Monday, July 31, 2006

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Virtual flag burning

If that stupid flag buring ammendment ever passes, this cartoon would make an excellent blueprint for some civil disobedience. I've previously thought of protesting by burning rolls of American flag stamps.

Hallquist-fuzzyh, final round

And now, the conclusion to the debate that I've been taking part in at Christian Forums. [Comments on the debate as a whole appreciated.]

Closing statement: fuzzyh

One can question everything and be skeptical of everything. Yet there comes a day in the court of law in which we must deal with the issues ahead of us. We must act upon the evidence that we receive at a given time. We cannot live a reasonable life being skeptical of all things.

It may be stated that the large majority of New Testament Scholars believe that Jesus Christ lived around the 1st century. Most hold that Jesus was some type of charismatic leader. This lead in deed lead to a death upon the cross.

This leads us to what happened after this supposed death. A body would deter many reasonable people from believing in Christian as my opponent concedes. Luke writes, "The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." (Acts 6:7) Opponents of the faith come to believe that Jesus Christ raised from the dead. These were many of the same people who had him killed. This statement makes it extremely clear that a significant population of Christians were in Jerusalem. I'm certain that there is debate about using Luke, but most New Testament scholars have found Luke to be amazingly accurate in his writings.

So no doubt we must look at the best theory of the evidence. What my opponent continually attempts to prove is that a miracle is not possible, therefore the resurrection is false. He has ruled out that possibility from the very beginning. Claiming that there is not enough evidence for this miracle. That it can be explained by psychological phenomena.

In the process, he has used apparently arbitrarily Luke, in which the only justification of this is that it is an imperfect source. However, the real question regarding that passage is how he determines which part is false and which part is true. Otherwise, he is entirely inconsistent.

The situation concerning The Amityville Horror is a bit different. The same internet and communication networks today allow both legend/myth and truth to be transmitted very fast. However, we must understand that the Resurrection of Christ is not just a movie. This was a major event. We must remember that this death and resurrection took place in the same place. Except the apostles, the priests would have no sway to convert nor would the general public who also wanted Jesus killed. Based upon this culture the myth could not start in this place and would be easy to disprove, unless the myth came from outside of Jerusalem. But that is not what our history says.

Based upon all th evidence, I think that it is most reasonable to believe that Jesus Christ died upon the cross and rose from the dead. Paul explains that this is for the forgiveness of sins and that we can be forgiven of our own sins based upon the death and resurrection.

Closing statement: Hallquist


You've repeatedly failed to deal with my position here. You've talked about a priori exclusion of miracles, "the assumption that miracles don't happen," and my supposed attempt to "prove that a miracle is not possible." What I said in my opening statement, however is that modern information on supernatural claims creates a "strong suspicion" that ancient miracle claims are also false. This is a conclusion based on evidence--a posteriori rather than a priori.

Similarly, you treat my call for skepticism (which was citing a concession that you made) almost as a call for Phyrrhoism, constantly suspending judgement and "being skeptical of all things." What I'm arguing for, though, is for being skeptical of one class of things--miracles--and not being skeptical in the sense of suspending judgement, but demanding solid evidence. You didn't deal with any of my proposals for how to do this, leaving open the question of what exactly you meant when you said, quote, "we should be skeptical about such occurances."

So I think my point stands: we need a lot better evidence for miracle claims than other claims.

The evidence

I see only two attempts to shore up the evidence for the resurrection: the passing claim that most scholars find Luke reliable, and the discussion of the Amityville Horror.

One the first claim, the problem with appealing to the majority of scholars is that most scholars are Christians of a fairly conventional, if not fundamentalist, variety. One survey of the scholarly literature found that 75% of scholars think that the resurrection occured in an objective sense (1). This makes finding out that a majority of New Testament scholars support the Christian position rather like finding out that a majority of Qur'an scholars believe the Qur'an could not have been written by a human being: it tells you more about the predispositions of the scholars than about the truth of the religion.

I'm gong to try to break down the statements about the Amityville Horror:
  1. Telecommunication: yes, modern telecommunication helps legends spread, but as I argued in my last statement, lack of it would hurt skeptics more than believers
  2. The resurrection was a major event: Quick, list the major events from 1910-1920. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that WWI and related events come to mind, but the sun miracle at Fatima (similar to what happened in Georgia, see my opening statement) does not. Yet this involved over a hundred times as many people as were ever claimed as witnesses to the resurrection. The resurrection resembles the supernatural claims in the "true story" of the Amityville in that the number of alleged witnesses, if somewhat larger, was still limitted and not public. The resurrection was not a public occurrence in the manner of the Jewish Revolt c. 70 A.D.
  3. Myth could not start in Jerusalem: First, I'm not arguing that the story is entirely mythical, just that we have no assurance that it wasn't distorted as it was re-told. There were plenty of other places for embellishments to spring up other than Jerusalem. After all, Christianity had spread to Rome within a few decades of Jesus' death, and Rome is over a thousand miles from Jerusalem. Even Antioch was 300 miles away, more than enough distance to interfere with fact checking. Furthermore, legends can spring up in the locale where they are set. In Lucian's The Passing of Peregrinus, Lucian indulges in some rumor-mongering and has no trouble getting people to believe wild tales about the portents that accompanied Peregrinus' death.
So much for the evidence for the resurrection. The problem is not that miracles should be ruled out a priori. The problem is that the evidence just isn't there.

1) Gary Habermas, "Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What Are Critical Scholars Saying?" Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Vol 3.2 pp.136-140

Friday, July 28, 2006


Andrew Sullivan:
I think I just witnessed the most brilliant and surreal televised political interview in my life. When it's up on YouTube or somewhere, would someone let me know? It was priceless. (Sign of the times: this fact is on Wikipedia's profile of Holmes Norton within fifteen minutes of its being broadcast.)
Norton was featured on the July 27, 2006 Better Know A District segment of The Colbert Report. She defended the District of Columbia's claim to being a part of the United States. Columnist Andrew Sullivan refered to watching the segment as having "just witnessed the most brilliant and surreal televised political interview in my life." He also called the fact that this page was updated within 15 minutes of the interview a "sign of the times". The interview was arguably one of the more funny but hostile ones in the show's history.

Dan Barker's story on FT radio

I'm not so good at waking up early on Saturday mornings, so I've been missing the weekly Free Thought Radio broadcasts (site is down at the moment, so I can't link). However, they're available on podcast, and I listened to the most recent one at work today. This one featured Dan Barker giving the half-hour version of his book Losing Faith in Faith, talking about how he went from being a fundamentalist minister to an outspoken atheist. It's good to hear if you haven't read the book. You also get to hear the first two songs he wrote right after deconverting--words aren't high poetry, but they work. His wife/co-host Annie Laurie Gaylor gives off a slight vibe of "I can't believe my husband used to be like that... or at least it couldn't have been his fault, could it have been?" In addition to Dan telling his story, there's a theocracy alert that's notable because it provides yet more evidence that irony is dead. I recommend giving it a listen when the site comes back up.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

We don't need them

Saturday, Austin Cline ran a piece titled There Will Be No Religious Left. I agree with him 100%, though the reasons that come to mind are somewhat different than his.

A good place to start is here. In short, the churches that are prospering are the fundamentalist ones, not the liberal ones. Trying to use small groups to build an opposition to big groups isn't exactly a winning strategy.

