Monday, August 30, 2010

Open thread about AE #672

We've received some pleas lately to have threads available to discuss the shows when they happen, so I'm going to try and grant that request. If you can't see a thread started each week, feel free to drop a line to asking for it.

I'm listening to the show right now, and I just finished with Denise the Christian caller hanging up on Matt. Good stuff. Want more. Our thanks to the person who taunted her into it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Clearly this is a discussion that is long overdue

Before a dozen people send me a link to this article: A Rational Approach to Irrationality let me just say that I've read it, it's more accommodationist dribble and as I agree with Jerry Coyne on the subject, I'll just send you over to read his response.

The only thing I'll add is this:

Pretending that religious delusions are harmless makes you part of the problem.
Promoting your kinder, gentler skepticism by way of decidedly unskeptical methods (unsupported assertions, emotional appeals and encouragements to be less critical with one's critical thinking) betrays the principles that make skepticism something people should aspire toward.

For the accommodationists, I'll put it bluntly, as the more diplomatic responses seem to go unanswered: You're still skeptics. You can still call yourself a skeptics (anyone can). You can still be part of the group and attend events and talk about skepticism.... but you're a very poor skeptic in this area. You've demonstrated a preference for style over substance and shown that you're willing to water down your skepticism for marketing purposes.

That's your prerogative - but if you continually try to pretend that you hold the skeptical high ground while encouraging others to water down their skepticism or disparaging those who most consistently apply skepticism, you've become part of the problem and the unapologetic defenders of reason, inquiry and skepticism will continue to call you out on this.

Doing my part to spread the word

Back during a few months when the TV show was being filmed from "Dillahunty International Studios" rather than its normal location at the public access TV station, we stopped eating at Threadgill's for a while and started going to a place near Lakeline Mall called Pluckers Wing Bar. Some people didn't like it, but I managed to get mildly addicted to their hot wings. :)

There's this challenge at Pluckers, that if you eat 25 "Fire in the Hole" wings, you get your picture taken for inclusion on the "Wall of Flame." I've been meaning to leave my mark there, so yesterday I skipped breakfast and lunch and went for it.

The picture I got is of me giving an anguished stare at the empty basket of bones. Written in sharpie at the bottom is the inscription: "There is NO GOD!" If you want to drop by and admire my handywork, I'm on the left side of the board near the ceiling, as that was the best spot I could find on the fairly crowded wall.

Also got a t-shirt for cheap (unless you count the price of 25 wings) so that I can proudly display my accomplishment the next time I'm on TV. I feel enriched and character developed, let me tell ya.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Good cop, bad cop?

Here's a chance to really demonstrate a problem (although it might guarantee that I'm not asked to speak at the University of Oregon)...

Lucy Gubbins has weighed in on the recent discussions about the skeptic schism.

She and I seem to agree on some things but she's managed to frame this entire subject so poorly that the good points almost get lost in the fray and she finishes it off with a call for the "firebrands" to be more accommodating of the accommodationists.
"In interactions with religious people, do we need the Good Cop, or the Bad?

As often as I hear this dialogue, the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the same: we need both."
I'm in agreement that we need many different voices to present information in many different ways to ensure that we have the best chance of reaching the largest audience, but when we start portraying this as "good cop" and "bad cop", we've already erred. Those of us who are most likely to be tossed into the "bad cop" category simply don't belong there because that category doesn't exist.

In reality, if we're going to stick with the cop analogy: we have an entire police force watching the highways and we all have discretionary control over when we're going to give a warning and when we're going to give a ticket or make an arrest.
"What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny? And what happens when this nonbeliever is a vocal opponent of what the “Bad Cops” are doing?"
That's actually pretty simple: they're entitled to their opinion but it doesn't mean that they get to define the skeptic or atheist community for others.

Sticking with the cop metaphor, these are the cops who are happy to give out tickets for reckless driving but they don't like giving out speeding tickets until someone is exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 MPH...and they're telling the cops that give out speeding tickets that they don't like what they're doing and they wish they'd stop.

Who are the bad cops? Are they the ones who cut too many breaks or too few? I'd say that both extremes are problematic...but I don't think we really see those extremes. What we see are people pretending that someone has crossed a line when they haven't and it all comes down to ego and personal offense. Here's a scenario that better represents the problem:

I pull someone over for a busted tail light, check their license and registration and notice that their inspection sticker expired 3 months ago. I could give them a ticket for both, either or neither.

I decide to write a ticket for one and give a warning for the other.

My partner steps out of the car and says "Hey, don't give them a ticket, it happens to everyone." And when I point out that I'm going to give them a ticket for one of the infractions, my partner says "Now you're just being a dick."

My partner may be trying to claim that giving people tickets:
- isn't effective in correcting the problem
- makes people dislike cops
- gives cops a bad name
- demonstrates that I'm an inflexible bully

My partner's view is that you shouldn't give people tickets unless there's a very serious violation of the law. My view is that this is nonsense because that's when you should arrest them.
" However, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and concede that yes, if we want a strong, diverse community, we need both sides. But to make this happen, folks: we need to start practicing what we preach.

That means that if we want to continue touting the idea that the secular movement is one with diversity of opinion, and that the “Good Cops” and “Bad Cops” are equally welcomed, we need to act like it. We need to stop decrying the “accommodationists” and start supporting them, especially because they’re so underrepresented. "
If we're going to support many different views, do we need to support the people who claim it's wrong to support many different views? Because that's what you're suggesting. Of course not, that's absurd - and that's the point.
"And if you happen to be a firebrand who isn’t such a big fan of the diplomats? I humbly ask you to reconsider. You might be able to rally the secular troops, but you won’t have much chance reaching out to the vast majority of the world: the believers."
I'll go ahead and assume that I probably fit the "firebrand" category in Lucy's opinion. (As far as I know, we've never spoken, so I may not fit that category...but the examples she provided make me suspect that I would.)

