Thursday, October 30, 2008

Liars, Lunatics, Lords, Legends and Lemmings...

I'm starting a bit of a tradition here. Whenever Ray Comfort posts about atheists (he's rather obsessed with us, some might claim it's to the point of protesting too much), I write a response and as he's not always keen about posting dissenting views, I copy it over here to our blog.

Ray's latest post is partially correct and partially incorrect - but it's worth offering some commentary. Give it a read and enjoy the response below...


I care very little about whether or not any of these individuals were atheists or not. The truth of a concept is not at all influenced by the number of people who accept it, nor their popularity, nor the strength of their conviction.

It's very telling, though, that you do seem to care - as if you're bound and determined to show the 'truth' of Psalm 14:1 (the second, lesser-quoted half of that verse, in particular).

I'm not surprised that you'd want to make veiled appeals to authority, but it seems very dishonest of you to point out reasons why these people weren't atheists when it is clear that they weren't believers in anything remotely resembling the God you believe in...which makes them atheists with respect to your God, just as you're an atheist with respect to Zeus.

That said, there is a slight bit of anachronism and selective quoting going on here. You seem to overlook many things, not the least of which is that a human life can't be summed up in a simple quote. People change. People represent themselves differently, at different times, to different people. People express ideas using the conventions of their contemporaries - and people, for various reasons are not always comfortable publicly expressing their most private thoughts. The common views about gods during the lives of the individuals you cite were very different from those of today and it is a disservice to misrepresent this.

For example, you may be able to find quotes from me from when I was a Christian. You may even be able to find people who knew me during that time, and quote their assessment of my thoughts and beliefs. That doesn't change the fact that I'm an atheist now. Additionally, I find it curiously hypocritical that you might claim that I was never "really" a Christian - as evidenced by my eventual apostasy - and yet you attempt to twist the views of the individuals above in order to make them appear less atheistic.

I have no reason to debate whether or not these individuals were atheists, agnostics, deists, Christians or whatever - because it doesn't matter. We can't know what was in their minds (or hearts, if you prefer), we can only take the information available and make a reasonable guess at what they believed, or disbelieved. By picking and choosing quotes from different eras of their lives, one could easily make a case for any number of beliefs.

I'm curious though, do you think any of these individuals were Christians when they did their greatest works? Do you think they believed in the 'one true God' you believe in? If so, how do you explain their clear contempt for Christianity and the God of the Bible? If not, what Biblical basis do you have for holding them in a significantly different light from atheists?

As far as I can tell, the Bible is pretty clear about which God is real and how Jews and Christians are expected to view the character of those who reject that God in favor of other gods or no gods.

If the individals in question are all, according to your belief, given over to a reprobate mind and destined for hell - why would you bother to attempt to venerate them and reclaim them from the 'atheist' label?

Despite that, here are some quotes and comments on the individuals above, just to stretch the point. I am not claiming these people as atheists, I am simply providing reported quotes that give us more information about what they did or didn't believe. Additionally, these quotes may not be correct as the internet (as evidenced by this blog source) is cluttered with good information and bad:

Thomas Edison:

"My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it."

"I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God."

"I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul.... No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life -- our desire to go on living -- our dread of coming to an end."

About Col. Ingersoll (The Great Agnostic), Thomas Edison wrote:

"I think that Ingersoll had all the attributes of a perfect man, and, in my opinion, no finer personality ever existed. Judging from the past, I cannot help thinking that the intention of the Supreme Intelligence that rules the world is to ultimately make such a type of man universal."


Mark Twain:

"There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him--early."

"If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be--a Christian."

"The so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive...but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition. The Greeks surpassed us in artistic culture and in architecture five hundred years before Christian religion was born."

"I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in any danger from that kind of a Diety. The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible. We (that one and I) could never respect each other, never get along together. I have met his superior a hundred times-- in fact I amount to that myself."


Robert Frost reportedly became more pious in his later years, although...

"Elinor Frost, his wife, thought he was, like her, an atheist. In 1920 (the couple had then been married twenty-five years) Frost confided to Louis Untermeyer:

'Elinor has just come out flat-footed against God conceived either as the fourth person seen with Shadrack, Meshack, and Tobedwego [sic] in the fiery furnace or without help by the Virgin Mary. How about as a Shelleyan principal or spirit coeternal with the rock part of creation, I ask. Nonsense and you know it’s nonsense Rob Frost, only you’re afraid you’ll have bad luck or lose your standing in the community if you speak your mind.'"


With regard to Susan B. Anthony, I have no reason to doubt that she was a deist. Her continual references to Providence and the God of Providence represent the common language of deists in her time.


Finally, it's curious that you acknowledge Hemmingway's atheism only to use it as a tool to imply that this is a testimony to the truth of the words of Jesus and the perils one finds in a life lived without a personal relationship with Jesus - yet, you just finished pointing out that these others were also lacking this personal relationship, yet they didn't suffer the sad fate of Hemmingway.

You go from implying that belief in some sort of deistic god is enough to justify good works, and then spin the final assessment as testimony to the futility of a life without Jesus.

This is the grand lie. This is hypocrisy at its finest. It's this self-righteous, selective thinking that you engage in to malign those who don't share your views. It's transparent and pathetic. And while you may not print this, it doesn't change the fact that while some atheists may have misrepresented these historical figures as atheists (a charge that may or may not be accurate depending on the quotes used and the definitions involved), you've made an accusation of intentional falsehoods - while presenting a convoluted mess of misrepresentations that either represent the grandest lie or an intellectual laziness of staggering proportions.

Which is it?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ray is preaching my stuff!

I just checked the latest post from Ray Comfort and submitted the following response. I'm doubtful that he'll post it and I'm very doubtful that we'll ever have any sort of dialog...but, darn it, I just can't stop trying. I guess I'm a bit more masochistic than I thought.

For those that don't want to read Ray's post, the short version is: the OT and NT gods are the same, righteous, perfect and equally stern in their pure justice. This version has only a single change...I've actually provided the link to the wiki, as I can pretty much do whatever I want to do here. :)


Thanks, Ray...for (almost) preaching the very sermon I've been preaching for years.

So many Christians (and many non-Christians) dismiss the Old Testament view of God in favor of the cheek-turning compassion of the New Testament version. The mistakenly think that the NT version is better, softer or more kind.

There's just one tiny area where we disagree (actually, there are several beyond this, but I'm only addressing the comparison) think the OT and NT versions are equally good, righteous and perfect. I don't.

While some non-believers might agree with you, but opt for 'equally bad' as the appropriate description, I simply don't agree. The NT doctrine is far worse.

Your cartoonish oversimplification of the wages of OT sin being "Hell" is not consistent with Jewish tradition and not Biblically supported without anachronistic reinterpretation of the OT. The very understanding of death and what happens after death is rather nebulous in the OT and much more vivid in the NT. This renders the NT version of God far worse than the OT version - because the immoral doctrines of original sin is compounded by the unjust concept of eternal punishment for finite 'sins' (though you'll probably point out that sins against a God are necessarily infinite...that's just a convenient interpretation that isn't supported theologically, logically or Biblically).

The idea that it is just to punish people for their thoughts, doubts or disbelief is a perversion of any reasonable concept of justice. The system is further polluted by the claim that it rewards belief, regardless of, or in preference to action.

While you'll find this sad, possibly offensive and may even refuse to publish it, I have no problem at all asserting that my moral values are superior to those of any character in the Bible, including the various characterizations of God. In fact, I'd argue that the God of the Bible may be one of the least moral characters in that entire collection of ancient writings.

When you sacrifice your humanity, your decency and your rational sense of justice in order to claim that the tyrannical acts of a more powerful being are intrinsically just, appealing to the banality of 'might makes right' - you've lost the battle.

The Euthyphro dilemma begins to make this point about fiat-morality...but it's worth extending.

If you're so impressed with the Sermon on the Mount, I'd be curious to hear your take on my response to it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hell House trip, continued

Continued from the previous post...

Room 3
Synopsis: Perils of drunk driving. Two cars are smashed up in an obvious wreck. Very happy demon hops around on both cars like a monkey. Paramedics remove one person from one car, who is horribly disfigured, while the passenger is dead. The driver stumbles out of the other car, obviously dead drunk and ranting about how unfair it is. He stumbles away. Demon continues to feel gleeful.
Most disturbing moment: Actually I thought it was a little weird that the car driven by the drunk was the one that got HIT, rather than the one doing the hitting. But it was plausibly pointed out that he could have run a red light and been at fault. Still, I find it hard to believe that he is the only one completely unscathed.
Ambiguous moral message: God will sort out the bodies, but most people are hell-bound anyway, so the guy in the passenger seat probably belongs to the demons now. Police are pretty useless, though, as they didn't make any effort to stop the idiot driver.