It's worth asking why liberal churches aren't doing so well. The common portrayal is that people want something stronger, but there's another side. The other side is that when you aren't convinced that believing is your ticket out of hell, it's easy to slip. If your church/temple/whatever only demands a couple of beliefs out of its members, rather than belief in everything in holy book X, then you can only give up a couple of beliefs before you find yourself with no religious beliefs at all. I am not surprised to see saying "It is common for young adults to drift away from the faith group of their youth. Some never return. The large liberal and mainline Christian denominations seem to lose large numbers in this way."

So on one hand, there may be plenty of people leaving liberal churches for fundamentalism, but there are also people who leave churches of all kinds for general irreligion--though not self-conscious rejection of religion. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, 14% of Americans have no religion, 7% either don't believe in or don't know whether there's a god, and 1% are atheists or agnostics. That's 6% of Americans who won't call themselves what they are because they've been taught "atheist" is a dirty word, and probably another few percent who've given up religion but won't give up God because it's never been presented as a serious option.

Instead of trying to forge a religious left, here's what we need to do: convince people that it's OK not to believe in God, and tear down some irrational liberal creeds on religion, like "all religions are good" or, worse, "all religions are true." Say that people need to get up and oppose the idea that oppose the idea that some religious texts are infallible. Get very involved in opposing fundamentalists on issues that affect everybody, like gay marriage and evolution. On evolution, drop the idea that there are separate spheres of religion and science (except maybe when arguing court cases) and just say the anti-evolution arguments are bogus. A few simple measures like these could easily build a block consisting of about 10% of America.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Muslim apologetics

Today, I had the pleasure of stumbling across a Muslim magazine published in Madison called Al-Jumuah and reading some Muslim apologetics. I say pleasure because of how closely it mirrors the work of Christian apologists, right down to axe-grinding rants against those who would critially examine sacred texts. Unfortunately, the full articles are not available online, but here's a summary:
No matter how hard they try, Allah's word is bound to defy anyone who wants to stir up doubts against the authenticity of the most glorious, cohesive divine Book, the Qur'an: "If the whole mankind and Jinn were to produce the like of this Qur'an, they could not produce the like of this Qur'an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support."
When I tried to think of books like the Qur'an, I immediately thought of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It is like the Qur'an because I once started in on it, but gave it up because it was unreadable.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Double Review: Jesus Seminar vs. Bart Ehrman

Recently, I finally got around to picking up a copy of The Five Gospels, the infamous Jesus Seminar book that caused a furor in the 90's by claiming that Jesus didn't really say more than 2% of what is attributed to him in the gospels. To review it, I've decided to write up a comparison to Bart Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, which, though in many was different from The Five Gospels, is similar insofar as it represents a recent attempt to popularize New Testament scholarship.

Jesus is entirely big picture: spelling out the basics of the field and trying to answer the question of who Jesus was. Five Gospels does very little of either and spends the vast majority (~90%) of it's pages on the job of color coding Jesus sayings. Each passage is accompanied by a brief explanation of why things were colored the way they were.

The books also reach widely different conclusions. Ehrman argues something that many scholars have believed for the last century: that Jesus thought the world was going to end within his lifetime. The Jesus Seminar instead argues that when Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven (or, as they translate the phrase, "God's Imperial Rule") was something which Jesus saw as "already present and of more elusive nature."

In terms of general plan, Ehrman's book is far better. The Jesus Seminar states broad conclusions with little support. No wonder they got torn apart by conservatives: they never defend their major conclusions. Take the example of the authorship of the gospels. The Jesus Seminar simply asserts that they were not written by the usually assigned authors. They mention that the texts were originally anonymous, but unlike Ehrman, they fail to explain why scholars believe this. They give only a couple of sentences to Papias' testimony, and hardly anything to looking at Irenaeus and John's internal evidence. Ehrman looks at all these issues and explains why they don't establish traditional authorships. He also has reasonably detailed examinations of such issues as extra-biblical sources for Jesus. His book is, in short, a fine source for getting your New Testament scholarship 101. The Five Gospels gives the lay reader next to no help along those lines.

Seeing The Five Gospels I think marks the end of my ability to take the "great teacher" view of Jesus even half seriously.. On p.11, they say that "God's imperial rule is the theme of Jesus' teaching." Then, when discussing what this means, they say the following:
Scholars are agreed that Jesus spoke frequently about God's imperial rule, or, in traditional language, about the kingdom of God. Does this phrase refer to God's direct intervention in the future, something connected with the end of the world and the last judgement, or did Jeus emply the phrase to indicate something already present and of more elusive nature?...

The texts [i.e. sayings of Jesus] cited in this cameo essay can be used to support either view. One thing is clear: John the Baptist and the early Christian community espoused the first view: they believed the age was about to come to an abrupty end. (p. 137)
In short: Jesus started his career in association with an apocalypticist, his first followers were apocalypticists, our only sources for his life frequently portray him as an apocalypticist... but he wasn't one? (The Seminar tries to argue that Jesus' ideas "was almost entirely lost on his followers.") Only the most blatant wishful thinking, the strongest will to believe that Jesus was a great teacher, could possibly lead them to such a conclusion. They unintentionally make Ehrman's view look quite credible.

Another serious problem with The Five Gospels is that the explanations of why sayings were colored this or that way quickly become tedious. I tried reading through, and off the top of my head now I cannot remember reading anything of use. What, one wonders, is the point?

I can only think of one answer: the Jesus Seminar, after realizing that the New Testament cannot be totally trusted, wanted to produce a new inerrant text, which liberal churches could use, confident that the genuine sayings of the great wise man could be sorted out from later, ignorable attributions. This is a quite hopeless task. Our sources just aren't good enough to pinpoint the authenticity of everything that Jesus said.

It is a real shame that Ehrman's book never caught the public eye as the Jesus Seminar did. Public knowledge of Biblical scholarship might have been greatly improved for it.

(Side note: does anyone know how to become a referrer for I'm thinking of putting links to the site with referral codes in my book reviews, but I have no idea how to do that.)

Monday, July 24, 2006


A classic example of a bad argument, that is:
As a Christian I'm a little bit baffled. Not necessarily that people don't believe in Jesus or the Bible, but that they don't believe in God at all. If there is no God (for whom the laws of physics and energy conservation do not apply) then where did this place we are living come from? Please answer w/o using the phrase "by chance" or something synonymous or I will have to laugh at you. Thanks much.
A little to harsh, perhaps, but after reading some more sophisticated apologists, its nice to be reminded how unsophisticated most people are when using the cosmological argument.

Random Shorts

Jesus Myth: CADRE Comments has another objection. It's one I had thought of before, but failed to raise in my own review of Doherty.

Mr. Gay Vatican City: Uh, does this need explaining?

Be prepared: Franc announces he's hanging up the keyboard, but will keep posting through Sept. 22, because he has posts prepared that far ahead of time. Wow... and I thought a couple days was being ahead of things.

