Friday, July 27, 2007

Why of course theism makes you morally superior! How could I ever have doubted it?

And this just in: the latest report of trusted church members getting a little light-fingered with the collection plates.

They should have just gone to work for Benny Hinn, where they use collection buckets and the whole stupid ceremony is all about fraud and deceit from the get-go. Fit right in, they would.

Creationist assigned to head SBOE; audio from 2003 textbook hearings

As Phil noted at badastronomy, clueless creationist Don McLeroy was just appointed by Rick Perry to head the Texas State Board of Education. My favorite quote from the linked article: "Given all the time in the world, I don’t think I could make a spider out of a rock. However, most of the books we are considering adopting, claim that Nothing made a spider out of a rock." Oy. It's bad enough that he's a creationist, but does it have to be such a dumb creationist?

Those of us who attended the SBOE hearings in 2003 are very familiar with McLeroy's antics. If you haven't read about that before, you can read the full report on my blog.

Martin Wagner emailed me to ask if I still have the material I collected from the hearings: pictures, audio, and speech transcripts. Since they are no longer available on the ACA site, I have gone ahead and uploaded everything to my web site. Linked below are the sound clips record from my video camera. I will upload other material later.

Atheist Community of Austin members

  • John Koonz
    Texas educator, speaking about creationist dishonesty and misquotes.

  • Michelle Gadush
    Michelle asks: How come most of the board's questions go to creationists? Characteristically, the board doesn't ask her any questions.

  • Russell Glasser
    Relating the cold fusion scandal to current creationist attempts to skip peer review. Includes some fun cross examination by Terri Leo.

  • Don Baker
    Universal evolution and evolutionary algorithms should also be taught in schools.

  • Steve Elliott
    A cautionary recap of what happened to the school board in Kansas. Unfortunately, the camera ran out of batteries during Steve's testimony, so I missed about a minute while trying to get to a plug.

  • Martin Wagner
    Introducing the concept of "The Wedge Strategy."

Texas Freedom Network

  • Amanda Walker
    The importance of solid science education.

  • Samantha Smoot
    Head of TFN, Samantha deviates from her written material to do a recap of how the esteemed representatives of the Discovery Institute have behaved themselves throughout the evening. Just a wee bit shocking.

Other pro-science speakers

  • Dr. Sahotra Sarkar
    Philosophy of Science professor from UT. Dr. Sarkar debated an Intelligent Design guy the year before the hearings; you can see my full report on this page.

  • Dr. Steven Weinberg
    Physics Nobel Laureate. They let him go on for all of thirteen minutes about the topic "How do we know anything in science?" This one is a must hear.

  • Dr. Eugenie C. Scott
    Head of the National Center for Science Education.

  • Dr. Alan Gishlick
    Another NCSE guy. Excellent speech, one of the best of the wrap-up bunch.

  • Dr. Robert Pennock
    Philosophy of Science professor from Michigan; author of Tower of Babel and Intelligent Design and its Critics.

Creationists from the Discovery Institute

  • William Dembski
    The math geek of the DI, he does his typical "life is too complicated to evolve" song and dance. He also uses the standard line from the evening about introducing "strengths and weaknesses" into evolution education. (The click-whir you hear in the background is me taking shots with my still camera in the other hand. Sorry about that.)

  • John West
    I didn't record his entire speech, but I turned on the camera when I realized that he was getting a nice tongue lashing from one of the board members. This is a two minute clip of John doing the creationist two-step as he tries not to answer the direct question, "Do you want schools to teach Intelligent Design?" Terri Leo steps in to try and rescue him, but she winds up making an even bigger mess.

  • Michael Behe
    Author of Darwin's Black Box. Fairly predictable speech from Behe: talks about the flagellum, makes a long argument from incredulity about how impossible it is for tiny things to evolve, and gripes about how scientists are unfair to supernaturalists.

  • Bruce Chapman
    Discovery Institute president.

