Saturday, January 29, 2011

Christian book title fail

(This was Tracie's catch on FB, actually. Too awesome not to share with the rest of you though.)

Huckabee's Fund Raising Letter

Jen and I will be doing the January 30th show. We'll be looking at the distortions, half-truths, and outright lies in a fund raising letter sent by Mike Huckabee. One of our members received it (we know not why) and she brought it to our attention. Please consider this post open to comments on the letter and the show.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Some emailer from "UK Isle of Wight" writes:

Subject: GOD Dose exist and the proof is everywere

Quite simply and so beautiful, GOD is nothing and nothing is the absolute of everything


"GOD is nothing"

I agree with that part. The rest seems to be pretty much gibberish.


nothing exist

hypothetically lets say the universe has a wall made of rubber if we take all the stuff out we get closer to nothing until were left with particles bouncing around at a colossal rate witch would form heat as energy this “energy” is now in theory in nothing so it has no forces to keep it in or to burn its fuel so it expands massively on a colossal scale until it spreads its energy out evenly then it would contract back in and technically repeat again and again.

so if nothing is something can we call it God in the sense of something of a creation or beginning rather then a higher being of consciousness?


The things you are saying at least superficially resemble sentences constructed in the English language. I imagine they make sense to you in some way.


v = HD and E=mc2

what don't you understand ?


Flamingoes may journey smooshily up besides the curly hedges of knickers!


to write out the complete origins of the universe would lag the internet out for years in one single email. to be derogative of meaning i.e. talking gibberish is not only showing a complete bias approach to life and its existents but also completely missing my point of God cannot exist as nothing is impossible nothing is Zero witch is unachievable and infant but without zero nothing would exist at all.

It was a joke u numpty !

best wishes

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Anyone care to join me for some Schadenfreude Pie?

If you were reading this blog in the summer of 2008, you will understand why I couldn't stop giggling when I discovered this.

Open Thread / Show #693: Jen & Tracie

As always, we air at 4:30-5:30 PM (CST) today (Sunday). You can watch live on ustream:

My plan is to discuss a few of the willfully ignorant things theists say in response to discovering people are atheist activists, including statements such as "why are you so angry at god?" and "I think you're just searching for god."

Example: Person X has a loved family member who swears by a particular homeopathic doctor, who is conning them out of their money and resources and "treating" them for a dangerous and potentially fatal illness. The family member will not seek demonstrated effective treatments from a conventional doctor, because the homeopath has convinced them that modern medicine is a hand-puppet of Big Pharma and therefore an untrustworthy conspiracy. Eventually the family member dies. Person X begins a blog and a youtube channel to tell their story to help expose the dangers of homeopathy. They are contacted by others with similar stories, and they form an association to spread information to people about the lack of support for homeopathic claims and hopefully to help others avoid the same suffering they have experienced at the hands of charlatans.

They should expect to get letters from believers expressing they are wrong. They should expect to be accused of being cogs in the Big Pharma conspiracy. They should expect to get testimonials from well meaning people with anecdotes about their "successes" with homeopathy and the "good" they are convinced it does.

But I'm sure they would never expect some willful idiot will suggest that they are fighting homeopathy because they secretly want desperately to find evidence showing it really works, or that they secretly already believe it does work, and are angry about the fact it works.

These particular rebuttals to the anti-homeopathy movement would be ridiculous. It seemed to me time to provide a link calling it out as "stupid," for people to use. I'd rather atheist skeptics, anti-theists and activists spend their time letting theists provide their demonstrations for their claims of gods existence, than spend their time having to defend against accusations that even a fool should recognize as foolish.

I have heard theists confuse hypothetical uses of "god" with belief in god. But I find this utterly dishonest, because we all use hypotheticals routinely. There is no reason someone should suddenly be unable to recognize a commonly used method of examining a claim. I might say to you I think a problem with your car is that you have an oil leak. But you know of some reason that isn't correct. You say "If it were an oil leak, though, I would expect XYZ to be happening, too, right?" That does not mean you agree it's an oil leak. And nobody should misunderstand that. In the same way if an atheist says "If there were a god that killed all these people that would be morally inexcusable," the atheist is not asserting believe in god and belief in the claims of the Bible. It's clearly a hypothetical, and even more-so due to the fact he wears the clear label "atheist" to alert the theist he doesn't accept this god is real. There is no excuse for any misunderstanding in these dialogs. I'm convinced these "misunderstandings" are willful dishonestly and red-herrings to get the atheist off track and in a defensive mode so that the theist is then relieved of having to defend an indefensible position.

So, if it helps, save the link to this blog post. Whenever you're told you "hate god" or are "searching for god," copy-paste and tell them atheists are worn out arguing dishonest stupidity and unless they have something of actual substance to offer in support of their unjustified beliefs, you aren't going to waste your time debating people who can't grasp basic levels of communication such as how to recognize the use of a hypothetical, the meanings of common words ("atheist") or how to apply the simplest context ("I don't believe in god, therefore I cannot hate god").

*Correction: I updated the headline to reflect Jen replacing Matt today as host.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More Blogger wackiness

While scanning the dashboard tonight, I noticed quite by chance that some legitimate comments had been snagged by the spam filter. So far Blogger's been doing a fine job of ferreting out the Asian pr0n and Markuze ravings, but there are some decidedly non-spam comments stuck in there as well. I'll go through some of these and try to clear the ones that are indeed legit, so if you've tried to comment here and wondered why it hadn't appeared, this may be why. One pointer for future reference: comments that include an inordinately large number of links seem to get autoplonked.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"God Exists" and "The Bible Is True"

Following is a synopsis of some responses to a viewer mail we received from “Aaron.” I gave up hope that Aaron would be able to go very deeply into a dialog about his own beliefs, but felt it was worth recording for the edification of blog readers.

Hello Aaron:

This may be my last reply, because you demonstrate a level of understanding of the history and reality of your own religion and holy book that really requires a “Bible and Christian History 101” course, not a few letters from an association volunteer. And even though I am involved in Austin with an Educational Foundation, I’m not here to spoon-feed you a semester’s worth of information you could easily find online if you honestly even wanted to know how your Bible came to exist. I suggest you start here and follow the links to educate yourself on at least the basic facts about your own holy book:

There have been many versions of it—including many “final” versions of it. And today there are in fact at least three “orthodox” Bible versions that are accepted in mainstream Christianity; and these are not all based upon the same set of base manuscripts for their content. When you say “The Bible,” then, you are using a word that refers to at least three different widely used anthologies of early Christian writings that are all considered “THE” holy Bible by different, large groups of people who all call themselves “Christians.”

>The Bible was written by Moses - who yes, was a shepherd

There is no compelling evidence that Moses even existed, let alone that he wrote any part of the Bible. We have wildly exaggerated tales about him, mostly in Jewish mythology, but nothing to confirm this was ever a real man, any more than a figure like Paul Bunyon.

The idea Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament is a Jewish myth. Christian Bible scholars know this. May I ask where you obtained this information and who told you this was true? Further, can I ask you why you believed it without researching it yourself? Many Bibles today come with Translator’s notes which would tell you—right there inside your Bible—that we don’t have the identity of the author of the Pentateuch—the first five books that Moses is said to have authored.
“Modern biblical scholars see no signs of Mosaic authorship, but indications of much later writing”

>but also by a doctor/historian (luke)

Again, this is not a valid claim. It is not known who authored the gospel of Luke. It’s just an old church traditional tale:

> and a guy who was a master of Jewish law (Paul).

Again, some books are attributed to Paul. But authorship assignment still requires speculation. There is no “fact” of who wrote the books within the Bible. But it is an undisputed reality that whatever is in there now is a revision of whatever was originally composed (which we no longer have).

Whoever is feeding you your information is unreliable and/or lying to you. Go to a Bible shop and open up the first page of each book in a NIV. You will see a page that tells you who the authors are *suspected* to be (if there is even a suspected author) and whether those assignments are based on scholarly guesses or just old religious traditions. What you will not find is anything conclusive to identify authorship to any high degree of certainty. And what you will not find is any credible Bible scholar who has studied these texts—believer in god or not—claiming they know who the authors actually are.

>Why would guys like Peter put embarrassing things about themselves in book where they’re just trying to gain followers (Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” peter deneies Christ). If you’re tyring to lie to build a following, you don’t do that.

Can you demonstrate Peter authored any book of the Bible and explain how you can be sure he did?

More importantly, when did I claim to know what anyone’s motives were for authoring 2,000-year-old letters? I have no idea what motives some anonymous author had 2,000 years ago for writing a letter—and I am sure you don’t, either. More importantly though, whatever was originally written is now gone. What we have now are altered texts that are no longer representative of the original writings.