Literalism: In Norman Geisler's Baker Encyclopedia, he insists that "While everything in the Bible is literally true, not everything is true literally" (p. 312). Does anyone have any idea what in the world this means?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

PZ Myers at summer camp

PZ Myers says he's volunteering at Camp Quest to teach kids how to deal with creationists. Hmmm... PZ, we love you, but are you really the best person to teach kids how to deal with their creationist friends? Actually, the lesson plan doesn't sound that bad:
I'm planning to hand out an assortment of short, descriptive sheets listing evidence for evolution, letting the kids take a moment to read through whatever they've got, and then give a creationist-style talk, with one exception...they're encouraged to interrupt and shout out anything that might contradict what I'm telling them.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A letter to Car Talk

A friend suggested this might give some insight into the Intelligent Design movement.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Skeptic's Circle 39

The 39th Skeptic's Circle is up. Among other things, this edition features a claim that Carl Sagan and James Randi had someone whacked and a simple experiment proves 9/11 was a hoax.

The Barker-Manata debate

Okay, I know I'm late to this one. It was covered by Exbeliever and God is for Suckers! a week ago. Part of my excuse is that I can only take presuppositionalism in small doses.

The event is the Barker-Manata debate, available as a podcast from The Infidel Guy. It's currently the third one down. The topic is "Which is More Rational: Christian Theism or Atheism?" with Barker representing the atheist side and Manata representing the Christian side.

Manata started off with a presuppositionalist strategy. As presented by Manata, it works something like this: if he and Barker attacked eachother from the point of view of their respective worldviews, they'd be begging the question. Therefore, they had to provide "internal critiques," basically finding inconsistencies in eachother's positions. Manata then provided a ton of quotes from Barker's book Losing Faith in Faith to show that Barker conceeded Manata's views were internally consistent and Barker was not consistent. It's an incredibly unusual and pedantic way to debate. I have difficulty seeing how it could appeal to any Christian not steeped in presuppositionalist apologetics. At the time, I thought Manata's only hope of coming off looking good was to mix his rather odd arguments with some melodramatic preaching.

The main thing I remember from Barker's opening statement is his argument "You can presuppose anything and have it be internally consistent. You can presuppose that the world was formed by ducks bringing up dirt from the bottom of a lake."

After opening statements was cross examination. Manata spent his time trying to catch Barker in trivial contradictions. Barker's segment was hilarious. He raised the simplest of evidential challenges to Christianity, using comparative mythology and the point that the Bible features talking animals, but we don't see talking animals today. Rather than try to meet these points head on, Manata kept insisting that any attempt to evaluate Christianity with evidence begged the question against Christianity.

Manata's rebuttal was more of the same, harping on alleged contradictions. Barker spent most of his time trying to answer these, a mistake, I think. He should have structured his rebuttal like this: "On the face of it, it seems we should evaluate theism the way we do other claims about the world. That means looking at the evidence. Manata has failed to show otherwise for reasons X, Y, and Z. I have provided evidence against Christianity, and Manata has not produced a shred of evidence for it." I think that is the proper way to debate presuppositionalists. Barker instead got sucked into Manata's bizzare presuppositionalist methodology.

In the concluding statements, Manata got going on the preaching. He linked alleged inconsistencies to sin, and declared that his Lord is the "Lord of Reason." That last bit cracked me up.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dear Andrew

Your YouTube for the Day today seems badly mislabbled. You call it a "debate between a Fox News anchor and a crazy fringe Christianist." A more accurate description would be "a debate between someone who really believes the Bible and someone who has the decency to reject it but has a vestigal respect for it." I can't believe the anchor cited Leviticus of all things to try to refute homophobia. It may say that you should love your neighbor as yourself, but it also says that homosexuals should be killed. In other words, it condones the attrocity that happened in Iran one year ago tomorrow.

Don't respond to this with talk of how wonderful the Gospels are. The Jesus of the Gospels declared that anyone who ignores the instructions of Old Testament law (i.e. the instruction to kill people such as yourself) will be least in the kingdom of heaven. He doesn't speak specifically about homosexuality, but he shows no signs of being sexually progressive. For crying out loud, he said it's better to pluck out your eyes than look down a woman's blouse!

You have done a better job than many liberals at highlighting the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. You seem to have difficulty, however, recognizing one simple fact: fundamentalists to not twist their holy books. They believe them. Its people like the Fox News anchor who are twisting them. Decent people such as her and yourself need the courage to say that whatever the value of the Bible and Koran, it takes a moral cretin to accept their inerrancy (or at least to accept their inerrancy while knowing what they say).

Monday, July 17, 2006

Double disturbing

I managed to severely scare myself with fundamentalism this weekend—twice.

The first was with Orac's featuring of a video put out by the God Hates Fags folks. The narrator talks about how God is going to deal with America the way he dealt with Sodom and Gomorrah. Watch till the end for an utterly disgusting smirk. At least there I could dismiss them as fringe.

Second, I was browsing through old issues of Free Inquiry looking for articles by Robert M. Price and found a review of the Left Behind novels whose title says it all: "Turner Diaries Lite." The Turner Diaries, for those who don't know, is a piece of racist propaganda that inspired Tim McVeigh. As the author explains
The Left Behind series and The Turner Diaries each present a nightmarish, through-the-looking-glass world. Each work's hero is an insurgent against an insidious, uncanny conspiracy of world domination originating in Israel. Each is an evangelist, always on the lookout for qualified recruits. The parallelism of GC and the System, Judah-ites and the Organization, the Trib Force and the Order is clear enough… Rayford Steele's sights are set on a believers-only utopia, Earl Turner's on a gentiles-only utopia.
The Left Behind novels are not fringe.

The horror

It appears that in China, organs of Falun Gong members are being harvested for profit.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Denying God, defining atheism

While in the library the other day, I came across a book called Why Atheism by George H. Smith. Nice little introduction to the subject, highly recommendable, but I have found one point to quarrel with, Smith's statement that:
"No reasonable dialog between theists and atheists is possible until the myth of positive atheism [which "positively affirms the nonexistence of God"] is put to rest once and for all. When the theist portrays atheism as necessarily irrational because no one can prove the nonexistence of God, he is attacking a position that has rarely been affirmed by real atheists."
Honestly, I wonder how Smith went about collecting his sample of "real atheists," because there are plenty of atheists that actually affirm the nonexistence of God. I would like to go on record as one of them.

The reason is very simple. The usual definition of God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being. This, as I have explained, predicts a perfect world. This prediction overwhelmingly fails, making the God of high theology one of the most overwhelmingly disconfirmed hypotheses in the history of hypotheses.

I should qualify, though, that I do not claim to be able to offer evidence against any sort of God that you could think of. For example, it is utterly impossible to offer evidence against the idea of an omnipotent being with totally mysterious motives. No matter what happens in the world, this being might have done it (since he can do anything), and he might have wanted to do it, since his motives are mysterious. It cannot be disproven, because it does not tell us anything about the world of our experience, but I think that very fact is reason not to take the idea seriously. Such a God would be, at best, metaphysical fluff. Whether we should actually deny the claim is a trickier problem. The idea is a very similar idea to a number of patently absurd ideas, such as the idea that there is an invisible, incorporeal dragon that spits heatless fire in the room I'm renting for the summer. I have trouble entertaining an idea, but I am not sure it would be right to deny it. However, I might ask Carl Sagan's question: what's the difference between such a dragon and no dragon at all? Similarly, there is arguably no difference between an utterly mysterious God and no God at all.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Oh boy

I thought everyone knew that this was just an entertaining illusion. But I guess not.