  • Jonathan Wells
    As one of the avowed creationist board members said at the end of Wells' speech, "Your name has been brought up tonight more than Charles Darwin's, so obviously you must be having an impact." Well, of course. (See report)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Do not eat before reading this

Another prominent Christian Right leader has been Vittered. The amusingly named Coy Privette, described as a "conservative lawmaker and outspoken advocate for Christian groups," has been caught with his privettes where they shouldn't be. The 74-year-old — and that alone is enough to kick the eewwww! factor into overdrive, kids — has been paying a disturbingly mannish looking prostitute for sex, and apparently lacking the sense not to give her a blank check. For those of you who think your battle-hardened stomachs can take anything, just be glad we can't show you photos of the happy couple. There was a link here originally, but it's since expired.

Like most sexual hypocrites among the fanatically religious, Privette had racked up an impressive history of passing laws punishing others for their misbehaviors, presumably as a way of assuaging feelings of guilt over his own. Or maybe, as with Vitter, God was always on hand for that helpful brand of insta-forgiveness right-wing Christian politicians seem to get so easily. In any case, even God can't spare this holy fool from the harsh spotlight of embarrassment in the media. How many of these cretins are going to have to go down before people see through their righteous lies?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Skatje Myers nailed it

PZ Myers' teenage daughter explains two methods of successfully discussing atheism:

It’s moderate atheists’ job to speak nicely to theists and get them to hear the message, but it’s the militant atheists’ job to get the moderates out of the closet and active. Do they scare away some theists entirely? Probably, but those are most likely the most unchangeable anyway. And it still doesn’t outweigh the need for angry atheists and their “rudeness”.

Of course the two styles are both very familiar to me. The first is The Atheist Experience, and the second is The Non-Prophets.

Edit: Updated to include a link to the original post in the first sentence.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Blinders on, people!

This isn't gloating. It's tragic and sad. And it's merely pointing out, to quote Al Gore, an inconvenient truth. God does not exist. Full stop.

A woman attends a Christian music festival in Wisconsin, and is killed on an amusement ride when a bungee cable snaps, causing her to fall nearly 50 feet.

A perfect opportunity for God miraculously to save a devout worshiper from an unnecessary death due to accident, incidentally doing the entire world of Christianity a huge favor by prompting public recantings from millions of atheists around the globe. Instead, God does nothing, because he is imaginary.

Undaunted, the festival went on, after a brief prayer service.

Again with the "theism = morality" thing

A lot of theists place great store by insisting that theism is somehow necessary for a comprehension of the concepts of right and wrong. This is fairly baffling, as, if it were true, you would expect to find, around the world, theists behaving in a consistently more ethical and moral manner than unbelievers. One does not in fact find this. One finds believers in the middle east strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up hundreds of innocents. One finds believers in the US verbally haranguing members of "wicked" faiths not their own in public; passing laws telling others whom they cannot or cannot marry based upon some specious fear that their own marriages will somehow be placed at risk; and shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars in cash settlements as a way of apologizing for sexually molesting children placed in their care by naively trusting parents.

Meanwhile, the world's most high-profile atheists are castigated as "militant" and "fundamentalist" for the heinous crime of — hold on to your hats — writing books.

Also, if God is the source of my morality, then I have to wonder why this God is less moral than I am. Even if I had the power to do so, I would never condemn a person to an eternity of torture because they did not love me to my satisfaction. Indeed, to even consider the idea would be a sign, not merely of immorality, but psychosis. Also, if I were a military general, even one not bound by, say, the Geneva Convention and rules of engagement, I would probably be disinclined to tell my men to annihilate literally every single living thing in a given town, with the exception of the young women, whom they would be free to capture, enslave, and rape at whim. God's a little more easygoing on the whole mass-rape thing than I am.