In that case, I not-so-humbly ask you to provide EVIDENCE to back up your assertion about the effectiveness of honestly and aggressively addressing religion. Because I've received many e-mails over the past 5 years that serve as evidence to the contrary - and Dawkins has an entire portion of his website devoted to that purpose as well.

What do the accommodationists have?

"And without the ability to reach out, you lose a conversation, a dialogue, a chance to make the world a more secular-friendly place. And when that chance is gone, we lose everything."

Clearly they have chicken little predictions based on gut feelings and a desire to "just get along".

How has that worked out so far?

More risible moral arguments for God

One of my many godless Facebook friends (you mean you're not one? — well, fine, be that way!) is a young Oregonian named Nathan who's written some impressive essays that he's posted to his Notes section, including a fine takedown of Zeitgeist. Sometimes, Christians in his own friends list try to challenge him on some of his Wall posts, and this happened most recently when Nathan posted a quote from Tracie to the effect that religious morality is little more than canine obedience. One Christian woman wrote the following, which I could not resist responding to.

It is important to remember that just as our perception of that which exists is limited, so is our idea of morality apart from its author.

Morality cannot exist merely because we perceive right and wrong in terms of human consequence....this type of moral structure is infinitely at odds with itself, ending in nothing but mere self-preservation. Societies that live at peace have not come up with a "morality that works" apart from the morality set forth in Scripture. You are assuming much when you suggest there might be any morality set forth by the secular world that has not been "borrowed" by the God of the universe. My premise, of course, is that God came first...we all came later.

So, then, we must also ask, is moral character conferred upon the author and creator of all things as you first implied, or does it exist because of that author? We are not the ones who attribute morality to God! We have, through the Scriptures, been given a glimpse of morality as it is merely a reflection of who God is. It comes from him. We do not define it or attribute it to Him. It is a reflection of the person of God, not an idea that floats around in our endlessly depraved minds.

That slurpy sound you hear is that of an atheist theatrically rolling his eyes. Seriously, every moral argument for God I've heard has been a total intellectual faceplant, but this one more than most. It really does read as if this woman is simply parroting claims she got from some apologetics source, without thinking them through for even a moment.

First off, in what way is a set of moral precepts based on an understanding of the consequences of actions any more "at odds with itself" than a set ...of moral precepts simply handed down as rules from a divine authority figure who expects to be obeyed upon pain of eternal torture? The former has at least something to do with compassion, empathy, and kindness. The latter is little more than simple subservience based on fear.

Moral precepts rooted in human empathy and consequences, while no one would claim they are perfect, at least have a real-world referent. Human beings, being thinking creatures, can understand the difference between observed positive and negative consequences. Moreover, another point she ignores in her claim that secular morality leads only to "self-preservation" is the fact that we are a social species, and our instinct for self-preservation is still tied to species success. It is not the norm for human beings to exist in total isolation, and in order to coexist we develop behaviors that are beneficial to maintaining that coexistence. (And humans are far from the only species that do this. Basic moral behaviors have been observed in a number of primate species, as well as in such animals as dolphins and dogs.)

If anything, it is religious "morality" that stems from self-preservation, because a person who adopts moral behaviors simply in order to please a god whom he fears will punish him otherwise is not really a moral person, just a terrified, submissive and broken one. He has been given no reasons to be "good" other than to avoid negative consequences to himself. Beyond this he has been given no understanding of the positive benefits of his moral behavior. Religious morality, as has been said here many times, gives people bad reasons to be good. If you live a moral life simply to score yourself a ticket to heaven, you're doing it wrong, and worst of all you haven't been given the intellectual tools to understand why.

You'll have noticed the woman responding to Nathan makes bold assertions that she glibly fails to back up in any way. At the same time, all she offers as support for her God's alleged moral nature are tautologies (God is moral, morality is of God, is basically all she's got), with a sprinkling of "and anyway, God's just beyond our puny human perception." These are not sound bases for an argument.

If her premise is that "that God came first...we all came later," she must first support that premise with evidence before she begins to argue from it. She says that secularists are "assuming much when you suggest there might be any morality set forth by the secular world that has not been 'borrowed' by the God of the universe." I would say that she's assuming infinitely more when she claims that there is a "God of the universe" to begin with. Demonstrate through evidence that this is true first, then she can begin to argue that morals come from this God.

She asserts that "societies that live at peace have not come up with a 'morality that works' apart from the morality set forth in Scripture," without, of course, citing any source to support this claim. Indeed, I suspect that the bulk of the world's cultural anthropologists would be laughing their heads off about now. The Code of Hammurabi predates most Biblical writings, and Confucius came up with something very like The Golden Rule more than 500 years before Jesus is said to have done so. While you might argue that many of the punishments laid out by Hammurabi would be barbaric by modern standards, so would the morals of the Old Testament. After all, this is a book in which Lot, said to be the most virtuous of men, offers his daughters to a gang of rapists simply so that they'll leave his male house guests alone. Later these same daughters get him drunk and have incestuous sex with him, because God wants them to. (God doesn't explicitly command it, but given that this is one pissed off motherfucking deity who's just firebombed the living shit out of two whole cities for their sexual shenanigans, it's hard to imagine that He just stepped out to grab a smoke and totally missed the act of drunken incest, let alone failed to notice the subsequent pregnancies that gave rise to two whole new lineages.)

Among the "moral" precepts God is proud to have handed down to me is that I must be put to death for eating shellfish, gathering sticks on a Sunday, or having sex with a woman during her period. On the other hand, if I rape a girl, all I have to do is buy her from her father for 50 shekels, and it's all good. If these "morals" are a reflection of "the person of God," then God is a person I don't care to know. (Oh yes, this God also explicitly, unambiguously, and without any possibility of spinning it otherwise, endorses slavery.)

