Saturday, March 31, 2007

Correcting NYT misquote of Greg Epstein

After seeing this post on Brian Flemming's blog, I thought I ought to post part of an e-mail that I actually receieved from Epstein, correcting a misquote in the NYT article that has Flemming so worried.
A small quibble with the article in the Times– I did not actually call bestselling authors Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris "atheist fundamentalists." That part of the story was taken from the press release about our conference, (thanks to the talented Duncan Crary of the wonderful NY-based think tank, The Institute for Humanist Studies, for again helping place a Humanism-related story in the international media) in which Dawkins and Harris are referred to not as "atheist fundamentalists" but as atheist "fundamentalists," scare quotes intending to denote we know there is a huge difference between Harris and Dawkins– whom I greatly respect but also respectfully disagree on some issues about how to advance Humanism– and actual religious fundamentalists, who can be incalculably worse. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard hosted Dawkins for a fruitful, intimate discussion this past October, and we were very gratified by his kind response to the experience.
UDAPTE: Here's the exact context of the phrase as used in the press release:
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A group of renowned Humanists, atheists and agnostics will gather at Harvard in April, to take on an unlikely opponent: atheist "fundamentalists."
This is from an updated version of the above-linked Flemming post. I agree with everything he says in his update.

Moral Argument at

I've substantially expanded the article on the Moral Argument at Enjoy. I hope to make time to work on the Cosmological Argument section next.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Bill Richardson for president?

I just saw this guy on the Daily Show a couple of days ago. He was introduced as someone who was considering running for president, but Jon Stewart got him to say he definitely was running. Two things stuck out from the interview: one, his story of coming face to face with and seriously insulting Saddam Hussein, which was just plain interesting, and two, his matter-of-fact declaration that he was the best qualified presidential candidate. It sounds a little hubristic now as I type this, but: 1) he appears to be clearly better in this department than Obama and Hillary 2) it's good to have someone who realizes that it's important to know what your doing and 3) it's an argument that catches my attention after over 6 years of Bush. Though it may be a good thing we have more time to decide before the primary, if it were tomorrow, I'd vote for him.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

More stuff I need to read

Via Andrew Sullivan, an interesting study on experts who try to predict the future. (This blog is turning into a series of notes to myself... but for anyone who's still reading, I do plan to make time for a couple more substantial things over spring break, which starts tomorrow).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dawkins/McGrath audio available!

Last Friday, Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath debated, and now the debate audio is available! I'm downloading it and listening as soon as I find the time.

American Freedom Agenda

I will seriously consider supporting any presidential candidate who signs on to this.

In an unrelated bit of political musing, I'm still not enthusiastic about Hilary, but it's begining to look like Obama is her most serious competition for the nomination, and he'll have even less time in the Senate than she. Just a thought.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Note to self

This article isn't available on ProQuest yet, but when it lands there I'll need to check it out. HT: Andrew Sullivan

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bill Gray gets it--sort of

Brain Flemming has posted a link to an article on the Blasphemy Challenge called Your Children Have a Gun at their Heads!. It comes off as foaming at the mouth, which is, I think, what Flemming is refering to when he says "Sometimes it's astonishing that they play their role so precisely as intended." But there's another reason this strikes me: the foaming at the mouth element is nothing more than the result of the author, Bill Gray, logically seeing through the consequences of his worldview. If he's right, then not only TBC, but every atheist website, every bit of atheist literature is a like a gun pointed at the heads of children--worse, actually--and merits fanatical suppression.

And yes, not only am I posting after saying I'd quit, I'm making exactly the sort of post I resolved to stop making--short little links that take time but don't have substance. Still, the linked article is the sort of thing I want to be able to find later. Note to self: it's in The Conservative Voice, on today's date, March 19th, 2007.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Campus event: The Question of God

I'm currently the president of UW-Madison's student org for infidels, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison. I've decided to start writing up reports on events we've done for anyone who's interested: for people who want to know what's going on with atheism among young people, for students looking at doing the same who want to know what a well-run (or at least semi-competently run) student org looks like, or for anyone with a general interest in the kinds of things that get said at the kind of events we do.

