Saturday, September 30, 2006

The continued fight against contraception

Austine Cline reports that some doctors are using their ability to dispense emergency contraception to play sex czar. One more thinking making me feel glad to live in America.

Carrier's epistemology, side note

Because his book Sense and Goodness Without God contains a request to be contact with problems in his philosophical system, I sent Richard Carrier an e-mail with links to my ongoing critique of his book. He sent a relpy saying that he's too busy working on his disseration to look at them in depth, but said I may find something relevant in his reviews of Michael Rea and Vic Reppert. I haven't found anything to comment on yet, but readers of this site may want to take a look anyway.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Fear and hoping in the states

Andrew Sullivan seems to be doing his best to make me fear for my life. First, he does a rapid-sucession series of post on a religious nut convention, including one on how they think gayness is the work of Satan. (I can't help but note, though, that he fails to mention there would be no question about these people's sanity if they said homosexuality was the work of the Jotun.) A little while later, he shows just how scared he is by actually linking to a well-known atheist website.

But not all is bad news. I went to a movie/discussion group yesterday organized for people in my dorm. It was not advertised as a heathen-only thing, but out of the nine people who showed, we had six out and out unbelievers and one deist. Secularism is at least doing better among the young than the general population.

Of bathrooms and yogurt

When I was in chess club in grade school, I didn't know it was a sport with such colorful personalities.


Yesterday, I was having some technical difficulties with the blog. Hopefully, making this post will tell me if they're gone.

UPDATE: Yay! It worked!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Technical difficulties

For some reason, the text of my review of Sam Harris' latest book isn't publishing on the index page, but is published for the page specific to that post. There's a slim chance this post will solve the problem by forcing the index to republish.

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

The first thing that struck me about Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is its size. The pages are an inch or so smaller in both dimensions than your average book for adults. Cracking it open, I saw the text runs a mere 89 pages. I'd estimate the word count at a little less than a third of his previous book, The End of Faith. But Harris makes every word count.

In his interview with Freethought Radio, Harris explained that this book started as a real letter. People would send him e-mails criticizing him for his religious views, and at first he would respond one by one, but as his book got greater publicity he had to develop a form letter to send out. That formed the basis for this book, it is, Harris said, "The longest form letter ever written." To a large extent the arguments he makes are not new, but they are made with the exceptional punch familiar to anyone whose read his last book or his online writings, such as his atheist manifesto. Particularly memorable is the passage on stem-cell research, where he notes that the embryos involved have fewer cells than the brain of a fly.

Other than being a form letter, it could be viewed as a supplement to The End of Fatih. The first book wakes up religious liberals to the fact that some strands of religion are dangerous, the second wakes up conservatives to everything that's wrong with their views. It hits every point that needs to be hit here. I suppose the folks at Triablog with rehash their previous criticism that he doesn't deal with the alleged evidence for Christianity. Let's face it, though, most believers don't trouble themselves that much with evidence. Apologetics books sell well, but The Purpose Driven Life, which tells its readers to put Biblical inerrancy above all rational considerations, has sold better.

Though it's a thrill to see Harris in action, the book ends on a sobering note: "This letter is the product of a failure--the failure of the many brilliant atttacks upon religion that preceeded it..." It forces the reader to realize that the present volume's sucess will be limited. Few believers will read it. Even those who dislike orthodox religion will be more ready to read trash like The Da Vinci Code. However, as Harris has said, there is a culture war in America that must be fought and won by secularists, and every addition to the effort helps.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Seeing a pattern

At the Secular Outpost, Taner Edis wonders why some scientists are so quick to find evidence of God outside their specialties.

CotL 22

The 22nd edition of the Carnival of the Liberals is up at Writings on the Wall.

Bobcasting, episode 14

(Cross posted at The Neural Gourmet.)

Today's reading is Crumbling Creeds. Interesting aside: just today, I was at a meeting of the local campus freethought group where we were discussing American attitudes towards atheists. One guy argued that part of the problem is that there used to be strong critics of religion: Huxley, Russell, etc., but then that went away for awhile and is only now comming back. It's striking how Ingersoll could talk of the dogmas of his own day as "crumbling," but now the old dogmas are back with a vengence.

Download "Crumbling Creeds"
Ourmedia page

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Houses pases PERA. Ick

Americans United has the scoop on today's PERA vote. Let's hope this thing doesn't pass in the Senate.

On Carrier's epistemology, part 2

This is a continuation of my analysis of Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness Without God. Those who've not read it should read that post before this one. Strictly speaking, I will not be focusing on Carrier here, but I think it's necessary to say what could be done to fix the section of his book discussed previously.

Let me start with a parable:

A guy named Mike has the following beliefs:
  • "The sun will rise tomorrow."
  • "Crows are black"
  • "I have a brain"
  • "The moon will turn purple tonight."
  • "Voices come from humans, parrots, or electronic devices, but not rocks."

Initially, Mike has no idea why he believes any of these things. He just takes them for granted.

Then, out of the blue, he hears someone say that the reason we believe the sun will rise tomorrow is because it has risen every day for as long as anyone can remember. He thinks about this explanation and decides it makes a good deal of sense.

From there he realizes that the situation with crows and his brain is similar: no one has seen every crow in existence, but every crow anybody as seen, as far as Mike knows, has been black, so we infer that all crows are black. Similarly, no one has seen Mike's brain, but every human that has been autopsied has had a brain, so we infer that all humans do and therefore Mike has one too. Mike realizes that a lot of our beliefs are like that, and thereby discovers the principle of induction.

With this principle, he can realize that his belief about the origen of voices has some basis in evidence, but his belief about what the moon will do tonight does not, and in fact induction would suggest that the moon is not going to turn a funny color. So he gives that belief up.

How close much resemblance to reality does this scenario I just sketched out bear? A fair amount, I think. Many people become quite convinced of the rising and setting of the sun before ever thinking of such principles as induction, much less verificationism, falsificationism, and Bayesian confirmation. And many people carry around quite a few false beliefs in their world of true ones, even if the real world examples aren't so extreme. As far as I can tell, such principles of inference are almost never arrived at in a vacuum. To show the problem with non-falsifiable beliefs, it helps a lot to be able to give an example or two of a patently absurd non-falsifiable hypothesis.

I would go so far as to contend that for our hypothetical Mike, the only way to discover that the moon will not turn purple tomorrow is to begin by accepting all his beliefs, including it, as properly basic. Ultimately, all beliefs may be reduced to the general reliability of perception and memory, as well as some ideas about good rational inferences, these being the only things taken as properly basic. But even once this framework is worked out, it will always be useful to refine our notions of inference against "test cases" where the correct answer seems obvious. In all this process, though one belief may be occasionally traced to another, there must always be givens, or else we fall back into the problem of regress.

With all this down, I think one can understand what is wrong with Plantinga's use of proper basicality to defend the belief in God. It seems to me that Plantinga starts in the right place, but strongly resists any attempt to move beyond square one. To cite just one example from Faith and Rationality, which Carrier includes in his bibliography on Plantinga: on pp. 74-78, he deals with what he calls "The Great Pumpkin Objection," that if belief in God is allowed as properly basic, one might as well have a properly basic belief about the Great Pumpkin returning every Haloween. Plantinga proposes that inorder to determine conditions for proper basicallity, "We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and examples of beliefs and conditions suchc that the former are obviously not properly basic at the later." Thus we can arrive at criteria inductively.