Room 4
Synopsis: Part 1 of the abortion drama. Girl and boy love each other very much, but the idiots do it without protection. Boy assumed girl was using birth control; girl of course was not. Girl announces that she's pregnant, and also that she will have an abortion. Boy is distraught, not wanting her to kill his baby. Girl browbeats boy into going along with her to the abortion clinic for moral support.
Most disturbing moment: Actually this one wasn't particularly disturbing to many of us, as none of us heathens are particularly opposed to a little good old-fashioned lust. I'd assume that these kids are victims of an abstinence-only curriculum, although that's not they angle the actors put on it. Their message is that no amount of precaution can save you if you decide to have sex.
Ambiguous moral message: Women are bitches. Not all that ambiguous, actually.

Room 5
Synopsis: The abortion drama continues, as the hapless boy attempts to sit with his girlfriend in the operating room waiting to kill their baby. The boy freaks out and runs from the room, unable to live with himself. The girl, realizing that she's all alone, has second thoughts about this. However, the doctors won't let her leave, and forcibly perform and botch an abortion on her, causing her to bleed to death. The everpresent demons, of course, enjoy this immensely. Throughout the scene, a tape loops on some overhead monitors, showing some of those scary post-abortion videos with little fetus arms and legs.
Most disturbing moment: Obviously I was most bothered by the portrayal of how abortion doctors act. Because, you know, they're not there to satisfy their customers or anything... you came in for an abortion, and damn it, YOU. WILL. GET ONE. Oh, and as the patient dies the doctors say "Oh well, we lost another one. We've got lots more to get to today!" Too bad there's no such thing as malpractice in the Christian universe, or they could stop abortions easily!
Ambiguous moral message: In case the idea of killing your baby doesn't put you off abortion, we now guarantee that you'll be dead too. Abortion is almost certainly riskier than child birth in that regard.

Room 6
Synopsis: I may have forgotten some by now, but for my recollection the next one is a two part molestation drama. One girl is distraught that her sister died. A friend is trying to console the survivor. The girl reads a suicide note stating that her sister was molested to death by their creepy uncle. It is implied that the mother was never present because she's always spending time with her lesbian lover, so we get a twofer here. At that moment, the creepy uncle himself walks in. The fair-weather friend immediately leaves, despite the next potential victim begging her to stay. The creepy uncle begins making advances. Then the boyfriend barges in on them, and in a fit of rage, shoots the uncle. Fade to black.
Most disturbing moment: Did I mention that the other girl just decided to walk out, leaving her so-called friend alone with a known molester? Who the hell DOES that? She wasn't acting scared or anything, just a fairly cold "I'm uncomfortable with this situation, I have to go."
Ambiguous moral message: So wait a minute, a molesting uncle is a bad thing, that's not much of a stretch. What's up with the boyfriend? Are they applauding his actions? Or is he dancing to the demons' tune too? I don't get it.

Room 7
Synopsis: In part 2, the girl goes to her sister's funeral. She's distraught, so another friend (not from the last scene) offers her sleeping pills to help her relax. Next, dear old lesbo mom shows up, and the girl tries to embrace her mother, only to be snapped at for telling lies about her brother and trying to break up the family. Mom leaves, girl cries. She takes some sleeping pills... AND THEN DIES. (Well, I assume.)
Most disturbing moment: Um, well, dear old mom was kind of a ringer for Hillary Clinton, I guess.
Ambiguous moral message: It doesn't matter how much pain you are in... if you attempt to seek help through medical prescription, YOU WILL DIE.

Room 8

Synopsis: We got herded into "coffins": little narrow rooms in a line of four each. They locked the doors and told us what happens when you die.
Most disturbing moment: Some of our members are particularly uncomfortable with small spaces, and others are averse to being touched much. I didn't have much of a problem.
Ambiguous moral message: None yet, but it's obvious where this is going.

Room 9
Synopsis: It's heaven! Yay! We made it! The room is brightly lit and covered in cotton. TV monitors play happy messages interspersed with graphic scenes from "The Passion of the Christ" to show who made it possible for us to get here.
Most disturbing moment: Well, it's the Passion of the Christ. I mean, seriously.
Ambiguous moral message: Heaven is kind of boring and plays bad movies.

Room 10
Synopsis: Hell! Oh noez! A very dark dungeon with demons banging on bars! One of them freaked out some kids by coming out of the dungeon and getting up in their face.
Most disturbing moment: The message is, of course, that all the dead people from the previous scenes ought to be here. That includes the girl who got shot by the rampaging kid, and the one who was molested by her uncle, and the victim of the car crash.
Ambiguous moral message: In case you haven't noticed by now, Christianity is all about buying the religion and has nothing to do with whether you're innocent or guilty of anything in particular. In fact, the molested girl deserves hell no less than the creepy uncle.

The final room

Okay, so finally we get to The Conversion Room™ so we can all make "The Choice." A spunky twenty-something woman was on hand to tell us all about the opportunity of Christianity. There were two doors, one unmarked door on the left, and one in front of us that said EXIT. Spunky McCurlyhair told us that if we wanted to accept Christ as our savior now, we could go through the door on our left and sign pledges.

Unfortunately, Spunky didn't have very good crowd control skills. For starters, there were seven very rude people in the back who kept on quietly cracking jokes. Be quiet, you people! I'm trying to learn about Jesus! But never mind about us, few people were paying very close attention, which prompted Spunky to tell us all, "Ok, it's really important to focus, people!" IMHO, when you get to that point you've already lost the battle. I felt kind of bad for her.

We were, of course, really hoping that we seven would be the only ones standing on our own. Sadly, though, fewer than half of our group of fifty went in the door on the left. Undaunted, Spunky said, "Okay, now you people are still left here for one of two reasons. Maybe you're already secure in your faith in Christ and don't think you need another affirmation. But let me tell you, it's important to go out and spread the gospel..." She droned on like this, and by the time she was finished explaining possibility A, she either forgot or was too rushed to acknowledge possibility B: "Or you're all hellbound heretics! What is WRONG with you people?" That remained unsaid.

I had heard that in previous years, ACA members have wound up getting in arguments with members of the cast after the show, and I for one was really looking forward to that... only it never happened either. With the ginormous crowd, the girl was forced to keep herding us along after our time was up. As a result, we wound up having to go through the door on the left anyway, rather than approaching the one marked EXIT. It made no sense to me... surely it would be symbolically powerful if us heretics got unceremoniously dumped outside and separated from everyone else. But no, there was a big guy standing right in front of the exit, and we just decided to leave quietly on the left. Mustn't slow down the conveyer belt.

As we went out, we of course got to march right past all the deer-eyed people who were busy signing commitments to Christ. ("By accepting this agreement, you are explicitly granting the right to 10% of your lifelong income... offer not valid in California and Norway.") It was kind of goofy, really... they're sitting there trying to recommit to their god, and all the rest of us are filing past staring at them, as if they were the last skit for the evening.

Final ambiguous moral message, which sums up Hell House neatly:

No matter how much you might be terrified of hell, no matter what they may have in store for you, just rest assured that being there can't be nearly as bad as the long wait to get there.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hell House XVIII, The Revenge: Welcome to Eternity

With the very best of intentions, seven intrepid atheists took a trip yesterday to Cedar Hill, TX last night, to attend the Hell House made famous by a 2000 documentary from George Ratliff. Despite flawless planning and good attitudes all around, this excursion was a strong candidate to be the very worst ACA event ever. Be warned, mortals, for the tale which follows is not for the faint of heart, and shall surely imprint terror and foreboding in the minds of all who may dare to attend this piece of unredeemable crap in any future year.

Five people met near the Lake Creek Alamo Drafthouse at 2:00 on a Saturday: John, Tammy, Arran, Shilling, and Russell (that's me). We knew we had a three hour drive ahead of us, but we feared not the trip, for all had heard the tales of amusement from previous attendees. We figured we'd get there around 6:00 after stopping for food, then wait for maybe an hour in line, be out of there by 8, and get home by 10.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry...

