Sunday, March 28, 2010

On AETV today

Matt's still out sick, so it'll be me and Tracie today. One of the things I'll be doing is responding to an email from a young atheist viewer in Italy, who's asked for help in arguments he's having with a Christian professor. I thought this one would be fun to smash live for all to see, instead of just via email response. The professor makes statements in his email to this viewer reflecting such poor thinking that, if the educational system in Italy is so bad that a man this stupid can achieve a career in academia, then it frankly makes Texas look not so bad.

See you on UStream in about 4 hours! Consider this post an open discussion thread on today's show.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Next time, pray to recognize confirmation bias

A viewer wrote to say that he is a former Christian, but became a Jew rather than an atheist because of an experience he had as a teenager. He asked: "Please tell me if the following story should be proof to me that there is a God and what you would think if it happened to YOU."

One day when I was a Christian I was praying to God and saying, "God please let me meet somebody to witness to today". Later that day a man just walked up to me out of nowhere and said, "If your religion goes bad do you go bad with it?" I said "No" and he said "Thank you" and walked off. I had always wondered if there is no God, how my prayers got answered when nobody heard me praying that day in the car since I was praying under my breath and the doors were closed.

I replied:

It's an interesting story, but does not impress me as an outside observer as much as it obviously impressed you when you were in the situation.

People in general are notoriously bad at calculating the odds of an event occurring. Events which strike us as "unlikely" are actually fairly commonplace, especially because we are able to invent patterns and attach significance to a very wide range of possible events. For example, the request you made was extremely unspecific, and could have been fulfilled by all kinds of different things happening over a long period of time. You said that the person came up to you "later that day," which doesn't make it nearly as interesting if, say, you had prayed and somebody had shown up immediately. And "meet somebody to witness to today" isn't all that specific either -- you might well have tried harder to push some kind of religious topic into any conversation you had that day, and seen it as scoring a hit. The witnessing you actually did in the end (you were asked a question and you gave a one-syllable answer) doesn't strike me as especially significant, although I'm sure it struck you that way at the time.

People are also very susceptible to confirmation bias. Stuff happens every day that does not seem significant, but when it matches some kind of expectation we have, we tend to notice that one event and attach special importance to it, while ignoring all the other things that didn't fit our conception of something unusual or miraculous. For instance: in your story you didn't specify if that was the only time in your young life that you ever prayed for anything, but I bet it wasn't. And I'll bet that you didn't waste too much thought on all the times you tossed out a casual prayer and nothing happened.

If you wanted to do a real test of the power of faith, you shouldn't need to say "God, please cause [some fairly commonplace event] to happen before [some fairly long span of time] has elapsed." You ought to be able to say: "God, please let a bird with blue spots and a crooked beak fly past my window within the next ten seconds." If something that specific happened in that small time span, that would be interesting. If you could repeat this demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer multiple times consistently, that would be really interesting.

As it is, the impression I get from your story was "I prayed for something just barely unusual to happen eventually, and on this one occasion it did." If that's the main reason why you're a theist today, then I think I can say with confidence that I could have experienced an identical occurrence and still not acquire your faith.


So there's this young man of Japanese/Italian descent, name of Takumi, by all accounts very smart and outgoing, with fluency in seven languages. He's suffering from a condition called Ventricular Septal Defect. He has three holes in his heart, and this year alone he's already had two heart attacks and a stroke. It would be nice to know this young fellow had the support of a loving and devoted family to see him through his health crisis. But that's not the case, you see, because Takumi is gay, and his family are devout churchgoers. So instead of getting him proper medical care, they beat him up and threw him out of house and home. Because being religious is all about that family values thing, of course.

Happily, we live in the Internet age, and so with the help of online donations and spreading the word via social networks, Takumi's been getting by, barely. One can only cringe at the thought of all the gay kids living 20 years ago, who didn't have these resources to fall back on. How many gay sons and daughters, who only wanted a little love and someone to call family, have been killed by hearts hardened into hate by religion? (Hey, not bad, that one. It's nice when you can combine a rant with some alliteration.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Vatican: A Nation of Sexual Perverts

It seems that the Vatican has been in the news a lot lately. It appears that the Pope was personally involved in a pedophilia cover up. A scandal has broken in Brazil. There’s an international inquiry into a Catholic cult and its sexual-predator leader who was a favorite of John Paul. A Vatican homosexual prostitution ring was exposed. Given the frequency and longevity of these problems, one can be certain there are systematic problems with the Catholic Church and its leadership.

It seems very clear to me that the sexual perversions of the Catholic Church are systematic, of their own making, and that they are powerless to fix them. Let’s take a look at the contributing causes.
  1. Sexual control. The Vatican would like to control everyone’s sexuality. Most people don’t like to be controlled and people will be sexual despite attempts at control. One of the side effects of abstinence-only sex education and virginity pledges, for example, was that teenagers opted for “porn star sex,” to circumvent the control. The Vatican has mandated the missionary position and prohibited condoms for its laity to increase the number of potential future tithers. In the US, most Catholics ignore such mandates. Priests don’t get to ignore the Vatican, so they have to find their outlets somewhere outside the realm of normal sexuality.
  2. Guilt. Promoting guilt has been a holy cash cow for the Vatican. Believers are held to an unreasonable standard of being “without sin.” They fail by design and have to confess their sins and receive penance. The mechanism reinforces the guilt and binds the believers closer to the church. The vicious cycle perpetuates with the church gaining control over the believer. When guilt is combined with sexuality, it can become part of the fetish. Forbidden fruit is sweeter and the more forbidden, the better. Promoting guilt about sex has the inevitable consequence of warping sexuality.
  3. False hope. A person who is aware he has a problem will gravitate to an institution that purports to have a solution. By promising an omnipotent entity that can solve any problem, the Vatican draws in the people who are most desperate for a “cure.” Such people are most likely to embrace the dogma and blame themselves when it fails. From an outside perspective, it is clear that the Vatican has yet to “cure” anyone.
  4. Convenient cover. Positions of authority and trust provide the best cover for someone who should not be trusted. Such a person can abuse the authority while publicly condemning exactly what he is doing in private. If a predator has risen high enough in the ranks, he can even use his authority to ensure he will never be investigated or, if he is, avoid damaging penalties. The recent case of Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado is just one example.
  5. Temptation. Any organization playing a public service role will provide many opportunities for interaction with people who can be easily persuaded to “return a favor.” Service organizations that focus on children are naturally going to attract pedophiles.
  6. Abuse of power. By playing the role of “father” and “the representative of God,” priests have a variety of ways of manipulating the victim. Threat of God’s wrath can make a potent silencer. Most victims have already given the church a great deal of control over their lives. It is very difficult to extract ones self from such a web. Even if a victim is steadfast in defending himself or herself, he or she can be bullied by agreeing to be silent in exchange for a payoff. A less powerful organization would not have the luxury of this bullying. Most people who donate to a church are not aware of the percentage of their “charitable donations” are used to perpetuate abuse. Moving abusive priests between churches is an obvious abuse of power. So is actively obstructing investigations, as the Pope has done. He even claimed diplomatic immunity as head of the Vatican to evade a lawsuit.
  7. Evasion of responsibility. The Vatican’s response to the pedophilia scandal has been a long study in the art of responsibility evasion. The Vatican has blamed the victims, gays, the “permissive culture” of the United States, gays again, the devil, and gays. They have whined that the abuse scandal interferes with their “charity work.” They have whined about the cost of reparations and how they can’t afford it and they will go bankrupt. They have insisted that church-state separation allows them to do anything they want without consequences. They have said they were unaware that pedophilia was harmful to the victims. They have blamed the moral character of the priests (deflecting from the systematic cover up). They have pretended to self-police. They have prayed, confessed, and invoked God. They have cried “religious persecution.” They have claimed that other professions have just as many pedophiles. I don’t know of anything they haven’t done or said to deflect responsibility for their problem. The Vatican is quick, however, to make pronouncements about sex or condoms while claiming moral authority from God. Such ballsy displays of hypocrisy should lead to worldwide ridicule – not blind subservience.
  8. Complicity of the laity. Despite decades of controversy, Catholic laity still funds the church. Such people clearly care more about magic crackers than their fellow human beings. Non-Catholic Christians have also abetted the crimes of the Catholic Church through the bogus concept of religious tolerance and “thou shalt not judge.” This complicity has meant that the systematic abuses of the Catholic Church in the US have gone largely unpunished by the US legal system. Fortunately, other countries value their citizens above long-standing pedophile rings. Perhaps some justice will come from Europe.
Of these eight causes, the first six are intimately tied with the Catholicism. It is unlikely these causes will ever change. The last two are more about how the public responds to the abuse. While the Catholic Church will always be a spawning ground for sexual perversion, public outcry has some potential to limit the power of the Catholic Church and reduce its numbers. There is clearly no God available to clean up their mess, but the proper application of secular laws and lawsuits can go a long way to cleaning up this festering problem and reducing the number of future victims.

Should U.S. Law Require Church Approval?

