Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Atheist Experience blog is moving!

(Original title: Important changes coming to the blog October 1!)

Commence unfounded wild speculation in 3... 2... 1...

Edit: As the commenters pointed out, the surprise is already spoiled, so never mind.  We're officially packing our bags and moving out of blogspot and into

New URL!

We're all delighted to be joining the likes of PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, and many other terrific bloggers at the new server.

Still trying to get all of our regular editors to create their accounts, and tinkering with the posts I'm migrating from here.  Long story short, most likely this will be the last post at the old address.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Open thread on Episode #728

Russell and Jeff in the self-described "awesome episode."  One theist caller gets 20 minutes, while another gets summarily dumped after his opening statement.  A new study shows that belief in God is linked with intuitive thinking, or to put it another way, preferring to choose the answer that sounds good over thinking carefully about what's probably correct.  Be there!

Also, as I mentioned on the show, Lynnea and I have plans to hang out in a bar with Orlando-based fans on a weeknight in November.  Check out this page for planning if you're nearby.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Open Thread on 727

Secular charitities mentioned in today's show include:
These organizations help real people in this life - the only one we're sure to get. They're transparent about what they do, and serve anyone in need.

As I mentioned on the show today, the idea that some reward awaits the faithful in the afterlife is one of the religious doctrines that impairs our ability to solve the problems that plague humanity. It makes it easier to ignore suffering if you think some people are better off dead. Well, it's not okay with me for people to go without medical care because they're poor. It's not okay for people to go hungry in a country where obesity is a major health concern. It's not okay for women to be pregnant year after year until they die of exhaustion. The organizations above are doing what they can to solve these problems. If you can help, please do, and thank you.

And now, open thread - have at it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

We get email: Brains, evidence, and burden of proof again

Fresh from the "Someone Is Wrong on the Internet" files, this message was sent via the contact form on the ACA website.
My understanding about atheism is you claim that because there is (supposedly) no evidence for God existing that this equates to there being evidence for God NOT existing (please correct me if I am wrong about this).

Kind of, but not exactly.

The default position for any positive claim lacking evidence is usually disbelief.  "Disbelief" doesn't mean "proof against," and it doesn't mean "dogmatic certainty" -- it just means, to put it simply, that you generally don't believe in stuff without having reasons in favor of it.

To give you a small example: Suppose I told you "You know, I died last week, but I rose from the dead on the following morning, so here I am replying to your email."  Would you believe me or not?

I think it's safe to say that you would ask me whether I have evidence or not.  My failure to provide any wouldn't constitute proof that it didn't happen, but it wouldn't look good for me.  Don't you agree?

Or suppose I tried to sell you a car which, by all appearances, seemed to be a twenty year old lemon, but I said "This car has a secret switch which can make it FLY.  And I'm selling it to you for the incredibly reasonable price of $10,000."  That's actually a great price for a flying car... but I'm sure you wouldn't buy it without evidence.

You see the difference between this position and what you're saying?
My question to you is this:

1) Do you have a brain? You probably think so.

2) How do you know? For the sake of epistomological argument, you could be merely a computer-based machine, akin to a very advanced robot operating on Artificial Intelligence

3) How can you prove this? Given my previous challenge, you probably can't prove the existence of your brain without cutting open your skull to demonstrate the presence of white and grey matter)

Yes, I've heard this one before, there's a popular urban legend chain mail about a student who stumps a professor with it.  I have a hard time believing that anyone takes that story seriously.

This line of questioning stems from a total confusion about the difference between "evidence" and proof.  You of course couldn't prove with 100% certainty that any particular person has their own brain; after all, they COULD be a very clever robot.  However, the evidence that we do have is sufficient to that it's way more likely that you have a brain than any of the alternatives.  For example:
  • Induction (an important tool of science): Every human skull we've ever cut open has contained a brain.  Thus the DEFAULT assumption for any given person is that they match an already observed pattern.
  • Necessity: we have built up a pretty good idea of how brains work, and that they are a the source of cognitive processes in people.  In order to say "Person X lacks a brain" you'd have to come up with a credible alternate explanation of why they're continuing to move around, speak, and write.  Instead of, you know, lying there.  (By contrast, we don't have any evidence of any particular processes caused by any gods, which means that's the possibility that requires explanation.)
  • Ruling out alternatives: It's easy to SAY that your brain's been replaced with a computer, but as far as we know this can't be done successfully with any modern techology.  If those kinds of transplants were commonplace, then there would be evidence for the brain switching theory, but there's not, so following the known pattern is the simplest conclusion.

4) Do you claim to know everything, as in all possible facts? If not, then what percentage of information about the world do you claim to know? 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 %? Whatever the percentage of information about the world which you have knowledge about, it surely is not a full 100% - if this is correct, then the percentage for which you do not have knowledge could, quite possibly, include existence of supernatural phenomena such as the existence of God.

Sure, the possibility is always there, even if the odds are 10^-googol.  You don't need to convince me that a god is possible.  I just don't believe that it's true, due to lack of evidence.  If you want to change my mind about the likelihood, then find some evidence.

My argument then is as follows:
1) You do not really have logical or rational proof for claiming,
with certainty, that God does not exist

And, as I just said, I don't make that claim of certainty.

2) Therefore, you are, by definition, an agnostic, in other words: you are uncertain and do not know the final truth of the matter with regards to God's existence.

You're right.  As I've said many times on the show, I'm an agnostic atheist.  "Agnostic" because I don't know whether a god exists, but "atheist" because, given the information currently available, I don't share your belief that the god exists.
3) You have therefore been mistaken about calling yourself an atheist, since you actually are an agnostic and are simply in need of getting your terms right before using terms such as "atheist" inaccurately

Wrong.  My usage of the word atheist is consistent with the standard definition (as I am not a theist), and also consistent with the viewpoints of many well-established atheists, such as George Smith and Richard Dawkins.
Perhaps a more accurate way of describing yourself, as well as your friends and colleagues on your show, could include:
- agnostic

- secular

- lay

Why, because I'm not a scientist myself?  Okay, I'm a layperson, but I don't see what that has to do with atheism.  You and I are both lay irrespective of our religious beliefs.
- irreligious

- epistemologists

...Sure, if you want.

Now I've agreed to your entire list of alternate description, and I'm also an atheist.  If you want to throw some more labels on there, I'm also a computer programmer, a gamer, a father, etc.  None of those things are mutually exclusive with atheism.
Atheism, however, with its claim to conclusively "know" that God does not exist, seems about as irrational as the very belief in God which it seems to have contempt for.

Atheism doesn't require such a claim of knowledge.  I'm afraid you have been misinformed.  Withholding beliefs in the absence of evidence isn't irrational, as is obviously the case in my example of the flying car.

Hope that clears things up.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Open letter to Mark/ChrisLanganFan et al

Dear Mark,

I'll call you Mark because that was the first name you used when you called us, and I've spoken to you at length using that name twice.  If that's not your preferred name, please let me know what name I should use instead.