In fact we arrived closer to 6:30, and took a while to get everyone ticketed ($10) and initial bathroom breaks taken care of, but in reality there is no amount of fortitude that could have prepared us for the bone-chilling terror that was...


Yes, THE LINE was enough to reduce any strong man or woman to a quivering mass of leg-cramping, soul-crushing madness. It lasted four and a half hours from the time we entered to the time that we finally set foot inside of Hell House to lean gratefully against the wall and watch... a cheesy movie trailer.

The event took place at an ultra-maxi-megachurch, the kind where you see it over the horizon and you expect John Williams' "Imperial March" to start playing. I was more than a little intimidated by the place at first, and nervous about getting singled out. Shilling was wearing his Godless Pub Crawl shirt. Arran wore some rather obvious liberal political statements. I wore a fairly garish Spider-Man shirt -- I like Spider-Man, okay, and the fact that New York exists proves that Spidey exists. :) In fairness, I should say that no one ever hassled us in the 6 or so hours we were present.

Anyway, within the confines of THE LINE were thousands of people, the vast majority of them being teenagers. And not just any teenagers. There's no way to put this delicately... they were teenagers from deep in the heart of Texas. Redneck kids. Dumb jocks who went around aggressively slapping each other in the ass. (Several of us discussed how much homoeroticism there was for such a Christian group, particularly when we some some teenager massaging another one.) Then there were peroxide blondes with way too much makeup, girls having conversations at 150 decibels right near our ears, large bearded men joking loudly about shooting cutters in line.

Meanwhile, Shilling was doing his best to make sure that everyone around us was offended by reminiscing about blasphemous stand-up routines by Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais. After an hour, we were joined by Brian and Amy, the last two members of our party, who were coming from somewhere local.

THE LINE did not appear to be as long initially, because although it stretched out a pretty long way, it also weaved back and forth... conveniently making the most twists right near the overpriced concession stand. For bathrooms, there were three port-a-potties that were lacking toilet paper for the majority of the night. Once we got up to the front of the line the people started to be divided up into large groups to go on a hay ride together in order to reach the site where the actual house was. Little did we know that THE LINE would continued for over an hour once we reached the house.

The exterior of hell house was extremely cheap and not at all interesting. It looked like a temporary building in some places, and others had black fabric for a wall, so we could periodically see people walking behind it when they lit up. Also, every once in a while there would be a loud "bang" sounding like a fairly unconvincing prop gun. After about 60 seconds, a second shot always followed the first. A few of us started trying to time the second shot by singing the "Jeopardy" theme song... much to Shilling's consternation.

So we finally made it inside. We were herded in a group of 50, whereas I'm told that last year it was only 35. In keeping with the expansion that caused much longer lines, they are cramming people more tightly on the conveyer belt. Each room after the preview screens contained some sort of poorly acted skit that seemed to have an oddly twisted moral message. Most skits involve demons -- guys in dark robes and skull masks -- who both comment on the scene as a Greek Chorus, and serve to herd the audience through to the next room when the performance is over. I'll try to remember the rooms more or less in order.

Room 1
Synopsis: Girl goes on MySpace. Girl meets boy. Girl invites boy over to her place. Boy rapes girl. Invisible demons in the room laugh. The end.
Most disturbing moment: The rapist was black. That didn't necessarily appear to be a racist message, until the girl went out of her way to draw attention to his race: "Hey, you don't look like the way you described yourself! I thought you were blonde and blue eyed!"
Ambiguous moral message: If you meet people on the internet, you deserve to be raped. It's not like the girl actually did anything particularly forward or sinful, other than letting him come inside.

Room 2
Synopsis: Angry loner in high school holds his "friends" hostage at gunpoint. Tells them that he's mad for they way they bullied or ignored him. "Friends" are very sorry. Demons whisper mean things in the boy's ear. He shoots one of them, and then after some more threatening, shoots himself. Demons laugh. The end.
Most disturbing moment: The boy asked each one of the friends if they were Christians, so this was clearly an angle on the Cassie Bernall myth. Unlike the story of Cassie, he shot the one who claimed not to be a Christian. Then when somebody DID claim to be a Christian, the demons told him to leave her alone because they still have work to do on her. So here's a guy who shoots atheists and doesn't shoot Christians. And that says WHAT about the shooter, exactly?
Ambiguous moral message: If you pick on your friends in school, you're bad. If you get picked on in school, you're probably bad too.

This story is continued in part 2.

“Anything is Possible”

The last time I was on AE, a woman used this line. I asked her if she understood that what is possible has no bearing on what is real. A friend of mine indicated he would have rather asked the woman if it’s possible she is wrong. I liked his reply better, because it creates an interesting situation: Is it possible that not all things are possible? And if so, doesn’t that mean that you’ve just said it’s possible that your assertion is incorrect?

What is impossible, on the other hand, has a great deal of bearing on what is real. A married bachelor or a square circle, for example, would be examples of things that are clearly not possible, because they would be contradictory by definition. Some things, in fact, we can demonstrate are not possible.

While I wouldn’t deny it is not a misuse of the term “possible” to say “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use of the term. And in the article below, I’m dealing with the more pragmatic usage (as in the headline), where people apply it as a means to express that which is not impossible, but also not a requirement of existence or definition. So, while I could say, “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use. Generally a person would say something like, “A square has (or must have) four sides,” as a requirement of a square, and the term “possible” would be reserved for what may be, but also is not required.

An atheist is anyone who does not believe a god exists, or who further adds that no god exists. An atheist, then, is not concerning himself with what is possible, but with what s/he believes is most likely to be true. And if this atheist is also a skeptic or counterapologist, s/he is also concerned with what evidence suggests is most likely true. But even the “hard” atheist is not making any sort of shocking claim. S/he’s not assuming anything each of us doesn’t assume daily for all sorts of situations. Here is an example of what I mean:

Scenario: John and Mary are happily married by their account. Mary has just left to go shopping for the afternoon. As she walked out of the house, John was watching a football game. After 30 minutes at the mall, can Mary claim John is not engaged in an infidelity? Is it “impossible” that John is now with another woman?

Of course, the only logical answer to that question is “no, it is not impossible. And even Mary cannot logically make such a claim.”

Based upon what we (including Mary) know, it is possible, for John to, at this moment, be with another woman. There is absolutely nothing stopping this from being a possible scenario.

However, based on the scene as described, has any reason been given for Mary to suspect that John actually is with another woman at this moment? No. Certainly he has opportunity—but opportunity and possibility are, obviously, not necessarily correlating to reality if the reality is that John is faithful.

Whenever we acknowledge an event or scenario is possible (not required, but may be), we are also acknowledging, whether we admit to it or not, that the opposite scenario must also be possible. So, to say “It’s possible John is unfaithful,” means, inescapably, that we are also saying that it might not be so—that it is, in that same moment, possible that John is faithful.

And this is the context in which most theist apologists use “possible,” in my experience—in a context where I must always hold as true both that John is possibly faithful and John is possibly unfaithful. But the moment I acknowledge one, I have acknowledged the other.

I have heard more times than I care to mention someone appeal to mathematical models of other dimensions and then insist that a god may be existing in such a dimension. In other words: It’s possible these mathematical models correlated to reality and that other dimensions exist; and it’s possible that something we would agree can be labeled as “gods” might exist within those other dimensions.

Yes. It’s possible. It’s also possible that reality does not correlated to the math. And it’s possible that even if there are other dimensions, there is nothing within them either of us would be remotely inclined to label as a “god.”

What does that tell us about reality? And how does that move forward as “evidence” for the existence of a god?

In other words—how do I take those two conflicting possibilities and convert them into beliefs?

We can believe that mutually conflicting possibilities exist. As John showed us, we actually must—since, for every “unknown, but possible” scenario, there is an equal and opposite “unknown, but possible” scenario. John is possibly faithful and possible unfaithful. And I believe this, and there is no conflict or contradiction in that framework.

However, I cannot both believe John is faithful and also believe that John is not faithful. That is very much a conflict and a contradiction. So, the atheist—who is concerned with what s/he believes, is not dealing with possibilities, but with what s/he actually believes is correlating to reality. The fact that many things are possible does not help us to determine what we should believe to be true.

The hard atheist, then, is not saying anything more critical than Mary would be to insist that "John is faithful to me." And how many spouses would feel safe making that statement—even without 24-hour surveillance on their husbands/wives? Surely some would be wrong. But we can all grasp the pragmatic reality that we make such statements daily with an unstated asterisk behind them that leads to the footnote, "to the best of my knowledge." Saying no god exists is no more than this. And saying I believe god does not exist is to say even less—even less than people (atheists and theists alike) assert every day about all sorts of things of which they cannot be sure.

