Monday, December 19, 2011

My Thoughts on Dexter's Sixth Season

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not finished season six of Dexter, you may want to save this blog post until afterwards, because there could be some spoilers in it. That said, I proceed...

I've said many times that I have a fascination with religion, particularly because of the scholarship surrounding it, but also because of the variety of themes that religion encompasses, like philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, and so forth. However else you view it, religion is a human enterprise - it involves human interaction, not just with one another, but with a supposedly supernatural force too - and so I believe we can understand a lot about ourselves by what we understand of religion.

When it comes to entertainment, I do enjoy movies, music, and TV shows that have religious messages. Yet there are certainly things that I avoid like the plague too. I enjoy subtlety and creativity in entertainment, not stuff that hits you over the head with a symbolic cross, like Fireproof or Left Behind. As an example of the good kind, Breaking the Waves is a film with a very moving religious message, and it doesn't play out like a fairytale straight out of the Evangelical handbook. It depicts life as it is, with all of its complexities and struggles, and manages to find a glimpse of paradise amidst the darkness.

I have been a fan of the Dexter TV show since the first season, although there have certainly been ups and downs (who can dispute that season four was their best?). Once I saw that they were dealing with religious subject matter in this most recent season, I was very curious to see what position the show would take and how it might evolve over the course of each episode. It can be argued that there have always been religious undertones to the show too, such as the fact that Dexter imagines talking to his dead father, along with the whole notion of an eye-for-an-eye vigilante who carries out justice where the law is unable to reach.

While these undertones remained true to their name through much of the series, staying in the background and leaving the audience to speculate, this latest season brought them a lot more into the foreground. The apocalyptic theme was a nice touch in light of Harold Camping's predictions and the coming year of 2012. I loved the crime scene re-enactments of the Book of Revelation and the intense religious fervor they gave Travis and Gellar early on in the season. The contrast of Travis and Gellar with Brother Sam was also interesting and full of potential, and then there was the recurring question of what lessons Dexter should pass on to his son.

The later into this season I got, the more I started to feel let down. I had predicted that Gellar was an imaginary figure by about the second or third episode, after noticing that no one in the numerous crowded scenes ever looked at Gellar. This didn't bother me as much as how they used Gellar. The similarity between Travis' visions of his dead mentor and Dexter's visions of his dead father had tremendous opportunity in it. If they had simply had Travis be the devoted pawn of a religious lunatic who appears to him in visions, they could have given Dexter an incredible moral crisis. How do I know that I haven't been misled by Harry? This person truly believes he is enacting justice by killing others to end the world, but if he's wrong, am I possibly wrong too? This moral crisis could have led Dexter to re-evaluate his values in a Nietzschean sense, become his own person, and pass that on to his son. I would have really loved to see that.

But alas, Gellar wound up being nothing more than an unfortunate victim of Travis, and the visions had put words into the mouth of Gellar that Gellar never would have spoken while alive (Gellar says "I told you that you were delusional" when Travis mentions how he came to him talking about their responsibility as the two witnesses). Then they also revealed that Travis had stopped taking his medication. I honestly hated these two decisions to reduce Travis to a clinically insane religious fanatic. I would rather they have left him as a devout believer following the teachings of a wolf in sheep's clothing, because it would have produced a far more enthralling climax. Perhaps Dexter could have gone through his moral struggle to finally persuade Travis to the error of his ways. Yet the final tableau - a much more destructive lake of fire - would have already started to be underway, leading up to Travis sacrificing himself to "repent of his sins" by saving the city.

Instead, Travis becomes a bull-headed crazy person who is suddenly able to leave his vision of Gellar behind, deny his responsibility for Gellar's death, and continue on with a ridiculous amount of resolve. Everything started to seem pretty hard to swallow at about that point. It's as if the writers asked themselves, "Why would someone kill in the name of god?" Their answer: they have a psychosis that they're not being treated for. This is naively simplistic, though, especially for a show like Dexter. Think about the serial killers we've seen thus far in Dexter. Rudy, the Ice Truck Killer, wasn't a certifiable nutjob at all, he was the product of a disturbing past, like Dexter. The same is true of Trinity, who was even a father (albeit a bad one). Jordan Chase was a cunning and manipulative person who was an ego-maniac, but he wasn't explained away as a crackpot off his meds.

I can't help but think there was a strongly pro-religious bias in this season of Dexter, not just because of how Travis' behavior is explained, but because of other things I noticed too. Although Brother Sam is there to be the balance to the show's depiction of a religious believer like Travis, an atheist professor is introduced in one episode who is described by Dexter as "a self important asshole." I can't say for sure, but it does seem like the professor has a Richard Dawkins manner about him. Nonetheless, he is killed off in the same episode, and there is no balancing atheist character like the Christians get with Brother Sam. Maybe it's just me and I'm reading way too much into it, but it feels like excuses and defenses are made for religion, while atheism gets a one-sided depiction as supreme arrogance. The show also disappointingly summarized the second law of thermodynamics incorrectly, saying it's a predictor of disorder, the way it's often phrased by creationists.

On the other hand, I found it a bit surprising that Dexter seems to sink away from the religious lessons of Brother Sam in the last episode or two, taking up the label of "the Beast" and finally declaring that "god has nothing to do with this," as he kills Travis. Perhaps Dexter has found his own morality and recognizes that he alone is responsible for what he does. It could be that Dexter's journey through religion was only about seeing through the excuses of those who claim that killing in the name of god is justifiable. Still, I feel that the show missed some great opportunities and made some disappointing choices throughout this season, although the last minute of the finale was a breath of fresh air that I had expected to see in season five. I had moments during this season where I started to think that Dexter may be a lost cause, but it looks like the next season might be worth watching.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why Atheists Shouldn't Keep It to Ourselves

I like to think that when someone poses a question to me, I respond appropriately. I'm sure we all believe this about ourselves, whether or not it's true, but in general, I do my best to probe for further elaboration, helping me to form a more accurate assessment of the sincerity and intent of their question. Undoubtedly, I'm more patient and effective in this offline than I am online, though I think that's reasonable to an extent, because of the immediate availability of information on the internet. However, one particular question that religious believers occasionally put to me will irritate me without fail, regardless of where it's posed and how it's phrased. The question is, "Why can't atheists just keep their opinions to themselves?"

There are many, many ways of responding to this, but one important reason was yet again made clear to me last night. In my Comparative Religion class, morality was the subject of discussion, and one young Christian guy felt the need to throw in his two cents on secular morality. According to him, secular morality is an oxymoron and without religion there would be no right and wrong. I calmly informed him that the Golden Rule is one example of secular morality, that morals may develop inevitably as the consequence of human interaction (which is what morality is all about), and that atheists are not amoral hedonists but are often driven by firm moral values that have led us to reject the immoral teachings of religions like Christianity.

After class, he approached me and thanked me for an interesting conversation, adding that I'd given him a lot to think about and the entire class has been a learning experience for him. This is one very good reason for atheists to speak out. We might think that the world learned a lot about atheists during the peak of "New Atheism," or that the wonderful internet has helped spread awareness of what atheists are truly about, but there are clearly still some people around who have not gotten the memo, as they say. Of course, it is possible that this Christian heard all of this stuff before and simply dismissed it. But since you don't know for sure, it doesn't hurt to try, and sometimes you may explain things in a way that clicks with a person where previous attempts have failed.

Being that atheists are the least trusted minority in America, it's never a bad thing to educate others and correct misconceptions. Some non-theists shun the atheist label because of the negative associations it has in the minds of many people, but this is actually part of why I call myself an atheist. I think it's worth it to show people that atheists are not all god-hating morally perverted commies. Pigeon-holing any group identity in such a way is wrong. It also seems fruitless to try and escape the connotations by simply choosing another label. If religious zealots are willing to smear the word 'atheist,' they will be just as willing to smear 'unbeliever,' 'non-theist' and any other words that don't fit with their narrow worldview.

Declining to be labeled may not be so productive either, since it certainly won't help people to be more understanding of atheistic views, and at some point we do have to learn to live with labels, because they do describe who we are (man, woman, black, white, teen, and adult are all labels). I'd rather try and resolve bigoted assumptions than simply try to avoid them, and this is not just something I do with atheism, but with any label, whenever I hear people attaching ridiculous baggage to it.

Getting back on track, why is this question so irritating to me? Because, really, there is no wrong answer to it. Why should atheists keep their opinions to themselves? Why should anyone keep silent? There is nothing bad about conversation, but there is a lot to be said about censorship and the suppression of "unacceptable" opinion. People who imply that you should not share your views are those who dislike your views and want them out of the marketplace of ideas. The question irritates me because it is dishonest. The person asking it hides behind a cowardly rhetorical device, instead of expressing their true feeling: you should not be allowed to say those things about my religion. There is no genuine curiosity, no concern for respect. Only a desire to silence dissent.