For a long time, I denied that your calls were coming from the same person -- I suppose due to some kind of misguided pride.  After all, I thought that you and I had some interesting and even somewhat productive conversations when I was talking to you.  I didn't want to feel like those conversations had been a waste of time, and I was unfairly annoyed with the viewers in email and chat who were trying to point out the obvious -- that you were disguising your voice to keep calling.

Even after accepting that you were faking the British accent, I wasn't completely convinced that you were the original "Mark."  But obviously, you gave the game away when Matt asked you about it this past Sunday.  Instead of asking "Who's Mark?" you answered by repeating an argument from another of your alter egos, which was basically as good as an admission.  And I know you read this blog, because you're obviously the one writing in as "ChrisLanganFan" (and Andrew, when you double-posted) so I thought I'd ask you about this directly.

First of all, why do you feel the need to disguise your identity?  We don't avoid conversations with real theists.  A few months ago I invited you to meet us for dinner, and I was serious about it -- I'd be happy to meet with you.  (Granted, I was also trying to work out whether you were really a native of Austin as you claimed.  I guess I have my answer now, and I'm disappointed.)

I recognize that the internet and phone-only conversations can feel impersonal enough that you don't need to reveal every detail of your identity, but I've always valued honesty a great deal.  On the web I sometimes go by the screen name "Kazim," but I've always been up front about who I really am and what my real values are.  I tend to expect that of others -- sometimes, unfortunately, incorrectly.

I had a phone conversation about you with Martin once, when I wasn't sure whether you were really calling in with multiple names and voices.  Here's what I said in a nutshell: "I suppose Tom might be Mark, but I don't understand what his goal is.  The way I see it, there are three possible reasons why he might be doing it: 1. To make us look bad; 2. to make us look good; 3. Some kind of weird performance art."  Number three doesn't make much sense to me (again, as someone who values honesty).  If it's number two, we don't need your help.  And if it's number one, well, first of all you're not doing a very good job of it; and second of all, I don't see how it helps you in your goal to use fake identities.  Shouldn't the arguments speak for themselves without worrying about the personality?

I guess what I'm feeling most of all is disappointment mixed with a bit of confusion.  On some occasions, you seemed to be very angry about the show.  On other occasions, you seemed like you were actually listening to the people who were talking to you and trying to understand what they said.  And in the latest calls you've started out angry and then switched topics repeatedly without settling on one point long enough to make a lasting impression about it.  This Chris Langan fascination seems like a new development -- you never asked us about him in your first few calls, and you always seem to hang up before any real discussion about him can get underway.  Besides that, you appear to be more fixated on the idea that Chris Langan himself should speak to us directly to defend his ideas rather than being willing to do it yourself.

So I'm just wondering which one is the real you?  How do you really feel about our show, and why is it so important that you keep talking with us at all costs?  Is it because you really like us, worry about us, hate us, want to shut us down, or what?

I really am interested in trying to understand you better, but I can't do it without your help.  Doesn't it bother you to try to keep all these lies straight?  Wouldn't it feel better to come out and say what's really on your mind?  Come on, give it a try.  What do you say?

If it IS performance art, then I guess you win.  You've gotten past the screeners multiple times, and now you have a lot of people talking about you.  That must really stroke your ego to get all that attention, I guess.  Do you want to supply a web site or a podcast so people can admire other facets of your work?

Ball's in your court, Mark.

Russell Glasser

Update: "Mark" came clean in comments, pronouncing that he's an atheist who is deliberately prank calling.  He repeatedly states that he will only stop if we devote 75% of the show to theist callers.  He is now banned from this blog for all the previous posts in which he's lied.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Open thread on Episode #726

Post here about the show on 9/11/2011 with Matt and Jen.

Monday, September 05, 2011

How do you get a parent to murder their own child?

Answer: Religion

The official quoted the suspect as saying "I was shocked that she was pregnant. I was enraged and shot her dead because she did something shameful."

No further comment needed.

"21 dead in religious rioting in central Nigeria"

I don't have much to comment on here. Just to say we hear often about religious persecution of Christians around the globe from Christian news sites. We don't usually hear about Christians murdering people of other faiths, even though it happens. So, just to share:

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Open Thread for show #725

Matt and me (Tracie) today. Since it's just an hour, informal conversation and some calls, I'm sure.

Also, just to let you know there's now an unofficial fan page for a virtual after show dinner, but it's also running during the show if you want to stop by it:

Days when I'm not cohosting, and not at the dinner in Austin, I do go and show support there. Just letting others know it's out there as well.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pastor Mike Unwittingly Offers Help to the Atheist Community

Hey all!

Pastor Mike wants to register atheists like sex offenders. While I'm sure he meant to be offensive when he tried the "chicken" approach--(paraphrased summary): "Oh, you don't WANT to be registered? Are you ASHAMED of your atheism?"--the fact is, he's offering to do something that could really benefit the atheist community.

I'm not ashamed, I'm out. And if someone were to register atheists, he could only register those who are openly out as atheists, anyway; so, it's not any sort of actual threat, but a childish ploy to try and evoke an outraged response by comparing atheists to criminals.

When a person tries to emotionally manipulate me in such an obvious way, though, I tend to respond by laughing, pointing, mocking. However, in this case specifically, I think Mike's registry idea would be an awesome assist to the atheist community. I'd almost beg for one, and that's what I tried to post to his blog, but (1) it's invited members only, and I wasn't one. And (2) the article keeps being pulled down and moved to other sites. Due to this, the best I can do is point you to an article about it (further below), not directly to it, because any link to the original would only be moved by the time you try and hit it. However, here is what I tried to reply. If you would also like to see the International Atheist Directory become a reality, you can thank Pastor Mike personally with an e-mail (provided below). I recommend every atheist who is "out" on the globe send a "thank you." I'd like Mike to get 100,000 messages showing the atheist community's gratitude, and asking him when it will be up and if it will be publicly available or paid subscription only and searchable? My response:

Will there be an annual yearbook published? Like a directory? I'm an "out" atheist, and don't want to miss out. Is there a fee to be included? Thanks for your efforts! I've been trying to get a comprehensive list of atheists in the global community for years now, and have been doing it the hard way apparently--collecting them slowly over years on social networks. But if you're willing to do the leg work, that would be awesome. You rock, Pastor Mike! Please make the list publicly available, we get a lot of letters from atheists asking where they can meet other atheists in their area. A listing like you suggest would be a big help!

Here is a link to a blog about the original article, this at least will be a stable place to see most of the content:

You can send your inquiries about the upcoming International Atheist Directory to Pastor Mike Stahl at, if his e-mail account is still up and running. Someone gave me this address, and I Googled it, and it did lead back to his blog, which is now set to private. But I'm sure he would love as much feedback as possible from the atheist community--how else would we be able to send him our info for the Directory?


Monday, August 29, 2011

Open thread on Episode #724

Don and Russell talk abortion and sex ed, then Mike in Detroit tries to make the case that following God's law fixes everything. Fun time had by all. Have at it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Raising atheists, part 1

A fairly typical question that we get on the show and in email can be boiled to, "How should I raise my kids?" As if we were qualified to answer that.