I think if this woman ever chooses to crack a history book that hasn't been vetted and redacted by fundamentalists, she'll learn a thing or two: that the time when such modern concepts as human rights, equality, free speech — ideas that emerged from the "endlessly depraved minds" of people — began to take root is known as the Enlightenment. And this period is notable for the decline of the authority of religion over all of the affairs of humanity.

Finally, I'm going to repeat a point I made in my last post on this topic: what use would God have for morality? This is an all-powerful being, who needs to answer to no one at all for his deeds. He can never face any form of punishment for even the greatest atrocity he could conceive. Furthermore, why would God care if we were moral? If all God wants is our unyielding worship and adulation, why would morality need to be part of that equation? We could all wipe ourselves out in the worst of all possible wars, and God could simply chuckle and, being all-powerful and stuff, just recreate the human race from scratch. So why would God have bothered to "author" something like morality in the first place, when its own consequences could never apply to him, and its application to our own lives could not possibly be relevant to him?

Morality is entirely comprehensible when considered as an emergent social phenomenon occurring within social frameworks. It is incomprehensible when thought of as originating from a supernatural being utterly immune to its consequences or even its practical application.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On the difference between religion and woo

Rob Knop has a blog post called "The Difference Between Religion and Woo". It's yet another in a long line of passive-aggressive posts, comments and lectures that attempt to disparage skeptical critics of religion by simply claiming that they don't understand the subject enough to make their criticisms valid.

Bollocks. If anything, it is Knop and his ilk who demonstrate that they don't understand skepticism.

He begins with a question that, evidently, he feels is a stumper:

"What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7? "

The answer is: nothing beyond personal preference. Neither his story nor a Frost poem have any intrinsic value. Their value, like all value, is the result of a mind attributing worth to an item. The fact that we, as similar creatures have many shared values and appreciate similar things is sufficient to explain why, on the whole, more people are more likely to value a Frost poem than his story. What makes a Frost poem more important to human culture? Humans.

There is no puzzle here and it's not analogous to the subject of comparing religion to woo. This question is a bit of well-poisoning designed to imply that there are subjects that we cannot easily assess, quantify, measure or explain because they are matters of personal opinion.

Ironically, he expands on this theme by flatly asserting that skeptics offer trite, unfair analogies when discussing religion and claims that:

"If you cannot see the difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions, then you’re no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology."

Unfortunately, it is Knop who demonstrates that he's unqualified to talk about the skeptical analysis of religion as the point of Russell's teapot is to demonstrate that untestable claims are, by their very nature, devoid of supporting evidence and acceptance of those claims cannot be rationally justified.

Religious claims fall into two categories: testable and untestable. Knop clearly identifies that testable religious claims (like creationism) can be assessed skeptically and rejected, but he doesn't seem to note that there are two categories to rejection. The first is demonstration that a claim is false and the second is a demonstration that the claim has not been sufficiently supported by evidence to justify belief.

Untestable claims, by default, fall into that second category.

While it can be difficult to consistently apply skepticism, it's fairly simple to describe skepticism:

Skepticism is the ideology that belief is proportioned to the evidence and skeptics strive to only accept those things as true which have been sufficiently supported by evidence.

Which means that untestable claims, by default, should not be accepted.

"Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don’t seem to think there’s any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism"

Actually, I don't really think that's true. I can clearly see a difference between different religious claims and I've written about it many times (including here). Some claims are testable, and some aren't.

The problem is that skeptical theists like Pamela Gay (I named a category after her and clearly Knop fits that category) want to claim that their beliefs address untestable claims and that skepticism simply doesn't apply to those beliefs.

That's not only nonsense, it's the entire point behind Russell's teapot and it's not surprising that a theistic skeptic like Knop would miss this.

What skepticism has to say about untestable religious claims is very simple:

You cannot possibly meet the burden of proof and, therefore, acceptance of your claim is irrational and unjustified.

"Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can’t be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist."

Actually, it means EXACTLY that. It means that, of the two of us, I'm the one who is willing to be skeptical about ALL claims, including your untestable claims and by asserting that skepticism doesn't apply to those claims, you are demonstrating that you are NOT "every bit as much a skeptic".

It doesn't mean you're not a skeptic, or even a good skeptic, on other subjects. It doesn't mean you're an idiot and it doesn't mean that you should be excommunicated from some non-existent skeptical cabal.

What it means is that you are not consistent in applying skepticism and that you're rationalizing the reason why. In Knop's case, he's taken the popular route of trying to make those who disagree with him appear to be rigid thinkers, unable to see the subtleties of the human experience. It's not only not true, it's exactly backward: understanding the subtleties of human experience is what allows skeptics to identify the mistakes they make.

We all make mistakes. We are all unskeptical about something. We are all idiots on some subject or another... the best skeptics are those who strive to eliminate these mistakes, instead of making excuses for them. The best skeptics are those who strive to make their beliefs as consistent as possible with the truth, to the extent that evidence can support it. The best skeptics are those who, having had a gross rationalization exposed, seek to prevent it from happening in the future, instead of trying to shield it from critical examination.

If someone believes that an untestable, deistic god exists, that's their prerogative and they need not ever defend it...but they don't get to pretend that they're being skeptical about this belief or that skepticism shouldn't apply. And when they do attempt to defend it, they should do so honestly and not by trying to claim that those who challenge their beliefs managed to misunderstand skepticism.

They should do so by presenting evidence to support their beliefs and not by trying to claim that their beliefs should be immune from skeptical inquiry.

If his only point were to claim that religious beliefs are nothing more than personal opinions, he's already lost because religious beliefs make claims about truth — not opinion. The idea that whether or not a god exists is merely a matter of opinion is as laughable and absurd as the idea that whether or not the Big Bang happened is merely a matter of opinion.