On page one of Monday's Austin American-Statesman, the headline ("House Approves Health Care Bill") dealt with the passage of the new healthcare reform bill. One issue that was contentious was the way abortion would be handled. Whether you agree with healthcare reform or not, whether you agree with abortion choice or not, this quote, within the article, should send a shiver down your spine:

"A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed skepticism that the order would satisfy the church's objections."

I didn't realize U.S. law needed to even consider church objections. But there you go.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In case you're feeling prankish on Facebook...

There's an amusing page called Pray for Richard Dawkins, and it's maintained, as you might guess, by someone guzzling whine-and-cheese by the gallon.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Richard Dawkins's story reads very much like Paul's. Dawkins is arguably the most influential atheist and persecutor (although not physical) of Christians in the world today. Like Paul, he believes that Jesus is a lie. Like Paul, he's a well-respected leader of a movement that opposes Jesus. Like Paul, his conversion would be nothing short of a miracle from God, and an amazing witness to people everywhere.

I'm dying to know exactly how and when Dawkins has ever "persecuted" anybody. Unless, of course, this is the typical Christian usage of the term "persecution," usually parsed as "Waaah, you're not validating me! You're telling me my beliefs are wrong, and I can't respond to you, and that takes away my feelings of entitlement! How dare you disagree and make me feel stupid!" I'd say that's pretty well confirmed by their careful admission that Dawkins' "persecution" is "not physical." Then what, simple disagreement with your beliefs is "persecution"? Yeah, asshole, tell that to someone who knows what persecution really looks like — they're the ones with numbers tattooed on their arms — and see how sympathetic they are.

Bogus "persecution" claimed as an exercise in ostentatious self-regard is, of course, the Christian's problem, not the atheist's. But what else is funny is how the screed goes on to reveal how silly Christian beliefs are, and how its own most devout believers don't think through the ramifications of what their faith calls them to do.

To wit: the page owner is flush with excitement at the prospect of Dawkins' possible conversion. An "amazing witness," to be sure! And so the point of the page, apparently — because if it weren't for his Facebook fans God would just be totally SOL — is to rally Christians to pray en masse for just such a miraculous conversion. Evidently God can't be bothered to give prayers a hearing unless they're part of a class action.

But wait a teeny tiny little sec. Isn't God supposed to be omniscient and everything? And if that's so, isn't he pretty well aware of Dawkins and his very public atheism already? It's not as if he needs a heads-up. So wouldn't he already have made up his mind, knowing the future infallibly and all, about converting Dawkins? Suggesting otherwise just makes both God and his followers sound like some idiot kids in a chatroom.

Xian4Ever yo HeavFather whats up?!?

YHWH Im good, my child

Xian4Ever dude I mean God there's like this d-bag Dawkins? Totally wrote a book, talking shit saying you dont exist!!!1! Srsly!


Xian4Ever No shit its like a WHOLE FUCKING BOOK. Says your like a teapot or something

YHWH OMme! Heh no worries, I'll totally school that bitch LOL

Xian4Ever LOL!!!

No, something tells me an omniscient God would pretty much already have a fellow like Dawkins on his radar. Which, of course, prompts the question of why said conversion hasn't occurred yet. After all, Scripture does make it abundantly clear that God, once he'd had enough of Saul's bullshit, just came right down and laid the divine smackdown on the guy, and it wasn't as if he needed a bunch of Facebookers jamming the prayer lines then. No, God just got shit done.

So either God knows, and he's waiting for some great stage moment for maximum dramatic effect. Or maybe he wants Dawkins to remain an atheist. Maybe God's divine plan is to reward not the believers, but the skeptics, the more vocal the better, for using their gift of reason so well. Or maybe God just doesn't care. Or maybe he's just made up.

Anyway, if you're on Facebook, I think 'twould be amusing to flood the page's membership with atheists cheering Dawkins on, eh? If Dawkins' fans vastly outnumber the prayer "warriors," maybe that'll get God's attention and get that miracle conversion underway, eh? Or it may just be another opportunity to mock playfully how childish the whole concept of God really is.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Randi comes out

While it would be lovely to live in a world where this sort of thing didn't matter, we just aren't in that world. And it's always courageous to stand up for who and what you are in a world where hate and intolerance are so institutionalized, even if it takes you into your 80's before you do it.

Now again, compare how positive and life affirming such outings are in the case of Randi, Neil Patrick Harris, and other prominent figures who have recently done so, to how negative and fraught with anguish, self-loathing, and confusion it is in the case of conservative and religious figures whose delayed moments of self-awareness have to clash with a lifetime's indoctrination in the ideologies of fear. I think people ought to be much more worried about catching teh God than teh gay.

Matt and Russell speaking at Bradley University

Edited March 23 with more accurate information. Check BU's posts in the comment section for more details on the schedule, including dinners and a magic show.

I think the details have been finalized for this, so I'm going to go ahead and post it here.

As we mentioned on the last Non-Prophets, Matt and I have been booked to speak at Bradley University in Peoria, IL on Friday, April 9 and Saturday, April 10. We will be in room 126 the Caterpillar Global Communications Center (GCC) at 5:00 PM, and Saturday at 2:00 PM.

We expect a mostly theist crowd. On Friday we'll be doing a sort of Atheism 101 discussion. Saturday we'll go over common apologetic fallacies. On both days we will leave ample time for questions. I'm guessing it should be pretty similar to watching a taping of TAE, except that the "callers" will be live in the lecture hall.

The sponsor is the Bradley Skeptic Society, so keep an eye on their web page in case of updates email for more information, and watch this blog for updates. Tickets are not required, but it is first come, first seated in a 200 seat lecture hall. I certainly don't imagine we'd draw a Dawkins-sized crowd, but come early if you want to be certain of getting in.

Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently had an exchange with a fellow atheist, and wrote quite a bit about a lot of different topics. A few observations I made could be of interest on this list, so I decided to post one or two things from that dialog. Well, that and I felt a need to prove I can post a "normal sized" blog entry.

On Anti-Atheist Prejudice
We get regular letters from young people (and on occasion older ones) who say they're afraid to "come out"--in the same way a child might be scared to tell his parents he's gay. Or they say they've lost their faith, and now their spouse has withdrawn from them, and their relationship is frozen. People who believe don't understand there is this deep-seated prejudice. They think "nobody's forcing you to believe anything--stop your whining." But they don't understand their son or daughter is in their bedroom upstairs writing to a group of atheist strangers on the Internet they've seen on Youtube saying, "I think my parents will throw me out of the house if I tell them I don't believe in god." And the kid is writing to us because he can tell us about his deepest beliefs--but he can't speak to his own parents about his thoughts and feelings. How sad is that, really? If I were a parent, I don't think anything would make me feel more like a failure than to find out my child was confiding in absolute strangers rather than me, because I had convinced him through my comments and prejudices that I would despise him if he told me what he really believes or who he really is. But I can guarantee you that if these parents found these letters--they'd hammer the kid about contacting us, and not reflect on their own views that made their kid so distrustful of their capacity to accept and love him despite any ideological differences. This is the stuff that really breaks my heart when I read it.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees
[A particular theist] won't move toward replacing [religion] with Humanism, because he accepts there is a god. In one conversation he defends the idea of considering it a miracle if there is a horrible plane crash where everyone, except one child, dies. Focus on the child who survived--not the 200 people who just lost their lives. This sort of microscopic focus is par for the course with religious people. I once likened the Intelligent Design argument to Wile E. Coyote's inventions. The believer has this amazing capacity to focus on a few specks of things and make them meaningful--totally disregarding this ridiculously vast universe in which we float amid vacuums, and radiation, and supernovas and hurtling comets--just a mess of chaos held together through physical laws. Somehow they are able to drill down to "people" and say that demonstrates a "purpose" to the whole mechanism. That would represent one of the most inefficient designs ever produced--if people on Earth really are the point of this whole universe. All this for some speck of existence in some far corner? And yet they see this as crystal clear. If you believe god exists and is good, and you can discount 200 dead bodies (and 99.9 percent of the universe) for one child--what ratio of bad to good would it take even to get you to say, "Even if this god exists, what a monster"?

On Responsibility
I like that you break down Euthyphro briefly as well. Christians rarely break this down. They seem to just have some amorphous surface sense of getting morality from god/the Bible--but don't really consider it as a question of how that mechanism would function. After talking to them, you get to a point where they assert basically that you can use your personal (presumably god-given) morality to judge god as good, but you can't judge god as bad. In my own mind, if I can't fathom how a command could be moral, then I shouldn't follow it, regardless of who issued it. To do so is immoral because to do so is irresponsible--but that's faith, right? Kill your own child if god requests it. What I would say is that I can't take responsibility for a thing if I don't understand what I'm being asked to do. "Just following orders" is not an example of personal responsibility. But the Christian sees a "responsibility to god" as being on a higher order. They see the atheist exercising personal responsibility as wrong--since the atheist is not shouldering his "responsibility to god." We end up being "irresponsible" for wanting to know exactly what we're doing and what the reasons and implications are for the action, before we'll do it.