I don’t know if you’re inclined to read more. I had been giving you very brief replies. My thinking was that if you couldn’t even recognize your own reasoning was absurd (in my examples of how you reasoned about Gremlins vs. god), I wasn’t sure a lengthy and densely informational response would be of any use to you (and would just waste my time). That said, I did put together a response to you, but mainly to post to our blog for the benefit of others who might actually be inclined to learn from it. However, if my assessment of you is incorrect, and you can follow the information below, here it is for your edification, broken down into three (hopefully easy-to-digest) parts.

1. Your support for your belief using “you can’t prove it’s not true” is irrational. And here is why:
You asserted god exists and the Bible is true; and you challenged someone who does not believe god exists and the Bible is true by asking if the claims “god exists” and “the Bible is true” could be disproved. However, you admitted you could not disprove gremlins exist; and when you admitted that, you acknowledged only that “maybe” they exist, but you “don’t know” (meaning you aren’t committed to saying if they do or do not exist).

But as someone who did not believe gremlins exist, who admitted he could not prove they do not exist, if your argument (i.e., I believe god exists because that claim cannot be disproved) is convincing, why do you not now believe gremlins do exist? Until you say it is true that gremlins exist, you are not a person who believes gremlins exist. That is you are still a nonbeliever in the existence of gremlins. Your position is merely it is possible they could exist, not that you believe they, in fact, do.

If you do not find an inability to prove gremlins do not exist to be a convincing argument for their existence, why did you use that same line of argumentation with me for your god, repeatedly? If even you demonstrate you don’t accept it as compelling--what on Earth made you think anyone else would find it compelling?

2. “The Bible is true” does not make sense based on my understanding of the word “true.”
“True” as I understand it, generally means “correlating to demonstrable reality.” So, when you say “the Bible is true,” I assume you mean that if we examine all of the best evidence for things claimed in the Bible, it will show a consistent positive correlation to what the Bible claims about reality. Since this is not the case, I don’t know how you’re using “true.” Here are two examples of what I mean, one addressing extra-Biblical reality, and one addressing internal Biblical reality.

Example 1: Extra-Biblical example:
You asserted not that evolution is false, but that you believe god was the catalyst for evolution. If you aren’t disputing evolution, then we can say that, in fact, we agree the Bible is not true in the case of Genesis and the account of how humans came to exist on Earth. According to the Bible, man popped fully formed and already communicating using language. And ultimately this same first human was wearing clothing and using agriculture--straight from his magical beginnings from dirt.

If we look at what evolutionary biologists put forward as the model of human evolution, then the Bible is not “true.” There is fossil evidence, DNA, and beyond biological evolution, a demonstrable history of how and when human agriculture is first evidenced compared to how long humans had existed previously in nomadic or hunter-gatherer cultures. Additionally we can tell from excavations approximately when people began to fashion tools (and by proxy when the idea of “manufacturing” things, such as clothing, may have been introduced), and there is simply no evidence to support that the earliest humans would have been “truthfully” represented by the Genesis account. All of the evidence appears, in fact, not to correlate to that account as “true.”

Example 2: Internal Biblical Example:
The New Testament passage (Gospel of) John 7:53-8:11 is as good an example as any. As an atheist, I have no objection to agreeing that the men and women who are hired to translate the best modern translations of the Bible are qualified people for the job. They are expert at reading and interpreting ancient languages that the average person wouldn’t begin to have a clue about. Additionally, they are devoted specifically to the texts used within the Bible. These are men and women who have devoted significant portions of their lives and careers to the Biblical manuscripts specifically. And I accept them as “expert” when it comes to claims about those manuscripts.

In the NASB and NIV versions of the Bible (both reputable translations), if any person takes an interest in doing so, they have a wealth of input from these experts, literally, at their fingertips. There are marginal notes, footnotes, endnotes, etc., right on the pages where the text appears. Anyone can see what the translators have to say about the texts Christians are reading in their Bibles. And I can’t imagine anyone claiming the people inserting these notes are not qualified to giving the best opinions of what the best and most current data demonstrates about what is “true” about these texts.

Throughout the pages, there are many insertions of notes that alert the reader that the text is in question or is disputed. It will alert you that this or that verse here says X, but in some other available manuscripts it does not say X (or says Y instead).

I chose John 7:53-8:11, because it is probably one of the most famous stories in the Bible about Jesus. It is the story of the adulterous woman--who is brought before Jesus for judgment. He there puts forward the famous line “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This has become a very popular story with Christians.

Yet, according to the translators’ notes, it isn’t included in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. They say outright and boldly, right on the pages of the NASB, that the story was added to the text later. These are translators who have a vested interest in the production and sale of Bibles being a successful industry. They have no cause to undermine their source of income by claiming “it’s a fake!” And yet, that’s what they’re saying if you are someone who accepts this book as “true.” If any group had a reason to lie or be biased about the Bible including reliable content, it would be people who work in the Bible-selling industry, selling to people who, like you, want very badly to believe it is “true”--and yet they’re telling you (and me) it’s not.

So, the best and most reliable evidence, considered by the best experts in the field, with no reason for bias against the text, does not align with your claim “the Bible is true.” And you can see this yourself--as any Christian who is interested can also--just by opening a good Bible translation that includes translator notes.

So, I have no idea what you mean when you say “the Bible is true.” I see no evidence that it should not be considered to include lies, errors, falsehoods--whatever you want to call them—basically statements that do not correlate with the best evidence we have to judge against in reality.

3. Your claim “god exists” is so far a meaningless statement, to which I cannot respond—since it makes no sense as you have stated it.
So far you haven’t really explained what this claim means. I don’t know what you’re calling god, so I have no idea what to say about whether it exists or not. But for example, I accept the existence of many things—books, water, chairs, even oxygen (which can be demonstrated using balloons and fire, and many other methods). To me, “exist” is a word we use to assert that a particular item manifests in some way in demonstrable, material reality.

This is why it’s interesting that you said only that “gremlins may exist” after admitting you could not disprove them. If I were to go into a classroom of 10-year-olds and ask them if gremlins exist, they would inform me gremlins are fairytale, mythical creatures that do not, in fact, exist. Their assessment has nothing to do with gremlins having been disproved. It would be a statement of the extreme lack of evidence for the existence of gremlins. In other words, the people who assert gremlins cause machines to malfunction, have never been able to produce a demonstration of what they’re talking about. This leads the reasonable 10-year-old to assert that gremlins do not exist. That is, their manifestation within reality so far cannot be discerned from nothing.

So, we have two bins. One labeled “nonexistent” and one labeled “existence.” Everything starts off in the “nonexistent” bin. And once it unambiguously manifests in reality in some way—either on its own, like the sun, or by some demonstration, like oxygen--it goes into the bin of “existence.” What we don’t do is put items into the “existence” bin BEFORE they are demonstrated to exist or before they manifest self-evidently in some measurable fashion.

Interestingly, a 10-year-old gets this, but you are so unwilling to admit your argument “you can’t prove it doesn’t exist, ergo it’s reasonable to accept that it does” is a fail, that you have demonstrated you will even dishonestly assert you can’t really say gremlins don’t exist—even though you and I both know that if you were honest, you’d admit you don’t give a second thought to asserting gremlins are myths. A 10-year-old is not only more reasonable than you, then, but also more honest.

My question to you is whether this thing—whatever it is you’re calling god—”exists,” in that it demonstrates a manifestation in reality that we can discuss. Or whether it is indiscernible from nothing? And if it’s no different than nothing, I can’t agree that “nothing exists.” And I can’t really examine what we’re supposed to be talking about in such a case—and I can’t see how you could, either? I have no data points to confirm to even begin a dialog with you about it. When you have some manifestation or demonstration, come back and we’ll have “something” to talk about (rather than “nothing”).

Thanks for writing.



I’m sorry to say that after this exchange Aaron replied that he’d rather believe in god and be wrong, than not believe. That’s right, he threw Pascal’s Wager at me, after all this trouble I went to jotting down these notes. But knowing it would go to use at the blog allowed me to avoid feelings of futility and disappointment.

When I replied that Pascal’s Wager is a fail, but that he’d have to research it to find out why, he sent back a fairly large cut-and paste-apologist’s Web site content that asserted Pascal’s Wager was a fail because god demands devotion and real belief, not just someone playing a part.

