Wednesday, June 30, 2010

We're Not Praying For You, Hitch

Yesterday, we heard that Christopher Hitchens had suspended his book tour for "personal reasons." Today, we found out what that means. Hitch has esophageal cancer and will undergo chemotherapy for it. Chemo for esophageal cancer usually involves cisplatin, which is often described as one of the most "emetogenic" chemo drugs. In other words, it makes you puke your guts up, a condition that obviously precludes a book tour.

Of course, it didn't take long for the hate-filled theists and assorted loons to come out of the woodwork. Yahoo News seems to be a haven for them these days. One of the most amusing comments posted there came from "K", who suggested that,
"Maybe CH will do a complete 360 ° with regards to his belief in the Divine."

Excellent! I can now draw two conclusions about "K" based on this statement. He's probably bad at math, and I suspect he likes circular arguments.

And then there's this bit from "DisplayName001,"
"Since he isnt into God and stuff folks will have to pray for him a little extra, Cancer is bad, I hope he has some family and people around him to help, so many people are touched by it hopefully he comes over here for treatment since the NHS has been known to treat smokers not so good."

"God be with you Mr. Hitchens dont let the doctors destroy your immune system too much with their poison medication and try to regulate your body's pH"

DisplayName001 seems to be unaware of a lot of things, like the fact that Christopher Hitchens has lived in Washington, D.C. for quite some time now. Or that chemo is way better at treating cancer than prayer. Or that your body regulates its pH pretty well no matter how you try to screw it up.

Comments like these should be accompanied by the warning, "This is your brain on God!" They illustrate why Hitchens is such a passionate, vocal anti-theist. These beliefs aren't benign - choosing prayer over chemo is deadly.

Esophageal cancer is serious, and I'm glad Hitchens is receiving serious treatment. I hope the chemo works, but I won't be praying for that outcome. I think Hitchens would approve of that sentiment.

Monday, June 28, 2010

I is on da teebee!

Monday afternoon, I was, with very little warning and only about an hour to do frantic house-cleaning in preparation, interviewed by local TV news channel KEYE 42. The story was about a new Coalition of Reason billboard that's gone up on the north side of town (I haven't actually driven past it yet). And I think I pretty much got the interview because I used to work with a fellow who works at the station. So that was nice of him to recommend me. (In case you're wondering why they came to me and not, say, Matt.) The reporter, Chris Coffey, was a terrific guy and I think the piece does a fine job of being fair all around. And I'm sure you'll all get a huge kick of the B-roll clip, where I'm standing at one of my shelves pretending to read The God Delusion, looking like I just had half a blue whale for lunch. You know what they say about the camera adding ten pounds? In my case it seems to add a whole second Martin. Back to the gym!

So, enjoy. And if you want to register at the site to leave comments responding to some of the charming Christian ones already left, well, it's a free country!

Addendum: I wasn't aware when I posted this just now that another station, KVUE, did a piece on the sign as well, which is embedded in the post below. They didn't talk to me, and as far as I can tell, KEYE's coverage was a lot fairer.

AustinCOR Billboard Campaign Starts!

This is what potentially millions of people will see over the next month as they travel south on I-35. The Austin Coalition of Reason, of which ACA is a member, officially kicked off its billboard campaign this morning. The billboard is located on I-35 north of Grand Avenue Parkway facing north. It's a message of inclusion, designed to let other atheists, secularists, and freethinkers in the area know they are not alone.

It's already been picked up by local news media, although KVUE is currently the only channel with the story posted. ACA Board Member and AustinCOR Coordinator, Don Rhoades, has done some heavy lifting today with news interviews. Check Don out on KVUE:

The disappointing thing about the campaign so far - the reporter here just couldn't report the story without putting an overtly religious spin on the whole thing. The title of this story was part of a quote from a local pastor, "Atheist billboard a great advertisement for God."

I guess if you think your god created a planet in a vast universe just for you, you just can't help thinking a billboard is all about you too.

Addendum: Hello, Squid Hordes, and thanks to PZed for the linkage. Feel free to follow us if you enjoy what you read here, gang.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

So, we're at 660 blog followers...

Come on, gang, how hard can this be...?

Not quite the double standard you were thinking

Hey, kids. Yes, I'm back. Been back a few days in fact. And I'm finally ready to post again, so here's my first, in reply to a letter received responding to the conversation with Behe fan "Garry" on the last show I did with Matt. Our correspondent begins:

I am an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, and I am a friendly/open-minded agnostic theist. So with my introduction out of the way, here is my email:

In the Problem of Evil debate, skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence formulate their argumentation as follows:

(1) If there were an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God, then (due to His unlimited knowledge and unlimited power) He would be able to prevent gratuitous/pointless evil and suffering that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(2) Because God would have such a capability, and because He is supposedly all-good, he would act on that capability and prevent the gratuitous/pointless suffering and evil that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(3) But, there is lots of evils and sufferings that occur in the world (which have not been prevented by the supposed all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God), and much of it is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good (and therefore seems to be gratuitous/pointless).

(4) Therefore, the conclusion is that there does not exist a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, or all-good.

Now, many theists argue against the argument of ‘The Problem of Evil’ presented above by way of refuting premise (3) and saying that there is no evil that is gratuitous/pointless, and that all evil is logically necessary for adequately compensating goods. One of the ways in which they do this is by presenting ‘The Contrast Response,’ which basically says that if there were no evil in the world, we would not be aware of the good. God then allows evil to make us aware of goodness, since this awareness in itself is a good.

But, many skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence do not accept ‘The Contrast Response’ because they claim that it is not necessarily the case that our minds work this way. Essentially, they believe that we would still be aware of goodness even if there were less (or even no) evil to contrast it. So they say that ‘The Contrast Response’ is logically invalid.

That being said, I am assuming that you (Matt and Martin) are not exceptions (and have the same point of contention in regards to ‘The Contrast Response’).

So if I am actually correct about my assumption and your point of contention and belief that our minds don’t need contrasting things in order to be aware of (or recognize) non-contrasting things, why then (in episode # 660, which occurred on Sunday, 6/06/2010 and while responding to Garry from Manhattan, NY and his example of irreducibly complex systems) did you (Matt and Martin) flip the contrast response (which you do not accept as being valid in the problem of evil argument) around in order to claim (within the context of the argument of creationism) that in order to know if something was created, we have to first have an example of something that wasn’t created to compare it with (or contrast it to)? To me, this seems like a logically fallacious contradiction???

Our correspondent is wrong in his assumption of where I stand on "The Contrast Response." I don't reject the notion that a knowledge of the difference between good and evil is a vital element of ascertaining one's moral positions. What I reject is the notion that an omnibenevolent God is necessary for such an understanding, especially one who would continue to allow gratuitous evils to occur long after the human race had well and truly understood those differences and had established laws to punish them. Why, in this day and age, would God allow (to use the most button-mashing of examples) the continued sexual abuse of children? Are there significant pockets of human civilization (apart from the Vatican) who still do not understand this is a deplorable act, and therefore, children must still be put through the anguish of sexual abuse in order to make those people aware of its evil, and of the goodness of not abusing children in contrast?

Another objection would be that, even if one accepts the notion of God's allowing acts of evil in the world for the sake of "compensating goods" (and I don't know that I accept the idea of non-victims of evil realizing how lucky they are to be a "compensating good"), this would still not absolve God of the moral responsibility to stop such acts of evil when he can. Honestly, in what way would God's refusal to prevent the sexual abuse of a child — thereby presumably allowing us to experience the horror of the act so as to better appreciate it when children aren't raped — constitute a better "compensating good" than for him simply to blast the assailant to smithereens with a well-aimed lightning bolt? Who would be sitting around thinking, "Gosh, I don't understand, why did God do that to that poor man?"

Why establish good and evil as concepts if not to enforce them? A common argument in theodicy is that God must allow evil for an understanding of good. But how are we mere mortals expected to reach such an understanding if God doesn't explain which is which and punish the evil when it happens? Instead, it seems we are meant to work it out for ourselves which are good and evil acts, as God apparently cannot interfere in the interests of not undermining our supposed free will.

