Friday, August 31, 2007

Atheist questions PDF, now found by me

There've been several posts on this blog related to Hemant's questions for atheists, and they prompted me to notice that a lot of time had gone by without my seeing the promised PDF. Well, I e-mailed Hemnat and found out it went up last month and I had just missed it. It's a nice resource, though I wish he had allowed himself two or three answers per question rather than just one; many of the questions are the kind of thing that will get more than one response from atheists.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nailing the Larry Craig scandal

Ever since hearing about the Larry Craig scandal, I've always felt a little odd. The evidence didn't exactly look airtight, but no one was questioning it much. Michael Reynolds, though, has nailed this one:
If it had been me taking a wide stance, I'd have said something along the lines of:

"Are you fucking kidding me? You arrested me for bumping your shoe? Seriously? Because I don't remember when we passed that law. How the hell am I supposed to know that's some kind of gay sex signal? I bump your shoe and pick up some paper off the floor and suddenly I'm getting hassled by cops? Ooookay. You're obviously nuts, so I'm going to lawyer up now."

The mistake Craig made was to assume too much. Straight guys -- or for that matter gay guys who don't give blowjobs in bathrooms, which I have to believe would be the vast majority -- have no idea that a wide stance is a form of sexual contact. The way to handle it with the cop would have been to play dumb, not innocent.
Oh, and Michael, that website your son designed looks pretty good. What are you giving him in weekly allowance? If I ever need a snazzier website than this dinky blogspot blog, I may try to outbid you.


Quote of the Time Being

The chance of being executed in America is so remote that it cannot plausibly be a significant deterrent, argues Steven Levitt, of the University of Chicago. Even if you are on death row—a fate over 99% of murderers escape—the chance of being put to death in any given year is only about 2%. Members of a crack gang studied by one of Mr Levitt's colleagues had a 7%-a-year chance of being murdered. For them, death row would be safer than the street.
-The Economist

Chris Rodda

Via Ed Brayton, I've discovered the amazing writer Chris Rodda, author of Liars for Jesus, which attacks historical revisionism related to separation of church and state. It's one of those things that I'll be reading in the ill-defined future "when I have the time," but I was impressed by her shredding of one recent work in the genre (click through the links for earlier parts).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Go with your gut, or not

Via the indespensible, an interview with Gerd Gigerenzer, the psychologist whose work inspired the book Blink. One nice thing about the interview is it discusses when snap decision making does and does not work, something that was really missing in Blink.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Mother Teresa's deception

So, the big story in the atheist blogosphere right now is revelations of Mother Teresa's inner religious turmoil. My first thought when I saw this is it gives a whole new angle to Christopher Hithcens' expose of her back in the 90's (The Secular Outpost has good links there). But one thing needs to be said loud and clear (from Daylight Atheism):
Despite her intense inner turmoil, Teresa always kept up a facade of cheerful piety in public, professing religious sentiments which she did not truly feel. Her letters reveal that this was a fully conscious act of deception. She called her smile "a mask", and wrote privately to a confidant about one public appearance: "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love… If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"
So many people are sucked into Christianity by promises of happiness--they need to know that many of the promising testimonials are faked.


CotG 73

Should have hit this when I got the philosophy carnival, but anyway, the 73rd edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at In Defense of Reason

PC 52

The 52nd edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Philosophy, et cetera. Highlights include Jean Kazez's post suggesting suggesting altruism could be driven by anger and a post at Mixing Memory summarizing an empirical study of how people view their ethical beliefs.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hector Avalos on genocide

Via PZ, Hector Avalos has a wonderful article on religious justifications of genocide at TalkReason.

Atheist survey responses still coming

About a month ago Hemant posted some questions for atheists and I gave my answers. It seems answers are still rolling in: just found an entry from The Natural Skeptic. Check 'em out.

Respect religion because it is irrational

Jason Rosenhouse has posted a rebuttal to one of Matt Nisbet's attacks on Dawkins et al. Rosenhouse makes some good points, but he misses one truly shocking bit of the post. Here's something Nisbet quotes approvingly from a psychologist:
Yes well look, the more important a particular belief is to us, the more strongly we will ignore or reject evidence suggesting that we are wrong. So what are the most central beliefs that people hold? Their religious beliefs...
This is used as a grounds for concluding that what Dawkins is doing is wrong.

This is not the first time I've seen such thoughts expressed, and I hope it will destroy the delusion that the "moderate atheists" (or whatever they want to call themselves) are somehow being respectful of religious people. The reality is that they're treating them as dumb brutes that need to be handled rather than spoken honestly too. Dawkins, in contrast, is expecting religious people to act like adults. There may be a tendency to lash out when people don't live up to expectations, but at least the horribly condescending approach of Nisbet and his cohorts is avoided.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Peripheral vision and the limits of introspection

[A big welcome to everyone coming here from the philosopher's carnival. I invite everyone to check out the philosophy blogroll I'm building. Join up, and take the code and add it to your own site!]

A joke:
Philosopher's wife: You're incorrigible!
Philosopher: No, my knowledge of my internal mental states is incorrigible.
In philosophy, there's a common notion that our knowledge of our internal mental states is on a whole different level that our knowledge of the external world. As John Searle once said, there can't be a gap between appearance and reality because the appearance is the reality.

However, it seems like we can find examples where we are mistaken about our experiences. One such case is peripheral vision. Many people are inclined to assume that their visual inputs are quite rich, including fairly detailed representations of everything in their visual field. At least that's what I used to think. In fact, though, this is false: our most detailed information comes only in a fairly narrow range, something like 10 degrees or something out of a 90 degree visual field. How could anyone fail to realize this? The reason is that our eyes have a tendency to dart back and forth without our noticing it. What we may believe is a change in concentration is often really an eye-movement, taking some things out our central vision and putting others in. However, diligently forcing your eyes to stare at one spot while shifting your concentration generally results in finding that you can get a vague idea of what's there, but not make out exact shapes or letters (try it with this blog post!)

Is this a blow to our intuitions about our knowledge of internal states? I don't think so, not if the original thesis is properly understood. Among other things, it never claimed our memories are infallible, and this includes memories of previous conscious states. Since we must think and introspect in real time, memory errors can screw up attempts at purely logical reasoning and introspection. This doesn't threaten our knowledge of basic claims like "I am having a conscious experience" (which some people feel the need to try to doubt).