And I’m a little concerned now that quite a lot of time and energy is spent in dialogues with theists about what might be possible and what that would mean for reality if what were possible were actually true. Such discussions are fine if people enjoy philosophical exploration for the sake of sheer exploration. But if the dialogue is about “why should I believe a god exists?,” they are an utter waste of the atheist's (and, therefore, also the theist's) time. They get us no closer to truth. This is one reason, it just dawned on me, that Pascal’s Wager is not at all compelling to me. Despite the many faults with this particular apologetic offering, the main problem with it, for me, is that it starts out with an assumption that we should operate on pure possibilities without any consideration regarding whether or not those possibilities can be shown to correlate to reality. And who in the world operates using that model in their day-to-day life?

It’s possible I’m hallucinating traffic signals. And certainly if I am, the consequences will be dire if I attempt to drive. It’s far safer, then, to not drive my car. But would I be wise to function in that mode of reason in my life? Obviously not.

I submit that discussions that begin with a premise of “possible,” be nipped in the bud—unless philosophical discussion is what you’re into. As soon as the apologist goes down the path of, “in mathematics, there are models of other dimensions,” or anything else that is “possible” but not known to correlate to reality, the response should be to ask if they are intent on discussing what is most likely to be true or merely what is possible. Because I will acknowledge off the bat that any number of “possible” gods can be defined. But that doesn’t offer me any compelling reason to believe that any of them correlate to what really exists. And if their premise starts off with what is possible—how do they intend to get to what is convincingly true? The premise is possible, but so is the negation of the premise—so there had better be some really compelling reason for me to move forward on such a premise.

When someone puts forward to me that "X is possible" as a premise for believing in god, I will hopefully remember to point out that "–X is also possible," and ask if they believe that as well, since it is also a possible scenario. I simply wonder if it would not be best to not pursue fruitless arguments about what is possible, but to simply negate the possibilities until it sinks into this type of apologist’s head that “possible,” when used in this vein, is utterly bankrupt of meaning. If “it is possible god exists” is a reason to believe, then surely “it is possible god does not exist,” is just as much a reason to disbelieve. I, though, see neither as a reason for anything, and I will try to remember to press this point at every opportunity to see if it actually can get the apologist’s mental light bulb to click “on,”—not to get them to agree with me, but to at least make them understand the fallacy they’re working under with this particular line of “reasoning.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Inequality via threats

In my August 10th Atheist Experience co-host gig (episode #565), I talked about the alleged "threat" of equality and why there was such a shrill opposition to it. California is a hot spot right now in that battle and there has been an interesting development there.

Some context: In May, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state must allow same-sex marriages under the state Constitution. Not surprisingly, conservatives (Christians mostly) have mounted an effort for a vote amending the California State Constitution known as Proposition 8. The main opposition to the proposition is Much of their literature refers to a popular vote they had on same sex marriage in the state (Proposition 22 in 2000, a DOMA-style initiative), which got 61% of the vote. That was about the majority inflicting its will on the minority. California Supreme Court overturned the old Proposition 22 with this ruling.

In their usual style, proponents of inequality have trotted out the usual lies and scare tactics. The incomes of conservative Christian demagogues hang in the balance. If gays have full rights and can marry, these people lose a feared enemy and their churches (income sources) become split over biblical interpretation over gay rights. Let's throw in polygamy, too, while we're at it and re-open that old slavery thing, just for good measure. [Addendum: I have recently been informed that the Mormons have funded 77% of the work on the initiative, most from out of state. They have also funded a number of similar efforts since the first Hawaii battle over same-sex marriage recognition.]

Apparently, with all the liberal voters coming out in droves this election (thanks, George!), the Proposition 8 proponents are getting a little desperate. Their latest gimmick is to figure out who supported the other side and write little threat letters extorting money from them. One such letter, sent from to a San Diego Realtor recently surfaced. In it, they make the jaw dropping extortion threat:
"Were you to elect not to donate comparably, it would be a clear indication that you are in opposition to traditional marriage. You would leave us no other reasonable assumption. The names of any companies...that choose not to be published.

...We will contact you shortly to discuss your contribution."
Apparently, the threat of equality is so scary to these people that they are willing to threaten others. I sincerely hope this Nazi-style coercion tactic backfires on these thugs and they all have to scramble to find honest jobs sometime soon.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Jesus tie-dyed for our sins...

Microbiologychick sent me a link to an article written by a student at ETSU. I submitted the following response, but I have no idea if or when it'll be published - so my friend suggested I post this here. Run over and read the response will wait.

I would definitely agree that there's a similarity between a tie-dyed T-shirt and some of the common conceptions of gods. The human mind is a pattern-seeking machine that attempts to identify, catalog and gain an understanding of the world around us. This is a critical skill, to be sure, but we're also prone to imbuing patterns with meaning when there's no good reason to do so. Our penchant for seeing face-like images in patterns (pareidolia) is a prime example and, in a slightly more metaphoric sense, so is your tie-dye analogy.

You began by pointing out that, in your eyes, a tie-dye shirt is more than just a pattern and a shirt. That's a fair (and telling) observation. You're actively looking for something more and if you can manage to create a connection, no matter how tenuous, that's satisfying.

In reality, the pattern of a tie-dye shirt is entirely the result of the purely natural process that led to it's existence. There was, most likely, no grand design that led to the resulting pattern. (NOTE: I'm referring to the standard method in relation to the resulting pattern...there are methods for making specific patterns.) The method was very likely the result of experimentation which weeded out the methods that didn't produce such interesting and aesthetically pleasing results. It's still a beautiful and interesting pattern, but there is no need to "open your heart" to see it for more than it is.

What's wrong with just enjoying the beautiful pattern, taking pleasure in the creativity of the method and appreciating the natural laws that dictate the final pattern while allowing for great diversity?

A flower is a beautiful and glorious part of nature that can be celebrated and appreciated for exactly what it is - the result of a lengthy process of change filtered by natural selection that results in the current, beautiful blending of form and function. Why diminish that appreciation by claiming that the flower is the special creation of some supreme being? If there was some supreme being, couldn't he have created something more glorious than we could comprehend? Wouldn't a flower be a trivial bit of work?

Some might ask, "What's the harm in seeing meaning that may not exist?" - and that's a great question.

I'm a fan of art, poetry and beauty. I'm a fan of trying to understand the world as clearly as possible. I'm a fan of scratching below the surface...but I'm also a fan of reality. I actually care whether or not my beliefs are true - and not just whether or not they feel good. I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible and I'm baffled as to why everyone else doesn't.

So, where's the harm in Whitney's particular style of pattern seeking? She seems happy, she has a positive outlook, she clearly enjoys expressing her views in the hope of helping others...what's wrong with that?

There may not be anything significantly wrong with it. However, when I read her article I was able to appreciate the beauty of a human mind for exactly what it is. I'm able to appreciate the strengths, weaknesses, emotion, curiosity and wonder - and I'm able to attribute both praise and criticism directly to that individual without diverting any of that credit to a deity.

Whitney, though, feels that she couldn't be anything without her god...and this means that she can neither take credit for her accomplishments nor own up to her failings. It's a stagnating position that, in extreme cases, causes people to abandon their humanity.

Most people manage to enjoy mentally healthy, happy, reasonably well-adjusted lives, regardless of their religious/supernatural/superstitious views. I'd never argue that these views are, in all cases, to all people, poisonous views that cripple an individual. I do, though, think they very often can be and that in nearly every case they negatively and unnecessarily limit the mind to some degree. How could they not?

See the world for what it is, there's enough beauty, passion, joy, intrigue, mystery and wonder without tilting at windmills.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Debate flow

This is not about atheism, but I thought people with an interest in debating would like to see it. In response to my discussion of the Australia atheism debate, Crucifinch asked:

you mentioned debate flowing which I am unfamiliar with. Do you know of any good resources for introduction debate flowing? I found a few online about how to make a flow -better- but nothing that could serve as a good base.

I can't find what appears to be a definitive guide to Flow online -- this Wikipedia article looks like it has some good links, but it is about Policy debate. Alan and Mike did something that is a lot more similar to Lincoln/Douglas debate, which is what I did in high school. It's centered around the notion of philosophy and values, the style is looser, and there is no specific "plan" that is being critiqued.