This alone would be ample reason for sharing our views. No idea, however beneficial or detrimental, should ever have a monopoly on human thought.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Conspiracy Theories and Appeals to Authority

If there's one thing conspiracy theorists are good at, it's making appeals to authority. Whether we're talking 9/11 truthers, climate deniers, creationists, UFO believers, or New World Order nuts, there always seems to be a tendency to name-drop some "expert" who "totally PROVES" the conspiracy in question, rather than providing evidence or arguments firsthand. Check out this website, check out this book, check out this guy's work... the believer may know a few of the primary lines of rhetoric from memory, but rarely are they able to go into a detailed debate without tossing out the names of other conspiracy theorist sources. The funny thing is that you can usually detect an immediate frustration when you call someone out on using biased sources. The reaction is almost always, "Well, so what?!"

An appeal to authority is not always a fallacy, though it is often used fallaciously. There are two major factors that determine the strength of an appeal to authority: if the authority is a legitimate expert, and if there is a consensus among other legitimate experts. By legitimate expert, I mean someone who is actually qualified in the relevant subject - your average preacher is not an expert on evolution, nor is someone like Kent Hovind, who earned his credentials from a diploma mill. That's not to say that someone needs a degree to be considered an expert, but that they must have a demonstrated knowledge of the subject, and in addition, their knowledge must be confirmed by other experts, preferably those who do hold credentials.

Many of the names dropped by conspiracy theorists fail to accommodate either factor. Alex Jones is not a legitimate expert on any subject. The vast majority of scientists disagree with creationist and climate denial theories. When conspiracy writers have no relevant credentials, they call themselves "researchers." Being an independent researcher is nothing in itself, but when a researcher's opinions stray far from the consensus of established experts and qualify as extraordinary claims, it is perfectly reasonable to reject the appeal to authority as fallacious. Conspiracy theorists like to object, saying that consensus and college degrees don't determine truth, and though they're right in principle, the odds that some amateur researcher has stumbled on a real secret missed by countless legitimate experts are quite negligible - it's part of why they are called conspiracies.

Appeals to authority are inductive arguments, which cannot produce a guaranteed conclusion, but only a probable one. Combine this with the improbable needle in a haystack reality of conspiracy theories that I just described, and things look fairly bleak. This is why I'm always much more interested to hear someone's own arguments for their beliefs, rather than just be given a recommendation for some crackpot who I'm not talking to. It seems inconsiderate as well. I'm taking the time to have a conversation with you, so at least grant me the courtesy of a real conversation, not one in which the flow is interrupted by periodic references to books I haven't read, websites I haven't viewed, and so forth. If you can't make a case for your beliefs on your own, it doesn't seem like you really grasp them all that well. And if that's true, why on earth should I care to hear you out in the first place?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Religiosity May Correlate to a Strong Reliance on Intuition

Yahoo news has an article discussing a study that looks at the relationship between religion and intuition. Surveying 882 Americans, the findings show that those who profess religious belief seem to rely more on intuition than those who are not religious. We non-religious folk apparently use "reflective" reasoning more than intuition, which means that instead of just going with our gut, we dissect something, analyze it, and try for a solution. As someone who has been on both sides of the fence, I can easily say that intuition steered my life much more as a believer than it does now as a non-believer.

Intuition is at work behind many aspects of faith. We can see it in creationism, when its proponents often intuit incorrect errors in the theory of evolution, such as a conflict with the second law of thermodynamics, the mistaken association of a scientific theory with a guess, and so forth. We can see it in apologetics, when believers intuitively assume that eyewitness testimony is of the utmost reliability, despite many psychological studies that indicate otherwise. We can see it even in specific dogmas, like the goodness of god, which believers often claim is affirmed to them via their own personal experiences.

Faith is also an exercise of intuition, not only because it functions in spite of reason and evidence, but because one has to intuit that faith itself is a virtue to begin with. Why is faith a good thing? Most believers will give you some touching story about how it's benefited them, how it can benefit you, and so forth. But these are additionally grasped by intuition. How do you really know that faith was behind that anonymous check you received? How do you really know that faith will gain you entry into paradise after death? You don't - you just hope, and guess. It's intuition at work again.

But is it true that, as the article concludes, "neither intuition nor reflection is inherently superior"? It depends on the problem to be solved. I would argue that intuition, even if it arrives at the right answer, is inferior to reflection when it comes to the math problem mentioned in the article. How many times have you made a lucky guess, had your confidence level increase exponentially, only to have it dashed to pieces again when you don't do so well the second time around? The difference in reflection and intuition is that enough reflection will help us find the answer, while stronger intuition can offer no comparable advantage.

Sure, intuition has its place, especially in the emotionally charged realm of relationships, but the best use of intuition is when it's tempered by reflection. The problem with applying intuition to the cosmos is that, as I've stated numerous times before in my writing, the cosmos is usually counter-intuitive. Earth is round; Earth orbits the sun; water vapor is lighter than air. Many of the arguments for god rely on one or more components of intuition: everything that exists has a cause; complexity and order imply design; laws require a law-giver. Why should we feel justified in making these intuitive assumptions about the way that reality works?

Think about what god is asking us to do by demanding that we have faith in him to be saved. If we have to intuit our way to the right answer, is that really praiseworthy? No decent educator would knowingly reward a child for a blind guess. In fact, most high school teachers are likely to scold students who do give some lazy estimate, because it shows that they haven't been applying the concepts and working to find the real solution. Even if someone has earnestly tried to grasp things and failed, a guess is an opportunity for learning, it's certainly not the end of the line. Some theists actually believe god wants us to shun methods for ascertaining truth, like reason, and rely solely on the intuitive mishaps of faith.

Pascal's Wager is the ultimate evidence of intuition's place in religion. It dares us to make a guess, to put down a wager, for nothing less than the eternal destiny of our soul, according to believers. If something is of such dire importance, wouldn't it be better to reflect and contemplate it - to use reason instead of faith? After all, we wouldn't want to be 5 cents short of the truth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Three God-of-the-Gaps Arguments for God

Immanuel Kant noted that there are three primary forms of argument for the existence of god: cosmological, teleological, and ontological. Cosmological arguments are based on our general experience of existence, or the nature of causality to be more precise. Teleological arguments are based on our experience of the universe, specifically the appearance of "design" in nature. Ontological arguments use abstract experience of concepts to make an a priori case for god's existence.

Today it occurred to me that all of these arguments fall under god-of-the-gaps reasoning. The cosmological argument designates god as its "first cause." The teleological argument assumes that god is behind the appearance of complexity and order in the universe. The ontological argument attempts to define god into existence by imagining the greatest possible being. In none of these do we find a clear and sufficient explanation for why god is involved. It's as if god is simply tacked on because the theist can't imagine any other possibility.

British biologist and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said, "My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." Intuition once led us to believe that the world is flat, that the sun orbits the earth, that heavier objects always fall to the ground before lighter ones, and other 'common sense' musings that have now been undermined by scientific study. Even if we ignore all the additional flaws in the three argument forms, there is no justification for applying the god label to the first cause, the appearance of design, or the greatest conceivable being.

The god-of-the-gaps fallacy is a fallacy because it does simply tack on god to whatever the believer can't make sense of (or whatever they think only an explanation of god can make sense of). In the past, we have made this mistake by attributing lightning to the gods, putting god's realm above the clouds, and crediting god with the creation of the human species. It stands very likely that what these arguments put forward in the name of god may be explained by some as yet unknown natural phenomena. Or they may never be explained. But nonetheless, a gap in understanding does not make any old answer as good as the next.

It's interesting to me to reflect on how common this god-of-the-gaps reasoning is among theists. Our tendency to plug god into the unknown may show just where the concept of god originates from. In our desire to understand and find comfort in the chaos, we created an explanation in our own image. Is it not ironic that some of us still continue to use distinctly human traits, like reason, to attempt a justification for the reality of our 'pet theory'?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Value of Reason

I'm often disappointed to see how little people understand the concept and use of reason. Reason is typically seen as the buzzword of intellectuals who engage in debate and lay out formal argumentation in books or articles. Yet we all utilize the tool of reason on a daily basis, in ways that most of us probably are not aware of. Even when you view a painting in an art gallery and think to yourself, "I like this. It would go well in my living room," you are reasoning that purchasing the painting would be beneficial in the enjoyment it would bring to yourself and to your guests, perhaps. Reason is how we make sense of things in our world - it's how we make choices, how we verify information, and how we communicate to others why we have made a particular choice and why we do, or do not, accept certain information.