The skeptic, however, looks at it like this: If it seems bad to kill my own child, I need to ask for an explanation--and refuse to comply until I get it. If I'm going to commit an atrocity, I think it's fair to at least ask to know why I'm being asked to commit it. To you and I, that's reasonable. The idea anyone would object to it is mystifying.

However, the theist sees this as presumptuous and arrogant. I will admit there may be some good reason I hadn't thought of that would get me to comply; but I can't say I'm "taking responsibility for my actions" if I'm simply deferring to a fiat-style command with no personal understanding of what I'm doing. In no other context, outside religion, would either the theist or the atheist consider that a description of "being responsible."

So, in Christianity, if you want to take real responsibility for your actions, by understanding thoroughly what you're doing, you end up being labeled someone who "does what he wants" because he doesn't like responsibility--you refuse to own up to your "responsibility to god."

In the end, I added notes about what I posted previously--that the doctrine of total depravity makes it more "sensible" to trust people who say you can't trust them, than people who consider themselves and others fairly trustworthy. And I noted how in the post on hymns, the idea of a brutal human sacrifice is trotted out as an example of unmatched love and mercy. Ultimately I ended the exchange with this thought:

What would it take to screw a person's head on this "wrongly"? I submit it takes the first several years of their life spent in a Sunday School with mom and/or dad endorsing the entire process.

Friday, March 19, 2010

More on McGrath

I actually found another exchange between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins that is set up in debate format. This series, also on Youtube, is in seven parts, unlike the more conversational series I described in my last post about these two men, which is in 15 parts.

McGrath authored a book in response to Dawkins' book "God Delusion." But I'm not critiquing his book, just his arguments as he speaks to defend his faith against being declared a "delusion."

My first objection came in part 2, where McGrath said (emphasis his):

"In the brief time available, what I thought I would do is to try and engage with what seems to me to be the strongest argument in Professor Dawkins' book. And that is that there is in some way a link between religion, between belief in god, and violence. Because I think that is a very significant issue, and one that really does need to be addressed."

Note to theists: This is not only not the "strongest argument" to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion, it's not even an argument that is generally ever used to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion.

There are mainly two situations I observe where atheists appeal to the harm caused by religion:

1. "Why do you care?"
The first is when asked "Why do you care what other people believe?" And in that case, it's extremely relevant. The reason it is important to "care" what a religious person--let's say a Muslim extremist--believes, is as easy as 9-11. People act on what they believe. What I believe matters. What you believe matters. What other people believe matters. Not everything a person believes has consequences, but when something they believe can be demonstrated to have consequences for others, it's justifiably important to others.

Some beliefs seem to have a capacity to motivate people to do terrible things. Religion is in that category. Many religious people are good people. Some are dangerous people. The issue with religion is that it's often the case that the dangerous people explain their harmful actions by pointing directly and unambiguously to their religious beliefs. They aren't bad people who "just happen" to be religious.

I'm not talking about the guy who attends church every Sunday, but secretly molests his daughter. Yes, that guy "just happens" to be religious. Nothing within his religion justifies abusing his child. But the activities of Muslim extremists are absolutely driven, at least in part, by religious belief. That familiar shout of "Allahu Akbar!" says it all. They aren't a group of people doing bad things who "just happen" to be Muslims.

But none of this has anything to do with whether or not their belief in god is a delusion. God may exist and may be the cruel and abusive tyrant they prostrate themselves to regularly. I don't believe that's the case, but my doubt has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that extremists do horrible things. The best I can do in response to this single fact is to say that if their god exists, I don't like Him. I can't conclude from it that their god is probably not real. There is simply no way I am aware of to make a logical connection that someone doing horrible things, even for their god, means no god exists. And I'm sure Dawkins understands this. And I'm baffled McGrath doesn't understand that Dawkins quite probably understands this--which is what caught my attention.

2. Morality requires religion
The second reason I see atheists broach the fact that religious people can be driven to do horrible things because of (not in spite of) their religion, is as a portion of a defense to the spurious claim that religion is somehow a bastion, or even the only means, of morality. And this would generally be put forward along with examples of nonreligiously motivated acts of kindness.

So, that's really it. Those are the two reasons I most often see atheists appeal to religious harm. As a foundational argument for unbelief it's rarely used, and I'd spit milk through my nose if I ever heard Dawkins use it in that way. Certainly it cannot be among the "strongest arguments" for god as a delusion, for the simple reason it offers nothing whatsoever to undermine the claim "god exists."

Many atheists criticize religious harm. But there are very few who hang their unbelief in god on it. It is the rare atheist who says, "I just can't believe there could be a god who could allow such things in His name." That's a variation on an informal fallacy, the Argument from Incredulity. I do recall, though, in my religious indoctrination, being taught that this was a common atheist argument against the existence of god. But, based on some other statements McGrath makes, I don't suspect his use of this particular strawman is due to indoctrination. And I'll give my reasons for that later. For now I will just say I've never personally interacted with such an atheist--although I do recall at least once coming across something similar to that statement online posted by a self-labeled atheist. So, I don't doubt such atheists exist. I just doubt they are so numerous that this point about religiously motivated harm could be justifiably labeled the "strongest argument" in Dawkins'--or any atheist's--arsenal against belief in the existence of god. Not many atheists use it, and it's a glaring fallacy. It would seem reasonable that the "strongest argument" would have to be one that attacks the root--god's existence--not merely a branch--how believers behave.

If we believe gods can exist--but there are none to examine--we cannot logically rule out the possibility of apathetic or cruel gods. In fact, cruel or uncaring god models would subvert many atheist rebuttals, such as the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro. To assert "my preferred model of a kind god doesn't appear to exist, therefore no model of god can exist" is egocentric in the extreme--and logical garbage, to boot. There are a variety of decent reasons to support unbelief; however, "religious harm" is not among them.

Note to theists: If you are responding to someone who is saying your belief in god is a delusion, and you think their "strongest argument" is that some religious people are horrible, you are either arguing with that one-in-a-million atheist mentioned above, or you don't really understand the point you're being presented with.

McGrath then goes on to say: "The point I'd like to try and make is this: Religious belief is ambivalent. It can be destructive. I think we need to be very, very clear about that...That is a significant danger in any religious belief system. And indeed one of the reasons why I, myself, was an atheist for some time was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if there were no religion in Northern Ireland, there would be no conflict. Likewise, at the time I was studying the sciences, and it seemed to me obvious, again, that if the sciences were right, then there was no need for god at all. This could be safely disposed of with the greatest of ease." (Emphasis mine.)

Let's hold right there for a moment. I can grasp his second reason--the bit about science. You can legitimately cut out parts of models that aren't necessary--as we all learned from the old children's tale, "Stone Soup." However, how does that first reason figure? Let's say it's true that if you could eliminate religion from a region it would result in the end of conflict. How do you get from there to "I don't believe god exists"? There is no rational path between that statement and atheism.

McGrath actually says this is one of the reasons he was an atheist. To demonstrate the absurdity of what he just said, let me restate it almost verbatim and put in something else that can sometimes cause harm, besides belief in god. Let's see how it translates: "One of the reasons why I, myself, was an unbeliever in the sun for some time, was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if we didn't have sunbathers, there would be a lot less skin cancer in the world."

To deny the existence of something because you dislike its effects is not rational. Someone asked in the other post about McGrath, why he had been an atheist. I'm wondering, if his reasons for unbelief really did include "religious harm," does he then assume other atheists are atheists because they are similarly impaired when it comes to understanding where the implications of religious harm are or are not logically employed? Could he be reasoning that because he held to an unreasonable connection between religious harm and the nonexistence of god, that's why the rest of us keep bring up religious harm in atheist-theist debates? If that's what is happening, then his own experience has put a bias in place that interferes with his ability to understand what the atheist is actually saying. Even Dawkins admits he could be wrong that god is a delusion; but if he is wrong, it won't be for reasons that stupid.

In my prior post, McGrath seemed to be thinking Dawkins didn't know you can draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence, even while the real question was: Why do you feel compelled to take that leap of unjustified faith at the end, when you could stay rational and stop where the evidence ends, with an honest statement that there is insufficient evidence to justify that last leap? In trying to analyze these exchanges, I see twice now where the problem is that McGrath is misunderstanding Dawkins' points in ways that presume points only an idiot would make. If theists generally think this way--and I certainly recall thinking this way--it's no wonder they see atheism as the irrational position. They have no idea, really, how the position is supported. I am beginning to see more clearly the dire need to get information out to the public to dispel misconceptions about atheism. Is this really how people think we reason? Even though I thought this way myself, as a fundamentalist Christian, I suppose it never dawned on me how powerful these misconceptions--these strawmen--can be.

He goes on to point out religion is powerful and transformative. Agreed. That is precisely why it's so dangerous when it goes bad. He says we need to be aware that religion going bad is a possibility, but there are other possibilities. Agreed. Not all religious people are oppressive or murderous. Did someone say they were? While I could imagine an atheist who might make such a wild accusation--that atheist wouldn't be Dawkins, or anyone at AETV, or any atheist who contacts us generally. So, who is McGrath talking to?

