Posts Tagged ‘counter-apologetics’

The anthropic principle

April 25, 2010

There are really two different anthropic principles; the ‘strong’ one and the ‘weak’ one. The latter is pretty much a tautology. If the most basic laws of the Universe would different, then the Universe itself would look differently. There’s not much controversy there, it’s pretty straightforward. So here I’ll be focusing on the ‘strong’ anthropic principle.

As you might’ve guessed, the strong anthropic principle goes a bit further than the weak one. Lurking behind it is this assumption that the balance of natural laws in such a way as to produce life (specifically our own lives) must be maintained by some intelligent entity with a plan for humanity, as if it somehow knew we would exist some 13.7 billion years before our time when the physical constants were established. The physicists/cosmologists John D Barrow and Frank Tipler expressed this in their 1986 book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle:

There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’

Now we know that even just with materials found here on Earth and without any intelligent input whatsoever, natural processes can produce things which look very much like they have a purpose or a goal. For example:

That looks like it was designed by humans in order to accommodate travel from one area to another. But the reality is that it formed naturally without any intelligent input. The point here to remember is that we should be careful to avoid being deluded into seeing a goal or a purpose where there isn’t any. The fact that there are living things in Virginia which can use the natural bridge pictured above doesn’t necessarily mean that it was created for that specific goal. Similarly, we can’t assume that our existence was presupposed just because we happen to exist.

The only reason we can even think about an anthropic principle is because we’re already here. If different physical constants could also produce life in different Universes, then they’d be wondering the same thing. It’s only by necessity that we only hear about how great our Universe was to produce us. Other Universes in a multi-verse could also produce life by saying how awesome their own particular physical constants were to produce them.

The late British science fiction author Douglas Adams had come up with one of the best responses along these lines:

“[I]magine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

The point that Adams got to towards the end of that quote is what makes the strong anthropic principle not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. If the Universe or a God or whatever had us in mind as the lead in some epic cosmic plan, then we don’t really need to worry about environmental destruction or extinction by meteors or anything like that. It takes that responsibility out of our hands – and we as a species seem to like not having much responsibility in general.

Even against our own interests, we’re predisposed to accept the strong anthropic principle (or anthropo-centric principle, as Carl Sagan put it). We’d like to be special and the pinnacle of existence, and at the same time we’d like for a Big Brother to protect us from dangers, even dangers we might inflict upon ourselves. We’re so compelled by this combination of protection and self-aggrandizement that even unscrupulous leaders in politics, religion, and economics who might not have even heard of the anthropic principle make some crude use of it for their own purposes.

For more on the history and problems on these issues, I’d reccommend Massimo Pigliucci’s recent writings on the subject.



Paley’s Watchmaker

March 27, 2010

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
–William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

That’s how this teleological argument for the existence of God was most famously articulated. It’s also known as the argument from design. Like Pascal’s Wager, it’s one of those bits of theology that’s often repeated ad nauseum by laypersons, and usually ones who’ve never read the original citation above. And also like Pascal’s Wager, there are so many problems with it that it’s difficult to know where exactly to begin.

Paley wants to equate the natural world with the hypothetical watch left in the forest. He doesn’t draw the connection between the two. He just asserts that the two are similar in that they were both clearly designed. But whether or not they’re similar and therefore designed is exactly the question Paley’s trying to answer. So just claiming that they are is circular reasoning.

Furthermore, if the watch and the natural world were so similar then we wouldn’t even notice the watch in the first place. It wouldn’t stick out amongst the backdrop of the rest of the landscape which “might as well have been there forever.” If Paley’s assertion held water, we’d just be walking along and take no more notice of the watch than we do of a blade of grass or a bird because they would both have “every manifestation of design.”

But we do notice the watch. We can look at something which is obviously designed and know that it’s designed because we have at least some prior knowledge of watch design. Frankly, I know next to nothing about that subject, but I can at least look at a watch and recognize it as something we humans have made for a very long time. Even just going by the blog post so far we can know they’ve been manufactured for at least a few hundred years already.