I congratulated him on finding one reason Pascal’s Wager fails, and gave him a few others as a bonus point for having looked it up at all. Then alerted him that copying and pasting without giving credit to a source is plagiarism, because it’s like trying to claim someone else’s ideas as your own. He had asked me if maybe Matt would write back to him. I told him Matt is copied on all the tv e-list correspondences, but that his probability of a reply from Matt was quite low for two reasons:

1. He’d already said he’d rather believe and be wrong. If someone asserts they don’t care if they believe falsehoods, what is the point of anyone arguing with them about the their beliefs? I can’t imagine a greater waste of time to enter into.

2. The last copy-and-paste note (paragraphs and paragraphs of material) was indicative of a problem we often see with some mail correspondence. We ask people to contact us to discuss what they believe and why they believe it. Sending us reams and reams of what someone else believes for us to rebut is senseless. If they can’t explain what they believe and support what they believe, providing their own reasons, then maybe they’re not ready to assert it as their belief? If the person who wrote the content Aaron had stripped and sent to us wanted to challenge us about his beliefs, he’s welcome to do so. But nobody on our list is interested in arguing with random apologists’ web content through Aaron’s endless relays. What an easy conversation that would be from Aarson’s perspective? He wouldn’t have to think or type or explain anything—just copy and paste while we spend time crafting thoughtful responses using our actual reasoning.

To summarize: Nobody on our list is interested in a one-sided waste of our time.

Universes and the equivocation fallacy

I said I was going to comment on this in the Episode #692 thread, but the comment got way too long. So here's a full post.

In the most recent episode, a caller named Peter from New Zealand tried to prove that there is no God. Side comment: I have to say, I get really impatient with this topic, almost as much as attempts to prove that God does exist. Both pro- and anti-God arguments usually hinge on the notion that you can "prove" or "disprove" the existence of physical things through pure reason, without respect to the things that you actually observe in the universe. Augustine was really into this concept, and it was a big deal sometime around the Renaissance. But basically the rise of science was based on a recognition of the fact that our model of the universe is always going to be tentative, so we should build up a system that recognizes facts as more or less likely to be true based on their support through observation. There is never, ever, going to be some kind of successful argument purely of the form "A is A, therefore Bigfoot exists / doesn't exist." Proving things in the real world requires that you look at things in the real world.

Look, guys, 200 generations of philosophers have tried and failed to both conclusively prove and disprove the existence of God. If you think you have solved the problem all by yourself, you are most likely not only wrong but sounding completely ridiculous. Learn to live with uncertainty.


Peter in particular was making a fallacy which is extremely common in theistic arguments against scientific cosmology. Namely, he was making an equivocation fallacy on the word "universe."Early in the call, he says: "My definition of the universe is 'that which exists.'" That's fine, and it's certainly ONE legitimate definition of the word universe.

But as his argument unfolds, he wants to apply that same definition to the claim that "God created the universe." Then, the argument goes, obviously that is logically contradictory since God cannot create the universe if he is part of the universe.

To quote another caller: No, no, no, no, no. You're done.

The theistic claim that God created the universe applies to THIS, current, physical universe that we inhabit. That is a completely separate definition of the word "universe" from the one he started with. You cannot claim that you are using one meaning of a word, only to turn around and apply a different one. That's what the equivocation fallacy means.

Here, let make this more concrete. Peter was starting more or less from definition #4 of "universe": "Logic: the aggregate of all the objects, attributes, and relations assumed or implied in a given discussion." I.e., "Universe" = "Everything." But "God created the universe" implies definition #1: "The totality of known or supposed objects and phenomena throughout space; the cosmos." That's not the same universe!

Let me put it another way. Science fiction and fantasy fans frequently refer to the "universe" that encapsulates a particular set of characters, history, and rules. For example, the universe of "Lord of the Rings" contains Middle Earth, Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and all that deadly dull stuff in the Silmarillion. Fans of Joss Whedon's work refer to "the Buffyverse" (or sometimes "the Whedonverse") which contains the events of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and comic books, as well as Angel, and possibly (depending on how liberal you get) Dollhouse as well. Fans of David Weber's Honor Harrington character call his books the Honorverse. Etc.

Here's the point: J.R.R. Tolkien simply does not exist inside the Hobbitverse. Joss Whedon does not exist inside the Buffyverse. David Weber does not exist in the Honorverse. Certainly it is relevant and appropriate to speak about Joss Whedon during a discussion of Buffy, but Joss still does not occupy the same universe that Buffy does. (There are apparent exceptions, of course. But even if an author writes a version of him or herself into a story universe, it's still not really the author; merely a character who happens to bear the same name and some characteristics.)

In the 1977 movie "Oh God," George Burns appears as an unassuming man who turns out to be God. It is fair to say that in the universe(4) of "Oh God," God exists. It is also fair to say that within the context of that story, God created the universe(1). But you still can't confuse the two definitions with each other, and that's why Peter's argument is not good.

Within the universe of the fictional story known as "The Bible," there is a character called God. That character created the universe (i.e., the cosmos). I think we can all agree on this from a literary point of view. Christians only differ in the sense that they believe that the Bible is non-fiction, or in other words, we are living in a universe that is accurately portrayed by the Bible. If that were true, then God would exist within this universe(4) but not within this universe(1).

And now that I have beaten this topic to death, go forth and equivocate no more.

Open thread on episode #692

Matt, Don, "Sacred" as a buzzword of ignorance. Have at it.

I just finished listening and I have a comment about the New Zealand chap who attempted to disprove God. However, it wasn't my episode so I'll save it for the comments section.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

That so-called "Christian morality" in action yet again

Sometimes, by happy serendipity, you discover something that, in a totally non-conspiracy-theory kind of way, allows you to connect a few dots and go, "Ah soooo!" Being someone who makes something of a close-to-full-time hobby of science fiction and fantasy literature, and knowing as I do a number of writers both professional and aspiring, I came across news recently of a potential scam targeting the latter group.

The sad truth of our world is that there are hucksters and con artists out there who latch onto your dreams and hopes and insecurities in order to rob you blind. Religion has refined this so expertly all you can do is stand in awe.

Aspiring writers are easy pickings for vile charlatans. And it is via the blogs of award-winning science fiction novelist John Scalzi and literary agent Janet Reid that I learn of a writing contest for newbie talents, the fine print of which can be summarized as "We Are Going To Fuck You." (What does any of this have to do with atheism and religion? Wait for it.)

The contest is run by one Karen Hunter of First One Digital Publishing. Immediately, to anyone who knows anything about the legalities of actual publishing, red flags are flying all over the map. First flag: entrants must pony up a $149 entry fee. An entry fee isn't problematic in itself, but this one's exorbitant, to put it mildly. I just entered an online screenwriting contest for the princely sum of 12 bucks.

Then there is this tiny little rider that they hope you don't notice, buried deep within the rules.

All submissions become sole property of Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned. By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation. Entries that contain copyrighted material must include a release from the copyright holder.

For those of you not up on writing or intellectual property stuff, what an entrant is being told here is that First One Digital Publishing expects you to give away all of your rights to the story you submit, forever. Once they have it, it's no longer yours, and not only will you never get paid a dime if, say, they sell the story to film or TV, you cannot even ask for it back if they do nothing with it. And you're expected to shell out 149 bones for the privilege. I'm reminded of Sarah Palin suggesting that women should be charged for their rape kits.

As Scalzi points out, with rules like these, why would any writer with a story good enough to submit to this contest not simply submit it to a real agent or publisher? Because you see, in traditional publishing, a writer is never expected to sign away all rights. When, for instance, Random House accepts your story or book, they are never flat-out buying up the story, lock stock and barrel. They are simply buying first publication rights, which is a license allowing them to be the publishers of your story, to which you retain full copyright, for a period of time specified by the contract. Once the contract expires, the publisher can choose to negotiate a renewal of it, or not, leaving the author free to take the property elsewhere. (Note: there is a thing called "work for hire," but I'm not addressing that here.)

But this contest is relying on newbie writers being utterly ignorant of their legal rights, which, sadly, almost all of them are. And considering that the accepted length for entries runs up to 65,000 words — right around the low end of what the industry considers a novel — this represents quite a lot of work Hunter is expecting a writer to pay to give up.

The fuckage continues. You don't have to know jack about writing and publishing to raise an eyebrow at this one:

In the event that there is an insufficient number of entries received that meet the minimum standards determined by the judges, all prizes will not be awarded.

Get that?

If an "insufficient number of entries" are received, First One can simply call the whole thing off. How many entries are "sufficient"? Why, they don't say. So they can get 20, or 200, or 2000, and decide, so sorry, we've received an "insufficient number" of entries, but thanks all the same for submitting. And for your entry fee. Wait, don't you get that back if the contest is cancelled? Why, it doesn't say, so I'm going to take that as a "No." So the contest will be off, but they'll still have your cash in their bank, and your story, which they can publish, edit, do whatever with, without paying you or even putting your name on it. Because their rules require you not only to grab your ankles but supply your own lube. Finally they wrap everything up with a kicker that leaves them legally untouchable for anything, including, one fears, any arbitrary decision to turn up at your house one day, shoot your whole family dead and burn the place down.