I'll outline what I know about LD flowing, although it's been quite a few years. Here's what you do. Take a plain yellow legal pad open to a blank page. Tilt it 90 degrees counterclockwise, so that the binding is by your left hand. Draw a horizontal line across the page to divide it in half. Then, draw enough vertical lines to divide the page into as many horizontal boxes as there will be speeches. For example, in a typical LD debate, there are five separate speeches, with the first debater (arguing the "affirmative" position) speaking in the first, third, and fifth segments; and the second debater (arguing the "negative" position) getting a slightly longer amount of time in the second and fourth segments. In Alan's debate, there were only four long sections.

So assuming we talk about Alan's debate, you will have four sections across the page, divided into top (for Mike's arguments) and bottom (for Alan's). Label the upper boxes across, "1A" (first affirmative speech), "1N" (first negative), then 2A and 2N.

Now, in the first round, you will write down an outline of Mike's speech. There isn't a ton of room, so make sure you just write the most important Big Picture points and they fit on one or two lines each. You won't write anything on the bottom, because Alan hasn't spoken yet. You won't be writing any case information in the lower left corner, but if there is a cross-examination period then feel free to write down possible questions to the other person in that space.

In the second round, you will start out writing in the bottom box under "1N". Alan presents his own case first, so he makes original arguments. But after he has finished this, he will want to respond to Mike's arguments at some level of detail. Draw a horizontal arrow leading from Mike's 1A on top to Alan's 1N on top. During preparation time, you should jot down how you plan to respond to these arguments, in the second box. Then you hit each point in turn and sit down.

On Mike's next turn, 2A, he will respond to your original points from 1N bottom, AND attempt to counter your arguments to his 1A case. So you write more arrows, showing a continuous horizontal flow for each argument as the round goes on. If Mike fails to respond to Alan's point, go ahead and put a big "X" next to the argument because it's over. Remember to call attention to it later! You want everyone in the room to be aware that you made an argument which was so good that Mike tried to get away without answering it. Repeat the argument too, to remind people of what you said when you scored this hit. This process will continue all the way to the last round.

Since you already know your own case in advance, you should prepare a flow sheet ahead of time and fill in the "1A top" box or the "1N bottom" box, so that you don't have to waste time writing your own case during the debate. Planning this outline will also help you write your case to begin with, because it focuses your attention on creating a broad structure to your argument which is easy to follow. I like to write presentations in outline format so that you make large points I, II, and III; and then you make subpoints IA, IB, IIA, IIB, and so on. Rule of thumb, if you break it down effectively then you should be writing maybe 7-15 lines per box. If your opponent's case is well structured, then you should be able to format his box in about the same style. If not, count your blessings and prepare to take him to task for throwing out a mishmash of disorganized thoughts. :)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Constructive criticism on the rumble in Sydney

I'd like to thank Rachel Macalpine again for sending me the debate between Alan Conradi of the Sydney Atheists and minister Mike Paget. Since I recently did a lecture on evangelical atheism, this seems like a good opportunity to point out some techniques in action. I've asked if I can provide constructive feedback on this blog, and gotten permission. So here goes.

First of all, Alan, I applaud you for going out and doing this. There needs to be more direct confrontation between atheists and Christians, and it's good publicity for your group.

As an atheist, of course, I am highly biased and thought that your arguments were correct and Mike's were not. But if I were a "neutral" observer, scoring the debate purely on points won and style, I would probably wind up awarding Mike a TKO victory on that basis. I don't think you should feel bad about this at all, because it seems to me that Mike had a few notable advantages right from the start, and you stacked up really well against him. I'm going to try to approach it from a presentation angle and see if we can get you to do even better the next time.

First of all, let me make an important point from the start. A live, face-to-face debate is not an email debate, nor is it a peer reviewed scientific paper. It might help if you think of debate more like something equivalent to stand-up comedy. In both pursuits, you live or die by what the audience thinks of you. If you're not bringing the audience along with you, you can tell it in their faces and their audio cues.
Because you are not working with a written format, the audience has to proceed at the pace you give them. They can't stop to think about your words, they don't always know for sure what you mean to say, and they can't pause in the middle to fact check you.

At any given moment, they are either enjoying your performance or they aren't. If they enjoy you, then they will laugh and clap, and that raises your spirits and you present more confidently. If you're losing the audience, if you can practically hear the crickets chirp, then it throws you off your psychological game and you have a greater tendency to stumble. This is one of the motivations behind David Sirlin's principle that it's better to play offense than defense in most games.
If you rush to get an early advantage, then a small edge can snowball into a large win.

Now this is where Mike has a big advantage right from the outset: Mike is a minister. He does this for a living and you don't. He's right there in front of a crowd every single week, working the audience and figuring out how to keep them wrapped up in his words for an hour or so. And it shows. Mike went to the podium and flattered the audience and the hosts, then loosened up the crowd with some jokes, got them laughing with him early, and then pretty much entertained as he preached.

By contrast, your opening presentation seemed light on the funny and heavy on the scientific exposition. "I intend to accurately define atheism and show you that the atheistic position on God is the most sensible stance to take. I will also explain that the Christian take does not make sense." There's nothing PARTICULARLY wrong with that, but it doesn't exactly grab the attention and hold on. There is actually an important principle of comedy, which is this: Always open with your second-best joke, and always close with your best joke. I could explain this, but if you think about it for a minute I think the reasoning should be obvious.

So, what's the best joke available to you that both captures the audience and makes them immediately understand what you want them to know? I don't know, but as I watched Mike's opening I tried to ad-lib what I would say if I got dropped into your position. Mike's whole opening was an attack on atheism, and what he said was that because atheism does not make sense, God -- which is the alternative to atheism, and which naturally explains the unexplainable -- must logically be seen as superior. He didn't get around to actually defending Christianity until later.

Here's the opener I came up with: For decades people have reported unexplained disappearances of ships and planes in the Bermuda Triangle. Until now, nobody has understood the cause, but now I do: hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon. Now you might say, "But Russell, how can you be so sure that there are any hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon?" And I would say "Simple. Obviously any fool can see that if those aliens existed then they would have the POWER to cause those disappearances, and therefore since we don't have another explanation, we must go with the only proposed explanation that makes sense."

You see what I'm getting at? It probably needs some tweaking, but one of my first principles in an argument is, show don't tell. Never simply assert that an idea is ridiculous; reframe the idea in a subtle way that is OBVIOUSLY ridiculous. It's not just that there is no god. It's that his argument is totally flawed, and even the religious audience might see the way it's flawed if you entice them to come along in your reasoning.

Here's another natural disadvantage you had: Mike went first. Traditionally in a debate, the first guy to talk is able to easily launch an offense while the second guy is on defense. So I'm curious: was this discussed before hand? Was it assumed that the minister gets to go first, and did you make any effort to push back on that rule? Might be something to think about for next time... at least insist on a coin flip if there wasn't one.

Even going second though, you have to keep something in mind. The question as it was written is fairly balanced. There are two sides to it: Which makes more sense, atheism or Christianity? Like the joke about the two hikers fleeing from a bear, I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU. Defending atheism as a reasonable position is fine, but your chief job is to press the offense and make it clear that Christianity makes no sense. Oh sure, the universe didn't create itself. So what does that mean, that it makes sense to assume the existence of the invisible sky pixie who knows everything? On what grounds should I take that more seriously than the Zebulonians?

There is, of course, all kinds of bullshit that you can illuminate in Christianity: talking snakes, loaves and fishes, people ready to kill their children based on a voice in their head. If you throw that stuff out of context it sounds like nonsense. The notion that we don't know FOR SURE what the origins of the universe are pales when you compare it on a ridiculousness scale to Christianity. The Christian position is: "I get to make shit up, and unless you can prove my fantasy wrong, then it wins." Not true at all.

Don't be afraid to point that out. You don't want to look like you're abusing your opponent, but you're not under any obligation to pull your punches when you have the opportunity to score a hit. You can defuse the situation a little by calling the opponent by his name, to look a little more chummy, and soften your words with a little flattery. I.e., "Now Mike, you're a smart guy, but do you really believe THAT?" Don't overdo it, but using the opponent's name is an effective tool in establishing audience rapport.

