However that was not my question. I was stating that in order for fossilization to occur, some pretty drastic things had to happen. So, what was this (these) process (processes) basically?

I'm sure you're fully capable of doing your own research. But here, let me google that for you.

[Regarding Kazim's remarks about the temporal proximity of pyramid building to the flood]

Well there is: " The building of the first temple can be dated to 950 B.C. +/- some small delta, placing the Flood around 2250 B.C. Unfortunately, the Egyptians (among others) have written records dating well back before 2250 B.C. (the Great Pyramid, for example dates to the 26th century B.C., 300 years before the Biblical date for the Flood). No sign in Egyptian inscriptions of this global flood around 2250 B.C." However the Flood occurred 4400.

Reference, please? Where are you getting these numbers? As I understand it, there are two perspectives. The young earth creationist view is based on numbers cooked up by Bishop Ussher, who concluded that the flood occurred in 2348 BC.

The position of the scientific community, on the other hand, is that there is no indication whatsoever that a global flood ever occurred.

[When called out for posting long lists of objections to science from web sites, without providing detail]

Haha, my bad. I admit, I was in a bit of a hurry, which caused me to get some points from book/site. I'll elaborate in a future message.

Okay. I've got time to wait.

[Further pressing for a reaction to the web site ostensibly showing ancient pictures of dinosaurs]

Yes it is subjective, however if you want to deny how amazingly (try to think objectively) accurate the paintings/carvings/etc looked, then whatever. How can someone do so with such accuracy? Has there been any other examples such as these? If it would've been a drawing of some random monster, then yea, so what? This is significant because they didn't know anything about the dinosaurs (supposedly), so how can they just so happen to draw such pictures?

As I already said, I don't think that they are amazingly close to dinosaurs. Although I will also note a couple of other points:

1. There is actually good reason to believe that people found dinosaur bones in ancient times...

2. There is nothing inherent in evolution that says that the dinosaurs could not have survived past the presumed extinction event. It's unlikely, but wouldn't fundamentally change the scientific understanding of how evolution works.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cleaned-up version of AETV #631 posted

At the AETV site. It's getting better.

By the by, you all are aware that there will be no shows for the next two weekends in a row, right? Just checking. I and the rest of the team will do our best, busy lives allowing, to increase our postings here so that you all don't go into AE withdrawal too badly during the enforced hiatus.

No! Not Sarah too!

For those of you who don't keep up with Ed Brayton's enjoyable blog Dispatches from the Culture Wars, he has a funny post today featuring an excerpt from Sarah Palin's new book that does a pretty fair job of illustrating why the lady hasn't got what it takes to be elected dogcatcher let alone leader of the free world, followed by some hearty criticisms. Go read and enjoy. But I thought I'd just mention that I couldn't help being struck by one passage from the book in particular. Here's Sarah kvetching about how incredibly controlling Nicolle Wallace, Sarah's official minder on the McCain campaign, supposedly was.

But something always struck me as peculiar about the way [Wallace] recalled her days in the White House, when she was speaking on behalf of President George W. Bush. She didn't have much to say that was positive about her former boss or the job in general. Whenever I wanted to give a shout-out to the White House's homeland security efforts after 9/11, we were told we couldn't do it.

ZOMG! Oh noes! Did Sarah actually use the phrase...shudder..."shout-out"!?!? Dear Lord in Hebbin, she must be an inner-city gangbanger! Somebody quick...alert Brannon Howse!

PS: I never cease to be amazed at the way the GOP continues to elevate Sarah Palin to rockstar status despite her consistent ineptitude and penchant for whining and casting blame on others for her shortcomings. I have a little hypothesis as to why this is so, and it goes like this (ahem): Take a look at the kinds of people who make up arch-conservatism and the radical right in America these days — you know, the teabaggers, the Glenn Beck zombies, etc. — and you'll see, in the phrasing of vintage Mad magazine, the usual gang of idiots. To wit, fundamentalist Christians whose favorite sport is their strident denial of anything in the world of politics and science that contradicts their cherished beliefs and ideologies. In their world, intellectualism, education and expertise are all bugs rather than features. They love Sarah because she represents them to a tee in her combination of intellectual mediocrity, hubris, and embarrassing lack of self-awareness or any sense of irony. Sarah famously could not name the three countries covered by NAFTA, and yet she's seriously being pushed as the Republican front-runner to challenge Obama in 2012. She's so clueless that she can actually write this in her book, about her respect for Hillary Clinton...

Compared to the guys [Clinton] squared off against, a lot of her supporters think she proved what Margaret Thatcher proclaimed, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’

...and her fans will be so clueless that they'll read this and not immediately roll their eyes that such a remark came from the keypad of a woman who couldn't be bothered to finish out even her first term as governor. Way to get it done, Sarah!