Aside from reason there is no other method for assessing truth that has shown to be reliable. Personal experience is sometimes suggested, but we all interpret our experiences, and these interpretations are always made from reason. They may not be reasonable, but they do use reason, even if incorrectly. This is why many miracle claims are accompanied by reports of the numbers of people present, the slant of those involved, the improbability of the event, and more. Even believers in the supernatural recognize that reason is a vital part of making a persuasive argument to others. Asking us to believe without reason is far less likely to result in a successful conversion than providing bad reasons to believe.

Recently I talked to an individual who said that he believes that there is more truth out there than what we can find through science and reason. There are also truths in religion, poetry, and metaphor, he said. I don't say that science is all there is because, for one reason, I know that science misses the significance of things like poetry, music, literature, and other media. I do believe there is some truth in religion, as well as poetry and metaphor, but there is still one step left out, which is how one finds these truths from such sources. Again, the only reliable method is reason. Using reason, we can take a story like Jesus and the adulterous woman, or Shakespeare's thoughts on mercy in Act 4 of The Merchant of Venice, and we can apply them to our lives and to the facts of the world at large to find their meaningfulness and, in that sense, find truth.

How else is one to find these truths? One has to first understand the passages before they can be appreciated, and part of appreciating them means uncovering how they relate to us. Since reason is how we make sense of things in our world, we use reason to interpret passages of scripture and poetry, just as we use it to interpret personal experiences. Any time you try to figure things out, reason is involved. The funny thing is that this person, in trying to persuade me of his belief that reason and science are not "all there is," was forced to use the only tenable method he has: reason. And in fact, all of our beliefs are dependent on reason.

Since we can't believe what we know to be false, we must think something is true if we believe it. In order to regard something as true, we have to have some basis for considering it true, whether personal experience, evidence, hearsay, loose connections, or whatever. We don't just suddenly and arbitrarily decide that something is true, we figure out that it's true (even if we're mistaken). By good use or bad use, we have come to hold the beliefs we now hold thanks to reason. This may be one of the most powerful realizations in understanding the place and value of reason in our thinking. Even the belief that reason is limited requires reason to be sustained.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Hell is for Real"

As much as I love books, I never fail to find that there are usually some absolutely ridiculous titles topping the bestseller charts. One of these atrocities that I've recently become aware of is Heaven is for Real, which is currently at #5 on Amazon. The subtitle is A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, and you can guess what the book is about based on that. An 11-year old boy comes out of surgery talking about his near-death experience that supposedly transported him to heaven. The synopsis boasts of mysterious knowledge the boy was 'never told,' such as the fact of him having a miscarried sister, or the details of his grandfather who died before his birth. It always amazes me how people will bite that line of garbage hook, line, and sinker. Of course, Heaven is for Real is written by the boy's father - who also happens to be a pastor - so it can hardly be called an eyewitness testimony (as if an 11-year old's testimony of Santa's workshop would be credible) or an unbiased account.

However, something else strikes me about these sorts of stories too: they're pure sugar-coated fluff. They're an inspirational serving of gullibility for people who are already believing and looking to feed their appetite. By no means are these even meant to be serious proposals for the existence of a supernatural realm. How can I be so sure? Because the premise betrays it.

Imagine if a book were published under the title, Hell is for Real: A Little Boy's Terrifying Story of His Trip to Hell and Back. In this story, we read about an 11-year old's encounter with demons who torture his heathen relatives in unspeakable ways. You can be sure that such a book would not sell, but would widely be denounced as extreme and horrendous. More importantly, though, I don't think that Hell is for Real could even exist in the first place, because all Christian parents seem to reinforce the belief that children go to heaven, and believers in general like to affirm the certainty of their destination in god's kingdom. No one who believes in heaven seems to think they could end up in hell. Hell is for 'them,' not us.

Although it once held powerful sway, Dante's vision of hell is no longer considered authentic by most Christians. Yet when an 11-year old boy says he went to heaven, it's taken seriously enough to create a bestselling book. I don't like to seem jaded, but I can sooner believe that the reason is to cash-in on a heart warming story than to report what these dolts actually think is a real vision of the afterlife. Anyone who claims that god saves little children should read 2 Kings 2:23-24, wherein 42 kids are torn to bits by two bears for mocking one of god's precious prophets. Is it really that unthinkable that an 11-year old could end up in hell instead of heaven? To these people, it is, because they want sugar-coated fluff that reassures them, not what might scare the living daylights out of them.

Perhaps this is why Christians apparently never consider their own alternatives when they jump to pose Pascal's Wager. Faith blinds their minds to the possibility of being wrong. Hell is useful as a conversion tool these days, but afterward it is often dismissed. The era of fire and brimstone preaching is over, replaced now by the feel-good, warm fuzzy nonsense of Joel Osteen and company. This is how a book like Heaven is for Real betrays its own worthlessness. That the active imagination of an 11-year old boy, which has more than likely been cued by his Christian parents, can be treated with the respect and attention that this book has received is a sad statement about the lack of critical thinking and skepticism in our world. As some have said before, many of us appear to just believe in belief, and when we set our own terms like that, we obviously prefer to belief what makes us most comfortable.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Smart People Don't Always Believe Smart Things

Smart people are very good at justifying things they came to believe for non-smart reasons.

Perhaps no other statement has rung so true, in my experience, than this one from Michael Shermer. It spells the death of appeals to authority. Recently I was told by someone that Muslims offer better arguments for their beliefs than Christians, because they "seem to know what they are talking about what with them being Doctors and all that kind of stuff." This is possibly one of the most imbecilic remarks I've encountered in my conversations with religious believers. Not only does it ignore the many non-Muslim physicians out there (including atheists and agnostics), but it operates on a non-existent connection between medical skill and factually accurate belief.

Doctors may be very intelligent people in their respective fields, yet religion is the realm of philosophy, history, myth, and other fields that are not always well known by medical experts. More importantly, though, even people who have studied religion extensively are not to be trusted off the bat. Certain degrees may warrant further credibility, but only in addition to strong arguments and persuasive evidence. It's the depth of exposure and research that culminates in the credibility assigned to those degrees, and that will be shown in the strength of the case one makes for a particular position. Shermer's statement beautifully illustrates this fact.

Intelligent people are quite capable of compartmentalizing their beliefs and sealing off specific ones in a "do-not-disturb" section. Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, but we need not believe it, even if he was a brilliant scientist. Darwin consulted alternative therapies, but we need not accept them, even if he was also a brilliant scientist. There's nothing about a Muslim holding a physician's degree that tells us whether or not his belief in Islam is founded on good evidence and strong reason. Religious believers are more than willing to embrace the character of those whom they deem to be nice reflections of the religion, but when we point out the garish reflections of suicide bombers, inquisitors, and the likes, cries of a mistaken connection abound.

An appeal to authority should be easily recognized as a fallacy almost at first glance, especially in an age where "experts" are being viewed with increasing skepticism by paranoid and deluded folks like Don McLeroy, the former chair of the Texas State Board of Education. Unfortunately, the fallacy persists. Maybe if we learn to emphasize the value of logic and evidence, then such problems will be avoided, but until we do, I remain doubtful that this common sense truth will really catch on. Still, in the meantime we should all do our part to try and educate others about the fallacy of an appeal to authority.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Science Against Personal Testimony

While reading through a copy of the Austin Chronicle yesterday, I stumbled upon an interesting and somewhat horrifying statement: "Science does not trump the testimony of individuals." In what context did I find this little gem? Was it in a religious critique of some new atheist book? An article quoting one of the many scientifically-illiterate creationists on our State Board of Education? Actually, this statement comes from a Detroit prosecutor's defense of the incarceration of a man accused of rape, even after DNA evidence has cleared him.

The thing about science is that it absolutely trumps individual testimony, partly because that's the reason why we have it. Science is tremendously valuable for providing independent confirmation of subjective experiences. The medical field is rife with examples. Symptoms are cataloged, tests are conducted, and we come to appreciate that conditions like epilepsy are objectively real. Would it make any sense for a physician to accept the word of a patient who says they have epilepsy when they show none of the signs? Science serves as a means for evaluating the veracity of individual testimony.

Of course, the mystically-inclined don't like such an understanding of science. They want their healing crystals, ghost encounters, alien abductions, and religious visitations on equal footing with science, because having their own testimony called into question is just too much. Mind you, it's never really the experience itself that is being doubted, but merely the individual's interpretation of their experience that is called into question by skeptics. While science and its advocates are labeled as pompous and pretentious for raining on someone's delusion parade, is it not the epitome of self-righteous nausea to think that you are above being mistaken about your experiences?