On the other hand, it should show us that there are some very definite limits to introspection. While I find myself agreeing with those who say that there is something mysterious going on with human consciousness, I cannot agree with people (from Sam Harris to philosophers with a solid reputation in academic circles) that refined introspection is the key to learning about it. Introspection can teach (indeed, has taught) us some things, but to get the sort of detailed understanding of consciousness that we have for other subjects ee need conventional, third-person science. As a closing note, I'm optimistic about our prospects here: there is very little reason to think consciousness exists in some other realm, inaccessible to third-person attempts to learn anything about it. After all, we can learn something about other people's conscious states via their own self-reports, suggesting there is no in principle barrier to more refined investigation.

The Simulation Argument

There's an interesting idea that seems to have been making the rounds on the philosophy blogs: The Simulation Argument, the claim that more likely than not, we are living in a computer simulation. I first saw it when Richard Chapelle attacked its critics for scientism, which led to my commenting that the idea didn't look worth defending. Then I saw a discussion on Footnotes on Epicycles, and decided to check it out. Turns out, it's not a stupid idea after all--maybe not right, but good enough to qualify as a solid mind screw.Tags: ,

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Best. Interview. Ever.

Stephen Colbert vs. Michael Shermer. It's mainly because of Colbert, but Shermer gives him a good wall to play off of, giving Colbert a rather unique chance to show why he just may be today's greatest commedian.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The great coming out

I don't think there can be any question that the mass comings out of homosexuals in the last decade or two will change how we think about homosexuality for a very long time. What's only beginning to become clear is that something similar is happening with religion and atheism. I've recently come across things to get me thinking on that line from two different directions.

On the macro level, there's this article by Christopher Hitchens on his book tour. Frequently, he said, he'd get the impression that half the people at his appearances came believing they were the only atheists in town. Presumably they left with a different view.

On the mirco level, yesterday I got back from visiting relatives out east. Among the relatives was my mom's brother, who I had known for some time was rather anti-religious. A few years ago he married a Jewish woman, with a Jewish wedding ceremony, which meant he had to convert to Judaism. This left my mom somewhat confused as to what he actually believed. A little bit before the trip we found out just how far he had gone--he took off three weeks to go to Israel to help repair barriades for the Israeli army. While we were there, my aunt described him as a born again Jew.

I noticed something funny while we were there, though. He talked about religion the way he always had. Among other things, he talked about how crazy the hard-core orthodox Jews he met in Israel were. When my aunt was present for the religious discussions, she described herself as more or less agnostic. And my uncle informed me that his father had told him that he was an atheist. I was mildly surprised by the bit about my grandfather, given that he had a church funeral and all with a minister saying nice things about him. My mom got a word in edgewise there, saying he had thought churches provided good communities for people, but she didn't dispute what he believed.

All the time I was thinking, "you know what? If these people had grown up with my generation, they would have had none of this ambiguity." It's just inconceivable to me that someone who had Sept. 11th as a formative experience would fail to be direct about religion--partly from my own experiences, but largely from my last few years of generally interacting with people my age. The world is changing.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Contra faith schools: oh, snap!

From Stephen Law, via Richard Chapell:
If you believe that such authority-based religious education is acceptable, then let me leave you with a question. Suppose authoritarian political schools started opening up around the country. A conservative school opens in Sydney, followed by a communist school in Melbourne. These schools select on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Portraits of political leaders beam serenely down from classroom walls. Each day begins with the collective singing of a political anthem. Pupils are expected to defer, more or less unquestioningly, to their school’s political authority and its revered political texts. Rarely are children exposed to alternative political points of view, except, perhaps, in a caricatured form, so they can be sweepingly dismissed.

What would be the public’s reaction to such schools? Outrage. These schools would be accused of stunting children - of forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds.

My question is: if such authoritarian political schools are utterly beyond the pale, why are so many of us prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents?


The following is a public service announcement for those readers of mine who don't read Andrew Sullivan on a daily basis. Reason #327 why you should:
A reader writes:
From this portion of your quoted text in your Padilla post:
Also he had developed, actually, a third thing. He had developed really a tremendous identification with the goals and interests of the government... He was very angry that the civil proceedings were "unfair to the commander-in-chief," quote/unquote. And in fact, one of the things that happened that disturbed me particularly was when he saw his mother. He wanted her to contact President Bush to help him, help him out of his dilemma. He expected that the government might help him, if he was "good," quote/unquote.
I'm reminded of another quote, and there is no need to identify the source:
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

People are dying

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers)

suicideThis this one goes out to everybody out there who's vaguely annoyed by Richard Dawkins:

Please, please, take the time off from your ranting to read a little story I found last year at FSTDT:
Just recently my son Bobby came out to me. I had been worried for awhile. His teachers said most of his grades were slipping and he seemed depressed and withdrawn.

Bobby said he'd been hiding it for awhile because he was afraid I would reject him. I sat him down and told him that I loved him and that God loved him, but that his salvation was in danger if he did not resist his unnatural tempations. I told him how being gay would mean he would live a shorter life, and that if he couldnt change his orientation he could be celibate like most the ex-gays are. He started crying saying something along the lines of "I knew you wouldnt understand! You're just like everyone else!" before running to his room and slamming the door.

What did I do wrong? I dont want to lose my son, but I fear I already have. I talked it over with his therapist, who had the ludicrous idea that homosexuality was unchangable and that trying to repress could lead to lots of psychological damage (I've dropped him and will try to be finding another therapist with more moral beliefs). I wouldnt be surprised if he's the one who's feeding my son all the homosexual propaganda about how its 'ok' to be gay. That, or how homosexuality has engulfed the media, making it seem 'cool' and 'hip' and how they were just another oppressed minority. You didnt have to worry about seeing two men making out on tv at my age! I dont want to sound like a fanatic, but Im worried what other effects will come out of this increasingly secular, immoral society obsessed with filth.

Am I too late? Or is it possible to save my son

[Note: The thread this originally came from indicates that this boy eventually took his own life.]
Now think carefully about how such a thing could happen today, in 21st century America. This ain't the 900 A. D. We're supposed to be beyond knee-jerk reaction to anything different. The rise of easy contraception means most heterosexuals have gotten over the idea that non-procreative sex is evil, the only objection to homosexuality that ever sounded halfway rational. The gay rights movement, especially the mass declosetings, have quashed accidental ignorance of homosexuality. Accidental is the key word here--even the above-quoted forum post shows how open discussion of homosexuality has become, how available sane professional advice on the subject has become. The parent may have been ignorant, but it isn't accidental ignorance.