Over in this comments thread, a Christian named kevin h is making an attempt at arguing for the necessity of theism to morality. His argument, such as it is, consists of dismissals of the possibility of morality as an evolved instinct, which appear to be rooted in little more than his distaste for the idea. These are married to assertions about the nature of God in which nothing is given as backup. But moreover, most of his assertions are so baldly wrong I'm given to wonder exactly what world kevin lives in. In his last comment, he asserts:

Once one realizes that moral values are nothing more than social convention and "herd instinct" they are reduced to illusions of nature. Therefore, they are descriptive and not prescriptive, and the only reason one should rationally be "moral" is for manipulation...

First off, I find it more than a little baffling that a fellow attempting to argue that the source of morality is an invisible magic man in the sky is complaining about "illusions of nature". To find nature illusory is, I submit, one of the more intellectually damaging side effects of embracing religion. But in any event, in previous responses to kevin, I had repeatedly pointed out that one can learn sound moral precepts by observing the consequences of actions. Observable consequences can hardly be considered "illusory" by anyone who hasn't intentionally abdicated the use of reason. What does kevin even mean by this phrase? What exactly is illusory about learning lessons from experience and observation? kevin doesn't say. His way of arguing, as with many theists, is to make the assertion without feeling the need to back it up.

As for his claim that the sort of morality I am arguing for is about manipulation, this is a real irony-meter breaker. Christian morality — in the way in which a great many rank-and-file Christians practice it (remember, I've spoken with these people) — is about pleasing a deity in order to get a ticket to Heaven. If this isn't a tit-for-tat arrangement that could give a damn for the greater good, I don't know what is. In contrast, secular morality, rooted in rationalism and an understanding of the consequences of actions (you know, what kevin thinks is illusory) is primarily about the greater good, about creating a stable and safe society to better ensure species survival. kevin is just plain screwed up here.

kevin goes on:

In addition, if one got control of the society, one could punch whomever one wanted. Especially "undesirables".

Because kevin had been having a hard time understanding how people could just, you know, figure things out on their own, I had given the example of punching random strangers in a grocery store as a good, quick lesson in why people should be moral for practical reasons.

What is funny about this remark of kevin's is that this kind of behavior is exactly what we see — all together now — believers engaging in all over the globe. If anyone's out there trying to make life miserable for whomever they consider "undesirables," whether they're Islamist suicide bombers targeting Jews or American right-wing Christians wallowing in their hate for gays and lesbians, it ain't the atheists!

There of course have been irreligious societies that have committed similar acts of oppression. However, as Sam Harris has pointed out, not all irreligious movements have been enlightened or rationalist movements. Atheism can take a very bad form when it is only a reactionary rejection of religion. This is why, in previous posts, I've talked about the difference in development between eastern atheism and western atheism, the latter of which was informed by Enlightenment values and philosophies. It's telling that those irreligious cultures in which rulers felt they could "punch whomever they wanted" have been mostly failures. Act without reason whether you're religious or not, and you aren't going to find life very successful. Again, you don't need an invisible man to understand this. Well, I don't, but I guess kevin does.

kevin is also fond of assertions like this:

God is the Good. His ultimate nature enjoys the ontological status which anchors morality.

Which is fine, if you're willing to overlook the fact that God's existence has yet to be established, and a statement like this scarcely constitutes evidence for him. It amounts to an attempt to define God into existence by attributing qualities to him the arguer finds desirable. But the statement is fundamentally empty. What is meant by God's "ultimate nature"? In what way does this nature "enjoy the ontological status which anchors morality"? This, I suspect, is why Dawkins blew off going into in-depth critiques of theology when writing TGD. It's all so much rhetorical smoke and mirrors. kevin's statement has no greater meaning, and brings us no closer to an understanding of what morality is, what function it serves in a culture, or how it aids the survival of our species, than if he were to have made exactly the same statement but substituted "Harvey the Invisible Rabbit" for "God".

Indeed, reading over kevin's comments, it appears he considers such an understanding of tangential relevance at best. Understanding morality is less crucial than simply assuring that his God gets the credit for it. kevin's habit of dismissing prefectly sound questions asking him to elaborate on his views doesn't help him much, either. When I asked him (I thought quite reasonably)...