Our most recent event--this Tuesday--was based around the PBS documentary The Question of God. The idea came out of the first meeting of the semester when I asked for proposals and a girl who had just joined mentioned she had a couple movies that could make for good fodder for discussion. The thing was four hours, so we picked out six clips totalling a little under an hour, to be followed by small group discussion, a format partially copied from another series of events that had been taking place on campus under the heading "Global Dialogue."

I was a little apprehensive about everything going right--would Central Reservations give us a decent room? Would the right number of people show up, enough to call the event a sucess but not more than we could handle? And related to the second question, would the fliers I handed to the Residence Life Office actually get put up? In the end, it went well: fliers went up, although a little on the late side, the room we got had chairs that were comfortable, though not re-arrangable for discussion, and ~35 people showed up, roughly what I had been counting on.

The six clips were all of conversations of modern people on various sub-topics of religion, numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, and 9 if you go to the transcripts on the website. I'm not sure how they selected the participants. One was Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine, we does fairly regularly deal with religious matters, though the rest were all over the map: a lawyer, a Jungian analyst, a psychiatrist, and so on.

There were three spots in particular I remember getting a reaction from the audience, namely roaring laughter:
Michael Shermer: One question. What is the origin of the moral sentiments? So, they evolved through natural forces and culture and history, or God implemented — put them in... ?

Margaret Klenck (Jungian, religious beliefs!?!?): Why can't it be both?

Michael Shermer: How can it be both?

Margaret Klenck: How can it not be both?

Armand Nicholi: How do you equate an omnipotent, all loving being with what we've come to expect and experience in our lives? How do we cope with the problem of suffering?

Frederick Lee [psychiatrist, Evangelical Christian]: There is no reconciliation. I think the definitive explanation, as far as from the spiritual worldview, is what was said in the book of Job, and this is a book that I cannot understand, and there is no answer to it. There is a wager —

Michael Shermer: But God's a sadist in that —

Frederick Lee: Exactly. There is a wager between God and the devil ...

Margaret Klenck: But we're back into dualism.

Frederick Lee: And the wager is Job only obeys you because you've blessed him, and God says, "Fine, torture him devil, do everything, but you can't kill him." And so he's tortured to the extreme, loses all his children, wealth, gets boils, and at the very end, you know, when his wife is telling him, "Curse God and die," he says, "No, I will remain faithful." Okay, but he still wants an account from God — "Why are you doing this to me? I have not been sinful. I have not committed anything that deserves this."

Jeremy Fraiberg: So why do you believe?

Frederick Lee: Because, as Lewis says, the problem of pain is only a problem because one believes in the spiritual worldview. In other words, faith creates the problem of pain.

Michael Shermer: Right. So just get rid of the faith, and that's it. There is no God.

Frederick Lee: Then there's no problem.

[And then the part the transcript leaves out for some reason] Michael Shermer: You should be an atheist. You'd be good at it.

Jeremy Fraiberg: We haven't spoken much about hell here, which I think is actually an obstacle of faith for some people. That is, if God is all good, and all powerful, forget the fact that bad things happen to good people, but what about people like Michael and me who have been struggling with these questions? It would seem kind of unfair if we had to suffer for eternity because we didn't believe after doing the best we could living according to our lights. I find that a very troubling concept.

Frederick Lee: I find it terribly troubling.

Jeremy Fraiberg: But you believe in it.
This is maybe funnier if you see their expressions, see them slowly enunciating their views. There was an apparently enthusiastic arm pump after the "How can it not be both" comment, but I later learned it was a sarcastic-enthusiastic arm pump.

The small group I ended up in consisted of two lapsed Catholics and one guy I'd known since freshmen year who, I found out that evening, still considered himself a serious Catholic. However, his citations of the catchechism (sp?) were, in each case, immediately followed by what was wrong with Catholic doctrine on the point in question.

I don't know everthing that went on in the other discussions, though I know people thought they went well, so I consider the event a sucess.

Oh, but one thing: one of the groups decided there wasn't enough space in the room for all of us, so, without my realizing it, went to another room to discuss. That resulted in one girl frantically looking for her boyfriend at the end. To anyone who's planning on trying to do an event like this, try to avoid having that happen at your event.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A brief argument for internalism in epistemology

This semester, I'm taking my 500-level epistemology class. One of the major debates we're covering is the internalism/externalism debate. The question revolves around whether justification, or whatever one wants to call the state of legitimately holding a belief, is dependent only on things the subject has access to (internalism) or whether it depends on some things that the subject does not have access to (externalism).