It disturbs me to know that there are people out there like this prosecutor, who would prefer the word of some traumatized, fallible person over the impartial, hard evidence of DNA. Why is science allowed to be viewed with suspicion, yet the testimony of an emotionally fragile individual is not? This sort of lack of common sense and scientific literacy is what bothers me about the direction of American politics. Some may see little to no connection, but when science is placed below subjective experience - where many religious folk put it - this is precisely what happens. If you would trust DNA evidence against the word of a well-meaning but easily mistaken witness, then why wouldn't you trust science against other kinds of personal testimony?

We're happy to let science have its little corner away from the religion stuff, but the two don't like to stay separate for long. Perhaps it's because religion has tried to lay claim to many of the same truths that science has had the final say on. Or maybe it's because science relentlessly pursues the unknown, when religion is quite content to let it remain 'mysterious.' Nonetheless, individual testimony is only as valuable as the base of evidence that supports it. Science is not its enemy, but its companion. The sole reason for it to be seen as the enemy is when ideology fuels that testimony and finds itself in conflict with the truth.

Science has trumped the testimonies of human beings for centuries, and in many cases, it has helped to free innocent men and women, helped to give credence to their experiences, and much more.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Everything is Evidence of God? Even Michael Bay?

Admittedly, there are many things a religious believer can say that will get on my nerves. Usually they involve close-minded bigotry and hatred of others, but not always. Pascal's Wager can be supremely annoying when it's phrased in an arrogant tone, like the proponent thinks it's the first time anyone has ever gotten you to consider that you might be wrong. Another one of these irritating statements I encounter from time to time has recently been put to me on YouTube.

Your very existence is proof of a Creator. Look everywhere. Matter is proof. Light is proof. Life is proof. In fact, even civilization is proof. With all of your intelligence and reasoning, how could you overlook such glaring evidence?

I'm never quite sure how to respond to such a remark, not because it stumps me, but because I would like to think that people are not so naive. I know that Christians believe god created everything, but an atheist obviously does not believe that. Even when I was a believer, I would not have made a pathetic argument as generic and useless as this one. There's nothing about existence, matter, light, life, or civilization that compels us to accept theism. In fact, the latter four are pretty well understood in terms of natural explanations. As for my existence, I take it as proof that an egg containing my genetic material was fertilized and carried to term, but beyond that, nothing more can be reasonably assumed.

For an analogy (and I do love using analogies so very much), this is kind of like a Mac user trying to explain the 'obvious' superiority of Macs to a PC user. The two have different perspectives, which means that it cannot be assumed that one will share the same approach to the issue as the other will. But it's even worse in what this Christian is saying, since he's making an argument based on things which have natural explanations. Supernatural stories are not necessary. It's like a Mac user telling a PC user that Macs are better because they have monitors, keyboards, processors, and hard drives. Both have them! More importantly, there is no logical progression one can follow to conclude that such an argument favors Macs, just as there is no logical progression to demonstrate that earth, wind, and fire (couldn't resist) favor the existence of a deity.

I can't really see why any intelligent person would find this to be persuasive. It seems that the believer's only source here can be the bible, and in that case, the argument is circular. The bible says god created everything, so we can look at everything as evidence that a creator god exists, just like the bible claims. But why the Christian god? The Qur'an claims Allah created everything. The Babylonian epic Enuma Elish claims that Marduk created the world out of Tiamat by dismembering her corpse. Existence, matter, light, life, and civilization no more prove that the creator is Yahweh than they prove that Allah or Marduk is responsible for creating it all. Then there are those things that believers never seem to bring up. Is matter evidence for god when it's assembled in the form of a hydrogen bomb that devastates an entire city? What about those corners of the world where light barely reaches - is god not present there? And Michael Bay? Surely, if anything, he's evidence of an incompetent creator!

A being that can be proven to exist by anything is worth nothing. It's funny, then, that the most common application of the god concept - and the reason for its very origin, I'd say - is to explain what is not understood. We use god to fill in the gaps and then we point to the gaps to find god. Unfortunately, even when something is well understood by science, some believers take their own ignorance as widespread truth and plug god into that gap. In cases like these, it is difficult to know what to say. How do you tell an uninformed person he's wrong when he will accept any trivial thing as confirmation of his faith? Perhaps it's not even worth bothering. As a dead Jewish carpenter is thought to have once said, "do not throw your pearls before swine."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do Religious Believers Have Any Respect For Artistic Expression?

Being a musician, as well as an artist in my earlier years, I like to think I understand the value of artistic expression. Even when I was a Christian, I recognized that everyone has a right to say what they feel, and they would get no complaint from me. If I didn't like what was being said, it was up to me to put my own view out there. This is what has motivated countless musicians, poets, authors, and artists to create over the centuries. You can't well hold someone accountable for speaking their mind instead of speaking yours for you.

Yet the absurd rejection of that fact is something I've run across a lot among religious believers. From controversial displays like the "Piss Christ" to practically harmless imagery in Lady Gaga videos, believers have criticized almost anything and everything that offends them. It doesn't matter that art and music were absolutely dominated by religious themes for much of the last millennium; what matters is that these believers not be offended. Bill Donohue and other professional whiners object to anti-Catholic messages being "crammed down our throats" by the media, but when The Passion of the Christ was being broadcast like it was the second coming, there was no outcry. Religious propaganda is fine and dandy, but anything challenging religion should be denounced.

What strikes me as particularly offensive is not that anyone might produce anti-atheist material or pro-religious material, but that they act as if the critics of religion should not even have a forum to begin with. It's one thing to dislike a song or painting because of its anti-religious tones, and it's another thing to take your dislike to news crews and television stations to encourage others to condemn it as well. It's essentially saying, 'This artist produced something that conflicts with my values. Therefore, their artistic expression is bad.' Artistic expression isn't about what the audience likes, it's about what the artist likes. It's ridiculous to expect an artist to conform to your tastes. If you don't like what the artist has to say, don't listen.

I have no problem doing this with pop music that delivers a Christian message. Though I think that Carrie Underwood's song, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," is god-awful garbage, I didn't start any campaign to boycott or bash the song when it was playing all over the radio and in numerous retail stores. I simply turned off the radio, left the store, or just put up with it. Why can't religious believers do the same? Perhaps it has to do with Paul's instruction to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corin. 10:5). No respect is accorded to artistic expression that is not "obedient to Christ." Book-burning was not something original to the Nazis, let's not forget.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that all religious believers are this narrow-minded, even if I have made generalizations to that effect. I know many of them are not. But at the same time, there is often a label of "bad" applied to anything that seems remotely un-Christian. This can be seen in the movements to Christianize various forms of artistic expression. The band ApologetiX does terrible Christianized covers of secular songs. Books have been written on the underlying 'Christian messages' in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars movies, and so forth. Why all the effort if believers are capable of respecting artistic expression?

I will admit, it's hard for me to relate to some of the Christian songs I used to listen to, now that I'm no longer Christian. But it's hard for me to relate to songs about a woman's love for a man too, since I'm not a woman, and it's hard for me to relate to blues songs about the struggles of blacks, since I'm not black. That doesn't mean I can't respect the artistic expression of those individuals or appreciate their creativity. We're not all going to like the same things, but that's the diversity that makes the world so interesting, I would argue.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dennis Nedry Defense

One of the especially irritating apologetic excuses I've seen offered by believers in books and in my conversations with them is what I call the 'Dennis Nedry Defense.' Any fan of the film Jurassic Park will remember that Nedry was the computer programmer who shut down the park to try and steal the dinosaur embryos, only to meet his end in the jaws of a Dilophosaurus. When the park administrators attempted to override Nedry's actions that shut down park security, they found themselves locked out by a password-protected defense that repeated, "Uh uh uh, you didn't say the magic word!" The Dennis Nedry Defense (DND for short) is when Christians argue that inconsistencies in the bible can be harmonized because 'it doesn't say the magic word.'

As a specific example, take the inconsistencies in the empty tomb appearances. Mark's gospel says Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were at the tomb. Matthew's says that Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" were there. Luke's says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and "others" were present, and John just mentions Mary Magdalene. The DND of these passages often notes that none of the verses say that ONLY those women were there, so it could be that all of them were there. In this case, the magic word is "only."