Quote of the Time Being

The very first chink in my Christian faith armor was when I denied a literal traditional hell. I believed in "conditional immortality" at one point. And it was then that I was allowed to pursue my questions, because I thought to myself that hell wouldn't be that bad if I'm annihilated. That's when I began to develop the freedom to question the Bible and to pursue my questions. Of course, in pursuing these questions I eventually came to deny the existence of hell and the Bible as the word of God itself. But for me that's when it started.
-John Loftus

I've thought for some time that one of the more hideous aspects of orthodox Christianity is that believers must live in mortal terror of rationally inquiry.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

College life forever!

During the last school year, I found myself liking college life so much that I jokingly toyed with the idea of founding a dorm-type apartment complex. Looks like somebody read my mind.

Changing the subject

At Triablogue ( there's a critique of Sam Harris' work. The section on prophecy deserves special comment. Here's Harris:
But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, "In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet." The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.
In response, Steve Hays complains that, "Harris has done nothing to disprove the argument from prophecy. No attempt to deal with the actual prophecies of Scripture. Instead, he’s changing the subject." Then he makes some irrelevant remarks that do not attempt to deal with Harris' point--or more likely fail to do so out of sheer ignorance. Here's me enlightening him.

If a prophecy is not falsifiable, it is as worthless as a newspaper astrology column. Making a prediction specific enough to be understood in advance is hard. Re-interpreting a text to make it predict past events is easy, and the techniques (like shoehorining) are well-understood. It can be done with Nostradamus and Biblical acrostics. It can be done to fit normal Biblical prophecies to non-religious figures like Napoleon.

Because of this problem, sensible people demand that it be possible to correctly interpret Biblical prophecies in advance. Ergo, all prophecies regarding Jesus fail, since the Jews of Jesus' day, "had no conception of a dying, much less a rising, Messiah" (to quote WL Craig, who thinks this counts in favor of Christianity).

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Quote of the Time Being

One of Pakistan's handful of serious academics spoke yearningly of the liberal scholarly atmosphere he had recently enjoyed at a conference in Tehran.
-The Economist

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Atheists as Other

That's the title of an article that appeared in the April edition of the American Sociological Review. It got some attention back when it first came out, but I just got a chance to read it for myself. Here are the highlights. The full citation, for those who are interested, is

Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann. "Atheists as 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society." American Sociological Review. 2006 Vol. 71 (April 211-234).

First, let me take a moment to be embarrassed for this country. The scientists who did the study used two measures to determine acceptance of a group: Do they share your vision of Amerian society, and would you be okay with your child marrying one? In both cases, atheists got the most "no"s, and Muslims got the second most. For the vision question, the next two were homosexuals and conservative Christians. For the marriage one, however, African Americans got the third most "no"s, with 27.2% saying that they would not want one of the children marrying one.

What the hell is wrong with us? I mean, I know, you'd probably get the same figure for believing that people who disagree with you go to Hell, but this was one I thought that we had gotten past. Damn.

Anyway, moving on. One of the first statistics in the article says that 14% have no religion, 7% either don't believe in or don't know whether there's a god, and 1% of Americans are atheists or agnostics. This immediately suggests a problem with a simple policy solution: spend more money on teaching English.

The article provided many other interesting bits of statistical analysis. One was that acceptance of atheists is correlated with all sorts of good stuff, such as belief in procedural democracy. Rejection was correlated to a degree with adherence to conservative Christianity, but it was more strongly correlated with belief that religion should play a big role in government. This is good news and bad news. On the one hand, we have all the sane people on our side. On the other hand, we seem to be short on sane people.

Two statistics were particularly striking, though. One I already mentioned: atheists are more hated than Muslims, in spite of having killed considerably fewer Americans in recent terrorist attacks. The other is that homosexuals used to be on the bottom of the heap for presidential viability, with atheists second worse. Recently, however, atheists and homosexuals have switched positions.

Both statistics point to one conclusion: we need better PR. Undoubtedly, the reason that homosexuals are now viable presidential candidates is that they've been coming out in droves recently, showing the world that they're normal people. When Sept. 11th hit, the majority of opinion makers were falling over themselves to say that Islam is a religion of peace. One group did good PR, the other got good PR done for it. In both cases, the result was greater acceptance.

Let's face it, atheists: we suck at PR. We've got good writers and speakers, true. Dan Barker is both. But how good does even he do at PR? Terrible, frankly. The average person off the street is most likely to hear about him because of a church/state lawsuit or some such. It may be necessary to fight the court battles on those issues, but they invariably turn out to be bad PR.

Just how bad the situation is I didn't realize until reading the results the researchers got from individual interviews. The general conclusion was that atheists are associated with two things illegal activities such as "drug use and prostituation" and "rampant materialists and cultural elitists." One interviewee, for example, said that "There's a real 'I'm an atheist' attitude among people with major money." I think this means that the lady's idea of an atheist is pretty much Britney Spears, and this seemed to be a common notion.

From this I conclude the following: screw the objections that have been raised to the atheist video. Better to have a snotty British biologist as our representative that Britney. Let's spread that video as far and wide as we can.

The Lure of Theocracy

From The Revealer: "Christianity Today's Philip Yancey considers "The Lure of Theocracy." He's against it -- we think."

Monday, July 10, 2006

BK wrap up

I must thank everyone who's kept the conversation going over at Christian CADRE (see previous entry). Giving only the most important comments, I think I can show why I've had enough:


You haven't answered the question that I thought would be the most revealing:

If an atheist wrote as advice to other atheists "If you start thinking there might be a God, don't read anything by theists, instead read lots of atheist books, because your nacent faith is really just rebellion against the atheist movement" would you think that is intellectually dishonest?

Are you capable of answering that question without rephrasing it or answering a different, unrelated question?

This is really an amazing question to me because it requires a belief about the atheist movement that I have never heard any atheist previously acknowledge -- it is a movement partially of faith. You see, as I have always understood atheism as taught by atheists, it is the "freethinker" movement where all of the "rational" people have come to the conclusion that there is no God by exercising their intellect alone. Christianity is the "belief" that requires "faith" to believe. If you are now saying that there is more than an intellectual component to atheism, I would really be interested in hearing more about it.

But you want an answer to your question as stated? No, I don't think that's intellectually dishonest as long as it is agreed that there is a "heart" aspect to atheism as there is with Christianity. If atheism is, as atheists advertise, simply the only possible rational conclusion that the intellect can reach, then yes, that is dishonest.

Now, if you have a follow-up, I want you to answer my question without rephrasing it or answering a different, unrelated question: Is atheism a faith or is it purely rational?
All right. I came back and checked this thread, and when I saw that Bruce had gotten you to answer one of my questions, I decided it's worth saying more.

All I'm going to do is make a very simple suggestion: BK, if you want non-Christians to accept your account Christian belief, be ready to accept their accounts of their disbelief. I.e., be willing to believe them when they say they rejected Christianity for rational reasons. The fact that you've never heard an atheist agree with your account of atheism should be a hint that perhaps you don't have it right.