There's really only one explanation: admitting that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality means admitting that the Bible is wrong to pronounce it so odious as to be deserving death or to be God's curse on a wicked humanity, and that the Bible is therefore, to at least some extent, the work of ignorant barbarians. Some people are unable to accept that fact, and this is ruining lives. In this case, a boy was driven to suicide.

That much is clear from a little thinking and casual observation of the world, but for those unfamiliar with the modern Evangelical movement, I must emphasize that this is the result of a complicated system of willful ignorance. It's not just the fact that there are writers cranking out anti-gay propaganda like crazy. It's that churches are distributing the stuff, and in my town at least we aren't talking about street corner ranters but the nice, mainstreamish Church of We Are Not Fundamentalists.

The stuff is dishonest crap with the shiniest polish money can buy; if you want to understand how it works, I recommend the brilliant sendup The Heterosexual Agenda: Exposing the Myths. Oftentimes, it's the work of people who are unapologetic about valuing dogma over honest inquiry. Exhibit A in this department is chapter in the book Hard Questions Real Answers by the loathsome William Lane Craig (those not familiar with him should read Robert M. Price's take on his dishonesty as well as my own quote heavy take). Craig began by arguing that homosexuality must be wrong because the Bible says so, and then going on to admit that it's a lot harder to argue against homosexuality without the Bible, an admission followed by some suggestions on how to do so. For Christians he must have been giving sage advice; for me it looks like a pratfall until I realize that Craig's blatantly dishonest replication of the standard propaganda has no doubt done a lot of harm to real people.

The whole situation is so bad that in the context of what happens on a daily basis in the evangelical community, Ted Haggard's "I hired a gay prostitute but I'm completely straight" lie becomes not extreme but depressingly unremarkable.

Though the gay issue is one of many examples of where religion causes harm, I use because the harm is ongoing and involves clear cases of ruined lives. My hope is that it will shock people away from the absurdly trivial complaints leveled at Richard Dawkins and other prominent critics of religion. I'm not taking issue with people who have serious concerns that certain things they've said are inaccurate. Those discussions need to happen. As I hinted in the opening sentence, my target is the people who are vaguely annoyed with Dawkins and say all kinds of weird stuff because they have no remotely legitimate complaint: they whine about politeness, they whine about tactics, they whine that Dawkins uses English in a perfectly clear manner than ordinary people can understand, rather than a convoluted manner invented by liberal theologians. At The Uncredible Hallq I recently had to deal with a situation of a patently false accusation followed by a series of weird evasions.

All this needs to stop. Religion isn't a fun form of make believe which no adult takes seriously. It's a serious issue that has a major impact on the lives of real people. If you like frank, open discussion, regardless of your view on the main questions, take a seat at the table. However, if you find violations of modern taboos on honest discussion of religion too emotionally distressing, please stop bugging the grown-ups about it.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

TV Tropes is ruining my life

I've just discovered TV Tropes, an amazing website. In a possible world close enough to this one to use as an example for the Tracking Theory, I would write an attempt at insightful social commentary based on the site, but the outline of what I'd say has already been said in their article TV Tropes will ruin your life.

Oh, except let me add the detail that it may have ruined my experience at a Broadway musical yesterday.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

lol real world

Okay, so I'm currently in New Jersey visiting relatives. For reasons I am somewhat afraid to contemplate, my little middle-schoolish age cousins were watching the MTV show the real world while I was down there, first playing chess and then getting online. One of the major events in the episode was a fight between two female characters (guests? contestants? what do you call people on reality TV shows?). As credits rolled, a voice over announced that people could log on to MTV's website and watch the fight as many times as they wanted to. I responded with a laugh so loud and high pitched that I actually frightened my cousin Mia from the room. Mia didn't get what was so funny, but when I described the event to my mom afterwards she burst out laughing too.

Suddenly, I'm very tempted to make a habit of watching the show on a regular basis, in a manner which I will tell myself is more detached than the manner of most viewers, in an attempt to learn something about the world. But what will I be learning? The nature of the most superficial fraction of society, as represented by the characters (or whatever) on the show? Or will I be learning how reality show editors manipulate people to make them look like asses because it makes better television? Can somebody help me out here? If nobody intervenes to convince me this is a bad idea, I may start blogging about my viewing of the show...

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Massive philosophy humor index

I've discovered that not only does David Chalmers have a massive index of philosophy weblogs, he also has a massive index of philosophy humor. Be warned: if you're a non-philosopher, it will confuse the hell out of you, but if you're a philosopher, you're liable to lose at least an hour of your life, maybe more. In either case, enter at your own risk.

Quote of the Time Being

Being the disgruntled atheist I am, I have to point out that George W. Bush definitely exists, and 9/11 definitely happened. So even if some nuts are making an irrational and stupid connection between two facts, there's still some factual basis.

This "God" character, and the alleged marvelous actions attributed to him, on the other hand...
-One of Andrew's guest bloggers, comparing 9/11 conspiracy kooks to creationists.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The opinion's of philosophy professors

Mike Austin has a post asking whether philosophy professors should advocate for their views in class. He presents considerations on both sides, but as a philosopher might say, the arguments are of unequal merit. The arguments in favor of professors sharing their views boil down to the fact that it will help dispel silly notions that students have. The arguments against boil down to the fact that students have silly notions.

That, I think, is the logic of the matter. But speaking from personal experience, I also think it's a lot more fun when professors state their views. When I took philosophy 101 freshmen year, I had a professor who tried to hide his views and did just an awful job of it, creating at least one awkward moment. More recently I had a prof who was very forthright about his opinions and was very ready to argue with people. Many people, myself included, took him up on it. We had a blast. So, based on my admittedly limited experience, I'm favoring having professors be open.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Good news and bad news

The good news is that I think I've sorted out all the issues with the philosophy blogroll (rather than make a new post, I just re-did the old one). The bad news is that in the process of trying to test the code, I accidentally deleted my old template. Oh well, I figure, it was getting stale anyway. My next blogging activity will likely center around trying to get this new template in shape, be warned though.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Contempt for truth among Dawkins' critics

I preface this post by saying that this is perhaps the first post that I began knowing it would be rather unpleasant to write. The reason is that I am about to say some very nasty things about Alon Levy, who just a few days ago I was having a fruitful e-mail exchange with. But I don't believe in holding back out of politeness--indeed that's why I got in this spat in the first place.