Your opinions have no bearing on truth. You're entitled to them, but if you pretend that no one can evaluate your opinions about reality with respect to reality — you're engaged in a sort of self-delusion that beggars credulity.

Prince Albert

Jerry Coyne has posted on the "don't be a dick" subject and he seems to have written many of the same things I've written.

It'll be interesting to see what, if anything, Phil says in response.

He could choose to be dishonest and dismissive, as he was with me.
He could address it fairly and actually participate in the discussion he claims is long overdue.
...Or, he could ignore it.

I know some people are sick of the subject and that's understandable, but I'll be making at least one more post on this subject - and I'm pretty sure that won't be enough. This entire fiasco has simply demonstrated the schism that I've been talking about for more than a year and it's unlikely to go away without some sort of resolution.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Still more on being a dick

This started as a comment on Matt's post about being a dick, but when it got to a certain length, I decided to barge to the front of the line and write my own post. That is, no doubt, a dick move on my part. :)

The problem with Phil's approach isn't that there are no dicks in the atheist community. Obviously there are, as highlighted by the "all Christians are retarded" post linked in that thread. All Christians aren't retarded, and that's a dick thing to say. One point for Phil.

The real problem is that by focusing on it in a speech this way, Phil gives the clearly false impression that this is systemic to the "leaders" of the "new atheist" "movement" (to the extent that there are leaders and it is a movement that is new, although I join many in despising the "new" designation).

There's a bait-and-switch which always seems to go on in these discussions. PZ Myers, Dawkins, and we on TAE, do what we can to attack ideas and not people at every opportunity. Some people are dumb, but none of us wants to paint with a broad brush everyone who holds a belief as universally dumb. We say that up front, and we don't hesitate to call specific ideas dumb, if it's warranted. By focusing on the ideas we can pay attention to WHY they're dumb, rather than calling names of people who, after all, are complex individuals with many different ideas and motivations.

We do attack ideas, but we attack them in a way that sometimes offends people. The point, though, is that the people who are taking offense are often doing so due to unreasonable beliefs. Like PZ Myers and his "frackin' cracker." It's less about the offensive language and more about the fact that certain people believe the cracker is the body of Jesus -- which it clearly isn't -- and they are willing to terrorize and intimidate people who don't treat it with the respect due to a magical cracker -- which it isn't. It's about the fact that people should be allowed to draw cartoons with Mohammed as a character -- clearly an activity that harms no one except by annoying them -- without receiving death threats.

In a nutshell, this is about drawing attention to an activity which shouldn't be offensive but is. It is taking a stand to say that religious devotees cannot draw arbitrary battle lines and say "We hereby intend to be offended by activity X, and unless you cease and desist from doing X at all times, you are a dick." I actually see a lot of parallel between this issue and the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque", which is neither a Mosque nor at ground zero. On that subject, an opinion seems to be coalescing, even among people who are trying to appear reasonable, that "those Muslims have the right to build a cultural center there, but good taste dictates that they should not do it."

I reject that. I think if anything, this whole crapstorm has made it more apparent that those Muslims should build their cultural center right where they damn well said they would, because if they give up ground on this issue then there won't be a spot in America where they are allowed to build anything, ever. Free speech and free assembly aren't just symbolic. If those rights aren't exercised then we can still lose them.

I'm willing to have a reasonable discussion about what are the best methods for exercising our free speech to deal with unreasonable taboos. Sure , Phil, in a few situations it may be preferable to be polite and observe the taboos that you disagree with, depending on how important the fight is. I reject, however, the categorical statement that you shouldn't do things that might make some group think you're a dick. That way lies capitulation to every unrealistic demand of a new Taliban.

But Phil Plait would also like to strengthen his case by sneakily conflating two things. On one hand, we have posts that say "All Christians are Retards," a statement which is both dickish and false. On the other hand, we have PZ Myers throwing his cracker in the trash. By conflating the two, we can be left with the impression that PZ Myers calls all Christians retards, when in reality the two acts are not equivalent.

It just seems to me that way too often, saying "Don't be a dick" is actually code for "Shut up and accept it when other people are dicks to you."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is everything about religion bad?

Someone wrote recently to ask “Is everything about religion bad?” My reply was that religion can be used to channel the good or the bad in some people. But it has the additional downside of channeling some good people toward bad. So, I would rather advocate promoting good using reason than using religion which comes at a heavy cost.

His reply was not an uncommon one, basically that when good comes out of religious work we should credit religion, but when bad comes out of religious work, we should not credit religion. This boils down to “When people do what I would do in the name of religion, they’re interpreting it correctly; when they don’t do what I would do in the name of religion, they are clearly interpreting something wrong.” Bear in mind the people “incorrectly interpreting” it say the person making this accusation is the person incorrectly interpreting it.

In this particular case, the writer noted that religion is subject to interpretation, is produced by flawed ancient men, and that it should both (1) be given to uneducated people to give them hope, but (2) not be expected to be understood accurately by uneducated people who sometimes are inspired by it to do what it actually says (that is kill gays, instruct people not to wear condoms, thwart education, be misogynistic, and so on).

I pointed out that I had no way to determine who, if anyone, was able to correctly “interpret” a Bible. We can’t all be right—but we can all be wrong. He replied: “I don’t care if it’s wrong” (only whether or not it inspires good).

Think of that: I take a religious book that says that it’s good to love others and also that it’s good to kill others. I don’t know if anything in the book is true, and more to the point, I don’t care if it’s true. But I advocate giving that religion to people for the good it does. When some people say they love others because of the religion, I praise the religion, for the love it inspires. But when people say they’re killing others because of the religion, I say it’s not the religion's fault, because clearly this group doesn’t know how to interpret the holy book that says to both love and kill one another. Further, by filtering reality this way, I can keep handing this religion to everyone, and claiming it only does good.