And why isn't the fact that we're genetically hardwired toward group cooperation a good foundation for a moral theory? We know that ethical behaviors exist not only in humans but in other species of primates. So if our genes are responsible for developing just about everything else that makes us "us," why wouldn't they play a role in determining our behaviors, and which of those behaviors were the most beneficial in the interest of species survival?

...his only reponse was:

Because it amounts to delusion.

Uh...oh yeah? Like...why? How? Remember, this is a guy arguing for an invisible deity, telling me it's delusional to attribute real-world phenomena to real-world causes. With no explanation. I call "lame"!

The easiest way to wrap up, I think, is to offer the same challenge to kevin h that Christopher Hitchens has offered to Michael Gerson, who authored that drivel in the WaPo that Kazim fisked in the post immediately preceding this one. Can kevin...

name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever?

Where, exactly, are the moral precepts that are unique to Christianity, that no one in the world understood prior to Christianity's formal development as a church in the first few centuries of the Common Era? This is the problem faced by apologists like kevin. In arguing for the necessity of theism for morality, the presence of millions of morally upstanding atheists around the world must present a measurable element of confusion.

Friday, July 13, 2007

What theists don't ask

Michael Gerson has written a piece in the Washington Post entitled "What Atheists Can't Answer." As I mentioned on my last show appearance, often these kinds of claims come about because theists don't bother talking to any atheists before coming to conclusions about what they think.

The heart of this article is this:

"So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?"

Later it is re-expressed in this way:

"So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennial, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains."

As people know who watch or listen to our shows, we've grappled with those questions frequently in recent years. The problem with the question "How do we choose between good and bad instincts?" is that it's a non-trivial philosophical issue, about which tremendous volumes have been written by philosophers for many centuries. Folks like Michael Gerson believe that they have scored a good point when they essentially ask us to give them an simple answer in a thirty second sound-bite or even an 800 word column. Then they falsely assert that religion provides that easy answer.

You want a sound bite? As always, take a cue from the Euthyphro Dilemma. You don't need to play the game of trying to appear to have all the answers; it is sufficient in this case to point out that theists do not have any answers either. The counter-question is "How does inventing a god help us to choose between good and bad instincts?" Then you can follow up immediately by pointing out awful things that God can and does ask people to do in the Bible. You can take your pick from slaughtering entire cities and taking the virgin girls to be unwilling brides; being prepared to stab your first born son to death as a test of loyalty; millenia of unabashed support for slavery; etc. Not to mention modern applications of religion, such as flying planes into buildings.

In this case, pleading "That's the old testament" or "Only Muslims fly planes into buildings" is completely irrelevant. Michael Gerson didn't make an argument for modern liberal Christianity; he made the more general claim that believing in a higher power solves the problem of morality. Of course it doesn't. Belief in a higher power simply adds a level of arbitrary abstraction to your moral decisions. You are no less likely to commit acts of atrocity, only now you are free to attribute these actions to the deity of your choice. Instead of picking your morals, you are picking your god, as well as your interpretation of what the god wants.

Here in the west, only a few extremists are willing to take Biblical morality at face value, including (for example) stoning unruly children to death, but these are not the sorts of people you want to spend much time talking to. Most people are ready to argue that they shouldn't be expected to accept some of these edicts that were supposedly directed by God. At that point, the question of "Where do you atheists get their morality?" is easily answered: "It's probably about the same place YOU get your morality, since it clearly isn't from God."

That's most of what the article is about, although there are a couple of other assertions that are worth commenting on. The first paragraph of the article says:

"British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. 'If anyone doubts this,' he wrote, 'let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.'"