Typically, I respond to such claims by commenting on the unique agendas of each gospel author and how harmonizing their stories disregards what they were each trying to say and creates a theoretical fifth gospel that is unlike the other gospels, as Bart Ehrman has remarked. While this is a good criticism, I think there are bigger problems with the DND. For starters, is it really reasonable to expect that the gospel authors would've written "only" even if they knew for a fact that no one else was there? Think about when you tell a story and describe who was present. Think about when an eyewitness gives testimony in court and describes who was present at the scene. Do we usually say, 'Johnny, Jim, and Jack were the only ones there,' or do we just say, 'Johnny, Jim, and Jack were there'?

We may qualify that those were the only people there when we're pressed on the issue by someone, like a lawyer, but I think most of us can recognize that we don't always do this even when we know that only those people were present. We may not initially see a reason to clarify that detail or it may just slip our mind. Yet we also tend to presume that, when describing such things in certain contexts, our audience will rightly assume that we mean 'only,' though we may not actually say it. When someone asks who was in the car with you, most people will simply say, 'Dave and Donna,' presuming that it will be understood that they were the only ones present. What apologists are asking us to believe is that you are omitting another person who Dave might mention, and you both expect the audience to harmonize your testimonies to get to the truth. Is that not a little absurd?

On that same note, a second problem with the DND is that it relies on the silence of the text to speculate about possibility. I've pointed out before that the overwhelming majority of apologetic arguments revolve around possibility rather than probability (Pascal's Wager is the best example). Yet anything is possible to an extent, excluding logical contradictions like square-circles. Postulating arguments for possibility in the case of supernatural claims is worthless, though, like suggesting that Santa Claus is able to visit every house on Christmas because his sled travels at the speed of light; it's possible, but still no more probable than the whole Santa Claus story being a myth. This is why historians concern themselves with what is probable and why scientists conduct experiments to determine the likelihood of an hypothesis. Probability matters far more than possibility.

I already commented on why the silence of the text doesn't have to mean what Christians want it to mean. The absence of the word "only" does not imply that the gospel authors all wanted their separate accounts to be smashed together into one big mess in order for the truth to be understood. What a convoluted way for a supreme being to reveal its message too! I always try to be cautious in building an argument on the silence of a text, but I believe there is ample reason for recognizing inconsistencies as inconsistencies in the bible, and it seems to me that Christians are more likely the ones in error for using the silence of the text to twist variations into a comfortable, non-conflicting 'solution.' Inconsistencies are most often due to mistakes, especially among different authors, and it's only faith that guides a believer to harmonize things.

The Dennis Nedry Defense is something that Christians don't seem to accept from any other religion either. Islam has the doctrine of abrogation, or the supplanting of an earlier revelation by a later one that contradicts it. Muslims believe this is consistent with Sura 6:115 ("And the Word of your Lord has been fulfilled in truth and in justice. None can change His Words."), because it doesn't say verbal revelation, and perhaps abrogation doesn't necessarily mean god's words are changed. Christians see through this nitpicking attempt to maintain the Qur'an's inerrancy and so they reject the DND in this case. Yet the bible's inconsistencies are no less inconsistencies and the DND is still built on no less of a weak foundation. That apologists must resort to word games and deny the same games when played by other religions is another nail in the coffin of the inerrancy doctrine.

Friday, June 10, 2011

You Don't Speak for Christianity, I Do!

What's more annoying than an atheist mistaking one brand of Christianity for the standard beliefs of the entire religion? A Christian that accuses you of said mistake while presuming his own beliefs to be the standard. This was the bizarre interaction I faced in a recent exchange with someone, and of all places to level these accusations against me, this person made them in comments on my deconversion series! As I explained, my story of leaving Christianity is, in part, a story of leaving one particular brand of Christianity. Thus, there are arguments against literalism and inerrancy, which are not doctrines held by all Christian denominations. But what's astounding to me is that I give no indication in the series of presuming that my Evangelical faith was/is the sum total of Christianity. In fact, I mention meeting other Christians who helped challenge some of my fundamentalist views, so I'm not sure where this individual acquired the idea that I was ignoring the other various branches of Christianity. A deconversion story is not intended to be a thorough refutation of a position, either, but simply a telling of the person's progress or journey towards a loss of faith.

However, instead of illustrating the differences between various denominations as a way of making his point, this Christian took a far less successful but much more ironic route. "[T]he problem with most atheists (especially deconverts)," he said, "is that they view/viewed the bible to be something supernatural. You have to understand that christianity does not deny that the bible was written by men of different times."

I have never assumed that Christianity rejects the human authorship of the bible, but many Christians believe those human authors wrote under divine inspiration. Evangelicals believe this, as do Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Presbyterians, and many Catholics. There are variations among these groups on how much of the bible is supernatural in origin, but for the most part, they believe it has been handed down to us relatively uncorrupted. It is also important to remember that there are always people who identify as a specific denomination, yet hold views contrary to the majority of the group. But to insinuate that Christians don't believe the bible is at least somewhat supernatural in nature is an assumption just as mistaken as insinuating that they all believe it to be supernatural. There are Christians like John Shelby Spong who reject pretty much every supernatural claim in Christianity, but this view is not the sum total of the Christian religion either. It's not even a majority view, as most denominations accept the resurrection of Christ as a real event.

Amusingly, this Christian then went into debating the inconsistencies in the gospels. If the bible is not at all supernatural, why jump to exonerate its errors? Discussing the different birth dates given for Jesus between Matthew and Luke, as well as the two deaths of Judas, he asserted that they are "exactly rational reasons of explanation." While it may be possible that there was a census taken by a Quirinius in the time of Herod the Great, what is unlikely is the notion that Matthew and Luke each relied on their readers having access to the other text and figuring out the truth by combining them together. This itself seems to require a supernatural basis of sorts. But never to be outdone by his own gross generalizations, the believer then told me that "all scholars believe Luke (who was also a historian/physician) used Matt and Mark as a source" and suggested that I would know these things if I'd really taken theology classes.

First of all, I never said I went to theology classes. I did study up on theology, but it was mostly on my own time, and the theology I learned in church and bible study courses was very basic. Secondly, it doesn't take years of theology classes to know that all scholars don't believe Luke used Matthew as a source. As a matter of fact, that view is a minority theory in biblical scholarship, known as the Farrer hypothesis. As Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman, Daniel Wallace, and countless others have noted, the theory on gospel origins that is most widely accepted by scholars is the two-source hypothesis, which considers Matthew and Luke to be independent of each other, aside from their common use of Mark and Q. What this means is that Luke would not have presumed his readers to be familiar with Matthew. All this aside, if someone wants to debate these two hypotheses, I'm all ears, but let's refrain from making factually inaccurate statements about what the scholarly position is, especially when evidence means so much more than consensus.

My favorite part of the correspondence, though, was when I asked this person how he or she knows the bible to be divinely-inspired:

now you've just showed your misunderstanding by asking that. We know the bible is divinely inspired because of the subject. The existing God, to us christians. It was their beliefs in God that inspired them to write a book about the existing God. Therefore we christians classify it as divine inspired because we believe the inspiration is of the real divine deity.

My, if this isn't a horribly simplistic concept of divine inspiration. 'It's divinely-inspired because the authors believed in god.' This makes every religious text divinely-inspired, but more importantly, it doesn't draw any real difference between any piece of literature and the bible. As inclined as I am to agree that the bible is hardly different from The Iliad, I don't think most Christians understand divine inspiration in this way. If they did, then Christian apologetics wouldn't exist, since it is an attempt to defend faith in divine inspiration by providing evidence for the bible's claims - even the miraculous, supernatural ones. There's also the problem of how inadequate such a simple definition of divine inspiration is, since it eliminates the ability to differentiate between a claim of divine inspiration and the actuality or falsity of it.

To make one final note, I feel the need to point out that belonging to a group does not give one the automatic authority to speak for every other person in the group. I am an atheist, but I can't speak for all atheists. I'm white, but I can't speak for all white people. I have never felt that my time as a Christian gave me the freedom to speak for all Christians, yet apparently this believer thinks that he has that ability. Of course, he also presumes to speak for all biblical scholars, even though I'm willing to bet he holds no relevant academic credentials. I unfortunately see these types of 'criticisms' of atheist arguments all the time. Dawkins was accused of misunderstanding Christianity because he didn't address the beliefs of theologians like Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. As prominent as they may be in theological history, the views of such men are not universally accepted by all Christians.