In support, he quotes Shermer saying that religion causes horrible atrocities, but that many believers do good things. Is he assuming atheists don't know this? The question from critical atheists is whether those people could be motivated to goodness without religion--which McGrath agrees comes with some powerfully harmful baggage. McGrath criticizes Dawkins for not giving credit to religion in "God Delusion" for the good associated with it; but Dawkins wasn't making a case for religion. He was explaining his reasons for being against it. Touting positive attributes--that religion, itself, shouts nonstop from every rooftop--would seem unnecessary and out of context. Is there anyone in this debate who isn't already well acquainted with Christian charitable efforts?

The question is actually, "Does a motivated Baptist do more good than a motivated Humanist? Is belief in god required to motivate people to do good?" And the answer is, "Clearly not." Is it required to motivate people to do bad? Also, absolutely not. It motivates both good and bad in people. But without it, we could still motivate people to do good through Humanist endeavors that work toward the good of mankind and the planet--but don't demonstrably result in people blowing themselves up. Also without it, the threat of the "bad" it generates would be eliminated. Surely there would be other ideologies out there to motivate horrors, just as we have others to motivate goodness. But without religion, there would be one less to motivate horrors. And the positive force it represents--the motive to do good--could be shouldered just as well by secular outlets for humanity which would remain available.

Here, in clear terms, is what I mean: Let's say we find a treatment for all terminal varieties of cancer that permanently paralyzes 20% of the people who use it, but positively cures the other 80%. If we later discover a similar cure that paralyzes 10% of the patients, and cures 90%--would anyone argue we should continue using the first treatment for the "good" that it does, if it offered no added benefit over the new drug? Who could reasonably, in good conscience, suggest such a thing?

I may do more on McGrath. I'm not sure. I see a benefit to examining the communication divide: what atheists "say," versus what theists "hear." Understanding not only what sorts of misconceptions theists hold, but also why they hold them, could assist in moving dialogs along at a quicker pace. It would be, I suppose, "increased understanding," not to increase respect, but rather to increase communication efficiency.

That would be my goal. Whether or not I achieve it is another matter.

The "Ressurection" Guy Writes Back

The young man featured in Martin’s last “resurrection” post wrote back to me on a response I had offered him. My original response wasn’t nearly as long and thorough as Martin’s. I had only asked a simple question:

To paraphrase: “Many Christians assert the resurrection stories align perfectly, and this is evidence of their truth. You are writing to say they are not aligned, and this is evidence of their truth. My question is: How do we identify a falsehood if stories that are either consistent or inconsistent are both evidence of truth?”

Since other people as well replied, I didn’t expect an answer from such a brief note from me. But when he wrote back he explained he’s in a confused state where he doesn’t know what to believe, and he’s contacting us mainly as a sounding board to see what we say to evidence and reason that seem convincing to him currently. He even added that what we said, he thought, "made a lot of sense." I admire that he’s even asking questions. And I also understand how indoctrination can make nonsense sound sensible. So, even though the rebuttals seem obvious to me, I do get that he really doesn’t see them.

His point back to me was to issue another question. He thinks it is valid to consider that many parts of the Bible are myth, and not all literal. I agree. The difference between us is that I classify anything that isn’t demonstrated in reality (or conflicts with demonstrated reality) into the “myth” category, while he is trying to sort out which of the things that defy reality are “literal.”

He expressed that he has heard that god wrote to Hebrews in terms they could understand—to the mind of an ancient Hebrew—and that’s why the content is sometimes wrong or less than perfect. He asserted further that if the Bible is concerned with how to get to heaven, rather than how the universe works, then it’s not right to judge the problems it presents in its less-than-accurate models of reality. He gave me a quote from Galileo to support this. It is ironic the quote he offered was from Galileo—a man who dispelled more than a few erroneous Christian beliefs, some of which were supported by Biblical texts. Nobody would know better than Galileo that the Bible got it’s “reality” a bit muddled. But he excused it by saying this isn’t the point of the Bible’s divine message.

Again, I asked the same question (again to paraphrase): It is either the case that you are right, and a god wrote a book using ancient Hebrews, that was riddled with the misconceptions and ignorance we would expect to find in the ancient Hebrew mind, or it is the case that it actually is a book written by ancient Hebrews including all the misconceptions and errors within it we would expect to find in an ancient Hebrew mind, but attributed to a god in the same way many other cultures have developed similar stories about gods that sound like their own minds. If this book contained correct and advanced scientific statements, would you then consider it’s not from god, since it doesn’t sound like an ignorant Hebrew? Really, I think that if it had that sort of really good and sufficiently advanced grasp on reality within it, you’d be writing to say anyone should see no ancient Hebrew could have produced such knowledge out of his own head without an advanced intelligence to guide him. So, I’m back to the question: If god writes books that sound just like books ignorant people write—how do we tell books written by gods from books not written by gods?

I also suggested he do some research into the canonization process to make his own assessment about whether that sounds like a good strategy for a god to use to get his message to mankind.

What’s interesting to me, as well, is the emphasis this young man puts on the idea that god inspired the Bible. He’s putting the cart before the horse. The question of whether or not god inspired the Bible can only be relevant after the question “Does a god exist?” has been answered. And I did bring this up with him as well—that I don’t see any reason to believe a god inspired anything until I see some demonstration of gods in reality.

Eventually, I’m betting, he’s going to get to that point—to the realization that the real question here isn’t what god does or does not do, but whether there is a god at all. We can start the dialog at the middle or the end, but until that question is resolved, no claims about god—god’s actions or attributes—matter.

And I wonder how long it will be before we get to ID? To the point where I’m asking the same question about the universe: How do we tell a universe without a god from one with a god where god makes it look like he’s not there? There’s an old saying, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” I would like to change the ending to “then why would you assert it’s a god disguised as a duck, rather than a duck?”

I’ve said before that it’s a testament to the awesomeness of nature that so many people can’t believe what they see before their very eyes. It reminds me of Matt. Yes, I agree he’s awesome; but that’s not what I’m driving at. Matt does magic tricks. The last one I saw was a really good one where he sat me down with zener cards and “I” was able to predict all of the cards before he turned them over, on a table right in front of me—supposedly a “test” of my “psychic abilities.”

I joked with Matt that one problem with the trick is that he can’t do it without me—since psychic powers like mine are demonstrably very rare from even a cursory survey of reality. I don’t know many people who could do what I just did sitting at that table—successfully predicting every card without so much as breaking a sweat!

Of course, we all know it’s a trick—even if we never find out how it was done (and no, he didn’t tell me, and I knew better than to ask). But what a testament to the wonderful illusion of that trick if someone was thoroughly convinced that it had to have been done through magic—real magic: “No mortal man could possibly have done what I just saw. Matt has magic powers, the ability to draw out my psychic capacity in some way.”

If I walked away convinced of that—what a trick that would be! Now, it would pay no homage to Matt’s real skill as a magician in one sense, since I failed utterly to appreciate the work that really went into creating such a brilliant demonstration of mental manipulation. But in an odd way the fact I would seriously doubt his skill as a magician, and become convinced the trick is real, demonstrates how well the trick was executed.

And nature is exactly the same. What a testament to nature’s amazing presentation that so many walk away convinced that what they see happening each day, before their very eyes, is completely impossible without magic.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's not to like?

I received an e-mail from a seminary student that I had corresponded with in the past. He's had a few changes in his life but wrote to say:

"I nearly lost my faith, but God found me again. I am no longer at the Seminary as I was when we last spoke but have found a new calling for which to serve. My purpose here is to understand in a very succinct and brief way why you feel Christianity as an institution is irrelevant for our society at large and for you personally.

I promise this is not another back door ploy to bring you to faith. The Spirit will work in you if he sees fit. I honestly respect your opinion and would like to further understand what it is specifically about modern Christianity that doesn't work for you? What are your biggest hang ups with Christians and the church as it represents itself in North American culture?"

I'm afraid this may not be as succint as you might have liked...

As you know, I don't just reject "modern" Christianity or even just Christianity. I reject all religious claims, modern and ancient, as insufficiently supported by evidence and, therefore, not believable. You seem to be asking what I don't like about modern religious, Christian culture...and I'll be happy to tell you, but whether or not I believe something to be true is a separate issue from whether or not I like it.

That said, the modern Christian religion is a mess. There are hundreds of 'official' denominations and given the general level of ignorance people have about the religion they adopt and their propensity for molding it to be what they want it to be, one could argue that each individual has their own denomination.

Fundamentalists have a more literal view of the Bible and pretend to follow it based on a plain reading of the text. If Christianity is true...if there is a god and the Bible is his message to the world, then Fundamentalists are the ones who have managed to get it closest to 'correct'. Yet the actual beliefs of fundamentalists are the most obviously objectionable.

The more liberal varieties have beliefs that are more palatable but they have no sound Biblical basis for their beliefs, they've simply chosen to ignore large portions of the text, ignore the history of their religion and interpret selected passages to support a kinder, gentler Christianity - sometimes in direct opposition to a plain reading of the text (as if their god is simply incapable of communicating clearly). They have no more firm foundation than personal opinion.