One problem with externalism is that a brief glance that the philosophical literature shows that when we talk about legitimate belief, we want to be able to give people sound instruction on the things they ought to believe. We don't really look at justified belief from a purely outside perspective. When Alvin Plantinga--who happens to be an externalist--declares his book Warranted Christian Belief "is about the intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief," he is not writing from an abstract, 3rd-person point of view; he wants to be able to render a verdict that will reassure ordinary Christians. Even if they cannot find time to read all 500-pages of his book, one assumes he at least hopes they can rest easy based on a someone else's more concise statement of his thesis.

Yet if we are at the job of telling people how to go about believing, plainly we cannot expect them to act on things they do not have access to. Therefore, the kind of accounts of justification that most people are going to find really useful will be internalist kinds.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Archiving a good idea

This is from Richard Carrier, posted on the IIDB, which I'm posting here so it's easy to find in case I ever get a cool five mil...
...let's suppose someone gave me five million dollars and said "spend it all on establishing a freethought house" (and it would take at least that much to do it). This is what I would do:

1. I would buy a property. Probably, in fact, a church, if it had at least a hall and a kitchen. Since I believe in the importance of aesthetics I would choose something old and simple but inspiring to look at and move around in (even as I sit here I have several examples in mind), and if I couldn't find one, I'd build one, in the style of a 19th century men's club or 1st century villa. The building and grounds themselves would be beautiful and restful just to visit. People would like going and spending time there.

2. I would establish a trust that would generate annual maintenance and utilities costs forever, plus the salary (and medical, etc.) of at least one person, if not two, forever. This staff would maintain and run the facility and run whatever events go on there, with the assistance of community volunteers (which are generally not hard to find wherever there are more than ten atheists within a short drive).

3. Every Saturday or Sunday there would be an open house BBQ (or table dinner) and social, advertised all the same ways local churches do, in the midst of which someone will announce community news to the whole gathering, then the whole facility will be open for people to congregate according to their own interests. There might from time to time be a fun or funny speaker, but that wouldn't be the focus of the weekend socials. But once a month there would be a general meeting of the membership, where membership announcements would be followed by half an hour or so of practical education in some aspect of critical thought or active philosophy (or science or history relevant to these), followed by open discussion.

4. The facility would be open to supporting members 24-7, with a volunteer always on premises (a role that would be rotated as widely as possible within the membership). Support would be a decent but not taxing amount of either donations, in cash or kind, or volunteered time, or a combination of both, and members would also have to affirm that they will embrace and behave according to a program of common values (which I have been drawing up bit by bit for years now).

5. The building would have a small, comfortable science-philosophy-and-religion library (with good reference books on these subjects), a kitchen and dining room, a garden, a few rooms for classes and meetings, and a hall for general meetings, all open to member use at any time. If I had ten million dollars, I'd have quarters for the head rector to live there, a well-maintained, free-to-use computer, printer, and xerox machine for the membership, and a small but equipped gym and showers for member use as well. A free gym alone would be enough to build membership. Members could only bring guests or arrange largish parties if they calendar it with the rector in advance, but even that would be possible, except for the weekend open house, to which anyone can come in any number, member or not.

6. The main anteroom would have events calendars and information posted relating to everything going on in the building over the months and in the membership (all this of course would also be on a website for the facility, which would also sponsor a Google Groups forum or something like that where members can chat and discuss online). The events that would be organized to recur on a regular basis would be anything the membership wants and can find the funds and volunteers to realize, but at first there would be (as there are now in many atheist groups around the country) specific interest groups, e.g. a "progress in philosophy group" would welcome all those who want to gather to discuss philosophy and actually try to make progress in philosophical knowledge and conclusions, a "painting group" would welcome everyone who wants to share tips and supplies on painting, a "kid's group" would arrange fun trips and activities for the children of members, a "parents group" would get parents together to share information and resources, etc.