By entering, entrants release judges and Sponsor(s), and its parent company, subsidiaries, production, and promotion agencies from any and all liability for any loss, harm, damages, costs, or expenses, including without limitation property damages, personal injury, and/or death arising out of participation in this contest, the acceptance, possession, use or misuse of any prize, claims based on publicity rights, defamation or invasion of privacy, merchandise delivery, or the violation of any intellectual property rights, including but not limited to copyright infringement and/or trademark infringement.

No, I'm not sure what kind of writing contest could result in "property damages, personal injury or death," but at this point I'm willing to believe they'll think of something.

Seriously, even the prominent "Writers of the Future" contest, a major competition in SF publishing that has launched several notable careers, and which is run by the publishing arm of the Church of motherfucking Scientology, does nothing that isn't strictly ethically above-board in their own rules. Hopefully, by now, I've made it abundantly clear what an exercise in total fail Karen Hunter's little contest really is.

So now we get to that happy serendipity I mentioned earlier. Once word got out in writing and publishing circles — with people tweeting the living hell out of the Janet Reid blog in particular — some folks began to wonder just who this Karen Hunter person was. Particularly when she responded to Reid with an awesomely bitch-ass comment in her blog thread.


While I appreciate your comments. And I understand your vested interest in this business because if we're successful, we eliminate the need for literary agents, the contest hasn't launched yet. So to post our rules and a link telling people that this is a contest to avoid is both self-serving and misleading. Are there issues with the rules, yes. But I think you should wait until the contest officially launches on Feb. 11, 2011, before you tell people to not join it. That's the fair thing to do.

Could I, a 20-year veteran in publishing as a writer and publisher, afford to put out a contest that rips people off? I'm not desperate. The goal is to truly find the next great author, something not too many people are actually looking for. What's been your success track record?

Karen Hunter

PS: I sleep extremely well every night because I operate in truth.

Man. Hunter wasn't done. This comment was immediately followed by "If my response doesn't appear on your blog, I'll know what your true motives are. Thanks again." Well, I'd say the contest, rather than revealing how unnecessary agents are, actually illustrates their extreme importance, as agents make their living running interference between clueless n00b writers and the hucksters like Hunter who try to scam them.

Even given the hilarious defensive petulance and rich irony of much of this whine, there was just a lot in Hunter's language that sounded to me exactly like the kind of butthurt rhetoric we get in emails from creationists, or conspiracy fans, or alt-med anti-vax loons, or anyone who's pissed at us for slamming something they've attached themselves passionately to, and who can't articulate their anger other than to imagine wild ulterior motives driving us.

So it came as little surprise to discover that Karen Hunter has done the right-wing Christian talking pundit thing on cable news.

Do any of you remember the "atheists need their own Hallmark cards" lady? Well, this is that Karen Hunter. And if you aren't familiar with her still, she made an appearance on Paula Zahn's show on CNN about four years ago, where the topic happened to turn to atheism. Appearing alongside the odious Debbie Schlussel, Hunter offered such memorable bon mots as these.

What does an atheist believe? Nothing. I think this is such a ridiculous story. Are we not going to take "In God We Trust" off of our dollars? Are we going to not say "one nation under God?" When does it end? We took prayer out of schools. What more do they want?

If [atheists] had Hallmark cards, maybe they wouldn't feel so left out. We have Christmas cards. We have Kwanzaa cards now. Maybe they need to get some atheist cards and get that whole ball rolling so more people can get involved with what they're doing. I think they need to shut up and let people do what they do. No, I think they need to shut up about it.

And here's my very favorite.

I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they're being imposed upon. I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools. I would rather there be some morality in schools.

Oh, morality? Would this be the "morality," Karen, that led you to think you could get away with trying to bogart the rights in perpetuity of possibly hundreds of hungry and eager aspiring creative talents, while taking their money and constructing an impermeable legal shield around yourself barring them from any recourse against you, even the right to have the fruits of their labors returned to them if you have no desire to publish them? Or if you do publish their work to great success, and overlook putting their byline on it, having set things up so you don't have to part with a penny in royalties either?

And was it the same "morality" that gave you the smug arrogance to think you could avoid getting called on all this bullshit, by actual established and respected (and godless) professionals in the field to which you're only a pretender? Is that an example of the Christian "morality" you disdain atheists for lacking? Then let me state how proud I am to have missed the lessons in "morality" you took to heart. As a creative person myself, nothing disgusts me more than the idea of a sleaze merchant like you exploiting the naivety behind someone else's dreams, and all for your own petty personal enrichment. But somehow, knowing that you've probably convinced yourself it's what Jesus would do, all I can say is, it figures.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On testable claims / Open thread on episode #691

Sorry I'm late with this, but I noticed some people wanting to comment on the recent show with me and Jeff, so I thought I ought to put up a thread. If you didn't see the show, here's what you missed:

(Thanks for the Photoshop job, Eik!)

I want to mention a point about one of the callers. This caller told us that he had experienced what some would consider to be "out of body experiences" or OBEs. However, rather than just assuming that he had experienced a supernatural event, he came up with the idea of hiding playing cards so he could look at them while projected. If this worked, he would have been able to predict what was value was on the cards and check them while awake. Much to his complete lack of surprise, it did not work.

We also discussed some other alternatives at dinner. I brought up an example I heard from Martin Gardner: you should keep a book of limericks handy in your house but not read it. It's easy to recognize a limerick on sight, but it's not easy for your brain, conscious or subconscious, to invent a unique limerick on the fly. So if you're not sure whether you're experiencing the real world, just open up to a random page and find a limerick you haven't read yet.

Now, I noticed in my email that someone had written a comment on the blog, but later deleted it. I won't quote the comment in full, or identify the poster, but I think the content is worth mentioning because it demonstrates a common method of dodging attempts to make supposedly supernatural events become testable. The commenter said that it would be foolish to try this sort of experiment, because all the experts on OBEs know that you cannot read text or see drawn images while you are out of your body. The page will show either random gibberish, or something completely different each time you look at it.

And I say, gosh, how amazingly convenient that is for somebody who wants to to believe in OBEs but doesn't want it to be disproved by science. In the first place, how does anyone, in fact, know this? How did the researchers come to the conclusion that it was actually the text or pictures that were changing, and not (as most skeptics would suspect) simply the brain making shit up as it goes along? And in the second place, what is it about "text" and "drawn images" that make them prone to being changed randomly or become nonsensical scrawlings, while the rest of the physical world is not?

To his credit, the commenter proposed an alternative test, which is to have a friend place a random assortment of objects in a box so you can later identify what they are. But it seems pretty arbitrary to me to be separating drawn images from other real world objects. Writing doesn't have mystical properties on its own; it's ink that has soaked into paper, or it's physically chipped out of a hard surface such as stone, metal, or plastic. If your experience can include this sort of physical stuff being scrambled around without any reason, how do you know you can trust any of your senses? You could be looking at, say, a rubber ball, and it would appear to be a fully grown cow. It's all just a sensory perception of the real world anyway, so that doesn't make any less sense than words in English changing into words in French, or a random string of ASCII, or Arabic characters.

There is, of course, something our brain does already which generates a proxy version of the world as we understand it without requiring any reliable sensory input. It's called dreaming, or hallucinating.

And making an experience off-limits to testing by constantly introducing completely arbitrary reasons why the tests you propose are invalid... it's the oldest trick in the book.

Talk amongst yourselves.

What casual remarks reveal about theism's view of the world

I'm writing this on Monday, but have delayed the scheduled posting of it for a few days, in that I do think there's such a thing as inappropriate timing. Some folks may still think I'm off base with this one, and that's fine.

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Tucson the other day, there has of course been a lot of argument as to possible causes, motivations, the role America's current volatile political climate may or may not have played in the event, and so on. I've been involved in a few arguments on Facebook myself.

What will go unnoticed — indeed what is almost certain to be praised — is the way theists will spout sanctimonious, pious bullshit so staggeringly stupid and offensive that it can only be by a willful disconnection of one's higher cognitive functions that the stupidity of such pronouncements do not meet with immediate ridicule and condemnation. Here's one such inane homily, plucked at random from CNN.

"The doctors are pretty clear that we just have to wait and see," Mike McNulty said. But he added, "I can only think that God has more important things planned for her in the future."