In other words: I don’t care if we submit a lie to people. I don’t care if that lie goes to many people who I already know will have trouble understanding it’s a lie—and who will most likely believe it—in all its authoritative and brutal entirety. And when these people hear religion’s instructions to hate and kill, and actually do hate and kill, I don’t have to think for a moment it’s due to this lie, or to me advocating and spreading it.

Whatever helps you sleep at night, I suppose?

On the heels of this letter was another from a young atheist who described his religious parents as doing what they think is right, and then interpreting their religion in such a way as to make sure god agrees with what they’re doing. In fact, we have all seen this quite often. And my original correspondent actually is a prime example of this. He indicated that where the Bible says it’s OK to hate and pillage, people ought to understand it was ignorant people producing these texts and not believe these things are "good" ideas. In other words, do what you reason is right—and then make the Bible agree with whatever you’d like it to say.

This is surely one common style of Christian. But I can’t simply ignore that there are others.

Surely we have examples throughout history and even today of people who use religion to justify their hate and aggression. I agree it’s possible these sorts would be horrible people even without religion. They’d certainly have opportunities to find political ideologies or social hate groups to glom onto. No doubt all the bad in the world cannot be attributed to religion, I will agree.

But there is a third category of Christian that this defender is not considering, and won’t consider, in fact. This Christian is the main problem, the collateral damage. This is the sincere person, wanting to do good, who believes these texts in full. This would be the Christian who says that, “I wouldn’t normally call my gay son an abomination, or shun my mother for divorcing my dad, or vote down someone else’s civil rights, but god says to do it, and as a mere mortal the Bible says I cannot question the all-knowing, all-mighty god who is the author of morality and this book (and must have a greater good in mind when he tells me to do these things that are counter to my personal moral sense).”

These are not extremists. In fact, this represents a great many indoctrinated people. People who have been raised to disregard and doubt their own judgment and simply obey—because that is “good.”

On our show, we have demonstrated that there are “good Christians” who will agree to torture their own children without requiring an explanation, if god asks them to do so. They’re not always comfortable admitting this, but they will confess it once you get past the “god would never ask this,” defense. Not surprisingly, the AETV e-list has been able in correspondence to get people, who write to inform us that religion is actually a net good, to say this exact thing as well. Consider what it would take for a parent to willingly torture their own child. And yet, with no explanation, and on god’s word alone, those who would harm their own children for god are writing to explain we’re missing the “good” part of religion’s impact on people. These two ideas exist, somehow at peace, within the same mind.

My point to this writer was that if “good” comes out of religion only when good people filter out the horror it suggests they do, why promote the full lie? Why keep using the Bible if you’re going to only adhere to the parts that suggest what you already were going to do anyway? How is that not simply doing whatever you, personally, think is right? Why not admit you’re using your own human morality, that you, clearly by your actions, demonstrate you deem superior to the morality espoused in this “holy” religion?

And if we agree that a literal reading is a major headache for humanity, and we agree that the many parts that instruct evil are inherently flawed and should be rejected, and if the only parts we’re going to use are the parts we can justify by using our own reasoning capacity—why not just stick to the reasoning capacity we’re relying upon, and stop imposing this textual source of confusion (you demonstrate people don’t need) upon human beings who are all but bound to read it as literal and holy truth in a great many areas of the globe, and who are, in their minds, commanded by god to act upon it in every regard?

If we can inspire good without the superstitious and demonstrably dangerous ambiguity, what is the reason for maintaining that mode?

I guess the irony to me is that I was asked if everything about religion was bad. I answered "no," that it's good mixed with bad. That clearly wasn't good enough. The right answer could only be that religion is all good and there is nothing bad about it. And this person accused me of simplifying this issue.

Fan mail, I guess

"How big a man are you or woman to go and attack the memorials set in
place for the men and women who have died protecting this great
nation, that has even protected your rights to be idiots.When the
families come with the torches and pitchforks they will even protect
you and after they are killed you will spit on them because you
wouldnt want to see the cross that reminds you that you are a sinner
and you will burn in hell. Unless you change your ignorant
ways.regardless the Christians put up with a bunch of your ignorance
but we only have 2 cheeks Lord says I have to turn the other cheek and
I will but dont forget how many we have this is not a threat just
important information you may want to know."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Don't be a dick, part 2: looking beyond the foreskin...

Phil Plait posted part 2 of his response to the conversations spawned by his "Don't be a dick" speech at TAM8.

In his response he addresses my previous post on this subject and I think he does so very dishonestly. I posted the following, but I don't want it to get lost in the list of comments:

“The author of this one says I don’t give specific examples, and therefore because he hasn’t seen the insults they don’t exist”

Actually, what I said was: “First of all, who is Phil talking about? This seems a bit quixotic and exaggerated to me. Where are these people who scream in your face on behalf of skepticism? Where are these people whose primary tactic is to yell at someone and call them a retard? Since Phil didn’t provide any examples to support the claim, we can only guess.

That isn’t an assertion that the problem doesn’t exist, it was a legitimate objection. I even specifically mentioned that I felt it was exaggerated – which clearly means I’m not saying that the insults don’t exist, I’m saying that I haven’t seen evidence to support your implication that this is a serious and escalating problem.

You failed to provide examples, leaving us to guess. What I said was accurate…but instead of addressing it, you misrepresent it, so you can shrug it off committing yet another straw man right here.

“… and then accuses me of a strawman argument!”

Which, ironically, you’ve just done – again.

“I find that funny; finding examples about which I was speaking is trivially easy.”

Then please provide them. This is the same sort of reply we get from the woo-clan. They claim something is true (vitriol is on the rise) and when someone asks for specific examples, they misrepresent the comment, laugh at it and claim that the evidence is all around you (or similar).

I’m legitimately trying to figure out the specifics of the problem here and find out why some people don’t see this.

“The author also says I set up a false dichotomy and call people who don’t agree with me dicks… all without the benefit of having heard my talk.”

I had read the transcript and now I’ve watched it.