Maybe I've missed something here, but I don't think that atheists accept my Christian belief in any meaningful sense of the word. And what exactly do you understand me to be saying that says that atheists don't believe that they came to their conclusions rationally? I do think that they came to their conclusions using their intellect -- I just think that it was used more for rationalizing than actually thinking through the issues.
And BK said I have a comprehension problem...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

CotG 44

The 44th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Daylight Atheism. It may be just me, but I think that this is an exceptionally good crop of posts. I'll only highlight one, though, because I already promised it in the comments. "A Cold and Broken Alleluia" tells the story of a minister's deconversion. Good story. His mention of how the Screwtape Letters did it for him reminded me of my own deconversion. Anyway, go read his story, then read all the other great posts in today's edition.

Christianity: "I will say that the evidence is feeble"

A quote from Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli:
This claim--that all seekers find--is testable by experience, by experiment. If your are an honest scientist, here is a way to find out whether Christianity is true or not. Perform the relevant experiment. To test the hypothesis that someone is behind the door, knock. To test the Christian hypothesis that Christ is behind the door, knock... pray the prayer of the skeptic:
God, I don't know whether you even exist. I'm a skeptic. I doubt. I think you may be only a myth. But I'm not certain (at least when I'm completely honest with myself). So if you do exist, and if you really did promise to reward all seekers, you must be hearing me now. So I hearby declare myself a seeker, a seeker of the truth, whatever it is and wherever it is. I want to know the truth and live the truth. If you are the truth, please help me.
If Christianity is true, he will. Such a prayer constitutes a scientifically fair test of the Christian "hypothesis"--that is, if you do not put unfair restrictions on God, like demanding a miracle (your way, not his) or certainty by tomorrow (your time, not his).
"Scientifically fair"? I like that phrase.

You see, I've heard such requests before. Steven Carr got one in his resurrection debate. I think he made a mistake by not taking them up on it. I have taken people up on such request, even though I didn't expect it to work. Rather, if God exists, I'd like to know about it. It's been at least eight months since I first did so, no effect so far. I bring it up now because in any "scientifically fair test," it is supposed to be possible to get both a negative and a positive result. This means unanswered skeptic's prayers should constitute evidence against Christianity.

When looking at my experience, it may be protested that I did not expect it to work, and in that case I am not a fair test. I should point out that because the prayer is not meant to be prayed by people who have a strong belief in Christianity, it must work for people who do not have a strong expectation that it will work.

Even so, there are examples of people for whom none of this works in spite of the fact that they might theoretically be seen as better candidates. A possible example is IIDB member Sol Invicitus who recently posted about his experiences being proselytized. Here's a snippet of the conversation:
OW: Well I apologize if we're not smart enough to explain it to you. I think if you pray god will reveal himself to you.
Me: But I prayed for YEARS. How long do I have to wait for an answer. Come on. How long? (said playfully)
An even clearer example is from Paul Doland's response to William Lane Craig on personal experience of God (scroll down to bottom). That would seem to be a fairly clear negative result on this "scientifically fair test" of Christianity

Of course I don't expect any Christian to be convinced by this data. Rather, I suspect that I, Sol, and Paul will get the Susan Blackmore treatment. I'm pretty sure I mentioned this not to long ago, but Blackmore is a former parapsychologist who never found any evidence for psychic phenomenon and in response was told that she must be a "psi-inhibitory experimenter." Similarly, Christians will assume that skeptics whose prayers aren't answered must have something wrong with them. This, though, makes Christianity look rather like a pseudoscience.

Perhaps, though, this is not reason to say that Christianity is false. Martin Gardner once said that failed psi experiments are not enough for him to say that psi does not exist, but "I will say that the evidence is feeble." Perhaps that is the proper attitude regarding religious experience.

Anyway, this proposed experiment is much easier to do than most psi experiments, so we needn't give up like Dr. Blackmore. To all my readers: if you can agree with the statement "If God exists, I would like to know about it," please follow Kreeft and Tacelli's instructions, and leave a comment saying so. Promise to inform me if you get any results.

Hey, Mom


Many months ago, I used the website to make some desktop wallpaper for myself with the words, "Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones NUM 31:17." You saw this one time when I came home for a weekend, and said I should change it. I ignored you at the time. Yesterday, I finally got around to getting new wallpaper:

Saturday, July 08, 2006

What we should expect of politicians

I begin this post with a quote from Bertrand Russell:
Take the question of unemployment in the years after 1920. One party held that it was due to the wickedness of trade unions, another that it was due to the confusion on the Continent. A third party, while admitting that these causes played a part, attributed most of the trouble to the policy of the Bank of England in trying to increase the value of the pound sterling. The third party, I am given to understand, contained most of the experts, but no one else. Politicians do not find any attractions in a view which does not lend itself to party declamation, and ordinary mortals perfer views which attribute mistfortune to the machinations of their enemies. Consequently people fight for and against quite irrelevant measures, while the few who have a rational opinion are not listened to because they do not minister to any one's passions. To produce converts, it would have been necessary to persuade people that the Bank of England is wicked. --Sceptical Essays, p/3
Russell's assessment is probably correct. It is hard to stir up voters in favor of rational policy making. However, policy based on ill-conceived notions of what is wicked is obviously an absurd way to run a government. What are we to do?

I think there's a simple solution: A politician must be considered wicked if he does anything other than carefully weighing policy options, listening to the best experts and being unifluenced by religious, ideological, or other prejudice. Today would be a good era to fan such sentiments, given the gross incompetence of our current president, who has ignored experts on medicine, evolution, global warming, and even war planning. (Andrew Sullivan has been particularly good about dogging wartime incompetence. The last should be good grounds for getting conservatives on board. And I think it's the only way to get a competently-run democracy.

The battle continues

Me and BK. If you haven't read them all ready, see the last post on this, as well as what started it. Here's the rest of the exchange, reproduced without comment:

Who said anything about not listening to both sides? I am talking in this post only about when a person is feeling heavy with doubt. In the ordinary case, I not only want people to listen to both sides of the issue when it comes to matters of Christianity, I encourage them to do so!

This post is directed only to those times that a person is heavy with doubt. I give my reason to avoid skeptical sites during those times. To rephrase what I said above: I don't think the doubt is intellectual at its core, but a person will use the intellect to rationalize the doubt. Since many skeptic sites are designed to provide a rational basis to support doubt (since most skeptics agree that atheism can't be proven), when a person is feeling doubtful they are more likely to accept these arguments -- not because they are rationally compelling, but because they are using them to rationalize the heart-issues which give rise to the doubt.

Thus, if you read more closely, you would see

1. I am very interested in determining the truth, but

2. the post is limited to a particular circumstance (i.e., times of doubt) during which time I think that the conversation is not helpful because the person who doubts is not of a right mind to evaluate the information.
I refer you back to my original description: "If you have doubts about Christianity..." I know that your advice was only for that situation. Allowing that people should listen to the other side when it is less likely to persuade them is a small concession.
Further thought: your defense of your recommendation is premised on the assumption that doubt is not intellectually honest. Can you provide significant substantiation for this claim, say, something along the lines of a well-respected defender of atheism saying that we ought to deny the existene of God even if all evidence and rational argument points to the conclusion?
Another question. Do you deny any of the following?:

1) You said that most doubt about Christianity is not intellectually honest
2) You said that those with doubts about Christianity should not listen to both sides
3) To "look honestly at the issue" is to listen to both sides
4) 2-3 entail "You said that those with doubts about Christianity should not look honestly at the issue."
5) My description of your post was little more than a combination of 1 and 4.
6) That the statement "my description was accurate" follows logically from 1, 4, and 5.