So far, not bad. Then, however, Plantinga goes off and says that someone who accepts his epistemology does not necesarrily need to work out "full-fledged criterion of proper basicality." This strikes me as lazy, but perhaps prudent. If one were to draw up a list of things which are not properly basic to believe, it would include the vast majority of the gods that human beings have ever believed in. This, among other things, would tend to suggest that belief in your god of choice is a bad candidate for proper basicality. When I see things like this, I get the feeling that Plantinga is anxious to assure the Mikes of the world that they need not critically examine their beliefs, that they need not try to beyond their common prejudices.

Iblis is God! Iblis is God!

Amba has dug up a real jem.

Monday, September 25, 2006

PC 36

The 36th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at What is it like to be a blog? Random thought: does the assumption that there is something which it is like to be a blog imply some kind of panpsychism?

PC 36

The 36th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at What is it like to be a blog? Random thought: does the assumption that there is something which it is like to be a blog imply some kind of panpsychism?

This isn't news, Ed

Ed Brayton takes on fundamentalists who want to attack contraception. He does a good job of dissecting their arguments, but he makes the mistake of treating this as news. The nuts of the anti-abortion movement have always wanted to get rid of birth control too. Unfotunate that so few people realize this.

False alarm?

Earlier in the month, I noted a study which found, among other things, that young people supposedly have the highest rate of belief in an authoritarian God. More recently, however, Ebonmuse and Beware of Dogma are questioning the results. The Muse's post is especially worth reading, as it discusses signs that evangelicals are doing a poor job or retaining youth.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Review: Righteous

Lauren Sandler's Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, is a book I had to get. I've had my fare share of sometimes disturbing contact with members of the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ (see here, for example). That gives me one angle on the phenomenon, but I couldn't pass up the chance to read a thorough examination by a professional journalist.

Leading the "advance praise" that fills the back cover is a quote from Sam Harris which declares, "If you have any doubt that there is a culture war that must be waged and won by secularists in America, read this book." I fully endorse this statement, but it fails to express the way Sandler deals with both the frighteningly insane and the seemingly innocent. There is plenty of the former: An anti-abortion group that also opposes contraception and has a female member who insists on continuing to have babies even if it destroys her uterus. A private college made up of 90% homeschoolers, all required to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and the damnation of unbelievers, being groomed to run the country one day. An anti-evolution campaigner who admits, "for many of us Evangelicals, we follow the Bible first and look to science to confirm its truths" (this quote deserves to be widely circulated by those who value honest science). There's also the air force recruits who believe it is the job of the U.S. military to help bring about the end of the world.

When viewed alongside such fare, to give one of the books eight chapters entirely to a discussion of skate-board evangelism might seem like an exercise in triviality. However, in some ways that chapter is one of the most important in the book. It exemplifies the somewhat simplistic tactics used to get unthinking pledges of allegiance. "Wanna go skateboarding?" "Sure, why not?" "Wanna accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?" "Sure, why not?" The idea is not to get people to accept evangelicalism after careful contemplation, but suddenly in a vulnerable moment, which every young person has from time to time (trust me, I am one). If the converts think, there's too much risk they'll realize what they're getting in to. Robert M. Price put it well: "Christ functions, in an unnoticed and equivocal way, as shorthand for a vast system of beliefs and institutions on whose behalf he is invoked. Put simply, this means that when an evangelist or an apologist invites you to have faith 'in Christ,' they are in fact smuggling in a great number of other issues." Among these beliefs is the inerrancy of a book whose God expects people to slaughter women and children on command, and who damns everyone who disagrees with the convert's new religious opinions.

This point comes across strong in the concluding section, when Sandler describes being caught up in a worship service she was attending as part of her research and briefly wonders if it was her moment to become born again, only pulling back because of her awareness of what was really involved. At the end of the scene, she remarks: "if I had been younger, teetering in my own sense of purpose, and less steeped in the literature, I have no doubt they could have had me."

The book wraps up with some profound insight mixed with a somewhat misguided notion of how to proceed. The key sentence: "Fundamentalism offers a snake-oil cure for their ills, promising the tight community groups of churches, the steadfast solidarity of activist groups, and most of all, the deep certainty of Biblical inerrancy." She then concludes that secularists must counter this by mimicking evangelical tactics. While making good use of music and other pop culture items isn't a bad idea, we must realize we cannot have the same final sales pitch. The brand of mental security that fundamentalism offers is a fraud, something we cannot emulate while keeping honest. Instead of going for quick conversions, we must patiently cultivate the desire and ability to inquire freely about the world. It may seem like an unfair fight, but it is one we must take part in. And we can offer something the fundamentalists can't: freedom from the worry that asking the wrong questions will result in eternal damnation. That a pearl far more precious than any religious mantra of certainty.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

On Carrier's epistemology, part 1

When I reviewed Sense and Goodness Without God a month ago, I indicated posts would be forthcomming analyzing the ideas presented in the book. Here's finally getting around to writing the first of those posts. I apologize if I lose anyone here; this may be the philosophically heaviest post I've ever written.

The first major section of Carrier's book (following the introduction) deals with epistemology. It does not discuss radical skepticism in great detail, but seems to contain some rather large concessions to skepticism. On pages 27-28, Carrier says: "the same predictions can be made by wildly different claims, and we have the tough task, through all our lives and in everything we do, of trying to figure out which of several equally plausible of a particular thing is right." A little later, on page 32, he brings up the world of The Matrix, which could be taken as an example of this problem. Carrier argues that there would only be a meaningful difference between such a world and the "real" world if it were not "in every way the same as real life," for example, if it had "glitches, superhuman 'agents,' and groups who can 'wake you up" to the higher reality." However, it is possible to imagine that I am in the matrix-world and that such things exist but I haven't noticed them yet. This is indeed a case of "wildly different claims" making "the same predictions," so how do we figure out which is right?

When Carrier discusses how to do this, he runs into the problem of regress, which he confronts when attempting to rebutt Alvin Plantinga's epistemology. The problem is that if one proposition must be backed up with another, attempts to justify beliefs will result in an infinite chain of propisitions without any basis in anything. If I understand Plantinga correctly, his alternative that there are "properly basic beliefs" which one may hold without any evidence at all, though this does not mean that they cannot be overturned by strong evidence. Plantinga is a Christian philosopher particularly concerned with showing belief in God is properly basic, though I take it that he would not agree with William Lane Craig's position that one ought to believe in Christianity regardless of how strong the contrary evidence is.

Carrier's response to the problem of regress is that "The buck stops with the evidence: which means experience, for there is no other sort of evidence" (p. 45). This response hinges on a subtle distinction between the brute experience and even the simplest statements about experience, such as "there is an experience of me typing now" (p. 46). Carrier thinks that the brute experience of typing is indubitable, but the preceeding statement is not, because it could involve some conceptual confusion. I am inclined to agree.

However, merely having some brute experience to base beliefs on does not solve the problem of regress, because brute experience needs to be interpreted. Any statement about how we ought to go about interpreting experience is open to question, and thus needs further justification, and those justifications demand justification and so on. I do not think that Carrier has escaped the problem of regress.

This point becomes clearer with a few more citations from the book. First, "the only thing we can trust without evidence is what cannot be denied, and the only thing we cannot deny is that certain experiences exist" (p. 45). From this, we can clearly deny the reliability of memory. However, as I pointed out in an early post on skepticism, no line of reasoning can ever get us out of skepticism regarding memory, because in order to reason we must be able to remember the previous steps of the line of reasoning.