The background is a brief quote from Daniel Dennett which I posted as one of my Quotes of the Time Being. Alon responded with a tangentially relevant comment, I responded with my position on the issue, and mentioned that "what's really bothersome among the people Dennett is attacking is that they often attack Dawkins et. al. on purely tactical grounds, with a disregard for what's true." Bronze Dog also chimed in, saying he too cared about what was true.

In Alon's response, he said, among other things, that for Dawkins and his fellow religion critics religion is the root of all problems in the world. I pointed out that Dawkins has explicitly rejected this position. Alon's response? He claimed the fact that Dawkins has rejected the position he attributed to him doesn't matter.

Pause and think about this for a moment. I criticized some of Dawkins' opponents for acting with a disregard for truth, and this quickly lead to one of them claiming that it didn't matter whether the critic's characterization of Dawkins' position matched Dawkins' statements. In essence, Alon is claiming a right to slander. This is actually an example of contempt for truth far worse than anything I had in mind in my initial comment. Talking about having an opponent prove your point for you. Did I mention Alon's an atheist, has blogged at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, and that I first met him at the CFI conference? My first impulse is to be embarrassed that an activist atheist could say something like what he said, though I suppose that's as silly as expecting to see special virtues in every person who does not believe in fairies. Oh well.

In the spirit of full debate, I'm going to go through everything Alon said in support of his position. First, from the initial comment:
For example, Harris ends up endorsing an incredibly conservative agenda about Muslims that a consistent empiricist would eschew; some of the things he says about Muslims would do Rush Limbaugh proud.
There are three weird things here packed into one sentence: first, the apparent assumption that a "consistent empiricist" would automatically reject anything "incredibly conservative" (whatever that means--I learned long ago that political labels aren't terribly useful). Where on earth does the apparent identification of liberalism (whatever that means) with empiricism come from? Second, he insists Harris' position must be wrong without a shred of evidence, in spite of the superficial appeal to empiricism. Third, and perhaps worst of all, he appears to argue if a person agrees with Limbaugh on some point, the person must be wrong. Now, I have never heard Limbaugh explicitly state his position on the color of the sky, or the sum of two and two, or the moral character of Stalin, but I suspect we would find these as points of agreement, and I cannot find in me the slightest desire to change my position on these issues for that reason. Furthermore, I cannot help but note that Limbaugh would probably applaud Alon's view of "radical feminists."

Really, that was one of those sentences that looks like an argument at first glance, but once you've analyzed it, the view that the author only ever meant to make a baseless assertion begins to look like the more charitable interpretation. Moving on:
Dawkins invented a whole pseudoscience, memetics, so that he could pathologize religion.
This sentence prompted me to actually read the original proposal for the idea of memes in The Selfish Gene, and I could not find a shred of evidence for Alon's view therein. Dawkins does discuss God in one paragraph (out of thirteen pages), but only as an illustration of a larger point. I see nothing to suggest he was trying to pathologize religion. He mainly comes off as a curious scientist trying to figure out how culture works, and throwing out an interesting explanation. The explanation is not a dumb one: it notes that cultural artifacts undergo semi-conservative replication much as genes do, and plausibly infers that the processes involved might be similar. He later went into more detail on memes and religion, and observed that many religious systems have ways of getting people to believe independently of whether they're true, but I see no reason to think this was the sole driving force behind memes. More importantly, Dawkins' observation about religious systems appears to me to be correct (see faith, damnation, etc.) Next!:
Neither seems to have ever seriously considered the possibility that people can consider the evidence unbiasedly and come to different conclusions...
I see little reason to think that Dawkins and Harris think that can never happen (though some people, like philosopher Richard Feldman, have argued it can't happen). In the narrower area of reasonable religious belief, I would wonder if they have simply considered the claim and found it wanting. Finally:
...or the possibility that in a world with 5.5 billion religious people, a lot of unrelated problems would be superficially entangled in religion.
Oh, yes, they dismiss that possibility out of hand, except of course in the sections of their books where they explain specific ways in which religion causes problems.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Announcing the philosophy blogroll!

UPDATE: I think it all should work now...

Taking my cue from Mojoey, I've decided to set up a Philosopher's Blogroll, which I hope will become a comprehensive directory of all active philosophy blogs on the internet. In its current form, I tried to include every currently active blog that has at some time hosted an edition of the Philosopher's Carnival, as well as every active blog on David Chalmers' list but I'm intend to add any blog I find that deals with philosophy at least occasionally, or any blog of that description who's owner drops me an e-mail. Just like Mojoey, I ask that if you send me an e-mail asking to be added, you should also add the blogroll to your blog in one of the three possible forms: full, rolling, and marquee. At the very least, please post a link back to this post so other people can find the thing. I'm going to use the full version here because this is the host site, but you may want to use other formats at your site. The "recently updated" code gives you only the 25 most recently updated blogs, which is nice if you care about recentness of posts. I did let a fair number blogs in that are only occasionally updated, that's the main reason for it, though I still plan to remove anything I find that's been dormant for a month or more. Also, the scrolling version is an easy way to be taken to random blogs on the list. Enjoy!

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Recently updated:
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Please report any problems in e-mail or comments thread.

Finally, I would like to give a *huge* thanks to Mojoey for the idea and responses to my repeated queries trying to figure out how to pull it off. Couldn't have done it without you, many.

Picture upload

The purpose of this post will become clear momentarily.

Reply to Mariottini


(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Claude Mariottini has replied to my criticism of him--sort of. While the reply is addressed to me, most of it ignores what I actually wrote, with the exception of one patently false statement:
Hallquist already begins with the false assumption that the Iliad and the Bible are identical in purpose and message. They are not! The intent and message of the two books are completely different. The only similarity between both books is that they are literary works of individuals who lived hundreds of years ago.
Here go similarities two and three:

2) They both report the actions of superhuman beings which we don't observe acting in cthe modern world as they are alleged to have acted in ancient times.
3) They both present heroes doing things which, in the modern world, would get them hauled before a war crimes tribunal.