The great irony of this form of theodicy is that it ends up rendering God irrelevant. Atheists and secular moralists do argue that we are the ones responsible for determining the differences between good and evil...but that we are perfectly capable of doing this by using our intellects and our empathy to evaluate the consequences of human actions, rejecting those which are destructive.

Any theodicy that proposes a God as the architect of moral precepts, only to immediately take Him out of the picture, leaving humanity to deal with good and evil on our own, pragmatic terms, might as well concede the argument and pack it in. A God who refuses to prevent gratuitous destructive acts for any reason is one who has, if He exists, surrendered His moral authority and is deserving of no thanks from us.

Additionally, even if I am wrong about my assumption [and you guys actually DO accept the contrast response as a good response to the problem of evil—or reject it for another reason that I have not presented above—(and therefore have not contradicted yourselves)], why do you even find the merit in asking a theist to provide an example of something that was not created, anyways? Essentially, asking a theist to provide an example of something that wasn’t created is unfair, because if he/she is a common theist and believes that God exists, he/she also believes that EVERYTHING [including natural things] in our physical universe was created by Him (which would mean that to the theist there would be no example of an uncreated thing that he/she could provide, because no such example would exist).

As such, the theist’s lack of ability to provide such an example does not prove (or even serve to insinuate) that there was no creator (or God). Moreover, it only further begs the question. So essentially, I think that asking Garry to provide such an example was an invalid (and therefore unnecessary) form of argumentation.

This is because, like Garry, you fail to understand that a key component of any scientific hypothesis — which is what ID wants to be — is falsifiability. In order to determine if your hypothesis is even valid in its basic premises, you have to be able to answer this question: "If what I am proposing is not true, what conditions would I expect to find existing today?" Therefore someone insisting that life was intelligently designed must be able to answer, "If life were not designed, what would it look like?" It's hardly unfair or invalid. It's basic science.

And yes, this question has been answered in regards to evolution, and very simply. When asked what he thought would falsify evolution, biologist J.B.S. Haldane answered simply, "Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian." If anything in the fossil record were not where it was supposed to be in the timeline, this would be a problem. But it has not been a problem. Indeed, evolutionary theory has been validated many times in its predictive power, another important factor establishing scientific validity. Tiktaalik was found right where paleontologists were sure a certain transitional fossil of its type would have to be found if it existed at all.

If insisting that Garry state the way in which ID or any other design hypothesis was falsifiable was "unfair," it can only be in the way a scientifically illiterate fellow set himself up to be humiliated in his ignorance on live television. But that's hardly our fault. If some creationist calls us, trying to peddle an inferior product, and proceeds to lecture authoritatively on a subject about which he is in fact ignorant, a little humiliation is the least he has coming.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

New content this week

And verily the Lord of the internet did say, "Wherever two or more are gathered around a web-capable computer, and spend ninety minutes bullshitting about news of interest to atheists in the name of the ACA, yea, even there shall be an episode of The Non-Prophets."

And Russell and Lynnea, having nothing better to do one weekday evening, did do such a thing. And the readers of, who did hunger for more NPR episodes, went forth and listened to it. And they declared that it was good, or at least we hope they will.

How the Bible was made

From Christians, we often get letters quoting scripture and telling us the Bible is god's word. From atheists, we sometimes get letters asking us about how the Bible came to exist--usually because they're in a debate with a theist online who is making claims about evidence of textual reliability.

When I was a Christian, I was swayed into accepting the religion by a set of claims put forward by professional apologist Josh McDowell. I was a naive 15-year-old living in the days before the Internet, and the claims Josh made that were impressive to me had to do with the meticulous record of Biblical texts and the reliable methods of reproduction of those texts. His foundational argument is that the Bible stories are trustworthy--in so far as accurately representing honest reports by the authors. That is, what people wrote is what they believed they saw. And we can trust the book we read today matches the original texts nearly flawlessly. His further arguments all springboard off Biblical claims. So, the resurrection then requires an explanation--because obviously the events in the gospels are accurately reported--so what did people see to make them think a resurrection had occurred?

Bear in mind most churches do not teach classes on how the Bible came to exist. And before the Internet, unless a child thought on their own to go and look for this information, they would surely be impressed by someone who is describing these events and scenarios in a way that made him sound informed and scholarly. In other words, a kid in this class would be impressed by perceived authority and accept, very likely, these claims without question--having never been told anything different.

It wasn't until I went to college that I actually met anyone who wasn't a theist (at least openly). Prior to that, everyone I met was some brand of Christian. And eventually, at college, I was challenged on my parroted claims from Josh McDowell's courses. In an effort to prove my fellows wrong, I ended up spending hours and hours in the basement of the UCF library where the "religion" section was then housed. It was there I first learned I'd been hoodwinked. From church histories produced by Catholic societies, to secular scholarship, they all agreed on the relevant facts: The origins of the Bible are quite opaque until centuries after the events they record--where they then surface as quite murky for some time further. What is recorded leaves any person with a working mind with the understanding that there is no basis for taking these texts at face value.

It was still many years later until I finally became an atheist. Eventually I found Bart Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus. I loved it because it was as though he took all the research I had done and bound it into an easy-to-read, short book--and then added even more that I hadn't found, since, unlike him, my life's work has not been to study these texts in their original languages in great detail.

I've recommended this book to many people over the years who have expressed an interest in Bible origins. But I'm always disappointed when I realize that many people simply aren't readers. Now, however, I've found a way to remove all excuses and make, what took me many nights and hours in a university library basement, easy for you. On Youtube there is a 10-part lecture by Bart Ehrman on the topic of Bible origins, where he talks about the information in "Misquoting Jesus." Even if you don't have the stamina to sit through all 10 parts, I promise you the first two will be sufficient for you to grasp the point.

If, after viewing this, there is any doubt in your mind as to the level of (un)reliability of the Bible's content--then you have a mighty faith, indeed!


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

An Inspiration!

We received a letter this week from a woman who had an upbeat story worth sharing. I don’t think I would ever have thought to try this, but what a great idea:

I have written in before about general stuff but I had a story about something that happened yesterday that I would love some opinions on. Near where I work, on nice days there are usually a lot of people out proselytizing. Now, I have dealt with street and door-to-door proselytizing before, usually women; and they have usually not been too bad. However, I find the idea of going up to people on the street to push religion kind of appalling, and though I personally don't mind, because it offers the opportunity for discussion, I still find it to be incredibly rude. I understand the reason they go around in pairs, or sometimes even groups of 3 or 4, so they are able to corner people. And it just bothers me.

So I was walking home from work, and I spotted two young men with Bibles talking to some young lady sitting on a park bench. I decided to go up to them, and instead of addressing the two young men I turned to the girl and said something along the lines of “You are a good person, you have your own morals and can make your own decisions and don't need them or their book to tell you that you are weak, because you are not.”

Then I told them all to have a nice day and started on my way again. But then the two boys started shouting after me. I say “boys,” they were probably in their early twenties. So, as they started to shout things like "yeah get out of here! No one cares what you have to say!" I decided that I couldn't just leave it at that.

Maybe I should have left it, but I decided to go back. Maybe I shouldn't have said this, but addressing the first boy I said "Well why don't you tell her about the part where Lot gets drunk and has sex with his daughters, or the part in Judges where Jephtha sets his daughter on fire."

After looks of confusion from the two young men, and a quirky smile from the girl, the first boy just kept repeating "Who are you? Get out of here! You're Satan!" in a robotic tone, as the other one holding the Bible said I was “crazy.” I asked if I could borrow their Bible to show her either passage, to which the first asked "Well where's your Bible?"

I pulled out my digital reader on which I had a copy of the King James Bible, and I informed him that I read it often. He replied that I didn't know what was in the Bible, and that I must be Satan. They asked me if I knew the girl or something, to which I said that they didn't know her, either, and were probably bothering her while she was trying to relax in the park. It was at this point that the one young man said that I "must be retarded".

I wish I had had time to, instead, draw these two away from this poor girl, but I didn't, so I addressed her with another vote of confidence and went on my way.

She seemed to be responsive to what I had said, but one can't be entirely sure. As I walked away they continued to shout after me, continuing to call me “Satan” and such.