A similar problem arises when Carrier tries to formulate specific proposals about what good methodology works. At the beginning of this section, Carrier says, "we need a 'theory of knowledge.' But how do we know ours is correct?... The real test will be its results in practice" (p. 24). Again, when it comes time to list the most reliable methods, he says, "It is reasonable to predict that an accurate method... will exhibit two particular features, which an inaccurate method will not exhibit: predictive sucess and convergend accumulation of consistent results." But how do we know if the results are good? How do we know if predictions are suceeding? We must appeal to facts that are regarded as clearly true. But if one is truly dedicated to considering something a fact when it comes out of rigorous methodology... we are back at the problem of regress.

I have other things I wish to get done tonight, but for now I will say that I think Plantiga has hit upon the only real solution to the problem of regress. Readers of this blog will of course want to know what I think of his attempt to use properly basic belief to defend belief in God; that I will deal with in the next post in this series.

Michael Shermer on evolution and Christianity

Michael Shermer says Christians should embrace evolution, and both atheists and Christians are piling on. I've decided that I have to join in.

(Aside: normally, I like Shermer. I sometimes wonder if this site ends up carrying too much criticism of people I like, due to the fact that I tend to care about what such people say more. Oh well.)

The biggest problem with Shermer's article is that it seems to be blissfully unaware that there is such a thing as fundamentalist Christianity. This is particularly odd since Shermer has claimed to be a former fundamentalist who thought the world was going to end in 1988. Evolution may fit nice with the deism of Shermer's fellow debunker Martin Gardener, and it may fit well with the liberal forms of Christianity that Jefferson and Paine would have been at home with, but it just doesn't fit well with a belief in inerrancy. In order to accept both inerrancy and evolution, you must believe that God at least did not intend the "days" of Genesis to mean 24 hours, but failed to mention this fact in His Word. Since God is supposed to be omniscient, God would have known that by failing to include such a disclaimer, he was throwing up a major roadblock to public acceptance of science down the road. Such a view simply makes no sense.

Also, there's no reason to want to defend inerrancy. As Sam Harris has repeatedly pointed out, a belief that the world will end in 50 years, and that this will be a good thing, is profoundly maladaptive, especially in a nuclear world. This is one of several beliefs that Shermer should be more than happy to use modern biology to demolish.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Thoughts on the Craig-Tabash debate

When I originally linked to the Craig-Tabash debate, I thought I'd do a full commentary like I did for Lowder-Fernandes, but Richard Carrier has already written a commentary, which I largely agree with. I just have one point in response to Richard's comments.

Carrier says:
Even many theists were disappointed in Craig, whose arguments were often poorly constructed or outright fallacious, and they credited Tabash, who certainly made several good arguments that were not addressed, or only ineptly, with the win.
Craig used the same basic arguments for his position that he always uses (Kalaam and thre resurrection), so I don't think this is where the problem is supposed to be. I think, then, Carrier is refering to Tabash's attacks on Hell, Biblical attrocities, and the supernatural. Frankly, I don't see how Craig could have done better here. If the "theists" who Carrier mentions as giving the victory to Tabash are really evangelical Christians, we've got a case of evangelicals admitting their doctrines are indefensible.

The gospels and eyewitnesses

To posts of note at Christian CADRE.

1) Layman links to an article arguing "The Gospels Were Chock Full of Eyewitness Accounts". He's excited. I can't help but note that hs excitement only makes sense if you conceed that the early church, along with apologists like Craig Blomberg, are wrong to insist that two of the gospels were actually written by eyewitnesses. The actual arguments also point to a sort of "friend of a friend" mentality working in the early church, which everyone familiar with urban legends recognizes as worthless.

2) BK argues that John must come from an eyewitness because of irrelevant details. Again, complete ignorance of how urban legends work. Pick up Jan Harold Bruvand's works on urban legends, you'll realize that legends get mangled in ways that leave them with useless, even nonsensical bits.

If recent apologists have improved on McDowell, they haven't improved much.


I've discovered a new blog called A World of Manifold Fates. And I mean bran spankin new, two days old. Why don't you all pay him a visit and bump him above 50 hits?

Bobcasting, episode 13

Ourmedia has mysteriously started working again, so today I post episode 13 of Bobcasting. For reasons unconnected to my technical difficulties, this is a quickie, but it makes good points all the same. It's called "What Infidels Have Done."

Download "What Infidels Have Done"
Ourmedia page

Thursday, September 21, 2006


A mathematician publishes a paper attacking evolution.

Dembski's blog respons:
I continue to find it entertaining that many Darwinists are convinced that only religious fanatics, the uneducated, and/or not-very-brights don’t buy their arguments.
Hell's Handmaiden responds:
On a lighter note, consider the suggestion he claims to have made to Behe that he (Behe) would find "more support for his ideas in mathematics, physics and computer science departments than in his own field". In other words, Behe would find more support for his biological theories in fields where people are not trained in biology. Of course he would! You can also find more support for astrology within fields where people are not trained in astronomy. Likewise, you can find more support for crackpot theories about division by zero outside the appropriate field of mathematics than inside it.

Technical difficulties

For some reason, I'm having trouble getting the next episode of Bobcasting up. For now, go amuse yourselves with... no, wait, that's not working either :(

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Quote of the Time Being

She is genuinely funny. I'd advise anyone who wants to read the creationist literature to skip the humorless Morris, Gish, and Behe and just read Coulter. They will not miss any important science.
-Johnathan Levinson, via Vic Reppert


There's a discussion at Theology Online of John Loftus' book Why I Rejected Christianity. Also, Bill Snedden gives his view of Lowder v. Fernandes. Both give you the chance to see alternate perspectives on things I've already given my take on here. Also, the discussion of Loftus' book gives yet another example of how hard it is for some Christians to admit you can honestly doubt Christianity.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

New profile pic

Tell me what you think:

(Looks, thinks, realizes only headshot works well in sidebar.)

How about this?:

I love creationists

Over at Christian Forums, there's a guy asking how evolution can exlain the fact that "Plants are Free Energy Machines." Sweet reason, I have to submit this to FSTDT.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sam Harris on the War on Terror

Gosh, if only my fellow Madisonites could read this:
Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.

Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West.
My fears exactly.

HT: Andrew Sullivan

Congradulations in order

The Ebon Muse Review's Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and reveals that he got cited by Dawkins in the book. Way to go Muse!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

CotG 49

The 49th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Grounded in Reality.

Bobcasting, episode 12

(Cross-posted at The Neural Gourmet)

Welcome to episode 12 of Bobcasting, where I read from the works of Robert G. Ingersoll. This episode concludes my reading of "Heretics and Heresies."

Download "Heretics and Heresies," section 3
Ourmedia page

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Rev Bob on reactionaries

Rev Bob responds to my review of Alister McGrath:
There isn’t any reason at all to suppose that McGrath is aware that a single traditional conservative idea or policy might be wrong. There are folks like that, and I run into them every day, who simply can’t process an input that differs from their prejudices. You can see the blank, panicked expression on their faces: "Overload! Overload!" And then they blink and go on to something else as though the cognitive dissonance never happened.


Daniel Morgan is raising awareness about something called PERA. It's an act to prevent establishment clause cases from resulting in awards for attorney's fees, which would cripple the ability of civil liberties groups to go about their diabolical work of making sure that this country's constitution is followed. Write your representatives.

The Lowder-Fernandes Debate

This is a review of the Lowder-Fernandes debate, whose posting on the internet I noted previously. A summary of the opening statements is available here (Scroll to bottom. Reading it may help following this critique.)