The entire rest of the post is a generic rant against atheists. Mariottini presents three points which are supposed to be a problem for atheism:
1. The Test of History. Judaism and Christianity claim a historical basis for their faith. Judaism says there is a God because of the work of God in the history of ancient Israel. Christianity says there is a God because of the existence of a historical Jesus. Atheism does not have any historical claim to prove that there is no God. Atheists only have their own statement that says there is no God. Since atheists do not have history on their side, they deny the historicity of events in Judaism and Christianity.
Was this intended as a rebuttal to the charge that there is a lack of evidence for the truth of Christianity? My guess is no. Read as arguments, the reasoning is vacuous, so bad that I think the most charitable reading is that Mariottini was intending to make baseless assertions. Consider the Judaism half of the statement: whether God worked in the history of Israel is precisely one of the points in dispute, so read as an argument, he's committing the fallacy of begging the question. On the Christianity half, there's no reason to jump from the claim that Jesus was a historical figure to the claim that God exists, so it's a blatant non sequitur. Might Mariottini be taking the position that a claim can become reasonable simply because people say it's true (Judaism says... Christianity says...)? I can only wonder.
2. The Test of Witnesses. Judaism and Christianity believe there is a God because they believe the words of witnesses who saw God at work. The people in Israel claimed they heard the voice of God. Christianity claims that after the resurrection, Jesus "appeared to more than five hundred people at the same time" (1 Corinthians 15:6). It is possible to say that these people were delusional or that they were unreliable witnesses but atheism does not have one witness who was there to say that there was no God. Since atheism does not have one single witness who has seen the evidence that there is no God, they reject the reliability of the biblical witnesses and deny the validity of their testimony.
The talk of witnesses implies Mariottini maybe does care about evidence after all. Notice that even here, though the statement is phrased in terms of what Christians claim, not what's objectively correct. In any case, the witnesses he refers to aren't witnesses in the usual sense of people who's testimony you have, they're the subject of a second hand report that isn't even so good as second hand reports go. Paul doesn't name his witnesses, say when or where the event happened, or even say where he got his information from. Contrary to what many apologists (Mariottini included, it would appear from the comments) would like to believe, irresponsible, poorly-checked claims get made all the time, so we cannot just assume Paul was telling the truth based on so little information. It's also clear that groups of people can fall under collective delusions (I've previously listed some examples here).

The complaint about lack of a witness to prove their is no God is one of those things that sounds good until you think about it for a moment. There are probably a few hundred people in the world willing to claim they've had personal contact with extraterrestrials. I've read things written by such people. I suspect that in Mariotinni's sense of the phrase, there are no witnesses to prove extraterrestrials have never visited Earth. Does this mean the UFO nuts are actually the reasonable ones? No. There are other explanations for why people would claim extraterrestrial contact, and the evidence really isn't as good as we'd expect if ETs were really visiting earth. As Carl Sagan once said, with so many people allegedly being abducted, why haven't the neighbors noticed? The situation is similar with Christianity: there are other explanations, and there's nowhere near the kind of evidence a god could give us if he were really intent on revealing himself.
3. The Test of Written Records. Judaism and Christianity claim that God exists because they have ancient written records that report the work of God in their history. Atheism has no written records that can prove that God does not exist, therefore they deny the claims of the written records of Judaism and Christianity.
Now we're back to baseless assertion territory. All kinds of extraordinary claims have been committed to paper. The mere existence of the writings is no reason at all to think the claims are true. This paragraph suggests to me that the apparent concern for evidence under (2) was a fluke, an illusion.

He makes a big deal of the claim that atheists cannot prove that there is no God, and cites Dawkins in support of this point. If "proof" is taken in the sense of logically demonstrative proof, Dawkins is right. However, as Dawkins points out in the very passage of his book that Mariotinni cites, there are lots of things which we justly regard as improbable in spite of the lack of logically demonstrative disproof (and, I would add, there are lots of things we regard as nearly certain in spite of the lack of logically demonstrative proof). Mariotinni's response to this point is to simply pretend Dawkins never made it.

Though I never said anything about the problem of evil in my original post, a paragraph is devoted to it. There's one weird aspect of it that's worth highlighting: all he says about proposed theodicies is that atheists don't accept them, as if that's the end of the debate. To simply whine that "I made this claim, and people who disagree with me didn't accept it" shows a sort of contempt for rational discourse, a refusal to recognize it's worth trying to carefully assess the validity of claims.

It's worth reading the comments thread, since Scott nails how silly the "culture of denial" business is:
That said, Atheism is not a even religion or philosophy but merely a position held with regard a particular truth claim: God exists. That position accepted, atheists can hold world views informed by skepticism, humanism or even mysticism. I assume that you yourself are an denier of the claims of Buddhism. Welcome to the Fellowship of Deniers.
Couldn't have said it better myself.

Finally, in the comments Mariottini repeatedly says things like:
The primary intent of my post was to declare that atheists and Christians will never agree on several issues because they begin their discussion of the Bible with different presuppositions. Christians approach the Bible from the perspective of faith; atheists deny the possibility of faith.
Again, this smacks of a contempt for rational discourse. He's totally uninterested in asking whether an assumption is correct. I'm also curious by what he means by "faith." If he means the popular conception of believing things without evidence, the statement may be true, but it is not exactly a good commentary on his side. If group of scientists A did their best to figure out what theory was best supported by the evidence, and group B made a commitment to believing their pet theory independently of evidence, it might be true that they would never agree, but this would hardly be damaging to group A.

As with the last post in this exchange, I find myself moving further into the Hector Avalos camp.

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Atheist video collection

The Midwest Atheist (you're not the only one, buddy) has put together a nice collection of atheist videos. Check 'em out.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Unfamiliarity breeds contempt?

I've been told on a number of occasions of famous writers who left their homeland and came to understand and appreciate it better though doing so. From such cases it is often understood that distancing yourself from a place is a necessary part of understanding and appreciating it.

Such claims just don't square with my own observations. In a couple of weeks time, I will have finished my first two years of living mostly away from home. It hasn't done good things for my view of my hometown. Every time I go home, I'm leave thinking, "Wow, that place is going down hill, glad I'm not living there anymore." When I think about it though, I'm not sure it actually is down hill, it's just that whenever I make it back there, the first things people tell me about are always the bad things. I'm not spreading the details of the gossip all over the internet, but there's been an amazing range of stuff, from drugs to lawsuits to petty power trips. (Yes, mom, I do have your tendency to unload on me in mind, but you're not the only one.) Something in human nature makes us want to talk about these things first, and it makes home visits real downers. Has anyone else experienced this problem?