Child bearing seems to be relatively uncommon in the atheist community at large. It probably has something to do with the fact that we're not subject to that "be fruitful and multiply" directive, and we have no moral issues with birth control.

While some people see that as a cause for panic -- Oh no, the stupid people will out-breed us and Idiocracy will become a documentary! -- I don't worry about it that much. Intelligence these days is passed along more by memes than by genes, and you can have a far greater impact on the sum of human intelligence by donating your time as a teacher or a writer than by replicating your particular genetic sequence.

Anyway, for those of us who do have kids, the usual questions I hear basically fall in a few categories:
  1. How can I raise them to be responsible, independent thinking adults?
  2. Should I introduce them to atheism early or do everything I can NOT to indoctrinate them?
  3. How do I handle my family and their peers when they inevitably get exposed to the religions that I've been shielding them from?
  4. What do I do if the child's other parent, or other family members, want to bring the kid up in their own religion, and/or bully me into not talking about atheism?
When it comes right down to it, I don't think anybody has the "right" answers when it comes to parenting, although some do better than others. A quick Amazon search for books with the keyword "parenting" yields 62,830 results, and many of them contradict each other.

Pro tip for atheists: Do not pick this one.

This is one subject where knowledge comes at least as much from direct experience and learning from past mistakes.
Obviously, the issues facing an atheist parent are very similar to the problems facing all parents, but with the additional complication that you hold a minority belief and you can expect to have it constantly challenged as your child gets older. Being an effective authority figure is difficult as it is before you add in the problem of having other people feel that they have a duty to undermine your authority in a major category.

I've got no credentials to present here; I'm not a psychologist and I don't want people to get in trouble over my advice. The only reason I might have some useful advice is by virtue of the fact that I seem to have a reasonably happy, quick witted, and skeptical fourth grader.

But they still ask these questions regularly at the TV email address, and as parents, it generally falls on me or Jen to offer whatever words of wisdom we can come up with. Here's a sample of recent questions.

So my 9 year kid came home with a survey from his school asking him to rate what he values from 1 to 10. On the list are things like, world peace, family security, wisdom, self respect and then the eighth one . . . salvation. That's clearly a Christian concept right? I am not sure how to respond; this is the first time I have come across something like this. Any thoughts?

My daughter just started Kindergarten and unfortunately they are reciting the
Pledge of Allegiance daily. Up to this point has had absolutely no contact with
religious people outside of the bi-annual trips to visit family and even then it
was a prayer before dinner and that was it. With that I don't think she knew
what was actually happening.

So my predicament is she has no concept of god or religion. Which is what I had
wanted, but as I've come to find out she needs to atleast know that other people
believe in it and know the evils of religion. I want her to be prepared and I
suppose that needs to start now. What advice could you give to lay the
ground-work for the concept for a 5 year old?

I feel pretty certain there will be early conflict with our parents regarding us not allowing them to take our son to church at a very young age. They won't care that he's too young to make the decision and I suspect will attempt to push us to "let him decided" way too early all while painting it as a pretty picture to him.

While I have no intentions of completely sheltering my son from religion. I'll discuss it with him. However I feel it's necessary that we make the church decision until he's old enough to understand it and make the decision for himself. As parents that's part of our jobs. I don't see that religion should be treated any differently in that regard.

All right then. I'll do my best to answer by drawing on my own parenting history. If some of the things I say seem badly wrong, just remember what I said earlier: nobody's got all the answers.

In the first place, I'm a big fan of talking to your kid in a way that indicates you take him or her seriously. That goes for all ages. In some respects I suppose this impulse is a carry-over from my experience on the TV show, where I often wind up speaking to people with very different mindsets and assumptions from my own. What I like to do in that situation is not flatly say "I know better than you," but suggest facts, a bit at a time, and then see where they go with it. If they agree with me, I know that I don't need to waste time explaining that point. If they don't agree or don't understand, I try to pinpoint the source of the problem and then find the best angle to explain that point.

Talk to your kid about everything. If they're looking at the stars, tell them they're giant flaming balls of gas that are bigger than the earth. Then, if necessary, explain why perspective makes them appear small. If you're driving, point out street signs or whatever you understand about how cars work. If you're reading to them and they can't read yet, pick out a letter and start helping them to recognize it, or pick out a common word like "the" and help them see the pattern.

The thing is, kids learn really fast, and probably pick up on things you say a lot more than you're assuming. We all like to feel smart by figuring things out; give kids the opportunity.

When Ben was little, I read to him a lot... even before he had the cognitive ability to understand something like "The Cat in the Hat." As he got to the point where he could easily grasp the books I was reading to him, I would gradually introduce newer stuff that pushed his limits. "Charlotte's Web" was the first chapter book I read to him, I think he was 3 or 4, and every night when we picked it up I'd ask him if he could remember what had happened already. Today at age 9 we're halfway through the Hitchhiker's Guide series (we just read the penultimate chapter of Life, the Universe, and Everything to be precise), and he's always quoting his favorite passages from previous books.

I know some child psychologists think TV and computers are bad for a kid at a young age, but I grew up with them myself and I've always regarded them as just another valuable facet of art and entertainment. Ben had introductory games like "Reader Rabbit" as soon as he was capable of banging on a keyboard, and he was allowed to take my controller and suicide over and over again when I played Monkey Ball on the Wii.

Fact vs. Fiction

Stop being so impatient, I have a point that I'm getting to!

I know I've told this story a few times on the show, but it's always worth putting in writing because it worked really well for us. With this background in appreciating fiction, I started an experiment where I explained to Ben the difference between real things and pretend things. At this point he was already pretty familiar with imaginary stories, so I playing a game with him. I would pick concepts and ask him whether they were real or pretend. Dad? Real. Cars? Real. Spongebob Squarepants? Pretend.

I found that cartoons are easy to identify as pretend, but live action drama is a bit tricky. Superman LOOKS real, after all, when he's showing up as Christopher Reeve. At least as real as President Bush, anyway. So then we have to discuss filming and camera tricks. Dinosaurs are tricky (what's extinction?). Horses are not as tricky if you've seen one in person. Kings? Real, but hard to believe when we don't have them here. Presidents are like kings, but they can still go to jail if they don't follow the law.

And what about God?

Well, that's where it gets complicated. One of the reasons that's a hard question for atheist parents to answer is, many of us have an aversion to authority. Richard Dawkins refers to raising a child to accept a religion as child abuse. While I've always thought that was very overstated, I do at least agree with him that it's folly to try to force your kid to accept your own philosophical beliefs. It's not just the due to the worry that you might become a tyrant; the worst part is that it's ineffective.

Younger kids can be pretty pliable and cooperative but (speaking from past experience with step-parenting) going through a rebellious stage is inevitable. When they start trying to strike out with their own budding adult identity, the first thing to go out the window is all the stuff that is only "because I said so." If that's the only tool you have to make kids eat their vegetables or stay away from drugs, you'd better start preparing yourself to face some out of shape and stoned teenagers.

My approach when it came to atheism was to simply answer questions honestly, explain that other people feel differently, defend my reasons for not believing, and then say "You're going to have to make up your own mind about whether I'm right or not."