You don’t even need Darwin and evolution to refute the watchmaker argument on these grounds. All that needs to be pointed out is something like this:

“A tree bestows order and organisation on that tree which springs from it, without knowing the order; an animal in the same manner on its offspring; a bird on its nest; and instances of this kind are even more frequent in the world than those of order, which arise from reason and contrivance. To say, that all this order in animals and vegetables proceeds ultimately from design, is begging the question; nor can that great point be ascertained otherwise than by proving, a priori, both that order is, from its nature, inseparably attached to thought; and that it can never of itself, or from original unknown principles, belong to matter.”
-David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1776)

So in crasser terms, there’s really no reason to even accept Paley’s assertion that every manifestation of design we rightfully notice in the watch also exists in the natural world. And even putting aside the self-refuting nature of his argument, the hypothetical watch he’s talking about didn’t really have a single watchmaker.

Sure, maybe a few centuries ago watches were designed and made one by one by a single individual in their workshop. But if the analogy to the Universe as a whole is to hold, that watchmaker would have had to have made their watch de novo. And this clearly could not be what happened.

Let’s take this a little more seriously and really think about this watchmaker who made the watch Paley discovered in the forest. At some point in his life, he decided to make watches for a living. Maybe his father taught him how, or maybe he took on an apprenticeship. But either way he learned from earlier watch designs and from others who had also made watches. A deity like the one Paley describes could not have any counterpoint to this passing on of skills unless it were watching other gods making other Universes and learning tricks of the Universe-making trade from them.

This watch which is made by a watchmaker is just one part of a long history of people who worked on devices meant to keep track of time. In earlier times, there was no second hand on a typical clock. Earlier than that, there was no minute hand. And even earlier still, no mechanics at all were used because all we had were sticks in the mud which then cast a shadow.

Watches, in other words, are the result of a gradual process where efficient parts are selected for and clumsy, inaccurate, and wasteful parts are selected against. And if you go back far enough in time, you get a point of origin which is perfectly explained by natural phenomenon.

So even if you give Paley a pass on the self-refuting part of his argument, it still fails again when it points directly to an unguided evolutionary explanation of the natural world and all its complexities and directly away from supernatural design.

Pascal’s Wager

March 16, 2010

There is no news in this post. I just thought I would bulk up the counter-apologetics here since I maybe haven’t been doing my share lately as a member of the atheist blogroll. And a good way to do that would be to start with something pretty simple and then work my way through to more complicated shit later. So if you’re looking for the usual making fun of the news thing or something you don’t already know about Pascal’s Wager, then it’s probably best to skip this one.

Blaise Pascal was a religious apologist, mathematician, and philosopher in 17th century France. The way that he wrote it out, at least as I read it, his famous wager is more of a pep talk for people who are already Christians and might be starting to doubt. He didn’t mean for it to be an actual reason to believe for someone who’s starting from a position of doubt. You have to already be a believer in a specific religion for it to have an effect.

Here is how the guy himself put it:

Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you—will quiet your proudly critical intellect…

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

There’s a very good reason why this doesn’t work for convincing skeptics, but it does for wavering believers. The believers don’t consider any of the world’s other religions and their promises of similar certainties of gain and risks of nothingness. So it’s necessary for this to work to already have a bias towards one faith over all others.

It’s actually even worse than Dawkins here makes it seem. If you’re just conducting a theological cost/benefit analysis, then other some other religions promise even greater potential harm for unbelief and greater rewards for devotion than Pascal’s own Catholicism.