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First, the 72nd edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Atheist Revolution. It includes Harry Potter as Humanist Manifesto, a rather interesting change of pace from the usual fare, I think. Also, Thad Guy is as on-target as usual.

Second, the 51st edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Enigmania. It includes a fascinating post measuring happiness.

The next edition of the Philosopher's Carnival may or may not be at this blog in three weeks time. Stay tuned till I figure that one out.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

I believe that the cause of evolutionary biology is hurt by her "diplomacy" (and especially Michael Ruse's) because it is so transparent--I think it persuades many religious people that evolutionists will lie to avoid a confrontation.
-Daniel Dennett, Free Inquiry Dec. 2006/Jan. 2007

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The outsider test to the rescue, again

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers)

illiadLongtime readers of The Uncredible Hallq will know about the outsider test, a phrase coined by John Loftus for the idea that religious believers ought to be willing to examine their beliefs from the point of view of an outsider. Recently, I was taking a look at the recent Biblical studies carnival and found an excellent target for it. The host of the carnival, Claude Mariottini, had claimed in an interview that "Atheists cannot be good interpreters of the Bible." He then tried to defend himself.

Let's see if I can start with the most charitable statement of his position: atheists will misinterpret the Bible because they begin with false assumptions. I think he says a lot more than that, and the other stuff is far harder to defend, but let's start there. It has to be admitted that false assumptions are bad, and then, it would seem, we're just back to a debate about what view of the Bible is correct. Still, there's a wrinkle here: letting broad theories guide interpretations of specific data, rather than the other way around, can give awful results when taken too far. Witness the case of Biblical inerrantists who are forced to make up silly rules to guarantee nothing can ever count as an error in the Bible.

Even this position doesn't do all that well against the outsider test. Here, the outsider test would suggest that when we first look at an ancient text, we should treat like any other ancient text until we find real evidence that it really is the sort of super-special text which believers claim to have. Faith, or religious experiences no more impressive than those claimed by adherents of other religions, doesn't cut it here. It seems Mariottini is falling into this trap here, given that he never claims evidence for the Bible's special status, he just claims some mysterious edge in interpretation because he is a believer.

That was the best I could make out of his position. From here, it's all downhill for him.

First example: in his original interview, Mariottini justified his claim on the grounds that atheists "they already begin with the assumption that the Bible is a bunch of nothing." Roll that one around in your mind. Will classical scholars have difficulty understanding the Illiad because "they already begin with the assumption that the Illiad is a bunch of nothing"? No. Not believing the myths is different than believing they are "nothing." In a literal sense, myths are "something," therefore not nothing. More significantly, one can think an ancient text is fascinating, worth of serious study, without believing everything it says.

Moving on to the longer defense of the initial short comment, the first thing to notice is that he admits what he said wasn't exactly true:
It is possible that I made a mistake by putting all atheists in one group. Duane classifies himself “as a secular student with an interest in the Hebrew Bible.” Thus, his position on the Bible makes him different from the strident atheist whose sole aim is to ridicule the Bible.
Ooops, but what about these other atheists?:
Duane is a secular person who believes “that the Bible has had a tremendous influence on Western civilization.” His view is completely different from Bertrand Russell who believed that every bit of human progress in law, morality, and science has been opposed because of the teaching of the Bible. In his lecture “Why I Am Not A Christian,” Russell wrote: “A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”
Uh, sounds like Russell thought the Bible had a big influence on Western civilization too. More to the point, would Mariottini draw the same conclusions had Russell's remark been about some other mythological text? Of course one can think that we shouldn't be slaves to ancient mythology and still study it seriously. Russell's remark could even be defensibly applied to some ancient philosophers; the ancients often did say foolish things and Russell does occasionally point them out in his writings. Does that disqualify him from doing good writing about the history of philosophy? Of course not.

Or, consider this argument:
Atheists like Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens approach the Bible with such a negative view that for them, the Bible is a book of lies and contradictions and the work of a demon.
Obviously, none of these guys think that the Bible is literally the work of a demon. I can't say for sure that any of them have actually said anything to suggest that position; the quote Mariottini has in mind is from Thomas Paine (a deist, by the way). The demon comment is rather obviously true if it means that the Bible presents hideously amoral actions in a glowing light, though that standard would classify an awful lot of human production as demonaic. I've previously written about how Biblical attrocities were par for the course in the ancient world. Or, look at the Illiad again: the plot of the book revolves around the question of which military commander gets to have a particular woman as a sex slave. The part about lies and contradictions is similarly off-the-wall: of course ancient writers sometimes lied, of course a diverse collection of texts written over several centuries will not be totally harmonious with itself. In the case of contradictions, the only reason anybody cares about most of the Biblical contradictions that get talked about is because so many people are convinced that the Bible is 100% error free.

Bottom line: there's nothing wrong with scholars recognizing attrocities, contradictions, and deceit in the text they study. Beyond that, anybody who find such things inconceivable really shouldn't be teaching college studets how to do scholarship and shouldn't be claiming to have produced serious scholarly work.

Finally, check this one out:
So, how can strident atheists interpret the Bible when they do not believe in God, deny the possibility of revelation, reject the concept of inspiration, do not believe in divine intervention, faith, prayer, the possibility of miracles, or the concept of divine justice?
This is the sort of rhetorical question that's annoying because it's meant to look like an argument, but contains no logical content. Fans of this approach like it because their opponents have difficulty answering the question, but the difficulty comes from the total lack of substance in it. How can strident a-Olympians interpret the Illiad when they do not believe in the Olympians, deny the possibility of Oracles, reject the concept of inspiration by Muses... these are questions for where I'm not holding my breath for an answer.

Recently, I took the position that Hector Avalos' "End of Biblical Studies" thesis is overblown. People like Mariottini make me wonder if maybe Avalos is right, though.

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Evangelical military takeover: is it working?

I've read a fair amount about the power Evangelicals have in the current military, including Mikey Weinstein's book and a number of blog posts (including recent ones at Brian Flemming's blog and God is for Suckers!) What I'm wondering: has the position of Evangelicals really improved politically? Is the military turning into something that could potentially back a homegrown attempt at theocracy? Or is it that, as scary as it seems, they're really just screwing with unit cohesion? I know Weinstein's foundation gets a lot of complaints from Jews, liberal Protestants, etc., which gives some hope for the second option. The second option is also, of course, what I want to be true. I just don't know, though.