General comments

First, two words: fourteen arguments. Yikes. This was a 90 minute debate, so we're talking about just over 6 minutes per argument. Both Lowder and Fernandes could have strengthened their presentations by cutting arguments. Fernandes' claim about the failure of naturalism was not defended at all, so it was a mere assertion. In Lowders' case, I had trouble remembering what all his arguments were even after listening to the debate multiple times. Lowder would have done beter organizing his debate under four headings: physical dependence of minds, evolution, evil, nonbelief/religious confusion. He could have kept most of his material while organizing it better and making it easier to follow.

A related problem was that the delivery often felt unnatural. I understand that reading statements is often necessary to make sure that every word counts, but both speakers should have tried to make the delivery better... maybe by memorizing their opening statements so they could at least make eyecontact.

I wonder who their presentation was aimed at. Both of these things might not have mattered if their audience were just forensic judges. However, it seems their audience was a mix of college students and academics who had come for a conference. If I couldn't keep track of all the arguments after multiple listenings, I doubt other students would be able to keep track after one. There's even better reason to cut down the number of arguments for academics: most have heard the arguments, so the best approach is to develop one or two in detail.

Another thing that irked me is that Lowder began scoring his own debate while it was in progress, saying "this argument would flow to me." Pointing out that an argument hasn't been refuted isn't a bad strategy, but using technical forensic terms sounds weird to laypersons, and I'm not sure professional debate judges would appreciate it either.

Lowder's arguments

Physical dependence of minds

Fernandes said no theist would dispute that there's some dependence without answering Lowder's argument that it's evidence for naturalism. There he seemed not to grasp Lowder's argument, but he also cited some brain research that was supposed to show that decision making did not happen in the physical brain. Lowder said he wasn't familiar with the research Fernandes cites, so he wouldn't deal with this in the debate.

Winner: Fernandes, by a small margin


Fernandes attacked the fossil record by quoting a palentologist in a way that was exposed as being out of context. He also reitterated Behe's claims without responding to Lowder's criticisms.

Winner: Lowder, by a large margin

Flourishing and languishing of sentient beings

Though Fernandes didn't respond here, this is an argument that could have been dropped. With so many other arguments out there, it just didn't add to Lowder's case.

Winner: nobody

Biological role of pain and pleasure, Tragedies, God's silence in the face of pain

Fernandes said Lowder couldn't know that they don't serve a higher purpose because Lowder isn't infinitely wise. However, Lowder dealt with this objection in advance by making clear that he was presenting a probablistic argument and saying that God might have extra reasons we don't know about for preventing these things. Fernandes argued God uses pain to draw people to himself. Lowder resonded with the best line of the night: "That's like saying in order for my life to love me, I have to beat the crap out of her." Fernandes ignored the failure of God to confort people in the face of suffering.

Winner: Lowder, by a large margin

Argument from religious confusion

Fernandes claimed that this commits the mistake of assuming that if five people disagree, they must all be wrong. Lowder pointed out that Fernandes had misunderstood him again; if God exists he could prevent such confusion.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin

Reasonableness of nonbelief

Fernandes responded that Christian theism denies that unbelievers are honest and cites Romans. This begs the question in favor of Christianity. Lowder didn't deal with this so well in later rebuttal, though.

Winner: Nobody

Fernandes' arguments

Origin of universe

This is William Lane Craig's Kalam argument. Lowder objected that the universe just is, and things only need arguments if they need to exist in time. He also said that the theistic alternative was no better, implying the idea of creation ex nihilo was absurd. Fernandes largely ignored these points, inspite of some bold pontificating. Lowder brilliantly deflated all of this by saying "Science has found God" was a product of Templeton's money, that he (Lowder) believed in the Big Bang as a theist and a naturalist and never thought it was important either way, and that Fernandes had misrepresented the views of atheists. Fernandes complained that naturalism treats the universe as a brute fact, Lowder countered that Fernandes had God as a brute fact. This last attempted defense was particularly bad.

Winner: Lowder, by a large margin.

Continued existence

Lowder argued that just because each part of the universe is dependent doesn't mean the entire thing is. Fernandes insists this is true, but the reasons aren't clear. Lowder actually should have pointed out that there are thingsy that don't depend on anything as far as we can tell, for their continued existence: i.e. stones. Fernandes is the one that has to make the argument work, though, and he dug his own grave when he brought up the possibility of an independent part of the universe only to say, vaguely, that it "sounds like God."

Winner: Lowder, by a slight margin

Design argument

Lowder had three objections:

1) Fernandes really doesn't know the probabilities involved. He quoted an scientist saying the numbers are pulled out of thin air. Lowder said the origin of life probabilities were based on a false assumption of randomness.

2) The universe isn't particularly probable on theism, especially because of bad design.

3) There are other explanations other than theism: multiple universes, life transported to Earth meteor

4) Behe is wrong to claim there are irreducibly complex systems. Apparently IC systems may have evolved indirectly. We don't know enough to prove evolution couldn't have worked, so the conclusion is premature.

Fernandes' main response was to reasser the old arguments. He complained that alternate universes were pure speculation.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin.

Moral argument

Here, Lowder cited Swinburne to show objective morality is consistent with naturalism. God's commands could not create moral obligations unless there was an already existing moral obligation. Fernandes didn't have much of a response.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin.

Absurdity of life without god

Lowder rightly got Fernandes here for making an appeal to emotion. Fernandes' response to this was to say "it's important," which doesn't make it a valid argument. One wonders if he's ever had this fallacy explained to him. Lowder did poorly here when he said there was no ultimate meaning but there could be personal meaning. It would have been better to say that when theists talk about God having a purpose for people, they are ultimately talking about the sort of purpose a screwdriver has, which no one really wants.

Winner: Lowder, by a small margin

Failure of naturalism

As noted above, this was just assertion. Lowder pointed out that it was premature to say that naturalism had failed when he hadn't adressed the arguments.

Winner: Lowder, by an embarrassing margin.

A cumulative case?

Lowder objected that not all of Fernandes' arguments showed God exists, so his cumulative case isn't cumulative. He compared it to a stack of leaky buckets, unable to hold water. Fernandes said that the arguments move in the direction of theism, though he never explains how this works.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin.

Closing statements

Fernandes just reasserted a lot of old positions without defending them. Lowder made far better use of his time, talking about his personal movement from creationism to atheism, and telling the students in the audience to keep reading because the debate only scratched the surface (elsewhere, Lowder has complained that unfortunately some will decide on one debate, so this was a wise move).

Question and answer

Again, easy to sum up: ouch. There were scientists getting up saying that Fernandes had misrepresented data. I swear, these things are won in the Q & A.

Final assessment

There are a few things I wish Lowder had done better, but he handled many points better than I could have. Also, except for catching Lowder unprepared with the brain research claim, Fernandes didn't carry a single point, and that point resulted in a challenge in the Q & A. There's no question that Lowder won, though I'd be curious to hear exactly what impact it had on audience members new to these issues. The effect could not have been too slight, though.

Friday, September 15, 2006

How I became an atheist

Frank the FSA has posted a call for deconversion stories. Mine isn't as dramatic as the fundamentalist-to-atheist stories that so many members of the freethought movement can tell (Lowder, Loftus, Price, Flemming, Barker, Till, Zindler...) but I decided to respond all the same.

I grew up in a household that went to church every Sunday as long as it was convenient (i.e. not traveling or something), but was never taught the fundamentalist view of the Bible. Mixed in over with standard Sunday school classes about Christianity were a few talking about other religions. I got a book from my mom called How Do You Spell God?, promoting a standard pluralist line. My mom also explained the basics of evolution to me, and one time when I heard about the creationist claim that evolution contradicts thermodynamics, she explained to me why this wasn't true (she has a Ph.D. in biochemistry). As I recall, I attempted explaining this to one of my friends when he brought some Kent Hovind videos over. This was in grade school or early middle school, and on at least one occasion my mom made a point of saying in conversation "even my son understands what's wrong with that claim."