Right. That totally makes sense. Because every time you criticize something, you are secretly supporting it. Doesn't matter what it is. If you stop and think "Hey, I saw my mom sneaking around my bedroom, I wonder if she left that money under my pillow?" you are paying tribute to the tooth fairy. If you say "Suicide jihadists are idiots to believe that they will get 72 virgins in the afterlife" you are paying tribute to their notion of an afterlife.

I wonder if anyone will ever catch on that this argument boils down to nothing more than "I know you are, but what am I?"

Gerson also states:

"And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn."

This, too, is a fairly common desperate move to use against atheists. Theists realize that the actual evidence that is available to prove the existence of God is piss-poor, so in frustration they make up hypothetical rock solid evidence, which does not really exist. By making the unsupported claim that atheists wouldn't even believe THAT, they manage to shift the discussion away from the poorness of the actual evidence, and turn it into an unwarranted assumption about how unreasonable atheists are in their imaginary alternative universe.

Still, just so we are clear, let me state this for the record. If a squadron of angels landed on my front lawn and started chatting me up about God, I'd be pretty easy to convince at that point.

There. Now God knows exactly what he can do to make me renounce atheism. Where's my squadron of angels?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

God's forgiveness = self-forgiveness, part deux

Here's another hilarious example of how Christianity allows anyone to wash away their own sins with ease and without ever actually being troubled by having to feel bad about what you've done. The following amusing quote comes from the latest in a long line of hypocritical right-wing politicians, in this case, Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter, incidentally one of the chief sponsors of a proposed Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. This is a man who has publically compared gay marriage to Hurricane Katrina (I know, only a right-wing Christian could make a remark so baffling and bizarrely hyperbolic). This fine public servant, who has also called marriage — the straight kind — "the most important social institution in human history," didn't feel it was important enough to keep him from availing himself of a certain Canal Street escort service. But hey, never fear. It's religion to the rescue!

"This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible," Vitter said in a statement given to reporters Monday night. "Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and from my wife in confession and marriage counseling." (Emphasis added.)

Isn't it great to be a right-wing Christian politician? I mean, you're so within the Big G's inner circle that forgiveness comes your way faster than snapping your fingers. Then again, you never really hear Christians caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jars ever say anything like, "Well, I've asked God for forgiveness a few times...still haven't heard back from him, but I'm sure everything will be okay. I know He's a very busy God, you know, off creating galaxies and nebulae and stuff. He'll get back to me with that forgiveness when He has time, I'm sure He will..."

No, they always ask for and receive the forgiveness they seek — pretty easy to do when you're talking to yourself.

Anyway, I suppose this is the cue for all our Christian commenters to chime in with the usual "not a true Christian" responses.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

It wasn't exactly a difficult quiz...

I sometimes enjoy these, but it would be nice to have some real "make you think" questions instead of a handful of "well, duh" no-brainers.

I am, however, highly skeptical that I look anything like the photo there.

You Are Very Skeptical

Your personal motto is: "Prove it."

While some ideas, like life after death, may seem nice...

You aren't going to believe them simply because it feels good.

You let science and facts be your guide... Even if it means you don't share the beliefs of those around you.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The mindlessness of religion in one convenient, snarky package

In a couple of amusingly juxtaposed incidents that demonstrate how religion is little more than some leftover, atavistic rubbish from our days as hunter-gatherers picking fleas off one another, we have Church of England bishops wagging their fingers and pronouncing a recent rash of heavy rains and flooding to be divine wrath for "Western civilisation's decision to ignore biblical teaching" (read: gay marriage) — while, over here in drought-stricken Alabama, that state's governor has just made them the biggest laughingstock since Kansas by actually issuing a proclamation prompting citizens to (I am not making this up) pray for rain. Heck, why not work in a rain dance or two while you're at it? Or is that the wrong invisible man?

Clearly the solution is simple. Britain needs to export a certain quota of its gays over to 'Bammy. Say, half. That way, both regions will get just enough rain from their angry God that our southern friends will no longer suffer drought, and England will no longer flood. You know, like the Three Bears' porridge: not too hot, not too cold, just riiiight.