There is no clear mechanism for discovering if any of them are correct (if there were, we wouldn't have hundreds of denominations) and there's no good reason to think that any of them might be correct. Modern Christianity, regardless of the denomination, is based on one's personal take on two things: the Bible and the recorded traditions of the church. Every denomination and individual is going to view these slightly differently and they'll support their position with appeals to personal experience and revelation.

Let's assume, for a moment that there is a God and it's the one that Christians are trying to associate themselves with...what can we say about this god? Well, for one, he's apparently very selective about who he reveals himself to. He ignores countless pleas for assistance, revelation, insight and guidance from sincere, desperate people and from reasonable people who could further his cause...yet he'll reportedly give direct input to countless ignorant bigots who couldn't put a cogent sentence together, let alone construct a sound syllogism. He also seems intent on keeping himself hidden and mysterious - which seems strange as he reportedly used to show off with miracles and plagues. Lastly (for this exchange), he doesn't seem the slightest bit interested in correcting people's various misunderstandings or misrepresentations of him. He seems perfectly happy to have countless denominations getting it all wrong.

So, either he's malicious, incompetent or he doesn't exist. (I'm sure there are other options, but those are the 3 most likely).

Christianity, in its various forms is an embarrassment. The literal versions are embarrassing because they're anti-science, anti-humanity, anti-rights, anti-freedom, etc. The liberal versions are embarrassing because these people have clearly figured out what's wrong with the literal version, but they're incapable of letting they support a saccharin, irrational, insidiously poisonous quasi-doctrine which acts as an enabler and shield for the literalists,

There are thoughtful, loving, intelligent people in both camps - yet their minds have been so poisoned by this religious virus that they're incapable of fully recognizing their potential in those and other categories.

Is there anything other than a religion (or similar dogma) that could make a parent hate their child because of that child's sexual orientation or beliefs? ...or make a parent pray over a sick child instead of taking it to the hospital? ... or make someone marginalize the rights of others who disagree on something that does them no harm? ...or encourage someone to hide and protect a child rapist from the law and proper treatment? ...or...

As I mentioned at the outset, whether or not I believe a claim is separate from whether or not I like that claim. In the case of Christianity, I don't believe it because it's absurd and unsupported by evidence - and I don't like it because it's obscene, divisive and harmful. That's true for most, if not all, religions; though some are worse than others. Christianity is one of the worst, partly because of insidious doctrines and partly because of the pernicious effects of the power that comes from the popularity of those doctrines.

There is nothing good and true within religion that requires religion. People have done many good things in the name of religion, but none of those things were predicated on the truth of the religious claims. You can have love, hope, peace, comfort, charity, joy, happiness, and patience without any appeal to any religion.

This is probably the grandest lie that religions like Christianity have propagated; that you 'need' what they're selling in order to have those things - and that those who aren't part of their group are somehow lacking or deficient in those qualities.

I think it's fair to label that lie 'evil'...and as a foundational lie, that turns all benefits of that religion into fruits of a poisonous tree.

Jon Stewart on Texas SBOE

Last night, The Daily Show did a bit on the Texas State Board of Education (4 minutes). If you've been following along, it's worth watching. There's so much wrong with the Board of Education, that they could have easily done a week-long comedy marathon. They focused on the controversy surrounding Oscar Romero as being worthy of textbook mention.

A number of people have written us to ask where is our outrage at the SBOE. We're outraged, but perhaps we realize, we're powerless in the short term to stop the crazy. They've proven they're immune to criticism or facts. We hope that during the next election, we oust a few of the creationists and get the SBOE back to its educational mission.

For now, laughter is good therapy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Communication Interference

In the most simple communication models, you have a single sender, a message (usually represented as an arrow pointing to the receiver from the sender), and a single receiver represented. As communication becomes more complicated, so do the models. One component that can be added to the model is something called "interference."

Interference can be anything, including more obvious things like loud noise in the environment, or less obvious things like poor communication skills on the part of the sender, or an unconscious personal bias in the mind of the receiver. If the message received is not the message sent, as intended by the sender, there has been some kind of interference--also sometimes called distortion--that you should be able to identify.

Part of religious indoctrination includes inputting interference into a person's mind by instilling bias. For example, a child who grows up in an area and family where racial hatred is pervasive has a much greater possibility of being, himself, a racist, than someone who is not raised in that environment. He's unlikely to want to be friends with people in the despised races and to have an unfriendly attitude toward them. He probably will be a bit more dismissive of any research that indicates his reasons for hating are unfounded--he may not even bother to consider it. Additionally, he may fight against any legislation that would result in greater equality and social acceptance of those he hates.

If you're going to have a dialog about racial equality, having it with this particular person comes with a load of baggage you'll have to first get past that is "interference." Your message will not tend to be heard clearly, but rather through a filter of misconceptions and prejudice about what you're saying--even before you speak a word. This means that communicating rationally with this person will be an uphill climb, with no guarantee of successfully communicating your message at the summit. It means the person who wants to dispel the racial hatred has a hard row to hoe, a great cost of time and effort, with a real possibility of failure at the end. And this assists indoctrination efforts as well, because who is going to want to invest a lot of time and energy with a good probability of failure at the end? Better, in an individually selfish way, to leave this person in his racist delusion. And yet, would any advances against racism have been made if nobody had decided to carry the gauntlet, inch by painful inch, up that hill?

Still it is a demonstration of the walls that indoctrination can throw up against reason and good judgment. This is how indoctrination makes use of interference to help maintain its hold on the adherent.

I explain this because I recently watched a dialog between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, where I noticed a very frustrating level of interference. There was one question that Dawkins presented three separate times, that was never resolved by way of any relevant answer from McGrath. McGrath even stops and enlists the sympathies of the film crew to ask if they can move on to the next question, since he has already answered this one. However, the crew's consensus is that they're unclear on his answer as well. And McGrath seems, in all fairness, genuinely confused. McGrath certainly answered "a" question; however, he failed to answer the question Dawkins asked. And he really could not tell the difference in his head between what he was "hearing" and what Dawkins was "saying"--although, to me, and seemingly to the crew as well, the question was simple enough to understand.

In Christian fundamentalist indoctrination, there are a lot of presumptions systematically taught that are intended to head off questions the young Christian might receive by people who aren't Christians. I recall when I finally learned about other religions, for example, the doctrines were so vastly different than what I'd been taught in Sunday School that I remember alerting our preacher that I'd read some Buddhist literature--written by Buddhists--and it was not true that Buddhists "worship Buddha," as had been stated repeatedly from the pulpit. I thought I was doing a good thing, enlightening him about a truth. But rather than showing any interest in what I had discovered, he admonished me for having read these things without proper oversight. And even in my late teens or so, I recall thinking there was something very wrong with his response.

What if, rather than read a book, I'd have talked to a Buddhist? During the entire dialog, I would be thinking, "This person worships Buddha"--even though I'd never spoken to a Buddhist in my life or read a scrap of Buddhist literature. I'd simply been told. And that's what the people who indoctrinated me into Christianity hoped I would believe. They, in turn, probably had never read any Buddhist literature or talked to a Buddhist, either, and had read only Christian literature describing Buddhism. I assume this because even the most cursory reading of just about any Buddhist foundational text demonstrates the assertion is false--or at best an exaggeration of what a Buddhist would describe as his belief.

Often we get this question on our e-mail list: "Why don't you ever talk to any really intelligent or educated apologists?"

When we get these letters from theists, the obvious shock is that the person asking us to do this is unavoidably asserting that the average Christian person is not intelligent--since we nearly always talk to and about average Christians who engage us on the program.

Beyond that, I've been spending a lot of time these days watching theological debates that involve theists of some clout, on many levels of the spectrum--church leaders, mega-church preachers, and most recently this civilized Q&A between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins.

Let me just note that I had argued myself out of theism long before I knew who Richard Dawkins--or any other atheist author--was. I deconverted on the weakness of theism's merits, not on the strength of any atheist's arguments against the existence of god. And for a few years, after I first heard about Dawkins, the descriptions of him as an arrogant, condescending, anti-theist, ass prejudiced me against even wanting to read his literature or hear him speak. My first encounter was when I finally broke down and read God Delusion--where I dispelled my own "Dawkins Delusion." I couldn't have wished for a more patient, well reasoned and fair address of theism than what Dawkins offered. And the first time I finally heard him speak, I was actually shocked by the mild and disarming tone of his voice and the relaxed collectedness with which he expressed even the points on religion he described as most objectionable. He often pauses to think about his phrasing before speaking--even in mid-sentence--a habit I should surely cultivate and employ more often. In this discussion with McGrath, you can almost see the gears shifting in his brain as he considers "How do I put this in an inoffensive way?" What comes out is, more often than not, very gentle compared to how many atheists might well have phrased it.