For as much criticism as atheists receive over their 'mistaken' ideas about Christianity, believers themselves rarely seem to appreciate the diversity of their own religion. Those professing believers who disagree may be painted as not being 'real Christians,' as some Protestants are known to say of Catholics. But behind all of this is another problem. Who, or what, does speak for Christianity? As the world has changed, Christianity has changed with it in order to survive, and perhaps in another thousand years we won't even recognize the cult of the risen Jesus as Christian anymore.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blame the Scientists, Ignore the Prophets

It almost seems too ridiculous to be true, but, according to an article in Yahoo News, seismologists in Italy are being charged with manslaughter for failing to predict the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila that killed 308 people. Of course, even with the advances made by science in many areas, forecasting the behavior of nature is not an exact discipline, especially when it comes to earthquakes, as one seismologist explains in the article. But something else strikes me about the accusation against these scientists. In a predominantly Christian country like Italy, the task of warning people of impending disaster falls not to priests or other religious authorities, but to scientists. Yet if there is a god who sent prophets in the past to warn his people of just such calamities, then why aren't we consulting these 'men of god' and putting them on trial when they let us down?

Perhaps it seems an unfair question, but I'm not strictly talking about holding religious leaders accountable for natural disasters. I'm talking about holding them accountable for their own failed predictions. This team of seismologists didn't make a false prediction - legal action is being taken against them for not making a prediction about the earthquake. On the other hand, what have the responses been to the failed predictions of doomsday prophets like Harold Camping? It says a lot to me when people would rather blame a scientist for not warning them about the future than blame a religious leader for making a distinctly false prediction.

Maybe it's because religion is privileged in much of Western society and science is not. In fact, science is seen as arrogant when it crosses into religious territory, and it's often dismissed with familiar sentiments like, 'science can't explain everything!' But then why are scientists being put on trial for being unable to predict everything? The scientists I've known are extremely humble and forthright about the limits of their own disciplines, and they've never pretended to be able to make flawlessly accurate predictions. But every self-proclaimed prophet believes he or she speaks with the flawlessly accurate authority of god. It seems to me that things couldn't be more backwards.

Don't mistake my commentary here for an advocacy of suing false prophets, because that is not what I am saying. Although I do think restitution should be allowed in certain cases where a great amount of damage has been done to victims of these preachers, I generally feel that those who are gullible enough to follow these frauds deserve to suffer the consequences (a fool and his money are soon parted, as they say). What I'm saying is not new or complicated. Once again religious believers are cherry-picking the world to line up with their ideology. God is the grand designer behind nature, but has nothing to do with natural disasters. His elect may be privy to special and miraculous revelations of absolute truth, but instead we blame the scientists for failing to predict what they never said they could predict with certainty in the first place.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Thoughts on the Craig v. Harris Debate

In the recent debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris, I was pleasantly surprised to see Craig cast out of his comfort zone at a few points - something that rarely seems to happen in the debates he has participated in. The question for this debate was: "Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?" Craig's position on morality is that there is no objective basis for moral values apart from god. Amusingly, he uses a very abstract idea of god, though he is an Evangelical Christian, and he tries to wiggle his way out of challenges to the moral character of his god by semantically stating that the issue is "moral ontology" (what is moral), not "moral epistemology" (how we know it's moral).

My problem with this is that epistemology seems like it has to be involved in a discussion about where the foundations of moral values lie. Even in ontologically considering morals, we deal with the issue of why we think certain things are moral and why others are not. That was the question of the debate that Craig should have dealt with - how do we know moral values are supernatural as opposed to natural? But instead of making his own positive case for divine morality, he spent the majority of the debate criticizing Harris' view and dissecting his 'moral landscape.' Here's the kicker, though: if you demonstrate that moral values are not natural, you still have to demonstrate that they are supernatural. It could be that they're neither.

Obviously, I think Craig failed spectacularly, but what about Harris? Sam is my favorite of the four horsemen of the 'New Atheism', and I have to say I was impressed with him in this debate. Having seen Hitchens bomb miserably in debate with Craig, as well as several other atheists, I didn't have much hope for Harris. But he had a positive argument on his side, which he defended well, and he also made a couple excellent responses to some of Craig's nonsense.

For some time, I've wished that an opponent of Craig in a moral debate would draw attention to the fact that Craig merely defines god as a good and moral being - he provides no evidence, no argument, and no reason to think that a supreme being would have to be good. As Harris poignantly stated, why couldn't it be an evil god? Christian apologists love to talk about god as a moral lawgiver, but defining god into this is just irresponsible, especially when thousands of gods through history have not been moral or lawgivers. Why should we allow Craig to slide this into the definition of god as if it were self-evident? Big kudos to Harris for pointing out this problem in the debate.

Another thing I found amusing was how dismissive and even derogatory Craig was toward Harris' idea of well-being as goodness. In virtually every moral paradigm, though, well-being seems to be at the heart of what is considered good. Harris brilliantly showed that Craig's moral paradigm relies on it too, when he simply asked why hell is a bad place to go to. Craig completely misunderstood the question, saying that Christianity is about recognizing that god is worthy of worship and other warm fuzzy gibberish. But why should we want to avoid hell? Because god is worthy of worship is not an answer. The implication is that hell is a place of horrible suffering and torment, and if you don't want to go there, you should believe. In other words, hell is a bad place because it greatly diminishes well-being. There's nothing else that can be said about the threat of hell. Even if a Christian merely defines hell as eternal separation from god, that still is a harm to well-being according to the Christian worldview. Craig's morality is just as reliant on well-being as Harris'.

A couple of questions during the Q&A also really caught my attention. At one point in the debate, Craig stressed the difference between understanding the meaning of something and understanding how something works (ontology vs. epistemology) by explaining that we understood what the word light meant before we knew it to be electromagnetic radiation. One girl took this analogy a step further and pointed out to Craig that before we knew what light scientifically was, we thought it came from god(s). If we were wrong about that, could he be wrong about the source of morality? Her question wonderfully illustrates what I just said about moral ontology and moral epistemology. In a debate on the source of morality, especially one phrased as a dilemma, it is imperative to make a case for how we know something is moral, not just what morality means under your worldview. After all, like the ancients misunderstood light as a divine phenomenon, perhaps your view of morality could be wrong. Craig replied by again distinguishing between ontology and epistemology, though, utterly ignoring the problem she had pointed out.

In my review of Sam Harris' latest book, I explain that the is-ought distinction is a very misunderstood issue, even by many noteworthy thinkers. Craig raises the is-ought 'problem' during the debate, and later in the Q&A, he is asked if god is either an "is" or an "ought". Craig says god is an "is". The questioner then follows up by asking if any "ought" can be derived from the fact that god exists, or that god "is". Craig says no. The questioner then points out that Craig has a lot of unsupported premises in his arguments. Craig tries to weasel his way out of it, of course, but the student is right. Many of Craig's arguments take the form of god is x, therefore we ought to do y. As one example: god is a moral lawgiver, therefore we should follow god's moral law. The irony is that this wouldn't be a problem for Craig if he understood that the is-ought distinction doesn't actually prohibit us from deriving an "ought" from an "is", but with his current misunderstanding, the student backed him into quite a corner.

Overall, I found the debate very engaging, perhaps one of the best recent debates with Craig that I've seen. I'm still waiting for someone to note that Jesus himself endorsed a morality of a natural kind, though, when he instructed to "do to others what you would have them do to you" in Matthew 7:12. No appeal to the supernatural, just morality as a vehicle of interaction between our fellow human beings, as it should be. It's when we interject third party gods, things, or persons that the trouble begins, and this is no more apparent than in Craig's Divine Command Theory. A law will never be a moral value, because the point of laws is to enforce certain values. Craig has morality back-asswards.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Calling a Spade a Spade

I think there are times when berating someone can be a useful accompaniment to constructive criticism. Generally speaking, I try to make my response appropriate according to the tone of the original statement(s), but occasionally I run into something so ignorant that it deserves to be called out. Usually it's a suggestion that defies all critical thinking and ignores very basic natural explanations. So when a guy on my YouTube channel sent me a link to this video and asked if I had heard of the "jewels argument" for god's existence, I had to call a spade a spade.

The video investigates a small church in Puerto Rico, where the pastor and some of the parishioners claim to find oil seeping through the walls and out of the bible, as well as jewels and diamonds falling from heaven. I should note that I use the word 'investigate' very loosely here, because the one thing the video doesn't do is show any sense of objectivity or skepticism. It begins by stating that major media news outlets seem to be ignoring the "incredible events," while only Christian sources are covering it. I have a guess for why this might be.

No one but the pastor is interviewed for the video. At one point they claim that the diamonds were shown to a professional jeweler who told them the cut was more flawless and perfect than he had ever seen, and yet they neglect to find and interview this jeweler. But how would impressively cut stones make any kind of case for the involvement of the divine? Perhaps the diamonds were purchased and planted there by the pastor or by someone else. Perhaps their quality has been exaggerated by the pastor, since we don't have the actual testimony from his source to consider.