It is, in fact, a false dichotomy to present the options as “warrior” or “diplomat” to the exclusion of other options and combinations. That was my charge and it stands. Why not honestly address that charge instead of hand-waving about the fact that I hadn’t yet heard the talk? I quoted the transcript for this charge, it was accurate and my response stands…unanswered.

And again, what I wrote was: “And maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t Phil basically calling those who disagree with him, “dicks”? Granted, he’s being very polite about it, but that seems to be what he’s doing.

I was pointing out the potential irony. Your entire point was to object to the unnecessary name-calling which makes it harder to sell something that is already difficult to sell. My reason for pointing this out was that it’s ironic that you couldn’t even do this in your own talk.

“As far as appealing to emotion… hello! It’s an emotional issue. That’s the point. Note that my appeal to emotion was logical because it sets up my premise that being a dick doesn’t help.”

No, sir. I was pointing out the fallacy of making an emotional appeal. It doesn’t become “logical” simply because it sets up your premise. Setting up (flawed) premises is the entire point for using emotional appeals and it’s the reason that it’s often noted as a fallacy – because it’s insufficient to the task, epistemologically, yet remains convincing because humans respond to emotional appeals.

At least you provided a link so that people have the opportunity to read what I actually wrote.

You and I actually agree on the bulk of this (which I noted in my response) and it’s distressing that your response to legitimate and accurate objections and questions is to misrepresent what I’ve said and scoff.

The irony runs pretty thick on this one.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Quran and the speed of light

I think I should make a policy, that if I received a similar very specific question by email twice, I should turn the first exchange into a blog post and link it as a reply to the same question in the future. I probably won't be able to stick to this policy, but I'm doing it now for this message.

The claim: The Quran computes the value of the speed of light with unbelievable accuracy.

Sources: "Speed of Light"; "Quran and The Speed of Light?" (video)

Best rebuttal online: At Islam Watch.

My two cents:

This is a clear case of cherry picking numbers to sound plausible. They had to use some incredibly tortured logic to drag the number "12,000 lunar orbits" out of a fairly generic verse which, after all, makes no reference whatsoever to moons or distances or even the number 12. They are taking something vague and trying to make it specific, which after all is what all apologists do when they want to make a prophecy out of something that isn't. If it hadn't been the moon, they could have tried "1000 centuries of walking" or "1000 rotations of the earth" or "1000 earth orbits" -- ANYTHING which gets them within the right order of magnitude to something specific.

Then that's not enough to get them all that close, so they screw around with the numbers more. For instance, you'll notice they use some extremely fuzzy math to claim that there are 86170 seconds in a day. There aren't 86,170 seconds in a day, there are 86,400. If there were as much as 230 seconds difference every day, then we'd have a leap year every year.

They do all kinds of stupid math tricks just to line up some number with a lunar cycle to match a verse that doesn't even say anything about lunar orbits, and then they claim that the Quran predicts the speed of light. Okay. If that's the case, then why didn't the ancient Muslims know what the speed of light was? Why is it never referenced anywhere? Why isn't it calculated? Why, in fact, did no one think to calculate the speed of light from the Quran until long after Einstein Ole Rømer came along? [Edited -- thanks Curt!]

I'll tell you why, because it's nonsense. It's applying known scientific facts, discovered by westerners, and giving credit to their holy book by retrofitting nonsensical numerology with cherry picked frames of reference.

How did the authors of the Quran have such fantastic futuristic knowledge, Muslims ask? It's really simple when you recognize a few facts. The Quran is an ancient book written by people who had no knowledge of modern science, and in fact reads this way. A contemporary person who knows some science can make passages of the Quran superficially resemble scientific insights by manipulating verses that have nothing to do with science and trying to pigeonhole them into something resembling contemporary knowledge.

You could, if you were so inclined, do exactly the same thing with "The Canterbury Tales," "The Epic of Gilgamesh," or Lewis Carrol's "Jabberwocky."

Saturday, August 07, 2010

We get email some more

I swear, gang! We don't make this stuff up! Really.

Subject: i can prove god existthe christan

Hello to all that would take the time to read my email. i just recently became aware of you syndicate talk show and find it belittling how the christian community is betrayed as unlearned individual, having watched a few of your broadcast i can honestly say from the caller in it would be a simply job to disprove the christian faith. having said that i am some somewhat adequately intelligence (not to belittle anyone else) and can adequately debate the issue with you. The topic of the broadcast i view was proving the existence of God and i would like to give my view point on the matter,having said that lets that Yahweh(or as you may call him GOD) out of the equation for a moment as well as all other believed deity and focus simply on the the fact of a higher power(i;ll get back the Yahweh in a moment) but to prove the fact of a higher power i will bring into focus the human conscience.If it is as you state "no god" then i would ask why is all human being born with a conscience?

Having said that let us look at the definition of Conscience { Webster's definition conscience as a knowledge or sense of right and wrong, with an urge to do right; moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle and that leads to feelings of guilt if one violates such a principle} now lets focus on the fact that by scientific belief that all other animals act simply on instinces, down to the most primitive single celled life form with the exception of the human being. Now let being Yahweh back into the picture if has being proven by modern science that the Torah is the oldest documents of mankind (carbonation). now the Torah also known as the first 5 books of the bible happened to have the book of beginning as it first book(book of genesis) and in that book moses(it author) addresses the human consciousness as the tree of good and evil with well translated back to the original text is self awareness and knowledge and can also be broken down to awareness of god and evil(mind you according to modern day science these writings are only copy of the origins and date back hundreds on thousand of ago giving the same definition) having said all of that is there was no higher power or god overseeing mankind,if we were mere accident or came to be by a cosmic chain of events as most atheist believe the conscience is relevant and one shouldn't bother with anything beside enjoying them self to the fullest because once your dead it over correct?but if this is not the case and there is a universal law of right and wrong set my god the throuh the consciensness then it makes perfect sense because it is as the bilbes states God standard of moral law given to all human even those who choice not to use it or believe.