Far from hiding the existence of religions and the Bible from Ben, I introduced them early. I told him the traditional Bible stories right along with stories like "Charlotte's Web" and "Bunnicula." Usually I just played them up to be as theatrical as possible, but there came a time when I read some of the same stories right from KJV. (Do you have any idea how boring the source material can be as a children's book?)

The thing is, if you hide something from your kid, you'll just make it mysterious and alluring. Bertrand Russell pointed this out with the respect to the way religions treat sex in his essay, "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" Hiding a subject and calling it shameful simply increases the fascination with it.

So, by confronting religion head-on, you can minimize the novelty when some school friend invites your child to church. Which they will. And by introducing religion along with fiction and critical thinking concepts, you'll equip your kid to evaluate critically, which is far more important than simply telling him that he'd better not fall for it... or else.

Even with adults I consider that a better policy. Give me a theist who has given serious thought to his own religion and sincerely listened to the atheist point of view and that of several other major religions; against an atheist who refuses to discuss the subject at all. The theist is the guy I want to hang out with over coffee or lunch (I'm not big on beer).

I'll stop here for now. In a future post I will answer the implied question "Isn't it as bad as religious brainwashing to tell your child about your atheism?" I'll talk about how to handle other family members or friends who would like to convert your child. I'll also do my best to answer any questions that arise in the comments.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

From the mailbag: Getting away with it

If an individual lives a life of getting away with murder, rape, pillaging, and really anything against a simple human moral code and never gets caught, do you feel that the person just simply got away with it? I'm sure the answer is yes, but I'm curious as to where the barrier of living out our darkest desires and why we would bother with morality if we knew there was some way to simply not get caught for the things we do?

I have a few separate points to make about this. The first is that justice is important to people, which is why we establish laws for people to follow, penalties if they don't, and a system that is impartial as possible to keep people following those laws. So your question about what would happen if nobody got caught for doing harmful things doesn't apply in modern society. It's not a perfect system, but it tends to work pretty well keeping me safe most of the time.

Second, you'd be wrong to assume that fear of punishment is the only thing that keeps people from committing crimes. One thing is empathy for other people. Should I go on a killing spree? Why would I want to? I care about other people, and I would feel bad if they died because of me. It wouldn't be particularly pleasurable for me, I wouldn't get any benefit from it, and there's that pesky human justice system that would make the rest of my life unpleasant.

Third, maybe there is some doctrine out there that promises justice that distinguishes between people's good and bad actions... but Christianity is not that doctrine. I don't know what sect you follow, but many of the ones I'm aware of claim that we are saved through faith and not through good works. Most Protestants assert that we are all terrible sinners regardless of what particular things we've done, and every single person deserves eternal torture equally. A preacher like Ray Comfort doesn't draw a distinction between a guy like me, who just doesn't believe in God, and someone who (as you say) gets away with murder, rape, and pillaging. In fact, according to some preachers, this hypothetical murderer could experience a sincere conversion moments before he died, and he'd go to heaven.

So in promoting Christianity, I think you're really asking whether I feel bad that I won't ever experience eternal suffering as the just punishment for my own crime of not believing in your God. And the answer is no.

Friday, August 19, 2011

At last, at last, at last...

Dennis Markuze, the mentally ill Canadian megatroll who has apparently spent the better part of his entire adult life calling himself "David Mabus" and sending death threats and wild online tirades to the inboxes, blogs and Twitter feeds of countless atheists, scientists and anyone else who ends up in his crosshairs of crazy, is in deep, deep feces.

In Canada, it is a criminal offense to make such threats, and, in a key distinction from U.S. law, it is not necessary for a person threatening someone's life to present a realistic likelihood of actually carrying out the act. Some may consider that a troublesome free speech wrinkle, but there's a big difference between expressing an unpopular, even repugnant point of view, and telling someone you're going to decapitate them and murder their family. A violent death threat is not a "point of view." I went through our ban code just now, and counted no fewer than 37 bogus Google ID's that Markuze had created to comment here. And he actually didn't hit us nearly as hard or as copiously as he has targeted many others!

Markuze now faces up to 16 counts, and has been remanded to psychiatric evaluation. With luck, it will be determined that he is, in fact, crazier than a shithouse rat, and a long stretch of institutionalization will begin. The dude is broken, and he needs fixing, not a hard prison term. But at least the online godless and scientific community can breathe a little more easily, knowing that probably the most vexing source of irrationality we've been facing this side of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann has finally been dealt with. It's a testament to the power of online collective activism giving torpid law enforcement the kick in the butt it sorely needed to do their jobs properly. After all, Markuze had been a menace for years, and been reported for it, all to complete police indifference. Finally, enough was enough, and the matter was at last taken seriously, without circumstances having to end up with Markuze finally becoming the next Jared Loughner, and someone ending up needlessly dead before anything was done about it.

PS: Since PZ and some other bloggers have already faced a kind of backlash for talking about Markuze in conjunction with words like "crazy" and "mentally ill," I think it behooves us to note that, of course, Markuze is not the poster boy for all people everywhere who suffer from one form of mental illness or another, most of whom are non-violent and pursuing treatment while doing their best to live normal and happy lives like all the rest of us. While I cannot deny a tiny bit of schadenfreude that this creep has gone down, to be fair, Markuze's internal demons must simply be devastating. Hopefully the fact they've gone untreated for so long won't make it impossible for him to respond to the kind of care that will allow him to have, someday, a little bit of peace in his empty existence at last.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rabbi really, really wants Intelligent Design to be true, so it must be!

I've tried to respond to this post, but they're rather sluggish about approving comments that might expose their idiocy, so I'm posting my reply here.

The Rabbi writes:
The obvious and most significant conclusion that can be drawn from all their splendid work in the lab is that the only reasonable explanation for the emergence of life is Intelligent Design!


The mere fact that something CAN be accomplished by intelligent design does not indicate that it can ONLY be accomplished by intelligent design, nor does it indicate that other similar occurrences are most likely the result of intelligent design.

The fact that I have an intelligently designed machine in my kitchen that can freeze water doesn’t mean that the best explanation for the polar ice caps is a giant, intelligently designed freezer.

I’ll agree that this subject (the creation of life in the laboratory) doesn’t significantly add to the origin of life discussion (meaning it doesn't confirm a source, despite demonstrating a possible mechanism) – which means, in case you missed it while eagerly rushing toward a presentation of your own, unsupported hypothesis, that it doesn’t lend any significant credence to ANY position regarding origins. Including intelligent design.

So, congratulations to the Intelligent Design crowd for, once again, posting their sloppy thinking publicly. It goes a long way toward helping to educate the next generation.

Mark/Bob/Thomas from London

I'm going to try to explain this very simply, because the amount of mail coming about this is staggering.

Basically, the claim is "Mark from Stone Church is also Bob and Thomas from London and I can't believe you guys can't figure this out. His accent was even obviously fake!"

Yes, the accent was horrible. Yes, it was probably Mark. So what do we do about that? We have NO caller ID. We can't prove that it's the same person. I can't know that he doesn't honestly believe what he's saying, even if he fakes an accent. I can't prove that ANYONE actually believes the shit they say on the phone.