As I write this, I am reminded that cartoons had had a major effect on the course of my life. When I was about 12, I was walking throuhg a bookstore and saw a big yellow book with a smiling cartoon character and a word balloon that said, "Apply ancient wisdom to your everyday life!" I have the book in my dorm room with me right now, though I remembered that exact wording without looking at the cover, without having looked at in in years. The book was Philosophy for Dummies by Tom Morris. I'd still recommend it to anyone interested in learning philosophy.

Morris was a theist, but he was honest enought to admit that serious objections have been raised to the arguments for the existence of God. Rather than just reading what he said, however, I came up with objections to the ontological and cosmological arguments that Morris hadn't mentioned (I later learned that my objections were similar to famous ones by Gaulino and Kant, respectively). I don't know why I did this. Perhaps I knew intuitively that if it were so easy, I would have learned these proofs along with my arithmatic tables.

Morris, though, was untroubled by the problems with these arguments, and devoted an entire chapter of his book to promoting Pascal's Wager. He discussed four criticisms of the wager, but missed one that I thought was obvious: he made "the probability of God's existence is .5 or so" one premise of the argument. I could immediately see the contradiction in believing "God exists" and "the probability of God's existing is .5 or so."

Perhaps because Morris acted untroubled by the problems with the various God-arguments, this experience did not cause me to throw away the God-belief that I had grown up taking for granted. This did lay an important foundation, however.

The other way that cartoons influenced my life is that when I was young, I used to go through the newspaper and read every last cartoon. This meant not only reading the comics page, but going to the business page for Dilbert, the sports page for something called "In the Bleachers," and the opinion page for editorial cartoons. The opinion page contained syndicated columns by Mona Charen, and orthodox Jew, and Cal Thomas, a founder of the Moral Majority. They got me well aquainted with the "this is right because God says so" mentality.

The other part of my early encounters with fundamentalism came from the same friend who brought over the Kent Hovind videos when I was in grade school. I remember at a scout camp he horrified the rest of us by saying that Gandhi was burning in hell. Later I would learn that support for this position could be found in the Bible.

The insanity of these positions crystalized on September 11th. I realized that if the view of morality presented by the fundamentalists was correct, bin Laden was not mistaken about any fundamental moral principle, just about what God wanted him to do.

Contrary to what you may be thinking at this point, I didn't become an atheist that day. One half of it isn't so strange: raised in a liberal church, enamored with the idea of Jesus as a great teacher.

The other part is extremely strange in light of the above. I became convinced that if God did not exist, then life was meaningless because there was no moral order. When it came time for confirmation sophomore year, the minister asked why I wanted to be confirmed and I said, "I feel there has to be something," meaning "I would like it if there were something." Such a line of reasoning should have been utterly impossible given the above conclusions about Pascal's Wager and divine morality. I guess I'm not the only one whose fallen into such inconsistencies, though: Philosophy for Dummies attacked Divine Command Theory at one point but later asserted, without argument, that if God does not exist there is "no objective moral order."

This situation didn't last long, though. One weekned that summer I sat down, thought about the fact that I had no good reason to think God exists, realized believing because I wanted to failed for the same reason that Pascal's Wager did, and that was that. There was no immediately identifiable cause for this rethinking, though I like to imagine reading The Screwtape Letters a month previous was at fault. In the book, C. S. Lewis has one of his devil's say:
You see the little rift? "Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason." That's the game.
Translated back into human terms: Believe things only because they're true. Once I realize that, I was an atheist.

A minor aftereffect was that I could see things I previously had not been able to. I saw that my reasoning about morality made somewhat less than zero sense. I was able to objectively evaluate the teachings attributed to Jesus, just as I would evaluate anyone else's ideas, and found that, just like most everyone else who has ever said anything, Jesus said good things and bad things. It took getting rid of the "Christian" lable to see this, though. I can see now that, while nowhere near as bad as the belief in Biblical inerrancy, liberal veneration of Jesus makes no sense.

A more important follow-up to this was encountering fundamentalist apologetics: attempts to "prove" that Jesus rose from the dead, Intelligent Design, defenses of the nasty stuff in the Bible. This was simply a random event that sprang from my love of reading. The first two parts briefly impressed me. But I didn't swallow it hook line and sinker. I read, I checked facts. In the case of historical apologetics, I found that major claims were at best misleading. I also read about competing supernatural claims and realized that there are ghost enthusiasts who would laugh at the "evidence" that apologists present. In the case of ID, my respect slowly declined until I finally saw William Dembski endorsing the thermodynamics argument, the argument I learned to refute in grade school(*). I didn't have a lot of respect for ID at that point, but that really killed off what was left.

My response to defenses of Biblical attrocities and eternal damnation was different though. The more apologists tried to defend them, the more horrible they became. I really must thank the apologists for helping me grasp the full horror of orthodox Christianity. They are a major reason I do what I do today.

In the mail

Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. I had to buy it after seeing the high rate of conservative religious views among youth. Review to follow.

Paradise Lost . . . . . . . ?

A few days ago on Facebook, I was browsing and came across a group set up by a guy who said if the group reached 100,000 members, his girlfriend would agree to a threesome (or, in the interest of keeping this site high-brow, a menage a trois). He reached his goal in just a few days. I stared in bewilderment for a few moments and then moved on.

Then, today at dinner I found out it was all fake. Those on facebook can get the scoop here, others should look at this. I also found a brief interview with the makers of facebook saying they had taken it down because it was a marketing ploy.

This was made all the more disturbing by the recent Lonelygirl15 fiasco (see all of Brian Flemming's coverage). Basically, what appeared to be a video-diary that won the hearts of millions turned out to be fake.

Both of these cases involve not only general abuses of trust, but abuses with a corporate sleaze tinge using media that were supposed to be made for the little guy. YouTube was supposed to be for anyone with a cheap piece of recording equiptment. Facebook function was never supposed to extend beyond at least distant aquaintances.

With two things of that nature coming in a short time period, it's hard not to feel that anything good will be corrupted by baser forces. The world of blogging is not quite untouched. Some of the best once-totally-independent bloggers have ended up associating themselves with magazines like Time and Seed. That may not totally be a bad thing, but it removes the independence that was once supposed to dominate the blogosphere.

You can find things like this going farther back, as in various big businesses capitalizing on hippy culture. I suppose that more broadly, every sucessful anti-establishment movement is doomed to become the new establishment.

This feels worse, in a way, though. The internet is supposed to level the playing field. Producing content that a million people can see is cheap. The trouble, though, is finding audience, and that can still take resources.

One ray of light comes out of this, though: it was blogs and people on facebook who took down both instances of fakery. It sends a nice "don't tread on us" message, I think.

Blog spotting

I've found a new blog thanks to Technorati, Integrating the Derivative. It was founded just this month, and it's already got some great stuff: Study Finds Texas Bible Courses "Fraught with Problems" and New Baylor Study on Religion. The second links to a study that covers everything from The Purpose Driven Life to the paranormal. Other tidbits: having read The Da Vinci Code is correlated with paranormal belief and youths show the highest level of belief in an authoritarian God (yikes!)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Questioning commemoration

Massimo Pigliucci questions the way we remember September 11th.

Craig/Tabash debate up

Via Beep! Beep! It's Me, the Craig/Tabash debate is now available on Google.