Now I never mentioned to any of them that I was an atheist or even what my particular beliefs might be. I even acknowledged in my last words to the girl that I didn't know if she was a Christian herself, or what her beliefs might be, but only that she didn't need these two young men to figure those things out—basically, to believe in herself and not them. I have a Youtube channel, and as soon as I got home I did a big long video telling the story exactly as I have told it here.

I recall an open-air preacher who used to shout at passers-by at my university. He would handle questions and hecklers alike; but this is something different. She proselytized to proseltyzers, showed them up in front of their mark, and absolutely gave them as good as they were giving to other people that day. I bet she totally knocked them off their script!

She asked what we thought about what she did—if it was rude. I told her it was inspirational!

Here is her YouTube account of her adventure...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Can we be moral without god?

A young man has written to the list a few times. He seems to be "atheist curious" and apparently is being influenced by religion. But rather than blindly accept what he's being told, he is sending the apologetics to us to say "What do you all think of this?"

Whenever I've replied, he's been extremely polite and expressed gratitude. And in his last correspondence, he asked a common question: If atheism offers no beliefs or guidance in life, on what grounds does an atheist tell anyone else they're behaving morally incorrectly?

Here is my reply:

This is a very involved question with a lot of angles. I’m going to include some links, and explain why I believe they are relevant. This is a question many different people in many different cultures through time have attempted to address. In the end, as with all such questions, you are going to have to process the data and try to draw the best conclusion you can based on your observations and values.

First of all, let’s start with the prior base [which he had already agreed to in a previous e-mail], that humans are demonstrably social animals. You can see we are. We live in societies all around the globe. Other social animals we observe include lions, wolves, dogs, and so onany animal that lives in a community and requires cooperation, generally, to survive. Lots of animals aren’t social, but we can see when they are; and humans clearly are.

This means we have evolved things like compassion, guilt, concern, and so on. We have all the individual survival instincts, but also instincts that cause us to care about others to some degree. People will have these to different degrees. Some will be so compassionate they won’t hurt a fly. Others will be so uncaring they will be labeled as sociopaths. Nearly all physical traits, whether they affect our minds or bodies [obviously not intended in the dualistic sense, but in context of a discussion on morality], will be spread through the population on a bell curve, where there will be a “normal” range, where most of us fall, but then extremes on either end. So, we see most people have brown eyes around the world, or cholesterol that falls in a certain range, or are within a normal weight range, or have normal intelligence, etc. And there are always people who fall within more or less “normal” ranges. This diversity is actually beneficial to us as a species, because adaptability depends on being able to move the population in different directions. The “normal” ranges for us now are simply “where we’re at” currently, but people can, for example, get to be “taller” on average than they were 200 years back.

So, we have these basic sets of normal emotional ranges that encompass our interactions with other people. But they are very basic. You can see this in domestic dogs. We are able to train dogs easily because, like us, they are highly social. So, they have some of the same emotional ranges we do when it comes to understanding “right” from “wrong” behaviors. People can easily get a dog to understand good behaviors by rewarding the dog. And likewise, we can train a dog that certain things are “wrong”—such as biting people or jumping on the sofa. If the dog “knows” it can’t jump on the sofa, it will display behaviors of submission if you catch it on the sofa. So, it may put a tail down, or whimper or slump—to show you it knows it did what you don’t want it to do. The dog is socialized, and this is why it is easy for people to train and work with dogs.

People are similar. We have basic sets of underlying feelings about cooperative interactions. Some authors talk about an underlying sense of “fairness.” You can see this at an early age. If a child possesses a thing it likes, and you grab it away, the child becomes upset. Nobody likes to have something they like taken from them. That’s a basic feeling most of us share. Also, nobody likes pain. And to a high degree, if we’re healthy and well, most of us prefer living to dying.

Now, in reality, there are societies where “fair” includes things that here in the U.S. we don’t think are fair at all. For example, in some areas of the globe, if a woman walks down the street unescorted, she might be killed, and it’s actually sometimes considered correct for people to harm or kill her for that behavior.

The question you are asking is: What do we do when we think it’s wrong to treat a woman this way—but an entire other society thinks it’s OK? How is that resolved?

But the problem is the same within a culture, as well as between cultures. Here in the US, we have disputes about whether or not many things are OK, or not OK, for people to do. There are a lot of arguments about whether drug use should be criminal or whether abortion should be legal. And you probably have seen or heard people arguing about these things.

You are absolutely correct that atheism does not resolve any of this. Atheism only means you don’t believe a god exists. So, atheism really would not be the right place to look if you wanted to know about something like “what is moral action?” For that, you’d want to consult behavioral psychology or even philosophy. You’d have to do a lot of reading and thinking to figure out what you think is right and what you think is best.

Here are some links as examples:

For myself, I tend to think that if I wouldn’t want to be treated badly, it’s best not to treat others badly. Jesus used the Golden Rule, and a man named Stephen Covey used a Platinum Rule. Jesus said it was best to treat people how you’d like to be treated. Stephen said it’s actually better to treat the other person how the other person would like to be treated, since he or she may not like the same things you do. Other societies have used other versions of this idea, with things like “don’t do things to people you wouldn’t want done to you.”

Additionally, there is a question of how much control we should have over others. If what you do doesn’t hurt me or cause social harm, should I pass laws to stop you from doing it? This is at the heart of arguments about things like gay marriage.

If you don’t believe a god is telling you what to do, that means you become responsible for trying to figure out morality on your own and for coming up with the best ideas you can about how you ought to treat others.

In the end, people make the rules for human society. And we must all ask ourselves how much we want to be involved in that. If there is a vote for gay marriage in my area, will I vote for it, against it, or do nothing? That’s what I have to decide for myself. Do I want to help them? Impede them? Or do nothing and leave it to others to decide?

And then we have the question of societies and whether or not they should interfere with one another. This is also a personal question each of us is responsible for answering. If a neighboring culture is rounding up Jews into prison camps, and torturing and killing them—do we care? Do we intervene? There is a lot of debate and heated argument over things like this. For a long time, the U.S. hesitated to become involved in WWII. Should we have done something sooner? Should we have done nothing? That’s a question each person must answer for him/herself. Do you push your legislators to get involved? Do you tell them not to get involved? Do you do nothing and leave it to others to decide?

What are your values? What do you want from life and other people? What sort of world do you want to live in? What do you feel are your obligations toward others? What is your tolerance for personal suffering, or for the suffering of others?

These aren’t easy questions. But religion tries to pretend they are.

It is very easy to say “God’s will be done…” and leave it other people to do the work in this world.

I know you did not specifically ask about the following, but I want to offer it, just as something to consider. And I hope it’s OK.

Often when Christians ask something like you just did, they mean something like this: “I get my morality from god/the Bible; but without those, where would I get morality?” I know this is not what you said specifically; but it reminds me of this question in some ways. And there is an additional dilemma here that many religious people fail to consider. Long ago a man named Euthyphro had a thought that went like this:

“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

What he is asking, is whether there is such a thing as “morality,” or if morality only means “doing whatever god says.”

The problem comes in with verses in the Bible like these:

1 Samuel 15:2-3: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."

Exodus 21: 20-21: "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Leviticus 20:13 "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

So, in the Bible, we have Old Testament passages that state clearly that god told people to go and commit genocide against their neighbors—even killing infants and animals. Then, we have two passages from the Law of God, one that describes how it’s OK to have a slave and beat the slave near to death, and another that says we should execute gay men.

Obviously today, we would never consider these acts anything less than barbaric. If a country committed genocide, they would be globally condemned. If a country sanctioned slavery, we’d condemn that as well. And in Uganda, where they actually are passing laws to execute gays, there is an outcry against that law as an atrocity.

So, the question is, is there anything really wrong with killing gays, infants, and beating people near to death?

If morality is simply “whatever god says,” that means these things aren’t actually wrong. It means that sometimes it’s right to do these things. Any Christian who says “That was the old testament” is plainly saying “I agree that sometimes it’s right. When god said it back then, it was right. I agree it should have been done.”

Unless they’re willing to say it was wrong in the Old Testament—even if god said to do it—then they’re claiming sometimes it’s OK to have slaves and beat them, kill gay people, and slaughter infants in droves.