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Conservative test

One of Andrew Sullivan has posted a list of supposed conservative principles to get opinions. I'd say I agree with about 7 out of 10 (six and three-thirds, perhaps): The private property = freedom one I definitely reject; private property is an institution that has its uses, but I don't think it's an inherent part of freedom. I agree with parts of the first one, on an enduring moral order, but not the bit about "The order is made for man." A made order--made presumably by God--is one that may be changed, not a permenant one. The second and third ones, about the value of tradition, I agree with up until a point, though my thoughts are better represented by point 10, "Permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society."

What does this mean? Not sure. I think the statements are to some extent platitudinous, designed to appeal to many people who wouldn't support most of what has gone under the lable "conservative." Still, there's some genuine insight there, insight that not everybody gets.

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Friday, August 03, 2007


My TA from last semester philosophy just introduced me to his blog, In the Mouth of Madison. He, by the way, was the one who corrected the essay I just posted (I got an A!). The blog has some good stuff. For example: Alternate Harry Potter Covers:
Have you gotten around to reading the new Harry Potter book? Are you wanting to read it, but hate to look like an utter conformist by being seen in public reading the very same book half the world is reading? Well, I have the solution: alternate book covers! Just print up one of these babies on a high resolution printer, and fold it over your copy of the Deathly Hallows, and voila! You can look like you're a poser, a snob, a horror-buff, a "true-crime" affisciando, or ... well, some of these defy classification. It's awesome. You won't be disappointed. My favorite is the Alcibades: Zombie Hunter of Ancient Greece cover.
I'm partial to the Harry James Granger one myself.

He also has a page of crazy preacher remixes, including a Harry Potter-themed one. Enjoy.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Essay on three philosophers

This is an essay I wrote for my Philosophy 501--Philosophy of Religion final. It's an interesting one to post on line, because it was open-ended: basically give your thoughts on everything we had studied that semester, which had revolved around three philosophers. I think it says a lot about my basic philosophical perspective.

Hume: Hume's philosophy of religion needs to be understood in the context of his philosophy as a whole, which contained two main points:

*Empiricism: Hume divided all knowledge into "relations of ideas" (such as mathematics) and "matters of fact" (empirical knowledge). Only relations of ideas can be known a priori, and how ideas apply to the physical world is a matter of fact, know a posteriori.

*Skepticism: Hume thought a large variety of things which we think we know are things we cannot really know. Hume was especially skeptical of inductive reasoning, that is, any attempt to generalize from specific instances. Hume's skepticism was based on his empiricism, since the usefulness of induction could not be known a priori or a posteriori.

Hume used both of these theses to attack the metaphysics that was essential to theology in his day. If empiricism was true, it followed that the armchair proofs of the being and attributes of God could be only sophistry and illusion. From skepticism, Hume argued that if we can't be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow (and other knowledge of common life), wew can be even less certain of abstract reasonings. This explains why Hume's Dialogs Concerning Natural Religion spends so much time on the arg't from design and is so dismissive towards the cosmological and ontological arg'ts. This reading is supported by the fact that Cleanthes invokes the scientific theories of Galilleo and Newton as analogous to the design hypothesis, showing that the reasoning involved is not to abstract to be trustworthy.

When Hume jumped from skepticism to sticking to every-day reasoning, he was being grossly fallacious. His skeptical arguments purported to show we have no reason to believe common sense beliefs, could attach no certainty to them, and therefore theological claims couldn't be any less certain. Hume appears to have fleetingly recognized this in his "Letter to a Friend in Edinburgh," written when Hume was about to be denied a teaching position on grounds of irreligion. In it, Hume asks how he could be accused of irreligion when he held the truths of theology are as certain as the "Objects of our Senses." Hume would only admit to this consequence of his view when needed to save his job prospects, he shows no enthusiasm for it elsewhere in his writings, but this does not make the inference less valid.

Any credible philosophy of anything must get rid of global skepticism, and since skepticism of a very serious sort is entailed by Humean empiricism, that also must go. However, we may salvage from Hume his trust in everyday reasonings, even though it cannot be grounded in skepticism. It can be grounded instead in the fact that every-day reasonings are confirmed thousands upon thousands of times in an individual's life. Abstract metaphysics has no such confirmation, and has premises which one side of a dispute claims as obviously true, needing no argument, while the other side sees it as equally obvious that the premises are false. It seems unwise to build much on the assumption that one side in such a dispute is correct, so long as the contrary position would not totally undermine every-day reasoning (as is the case with, say, denials of the law of noncontradition).

Aquinas: Aquinas' approach was to establish the principles of his theology though a series of metaphysical arguments using premises drawn from ancient philosophers, mostly Aristotle, though occasionally others as well.

There are two main objections to his approach, one basic and one deep. The basic objection is that many of his premises were false or at least unsupported. For example, his first-mover argument used Aristotle's doctrine that an infinite regress is impossible. Aquinas says little in favor of this claim and there are plausible counter-arguments; Russell, somewhere, objected that the set of negative numbers provides an example of infinite regress. And even if the prime mover is established, Aquinas must still get through a great series of metaphysical deductions to show the prime mover has the properties normally assigned to God, and along the way Aquinas must use many questionable premises. He took far too much Aristotelian doctrine for granted.

The deep objection is that Aquinas was attempting to use armchair reasoning in areas where such reasoning can tell us nothing. This comes out most clearly in Aquinas' statements on fire, astronomy, and other scientific subjects. He establishes his claims on metaphysical reasonings that look as valid as anything he does in theology, but today we see his science as plainly wrong, and the reason is not better metaphysics but developments in empirical knowledge. Aquinas simply could not know all he wanted to know just by thinking about it.

Kant: Kant's approach was like Aquinas' in its armchair aspect, but differed in Kant's transcendental idealism, which said for the most part we cannot know things in themselves, only things as they appear to us. This protects free will, God, and immortality from conventional attacks, though rules out convention proofs. In the place of normal proofs, Kant argues these basic elements of religious belief must be postulated for the sake of morality.