Top apologist: Christianity "silly"

Even though he probably doesn't realize it, Michael Licona has, as far as I can tell, admitted that a key Christian doctrine makes no sense.

I say this based on his review of Brian Flemming's The God Who Wasn't There. Flemming's movie is largely trash, so I won't dispute most of the review. However, one section caught my eye:
Robert Price... comments, "The hidden assumption is they [i.e., Christians] say that we might be dealing with a God who is an ornery theology professor and one day when you die and go up there, you’re called to the office of the professor, he says, 'Well, I got your test back for you and I'm afraid you got an F. You’re going to hell because your opinions were incorrect.' And that's what they think God is. You don’t have the right answers? You're damned. And so they don't dare think for themselves, because they might make mistakes. . . . That seems to me an obviously silly and childish view of God."

I agree with Price that his perception of the Christian view of God is "silly and childish."
Licona goes on to say that Price has got it wrong, and the Christian view is that you chose to go to Hell. But then he asks, "What about those who require evidence but do not think a sufficient amount is there for belief?" and tries to meet the question head-on. However, this question only makes sense if you conceed Price's account of Christian doctrine, and Licona already admitted that if Price is right, Christianity is "silly." Am I missing something here?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Conspiracy puff piece

At Hell's Handmaiden, there's a one-sentence post that says, "Not all conspiracy theorists are easily brushed aside as crazy." This sentence links to a Washington Post article on a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.

Now, the fascinating thing about this post is that it pronounces a position reasonable solely on the basis of a favorable WaPo article. The Post also wrote a favorable article on creationist and HIV-denier Philip Johnson. Is that evidence that his position is reasonable?

Actually, though, the article isn't too favorable. On pages 4-5 debunk one major claim of the movie Lose Change, that some supposed hijackers are still alive.

Holding on the Bible letter

J. P. Holding is organizing an effort to fight the Wal-Mart Bible Letter. Holding says, "Of course Wal-Mart isn't likely to make policy decisions based on either of these letters, but if nothing else, it sure will make Mr. Brain mad, won't it?" I don't know what the originator of the letter thinks of Holding's campaign, but I'm thrilled. As Holding says, it's unlikely to affect Wal-Mart policy. I think most people who signed the letter aren't hoping for a change, or if they are, they're hoping to get Jon Stewart back on the shelves. Much of what this letter stands to accomplish is raising awareness of Biblical attrocities, that's why I'm glad Holding is getting involved: more publicity. In a comment thread somewhere, a poster expressed a hope that something like this would happen. Go Holding!

Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th, five years on

I got up and went to breakfast today. In the dining room, TVs were playing the stories of survivors of the attacks. Two, maybe three people watched. The rest ate their breakfast in peace. No teacher mentioned the date today in classes. I may very well go the entire day without talking to anyone about it.

I wonder: will we still remember September 11th fifty years from now? Probably, but only because the date got worked into the name of the event. I just barely remember that Pearl Harbor was on December 7th. I don't remember the date of the bombing that set off the Spanish-American war. Part of the reason we remember one and not the other is that the one was more recent. However, the one also led to a more glorious war, a war to stop Nazism rather than merely gain some territorial power.

September 11th, I think, may be more like the later. If the wars that came out of it were right in the first place, they were incompetently handled and it's unlikely we will look proudly back on them in the future. They will join the Mexican-American war, the Indian wars, and the Spanish-American war among wars that we don't really want to remember. When that happens, even the date might not save September 11th.

How people think

Taner Edis reports that his students say they would be more willing to accept astrology on faith than on claims of scientific evidence. *Shudder* And at eSkeptic, Phile Mole reports going to a 9/11 conspiracy conference and being told "We already know this stuff; we’re here to reconfirm what we already know."

My worries about this country just worsened that much.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Quote of the Time Being

If you think you have a solution to the problem of consciousness, you haven't understood the problem.
-Susan Blackmore, Consciousness, an Introduction, opening sentence

Bobcasting, episode 10

(Cross-posted at The Neural Gourmet)

Today's selection is the first part of Ingersoll's lecture "Heretics and Heresies," which focuses on the persecution of Christians by other Christians. Quote:

"As long as a church deems a certain belief essential to salvation, just so long it will kill and burn if it has the power."

Download "Heretics and Heresies," section 1
Ourmedia page

The Hell project

Last month, I linked to an article on a psychologist studying the effects of believing in Hell without realizing that the article was from last year. I did a search to see if the research was complete. It's not, but there is a website for the ongoing project that you can check out.


I would just like to join Ed Brayton in saying this is a bad thing.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sites to note

Last week, I highlighted an episode of Freethought Radio on religious coercion in the military. Today, I paid a visit to the website of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and then dashed off e-mails to my congresspersons about this problem. I also checked out one of the groups Weinstein noted for scariness in the interview, the Officer's Christian Fellowship. During the interview, Weinstein quoted from their statement of purpose: they are working for "A spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit."

Pre-ordered Sam Harris' new book

Got an e-mail from saying if I pre-ordered Sam Harris' new book I would get 40% off. I'm a sucker for deals like this... spend $14 to save $6. Anyway, thought I'd throw this out there for anyone who liked his last book.

William Lane Craig and the outsider test

While surfing around the internet, I came across a speech by William Lane Craig called Advice to Christian Apologists. Among his advice:
Why is this important? Simply because the Gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieu in which one lives. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the Gospel which a person who is secularized will not. For the secular person you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ! Or, to give a more realistic illustration, it is like a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement approaching you on the street and inviting you to believe in Krishna. Such an invitation strikes us as bizarre, freakish, even amusing. But to a person on the streets of Bombay, such an invitation would, I assume, appear quite reasonable and cause for reflection. I fear that evangelicals appear almost as weird to persons on the streets of Bonn, Stockholm, or Paris as do the devotees of Krishna.
I find it fascinating that Craig would say this, because such observations lie at the heart of The Outsider Test--formulated by John Loftus, a former student of Craig.

In the following paragraph, Craig says, "It is the broader task of Christian apologetics to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women." The thing is, though, so much apologetics can be deflated by asking "Would I buy this as an argument for the divinity of Krishna?" If apologists are really interested in making Christianity credible, they would do best to try to come up with arguments that can convince those who haven't been raised on the assumption that Christianity is credible, rather than trying to inject that assumption into the culture.

In the news

Cassandra (of Atheist Mama fame) gets coverage in a local paper. Way to go, Cassandra!

Friday, September 08, 2006

One more for the playlist

I'm on my fourth listen to this song. But not for the easily offended.

HT: Pharyngula

Heretics of freethought

Last week, John Loftus had to defend his promotion of Robert M. Price and Acharya S. About the same time, I saw a thread on Internet Infidels attacking Sam Harris. In both cases, the reason was for unorthodox opinions (from the point of view of your average nonbeliever). I think it's worth reproducing my responses here:
New Agers are definitely outside the skeptical mainstream, but I don't see why being a hawk [Price's heresy] should make one so. There are a few political positions where one side is almost entirely religiously driven (say, gay marriage). On those, the atheists can be expected to line up on one side. There's no reason, however, to expect "atheist = liberal" on every issue.


[Harris] may be wrong on meditation and psi, but as far as I can tell he's a sincere rationalist. We need people like him speaking out for rationalism and breaking the taboo against criticizing religion. The proper response to these blind spots is refutation on those particular points, not ostricization.
Let's remember something here people: even intelligent, rational people can have false beliefs. Michael Shermer used to doubt the reality of global warming. Richard Carrier used to doubt the Big Bang theory. Let's not be so quick to excommunicate.