Well, every political party gets the candidate it deserves. And the rise of Sarah Palin's superstardom, at a point in her career when she should be treated as little more than a joke whose fifteen minutes were up long ago, demonstrates just how low the formerly Grand Old Party has sunk. Yes, there are plenty of moderates in the GOP outside of the "base" who are groaning in dismay that Sarah has become the party's glamour girl and hope for the future. Heck, the rising schism has me heating up the popcorn...

Friday, November 13, 2009

We get creationist email

I've alerted the author that I will be posting this, and even obtained his consent, so... everybody wave hello!

From: thelambstruth
I'm a creationist fundie first off, and I was wondering how one could be an evolutionists.

Hello, creationist fundie, nice to meet you.

The reason someone would accept evolution is pretty straightforward: It's because neo-Darwinian evolution is the most widely accepted explanation for how the diversity of life came into existence. If one wanted to change the mainstream science, the most direct way to do that would be to study the topic and write papers proposing a scientifically reasonable alternative; request that the papers be peer-reviewed and published in a mainstream scientific journal; and then hope that your work would be persuasive enough to change the prevailing understanding of biology. It's a tall order, sure, but it's the way that scientific inquiry generally proceeds these days, and it's been very useful at developing a body of knowledge that has resulted in the technology you enjoy today, such as that computer that you are typing on.

I could go into many topics, however I feel the need to just touch up on a few, being the geologic strata, the fossils, and anything else pertaining to that.

Firstly, the geologic strata are completely vague and arbitrary, the transition imperceptibly. A scientist cannot just go out and dig to a certain depth and know right then which stata it was. As said, they cannot even tale when they've transitioned into another strata until they run into fossils (will cover later) or conduct 'radiometric dating'. Also within this vague and arbitrary strata, it is extremely variable and the stratas are only accepted when they coincide with the presumed fossil age; which the fossils are dated by the rocks and the rocks are dated by the fossils for some nice circular reasoning. So, say, if the scientist 'knows' the age of the strata and finds a fossil within that very arbitrary and undistinguished strata, then the fossil is the same age, while if the fossils are presumed to be a certain age and they find one in another strata then they date the strata accordingly along side the fossils. What is this? If a fossil is in the wrong spot, then they attribute that fact not to the flaw of evolution, however something cataclysmic, that no one knows what, moved it there. I thought science was supposed to be based off evidence and fact, not wishful thinking that some great event might have caused something to happen.

Jeff Dee has already pointed out to you an invaluable resource in the Talk Origins Archive. However, I would like to draw your special attention to a subsection of that site known as the Index to Creationist Claims.

If you do a word search on that page for "strata" you will find numerous articles, including one which directly addresses your question. There is a brief response on this page. There is also a longer explanation of the science of dating fossils, on this page.

If you read these articles, what you discover is that there are actually a variety of separate methods for dating a fossil, all of which tend to produce similar answers, and therefore are used to independently verify the age of a fossil. The geologic eras were thus determined after various dating techniques were already common, and after observing that similar fossils tend to fall in similar orders within layers of rock. The reason it's now additionally possible to date fossils by the layer in which they appear, is because the strata have been so well established by other dating methods.

How come there are so many fossils? They would not formed over natural causes because in order for an animal to become fossilized, it must occur very rapid and a quick death. Surely not ALL of these fossils died like that. If they did, why doesn't that happen anymore? We do not have anything close to that happening today.

Of course not all dead organisms form fossils. Only a very small fraction of the animals that ever lived are fossilized. Multi-cellular life spans over a period of about 3-3.5 billion years, and as you rightly pointed out, the vast majority of those organisms do not leave fossils.

So what caused it? Well the Flood did of course!

Unfortunately for your hypothesis, the idea that there was a worldwide flood is not taken even a little bit seriously in mainstream science. There are a multitude of problems with the flood idea, which you can brush up on here.

In particular, I think my favorite example of such problems is the fact that other cultures, such as Egypt and Sumeria, had thriving cultures which lasted right through the supposed dates of the flood. For example, the Egyptians were building pyramids both before and immediately after the supposed flood dates. That would be a neat trick -- I wonder if the new Pharaohs were Noah's grandchildren? And how many of their cousins were enslaved to do the work?