7. Any printable or showable results or accomplishments of these groups would be made available to the entire membership (either online or in the library, etc.). If the membership wants it and can get it funded and volunteered, there could even be a permanent day care center. Anything is possible. The facility would be flexible to meet the membership's needs. There would also of course be steering committees and outreach committees and so on, as need and resources arose. And there would also be a group formed to manage inter-membership charities, which I have seen very successfully run at Jewish family centers: people can make it known that they have old furniture, appliances, cloth, an old car, etc. (and skills: e.g. plumbers, mechanics, etc.), that they would gladly donate to any member in need or who wants it, and members in need or who are looking for stuff announce what they need and why, from things to jobs, etc., and the committee tries to see what it can do to bring givers and seekers together.

8. I'd also see to getting practical classes offered from time to time as means were available, e.g. first aid and CPR, cooking, etc., and I would make it a regular mission to get as many members as possible involved in debating and constructing a common worldview, and I would constantly be trying to arrange volunteer groups to research all sides of one political issue or other, so they can present a balanced and well-researched report to the whole membership (I would do the same for political candidates, except that I would probably incorporate the facility as a freethought church and thus would be prohibited by law from candidate advocacy).

There are other things I would do, but with a five million dollar cashpot, I would be able to get that much up and running for sure, and keep it running forever. I already know it is no difficulty getting local atheists in, so the only challenge for growing membership would be outreach beyond the existing pool of active atheists, which is exactly the kind of challenge a special interest group could be formed to solve, proposing, researching, and experimenting with different approaches.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Translation work

A YahooGroup for Spanish atheists gets shut down. Got posted to the IIDB, but without a decent translation. I decided to put my years of Spanish to practical use, for once in my life:
Here's my best shot at a translation:

At 5:30 p.m., YahooGroups deleted the main debate forum for the Union of CyberAtheists, the largest online community of atheists in the Spanish-speaking world, and one of the view really democratic online groups. The mailing list (=forum?) of CyberAtheists had been around for eight years (an eternity in the Internet), had more than 1000 members, and more than 50,000 messages sent about religion and atheism.

Yesterday, Yahoo Groups sent an e-mail message to Carlos Grima, who is responsible for this atheist group, informing him that the group had violated Yahoo's terms of service (without specifying how) and, without giving time for an explanation, deleted the group twenty minutes later.

It's possible that a member had posted material which he didn't have the right to distribute, or something similar. But what isn't clear is why an anonymous complaint (and who knows if the complaint wasn't from the person who committed the violation) resulted in immediate action without leaving time for a defense.

From the Union of CyberAtheists:

"We want to publicize this injustice, this lack of democracy, and the willingness of YahooGroups to not explain the terms of service completely and not give us the right to a defense. It's impossible to control all the material that more than 1,000 community members post daily in this forum, if YahooGroups had given us a more adequate explanation, we would have deleted the material immediately and suspended whoever violated the terms of service.

"We have repeatedly asked YahooGroups Spain for an explanation without a response on their part. This makes us think that the reasons for the elimination of the forum was simply ideological censorship."

I'm a little shaky on some of it--but it's something of an improvement over the computer generated gobledegook.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Responding to Sam Harris' call

Via Hemnat and the IIDB, Sam Harris posted a call for responses to four common silly retorts to atheism, the best of which are to be printed in an upcoming issue of Free Inquiry. Here's what I sent in Monday (not going back to regular posting, but I wrote this anyway):
Question: People are not really motivated by religion. Religion is used as a rationale for other aims—political, economic, and social. Consequently, the specific content of religious doctrines is beside the point.

Response: In responding to this, I must include a couple of caveats. One, as writers from David Hume to Sam Harris himself have noted, people often fail to act as they would if they were really serious about their religious beliefs. Also, I suppose that the events of human history are rarely a product of a single force. No doubt one can find contributing factors to the Holocaust beyond mere anti-Semitism. However, is it remotely reasonable to go around saying, "Yes, the Nazis were anti-Semitic, yes they justified their crimes with reference to anti-Semitic beliefs, and yes the arguments were logical once you accept their premises, yet anti-Semitism had nothing to do with the Holocaust"? If one cannot say that, no one should say that Christianity has had nothing to do with the crimes committed in its name, not with such authorities as Augustine and Aquinas providing quite logical arguments for why, if their brand of Christianity is true, then dissenters must be arrested, beaten, and/or killed. (Those interested in those arguments should see Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 11; as well as Augustine's Letters Nos. 93, 173, and 185, both available online at