But if the conversation is allowing us to make good points and the caller is cooperative, what reason do I have to ruin it by saying "I think you're a liar. I think you're that same 'Mark' guy..."? And what if I'm wrong?

It's simply a bad idea to go making accusations like that in the middle of the show, when I have no supporting evidence.

Curiously, people seem to hear "Mark's" voice everywhere. In addition to the three in the title there are one or two other callers who people feel are also the same guy. Sometimes I can hear the similarities, sometimes I can't.

Congratulations to those of you who can always hear it and always get it right (though I'm not sure how you know that you're right), but exactly what do you propose we do about it?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Smile when you call them bitches!

What do Jen, Tracie, and Beth do when they aren't kicking buttock on the TV show, here, on Facebook, and in the world at large? Well, as of now they're concentrating on their new podcast, Godless Bitches, the first episode of which is now submitted for your approval. Think of it as The View, except intelligent.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why marriage?

A viewer from Thailand writes:

My friend is a big fan of your show and would like to know why, given your Atheism, you still believe in marriage. His point of view is that marriage is a religious institution, so why would an atheist have anything to do with it? He asks if it's for a tax break, or if polygamy is somehow wrong for an atheist?

As a guy about to be married for the second time, I support the institution of marriage -- both gay and straight. I recommend you start by reading this article on Wikipedia:
Rights and responsibilities of marriages in the United States

Marriage carries with it a host of federal benefits assumed to be conferred automatically on each spouse. These prominently include:
  • Numerous tax benefits, as you mentioned, including the right to file jointly
  • Legal status with stepchildren
  • joint parenting rights, such as access to children's school records
  • family visitation rights for the spouse and non-biological children, such as to visit a spouse in a hospital or prison
  • next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions or filing wrongful death claims
  • Survivor benefits on death
  • Automatic recipient of life insurance for some jobs
  • Tax-free transfer of property between spouses (including on death) and exemption from "due-on-sale" clauses.
This is only scratching the surface, but I hope you get the idea. Is it possible for all these legal issues to be settled by signing a few hundred individual contracts? Naturally. But what's the point? Two people committing to living together is an incredibly common arrangement, and it's a reasonable assumption that a couple would want these legal rights explicitly spelled out in one big contract. That contract is called "marriage."

Your friend is simply misinformed when he says that marriage is a religious institution. It isn't. Marriage existed long before religion got its hooks in it, and the fact that religious people today are going around demanding that their views of marriage ought to be "protected" is simply bunk, and pointless entanglement between church and state. A church can "marry" you in the sense that they can perform a ceremony, but unless you sign those legal papers that are recognized by lawyers (or in some states, meet various other requirements that make you married), you're not married in the eyes of the law, and that's where it counts.

As for polygamy: I'm on the fence about it, along with many other atheists. Legally, a contract between three people is much more complicated than a contract between two. For instance, what happens if person A wants to divorce person B, but still loves C, while B and C wish to remain married? Because it's so complex, I'm not pushing for legal polygamy. There is also the concern that polygamy as practiced is often used as a smokescreen for coercion and sex with minors, as in the recent case of epic scumbag Warren Jeffs. That's not okay, since it doesn't involve consenting adults who are in a legal position to make their own large life-changing decisions.

Having said that, I'm not particularly morally opposed to polygamy, as long as it's between consenting adults and as long as I don't have to sort out their legal affairs. I wouldn't do it, but other people can for all I care. In the absence of legal polygamy, I'm also not opposed to people being polyamorous. (Hat tip to Dan Savage's excellent podcast and column, where he discusses this regularly.) Fool around with other partners as much as you want, as long as nobody in the arrangement is deceived about what they're getting into.

Note that my description of it as legally acceptable doesn't amount to my recommending it as a good idea for anyone in particular. In the worst case, miscommunication could occur, jealousy could pop up, feelings could be hurt, and relationships could be broken. But as long as everybody's aware of that going in... you're adults, I'm not responsible for your therapy bills. :)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Well, that was weird

So I'm just sitting around when my Google chat pops up.

3:57 PM kyle: russel you got a second
3:58 PM ill get ahold of you

There follows a brief pause as I look Kyle up in my email history, because I have no idea who this is. Turns out I had two email exchanges with him, and it's abundantly clear that he's a theist, and that his reason for believing is of the "You can't prove me wrong" variety.

I don't want to encourage private chats with someone I don't like, but I'm not feeling the urge to be too rude, so I go along with only slightly testy non-encouragement.

3:59 PM me: I'm at work. What do you need?

No answer for a few minutes, so I check again.

4:06 PM me: Yes?
4:11 PM kyle: i have a song that has a glory in it.. most the song will be annoying but if you wana hear Gabriel listen in with logic of course

[My inner thoughts: You have a what what in the what now?]

4:12 PM me: Why would I be interested in listening to something annoying?
kyle: not all of it
4:13 PM its all good if your ever intrested let me know
me: Why is it that you're wanting me to hear it?
4:14 PM kyle: there is a recorded part in it that has no effects and is a angel singing

[Undt how long haff you felt zis vay?]

me: And how do you know that?
4:15 PM kyle: because im one
me: You're an angel.
kyle: yeah
me: Nice to meet you.
kyle: =)
me: What kind of superpowers do you have?
kyle: lol
mock away
4:16 PM i cant share anything with a fool
me: You're the one who said you were an angel, I assume you're having fun with me. I was just playing along.
kyle: lol ill talk to ya later
we will

Oh, snap! He called me a fool! I guess God exists.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Dishonesty and Hypocrisy

Because the full exchange was very long, and my breakdowns are also long, I’ve done my best to pare down the following content to the vital bits. It’s possible I will later regret not including particular parts, but that’s the price I pay in order to avoid making an over-long post even longer. While the exchange was between Russell and a theist viewer, I wanted to provide my thoughts about this particular theist and what I observed in his responses that I found particularly unbearable. Kudos to Russell for keeping it civil to the end. I'd have been fed up with this very early on.

The two things I loathe most in a correspondence are dishonesty and hypocrisy. Recently Russell engaged a theist, Caleb, who wrote to us to assert the following:

“I am a christian and believe the Bible is the inspired word of God.

He then went on to cherry pick verses in order to claim that there is no hell and there is no afterlife according to the Bible. Clearly Caleb is in the minority with regard to Christian orthodox reading of the text. In his own words:

“Another truth about the Bible is the teaching of the immortality of the soul, the bible clearly teaches that when we die we simply die.

Russell replied by pointing out that atheists aren’t particularly concerned about what the Bible teaches, because, to the atheist, it’s just another book.

Caleb replied with “No True Scotsman,” that the majority of Christians don’t understand the Bible correctly—"correctly" being how Caleb understands it.

“I don't assume that you care about the Bible. However I truly feel that a lot of your assumptions and conclusions have been based solely on stories out of the bible that have been twisted and defaced by false religion.

And he then accused us of of using twisted interpretations of the Bible to make it say horrible things that it doesn’t. In reality, we’re simply going with an orthodox Christian view that has been orthodox for centuries.