McGrath, for his part, is every bit as genial, and even more enthusiastic, in his expressions. On several occasions when McGrath spoke, I shut my eyes and thought, "Listen. Really listen and try and hear what he means." I wanted to see if McGrath would offer some clue to his beliefs--as an educated and respected theologian. I sincerely wanted to understand what he believes and why. But after finishing "Part 15 of 15," posted on Youtube, I had failed. After listening to McGrath explain his position, uninterrupted, in a conversational style, for his part of approximately an hour and a half, I still can't tell you what he believes or why he believes it. And if this eloquent, well mannered, educated and willing theist can't offer an explanation that makes sense, what hope does that average theist have?

Initially, my desire was to do an analysis of the entire debate, detailing where the communication interference was happening every step of the way. But, the length of my input regarding the first question alone was so long that I understood immediately I was too ambitious. I may do a full breakdown in sections at some point, but for now, I'm going to deal only with the central question of the dialog that would matter most to atheists: the reasons for belief.

There were many points in the footage where I thought, "OK, I understand what you're saying, but wouldn't that raise this other question or problem?" And as I thought these questions, McGrath would finish, and Dawkins would ask them for me. And I would be glad, because I wanted to know how McGrath resolved these issues. I wasn't hoping for a fail. I was hoping for a resolution from McGrath to something for which I was unable to imagine a resolution.

Oddly, when McGrath would be asked to further explain some point of his stated position, it often sounded as though he was negating, or at the very least mitigating, everything he had previously asserted. I was left with a feeling that whatever I had learned from him in his prior explanations was now being described, by him, as either "wrong" or "unimportant." In the end, I was left confused about which parts I was supposed to carry away as consequential or correct about his position on faith and god. Did I misunderstand his meaning? Did he not say what I thought he had just said?

McGrath begins by explaining his background growing up in Ireland as an atheist. He sees religious violence and equates it, understandably, with religious differences. He also says he studied Marxism and natural sciences. In response to Dawkins' request for an explanation of how he moved from atheism to theism McGrath responds, "I began to rethink things. I began to realize they weren't, perhaps, as straightforward as I thought. And certainly it was at that point that I really began to feel that Christianity offered a better way of seeing things and making sense of things than I'd imagined in the past."

When Dawkins asked, "What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?" He was asking the same question we ask time and again on the show: Explain what you believe and why you believe it. I would assume that whatever McGrath offered next would be the underpinning of his belief. Here was his chance to give the evidence and reason behind why he decided to become a theist. This was an edge-of-my-seat moment, to be sure.

McGrath started out rationally enough. He noted that not all of our beliefs are based upon what we might consider hard evidence. When I measure the distance from one wall to another, my belief that the room is 10-feet wide is based on solid facts. However, someone's belief that their spouse is stopping to put gas in the car on the way home, may be just as strong, and even perhaps just as right, but not as fact-based. Our brains are constantly testing the consistency of the reality in which we live. And it certainly makes determinations based on many different levels of evidence about what it will accept as true, and what it will not.

In order to function, depth perception, the length of the room, is important. Having some concept of how far things are from one's self and where they are in relation to one's self is fairly integral to the existence of any sighted person. But whether a spouse is gassing up the car may be something one cares not at all about. By and large, in most day-to-day scenarios, the main thrust of pressure put upon a person to care about their spouse's fuel situation, would be pressure only from within. We really can ask, "Does this matter to me? Do I need an opinion on it?" We aren't called upon in life to consider all questions equally--or at all--or to make conscious decisions about truth values on all propositions.

This means that if my spouse tells me he is stopping by the gas station on the way home to fill up his car, I don't have to believe it, or even consider if I believe it. I can merely accept it's what I've been told, and go about my life. If he forgets to fill up the car, if he changes his mind during his commute--nothing is lost. And if someone asks "Where is your spouse?" I can say, "He said he was stopping off to get gas on the way home." I don't have to assert "He's at the gas station," although it's unlikely anyone would fault me for asserting it and even believing it was true, based only on my spouse's word.

So, with any proposition we are presented, we can believe, not believe, or believe the opposite. I can accept my husband is at the station (believe it), not have an opinion on it (not bother to believe it), or believe he's not at the station (he forgot, changed his mind, was waylaid, or lied). And McGrath understands this, when later in the discussion he explains the following (emphasis mine):

"I think that one of the big questions one has when one tries to make sense of anything that is big, for example, 'what is the meaning of life?,' 'Why we're here?' things like that, is that there are many explanations. And inevitably this means we have to try to do what Gilbert Harmon described as being fair to the best explanation...We have to make a very difficult judgment: 'Which is actually the best of these?' And the real that evidence takes us thus far, but when it comes to a number of competing explanations, it is extremely difficult to have an evidence-driven argument for those final stages...I believe faith is rational...It tries to make the best possible sense of things. But in the end it has to move beyond that, saying 'even though we believe this is the best way of making sense of things, we can't actually prove this is the case.' And therefore, although I believe faith is rational, in that it can give us the best possible case it can give, there is a point at which it goes beyond the evidence. And it's at that point...that your concern that it might be irrational...comes into play."

Yes, in fact, that is the point at which the concern it becomes irrational comes into play. To be fair, Dawkins prefaced his question, with a statement saying that he perhaps has not given sufficient attention to how religious people might use the term "faith" differently than he does. However, his question was, again, "What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?"

McGrath offered an explanation, I suppose in one way, of how he uses the word "faith," and how it relates to reason and evidence; but I have to admit his answer seems to demonstrate an interpretation of the question I would never have arrived at. At the end of his answer, he hasn't really told me anything I don't already know, and, really, anything anyone else doesn't already know, either. Surely he didn't assume Dawkins was asserting people never draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence? Any nation that has courts understands there are times you could be forced to make decisions without benefit of conclusive evidence. Surely, McGrath knows someone as intelligent as Dawkins is not asserting it is impossible for a human to draw a conclusion without conclusive evidence? That would be a idiotic assertion, indeed, from anyone--but most especially so from a literate and educated person.

The question, I assumed, was a request for McGrath to explain specific evidence and specific reasoning that has led him to draw his conclusion--to become convinced where he was once skeptical--"a god exists." And no matter how many times you read his answer above, you will not find that offered or explained.

Carl Sagan once shared a story about a question he was asked regarding whether he believed in the existence of extra-terrestrial life. He replied that there was currently no evidence to support that conclusion. The reporter pressed and asked something to the effect of "What do you think in your gut?" Sagan responded that he didn't think with his gut, and that it is fine to hold off drawing conclusions until there is sufficient evidence available to support a conclusion. Sagan, who strongly supported efforts to seek extra-terrestrial life, here admitted that while he held it was true such life was possible--perhaps even probable--he would not extend belief to "it exists," until he saw that conclusion was demonstrated by evidence--presumably when such life was actually discovered.

I absolutely concede that I could hardly live my life without some attempt to draw conclusions without conclusive evidence, on occasion; but compared to the comparatively limitless conclusions I draw based upon solid evidence every millisecond of every day, conclusions based upon insufficient evidence are actually relatively rarely required to be drawn. I hardly have to know "what is the meaning of life?" or "Why am I here?," in order to live my life, or even enjoy the life I live. I can safely say many people live and die and never find any answer to those questions--perhaps never even consciously ask them--and lose never a night's sleep over it. Try and kill such a person, however, and you'll see firsthand how much they value their own life--even if they can't explain to you what their life "means." Truth be told, if there is some cosmically imposed meaning, the fact people have been arguing over the answer for millennia is near enough an indicator that there is no clear answer--and yet we all continue, somehow, to go on living our lives--many of us enjoying them--in spite of that.

Interesting as these questions are, are they "necessary" to answer, as McGrath asserts? If I know I prefer to live rather than die in most situations, and I extend that assumption to others in order to do what I can to mold a generally pleasant society, but I then miss out on the cosmic meaning--does it matter? If there is a cosmic meaning, and we don't know what it is--how can we answer the question of whether it's beneficial to know it? In fact, I can just as well consider that such questions are as near unanswerable as any questions can be, and go on using my reasoning skills--god given or not--to figure out what sort of life I would like to live and try to live it.

If I'm a generally good and kind person--would finding out there is a cosmic mind that has a plan, which is that people should be good and kind--make a speck of difference? Alternately, as a generally good and kind person, if I stumbled upon a cosmic plan that included I should blow up a building filled with people, I would be highly unlikely to comply--so that would make not a speck of difference in my life, either. There could, I suppose, be a god who would wish to punish me for not completing the proper sacrifices, or praying in the wrong direction, or for thinking the wrong things; but unless I have some really compelling reason to think such a thing exists--the details of what it expects of me never become any more important than what alleged alien abductees describe as their experiences--both wonderful and horrific--aboard spacecrafts.

But read McGrath's answer again, and note the areas I have highlighted. He presses that these questions are necessary to answer--and he equates the question "does god exist?" with those questions that demand a conclusion be drawn. But, it isn't one of those questions that requires a response. We aren't in a jury box being told a man's life and society's safety are in our hands, and our decision on insufficient evidence must be determined. "Does god exist?" may have implications for the believer--once the mantle of belief is taken up. But until belief is merited, questions related to what happens after that belief are unimportant. The question "does god exist?" has no greater significance before you believe it than the question "do aliens exist?"