Here's some quick little proofs for it (I could go into many biblical accounts, however I know that you atheists folk aren't to keen to accepting it):
1. World-wide distribution of flood distributions
2. Origin of civilization near Ararat-Babylon region in post-flood time.
3. Convergence of population growth statistics on date of flood
4. Dating of oldest living things at post-flood time
5. Worldwide occurrence of water-laid sediments and sedimentary rocks
6. Recent uplift of major mountain ranges
7. Marine fossils on crests of mountains
8. Evidence of former worldwide warm climate
9. Necessity of catastrophic burial and rapid lithification of fossil deposits
10. Recent origin of many datable geological processes
11. Worldwide distribution of all types of fossils
12. Uniform physical appearance of rocks from different "ages"
13. Frequent mixing of fossils from different "ages"
14. Near-random deposition of formational sequences
15. Equivalence of total organic material in present world and fossil world.
16. Wide distribution of recent volcanic rocks
17. Evidence of recent water bodies in present desert areas
18. Worldwide occurrence of raised shore lines and river terraces
19. Evidence of recent drastic rise in sea level
20. Universal occurrence of rivers in valleys too large for the present stream
21. Sudden extinction of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals
22. Rapid onset of glacial period
23. Existence of polystrate fossils.
24. Preservation of tracks and other ephemeral markings throughout the geologic column
25. Worldwide occurrence of sedimentary fossil "graveyards" in rocks of all "ages"
26. Absence of any physical evidence of chronological boundary between rocks of successive "ages"
27. Occurrence of all rock types (shale, limestone, granite, etc.) in all "ages"
28. Parallel of supposed evolutionary sequence through different "ages" with modern ecological zonation in the one present age
29. Lack of correlation of most radiometric "ages" with assumed paleontological "ages"
30. Absence of meteorites in geologic column
31. Absence of hail imprints in geologic column, despite abundance of fossil ripple-marks and raindrop imprints
32. Evidence of man's existence during earliest of geologic "ages" (e.g., human footprints in Cambrian, Carboniferous, and Cretaceous formations)

It looks to me like you're just grabbing long lists of items that you found on web sites, but can't be bothered to back them up with any detail. Hence, I can't be bothered to respond to each one individually. If you would care to read more of the Index to Creationist Claims, you will find a lot of responses to these canards there. If you would like to pick out one or two of your bullet points that you find particularly persuasive, then I would be happy to discuss them in detail after you expand on them.

Finally, what about the dinosaur drawings in places like Arizona and Rhodesia and many others? In those times, they didn't have a concept of a dinosaur, they supposedly didn't know anything about those. So, how did they know what they looked like? Some are phenomenal at their accuracy.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing back from you. Thanks:

Whether they're phenomenal or not is a matter of opinion, I suppose -- I'm not all that impressed myself. Short answer: people imagine all kinds of cool monsters. Longer answer: here and here.

Russell Glasser
The Atheist Experience

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brannon Howse, racist asshole

Back to the loonybin otherwise known as the Christian Worldview Network. Bask in the unapologetically racist language Brannon Howse uses to distort Barack Obama's reaction to the Fort Hood shootings.

On the day of the Ft. Hood murders Obama walks out and acts like a classless, inner-city, gangster giving shout outs to people in the audience. What is also with his trying to sound like a gangbanger when he is in front of certain groups of people? Why is this a poor example to America's students? We take your calls including calls from two black Americans who agree with what Brannon is saying.

Gotta love the way he throws a variant of the "some of [my best friends/our show's callers] are black" line over the transom at the end there. Of course, it doesn't save him any more than it does any other racist.

I'll be writing in depth on the Fort Hood shootings here soon. This all happened just up the road, about an hour from Austin, so it resonates locally. I've been to both Fort Hood and Killeen many times, and have friends there.

Anyway, I'll sign off with a link to Obama's actual response to the shootings. You know, as it happened in the real world and not the one between Brannon Howse's redneck ears.

Antichrist gonna getcha

This morning I was listening to Christian radio. (Yeah, I still do that. I'm not going to apologize for it, he said defensively.)

Thanks to my long commute, when I'm bored of the available audiobooks and podcasts, I occasionally switch to NPR or Christian talk for a few seconds to check if they say something interesting. In this case I caught a brief mention of Doubting Thomas, which was enough to hold me there for a while.

Christians love the Doubting Thomas myth, because (1) they get to claim that Jesus once provided incontrovertible evidence of his divinity, and (2) they get to chastise you for looking for any REAL evidence outside of the story. ("Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.") Thus, the whole thing is an exercise in encouraging gullibility. In this particular case, the preacher was stating that it is not only a mistake to seek evidence, but it is also dangerous.

In particular, he repeatedly used the phrase "signs and miracles" to denote stuff that you should definitely not be looking for. Why? Because the antichrist's a-comin', and he's going to have all the same outward superpowers as Jesus. And he'll fool you.

I heard him refer to the antichrist as "the devil's Superman" and say something like, "He'll convince you that black is white, up is down, evil is good." Then he spun a scenario: You pray to god asking for a sign that you are in accordance with his will. Then a really awesome miracle occurs, fire across the sky or something, and you think you're covered.

But you die, and you never pledged your soul to Jesus. Oh noes! You go to hell, screaming all the way that you thought God gave you a sign. Ho ho, the devil chortles. You fool, that was ME!