“…when you have a story such as hellfire and eternal torment that makes your side of the argument appear to lean to your side, you use the bible against itself and it sounds credible

He seems less interested in the reality that it’s Christians—Bible defenders—who promote hell fire and afterlife, not detractors. Like so many others, Caleb has written to us to complain, when, in fact, his real issue is with other Christians. If he thinks the orthodox Christian view is maligning the real Bible message, an atheist program isn’t going to be able to help him out with that problem. We respond to what Christians actually believe and promote, we don’t dictate it.

And Caleb understands that we’re presenting orthodoxy, he just doesn't understand that Christian orthodox views aren't under our control:

“What the Bible really teaches is credible, but it will never be credible as long as you have the twisted stories that are presented to you on your show by these traditional Christians.

All I can say is that while this is the traditional Christian view, it’s the view we’re going to critique when we talk about Christianity. If we presented Christianity using minority views, such as Caleb’s, we’d surely (and rightly) be accused of misrepresenting Christianity. Caleb has taken his “fight” to the wrong arena. If he wants us to address his views when we discuss what Christianity is about, then he’ll need to work to make his view the orthodox view with his fellow Christians.

Caleb then stated something we need to pay special attention to:

Also there are many Bible prophesies in the Bible that Show its credibility.

What do you think is meant by Caleb when he says that the content demonstrates the Bible's “credibility”? I don’t think it is very confusing. He means that it’s credible evidence of divine authorship—as he indicated previously (quoted above) as his view. What other sort of “credibility” would Caleb think ancient prophecies in the Bible demonstrate?

Then he says something we’re all used to, the Bible is supported by, and does not conflict with, science. Note especially the spherical Earth claim, as this is going to come back as well.

In Isaiah 40:22 we see the Bible writer refers to the Earth as being circle, globe, or round, so the Bible has referred to the Earth being round more than 2000 years before those voyages. Was the writer a great guesser? Also the Bible goes hand in hand with science as far as science goes take for instance the Genesis account, and this goes back to what I was talking about earlier most Christians believe the Earth was created in 6 literal days about 6-10,000 years ago. Again this is crazy that simply does not match up with science. However a further examination will reveal that the Bible does not specify the amount of time it took to create the Earth.

Russell’s reply was quite brief but hit several points:

1. That Russell has read the Bible himself and isn’t just assuming what’s in it based on stories he’s been told.

2. That some of what is in the Bible is correct, and some is not, and that he disagrees with the claim a god exists.

3. A link to an article talking about Flat Earth ideology and how it was understood by ancient Greeks, and that the word Caleb is translating as “sphere” can mean “circle”—which can still be flat. And also that the Bible contains passages that indicate you can stand on sufficiently high points to see every location on Earth—something impossible on a globe.

4. Russell points out Genesis indicates plants existed prior to the sun, which does conflict with science.

Of all the points above the ONLY point Caleb responded to was the question of the “sphere” vs. the “circle”:

OK I have done some research on the Hebrew word at Is 40:22, the Hebrew word chugh, translated circle, can also mean sphere…

And he didn’t touch Russell’s point that other passages clearly indicate a flat Earth. Again, if the word means either “sphere” or “circle,” and we have several other verses indicating you can see all areas of the Earth from a sufficiently high point, what is most likely the model of the Earth to ancient Hebrews? In fact, the idea of seeing all points on Earth from a single, sufficiently high area, isn’t even restricted to Old Testament texts. Such descriptions are also found within the New Testament books (see the link further below for further examples). But Caleb ignores this, and upon realizing the word means either "circle" or "sphere," he then just ignores “circle” (the predominant usage) from that point onward and sticks with “sphere”—the position that supports his view of miraculous knowledge. We know he’s not interested in honestly examining what the word most likely meant to the people writing at that time—otherwise he’d have addressed the larger context, the question of the “high vantage point” problem, that he, instead, chose to completely ignore.

But what we see is Russell agreeing it can mean “circle” or “sphere,” but simply saying (to paraphrase) “based on who is writing and what else they say about their model of the Earth, what is most likely meant here?” Russell takes the full range of meaning, looks at the most likely scenario, and concludes it’s likely intended to be a flat circle. Caleb ignores the larger context, sees that it can mean either a “sphere” or a “circle” and then latches onto the meaning that suits him, while dismissing the definition that does not.

Then Caleb says something else interesting. And this reminds me of the apologist Josh McDowell. McDowell specializes in presenting data that supports his view, and holding back any data that conflicts or would undermine his assertions. McDowell does what is normally called “a lie of omission.” In other words, you say only what needs to be said to make you sound credible, and you don’t provide the information that calls your claims into question, and you hope the party you’re talking to is none the wiser, so you can “win” even if you’re “win” is based on dishonest survey of the evidence and data, rather than an honest one. So, here is what we have:

“The point is the book of Isaiah was penned in the 8th century B.C.E(778-732 B.C.E) which was centuries before Greek philosophers theorized that the Earth likely was spherical, and thousands of years before humans saw the earth as a globe from space.

And again, Russell comes back to point out to Caleb that he’s not considering all data, just data that suits him:

Initially you were claiming that the Bible absolutely makes some kind of scientific claim that could only be interpreted as imparting knowledge which was not in any way available to people of the time it was written. Now you're clinging to this explanation that if you take an alternative meaning of a word which primarily means ‘circle,’ as filtered through modern translators who are trying to prove the Bible correct, then the authors might conceivably have been obliquely referring to knowledge which already existed in other cultures around the same time.

"(Incidentally, your note about the authorship of Isaiah is incomplete. Parts of it were written in the 8th century BCE, but parts of the book, including chapter 40 onward, are dated to the 6th.

Moving the date to the 6th century means that the idea of a spherical Earth would have been broadly understood. And it undermines the idea that the Hebrews—even if they used the term to mean "sphere"—were working from divine knowledge. Although figuring out something before someone else, really isn’t evidence of divine knowledge anyway—someone is always the first to figure a thing out.

Russell then shared a link to an article full of Bible support for Flat Earth ideology. It’s written by a skeptic who is examining what the Flat Earth society believes, what they promote, and upon what Bible verses they base their Biblical interpretation:

Again, this is the doctrine of other Christians. Other believers. Others who hold the Bible to be the true and unerring word of the divine creator. And they don’t agree with Caleb. What is their ulterior motive to misrepresent the god and the book they are devoted to? Who could be more honestly devoted to a religion than a group that could deny the tremendous body of evidence for a spherical Earth? That’s actually quite a commitment to your holy book, in my view. As Caleb demonstrates, most people, even most believers, couldn’t hold to that level of devotion to the concepts promoted within the Bible. Most Christians, like Caleb, are willing to cherry pick in order to make the Bible fit better into reality as we learn more and more about the universe around us. It’s ironic that Caleb will try to make a text from several thousand years back fit into the paradigms of today, while claiming those who do not do this are the ones “twisting” the meaning. But here we are, right?