I pointed out to the YouTube Christian the fact that hearsay is all the video has to offer. Nothing has been caught on camera, no experts are consulted in person, and the most we get is a story after the events by people who have a clear bias. I even threw out the idea that if the diamonds had fallen from the sky, they might have leaked out of an open bag in a malfunctioning luggage compartment on a plane. Then my believing friend objected that this "phenomenon" is happening all over the world.

Of course he didn't provide me with other examples of where across the world this is happening, but even so, the real point is that with any number of natural explanations available, it is irresponsible to say that god raining down jewels from heaven and causing oil to leak from walls is the most plausible explanation. South America is well known for its affinity for fake miracles like bleeding statues and fraudulent practicioners like psychic healers. It is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that perhaps these churchgoers in Puerto Rico are either involved in a deceptive ploy for attention or witness to bizarre but entirely natural events.

What is a stretch is god's involvement. As I said to the Christian YouTuber, you don't just get to point to some anecdotal evidence in a completely non-objective and heavily biased Christian video and say, 'explain that if there's no god!' I don't have to account for your gullibility. When you've actually presented nothing of any substance, you are the one that has some work to do, not I. This miracle video is no different from a cryptozoologist who claims to have found bigfoot tracks or an alien abductee who claims to have an alien implant. We don't need to find the bigfoot shoes or run tests on the implant to suspect foul play, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and these have not met their burden of proof.

The thing about insulting and berating someone is that most people who are offended will spend some time mulling over the exchange in frustration. Many of the softer spoken critics might say that this accomplishes nothing, but I don't find this to be true. It wasn't the kind and calm words of a respectful dissenter that motivated me to rethink my beliefs. Sometimes it takes a firm tone to get people to really think. While, as I said before, I don't often adopt this in conversation, it does serve a purpose from time to time. And if the subject of mockery doesn't respond in a friendly manner or change his/her thinking at all, I don't feel that there's been any opportunity lost. I'd rather speak the truth and be thought a jerk than say what's comfortable and politically correct.

Humorously, the Christian responded to my berating by calling my message "hate mail" and trying to argue the implausibility of people dropping jewels from planes all over the world. In a moment of wonderful irony, he demonstrated the appropriateness of my insults by misunderstanding my alternative theory and taking it way too literally. I don't know what else you can call such blind faith and willful ignorance other than gullibility. And I'm not even sure that qualifies for an insult, and certainly not hate speech. We're all gullible in some ways. What's important is recognizing it and taking the steps to change. If you refuse to learn when the facts are slapping you right in the face, then me insinuating your ignorance is the least of your problems.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Watching My Language... Though Not in That Way

I try to do my best to help raise consciousness with the words that I choose to use when I speak or write, whether it's substituting "humanity" for "mankind" or "child of Christian parents" for "Christian child". Recently, I was emailed by a Jewish individual who politely pointed out an interesting presumption behind the word "Judeo-Christian". Christianity may claim to share some things in common with Judaism, but the difference between the Christian god and the Hebrew god is the difference between polytheism and monotheism. Even in other areas where Judeo-Christian is often used, such as 'Judeo-Christian values', Christians seem to actually reject the Judeo portion.

For example, the ten commandments are argued by many evangelical Christians to be the Judeo-Christian foundation of our American legal system. But how many of these same believers will observe the Sabbath? The ten commandments are treated like a historical relic, and Christians will freely admit they are no longer under the old law, because of Jesus' sacrifice. Thus, the "Judeo" prefix seems more like an attempt to either be politically correct after centuries of Christian oppression of Jews or it's intended to give the illusion of something being generic, as opposed to strictly Christian.

In the case of the latter, it is especially relevant that "Judeo-Christian" has been almost exclusively invoked in the United States. Perhaps the reason for this may be the separation of church and state in our country. Many on the Religious Right seem to think that if something can be generally applied to all religions, it somehow does not violate the Establishment Clause. Hence, "Judeo-Christian" might be used to mask the truth of some issue being sectarian, or strictly Christian.

Of course, not all usages of "Judeo-Christian" are problematic. Referring to the emergence of Christianity, it may be well suited to consider some things as "Judeo-Christian" in the sense that they actually do have elements common to both religions. Early Christians who abstained from certain foods and still observed the Hebrew law can rightfully be called "Judeo-Christian", I think, as they were partially Jewish in their views. You'd be hard-pressed to find such types among Christians today, though.

While there are some appropriate uses for the term, I believe "Judeo-Christian" should be used more carefully. This probably isn't an issue for most people, but as a former Christian and ex-apologist, the word has lingered in my vocabulary. It does seem harmless too, which is all the more reason to bring these things to consideration.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Huckabee: Natalie Portman 'Glorifies' Unwed Pregnancy

Mike Huckabee has been an interesting person for me to watch since he announced his candidacy for the 2008 election. Unlike Romney, McCain, or most Republican politicians, he seems relatable, like someone you could go out and have a beer with. I'm also not alone in thinking this, as polls taken among conservatives show that Huckabee is overwhelmingly liked as a possible choice for the 2012 election. I've even heard some liberals say that he seems more 'level-headed' than most other Republicans. But remembering Huck's speech about amending the Constitution to fit with the bible [1], I know that he's just as far right and crazy as most other GOP candidates.

And now he's showing that side of himself again, by criticizing Natalie Portman for 'glamorizing' unwed pregnancy [2]. Huckabee told Michael Medved, a conservative radio host...

"She got up, she was very visibly pregnant, and it's really it's a problem because she's about seven months pregnant, it's her first pregnancy, and she and the baby's father aren't married, and before two billion people, Natalie Portman says, 'Oh I want to thank my love and he's given me the most wonderful gift.' He didn't give her the most wonderful gift, which would be a wedding ring! And it just seems to me that sending that kind of message is problematic."

Portman is engaged to Benjamin Millepied, a choreographer she met while filming The Black Swan. The two have been engaged since at least December of last year, when the announcement was made to the press. Typically an engagement ring is a big part of a couple getting engaged, so Huckabee may be dead wrong about Millepied not giving Portman the 'most wonderful gift.' However, I'd still have to take issue with his statements, even if Portman and her beau were not already engaged.

What would be the benefit of having a child in wedlock as opposed to having one out of wedlock? Child support may become an issue for some unwed parents later down the road, if they part ways, but even married couples may divorce and have to face child support. Huckabee brings up the expenses involved in having a child and notes that, "Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can't get a job, and if it weren't for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care." And marriage, which isn't exactly cheap, will resolve this how?

It cracks me up that these 'small government' types - even though they may not advocate government intervention in areas like this - still so often act like they know what is best for you better than you do. If a loving and financially stable couple wants to have a child without getting married, what's the harm, and who is Mike Huckabee to tell them it's wrong? He has no business telling a celebrity couple to set an example for poor single mothers. Perhaps he'd like it if they undid their evil unwed pregnancy by having an abortion? Maybe not.

If Huckabee is truly concerned about the financial burden of children on unmarried parents, the solution is simple: let's educate more men and women about the costs of pregnancy and childcare. Telling them to get married before having kids won't do a damn thing, nor will telling rich couples to be better role models. But Huck's focus is not on the financial burden of single parents, because, if it were, he wouldn't care about the parents who are stable enough to make it work. His focus is on the sinfulness of sex outside of wedlock.

Portman did not glorify or glamorize unmarried pregnancy, she is only happy to be a mother, which seems like it should be something that the 'family values' crowd would appreciate. The 'most wonderful gift' to her was not a baby outside of marriage, it was just a baby, and the odds are good that she would've said the exact same thing if she'd already been married for years. Huckabee can't be happy for Portman because what he sees is a sin: a child born outside the 'sanctity' of marriage.

Huckabee is a very skilled rhetorician. He knows just what to say and how to say it to make himself come across like a good and sensible guy, but his underlying beliefs are much more fundamentalist than he's letting on. I've watched interviews with Huck on Bill Maher and the Colbert Report, and it's been fascinating to me to observe how centrist he acts on liberal shows, while his appearances on conservative shows, like this one with Michael Medved, usually seem to produce a quite different and controversial side of him that is a lot more far right leaning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If You Don't Know, Don't Pretend You Do

I recently got into an argument with a Christian on YouTube who accused me of lying and called me an anti-christ for saying what he thought was intentional misinformation. The discussion was on Psalm 22 and why it is not a prophecy of Jesus. There is one particular verse (16) that some Christians believe refers to crucifixion centuries before it was invented. To make a long story short, the meaning of the Hebrew in Psalm 22:16 is disputed by many, with numerous different translations suggested. A Christian had attempted to argue that ancient manuscripts found at a site called Nahal Hever provide evidence for the crucifixion interpretation. What I said that so incensed this other Christian was that these documents are only dated as early as the mid-2nd century, leaving plenty of time after Jesus' death for a revised and misleading translation to come into use.