Now, sure, I'm willing to accept that Mike McNulty is a respectable Democratic congressman, a dear friend and colleague of Gabrielle Giffords', a good man dedicated to serving his state and his country, and an all around decent and intelligent fellow. He is in a deeply fraught emotional state, as anyone would be, and of course I'm not unsympathetic to that. I'm not attacking him here, so much as I am the inanity he has uttered, and what it says about how religion asks us to view the world.

Let's consider what kind of God this remark is proposing here.

As he sits upon his heavenly throne of purest gold and alabaster, he thinks to himself, "Hmm, I have important things planned for this Democratic congresswoman. Being omnipotent, there are any number of ways I can achieve this. But I think the best is this: I will arrange for a delusional psychopath to purchase a gun under his state's extremely lax gun laws, fit it with an extended clip, and shoot her in the head at point blank range in broad daylight in public. In the process he will shoot a number of other people, killing some, including a small child. But these will just have to be acceptable collateral damage, even though in my omnipotence it would be easy for me to prevent all of it. I'll just make sure the girl gets an extra-awesome Barbie collectors set when she gets up here, along with pie. Now, the congresswoman herself will not die, as I will arrange for the bullet to perforate only one of her brain hemispheres. She will be in a coma following this, and will be several years recovering. But the end result of it all will be that it will allow me to implement my important plans for her once she recovers. If she does. Even though I could do it any other way."

Does that about sum it up?

Seriously, the only way a person could believe in a God like this is if they just don't think about the implications of what they believe. Religion trains you not to think of such things. And this is why I think religion, far from being something to offer true comfort in a time of crisis, simply offers a way to delude yourself that every tragedy has a silver lining, and that a benign space daddy still has my back, even if making life better for me required a little girl to die.

If you think I'm being offensive offering a snarky critique of a statement made by a theist in the wake of a tragedy that happens to reflect his beliefs in the midst of emotional upset, well, that's your prerogative. For my part, I am offended by the way religion so easily makes light of human pain and suffering to find some way, no matter what, to glorify its God. It's not Mike McNulty I'm criticizing, it's the indoctrination that's influenced his thinking, and the way it values its God's glory over innocent lives.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sex and Religion survey

OK, everybody, it's time to help out Dr. Darrel Ray by filling out a survey on a couple of my favorite subjects: religion and sex. He needs as many responses as we can get, so I'll be posting this all over - and let's try to make sure that this is one area where women aren't under-represented (actually, let's do that in all areas).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Authentic Supernatural Experience or Fail? You Be the Judge.

I am presenting this viewer mailer in his own words, unedited, and not even including my own rebuttals in order to avoid biasing any of you in some way to my opinions. I insert one clarification into a response I made that he includes in one of his replies, simply to make more clear what I see as a legitimate misunderstanding that arose at the end of the dialog. It is not offered as any sort of rebuttal to his claims, just a note to explain more precisely the position I was putting forward versus how it was misinterpreted by the correspondent.

His Letter 1:

Became a Christian 25 years ago (now an Atheist/Agnostic), did the whole gig from the born-again accepting Jesus to fully immersed water baptism. Bible studies, prayer, etc… Approx a year into this thing I was on the search for a church. My buddies and I decided to check out a church one night, never been there and this was in the days before they had rock concerts for worship. I’d say they had about 100 people that night.

Pastor was up talking (just a basic sermon) and at some point during the service a group of people at one end of the church (it was kind of U shaped) started laughing out loud, we were sitting in the middle of the church. It was almost like people were doing “the wave” like you see at sporting events, but with laughter. My buddies and I watched as it seemed to be moving closer to us with each set of folks laughing and almost acting drunk. Don’t know what it was, but the next I knew we were all hanging on to the pew in front of us to keep from falling down and laughing. It was wild. Absolutely hands down the best feeling I’ve ever felt in my life. Pastor said it was the presence of God.

I remember leaving the church and feeling like I was glowing or radiating. Couldn’t quit smiling, it was strange. I asked some friends we ran into shortly after leaving the church if they could see anything radiating or glowing off me. Sounds whacky, but I couldn’t figure it out.

At a high school reunion 10 years after that happened, I ran into one of my buddies that experienced it with me. I asked him if he remembered it and he confirmed that we’d all experienced it.

Not saying this validates anything, I’ve just never been able to reconcile it. I started doing research on these types of experiences and it “appears” others have had similar experiences where it wasn’t manufactured (Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, etc), more like a wind or spontaneous event that you can’t control.

My question is: Do you guys really believe that things like the Toronto Blessing, Kansas IHOP Smithton Outpouring and Lakeland Outpouring in Florida (using their names, not mine) are all manufactured by mind control? In other words, let’s say a person experiences something like I did (I’ve talked with others who’ve had similar experiences without the hype), would you give that any credence to something supernatural?

His Letter 2:

Thanks for getting back to me. Yep, I’ve definitely had those “laughter is contagious” episodes with friends and family. I’d write off my experience below to something like that if the backdrop might have been different (i.e. in a more intimate setting like one on one or with a small group) and if the experience was just about uncontrollable laughter. There really wasn’t a catalyst (e.g. someone eating something bad, pastor saying something funny, strange noise in church, etc.) other than laughter and noise breaking out at one end of the U shaped seating arrangement.

I guess the bigger factor was that the three other people in my group felt the same thing; they also had to hang on to the pew to keep upright when whatever this was appeared to make its way to us. It was like watching “the wave” at a sporting event and when it was our turn, we had no choice in the matter. It all happened very rapidly. It wasn’t like we started laughing and stayed laughing for several seconds causing us to lose our balance. It appeared to reach our section and we immediately felt euphoric while simultaneously having to hang on to something to keep from falling. When we talked about it afterwards, we all confirmed feeling something strong kind of pass through us that resulted in laughter and an incredible feeling.

I don’t buy into the manufactured hype in church services with rhythmic music and yelling. Something like that could easily lead people into a euphoric state of believing they are feeling a supernatural presence. I struggle with the rapidness in which this happened, that it appeared that everyone in the church experienced it, the euphoric feelings all of us confirmed afterwards and just the “strangeness” with which we all labeled the experience.

His Letter 3 (with only the segments of my reply he included in his letter):

>>Unless there was something wildly different about the experience than what you have expressed in your letters, it just seems extremely mundane to me. <<<

Well, let me kick it up a notch then. The validity of this experience has been bugging me for over 25 years; your responses fueled the fire a bit more so I continued my investigation. There were 5 of us (friends from high school – we were in college then) at that particular church service, so last night I jumped on FB and starting digging for names. Found a few people that I thought might know how to contact these guys and sent them private messages. I ended up with a possible phone number for one of the guys and left a message. Keep in mind; I haven’t talked with any of these guys since that event (over 25 yrs ago).

He calls back and after the shock of hearing from me after all these years, I ask if he remembers being in that specific church with me and the other guys 25 + years ago. He confirms it and then I ask if anything strange or unusual happened. He laughed and proceeded to tell a story similar to mine, although he described it more like excitement breaking out at one end of the church and moving around affecting everyone. He also verified a “euphoric feeling” that seemed to hit us all at the same time that made us unstable on our feet. He compared it a wind blowing through the church that seemed to make some people laugh, some people shout with excitement and a personal feeling better than any drug. Apparently, he and the other guys kept going back to the church (I only went once) for that very reason and would bring others to experience it. Said it would happen randomly. I asked if he knew how to get a hold of the other guys, and like me, he hadn’t talked with anyone for 25+ yrs. However, he did have the name of a town for one of them, so I took that.

After some Google searches, I was able to come up with a name and phone number. Called this guy and he was REALLY shocked to hear from me. It was an awkward conversation at first, as he was trying to figure out the motive for my phone call after all these years. I explained I was trying to verify something and asked if he remembered being in that specific church with all of us 25+ years ago. He verified it, so I asked if he remembered anything strange or unusual about that church or the service we were in. Silence. He asked why I wanted to know. Awkward. I told him I remembered something unusual happening, but couldn’t put my finger on it and wanted to know he if remembered anything. Without going into details, he also verified the experience and his version which was similar to both of ours.

In both cases, I allowed the person to tell me their version of the experience instead of telling mine first. I have two more guys to contact; we’ll see what they say. I’m not implying that this proves anything other than the experience appeared to be more than just a case of the “giggles” or “contagious laughter”. Both of the guys I talked with last night alluded to a euphoric or ecstatic feeling more than a laughing fit. They both confirmed it happened quickly and when it appeared to reach our section of the church, it was hard to keep our balance. They both went back to that church and said the same experience happened several times after that. Sorry for the long e-mail, it was just hard to let it go.