Were these things ever OK to do to other human beings? If a person answers "yes," then they have no moral compass. They are saying any action can be moral or immoral, all it takes is for god to say “do it” to make it “right.”

If they say that actions are not moral "just because god says to do them," then the response is that these verses I just used demonstrate Yahweh tells people to do immoral things. A moral person would want to stop a person from beating another near to death as "property." A moral person would want to stop a person from slaughtering babies out of pure vindictiveness. A moral person wouldn’t ever stand by and let someone kill someone else simply because they're gay.

Usually the Christian response is that god knows better, and when god tells people to do horrible things, there is a greater good at work. We're told we can’t recognize the larger plan, because we’re just humans, and not gods. But the problem there is: If you can’t tell a good action from an evil action, then how do you know it’s good if god says to go kill babies? It sounds evil—so what makes a person accept it’s good?

And it appears to come down to this:

If god says to do something awful, should you do it?

And here is my answer:

If I can’t understand how it’s good, and it seems evil, I can’t do it. Ultimately I am responsible for my actions. And if I don’t do this action, at least I can justify to you why I didn’t do it—why I judged it was evil. But if I blindly trust an authority, even when the action appears clearly to be evil, how do I know what I’ve done really wasn’t the evil it appeared to be? How can I justify my actions in that scenario? I can’t. I can only hope the atrocity I committed wasn’t really the atrocity it seemed.

And I couldn’t live with that level of irresponsibility. I need to know what I’m doing and why if someone wants me to do something I cannot justify as moral.

Again, I hope any of this is helpful.

Monday, June 21, 2010

More mail...

Left "as is"...and anonymous:

"hey, Matt or whoever is reading this I recently stumbled onto your videos on you tube and I don't know if you still remember a video of where you and a gentlemen who was Christian. were going back and forth over how you say your morally supine than God."

I may not remember the specific instance, but I've said this on many occasions - because it's true. Also, you should stop watching short clips on YouTube and start watching full episodes at our archive, you need more than just the McNuggets.

I'm proud to say im a Christian and I believe in god, and thought I do not agree with your choice to be atheist im not going to try to change you mind. but going back to the conversation you had with that gentleman you said and I quote " that the lord condone's slavery ,genocide,sodomy, and a lot of more unethical things."
I won't waste time explaining why the phrase "choice to be atheist" is wrong, we've got bigger problems to address. Yes, I pointed out that the Biblical god condones those's true and you agree. Your argument is that it's morally correct for that character to condone those things because...

but when god first created man he made us with free will and he only set one rule. do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. when Adam and eve did this god punished them by evicting them from the garden of edam forever,which is not understandable there was 1 and only rule don't eat from the tree. so in my opinion I agree with God for what he did.
Which makes you just as immoral as the god you worship. If you think it is morally correct to permit one human being to own another human being, you're immoral. If you think, as you apparently do, that this is justified by the argument that one man broke one rule about what to eat - then you're just as immoral as the god you worship and neither you nor the authors of the book you're supporting have a proper understanding of justice or morality.

The doctrine of original sin is immoral. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is immoral. Rather than realizing this, you've take the lazy route out and allowed someone else to do your moral thinking for you - and you've picked a collection of dead people who managed to get it horribly wrong.

Your position is that there was just one simple rule, Adam broke it and that suddenly means that slavery 'becomes' a morally correct act and that genocide is "OK" as long as it's God killing off sinners (you're about to say this almost word for word)...

"but you also comparing the old testament and the new testament which both had two separate ideas. the old testament men had to lay sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven and God allowed a lot of unethical things. and as the bible states when he had enough of it he rid the world of sin with the flood."
How'd that turn out? Oh yes, it failed. The Bible is a comedy of errors. God creates the world with only 1 person...and that turns out to be a mistake, so he makes a companion. Two people in the world, one rule...whoops, that failed. Let's kick them out and make life more difficult, in the hopes that this will work...whoops, that failed. OK, let's drown everyone on the planet except for the one most righteous family...whoops, that failed. Let's confuse their Let's pick just one small group as the chosen Let's ignore them for a Let's pick and guide one

Let's send ourselves down and take human form in order to sacrifice ourselves to ourselves as a loophole for a rule that we made...epic fail.

The god of the Bible has no better understanding of morals, human nature or reason than the backward band of bronze-age buffoons who wrote the book. Curious, that.

"also in the book of Kings it talks about mostly slavery/war/genocide all in which god was riding the world of the worst sinners."
I'm sorry that your religion has so severely poisoned your mind that you're able to construct that gross rationalization. This is exactly the reason that I do what I do.

"yes at first when I studied the bible at school it was confusing to me on how a God could have a double standard. how in the old testament he let all this immoral things happen; by sending his only son to die for our sins. when Jesus died on the cross all the our sins were forgiven if we except Jesus as our savior for the sins. ( and yes I know you don't so you don't need to state that :) ) but in doing so he also knows man are flawed and we cannot live a life without doing thing immoral. which then reverts back to the fact Jesus died for our sins and all we have to do is ask for forgives.."
When you started reading the Bible, your brain hadn't been poisoned and you still retained some humanity. You sacrificed your humanity on the altar of servility. Someone convinced you that you are a reprobate, deserving of punishment and you became a "battered housewife for Jesus" who now runs around telling people "no, no, he really loves me...I just drive him to this because I'm so wretched."

"and to bash on my beliefs saying im a moron and everyone who believe in God is just not able to make decision on their own is doing exactly what every atheist ive meet has cried about for years on how Religious people force their religion onto them."
Bashing someone's beliefs isn't the same as objecting to them; and neither of these is the same as attempting to legislate or force beliefs onto someone.

" I respect your choice if your Life and you have free will and you choose not to believe.
and before you say well if I believe your going to hell, I honestly can't say that the Bible also says do not pass judgement onto others for if you do it will be dealt back onto you ( I once again im flawed so ive done this also)"
Yes, I'm aware that you are unable to think for yourself...curiously, I think you're aware of that as well, as that's one of the points that bothered you enough to mention.

The secret, though, is that you can think for yourself again, just as soon as you give yourself permission and start doing it. You can say, "No...there is no moral justification for slavery - ever" and "No...original sin is not a moral doctrine" and "No...I do not have a rational, evidence-based justification for my religious beliefs"...

You can stop living your life out of fear and self-loathing and start living a better life.

"But I would rather believe in something and be wrong than not believe and it comes out to be true.because if I die and God doesn't exist im going to be fertilizer for some cemetery lawn. but if he does im going to be judged and sentenced to either eternal damnation or a eternal life in the pressance of God."
Pascal's wager. Worst. Argument. Ever.

I hope to hear from you soon with a response. and your opinion on what dive wrote.
and please if you respond do so kindly :)

I think I've been more than kind, though I don't expect you to see that.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Skeptic's Wager?

I got this on my Facebook newsfeed, and wanted to share. It's like a skeptic's Pascal's Wager, but works much better. The question came up as to whether it can be labeled with a catchy title like "Pascal's Wager"? Any ideas?

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but...will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” —Marcus Aurelius

Sharing the "Good News"

Because now and again, we ought to share one of these letters:

I know you probably won't have time to respond to this but I just wanted to send a little email saying how much of an impact you've had on my belief system and honestly, my life.

I was a Christian for six years, (I'm currently a 19 year old male) and only recently did I start caring about whether or not I had justification for my belief. I had always just gone with what my parents told me. I mean why would they lie or give me bad information? Even though I would occasionally ask questions on WHY they believe, I would be looked downed upon for asking those things. Well I started to do some research and found your myriad of videos. I was always a critical and skeptical thinker (outside of the self justifying circular religious arguments) and enjoyed listening to you guys speak. Finally, the taboo questions my family would tell me to disregard were being addressed. The way you debate and get down to the heart of the issues is simply poetic.

Things like morality, evolution, and the big bang... Things that I was oblivious to because of my upbringing. Turns out my biggest issue was simplpy: knowledge. And a lack thereof. I didn't know about cosmic background radiation, or what evolution actually asserts. (Funny thing, my high school biology teacher was a Christian and tried to make everything sound so far-fetched, that magic from God was the only rational option.)