if you fail to agree with this take into consideration that even a child knows when they are doing wrong,and have a natural sense of guilt (condemnation) upon taking part in a unjust act a simply as stealing reference back to the webster definition of conscience. Just my food for though

Good grief. Are people still out there trying to make moral arguments for God? Look, setting aside the usual evolutionary business about how we're a social species — as are gorillas, elephants, dolphins, et al — and the fact such species develop cooperative behaviors as the obvious survival strategy, and the fact that we explain our behaviors with terms like "conscience" and "right and wrong" because we have the ability to form words to communicate to one another with (for all we know dolphins have a particular chirp for right and another for wrong and a very elaborate one for "Hey, that's my fish, asswipe!")... has obviously not occurred to such apologists to consider a painfully obvious point: What need would an all-powerful monotheistic God have for morals?

That's the whole frackin' point of Euthyphro. This would be a unique being. It could suffer no consequences for any action it might take. There is no one for it to answer to. And it could have no practical reason to care whether or not any lesser beings it created were moral or not, as it could always create more if they happened to wipe each other out.

Now, I know we always argue that it is homo sapiens' innate sense of empathy, not merely the desire for reward and fear of punishment by some authority figure, that explains human morality. Because we evolved as a social species, empathic behaviors are part of our makeup. But an all-powerful God would not have evolved as part of a social species, and therefore would likely not have a sense of empathy. After all, to whom or what would it be directed? The only reason a being so uniquely powerful might have to choose beneficent over malign behaviors would be because it had some good cause to fear the consequences of its actions.

I can certainly see such a God creating a species of worshipers out of a sense of crushing loneliness. But to admit that God can be lonely would be to admit he is imperfect, and needs love and worship. And Christians are all about God's total and indisputable perfection. Well, if you're perfect, that pretty much means you're complete in yourself, and nothing can be added to improve you. So then...morals, love, right, wrong, approval, worship, what have you...what does God really need with any of it?

Coming Out

I recently met a young woman online who is about to go off to college. She is a recent deconvert and made the decision to "out" herself in her home. As is common, the experience was less than stellar for her. And she recently linked me to an article she wrote describing what it's been like. I loved her story and asked if it would be all right to share it for the benefit of other young people in similar situations. Fortunately she agreed. So, without further delay, Emily's story:

Things That Must Be Said

With a mere twelve days left before I leave home for college, I’ve finally come to the frustrating, yet incredibly sad realization that I cannot express my beliefs without being attacked by members of my family, and some of my friends. I’ve realized that I cannot simply live without being quietly or not so quietly judged by the people who are meant to be my comforters and supporters. I am normally quiet and passive when it comes to my beliefs because I am afraid of conflict, and I feel outnumbered. But I can no longer sit back and be trampled. I can’t just cater to everyone around me. I have to be confident enough to defend myself to everyone around me, because I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not.

Tonight, as I sat quietly at the dinner table with my mother and younger brother David, my brother suddenly brought it to my mother’s attention that I was overheard talking on the phone about something with which she did not agree. I had been on the phone the day before with a friend of mine who happens to be atheist, and we were discussing our opinions on current world events. This triggered an onslaught of verbal abuse from my mother, who said that ever since I became an atheist, I am now selfish, “troubled”, coldhearted, and that I see the world from twisted perspective. David, at the wise and all-knowing age of fifteen, feels that my atheist friend Jordan is a bad influence on me, and, in a nazi-like manner, he feels that he must inform my mother at all times of any sort of liberal or atheist talk on my part. He informed my mother that my facebook page is filled with atheist propaganda, and at that, my mother flew off the handle, yelling, “Is that true, Emily? Do you really have atheist things all over your facebook?!” Ha, first of all, I don’t think I have ever posted anything particularly “atheist” or abrasive, because, like I said, I fear conflict, and a part of me has always been afraid to stir up trouble, or displease anyone. Until now. Second of all, even if I did have atheist posts all over my profile, is there supposed to be some sort of crime in that? When I told my mother this, her response was, “Well it just doesn’t look good, and that’s not all you are.” Of course that’s not all am. Being an atheist is only a tiny fraction of who I am as a person, and I find it sick and sad that my loved ones are willing to write me off and harshly judge me simply because I’m an atheist. My father, an abnormally quiet and passive man, who seriously never contributes to any conversation, decided tonight would be the night to jump in and tell me that even if I am an atheist, I don’t need to parade it around. Parade it around? I’m pretty sure 90% of people who read this have no idea that I’m an atheist. He said “I have plently of friends who don’t believe, but that doesn’t mean they tell anyone about it.” So apparently my dad feels that its okay if I’m an atheist, as long as I don’t make it known to anyone. My older brother has also attacked me numerous times, in front of guests as well as behind my back, about my choice in atheist friends, because he feels I am “easily manipluated.” Apparently everyone just thinks I’m stupid, when in reality, I’ve given this subject more thought and consideration than any of them combined.

Let me just say that even though my family claims to be catholic, they have not attended mass since I quit going to church a few months ago. I was the one who always encouraged my family to go to church. And when they didn’t, I would go alone. I was the one who believed it all. So if none of these people in my family truly know about or believe in catholicism, why are they so quick to pounce on me for being an atheist?

I was once very catholic. I graduated from a small, all- girls catholic high school. I attended weekly youth group, and mass. I went on countless retreats and ACTS retreats. I attended many candlelight ceremonies, rosaries, and “see you at the pole”’s. I was a eucharistic minister, I was in the liturgical choir, and attended Catholic HEART workcamp for three consecutive summers. I prayed the rosary in my car on the way to school. I was a group leader for middle school and high school kids. Most of my volunteer work was done through my church. I loved God. I did everything. You cannot say that I was a half baked catholic. And yet, somehow, I changed.