So for example if you’re worried about going to the Pascal’s Catholic hell and the threat of it is enough to convince you to believe, then you should be even more influenced by the threat of Islamic hell:

“Verily Allah has cursed the Unbelievers and prepared for them a Blazing Fire,- To dwell therein for ever: no protector will they find, nor helper.”
Qu’ran, 33:64-5

So we’ll get blazing fire,

“Those who reject our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”
Qu’ran, 4:56

BUT we get to exchange our skins so we don’t get roasted over and over and over again forever,

“Nay they deny the hour (of the judgment to come): but We have prepared a blazing fire for such as deny the hour: When it sees them from a place fAr off, they will hear its fury and its ranging sigh. And when they are cast, bound together into a constricted place therein, they will pLead for destruction there and then! This day plead not for a single destruction: plead for destruction oft-repeated!”
Qu’ran, 25:11-14

“With Us are Fetters (to bind them), and a Fire (to burn them)”
Qu’ran, 73:12

binding chains and binding yokes,

“The Companions of the Left Hand,- what will be the Companions of the Left Hand? (They will be) in the midst of a Fierce Blast of Fire and in Boiling Water”
Qu’ran, 56:41-2

boiling water,

“Hell!- they will burn therein, – an evil bed (indeed, to lie on)!- Yea, such! – then shall they taste it,- a boiling fluid, and a fluid dark, murky, intensely cold!- And other Penalties of a similar kind, to match them!”
Qu’ran, 38:56-8

dark boiling liquid,

“But those who deny (their Lord),- for them will be cut out a garment of Fire: over their heads will be poured out boiling water. With it will be scalded what is within their bodies, as well as (their) skins. In addition there will be maces of iron (to punish) them. Every time they wish to get away therefrom, from anguish, they will be forced back therein, and (it will be said), ‘Taste ye the Penalty of Burning!'”
Qu’ran, 22:19-22

iron maces,

“The while they enter the Blazing Fire, the while they are given, to drink, of a boiling hot spring, No food will there be for them but a bitter Dhari’ which will neither nourish nor satisfy hunger.”
Qu’ran, 88:4-7

painful food and boiling water,

Narrated An-Nu’man:
I heard the Prophet saying, “The person who will have the least punishment from amongst the Hell Fire people on the Day of Resurrection, will be a man under whose arch of the feet a smoldering ember will be placed so that his brain will boil because of it.”
Sahih Bukhari 8:76:566

BUT if you’re LUCKY you’ll only be scorched from the arch of your foot to your head,

Narrated Abu Wail:
Somebody said to Usama, “Will you go to so-and-so (i.e. ‘Uthman) and talk to him (i.e. advise him regarding ruling the country)?” He said, “You see that I don’t talk to him. Really I talk to (advise) him secretly without opening a gate (of affliction), for neither do I want to be the first to open it (i.e. rebellion), nor will I say to a man who is my ruler that he is the best of all the people after I have heard something from Allah s Apostle .” They said, What have you heard him saying? He said, “I have heard him saying, “A man will be brought on the Day of Resurrection and thrown in the (Hell) Fire, so that his intestines will come out, and he will go around like a donkey goes around a millstone. The people of (Hell) Fire will gather around him and say: O so-and-so! What is wrong with you? Didn’t you use to order us to do good deeds and forbid us to do bad deeds? He will reply: Yes, I used to order you to do good deeds, but I did not do them myself, and I used to forbid you to do bad deeds, yet I used to do them myself.”
Sahih Bukhari 4:54:489

and oh yeah, some of us end up getting eviscerated. I’ll be a little more merciful here and spare the reader from having to look at a picture of that.

Dante seems like a total pussy by comparison. And pretty much all the Bible tells us about Hell is that it’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire is never quenched. So if your motivating factor in deciding on a religion is to avoid the worst possible pain, it’s much better to believe in Islam and possibly avoid the worst kind of hell even if you’re wrong. And if Christianity is true, you still end up taking less of a risk of going to Christian hell rather than the Islamic one.

The other side of this bet-hedging is to believe in a religion that promises the best afterlife for believers. A desirable heaven is the carrot to a painful hell’s stick. And one of the best afterlifes you can get is in Mormon theology.

The Church of Latter-Day Saints believe in something called Degrees of glory. You’ve basically got four possibilities for what happens after you die: Outer Darkness, the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Telestial Kingdom.

Outer Darkness sounds a lot like Billy Graham’s concept of hell – one where you just die and are separated from God instead of the fiery one preached about during the Middle Ages and by people like the Westboro Baptist Church today. That’s for people with no degree of glory at all. The worst possible punishment for Mormons turns out to be… nothing. Even non-Christians can have some degree of glory and get one of the other three kingdoms.