Another year of pictures

The athevangelism that began here continues:

This sign was made on the spot when I saw the evangelists out there. The black guy in a tie is a preacher; these pictures unfortunately don't capture the other evangelists out there.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Women debunkers

At Debunking Christianity, Ed Babinski has put together a catalogue of women criticizing religion. Let's hear it for the ladies!

Lying about torture

Andrew Sullivan's dedication to fighting torture is admirable. Today, he serves up analysis of a recent Bush speech on the subject: Dissembler-in-Chief I and Dissembler-in-Chief II.

Hitler the what?

The airing of Darwin's Deadly Legacy has reignited debate over Hitler's religious views. Of course, public pro-Christian pronouncements by Hitler are well-documented. However, I found out through a recent post at Christian CADRE that CADRE's got a page dedicated to refuting this "This guilt-by-association argument." Funny way to lable it, because the only time I've heard anyone say that Hilter was a Christian is when an atheist or agnostic is responding to the "atheism caused the Holocaust" arguments. A recommended link from that page is Christian, Atheist, or Neither?, which notes that Hitler's public statements aren't necessarily in accord with his private beliefs as found in collections such as Table Talk. Then again, we have Steven Carr using Table Talk to show that Hitler wasn't exactly a fan of the modern scientific worldview.

It's even more complicated than that, though. In an article in German Studies Review, Richard Carrier has noted serious discrepencies among various editions of Table Talk. (See Wikipedia and Carrier's publication lists. Carrier's article is recommended for those who have access to German Studies.) In particular, many main anti-Christian quotes in Table Talk seemed to have been added by a neo-Nazi who put together one edition. Furthermore, all editions contain a quote claiming that Jesus was an Aryan whose techings were abused by the Jew Paul in the service of "proto-bolshevism."

What can we conclude from this? Hitler seems to have had a bizzare mix of beliefs not in accord with orthodox Christianity, but which nonetheless affirmed the existence of God and the authority of Jesus. Neither atheism or Christianity provided direct support for his actions.

Whenever the "atheism caused the Holocaust" line comes up, it's worth pointing out that Hitler was no atheist. However, I wouldn't worry about that too much. It would be sufficient to say, "So what? Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin were Christians." Actually, it would be enough to say, "The Bible was written by Christians and Jews," as the Bible endoreses the full slate of Nazi crimes: killing dissidents, killing homosexuals, and genocide.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

One for the archives

From About Atheism:
...God seems just as unlikely as Santa Claus. A fairly tale, really.

I didn't want to believe this, but I couldn't get it out of my mind. So I decided I was agnostic. I vowed to continue to search for reasons that could prove god's existence, at least to myself. It didn't happen.

My problem is, that I feel so damn guilty and afraid. Since my first doubts about God's existence, I've actually tried to turn back to Christianity, the same way I did before. It didn't last long. I am afraid of being eternally punished for not believing when I die. I'm afraid that I'm a bad person for questioning. I know that this is mainly due to my upbringing, but I can't get over it. I don't want to live the rest of my life, wondering, and bouncing back between Christianity and doubt, because I'm guilty and unsure of myself.

Monday, September 04, 2006

CotG 48

The 48th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Deep Thoughts. Among the offerings are The Greenbelt's review of Not the End of the World, a thriller about people with the misfortune to be in the way of some fundamentalist whackjobs.

PC 35

The 35th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Philosopher's Playground.

New online debate available

JJ Lowder has announced that his debate with Phil Fernandes has been made available here.


Up on Focus on the Family's website, there's an article titled Gay Activist Intimidation Tactics Increasing. One part of the article is a lot of complaining about stolen signs, nasty messages, and such--which always happens on both sides of any hot button issue. But then it says:
"This is the fringe of the homosexual movement, of course," he said. "But then you have the organized activists which try to intimidate anybody who says, for example, that homosexuals can leave the lifestyle."
This reminds me of claims that opponents of New Age woo are prosecuting a "new inquisition." As I recently explained, even proponents of conversion therapy admit it's pretty ineffective. For them to hold up signs saying "change is possible" and then make the admissions they do in private is dishonest. Such dishonesty should be opposed.

And then get this:
"Usually the people who are screaming the loudest about tolerance," he said, "are the most intolerant of all."
Next thing you know, the neo-Nazis will be complaining about how intolerant people are of them.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

I might have to read this one...

Of the five people I hit with my book meme, three have passed it on: Pharyngula, Atheist Revolution, and Beware of the Dogma. I didn't expect to expand my reading list by participating in this meme, but BotD's "book I've read more than once" is something I now plan on reading: A Little Knowledge: A world of ideas from Archimedes to Einstein clearly explained.

Bobcasting, episode 8

(Cross posted at The Neural Gourmet)

Now I begin recording the third Ingersoll lecture to be a part of Bobcasting: What is Religion?

Download "What is religion?" parts 1 through 3
Ourmedia page

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Review: The Twilight of Atheism

The Twilight of Atheism, by theologian Alister McGrath, superfically presents itself as a history of atheism--and I've seen some people insisting that's what it is and nothing else--but it is really a cheap attempt to discredit atheism. For all McGrath's triumphalism, the book is really little more than a shrill cry of "you can't prove us wrong!"

A side note: if you go to's page on the book, it shows a somewhat different readership than your typical piece of anti-atheist polemic. If you look at anti-atheist works by Ravi Zacharias or Norman Geisler, you can go to the "customers who bought this..." section and see a lot of other run of the mill evangelical apologetics. This section for McGrath's book indicates a somewhat more mainstream readership.

Now, what are McGrath's arguments against atheism? Much of it is guilt by association: in the very first sentence McGrath gives, as his landmark dates in the history of atheism, the French Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There's a general sense of "the French Revolution/Marxism/de Sade/Richard Dawkins" is bad, so atheism is bad. Often, there is little more than a vague mention of these things, but sometimes he goes for something like an argument. For example, on page 233-234 he claims, "as the rise of Nazism and Stalinism in the 1930's made clear, breaking with tradition just meant breaking with civilization and all its inbuilt safeguards against totalitarianism." Reflecting on this line, it's difficult for me to believe that an educated person could be so mindlessly reactionary. Certainly McGrath must realize that some traditions are harmful, some traditional beliefs false.

A little later there is a section on "the embarrassing intolerance of atheism," where McGrath tries to argue that atheism necessarily leads to forcible extermination of religion, because it "has a disturbing tendency to see itself as the only true faith." Why McGrath thinks atheism is different than any other claim about the world is not explained. He does say, though, that since atheists want to get rid of religion, they're inevitably going to do things like what Stalin did.

This odd sentiment makes considerably greater sense when viewed in light of McGrath's insistence that questions of religion cannot be rationally decided. He admits that there are no good arguments for the existence of God, but says atheism isn't based on reason either. He asserts this with great confidence, but doesn't seem to think he needs to adress any arguments against the existence of God. He does finally get around to spending three pages on the problem of evil late in the book, but his amounts to "humans do bad things--especially when they don't believe in God!" This blatantly dodges the question. No doubt any human being who was perfectly capable of preventing the worst crimes that happen today and made no attempt to do so would be thought almost as monsterous as the actual perpetrators.

If McGrath were insistent on assuming there are no good arguments against the existence of God, it would have been nice to at least see him deal with critiques of belief in absence of evidence, such as Russell's remarks about teapots and Greek gods and Flew's on the invisible gardener. These are ignored. He does mention Clifford's "Ethics of Belief," but again he dodges the question by saying that Cliffod demanded too high a standard of evidence, ignoring the question of whether we should want any evidence at all before believing in things.