The story of Jepthah, and the laws in Leviticus, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Rape victims who don't scream loud enough are in the wrong? Laws on how to properly beat your slaves? Even if the argument is "Well it was appropriate for that time period" you're still siding with an intelligent being who allowed and even promoted those things. Sounds like people of the time period thought it was good.

I couldn't do it. I couldn't get behind a God with the knowledge I have now. It's finally possible for me to be a good person without being shackled to religion. I can now ask questions and live being open-minded. The answers that once were "God did it" are now "I don't know", and those humble three words allow for a search of more knowledge than I never thought possible. How was the universe created? We're not sure, but we have a pretty decent idea supported by evidence, and let's try to find out more! Who knows how much knowledge and technology would have come to a halt, had people accepted "Whelp, God did it!". It'd be plain detrimental to the advancement of humanity.

If you've read this far, Matt, I love you, and thanks for doing what you're doing. You make a huge difference and probably don't get told that enough...Thank you for the atheist experience.

(Oh and that 10% of my income back really helps in paying the bills.)

And just to add, I didn't edit one word of it. Note how much more literate this sounds than letters that are critical of us! Sorry, couldn't pass that up.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Is Cherry Picking a Good Thing?

This is actually a question I can see both sides of, even though I know which side I come down on. And recently a fan wrote in to express the following:

I'm ok with cherry picking religious beliefs in general because I think that it has helped push beliefs towards a more beneficial outcome. Today you hear people claiming that the Christian God is Love and other such nonsense, but I'd rather them intentionally ignore the bad parts in their holy book than to accept it all unquestioningly if they're going to believe in both cases already.

He raised some good points about how it's good many Muslims are moderate--and not like their more fanatical counterparts. I get the point, I really do. But here are my thoughts:

This is a question with no answer. Someone recently posted on Facebook an article about an American association of physicians who initially came out with a position that it's OK to "nick" infant female genitalia as a substitute for a full female circumcision--which they feared some families would go back to the old country to get if doctors here wouldn't do it. However, they then reversed their stance to say that, in fact, doctors should counsel and support the families, but not perform any such ritualistic procedures.

What should they do? Should they cause small harm, in order to mitigate greater harm? Or should they stand firm against all harm?

I compared it in a recent dialog to chemo therapy. Some chemo treatments have long-term, or even permanent awful effects on people's bodies. But the idea is that this toxic cocktail will save someone's life, so we induce harm, in order to mitigate worse harm. And most people agree this is the right course. BUT, what if we found a cure for cancer that inflicted no harm tomorrow, but some oncologists insisted upon continuing to use chemo treatments? Would it still be the right course of action?

Making religion somewhat less toxic, I can see, is preferable to having it be fully toxic. But I personally, as a reformed Christian myself, know that there is a cure available that eliminates the harm altogether. And with that knowledge, I can't, in good conscience, pursue the course of mitigating harm, when a cure that eliminates the harm is available.

I can't speak for everyone--but this is how I view it and how I address the problem.

And I think it also covers the "cherry picking" question. To support a book that encourages subjugation of women and killing other people who don't believe what you do, to me, is inexcusable. It would be like joining the KKK because you like the social networking, but reject the racist agendas.

So, for what it's worth?

What's Wrong with the Term "Spiritual"?

Here is a letter we received recently from a viewer asking why we don't use the term "spiritual" over at AETV, along with my response beneath:

Original Letter
I am a big fan of the show and I myself am an atheist. I agree with probably 99% of what you guys talk about, but there is a minor thing that erks me that I just wanted to share. Let me just say that i am not the best writer but I will try to formulate my words the best I can to convey my ideas to you.

I don't understand what is so wrong with the word "spiritual". I know that most of you, if not all of you don't believe in the existence of a soul or a spirit (neither do I), but the way I feel, many interpret the word having to do with the mind and body in a connection with nature or the universe (maybe sort of a high), not necessarily a soul or a spirit.

For example, having a lucid dream or an
out of body experience could be described as spiritual. Also, I think the word can have to do with nature, and a feeling of the mind and body, or a profound oneness with nature. A work of art or a piece of music could be said to be spiritual for giving you some heightened sense, nothing to do with any spirits at all. This is an emotive word. I guess what I am trying to say is the English language is full of these sort of context particular words, and I think you guys DO understand what the person MEANS in a given context, as speakers of English. Why give people a hard time about this word? I think it makes sense? I think it is just the morphology of the word that bugs you, but words themselves take on extensions of meaning and language changes all the time. It a lot of times is to do with a mind-body-nature thing. Does this make sense?

Also, one more thing. I find it very ironic that you guys have no problem with the word "supernatural". I hear you guys use this word all the time. What does THAT mean? In my opinion, there is no such thing as supernatural (literally speaking). Sure all words have linguistic application, like the word spiritual, but think about the word supernatural for just a second. In reality, there is no such thing; NOTHING is supernatural. Let's say for example, just hypothetically, that ghosts really did exist. Even if ghosts do really exist, then they would be part of the natural world (just not part of what we understand). Even though we can't prove them or study them or explain them scientifically, a scientific explanation exist, even if we never find it. Just like if there was a God and the whole nine yards of any religious claim were in fact true, a scientific explanation exist whether or not we are capable of ever finding it. So I honestly don't understand what you guys mean when you say "supernatural". Do you mean "fiction" or "unproven"? Perhaps "mythological"? Just wanted to point out that supernatural is also a blurry word. The word supernatural is a paradox..The dictionary says "existing outside the natural world" but NOTHING EXISTS OUTSIDE THE NATURAL WORLD, OR IT WOULD NOT EXIST AT ALL. That was all I wanted to get off my chest. Keep up the good work with the show; I wish we had more people like you guys out there on TV to encourage critical thinking

My Reply

Yes, we are aware some people use "spiritual" to describe secular functions. But the word has a very powerful religious meaning as well. We can't force anyone to use or not use any words, but when atheists or skeptics use this word, it's an invitation for theists to misapply. We see this all the time whenever a scientist who is also an atheist so much as mentions "god" in the most off-hand or metaphorical way. There are no end of theists who try and assert that people like Einstein or Hawking were not atheists, because of some metaphorical language they may have used. Recently, as an example, I saw an old Dawkins lecture online. He mentioned that between biologists, they refer to the results of natural selection as "design"--but they don't dare use that term publicly, due to the reality that religious people will jump all over it and distort it to death and try to use it as a means to claim even biologists recognize the work of god.

Whether or not you personally see that as any compelling reason to check your language is up to you. But I don't want to provide theists any more ridiculous ammo than they already think they have, so I avoid borrowing their terminology whenever possible--when I'm aware and thoughtful enough to understand "There are theists who are going to misappropriate this term." Why use language that has clear supernatural definitions if there are other terms I can use that do not invite unwanted, but very legitimate misunderstandings?

On your other point regarding "supernatural," can you point me to a video where anyone on our program--host/cohost--claims to believe it exists? We use the term because it has a meaning "that which is outside of or beyond nature." Even though no atheist is compelled to not believe in the supernatural, I can assure you that nobody working on the program currently accepts that "supernature" exists. Additionally, we use the term "god" as well--but we don't believe it exists. You talk about how easy it is for people to grasp what you mean by "spiritual" from your context; but, here you've just demonstrated how simple it is to distort what someone means when they use a term. We use supernature because it is a label for something we do not accept exists, and this appears to have been misconstrued by you--despite myriad conversations on the program, where we clearly use the term as something we reject.

I hope this helps you understand the position better; but I get you, or anyone, does not have to personally adopt it.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hate Mail From Jesus

This little missive arrived this evening from the Son of God. That would be Jesus@ one of those free email hosts:

Yes, i saw your show and how you motherfuckers were dissing my Dad.
I just wanted to say FUCK U ALL. Hell is not a fun place motherfuckers. I died on the cross and sacrificed my life for you assholes to not only deny Me but my Father as well? GO TO HELL. ALL OF YOU ATHEISTS ARE GOING TO HELL YOU WILL BURN FOR ETERNATY. You will experince your gratest nightmares down there. How can you be so ungratefull for everything you have. You keep calling my Father and the "Invisible man up in the sky". I guess he will just take air and gracity away since those are invisible as well and you probably dont belive in them as well.