The next step up from the Outer Darkness is the Telestial Kingdom (the terminology here really sounds like it’s for LARPers, doesn’t it? Not that I’d know anything about that, of course). Nonbelievers and heathens and “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie,” according to Doctrine and Covenants, 76:103.  However, those of us in the Telestial Kingdom – and let’s face it, if you’re reading this it applies to you – will have to go to hell for 1000 years during the millennial reign of Christ prophesied in Revelation 20:1-6.

But on an eternal time scale, a thousand years in hell isn’t really that bad when you get an immortal physical body afterwards, along with all your other friends and without all those holier-than-thou assholes fucking up your kingdom. Not too bad for the lowest of the kingdoms, really.

The next kingdom up is the Terrestrial Kingdom, and you can get there by becoming a Mormon posthumously (D&C, 76:74) or by being a  Christian who is not “valiant” enough (D&C, 76:9). Basically these are half-assed Christians whose only inconvenience is in knowing that there’s a slightly better kingdom out there somewhere.

That brings us to the Celestial Kingdom, which is the SHIT. This is the best of the best heavens, and you even get your very own seer stone. The downside is that in order to get there you need to have either followed all of the LDS church’s rules throughout your first life or have died before turning 8 years old. So this is pretty much out for those of you who might still be reading this.

To get back to the point of all this Mormon stuff; if you’re using Pascal’s Wager in terms of analyzing potential benefits in a particular religion, this is clearly the way to go especially considering the information conveyed in the video above. You get to be a deity. Is a better pick up line even possible?

So if you’re a risk-taking, glass-half-full type, you’ll hear Pascal’s Wager and convert to the LDS church. If you’re a risk-averse, glass-half-empty type, you’ll hear Pascal’s Wager and convert to Islam. I could go on and on pointing out how different religions can exploit various hopes and fears of different types of people, but for now it’s enough to leave it here where it’s clear that Pascal’s Wager can be used to proselytize for pretty much all religions, most of which are completely contradictory.

You can't go to both.

Up to this point, I hope I’ve established two things. One is that Pascal’s Wager isn’t a way to know anything. It’s only a way to reassure those who already believe. And secondly, when modern apologists and laypersons unsuccessfully misuse Pascal’s Wager in attempts to convince skeptics, they are using an inherent bias in that their particular religion is correct even though the same approach can be used just as easily to persuade skeptics to adhere to completely different religions.

Now after being faced with all this, someone advocating Pascal’s Wager can take a step back and claim that it applies to belief in a deistic god. That way they can use the wager as a wedge strategy and later take baby steps to their own belief system, much like the strategy used by some creationists who want their bullshit to count as science.

When I was a kid, maybe around 9 years old, I had thought of this. Obviously it wasn’t in the same terms I’m using now. I thought I had invented it and that I was some kind of genius. I would sneak by The System and be able to pass for a believer just by my own say-so! But then a few minutes later I had an experience similar to one I later read about described by Bertrand Russell:

“I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco, and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when I suddenly threw it up in the air and exclaimed: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!””

But later, Russell had this to say about the same argument – which is one I hope to have time to deal with at some point in the future:

“The [ontological] argument [for the existence of God] does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”

That’s kind of what I felt like. Pretending to believe seemed like too easy of a fix. Even as a kid, I was already a crotchety old man thinking that if something seems too good to be true it probably is.

Pascal’s Wager doesn’t even make sense when dealing with a nondescript deity because a god by definition would know the difference between professing to believe something and actually believing it. Even as a dumb little kid I could tell the difference. It just all seemed too easy. Even if I could fool every Buddhist monk or Christian preacher or whatever else, I would still be able to tell that I was lying about my belief. And since a god is supposed to be much more intelligent than a human, it would immediately see through my plan and probably punish me for my heresy even more severely than the typical honest doubter.

I’m going to have to leave it there for now because this has already gone on way longer than I expected. Maybe I’ll have to do a part ii of this later on.