This Christian objected to my proposed dating on the assertion that all of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS henceforth) were written prior to 70 AD; "there is no excuse for lying to the audience who knows not of biblical history," he said. He went on to assure me that he has studied the DSS for "many years," and even secular historical sites agree with his claim. Indeed it is true that the DSS are widely thought to have been composed before 70 AD, but this may be due more to a pet theory of the archaeologist Roland de Vaux than any hard evidence, as the range of dates for various manuscripts extends well into the 2nd century [1]. Still, something else amused me about this Christian's claim, which is the reason I write this blog entry.

I mentioned that my source on the late dating for the manuscript at Nahal Hever is none other than Geza Vermes (from his book, "An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls"), one of the leading authorities on the DSS. Rather than look into this, the Christian reminded me that he has spent years researching the DSS, and he knows they were hidden in the caves just prior to 70 AD so that they would escape the destruction of the Jewish temple. If he wanted to challenge the opinion of Mr. Vermes, I would have considered his argument seriously, because even renowned scholars are known to make mistakes and cling to fragile theories, but this reassurance of his general knowledge, without making an actual argument, just made me cringe.

The DSS come primarily from a region called Qumran, which you may not be surprised to learn is near the Dead Sea. Nearly 900 scrolls were found in 11 caves from 1947 to 1956, and archaeologists like Roland de Vaux have surmised that the scrolls were owned by a community of Essenes (a fundamentalist sect of Judaism) who stashed them in the caves where they were preserved from destruction during the First Jewish Revolt. There is a manuscript of Psalm 22 from Qumran, yet the text is too damaged to be legible, and the manuscript I was discussing with these Christians is from Nahal Hever, not Qumran. But could this still be part of the collection that was hidden away before the war?

Have a look at the map to the right. Qumran, as you'll see, is quite a ways north of Nahal Hever, to say the least. As the map also illustrates, the site is one of the areas where the Jewish revolutionary Simon Bar Kokhba camped during the Second Jewish Revolt, which lasted from 132-136 AD. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why one of the leading experts on the DSS dated the Nahal Hever manuscripts to the mid-2nd century... or maybe he's a lying anti-christ too.

I pointed out all of this to our Christian friend, because, as a self-professed DSS expert, he should be aware of simple details like what sites are associated with what time frame and which sites have the majority of DSS manuscripts. His response was to immediately drop discussion of Psalm 22 and move on to Isaiah 53, telling me I'm "in denial" of that passage's supposedly true meaning. I followed up by asking if he would admit that he was mistaken about the Nahal Hever dating, and I've since gotten no reply. It's much more fun to accuse people of deceiving others and working for the devil than it is to own up to your own errors, especially when you've beat your chest so vigorously in promotion of your expertise.

What really disturbs me about all of this, though, is that this person could have avoided the mistake by doing a 5 second fact check on Google or Wiki. If I'm not so knowledgeable on a certain subject I'm debating, I'll definitely do a fact check, especially if I'm completely unfamiliar with it. When I mentioned Nahal Hever and Geza Vermes, typing those words into either Google or Wiki would've gotten this Christian pretty far, if not all the way to an accurate understanding. I don't get what is so hard about doing a brief fact check - it's not as if I was expecting some uninterested layperson to know this stuff. When you claim to have done extensive research and study into a subject, you should really have something to show for it. I've only been diving much into the DSS for about a year now, and somehow I know more than someone who has researched them for "many years". At the bare minimum, be honest about it when you're not that familiar with something.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

U.S. Army Funds and Hosts Overtly Christian Festival

On September 25th of last year, a "Rock the Fort" event took place at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where Christian bands and evangelists performed for U.S. Army troops under the support of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. While the event was not mandatory for anyone to attend, documents recently obtained from a Freedom of Information Act reveal that the military spent $52,475 on Rock the Fort. One worship leader was reportedly given a $1,500 honorarium. However, these are only disclosed expenditures, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which requested the budget documents, estimates the cost to have been much higher.

Government funding of a sectarian event like Rock the Fort is undeniably in violation of the First Amendment. "Our goal," the director of the event explains in the first link above, "is to share the Gospel with as many people as possible." The First Amendment prohibits the U.S. government from respecting an establishment of religion, and using taxpayer money on an overtly Christian event is doing just that. It does not matter if other religious events would be allowed at the fort with equal financial support from the military, because the First Amendment does not stipulate that it's okay as long as you let everyone participate. The point of church-state separation is that by no one being allowed to participate, no one is left out and no one is favored, and this is far more practical than squeezing in every religion. Government has no business in supporting religion, especially when Billy Graham's organization could have easily covered a $52,000 bill with its millions upon millions of dollars.

Yet even if the military had not funded the event at all, Rock the Fort would still be in violation of the First Amendment, because Fort Bragg is government property. This is the same issue as displaying religious symbols like the Ten Commandments on courthouses. The only way to truly guarantee that all beliefs and views are respected is to keep government neutral when it comes to religion, permitting no group to erect their display or hold their sectarian event on government property.

Of course, one additional point that should be added to this is that government complicity must be reasonably present. A religious group holding a prayer rally on the steps of the capitol would not be a violation of the First Amendment, because that government property is open to the public and the public is free to protest in such a manner, according to the Constitution. In the case of a military base, however, said government property is not public, and so the Army endorses religion when it approves of an event like Rock the Fort on its own private land.

Speaking of protest, an atheist response to Rock the Fort is in the works, called Rock Beyond Belief, tentatively set to feature Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Eugenie Scott, and other notable atheists, as well as live music. I think people often misunderstand the point of reactions like these, though, as they are not about competing with Christians or attacking others. The point of atheist Christmas displays, atheist festivals like Rock Beyond Belief, and any equivalent response to violations of church and state separation is to emphasize the need for staying neutral. Where does it end if you allow all groups to participate? Will Fort Bragg let a Rock for Satan happen? Rock for Allah? Rock for Quetzacoatl?

If Rock the Fort had not happened, there would be no need for Rock Beyond Belief, Rock for Satan, or any other event. Once again, when government remains immovably silent on religion, no one will be offended except for those who wish to shove their views down everyone's throats. Unfortunately for them, we are not a theocracy, and they battle against a government that was created specifically in opposition of such tyranny.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tea Party Christians Don't Make Any Sense

Today a rally for the Tea Party was held at the Austin capitol building, where a self-proclaimed "apostle" named Claver T. Kamau-Imani gave a speech on Tea Party values from a biblical standpoint. In his sermon, Claver cites 2 Corinthians 6:14,

"Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?"

According to this preacher, and the many cheering voices in the background, the bible commands Christians not to compromise with non-believers. However, these non-believers include more than just atheists, as Claver calls out liberals, progressives, moderates, and socialists too. The implication here is that only conservative bible-thumpers are 'true believers'. Why? Perhaps Mr. Kamau-Imani thinks conservatives follow the bible more closely than those other groups do. Yet this brings to mind one of the biggest problems I see in Tea Party Christians.

When it comes to politics, the bible leaves no room for revolution or a non-compromising philosophy. Romans 13:1-2 plainly states,

"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves."

Take a moment to let that sink in. Not only are all elected authorities put there by God himself, according to the bible, but anyone who rebels against those authorities is, by extent, rebelling against God and inviting judgment on him/herself. In Matthew 22:16-22, when asked about paying taxes, Jesus famously instructs the people to, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's". The anti-establishment rhetoric of the Tea Party could not be more at odds with the teachings of the bible.

Claver and his ilk cherry-pick passages to support their views that have nothing whatsoever to do with politics. 2 Corinthians 6:14 is about idolatry, how those who worship anything but God can steer believers away from God. If we interpret this in a political sense, anything can be an idol, even the free market system that many Tea Partiers and conservatives seem to place a massive amount of faith in. Yet the real point is that these passages cited by Tea Party members are not a Christian call to revolution. The same (alleged) author makes this very clear in Romans 13.

Tea Party Christians don't make any sense to me, because while many of them claim to accept the bible as the infallible word of God - as Mr. Kamau-Imani stated himself in the speech - they apparently don't consider it important enough to take passages like Romans 13 to heart. Of course, that would disillusion them from their chest-beating radicalism, which I suspect is too enticing for most of them to abandon. The idea of being a 'soldier for God' is probably a lot more exciting than being a doormat for God, however more biblical one may be than the other.