His Letter 4:

You bring up a valid point that individual people and groups of people experience laughter, excitement, and euphoria. Especially when at symphonies, ballets, operas, sporting events, movies, etc. You've pointed out that people experience uncontrollable laughter. I get all that, promise.

Here's the dilemma in my mind. No instruments were being played to stir emotions, no one was singing, we weren't watching a performance, and it happened rapidly (within a matter of seconds). I get laughing and not being able to stop, but this wasn't about laughing uncontrollably. Laughter was involved, however, it was out of an overwhelming euphoric feeling rather than laughing because someone next to me was laughing.

Two of the guys verified independently that it appeared to be something we couldn't see that caused those feelings and our momentary imbalance. They verified it happened rapidly, they had trouble keeping their balance, the feelings were indescribable, and nothing special was going on in the church other than the pastor talking up front. I have a meeting set up with another one of the guys who happens to live in the same city. Haven't seen him for years and I'm curious to hear his recollection of that experience.

Honestly, I don't have an agenda here. I'd like to think I am critical thinker, an atheist/agnostic and definitely not religious. Not sure where the word "miracle" came from, but the only thing I'm implying is that I couldn't find a natural cause for this experience. Just seems strange that I thought it was caused by something I couldn't see and the two other guys I've talked with independently verified the same thing without my prompting or leading questions. If it was a natural cause, you'd think at least one of us would bring that up.

You've made general sweeping statements that these kinds of things happen all the time to people and groups of people. I've never run across anyone in my lifetime who's had an experience like this, in the setting I described, with independent verification from others who couldn't figure out why it happened. Maybe I need to get out more often.

His Letter 5
(with the segments of my reply he included in his letter, as well as the clarification I mentioned earlier):

I get your point, you think a group of people got a case of the giggles, the people next to them caught it and so on. People laughed so hard they felt euphoric and some even ROLFed. Got it.

You're too focused on the laughter, which makes sense, it's the easiest explanation. The problem is, I mentioned other factors like a euphoric feeling and loss of balance. The euphoric feeling and loss of balance happened first, the laughter followed. The laughter was because of the euphoric feeling, not because someone next to us happened to be laughing. If the laughing came first, I'd concede your point. Besides, I've experienced contagious laughter and this wasn't even close to that. In fact, I've never been a part of a contagious laughter situation in a large group that appeared to spread in a matter of seconds. without some type of stimulus (e.g. comedian)

>>>Feelings are NOT caused by external input.<<<

[The clarification I mentioned earlier: Physical response, such as vomiting or loss of balance, is not what people generally are discussing when they say “feelings”; “Feelings” are usually used to represent emotional responses, and that is precisely how I intended it to be used. I interpreted him to be using “euphoria” in the emotional context of feelings of happiness and exhilaration. While such emotional response is caused by physical brain activity, we generally do not conflate physical responses with emotional ones. So, when I say “emotional pain” you do not think of that as burning your had on a hot iron. And when I say “physical pain” you don’t confuse that with grief that accompanies the loss of a child. We generally differentiate the two even though they both require physical response. Emotional response is a function of brain feedback. Physical response can be induced by physical stimuli. I do get this. However, comparing a feeling of “euphoria” at a symphony with a feeling of riding a roller coaster is not, in my view, a reasonable comparison, for these reasons.]

You can't be serious? I take it you've never been on a rollercoaster, jumped out of a plane, been drunk or had sex? Touched a flame? I get that once you touch the flame, you can't feel the pain sensation until signals are sent from the brain, but c'mon.

Your belief is the laughter (or no external input) was the cause of the euphoric feeling and loss of balance. My story is, the euphoric feeling and loss of balance came first, then the laughter (similar to jumping out a plane, feeling the rush of free falling 200 mph towards the ground and then getting excited). Not much else to say. The two guys I talked with gave the same story, maybe I'm making this into a bigger deal than it really was.


That’s the last I’ve received so far. I don’t expect there to be more. But if he writes back I will direct him to this blog post where he can see if it’s the consensus of other skeptical thinkers that I’ve been unreasonable in rejecting his claims as he’s described them, or he’s been gullible for accepting them as anything but mundane.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Agnostic/Atheist Awards

Here's another opportunity to give some credit to the people who most inspire you within the atheist community. Austin Cline, administrator of the Agnostic/Atheist forum at, sent us the information and asks us if we'd like to help get the word out. I believe we would!

Nominations Will Soon Open for the 2011 Readers’ Choice Awards
I wanted to let you know about a new awards program we’re running on It’s called the Readers’ Choice Awards, and it will showcase the best products, features and services in dozens of categories across the entire network of sites.

On my Agnosticism/Atheism site, I will accepting nominations for several "best of" categories:

Best Agnostic or Atheist Book of 2010
Best Agnostic or Atheist Blog
Best Agnostic or Atheist Podcast
Best Agnostic or Atheist Website
Best Agnostic or Atheist Social Networking Website
Best Agnostic or Atheist Forum
Best Agnostic or Atheist to Follow on Twitter
Best Agnostic or Atheist Facebook Page
Best Agnostic or Atheist Ad

I thought you might be interested in nominating your blog, your podcast, or otherwise getting the word out to your community.

This page explains the process and will also have the nomination form:

To learn more about the overall awards program visit

Nominations will open on January 13 and run until Feb. 4; voting will run from Feb. 11 through March 8, with winners announced March 15. There's no prize—just the bragging rights that come with getting recognized by the readers of one of a leading websites owned by The New York Times Co.


I'm not telling anyone who to vote for (*AHEM*)...just sayin'!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Teen Challenge Ranch—Pentecostal Rehab

I was contacted awhile ago by Tyler, a young atheist living in a Christian town in a Christian family surrounded by Christian friends. Not an uncommon story. At the time he was struggling with coming out and concerned about potential loss of his social support network and how others would react to his deconversion. Since that time he has come out as a strong atheist and anti-theist, lost friends along the way, but seems happier and more confident these days.

He had shared his history with me when he first contacted me. He was raised in a fairly moderate Christian home and experienced a very average American upbringing, until, at 16, he landed in juvenile detention on drug charges. That's when things began to change, not just socially but religiously. According to his account, he wasn't addicted or having trouble due to drugs. Like many young people he was experimenting and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But when he was remanded to his mother, she informed him he would be going to the Teen Challenge Ranch in Northwest Arkansas—an all-boy Christian rehabilitation center for troubled youth in the mountains near Fayetteville.

"My parents had a list from Teen Challenge of what to pack and what not to...I needed all of the normal hygiene products, collared shirts and other appropriate clothing, and a NIV Bible. They also wanted me to bring an alarm clock, but it could not have a radio because they said they did not want anything 'worldly' interfering with my rehabilitation. The list of things we could not bring was quite a bit larger, though. We could not bring anything that was not Christian with us. No music, literature (not that I read that much back then anyway), no television, and no movies that were not approved by the staff. If it did not praise the Lord, it was not allowed."

The Ranch itself sounds not unlike other such facilities, but clearly my interest is in the integration of religion into the program. As a Christian facility, it would seem expected that there would be a regular religious study of some sort—weekly or biweekly? But according to Tyler:

"The counselors informed me we would have three-a-day Bible study, which I was not too enthused about. I had been to Sunday school every Sunday for the better part of my life. But studying the Bible three times a day? I did not like studying the Bible for 30 minutes a week, much less three times a day for a total of three hours. That just seemed exhausting. I did not know much of the Bible, either. So, that worried me a little. Would I have to study harder than the rest of the class? I really did not know what to expect. And, somehow, this time spent in Bible study was suppose to be helping with my drug addiction. I did not need help with drugs; I had made my mind up that I was done with them while sitting in jail. But I was curious nonetheless. Also, I was told we would be going to a Pentecostal church twice a week in Fayetteville. We would be attending on Wednesday nights, and Sunday mornings. This was the first time I had heard the rehab center was Pentecostal. I did not really know what Pentecostal was, so none of this bothered me at the time."