True to form, Caleb writes back with his myopic view of evidence. Sure, parts of Isaiah could have been written in the 6th century—but that doesn’t mean they were…therefore Caleb concludes, against the obvious, they weren’t. He then goes on to do some wild thrashing to quickly change the subject and get out of the frying pan:

“The fact that that Isaiah was incomplete can be refuted, but the fact remains that there are plenty of holes in the evidence that points to life being traced to previous organisms, the bible is not a science book but what is in there is in line with the scientific discoveries today. The bible does not contradict itself…”

Caleb is confusing “refute” with the idea that there is often a range of scholarly opinions concerning dating something from thousands of years ago. The idea that parts of Isaiah were produced in later centuries isn’t “refuted.” The fact there are a range of opinions is not “refutation.” What Caleb really means is that since the scholarship asserting that parts of Isaiah were written at a later date can only be expert opinion—even if that’s a majority opinion—he has all he needs to assert (as he absolutely did earlier, above) that it was, in fact, written in the 8th century BCE. This is dishonest. Caleb didn’t say earlier that it could have been written anywhere between the 8th and 6th century BCE, he said, “the book of Isaiah was penned in the 8th century B.C.E”—and that’s “Josh McDowell”-level dishonesty right there.

Russell’s reply was short and concise—and fair:

“Way to change the subject. Can you please acknowledge that your first argument didn't work as a proof of god before trying to sneak into another one?

“After you've done that, then you'll be free to explain why you're trying to claim simultaneously that the Bible agrees completely with modern science, and the Bible is completely incompatible with the core principles of modern biology.

Caleb’s final response drove me to this blog post. My desire, if I’m honest, was to reply directly to Caleb. However, there were four things that made me hold back:

1. It was Russell's dialog.

2. Caleb dismisses anything that conflicts with his ideology.

3. Caleb ignores any points he can’t address, as though they were never made (and bear in mind, although I didn't include Russell’s full replies, they were quite brief. This wasn’t a case of pages of rebuttal where it was only human to choose which areas to respond. Ignoring points in a note that only contains three or four clear points is simply dodging.

4. Caleb takes things that require interpretation (sphere/circle, 6th/8th century origins) and lays them out as fact. He doesn't get that it’s not sufficient to say “it can mean this,” to demonstrate your point. You actually have to show it does mean it. Russell actually pointed this out using an illustration to make it crystal clear:

“This kind of reminds me of how James ‘The Amazing’ Randi speaks about Uri Geller, a parlor magician who claims to be able to bend spoons with the power of his mind. After proving that this can easily be done through sleight of hand, Randi said ‘He might be doing it through telekinesis, but if so, he's doing it the hard way.’”

Caleb is “doing it the hard way.” We have a book that presents a pervasive theme of a flat Earth, but Caleb will do all he can to just ignore context and alternate (common) meanings, in order to cling to the “sphere” ideology. He does this as a means to try and bolster his original claim that it must have been a god that produced this book. And even if Isaiah does present a sphere, and we have a range of possible dates for the text from 8th to 6th century (and it would have been mundane to know this in the 6th century), trying to cling to the 8th century in order to bolster your divine authorship claim, is, at best irrational, and at worst, dishonest. The most likely scenario, if it was a sphere described, is that this, along with the other points that make scholarship lean toward 6th century authorship, would probably be a result of the later chapters having been written or revised in later centuries. Revisions, updates, and additions to Bible manuscripts are commonly recorded. Would it be more likely that a later update referenced a then-common model of a spherical Earth, or that a spirit being imparted magical knowledge to ancient herders to prove to people, thousands of years later, that it was a god that wrote it—especially considering that the methods to discern a spherical Earth existed as much in the 8th century as the 6th. Again, even if some clever Hebrew had figured it out 200 years earlier, is that evidence of the divine?

So, upon weighing the odds of my success in getting Caleb to grasp the level of his own hypocrisy and dishonesty, I ultimately concluded that contacting him directly would be nothing short of an exercise in futility. So, this seemed like one of those times when my ideas would do more good shared publicly than privately with a correspondent who would not likely be able to actually internalize them. At any rate, here is the final response from Caleb, that left me incredulous:

“No I will not acknowledge that, that was not an argument of proof of god.”

Caleb started out asserting that god wrote the Bible, and then tried to claim it had valid prophecies and also that it had miraculous scientific knowledge. This statement, above, is simply less than honest.

“I was trying to convey that the bible does not contradict science or itself, I was conveying the authenticity of the bible.”

Why is it important the Bible doesn't contradict itself? The Bible is “authentically” what, Caleb? If it’s authentically the product of goat herders and not a god, what is your goal in trying to claim internal consistency and valid prophecies and miraculous scientific knowledge? Remember where you asked if the Hebrews knew the world was spherical due to a “lucky guess”? What do you mean to imply in this quote below?

“In Isaiah 40:22 we see the Bible writer refers to the Earth as being circle, globe, or round, so the Bible has referred to the Earth being round more than 2000 years before those voyages. Was the writer a great guesser?

And now we're supposed to believe none of this is about using the Bible to demonstrate a god exists?

You then audaciously put forward this bit of clear projection:

“But you have made it clear that you have no vested interest in even understanding what the bible really teaches. Therefore if you are only willing to look at one side of the evidence then you are making a conclusion that is incomplete and unjust.”

Russell pointed out repeatedly we have a range of data we must consider in making assessments. If part of that range offers a reasonable and mundane explanation, reason dictates we should go with the most likely answernot try to force-fit "the hard way." Caleb, however, insists on "the hard way,” and denies the existence of any reasonable and easy way. He works quite hard to make the data seem miraculous and incredible, ignoring every piece of evidence that points to far more rational and simple explanations. And for asking Caleb to stop ignoring the data that doesn’t suit his ideology, Russell is accused of being myopic.

Then we have what I can only label a real bit of insanity from Caleb:

“I have to ask, have you never wandered why there is so much suffering? Why there is so much injustice? Why isn't there a human government that can solve even the little problems? Such as the national debt, the greed that prevails in politics, or corruption. None of these things have never touched your heart?”

For the record, the Problem of Evil is not a problem at all in a realm where the beings at the helm are not all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving. There is nothing miraculous about organically evolved beings in a realm being unable to produce a Utopia. I’m amazed that Caleb sees the Problem of Evil as a problem for nonbelievers rather than for believers. What, one has to ask, is Caleb’s model of god? Is it malevolent, ignorant, ineffective—or all three? What sort of god is Caleb promoting that has produced such a mucked up world and allowed it to continue on with all the “problems” Caleb is crying about? This is a problem that has plagued believers for centuries—not nonbelievers.

“Do you feel you have a purpose? Why do we grow old and die?”

Again, this is really a problem for believers, not nonbelievers. When a believer tells me the universe is designed, one of my first questions is “what exactly do you see as a purpose of the universe when you look at cosmic events? What exactly have you demonstrated this universe is doing?” And as far as why do organisms die, it’s a natural progression. Matter and energy are extremely durable, but the organized set of chemical reactions we fuzzily label “life,” don’t maintain that organization forever. They wear down, the same as all chemical reactions. How, again, is this evidence of a god? It appears to be a natural occurrence that aligns quite well with natural laws that govern the universe. I surely don’t see any miracle evident in this process. How does “people die” demonstrate the existence of a spirit realm? We might as well ask "Why do ants die?" Is that evidence of The Great Ant God? How do we verify that if a god created people he would create people that die? How did Caleb come to that conclusion?