Why religious people can’t ‘keep it to themselves’

January 19, 2010

There’s this recurring comment I keep hearing from people, mostly people who are primarily concerned with political issues who aren’t very well acquainted with religion. They’re not necessarily atheists, but not really believers either. A good word to describe them is apatheists. They really just don’t care about religion either way and they complain about Mormons knocking on their door and so on. “Why can’t they just keep their beliefs to themselves?” they ask. Here is just one recent example of this, a superficially reasonable response to the Vatican’s comments about Avatar.

To put it briefly, the reason people like Robertson and the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t keep it to themselves is because they really do believe what they claim to believe. Sure, there are lots of people who are just claiming to have religious faith in order to fit into a large in-group – they have “belief in belief” rather than just the belief itself, as Daniel Dennett puts it.

I’m going to try to draw an analogy here. The trolley problem is this thought experiment in ethics where you try to imagine different scenarios, the basics of which is that you have a crazed philosopher who has tied up people to a train track after a point which the track forks off into different directions. At first, it’s supposed to be something like 1 person tied up at one track and five at the other. You’re supposed to be observing this from on top of a bridge, and there’s a runaway trolley approaching the fork. Next to you is a switch where you can make it so the trolley run over one person rather than the five, therefore saving the lives of five innocent people by sacrificing one. It’s a pretty standard utilitarian response to the initial trolley problem.

Then it gets a little more complicated. There are dozens and probably hundreds of different ways to change around the variables. You can have the same situation, but instead of flipping a switch, maybe you have to actually throw an innocent bystander over the bridge onto the train track in order to stop the train, therefore saving all of the innocent people tied to the track. This most people view as very different, since you would have to actually throw the sacrificial person over a bridge yourself – even though the exchange is the same. Other variations involve pregnant women or the President of the United States, or large numbers of convicted criminals, and so on.

I think the point of these variations is to make the hypothetical situation more realistic. It’s easy to say that you’d act to decrease the amount of potential suffering from the comfort of your armchair, but it’s something else to actually be there watching and making these decisions.

To true believers of religions which involve an afterlife and a judgement by a deity which requires devotion, the threat of the hell-trolley is as real as can be. Given that presupposition, it would be hopelessly immoral to not proselytize knowing what the results of inaction could be. Wouldn’t you force a careless pedestrian out of the way of moving traffic in order to save her life? Of course you would. You wouldn’t say, “Hey, I don’t want to impose my beliefs of the dangers of being hit by a car on that person, that would be rude!” Taking a lassiez-faire, live-and-let-live approach in that situation would be wrong.

And to push this even a little further, we should remember that the punishment of a hell is a lot worse than just being hit by a runaway trolley. It’s not very well described in the Bible outside of Mark 9:43-8 (although early Christian literature describes it pretty vividly), but take a look at what us infidels have in store for us according to the Koran (44:43-6). There you don’t just get burned by the fires, but you also have to eat the fruit of a tree which then burns you from the inside, too.

So to me it’s not so amazing that so many people want to force their beliefs on others. What I find amazing is that so many people who claim belief in religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other faiths where a lack of adherence is punished after one’s death actually don’t try to push their beliefs on others. I don’t complain about the door-to-door solicitors, I just wonder why it doesn’t happen every day, even every hour. Then again, I might have a different opinion on it altogether if I lived somewhere like Alabama instead of a relatively secular part of the US.


Richard Carrier at Skepticon 2

December 11, 2009

The St. Louis, MO skeptical community has started putting on an annual convention. This is pretty cool since now there seem to be developing regional meetings like this so that people who aren’t lazy like me can get to one within a reasonable driving distance. The last one was a few weeks ago, and someone who took video has started posting the talks on YouTube.

Richard Carrier was one of the more interesting speakers and I’ll post his talk here (although something went wrong in part 3 on my end here). He’s a PhD in ancient history and his talk is on the question of Jesus’ historicity. Carrier’s got this knack for not just the scholarship of history – and I’d have to leave that question to people who actually know something about it – but also for communicating the facts and his views on the facts of his subject in a way that’s very accessible to laypersons, without dumbing down the material.