Friday, March 02, 2007

Backing away from the blog; and thoughts on the nature of blogging

Today, March 2, 2007, one year, seven months, and seven days after my first post, I've decided to largely call it quits. I've realized for some time that blogging has been cutting into the time I might otherwise spend on more substantial projects. Also, my grades have been consistently going downhill since my very first semester in college. This was to be my semester to get them up; and I haven't gotten off to a great start on that count. It's not like blogging is what dragged my grades down, since I was blogging my first semester when I got all A's except for one AB, but at the moment I need every bit of extra time I can find.

This does not mean no more posts ever, but I don't think I'm ever going to get back to posting on anything like a regular basis. Some time in the next two months I'll make and post my entry to the Humanist Video Challenge, this summer perhaps I'll post a commentary on the Harris-Sullivan debate, and other things like that will come from time to time, but I don't see myself doing regular posting again. If you want to see that stuff, add this blog to your bloglines account--bloglines allows you to check a single website to find out if there are new posts on as many blogs as you enter into the system (I had upwards of 30 listed in my account at one point). Very useful for keeping track of good blogs that are only updated occasionally.

This being my last post as a regular blogger, I thought I'd post what I've learned in my carreer in the regular-blogging business.

First and foremost, blogging is about instant gratification. Part of the reason that blogging so readily eats into time I know I should be spending on long-term projects is that a long-term project is something that a whole lot of people might benifit from some day, maybe, but a blog post is something that some people will see immediately, for sure, even if it's just a few dozen people, even if what I have to say on that day is only mildly interesting. A best-selling book may be rated in terms of how many copies it sold all-time. Richard Carrier talks about the polularity of his online writings in terms of how many people read them per month (it's about ten thousand, a sixth of what my blog has gotten in the course of it's entire lifetime, and he isn't adding new material daily). But I worry about how many hits I get on a given day. Though a fair number of the hits I get come from Google searches, I don't much expect people to come to the site just to re-read something I wrote six months ago. The instant gratification of seeing 200 people came to my site on a given day is nice. But I need to put of instant gratification for other things. Right now, I've got about eight ideas for books bumping around in my head. Oh, and school. That's important too.

Also, the blogosphere is not this wonderful vehicle of democratic discussion that some people want it to be. The truth is that blog readership follows a powercurve. Some people, like Instapundit and PZ get tons of readers, others get only a handful. Part of the reason, I think, is that you not only have to be good, people have to know you're good. It's nice having a massive list of blogs like Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll, but it can take quite a few random clicks to find something worth reading. I'm developing a new appreciation for the Internet Infidels peer review system: yeah, the nature of the internet is such that you can put just whatever out there, but it's nice to have sources that people to go to on a regular basis and be assurred a certian level of quality. I think that even if someone decided that all print media was to be abolished tomorrow and had to be replaced by websites, there would still be something to be said for having "publishing houses" whose job is to sort out, on their readers' behalf, what is and isn't worth reading.

That's the thoughts I have at this time. I'd like to give a special thank-you to people like John Loftus, J. J. Ramsey, and other readers who've given this blog props as one of the better ones out there, even if the number of people who think that isn't as large as the number who would say it about Pharyngula. Again, watch the bloglines, and with any luck I may have some bigger-time publications under my belt some day. If I do, you'll be the first to know.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Another Jesus Tomb

I thought I should post this news item for those who haven't already heard: a documentary is coming out claiming that Jesus' tomb has been found, proving that he wasn't resurrected. The link is to Jim Lippard's blog, which has a link pointing out that the claim is actually not a new one. PZ has already stepped up to the plate to call the thing "almost certainly a load of pseudoscientific fluff."

All I have to add to what's already been said is that this tomb is just another entry in a long list.

WebMag article

A couple weeks ago I wrote an article titled "What is Atheism?" for a webmag called The Blend Monthly, which describes itself as "A Multi Faith Effort." Now, after a period of kinda wondering what had happened to the thing, it's been published.