You just passed on an opportunity to deny 3. Does that mean you affirm it? I have trouble seeing how you could deny any of the others. You must deny one of them, however, in order to claim my description was inaccurate.

In your original post, you (mis)paraphrased my position by saying: "If you have doubts about Christianity, do not, under any circumstances, look honestly at the issue." Later, you asked "Do you think it is possible to "look honestly at the issue" (any issue, really) without listening to both sides?" Since you are interested in looking at both sides of an issue, I am going to ask you to do that now.

Obviously, I don't agree at all with what you are saying. I don't agree with your statement "Allowing that people should listen to the other side when it is less likely to persuade them is a small concession." Can you, in looking over what I said previously and trying to put yourself into understanding what I was saying, reason what my objection is to what you are saying?

You also said that I made the assumption that doubt is not intelletually honest. Can you put yourself in my shoes and try to figure out why I not only disagree that I said that, but why I don't agree with that in light of what I have said?

When you have shown me that you have grappled with those two, I will happily tell you why I don't agree with your logic in your third comment (although, if you come to the correct answers on the first two questions, you should be figure out why your third comment is flawed on your own).
Taking your points in a different order than you give them:

BK: You also said that I made the assumption that doubt is not intelletually honest. Can you put yourself in my shoes and try to figure out why I not only disagree that I said that, but why I don't agree with that in light of what I have said?

Response: I should have put the word "most" before doubt in my second to last comment. I have been good about putting the qualifier in in my other summaries of your position. Otherwise, I think the statement is accurate. Do you see a difference between "most doubt is not intellectually honest" and "I would guesstimate that in 90% of the cases, the intellectual doubt is merely a rationalization for a deeper heart-problem"?

BK: I don't agree with your statement "Allowing that people should listen to the other side when it is less likely to persuade them is a small concession." Can you, in looking over what I said previously and trying to put yourself into understanding what I was saying, reason what my objection is to what you are saying?

Response: Given that my original description of your post included the words "If you have doubts about Christianity," this is not strictly relevant to the accuracy of said description. Your reason for saying it is clearly that you think most doubters are dishonest, so only committed Christians are qualified to honestly weigh the issue. Given that you have not responded to my request for rational justification of this position, I can only speculate on the basis for this belief of yours. Let me ask you this, though: if an atheist said "If you suspect that God exists, start reading some atheists books and don't read anything by theists," would you take this as evidence of intellectual dishonesty?
Okay, let's try this again. You objected (as I understand your first objection) to the fact that I advocated that Christians who have doubts not look at skeptic websites. Your objection is that I am telling people not to look at both sides of an issue. I am now inviting you to look at both sides of this issue by standing in my shoes and trying to reason about what I said from what you think could be my point of view. Instead, you have once again stated your point of view.

Are you really interested in looking at issues from both sides?
Okay. I ask straightforward questions asking you to explain, defend your opinion, say what I did wrong, you ignore them. This is the last time I'll be checking this thread. Bye.

Free Thought radio 7/8/2006

Okay, I'm listening to Free Thought radio, a weekly radio broadcast with Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. I'm jotting down random notes as I go.

Tey mentioned Bush's "faith based initiatives." Baker remarked that government used to be engaged in "fact based initiatives." Really? The faith thing may be new, but politicians have never been very good with facts.

They're talking with a Wisconsin legislator who is trying to pass a bill called the Pseudo-science prevention act. It's targeted at creationism, though it has general requirements that ideas be testable, and also invoke natural causes. I have mixed feelings about this wording. I firmly believe that if creationists could produce a shred of real evidence for supernatural agency, it could be counted as science. If Behe prayed over a petri dish and the bacteria sprouted flagella, that would be evidence for supernatural agency. All they ever do, though, is say "Scientists don't know X. Therefore God." Also, I know that somewhere, a creationist will try to use the testability clause to get rid of evolution.

Rep. Berceau pointed out that the bill wouldn't prohibit talking about Intelligent Design as an example of something that isn't science.

She mentioned polls. A lot of polls beg the question in favor of ID. Take, for example, this recent bit of propaganda:
According to the Institute, polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that when biology teachers present the scientific evidence supporting Darwin’s theory of evolution, they should also teach the scientific evidence against it.
This assumes that there is credible evidence in favor of Intelligent Design.

Great line from Dan Barker: "I used to preach against evolution without really understanding it."

That's just a few choice bits. The stream is done, but in a day or two it should be posted at the FFRF's website.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sam Harris interview

At Salon. Check it out.

So you don't like popularizers...

In response to my last post rebutting Triablogue ( complained that "Hallquist acts as if speciation were an indisputable phenomenon. Linking to a popularizer hardly cinches the argument."

The "popularizer" I linked to provides fairly detailed sketches of numerous pieces of scientific literature on the subject, along with a bibliography listing those pieces of literature, like this:
While studying the genetics of the evening primrose, Oenothera lamarckiana, de Vries (1905) found an unusual variant among his plants. O. lamarckiana has a chromosome number of 2N = 14. The variant had a chromosome number of 2N = 28. He found that he was unable to breed this variant with O. lamarckiana. He named this new species O. gigas.
This "cinches the argument" as least as conclusive as dismissing an argument like this:
To begin with, a lot of the very same “evidence” which Douglas Theobald has marshaled in favor of naturalistic evolution is cited by Kurt Wise as evidence of special creation—or intelligent design, by Michael Denton.

Cf. K. Wise, Faith, Form, & Time (B&H 2002); “The Origin of Life’s Major Groups,” J. Moreland, ed. The Creation Hypothesis (IVP 1993), 211-34; M. Denton, Nature’s Destiny (Free Press 1998).
If the problem is that members of Triablogue lack access to databases of scientific papers, I would be happy to send them a PDF of any papers cited by the TalkOrigins article. I will not waste my time with the rest of what Triablogue said on evolution. They seem to think the burden of proof is on scientists to prove beyond all doubt that Genesis is false, but the burden of proof has never been on those who doubt Genesis, at least not since the Renaissance when we discovered non-Christian mythology. Also, he got talking about "defeaters," which rings of Plantiga. My understanding of Plantinga is that he claims that the Holy Spirit testifies to believers and provides an "intrinsic defeater-defeater." I think that's his polite way of saying "if you can refute me, screw you." So I will not waste my time on "defeaters."

My offer about the papers is sincere, however.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

BK and me

BK has responded to my noticing his hypocrisy in the comments of his post:
For anyone coming here from the Without Credibility Hallq page, I simply ask you to read what I wrote for yourself then read his one sentence summary. I suggest that Hallq has a comprehension problem if he thinks that I am saying that I don't want to be bothered with the truth. It certainly is not what I intended to say, and I don't see how anyone who is fair minded would understand me to have said that.
I reply
Honest answer, BK: Do you think it is possible to "look honestly at the issue" (any issue, really) without listening to both sides?
Perhaps I am about to learn about a new and fascinating concept of honest inquiry. Stay tunned.

Review: The End of Faith

I'm completely behind the curve on this one, but I'm glad I finally got a chance to read this book. Here's my review.

Sam Harris is, if nothing else, a punchy writer. In his net-famous Atheist Manifesto, he managed to get out "the entirety of atheism" in a mere 105 words, or less than 1/7th of the length of a typical Op-Ed column.