And before you dismiss this as some kind of Zeitgeist-ish “OMG JESUS NEVER EXISTED” kind of stuff, it should be said that Carrier’s on the more rational end of the Jesus mythicists and is very critical in his other writings of some of the more outlandish claims of people like Acharya S, John Dominic Crossan, Timothy Freke, and Peter Gandy.

Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Quote of the day

December 10, 2009

Another argument atheists shouldn’t use

December 7, 2009

This is a sort of continuation of an earlier post.

So this one is very common. It’s used often by Dan Barker, a former evangelical fundamentalist Christian turned atheist debater and co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Here’s how Richard Dawkins puts it in The God Delusion on page 53, just after a brief outline of Russell’s Teapot:

“I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”

I know Dawkins and Barker aren’t the only ones who make this point, and it seems like a good way to make freethought seem less frightening to believers. But I’m picking out this Dawkins quote here because he appears to refute it just two pages later:

“As I shall argue in a moment, a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without.”

Now here Dawkins is trying to counter the accommodationist, NOMA-friendly hypothesis which holds that the existence or nonexistence of a deity is somehow outside the realms of scientific inquiry. But if it’s true that a universe with a creative superintendent is very different than one without (and I would agree with Dawkins on this point), then it’s disingenuous to say that nonbelievers “just go one god further” in their disbelief.

Sure, mathematically it works out that the differences between believing in two gods and one on one hand and believing in one god and none on the other are equal. But looking at the Universe without any gods at all is a different kind of difference than the one between monotheism and polytheism. If a religious believer decides that there is no such thing as a trinity of gods but rather one, they’re just moving around amongst different positions which all involve there being at least something supernatural. On the other hand, going from theism to atheism (usually) involves adopting a naturalistic worldview where there is no such thing as anything supernatural or magic at all.

So even if it’s more inviting to believers who are starting to doubt that atheists “just go one god further,” this problem is going to present itself as a stumbling block at some point to them if they really accept it. And then they’ll look back and think to themselves that those atheists were lying to them all along and just coaxing them into a skeptical position – and they’ll be right to think that. So we should just be honest and upfront about the real differences between theism and atheism instead of trying out these lame and deceptive marketing pitches.

Arguments atheists shouldn’t use

November 27, 2009

With all the “new atheist” brouhaha, there’s bound to be a few kids who are new to freethought making bad arguments, messing up our lawns, and otherwise making the rest of us cranky. When believers encounter nonbelievers like this, they might understandably take such bad arguments and lack of concern for lawn care to be characteristic of atheists, which would only then serve to reinforce their faith. So here are some quality control tips for the kiddies.

Bad argument: “Genesis has two different accounts of the creation of the universe. Since they’re different, both can’t be true. The existence of the two stories is a biblical contradiction, and a divinely inspired work cannot contradict itself. Therefore the Bible can’t have been divinely inspired.”

Why it’s dumb: It is implausible that the holy text of the ancient Jews would for centuries include two contradictory accounts for no reason, with no explanaion, and without anyone noticing. It’s right there in the first few pages. The contradictory passages must be there for some deeper reason other than serving as some kind of AP report of what God did when he created the Universe. Most believers will immediately respond that the second story is an interpretation of one of the days of the first.

What you should say: This point is really only helpful to bring up against people like Ken Ham and his friends at Answers in Genesis who insist that they don’t interpret the Bible, and that they simply read God’s Word as is. Self-professed biblical literalists, in other words. It’s all well and good to try to understand the Bible literally, but when confronted with the contradictory creation accounts they will invariably give a response very much like what I just said above. But the problem with that is that it’s not actually in the text. Nowhere in Genesis does it actually say that one account is an extrapolation of the other. The two stories are simply mentioned one after the other. A more sophisticated believer can interpret what they like, but a literalist would have to admit that they are using their own human reason in order to come to an understanding of the text, and not simply the text itself. And the human reason they would use to do such is a product of the Fall – a point made constantly in Ken Ham’s creationist “museum.”