As I saw it, when it was Mike's turn to talk, he talked about atheism. Then when it was your turn to talk, you talked about atheism. Thus, without a word of discussion between the two of you, Mike declared what the terms of the debate would be, and you accepted his terms. Now, it's completely natural for that to happen, because as I said, Mike has that advantage by going first. But you are not required to quietly accept the terms. In fact, it's completely fair for you to challenge the definition of what Mike thinks the debate is, and even call attention to the fact that you're doing it and why. Try this on for size:

"Mike talked a lot in his speech about what he thinks are the shortcomings of atheism. One thing you'll notice that he did not do is provide any good reason why Christianity makes sense. As I heard it, the debate topic was to be, which makes MORE sense, atheism or Christianity? Now, I can understand why Mike would prefer not to talk very much about Christianity at all, because when you take a closer look at the principles he is trying to defend, they really don't stand up very well. In order to win, really my opponent has to meet such-and-such obligation, and I'm sure you are all with me in seeing that he has not yet met this obligation." etc.

Boom. You don't just deflect his points, you totally change the terms of the debate to a setup that favors you. As I said at my lecture, when you're playing defense, the best thing you can do is "not lose" -- when you're playing offense, you can WIN. I'm not saying that you shouldn't defend atheism against his charges, of course. But you've got a limited amount of time to talk, and this is about adjusting your priorities. Make sure to make it clear that atheism is the DEFAULT position. It does not assume the existence of anything that is not already accepted by all parties: we know the universe exists, we know that people exist, and Mike even accepted some basic science up front when he declared that he accepts evolution. Take advantage of that concession and don't waste your time "proving" anything about evolution or creationism from then on, but DO refer frequently back to the ground that he's yielded to you. Even if there are creationists in the audience, they've already lost, because their side does not have a dog in this fight.

"Now Mike's already accepted huge swaths of science as explanatory for aspects of our universe, so I'm happy to agree with my distinguished opponent on that point." [Never pass up the chance to be gracious if it doesn't hurt your case!] "However, Mike's the only one on this stage who is so uncomfortable with gaps in our knowledge that he feels he must assume the existence of something which, come on let's face it, is way beyond wildly improbable when you look at it objectively."

Okay, next point. Again, live performance is not the same as the printed word. You can assume that your audience will not be paying attention sometimes, and will miss things you say. You make them pay attention in two ways: By being forceful and hitting them in an emotional place, and by repeating your key points. Because people learn things through repetition.

Let me say that again.

People learn things through repetition.

If you've got a critical point to make, then make it early and make it often. The first time you make the point, you have to explain it. The next time you make the point, you merely have to refer back to it. "As I already said a minute ago, Occam's Razor..." or "Mike's STILL avoiding the burden of proof, you remember when I pointed that out in my last speech?"

Because you see, people learn things through repetition. On one level, you're simply reminding them of a concept that they already learned, and driving it home. On another level, you're giving the audience the chance to internalize this as "Wow, this point is really coming up a lot... Alan must think it's a real winner for him!" You've encouraged them to see you in a winning light. And as a final benefit, if you badger your opponent a lot then he will have to respond to that point thoroughly or look bad. Remember, every minute he uses up responding to YOUR topic is a minute when he is merely "not losing" but failing to press his own case forward.

And also, people learn things through repetition.

Okay, obviously I'm trying to be funny (though I may fail). Let me go back to principles of comedy. I don't know if you're familiar with the humor columnist Dave Barry, but he frequently closes his essays with a sly reference back to something he already said.

Let me find you an example. Take a look at this 2001 column about taxes. Somewhere in the middle of the column, Dave writes:

Also, if you are an ostrich rancher, you can claim the depreciation on your ostriches. The IRS doesn't give an exact amount, so let's say for the sake of argument that your ostriches have depreciated to the tune of $4,800, or, rounding off, $17,000. If the IRS questions this figure, explain that you had to start raising ostriches because you were unable to make ends meet with just the whaling. That way your story is basically airtight.

Okay, now to start with, the idea of being an ostrich rancher is very silly all by itself, so Dave got a cheap laugh out of the visual image. But then skip down to the end of the column, which concludes:

In conclusion, I hope this tax guide has been helpful. If you follow my advice, and the IRS asks you where you got your information, remember to give them my full name, George Will. Good luck!

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to harpoon an ostrich.

Ah, see there, he didn't have to explain what he was talking about, because if he did his job right the first time, then you're ALREADY amused when you think about ostriches, so he's taking advantage of previous groundwork. By doing this, he's able to make an existing joke seem funnier, even if it was only worth a small chuckle the first time, and this also plays into the idea that you close with your best joke. It's an okay joke, but now it's amplified.

Case in point, suppose you had used my "Aliens from Zebulon" introduction. You can get a lot of mileage throughout the debate from repeatedly bringing them up. Even those who are against you will be able to laugh at something that is so over the top silly, which lightens the mood, and induces positive feelings about you. If you don't overuse it early, that can even be a valuable part of a solid closer: "Remember, Christianity can't make more sense than atheism, because Christianity makes even less sense than Zebulonians." Okay, that's a mediocre effort on my part, but you get what I mean... a good closing punch should make the case that YOU WON, go out with a potential laugh, and make your opponent sound ridiculous enough that people would be hesitant to side with him. All in one sentence!

As I said before, being a good debater has a lot in common with being a good comedian. (There, you see? I repeated myself. Because people learn through repetition.) Strong points become better when you drive them home. So the lesson is, if you have a point to make, do not save it for the end, because there's no time for it to sink in. For instance, if you're in your last five minutes, and you find you have to explain what "Occam's Razor" means, then it's probably already too late for that to make an impact. Throw it away if you can, and stick to amplifying arguments that you've already won. Or if you really think you can't do without it, for goodness sake do it earlier next time!

Actually, on the same note, I probably wouldn't bother using technical terms like "Occam's Razor" at all, most of the time. First of all, Occam's Razor isn't even a rule or anything, it's just a guideline. It has no authority, and if you invoke it, you risk getting bogged down in an argument about whether Occam's Razor is really valid, or who's meeting the conditions of Occam's Razor better. Besides, using fancy-pants philosophy terms makes you sound like an egghead, and you're ALREADY saddled with that handicap because you're the guy who cares about "evidence" and "reason." Describe the concept behind Occam's Razor, or illustrate it with a clever anecdote, but don't name the term as if you expected it to carry authority. The place for formal names of fallacies and philosophy of science terms is in a lecture hall or a textbook -- not in a situation where someone like Mike is busy trying to knock you out. You can spend your time better.

In formal debates, there is a popular style of note-taking known as "flowing." You might want to look into it, as it helps you keep track of key arguments so you can jog your memory about which points are strong for you. When you flow, you write down shorthand summaries of the major arguments for each side as you see them, and then you draw arrows across the page to more text that shows where that argument stands in each round. By glancing at this sheet, you can quickly assess which arguments are weak enough to ignore, and which arguments are important to counter. You can also nail your opponent when you say "Remember I brought up this point which made my case so strongly? He didn't say a word about it."

Alan, I hope you've taken this all in the spirit that I intended it. Some of this sounds like I'm beating up on your performance, but I thought it was a strong presentation that could be better. I want to see you and your friends do more of this, and become serious forces to be reckoned with. There were just a few choppy moments where you had long uncomfortable pauses while you tried to compose your notes, but really, I don't need to criticize those at all. That is the kind of thing that comes to you through practice, because the more you debate, the more you move towards the horizon where you know everything.

I would like to conclude by pointing out a couple of places where I thought you did really well. It was choppier in the beginning, and as you moved toward last speech, you seemed to grow into your confidence, and you threw out a couple of zingers near the end which obviously went over really well with the audience. One was, "Using the Bible to prove the Bible is like proving the existence of Batman by reading Batman comics." Love it. Don't change it. I like to use comic book metaphors too, because they're easy to grasp AND funny. Besides the laugh you got, you'll notice that you also forced Mike to respond to this charge by saying "The Bible is so totally not like Batman!" Just think about all the constructive things that he could have been saying, during the time when instead he was forced to make the case that he is not QUITE as ridiculous as an imaginary tights-wearing crimefighter.

Also, near the end I guess Mike said something about how he shouldn't be expected to prove God, and you said something like "It's not our fault that you guys haven't come up with the goods!" Outstanding. When your opponent is drowning, throw the sonofabitch an anvil. (James Carville line. I like it.)

Until you have the hang of extemporaneous speaking, consider finishing your opening speech way ahead of time and rehearsing it in front of your family. The first few minutes is when you will be most prone to stage fright -- it still happens to me! -- so it's important that you know the material cold and can deliver it in your sleep, in a confident and winning manner. After that critical time period has passed, you will grow accustomed to all the people and you can ad-lib a lot easier.