The End of Faith opens similarly: Harris describes a suicide bombing, and then asks: what was his IQ? His social class? We don't know. Why, then is it so easy to guess the man's religion?

That's just the beginning of Harris' assult on unreason and pluralistic complacency. It is the later that Harris best known for. He devotes three chapters to looking at the horrible things that have and do result from orthodox versions of Christianity and Islam. With quotes from the Bible and Koran, Harris provides an effective kick in the pants to anyone who thinks the actions of believers have nothing to do with their beliefs. This book got mentioned on the IIDB as a good de-conversion book. I wouldn't agree with that conclusion for a fundamentalist, but a staunch pluaralist is another matter.

The assult on unreason is also well-done, though. Particularly slick is his argument that if our beliefs can claim to be about reality, they must be based on evidence. He also gets in a remark that clamoring after weeping statues shows just how importance evidence is to the "faith"-ful.

I should say something about the mysticism that Harris has gotten flack for. His remarks about weeping statues could be turned against him; his remarks that there might be something to telepathy could be seen as just an attempt to find support. He insists every step of the way that we must settle the question by reason and evidence. In this, he is far above most believers, and should not be dismissed because one disagrees with his conclusions.

Skeptic's Circle 38

The latest edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up, and LBBP took the trouble to bottle the entries. Highlight: Josh McDowell spotted on yet another "Noah's Ark" expidition.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ah, hypocrisy.

From Christian CADRE:
Now, I am not saying that there is not honest intellectual doubt. I do think that those type of doubts exist, but I would guesstimate that in 90% of the cases, the intellectual doubt is merely a rationalization for a deeper heart-problem. Thus, it seems to me that while a good apologetic is appropriate for responding to that intellectual challenge, the apologetic will not be effective in allaying the doubt which is, in most cases, not really intellectual in nature...

Dealing with Doubt

...To the extent that the issue is an honest intellectual issue, the best thing to do is read some good Christian authors on apologetics who help answer the question and give strong arguments for accepting the Christian worldview...

...Note that I am not suggesting that when we are doubting that we go and compare what these Christian apologetics books say versus what the skeptics claim. I don't recommend that at all. My reasoning is very simple -- when you are at a low point in faith is not the time to go seeking what the skeptics are saying....
To summarize: most people who have doubts about Christianity are dishonest. If you have doubts about Christianity, do not, under any circumstances, look honestly at the issue.

Carnival of the Liberals, Independence Day edition

Okay, so Independence Day was yesterday, but it's close enough. If we can have fireworks on the 2nd of July, we can have a carnival on the 5th. It's also a fitting theme, since so many of the posts in this edition deal with the subject of liberty, and recent assults on it.

First, from Perceiving Wholes, we have an entry on freedom from narrow political lables. Jane gives the example of the Green Party, who are in most ways left wing, but do have some vaules generally considered conservative, such as decentralization.

In "The thing a symbol stands for," The Ridger talks about the proposed anti-flag burning amendment that, thankfully, failed by one vote. He asks, "Isn't our embrace of liberties as important as our preaching of Liberty, of democratic laws as of Democracy?" Amen to that, brother. In a post related to a different proposed constitutional amendment, Greesmile looks at homophobic attempts to pretend that gays don't exist. Then, touching on both of these subjects, Enceladus wonders why constitutional amendments no longer expand our liberties.

ChemJerk reports on a local example of attempts to push evolution out of the classrooms. This is a useful reminder that having won Dover isn't everything.

Joerg at The Atlantic Review explains why Bush botched an opportunity to "win hearts and minds."

"What is a Libertarian Democrat?" That's the question asked by Eteraz, who outlines a more moderate libertarianism.

Is the space age tied to environmentalism? The Naked Gaze examines the question, drawing on Al Gore's recent movie.

Getting back to the subject of liberty, The Atheist Ethicist has a post on accusations of treason that speaks for itself:
Those who wish to charge individuals at the New York Times with treason for revealing the fact that Bush is spying on Americans without a warrant prove by their words that they are fonder of tyranny than they are of liberty.
Similar, but darker, is worries that we've passed theo point of no return from The Neural Gourmet.

Our final entry for this edition talks about Democratic moves to make more clear what they stand for. Included are things like the minimum wage and oil/gas subsidies, but I have another proposal: Fighting for constitutioan rights, against those who would place symbols above rights and try reporters for treason. That's patriotism, not what many right wingers seem to think patriotism is.

That's all for this edition. The next edition will be held at Brainshrub, in the 19th. Hope we'll see entries as good as the ones on this week's lineup.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Triablogue easily refuted

Triablogue has responded to my previous critique of them. (I won't link, because it seems that linking to opponents is contrary to Triablogue policy.) I'm replying immediately, becuase it's so easy to refute. They are admirably clear on micro/macro-evolution:
After Darwin, the first phenomenon (changes within an existing species or gene pool) was named "microevolution." There is abundant evidence that changes can occur within existing species, both domestic and wild, so microevolution is uncontroversial.

The second phenomenon (large-scale changes over geological time) was named "macroevolution," and Darwin's theory that the processes of the former can account for the latter was controversial right from the start. Many biologists during and after Darwin's lifetime have questioned whether the natural counterpart of domestic breeding could do what domestic breeding has never done—namely, produce new species, organs, and body plans.
As noted in my original post, new species can be produced. Ergo, macroevolution happens.

Then they complain I act as if the universe has been designed for man. Nope. I just think that if, as far as we can tell, a scientific procedure works, then we should use it. That's the only way to deal with the empirical world.

PH 32

The 32nd philosophy carnival is up at Adventures in ethics and science.

Arguing morals

I've decided to write a post on one short passage from Bertrand Russell:
There have been at different times and among different people many varying conceptions of the good life. To some extent the differences were amenable to argument; this was when men differed as to the means to achieve a given end. Some think that prison is a good way of preventing crime; others hold that education would be better. A difference of this sort can be decided by sufficient evidence. But some differences cannot be tested in this way. Tolstoy condemned all war; other have held the life of a soldier doing battle for the right to be very noble. Here there was probably involved a real difference as to ends. Those who praised the soldier usually consider the punishment of sinners a good thing in itself; Tolstoy did not think so. On such a matter no argument is possible. I cannot, therefore, prove that my view of the good life is right; I can only state my view and hope that as many as possible will agree. My view is this: The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
This passage feels right given the lofty ideals in the last sentence, and with the allusion to the doctrine of Hell. It hardly represents relativism as usually understood. If no moral position can be proved, it can hardly be proved from there that we ought not treat one moral postion as superior to another. It would be very tempting to take it up in exhasperation with those who refuse to be argued out of medieval monstrosities. Some such disagreements do seem impossible to solve, and make it tempting to think that there is nothing objective there.

This would be a mistake, though. The problem is that the situation is not a bit different for questions of fact. There are some people who will insist that we ought not think rationally about many questions of fact. I think I have complained enough about William Lane Craig, so instead I will point to Philip Johnson and Ken Ham. Philip Johnson, founder of the Intelligent Design movement, talks about different rationalities and the sham neutrality of rationalism makes me suspect that his Christian fundamentalism isn't open to rational critique. Ken Ham has said as much--while his creationist organization spends it's time trying to provide evidence for creation, he admits that for him, it isn't a matter of evidence. Oh, and don't even get me started on presuppositionalism.