Damn, Jesus. Not much gets by you, does it? The show's only been on the air for going on 13 years, and already you've found us. Why, that's almost as impressive as all those fulfilled prophecies.

One thing does disappoint me, though. I would have expected the messiah to be a better speller.

Atheist Rap

Just something by Greydon Square that someone sent me. Wanted to share:

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Christian's Life Is Worthless?

We received a letter recently from a viewer who wanted to know how to talk to a Christian friend of his.

“She’s a moderate Catholic, and I’m an atheist. A few days ago, we were talking about religion, which we had done many times before, and I was explaining my reasoning for not believing in God, or an afterlife. I explained that I’m happy we only have one life to live. I make the most of life because of this. She said if it was proved tomorrow that I’m right, and there’s no God, no afterlife, and that death is the end of everything, she would kill herself.”

His actual question, however, was this:

“I didn’t know what to say, except ‘that’s insane’. I want to offer her a better response, and maybe enlighten her. What would you recommend I say?”

Well, I’m tempted to say “that’s insane” about covers it, but I understand what he’s asking.

My personal thought is “It’s sad religion has messed this girl’s values up so horribly that she believes her life isn’t worth anything at all on its own.” To her, living is a horror worse than death. How non-life-affirming.

The obvious question is, “If you don’t value this life, except in the context of a prelude to an afterlife—why not kill yourself now and move to the next level?”

But as we know, she can’t, because she’s Catholic, and suicide is, therefore, taboo. This means she’ll have to suffer through this cesspool of horrors she despises so much she’d rather die—until she dies naturally.

Wow. And some Christians wonder why not everyone subscribes to their ideology?

This ranks right up there with theists who call the program or write to us to say, "Sure, I’d rape my own daughter if god said I should."

Seriously, what else can a sane atheist say to the statement: “I’d rather die than have to change my ideology if, in fact, you can demonstrate to me it’s wrong?”

This is your brain on religion.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

For those with questions about core values...

I enjoy reading Greta Christina's work...but this one is special:

I can't begin to thank her enough for so beautifully summarizing the very reason my own views changed (something I've been struggling to do for ages).

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Why Apologists Are Not Historians

This showed up on my Facebook page this morning. Too good not to share:

Features section of a lecture by Robert M. Price on history vs. apologetics. Price is professor of theology and scriptural studies at the Coleman Theological Seminary and professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

We've got competition

And I couldn't be happier about it, as it looks like the show is off to a pretty good start. "Ask an Atheist" is a live public access call-in show based in Seattle, Washingon.

Of course it's easy for me to enjoy since they are so obviously heavily influenced by The Atheist Experience. :) Already from what I've heard they've covered fictional atheists (one of my favorite topics), drawn from TV tropes, referenced Ken Follett, and constantly joked about technical problems. Nobody does that last one but us, right?...

Monday, June 07, 2010

Random Thought on Epicurus

PoE in summary:

Something I wrote in a dialog about PoE, I thought I'd share. The context was a story someone told me about a childhood friend who died, and a statement by an adult subsequently that it was all part of god's wonderful plan for us (that somehow the suffering would result in a net benefit):

"If god is omnipotent, these same results could have been achieved without suffering. Ergo, god prefers suffering as a means to an end, even when the same results could have been achieved without suffering. It's like a dentist who chooses to not use pain killers, because he simply prefers to achieve the healthy tooth result via horrid suffering, with no added benefit. Theists seem to think that the only alternative is god making us 'robots.' But if god is omnipotent, he could achieve the same result without suffering and without making us robots--that's the cool thing about omnipotence, you are free from constraints. If god is so constrained, then as Epicurus said, god is not omnipotent. But if god is omnipotent, then making people suffer unnecessarily is something he does without need or increased benefit. He simply prefers to make people suffer unnecessarily. He's either not omnipotent or malevolent. So long as suffering exists, you can't have both."

It's amazing how quickly theists will sell out god's omnipotence to make god "good" in response to Epicurus. He goes from all powerful to utterly constrained in no time at all.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

A quick personal note

I'll be away from the blog for pretty much all the rest of the month, as I've been hired as 2nd assistant director on an independent feature film shooting in northeast Texas. However, I fully expect the rest of the crew (especially Tracie and Russell, who've been very active lately) to keep the blog's momentum going and be vigilant about moderating out the occasional bit of Asian pornspam and trollish ravings of you-know-who. I'll be posting regular Facebook updates (via the miracle of cellular phone technology) about on-set hijinks all month, though. So if you haven't friended me on FB yet, what're you waiting for?

I do plan on co-hosting tomorrow's show as scheduled, after which I'll be immediately on the road. Expect me back here after the 4th of July holiday. Everybody have fun while I'm gone! Just mop up the blood where necessary.

Random Thoughts at

I've mentioned before that I try to spend time at's Agnostic/Atheist section hosted by Austin Cline. The site offers a lot of good things, not the least of which is a good atheist community forum and an often-updated blog. Recently I posted a few comments to some of the blog posts there, and thought I'd share. The site, in case anyone is interested is at the following location:

In response to the post: "Myth: You're Not Really an Atheist, You Just Want to be Contrary"

In response to another comment in the comments section:

They are projecting. You're correct. I had a talk last night about this very thing. Religion is implanted into infants/children. Later, when they "feel god" they don't understand that it's an idea that has been artificially implanted. It was drilled in so early on that they think it's as inherent as "not liking peas" or some such.

Even when they're confronted with a realization that their "arguments" for god's existence don't make sense, they can't shake that "feeling" that god is "there." So, even if you can reason them out of all sorts of things, that last bit, the existence of god, still holds tenaciously. This is where we get statements like "I just know there is a god." Or "I just feel it." Or the disturbing "I know that I know that I know." These are people who were used as children as meme depositories--used by a viral idea, spread by other infected adult minds/people.

When you say you don't "feel" their god or acknowledge it, it's impossible for them to believe it. (1) They "feel" it. (2) Everyone they grew up with likely told them they "feel" it--all the adults they trusted, mom/dad/sunday school teacher/preacher, perhaps even friends. And (3) they've been taught that feeling is implanted by god in every human heart. And that's the explanation they hold to for how they "feel" it--and why they reject it when you say you don't share that.

One of the most eye-opening things to me when I began to get outside the religious box was understanding atheists who were secularly raised did not have the things I'd been taught are inherent such as "feelings" a god exists or "supreme fear of death." Many churches teach you're born with an innate sense of "god" and later, as an evil/flawed adult you "sear" your conscience--and drive it out. But if that's true, why work so hard to instill it into children? And why do secular kids not express this "feeling" even in their youth?

It's a lie, but one that children are immersed in to the point it really does become the only reality they know. Breaking that spell is a task, for sure.

In response to the post: "Passive vs. Aggressive Atheism - Should Atheists Be Passive or Aggressive?"

I think a lot depends on where a person lives (how much influence religion exercises over his/her life in his/her region) as to whether a person is motivated to “engage” or be critical.

I’ve been asked a lot: “Why do you care what theists think?” Beyond 9-11, I can list a slew of crap religion is doing to impact the state in which I live, Texas. It’s not “benign” in my state. And if we didn’t constantly slap down the tentacles of religious invasion into state law, state education, and state politics, it would creep along invading every aspect of our lives here. What would stop it if not people standing up in opposition?

But I have learned as well that no small number of people refuse to reason and aren’t interested in dialoging rationally about ideas. These people won’t be reasoned with, and whether I adopt a kind or harsh approach seems to result in the same thing–that they won’t reason and they maintain their stance regardless of evidence in opposition to their beliefs.

This person, whether they’re “abused” (verbally, not physically) or treated kindly, I don’t care. Neither method will impact them any better. BUT, people listening and watching the exchange ARE impacted, and what I’ve seen is that if stupid ideas are taken to task in a harsh way, many people who are “reachable,” but who share similar views will contact us and say, “I saw the episode where you lambasted that creationist. I was raised creationist, and never questioned it until I saw how foolish that caller looked during that exchange.”