“I hope in our discussions I have not offended you or anyone else on your program.”

Caleb’s presentation was polite enough. But his dishonesty and hypocrisy is what galled me. I wouldn’t say it offended me, though. I’d say it more disgusted me. And while Caleb surely wouldn't see any of this in his own dialog, I'm hoping that, just like callers on the show, others who see this might learn from Caleb's mistakes here, and recognize that if they're doing it the hard way, they're not being reasonable nor are they being honest.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Evangelists panic when they're losing ground

Hark, for I'm going to tell you a tale of olden times. Back in the days of yore, when our lives were little better than those of the cavemen, there were no podcasts. In those days, all we had for entertainment on long drives was an archaic device known as "The Radio." On this radio, I used to listen to a lot of Christian shows, with my favorite being "The Bible Answer Man" with Hank Hanegraaff.

In these more enlightened times, I have so much regular entertainment to choose from that I can easily fill all my driving time and more with shows which confirm my own personal beliefs and prejudices, and much of the time I do. But when Beth asked her Facebook friends what fundie podcasts she could listen to last week, it reminded me. How is Hank doing? I really should start listening again.

And I'm so glad I did. Because if I hadn't listened to the August 1 episode, I never would have run into this great article by Jerry Coyne. It's titled: "As atheists know, you can be good without God."

To put it mildly, Hank did not like this article.

Here are a few excerpts.

...[I]t's clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.

This isn't just philosophical rumination, because God — at least the God of Christians and Jews — repeatedly sanctioned or ordered immoral acts in the Old Testament. These include slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46), genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18), the slaying of adulterers and homosexuals, and the stoning of non-virgin brides (Leviticus 20:10, 20:13, Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Was God being moral when, after some children made fun of the prophet Elisha's bald head, he made bears rip 42 of them to pieces (2 Kings 2:23-24)? Even in the New Testament, Jesus preaches principles of questionable morality, barring heaven to the wealthy (Matthew 19:24), approving the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48), and damning sinners to the torments of hell (Mark 9:47-48). Similar sentiments appear in the Quran.


Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it's far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have.

Sentiments I think most of us can get behind, but that's no big surprise, right? Most of you readers are on Jerry Coyne's side, as I am.

Now I don't know if you've ever heard Hank Hanegraaff, but he's got this very calm, very soothing voice, with what I would describe as almost a Jim Henson-like quality. He sounds reassuring, authoritative, certain of his facts. Most of the time.

On this particular occasion, as he talked about the terrible injustice of Coyne's article, he just kept getting more and more agitated. He didn't actually refute these claims about the Bible, mind you -- he threw them out there, dismissed them by saying they were "out of context," and then said he'd go over them in depth on another day. Which I loved, because there's no more effective way to stoke an opposing argument than to repeat it without refuting it properly.

By the time he was done with the subject, Hank was doing a passable impression of Yosemite Sam, bringing up the usual red herrings like Mao Zedong and Pol Pot (even implying that Pol Pot was just a humanist trying earnestly to set up an "egalitarian society," which made me say "WTF?")

The best line of the show, however, was when Hank said in a voice of grave and sorrowful concern: "The thing that I find particularly troubling about this article... is that when you read it without discernment skills, you can end up believing it."

Dead on, Hank. Of course, with proper analysis, it's even more plausible. But I think Jerry Coyne should graciously accept the compliment that his rhetoric is so good that people without discernment skills are more likely to accept his reasoning than the Bible stories that they usually take as a given.

That's what bugs evangelists about the internet in general. They're used to stating their case in a vacuum. When someone like Hank Hanegraaff says, as he did to a caller later in the show, "God loves you so much that He sent His son to die for you," he's counting on the assumption that some rude and dickish atheist isn't going to pop up and ask something like "How do you know that?" And when they solemnly proclaim that only God makes you moral, they hate it when you point to passages where Jesus endorses beating your slaves.

Similar sentiments abound these days; just a few weeks ago, Josh McDowell was saying that "The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have... whether you like it or not."

Equal access? That's what we're gaining that's so terrifying? Apparently religion can only thrive if they can muzzle the atheists, shut them up, shame them into not making a peep while we're being slandered.

Keep on scaring them, folks.

Bye, background

Well, the starry background was cool, but somebody told me it was slowing down his browser, so I think it's not that important. Plain colored background it is, then.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Viewer Mail: On Personal Experience

Letter from R:

I was raised as a protestant christian. All my life I was told that there is a god and that he loves us all. Yet all through my life,from as early as I can remember, a single question plagued me: "Why did god create a world based on suffering?" The natural world of which we are a part, is a constant struggle to eat or avoid being eaten. Metaphorically the same is still true for humans today. If I share my food among the starving, I starve. If I stand alone against an army of murderers in defense of an innocent, I will be killed.

Combined with this childish intuitive critique of god's creation I also possess a university scientific education. I acknowledge the total irrationality of the supernatural. Whilst at university some years ago I realized that I could not continue to believe in god without continuing to grow in contempt for him. My contempt became rage, and my rage soon quickened to hatred. I literally tore my soul apart trying to find a way to reconcile my belief with my hatred. I had to make a decision. Allow hatred to twist and embitter me, or deny god once and for all. I still struggle with the decision.

Cognitively I am an atheist. I know no god. Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny the evidence of personal experience when the experience is your own. It causes me to fear the words "I deny god". Ashamedly I shed tears at the knowledge that my cognitive faculties are at the mercy of my old brain, those structures that we share with all vertebrates.

I type this message as a plea. I do not believe in the soul yet I fear that mine may drive me insane. Please, if anyone among you has struggled with these feelings and overcome them, tell me how. I cannot continue to live in dissonance.

My response:

Hello R:

Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny theevidence of personal experience when the experience is your own.

This is going to sound flip, but there is a point: "Have you taken any antacid for your god?"

Feelings are products of minds, which are products of brains. I have a degree that includes communication studies, and one thing they drilled into us (using quite a lot of research to show it's true) was that our feelings are produced internally by our own brains. The brain interprets data and offers emotional and physical responses to that data. But we own those responses.

Example: I am walking down a dark, narrow, lonely street alone at night. I see a moving shadow behind a trash can and I feel myself getting anxious. I need to walk by the bin to get to where my car is parked. My breathing becomes quick and shallow and I feel adrenaline beginning to flow and make my head tingle, I see the shadow move again and I pause. Do I go back or keep moving ahead. I fear there is someone hiding there—a mugger or a rapist...and nobody is around if I end up in trouble...

There is NO doubt that my personal experience of fear is totally real. But does that mean that the shadow is a rapist waiting to do me harm?

It turns out it's a cat.

You don't have to deny your personal experience. Just don't assume the experience is evidence of any particular cause when you have no evidence or insufficient evidence. Yes, you "feel something." But there is no reason for believing it has anything to do with gods.