Rather than deal with these basic issues, McGrath prefers to spend his time attacking Marx, Freud, and Richard Dawkins. The first two are rather odd choices, since they are regarded as quacks by many modern rationalists, but he treats his defeat of them as a defeat of the intellectual foundations of atheism. Basically, he says their sociological/psychological explanations for belief in God are based on just assuming that God does not exist. It does not occur to him that if a widely held belief is without rational foundation (as McGrath admits religion is), perhaps social scientists are justified in looking for other causes, even if they can't quite disprove the belief. Give that he's dealing with sociology, one might also expect a treatment of the argument that the wide array of conflicting religious beliefs suggests they are just a human invention, but he does not.

His treatment of the supposed conflict between science and religion is a bit better, insofar as Darwin did nothing to refute the ontological argument. However, he trys to make it look like special creation, which Darwin did cause problems for, was a special doctrine of William Paley, rather than the most straightforward reading of Genesis. He gets even further off course when he attacks Richard Dawkins for noting that scientists, unlike theologians, produce evidence for their claims. As with Clifford, he attacks the straw man of logically demonstrative proof and fails to reflect on the importance of having at least some evidence for claims about the world.

Things get truly bizzare when he begins talking about postmodernism, which, if does not endorse, he thinks preferable to modernism. McGrath conceives postmodernism as follows:
Postmodernity is a complex, perhaps undefinable notion (in that "defnintion" implies limitation, something to which most postmodernist writers take exception). Nevertheless, a number of common themes can be identified within the movement. Perhaps the most important of these is the rejection of modernism's quest for objective, esentially knowable truth and beauty...
One wonders: if McGrath isn't so hot on the idea of objective truth, why didn't bother trying to make religion compatible with evolution? Why didn't he just say, "Nothing is objectively true, therefore the discoveries of modern biology are not objectively true"? Taking things one step further, does he believe any of the statements in his book are objectively true?

The rubbish that McGrath spouts goes much beyond what I have quoted here. It is difficult to give a good impression of it in such limmited space. It might help, though, to say it left me thinking rather highly of Ravi Zacharias, who, inspite of everything that he gets wrong, does a fairly good job of dispatching the postmodern nonsense that is fashionable in some circles.

McGrath's thoughts on the rationality of theism and atheism are not presented as systematically in his book as my discussion does (or attempts to). However, I think dealing with them first allows for making sense of McGrath's conviction that atheism necessarily leads to violence against theists. It is as if an astrologer lazily declared that the validity of astrology cannot be decided on the evidence, and maybe isn't even a matter of objective truth, and from there jumped to the conclusion that critics of astrology must be plotting to put astrologers in concentration camps, because hey, they've got no arguments against astrology, right?

Were this book all I had read of McGrath's writings, I would have placed his work as the sort of liberal irrationalism that is impotent to fight fundamentalism. A Google search, however, revealed that McGrath is no liberal; he believes in the doctrine of inerrancy.

This certainly raises some troubling questions. In some ways, McGrath deserves a commendation for honesty; he is far more open about his rejection of rational thought than William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, and a number of creationists. But why, though, does he not mention his belief in inerrancy when going off about the "embarrassing intolerance of atheism"? Is McGrath embarrassed by Deuteronomy 13, which teaches that practitioners of other religions must be put to death? Is he embarrassed by John 3, which teaches the damnation of unbelievers? These passages lead to execution of dissenter much more readily than mere rejection of belief in God (or mere belief in God, for that matter). Perhaps McGrath is less concerned with fighting intolerance than discrediting Christianity's competition.

In close I should say something about McGrath's historical analysis: that atheism is a social phenomenon spurred by the reformation and will die when modernism dies. On the distant end of the historical spectrum McGrath is probably right to link atheism to the reformation, though not in the ways he does. Martin Luther was not terribly keen on rational thought, but when he encouraged people to interpret scripture for themselves, he was encouraging them to think for themselves in other ways. McGrath is probably also making a mistake to ignore the rediscovery of antiquity. This forced the educated to come to terms with non-Christian religions. This made possible Hobbes' argument that religion is merely socially acceptable superstition. It made possible Russell's protest that he could not disprove Zeus and Hera. It made possible the argument from religious confusion. It made possible The Outsider Test. It significance is easily and often underestimated.

On the other end, if McGrath is right to tie the demise of atheism to postmodernism, atheism will be here for a long time to stay. Postmodernism has taken some heavy hits in recent years, such as Alan Sokal's Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. The comming years will likely be dominated by a contest to fill the vacuum of postmodernism's demise. Conservative religiosity has already gotten a good start in that area, though unbelief has a major opportunity. It will be an interesting show.

"We've tipped"

If you didn't catch this morning's episode of Freethought Radio, this is one worth making sure to hear on podcast. I didn't quite catch the interviewee's name, but the subject was religious indoctrination in the military and the guy was excellent. The title of this post is a quote from him--he thinks the current situation in the military is a disaster. I'd say it's the second scariest thing happening in America right now, after attempts to redefine criticism of Christianity as "persecution." Another great soundbite: "You'll go to the lake of fire with Anne Frank, Dr. Seus, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein."

Infected by the Book Meme

Beep! Beep! It's Me gave me a thought virus. Okay, here it goes:

A book that changed my life:
Okay, I'm not sure if C. S. Lewis is really to blame, but The Screwtape Letters contains several passages to the effect that we should only believe things if they are true. A month after I read it I became an atheist.

A book I've read more than once:
The Demon Haunted World.

A book I would take with me if I were stuck on a desert island:
Hmmm... High Wind in Jamaica? Dune? The last few blogs to do this meme have picked something to do with being stranded somewhere. But honestly, I'd probably go for the Bible, because it's a book that's worth knowing inside and out in our society.

A book that made me laugh:
Slander by Ann Coulter

A book that I wish had been written:
Yeshua Pseudomantis (if you don't get this, Google "Alexander Pseudomantis").

A book that I wish had never been written:
The Da Vinci Code.

A book I've been meaning to read:
Josephus' The Jewish War.

I'm currently reading
Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet by Dale Allison.

Now, tag 5 bloggers:
Debunking Christianity
Daylight Atheism
Atheist Revolution
Beware of Dogma

Friday, September 01, 2006


I've overhauled my blogroll. "Recommended reading" was determined almost entirely on the basis of who I've linked to in a post this last month. "Blogs that link here" was determined by who has me on their blogroll. If you've got me on your blogroll but I missed you, or know of someone I've missed, point it out here.

The obscene Bible

Via Kill the Afterlife, there's a petition out there to get the Bible removed from Walmart on grounds of obscenity. At first I wasn't going to sign it because I figured it would just annoy believers, but then I did because:

1) The horrible things in the Bible need to be publicized as much as possible and
2) The blow is softened just enough by making fun of Walmart for removing Jon Stewart's book from the shelves.

So talk this thing up. As Aaron says:
I hope this petition makes national headlines too. The way I figure it, the only way this thing can make national headlines is if enough atheists talk about it to where it catches the attention of the Christian mainstream population, at which point the Christians will likely start a counter-petition or something, and then Fox/Cnn/etc... will pick up the story based on the surrounding controversy.

The sky is falling, part II

Okay, earlier this week I got in some good news, now time for more bad news: Beware of Dogma has an utterly horrifying trailer for a movie about a fundamentalist summer camp. The trailer includes, among other things, one of the adults at the camp saying they're trying to counterbalance Islamic camps that teach Islamic militancy... aparently by teaching Christian militancy. In a similar vein, Vjack reviews Kingdom Comming.