Even though this viewer shared the same ideology–he was able to watch safely from the sidelines as his perspective was criticized, and objectively consider whether it sounded reasonable. And when he saw fair mockery of the irrational nature of the idea, he felt no sting of personal attack, and assessed the content of the statements without being offput by the “meanness” of the responses.

For every person publicly attacked, I’ve begun to find (because I hear from them daily) there are MANY others who benefit from such attacks–by having the benefit of being able to view them and consider their own positions from the sidelines. One such person “made example of” can be publicly “strung up” metaphorically–as a lesson to others to be more critical of their own beliefs.

The scathing approach has a great benefit. And until I got more involved in the atheist community, I probably wouldn’t have seen or acknowledged that. I am, naturally, a fairly kind person. I am often harsh in response to abstract concepts, but far more friendly when I engage an actually human being–again, generally.

But many atheists I work with are less kind, and I have seen the responses to them, and outside of the individual who is being assaulted (again metaphorically), they _do_ have demonstrated beneficial results that I can’t deny. I can’t argue with success. And seeing people write in to say “that lashing you put on that caller really made me think harder about what _I_ believe.” That’s priceless. That helped someone.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Well, shoot! He's not coming to my party!

I heard back from "Mr. Totalitarian!" after I invited him to check out his new fame at our blog. Here is what I got back, along with my response...

Thats excellent news Tracie,

I am glad to see you feel need to self inflate your own ego by publicising the 'idiocy' of others. I find it interesting that an agnostic would make it onto your blog. Do I represent poisonous ideas also just because I claim not to understand something?

Does the DPRK alienate people who represent poisonous ideas? That is, by defination, they treat them as hostile targets? Yes. I think it does. Does not North Korea see itself as an enlightened state? I'd say yes it does. How else could they justify their society. It's okay to admit your wrong sometimes you know, it doesn't hurt. Just retract that statement & I'll pray to all the various Gods that your soul be saved. Joke.

Carrying great pity for you

"Mr. Totalitarian!"

My reply:

At least I don't fear exposing my ideas to public scrutiny...? Coward.

Seriously, you're just peaches!

Thanks again!


Also, please note how I NAILED that he threw down "agnostic" in his first e-mail to us as a shield. He seems to think that idiocy spouted by someone who avoids the label "theist" is somehow sacred to AE? Clearly he missed the "foolish atheists" episode...?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Too Stupid to NOT Share

I think most readers here loathe two character flaws quite a lot. That would be hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty.

It always amazes me when people wear their dishonesty on their sleeves, though, because somehow, they don’t seem to see it themselves. Recently I got a letter that was illustrative of a particular sort of dishonesty we see far more often than we should. The writer asked the following question:

“Is there any explanation for why I appreciate the ornate interior of a Church or any structural painting or more importantly natural wonder. As an example, take the Autumn Crocus or Rhododendron, both beautiful flowers with beautiful scents but both are astonishing poisonous & can result in a painful death. Hypothetically, from an evolutionary stand point, we as early herbivores, should have recognized the danger of such plants & evolved to find them offensive.”

Let me butt in here just to note the underlying passive claim being made: “If evolution is true, how can this be?” The implication being "Evolution is not true" (as we see by the end of the below paragraph):

“From a biological stand point, yes they may herald good weather or spring, but some equally herald rot & decay by growing in infertile places or smell foul (e.g. carrion flowers), to the bee they are bright & smell pleasant so the bee will pollinate the flower but we serve no symbiotic biological function. So why then does the Autumn Crocus look so attractive to us, whilst the harmless slug is so revolting, yet so benign? I, or rather the religious part of my brain, likes to attribute this appreciation to the idea of a grand designer, what many might call God. I would not go so far as to call 'it' God, but like to think of it rather as some divine equation. (Strange I know).”

And here’s where the crap enters in. Argument from (Willful) Ignorance 101. To paraphrase:

“I could look up research into human aesthetics, but then I might find an actual answer about what drives that mechanism. So, I’d rather pretend it’s a mystery and attribute it to god, and then feign I really do care about the answer by writing to atheists, rather than behavioral psychologists or evolutionary biologists who likely would be qualified to offer the real answer I so desperately wish to avoid.”

And the finale he offered:

“I don't pretend to have the answers or maybe even the relevant questions, but would dearly like to know your thoughts on the matter. Have you come across this argument or similar arguments before? Do Primates find such natural objects beautiful?”

No, you don’t pretend to have an answer. You pretend you care about the real answer. And then you pretend there is no answer by using a question to make an assertion. Why ask atheists if they have an answer to a question that should be put to an evolutionary biologist or behavioral psychologist?

Who hasn’t seen the lying theist (he claims to be an "agnostic"…but what do you think?) a million times asking the atheist “how do you explain this?,” rather than the expert in the relevant field? If I want to know about a cure for leukemia, I ask an oncologist, not a florist. But how stupid to go to a florist and assert, “But there is no cure for leukemia…do you know of one?” If I want to honestly know about a leukemia cure, why wouldn’t I go to the expert in the relevant field?

Hint: Because I don’t really want to know the real answer. I want to try and stump the atheist.

Here is why this vexes me: I’m not your personal Google Slave. But you seem to want to use me like I am.

In zero time, I found the answer to his mysterious question without an answer. What drives human aesthetics?

I also shared a story about a bird that would shed some light:

“Birds also have demonstrate aesthetic sense. Some birds will build elaborate dwelling places to attract mates. I watched a documentary where researchers moved some of the stones and other gathered items when a male bird left to collect more things to add to the dwelling. On his return, he ‘rearranged’ the objects that had been moved. It seemed he not only was dropping baubles around as shiny or colorful objects, but had some sense of where they actually belonged--although to the human, it looked like a mess of stuff on the ground. One day maybe well gain some grasp of ‘bird aesthetics.’”

I also explained a bit about misrepresenting evolution—by looking at a single trait in isolation. And I explained that some traits that seem harmful can actually have overall benefit. Additionally I wrote the following:

“Ironically I find that this sort of argument also lends itself to having one's cake and eating it too. If the world were perfect, surely theists would claim that as evidence of divine creation. So, how do flaws also equal evidence of divinity? If it's perfect, it's god; if it's imperfect, it's god. So, what would a _natural_ universe look like then? Is there anything that would indicate “no god” was involved? If not--then the claim god was involved is useless and meaningless. It boils down to saying “I don't care what you show me, whatever I see, I'll just say god did it.”

I thought my reply was fairly civil, but then I got a response that contained something odd:

“If I had one admonishment on the surge in atheist activity lately it would be the tone in which you deliver your arguments. People do not like to be talked down to, & that may seem the easiest thing to do, especially if they represent an idiotic standpoint in your opinion. And with some people, I don't even think it's a question of intelligence in grasping your views, I believe some people's brains are just wired to believe in Divinity ‘I don't care what you show me, whatever I see, I'll just say god did it.’. Maybe those people are a lost cause.

“In a sense it worries me that, here we stand on the brink of enlightenment, with the possibility of a new 'superstition' free society, thanks to the ideas & work of a great many atheists, including yourselves. And yet simultaneously you alienate those who need explanation & discourse, not condescending rants. I am not having a cheap shot at you or atheists in general, I just hope for the sake of mankind, we can get everyone to agree on a new broad thinking sense of society.”

Again, sort of odd, especially since the writer himself is guilty of what he accuses those “lost causes” of doing? Didn’t he just duck to miss a real answer, and then try to insinuate the cause as god? How is that different than the “god done it” crowd?

Well, you pretty well know the AETV stance on mocking stupidity. I’m arguably the kindest cohost, but even I had to defend Matt’s refrain that “ridiculous ideas are, by definition, worthy of ridicule”:

Here is my reply interspersed with the correspondent’s note:

HIM: If I had one admonishment on the surge in atheist activity lately it would be the tone in which you deliver your arguments. People do not like to be talked down to

ME: Then they would do well to look up the issues they write/speak to us about before they come to us with them. If a person writes/calls and wants to discuss evolution, and has a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution is and how it functions, then why should I speak to him/her as though he/she is informed and can speak intelligently on the issue? Frankly, until they demonstrate they _care_ enough to study the topic to inform themselves before spouting ignorant opinions, I don't see why I should treat them as though they're anything but ignorant people spouting ignorant opinions...?