It didn't take long for Tyler to learn what "Pentecostal" was:

"The chapel was where everyone got together for worship and Bible study. It was a small room painted light blue with a large wooden cross leaning on a bench. When we went into the chapel, the lights were dimmed and the counselors were standing around in a circle waiting for us to enter and join with them. We all joined the circle and the counselors introduced me as the new student. We all were told to tell something about ourselves and what we wanted to accomplish from being at the Ranch. Everyone went through it quickly, and then it was time for Bible study. Everyone grabbed their Bibles and got ready for the lesson. It was just a normal Sunday school lesson which did not differ too much from what I was accustom to. When the lesson was done, it was time for worship. I had no idea what they had meant by 'worship.' I thought 'worship' was what we had just done by reading the Bible and praying. I was so wrong. The counselors turned on some upbeat Christian music, and everyone started dancing around in a circle. They were praying out loud and holding their hands up. I looked over to the person next to me to see if I could get some sort of confirmation for thinking this was completely nuts, but he had his eyes closed and was jumping up and down. I was just standing in shock. I was a Christian, but all of this stuff was what I had heard about on the news and thought was insane behavior. In my eyes, this was not worship. My version of worship was mouthing the words to hymnals on Sunday morning. Some of the students were crying as they held both hands up and rocked back and forth. Some of the students had their heads bowed praying in the corners of the room with other students' hands on their shoulders because, apparently, they believed the Holy Spirit worked better if believers touched each other while praying. One of the students looked up at the ceiling and started blurting out incoherent words and other nonsense. I did not know then, but this was called speaking in tongues. Finally, one of the counselors came over to me and said that if I was not comfortable with all of this, I could sit down on some steps in a dark part of the room. I was relieved that this was not a requirement, but that did not ease my dread of the months which would be spent in chapel. I was alone in a place I had never been before, with people I had never met who were doing things which I thought were crazy. I could not talk to my parents and tell them how insane these people were acting. I was completely alone."

"School" at the Ranch "was taught by Christian home school books, and Jesus was on every page. For example, if you were studying math, the books would give you a Bible story on each side of the page to show how the mathematical problem could be used to glorify the Lord. And, science didn't exist in these classes. The only science that was taught in these classes was either misleading, incorrect, or muddled with scripture."

The daily routine consisted of the following: "After breakfast, it was time to get ready for Bible study. Then we were off to school. After school, it was time for another Bible study and then lunch. Everyday after lunch we would have a midday break and free time. We usually stayed in our lobbies or went to the gym. Free time did not last very long after lunch; then it was time for school again. Class lasted for about two hours, and we were released with free time until about 6:30 at night when we would eat supper in the cafeteria. Directly after supper, we would have Chapel until 8:30. Then it was time to get ready for lights out at 9:00. We could stay up as late as we wanted at night as long as we were in our rooms, but we still had to be up 6:00."

Additionally, "We could only have one phone call home a week, and that was with a counselor. I did not have anyone around me that I knew and could not talk to anyone that I did know. And the people who were around me seemed certifiably insane."

Eventually Tyler decided he needed to call home and have a conversation with his family away from the counselors' scrutiny. Although the story of his escape from the facility is intriguing, suffice to say he was eventually able to call home. He explained the religious insanity to his mother, but she held firmly that the rehabilitation was for his own good and that he should stick with it. He sneaked back into the facility that same night and resolved to make more of an effort to work within the program.

"A couple weeks had gone by, and I slowly began to stop distancing myself from the counselors and other students. I did not like some of the things that went on in chapel, but I did not want to be an outsider anymore. I was growing tired of sitting in the corner of the room while everyone else was in a circle worshiping. Even if it was not the same as I was used to, I still wanted to be a part of it.

"One night after Bible study, I stepped into their circle of worship for the first time since the night I arrived at the Ranch. As soon as one of the counselors saw me, he came over and stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders. He told me to just let go and give myself to God. So, I put my hands up toward the ceiling like the other students. I swayed to the music and sang along. Eventually, I stopped feeling embarrassed by what I was doing because everyone else was doing it. I became used to it. Then, a euphoric calm came over me. It felt like God really was there and wanted me to be happy. It was as though I was a child again and had no doubts about god at all—when just the thought of God gave me comfort. I began to cry. I did not know why I was crying, but it actually felt good. The counselor was still behind me. He saw that I was crying and pulled me over to the corner of the room. He told me that I had to ask for forgiveness and that I needed to let God into my heart. I told him that God was already in my heart, but he would not accept that. He said that I needed to ask. I got down on my knees, and I began to pray what he told me to pray. I asked Jesus into my heart and for him to be my personal savior. The other students saw that I was praying and came over to put their hands on me. By the time I had finished praying, everyone in the room was behind me with one hand on my back and the other hand held up toward the ceiling. Most of them had tears in their eyes as I did. I stood up and everyone gave me a hug and, basically, congratulated me. One of the counselors turned the music off, and we started back to the dorms. Just as we were walking in the door, I heard one of the counselors whisper to the other, 'another soul saved, brother.'"

So, the behavior Tyler had considered crazy had now been normalized, rewarded and reinforced—techniques anyone who has been indoctrinated should recognize, even if you're not Pentecostal. Tyler went on field trips to religious youth festivals and concerts and began to be more integrated into the Pentecostal movement—meeting more people socially who subscribed to the beliefs and behaviors, which continued to reinforce the doctrines in his own mind.

After a few months, Tyler was allowed a home visit over the Christmas holiday. His new beliefs impacted his reunion with stress and concern that his family was not truly saved, and mistrust of their "worldly" attitudes. This is an issue we hear quite often from openly atheist parents whose children are being indoctrinated by partners/ex-partners or other family members.

"My grandparents had arranged to pick me up...On the way home, I talked to my grandparents about my family; about whether they were really saved. I was worried about my father and mother. I knew they went to church a lot when I was little, but they had stopped going and were not living their lives like the Teen Challenge counselors said we should. I did not want my parents to go to hell. My father concerned me more than anyone else in my family. He believed in god, but besides condemning blasphemous behavior, he never acted like he did. My grandparents were not too welcoming of the fact that I did not believe my father was truly Christian, though. They repeatedly tried to convince me otherwise and made excuses for him.

"Also, I told them about how I had thought about becoming a missionary. My grandfather frowned on the idea, asking me how I would make money and said that it is not a good lifestyle. I did not understand this because I thought he would be happy to hear that I would be living the way Jesus would have wanted me to; I would be saving souls. He was one of the people the counselors had warned us about. He was someone who said they believed but did not really want to give his life to Jesus. And when I thought about it, everyone I knew was not really a believer."

And so Tyler began to distrust his own family and fear their impact on his own salvation. It's not uncommon for believers to be "warned" to not become too involved with people outside of their belief system (including family and close friends) who could confound their thinking and undermine their faith. "Worldly" interaction may be necessary, but should not exceed necessary levels. These types of teachings drive huge wedges within families. It's another concern we hear all the time in our viewer mail.

Eventually Tyler's time away from the Ranch resulted in a mild breakdown of the indoctrination, due in part to an interest he developed in a girl he met while visiting home. However, in attempting to resolve the doubts and conflicts that had arisen, he turned right back to the techniques he'd been taught by The Ranch:

"The first week back from Christmas break was horrible. I felt more depressed than I had my entire life. I wanted to go home and be with my new girlfriend and the people I knew. I prayed a lot during the first weeks back, but nothing helped. The counselors did not help too much either. They would just say that we cannot expect to be happy all of the time. That our happiness with God comes and goes. I thought that sounded absurd. Why would God not want me to be happy if I loved and believed in him? Was God punishing me for my new girlfriend? Was I on the wrong path? Does he want me to be Baptist or Pentecostal? All of these questions, and many more, were running through my mind at this time."

So rather than step back to examine the issues objectively, he'd been taught to deal with doubt by diving into the very system he was doubting, even more deeply. This is another common indoctrination technique—teaching a person that the way to resolve doubts about faith is not to question or examine, but to pile on more faith. It makes as much sense as wondering if you're the victim of a financial scam, and resolving the question by sending in more money, rather than researching the investment.

Eventually Tyler's stint at the Ranch ended when he was involved with a physical altercation with a counselor. He recounts the ride to the bus station: "They lectured me and preached the whole way there. They condemned me for not wanting to be like those who wanted to spend their entire lives at the Ranch. I did not even try to argue with them. I was too happy to. I was finally going home."


"It has been 10 years now. I am now a nonbeliever, I have not spoken to anyone at Teen Challenge since I left...

"I feel the Ranch had a lot to do with my disbelief. I came home from there not knowing what to believe. I felt that my beliefs were more Pentecostal, but Baptist churches were pretty much all that surround me in my home town. I went to our regular church on a number of occasions, but it just never felt right. So, I stopped going to church. I was always conflicted about what I actually believed. Was I "once saved always saved" as my Baptist upbringing had taught me? Or, did I have to keep striving to be like Jesus in order to be saved? Was speaking in tongues real? Or, did I just do that because I felt good and wanted to be like everyone else as a Baptist would suggest? All these questions made me want to look into what I actually believed.