Finally, let me give you another idea for a closer. Right near the end you said "Christianity makes some sense" -- that is a concession you do NOT need to make. If you have to say something that sounds like a compliment, but it's a major aspect of the subject you're trying to discredit, then you'd be better off making it a backhanded compliment that undercuts the position, like "I admit that Christianity is appealing and may feel good to believe." Same point made, but quite the opposite of letting people see your opponent as rational. Then you're in a great place to declare that you won: "...but it should be OBVIOUS to everyone here that atheism, as the position that makes no such outlandish assumptions, makes more SENSE."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rumble in Sydney

Last week, our good friend Alan Conradi, hailing from the Sydney Atheists group (in Australia), performed a live stage debate discussing the topic "Which makes more sense: Atheism or Christianity?" Here's the video.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I voted today!

Go me!

This early voting thing is fantastic, especially if you want to beat the mobs on Election Day. Granted, I've read of long lines in some cities, which ought to be an indicator of just how high voter turnout will be this year, and which is hopefully an indicator of how many voters are motivated by a real "mad as hell and not going to take it any more" desire for change. In the past I've only ever voted on the day, and have stood in line for upwards of three hours. Today I just walked in, did my bit, and got out of there in about as much time as it takes to order lunch at Sonic. It was one of those head-smacking "What was I thinking?" moments, you might say.

Seriously, just do it now.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Wildmon is simply freaking!

Donald Wildmon, patriarch of the American "Family" Association, is really really upset that McCain/Palin are flailin' in the polls, you betcha, and he's sent out one of the AFA's typically histrionic "Action Alert" e-mails in the hopes of rallying the Hate+Fear Brigade to save America from the scary libruls.

After the usual whining, blaming the ascent of Obama to obviously slanted reportage from the "liberal media" — as if they were the ones responsible for Palin's inability to answer a direct question from a journalist with anything resembling a coherent sentence or displaying even passing knowledge of the topic at hand; as if they were the ones responsible for ramping up the hate rhetoric at recent McCain/Palin rallies, prompting those stalwart supporters of the far right to shout things like "Kill him [Obama, that is]!" within earshot of TV crews; as if they were the ones responsible for McCain's failing to articulate any kind of platform to support the idea that his administration would be anything more than a continuance of the neocon string of disasters that Bush is leaving behind — Wildmon goes into full-on "end of days" Armageddon mode.

If the liberals win the upcoming election, America as we have known it will no longer exist. This country that we love, founded on Judeo-Christian values, will cease to exist and will be replaced by a secular state hostile to Christianity. This “city set on a hill” which our forefathers founded, will go dark. The damage will be deep and long lasting. It cannot be turned around in the next election, or the one after that, or by any election in the future. The damage will be permanent. That is why it is so important for you to vote and to encourage friends and family to vote. This is one election where your vote really counts.

Slippery slope much, Don? Well, this is all grist for the mill, after all. Getting people worked up into a lather of fear is fundamentalism's stock in trade, and it's a rhetorical tactic understood by many an ideological zealot in the political realm since time immemorial. Such as...

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

No, I'm not Godwinning by bringing up Goering's famous remarks about war. I'm merely pointing out that Wildmon's principle here is the same. "We're being attacked! [by evil secular libruls who want to take our Bibles away] Vote now, or we'll be exposed to danger!" An appeal to fear, with no basis in reality, in order to get his followers to vote his way.

So yes, everyone should vote, and do it early. Because what Wildmon means when he talks about the "Christianity" he says is threatened is his own, particular brand of homophobic, xenophobic, anti-science, anti-progress, anti-equality arch-fundamentalism. It doesn't even include liberal Christians, those millions of believers who don't think that "get the fags!" was part of Jesus's message. To Wildmon, those kinds of Christians doubtless hold pride of place on his "Not True Christians™" list.

So vote, all you secular liberals! And won't Wildmon be surprised when, in a liberal secular America, religious freedom is allowed to flourish? Sure, there will be some things you aren't allowed to do. Such as use the government to promote your beliefs over others, or to impose your beliefs as "alternative theories" in science classrooms. But prohibitions like that are all in keeping with supporting religious freedom. After all, if you make Christian prayer mandatory in public schools again, what does that mean for all those non-Christian students? The Jews, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans and otherwise? (The typical AFA answer to that question, I suspect, would be "Screw 'em, they're going to hell anyway," which is not exactly productive. But dealing with fundie ideologues rarely is.)

Anyway, those are examples of conditions our Constitution already covers. That's another difference between secular liberals and fundie neocons. We respect the Constitution, while they only ever treat it like a list of technicalities to be gotten around.

America as Wildmon thinks he has known it — a thoroughly fascistic, totalitarian Christian theocracy — has never existed. And though the neocons have been doing all they can to bring it about over the last eight years, a vote for the sane ticket — the one Wildmon fears to the core of his pitiful, benighted little black heart — will ensure that America remains the country it was in truth founded to be.

So vote! After all, we all want to read the despair-laden blatherings that will issue from Wildmon's pen on November 5, after Obama has won, don't we?

Blog meme: My first day as an Atheist

Via Kafir Girl, I noticed that a new meme has sprung up ex nihilo.  My little ego is sensitive enough that, even though we haven't been tagged yet, I ASSUME we will be soon enough.  May as well go ahead and save time by responding now.  Unfortunately, my answers are likely to be extremely boring, as you're about to find out.

Can You Remember The Day That You Officially Became An Atheist?

Erm, yeah, I suppose that would be September 9, 1974, when I was born.  :)

However, I wasn't a thoughtful atheist until I got challenged around the age of six.  I remember chatting with a school friend in Alabama, who couldn't really wrap his mind around the concept -- "Who created the universe, then?"  I didn't have an answer.  I asked my dad the physicist, "Do we believe The Nothing created the universe?"  He was delighted to give me a kid-level rundown of what we know about cosmology, and I started thinking about the implications of my non-belief after that.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

Not as dumb a question as you might think in my case.  The concept of an agnostic-atheist wasn't really a notion in my mind until after some long discussions with fellow ACA members.  However, until college I possessed some of the arrogant certainty of youth.  Ironically, while theists warn their kids about the faith-destroying influence of academia, having to write and defend arguments in early classes really made me take the question of "What if you're wrong?" seriously for the first time.

I tried some experimental prayer.  As George Carlin pointed out, it works about 50% of the time.  Unless, of course, you pray for something really specific and unlikely, and then it doesn't work at all.  Nevertheless, I still don't outright dismiss the question "What if you're wrong," and still keep an eye out for the possibility that additional evidence might pop up.  My dad thinks this is too soft a position.  It's one of our few serious disagreements.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

Here is a good one: Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

I can't remember ever really taking the idea of ghosts seriously.  Interestingly, this is a position that is apt to get me called "closed minded" even by some people who you think would know better.

Do you want to be wrong?

I'll be blunt: I'm not down with this whole "dying" thing.  There's a song that used to play on the radio often, about only having a hundred years to live.  It was very wistful and I had to turn it off when it started, because it depressed the hell out of me.  As Woody Allen said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

Other than that, no.  Reality pwns religion.

I'm going to take the lazy way of forwarding this meme, because I don't frequent many atheist blogs that aren't already famous enough to have somebody else forward it.  However, Martin, Matt, Tracie, Don, and Jen can all add their answers in if they want to.

Besides that, I offer one fairly new atheist blog that nobody's ever seen before: Tommy Holland, you're it.  (The name is a pseudonym.  "Tommy" was a convert several years ago, I knew him when he was nominally Christian.)

ACA Publishes Voters' Guide

The ACA has completed its 2008 Voters' Guide project this week. The Voters' Guide is meant to provide information to voters in Texas from state and national candidates on issues that atheists care about. We posed 23 statements to 482 candidates and asked their level of agreement or disagreement with the statements. We got 50 responses, which is better than we expected.

Here are some related links:
  • Our press release on the guide (a good introduction). This was sent out Wednesday.
  • The main Web page (if you forward a link, use this one).
  • The questions (my favorite is #3 concerning conflict of interest).
  • The results (there are a handful of different formats).
Our press release has caused a little buzz already:
We would appreciate help in spreading the word about this resource--especially to people in Texas. The questions should be of interest to many people besides just atheists. Also, if people see additional links about the effort, I'd appreciate knowing about them.