I took a world religions class, I had my first real open minded conversations with many different people about religion, and humanity, and life in general. I read new books, and I watched new videos and debates and documentaries. I spent many hours (and many sleepless nights) agonizing over what it was that I truly believed in. Most importantly, I used my own rationale, and my own original thoughts. And then one day I made a conscious decision to gradually leave my church. And it was very difficult to leave behind many people at church whom I knew loved me and wanted the best for me. But I couldn’t be a part of something I no longer believed in. And for some reason that blows people’s minds. People can’t fathom how or why a person would make such a 180 degree change.

The real problem is, my family can’t figure out why I don’t want to be around them. They don’t understand why I have no respect for them. They want to blame it on the fact that I’m an atheist now, and that it must be because my atheist friend is a bad influence on me, they assume he must be constantly whispering in my ear and telling me to hate my family. The truth is, I have real, personal reasons for disliking them, and being an atheist has nothing to do with it.

I was once told that atheists have "a certain anger in their hearts". Yes, I am angry. I’m fucking angry that being an atheist is somehow the equivalent to being a monster. I’m angry that something this trivial has to be blown way out of proportion. I’m sick and tired of having people talk about me behind my back, and make judgements about my choice of friends. I’m tired of being told that I’m “troubled” or “easily manipulated,” I’m angry that people think I should be ashamed of myself. As if I am somehow automatically set beneath other people because I am an atheist.

Apart from being angry, I’m simply disappointed in people. I thought I had stronger relationships than this. I thought my loved ones were more open minded than this. I thought people loved and cared more about me than to treat me like some kind of diseased person.

In case you were wondering, I'm not a monster at all. I'm a nineteen year old girl about to go to college. I'm sensitive and I'm shy. I like poetry and french movies. I'm a decent human being who cares about other human beings. And the truth is, even if I pretended otherwise, I would be hurt if anyone decided to cut me out of his or her life just for my religious preferences.


For an example of what Emily has been dealing with at home, I will share what some of her siblings offered in the comments section of her article. I can only assume this type of abuse is acceptable in her home, as her siblings seem to hold nothing back.

Her younger brother's first post read, in full: "All of y'all are fucking retarded."

Later when I commented, her other brother hurled back this misogynistic abuse defending the other brother: "Hes not stupid, anybody that knows him (Jordan and Emily included) will tell you that. What's stupid is insulting a 15 year old who you dont even know, you leathery old twat."

There was much more--and all quite ugly. I'm amazed Emily has come out of this able to think clearly, not reacting herself in an abusive fashion, and still loving and regarding her family despite how religion has torn them, so obviously as her brothers' demonstrate, apart.

Best of luck, young lady!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Another Battle Won

I'm sure everyone's heard by now that California Proposition 8 has been struck down in federal court. Same-sex couples are on their way to being able to marry in California. The drama will play on for a while, unfortunately. The ruling has been stayed to give opponents time to appeal, something of a courtesy from the judge in the case. An appeal could drag it out for at least another year while it goes to the 9th Circuit court, and possibly up the Supreme Court. Wednesday's ruling was the fatal shot to the California same-sex marriage ban, however. The defendants in the case had little going for them and they bungled the hearing. The ruling is thorough and Constitutionally sound. I think it has little chance of being overturned. At this point, the religious right might be wise to let this one go. If they appeal to the Supreme Court, it could make quick work of same-sex marriage bans in the remaining 44 states. It's just a matter of time before that happens. America will eventually join the first world on this issue.

I spoke yesterday at a Prop 8 rally here in Austin hosted by the Equality Across America Texas Regional Network. I told them that the conservative Christians behind Prop 8 were organized, powerful, and take a long-term view. They're not going away anytime soon. Spoke about the importance of church-state separation and the need to no believe propaganda and think for one's self. For many in the audience, it was the first time they'd heard an atheist speak, but my message resonated with many. I know the Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Trans-gender/Queer/Whatever Else movement is anxious to win full equality. Those religious conservatives are not anxious to give up their power, however. I told the audience that the thing their enemy feared the most was the normalcy of gays. Without an enemy, they lose power and money. So many of those religious leaders wouldn't know how to work an honest day's if they had to.

Austin's Proposition 8 Rally, City Hall, August 4, 2010

Part of me hopes that with this really lame attempt to defend Prop 8, we're seeing the demagogues implode. I've often mused at how much the religious conservatives hate the judicial branch of the government. They can manipulate the elected branches easily. They have money and clout. They can move the masses with their lies, propaganda, and emotional manipulation. But the courts are largely beyond their grasp. The courts trade in reason and evidence, which are in short supply among apologists and other faith-based con artists. They have a tough time winning battles there.

Still, I'm surprised at just how lame the defense was. Check out this bit of pathos:
In the California campaign, gay marriage foes could set up a site called "" But when Walker asked their lawyer what harm marriage would require protection from, ProtectMarriage’s lawyer said, "I don’t know. I don’t know." When even their own "experts" couldn't show any evidence of harm to marriage, their lawyer was reduced to arguing that the people could act without evidence, just on their inchoate fears alone. Inchoate fears are the stuff of political campaigns -- not constitutional litigation.
I can't imagine the any soldier from the army of religious-nut lawyers graduating from Liberty University School of Law doing as poorly as these defendants. They would have made something up, even if it was obvious bullshit. It's hard to imagine how to read this. Maybe the lawyers were just too honest. How's that for ironic?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

We get email, and the world is a bright and sunny place

John Iacoletti picks up our mail from the PO Box, on those occasions when we remember there's still such a thing as snail mail. Occasionally this means he has the most fun job of any of us.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sorry I said anything

Tonight I encountered, for the very first time, this strange Blogger glitch that's causing people to have reload their comments multiple times. Damn, but that's messed up.