"After many years, I finally stopped trying to figure out which Christian belief was right and started to doubt if any of the Christian beliefs I had were right. It was apparent to me that I would never find out whether the Pentecostal or Baptist beliefs were right, and because I could not find that out, I began to question how I knew any of my beliefs were right. It was a chain reaction. It was a long slow process, but after many years of research, and a lot of thinking, I began to think that there was no way for me to distinguish which beliefs were right because none of them were. No beliefs I had ever examined had good reasons to believe them. I still said I believed, though. I deeply wanted to believe in god and somewhat had these habits of belief that were ingrained into my thinking. Also, I had a real fear of hell that I could not get past. It all slowly faded away over the years, though. My fear of hell slowly vanished after questioning, just as all of my other beliefs had. I began to realize that I had no reason to believe it, and the only reason I had for so long was because I was scared of the possibility. The need to believe fell away shortly after I stopped fearing hell and the unknown. And I let myself search for the truth instead of what I wanted to see as the truth. I was finally free to think without being afraid of a hell which was built by a loving god. I was free to question whether any god existed. And I saw no reason to think that one did."

Fear and threats of hell should not be underestimated as indoctrination mechanisms. The sheer number of people who use Pascal's Wager demonstrates how many believers consider fear of hell a compelling "reason" to maintain belief. Fear of hell cannot reasonably influence an unbeliever, who does not accept hell exists. But for someone who believes in hell already, that fear is often sufficient to convince them that maintaining their belief is paramount, and doubts or questions far too risky. Overcoming that fear can be extremely problematic for people, even after they deconvert. I've compared it to an abused dog who cowers when a new, nonabusive owner lifts his hand to pat its head. It takes awhile to overcome childhood terrors that have been so deeply and methodically ingrained.

"I feel I should thank Teen Challenge for making me question the beliefs I held before I arrived at their facility. I feel I should thank them for giving me a place to stay when I needed to get away from drugs and alcohol. But, also, I understand how many troubled children and teenagers have been successfully brainwashed simply because these people manipulated them during a hard time in their lives. I understand that there are students who did not go home for Christmas and never had [anyone] to help them see reality. I understand all of this. So, a 'Thank You' will never leave my lips."

What would a weekend be without wacky email?

LOVE! Could be Poe-y but it's par for the course for the real crank ravings we get. And he even does the usual thing of signing off his ridiculous rant with "have a nice day!!" Just golden.

Hi my name joe Williams I’am writing this email , because I just have to say this because it needs to be said , you guys may think you absolutely know it all and think that you atheists are so intelligent and you think science completely backs up every thing you say , well , you guys talk on this so called important tv show from Austin texas called the atheists experience and try to talk very very sophisticated bullshit of why you think and believe that God does not exist , and try to use a so called lack of evidence or no evidence to prove your point it is very very easy to see that this is only in your mind , I personally think and believe that you guys are some of the most disrespectful people that I have ever seen and heard , it absolutely seems to me that you guys love to laugh at and make fun of every Christian caller that calls your show , every time I see your show I always see some stupid host with a goofy looking smile his or her face just waiting to insult the next Christian caller , just for the fun of it , I think these callers do not need to call in to the show oh yeah by the way , I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is absolutely real , and Jesus Christ is my savior , in fact I can name at least 100 major reasons why there is a God and bible is absolutely true , but the problem is this no matter what I tell you , chances are you still won’t believe these reasons that I speak of will take time to write down and send through email I do not have a lot of time right now , but I will send them to you show through email , but just wanted to say how feel about show have a nice day ! !

Also, today, we got a really cool email. But I'll leave it to Matt to decide if there's anything we wish to reveal there.

Friday, January 07, 2011

You mean all I had to do was lick a Bible?

Some happy news today. Shelley just emailed all of us. We'll have working phones on Sunday.

Things are moving fast on the AXP hoodie front. The final design will be tweaked to feature only the red AXP logo; that way, people will have to ask you what it means, and you can spread the godless gospel! Only about 23 more folks needed (out of the original 50). Those interested in a pre-order should email the TV show address with "FAO: Martin - hoodies" in the subject line. Get a move on, because I'd like to place the order Monday morning at the latest.

Finally, I don't see how anyone could resist Jesus's message of salivation when it's good enough for Miss Delilah. Except I imagine Ceiling Cat is feeling a bit wrathful right now.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The professional victim squad is patrolling again

Okay, let me get this out of the way first:

Dude in the commercial totally looks like me. It's uncanny, but it's not me.

Pause the video at about 20 seconds to see the guy. (You can thank viewer Tommy for bringing the video to my attention, Tris from Facebook for setting the relevant images side by side, and Randy for bringing up the next video.)

Even though it's not me, it's an added bonus that this commercial totally pissed off Catholics.

Summary: The commercial was a result of a contest Doritos ran to make a Superbowl commercial. The guy who made the commercial is reportedly a Catholic, but the commercial itself takes a rather silly perspective on communion, with Doritos and Pepsi being the body and blood of Christ.

As is their wont, Catholics are OUTRAGED that people make fun of their beliefs. Fox Newsmodel Megyn Kelly listens respectfully to a typical angry Catholic who insists that Catholics are the only group that it's okay to make fun of, and no one would ever tolerate jokes at the expense of Islam. (Quick, somebody notify Jeff Dunham that his act has been canceled!)

This quote is just priceless, though:

"I think it is mocking to say that the blood of Jesus Christ is Diet Pepsi."

As everyone knows, the blood of Christ is made from fermented grapes, while his flesh is made from a mixture of wheat flour, yeast, water, and salt. That is respectful to the lord and savior of all mankind. But as any fool can plainly see, Jesus' flesh clearly does not contain corn, vegetable oil, cheese powder, buttermilk powder, whey protein concentrate, tomato powder, flavour enhancer #621, or dextrose. And don't even get me started on any speculation that his blood might contain any high fructose corn syrup or caramel color.

Because those things would just be silly.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Consanguineous bonds

Email question of the day:

"So I take it you have no argument against marriage between two consenting adults, even if these adults are, for example, brother and sister?"

It's the question of the day because it sent me off to do a bit of research on incest in order to challenge/re-affirm my position. (Freedom won again...)

I also discovered a curious thing about Rhode Island law...they have an exception to incest laws that allows "any marriage which shall be solemnized among the Jewish people, within the degrees of affinity or consanguinity allowed by their religion".

My response to the questioner:

While I personally find the concept of marrying a sibling, etc. rather "icky", there are lots of things that I find "icky" that aren't necessarily immoral and that society has no business restricting. My aversion is something that most of us experience and it's known as the "Westermarck effect" but that's not the case for everyone.

There are certainly biological reasons to avoid inbreeding, but marriage isn't necessarily about procreation. There are also psychological issues that surround taboo relationships (both contributing psychological issues and psychological issues that result from such unions) but we have to be very careful to distinguish between issues caused by societal disdain for something (as was/is the case with inter-racial marriages) and psychological harm that is intrinsic to the relationship (a daughter raised segregated from societal influence in order to 'brainwash' an incestuous spouse).

I think there's a compelling argument that we should generally discourage incestuous marriage in order to minimize the risk of birth defects and psychological trauma, but that we are probably not justified in prohibiting those unions as a matter of law. I'm also convinced that this issue isn't compelling enough to spend much time the percentage of the population interested in such a relationship is negligible.

Our ability to discern the moral evaluation of something like incestuous marriage is restricted — we just don't have enough information and there are too many possible scenarios. It may be that the unions are, in and of themselves, detrimental to the couples and to society - or it may be the case that there's no significant harm. I'm not convinced that we have enough information to make any such determination, but I haven't spent any significant time studying the subject. Until such time as we have compelling evidence (and not just a visceral aversion), I'm not sure that I can support laws against such marriages — but I'm in favor of discouraging it by education and investigating such relationships to ensure that we have true, informed consent.

Finally, there are a number of scenarios where people meet, fall in love and later learn that they are siblings or otherwise closely related. I'm of the opinion that it would be more immoral to prevent their marriage that to allow it...and that colors the entire spectrum of possible incestuous relationships...especially when you consider that some people get married, lead happy lives and find out about their kinship years later.

It may be the case that this is quite often a morally neutral issue — along the lines of a victimless crime (a term I'm not fond of, but fits as we often criminalize things which are victimless). As a matter of personal freedom, unless someone can demonstrate clear harm, I don't see a compelling reason to disallow it.

I've since done a bit more thinking and I'll amend the above a bit...

Re-reading that, it looked like I was in favor of discouraging a loving relationship between people who happened to be related and that's not the case. The education comment was intended to address the real risks and not be a pronouncement about whom you should/shouldn't love or marry.