If you have any feedback on the effort, that would be helpful, too, though it's too late to change most things. We will likely attempt this again in future elections.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fixed video on atheist evangelism

I repaired the earlier post with the video, but I figured I might as well repost it. This is the full 82 minute version.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Your messages for Possummomma

Several folks have left comments at the previous post, offering their well-wishes. But consider this an open comments thread where the idea is that you post a message directly to Possummomma herself, as if she were reading it (which she will, because I'm emailing her the link to this post). If her blogging has impacted you — and it's impacted many of us — let her know.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Concern over Possummomma

Some folks may have noticed that Possummomma's blog has been inaccessible for some days. I've been in touch with her via email, and can assure everyone that this is nothing to do with her or the family being in any kind of imminent physical danger. Yes, there is a situation in play involving some vile scumbag who threatened the lives of her kids, necessitating a panicked return from a camping trip that, as children, they should have had the right to enjoy without interference from theistic madness. But that fellow is currently facing criminal charges, the law is on it, and so that situation can be considered under control.

What has been going on involves a pattern of online harassment she's been having to deal with, that is literally too bizarre to be described. Sorry not to be more specific than that, but I figure if she ever wants to come back online and spill the details (and she hasn't wanted to so far, mainly so as not to seem as if she's giving the people responsible any legitimacy, which I understand), that's up to her. But she did want me to let everyone know that they are all, at the very least, safe.

I don't know what it is about P-Momma, that's she's proved to be some kind of Internet maniac magnet. But I've assured her that there's no reason for the current nonsense she's been experiencing to cause her to quit blogging altogether, which she seemed resigned to in her last email to me. I've told her, hey, just go over to Wordpress, start up again there. But don't let assholes stifle your right to speech. Where would any of us be if we caved whenever people who can't stand anyone different from them tried to intimidate us into silence? Sure, I know, with P-Momma's health, and her concerns over the safety of her kids, it can be easy to find your energy wearing out after a while. But I support her, and I know her readers, a lot of whom also stop by here, support her too. There are a lot more decent folks out there on her side, than there are fools and madmen (and madwomen) with a desperate need to assuage the feelings of inadequacy their superstitions cannot compensate for by making life miserable for a mom and her little kids.

Addendum: Calladus has the most thorough accounting of what's happened. Seriously, it's frickin' insane.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I get email...

I got an e-mail today from a young man who hasn't written in months. The author e-mailed me many months ago, to tell us just how horrible we were. Here's are a few snippets from his previous e-mails, with a short note on my response...and at the end I'll include today's e-mail - which won't be getting a response:

"God speaks upon people like you in the great book. You people and yes i say you people are all logical and need everything handed to you. You expect God to hand you everything, i bet half you on this stupid committee are homosexual. Its a sick world we live in these days and you just make it even more sicker. The time will come for all of you, i bet if God was too strike down on earth as your reading this you would be crying to a precher in seconds. Now im not up with my religion but i do know that god gave us a life to live, all he wanted us to do is ask him to be our savior. Why would he give to us if we cant give back to him, think, thats probably why your lost now...Your selfish and want everything in front of you."

I asked whether this e-mail was real, or Poe and noted how sad it made me. I addressed his points and got the following reply:

"I was searching the net to look at groups who are agaisnt homosexuals for my research and of course i come across you people. Sall you on Youtube and sick people are. You know damn well what great book im talking about and everything. Like i said before, you are the type who need to see it to believe it. I gaurantee most of youare gay i can tell by the videos i was watching. You point out every bad thing in the bible besides the good."

He's clearly obsessed with homosexuality and in his next e-mail, he continued his hate and told me his age...

"Confused and Lost...and homosexuals has a big role in this. I may not be the best at talking cause im only 14 but i know what i am talking about. All gays are going to hell no exceptions, just like you, and if you were to put my letter on the air you would have no logical reason to back anything up, only with more of your atheis questions. You cant take the truth, your weak minded, good luck in the after life."

At this point, we exchanged a few e-mails where I tried to carefully and politely offer my thoughts on his questions. I was deeply saddened that a young mind had been so crippled by dogma and hatred and was concerned, given his age, that we might be dealing with the confusing awakenings of puberty. After answering a couple of questions about religion...his tone changed:

"Ok i have done my share of research about God. I apologize for my opening statement i email to you, all i wanted to do was get more people to believe in God before its too late. God loves each and one of us dearly, All i really want to say is MAY GOD BE WITH YOU"

A few more e-mails were exchanged when I received one from him that was far more thoughtful, covering the trials of human life, waiting for death, a lost soul trying to survive the trial, apologizing for any rude comments, begging me to "believe and ask for jesus to be your savior, and commit to being clean from sins."

I ended the conversation shortly after this and won't be replying. Several months have passed, and the following e-mail arrived in my inbox this morning. I see no reason to respond, or even comment on it here...

"PAIN and TORTURE. I have not forgotten about you my friend. Pain and Torture. As i keep researching atheist i realize, YOUR SCARED OF GOD. You know God, like no other point blank, for he is the Only God that exist. PAIN and TORTURE. You know his word automatically, its embeded into your brain. PAIN AND TORTURE. On youtube they have people saying I deny the exsistence of the Holy Spirit. PAIN AND TORTURE. Why is it that you hate on God so much, he has done nothing to you. PAIN AND TORUTRE. I mean if you want evidence go look in the mirror. PAIN AND TORTURE. I was told not to care for you, to hate people like you. PAIN AND TORTURE. But i realize that we were put here to help each other. PAIN AND TORTURE. But i realize you are full of stupidity, and will soon be full of regret if you dont change. PAIN AND TORTURE. What else can God do for you, let me guess show himself. PAIN AND TORTURE.

Enjoy this life, becasue if your going to be an athiest forever, your next one wont be so joyful. Lets just say there will be alot of NASHING OF THE TEETH. "

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

How atheists can be effective evangelists

Unfortunately the video of my lecture is cut off after 27 minutes, when it went on more than twice that long. I'm currently checking to see if we can correct that.

The official lecture page is on the ACA site, and you can download my slide presentation from there.

Update: the full 82 minute video is now available.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Copy and Paste Dialogue

I don’t mind a theist being inspired by another person’s arguments or ideas. I don’t mind a theist referencing someone else’s ideas and arguments in his own arguments. There’s nothing wrong with including a link or a quoted passage, in a correspondence, to someone else’s data or views. But if a person comes to me announcing that he wants to talk to me about his beliefs, he should at least do me the courtesy of presenting his beliefs—whether or not they are supplemented by the ideas of those who have influenced his thinking.

The author of Article X, from which the theist quotes, is not the person who contacted me to discuss her beliefs. If that author wants to hear my views about her beliefs, she is able to write to me and request my feedback. But I see no value in pretending that a long strand of copied and pasted material from her article is the view of the theist who wrote to me to dialogue about his beliefs.

If a theist writes and wants to know my response to a particular article or view that is not his own, that’s fine. But he should refrain from calling it his belief, if all he can do is parrot the argument of someone else. If he lacks sufficient understanding of the concept to be able to so much as restate it in his own terms or respond to questions without running back to the source, then he shouldn’t put it forward as his belief.

Forming our own beliefs in life is not the same as memorizing and internalizing someone else’s arguments and ideas. To label such things as our own beliefs is plagiaristic and shows a woeful lack of understanding about what constitutes forming beliefs of our own. In order to dialogue about what I believe requires I have a firm enough grasp on the belief to express it clearly, in my own terms, to others, and also to respond to questions without seeking input from any source beyond my own mind. Anything that can honestly be labeled as my belief can exist nowhere but inside my own mind. A prerequisite to holding a belief is understanding the belief. It is not possible for a person to both assert a proposition is true, and to fail to understand the proposition. When questioned about what we believe—why should we need to go and look it up? If I find myself looking up my response to a question that concerns what I claim I believe, clearly, I have a dilemma.

If someone were to ask me, for example, what I believe regarding UFO activity on our planet, I can’t imagine it would make sense to that person if I said, “give me a second to go and look up what Carl Sagan has to say about that, because I believe whatever he says.” How can I call it my belief if it (a) is not contained within my own mind, and (b) I don’t even know what it is I’m claiming I believe while I am asserting I accept it as true?

I seem to see more often than is comfortable long-winded e-mails that ultimately say, “I don’t understand it myself, but I absolutely believe it.”