Bad argument: “Religion is a disease.”

Why it’s dumb: This meme came from an essay by Richard Dawkins called Viruses of the Mind. It compares the way that viruses and memes infect hosts for their own benefit and not that of the host. But Dawkins goes to great lengths to make the point that viruses aren’t necessarily always bad things. Most of the time they are neutral. This and other caveats and intricacies are areas where Dawkins is great at explaining, and they’re lost when you just tell someone that their beliefs are a cancer which must be destroyed.

What you should say: Simply point out that the best predictor of one’s religious convictions happens to be their geographical location. This should give believers pause. Why doesn’t God transcend geographical boundaries? Why does religion, like language, appear to have evolved from the bottom-up by cultural means instead of given to us by a deity from the top-down?

Bad argument: Jesus condoned slavery, and even the beating of slaves in Luke 12:47

And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.

Jesus also made this strange and barbaric request in Luke 19:27

But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

Why it’s dumb: Read it in context. These are parables.

What you should say: Sure, they’re parables meant to teach a lesson. It’s just that the lessons here are very immoral because they promote a Might Makes Right mentality commonly found within authoritarian systems such as Christianity. To be fair, Jesus wasn’t just swinging around a sword, screaming like a maniac while (if) he was saying what he said in Matthew 10:34

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

, but the point to make is that he didn’t have to actually have a sword to be immoral in this instance. That is all for now.

Blasphemy Day Follow-up

November 17, 2009

On Blasphemy Day I mentioned that the Center For Inquiry had a few blasphemy contests. The verbal one, which is apparently being put on a shirt, was just announced.

The winner is Ken Peters of California who won for his entry, “Faith is no reason.” Here’s the new CFI President Ron Lindsey on the decision:

“This entry, using only four words, summarizes nicely one of the key principles of post-Enlightenment thought. Beliefs should be based on evidence and reason. Faith is not a basis for logically sound belief.”

Considering some of the infighting (and possibly worse) within the CFI involving claims of “atheist fundamentalists,” you would think the winning entry would be something like “Mohammed Sucked 39 Dicks” or something like that. But this one is nice – something even those who might lean more towards accommodationism would appreciate.

‘What would you say to God?’ quotes

October 31, 2009

“And suppose God was about to pass judgment on you, what would you say?” I would say to Him, “Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you.”
-Robert Green Ingersoll

“Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.”
-Bertrand Russell

“I’d quote Bertrand Russell: “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” But why is God assumed to care so much about whether you believe in him? Maybe he wants you to be generous, kind, loving, and honest – and never mind what you believe.”
-Richard Dawkins

God and the weather

September 22, 2009

About a year and a half ago, Georgia’s governor organized a prayer. For rain.

Now, Georgia is being flooded. At least seven people have died as a result.

So is the Governor going to say that the flood is a result of their prayers? If not, then their prayers were ineffective.

Or will he say that  this flood is God’s response to the prayers? If so, then that makes God look like a bit of a dick. Like a slumlord, God ignores requests to fix something, then when it finally gets off its ass and does something, it screws it up badly. Maybe this God thing needs a subcontractor to take care of this kind of stuff. Isn’t that what angels were for? This analogy is getting weird.

This gives me an excuse to bring up this awesome story from about a month ago. Back in the 17th century, a Swiss town started praying to get rid of a glacier near them. They were sick of it. The glacier was bullshit. So now that the Catholic Church is pretending to care about the environment, this town is asking for a papal sanction to reverse their prayer request.

In other words, from their perspective, God waited a couple centuries until the Industrial Revolution to start to melt the glacier, cleverly making it look like it was a result of natural processes, and then overdid it. And now they need a request for God to cease and desist to be rubber-stamped by a bureaucracy in the Vatican and everything will be just fine.

Makes perfect sense.

Mr. Deity and the Skeptic

September 15, 2009

Upcoming Documentaries

September 9, 2009

This first one covers a series of debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. The filmmaker is a Christian, but he’s into punk music and skateboarding. Weird. Anyway, judging from the first few minutes of the film here, it seems very fair to both sides.