Against these positions, argument is not any more possible than on many moral matters. We may say, with Ethan Allen, that they do not deserve rational argument, but they will respond "I don't care."

In short, though it may be tempting to throw up our hands in the face of moral disagreement, but then we'd have to do the same when facing Philip Johnson and his ilk. Clearly, the existence of Christian fundamentalists does not disprove the existence of objective reality.

The "fool" video

Neural Gourmet posts the same video I linked to earlier, while echoing some of my concerns about anti-intellectualism:
Let's face it, many of the people we consider great examples of humanity and evidence of atheist morals in action are exactly the ones being vilified by the fundamentalists (and the Republican Party). All those stats are wonderful to see too but unfortunately there is an anti-intellectual bias that cuts deeply through American culture that views all statistics as suspect.

Speaking up against "persecution"

The word, I mean. It's the subject of the latest doggerel at Rockstars' Ramblings, where Bronze Dog rambles on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Somebody just learned why I believe in evolution

I found this post by random Technorati search:
Okay, so recently I decided to do a bit of research on Evolution online, particularly about Darwin (I originally began by trying to discern whether there was truth the story that Darwin refuted Evolution on his deathbed and converted to Christianity, and for those of you who are curious, that story is at best unverifiable, and most consider it false, including Christian Scientists). So, of course through my search I stumbled upon several "opinion" sites that stated facts about the theory of Evolution and why it is correct etc. and so forth. These sites were well written, backed by well-founded scientific evidence, and seemed very comprehensive and arguable. Now of course most of these sites (some of which were myspace sites) had areas where others could comment back, and here is where my true aggravation occurred.

I found it disappointing that every time a Christian or someone who trusts in the fact that the world was created or has an "intelligent design" (the new phrase that's going around), they seemed to be uneducated, silly fanatics who could be easily dismissed or argued away and made to be a fool by those who trust in Evolution.

Science 101 for Triablogue

Over on Triablogue, there's some fairly standard creationist nonsense in response to a comment from Daniel Morgan on one of their posts.

First, Daniel asked "Were the species all created ex nihilo?" In response, he was told it's a question of "kinds," not species.

This leads quickly to another question: what in the world is a "kind"? Creationists talk about it a lot, but never explain it. A useful contrast is the Biological Species Concept--the idea that two populations are the same species if they can mate and procude fertile offspring. Because we know, among other things, that new species can evolve, creationists can't use "species" as "kind," but how do they propose to test whether two populations are the same "kind." In a similar vein, in response to the question of "Are the biologists lying about the descent with modification of species from common ancestors?", Daniel was told that the "It fails to distinguish between evidence for microevolution and evidence for macroevolution." Again, what is macro/microevolution? Mircoevolution has to include speciation. On the other had, the evidence for evolution at the level of taxonomic families is much the same as the evidence at the level of phyla. We're talking about things like the nested hierarchy, which most scientists think works at all levels. Do the Triabloggers think it works for families but not phyla? If so, what's their evidence?

The section on the age of the earth is rather confused. It's major points are something about resetting clocks, and "that radiometric decay rates are not designed to tell the time. That is not their natural function." For not recognizing these things, scientists are called "terribly gauche, which, in some ways, is worse" than being liars. Sorry guys, scientists are going to try to figure out how the world works, and they're going to do so without worringy about untestable hypotheticals. They will use electron mircroscopes to investigate matter even if Zeus didn't design electrons for that purose. They will use light to try to figure out the chemical composition of distant stars, even if Ra might be holding up a big mirror to confuse them. That's how science works. Deal with it.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Famous atheists

I agree with John, this is a great video. Almost worry it should be kept from fundies, might just increase their anti-intellectualism. Though the mention of Bill Gates right when his charity work is getting major press is a great touch. This may be worth spreading around for that reason alone.

Review: On the Origin of the Species

In my introductory philosophy class back in the fall, my professor once mentioned off-hand that everyone should read Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species. Last month, I got a copy, and finished reading it while on vacation. I agree with my professor; this review will be dedicated to explaining why.

My edition is a paperback put out by Penguin, with an introduction by John Burrow. The introduction does an excellent job of setting out the historical context, along with showing just how damaging Darwin's book was to the natural theology of the time. People then believed that God had created each species by special creation, something not even modern creationists try to argue (they use the more vague "kinds.") Theologians would catalogue how every element of the natural world was perfectly designed by God to suit Man--except those nasty things like snakes, which had to be explained away as intruments of God's wrath. Darwin demolished this by showing that animals were the way they were to help the species or individual organism survive--as opposed to helping another species such as homo sapiens.

Darwin begins with a discussion of heredity and breeding of domestic animals. It's fascinating from a history of science perspective, since he had to try to work out basic ideas of heredity without knowing the details of Mendelian genetics. Darwin was willing to entertain Lamarkian notions of heredity alongside his ideas of natural selection, but when he delt with natural selection, he basically got heredity right. He had a simple, powerful argument: variants of a species can be produced by selective breeding. The same, though, can happen in nature, since animals increase exponentially, and therefore engage in a "struggle for existence." Not all can survive, those who do will be somewhat more fit that those that do not. Thus, varieties should be produced by natural selection.

A major hurdle he had to get over was the claim that while new varieties may be produced, new species cannot be. Darwin responded by showing that species and varieties were not so clearly distinct. Oftentimes, taxonamists disagreed on whether two populartions were different varieties or different species. The ability to mate and produce fertile offspring was not a binary characteristic. Rather, fertility gradually decreased as varieties became more and more distinct.

Darwin had powerful arguments in favor of common descent. These remain important today, even though things molecular biology may provide more rigorous proof. Darwin observed that imagining a family tree of life explains the universally recognized fact that species fit into an objective, nested hierarchy of taxonomic categories. To talk of the "unity of life" or the "plan of creation," Darwin argued, was to merely pretend to give an explanation while restating the fact. Darwin also shows how common descent exlains such evidence as the geographical distribution of species and the basic similarity between the bones in the bat's wing, the human hand, and the whale's fin.

One of the best sections was where Darwin met possible objections to his theory head-on. Reading it, I realized that many modern creationist arguments had been refuted by Darwin 147 years ago. A prime example is an argument quite popular today: spoting a feature and insisting it could not have been produced by gradual modification. Darwin deals with several such potential examples, such as wings, eyes, and carefully made honey combs. On bat wings, Darwin notes that some small mamals have flaps of skin for gliding. Likely, this is how the wing started out. On eyes, Darwin notes that while our eyes are quite complex, some animals have nothing more than a neverve with pigment. Again, that's probably how things started out. For the ability of bees to make honeycomb with mathematical precision, he notes a bee that made spherical containers for honey, and that when these overlapped, a flat wall was formed between them. All bees would have to learn to do after making spheres is to make them at fixed distanes. This would produce a mathematical pattern of hexagons in honey comb.

Another popular creationist argument today is the gaps in the fossil record. Oftentimes, they claim Darwin just assumed that these would be filled in by later discoveries. In Origin, however, he notes that fossils need specific conditions to form, so we cannot expect everything that has ever lived to fossilize.

Anyone interested in understanding evolution--and fighting creationism--ought to start with Darwin's original book on the subject.