Aside from the general problems with armchair reasoning shared by Aquinas, Kant's transcendentalism is deeply problematic. The argument for it in the "Aesthetic" part of his critique seems circular. It is not clear that the antinomian arguments in the Dialectic, are really antinomian pairs, and even if so Kant fails to give the sort of rigorous arg't that would be needed to show his radical transcendental solution is the only possible solution. The doctrine is unhelpful for morality, since it prevents us from knowing the consequences of our actions, and in spite of Kant's disdain for consequentialism, his morality requires one to know whether an action will harm a real person or an illusory person. For this and other reasons, the doctrine seems clearly false.

Unlike Hume, Kant does not seem to provide anything salvageable. His moral arg'ts for God and immortality are based on moral principles that are generally problematic and seem out of place in Kant's overall ethical system.

[I ended my answer to this question with a note referring back to my answer to a previous question, here's what I said there...]

Kant thought that if people were not justly rewarded or punished for their right or wrong actions, there would be something irrational about morality. He also thought that we can never have an oblication to sacrifice (either actively or passively) a rational existence, and that we can never have incompatible obligations (the second half of this point is important to emphasize and is somewhat controversial, as some philosophers think there are real moral dilemmas where no choice is right.)

It is not clear whether Kant thought we could know these things or they were merely rational to believe, but the natural theology interpretation will hold that we know them. The next step is to notice that without God and immortality, these things will almost certainly be false. In this life, people do not always get their just deserts, the only way they can gewt them is through immortality. Even then it is unlikely that their existence after death would bring justice unless there were a God managing the affair. Similarly, without immortality we would sometimes have to chose between saving one rational existence and saving another, but with immortality, it is merely a choice between one embodied life and another, which Kant thought acceptable.

Once these premises are established, the argument works like this:

1) The key moral principles above are true
2) If not-"God exists" and/or not-"the soul is immortal," then not-(1).
3) Therefore, God exists and the soul is immortal.

The problematic premise in this argument is premise (1). The very idea of morality is that it is rational to do things not in one's own self-interest, the fact that one will not be justly rewarded does not make moral action irrational. To take the contrary position is especially strange from a Kantian perspective, since Kant's fundamental moral principles involved the need to do one's duty in spite of the consequences and in spite of the fact that the relevant maxims may be being systematically ignored. Similarly, Kant is put in the position of arguing it is acceptable to sacrifice something of great worth for something else of great worth, just not maximum worth for something else of maximum worth. Without that claim immortality does nothing to affect moral dilemmas about loss of life, but Kant does not give clear reasons for the distinction, and without any such justification his position seems simply inconsistent, at lest in the sense of failing to apply a guiding principle in his distinctions.

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It's all in the editing

Andrew Sullivan has been posting reedited movie trailers. They're really must sees:

Their value goes far deeper than mere comic effect. They lay out, in plain sight, the silly tricks that movies use to get an emotional reaction out of you. For a long time I've vaguely known that most movies that feel like pretty good movies at first glance are really just relying on such tricks, but these YouTube spots lay it out with much greater clarity than anything I've been able to articulate before.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

No fear

I'm amazed to see a post like this one coming from somebody on Mojoey's atheist blogroll. Basically, it argues we should avoid offending Muslims because they'll get violent. Excuse me? What kind of cowardice is this? In a religious tyranny (like Iran, which the blogger mentions), there is a certain need for being covert in your actions, but we aren't going to help create a decent world by letting dangerous fanatics run roughshod over us. Giordano Bruno should be an example to follow, not avoid.

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Maybe you’ve heard of this guy...

(Cross-posted at God is for Suckers!)

QuestionMarkPersonvspace="10" hspace="10"/>There's been a lot of complaints recently about how atheists never do anything positive. On it's face, this looks like a fair criticism, since even most atheists don't know of any fellow atheists who've done anything positive. For this reason, a number of atheists, such as Greg Epstein and Hemant Mehta, have begun arguing that atheists need to start doing positive things.

I think one small example of what they have in mind would be the advice column Sweet Reason, published for the last couple years by the Humanist Network News, and promoted as an atheist advice column. Here's an odd little tidbit, though: I think there's at least one column kinda like that already. The guy operates out of Seattle, but some people I know in Madison read him because his column is published in the back of a local paper, the kind that can often be seen lying around Madison in stacks to be taken for free. He doesn't talk about religion in every column, but he does criticize religious leaders fairly often. And one time, when somebody wrote asking about how to deal with his fear that God was watching his every action, the response began, "If there were such things as angels -- which there are not -- and if there were such a thing as God -- which there is not…" The guy's name is Dan Savage, if anyone wants to look him up. But I understand if nobody's heard of him, I mean, it's not like he's the guy who got Ann Lander's desk when she died or anything.

After this, I realized that if I thought hard enough, I could think of other people like Savage. Like for awhile, the American Humanist Association had a president who's public life consisted not mainly of attacking religion, but rather writing science books and science fiction. He was pretty serious about science fiction, even founded his own science fiction magazine. Again, if you want to look him up, name was Isaac Asimov, though I realize he's an obscure author known only to the most devoted science fiction geeks. Oh, and his successor was another little-known science fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut.

Then there was this cyclist who won a bunch of bike races after recovering from testicular cancer, and tried to use his name recognition to raise money to fight cancer. Name was Lance Armstrong.

In business, there was this computer programmer who made an awful lot of money on a well-negotiated contract with IBM, went on to turn his tech start up into a really important company. After that he decided to give most of the money to charity, and he spends a lot of his time managing his foundation. Name was Bill Gates, if I recall correctly.

I can think of a couple scientists worth mentioning. One of 'em did a TV series in 1980 to present modern astronomy to the public. It was a little obscure, but it did pretty well for a PBS program. And the year he died he came out with a book on the value of reason and scientific thinking, "science as a candle in the dark" as he put it. I've read the book, and I thought it was pretty good. The guy's name was Carl Sagan.

The other scientist I'm thinking of spent most of his public career popularizing evolutionary biology, which I would argue is at least somewhat worthwhile, right? He wrote like a half-dozen books on the subject. Cool guy. Name of Richard Dawkins.

I realize the media only reports on the atheist fundamentalists who go around doing negative things, and therefore doesn't report on people like Dawkins who do positive things. But really people, atheists like Dawkins do exist, the idea that they don't is an incredibly silly misconception.

On the other hand, I confess that there is a sad shortage of really big, famous instances of good things done by atheists, and atheists do have a responsibility to fix that situation. And when the situation is fixed, we need to make sure that the atheists involved make sure to always tell everyone that they do what they do as atheists, because really, if we just went around doing good for its own sake, what would we be accomplishing?

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