And there is now yet another documentary about William S. Burroughs. Soundtrack is by Sonic Youth. John Waters, Genesis P-Orridge, Laurie Anderson, Peter Weller, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, Anne Waldman, James Grauerholz, Jello Biafra, Bill Ayers, and someone who has the largest collection of poisonous snakes in the world all show up, along with others I’ve never heard of.

Glenn Beck is an ignorant fool

September 1, 2009

Yeah, obvious, I know. But there’s a great facepalming moment in this video at 50 seconds in:

Then I got to wondering what the hell this “9/12 Project” is, so I googled it. And I found this website. And on that website, I found this picture:

And in that picture, you’ll notice two references to Thomas Paine.

If Glenn Beck has read Thomas Paine, he’s being intentionally dishonest. And if he hasn’t read Thomas Paine, then I’m not surprised. His hordes of moronic supporters have no excuse either, since anyone can check out his works in a public (Ooooooooooh! Scary!) library if they like.

The reason I feel confident in saying that is because only a few seconds before hilariously misspelling “oligarchy” and somehow not realizing that “oligarch” is, in fact, a word, he rants about internationalism. This is one of Beck’s boogeymen – the scary internationalist idea of tearing down arbitrary borders and uniting people in common interests. It apparently sells well for people who hate foreigners but are at least conscious enough to know that they shouldn’t just come out and say that. They need some pseudo-rational justification for their xenophobia, which is where fear of internationalism enters into the discourse (not all opposition to certain kinds of internationalism are based on that fear, but it would be foolish to deny that it exists, and that people like Beck capitalize on it).

Thomas Paine had some things to say about nationalism and internationalism. Let’s take a look:

“In stating these matters, I speak an open and disinterested language, dictated by no passion but that of humanity. To me, who have not only refused offers, because I thought them improper, but have declined rewards I might with reputation have accepted, it is no wonder that meanness and imposition appear disgustful. Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

Rights of Man, Chapter 5

In other words, Paine is saying that there is nothing special about his position as an American, and his independence includes independence from duties for a specific country and against another. For someone to have the world as their country is about as explicit of an endorsement of internationalism as one can get.

And not only that, but has Beck ever read The Age of Reason? Jesus. If his audience thinks that the “new atheists” are hostile to religion, they really should maybe bother to read this major work by someone they claim to admire. Here are some quotes from what Paine had to say about the Bible and religion in that book:

“In many things, however, the writings of the Jewish poets deserve a better fate than that of being bound up, as they now are, with the trash that accompanies them, under the abused name of the Word of God.”

“But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person alone. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.”

“[T]he theory or doctrine of redemption has for its basis an idea of pecuniary justice, and not that of moral justice. If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, … another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.”

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

I wonder how well that would sell to Beck’s audience. Maybe he should run some of that by the suits at FOX and see how that sticks. Forget FOX, I think even someone like Richard Dawkins would find these excerpts a bit too over-the-top in its hostility to the kinds of values which so many of Beck’s audience hold to so fanatically. After all, Dawkins seems to get along well with more liberal believers, but Paine went one step further in just flatly saying that he detested Christianity and the Bible as a whole.

Actually, you know what? Someone really should call up Glenn Beck’s radio show and read that last quote to him and see how he handles that situation.

The God Hypothesis

August 31, 2009

You can read a chapter from The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan called The God Hypothesis by clicking on the picture of the author’s gravestone below. The book is mostly transcripts of the Gifford Lectures Sagan gave in 1985, along with some Q&A and more up-to-date pictures of what he was talking about when it came to astronomy.


You should read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt of his conclusion, after brilliantly disecting and dismissing popular arguments for the existence of God, and I wanted to quote it because I’ve already seen people try to paint him as a theist or even as an “Intelligent Design proponent” (aka creationist):

So if I then run through these arguments, the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the moral argument, the argument from consciousness, and the argument from experience, I must say that the net result is not very impressive. It is very much as if we are seeking a rational justification for something that we otherwise hope will be true.

Putting that in a less polite way, religious apologists are lying, and they know it.