Certainly if either proposition is true, it could be life altering. I don't wish to be kidnapped and violated by aliens any more than I would wish an eternity of hell upon myself. I don't wish my children or friends to be maltreated by gods or aliens, either. And if I believed aliens were abducting humans for experimentation, I'd be up in arms demanding some sort of protections from my society or government. But until I believe, it matters not at all in my life. The believer may assert it matters in that I'm not wearing a tinfoil hat in order to avoid mind control by the aliens--but really, that's him overlaying his perspective as a believer onto me. I don't do anything in my life where I first consider, "Now, since I don't accept aliens are abducting people, how do I wish to handle this situation?" The question of abductions is not a question that demands I deeply consider whether or not I believe it's true. And the question "does god exist?"--whether believers assume horrific consequences or not--is no different than that to someone who does not yet believe.

What this means is that the end leap of faith McGrath describes is not required. And what that means, is that it is not a reasonable leap of faith. It is not, as Josh McDowell also asserts, "evidence that demands a verdict." If I were in a jury box and forced to decide, then yes, I must do my fair and level best to make the most rational decision with whatever evidence is presented. But there is no such pressure applied to the question "does god exist?"--outside of whatever pressure indoctrination has pre-inserted into the adherent's brain.

Not only did McGrath fail to provide any specific reason or evidence for his particular faith, he failed on a general level to explain what sort of reason he applies, because the sort of reason he describes is not reasonably applied to this particular type of question. The final "required" leap of faith, in the area of religion, he has not justified, only asserted.

Thankfully, but not surprisingly, this doesn't escape Dawkins' notice when he explains it is this final leap--not supported by rationality or evidence, and not required--that he would describe as the employment of "faith." I would assert not only faith in a conclusion, but faith in a pre-existing prejudice that the conclusion was already very likely true in the first place; otherwise, why would the question even have mattered to McGrath any more than the question of alien abductions?

I'd finally like to hit on McGrath's statement that "faith is rational in that it can give us the best possible case it can give." This is nonsense. Anyone who holds any belief, no matter how ridiculous, can give us "the best possible case" they can give. That in no way makes their belief "rational." As a joke, I sometimes invent conspiracy theories on the fly--putting unrelated groups and events together to assert one is privately colluding to produce the other. It's amazing how many reasonable-sounding arguments you can create for absolutely fabricated assertions. Often, others will join in to add their "evidence" for the conspiracy--laughing as we build upon it. We actually can put together explanations for these fantasy conspiracies that sound reasonable. But we're just making it all up. And our "rational" explanations are not at all likely to be true. But, if rational can be defined as "making the best case possible," we're absolutely being "rational"--but also, no doubt, ridiculous.

Again, I really only addressed one small segment of the dialog here. If I have time in my future, I'll address more. But clearly there is, throughout these videos, a huge communication divide--a gargantuan level of interference. McGrath seems unable to hear and understand what Dawkins is even asking. And I'm left wondering, is an intelligent theologian merely a person who makes nonsense sound better than most theists can? Is he merely someone who puts forward inarguable realities we might all agree with, sprinkled with unsupported assertions, and who fails to address the questions being asked?

Is that what it means to debate an educated and intelligent apologist?

We get email: the resurrection yet again

Not all the email we get from theists is totally marinated in crazysauce. Often we get a good letter from someone who doesn't understand a few basic concepts, and is asking sincere questions. Here's a recent email from a fellow trying to make the case that the contradictory Gospel accounts of the resurrection — which I dissected in this post from last year — help to support, rather than discredit, the story.

Whenever I hear atheists talking about contradictions in the Bible (The New Testament specifically) I just don't understand why they think that this is evidence against the veracity of the main message in the Bible. For example, the story of the empty tomb and the contradictions that surround it, is often cited as reason to doubt the stories of the gospel. However contradictions are to be expected! Take the case of a car accident. You could have many different eye witnesses there, and it is almost guaranteed that they will all have some variation in their account of the accident. The same goes for the tomb account. Contradictions due to memory lapses, additions deletions, incidental changes, etc. are to be expected, but ultimately the main message is still there. This in my mind points not to an undermining of the Bible, but rather to the authenticity of it.

Another example that provides evidence for the authenticity of the story is the fact that a woman/women were first on the scene. If the empty tomb was a fictional story then why would they have a women first, when in those days women were not seen as first class citizens or trusted to be reliable.

Anyways I'm just curious as to why these contradictions are used as evidence to doubt the truth of the bible as I have seen done on your show before. (If I remember correctly it was around the time of Easter and Jeff Dee was either the host or co-host)

Okay, fair enough, but our correspondent is missing some basic points. First off, he's not the first fellow to have thought of this. The Rashomon scenario is a common one: different eyewitness accounts, different versions, who do you trust? But there's a little more going on here than that.

When you are faced with different versions of the same basic story, then the question you ask is: how can I verify any of these stories? What evidence can I examine independently, to determine whose version is closest to the truth? The problem with the resurrection story is the same problem faced by all other Biblical accounts of miracles. There is no evidence to examine either way. So you are left with conflicting accounts.

Fine, you say. But that's true of all historical accounts of the ancient world. There's no way to confirm what any of the Egyptian pharoahs did either. So how can you trust all those temple engravings? The thing is, historians aren't dumb, and they know you can't, completely. In the past, just like today, people wrote through the filter of their own biases. Accounts of ancient pharoahs are full of events that enhance their deeds to make them seem godlike. So you basically have to take these things with a grain of salt and see where you're led by what little evidence you can actually dig up.

But getting back to the resurrection, there are problems with the story that emerge even before you talk about the contradictions, and the big one is this: what is being claimed is that a man came back from the dead. Right there, the story moves out of the realm of ordinary historical accounts (like "Caesar led his armies against the Gauls"), and into the realm of extraordinary claims. And extraordinary claims, as the saying goes, require extraordinary evidence. Most historians wouldn't have a problem accepting accounts of Caesar's military campaigns based on routine scholarship. But if someone started claiming that Caesar could teleport and frequently visited his Galactic Overlords at their secret base on Neptune to discuss battle plans, then you've got some red flags going up.

So the problem with the resurrection account is bigger than the problem faced by other, more conventional historical claims. Basically, it's this: You have a book claiming a dead man who was actually a god returned to life after his execution, and the book itself is claimed to the be divinely inspired word of an infallible perfect deity, yet it contains confused and contradictory accounts despite this. For anyone not already so immersed in the faith that they're beyond questioning its claims, you're already into that "Caesar on Neptune" red flag zone even before you start talking about the specific contradictions.

What we're being asked to accept is that, at one point in history, one dead body behaved in a manner no dead body has behaved before or since. And we're not only asked to accept this without hard evidence, but all we're given as a scholarly account is a holy book written by numerous hands, who can't even get their accounts straight.

Where this fellow sees these differing accounts as somehow confirming the truth of the event, I see mythmaking in action. The Gospels were not written until at least a generation after Jesus's death, by which time Paul was already actively engaged in promoting the Christian faith as an act of political rebellion against Rome. It's easy to see how a mythology surrounding an otherwise unexceptional Jewish rabbi (who, as most rabble rousers living in dictatorships often do, got himself executed for being a pain in the ass) would have captured some momentum. It also helps to remember that there are far more manuscripts claiming to be eyewitness gospels that didn't make it into the NT than those that did, and the NT we have didn't really take shape until the beginning of 4th century.

So yeah, there are far more reasons to be skeptical of the resurrection account than there are to accept it. The contradictions are an interesting detail to discuss (mostly in the context of replying to claims about the Bible's infallibility), but they're just a bonus.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Revised Texas Social Studies Curriculum

Thomas Jefferson was involved in producing the Constitution of the United States. Fortunately, he left us clear writings as to the meaning of the Establishment Clause—the clause that forbids government involvement in religious matters that would mean government showing favor to one religion over another.

Our neighbors “across the pond” often write to us to express their amazement that while their church is very much part of their state institutions, it is hardly a force of any consequence, whereas in the U.S., they hear we have actually undertaken an experiment in secular government, but are inundated by religious influence and intrusion to a degree they find unbelievable and shocking. They ask “why?” We answer, “we’re not entirely sure.”

I don’t know what makes one state-involved religion relatively benign—as is the case in some modern European nations—and what makes religion a force for death and human rights abuses in some other regions of the world. But I’m willing to wager that if a definitive answer to that question is ever found, it will involve quite a lot about paranoid fear and also something about religious fundamentalism, which is involved with feelings of near certainty in the face of inconclusive—someone less generous might say “ridiculous”—evidence to support unjustified conclusions. Actually, this attitude is often the root of paranoid fear. We have all observed, as well as heard, that “the truth has nothing to fear from investigation.” But poorly justified “truth,” has a great deal to fear from free inquiry and open debate; and, so, protecting such “truth” actually requires some level of suppression of evidence and contrary thoughts. And when I say “some level,” with regard to protecting religious ideas, I shouldn’t need to explain what “levels” that includes.