HIM: that may seem the easiest thing to do, especially if they represent an idiotic standpoint in your opinion.

ME: If a person doesn’t want to be addressed as an idiot, and their views are idiotic, I would advise they not make their stupidity public. That, to me, is the most basic and simplest solution to keep them from being put off by negative response. OR, they can grow a thicker skin. For example, theists think I'm evil and going to hell, and I simply think they're wrong. I'm not "offended" by someone else's idiotic beliefs. And I also don't feel obligated to show deference to any person's stupidity. And I don't ASK anyone to do that for _me_. If I say something dumb--I may expect to be corrected, and not always kindly. But regardless of the approach, I'd do well to accept deserved admonishment and not blame the messenger, even if he's unkind. If I walk away more informed and less likely to repeat a stupid claim to someone else, I've been done a favor.

HIM: And with some people, I don't even think it's a question of intelligence in grasping your views, I believe some people's brains are just wired to believe in Divinity "I don't care what you show me, whatever I see, I'll just say god did it.". Maybe those people are a lost cause.

ME: Again, they have the option to keep quite if they don't want people criticizing what they think. They have a right to believe and say what they like. But anyone who expresses their views to someone else _invites_ a response, and to think everyone will agree or be kind in response is extremely naive.

HIM: And yet simultaneously you alienate those who need explanation & discourse, not condescending rants.

ME: Again, I'm free to rant racist crap all day long, but I'm a fool to expect people to embrace me or my ideas if that's what I do.

HIM: I just hope for the sake of mankind, we can get everyone to agree on a new broad thinking sense of society.

ME: I sincerely hope I will denounce stupidity and harmful ideas to the day I die—no matter who expresses them or how taken aback they are to hear dissent to their assumptions.

Now, what I got back became increasingly agitated and, well, full blown crazy strawman. It seems that what I said above is evidence that I would like the world run as a Totalitarian Police State? Note how he takes my general comments as personal (martyr much?):

“I would say thank you for your reply but I think that would be dishonest. To be frank I found the whole e-mail quite scathing & I'm really not sure what I have done to warrant such discourse. I merely wanted to point out that you should be tolerant of someone's ideas, because it is 'your opinion' that you think them idiotic. You can never persuade someone's thinking by patronising them or suggesting their intelligence is substandard. I learnt this the hard way working in the medical profession, a lesson that might well be forgotten in the dark lonely halls of academia.

“‘Should not people presenting poisonous ideas be alienated by an enlightened society?’ Really? To be honest I'm suprised that such an apparently intelligent person would deliver such a outrageous statement. First off all what kind of enlightened society do you envisage that would alienate anybody? And the notion that an idea should be poisonous is also ridiculous, it's only the society that implements such an idea that is dangerous, not the idea itself. What you seem to suggest as an enlightened society sounds like some totalitarian erudite state. In fact your statement might well have come from the mouth of some megalomaniac church leader.

“'To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to lnowledge.' --Benjamin Disraeli"

OK, "me" again. See, this is the problem: Theism must prefer a society where criticism isn’t leveled at unsupported or unreasonable ideas. Now, the supreme irony is that theists call us evil, Satanic, vile, worthy of condemnation—and they have a history of killing anyone who disagrees, depending on the time and place. But criticism of ridiculous theistic ideas, apparently is the same as breaking people’s doors down in the middle of the night and dragging them off to never be heard from again. Because I say bad ideas should be checked publicly, I’m the voice of Totalitarianism.

So, I tried to explain it to him as though he were intelligent:

ME: I fail to understand what you found personally scathing--since almost nothing I said was personally directed at you. Please be assured that any offense or discomfort you experienced is solely self-inflicted.

HIM: You can never persuade someone's thinking by patronising them or suggesting their intelligence is substandard.

ME: I agree, but I think if a person is as unreachable as those you described, then a kind approach is no better. I find using them as examples for others less close minded ends up "helping" those who see the humiliation understand how idiotic the theist looks. Then they can safely examine their own beliefs without suffering the same fate. These people write to us daily saying they've watched and learned. And as they _are_ reachable, we are helping people--the people who can be reached. I frankly don't waste time concerning myself about people who don't wish to be helped. Expending concern on things I cannot improve is wasted energy. I focus on the areas where I can help. And I don't apologize for that.

HIM: First off all what kind of enlightened society do you envisage that would alienate anybody?

ME: Would you embrace Nazis and racists? Jihadists? NAMBL? Please think before you speak. Again, they have a right to their beliefs--and to express their beliefs. But for society to try to include those beliefs as part of "enlightened" dialog is idiotic.

HIM: And the notion that an idea should be poisonous is also ridiculous, it's only the society that implements such an idea that is dangerous

ME: No, it's dangerous to say it's illegal to think or speak it. It's intelligent to judge it and say "your concepts are harmful, and if you try to put them into practice, I will oppose you to the last."

HIM: What you seem to suggest as an enlightened society sounds like some totalitarian erudite state.

ME: Only if you totally ignore what I said. I did not call for thought police. I did not call for silencing anyone by force. I said that if a person spouts ignorance they should expect criticism. That's totalitarian? That's public dialog, I thought? And I still say that those who don't have the capacity to defend their beliefs should think hard before expressing them--else they get shown up as the ignorant fools they are. I'm not asking they be executed or arrested, just shown to be exactly what they are.

HIM: In fact your statement might well have come from the mouth of some megalomaniac church leader.

ME: Except I can show you where churches HAVE tried to silence others via force. That's NOT what I'm doing. And if you still think it is, then you're simply incapable of listening.

What I got back was not a response from someone interested in honest dialog. It was further strawmen and a statement from someone who is monologuing, not dialoging. Rather than respond to what I said, he merely kept asserting I'm advocating a police state:

“Just a small point. It's not public dialog to alienate 'people presenting poisonous ideas... by an enlightened society'. Alienating a person based on the belief that there is something greater than we understand would entail alienating most of the people on the planet. Totalitarianism 'recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.' When you talk of alienating people based on their 'poisonous ideas' you are speaking of totalitarism.

“To alienate 1 : to make unfriendly, hostile, or indifferent especially where attachment formerly existed.”

So, again, saying it's OK to call stupid things stupid means I "recognize no limits to my authority." I mean, how can someone type this without spitting milk through their nose and disabling their keyboard? Surely he'd have to be laughing at the time? I know I would have been!

And really, this is where it just became too funny to read further. How could I take it seriously any more? A person saying "your ideas are stupid," does not a "police state" constitute. Martyr, Martyr, Martyr. You DO NOT have a right to not be offended. You DO NOT have a right to say whatever you like and not endure public response. You simply DO NOT. You may think what you like. You may say what you like. But others may say what they like as well, including that you’re an idiot. Free speech does not just belong to theists! It’s free speech and public dialog--for everyone, Peaches--not just you! I support anyone's right to believe and say what they like. And the fact you claim you can twist that in your cheese brain into "totalitarian" ideology only further demonstrates your capacity for dishonesty and self-deception.

Is there no strawman too big?

At this point, what else could I say?...

“Criticizing people's stupid concepts is not the same as 'recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.' Get honest. Mocking stupidity is not a police state. Have you utterly lost your brain?!

“Please drop your ridiculous histrionics. You're only making yourself look foolish.”

This received the mature response of “I know you are, but what am I?,” as follows (and note the haughty tone--I was so intimidated by his faux eloquence):

“Dearest Woman,

“Given that I have no hystera that would be an impossibility. But for you, on the other hand, it would be relatively natural.

“Good day to you."

I couldn't think of anything more along the lines of poetic justice than to give him firsthand access to an experience with what Free Speech means in the modern age. So, I told him he made our public blog, and that I’d be posting his ideas shortly for the judgment of the rational viewing public. My guess is that he’s going to get a horribly Totalitarian response—that is, people actually voicing criticism of these concepts. I do, however, honestly hope he survives it. If it's too scary, perhaps he can seek political asylum in Switzerland--if he doesn't mind living with secularists?