Now this story provides some interesting insight, because I am often asked "What would it take to convince you that God was real?" And I usually say that if God knows me well, a fairly impressive personalized miracle (i.e., stars spontaneously rearranging to form words, with multiple witnesses verifying that I am not crazy) or even a personal visit from someone who appears to be demonstrably omniscient would probably go most of the way toward changing my mind. And I still say that.

But here's the problem... Satan can fool you by performing the same tricks. Which would certainly put me in an awkward position, of course, but it seems that the Christians are just as bad off. Because if Satan is such a perfect deceiver that anyone can be fooled, who's to say that he didn't write the Bible?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Postmortem on today's show

I turned up much earlier than I usually do (mainly because today is gross and rainy, and so I didn't think my usual method of flying down the freeway in order to dash into the studio at the last minute would be the most safe and sensible option), to discover the guys working like bees to get everything running smoothly with a minimum of glitches. I got to see the refurbished studios for the first time, and gee whiz, the control room is sweet, with shiny new Sony 16:9 1080P monitors everywhere. Looks better than many studios I've actually worked in for pay. And yet somehow, all this technical advancement has been resulting in the glitchiest shows we've done in ages.

The stream dropped out for about half an hour, I'm told, because some idiot has blasted the studio's computers with a goddamn virus. So you Ustream viewers, please hang on, and we'll get a clean audio file up to the website ASAP. Otherwise, I thought the show went well today. We tried out a stunning new opening video sequence provided to us by a fan, and the background chroma key looked cool, except for the fact I had stupidly decided to wear a shirt today that was just green enough to turn my torso translucent. Perhaps it was an improvement. The callers all told us they could hear us fine, without any echo or odd reverb feeding back. And we got a dumb theist caller who got us both into rant mode, which I always enjoy. So, we're working through these teething pains, people, slowly but surely.

Oh yeah. One sucky note. After next Sunday's show, we're off for the next two Sundays. Sigh. Things, I'm sure, will settle in after the holidays.

More on the show's audio issues

Thanks to some helpful fans — as opposed to the one guy who just wrote in to bitch that he was going to quit watching until we got our shit together — some cleaned-up versions of the past three weeks' episodes, 627-629, have been posted. The cleaned-up versions, which remove that annoying ticking sound and generally improve the overall listening experience, are the ones in MP3 and OGG format only. As for what's causing these audio irritations, that's still very much under investigation. We suspect some I/O related matter. I personally don't know and haven't been privy to whatever discussions Frank and the rest of the crew may have been having over all this.

So, starting with today's show (I'm looking forward to being back on, as it's been a couple of months for me, so I hope we get some theist callers I can kick around), if problems persist, we will delay the posting of audio files to the web archive until they've been cleaned up. As always, please be patient in the knowledge that the crew is on the problem, and we'll eventually overcome whatever it is.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Christian Hate wins in Maine...but...

Once again, the fundies have locked and loaded the only weapons they have, hate and fear, and brought them to bear in Maine, where a marriage equality vote went the wrong way yesterday. Naturally, this is disappointing for those of us who support love and families regardless of such details as race, creed, or sexual preference, and oppose ignorant discrimination based on fearing the wrath of an invisible magic man in the sky.

But I see some encouragement here. Note that the hate vote was only 53%. I think only ten years ago it might have been upwards of 70% or even 80%. Opening hearts and minds to accepting that, first, women, and then blacks and other racial minorities, deserved equality under the law took a huge cultural sea change. (And of course I'm talking across a broad base here, not just the issue of marriage. When you get right down to it, movements like women's suffrage and the right to have birth control, and the rights of African Americans to sit wherever the fuck they pleased on the bus, are essentially the very same fight as the GLBT marriage fight: it's about equality, period.) It will take an even bigger sea change for our culture at large to begin to accept gay marriage, primarily because, of all the equality fights down the years, this one is tricky because it's going against centuries of religious programming that gays and lesbians are the vilest kinds of hellbound sinners alive.

Progress is happening faster than you might think. Remember the article from just a few days back, reporting the rise of secularism among New England states, and the frustration of evangelicals in those states. I suspect that it may just take a generational shift to move more people in the mainstream of America towards the side of marriage equality. After all, one huge factor that has been shown to be alienating younger people today from their parents' traditional Christian faith is this constant hammering of the "Get The Fags!" drum on the part of Christians just about everywhere. As these older generations pass on, and more open-minded young people grow up and adopt tolerant secular attitudes, things will shift.

So yeah, marriage equality fighters, the downside is that I am suggesting it may not be until the '20s or '30s before widespread legalization of gay marriage becomes a reality in America. But really, despite yesterday's election setback — again, by not nearly as large a margin as it could have been — the momentum is with you. For GLBT marriage equality, it's only a matter of time. It'll happen. Not this year. But it will.