The “wall of separation” was described early on by a Baptist, Roger Williams. He viewed the wall as a protection of private practice of religion. And, no doubt it does protect religious freedoms—which many religious people daily demonstrate they are either unable or unwilling to understand. Later, the “wall” was described by Jefferson to mean religion’s influence in politics—a prohibition against religious involvement on the secular side. Really, these are not two sides of a coin, but two ways of describing one side only: No religion may call “shotgun.” They must all ride in the same seat as far as the government is concerned. The problem, missed by many, is that in a world where each person carries their own personal and unique concept of “god”—you can’t so much as pray to a “god” with governmental endorsement without stepping on some toes—not merely those of the godless, but those of other religious people as well, who don’t share your personal views on religion. For example, what of those who would pray to the “gods,” instead? It really is best for everyone—religious or not—to allow free private practice and not issue government decrees or endorsements of anything regarding religion or religious worship, whenever it is not an absolute dire necessity to intervene against oppression, both on behalf of religious citizens, as well as on behalf of those they have been known to oppress.

Recently, and unsurprisingly, the SBOE in Texas decided to downplay Jefferson’s role in American history, and include, rather, a list of others who influenced American history and thought, including one, John Calvin, who was a man, among many others, involved in the Reformation. First let me say that there is no doubt the ideas of the Reformation—of which Calvin was certainly a part—have influenced American thinking in the realm of religion to this day. There is some suggestion he also influenced capitalism and democracy, although whatever his idea of “democracy,” it would have clashed considerably with just about everything represented by our Constitution, if his actions and writings constitute any indication. Still, I must admit that, religion being the powerful mechanism it surely is in the U.S. today, impacting religious thought is no small matter. I think it’s fair to say religion in our country would not be what it is today without Calvin’s influential ideas within the Reformation. However, to read that as complimentary would be to miss my meaning entirely.

Some of Calvin’s fine thoughts still in circulation include the following:

1. God’s absolute sovereignty:

Just as the Taliban promotes, whatever your god asks you to do, obey without question—no holds barred. And frighteningly, just like the Taliban, Calvin believed that anyone who didn’t accept the “truth”—as he understood it—deserved execution. Free speech? No. Open, public dialog and debate? No. Capacity to criticize religious thinking? Again, no. Just as, for want of a sense of humor, a rabid mob of Muslims became intent on murdering a Dutch publisher, Calvin saw little reason to allow anyone to criticize what he knew was god’s intent here on Earth—and live. In fact, in response to a fellow theologian’s criticisms, he wrote:

“Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.” (1)

For the record, we get a lot of “ravings” e-mailed to us at AETV. But I have yet to hear anyone involved with our program suggest, even as a joke, that we ought to consider silencing these people for eternity. Honestly, they are some of the greatest sources of humor on the list—if, perhaps, not also somewhat tinged with a sad and pathetic quality. Pity and humor seem a more appropriate response to “raving” than murderous impulses.

But back to Calvin, who, it turns out, was able to make good on his word. Servetus—who was a man of some scientific accomplishment in addition to a theologian—was burned at the stake—along with his books, it should be noted—for “heresy.” Ironically, put to death by Calvin’s supporters, who were, as labeled by a differently thinking church authority, simply another brand of “heretic.” And also ironically for one of his ideas being that infant baptism was incorrect—a position most protestants would today agree with. When Servetus was facing trial, and possible death, for his ideas, Calvin compassionately wrote:

“I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated.” (2)

By “mitigated,” Calvin did not mean sentencing Servetus to 100 hours of community service instead. He meant that he preferred beheading to immolation. And he demonstrated this preference as well when he consented to the beheading of Jacques Gruet. To be fair to Calvin, though, Gruet was guilty of having written a letter which, I’m sure it was demonstrated, “threatened god,” as well as god’s emissaries here on Earth. And there can be no doubt of Gruet’s guilt, as he made a full confession—under torture.

2. Total depravity of the human condition:

The Wikipedia entry states: “The term ‘total’ in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.”

I’m grateful to have this clarification. Just so we are all on the same page, it’s not so much that human beings are totally evil, as that every part of every human being is polluted with evil.

This doctrine is, itself, perhaps arguably, the most “totally depraved” contribution to the world stage religion has ever supplied us—especially as it is taught to children as soon as they’re able to grasp the concepts involved. For one person to believe such a ludicrous and dysfunctional concept about himself would be merely shocking. For many to believe such a thing undermines humanity and society, and can only be combated with as much real education as we can unrelentingly hurl at it.

Like many marketing schemes, religion invents a problem, exaggerates it to frightening proportions, applies it to as many as possible (in this case everyone), then sells the solution at a hefty individual and social price. The problem it invents in this case results in mistrust of one’s corrupted self, of all one’s corrupted neighbors, and even of one’s corrupted children and parents. And when an idea like this catches fire, anyone who rejects it can only be suspect of being so utterly corrupt they cannot see their own corruption. That person—the one saying humans are basically alright for the most part—becomes, unbelievably, the threat to social harmony and cohesion. What a backward and perverted social perspective. But yes, it certainly has influenced American culture, I must sadly concede.

3. Predestination

Predestination is not, strictly speaking, “determinism.” However, they have a bit in common. If anything drives unavoidable fate, it is determinism. If god drives it, it’s predestination. There is certainly an irony to theists who accept this doctrine claiming that without god they would have no reason to go on living. But beyond the humorous aspects, the obvious problem in this idea is that anything and everything that occurs can be defended with divine preordination—from 9-11 to any dictator’s divine right. Combine this with number 1 above, and you have the perfect recipe for brutal politics. And I daresay that number 2 only functions to dismiss critics of the institution produced by 1 and 3, out of hand.

Calvin had all sorts of other wonderful and interesting ideas, including some about Jews, which his supporters can only defend by saying he may not have been as bad as some of the other anti-semites of his day. Still, it isn’t exactly anything to brag on:

“I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness—nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew.” (3)

My main objective in all of this is to demonstrate that a man like Calvin would openly oppose our current Constitution in the U.S., where we actually allow open public dialog and debate, and we allow free and unhindered expression of religion—by anyone, no matter what they believe, or don’t.

As I have admitted already, we have examples of the church and state living, relatively speaking, harmoniously in some regions of the world. However, we have other examples where church and state, relatively speaking, demonstrate lethal and oppressive combinations. And in those states, what do we see? We see staunch believers who adhere to the three Calvinistic concepts listed above, for which the man is most remembered. Considering the continued efforts of Christian fundamentalists—admittedly influenced by Calvin—to affect political power in this nation—why on Earth would anyone assume they’re not interested in religious impositions upon society? What would be the basis for assuming this well organized group of religious zealots is fighting for political influence with the noble goal of preserving a religious freedom we already enjoy—rather than a goal of imposing religious oppression by instituting self-serving, government-sanctioned religious privilege?

By all means, feel free to teach children about Calvin and Calvinism and his influence on American thinking in our schools. Be sure to teach them, as well, how extremely lucky we are that Calvin’s relaxed attitudes with regard to comingling religious and state authority, to purposeful deadly effect, were ultimately not embraced by this nation. In fact, they represent, eerily and precisely, the same views driving the terrorist actions with which we are waging war in the world at this moment: God is sovereign and demands the death of anyone who criticizes Him or His messengers.

I wonder whether that will be included in our new Social Studies Curriculum Standards here in Texas when Calvin is mentioned? Like the fundamentalist-groomed children in science classes “challenging” overwhelming scientific consensus, one wonders whether free-thinking children will raise a hand to ask whether it is, in fact, true, that Calvin promoted executing people for expressing their ideas and questions? And, if so, isn’t it rather a boon that we escaped a number of the man’s toxic political influences, if not his religious ones?

I’m happy to say the church in the U.S. no longer burns people who don’t agree with them. But it is impossible to miss that this protection is offered, thankfully, by secular laws imposing on religiously prescribed dictates, rather than any divine prohibition. It is, in fact, quite fortunate we did not take our cue from the Bible—or Calvin’s view of it—when it came time to author our national laws and Constitution.

Thankfully reason prevailed, once again, over religion. But the price, as always, is eternal vigilance.


(1) Drummond, William H. (1848). The Life of Michael Servetus: The Spanish Physician, Who, for the Alleged Crime of Heresy, was Entrapped, Imprisoned, and Burned, by John Calvin the Reformer, in the City of Geneva, October 27, 1553. London, England: John Chapman. pp. 2.

(2) Calvin to William Farel, August 20, 1553, Bonnet, Jules (1820–1892) Letters of John Calvin, Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980, pp. 158–159. ISBN 0-85151-323-9.

(3) Lange van Ravenswaay, J. Marius J. (2009), “Calvin and the Jews”, in Selderhuis, Herman J., The Calvin Handbook, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ISBN 9780802862303 (translation from the Dutch, Calvijn Handboek, 2008 by Kok, Kampen).